Jun 25, 2007

Walk a Mile in Their Historical Shoes

by Joyce DiPastena

As I was researching George Washington for an upcoming talk in Sacrament Meeting in July, I came across the following remark made by Richard Norton Smith in his article, “The Surprising George Washington” (see http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1994/spring/george-washington-4.html -- great article!):

“In the words of Oscar Wilde, ‘the only duty we have to history is to rewrite it.’” The author, however, states, “From the beginning, my ambition was not to create a Washington for our times, but rather to live with the man in his own times and on his own terms.”

Those words struck a familiar chord when I read them. Where had I heard them before? Ah, yes! Way back in college (and I do mean way back!), from my history professors. To paraphrase, “The first rule of a historian is to judge the people you are learning about not by our modern-day standards, but in the context of their own time.”

When I sat down to begin this blog, I noticed a “label” on the ANWA blogsite for English history, which sent me to a excellently written essay entitled “History or Fairytale” by Donna Hatch. (Anyone interested in historical writing who has not already read this essay, should definitely do so.) Donna zeroed in on the need for historical accuracy when describing the societal trappings and mores of the time period in which one is writing. As a supplement to her thoughts, I would like to add our responsibility to approach our characters’ worldview in a similar way.

The examples I offer come from medieval history, because that is the time period I have studied most extensively. Whether one is writing about King Richard the Lionheart of England, or a fictional woman in the Middle Ages (the setting of my own soon-to-be-published novel), an author has to choose between “rewriting the past” (the “fairytale” of Donna’s article) or “living with the character in his own time and on his own terms” (i.e., “history).

King Richard the Lionheart:

One “rewriting” of history is that Richard was homosexual. Why this (currently very popular) conclusion? Because of a contemporary reference that he “shared the bed” of the king of France.

But taking Richard “in his own time and on his own terms”, the sharing of beds was very common. In the first place, beds were sometimes few and far between. When one did have the good fortune to possess a bed, whole families shared them. In medieval inns, complete strangers shared them. And certainly, sharing a royal bed with a royal guest might be considered the height of royal hospitality with no sexual implications involved at all.

Medieval women:

A common “feminist rewriting” in historical romances (I just finished one a few weeks ago) is the introduction of the heroine dressed as a man and wielding a sword with great alacrity, on the apparent theory that “anything you (the hero) can do, I can do equally well or better.” If all the women who have populated romances, who dressed and fought as men had in actuality existed, the pious, conservative monks who kept the chronicles would certainly have made scandalized note of it.

But let’s take at least one actual medieval woman “in her own time and on her own terms”. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine was as clever, strong, competitive, rebellious, and utterly un-submissive a woman as ever existed in any age, and although she apparently did, at one time, resort to dressing as a man in an attempt to join her sons in a rebellion against her husband (King Henry II of England), there is no record that she ever waved a sword about or viewed the disguise as anything more than a ruse to help her avoid detection. Eleanor was all woman. And she gained vast influence in the kingdom, not by fighting men on their own terms, but by fighting them on hers. Most women in the Middle Ages who desired to exert influence within their own spheres would have been forced to follow her example.

When writing fiction, one therefore has a choice: “Rewrite history” by fashioning a heroine who dresses and fights like a man (a possible aberration, but by now employed so liberally that the device has, in my opinion, become trite as well as historically unlikely), or draw a woman who may indeed battle the male dominated society “on her own terms”, but not by ignoring the realities of “her own time”.

How does one introduce and maintain a fictional character “in her own time and on her own terms”? As Donna said: Research. But also, imagination. Put yourself in your character’s time period. No, not “yourself”. You must reach beyond yourself, and put yourself in your character’s skin. You must live with her, “in her own time”, all the wonders, limitations and societal attitudes that confront her. And you must overcome her challenges, not as a 21st Century woman would, but as a woman “in her own time”.

Breathe her age with her.

Walk a mile in her historical shoes.


  1. Joyce,
    You are such a great addition to ANWA. I learn so much every time I read something you have written.

    This was a great posting. We are not too far removed (like, in my lifetime) from the time when women didn't wear pants in public. It's not that some women didn't, but they had to be prepared to be stared at and thought of as 'fast'. I vividly remember how thankful I was when the edict came down from the school board that women teachers could wear pantsuits to work. Winter playground duty became much more enjoyable with my legs covered.

  2. Thank goodness for your post. I can't tell you how much my professors (I have a BA in History) drilled that one simple concept into my head. Judge them by their time. It was a recurring theme from all them. It is one reason I have been reluctant to read any historical fiction. Although there are shining examples of those who get it right. You're not a lone voice in the wilderness but I sure thought I was. BTW George Washington is more or less the closest thing I have to a non religious hero.

  3. Great post. Though I have a minor in teaching history for both my degrees, I don't recall hearing even one of my professors stress judging people by their historical timeline. See how much I learn from ANWA!

    In elementary school I read a story of a cave woman who got tired of having the begging clan children run to meet her whenever she returned from her exploratory wanderings with a basket of food samples. She planned her revenge by bringing a basket of ripe olives, straight from the tree. The kids begged, she gave, they grimaced and spit. She laughed and tossed the rest of the basketfull away, not noticing that many olives rolled into a salty pool. Weeks later, when she saw them, she idly sampled again. To her delight they had become edible, and the rest is surmised history.

    At least a dozen years later, when I came to Arizona and first saw an olive tree, someone offered me a fresh, ripe olive, but I declined. I had believed what I read, and remembered it.

    Thus I learned that we, as writers, really need to be accurate in our writing--or let the reader know it's fantasy. Somebody might actually believe us.

  4. Wow, Joyce, I'm honored that you'd refer to my earlier post. I love the medieval time as much as I love the Regency time. You made some wonderful points. Thinking like the character would in his/her time can be challenging becuause my characters often do things that I wouldn't, not only because they are different people, but they were governed by a different set of rules. But I hadn't thought of it in quite the terms you'd stated. Good food for thought.

  5. Thanks, Joyce. Revisionist history really makes no sense, particularly since we believe we'll be judged according to the law we have been given. It's interesting that there are those who ask if Abraham Lincoln was homosexual because he shared beds - but the times dictated it, as they did in your example.


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