‘What’s Racist About Telling the Truth?’ — When ‘Historical Accuracy’ is Used to Deny Agency

As a historian, you come to accept that ‘historical accuracy’ is a claim that gets thrown around a lot without much justification. You also learn to accept that pretty much every TV show, movie, and book that hinges on that claim is using a definition of historical accuracy that is unrecognizable to a historian. It can be fun to nitpick, but for sanity’s sake, you learn not to.

Smith. Moses Smith.


On occasion though, I have been known to make exceptions. Recently, my attention was drawn to a minor Twitter slapfight between a social justice blogger and a Czech game developer. Normally I avoid internet drama unless it’s really exciting, but something about this struck a nerve with me.

The blogger raised some questions about the developer’s game — Kingdom Come: Deliverance — which takes place in 15th century Bohemia, that garnered her some negative attention and eventually brought her ideas into direct conflict with Daniel Vavra, the lead game designer, who Tweeted this after a lengthy exchange:

“would you please explain to me whats racist about telling the truth? There were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period.”

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, Bohemia was probably pretty white in the 14th and 15th centuries and MedievalPoC really should pick their battles, but on the other hand…’no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period.’? Nothing gets me more worked up than an absolute historical statement, but more on that later.

Not pictured: actual medieval warfare.

What really got my gears turning though, was the claim that Kingdom Come: Deliverance was a ‘historically accurate game’. I always find such claims to be suspect. Any historically accurate war game that takes place before the middle of the 20th century might as well be called ‘Mud and Lice Simulator 2000!’ or simply ‘Die Badly and Be Forgotten’. So I checked out the website to see what historically accurate means in this context. Here’s what the website says:

Our tale is based on historical events and takes place in 15th century Europe. The year is 1403, and it is most certainly not the best of times. The old king is dead and his heir is weak.

A humble, young blacksmith loses everything to war. As he tries to fulfill the dying wish of his father, Fate drags him into the thick of a conspiracy to save a kidnapped king and stop a bloody conflict. You will wander the world, fighting as a knight, lurking in the shadows as a rogue, or using the bard’s charm to persuade people to your cause.

Now, I feel a little bad tearing into this, not having full access to the game, but the creator does place heavy emphasis on historical accuracy, so let’s dig in.

You will wander the world, fighting as a knight

Right off the bat, this strikes me as problematic. In the Holy Roman Empire — as everywhere in Europe — the conditions for becoming a knight were fairly rigid. Specifically, you had to be a noble (or in rare occasions, just very rich). In Bohemia and the HRE, the only people eligible to be Imperial Knights were the older free nobility (edelfrei or hochfrei) or wealthy members of the unfree ministerialis. That’s not to say that common folk never rose from obscurity to become knights, but such occurrences were vanishingly small by the 15th century, and fall firmly in the realm of historical fiction.

Definitely pretty white though.

If we’re being charitable, ‘knight’ here could just refer to a style of heavily-armored mounted warfare, but that’s just as improbable. Short of looting a fallen noble’s corpse or stumbling upon a hidden treasure trove, a blacksmith’s son could never hope to afford a full suit of armor, much less a horse. Even a quality sword might be difficult to come by. Now, the website makes mention of the Hussite Wars, which were fought largely by the peasantry, but they were armed largely with improvised farming implements and tools — flails, spears, and simple polearms.

lurking in the shadows as a rogue

I don’t really have a problem with this, aside from using a word that wouldn’t be invented for over a century and a half.

or using the bard’s charm to persuade people to your cause

This, on the other hand, I do have to protest. If Vavra’s argument against Moors being in Bohemia is based on the distances involved, what is a bard — a poet performing in the British and Gaelic tradition — doing in Bohemia? No doubt Vavra means something closer to ‘minstrel’, but if we’re being sticklers for historical accuracy, we should be consistent.

Artists rendering of totally accurate historical bard.
Artist’s rendering of totally accurate historical bard.

Of course, that’s not a whole lot to go on, but based on first impressions I’m forced to conclude that the game isn’t as historically accurate as its creator claims. Frankly, any game where orphaned blacksmith’s sons end up anywhere but a shallow grave or maybe a monastery is pushing it, and I can’t see how adding a visiting Moorish noble or Malian mercenary would be inconsistent with the level of accuracy it maintains.

What of that claim though, that there were ‘no black people in medieval Bohemia’? This is, for a lot of reasons, a difficult question to answer, not in the least part because the concept of ‘blackness’ is a relatively modern one. We know that there were many black Moors in Iberia, even after the reconquista, and that there was some contact between African Kingdoms and Europe — in 1306, for example, an Ethiopian delegation arrived in Europe seeking an alliance against the Moslems.

Certainly the people of Central Europe were not entirely strangers to Africans, given that the Cathedral of Magdeburg was dedicated to St. Maurice and images of St. Gregory the Moor appeared in St. Gereon’s Cathedral in Cologne.

Shockingly not white statue. In a European cathedral.

What’s easier to argue against is the idea that Bohemia was exclusively white. The Kingdom of Bohemia lay on several important trade routes and within spitting distance of the Kipchak Khanate, Constantinople, Venice, and the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. While not likely a significant population, Bohemia no doubt saw a fair number of foreign mercenaries of Turkish, Mongol, Cuman, Tatar, or Arab descent, especially during the troublesome 15th century.

Women warriors — even knights — are even easier to argue for, as there is plenty of historical precedent. Again, if we’re letting peasants become knights, then women carrying swords is at least as plausible.

In the end, Vavra’s claims about women and PoC in medieval Bohemia aren’t expressly wrong, they aren’t precisely correct either, and definitely shouldn’t be made with absolute certainty, as he has. Furthermore, his claims about his game being ‘historically accurate’ aren’t borne out by the game itself (or at least, by its promotional materials).

I wanted to use this as an example because it’s in a medium that I happen to be qualified to discuss and because it’s become a distressingly common trend to deny the experiences of [modern] minorities and women in historical media. Racial attitudes based on modern perceptions are often treated as fact, and this reflects neither the reality of European history nor the current state of historical scholarship. The racial categories that we cling so desperately to in the modern day did not exist, and to exclude people of color and women based on poorly researched preconceptions is something that we have to stop doing.

Including minorities and women in historical fiction is not shoehorning, or pandering, any more than the standard male power fantasy is pandering to men. Indeed, it is entirely acceptable and believable fiction, if researched and written correctly. We routinely accept events that are wildly improbable and without historical precedent — like commoners becoming knights — without batting an eyelash, and this reflects, more than anything, the fact that we are still struggling with racial prejudice and that we, as a society, have a pretty poor grasp of history.

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