Problems of presentism

In the study of History, presentism is the danger of applying modern attitudes to previous generations and thereby coming to false conclusions about people’s behaviours and actions.  This is not quite such a problem when creating a story set in the past, as the creators have plenty of tools that enable them to give the audience a clear understanding of what is going on and why.  Nonetheless, it does represent a challenge in some respects.  One of the enjoyments of reading an historical novel is that it gives people a perspective on what it was like to live in a particular point in the past.  For many, an accurate sense of the time is important.  However, the story writer knows that things can be too accurate and that no matter how much the reader may theoretically want to be provided with as realistic a portrayal of the past as possible there will be some things which would be an insuperable barrier to the psychology of a modern reader and, therefore, their enjoyment.  Perhaps the most obvious are modern attitudes towards sex and violence.  The age of consent in Europe and America was around 12-years of age well into the nineteenth century (in fact, in Delaware in the US it was 10).  Sexual behaviour which would be regarded as criminal today would have been fairly commonplace. A sense of bodily autonomy, particular amongst younger girls, was far less pronounced than today.  Casanova himself was touched and groped by both men and women of ‘polite’ society in ways that would be unthinkable today.  Likewise violence, especially by superiors to inferiors, was an everyday event.

 

‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is freely available here.

27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.

 

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