Fiction as History: The Black Death and Beyond


  • I am extremely grateful to the Humanities Research Center, Stanford University, for awarding me a Visiting Fellowship for the year 2008/9, during which much of this article was prepared. I am also indebted to Mark Bailey for making valuable comments on an early draft.


Storytellers, chroniclers, poets, propagandists, playwrights, novelists and screenwriters have all drawn freely from history's limitless supply of characters, events and context, and in recent years the demand for historical fiction has soared. While historians should welcome the increasing popularity of the past, they are right to be concerned that the public's appetite is being both stimulated and satisfied overwhelmingly by writers whose loyalty is to the medium and the story rather than the truth. However, fiction need not always be seen as antithetical to history and this article explores a number of ways in which the use of style, imagination and straightforward invention of the type employed by the creators of fiction might assist in the writing of history: not merely by making it more attractive and accessible to a wider audience but by advancing knowledge and understanding of the past.