What If Counterfactual History Had Been Invented in the 1490s?

In 2013, historian Richard J. Evans chose counterfactual history as his subject for the Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures. The results, expanded and edited, appeared as the book Altered Pasts from Brandeis University Press last year.

In general, Evans isn’t convinced that counterfactual discussions add much to the historical discussion, though he spends more time (successfully) trashing some fairly dodgy examples than he does discussing the few serious discussions of how counterfactuals might actually be a useful narrative method for approaching some historical questions.

On the other hand, the lectures are fairly wide-ranging, so alongside Evans’ critique of their usefulness there’s also a brief but informative history of the genre – fictional and analytical narratives, as well as alternate histories. His research puts the origin of the genre (or genres) far earlier than I would have expected, and earlier even than early examples of science fiction – with which alternate and counterfactual histories tend to share a lot of ancestry.

Evans begins with the 1490 Spanish romance Tirant lo Blanc, which imagines a world in which European knights help the Byzantines defeat the Ottoman Turks instead of being conquered in 1453. He mentions the 1733 Adventures of Robert Chevalier, in which Native Americans discover Europe instead of vice versa. Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, written by Louis Geoffroy and published in 1836, presents a history where Napoleon defeats Russia in 1812, conquers the Middle East by 1821, and eventual brings all of Asia, Africa, and America under his sway too. Along the way he destroys the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and outlaws all religions other than Christianity – Geoffroy’s Napoleon is a very Catholic world monarch.

I was interested enough in Tirant lo Blanc to go out and find the English translation by David H. Rosenthal. Having finished the book, I have to say that I think Evans is wrong to include it in his discussion of alternate or counterfactual fiction. It’s true that Tirant to Blanc describes a war between the Byzantines and Turks which concludes in a different fashion from the real course of history, but that seems mostly a consequence of the story’s general disregard for history or geography. Tirant’s conquest and Christianization of all of North Africa (plus Ethiopia) isn’t a counterfactual/alternate narrative, just an imaginary one. So too is the book’s semi-prologue, in which Guy of Warwick defeats a Saracen invasion of England by the king of Canary. The combination of epic fabulism in the flow of major events and plausible realism in the descriptions of jousting and combat is interesting, but it doesn’t really fall into the narrative tradition you’d expect if you said “alternate history.”

Tirant lo Blanc is still interesting as a late medieval novel (though technically, I think I should be calling it a romance) and unintentionally hilarious as an example of the collision of medieval and modern mores in war, sex, and storytelling, something accentuated by Rosenthal’s deadpan translation. There’s also a dragon, though it appears entirely in a single sideplot featuring a character of no real importance. It’s that kind of book.

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One thought on “What If Counterfactual History Had Been Invented in the 1490s?

  1. Pingback: Update: Progress so far on Project Two. | Songs of Distant Stars

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