A Thanksgiving Week Bleg

Looking at the calendar today, I realized I’ve got a little under a month to finalize the readings for an interdisciplinary honors seminar I’m teaching next term.  Begin panic mode… now.

The course is called “Historical Fictions and Fiction as History” and is meant to introduce students to the phenomenon of historical fabrication–that is to say, making crap up and calling it history.  We’re going to begin with Geoffrey of Monmouth, some reactions to him, including the various accounts of how England got its name (Hengist’s land, Angle Land, Ing’s Land, Ingerne’s Land, etc.), and a few other select texts from the Trojan legendary.  Then we’ll be moving on to Holinshed’s Chronicle and Macbeth.  In later weeks we’ll read about the Donation of Constantine and its debunking, a bit from the Reagan biography Dutch , some of Hemingway’s short stories of the Spanish Civil War and his newspaper columns about the same, and Misha, the recently discredited memoir of a Holocaust survivor raised by wolves.
If the readings so far seem like they’re all over the map, that’s by design.  One of the questions the course will attempt to get students to wrestle with is how the genre-divisions between things like history, biography, and creative nonfiction get drawn.  Other questions will include what it means for a history to be accurate, the difference between revisionism and due dilligence, and what obligation we have to the dead to get them right. 
Now that I sit down and try to plan out the class discussions week-by-week, I realize that I’ve got about four weeks left to play with.  So, um, anyone got any suggestions for things to read?  Anyone have a favorite now-debunked historical account they’d care to share?

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  • EK Black

    There are some pretty wacky Chinese “alternate histories” and “strange tales” out there that straddle the boundary between fiction and history, legal records and “urban legend.” Maybe some of Judith Zeitlin’s Historian of the Strange or the Kam Louie & Louise Edwards translation of Yuan Mei's tales, Censored by Confucius, would be interesting? Admittedly there’s a lot to say about them, and they might not fit the things you’ve already chosen, but they’re nonetheless cool stories (some of them guaranteed, through raunchiness and sheer “wth”-ness, to grab attention).

  • Lisa

    This class sounds like way too much fun.

    Random suggestions: It’s not exactly claiming to be legitimate history, but it might be fun to look at The Princess Bride (book, not movie) and how William Goldman uses the literary device of a narrator to create the illusion of reality. You could also evaluate the genre of fictional autobiographies (see also James Herriot). You could also end the semester with an evaluation of how online technologies (blogs and wikis) transform the concept of accurate histories.

  • Alun

    Moses Finley wrote a paper comparing Troy to the Song of Roland, the Nibelungenlied and Battle of Kosovo. That last one could be interestingly spiky given the current state of Kosovo.

    Finley, M.I. 1964 ‘The Trojan War’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 84, 1-20.

  • Florilegium

    For Want of a Nail“, but maybe that’s too explicitly alternate history.

    Avram Davidson’s “Adventures in Unhistory“?

    “I, Rigoberta Menchú” has problematic issues of veracity.

  • Chris

    Well, for another type of historical fiction, perhaps something looking at the Piltdown Man hoax?

  • Ceirseach

    James Herriot is interesting, actually. You can go along happily believing you’re reading anecdotal autobiography, and surely on the whole you are, but then you look up the real James Herriot and realise that his boss and boss’s brother weren’t called Siegfried and Tristan, and therefore that the lovely build-up sequence in the first book to meeting Siegfriend and expecting a scarily large and overwhelming German man, followed by the comic anticlimax and Tristan explaining that their parents just really liked Wagner… all made up. Which makes you start seriously wondering about the rest of it, and how much of it was elements of real anecdote shaped by imagination to fit into a nice story context.

    To complement Geoffrey’s theories about the origin of England, I just have to throw in the first stanza of SGGK, because it puts forward the ‘Brutus founded Britain and gave it his own name’ theory so beautifully. But that’s no more than a by-the-way note in class, really.

  • Ceirseach

    Oh, and – there’s always the Three Musketeers. Not so much the first book (though d’Artagnan’s attempts to save the Duke of Buckingham from his dastardly murder are amusing), but the later books when Dumas gets less interested in his characters themselves and more interested in shoehorning them in to anything interesting that was going on politically at the time. So, Athos was involved in a plot to save Charles I from the scaffold, and it would have worked except for unforeseen circumstances; he stood under the scaffold and got bled on as the GREAT and NOBLE MARTYR lost his head, heard his last words telling him where he’d left an enormous amount of gold and begging him to find his son and restore him to the throne – and of course, they were all instrumental in restoring Charles II and saving the members of his poor, unhappy, innocently suffering royal family.

    It isn’t revisionism, exactly, but it’s good fun watching him stick musketeers around every corner in just those places when historical records can’t gainsay it. That fisherman who ferried them across the Channel? Was totally d’Artagnan in disguise.

  • Robert Seddon

    If the bit about obligations to the dead means there’s going to be some moral philosophy injected into the course, then Geoffrey Scarre’s papers ‘On Caring About One’s Posthumous Reputation’ and (despite its archaeological focus) ‘Archaeology and Respect for the Dead’ may be of use. Or they might prove too philosophically technical for interdisciplinary study; caveat emptor.

  • Notorious Ph.D.

    I’d actually finish up with a piece of historical fiction, rather than fictional history. My suggestion, if you want to turn their heads inside-out, is to assign one of Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, because you have a fictional history (or more than one!) nestled into the historical fiction.

    Could be fun.

  • Steve Muhlberger

    Fantastic idea.

    Just off the top of my head — how about an account of how the American Founding Fathers wanted to create a Christian nation?

  • Tawrin

    You’d be a fool not to throw some Borges in there. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Pierre Menard,” “The Immortal,” “Averroes’ Search,” “Kafka and his Precursors” … yikes, everything he wrote applies — and there’s a beautifully fuzzy border between his “fiction” and “essays.”

    Monika Otter’s “Inventiones” is delightful study, if a bit specific, though she talks quite a lot about Geoffrey of Monmouth.

    Selections from Virgil’s Aeneid? (Terribly important for the history of “making stuff up and calling it history” in the west.)

  • Aven

    You might not want to get into it, but there’s the whole Grail world of pseudo-history — “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” (the genesis of much of the Da Vinci Code) is really good at making crap up, calling it history, and then making up some crazy but really impressive seeming proof. (Of course, it’s hardly the only one out there to do that…)

  • Macaroni

    A professor here at Penn just gave a really interesting talk on the virtues of anachronism and cited Lorenzo Valla specifically as a scholar who wasn’t thinking “chronologically”in his debunking of the Donation (her argument is that he was frustrated at the register of Latin used in the Donation–essentially “Satrap! What an undignified word! Real Romans wouldn’t use that phrase!”–and that his argument was more about gravitas than history. The point of the paper was, though, to debunk the notion of anachronicity as something to shun, and I think you’re on to something with your class. Anyway, if you’re interested, I can send you the paper.

    And I’m not creepy, or a stalker, or anything. Just a graduate student wasting time before getting back to my research.

  • Xander Bennett

    How about the crazy legends about Prester John and Alexander the Great that were widely believed during the Middle Ages?

    Maybe something about how the trumped-up charges against the Templars are still providing fodder for crappy fake histories (and terrible novels) even today?

  • Michelle

    The idea that Prince Madog/Madoc of Gwynedd discovered America would be interesting. Apparently Queen Elizabeth I even used it as one of the reasons she had a legal right to North America.

    There is the modernist idea that the Navigato of St Brendan is actually a map to North America (a little of this is mentioned on Heavenfield).

    It would take some more work to put together readings, but a unit on the origins stories for each of the Britons, Irish, Brittany, Scots, Picts, Franks, Romulus and Remus for Rome, etc. For Britain, try the Historia Brittonum, for the Scots and Picts, perhaps John of Fordun would be interesting.

    You could also take an couple versions of hagiography on the same saint and compare how they change. Maybe comparing Patrick’s Confessio (Autobiography) to one of the later versions of the Life of Patrick.

  • Sam

    Sounds like an awesome class. I second Borges, but this really seems like a job for Annio da Viterbo


    Renaissance Dominican friar, wrote very clever fake histories to screw with people. He claimed to be using lost Etruscan sources that no one else could read. Funny thing is, there’s some evidence that he really was one of the few remaining speakers of etruscan (or at least tapped into that oral tradition)… he just chose to use his knowledge for evil. (I’m going on memory with these details so I apologize if they’re off; I heard them from Anthony Grafton, who loves Nanni).

  • Alexandra P

    Here in Australia, one of the most famoud historical hoaxes was in the saga of Helen Demidenko who wrote “The Hand that Signed the Paper”; turned out she was Helen Darville, and not a descendant of Ukrainians who suffered in the 1930s famines and subsequently collaborated with Nazis. (Of course, we also have Ern Malley, but he wrote poetry.)

  • tenthmedieval

    Larry Swain has some initial gathering work on origin myths of medieval peoples at his blog, The Ruminate. My own pet made-up history is the Gesta Comitum Barcinonensium, which is an origin myth spun to combine a dynastic myth with a royal affiliation, but until I manage to get something in print there isn’t really much in English to send students to…

  • Fencing Bear

    Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, particularly the chapter where Columbus argues with the professors at Salamanca about whether the world is round. Irving actually spent time in the Spanish archives researching the book, but when it came time to tell the story, made up anything he needed (including the “flat earth” stuff) to move the plot along.

  • Karl Steel

    You may also want to draw in fantastic origin stories: the house of Lusignan descended from a swan, Melusine as the foundress of some house or other. Also, I haven’t read this yet, but I know Stein, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t produce something good.

  • Lisa

    Apropos of nothing, I apologize for repeating the phrase “You could also” twice in a row in my much earlier comment. I have no excuse, unless being a very sleep-deprived grad student trying to finish up her last semester counts as one.

  • rastronomicals

    How about Clifford Irving’s Autobiography of Howard Hughes?

    I understand that the original bogus “autobiography” has been recently reissued as a novel, which may get to the heart of the matter as well as anything else that’s been mentioned.

  • kishnevi

    Stray ideas:
    Testimony, by a man named Volkhov, which may or may not be the oral autobiography of Shostakovich (and will provide an side entry into how the Soviets rewrote history at their whim)
    Anything in the Holy Grail Holy Blood line of thought, or the Templars were really Masons kind of books. For the latter, I suggest a fantasy novel by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris called the The Temple and the Stone (and a sequel called the Temple and the Crown)–which center on William Wallace and Robert Bruce, and unlike most books of the genre include a short afterword and a bibliography that addressed exactly the point you are interested in.
    Almost anything by Tim Powers–my favorite is The Stress of Her Regard, which involves the English Romantic poets, vampires and Hapsburgs; or else the Anubis Gates, which is about time travel and Egyptian magic. His later books are just as good, but more contemporary in their settings, and also much darker and edgier, and they form a series which ideally requires you to read them all to get the full impact.
    Any of those mystery series which feature Jane Austen or another historical personage as the detective.
    Something dealing with the JFK conspiracy syndrome, or the 9/11 Truthers.
    All the theories that X discovered America before Columbus–and you can include the contrast with the Vikings who really did find “Vinland” with the earlier claims like the Kensington Rune Stone.

  • Jane

    How about the Protocols of Zion, sadly easily available on the web as a ‘true’ historical document?

  • Rachel

    You could do a bit on changing images of Charlemagne, including Notker the Stammerer and how Roncesvaux mutated from Basque treason to proto-Crusade. There are also some suitably daft nineteenth century statues of him and now an EU prize in his honour.

  • PB

    You may not be interested in looking this far back, but there’s all sorts of stuff you could potentially do with the classical historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch. Throughout all of them (though to varying degrees), there is a strong tendency to value a good/exciting/readable story above an accurate one (and in the case of some, particularly Plutarch, morality is also a determining factor). The most obvious aspect of this are in the speeches that pepper these historians’ accounts, which in most cases are fabricated, but there’s certainly plenty more to be found.. T.P. Wiseman takes the argument even further in his book Clio’s Cosmetics, though his arguments are certainly debatable.

  • Pilgrim/Heretic

    What, no one’s mentioned the Da Vinci Code?! 🙂 There’s also Marco Polo, and Rigoberta Menchu was a great suggestion.

    This is a great idea – I look forward to hearing about the course!

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