When it comes to history, we have to remain skeptical about traditional facts. Now, that doesn’t mean we should accept fake history. It means we shouldn’t take everything history presents to us as acceptable. Historians should go against the flow of contemporary politics, going as far to be at war with the victors in a sense.
Let me get this straight, before the wrong message is sent here: the earth is round, the Holocaust is real, the moon landing happened, global warming and climate change are happening right before our very eyes, Hitler was not a leftist, Jefferson slept with at least one of his slaves, and the political parties of America have switched platforms throughout the centuries.
But…Napoleon wasn’t that short, and King Henry VIII’s wives weren’t all that beautiful.
What I’m talking about in this post is mostly revolving around the primary sources of description, personal portraits, and the overall concept of creating images of significant men and women throughout history. The portraits that we use as photographic evidence to depict the image of historical figures – they can be horribly flawed, in a sense.
Just as in modern times, where a “selfie” can be altered by proper lighting or a good pose or even the use of editing software, the portraits of yesteryear were oftentimes made with the idea of making someone look better than they ever could be in real life. And, just like how we could see some pretty negative descriptions of someone rather positively views buried within the depths of a middle school girl’s diary, we can see how some written records of men and women could be objectively altered by their writers.
I first bring you to Napoleon Bonaparte, someone ridiculed as “short” throughout history after his death. Well, this rumor-gone-fact stems back to right after his death. When the great French Emperor died, he was listed as five feet two inches tall. However, most people don’t understand that he was measured in the era’s French unit. In our modern day interpretation of height, Napoleon was just shy of five feet seven inches. The approximate average for white men tends to be five feet ten inches.
But this rumor has lasted centuries! Despite the historical record being misinterpreted, many men in history continued the propaganda. His historical image went from this mighty emperor to a small, frumpy man. Pop culture had field days with Napoleon Bonaparte – take a look at the 1995 episode of “Pinky and the Brain” titled “Napoleon Brainaparte”, where the French emperor was depicted as just over four inches tall.
Of course, the empires that suffered through the wrath of Napoleon would have loved to chuckle at him after his demise. Calling him “obnoxiously short” was a way to ridicule the man that ridiculed them during his life.
Now, that’s an example of someone getting their historical image ruined (or dampened, in the very least). There are far better cases in terms of how a historical interpretation can leave future generations either uneducated or blatantly confused.
Next up; the wives of King Henry VIII. I’ve recently discussed Henry’s annulment with Catherine and the beginning for Anne Boleyn. Well, long story short – as we should all know – Anne Boleyn’s place in history has been skewered on both sides.
Now, in modern day society we would probably witness these women as “unflattering” or “ugly”, to say the very least. I’ve heard countless men (mostly men, somewhat funny) label King Henry’s wives as such. Well, the problem is the only point of reference that we have is the portraits above. Just as everything else in a society changes, so does the image of “beauty”. And to the people who lived back then? These six portraits were absolutely gorgeous.
There’s no money in painting portraits that don’t make the subjects look good. Would you personally pay for a portrait that makes you look pathetically small, weak, old, or insane?
Would Donald Trump pay for a portrait that makes him look fat, stupid, and portrays him with tiny hands and an even tinier — you get what I’m saying.
The overall concept of using images as a point of reference to showcase just how someone looked like is flawed. But, unfortunately, it’s usually the only point of reference we have in a sense.
Take a look at what happened to Jane Seymour, King Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Henry sent a rather prominent painter to Germany to paint portraits of available maidens and return to England with them. The painter most likely received a sum of cash to make Jane Seymour – a Protestant – look significantly more beautiful in her portrait. King Henry fell in love with Seymour’s portrait, and had her sent to England to be wed. And when she came off the ship? Well, according to some records, Henry sneered in disgust and whispered “annulment” to the man besides him.
According to records, Seymour was “ugly”. She “smelled bad”. She didn’t really connect with King Henry VIII that well. Of course, we have to take these records with a grain of salt as well – as the King’s men wrote these records and, as we know, Henry didn’t quite have a great record when it came to caring for his wives. Of course, the portrait we have of her mattered more – as it perfectly showcases just how important the beautification of portraits mattered.
In sixteenth century Europe, women weren’t beautiful unless they had pale skin, thin eyebrows, a small chin, and a wide forehead. And, as you can see from the portraits of his six wives, they all had those features. Some contemporary writings claim that Anne Boleyn wasn’t as “beautiful” as history may have recorded. Look at how history’s portrait of Anne Boleyn translated into Natalie Dormer on The Tudors television show…
…need I say more?
Although her portrait depicted her as a woman of beauty, and despite Natalie Dormer teaching our modern world that Anne Boleyn was a figure of ravishing beauty, contemporary pieces say otherwise. Anne was actually a dark-haired and olive-skinned in an era that absolutely adored the pale-faced and blue-eyed blonde.
Of course, that’s where we have to stop. Just like with Jane Seymour, it is important that we realize the status that Anne Boleyn had after her annulment with Henry VIII. Many later sources try to completely discredit her through further diminishing her “beautification” than was necessary. We all know of the “six fingers on one hand” and “third nipple” stories that arose long after her death. These were written by loyalist apologists – mostly men who weren’t alive or, in one major case, very young when Anne Boleyn was executed.
It’s important to look for these sorts of stories the next time you’re looking at pop culture or so-called contemporary portraits/descriptions of infamous historical figures. You might not be seeing what the average person saw way back when.