Thursday 3 November 2011

Ten things I now know are wrong by Eve Edwards

Eve Edwards
Have you ever come across something that overturned all your preconceived notions about a subject?  I do frequently – partly thanks to a teenage son who is a firm fan of QI, but also because I have been researching historical periods that I thought I knew well – then discovered I didn’t.  Here are some that have come to me recently; perhaps you can add your own?

1. Napoleon was short.  That made him angry and decide to take over Europe. 

In fact, he was a respectable 5’ 7”.  I suspect it was the cartoonists that gave us the idea he was tiny.  Bang goes the Napoleonic complex.
2. Richard the Lionheart was the good king, John the bad one.

Sorry Disney and Kevin Costner, Richard was pretty horrible, only good if not setting foot much in England is counted as good.  He has the usual sins of a Medieval king to his name (high taxes to pay for his armies pursuing interests that had nothing to do with England, war crimes during campaigning) and certainly was no hero. I’ll never cheer at the end of a Robin Hood film again.  John wasn’t great, but he neither was he so much worse than his brother.  He made the mistake of staying in England perhaps?

3. The Bayeux Tapestry is a tapestry.

No, it is an embroidery.

4. The Great Plague ended with the Fire of London.

The part of London destroyed was not the hotbed of the plague and it is not know why the disease faded away eventually.

5. Vikings wore horns on their helmets.

Apparently we think they did because some horned helmets were dug up in Scandinavia by Victorian archaeologists.  They assumed a connection to the Vikings when in fact they were much older (Bronze Age) and possibly ceremonial.  Now I stop and think about it, horns are not a great idea, are they, in a fight?  Why give the enemy something with which to yank your helmet off?  And what about the poor guy sitting next to you in the boat when you are pulling on the oars?

6. Pirates made enemies walk the plank.

A real life example was found in 1829 but this is not the era of the pirate of our imagination.  I think this is one of those things that should be true.

7.  Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.

Yes, you’ve read it too (and the idea is being revisited in the film Anonymous as I write), but the best and simplest proof that Shakespeare was the Stratford man I’ve read is in John Bate’s Soul of the Age.  He takes a close look at the local references cross-checked with parish records and finds bags of proof that we are reading the work of a man from Warwickshire.  Of course there’s also the argument that his contemporaries who knew him, including Ben Jonson, all agreed it was him.  Unless the conspiracy was huge (and for what purpose?) there seems little point arguing against them.
8. Bronze age tools were bronze.

Actually, the majority were stone.

9. Cornish wreckers regularly lured ships on to the rocks with false lights.

Only in novels.  There is no known case of the trick lighthouse as in Jamaica Inn.  Wreckers salvaged stuff washed up on the shore, which was regarded as theft, possibly failed to save sailors trying to get ashore, but not quite the mass murder of the literary imagination.

10.  Julius Caesar declared ‘Veni Vidi Vici’ on stepping ashore in Britain.

This announcement refers to his victory in the quite different Battle of Zela 47 B.C.  He didn’t do anything very memorable in Britain but visit a couple of times and give it up as a bad idea. He probably took one look at the cold, soggy coast of England and decided he was too early for tea so might as well go home.

(with thanks to Wikipedia for images that are not author's own)

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Will Coe said...

Which should the histfict author go for? Historical accuracy or historical flavour? Complex dilemma. In many of your examples, the legend is more interesting than the truth. Napoleonic stature, horns, planks and false lights help my imagination connect with the period more enthusiastically than normal guy, boring helmet, shortage of wood and no lights. It isn't the role of the histficter to debunk legends, that's the job of the academic historian. If a narrative device bends the known facts (presuming there are such things) to paint a person or a period more colourfully or succinctly, how inaccurate does it have to be for it to be illegitimate?

catdownunder said...

Oh dear - sometimes non-facts are so much more fun!

Little Me said...

That's really interesting. However, historical fiction is meant to be entertainment, I don't see the need for historical accuracy, as long as the story is readable and believable. Obviously you don't want Romans to be wearing watches and using AK47s to bump each other off, but although I may notice when there is something wrong in a book I choose to overlook it for the story's sake.

Fiction is fiction, and the author's discretion to mess about with it makes the books what they are.

Anonymous said...

Can't agree - I think historical fiction, particularly for children, should be accurate. History by itself is fascinating enough without needing to invent (except possibly about the pirates and the plank!) and, as a reader, you need to be able to trust your author. I still remember huge amounts of history from my childhood reading and very little from school - the power of storytelling!

K.M.Grant said...

Could I be a slight pedant over Napoleon's height? One of my ancestors went to visit him on Elba, and wrote the following in a letter: 'That he is very low in stature and grown extremely lusty, we knew from most recent reports'. So even if he was 5' 7", he was perceived to be short, which can't have pleased him.

Lots more detail in the letter - too much for a comment, but very suitable for a future blog ...

Mary Hoffman said...

Katie, I'll look forward to your Napoleon blog, whose height seems to be a favourite topic lately!

Eve, this is great. I tend to agree with Anonymous, the commenter not the film, about historical accuracy.

Re Shakespeare, I think James Shapiro is very sensible in his Contested Will but now must read the Bates too - thank you!

Horned helmets - ah yes. I think productions of the Ring also have a lot to answer for but I prefer that to Wotan in a frock coat + spear.

Can we have some more misconceptions in the comments, please?

Sue Purkiss said...

Re Napoleon's height - 5' 7'' still seems pretty short to me - but then I'm a towering 5' 8 and a half!

This accuracy thing - hm. I'd say you try to be as accurate as possible, but often, even if you delve, you're reliant on somebody else's recollections, and if you ask three people for an account of the same person or the same conversation, they won't come up with three accounts that are exactly the same.

K.M.Grant said...

It's often said that Richard the Lionheart was gay. Cited in evidence is his childless marriage and a hermit's curse that mentions the word 'Sodom'. Few bother to remember that Richard had an illegitimate son, and that 12th century references to Sodom were to evoke images of the terrible punishments, not of the offences (as the excellent John Gillingham argues in his Richard the Lionheart).

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Napoleon, 5'7, was taller than Nelson, 5'4. The whole thing about him being short was akin to Hitler only having one ball etc: mock the enemy and that way unman him. QV all the cartoons, news reports etc. People bought into it. Brilliant bit of propaganda.
And five foot seven was not short at all in those days -

Josiphine said...

Having read Jamaica Inn, I can only say I am glad that it wasn't true, :)

Very interesting post by the way. I suppose I'll have to edit my imagination a bit, :)

Josiphine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adele said...

Very interesting post, though I can't think of any historical bloopers myself.

none said...

I studied John as part of my History A Level (1066 to Magna Carta) and found him to be much more interesting than popular belief has it. Sometimes I wonder if Eleanor would have stripped the country bare of valuables to pay John's ransom like she did Richard's. Not that Richard was exactly languishing in a prison cell. Eh. We remember the jewels lost in the Wash but not the wholesale impoverishment to get 'back' a king who couldn't even speak English.

A good king by the standards of the day probably wouldn't be anything like a good king by our standards. In that internecine environment you couldn't afford to be nice.

For myself, I'm generally on the side of historical accuracy. Horned Viking helmets make me wince, as does Marie Celeste (blame Conan Doyle for that one). My dad and I argue regularly about whether it matters. (well, if it's 'arguing' for me to correct the tv and him to yell, WHO CARES?)

QI isn't always right, either.

K.M.Grant said...

More pedantry, I'm afraid. It's a bit mean to castigate Richard the Lionheart for not speaking English. It was unsurprising that the Plantagenet kings (including John) spoke Norman French as although they were Kings of England, their main concern was their continental territories. The first king to give his coronation address in English was, I think, Henry IV, in 1399. Apologies again for pedantry.

Eve Edwards said...

K.M. Grant - fascinated to hear you had a relative go to visit Napoleon but perhaps Napoleon may have been at a bit on a low at that point, health breaking down etc so not the commander of old? The comment may have been more about the physical/emotional low point - a defeated prisoner is hardly able to stand tall in more ways than one. As Zizou says, 5' 7" was a good height for that era. Makes us giants really. Have you seen the Bronte sisters' clothes at Haworth? They look positively doll like compared to galumphing moderns.

Mark Burgess said...

Great piece Eve, and thanks for the Shakespeare book info.

Perhaps worth mentioning, given the date, that Guy Fawkes was actually a rather minor character in the 'Powder Plot' of 1605. The prime mover was Robert Catesby, a gentleman from Warwickshire and directly descended, incidentally, from Sir William Catesby, councillor to Richard III.

K. M. Grant said...

Yes, the Brontes really do look tiny, don't they, Eve! And you're right about somebody's mental state having a bearing on their height. Apropos Napoleon, though, he was just about to embark on his 100 days (he escaped a fortnight after my ancestor's visit)so was still in good health. He might, of course, have cleverly given a somewhat collapsed impression to allay suspicion that he was planning the mother of all come-backs. Ah, the conjecture is limitless ...

none said...

You don't speak the language, you shouldn't walk off with the gold plate ;).

When at Haworth I couldn't believe how small the dresses were that the Brontes wore.