On History, Historicity, and the Responsibility of Art

Posted: April 23, 2014 in Braak
Tags: , ,

I caught this article from Gabriel Valdez’s Wednesday Collective in a sort of a roundabout way – it’s a defense of something like “The Expert Review”, in which a reviewer criticizes a work of fiction with some level of expertise – pointing out historical errors and the like. Some people think the Expert Review should die; this Historian who goes to the movies makes a pretty good case for it.

For the purpose of contributing to this consideration, I’d like to suggest that there’s a bright line we can draw between historical errors that matter and historical errors that don’t, and that actually we’ve got two ways of looking at a narrative’s relationship to the past. For the sake of argument, let’s call these two things History and Historicity.

History, we all know what history is, but just for the purpose of this article I’d like you to accept the following definition, even if it’s not how you’d usually define it: “History is a complex set of narratives, evaluated in the present, encompassing more or fewer artifacts from previous time periods, generally established for the purpose of creating, destroying, or reinforcing a cultural or political identity.” In this case, we might say that a history that encompasses very few artifacts from a previous time period is a bad history, but creating a narrative based on them is still the process of history, however we might like to wish it isn’t. And you’ve noticed, I’m sure, the interesting feature about history being evaluated always in the present, and what this means for all previous histories – don’t worry, we’ll get to it.

Historicity might be something that I made up (or, alternately, a real thing that I am describing incorrectly), but for the sake of this article let’s work with this definition: “Historicity is the quality of resembling one point in history or another.” I don’t think that his necessarily means that something with a high degree of historicity is historically accurate – I think that as we go forward, I’m going to show that “historical accuracy” can fall into one or the other category – but I do think that something with a high degree of historicity has a lot of details that are meant to make it resemble something that is historically accurate.

So, here is what I am proposing: historical details matter when we’re talking about history; historical details do NOT matter when we’re talking about historicity.

Here, let me do a few examples.

On Scottish History

A good example from that Historian article is Braveheart. Braveheart, of course, has a very high degree of historicity, in that it is chock full of details meant to convince you that it is, in fact, an accurate representation of (I guess?) 13th century Scotland. But from a historical perspective, many of these details are not actually correct – that is, the artifacts included in this history do not belong to this time period. Consider the great kilt, which those guys in Braveheart are always running around in – medieval Sctos didn’t wear those, those were developed in the late 16th century.


Well, then: does the great kilt matter, or not?

From the standpoint of historicity, the inclusion of the great kilt is simply mechanical: it says “Scotland” to the people watching it, it says “Old Timey”, it says “Rugged Highland Warrior”. Insofar as we need to generate a suspension of disbelief on behalf of the audience, it does exactly the thing that it’s supposed to – but the historicity of Braveheart, as I have suggested before, actually isn’t specifically important. In other words, this movie would be largely identical if all the Scotsmen wore pants, but it would ALSO be largely identical if all the Scotsmen wore spacesuits. It wouldn’t give us the same feeling of looking back at a particular time and place in history, but generally the same things in terms of plot, character and story would be in place.

This is an interesting question though, isn’t it – because we can’t rely on the fact that the audience is going to have the same associations of Scotsmen if we see them running around wearing pants as we would if they were running around wearing a kilt. In this sense, even though pants are more historically accurate, they don’t achieve the same mechanical effect; Highland Scots in pants in the 13th century would be as off-putting as if they were wearing spacesuits. The quality of historicity, then, is actually independent from historical accuracy.

Well, so what about history? The problem with history is that it keeps changing. My friend Carl once described history as a set of “unfolding” narratives – I don’t know if he means it this way, but to me that sounds fallaciously teleological. That is to say, it inaccurately suggests that there is a “true” history that our repeated attempts at understanding history bring us closer to. I’m not sure I believe this; my own experience with history is that it’s a big junky mess, and mostly what we learn from studying it is just that the ideas that we had about it were wrong.

But let’s set aside the question of accuracy and consider this according to the definition of history that I set out before: how does the detail of the great kilt affect the process of creating a narrative for cultural identity? Well, whether they’re doing it consciously or not, the filmmakers of Braveheart are trying to draw a straight line between the identity of the medieval Scots and the identity of the modern Scots – the point of that film is to say “this is what it means to be Scottish, and we are all one people, united against the English”. It is to say either that medieval Scots are the same as modern Scots, or else that they are clear, direct antecedent to modern Scots.

When we look at the great kilt in that sense, the thing about the kilt is that it is noticeably, identifiably, and unmistakeably Scottish. Even if it’s a more modern Scottish invention, I’m not sure it matters. When you put medieval Scots in a great kilt, what you are saying from an artistic standpoint is that the people of 13th century Scotland and the people when know today as Scotsmen are interchangeable.

Is that true? Well, no, obviously it’s not true, but both fiction and history are famously packs of lies, anyway. It is concomitant with Braveheart’s argument, though – whether or not the artifacts of the 13th century bear it out, the idea that modern and medieval Scots are the same people is certainly what Braveheart MEANS to say. Under this circumstance, we can see what we’re ACTUALLY criticizing when we criticize the inclusion of the great kilt – it’s not its specific historicity that’s the problem, not the detail of its historical accuracy, but the argument that is implied by the detail. Braveheart is not a documentary, it’s not implicitly important that all of its details be historically accurate, but it is making an argument, and insofar as those historical details are pursuant to that argument, they’re reasonable subjects for criticism.

On Roman…er…Elizabethan? History

Let’s look at another example: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. This is one of my favorite examples, because of what it lets us do in terms of understanding history. Julius Caesar is famous for including one of Shakespeare’s most well-known anachronisms – when Brutus hears a clock strike and notes “Count the clock” – but it also serves as an example of why history is always in the present.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

Julius Caesar, of course, isn’t about Rome, because it wasn’t written in Roman days. It was written during Elizabethan England, and is therefore about Elizabethan England. And while a Roman might have had any number of things to say about the tragedy of Julius Caesar (i.e., he might have brought up the point to subtly indicate that the Emperor was weaker than his historical predecessor, or might have subversively been arguing against the Principate and longing for the Republic), the play Julius Caesar is about how a bunch of ambitious Senators plunge Rome into civil war by assassinating the “greatest man ever to stand in the tide of time.” It is a paean to powerful monarchs, in other words, and it’s no accident that it ends with the death of Brutus and the ostensible beginning of the reign of Caesar Augustus, the first actual Emperor of Rome.

Shakespeare’s tragedies actually usually end “happily”, in a sense – like most ritual sacrifices, they begin with death and pain and end with the order of the universe restored. The fact that the Roman Republic fell isn’t the “tragic” part of Julius Caesar – Shakespeare didn’t give a rat’s ass about democracy or republicanism. He lived under a monarch and he was writing for a monarch and for people who appreciated monarchy. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is about the dangerous of fighting against the cosmic unity of nature, which dictate that a great nation MUST be ruled by its natural monarch (see similar arguments in Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III [really the entire War of the Roses cycle], all of which deal with the disastrous consequences of usurpation of the throne).

Shakespeare’s Roman history is, in other words, conducted in the present tense; so, if we disregard historicity – if we say, “let’s not care specifically whether or not Romans had clocks, but instead what it means that Shakespeare includes them” – when we criticize his anachronisms we have to criticize his argument. We can make the case that Caesar’s clock (in addition to many other anachronisms – hats and doublets, for instance) is part of an argument that is meant to equate the time of Caesar to Shakespeare’s time: i.e., that Julius Caesar is not at all a history about Julius Caesar’s time, but maybe a caution to the nobles of Shakespeare’s era to stop giving Elizabeth so much trouble.

What’s DOUBLY fascinating, though, is that of course that’s rarely how we do Julius Caesar these days. Modern western audiences have in us so ingrained the notion that democracy is superior to monarchy that we instinctively look at Julius Caesar as being a caution against tyrants – i.e., that the “tragic” part of the tragedy is really the death of Brutus and the senators, who assassinated Caesar but still couldn’t stop the Republic from falling. History, in other words, is always conducted in the present – and, while Julius Caesar was history for Shakespeare, encompassing what various artifacts he had about Roman days, for US Julius Caesar the play is itself an artifact, a component used in our creation of our own cultural narratives.

But I also want to take this a step further.

On Dramaturgy

One of the things that we know about Shakespeare plays is that no one can understand them, so in order to make them more comprehensible, we overlay them with other settings or notions that people do understand in order to provide insight into the text. So, you and I don’t know what it was like to be an Elizabethan Englishman and have opinions about Italians, for example; when we do Romeo and Juliet we’ve got to set it in, like, the Reconstruction-era South or something in order for us to get it. And sometimes this is more specific and sometimes it’s not – sometimes you do Macbeth set in a kind of “early 20th century great war kind of setting maybe”, and you use things like guns and swords and kilts as “indicators” of a cultural idea, rather than as historical markers.

That is to say, sometimes you abandon the notion of historicity entirely, and say, “look, you don’t know what Elizabethan (actually Jacobean in this case I guess) Englishmen thought about 11th century Scotland, anyway, we’re not even going to pretend this is a real time and place in history.” Fair enough, and fine!

But sometimes you use a specific culture and this provides challenges. Famously, here in Philadelphia a theater company did a production of Julius Caesar, and they set it (for some reason I cannot personally fathom, please don’t ask me about that) in feudal Japan. And the production drew some fire, in particular from a local Japanese actor named Makoto Hirano, for being racist.

Yikes! (For clarity’s sake, I’ll say here that I don’t think Makoto Hirano – and I don’t mean to put words in his mouth – I don’t think Makoto Hirano means racist like, “this play and the people who made it hate Japanese people,” I think he means it like, “this play is a symptom of a white supremacist culture that thinks it can take whatever it wants from marginalized cultures while also erasing the actual people to whom those cultures belong from the public consciousness”.)

Now, you guys know me, you know that as soon as I read Makoto Hirano’s letter, my eyes immediately went to the part that said “DON’T have Brutus wielding a Chinese war sword while everyone else has a katana (a Japanese samurai sword) and hope nobody notices” and I thought to myself, “What? Someone was WRONG about SWORDS? THIS WILL NOT STAND!” because that’s how I roll. And later I sort of accidentally got into a scuffle about this with the actual dramaturg on the show (I say “accidentally” because I actually genuinely did not know that there was a dramaturg on this show at all) and I said something…errg, slightly nasty about it, sorry. Bad form on my part.

But then the dramaturg smacked me down! Oh no! It turns out, the weapon that Brutus has in the play IS an actual Japanese weapon, apparently called a “Nagano”. This is a good example of, as we saw earlier, why “experts” – i.e., opinionated jackasses like me with nothing but a blog and time on their hands – probably SHOULDN’T be allowed to just go around “reviewing” other people’s work.

Anyway, this was very embarrassing for me (though I should think it’s probably even more embarrassing for Makoto Hirano), but it actually brings me to another, I think, pretty salient point about historicity.

(For the record, I’m not interested in criticizing this particular production; think of this as a thought experiment about a different production of Julius Caesar that made some similar choices.)

Now, I haven’t got a picture of a Japanese sword called a nagano, but for the purposes of the thought experiment in this article, just imagine that it looked something like this:


This is called a “pudao”, you see these guys turn up in wushu a lot. Later-era pudao have the characteristic D-shaped blade of the regular dao or Chinese broadsword. That flat point and ring pommel are characteristic of early Chinese design (this one is reportedly a design from the Song Dynasty, which puts its origin between 960 and 1279 AD, though I think similar designs were used in the Southeast Asian peninsula until very late, like the 18th or 19th century). In fact, everything about the design fairly well screams “Chinese.” (Except for the copyright notice.  Sorry, SwordNArmory.)

But there’s a Japanese weapon that looks exactly like this, the nagano – or, at least, it looks enough like this to fool an actual Japanese person. (Obviously this is somewhat fallacious; Japanese people do not have an inborn facility for recognizing Japanese weapons, though I think we ought to credit them with knowing their own culture fairly well.) So, it’s not historically inaccurate: this is a real, correct weapon in use in feudal Japan.

So, here is the question. If historical inaccuracy doesn’t hurt Julius Caesar – i.e., if Caesar’s clock isn’t bad because it’s wrong – then does that mean that historical accuracy doesn’t necessarily help?

Here’s what I mean – this is a correct historical detail, but it’s not the only possible historical detail. You could have given Brutus any kind of weapon. He could have had a regular katana. He could have had a nagimaki, which is a kind of long-handled katana that works in a similar way to the pudao. He could have had a naginata, which is a kind of polearm, like a katana on the end of a spear. He could have had a nodachi, which is that giant super-katana that Toshiro Mifune has in Seven Samurai. He could have had any of these weapons, and the thing is that all of these weapons are clearly, unmistakably Japanese.

Why, when you have all of these correct details to choose from, would you choose the detail that, while correct, is also very mistakably Chinese? Well, again, we’re not criticizing the historicity or the specific accuracy of the detail – what we’re asking about is what part this detail plays in the narrative. Is the argument that the Chinese and Japanese cultures are interchangeable? If not, why choose the single weapon as representative that they have in common? Is it that Chinese and Japanese culture are more alike than they are different? If so, then why does this appear only in this instance (and possibly the instance in which the actors wore Chinese shirts instead of Japanese shirts)?

Again, we’ve discarded as relevant, for the moment, historicity. Instead, what do these details mean in terms of the narrative?

Be It Concluded

Be it concluded: all details always matter. But they don’t always matter for the reasons that we think they do. I would go so far as to say that historical details rarely matter in terms of how accurately they represent a time or place – that is, the accuracy of historical details like what swords or shirts people wear, like hats or kilts or clocks, is not important in terms of historicity.

However, I think historical details always matter in terms of history: that the detail has significance in terms of a cultural narrative, and this meaning, even when unconscious, cannot be ignored. William Wallace’s kilt matters because Braveheart is an act of history, which means it’s about modern cultural identity. Caesar’s clock matters because Julius Caesar is an act of history, which means it’s about Shakespeare’s cultural identity. And Brutus’ sword matters, not because it is or is not authentic to the period, but because of what you’re saying about another culture by including it.

In art, in my opinion, all artistic statements are artistically valid – if you want to say that modern Scottish identity is the same as medieval Scottish identity, if you want to say that the story of Julius Caesar is just like what Queen Elizabeth was facing at the end of her reign, if you want to say that Japanese and Chinese culture are enough alike that we should be comfortable with their combination, then that’s fine. You can say any of those things if you want to – and when people criticize the details of those choices, what we’re really criticizing, or what we ought to be criticizing, is not the historicity of those details, but the artistic statements that lurk behind them.

In other words, I guess, change history however you like; just be prepared to stand by whatever artistic statement you end up with.

  1. braak says:

    Haha. Pursuant to these questions, here is another piece from that same guy about the costuming in the 13th Warrior, and when artistic expediency might outweigh the merits of historicity.


  2. aelarsen says:

    I like a lot of what you have to say about the difference between history and historicity, and yes, historicity is an appropriate term for the effort to create an impression of historical accuracy. You’re entirely right that Braveheart uses great kilts to create a sense that this is medieval Scotland that we’re watching. Hollywood films have, over the past 30 years, really embraced historicity as a strategy to attract audiences, in part because it allows them to slip in wild anachronism without the audience noticing, because historicity acts sort of like a painkiller toward the audience’s critical thinking skills. This is a subject that I eventually intend to tackle on my blog.

  3. This is a fantastic article, Chris, thanks. I’m going to collect all the articles and do a special feature on the discussion soon. I’m told Sam Adams also has a rebuttal(!) for A.E. Larsen’s last article, so I’m excited to see how this conversation develops.

  4. […] Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press sought to separate history from historicity, further expanding on Larsen’s argument while also putting the onus of responsibility on artists themselves. The issue as an artist isn’t to always be historically accurate, Braak says, but rather to have a reason when you aren’t. Many artists use history as a backdrop to talk about modern-day issues. If that’s what you’re doing, decisions can’t just be made willy-nilly – they each carry into the messages that viewers take away. Braak uses Shakespeare, Philadelphia theatre, and Larsen’s example of Braveheart to write a fa…. […]

  5. John Jackson says:

    Great article. I wonder what the numerous other inaccuracies in Braveheart are intended to convey to modern audiences. You did pick the most illustrative one.

    Maybe this says more about me than anything else, but I really wanted the conclusion of this piece to include a note that you later found out the nagano was traditionally the sword of the non-samurai “working class” of medeival Japan. As far as I’m aware, it isn’t, and you needed to be a noble to carry a weapon, but if you are using historically accurate weapons to indicate tyranny vs republicanism, it would be a fantastic move to have Brutus fight with something “of the people”. (Not that I’m claiming Brutus was any more of the people than other aristocrats, but if that is the modern interpretation of it, it would be smart.)

    I admit that I usually take issue with historical narratives and adaptations that drastically or minutely alter things. I usually add a “without purpose” in there to satisfy my stance against snobbery, but I feel that I now need to go back and rethink precisely why I take issue with these changes, because then I’d be able to sound better thought out whenI disparage them.

  6. braak says:

    Well, in war non-nobles carried weapons — regular infantry guys had spears and short swords and things like that. And it’s true that there’s a lot of interesting things about Japanese weapons that might have come into play — for example, western audiences might not notice it, but there’s a whole suite of associations around the naginata. It was part of the public school curriculum for Japanese women (I think up until the sixties); imagine if Portia had given her naginata to Brutus before Philippi. It was also associated with the Sohei buddhist monks (they’re somewhat spuriously given credit for inventing it; you see them a lot in those big Japanese samurai battle paintings, but historians think that arming the sohei monks with naginatas was an artistic convention so you could tell them apart, not necessarily — heheh — not necessarily something that was historically accurate). Similarly, you could have given him a weapon like a kama, which is a sickle-shaped weapon (usually associated with ninja) that was based on an actual sickle — one of many Japanese weapons used by commoners as a way of getting around rules about who could carry swords.

    All that said, I guess in the interests of not propagating misinformation, I should mention that I am not 100% convinced that the “nagano” is actually a thing, and that this production didn’t simply mistake a pudao for a Japanese weapon. I can’t find any information about a sword or spear by that name, and I can’t find any evidence of a Japanese weapon that matches the description of the one used in the show. (In fact, all of my resources suggest that the Japanese stopped making weapons with ring pommels in, like, the 7th century.)

    Of course, I am not an expert in swords, I am just a fan of swords, and obviously absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but man, is there an absence of evidence in this case. It’s also worth mentioning that the scuffle I got into was, as it turns out, with an actor in the show, not the dramaturg, and that it’s possible that no one served in a dramaturgical capacity on this production of Julius Caesar at all.

  7. […] the author of Threat Quality Press points out, the answer is not history but historicity. The people making the film didn’t […]

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