Historical development, “authenticity,” morality.

I was talking to a friend the other day about daily life in, say, early Imperial Rome and how, as he pointed out, many aspects of it would be familiar to modern people — apartment buildings, elections, jobs, shops, etc. Obviously a lot of it would also be very alien to the modern mind, and we need to be sure all the apartment buildings and banks don’t make it seem more familiar than it really is, but there are definitely ways in which it echoes modern life.

You can just hear the sitcom theme.
You can just hear the sitcom theme.

Let’s say, for instance, that you somehow travelled back in time to the first century A.D. or so and that, motivated by some inexplicable urge, you joined the Roman army. In many ways, the experience of military life would have a lot in common with modern military life: orders, officers, drill, marching, training, losing your mess kit and having it stopped out of your pay. Some aspects would be unfamiliar — the Roman army’s fondness for punishing infractions by just beating the living hell out of you, for instance — but the structure would have a lot of similarities. It would be much more obviously similar to modern military life than, say, pursuing a career as a soldier in the 11th century, at least in Britain.

Do I get paid extra for this, or ...
Do I get paid extra for this, or …

Now, people have, I think, a tendency to assume that history sort of progresses in one direction; that things were once a certain way and that they have evolved over time in a particular direction. Obviously if you know anything about history, you know this is not true. But it seems to be a hard idea to shake for many.

I mention this because it’s coming up a lot in political and moral discussions lately. It seems to be possible for people to simultaneously believe both that the authentic, “original” version of something is what really matters and also that the past is a weird, barbaric place that evolves toward our perfect modern selves. I presume the distinction is to do with things that the speaker thinks would benefit them.

I have to check this kind of “well, in the old days” nostalgia a bit myself; like a lot of people who studied history, I have a little bit of an antiquarian or even romantic attachment to earlier eras, even though I know that they were not as one imagines them. Sometimes, in the old days, Cambridge would sweep me up in all its old-timey pomp and ceremony and I’d daydream about olden times before remembering that in olden times they didn’t let people like me into Cambridge. (That’s assuming I’d even be me in olden times, but you know what i mean.)

So, yeah. Imaginative projection into the past is an interesting way to think about differences between societies, and it’s fun, and its lure is very strong.

Historical development, “authenticity,” morality.

Movie Monday: Ao, the Last Hunter (2010)


I try not to watch too many World War II movies for Movie Monday, but there are just so dingdang many. When I get the chance, therefore, to watch a movie like Ao, the Last Hunter (French title Ao, the Last Neanderthal) I jump at it.

I think … is it weird that it really bothered me that the movie was in French? I mean, it had subtitles and my French is … all right-ish. But to an English-speaker, the sound of French is associated with elegance and sophistication in a way that no amount of cultural relativism will ever get rid of. So even though a) it’s stupid to think of Neanderthals as “primitives” or whatever, and b) it’s not like they spoke English either.

Continue reading “Movie Monday: Ao, the Last Hunter (2010)”

Movie Monday: Ao, the Last Hunter (2010)

Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent

As you’ve no doubt been informed by the rest of the internet, August 20th is the birthday — the 125th — of none other than H. P. Lovecraft, creator of the “Cthulhu Mythos” (not a term he used) and pioneer of modern horror. I have spoken about Lovecraft’s use of history and archaeology in the past, but I thought I’d give a bullet-point version of the story today.


Continue reading “Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent”

Lovecraft and history: the love of the ancient and permanent

Rainy Tuesday Roundup

Not a lot going on here at One Gonzo Plaza at the moment, although I do have some fun trips planned for the near future. In the meantime, though, here’s a collection of shorter items.

  • I read another Bernard Cornwell Viking-y novel. I honestly can’t remember if I had read the previous one, because they are pretty much all the same. I’m not hating; dude sells books with his formula and that’s fair enough. But they really are a bit repetitive. Gruff hero, bad priests, likable sidekicks, outnumbered!!, won anyway. They’re even pretty similar to his post-Roman Britain books, reading “Vikings” for “Saxons” throughout. Those ones were better, though. Anyway, my point is that if you can write what is essentially the same damn book ten times but in two totally different historical periods I wonder how much the period really matters. I suppose he chose them for similarities.
  • Further to recent thoughts about how many books I own, packing up books (well, so far, thinking about packing up books) for an impending future move has got me thinking about periods I want to expand my collection on. Like, I’m not really a modern guy, but I keep seeing books about modern history that I am interested in. I had the chilling realisation that I felt the same way when looking at my comic book collection and wondering which titles I wanted to collect seriously.
  • There are days, and today is one of them, when I feel like the edutainment grind is a lot of work for comparatively little reward. Looking back over this blog actually helps me feel like I have written and done some OK things.
  • I promise better jokes on Thursday.

That is all; it wasn’t much of a post but it counted.

Rainy Tuesday Roundup

Under the Wire

This post is a little late, but it’s still Friday and therefore I have not violate my posting schedule. That might seem trivial to you, but it matters to me.

I am (hopefully) moving house before long, so I’m getting ready to pack up my stuff — and when we talk about my stuff, we’re obviously talking about books. So naturally today I bought a couple of new history books. They were only 67p the pair!


I don’t even really care about Germany in the high middle ages. But it was so cheap!

I may have a problem.

Under the Wire

Modern history, global conflict, “relevance” and me.

So as I mentioned, I’ve been part of a team teaching this history course. It’s just a short one, and I’ve only had a few classes in it, but I’ve had the chance to chat to a few of the students and for the most part they’ve told me that they’re mainly interested in modern history. And I’ve sort of jokingly asked why.

Now, this may not be obvious about me from this blog, but I was originally a modern-history guy. When I started as an undergrad, I was primarily interested in 19th and 20th century topics — in fact, I regarded the Cambridge undergrad history requirement that you do a period before 1700 as a frustrating waste of time. But after spending a summer faffing about trying to write an undergraduate dissertation and failing, I decided to take another course instead of do the long paper, and I wound up doing “the Vikings in Europe.” I found the methodological challenges of early medieval history so much more compelling; plus also Vikings are cool. I switched over and never looked back; it just seemed obvious to me.

Now, partly, I wonder if there was also the question of “relevance.” People will often tell you that modern history is more relevant to the modern world — that certainly seems to be what my students believe. But I think that I didn’t necessarily feel that way when I was younger. I don’t know that I was convinced of the relevance of any of it.

I grew up at the very tail end of the Cold War. The rivalry between the US and the USSR was still very much a thing, although it wasn’t exactly at Cuban Missile Crisis levels, but at least to me as a kid it seemed like background noise. It was a fact about the world — one that I was perhaps a little more aware of than other kids due to my father’s work? — but not something that seemed like an evolving narrative. It just … was.

So when it ended, it was a surprise, but narratively it wasn’t terribly compelling. No big confrontation, no shots fired, it just ended (yes, that’s an oversimplification). And in place of all the rhetoric about conflict and good and evil, you got Bill Clinton. Now, I think that people who proclaimed “the end of history” were, shall we say, overstating the case slightly (yes, yes, I know that’s not quite what Fukuyama meant), but it definitely worked itself into my subconscious. Same goes for the UK; a lot of people were very happy about the results of the ’97 election — some unbelievable tit even put up a sign that said Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! on the door of my college’s library the next morning — but I don’t think anyone really ever got excited about Tony Blair. Not in a positive way. These days, of course, we’d all like to see him chased by dogs, which would be exciting in its own way, but in those days he seemed like a bland leader for a bland age.

I remember staying up late in November 2000 to watch the election results and seeing the Florida recount controversy beginning and just thinking “well … it doesn’t really make any difference. Nothing important’s going to happen no matter which of these guys is in charge.”


Now, partly that’s a special state of mind called “being 22,” but I think a bigger part of it is that tendency to ignore the wider picture in the world if it doesn’t affect you directly. After all, things were not tranquil in those days in most parts of the world; it’s just that there wasn’t a really huge international conflict that affected either of the places I was living then, which is what usually captures our attention. Perhaps another part of it is that, looking back, my high school history education tended to treat things like the struggle for civil rights as being largely over. I don’t know if that was intentional, but that’s perhaps what I took away from it.

I remember thinking to myself at some point in the early 2000s that history was actually still happening, and experiencing that with interest. Maybe it’s just that enough time has passed since my breakup with modern history that I’m ready to start being friends with it again.

But of course that is not true of my students — they’re children of a post-Cold-War generation, and they’re mostly not from the US or Britain, and to them there’s never been any doubt of the relevance of modern history. They just have a little blind spot about the relevance of ancient and medieval history, and I hope that my classes helped them out a little with that.

Modern history, global conflict, “relevance” and me.

Movie Monday: That Hamilton Woman! (1941)


I … I don’t know how I feel about this thing; if you’re going to dramatise some aspect of Nelson’s life, maybe his adulterous relationship with the woman who enabled his pathological narcissism is not going to be as good a movie as the bit with all the blazing battle action. But it was £1.50 and, y’know …

Actually, in fairness this is really the story of Lady Hamilton, who did have a pretty interesting life. The script and Leigh do a good job of making you feel sympathetic toward someone who is — basically through no fault of her own — a scheming, deceptive chancer. Unless, that is, the film expects us to believe her “I’m good! I know I’m good!” We shall see.

Emma Hart as Circe c.1782 George Romney 1734-1802 Bequeathed by Lady Wharton 1945 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05591
Emma Hart as Circe c.1782 George Romney 1734-1802 Bequeathed by Lady Wharton 1945 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05591

Also, I am deeply creeped out to learn that Amy Lyon changed her name to Emma Hart because Charles Greville wanted her to — apparently a certain respectability is demanded even of a gentleman’s mistress.

I’m not saying it was wartime, but when Olivier turns up as Nelson, the soundtrack literally just plays Rule Britannia. He tells the Hamiltons that Britain and France are at war while she’s fretting about why the French ambassador hasn’t replied to her dinner invitation, and she gets a great line:

War? Well, that’s torn it. Bang goes the French ambassador.

I am very impressed that after giving his speech about how tiny little Britain fights alone when all of Europe is in deadly peril, Alan Mowbray doesn’t turn to the camera and go ‘ehhh? Ehhhh?‘ Apparently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were angry at Korda for trying to mess with American neutrality — but their hearing was scheduled for, er, mid-December of 1941.

Anyway, over the course of the war and some good old-fashioned maiming, Nelson returns to Naples, falls in lerve with her, wins the Battle of the Nile off-screen and returns to a hero’s welcome. But everything is going to hell in Naples; the Neapolitan campaign is about to kick off. I was disappointed that Nelson didn’t react to being made a baron the way he did in real life; he complained bitterly about it because he didn’t think it was enough. They garble the account of the evacuation of Naples a bit, and they leave out most of the hanging of prisoners and so on.

I think it is a bit of a shame that they’ve got Vivien Leigh playing “the most beautiful woman in the world” and she’s about half the size of Emma Hamilton.

The portrayal of the Nelson family is not sympathetic. But having Lady Nelson around makes Emma get all moody about how what they’re doing is wrooooong. This is not, as far as I can see, something she ever believed in real life. She sort of suggests that he can’t get divorced because he’s a national symbol, but I mean … she was a professional mistress before they met, y’know?

As William Hamilton dies, there’s some good discussion of the financial situation; it’s hard to make that sound non-mercenary, but I think that’s how people discussed these things.

And then a conversation about how “you cannot make peace with dictators.” Topical!

Anyway, you know how this ends. Trafalgar, England expects, jolly tars gazing at the signal flags, stirring music. A choir literally sings “Heart of Oak.” The model ships are rather charming. Nelson’s death scene is based on the published account, but he dies with a flopping motion that absolutely calls out for an URK! But the main Leigh plotline handles it with a certain melodramatic dignity.

To summarise, Emma Hamilton can fuck right off (seriously, read that thing she said about Lady Nelson), but this movie is not so bad. Olivier is … Olivier. Fortunately he’s playing a boring stiff.

Movie Monday: That Hamilton Woman! (1941)

History and identity

In my last post, I mentioned teaching this history class and trying to relate what we were covering to the modern world. My students — inexplicably, but what can you do — tell me that they really care about contemporary history and are less interested in the medieval. So instead we’re going to focus on how images of the medieval and ancient world are used in propaganda. For example:

norway.a.fighting.alley.wwII.poster norwayposter

Here we’ve got two of the same image — Viking ship as symbol of shared Germanic heritage and Viking ship as symbol of Norwegian national identity. We’re going to have a good old chat about it tomorrow; given that my students come from half a dozen different countries, I think we’re likely to have some varied examples of how history is used to create cultural identity.

It’s always a risk asking kids questions about big historical themes; my school-year class tend to prefer getting asked fact-based, dates-and-places questions that they know they can get right or wrong, but the impression I get from this group is the opposite. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes.

History and identity

Going In Blind

Over the summer, I teach at one of those summer programs for foreign students here in Cambridge; it’s interesting work, the students are motivated and energetic and the people who run it are very friendly. I usually teach just one class in July, but this summer I’m also part of the team teaching a history class in August.

Now, the way this works is that there are, I dunno, four or five of us, and we each come in and teach part of the course based on our particular specialist field. Most of the course is focused on modern history; I think I’m the only medievalist. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — to my eye, it looks like they wanted to use history to explain some modern global patterns, which are much easier to connect with, say, the Cold War than they are with the Viking age. Although I could try.

That being the case, though, I have to ask myself what I can bring to the table here. If we’re going to illuminate trends in history that influence the modern day, how do I do that with the early medieval period? I know that I love diving into the minutiae of the period — and I believe that there is actually a lot to be learned there that’s relevant to the modern day. But in the short space of time I have available, another approach seems best. I have three lessons to teach, and these are the topics I’ve chosen:

  • Methods and sources (with particular emphasis on the integration of archaeological sources).
  • The impact of the Vikings on Europe.
  • History and its role in nationalism, the formation of nations, propaganda, art, etc.

I think you can draw pretty sound examples of all of those topics out of my period (although actually my first example in the sources lesson is from the 1st century AD, so a little out of the range).

Anyway, my first class is in a few hours, so I’m going to go and get ready. That’s just what I’m up to at the moment.

Going In Blind