Jenny Benham: historical fiction opinion piece


Like so many historians I find it difficult to read historical fiction. Not only because I can find myself dissecting the story as if dealing with a gobbet but primarily because I’ve got to that stage in my life when reading a book for pleasure usually means picking up Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Caesar’s Gallic Wars just to see if I missed something for my research the first few times I read them. To remedy this sad state of affairs, my sisters bought me a book back in 2002 called Arvet efter Arn (The Heritage of Arn) – a follow-up to the Crusades trilogy by the well-known Swedish author, journalist and political commentator Jan Guillou. The book follows the life of Birger jarl, famously known as the founder of Stockholm, and his vision in forging the Swedish kingdom in the thirteenth century. It wasn’t the historical accuracy that kept me engrossed in this book – this is a period of Swedish history with few contemporary sources and lots of legends – but the portrayal of Birger jarl as an unpleasant, disliked, ruthless leader who intriguingly never assumed the throne for himself. Out of pure curiosity, I decided to go and look for some of the evidence myself and found that Birger jarl had been trying to negotiate a treaty with King Henry III of England. As a historian of treaties and international relations, I simply could not let this one lie and have just put the finishing touches to an article on the subject which I’m hoping to publish in the near future. Not sure that this was quite what my sisters intended when they bought the book but it has certainly encouraged me to read more historical fiction.

Dr Jenny Benham is the Project Officer for the Early English Laws Project at the IHR. Her research interests include international relations and diplomacy in the high middle ages, and the comparative legal history of England and Scandinavia with a focus on peace and dispute resolution in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.


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