So I am a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series of novels, which should come as no surprise considering that I like old things and over-writing. I can’t locate the actual quotation at the moment, but there’s a bit in one of the books where someone asks Aubrey to tell them a little about his encounters with Lord Nelson. It’s also in the film, and it’s one of the bits of the movie where I think Russell Crowe is actually Aubrey-like rather than Crowe-like. Aubrey explains how Nelson looked right at him and said … “may I trouble you for the salt?”
And it is also a fact, that early in life, when he first went to sea, he left off the use of salt, which he then believed to be the sole cause of scurvy, and never took it afterwards with his food.
Now, this might be an oversight, but I quite like the idea that O’Brian was aware of this — it’s not at all unlikely he would have read the Narrative — and that he put it in is a little in-joke; Aubrey is bullshitting, but not only is he bullshitting, he’s bullshitting in such a tiny and ridiculous way that it becomes very endearing. I don’t know, and we’ll probably never know, but that’s how I like to think of it.
Forgive the recent lack of updates; I consider myself on holiday. However, Movie Monday is Movie Monday.
I was out hanging out with some friends today and the subject of Dracula came up. One of my friends was surprised that there wasn’t a film about the historical Dracula, Vlad III or Vlad Tepes. “But there was,” I said, “and it starred the dude who played Dracula on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It was also, to make it a good fit for my review, a smeller.
So, this film introduces us to Vlad Dracula and his rag-tag band of patriots, fighting to liberate Romania (they say “Romania” throughout, never “Wallachia,” which is what Vlad was in charge of) from Turkish tyranny. They are fighting a battle in the rain, and Vlad is upset about something or other.
Vlad looks like a handsome German soap star, not like this:
After the fight, Vlad goes on trial before some priests, who are pissed off at him because they are Orthodox and he is allied with Catholic Hungary and the Pope. They ask him some questions about his life, so it goes into flashback mode. We see young Vlad being raised by his father, Vlad II, along with his brother Radu. Vlad II wants to reduce the power of the nobles and resist the Turks with help from king Janos Hunyadi of Hungary, who is a good dude. Radu is puny and weak, but Vlad loves his brother.
The flashbacks are filled with totally uncalled-for vampire imagery:
Vlad and Radu are captured by the Turks and held hostage for their father’s good behaviour. Eventually Vlad gets out and makes his way to Hungary where he allies with Janos (Roger Daltrey):
While there, Vlad meets a fellow Romanian exile and marries his daughter, Lidia (Jane March). Jane March is a beautiful woman, I’m sure, but in the scene where she appears she is fucking funny looking:
Anyway, Vlad, with Hungarian backing, returns to Romania, overthrows the corrupt rulers, establishes justice, has a son (the future Vlad IV), resists the Turks, etc. He runs into Radu, now a Turkish officer. He starts impaling people and stuff to enforce law and order. Lidia can’t handle the violence, goes mad. Eventually she kills herself while wearing a nightgown clearly intended to evoke the “Bride of Dracula” look.
The Turks chuck Vlad out after he sasses them once too often and he runs back to Janos, who is mad at him because he thinks he’s been conspiring with the enemy (he was framed) and chucks him in durance vile. Eventually he relents, and Vlad and his guys retake Romania, only to have the church turn on him and set him up to be assassinated by Radu on the grounds that Father Stephen (Peter Weller, of all people, in a silly beard) thinks he’s the antichrist. Then he rises again as a vampire. No kidding.
So there’s a lot wrong with this movie, historically, largely in the things that are compressed: for instance, although Vlad was assassinated by pro-Turkish forces, it wasn’t by Radu, who died before he did — in fact, it was Radu’s death that prompted his last period on the throne. Radu was 40 by that time, not the active young man shown in the film. And it wasn’t Janos Hunyadi who locked Vlad up for allegedly conspiring with the Turks; it was his son Matyas. So time is compressed, minor characters are edited out and many characters are sometimes combined into one. About par for the course for a historical film, especially a 90-minute TV movie.
The biggest goof in the film is making Vlad out to be a consistently anti-Ottoman figure. In fact, Vlad II was the pro-Turkish candidate in the struggle over Wallachia, and Vlad was educated by the Ottomans, possibly as some kind of insurance policy against his dad bucking wild, but definitely not chained in a dungeon like they show here. In fact, it was the Turks who put Vlad III on the throne the first time. In essence, Vlad shifted his allegiance between Turkey and Hungary, trying to get the best deal out of the two and the most backing in his struggle against his rivals in Wallachia. He ended up on the Hungarian side in later life, but the idea that he was just always anti-Ottoman is completely daft.
As for the cruelty, I dunno. Obviously the 15th century was a pretty brutal time, but the reports of Vlad’s atrocities mainly come from foreign sources, which may be the result of propaganda (the Hungarians trying to justify their failure to support Vlad during the whole durance-vile incident) or just sensationalism. The Robin-Hood-y stuff with Vlad using guerrilla tactics against Radu’s men is probably exaggerated, but it’s probably true that Vlad’s much smaller army did rely on hit-and-run attacks and superior knowledge of the terrain.
So yeah, anyway. TV trash that probably only I remember in the first place; that’s the kind of quality content you expect from this blog.
This week’s film is kind of an oddity. It’s silent — one of the last big silent films — but it’s in colour. In fact, just as it was one of the last big silent films, it was one of the first big colour films, widely considered at the time to be one of the best uses of the Technicolour process. As we’ll see, it looks pretty good!
Well, OK, maybe not good per se.
Anyway, it’s an adaptation of a 1902 novel, the which you can find on Gutenburg and which I have also put on my Kindle but not read yet. The novel is in turn sort of based on The Saga of Erik the Redand The Saga of the Greenlanders. Sort of.
Ready? Here we go.
Our story begins with a little casual … not racism as such, but a little reminder that 1928 was a different time.
Right you are, squire.
But funnily enough, our hero is not one of these paragons of manliness. He is Alwin, an English guy from the late 10th / very early 11th c., and he lives here:
Ah, it’s like I’m back in the early middle ages already.
Alwin and some others are captured by Vikings and sold into slavery. This film will clearly establish that Alwin is a bit wet:
But Alwin catches the eye of Helga, a Viking maiden who falls off a horse for no readily explicable reason.
She buys him, and her chum Sigurd buys a girl who was in the big slave jail thing with him, with the very clear implication that he’s going to rape the heck out of her. In fact, when he gets home, Mrs Sigurd is very annoyed:
… but it turns out she’s actually a new maid for Mrs Sigurd! Jooookes!
Also at the Viking camp is the baddie, Egil:
Egil likes Helga, Helga likes Alwin, Alwin likes moping. Meanwhile, Leif Eriksson, leader of the Vikings, is off hanging out with King Olaf and getting converted to Christianity.
That dude standing behind Leif is Krark or Kark or something, aka Snivelling Badguy #2.
Leif comes home to find Egil bullying Alwin. Alwin says he’ll fight him, Leif talks some noble shite about Vikings and bravery, they fight, Alwin spares Egil, Leif approves. Leif looks like this:
They sail to Greenland in a series of scenes that seem like they take forever. Egil continues to not like Alwin and to wear stupid hats.
Leif goggles at a map a lot, and gets Alwin to help him with the goggling because he can read.
They arrive at Brattahlid.
Krunk or whatever snitches Leif out for being a Christian, and he has a big falling out with his dad. He forbids Helga to join them on the voyage to the west, but she disguises herself as a boy and sneaks on board. When they find her, Leif announces he’s going to marry her, blissfully unaware that she loves another, the thicko. The superstitious crew get more and more frightened the further west they go, and Egil plays on their fears to lead a mutiny. When he tries to stab up Helga, Alwin throws himself in the way and gets wounded. Leif scoops up a sword in each hand and goes apeshit. 1928 fight choreography technology was still in its infancy, though.
Anyhow, Leif is super mad at Alwin for cockblocking him, but then he remembers that Jesus says you probably shouldn’t murder people just because you’re a little annoyed, and then they discover America and open up the special Flag Compartment in their hold:
Then they are friends of the Indians and build a tower:
And then this:
The Newport Tower is no more a Viking watch tower than I am. It’s like a 17th century windmill or some shit.
I was going to spend some time talking about the historical St Nicholas of Myra, but Chris Sims did it better. In the context of explaining how Santa could beat up Batman, but wouldn’t, because they’re both good guys, no less.
Victorian Christmas cards are weird. Enjoy them. Christmas cards are one of those artefacts of modernity — people bitch and moan about how no one sends them anymore, but of course no one sent them for ages; they’re very much a Victorian thing, prompted basically by the invention of the postage stamp. It’s one of those things you don’t think about, but it made a huge difference to the 19th century. I have an early 19th-c. almanac, an incredibly generous gift from a good friend, and one of the things that it devotes a fair bit of time to is explaining how postage works. It was complicated back in the day.
This is turning into a fair old Christmas grab-bag, so I’m just going to talk about my Christmas plans a bit. I have, wonder of wonders, a few weeks off work, absent a little exam-marking and lesson prep for the history class, so I’m going to be devoting it to catching up on my reading. I doubt I will be able to finish Argall, which my brother got me for Christmas last year and which I haven’t even started primarily because it’s too big to take on the bus conveniently and I’m afraid I’ll drop it if I read it in the bath. The first book of the lot I read, The Ice-Shirt, makes other books I have read about the early medieval period written by modern authors look like some old bullshit. It is stark and scary and good.
What else? I’m thinking of adding another weekly feature in the new year; Free Stuff Friday kind of got away from me, but maybe something like Thing-a-Thursday, in which I talk about a specific artefact once a week, or something like that. We shall see.
I asked people on G+ what they would like to hear about, and Thea asked:
I’d like to know about money in the medieval period. I was just pondering that I don’t remember if money stopped happening completely after the Roman empire fell, or if it was still used in some places, or what.
Now, I cannot speak to all Europe, or even really to all Britain, but here is a little bit of what I know. So, in Britain, yeah, the Roman province of Britannia goes, for one reason or another, all to hell, and coinage does seem to stop being used for a relatively brief period. There are some coins around during the early Anglo-Saxon period, but we’re not sure they’re being used as coins — that is, they’re either old Roman coins or Frankish coins like this one:
That’s a Roman coin from the 470s for comparison — you can see that there are some similarities, but also some new elements.
Anyway, so these Frankish coins are being passed around, and they’re gold and they’re cool and they’re valuable, but they’re probably not actually currency as we would understand it.
It’s hard to know when coins start being actual coins, or what people were doing in the absence. Bartering, probably, and/or having what’s called a bullion economy, where you trade in precious metals by weight. You get that later on, for sure, in the Viking age, where finds often contain “hacksilver,” silver objects chopped up into convenient small chunks. One well-known example is the Cuerdale Hoard, now in the British Museum.
There’s quite a lot of coins in there, too, from many different sources, but again we don’t think that these were circulating in the Viking world as currency, not early on anyway, just as conveniently-sized units of silver.
But in France, as we saw, you get coinage relatively early on, and in Italy and Spain people are minting coins after the Roman model, although not anywhere like as many of them or as regularly, but it doesn’t completely disappear. And in England by the Viking age you have a relatively developed coinage.
(Viking coinage in Britain is super interesting, by the way, but that could be another time.)
So, yeah, coinage more or less disappears for a couple of hundred years on the fringes of the Empire, and then elsewhere it struggles on in kind of a partial fashion, probably existing alongside a barter-heavy economy or an economy where precious metals are traded by weight. Exactly how much coinage is used for everyday transactions is one of those questions; my very rough amateur’s understanding is that we used to think it was next to never but now we think it was a little more than we used to think.
Two quick related fun things:
One: these coins are teeny tiny. Like, we tend to think when we think of medieval coins that they’re big gold circles, like gold doubloons in a pirate movie, but they’re not.
Here are some Viking-age coins, so you can see that they’re really small and really thin; they bend easily. You wouldn’t keep them in your pocket with the keys, I wouldn’t think. And if you go to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, as you should, you can see the Cambridge Hoard, a set of much later medieval silver and gold coins, and see how thin they are: the gold coins are almost foil-like.
I have no idea what my second point was going to be. Never mind.
So, anyway, I hope that’s an answer to the question! I am not a numismatist, so that’s just kind of a rough outline and there are probably a lot of over-generalisations and common errors in it, but I think it’s mostly right?
After weeks of sandals and plumes, it’s time for boots and, er, plumes as we plunge ourselves into the grand pageantry of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1970 epic Waterloo, which has a fuck of a lot of horses in it and also like one or two characters. As always, you can follow along with me if you like. I hope you like splosions.
So what’s interesting about this movie for me is that it’s actually pretty slow, and a lot of the scenes are sort of … placeholders. Bonsai. Especially the bits with Blucher, which are very much “Mein name ist Blucher! Ich bin ein Prussian general!”
It’s like … I think obvious comparison is a pageant. You can almost imagine it as some kind of performance given not long after the battle.
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY
A Faithful and Accurate Recreation of
THE VICTORY AT
15,000 Soldiers! 2,000 Horses!
The Costliest Such Recreation EVER PRESENTED.
With many splendid reenactments of battle scenes.
Featuring a special performance by
Mr. Christopher PLUMMER
as the Duke of Wellington.
Yeah, I can believe it.
And in short, it’s good at what such pageants are good at. Observe:
Those parts of it look absolutely spectacular. Somehow, when you had to get 15,000 Red Army soldiers and make them all march around, you made sure to get lots of lovely shots of them. Modern films seem to create huge CGI armies with painstaking detail and then blend them into a murky brown mass such that they needn’t have bothered.
However, one of the cinematic techniques is a bit daft, namely that of putting an actor on a little rocking horse in front of the camera and then having the cavalry thundering away in the background, looks completely stupid. I took a picture, but you have to see it in motion, really:
It looks OK in the photo, but believe me, when it’s moving it looks ridiculous.
… I dunno. It gives a good sense of the scale and the mayhem, which is nice in a war film. It speeds up the end of the battle, having the Prussians just appear and then SHAZAM it’s all over, which is not quite right. It doesn’t give us much of the fighting around the farms, which is a shame, because I would say those are quite cinematic moments. But in general it’s not bad, and the fact that the battle proper doesn’t start until about an hour in does build a little tension.
I don’t think I learned anything, but it was nice to see the scale and … sloppiness? … of the old style. I don’t think there’s a comparable modern Napoleonic film, but it’s not really my field, so I’m prepared to be corrected.
Last night I went to my wife’s company Christmas party. I had a good time, and today I have a bit of a hangover, as it goes. But I thought there was an interesting thing at work. Each room at the party was themed according to a decade (although there wasn’t a 30s room that I could make out), and each was decorated and had drinks themed to the appropriate era, more or less.
I bet that if I gave you a list of which decades were represented, you could predict with a relatively high level of accuracy what the rooms looked like, from the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas 50s room to the technicolour Afro 70s room. There was a 1920s room, but no 1930s one, presumably because the 1930s stereotype isn’t all that festive.
Now, obviously, the idea of decades as discrete thematic things is flawed, since it’s not like some giant switch flips on January 1, 1981 and everyone turns into a raging greedhead with a skateboard and an NES or whatever. But also it left me wondering how long it takes for us to have a clear idea of a decade — or, for that matter, a century.
I think “decades” may collapse in about 100 years. I don’t think that, other than WW1, I necessarily have a very clear impression of what, stylistically, separates the 1910s from the 1900s. And I definitely don’t have a clear mental picture of the difference between the 1880s and the 1890s. I could probably eyeball the differences between the first and second halves of the 19th century generally, although obviously I would make quite a lot of mistakes.
But earlier than about the later middle ages, I wouldn’t rely on myself to design a themed party room for a unit of time smaller than a century, and prior to about the 4th or 5th century BC, not even that.
I don’t really have a point there other than that it’s interesting to wonder what future generations will see as the defining traits of the decades we live in, and to observe how nostalgia paints pictures of decades which influence even people who lived through them and should know better.
The other day I was out shopping, and as is my wont I was in David’s, where I observed this framed poster. Apologies for photo quality:
The thing that really struck me about this was the rainbow printing, which is pretty cool, but I have also noticed the term “Hibernian Lamb,” which I believe may be some kind of bitchy Victorian term for a pig.
The aged artificial tree went up on Sunday here at 1 Gonzo Mansions, and has already accumulated a fine crop of presents. The Amazon boxes are a bit un-festive-looking, but since we have no idea what’s in them we don’t dare open them for fear of spoilers. But amidst the general holiday cheer, there are some odd notes.
One of the things I always find fascinating is when you have a historical misconception that’s on both sides of an argument. This seems to be the case with this thing about the “pagan” origins of Christmas trees.
Here is what we know about Christmas trees: the practice probably comes from Germany in the 18th century and spread to parts of the world where Germans immigrated, like Britain and the US. Subsequently, the media power of the US in particular spread the custom around the world. But people get very excited about the link with “pagan” traditions.
I wish I could articulate how skeptical I am of all this. Take this quote from one Christian site:
Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals.
Mysteeeeeeerious. What do we know about these mysterious rituals, and where do we know it from?
Hmmm. Not much. I guess that’s why they’re mysterious?
Now, I have not studied this in depth, but as far as I can tell the reasoning is, like the Halloween thing, backward. I feel like I can see the fell hand of the 19th-century folklorist here, desperately trying to glide over the fact that Druids were supposedly into oaks and Christmas trees are conifers, looking at any practice that involves decorating the house with any kind of plant (Roman Christians are forbidden from decorating their houses with laurel wreaths. A laurel wreath’s kind of like a fir tree, right?) and seeing a Christmas tree, and generally stretching like billy-o. You start with a custom that’s German and involves a tree, and because you’re a muddle-headed 19th-century German Romantic aswim in volkisch dumbness, you start to have hazy visions of the Irminsul, and quick, you need to explain how this connects to pagan practices in some way. So you round up every greenery-related custom you can find, and instead of any kind of historical thread connecting these practices you fire off a barrage of descriptions of things that are a little bit like each other, but there’s so much of it … and before you know it everyone knows that Christmas trees are pagan, even if no one can point to an actual source.
Hell, I’d even be willing to believe that folky Romanticism was part of what got people so into Christmas trees, summoning up some nebulous image of wintry hospitality and warmth and little cabins with glowing windows in deep snowy woods. (The practice appears to have started in urban areas, actually, but hey.) The association with folky fuzzy concepts of paganism could very well have something to do with why people get into many of these greenery-related Christmas concepts. But that hardly means they’re “inspired by” or even anything at all to do with paganism.
And then there’s the usual seasonal arguments. People decorated their houses with evergreen plants in the winter, eh? No shit they did; they were hardly going to put spring flowers up.
What’s weird is that both sides in the Christmas tree debate seem to credit the same argument. Take this Christian site, which condemns the whole tree idea as non-Christian on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs, and compare to this site, which approves of the Christmas tree on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs. This guy debunks the common idea that Jeremiah 10:1-4 condemns the Christmas tree, mainly by going on to read Jeremiah 10:5 and the following verses.
It’s like this with all Christianity-and-paganism stuff, I sometimes think. One lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s bad, one lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s good, and those who think that maybe neither side has as clear an idea of what Christianity or paganism really are in their historical contexts as they probably could are in the decided minority.
I think what I’ll do is stick some stick-on bows on the Amazon packages so that they look sparkly and festive despite being brown cardboard.
You may recall that during my review of The Vikings, I introduced you to that loveable scamp Derpy the Dragon:
Well, I thought I had seen the last of him, but the spirit of Derpy is irrepressible. Today I was in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and who should I come across but:
He is the figurehead of a canoe from, er, somewhere or other in the Pacific, and if you look at his eye you will see that it is actually made of a china teacup; the other one is also a teacup, but they are mismatched. Technically, I believe he is supposed to be a crocodile.
It’s nice to see he’s still working. I have a lot of fond memories of ol’ Derpy.