Why historians hate anachronisms

Way back in this blog post about population growth, I casually mentioned something I called the ‘tragedy of the antiquarian’. I used this term to refer to the fact that historians love stories, but hate any factual inaccuracies. Sound like you? Congratulations, you are a history geek, in my eyes at least. If you aren’t bothered by this, well done for achieving spiritual enlightenment. This particular post isn’t really relevant to you, but it might help you to understand what the rest of us go through.

Imagine that you are watching a film, or playing a game set in your favourite time period. You hear or see something that doesn’t fit in with what you know about the era. It’s probably something that was accidentally left in, rather than something that was intentionally added. Whatever the case it grates and, even if it’s only for a moment, you stop enjoying the immersion, and remember that this is a product, made in modern times by people who are probably still out there somewhere, and one of them made a booboo.

You are not alone

Every kind of nerd has to stomach a similar reaction when they see an adaptation of their interest with details that are not cannon. It’s all about suspension of disbelief. If you have invested time learning about a subject, then there will almost inevitably an emotional investment as well. No-one wants to think that they have wasted their time. (Nerd reassurance: Your time was not wasted; you exercised logic and indulged your imagination, and both of those are essential tools in modern life).

To err is human

As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, media products are not usually made by people who know that particular time period in depth. They are made by media companies who know how to make good products. They are (sometimes) advised by historians who know the period. Most of the time, media professionals take the world they know and extrapolate from it, carrying out research as and when they need to. Even historical consultants can’t catch every mistake, but as we only spot the ones that slip through, this is what we judge them by.

Attention to detail is expensive

Yes, you could pay a blacksmith armourer to make all the metalwork in your film using techniques that were available at the time, but it would probably be a helluva lot more expensive, and take way longer. If only 1% of your target audience is going to notice the difference, why would you take the harder option. Historical consultants are expensive, and so are re-shoots and update patches. Historical accuracy is a low priority compared to whether the product will work. It may be your life’s work to tell the truth about the past, but it isn’t theirs.

Some inaccuracies are needed for the story to make sense

I get that you are really upset that Alexander has an Irish accent, and Leonidas has a Scottish one, but I don’t hear you complaining that they are speaking English. In a similar way, there are some tropes in games that you expect, because the world would feel strange without them. This is why there are guards walking around acting like policemen, and signs written in modern English. Exposition is boring; and immersion is easiest when the world is couched in terms that the public understands. To ignore this fact and still complain about the accidental mistakes is a bit of a double standard.

We are the problem

Historians are usually story tellers, even if it’s just ‘You’ll never guess what Caligula got up to in his spare time’. We love to tell stories, but we lose patience when someone else gets one slightly wrong. The only way to truly overcome this crippling drawback is to let go of the importance of historical accuracy. Only then can you admire the storytelling.

Unless it’s godawful; then you can gripe all you like.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the one where I look at the eras that Hollywood neglects, the one where I become an apologist for ‘300 Rise of an Empire’, or the one where I get hung up on the food factual inaccuracies in the Lord of the Rings.

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