Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

I have written on this blog before about sensationalism and the kind of mixed reaction I have to it. I’ve had several conversations recently, though, that had me thinking about it again. As always, I’m just thinking out loud here — quite unsure how I feel.

So if we’re going to talk about sensationalism, let’s talk about berserkers.


So, if you’re like most people, when you think of the Viking period, you think of berserkers — fearsome warriors clad in bear or wolf skins who would go into an unstoppable battle frenzy! Everyone likes a good berserker, and they turn up in everything from the TV show to games about the period. You can see a few such characters I’ve painted up for wargames above, so don’t imagine that I’m immune to the fascination.

The berserker image is potent, and it’s potent because it’s simple — giving up everything and surrendering yourself to this overwhelming fury. It’s the simplicity that gives it its intensity, and the intensity that gives it its popularity. But like all very simple images, it’s an oversimplification.

I recently watched a video about berserkers by Nikolas “lindybeige” Lloyd, which I thought was very good, although in my view it comes to too sweeping a conclusion: “it wasn’t like this, it was like that,” instead of it “it wasn’t like this, we’re not sure what the deal was,” which I think is where the evidence points.

If you’re interested in reading more, I would check out Berserkjablogg, which I think (I should have written it down) is run by lindybeige’s source. In particular, the cited passages are in this post. Based on the literary evidence — and that’s a whole extra kettle of fish right there, of course, but since the literary evidence is largely where our berserker image comes from, it might as well be what we use to criticise it — it seems like we’re seeing much more complicated, some kind of understood social identity of being a berserk. This identity had something to do with animal qualities, but it doesn’t mean that some kind of unreasoning frenzy was a psychological reality for the Vikings particularly.

Now, to me, that’s actually much more interesting. But just like everyone else, it’s the sensational, romantic version of the thing that attracted me in the first place. And although I don’t hate to lose it — I can keep the fantasy version in my head with the real one with no problem — I do feel like on the one hand I want to deplore the way movies and games simplify everything while on the other hand I want to … revel in it?

Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.


So, over on my gaming blog I’ve spoken about it being the Christmas in July sale over at DriveThru RPG, but obviously that’s less immediately relevant to my history blog …

… or is it?!

Because actually over on sister site DriveThru Fiction there’s actually some good stuff on sale if you read ebooks — mainly in that fantastic-history genre that I’ve written about before. Here are a few of the standouts:


I wrote an earlier review (several actually) of Ken Hite’s The Nazi Occult, a wonderful fake-history book, written as an Osprey history of Nazi occult research. It’s on sale now for about £5!

Other related Osprey titles are on sale, including Graeme Davis‘s book on the Knights Templar, an interesting-looking one on the legends of Charlemagne and his Paladins, and a Steampunk Soldiers art book that I looked at longingly at Salute 2015.

I have previously reviewed The Flying Serpent: Or, Strange News Out of EssexIt is good fun and very cheap!

And of course my very own The Barest Branch is still on sale for criminally little.

Tomorrow: actual content!


Reader questions answered!

A while ago, pressed for time, I asked people to ask me for the answers to questions about history. As they always do, they asked me about things I know nothing about. But I did my best! If you know anything about these topics, you know more than I do, but I’ll do my best.

Why did the Holy Roman Empire never properly form into a country? 

What could possibly be confusing about this?
What could possibly be confusing about this?

“Properly form into a country” presumes that there’s a certain endpoint for the development of a nation-state, which I’m not 100% convinced by, but in Europe, there is a trend toward state formation that I’m in no way smart enough to generalise about. And definitely the HRE is an exception to that trend — it doesn’t become the kind of entity that you eventually see in the 19th century. But I’m not sure that isn’t just because it gets stomped by France early on. That catalyses a lot of the trends that eventually result in the emergence of Germany as a nation, but I don’t know enough about the period and the place to know whether you would have had the same outcome in an HRE that successfully fended off the French. Maybe not, since I think you could argue that its particular form of fragmented feudalism was hostile to those trends? But certainly when you look at a lot of other countries in Europe, Germany is becoming a big nation with a flag and whatnot at the same time they are.

“Lost” countries

Lost countries are kind of interesting — obviously we are all living in some lost countries, since a variety of different English and Welsh and whatever kingdoms and principalities become first England, Scotland and Wales and then the Britain that we roughly recognise. And it’s the same all over Europe — things that we see as being distinct cultural identities originating as combinations of different now-gone countries. And those lost countries persist in some sense even after they’re gone; Northumbria as a kingdom ceases to exist in the mid-10th century, but over 100 years later stuff is going down in the wake of the Conquest and the Danish invasion that reminds you that it was once its own country.

I guess what I mean to say is that in a feudal society the nature of a “country” is a little less well-defined than we’re used to in the modern day. And some of them get subsumed into a larger identity easily (the example in the question was Burgundy, which is a pretty good example), and some don’t (Cornwall retains a really distinct identity, despite having been part of England since basically forever).

I guess what both of these questions are ultimately asking is what even are country, which is kind of an interesting thought in our country at this particular time, right?

Reader questions answered!

Movie Monday: Wild Bill (1995)


I’ve always been fascinated by the way history becomes mythology, and what better time and place to study that than the Old West? After all, this is the age of people who were simultaneously real gun-toting frontier characters and self-promoting hucksters who traded on their fame as gun-toting frontier characters, people like Buffalo Bill Cody and, of course, Wild Bill Hickok. So is Wild Bill going to tell us anything we don’t know about the complex nature of these old-timey characters?

It ain’t.

Three things struck me about this film, so let’s take them in order.

1) This movie is a mess. The second half of it has a plot — David Arquette plays the son of a woman Bill (Jeff Bridges) loved and left; convinced that Bill mistreated his mother, he comes gunning for him despite not being much of a gunfighter. But this plot is barely present in the first half of the movie. Instead, we get a whole bunch of scenes supposedly illustrative of Hickok’s character (“liked shooting people, enjoys a drink” is the gist of it) narrated by his pal Charlie (John Hurt). Some of them are in black and white and some are not … because …

Ellen Barkin is Calamity Jane, and she loves Bill, I guess? But, again, she’s not really in the first bit. Also, Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine and James Remar show up in bit parts. Mostly we just get to see Bill stomp around shooting people and making old-timey pronouncements until it suddenly becomes a stage play about fathers and sons. It’s like this story with Calamity Jane and David Arquette got rivetted to the back of this other movie that was Celebrated Incidents in the Life of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok or something.

Also, Hickok was only 39 when he died, which is actually kind of a sobering thought.

2) There is no escaping the shadow of a man’s self-aggrandizement. Or others’ aggrandizement of him. James Butler Hickok was a sort of all-purpose rogue and heavy who wound up shooting some people in various conflicts of dubious justification until himself being shot in such a situation. He’s famous mainly because impressionable Eastern journalists wrote a load of stuff about him and because anyone who wound up in Buffalo Bill Cody’s orbit got a little bit of showbiz glamour from it (although the euphonious Texas Jack Omohundro should be better known — he had an adopted son named Texas Jack Jr. That’s an amazing name).

3) I may not have been very impressed with this film, and audiences at the time certainly don’t seem to have been, but you know who was? Joel and Ethan Coen, or so it seems. I’m not saying that this is a movie where Jeff Bridges plays a grumpy, cussed old west marshal. I’m saying that this is a movie where Jeff Bridges plays a grumpy, cussed old west marshal that ends with a rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Is that a hell of a coincidence or am I missing something?

Unfortunately, it’s like whatsisname’s law, only with a time machine — just like Overdrawn at the Memory Bank shouldn’t keep reminding people that Casablanca exists, Wild Bill suffers from the existence of True Grit, even though it came 15 years later.

I always thought it was Hickock, but he spelled it Hickok except when he called himself Haycock or Hitchcock. Names in the past are just a whole different thing.

Movie Monday: Wild Bill (1995)

A quick check-in post

Apologies for no post yesterday! I had connection problems all day and was out all evening. Today I just want to post a few links, but I promise I’ll have a long post for Movie Monday, as we take on a suspiciously familiar legend of the Old West!

In the meantime, though, if you’ve enjoyed my posts about the History Channel’s Vikings, you should head on over to Howard Williams’s blog, where he is looking at various aspects of early medieval culture in the show with an attitude of … affectionate skepticism? Bemused tolerance? Anyway, it’s definitely worth reading; pop culture medieval stuff looked at by a bona fide expert on the topic. I don’t know where he finds the patience, honestly.

Aaaaanyhow, speaking of Vikings, it’s the Christmas in July sale over at DTRPG and DriveThru Fiction, and that means The Barest Branch, my novella of Viking/Lovecraftian horror and hopelessness, is a mere $2.25 American, in MOBI or PDF. I hear getting the mobi file onto the Kindle app as opposed to an actual device is tricky, though. Your mileage may vary.

A quick check-in post

I like Alfred Duggan

I have written in the past about historical fiction, including a passing mention of Alfred Duggan, but I thought today I’d slow down and take a look at his work.


I first encountered Alfred Duggan when I picked up a copy of Count Bohemond at a yard sale back in California. In fact, I think either my wife got it for me or pointed it out to me, knowing that I was fascinated by Bohemond. I was equally fascinated by the novel, which is strange to the modern reader of historical fiction in a way that’s hard to describe.


I mean, I’m assuming that since you’re reading my blog you’ve read a modern historical novel or two — your Bernard Cornwells or what have you. The literary equivalent of a thin coating of mud and grime on everything. But that’s … not quite what Duggan is like. Let me give you an example.

It was late before Tancred returned to his own pavilion, bot Bohemond had persuaded him against further revenge. That boy could always be guided by an appeal to honour. It was just that his honourable thirst for vengeance was stronger sometimes than his other honourable sentiments. After hearing the advice of an older and wiser man he would always do the right thing. But how that boy enjoyed his emotions, how he wallowed in the luxurious depths of his honour! He must be the centre of attention. Probably he had been just as happy exchanging the Kiss of Peace with Count Baldwin before a crowd of admiring spectators as he would have been, if things had turned out a little differently, kneeling on Baldwin’s chest to hack off his head.

I thought that combination of matter-of-fact description and dry humour was just the character of Bohemond, the kind of ruthless scumbag that comes out of a particularly nasty set of territorial conflicts to become Prince of Antioch. But actually, it’s just how Duggan writes — the same … restraint? … is present in all his novels.

I think this is probably what Evelyn Waugh was referring to when he said:

They are there to be studied by all whose taste is not debauched by modern excesses; lucid, plausible stories, humorous, wry and exact. A particular palate is required for their savour.

Now, the other thing that Waugh pointed out about Duggan’s work was that it’s all grounded within a context of firm Christian faith. So, for instance, we’re supposed to be very moved at the end of Count Bohemond when we hear that

The 24th of December 1099 was the first Christmas Eve for more than 450 years on which free, armed Christians might celebrate the Nativity in Bethlehem.

I think it’s notable that the action of the novel follows Bohemond, which means that it skips the actual conquest of Jerusalem so you don’t get all the, y’know, wholesale slaughter of civilians. That’s not to say that Duggan portrays Christians as good guys all the time — we see that Bohemond is a flawed character, sincerely pious but self-interested. Same is true of the characters in his other books. It’s just weird in the 21st century to see a version of the Norman Conquest that presents to the Normans not only as the good guys but as self-evidently the good guys.

Also, although Duggan loved military history, castles, weapons and so on he writes fight scenes in that same slightly detached style, completely different from the modern trend. What’s more, in some of his books, like Winter Quarters, his protagonists just lose battle after battle. If that’s what happened, that’s what happened.

Oh, another thing! Duggan’s father was an Irish-Argentinian diplomat who died when Duggan was very young; his mother than married Lord Curzon. Which means that Duggan’s stepfather owned, among other places, Bodiam Castle — and the first scene of Duggan’s first novel is set there! Oh Bodiam, will I ever escape you?


(I imagine it to this tune):

Anyway, I like Alfred Duggan a lot, and not just because he published his first novel at 47 after spending the first half of his life just boozing and partying. I affect bemusement at how different his style is from the modern trend, but it is, like the man said, clear and perceptive. I personally have a love for Count Bohemond and Knight With Armour because they’re about the First Crusade, but if you like ancient history you could check out Winter Quarters; I still haven’t read Conscience of the King but I probably should.

I like Alfred Duggan

The history of history: a reminder

So, I’m not going into the history of history in a lot of detail here, but I want to illustrate a point about it in the form of a quote. I may have done this before; if I have, apologies. This is from Tacitus’s Agricola, and it’s a commonly-quoted speech delivered by the British chieftain Calgacus prior to the battle of Mons Graupius in about 83 AD.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

That last part is typically quoted as “they make a desert and call it peace.” Pick your translation.

So … did Tacitus have, what, like a guy with a wax tablet standing behind Calgacus as he made his speech, scribbling away like mad and translating from Caledonian to Latin on the fly?

Like this?
Like this?

Did he bollocks. He just wanted to put some stuff into the voice of a noble barbarian chieftain that made people go “mmm, good point” and feel good about not feeling good about the Roman empire. In essence, Calgacus was the crying Native American of his age. And like that guy, he might not even have been real! It’s possible that Tacitus just made him up.

But here’s the other thing: no Roman reader thought that it was real either. Like, if they thought about it for a moment they must have known that there was no way on earth that Tacitus could have got the text of a speech Calgacus gave. Did medieval readers? I don’t know; a lot of people have based their thinking about medieval monks on the premise that medieval monks weren’t a bunch of credulous dipshits, which I’m not sure is accurate.

You can work out the implications for yourself, I’m sure.


The history of history: a reminder