Historical Fiction and Fictional History

You might think a lapsed medievalist like me would be enthralled by all the history currently available in Britain today, but I have to admit to very mixed feelings about it. The portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall as a much nicer man than the records suggest bothered me more than I thought it would. I know too much about More to subscribe uncritically to the idealised portrait of A Man for All Seasons, but I can’t shake off some of Geoffrey Elton’s severer comments about Cromwell, either. At what point does historical fiction cross the line into fictional history?

We are seeing something of the same with the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. I have no particular feelings about him and have recommended interested parties to read Eleanor Parker’s excellent blog post on the subject, Relics, Reburials and Richard III, but I confess to being uneasy about some of the razzmatazz surrounding events in Leicester. I suppose I like my history a little cooler, a little more serious. For me, history is ultimately about truth and understanding (which is why it is so fascinating) and I don’t really like the introduction of fake elements or fundamentally modern interpretations of what, to a historian, is perfectly intelligible within the thought-patterns of an earlier age. I wonder, for example, how many people will be praying for the repose of Richard’s soul today or have any sense of his re-interment forming part of a long Christian tradition of translatio.

When we turn to today’s Mass readings, Genesis 17.3–9 and John 8.51–9, we are brought up against the difference between truth and untruth rather abruptly. Just as Abram becomes Abraham and is initiated into an eternal covenant with God, so Jesus speaks of his identity with the Father and shocks his listeners to the core. The history of the Jewish people traces the consequences of fidelity to that Abrahamic covenant; and the history of Jesus traces the consequences of fidelity to that union between Father and Son.  Today we might think about what that means for us. By baptism we have been born into the covenant Christ sealed with his blood on the cross. We are called to live as children of truth and light. How shall we do so?