“It’s that it’s not historically accurate.”
The sudden popularity of this criticism just so happens to coincide with the rise of diversity in popular media. It was raised for the latest installment of the God of War franchise, which dared to portray a Black Angrboda, and for Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher, as it stars “ethnic” characters in a European-inspired medieval world. When it comes to sexuality and gender identity, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the cry of “historical accuracy” being used against the inclusion of queer characters in fantasy books—as if queer people were invented in the ’90s. Disabled characters are also an issue, for these concerned citizens, because disability too—apparently—is a modern invention. The inclusion of the “combat wheelchair” in the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons caused an uproar, with insults and even death threats hurled at the creator!
Historical accuracy has become a shield branded to justify one’s own bigotry, and to keep the fantasy genre as white, allocishet, and able-bodied as possible. As a lover of both history and fantasy, this bothers me. A lot.
Unfortunately, a common response to such bigotry is that “it’s fantasy, so historical accuracy doesn’t matter.” Which, if possible, bothers me even more, because it’s a very dangerous stance that can have repercussions in real life. It reinforces the idea that the bigots are right, that European history was dominated by white, allocishet men; when in truth it was anything but.
The myth of a homogenous Europe, perpetrated by white supremacists and—involuntarily—by progressives alike is just that: a myth. An extremely historically inaccurate myth, I daresay, but one that also serves a very specific purpose: to erase those who are not white, allocishet, and able-bodied from the European past, and from its present as well. As a queer and neurodiverse Southern European with a multicultural family, I know this all too well. And products of entertainment have a role in perpetuating this myth, as they—especially when they have such a big fandom, like The Witcher—shape the way we perceive reality around us. Which is why I find discussions around historical accuracy disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst.
So, let’s talk about what is historically accurate, starting with a white supremacist’s favorite: the Roman Empire. Specifically, the Roman Empire as it’s portrayed in HBO’s show Rome—dominated by white men with inexplicable British accents. The real Roman Empire, though, was one of the most diverse empires in history, and in its diversity lay its greatest strength. Did you know, for example, that a whole line of Emperors was North African? Septimus Severus was a brown-skinned Libyan, and North Africa was one of the core provinces of the Empire along with Italy—as testified by the imposing Roman ruins to be found in Tunisia and Libya, to rival those of Rome itself. Eastern Romans—the Byzantines—maintained diplomatic relationships with the Chinese Tang dynasty—there’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to Sino-Roman relations!—and a Byzantine medic even served as Imperial physician at the court of Emperor Gaozong.
Historian Bret Devereaux does a splendid job in dispelling the myth of a homogenous Roman society in his series of blog posts “The Queen’s Latin,” or “Who Were the Romans,” especially in the article “The Color of Purple”—which I warmly recommend reading.
This diversity does not translate in most movies and shows about the Roman Empire, like HBO’s Rome. It’s not the result of mere laziness, but the legacy of how history was studied, and taught, in the West till not so long. Roman history, for example, was warped in service of Western imperialism, of which the British Empire is a prime example—ironically so, since the Romans didn’t care much about Britain to begin with, a remote island populated by barbarians.
But what about the Middle Ages? Surely, medieval Europe was not as diverse as The Witcher or The Wheel of Time adaptations would have us believe. These shows do not portray a medieval society in an accurate way.
To which I’d ask…why do you believe the opposite to be true? There exists this misconception of medieval Europe as a homogenous area, thanks both to historians who tried to erase the contribution of BIPOC, disabled folks, and queer people from European history, and to movies such as the adaptation of The Lord of The Rings, which set the standards for what medieval fantasy must be like.
Truth is, the historical reality of medieval Europe was far more diverse than you’d imagine. Look at Italy, for example. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, my country was conquered by Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and the French. We were a commercial hub with lines extending as far as Indonesia and the Philippines. We had a Black head of state (Alessandro de’ Medici, nicknamed “Il Moro,” who ruled Florence between 1530 and 1537) and we were so gay, homosexuality was labeled as “the Italian illness”—as described by Régis Revenin in his essay, “Homosexualité et prostitution masculines à Paris: 1870-1918.” We even had our own Stonewall—The Compagnacci Insurgence—back in the XVth century!
It pains me to see this richness and diversity erased whenever historical accuracy is discussed. On one hand, we have people claiming historically accurate settings must not be diverse. On the other hand, we have people insisting historical accuracy doesn’t matter when diversity is concerned—implicitly agreeing with the first in positioning diversity and historical accuracy as two opposite poles.
Luckily, many people—historians and history nerds alike—are shredding the legacy of old imperialism and white supremacy and are portraying the past—in this case, the European past—without prejudice and without an agenda. Just the past as it was; rich and diverse, beautiful and terrible in equal parts. Notable examples are Bret Devereaux’s blog, which I already mentioned, as well as Dr. Eleanor Janega’s Going Medieval Patreon, and accounts such as Medieval POC or Roman Middle East.
I hope to add my contribution with this little essay, which is really an open call to European writers and content creators, especially from marginalized groups. European fantasy does not have to be just small villages, mountains, and feudal lords. It can also be interactions between different cultures (without an orientalist lens, mind you!), women head of states (they existed! Think about Matilde di Canossa, whose story I have summarized here), and queers fighting for their rights or simply…living their best life. Disabled folks must not be left out either, as we have thousands upon thousands of medieval prosthetics artifacts, and it’s not like neurodivergence didn’t exist in the past. An interesting theory is that Byzantine Emperor Justinian was autistic, based on the way his behavior was described by contemporaries. It’s also almost certain Roman Emperor Claudius had cerebral palsy or Tourette syndrome.
As creators, we can play a role with our art in shifting the popular perception of what historical Europe looked like. And by learning from our past, we can help shape a more inclusive future.
Plus, history is a source of untapped potential when it comes to inspiration for writing. In fact, there are great books that, in my opinion, did something amazing by drawing from European history without prejudice.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson, is perhaps most famous for its brilliant discussion of imperialism and for its tragic lesbians. Despite Dickinson’s Masquerade mapping better on western empires from the XIX and XX centuries, I found Aurdwynn—a realm with a lower technology level and a feudal political system—a close representation of what medieval Europe, especially in the early Middle Ages, would have looked like. The fact the feudal lords were of various genders, with heritages from different cultures and ethnicities, makes it way more realistic than one would expect.
Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon is another fantasy book set in a world reminiscent of medieval Europe, but which manages to be extremely diverse with its cast of well-rounded women, people of color, and queer characters. Shannon herself is a history lover, as testified by the meticulous research gone into her worldbuilding. In devising her world, she drew inspiration from different historical periods—such as Elizabethan England—as well as different countries, creating a complex and vivid theater for her characters to perform in.
The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid is inspired by Eastern European medieval history and Hungarian folklore, and focuses—through a fantasy reimagining—on the antisemitism and hardships Jewish people had to face in the region. Reid’s book is extremely important, as it highlights how Europe has always been a diverse area…for good or bad. Jewish and Roma people, particularly in Eastern Europe, and Sámi Indigenous people in Northern Europe, have always existed as minorities and thus have always been targeted by systemic racism and harassment.
And in the last century, the aftermath of colonialism and a renewed migratory flow have done nothing but increase European diversity. Europeans of color, Indigenous Europeans, Black Europeans exist now as they did in the past. Sci-fi and fantasy writer Aliette de Bodard is of Franco-Vietnamese descent, for example, and despite being born in New York she grew up in Paris—where her fantasy series Dominion of the Fallen takes place. Zen Cho, author of Black Water Sister, grew up in Malaysia but migrated to London—theater of her debut, Sorcerer to the Crown. The novel, set in Regency England, tackles white supremacy, colonialism, slavery, and the white hypocrisy in the abolitionist movement. Much like The Wolf and the Woodsman, Cho’s Sorcerer reclaims a space for people of color in European history, while also denouncing their de-humanization in white European society.
This is extremely important, as in my opinion by claiming historic Europe to be a monolithic white space, we not only erase the incredible richness of the continent’s history…but also the ugly aspects of it. We erase the history of oppression minorities faced in this country, as well as their contribution to our history.
Which is why, as someone extremely passionate about history and a writer who holds representation dear to my heart, I believe we should stop dismissing historical accuracy, and start wielding it as a weapon against those who try to erase minorities in Europe. Both in fiction and in reality.
© 2022 Francesca Tacchi