On History And Fiction

On History And Fiction
Stephanie Böcker



Imagine a city, wealthy through trade and craft; important politically, religiously, and culturally far beyond its borders. The city itself is ruled by a council of noblemen, who are unwilling to share their power with the numerous guilds of craftsmen or with the priests who rule the surrounding lands and have their seat at the very heart of this city.

A little more than a decade ago, a new faith appeared in the world. It offers freedom, equality and salvation in a time that is dominated by strict social conventions and general apocalyptic fear. It spreads like a wildfire. More and more people join this faith, and as they do this new faith falls apart into groups and fanatic sects.

This faith reaches our wealthy city, too. The craftsmen join it hoping for more political power and equality. The priests, whose power is tied to the old faith, reject it. The noblemen are undecided, their rule divided. The new faith is embraced and rejected, forbidden and allowed again. The craftsmen rise against their rulers, the division inside the ruling class become more apparent as some of the noblemen of the old faith give up on their seat inside the council.

Radicals appear inside the city and start preaching their new ideas. In times of turmoil their words fall onto fertile ground. The people of this city join their charismatic leader.

In the meantime, the priests leave to form alliances. And they do. The emperor is on their side as they demand the extradition of the radicals. The council, barely clinging to their power refuse – just as they refuse to support the radicals, either. Thus, they lose both: the support of the emperor and the priests as well as the support of the city’s people.

The radicals of the new faith seize the opportunity. The council is disempowered, the radicals completely restructure the city and its society by force. A kingdom of the new faith is proclaimed, all traces of the old faith are erased and burnt; churches, statues, books and archives fall to the flames. The craftsmen, many of whom had supported the new ideas up to now, lose all their possession, as the radicals confiscate everything for the greater good – keeping most of it for themselves. Conflicts erupts again and again.

Outside, the priests gather an army of soldiers and mercenaries and with the blessings of the emperor, they lay siege to the city. On the inside, the uprisings of the craftsmen and citizens are violently silenced, many are executed. Brutality increases as the radicals, most of all their so-called king himself, do not accept opposition.

War is afoot. The priests and their army start an attack but are thrown back by the city’s fanatic defenders. They see that by force only, they will not see a quick victory and resume their siege. All ways into the city are cut. No provisions reach the citizens. Famines rage. The hunger is so strong that people start scraping lime off the walls, dissolve and drink it. Many die, but the radical king and his court do not surrender. The gates stay shut, the suffering goes on.

Until one night, two desperate defectors lead the priests’ army through one of the gates. After a year of siege, the city has fallen.

The radicals are killed, no matter whether they were men or women. Only the three leaders, the King and his most trusted servants are captured, tried, and the publicly tortured to death. Their bodies are put into iron cages and hung to the highest tower of the city for all to see. Revenge and warning put a final end to the brutal radical rule of this city…


Sounds like a great story, doesn’t it? It has everything: Twists, turns, a pool of interesting characters, epic fights and shady intrigues. If only this were one of my ideas. But this is not a fantasy novel for me to write. This is historian’s work. You read right. This isn’t fiction at all. It happened. Right here, where I am sitting to write these lines. In 1534/1535 my hometown of Münster was turned into the so-called Anabaptist Dominion of Münster. All the above is true. You can check if you like (the corresponding Wikipedia article is titled “Münster rebellion”).

This is one of the countless wonderful examples of how history can provide us writers with stories and inspiration. It is full of it. Thousands and thousands of years, places, cultures, and millions of people, each with their own ideas, wishes and characters.

Of course, I am biased. I love history, always have. So much in fact, that I spent years at university studying its various shapes and today work at a museum built on a historic battlefield. For me, history has nothing to do with boring lessons in school, when the most interesting thing is your neighbour’s snoring. It explains a lot: About the way our world is shaped today and about human beings too. We find reoccurring patterns throughout the centuries like reasons and legitimation for violence and oppression, which very often seem disturbingly familiar. People often made their decisions for something they considered to be the Greater Good and which took countless shapes during the millennia. The French Revolution started as something…, well, revolutionary. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! All people are equal, there is no God-given rule, only the will of the people. What a wonderful idea, which surely all of us support. And yet, despite all idealism, the Revolution leads to the Reign of Terror in 1793. Why? The Revolution must be protected at all costs. Traitors must be executed. The end justifies the means.

There are many questions for historians to look at. This is where history may not deliver unambiguous answers (something like “if the circumstance is A, then reaction B must follow” doesn’t work in history, we’re talking about humans, not chemistry), but it shows examples and patterns. Writers can follow these. We strive for authentic characters, who make – possibly wrong, but at least believable choices. Looking at the past, we find that these or similar choices have already been made, each for good reasons. The religious radicals in Münster originally wanted to make a better world where people were equal in the face of God and each other and to be true to the bible.  The craftsmen hoped for more political power, the noblemen and the priests on the other hand, feared a loss of their own. The German Emperor’s power was directly tied to Catholicism. Despite all the nice and peaceful ideas, at some point, something went terribly wrong, but the details would take up too much space for a blog like this. Historians have discussed this at length.

Apart from the human element, history provides not only stories but also details. Like the way Münster was governed in the 16th century. Why not reuse this in your own world? Why not have a look at the structure of an army at any given time? Or tiny details like the everyday food of a Roman legionary?

But it is these details, as interesting as they may be, that keep me from writing historic fiction. I fear the historic accuracy. I, as a historian, would want to be perfectly correct in every aspect, from the way to lace your boots down to the taste of toilet paper. Yes, I am exaggerating a little. And yet I’d be “more papal than the pope” as we say in Germany. There is of course a certain amount of freedom in your writing, I don’t mind a little bending of facts if it suits the story. But I’m talking about minor details.

In movies and historic fiction novels I frequently see either bad research or – for me even worse – deliberate changes. Take the TV series Vikings. The Vikings didn’t look like this at all. Archaeologic finds show something entirely different, but no less cool to look at. It is often done to satisfy the potential expectations of viewers (or readers). As much as I understand the need for making money, my inner historian is hurt. I can only beg you all, beseech you: If you decide to do historic fiction, please do your research and stick to the facts. I know how much work this is, and I have huge respect for everyone who wants to undertake this journey – I know I wouldn’t make it. I’d get lost in the archives and in the details.

This is why I decided to do fantasy. Here I can use what historic aspects I like, and combine them in any way I see reasonable for my story. And I can even add dragons and wizards. How cool is that? From the motives of the evil guy down to the food my dwarves prefer, I can help myself to details from history and rearrange them as I see fit to make a compelling story. I can only advertise. History is a treasure chest and by no means boring. There’s something in it for everyone. Feel free to give it a good rummage and use whatever you want. It would be too sad to let this great source go to waste and let it collect dust on some unused shelves in the darkest corner of the library.

History lives outside the cover of books, too. In my hometown, the cages in which the leaders of the Anabaptist Dominion were exhibited still hang on the side of the church tower. For almost exactly 500 years! The original tower is long gone, a new one was built, and the cages were put up again. During the war, when more than 90% were destroyed, the church tower was hit, too. Somehow the cages survived. Now that I come to think of it, this alone would make a good story hook for some creepy horror story. Looks like it is time to get my comfy writing trousers, a cup of tea and start scribbling…

About Stephanie Böcker

I’m 32 and I live in Münster (northwest Germany) with my husband and a dog. A couple of years ago I got a Master’s degree in History and English, then worked as a teacher for a while. But I had to admit that without history I am unhappy and so I quit and started working at a Museum. I have always written stories, as soon as I could write, but my texts are yet unpublished. My love for the fantasy genre was ignited when my dad took me to the cinema to see “The Lord of the Rings” (Pt. 1) when I was 11. I wanted to know how the story goes on – and read the whole thing in no time. Now, I do my best to write fantasy of my own.


1 thought on “On History And Fiction”

  1. isaottoniwrites

    What an amazing article! I´m googling the cages now and trying to discover what Vikings really looked like!

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