Sunday, April 22, 2007

Where does history end and legend begin?

At what point does history end and legend begin? That's a question that I've been asking myself a lot this last month as my novel has the convergence of legends and an historical figure. I recently read the novel Labyrinth by Kate Mosse which dealt with the persecution of the Cathars in 13th century France. After finishing the book, I went to the author's website and found her repeating a story that I had previously heard from Rick Steves, the travel writer, about Carcassonne.

The tale was of a lengthy siege (some versions suggesting it lasted upwards of five years) that was ended when the widow of the city's leader, a Saracen woman by the name Dame Carcas, used psychological warfare against their enemies. They supposedly fed grain to their last remaining pig, until it appeared nourished. Then they threw the fattened pig over the wall at the foot of the besieging army, hoping they would think that the people of Carcassonne must have a lot of food remaining inside and would not be surrendering anytime soon. Charlemagne reportedly ended the siege shortly thereafter.

Since starting this project, I have been researching the life of Charlemagne as well as the history and culture of Medieval Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries. I found nothing in the biographies of Charlemagne to suggest that he spent any time near Carcassonne, let alone a lengthy and unsuccessful siege of that fortified city.

I sent an email to Kate Mosse asking her if she could verify the story by citing a source. I told her that I thought it more likely that if there had been a siege of this nature, that King Charles the Great was not the leader of the army outside their gates. Rather that somewhere down the line, that the story was embellished by changing the identity of their enemy to someone of greater stature. There could be no worthier opponent than "The Father of Europe" who was crowned as Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. To have withstood an attack by Charlemagne would serve as a mark of distinction.

I was pleased when she wrote back quickly and confirmed my assumption that it was legend and not history. I don't know if the tale has any kernel of truth or not, I simply know that if those events happened – it wasn't Charlemagne at their gates.
That is the genesis of my discomfort with including such legends without disclaimers. If I didn't have a background knowledge in the history of Charlemagne, I might have thought that this story was factual rather than folklore.

People are more likely to absorb and believe information they read in historical novels as being factual than they are from reading history books, because readers are able to vicariously experience what life was like in the past in a manner you cannot when reading a scholarly historical monograph. People also tend to unquestioningly trust those who they believe to be a credible source of information. Mosse's historical novel boasted a review from Philippa Gregory saying it was "(d)eeply researched." I believe those things put together would tend to make the readers of her blog more likely than not to simply accept the story of Charlemagne's besieging Carcassonne as fact without question. They might then tend to repeat this story as interesting "trivia" to others, when instead it should be categorized alongside the anecdote of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.

That is where I feel that writers need to show more care and responsibility to their readers. We not only should be careful of how we tell our story, our skillful use of language, syntax, punctuation, and sentence structure, but we should also be forthright about using items we know as having only tenuous connections with the truth.

I know I've fallen for Urban Legends in the past, and I appreciate those who run the website for helping me to quickly verify whether stories that sound "too good to be true" are real. I don't want someone to emphatically insist something as fact based on my writing, when it isn't, and for me to be the cause of their public humiliation when someone else proves them wrong.

I feel that part of my responsibility as a writer is to educate myself on any subject I write on and continually question my assumptions. Sometimes, due to plot necessity, I may have to use something that isn't historically accurate, but I plan on giving disclaimers to explain what the truth as I can discern it was and why I chose to include something that deviated from history.

In so doing, I will at least have made a good faith effort with my readers to allow them to discern between what is history and what is legend.


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