Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

Today we’ll be answering some questions that I ignominiously begged for received over on G+.

Reader Paul of The Scatterbrained Gamer asks:


OK, um … sadly, I get the impression that most of the fun things you hear about speakeasies are probably not true — the tables flipping over and so on. Or at least they were not that common.

What’s interesting to me about speakeasies is that they’re this very direct encounter that many people have with criminality, with breaking the law. And it was a law that was, at least in many places, routinely flouted. If you read contemporary discussions of it, they’re pretty funny. Here’s Ring Lardner on the subject:

It seems like about the biggest difference between now and 7 or 8 yrs. ago in big cities at lease is that in them days most cities had a law that you must close your saloon at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock. Now days according to the law, they ain’t no saloons so they can and do stay open as long as they feel like.

Which may strike a telling parallel to contemporary debates about legalisation of what-have-you; you tell me.

However, there are some odd people who join in the fight for or against the right to get your drank on. Here is shameless scandal-monger Herbert Asbury in his lesser-known oeuvre Gangs of Chicago:

Interspersed among the marchers were many elaborate floats, graphically condemning vice of every description. … Another, equipped by the Norwegian churches of Chicago, was occupied by twelve young men in armor, and a thirteenth in pink tights, representing the god Thor. About his neck hung a placard saying: “The Great God Thor with his hammer. The Norwegians will help smite the saloons.”

Thor, do you like speakeasies?


Reader Adam asks:

Cultural appropriation of Roman deities once the Romans settled in Britain?

Boundaries between “religions” were pretty permeable back in the day. The Romans, in particular, liked to decide that local deities were the same as the ones they worshipped back home. This makes sense if you think of the Roman religion as already having tons of distinct little local cults, each with its own sacred sites, traditional festivals and so on. So when they arrived in Britain, the Romans blended their religion with the religion of the locals easily enough.

Consider if you will Sulis Minerva.


The Roman name for Bath is Aquae Sulis, and Sulis seems to have been the local deity of the springs. When the Romans turned up, they identified Sulis with Minerva, and everything went great from there.

But not every local deity prospered in the same way as Sulis Minerva. Many of them are known from a very small number of inscriptions or artefacts. Here is one from Nettleton:


(“To the god Apollo Cunomaglus, Corotica son of Iutus, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow.”)

This is the only source we have, as far as I know, for Cunomaglus (“hound lord”). Some have suggested that he was some kind of hunting deity, which is not crazily inconsistent with Apollo, but we’re really just speculating.

So there are lots of combinations of British and Roman deities, and this is pretty standard practice for the Romans. It’s only when the Romans encounter a culture that is dead set against assimilating (Judaism, for instance) that things start to go a bit awkward.

Paul asks once again:

Powers behind the throne — from evil viziers to royal stewards.


Powers behind the throne are a weird facet of certain monarchies. I teach a fair amount of Tudor history, and it’s something you see a lot in the reign of Henry VIII, with people squabbling over access to the king and targeting the various “powers behind the throne” like Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. And it’s very odd, because it’s … it’s neither the case that the monarch is a helpless puppet nor that the favourite/minister is merely a royal servant. Once Cromwell gets taken out, he’s not replaced by someone else so much as he’s just replaced with nobody, and government gets very confusing.


In another way, the “evil vizier” is a very convenient fiction in a monarchy. If you’re opposed to the crown’s policies, you can blame them on “evil counsellors” and not have to confront the fact that the king is a dickhead. And if you’re the king and people are very unhappy with you, you can blame it on being misled by your ministers, throw them off the proverbial balcony and escape with your skin. In my mind, I associate this with the Byzantine Empire?

I have more questions to answer, but I will save them for another day!


Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

Bloody Vikings!

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about Vikings in movies and television; it’s a compulsion. But when the Vikings in question aren’t actually historical, I talk about them elsewhere. Which is to say that I have a review of Vikingdom over at sister blog Bad Movie Marathon.



Spoilers: It ain’t very good.

The movie, I mean. My review is terrific.

Bloody Vikings!

The shieldmaiden thing

So I mentioned in an earlier post that I had some reservations about the History Channel’s Vikings, which I think is better shot and acted than its scripts really merit. Unrelated to that is the idea of having some reservations about the show’s portrayal of lots of female warriors being a normal part of Viking society, and particularly the idea of the butt-kicking female main character, Lagertha.


Now, as it happens, if we’re going to have butt-kicking Viking shield maidens, I think Lagertha’s a fine one to have. She’s portrayed in a generally positive light, she’s not shown as being wimpy next to the male warriors, she’s attractive without having the camera constantly leer at her, she has interests outside stabbing. That’s all fine.

But …

but but but …

in both historical fiction and fantasy fiction, I sometimes feel like butt-kicking female fighters function as an implied criticism of actual women. This is tied in very strongly to the idea that women fighting are symbolic of female agency. Let me explain.

There are some people who don’t believe that you can have female fighters. This has been interpreted as a way of perpetuating a myth intended to deny women agency, an idea expressed in this excellent post by SF and fantasy writer Kameron Hurley. Hurley argues that there have always been women who fought, whether in a recognised combat role like the Dahomey “Amazons“, in male drag like Sarah Edmonds, or out of necessity in local uprisings and resistance movements. This is very true, and shouldn’t be discounted. Anyone who says that a female fighter character is implausible per se is talking nonsense.

But on the other hand, there is not a lot of evidence to suggest that women in, say, Viking Age Scandinavia went around fighting a lot. There are some finds of weapons in graves, but these days we don’t even necessarily believe that weapons in male graves indicate a combat role.

And there is a lot of media out there that supports the idea that a female character’s only options are to fight or be a victim. Phil Barker or one of the other authors of Hordes of the Things distinguished between heroines, who get captured and scream, and female heroes, who fight. Also there was that dreadful meme going around a few months ago that showed a bunch of gun-toting SF heroines, who were contrasted with heroines from more mainstream media. Apparently having guns and/or knowing kung fu makes female characters interesting?

I think … I think the thing that bothers me about the whole shieldmaidens-are-great idea is that historically most women, probably almost all women in most cultures, were not fighters. So if we’re saying that women who fight have agency and women who don’t are a bunch of hapless victims, then we’re saying that the vast majority of women were chumps and that only these mostly-unreal female fighters are good. And furthermore, we’re saying that women are primarily interesting and exciting insofar as they excel in a typically male-dominated area, i.e. insofar as they behave like men.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that that’s a message that Vikings is trying to send — I don’t think that it’s trying to portray Lagertha as more interesting, more in control, more whatever than the other main female characters, Aslaug and Siggy. But I do think that there’s a detectable trend among fans to view her, and comparable female characters in other media, in that light. And I think it’s the ahistorical nature of these female fighters that makes the implied comparison, not just to those other fictional characters but to the actual women of that era and others, problematic.

I dunno. I can definitely see the appeal of the shieldmaiden — it’s a powerful image and a powerful metaphor. And I’d hate to lose it altogether. It’s just … been niggling at me for a bit.

The shieldmaiden thing

Movie Monday: Lionheart (2003)

I know it’s been a long time since our last Movie Monday, but I started to run out of cheeseball epics and I don’t hate myself enough to watch Bonekickers. Yet.

But our film today is a little bit of an oddity. It is:


I spotted this 2003 made-for-TV film at a charity shop or a car boot sale or somewhere and yoinked it without thinking about it — for blogging purposes! Then I sort of forgot about it for a bit. The thing that mainly fascinated me about it was that it purported to be a family drama about the relationship between Henry II and his family. I figured that the filmmakers had to have some pretty big brass balls to do that, since, you know, The Lion in Winter exists already.

So I sit down and I start watching this, and it has a pretty good cast. As Henry II, you’ve got Patrick Stewart:


And here’s Glenn Close as an Elf of the Last Alliance Eleanor of Aquitaine.


You know the story: Richard and Geoffrey rebel against Henry (there is nothing so ludicrous as the sight of eight guys double-timing somewhere in two ranks. It looks like an episode of Sharpe), they lose, Henry locks Eleanor up, and I’m starting to think hang on

… it is The Lion in Winter!

And it is! A 2003 made for TV remake — you can even buy it under its original name. I have to say that that DVD cover gives a very misleading impression.

Also, Prince John is Rafe Spall, back when he was fat! He is charmingly awkward.

johnnyAnyway, I’m not going to point-by-point review the whole thing, because if I’m going to talk about The Lion in Winter, I’m going to talk about the one with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn.

It’s interesting, though: there are some bits of history that are seen as good opportunities for personal drama. Henry VIII, obviously, but Henry II is another one. Is it just the influence of The Lion in Winter? I guess I have previously reviewed Becket on this blog, and then when I was a kid I certainly read A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. It seems to be a thing. Whereas Richard II is mainly in action movies and adventure novels.

Also, Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the king of France in this, looking exactly like Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a big dumb crown on his head.


So anyway. It is a version of The Lion in Winter. I was surprised. It has some good people in it, the production values are reasonable, and it’s overall quite good fun, but whatever flaws of interpretation it has are just the flaws of interpretation of the original, so it’s hard to say anything too exciting about it.

Movie Monday: Lionheart (2003)

James Bond — yesterday’s cool

So, lately I have been amusing myself by picking up the James Bond novels when I see them in charity shops, at car boot sales or library sales, and so on. I haven’t read that many of them — I’ve read Dr NoLive and Let DieGoldfingerDiamonds are Forever, and, er, the one with the skiing. Is that On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceAnd maybe one more.

I enjoy them primarily as period pieces. There is a certain amount of thrilling action in them, but mainly there is a lot of shopping and vacationing. And sometimes golf. And racism.

I think my favourite thing in them, though, is the cool newness of the 1950s. For instance, Diamonds are Forever (I think) has a really long section where James Bond flies to America. And, I mean, these are not long novels. They are quick beach-reading thrillers. But still it has this whole long rigmarole: James Bond packs his suitcase. He goes to Heathrow. He has lunch. He gets on the plane. He goes to Ireland. He gets off the plane. He has dinner. He gets on the plane and flies to New York. He goes through customs. He goes to the hotel. He has breakfast. It goes on forever.

But of course in the 1950s international air travel was still very new, very glamorous. James Bond is doing something exotic and cool and his readers can go “wow, it must be great to be this sophisticated globe-trotter.”



So in that respect they’re fascinating. But they’re also, of course, very dated — sometimes unpleasantly (James Bond thinks letting women vote has turned men into “pansies”) and sometimes hilariously. Here is Bond asking Goldfinger about his henchman Oddjob:

“I was very impressed by that chauffeur of yours. Where did he lean that fantastic combat stuff? Where did it come from? Is that what the Koreans use?”

[Stuff about the food and wine]

… Goldinger said, “Have you ever heard of Karate? No? Well that man is one of three in the world who have achieved the Black Belt in Karate. Karate is a branch of judo, but it is to judo what a Spandau is to a catapult.”

It’s just amazing. I love the breathless hyperbole, I love the “have you ever heard of … Karate?” I can’t decide whether it’s funnier to imagine him saying it “Kara-TAY” or “Kroddy.” It’s just … in 1959 maybe having heard of karate made you a baller, but in the world of mini-mall dojos it’s the most charmingly dumb thing imaginable.

I wonder what the modern equivalents will be. My friend Ted used to refer to forms of wealth in spy stories as “katana currency,” that is to say currency which has some kind of cheap exoticism attached to make it cool and memorable. A briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills is currency, but conflict diamonds are katana currency. That kind of thing. Like bad guys in movies always being ex-Spetsnaz. No one can ever just be a former used car salesman from Magnitogorsk who goes to the gym a lot and has no regard for human life. And in the 80s everyone was a ninja. Next it’ll be … I don’t know what. Some other thing. But it’s really sweet to see that in 1959 it was karate.

James Bond — yesterday’s cool

When Animals Attack!

One of the gaming blogs I read is the typically-NSFW Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Pornstars, written by Zak Smith. He’s got a very good article on The Toast today: German Rocket Cats: A Meditation.

German Rocket Cats are one of those things that come from a Renaissance manuscript and most people don’t think they’re real. In fact, the name is kind of a misnomer: the idea is that you strap an incendiary device to a cat, which then runs off and does what cats do, i.e. make a little nest for itself in a heap of straw, and hey presto the enemy castle or town burns down. It’s just the kind of mix of pointless cruelty and impracticality that smacks of urban legend. But it’s still interesting.


Rocket cats  2




Now, if you have read a lot of post-medieval scientific texts, you will find some funny shit in them. For instance, consider this advice from 17th-century physician Jan Baptist van Helmont:

Carve an indentation in a brick, fill it with crushed basil, and cover the brick with another, so that the indentation is completely sealed.  Expose the two bricks to sunlight, and you will find that within a few days, fumes from the basil, acting as a leavening agent, will have transformed the vegetable matter into veritable scorpions.

Now, it is perfectly obvious that this is not the case, and yet Helmont wrote it down and printed it, so we can be reasonably sure that just because someone thought of something doesn’t mean they ever put it into practice — since even a cursory examination would ruin Van Helmont’s scorpion factory concept.

Now, in his article Smith cites a bunch of other instances of animals being used in warfare, including the ol’ Roman flaming pig:


Or the incendiary sparrow strategy legendarily deployed by Saint Olga.

Those are city-burner eyes.
Those are city-burner eyes.

Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.

And again, whether it’s true or not, I think it’s important. In short: people will write crazy stuff down even if it’s completely untrue, but people will do barbaric shit, even if it’s a terrible and impractical idea. Which is kinda sorta what Smith is saying in his article, but he does a much better job of it.

Here is a Soviet anti-tank dog from WWII:

anti-tank_dog_mine weird weapons of war3

When Animals Attack!


A lot of people, when they think of the middle ages, think of torture chambers and so on. Castles tend to have displays of torture devices, including things like iron maidens, choke pears and so on.

Iron Maiden

Now, while people got tortured all the damn time in the middle ages (and indeed in the post-medieval period, which is when most of your really famous torturing happens), there is not really any evidence to suggest that the iron maiden and the choke pear were real — instead, they seem to reflect a salacious, sensational 19th-century fascination with medieval torture. Torture chambers were a staple scene of Gothic literature, but it’s hard to imagine that most castles had one — a dedicated room just for torturing people? You would have to be torturing a lot of people for that to be worthwhile.

I wonder if it’s not to do with the fact that most historical tortures sound a little prosaic? I mean, take this image of the bastinado, a characteristic torture or form of punishment used in many parts of the world during many periods: basically, they hit your feet with a stick a lot.



That doesn’t sound as scary or salacious or sadistic as some kind of purpose-built device for inflicting gradual horrible death on someone, but I bet the experience of going through it would be absolutely horrifying. And I suspect that’s it: if honest-to-god tortures are simple and prosaic and horrifying to experience, they aren’t always horrifying to hear about. “And then, as the spikes slowly entered his body, he could feel his own blood and vitreous humours seeping slowly out, and with the certain knowledge that he was beginning a slow, agonising death, his sanity fled…”. That’s some chilling stuff right there. “And then they hit him a bunch of times with a stick” doesn’t have the same terrifying oomph, even if the experience would be absolutely horrible.

If you wanted to wonder whether modern torture is intentionally prosaic and blah in order to minimise its apparent impact, I would wonder along with you.