Audience perceptions of historical authenticity in visual media

Beavers, Sian and Warnecke, Sylvia (2021). Audience perceptions of historical authenticity in visual media. In: Alvestad, Karl and Houghton, Robert eds. The Middle Ages in Modern Culture: History and Authenticity in Contemporary Medievalism. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 74–89.



Representations of the past in popular media are often one of the main – and sometimes only – ways that people engage with history. However, the ways in which the audiences and players of these media actually perceive the represented historical content is often theorized but has seldom been empirically studied. This chapter begins to address this imbalance using the findings of a recent survey (n = 621). The chapter outlines audiences’ motivations and engagement with historical film and TV, specifically considering audience perceptions of (in)authenticity. The findings of the survey are described using specific examples of medieval fiction and are grounded within the empirical data collected. The chapter will conclude by outlining how a greater understanding of the popular perceptions of the medieval can help historians to better evaluate the reception of the Middle Ages in the modern world. Historical 74media, in this context the fictive representations of history in television (TV), film and video games, have most commonly been researched in terms of their uses and formal applications in learning contexts such as schools.[1] There is limited empirical research that investigates informal engagements with historical film and television,[2] with the momentous research by Rosenzweig and Thelen carried out in 1995, before the emergence of the widespread use of digital historical games, which were therefore not included in their investigation. Additionally, while their research remains a seminal study for understanding informal historical engagements both with history, and with fictive representations of history, in the twenty-three years since their data was collected, historical media production and consumption practices have changed drastically. Consequently, more up-to-date research is needed to capture these developments. While Rosenzweig and Thelen investigated the perceived trustworthiness or authenticity of historical film and TV, they did so in relation to other historical practices and activities such as visiting heritage sites or talking with family members, with their study participants classifying these different ways of experiencing the past based on perceptions of their trustworthiness. However, this means that the elements specifically within historical media that contributed to their participants’ perceptions of (in)authenticity were not addressed in depth, as their research gave a broad overview of a variety of informal engagements with the past.

The study reported in this chapter aims to address these gaps in the literature by investigating informal engagements with historical media, through comparatively assessing audience and player perceptions of authenticity across three fictive historical media forms (TV, film, games) and also within each media form. The survey was not intended to assess audience perceptions of non-fiction media, such as TV or film documentaries, or those that are purportedly factual like textbooks. By focusing on fictionalized media, this allowed the media forms to be more explicitly comparable given the fictional nature of almost all historical games.

This study investigated a variety of elements of engagement with historical media, such as researching the historical context, discussing it with others in forums or engaging 75in other kinds of online activities in reference to all periods of history. However, due to the focus of this volume, only the elements of the research that relate specifically to perceptions of authenticity of the medieval are provided. Despite the survey being inclusive of all historical periods to which the respondents naturally referred, there were nonetheless common trends – regardless of the historical period discussed – when it comes to engaging with fictionalized histories in these informal ways. These trends are thus exemplified in this chapter with data pertaining to receptions of the medieval in fictional TV series, film and games.

As such, the following analysis will add more depth to previous research carried out on this topic and will enhance our understanding of how audiences perceive authenticity as created within contemporary historical visual culture. This chapter presents the results of the study and suggests several apparent trends relating to audience perceptions of authenticity within media addressing the medieval period. Namely: that representations of the Middle Ages in games are typically seen as less authentic than representations in other media formats; that the perceived veracity of material culture has a substantial impact on the perceived authenticity of a piece of media; that the perceived authenticity of media which adapts written work is based substantially on its adherence to the original text; and that media which emphasizes negative aspects of the Middle Ages are more likely to be viewed as authentic.

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