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)

Valentine’s Day With the Normans: Your Questions Answered



It’s Valentine’s Day here on the GHP, and that means it’s time to answer questions on love and relationships sent in by you, the readers! To address your questions, we’re delighted to welcome special guest Bohemond of Taranto, eleventh-century Norman crusader warlord. Born to jumped-up Norman land-pirate Robert “the Weasel” Guiscard and his discarded first wife, Alberada of Buonalbergo, Bohemond spent most of his early life beating up on his father’s enemies, including Byzantine emperor Alexios I, before graduating to beating up his uncles and half-brothers. In 1096, he joined the First Crusade, where he conquered the city of Antioch and totally failed to return it to, er, Byzantine emperor Alexios I. Probably slipped his mind.

His other achievements include faking his own death to slip past the Byzantine authorities and marrying a French princess 20 years his junior. You can see why we’re so thrilled to have him answering your letters! Without further ado, then, let’s get to the reader mail.

Richard writes: Is an anonymous valentine creepy or romantic? What if there is no other expression of interest or idea who it came from?

Dear Richard: you have a good strong name. I approve. An anonymous valentine’s message is a challenge to your wits! If you can use whatever means are at your disposal to solve the question of the sender’s identity, then you will be worthy of her love. Begin with the bearer of the message. Suborn him with gold if you can, for men are ruled by their greed, but do not be afraid to use threats. From there, work your way back through the chain of agents until you have found your love. She is yours!

Robert the Falconer writes: I can’t afford fancy presents for my loved one, what’s a good cheap way to express your affection on Valentine’s day?

Dear Robert: you also have a fine name. Take heart! Do not allow a lack of funds to stand in the way of your plans. If the will is present, the money will be forthcoming. Look around. Do you have any uncles whose estates might be ripe for the attack? If you have strong uncles, you may have to use guile. Pretend you are about to set out on a journey to the Holy Land and persuade them to lend you the money. Once the maiden and her estates are yours, you can repay them at your leisure. Alternatively, perhaps you will find a community of merchants who can be “persuaded” to front you the cash. May I recommend Greeks? They are all cowards.

Luke writes: How should I go about winning the good opinion of my intended’s father?

Dear Luke: your name is so-so. However, I will answer your question. There are two ways of winning the good opinion of your intended’s father. The first is through feats of arms. This is the best way, because a martial reputation also functions excellently as an implied threat that if the old fool does not part with his daughter he will part with his head. If you are a cripple or perhaps Venetian, you will have to use the second option, that of wealth. A reputation for wealth will assure your beloved’s father that his child will live a comfortable life. However, since a reputation for wealth but not strength puts you at the mercy of any rogue with a good sword arm, I recommend not being Venetian.

Harriet writes:  I am an unwedded woman about to reach the end of my prime.  How can I attract the attention of a good husband? 

Dear Harriet: truly the life of an unwedded maid is a difficult one. There are two options open to you here: the first is to find a complaisant old fool who will marry you with no dowry for your relative beauty. Once you have done this, wait for him to die. You will now be a widow, and free to take your time and marry where you will. By old fool, obviously I mean any man 30 or 40 years your senior. 20 is perfectly reasonable. In fact, in some ways it is the best age difference. Your second option is to assess your competition. You may be surrounded by graceful younger women who snap up all the eligible bachelors. If you have any doughty uncles, contrive some plots to have them murdered or, if you are soft-hearted, disfigured. If you have no uncles, hired ruffians may be substituted.

Francoise asks: How can I tell if it’s true love?

Dear Francoise: this is an excellent question, requiring the application of the arcane science of arithmetic. Simply compare the relative value of his estates and yours. Find a learned monk and ask him to “divide” his estates by yours; he will know what this means. If the result is II or greater, it is love. If lower than I, he is a charlatan and you should have your uncles kill him. Unless he is a doughty warrior, of course, in which case you should listen to his war stories and smile while holding your shoulders back.

Allison asks: What do I give my long-time love to show my affection?

Dear Allison: a simple, heartfelt gift is the best choice. However, if you are stuck, I recommend a duchy. If you haven’t got a duchy, you may find that a city makes a surprisingly acceptable substitute! I could not in good conscience recommend an island unless you are unfortunate enough to love a Spaniard. Spaniards love islands.

Harriet asks: How do I talk to women?

Dear Harriet: I receive this question a lot, although seldom from women. On the assumption that you are in fact a man with an unfortunate name and not the Harriet from the previous question, I will say this. As we all know, women produce a high-pitched fluting noise interspersed with musical laughter which is very pleasant to listen to. What you may not be aware of is that if you listen closely and try to imagine all the sounds an octave or so lower, you will discover that the noise they make is in fact French! Isn’t it remarkable? You will find that women know a surprising amount about estate management. Note: some women speak languages other than French; these are all deceitful temptresses, unless they are Armenians in which case they are fine and noble ladies all right Tancred are you happy now?

Philip asks: Should I tell my beloved I can read? I’m worried she’ll think I’m less of a man.

Dear Philip: you should never tell anyone you can read. Ever. They’ll be asking you to read stuff to them every blessed minute of the day. Sometimes I pretend my chaplain answers all my letters.

Christopher asks: 

Dear Bohemond,

My wife is making me go on this long foreign trip. Her father is a bit overbearing, and it’s a trait she’s inherited. I just sort of finished one and keep wanting to come back, and the abuse I get from my Adelicakes is crazy! She basically questions my manhood.

We’ve got a kid and I think I should be there as a father; otherwise what’s the boy going to amount to!!!!

Dear Christopher: this is a very good quest–hey, wait a minute! You can’t fool me, Stephen II! Fuck off out of here with your whining and take your idiot brother-in-law with you. Leave the knights.

PS: Your half-brother’s ex-wife is pretty cute; put in a good word for me?



Valentine’s Day With the Normans: Your Questions Answered

Valentine’s Day with the Normans

bohemond It’s that time of year, folks! It’s Valentine’s Day, or at least it will be! A time of year when many of us have questions about love and the heart. And who better to answer them than Bohemond of Taranto, otherwise Bohemond of Antioch, 11th-century Crusader and Italo-Norman warlord?

For this week only, we’ll be taking your questions about love and relationships and passing them on to Bohemond for answers. If you want the Prince of Antioch to answer your question, just post it in the comments here or on one of our social media sites (if you got here though Facebook or G+, for instance) or Tweet it to @gonzohistory.

We’ll post questions and answers on Friday!

Valentine’s Day with the Normans

Movie Monday: Alfred the Great (1969)

There are not a lot of films about Anglo-Saxon England, but this is definitely one of them.


No video this time, I’m afraid; you’ll just have to find your own copy and follow along.

So we open with some credits in a nice early-medieval-y font, which is cool. The closing credits are actually even nicer, but I didn’t get a picture of them.

credits1 credits2

We begin not with Alfred but with a shepherd and a barefoot young lady pausing in their sheep-herding (well, he’s sheep-herding, and she’s sitting on a rock playing with a flower) for some makeouts:



I thought this was a bit arbitrary until I remembered it was 1969.

However, their bosky osculating is interrupted  by the arrival of the Vikings, who pillage the place up, stab the young man, and steal the girl and the sheep.



The Vikings are suspiciously clean-shaven for the most part, although Guthrum (Michael York) has a little beard. I was a little weirded out by their standard black and grey uniforms. Not only is this not quite accurate, but it suggests a greater level of standardisation among the Viking armies than the English, which if anything should probably be the other way around. At a guess, it’s meant to make them look like zee Chermans, but it could also just be because they are, y’know, the bad guys. Anyway, we cut back to Alfred, who is about to become a priest. I’m too lazy to go look it up, but I’m not sure this actually happened; it’s just a way of saying that Alfred was famously pious. He is dragged out of seclusion by a dude named Aethelstan, who has come to point out that the kingdom of Wessex is at war and they kind of need their leaders to be fighting.



Aethelstan has apparently gone to Ireland for the purpose. Look at that fucking tower! He might as well be wearing a leprechaun hat. In fact, they shot this stuff in Ireland, so I expect they just used the convenient tower. If you don’t know your history, it certainly does look old-timey.

Anyway, Alfred is all torn between God and killing dudes, and this is like the main conflict of this film. In fact, there’s kind of a neat bit where the face of religious-Alfred appears on one side of the screen, warrior-Alfred on the other and then the Warrior turns toward the camera and the other fades away. This happens at several points during the film to indicate some change.



Alfred goes off and fights alongside brother Aethelred I (not “Aethelred the Unready,” that was Aethelred II) and beats the Vikings at the battle of Ashdown. There is a cool aerial shot where you can see that they have actually made a replica of the White Horse of Uffington, which I think is a little nod to Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse,” which is about Alfred.



So anyway, Alfred wants to go back to being a priest now that the enemy are defeated, but his brother has other plans and arranges a marriage for him with Ealhswith, the daughter of Burgred (here called “Burrud”), the king of Mercia. Ealhswith wasn’t actually Burgred’s daughter but the daughter of another Mercian nobleman. Alfred is initially unhappy with this, but then Ealhswith, who’s been standing with her back to him the whole time like Mary Jane Watson, turns around and he is like daaaaamn.



Also, I didn’t get a good photo, but “Burrud” is Peter Vaughan, from Remains of the Day and Game of Thrones and whatever. Also, Julian Glover’s in here somewhere, but I didn’t spot him. And Ealhswith’s sidekick is Sinead Cusack.

Alfred and Ealhswith start out with smiley verbal sparring but then he flips out, calls her an ignorant pair of tits and storms off, probably because she made fun of him for being able to read. The next day, she is out walking in an outfit that is quite possibly plausible enough but which looks like she’s on her way to pay a call on Mrs Bennet.



He runs into her while out hunting (his dog is called “Zeno,” which is actually pretty funny) and he, I am not making this up, sets his dog on her. And this is the thing that really gets her going; from this point on it’s smooch time. But she is legit frightened when this dog is trying to maul her. They play for keeps in the 9th century. They get married. The marriage is depicted as the families sitting around a table signing contracts, which I like. Oh, there’s Peter Vaughan.


But Aethelred dies and Alfred gets railroaded into being king, which pisses him off. He’s convinced Ealhswith is in on the plot and denounces her, but she lays on the I lurve you stuff and instead he just has horrible sex with her which leaves her pleading with God to help her understand why.

Anyway, being king turns Alfred into kind of a dick. When Guthrum attacks again, he tries to negotiate peace. Guthrum insists on a hostage, then chooses Ealhswith, and she’s like “hmmmm,” and off she goes, relying on the fact that she’s pregnant to keep her safe from his leching.

The stuff with Guthrum and Ealhswith is just … urgh. I get what they’re trying to do, which is twofold:

  1. Alfred is outwardly all Christian and just, but inwardly self-righteous, proud and judgmental. By contrast Guthrum is outwardly a barbarian but inwardly seems to actually be in love with Ealhswith.
  2. Michael York, ladies.

And fair enough. But coming on the heels of the dog-mauling bit, it’s just Ealhswith being a directionless playing piece and Guthrum being Zap Brannigan at her, with all the usual guff about being beautiful when you’re angry (because if a woman is so mad at you that she’s threatening to stab you, you should neither be afraid that she will nor concerned that she might be angry about something) and blah blah blah. So there’s that.

Alfred gets thumped by the Vikings when they re-re-invade, and runs off to the Somerset Levels to build up his resistance. There he encounters a merry band of rogues living in exile in the marshes, led by Young Ian McKellen!



Everybody’s in this fucking thing!

He teams up with this ragtag band of outlaws, they do some raids on the Vikings, he learns humility, etc., etc. Finally he sees the error of his previous ways and when his cheesed-off former followers threaten to overthrow him he apologises and says it’ll be justice and equal rights for all under the new regime. I have no idea why the privileged nobles go along with this, since they’re not pissed off at him for violating equal rights but for violating their traditional privileges, but what the hell, eh? They go off to fight the Danes at the battle of Edington, which, spoilers for a thing that happened nearly 1200 years ago, they win. At a critical moment, Ian McKellen, having hidden outside the lines with a clever ruse, turns up with reinforcements and victory is theirs, yadda yadda, but Ian McKellen dies.



Alfred and Ealhswith are kinda-sorta reconciled, but you can see it’s only the very tentative beginning of a reconciliation and they have a long way to go, which I think is a lot better than a big smooch at the end. Guthrum expresses an interest in converting to Christianity, which is a better image than him converting with Alfred’s boot on his neck, which is much more like what probably happened.

Roll credits.

The thing that immediately struck me about this movie was that there’s no story of the cakes! The one thing everyone knows about King Alfred. So that’s a bit weird.

History-wise, it’s there in outline, although it mainly uses it as a backdrop to explore the tensions between God and the state and the Alfred-Ealhswith love triangle. It compresses and simplifies a lot of things, naturally. Some of the English costumes and sets are quite accurate, while others are a bit anachronistic, like the various stone towers that seem to be everywhere. In general, it’s not perfect in terms of its historicity but better than I’d expected. Alfred’s sword says AETHELWULF MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (“Aethelwulf had me made”) on the blade, but I don’t think anyone in the film actually points this out, so there’s some cool attention to detail.

But the love triangle, oh lordy. I thought that a movie about Alfred the Fucking Great wouldn’t have any opportunity for a stock postwar Hollywood rapemance plotline, but oh how wrong I was. The things people put into the past (because they assume they’re “primal” or something) are both telling and dispiriting.

To cheer us all up, here’s a familiar face.



A-hyuck-a-hyuck-a-hi, kids!

Movie Monday: Alfred the Great (1969)