Everybody in the past was drunk all the time: 1

Chug! Chug! Chug!
Chug! Chug! Chug!

People will tell you that people in the ancient and medieval world drank booze all the time because the water wasn’t safe, which isn’t 100% true. Some water sources were reasonably safe, and many people, of course, drank unsafe water and got sick, reminding us that just because something is practical and smart doesn’t mean people actually did it. But it is true that people in the pre-modern era drank to a level that most of us would consider worrying today.

Take, for instance, this amazing document from 18th-century Philadelphia. On 14 September 1787, right at the end of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington was leaving the city and the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry threw a big good-bye party for the beloved general. There were 55 guests, together with 16 servants and musicians, and the bill for the party has been preserved, itemising exactly how much they drank. Here it is, reproduced from Teaching American History:

Light Troop of Horse, September the 14th 1787

To Edwd Moyston .. Dr.
To 55 Gentlemans Dinners & Fruit
Rellishes, Olives etc………………………………………..  20  12   6
54 Bottles of Madera……………………………………….  20   5
60 of Claret ditto……………………………………………  21
8 ditto of Old Stock…………………………………………   3   6   8
22 Bottles of Porter ditto………………………………….   2  15
8 of Cyder ditto……………………………………………..  16
12 ditto Beer…………………………………………………  12
7 Large Bowels of Punch………………………………….   4   4
Segars Spermacity candles etc………………………….   2   5
To Decantors Wine Glass [e]s & Tumblers Broken etc..   1   2   6
To 16 Servants and Musicians Dinners……………………   2
16 Bottles of Claret…………………………………………   5  12
5 ditto Madera……………………………………………….   1  17   6
7 Bouls of Punch…………………………………………….   2  16

The total came to £89.4s.2d, which was a colossal sum in 1787. Although that’s an interesting point in itself, I’m mainly interested here in the quantities of booze drunk. For starters, that’s 114 bottles of wine between 55 guests, or more than two bottles a head, not to mention all the beer, porter, whiskey (it has come to my attention that that’s what the “Old Stock” is), cider and punch. It’s hard to imagine a modern-day statesman getting two bottles of Bordeaux down him without being front page news the next day, like that time George HW Bush heaved all over the Prime Minister of Japan. But if you look at other dinner menus from the 18th century, this isn’t that crazy. I mean, it’s on the high side — this being a big party and all — but it’s not totally outrageous. We’re left with an image of a world in which many perfectly respectable people were what we today would considered hardened alcoholics.

However …

… just as a historian, I have to sound a couple of warning notes. Now, I am not a specialist in this period, and I’m not going to do the research on this while sitting in bed in my dressing gown. But before I condemn the Founding Fathers as a bunch of boozehounds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I need to ask:

  • How was the bill created? Like, is this a list of all the bottles ordered from the tavern for the meal as a running total, or is it a list of supplies laid in for the party? If it’s the latter, some of the bottles may have been ordered but not necessarily drunk.
  • How big are these bottles? Obviously, when you and I say “a bottle of wine” we’re talking about 700 ml, but that wasn’t necessarily the case in the 18th century. A quick survey does seem to suggest that most wine bottles were a “reputed quart,” which in the 18th century seems to have been about 750 ml, but there are also examples that are as small as 400 ml, so there’s that.

Actually, on the other hand, looking at the prices, I have to wonder about the size of the beer bottles. A bottle of beer costs £1? In 1787? It had better be huge. However, I think that’s probably a mistake in the way the table is formatted — not by me, that’s how it looks on the TAH site. Come to think of it, the individual prices don’t add up to the total, which suggests that maybe that £1 per bottle of beer is actually 1s that got shifted a column over by mistake.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that much. Assuming that there were some guests who stuck to beer or cider, we’re still talking about the wine drinkers killing off quite a lot of wine as individuals. It was a party, of course, but to the untrained eye it seems to me like a hell of a lot. I believe in the catering trade they say a person will drink two drinks (beers, cocktails, glasses of wine) in the first hour of a party and one per hour afterward; if that’s true, it seems that the standard has fallen since 1787.

Everybody in the past was drunk all the time: 1

Aegypt and Zee Chermans

So, in his book The Occult Mind: Magick in Theory and Practice, Christopher Lehrich talks about the idea of Ægypt, which is the imaginary country that Renaissance occultists like to talk about, as opposed to the actual country of Egypt. This is important, because across their writings Ægypt has some consistent characteristics — it’s not just sticking any old bullshit on Egypt, but a relatively fully-imagined mythical place.

This is Egypt:



And this is Aegypt:




I propose that we need more of these dualistic terms. For instance, the mythical Emerald Isle that many Irish-Americans imagine could be renamed Oirland, or Jaysustopia, or Erin Go Fuck Yourself. Horrible caricatures appearing in Hollywood films could be called Injuns to distinguish them from Native Americans (unless that would give Hollywood license to do more of ’em, in which case never mind). And the actual German army of the 1930s and 40s could have its hyper-effective, tournament-winning hardware fetishist equivalent in the group I like to call Zee Chermans.

People who get all misty about MG42s and eidelweiss blossoms aren’t endorsing Nazi atrocities (they are usually not, in my experience). They’ve just fallen for the romance of Zee Chermans as opposed to the Germans. If you are conflicted about the fate of some hapless 19-year-old conscript in a war film where he gets mown down by the goodies as a disposable mook, don’t worry; those are Zee Chermans, not the Germans.

(Although I may have just created two different sets of Zee Chermans, the fun Rommel ones and the bad Himmler ones. Hmm. Might have to rethink this one.)

Can you think of any other useful second names?

Aegypt and Zee Chermans

Movie Monday: King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)


Welcome back to Movie Monday, dear readers! Today we’re paying a little visit to the twelfth century, when the chivalry of Europe set out to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims. It’s an age of larger than life characters, the age of …



… total bollocks.

Once again, I don’t have any link to video of this thing, so you’ll have to just get it on DVD or something.

Anyway, this turns out to be one of this frustrating movies where the title is a little misleading. Oh, Richard I is in it, all right, but it’s really an adaptation of a Walter Scott, novel, The Talisman. As a result, most of the story is about the adventures of a completely fictitious knight, Kenneth of Huntingdon (Laurence Harvey). This is he:



Note that his faithful hound has a chainmail coif with holes for ears. I approve of that.

Anyway, the film has less of a single plot and more a series of episodes in the sort of knightly derring-do style, unified by some basic principles. Here’s the rundown: Kenneth loves a maiden fair, Edith, who is Richard’s cousin. Richard (George “Shere Khan” Sanders) objects because Kenneth is a poor knight and Edith is a princess, which is fair enough. Anyway, she’s the blonde one:



Her American accent occasionally surfaces in a really disconcerting way.

The baddie is Sir Giles Amery, head of the fictitious Castellans or Castlers, who are clearly meant to be the Templars. I believe they are the Templars in the novel.



How could you distrust that guy?

Anyway, Giles conspires with Conrad of Montferrat to have Richard shot with a poisoned arrow. Kenneth, while out in the desert, runs into a Muslim doctor, and they start out by fighting but become friends. The doctor turns out to be Saladin’s personal physician, sent to help Richard get better. Chivalry! It works, but there are two obstacles:

  • It’s Rex Harrison overacting in dodgy brownface, and
  • Dude starts wooing Edith.


In fact, his wooing of Edith irks Kenneth so much that he leaves his post guarding Richard’s banner to confront her. Meanwhile, the baddies sneak up and chop it down, framing him. Richard is furious and challenges Kenneth to trial by combat. Kenneth’s bronze-coloured armour makes his helmet look a little like an old fashioned diving suit.



These dudes are watching the fight intently; they do not appear in the film prior to this or after it.


Kenneth wins the fight but refuses to kill Richard; Richard then nearly kills him, but the physician intervenes to save his life. Kenneth goes off to begin a new life in the Saracen camp, which naturally begins with a totally called-for dance sequence.



But a further surprise is in wait! Yes, the humble physician Ilderim is really none other than Saladin himself, who sends Kenneth to Richard’s camp with a peace proposal (and a marriage proposal for Edith). But while Kenneth and Richard are catching up, Giles and his evil bros murder the other members of the Saracen embassy and kidnap Edith. Meanwhile, Conrad tries to kill Richard and Kenneth stabs him up nice. After a brief and pointless misunderstanding where they think Saladin dunnit, the forces of Christendom and Islam unite to recapture the princess. There are a bunch of fights, and Kenneth shanks Giles and shoves him into a moat. Saladin realises he and Edith can never be together, and there are big smooches between our hero and his “bonny.” The end.

You always have to be careful when thinking about Walter Scott, because something you might think of as a cornball stereotype may well have originated with him. For instance, this is one of the earliest works in English to do the whole Saladin-is-a-noble-dude thing in a chivalrous adventure. However, it’s not a stereotype that Scott originated. In fact, medieval literature does heavily feature the idea that Saladin was a chivalrous adversary worthy of Richard. And there are many instances of Saladin doing little courteous things for his opponents.

“Saladin, king of Egypt.” 15th c.

But Scott revived and popularised this concept. Various sources I’ve read say that this novel was one of the first to treat Muslims in a balanced way in the context of the Crusades, which may be true, but it’s certainly not out of line with a certain trend of Orientalism in the 18th century and earlier that used an imaginary Islam to criticise the behaviour of European Christians.

Obviously, the basic setting of the film is a bit compressed. The leaders of the Crusade didn’t spend all their time in one place, and Conrad of Montferrat wasn’t stabbed in Richard’s tent, although he was stabbed to death at around this time by a team of Assassins, possibly at Richard’s instigation.

This has been called one of the worst films of all time, which I think is a bit much. Apart from Rex Harrison’s completely inappropriate brownface, Laurence Harvey’s acting, and all the dialogue … well, actually that’s quite a lot, isn’t it? But it’s got a lot of stuff in it: swordfights and chase scenes and castles and treachery and stuff, and I think that if you view it in that light it might not be too bad. Like a lot of 19th-century adventure fiction, its plot is largely a series of contrivances to hold together action sequences, something not unfamiliar to modern viewers. I would say you have to view it with the spirit of a 12-year-old boy, but even in 1954 I think that boy might have seen all this stuff before and not feel like sitting through two renditions of Saladin’s love song in order to get to the jousting.

Movie Monday: King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)

Dropping things

One of the things I’m glad I don’t have is the completist or collector gene — but that doesn’t mean I don’t put a lot of sentimental value on objects. Above all, I hate losing things. Leaving a pen behind somewhere drives me nuts, and heaven help me if it’s something actually important. I feel tremendously guilty for some reason.

A few days ago, the British Museum announced the release of Lost Change, this handy online visualisation tool where you can view the locations of coins of different periods discovered by metal detectorists and turned in to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It’s pretty neat — you can sort them by period, search for coins of a particular ruler, look for the locations of mints, compare density of coin finds by NGR, and lots of other stuff. Use the period bar at the top, though, not the one on the left. I kept clicking on that thing like a fool.

Pretty cool, eh?
Pretty cool, eh?

But all I can think about is thousands and thousands of pissed-off Anglo-Saxons bitterly regretting their clumsiness.*

*Actually, coin deposition is complicated and probably isn’t just things falling out of people’s pockets, but includes hoarding blah blah blah.

Dropping things

A new bad movie blog

This is just a quick post to announce that I have started contributing to a new blog. Well, it’s a new blog that begins with some old stuff, but there will be new content coming for it very shortly. If you like Movie Mondays and would like to read me and one of my oldest and dearest friends weeping with helpless frustration at terrible films, may I recommend you point your browsers to Bad Movie Mecca?

This group blog is a revival of an older site which existed back in the day, so we’re starting by transferring a lot of old stuff over — these are the posts tagged “From the Archives.” However, lots of new stuff should be coming soon, because no matter what we just can’t seem to stop watching godawful films.

A new bad movie blog

Movie Monday: Titanic: The Legend Continues (2000)

Oh momma, it hurts.


OK, so as you might expect, this is a low-budget Italian cartoon smashed out to cash in on the popularity of Cameron’s 1997 Titanic. It has some rough similarities with its progenitor. “Rough” is a good word. Let’s hang on to that one; we’ll be seeing it a lot.

Anyway, there are more Titanic animated features than you might think. In case you want to follow along with my suffering, I am not talking about this one:

I am talking about this one:

OK? All right.

The thing that you notice about this movie pretty quickly is — well, actually, the first thing you notice is that it is pretty shoddily made. A lot of the characters are, shall we say, derivative of other characters in other animated films.



Just for instance.

It’s also got like eight hundred plots. In no particular order:

  • A good-hearted waif, the ambiguously British Angelica, is searching for her long-lost mother.
  • Her locket, the only heirloom of her mother, goes missing.
  • Scoundrel Gaston uses the locket to woo sultry nightclub shantoozy Molly.
  • Gold-digger Winnie is looking for a wealthy husband. Bankrupt banker McFlannel seeks a wealthy wife.
  • Jewel thief Corynthia Meanstreak (OK, fair enough, that’s a great name) and her bumbling henchmen Kirk and Dirk are seeking a mark.
  • Detective Whatsisname is on board pursuing the jewel thieves.
  • Ambiguously-British William is travelling to America to seek a cure for his freakishly huge lips, in the company of aforementioned scumbag Gaston and his nanny whatsername, who once, long ago, lost her daughter …
  • This one ship’s officer is a knob.
  • Angelica and William fall in love, but her wicked stepmother and two ugly stepsisters are running interference.
  • A bunch of singing, dancing anthropomorphic animals hang out in the hold.
  • The ship hits an iceberg.

Any three of those plots would be enough for a regular film, and the animals one is clearly an entirely different movie.

The main plot, such as it is, is Angelica and William, who spend a lot of time staring at each other in derpy incomprehension:


But it isn’t all longing and panting; there’s also grotesque Barkerian body-horror.


A lot of inexplicable shit happens in this movie. For instance, a dog raps. Twice! It would be bizarrely inappropriate if it were any good, but it’s also unbearably bad, making it … just … I …


Some mice sing a lively mariachi tune.


Gaston, when encountered, is literally twirling his moustache.


When the iceberg hits the ship, for a blissful moment it seems like William will die, but he is saved. When he falls off the ship, by the way, there is straight up a slide-whistle sound effect. Meanwhile, the crew are bailing in the hold. Apparently nobody has the heart to tell them that there’s no point bailing in the hold. (The in-picture commentary in the link pointed this out — I actually wouldn’t have realised this, because I have no idea what that backdrop’s supposed to look like.)


In fact, practically everybody survives the iceberg, which is not really all that big a deal. Winnie and McFlannel die, because she realises she loves him and won’t abandon him, so there’s that. And Molly the singer dies because she stays behind to sing as the band, er, plays on. And I guess they die, but they’re not really characters.

As the lifeboats sail away from the sinking vessel, this great tragedy is immortalised with this shot:


Contemplate that shit. Contemplate it.

If there’s a moral to be gained from this dispiriting exercise, it might be that it’s interesting how historical events turn themselves into stock stories. Given the number of films and things based on the sinking of the Titanic, even prior to the 1997 hit, it was one of those things that was almost a genre of its own, and I think this really shows that — it’s a pastiche of everything from the Cameron film to Cinderella to a sort of Agatha Christie closed-environment mystery, and it seems to be pretty clear that that’s a perfectly obvious thing to do in this film.

It is probably the most upbeat film about over 1,500 people dying I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of films about people dying, now that I think about it.

Movie Monday: Titanic: The Legend Continues (2000)