There is no such thing as “historical accuracy” of fiction
“Historical accuracy” of works of pop culture is one of those things whose fascination never seems to completely fade for many people. That’s somewhat understandable but still misguided. “Historical accuracy” just doesn’t exist. And yet, it’s important to understand what this debate really is about.
A vague feeling of the past
No matter how often the topic of “historical accuracy” has come up in comment sections and social media outcries regarding history in works of fiction: Nobody cares about historical accuracy, not really. Discussions about whether an element in, say, a game is really “historically accurate” or “realistic” are really about whether that element fits into the game, or whether it destroys the illusion of coherent world-building. A historical novel in which the sky is suddenly neon green may be great in every other aspect, but its readers will still ask what on earth this green sky was doing there.
This is, of course, an exaggerated example, but it illustrates what most people actually are interested in when they discuss “historical accuracy”: They care about authenticity. We all do. Both regarding works of fiction we consume themselves same as regarding the way we discuss them. Whenever there is some kind of heated debate regarding the historical accuracy or realism of a work of fiction, hardly anyone asks for proof of the things someone else is claiming. Quite the opposite: they just have to sound “accurate.” They simply must seem coherent and at least not contradict our personal ideas of any given past too much. They simply must be authentic.
In principle, this is not surprising, because that is how historical authenticity works, but it is important, nonetheless. It means that not only the contents of e.g., digital games draw from historical authenticity, but also the debates surrounding them. In various arguments online and offline, we often just accept first and foremost what seems historically coherent to us. And many things can seem historically coherent, completely independent of any current state of scholarly research.
Can fiction ever be “historically accurate”?
When talking about history and fiction, we thus need to separate authenticity from accuracy. While accuracy itself can usually only apply to details, authenticity as an individual feeling of the past can apply to even whole books, games or movies. When it comes to accuracy, one can only ask whether there is evidence for a certain weapon or a design at a certain time and thus ask whether such a detail is “historically accurate”. Once you’re trying to attest accuracy to an entire work of fiction, you’re simply entering dangerous waters.
The reasons for this are manifold: First of all, history simply isn’t something that can be reconstructed without gaps. For historians, the knowledge of not being able to say exactly how something did or didn’t happen is just as important as the knowledge of how something happened. Once you know about a gap, you know about one of the limits of what can be reliably said about an event. In short: At least I know that I have no answer to my question, and I can openly admit it.
This way of naming gaps, however, is a luxury that artists do not have when they develop a world and its stories. Even if I try to do as much research as possible and consult a thousand experts who, against all odds, have the same opinion, I will always have to face the limits of what these experts consider to be certain. This is simply unavoidable and thus as a phenomenon neither surprising nor special. But again, it’s important to be aware of it, because it means that, no matter what work of historical fiction we’re talking about, it will always have such gaps that have been filled with what their creators simply found appropriate.
It’s all interpretation
This is where interpretation starts. This interpretation may or may not be based on the knowledge that someone has previously researched but is nevertheless an interpretation and thus subjective. This is actually entirely unspectacular, because that’s simply what historians do when researching the past. They interpret sources. But different from historians, artists often cannot leave gaps in their world-building. Not to mention how many arguments over historical accuracy of fiction over the last few years were grounded on the notion that history is something that’s measurable. And that’s exactly what it’s not.
History is a construct. A suggestion of how someone assumes something might have been. Ideally, this suggestion is appropriately based on contemporary sources, but it is also constantly open to discussion and is never static. Any text – be it research or a source – is written from a certain perspective and must be read that way. There is no way any author could just detach themselves from their own period and maybe they don’t even want to. This means that any source needs to be critically interpreted in terms of who does or doesn’t write what for whom and why. This also applies to research in a similar way which in turn means that research can also be critiqued that way. And historians, too, can differ greatly in their personal fields and the perspectives they take. To repeat it once again: history is neither measurable nor static.
Mud, Women, and “Realism”
A very simple example for all this in the context of pop culture is George R.R. Martin, who likes to state that his fantasy world Westeros and its stories are inspired by medieval history. This is somewhat true, and vague references to events from the Wars of the Roses, for example, are one of many reasons why both Song of Ice and Fire and the series adaptation Game of Thrones have become so popular. Martin himself is also fond of emphasizing every now and then that he strives not to tell a story of “Disneyland Middle Ages”, but to stick to what he sees as the “real” Middle Ages. The point is: Martin’s books may be based on history, but outdated history.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the example of “Game of Thrones” here, but it does illustrate the complicated relationship between history, art, its artists and recipients. “Game of Thrones” has simply repeatedly dealt with its female characters, among others, in a way that repeatedly underscores how often women in fantasy media are only allowed to exist either for shock value or to be sexualized. In the case of the show “Game of Thrones”, this is not only but also a consequence of Martin’s books and how he justified his treatment of his female characters with history and “the Middle Ages”.
At the same time, it has very little to do with any historical realities – whatever you consider them to be – that there was hardly any prominent female character on the show who wasn’t raped at some point. Likewise, it has nothing to do with “the Middle Ages” that the show often either dismissed these rapes as brief moments of shock, or even didn’t treat them as rape at all. And the fact that Martin fell into the trap of giving it justification by emphasizing the historical relevance of the books also has nothing to do with the 15th century and a lot more to do with the 21st century.
“Game of Thrones” – just like many other popular movies, shows and games of the past years and decades – represents an idea of the Middle Ages that is deeply pessimistic at heart. Here, the Middle Ages become a dystopia in which violence always wins, women are oppressed or have to suffer through rape and violence for every act of agency, while war, chaos, and destruction are constantly on one’s doorstep. These kind of medievalisms are dark, bloody, and the more densely the characters are covered in mud, the more its creators or fans claim to be realistic in their view of the past.
There’s nothing wrong with that kind of dystopia, but this kind of style is just that, a style. More or less mud doesn’t make anything more or less realistic if you want to understand “realism” as “close to some sort of historical truth”. (Whatever “truth” is supposed to mean in each case in this context then.) And “Game of Thrones” in particular presented an idea of the Middle Ages that was heavily influenced by gritty realism. That’s fine, of course, but has little to do with any constraints that arise from the Middle Ages as a period.
Although I’ve used “Game of Thrones” to outline everything mentioned above, neither the show nor the books are alone in this, they just are easy examples to explain the problem we’re talking about, both because Martin has made his own historical inspiration public and because both the books and the show are so popular. In fact, it could be explained in a similar way with the misogyny of the “Witcher” games which are another example of rather gritty medievalisms. Likewise, “The Last Kingdom” or “Vikings” would be two other great examples that are no fantasy shows but (mostly) historical fiction. (I’m not getting into the fantasy elements of recent pop culture Vikings here.) And yet, with all of these examples, we’re still only talking about historical fiction that is built on a grim and fatalistic premise. Not to mention that these examples both depict European-inspired medievalisms and were developed especially for a Western market.
“People assume time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.”
So far, there are three things to keep in mind: First, fictional works in general are never historically accurate which in turn is why demands for “accuracy” are simply absurd. What people actually demand here is a gut feeling of history and the past based on their own viewing habits and ideas. They demand historical authenticity.
Secondly, history is itself a construct and highly depends on perspective. That means that any attempt to ask whether or not a work of fiction depicts “how that time was really like” simply cannot grasp the complexity of history as a construct. Simply put: what we understand by “history” is a collection of interpretations that are never set in stone, but can be discarded at any time. The reasons for that can vary. They can be outdated, they can be built on a premise that turned out to be wrong or there simply can be new evidence that has been discovered. History and research aren’t linear and to quote Doctor Who: “People assume time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.”
Thirdly, works of historical fiction only convey a certain idea of a period, which in itself can never be “neutral”, even if said idea is very popular. This is true not only of fantasy, but also of historical fiction. All of these stories and their worlds are based, among other things, on the viewing habits of their target audience. All of that has little to do with what can or cannot be said with any degree of certainty about any past, but much more with how people in the present discuss and imagine (pop-culturally) this past.
Realism, accuracy, authenticity
This would be a great point to end regarding the difference between historical accuracy and authenticity. And yet, we’ve been only scratching the surface of why these things actually matter. Generally speaking, accuracy is impossible and authenticity a feeling and thus something entirely subjective and individual. And if history is deeply political (it is), then any form of sensitivities about it are as well.
Most arguments regarding historical accuracy and pop culture over the last few years have in common that they are very similar to those regarding “realism” in general. That makes sense once you realize that most people arguing there are rather fighting about authenticity than “accuracy” or “realism” even when they use these terms interchangeably. Because if both “accuracy” and “realism” as categories point at the need to get as close to “reality” – whatever that is supposed to be – that means that both categories work similar as a gut feeling of what’s supposed to feel “right”.
The problem here is similar: In most cases, the people arguing assume that there is a more or less measurable truth to which fiction can be compared. In turn, there are only subtle differences that separate the question whether it’s “realistic” for Rey in “Star Wars” to be able to do this or that at such and such a time, or whether the world of “The Witcher 3” can still be “historically accurate” if its women are less sexualized. In both cases, gut feelings are used to determine what seems coherent to individual people or entire groups. The only significant difference is that “Star Wars” cannot be measured by a historical framework to point at.
However, history as an inspiration for a work of fiction is nothing that can actually be measured. And it also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, ideas about the past are always political. They not only convey interpretations of a selection of sources, but also theses and narratives through which these interpretations are ordered in a (somewhat) comprehensible way. That means that works of fiction – which always have to tell a plot in one way or another – have a whole range of ways to craft their narratives. Every single one of them is political, and none is “neutral” or “unpolitical” in any way.
Keep your politics out of my history
And that brings us back to when and where demands for “historical accuracy” are voiced particularly loudly and particularly vehemently. This, too, never happens in a vacuum. These demands can both never be separated from the imaginations of the pasts that are to be defended here and from discussions such as those surrounding Rey in “Star Wars”. These debates always negotiate what and who should and should not be considered fitting in terms of world-building and story. This goes hand in hand not only with how we as individuals perceive the world we’re living in, but also with what we are used to from a medium or a genre, and what kind of information is actively being narrated in the first place.
From my own reality of life, the description that grass is green makes sense without further explanation, but in the same way, I probably have a pretty clear picture in my head of the word “dragon”. I know how a dragon typically looks in fantasy media due to my own viewing habits and I don’t necessarily need to have it explained to me why there can be dragons in a medieval-inspired fantasy world. But the same mechanism also applies when certain recipients instinctively declare, for example, an independent female character to be unrealistic much more quickly than a man on a hero’s journey from dishwasher to millionaire.
And even this justification still assumes no ill will, but only an unreflected need for historical authenticity. What happens much more often, is that such demands are actually rooted in very obvious motives to discriminate against others. It is no coincidence that the same people who complain about how games are being forcefully political because of the mere existence of a female character, are also particularly fond of claiming that marginalised people are not realistic in historical settings.
There is a link between those who shout “Keep your politics out of my games” and vehemently refuse to acknowledge the fact that any media is always political, and those who would like to keep “politics” out of history which isn’t any less absurd. It’s not “neutral” to imagine the Middle Ages as a purely or primarily white and cis-male era. Indeed, it is hopelessly simplistic and also highlights an unwillingness to engage with categories of race and gender as complex social constructs of identities and power structures.
Nobody needs historical accuracy
Now, of course, one can fairly argue that this complexity is something that not everyone is automatically familiar with. How am I supposed to acknowledge that it is historically simplistic to assume that women per se cannot have agency in a medieval-inspired setting if I don’t know better? Surely not everyone can be always informed of counterevidence in order to argue against arguments made in bad faith?
The objection is correct, but it’s also basically irrelevant. As I mentioned at the beginning, no one is really interested in whether something is historically accurate, we all want something to be authentic. That’s why there can be a deep gap between different people’s ideas of authenticity, which in turn are decidedly shaped by how those people imagine the past to be. If you look at internet debates with this knowledge, e.g. in comment sections or on social media, you notice that very often even people who want to advocate for diversity in, say, historically inspired fantasy argue on the basis of the same assumption that independent or powerful women are not appropriate in a medieval inspired world.
That way, even progressive people often engage in discriminatory narratives that, in the context of fiction, theoretically would not have to be adopted at all. Now, even if I assume that medieval women would have done nothing but pray and tend children, what’s to stop me from simply not adopting that in a work of fiction, or not adopting it completely? We’re so used to completely implausible stories about white cis men, but with a woman it’s suddenly impossible?
With that, we are slowly approaching the heart of the matter: while historical accuracy or realism is linked to a diffuse sense of history in which, for example, women have no or only a very limited space, what is actually at stake here is power and authority. In times when the representation of marginalized people in pop culture is slowly but surely becoming more common, there is a frantic attempt to retreat to a “historical truth” supposedly set in stone that forbids this representation.
Those who want to advocate for diversity in pop culture, for example, can only lose that kind of game. Because if they try to argue against the statement “That’s just the way it was! Women were oppressed!” they run the risk of appearing as if they are the ones rejecting facts and historical research. To break out of this circle, you need to clearly state what’s happening instead: A particular idea of history is being held up as seemingly neutral and incontrovertible, while at the same time a) there is no real reason why fiction should have to submit to it, and b) even that image of a certain past is not the only one that could be used here.
“Kingdom Come: Deliverance” and the land where white dudes live
A prime example of all this is the game “Kingdom Come: Deliverance”, whose developers kept claiming that they wanted to present a medieval world that was as ‘realistic’ and ‘accurate’ as possible. Even before release, sharp criticism arose both against the studio and especially its at least right-leaning chief developer, as well as against the (German) press, which did little or nothing to problematize exactly that beforehand. Both criticisms were more than justified and even before release, it was obvious that “Kingdom Come” would transport nationalistically romanticized and one-dimensional ideas of the Middle Ages and the game itself later only confirmed that.
There is a lot that can be criticized about the medievalisms of “Kingdom Come” and those criticisms again can come in a variety of shape and forms. Just to take the game’s women as an example for a moment: “Kingdom Come” overall simply presents a time when white cis men did things while white cis women had things happen to them. The way Kingdom Come presents its women is one-dimensional at best and plain misogynistic at worst, but in neither case can it be justified as “That’s just the way it was!”. A camera pan to Theresa’s butt here, the ridiculous buff “Alpha Male” there – “Kingdom Come” stages and narrates its women only in relation to the men of the world. Even more: they exist almost only as love interests/sexual partners, mothers or sister figures.
This is all frustrating from a feminist perspective and a separate issue, but the point is this: This is part of the contemporary staging of the game world and its stories. No historical interpretation forces game developers to include a bonus called “Alpha Male” that a protagonist gets whenever he has sex (with women, of course). Just like no historical interpretation forced the creators of “Game of Thrones” to depict the show’s rapes as voyeuristically and gruesome as they did. Those are conscious decisions.
In the case of Warhorse Studios and Kingdom Come, however, the ideological dimension of the seemingly endless argument about historical accuracy and authenticity becomes clear on two levels. On the one hand, the studio has promoted its game heavily with promises of authenticity and an “interactive museum” implying, of course, that players will have the opportunity to experience the Middle Ages “as it really was”. Given the game and its simplistic understanding of the time it aims to depict, this is of course at least dishonest, if not deliberately misleading. On top, the studio has thus also indirectly claimed an interpretive sovereignty that is simply dangerous with such a white and so male medieval design in a long right-wing tradition. Incidentally, the staging of the game as a kind of monument to a forgotten Czech history also fits in with this as Daniel Vávra himself has claimed, although the Czech or rather Bohemian Middle Ages are, in fact, well researched. In other words, a developer who is at least right-leaning wants to create a national monument with his game, which propagates an imagination of the past that is at least nationalistically romanticized and misogynistic. He can do that, of course, but it is important to name this ideological dimension. Because it is directly reflected in the debates about the authenticity of the game.
“Kingdom Come: Deliverance” is one of the never-ending stories when it comes to digital games, historical authenticity and the political dimension of both. Not only Vávra himself has made it clear that he had an identity-political intention with “Kingdom Come”, but also the game’s fans never tire of defending the game’s realism. They did so before the game’s release, and they still do. I wrote a comparatively innocuous review of the game in September 2018, at a time when most things about the game had long since been said, and I still got hate comments or emails for it over two years later. (Note: This also remains true as well in 2022, over three years after I published said blog post.) Both used to end up straight in my trash every time, in part because I moderate my comments appropriately and don’t post threats and insults against myself, and I’ve been blogging too long to be impressed by this, but this long breath of angry fans illustrates just how much it seems to get to some when a small-time blogger makes a feminist media critique of a video game. I have no power to ban Kingdom Come and wouldn’t want to, but it doesn’t matter because the fierce reactions to criticisms of the game and its depiction of history also illustrate that this is about identity. Both for me, who criticizes the portrayal of women in Kingdom Come, and for the angry commenters whose feelings of authenticity are disturbed by it.
Nothing “just has been that way”
So, to reiterate this again: history is political and so is the demand for “historical accuracy” or a certain notion of historical authenticity. This could be a truism, but since pop culture debates like to pretend that the demand for the non-existence or only very narrowly defined existence of marginalized people is perfectly logical and unproblematic because it is based on “history”, both have to be emphasized again and again. “Historically correct” pop culture does not exist. Even attempts are to a very narrow extent, so demanding that pop culture represent history “as it really happened” is always problematic and very often simply ideologically justified in a way that aims to discriminate against marginalized people.
No matter how you slice it: Progressive voices in pop culture discourse need to be aware of who they are ceding the field to in the seemingly endless debates over historical accuracy when they engage in any of a thousand variations of “that’s just the way it was.” Not only is it questionable whether this is even remotely true, it also ignores the fact that our perception of historical authenticity is highly subjective and also determined by our socialization, for example. Authenticity is not measurable. History is not measurable. And to claim otherwise in order to justify discrimination against entire groups of people is nothing more than bad faith.
Author’s note: This article is a translation of a (German) post from 2020 which in turn was a new version of an older (German) post from 2017. Both in 2017 and 2020, the interest in the topic by non-historians surprised me and keeps surprising me to this day. People kept citing and sharing this post in a variety of contexts, and even asked for this translation to be able to share it with international friends. There are a couple of things I would argue slightly differently today (I would, for example, emphasize more strongly how white supremacy and queermisia play a major role in oppressive ideas of historical authenticity) but the general points remain the same. Thus, there are only slight changes in the English version here to make it more easily readable, but apart from that, this post is the same as it was in 2020.