The saying, “History is written by the winners.” is intended to point up the fact that there is some kind of bias and/or some form of agenda in every historical record. Details are edited out, misrepresented or just plain usurped based on their relevance and/or importance to whatever the agenda happens to be.
Film and television have their own unique agenda and “historical” dramas can be biased in any of a number of ways by any combination of the writers, the actors, or the “funding body” — the network, studio, or sponsors who put up the money for the production. These dramas are well known for playing fast and loose with historical fact and period costume. It is ridiculous to expect any but a perfunctory nod to historical accuracy from any historical movie in general, especially those set in the Medieval period.
I mention this because Wednesday, I watched the first season of the TV series “Reign” purportedly based on the life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland,” which is, as you might suspect, wildly historically inaccurate — as a case in point, it postulates a bastard son of Henri II and a young, sexy Diane de Poitiers (who in reality was 20 years older than Henri), who is called “Bash” — short for Sebastian — upon whom his father dotes at the expense of his legitimate sons by Catherine de’ Medici. Francis II is portrayed as blond and soldierly. He was, in reality, frail, a stutterer, and abnormally short — much shorter than his 5’11” bride — who was two years older than he was. Mary’s four ladies in waiting are called “Greer,” “Kenna,” “Aylee,” and “Lola.” (They were, in fact, all named “Mary” — Beaton, Seton, Fleming, and Livingston — which, I’ll grant you, would have been confusing.) The costumes are as, if not more, laughable than the historical accuracy. You could call it historical soap opera, but I call it “hysterical fiction.”
This historical revision for the purpose of entertainment is nothing new. Shakespeare is more than a little guilty of it. Of course, Shakespeare’s sources of information on the later Plantagenet kings (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III) and, in particular, Richard III, have a significant Tudor bias to begin with, but Shakespeare’s Richard III with his withered arm and hunched back has since turned out to be as much theatrical scenery chewing as Tudor propaganda. When the grave and the remains of Richard III were found, he did indeed have a crooked back — he suffered from scoliosis — but he did not have a withered arm or a “humped” back, and had no anatomical evidence of a limp, which brings up another point: History is not only written by the winners, but for the winners.
In the course of making it fit the winning agenda, history can be edited — conveniently leaving out inconvenient details, emphasis can be shifted — what we call “spin doctoring,” contributions by the less powerful group can be “hijacked” by the more powerful group who then take credit for them, outright lies can be promoted as historical fact — we can see this most clearly in the revisionist history of dictators and totalitarian regimes, or the talents and abilities of one group can be systematically minimized, subverted, ignored and glossed over in order to aggrandize the “winners.” I am thinking here of one group of people, women, whose contributions have been so consistently overlooked, marginalized, subverted and underrepresented for so long — millennia — that we are not even aware of the amount of bias that is built into the world we know. As a way of emphasizing how pervasive this bias is, works that set the record straight have come to be referred to as “herstory.”
I make this point because December 10th was the 199th birthday of mathematician Ada Byron King. Her daddy is world famous, but I’ll bet you’ve never heard of her. And December 11th was the 151st birthday of astrophysicist Annie Jump Cannon. You’ve probably never heard of her either. I wonder why that is?