The imaginary antiquarian monk, Richard of Cirencester, in the company of authentic medieval historians, Gildas and Nennius,
from Charles Bertram, Britannicarum gentium historiae antiquae scriptores tres (1757).
One in this gathering of three medieval historians is an imposter. Who could it be? As one gazes back from our present moment into the sometimes murky medieval and Renaissance past, it can be difficult, indeed at times impossible, to tell fact from fiction. Between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment much historical writing retained certain creative and inventive characteristics typical of a premodern reality quite different from our own. Those qualities led many historians to adapt almost constantly to the emergence of new evidence, new arguments, and the needs and desires of ever-expanding audiences to fill in conspicuous gaps left in the historical record by past generations.
Eager for a keener sense of connection with an august cadre of “ancient” ancestors whose importance was truly epic, even biblical, many historians were happy to oblige to the point not only of revising, but even of reimagining history altogether. Whether on the printed page or the theatrical stage, historians of the British Isles struggled with one another, and just as often with the “truth” itself, forging narratives of past events that would be variously upheld, adapted, or undone by the generations that followed.