Over the last few months I have been preoccupied with investigating the history of historical fiction and its relationship to academic history for the recent IHR winter conference: Novel Approaches: From academic history to historical fiction. The results of this investigation now form a series of blog posts on the IHR Digital blog and have also been attached to the virtual conference website that I helped to develop. Although this is somewhat of a diversion from my own research interests (and expertise) my examination into historical fiction from the seventeenth century right through to the present does nevertheless have a resonance with my studies of sixteenth century scholars.
The historical novel developed first in France in the seventeenth century as an alternative representation of the historiographical debates over Particular and Secret histories as opposed to the more traditional universal histories. Particular and Secret history is, in essence, a focus on individual empowerment and its role in historical causation. The arguments suggested that historical events were caused or given form through the peculiarities of the individuals involved. In the nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott (often claimed as the first historical novelist of modern form) drew out in his Waverley novels the historiographical debates of his time over nationhood and historical difference. In the second half of the twentieth century the rise of postmodernism as a significant force in philosophical theory drove historians to debate whether all history was indeed historical fiction or historical truth. The nature of ‘truths’ about the past was put under the microscope and many historians to this day conceive of the past as holding many truths and representations including the fictional.
Back in the sixteenth century however, fiction and fact were often interchangeable. One only has to look as far as John Foxe’s narratives and imagery of the Marian burnings to see how the two meshed together to form a truth about the past. King N. King has written a fascinating account on the ‘literary aspects’ in the Acts and Monuments arguing that:
‘English Protestants of the early modern era readily understood that stories about the pain and suffering of martyrs provided exciting reading that afforded both edification and enjoyment’.
Foxe includes many fictional (and widely-known fictional) pieces in his Acts and Monuments. The distinction for him was not whether or not these represented authentic historical evidence but whether they were rightly used or abused. For instance the tales of saints in the hagiographical Golden Legend are vilified by Foxe as full of falsities and lies whilst the account of Jack Upland – which Foxe and others believed had been written by Geoffrey Chaucer – told a tale against friars and were therefore considered truthful in representing the beliefs and thoughts of a past society.
The Holinshed Chronicles produced largely as a collaborative project a short time after Foxe further supports the argument that literary elements were considered equally as valuable as historical fact. Annabel Patterson has argued that:
‘They also had at their disposal a number of literary techniques and genres, which enliven and intensify the text they were constructing out of extremely diverse materials, but they did not make the mistake of some modern theoreticians in confusing literary methods with an endless, indiscriminate textuality’ (Patterson, p. 55)
In Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles Patterson added that sixteenth century chroniclers:
‘were convinced that what we call “literature” was integral to the cultural history they were compiling, an indispensable part of the record, both of the individual career and of the bildungsroman of the nation as a whole.’ (Patterson, p. 55)
Let’s deconstruct that a little. First what is bildungsroman? According to the Oxford English Dictionary bildungsromanmeans ‘a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education’. It is a coming of age story or educational tale depicting the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist from youth to adulthood. Patterson’s use of the term here is to suggest that Holinshed’s chronicles were forging a tale of England’s growth from childhood (medieval) to adulthood (early modern). Patterson is also highlighting the cultural aspects of Holinshed’s chronicle. This was not just a political record or exegesis as chronicles had been in the past; Holinshed was forging a concept of England as a nation.
In the sixteenth century fiction and fact were often interchangeable and both were set to work towards the common goal of achieving a particular truth about the past but not necessarily concerned with the truth as we would accept it today. History, in the sixteenth century often focused on past perceptions as well as fact and the dividing line between the two was not always clear-cut.
Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles (Chicago Press: Chicago, 1994)
For my ‘history of historical fiction’ blog posts see the IHR Digital Blog or for a pdf copy and an index to the blog posts visit the A History of Historical Fiction post on the Novel Approaches website. In addition the site contains a wonderful collection of podcasted lectures, book reviews (including one by myself on John Arden’s Books of Bale novel), articles, and bibliographies.