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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

d) The Middle Ages in contemporary fiction

1) Writing the Middle Ages: new approaches in historical fiction

James Aitcheson

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1“Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction?” “How do you balance authenticity with the need for a good story?” “How historically accurate is your work?” “Is it based on real events?” “How much research do you have to do?” These are some of the most common questions asked of historical novelists. We often feel compelled to justify and explain our work in terms of its historical underpinnings and our preparatory research. In contrast to writers in other genres, we are often expected to include self-reflection and exegesis in the form of historical notes at the end of the text, in which we examine the narrative’s relationship to history, our sources and how we have used them, and where we have diverged from the truth or adopted a stance that is not universally accepted. But is this focus on accuracy and authenticity justified? Should our main concern as practitioners be to represent the past as faithfully as possible? As the author of four novels set in the Middle Ages, I suggest that to judge the success or worth of a historical novel principally by these criteria is to misunderstand at a fundamental level the creative process and the role of fiction.

2In an interview at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2017, Hilary Mantel criticised her fellow historical novelists who “try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.” She further argued: “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary.” By insisting upon the quality and depth of our research through the inclusion of historical notes and bibliographies, historical novelists are at risk of making what creative writing theorist Jen Webb describes as an “illicit appeal to authority.” The novelist’s primary expertise lies not in the material that inspires his or her writing, but in the practice of writing itself. By stressing the historicity of our works, we are arguing for the right to be taken seriously—a natural impulse. But in doing so we are asking to be judged by the standards of a discipline not our own and thus at the same time diminishing our own status.

3Moreover, by fixating too much on problematic concepts such as authenticity and accuracy, we risk overlooking the extent to which aesthetic choices and cultural influences contribute to a novel’s development. As an analysis of my most recent novel, The Harrowing, shows, while various contemporary and near-contemporary sources relevant to late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England were instrumental in inspiring characters, plot, and themes, much of its narrative shape, content, and style was influenced by modern literature drawn from a wide variety of genres, including novels such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy and True Grit by Charles Portis. What we call a historical novel is in fact a multi-layered construct; it is neither intended to be, nor should be read as, a straightforward representation of the past. It is important to recognise, therefore, that historicity is only one measure, and not necessarily the best measure, by which to judge historical fiction.

4As Mantel argues, we historical novelists need not be defensive about the constructed nature of our work. Rather, we should acknowledge it, and celebrate the freedom this gives us to ask different questions of the past. Fiction possesses a number of key characteristics that distinguish it from the discipline of history and that grant it legitimacy in its own right. Fiction is allowed to be partial and subjective; it is able to offer unfamiliar, dissenting and sometimes even uncomfortable points of view through which readers can emotionally engage with alternative realities, lifestyles and belief systems. It can question established narratives and critique aspects of the historical process itself. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it has licence to explore ideas that are unashamedly speculative in nature, going beyond what the evidence will support and what the facts will allow, creating connections and suggesting possibilities and hypotheses that cannot be proven. Only by considering the genre on its own terms can we free it from being subordinate to the discipline of history and allow it the space it needs to flourish as an active and independent tool for making sense of the past and for contributing to historical discussion.


5Aitcheson, The Harrowing
Brown 2017b
McCarthy, The Road
Portis, True Grit
Webb 2015

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