Questioning Your History Lessons, a guest post by Diana Pinguicha
When we’re in school, we assume everything out teachers say is true. We are, after all, constantly evaluated on the knowledge they impart on us, so it must be right. But we’re never taught to question the narratives we’re presented. We’re never taught to wonder who wrote down the texts we take as fact, or why.
When it came time to write A CURSE OF ROSES, I first thought I wouldn’t need to do a lot of research. After all, I remembered pretty much everything from History classes, and I was setting the book in two places I knew very well. “I’ll just refresh my memory on how people lived and read more about Yzabel and Denis’s reign.” Since I wanted to include Enchanted Mouras, whose legends are spread throughout my home region of Alentejo, I also believed a simple brush up on the Moor Occupation would be all I needed. Just enough to make sure I got names, dates, and places right.
In what I can only describe as a very fortunate coincidence, I came across the work of archeologist Cláudio Torres. During his excavations in Mértola, he found evidence that the Moors weren’t solely Muslim as we’re taught in school. There were also Christian Moors, and Jewish Moors—but because they did not fit the narrative of the flawless Christian Reconquest, started by Dom Afonso Henriques, they were erased from history books.
It’s much easier to digest that your first King, the man who created your country, was taking the land back from the Muslim invaders, rather than facing the fact that when he waged war against the Moors, he waged war against Muslims, Christians, and Jewish people alike.
Likewise, we were never taught that the Islamic Caliphate did not demand conversion, only vassalage. Thus, while many ended up converting to Islam, it wasn’t forced, but of their own volition. And while there were skirmishes between the Christian Kingdoms and the Caliphate, the Moor occupation didn’t necessarily happen by force. It could’ve happened through a change in alliances from the common people, who were not at all that well treated by their Christian overlords.
Archeologist Cláudio Torres also said in one of his interviews that history is written by whoever was in power during that era. And since Kings were the ones paying scribes and monks to write down their deeds, the documents we take as fact come with a high degree of bias. Who wanted to write bad things about the King that paid them? And even when they did, such documents would later be burned so as not to damage the reputation of those who ruled us. Archeology, on the other hand, tells the stories that were never written down.
When you think about that, it makes sense that after the Reconquest, history would be re-written so people who looked at it years later, would see no fault with the Christian Kings, and all the fault with the Moors. The same goes for the cultural diversity of the Caliphate—by casting them all as Islamic, it was easier to other them and see them as an unfaithful enemy that must be defeated.
But historical revisionism isn’t as obvious as with the Discoveries. When Portuguese children are taught about that period, it’s done through these rose-colored glasses about how awesome we were, and what wonderful things we brought to the world when we found the maritime route to India. We talk about slaves, but only in passing, never being truly faced with the atrocities our ancestors committed. Instead, we’re told we were nice colonizers, which is a contradiction as there is no such thing as a nice colonizer. We’re told we brought science and culture to the peoples we enslaved and colonized, and not about all the things we erased off the map and, as a result, off history.
I’ve tried to bring these points up several times, and the answers are always along the lines of, “That was 500 years ago!”
But when it’s to look at the positive sides—how Portugal was rich, and advanced nautical sciences—the answer is, “Only 500 years ago, we ruled the world.”
Both can be true. Both are true. We did do great things for exploration and navigation. We also committed atrocities. These two sides should be taught in equal measure, or even with more importance given to what we destroyed. They are not. Instead, we erect monuments and worship the colonizers, and pay little attention to the rest. Instead, we celebrate figures like Padre António Vieira, for “educating” the Natives in Brazil and saving them from their pagan beliefs by converting them to Christianity, while also treating those who refused to comply in abhorrent ways.
It’s not just terrible acts that have been erased, but also queerness. We’re told all our figures are straight, but just how much of that is also historical revisionism?
Infante Dom Henrique, whose studies and planning in navigation were what made the Portuguese able to sail the maritime route to India, was gay. He reportedly also had young male slaves repeatedly gifted to him—but such a narrative would not go over well in the 15th century, and it still wouldn’t go over well now. Most writings documenting these facts ended up burned to preserve the image of the country.
We also follow this myth with Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, long romanticized in our epic, Camões’s The Lusiads. Dom Pedro is painted as a virile, aggressively straight man in love with his wife’s lady-in-waiting who was so angry when she and their three children were murdered, he ate the hearts of the men who did it. But while Pedro and Inês love each other, there’s documentation that shows him as being bisexual, and also as conducting several affairs with knights and squires.
Dom Sebastião, whose death caused a dynastic crisis due to him dying without heirs, is another one of our kings who was likely queer. He was found naked with male friends after going for frolics in the woods, yet we’re supposed to believe they lost their clothes tussling with a boar.
Dom João IV is another example. In his case, he was known for throwing elaborate parties with sex workers of both genders, yet only fully consummated the physical relations with the men.
And, like them, I’m sure there were more throughout history. There is also a noticeable lack of queer women being portrayed. That, I believe, we can attribute to this almost infantilization of women that persists to this day. The acknowledgement of female sexuality and desire is relatively new, history-wise. Two women being together was often seen as nothing but friendship, because women, unlike men, weren’t seen as beings who could want, and enjoy, sex. And when there was a particularly promiscuous female figure in power, she was often cast as a terrible seductress that needed disposing of. Take Leonor Teles, wife of Fernando I. We know her as an ambitious woman who conspired against the Kingdom, but when we go looking, we discover she was not. When Fernando passed and she acted as regent, the country’s situation improved. But she was still painted as the villain who wanted Portugal to be part of Castela, and in need of being deposed for the good of the country.
Leonor Teles was ambitious, and conniving, and may or may not have slowly poisoned Fernando I. But she never wanted Portugal to be part of Castela, to the point that when the Castellan King betrayed the alliance she and Fernando made with him, she tried to have him killed. More importantly—she might’ve been a good Queen Regent if people had let her.
This isn’t to say everything in recorded history is wrong, and that we shouldn’t believe certain things happened, especially when there’s overwhelming evidence that they did. Rather, this is more to say that we shouldn’t take our history lessons as something that’s set in immovable stone, especially when our lessons go back hundreds and thousands of years.
We should instead take history lessons as a starting point and look for the narratives that should be there and are often missing. Look for the complexities that are uncomfortable to address, for the pain our ancestors tried to erase, for the people they did.
History, as it’s taught now, caters to a very specific gaze: that of the white, straight conqueror. It’s our job to question it, our job to search for the stories of those who couldn’t write their own. The farther back we go, the more likely we are to find distortion of events, or the erasure of people who did not conform to what was palatable at the time.
And when we find those stories, it’s our job to tell them. And if we’re not the right people to tell them, we find the voices who are right for those stories, and we amplify them.
Meet the author
Born and raised in the sunny lands of Portugal, DIANA PINGUICHA is a computer engineer graduate who currently lives in Lisbon. She can usually be found writing, painting, devouring extraordinary quantities of books and video games, or walking around with her bearded dragon, Norbert. She also has two cats, Sushi and Jubas, who would never forgive her if she didn’t mention them. Learn more at pinguicha.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @Pinguicha.
About A Curse of Roses
Based on Portuguese legend, this #OwnVoices historical fantasy is an epic tale of mystery, magic, and making the impossible choice between love and duty…
With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.
There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain for years.
If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers intofood.
Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.
As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?
With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more.
She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.
A Curse of Roses includes themes, imagery, and content that might be triggering for some readers. Discussions of religious-based self harm, religious-based eating disorders, and religious-based internalized homophobia appear throughout the novel.
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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