We might applaud the tall, blond and ruggedly handsome Vikings of pop culture as being historically accurate, but authentic engagement with the past requires more than just convincing hair and make-up, says Oren Falk.

Avid viewers of Vikings, Downton Abbey or the 300 franchise share a recurring concern: the yearning for historical authenticity. It is the first topic any professed historian is asked about at a dinner party, a perennial question for the students who take our courses and a recurring feature in media coverage. Audiences expect to be entertained and titillated, no doubt, but – even when it comes to overtly fictional shows, films, comics and books – they also demand adherence to an exacting standard of period-appropriate realism. 

For historians, it is certainly gratifying, especially in these times of universal disdain for the humanities in general and for our profession in particular, to witness such ardent care for getting things historically right. But just what does ‘getting things right’ mean? Any historical representation is bound to be a mixed bag. Professional historians by and large acknowledge that, as Mark Twain might have said, we can never actually get history exactly right, but we can at least hope, every once in a while, to update our ways of getting it wrong.

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