Two Questions at the Heart of Historical Fiction

Tucked in among the weighty proclamations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is the delightful gem of Canon 16, which in part prohibits clerics from attending “the performances of mimics and buffoons” or wearing “curiously sewed together gloves.”

If they could be transported to the 21st century, the Council attendees would surely be appalled to see that the performances of mimics and buffoons are nearly the sum total of our contemporary culture, but what a relief it would be to note that the great danger of curiously sewed together gloves has passed.

After having a nice chuckle about Canon 16, though, anyone with a mind for digging into history has to ask a couple of questions. First, how had this society developed in such a way that these matters were important enough to command attention from one of the most significant conferences in European history? Second, how has our society grown so far apart from theirs that these once-important matters now seem trivial?

And this was a problem?

Moving back in time most of a millennium, as the first major gathering of church leaders after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 had its own catalog of important matters to resolve, starting with the so-called Arian heresy and its assertion that Christ was not divine. Two or three hundred bishops attended, as did Constantine himself.

And yet, in what might well have been the most important international meeting in the world up to that point, and a meeting that shaped the long-term trajectories of countries and cultures all over the world (imagine how different the world would be if institutionalized Christianity had not survived this fledgling stage), the emperor and this assembly of prelates were compelled to address the problem of priests who had transformed themselves into eunuchs.

In fact, it’s the very first of the 20 canons issued at Nicaea. Canon 1 makes allowances for men who had the operation for medical reasons or who were victims of barbarian savagery, but it states that priests who had emasculated themselves should leave the priesthood, and that in the future, no man who had done so would be allowed into the priesthood.

Buffoonery and curious gloves are one thing, but voluntarily unburdening oneself of body parts is on an entirely different plane of un-understandability.

Again, the two questions. First, what would a society have been like in which instances of men self-administering such a transformation must have been common enough that an international meeting of bishops, presided over by the Roman emperor, was compelled to address the problem? Second, how did we grow so far away from this society that such a phenomenon is almost impossible to imagine?

It’s tempting to dismiss these odd and old ideas as just that, the inexplicable behavior of benighted people left far back in the dust behind our ever-advancing selves. But to dismiss these ideas as irrelevant is both an error and the waste of a wonderful opportunity.

They are in us; we are of them

The auto-eunuchs of 325 and the curiously gloved buffoon watchers of 1215 may belong to lost and distant cultures, but they are not members of another species or visitors from another planet. They are us, or at least earlier incarnations of us.

There are no step-function discontinuities in human history. The world didn’t jump from 325 to 1215 to 2012. It lunged and lurched, one year, one day, one connected human moment after another. The path might have been tortuous, regressive, and downright insane at times, but it has been continuous.

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

The better we can understand them (although we never will completely understand them, of course), the better we can understand ourselves and the behaviors we exhibit that will have future generations looking back at us with derision and disgust.

The glorious pleasure of discovery

The wonderful opportunity these old and odd ideas present is the glorious pleasure of discovery, that addictive feeling of uncovering the who, what, when, and how—and every once in a while getting a glimpse of the why.

What was it like trying to build a supranational religious organization at a time when even rudimentary education was far from universal, and many clerical candidates surely did find the tavern and town square more appealing than sacred texts and liturgical practice?

And regarding eunuchs who aspired to the priesthood, how widespread was the barbarian savagery mentioned in the canon from Nicaea? Were some of these men freed slaves who hoped for nothing more than to devote the rest of their lives to God? Or were eunuch priests in goddess cults converting to Christianity in large enough numbers to cause concern for the new church? The number of questions this canon alone raises could occupy (or distract!) a curious mind for days.

Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction

I’ll wager that if you interview any writer of historical fiction about his or her motivations, you’ll find some variation on these two questions. The opportunity to bring old truths and questions and curiosities to life through the alchemy of storytelling makes historical fiction endlessly compelling for so many writers and readers.

While the appeal of historical fiction is easy to grasp, the meaning of “historical fiction” is most definitely not. The category is so broad and its boundaries so porous that the label can obscure more than it clarifies.

The simple criterion of age (such as stories set at least 50 years in the past) helps, but not much. Notre-Dame de Paris, The Name of the Rose, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The English Patient, Sacred Hunger, Wolf Hall, The Other Boleyn Girl, Atonement, True Grit, and Pillars of the Earth all pass this test, but it might be easier to describe how these books are different than to identify what they have in common.

As a way to outline the particular territory I hope to occupy, I thought I might list the writers of historical fiction who have most inspired me on this journey. While indemnifying them from any association with whatever weaknesses are present in my writing, I hope that I have been influenced by Barry Unsworth, Hilary Mantel, Victor Hugo, James Morrow, Umberto Eco, Geraldine Brooks, Andrea Barrett, Colson Whitehead, Louis Bayard, Edward P. Jones, Jeffrey Lent, and Marianne Wiggins. As a writer—and a reader—I can’t thank them enough for the gift that is their work.

 


The quoted passages from the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council are from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp

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