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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Fact and Fiction

Charles-Philippe Larivière, Battle of Montgissard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When he produced this painting of the Battle of Mont Gisart, the French artist, Charles-Philippe Larivière, working in the tradition of nineteenth century Romantischer Klassizismus, was attempting to get across to his audience a sense of the drama. And it was in fact a great drama, one that very nearly put an end to Saladin's career. Had it done so we might remember it today (as few people other than historians do) rather than the decisive Battle of Hattin eleven years later. In order to give expression to the emotions of the event, Larivière attempted to squeeze everything into his painting, everything he knew, but also everything he imagined. Here are vast hordes of Frankish knights, foot soldiers, Muslim warriors, the leprous young king with his sword raised in a pathetic gesture of bravado, carried into battle on a sort of mattresses-sedan chair, conflagrations in a coastal city in the distance, the Patriarch of Jerusalem mounted on a beautiful white steed, holding raised in his hands a sort of miniature shrine, and behind, to the left, a vast turreted fortress on a hill.

Is there anything in this dramatic scene even remotely like the reality? Very little, as anyone acquainted with the locale would know. There was no large fortress at Tel Gezer (the nearest castle being Le Toron des Chevaliers, which is over six kilometres away, as the crow flies). One cannot see the coast from the battlefield and there is no record of a vast conflagration in a coastal town in 1177. One could go on and cite other discrepancies, but that would be missing the point. There is about as much reality this scene as there is in Picasso's painting of what occurred in Guernica in 1937. Although Picasso's was a great work and Larivière a mediocre one, they both had the same aim - to give expression to the artist's emotions when considering the historical event. Larivière wished to give a sense of the drama, and the intelligent viewer will know to regard it as a work of art, not a reliable historical source.

Tel Gezer (adapted from Ori~, via Wikimedia Commons)

This is where, I think, academic historians sometimes go wrong in their regard of fictitious works - paintings, films, and historic novels. The creators of such works, like Picasso or Larivière, may be great practitioners in their art or very poor ones. But if they deviate from known historical evidence they should not be regarded as a challenge to historians because they do not attempt to deceive. If the reader or viewer is deceived, that is not because the artist has intentionally done so but because he has allowed himself to regard the art as a historical document rather than what it in fact is. (I should be perfectly honest and admit that I have fallen into this trap myself. When my youngest son persuaded me to watch the first episode of Game of Thrones I found myself put off by what I regarded as inappropriate elements in the settings, which of course is entirely ludicrous as it is so blatantly a work of fiction.) This is why I feel that rather too much has been made of the inaccuracies of such works as Ridley Scott's 2005 movie, Kingdom of Heaven, a film that had taken a historical truth and turned it into a tale of about equal historical accuracy to this painting of Mont Gisart. Ridley Scott's film is a work that is certainly worthy of certain levels of criticism. But this criticism should come from film and acting critics rather than historians. The English historian David Starkey's harsh criticism of Hilary Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in her novel Wolf Hall as a "deliberate perversion of fact" is, in my opinion, totally irrelevant. Misplaced too is Simon Schama's statement that Mantel has gone too far in portraying Cromwell as a generally positive character whereas, according to Schama, he was "a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture". (Gregory Wolfe, "How ‘Wolf Hall’ will entertain millions — and threaten to distort history in the process", The Washington Post, April 5, 2015). Human beings are far more complex creatures than either the historical sources or historical novelists can portray. And these historians have missed the point. If, as they fear, the readers have given an inaccurate portayal of a person or an event, they should remember that these works, while they may certainly be enjoyed by historians, are not meant to serve as source material, but as entertainment for the general public, sometimes, as in the case of Robert Graves and Hilary Mantel, highly intelligent and beautifully written entertainment, but nothing more. In an article titled "Unreliable Witness" about Graves' historical novel I Claudius, Barry Unsworth, himself a talented historical novelist, wrote: "Yet again we have to remind ourselves of what we are always in danger of forgetting as we read this compelling narrative, with its impeccable research, the tremendous intellectual feat of organisation that it represents. It is fiction after all" (The Observer, 2 September 2006).

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