Like, people in history that have a terrible reputation. The kind of person your history books don’t have a good word to say about. Even the kids history books from the 50s who want to believe that everyone’s quite nice and de-emphasize the blood and guts struggle to say anything nice about.
But as anyone who’s ever read a few history books knows, perceptions of actions change over time, depend on the mood – remember the absolute fear of communism in mid-20th century America – depend on the politics, depend on the writer, depend on the editor. There’s a reason revisionist history exists as a genre and study piece.
So after gaining a bit more knowledge than was in that first book you read that painted someone as a hook-nosed villain, you might hear the revisionist histories. You might study the period a bit. Figure out political motivations. See who wrote those tales and histories to see why they mgiht benefit from painting their predecessors as black hearted murdering villains.
Case in point : Richard III, onetime Duke of Gloucester.
murderer of the Princes in the Tower
One of Shakespeare’s creepiest villains.
crook-back and hook nosed and lank haired and old and creepy and…
And then you read facts. Bare bones history. Look at all the other players. Look at the actual reign. See that Shakespeare was writing to please the Tudors, who… oh hang on a minute, wasn’t granddad Henry VI? Henry Tudor? Who was well known to have one of the weakest blood claims of the Lancastrians to the throne and married the prince’s sister so might have, oh, some reasons for getting rid of the princes himself? For a long time it was reckoned that the smear campaign was so bad that the crook back thing wasn’t true. A little physical deformity, maybe a bit of a limp. Then we discovered the skeleton in a car park that had a really bad case of scoliosis. Right age (early 30s). Right historical dating. Horrible wounds from a battle that had clearly killed them. Really rich diet. Like, completely over indulgent, used to the absolute best of everything at all times. So. Er. Yes. Looked like the physical description was correct. But still, plenty of the other legends didn’t add up. Not all bad, not all good.
So with this in mind, you look at other villains of history. the ones that feature in your nation’s history. You look at other heroes. You learn the shades of grey. You learn that some ‘great men’ were monsters. (William the Conqueror) You learn that the so called teaching legend that makes them look a fool was actually a teaching legend about the man calling his advisors overweening idiots. (Canute)
So double back. look at the villains from your childhood history books. Think that they can’t be all that bad, there’s got to be some redeeming qualities. The bad rep is just the Hollywood legend, reinforced by said king/noble being a figure in a particular legend.
Case in point : King John.
everyone’s favourite overweening weak, cruel monarch from the Robin Hood legend, where his brother King Richard who’s portrayed as the great hope of England and the peasantry. (you soon learn Richard bled the country dry for his Crusades)
So if Richard was a gloryhound who taxed the country to the hilt and beyond, surely John didn’t deserve his rep, right?
Well, he – and – oh good lord, really? Ew. Wow, that many nobles’ wives and daughters? …Oh, that’s some shit deals. How did you rule that badly and not get kicked off the throne? Oh. yeah, that nearly happened except for bad timing… Serously, how did you manage to double cross that many – the starving people to death in prison thing. Um. Surely there’s someone that actually had a good word to say about him except dad and mum, both of whom he turned against when he had the chance? Looking for a good word, looking for an alternate view… Oh, there’s a monk who insisted he’d been poisoned, he didn’t die of a gut problem – oh. No-one gave enough of a shit that they went looking for reprisals. ….this is going to be William Rufus’ ‘hunting accident’ all over again. Someone so deeply unpleasant that no-one in the land is going to do more than shrug a bit at the news of their death. Impressively, this is a king with a reputation so bad that no monarch since has taken the name. The name that’s the most common in the country.
So name me some absolute historical shits. Go on.