Is there a Golden Rule of historical authenticity in filmmaking? Well, this is mine.
I recently received perhaps the greatest text message of my life. It was from a client producer on an active production, and it read:
“Need you on 11 May on location if avail to advise on how heretics might have been tied to the stake. Let me know…”
If an expert is somebody in the top 0.01% of the population in their field, then I like to think I’m an expert at what I do, but I had no earthly idea how heretics were tied to stakes in the sixteenth century. I was also extremely sceptical that I would find any detailed source material that would explain to me how to tie a heretic to the stake in an ‘authentic’ manner. But I’d been asked for help, and it’s my job to advise.
So what did I do? What I always do in these situations. I used a combination of common sense, and my favourite Golden Rule of historical filmmaking: what’s easiest for you was probably easiest for them.
Common sense prevails
First is the common sense. The most important application of common sense in this instance was to avoid the frequent and bizarre error of tying the victim to the stake with rope, which would presumably burn through before the victim does, perhaps allowing for a hasty getaway. (As an aside, this ‘advice’ – such as it was – came moments too late for the props buyer, who had just placed an order for a length of rope. Palm-to-forehead moment on her part.) They needed chain.
“What sort of chain?” Again, there is a degree of common sense to be applied here. I didn’t expect to find any written records about the sort of chain used to burn heretics – after all (all you blacksmiths reading, avert your eyes) how many types of chain really are there? Nonetheless, I applied common sense and sought out contemporary depictions (most likely etchings) of burnings, and sent these pictures (all of which showed people tied with chain, not rope) to the props dept.
Next came the big question: How would it have been done?
The Golden Rule
And here’s where the Golden Rule comes in: What’s easiest for you was probably easiest for them.
How do we erect the scaffold? And how do we affix the stake? – whatever is easiest for your carpenters would have been easiest for theirs.
How do we pile the wood on? How do we light the pyre? – fire hasn’t changed much in 500 years.
How do we tie the victim to the stake? – in such a way that he can’t escape.
The concern of modern filmmakers (at least the ones I work with) for historical authenticity is laudable. But whether you hire SceneSpan or not, all would benefit from remembering that common sense hasn’t changed much throughout history. You should simply use yours, because they were simply using theirs.
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