Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Monday, 16 June 2014

Historical authenticity. Again

After a longer than usual (even for me) break between posts, I've been inspired to revisit some things I've written about before, on this blog and elsewhere,  to talk about racism and historical authenticity. I follow the 'People of Color in European Art History' Tumblr, aka 'medievalpoc' (here), an excellent, and important, resource which challenges the assumption that everyone who lived in Europe during the Middle Ages was white. A few months ago, someone asked a question on the Tumblr page about whether a video game which was making big claims about being historically authentic could realistically include people of "other-then-white descent," and asking for books or academic sources that might give answers. The Tumblr post response in full is here. In short, it suggests that suggestion that the game could include characters of colour realistically, and a short aside that the makers were not interested in representing either women or racial minorities. When it was posted to Reddit under a dismissive and prejudicial headline, there was an enormous wave of vicious abuse in response, covered, among other places in The Daily Dot. A recent post at the Tumblr site, here, shows that this includes continuing death threats.
This is the most serious incident of something like this that I'm aware of - but I know of an awful lot more that approach it. The idea that everyone in Europe (including travellers) was white for the entire Middle Ages, and that this (fundamentally incorrect and anachronistic) assumption means that ALL modern re-imaginings of them should thus only have white characters, is an incredibly pervasive one. It crosses over different genre fandoms. I've written about this idea in the Year's Work in Medievalism, and have a couple of other articles about it forthcoming too.
It's important for us to remember that 'which anachronism in Game of Thrones annoys you most' game can be fun at conferences, but academia is actually a fairly safe space. Looking outside it can show up just how seriously some people take the idea of historical authenticity. Which is, I think, ultimately one of the things that makes articles like the one I posted on a few days ago at the Tales After Tolkien blog important. I don't think that reading it would change the mind of anyone who might make death threats or write abusive comments about the issue, but if we let inaccuracies pass unchallenged, we perpetuate ideas that support them.

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