“Historical accuracy” is often used by all Fantasy writers to excuse a lack of racial diversity, the subjugation of female characters, ableism, and other forms of diversity.
First of all, it is a Fantasy world. It is what the author has made it. Secondly, history was not written strictly by Anglo-Saxon, able-bodied males.
There have been and I know many remarkable Anglo-Saxon, able-bodied males. Several of them I consider some of the most wonderful people in the world.
As much as I adore these gentlemen, they are not and have never been the only people in the world.
There are four particular types of diversity that Fantasy authors often exclude and history is no excuse for any of them.
“God is on our side” has been overused in the past, but even when it’s true, there are still standards.
If a writer wants to villainize a certain group, they’re going to need a better excuse than historical accuracy. The crusades are a perfect example—rife with war crimes of both Europeans and Middle Easterners.
In war, is unheard of for any one side to have the moral high ground all the time.
In the American Civil War, Union and Confederate forces alike raped, robbed, and butchered civilians (i.e. Sherman’s March). In the Tudor period Wars of Religion, Catholics and Protestants made martyrs of one another left and right.
Conflict brings out the worst in us all. Violent conflict is no exception.
Lack of Racial Diversity
God is pretty excited about diversity and we should be, too. Most Fantasy novels take place in an England-based paradigm. “Historical accuracy” might seem like a good defense for homogeneity at first, but far from it.
Blacks have been in Britain since the Roman Occupation—and most of them were not slaves.
Though certainly not a large population and though they definitely faced discrimination, persons of color have lived, worked, and intermarried in Britain for millennia.
Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was certainly not as diverse as it is today. However, it was much more diverse than popular perception would lead us to believe.
Women have been historically oppressed and I believe it’s because Satan has had a special hatred for women since the Fall. Not only that, but a woman gave birth to the Savior and the devil is salty about it.
But even in the most misogynistic and chauvinistic cultures, women have wielded power.
In societies with strong stratification between social classes, gender was/is less important than class. But even women born paupers, such as Empress Theodora and Sultana Roxelana, have risen to preeminence.
Through history, minor Hittite wives, Han Chinese concubines, Ottoman slaves, Byzantine prostitutes, French farm girls, and Persian widows have emerged as great leaders and warrior queens.
Too much time has been devoted to keeping women down through social standards, glass ceilings, and warped religious interpretation. No one spends that much time controlling something unless there is something to control.
Women have long been known to wield great power, hence the need to oppress and indoctrinate them against their own capacities.
Mephibosheth was crippled, Moses had a speech impediment, Elijah suffered depression, Paul had a a chronic eye infection…I could go on. God is clearly not bothered by disability, but we are.
In the age of diet pills, plastic surgery, and airbrushing, Western culture has a phobia of physical imperfection. We’ve gotten better—yes, we’ve gotten better. We still have a long, long way to go.
I believe disability is the most underrepresented minority in Fantasy.
Nonetheless, historical accuracy is no excuse for this, either. Recent archaeological evidence suggests Down Syndrome in Europe was not stigmatized as formerly thought. Because of poor medical understanding, broken limbs often required amputation and what we would consider minor injuries and illnesses frequently caused lifelong debilitations.
Disability was a ubiquitous fact of life until very recently.
Genetic diseases are nothing new. Though modern medicine now allows more people with genetic disorders to survive and thrive, diseases of the genes did not suddenly emerge in the 20th century.
Writing disability is the most difficult for me out of all these.
It is difficult to write about warriors and rogues in constant fight scenes and still include disabilities without slapping on magic band-aids. This is a particular weakness of mine and one I’m working to overcome.
Even mental illness is tough for me to write and that I’ve experienced personally. The ableist mindset is hard to buck, I know, but I believe we can!
In summary, those who want to be xenophobic, racist, misogynist, ableist, or any other kind of bigot will be. But they can’t use “historical accuracy” to justify it.
History, even just European history, is rich with a vast swath of dynamic and diverse characters. Fantasy writers, as the historians of their own worlds, should be realistic in portraying variety and diversity.
Historians might not have emphasized or highlighted minorities as much as they should have, but that does not mean they didn’t exist. We are a diverse, varied, and delightfully kaleidoscopic species.