The origin of fiction

September 12, 2012 - 06:05

Films, computer games and novels have only come into existence thanks to medieval writers who used their imagination to create novels. New research reveals the surprising historical process behind fiction.

In the old days, it was unimaginable that authors should write imaginative stories like Harry Potter. That all changed when medieval monks let their imagination run wild. (Photo: Colourbox)

Today we are perfectly aware that crime fiction and other novels are based purely on imagination. We know full well that characters like Harry Potter aren’t real and that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson never actually walked the streets of London.

However, had these books been published in the Middle Ages, their readers would have thought that the stories about Harry, Holmes and Watson were real – simply because there were books about them.

New research reveals how our ancestors came up with the idea to tell tall tales in books.

“In the Middle Ages, books were perceived as exclusive and authoritative. People automatically assumed that whatever was written in a book had to be true,” says Professor Lars Boje Mortensen of the Institute of History and Civilization at the University of Southern Denmark.

“Most people only knew the Bible, which was believed to tell the truth about the world. Because of this, it came as a big surprise when books full of fabrications first started to appear in the 12th century.”

The preliminary research that Mortensen and his colleagues have carried out has been published in the book Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction.

Monks regarded words of books as old truths
Historians and anthropologists assume that people have always told each other stories – including those that their listeners knew were pure fiction. But it was actually not until the High Middle Ages that writing fiction became common practice. (Photo: Colourbox)

Up until the High Middle Ages in the 12th century, books were surrounded by grave seriousness.

The average person only ever saw books in church, where the priest read from the Bible. Because of this, the written word was generally associated with truth.

The perception of books was no different among learned monks, who studied books about science and philosophy in the large monasteries of the Middle Ages.

The monks presumed that the descriptions of the paths of the planets and the human soul were ancient truths. Truths like the words of the Bible. The books read by the religious men had been passed on from generation to generation for centuries, and this meant that they acquired a special authority.

We have a tacit agreement with the writers

The practically religious relationship with books started to change gradually at the end of the 12th century – and has continued to change ever since.

In the library, fiction is kept separate from non-fiction. We generally expect a work of non-fiction about dwarves to tell us some facts about why some people are born smaller than others.

In the Middle Ages, books were perceived as exclusive and authoritative. People automatically assumed that whatever was written in a book had to be true.
Lars Boje Mortensen

If, on the other hand, we go to the fiction section and pick up a volume of the Lord of the Rings series, we’d get an entirely different take on the topic.

In Tolkien’s imaginary world, dwarves are a separate race. But we don’t mind. When we read fiction, we expect to be entertained by a good story, and because of that we accept that the novel we are reading deviates from accepted fact. This is due to a tacit agreement between the author and the reader – an invisible contract of sorts.

“We can only understand something as fiction if an ‘invisible contract’ has been formed between author and reader beforehand. A contract that says: ‘this is only make-believe’,” says Mortensen.

“The same rule applies when we go to the cinema to see a movie like Batman. There we as the audience have a ‘contract’ with the director stating that the superhero doesn’t exist in reality, but that we will pretend that he does during the movie.”

Hell was invented by curious men

The ‘invisible contract’ between writers of fiction and their readers first appeared in the Middle Ages. The new study shows that the contract materialised over the course of several centuries. It all started a few hundred years after the death of Jesus, when it became common practice to think up continuations to the events in the Bible and write them down as truth.

Christians in the Middle Ages and antiquity didn’t feel that the Bible provided them with all the answers they were looking for. The great book offers a lot of information about the life of Jesus, but there are also gaps in the descriptions, such as when the Son of God returns to Earth after his death and stays there for almost 40 days.

We can only understand something as fiction if an ‘invisible contract’ has been formed between author and reader beforehand. A contract that says: ‘this is only make-believe’.
Lars Boje Mortensen

“Some started to wonder: why doesn’t it say anything much about what Jesus actually said, when he returned to Earth? People started to think up answers to that. They filled in the gaps in the Bible by writing so-called apocryphal gospels as a supplement. In other words, they used their imagination to fill in the gaps,” says the researcher.

Our idea of hell is one of the concepts to have been introduced in that way. In the Bible it only says that the apostle Paul converted to Christianity after visiting a mysterious place. The place convinced him that Christianity was good.

“He had a vision in which he was removed from Earth, only later to return. But how did the other world look? That ‘gap’ in the Bible was filled with a description of ‘Hell’ – the place people imagined Paul had been to,” he says.

“Thus began the descriptions of Hell that we know today.”

Historians made up things too

The Bible wasn’t the only book to receive imaginative makeovers and extensions. In the centuries that followed, historical accounts were supplemented with a little imagination. 

One such example is the medieval history of Denmark, Saxo Grammaticus, from around 1200. Saxo’s book was riddled with fictional tales, designed to create coherence between a number of legends that had been passed down through history.

Facts

Mortensen and his colleagues have reached their findings by reading religious, philosophical, scientific and historic books from antiquity and the Middle Ages.

While reading, they estimated whether the books established a fiction contract with their readers: did the book suggest a tacit agreement that it was all make-believe, or was the reader supposed to believe every single word?

This enabled the researchers to piece together when signs of a tacit agreement or ‘fiction contract’ first started to appear in Europe.

However, as the ‘fiction contract’ between readers and writers had not yet been established, people readily assumed that the descriptions they found in the books were true.

“It’s our impression that it was actually perceived as historical fact, because there was no clear-cut line between fiction and non-fiction at the time,” says Mortensen.

Alexander the Great in a submarine

As time passed, the number of supplementary stories increased. And they grew better and wilder – as so often happens with good stories.

“During the course of the Middle Ages, the supplementary stories were rewritten so many times that people eventually figured out that they were just tall tales and pretence. The most extreme examples are the historic accounts of the life of Alexander the Great,” he explains.

“Those books contain elements where Alexander the Great is flying in a kind of airplane. He sails in a submarine of sorts, and he meets a variety of mysterious beings. Those were popular books in the Middle Ages.”

In that way, people gradually got used to the fact that books could also be a form of entertainment – and that they were not necessarily telling the truth from cover to cover. Thus, the road was paved for the novels we know today.

King Arthur stories were the first novels

Facts

There are several examples of books from the Middle Ages and antiquity being partly or entirely fictional. Most of these were history books with fictional elements.

That is one of the most important findings published in the new book Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction. The first signs of the beginning of fiction already materialised during antiquity, but at the time no-one realised, as the ‘fiction contract’ had yet to be invented.

The first straightforward work of fiction was written in the 1170s by the Frenchman Chrétien de Troyes. The book, a story about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, became immensely popular.

Especially the genteel French aristocracy loved the imaginative tales, which were written in French. Readers were unaccustomed to this, as books were previously written either in Old Greek or Latin, which only clergymen were able to read.

However, several hundred years passed before the ‘fiction contract’ became a wholly integrated part of book culture in European countries. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it become common practice to divide literature into fiction and non-fiction.

And perhaps some of the medieval blind faith in the credibility of the book still lingers today.

Isn’t it often the case that a piece of information gains more authority if it’s written in a book than if it’s passed on by a friend?

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Iben Gøtzsche Thiele

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