So I gave a talk.

It went well, I thought. It was at Treadwell’s in Covent Garden, and was preceded by dinner with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. It was great to catch up with them after far too long. The bookstore itself was not at all what I was expecting — I must have walked past it a hundred times (well, maybe more like a dozen. I don’t get to go to London as frequently as I’d like), and it’s a fascinating place — this long narrow space with all kinds of books, ranging from the flaky to the very serious (“An Introduction to Classical Tibetan” was my favourite), as well as comfy couches and chairs. The talk was in the basement, a little room they managed to cram about forty people into. The schedule of other subjects looked interesting, too — I must see what’s on for when I’m down in November.

A recording of the talk itself is online here. Listening to it again makes me cringe in places, but you might enjoy it. I’m sorry I sounded flippant about Dark Ages Cthulhu, which everyone assures me is good but which I have never actually read. I promise if I ever get some money I’ll buy it. Thanks to Steve for the recording! Also, James Bridle posted a detailed summary with lots of links to further discussion of the subjects in the talk, which is incredibly useful. He even found a lot of the same photographs I used and sourced some of my offhand quotes. I don’t have any written summary nearly that nice.

Naturally, this would come about a week before I got S.T. Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos for my birthday, but honestly I don’t think it would have made a huge difference. This is mainly just Joshi critiquing post-Lovecraft (and Lovecraft-contemporary) “Mythos” fiction and by extension, the very concept of the Mythos. Which is fair enough …

… but I always feel like I’m looking for some kind of examination of the Cthulhu Mythos as a cultural phenomenon, and it never seems to be forthcoming. Lovecraft in Popular Culture by Don Smith was really no more than an overview. Have I missed some vital work?

Anyway, it was a good talk, and I might get to do another one in a couple of months.

I wonder if they would like my discussion of archaeology and pseudo-archaeology in hip-hop?

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So I gave a talk.

Medieval bishops: not to be messed with.

Ranulf Flambard is my example here, but you could pick a dozen more — starting with Adhemar of Le Puy, for example, the papal legate on the first Crusade. He got shot with an arrow by a Pecheneg horseman while on the way to Constantinople and basically just toughed it out. You brought your A-game on Crusade or you didn’t go home. Some of the time you didn’t go home no matter what. But Flambard, yes.

Flambard’s dad was a priest — they were a little laxer about this stuff in those days — and his mom was, get this, a witch. With one eye. Or at least that’s what contemporary chroniclers, who couldn’t stand the pushy, grasping son of a bitch, wrote. Whoever she was, she raised a young cleric who was resolved not to take any shit. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, Flambard worked his way up through the ranks until he became one of William Rufus’s royal chaplains, in the sense of the hatchet-men assigned to chisel as much money out of the country as possible. I don’t think you can chisel with a hatchet, but whatever. Eventually, he got made Bishop of Durham, which is not like being bishop of just anywhere — the bishop of Durham was one of the most powerful men in the north. He saw as much of the King of Scotland as he did of the King of England, and sometimes the King of Scotland was strapped.

But to summarize, some stuff that Flambard did or allegedly did during his career:

  • got kidnapped by pirates
  • and talked his way out of it.
  • got locked up in the Tower of London (first person to be so imprisoned, actually)
  • and then busted out (another first).
  • ran off to Normandy, hooked up with a rival claimant, and organized an invasion of England
  • but eventually made up with the king and swanned back to Durham smelling like roses.
  • died at home in his old age, surrounded by his relatives, with whom he had packed the Durham cathedral community.

Here’s what people had to say about him:

  • St Anselm of Canterbury called him “not only a tax collector, but the most infamous chief of the tax collectors,” which is pretty harsh.
  • Pope Paschal II send him a badass letter at Anselm’s instigation, in which he accused Flambard of committing “many illegal acts.” Which was a fair cop. There was also some concern about his having been irregularly made bishop, which was a big deal in a period where one of the key issues relating to church and crown was who had the right to appoint their venal, worldly cronies to positions of ecclesiastical power.
  • Liber Eliensis: “the iniquitous plunderer…”
  • Orderic Vitalis: “by his cunning accusations and obsequious flatteries [he] obtained authority over all the royal officials from the king.”
  • William of Malmesbury: “but when he had committed this and that sin and not been punished, he grew so bold that he did not hesitate to … [dare] a crime unheard of in all the years of the past.”

And let’s not forget the fascinating Life of Christina of Markyate, in which Flambard, who used to have a little action on the side with Christina’s aunt, tries to have his dirty dirty way with the virtuous young holy woman:

The shameless bishop took hold of Christina … and with that mouth which he used to consecrate the sacred species, he solicited her to commit a wicked deed.

Damn. Anyway, Flambard gets some good press from his own guys at Durham, where he was bishop for 29 years (although for some of those years he was on the run from the law), especially in the period after his death, when the Durham community is getting the hell beat out of it by the Scots and by some other unscrupulous characters I won’t go into here. Flambard, you can hear them thinking, would not have put up with this kind of bullshit.

To recap: mom was a witch, all about the cheddar, talked smack to pirates, busted out of jail, engaged in armed rebellion against his king and walked away scot free, despised by the 12th century’s most notorious player-hater, built a big-ass cathedral and died still wearing the big hat.

Ranulf Flambard: bad motherfucker.

Medieval bishops: not to be messed with.

The thing is, here’s the thing: 99.9% of all people who bitch about movies or TV or what-have-you being historically inaccurate are either just trying to exercise some kind of know-it-all superiority or are your typical shrieking nerds desperately striving to create a factual basis for a subjective dislike. That’s natural. However, in many cases they’re right. Not because of the boneheaddery, not at all. But because, in most cases, historical “accuracy,” whatever the christ that means, is part and parcel of a larger problem, which is that the past is being packaged to viewers as familiar, and that’s about the worst fucking thing that could ever happen to you. I was going to talk about Warren Ellis’s Crecy, but what are the odds that any of you here have read it? It has one really good thing going for it, which is that it portrays the English army of the Hundred Years’ War as essentially terrorists. That’s a worthwhile endeavour; the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a terrorist is a good experience for the brains. But the rest of it is just the usual second-hand pop-history about medieval warfare. That’s not a criticism; that’s par for the course. Instead, let’s talk about something you’ve all seen, Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart, which is a fucking pile of nads.

In slow motion.

So you’re expecting to hear a bunch of elitist whining here about how the film is nuh historically accurate, and I hope you won’t be disappointed, but there’s a deeper message I’d like to communicate. Filmical bullshit falls into some different categories:

a) easy/lazy/artistic. The soldiers in the film wear these scale-mail or jack-of-plate trousers, and it looks fucking stupid. But this is clearly a choice made by some ridiculous twat of a costume designer who thinks it looks “medieval,” or at worst doesn’t think that Americans can take a film seriously where the bad guys have no pants on. Whatever.This is an artistic “choice”, and it is dumb as shit but at least it’s meant to be that way.

b) inspired by ignorant Hollywood notions of “dramatic necessity”, i.e. the romantic relationship between Mellington Mellorson and that one French chick, which is impossible, etc. Sure, but film got to have a love story!  I’m just amazed there isn’t a demeaning stereotype of a black person in this film. So this is horseshit, but it’s horseshit that is fundamentally nothing to do with history, so whatever.

c) an explicit load of revisionist bullshit. And this is where it fucking matters. If you portray the conflicts of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in this way, you’re portraying them as part of an ongoing conflict between two types of people. English people are like this, and Scottish people are like that, and the conflict will always go on because They Hate Our Freedom. See also The Patriot.

Now that’s easy to think. But in fact, the real history is complicated and weird, and involves Norway and Sweden and stuff. Scotland’s relationship to England changes, and there are weird questions of identity, and the Scots claim to descended from the Scythians, and Robert the Bruce murders someone in a church. It’s not easy to think. And therefore fuck all attempts to portray the past in this reassuring light, because your ancestors were not just like you. They were in some ways, but in other ways they were huge fucking weirdoes, and the sooner you begin the process of trying to get your head around that, the smarter you’ll be, especially if you’re able to come to the conclusion that you also are a giant weirdo and half of what you do makes no sense whatsoever.