Thinking aloud about online resources

So, I have joked in the past that my students sometimes submit papers that are just Wikipedia pages — in one case, one that still had the little blue Wikpedia footnotes. Needless to say, this does not fool me.

However, I am not convinced that the common response to this, which is basically to tell students that Wikipedia and its ilk are the work of the devil, is all that useful. My students … they are not book-readers. And, to be honest, the library of the school I teach at doesn’t have very extensive resources for them (I teach one of only two history classes in the whole place) and they generally don’t have time to get into town to the proper library. So they’re largely limited to online sources.

In recognition of this, I’ve tried to make sure I steer them to reliable places to find historical sources, including primary or contemporary sources, online. But the truth is that Wikipedia is not a bad place to start when you know nothing about a topic — or, as is sometimes the case with my students, less than nothing — as long as you don’t stop there. I try to give them some advice on how to use it to find better sources, what it’s good for and what it’s not good for. Honestly, I don’t do enough.

I guess what I’m saying is: they’re gonna do it, so you have to teach them how to do it responsibly. If you don’t, they’ll just get in trouble.

Hrm. That analogy could maybe use some work.

Thinking aloud about online resources

Movie Monday: Pope Joan (2009)


So, the story of Pope Joan is not necessarily historical — although I have, many times in my life, been told it as though it were sober fact — but it is an authentic medieval legend, first appearing in the 13th century. Details vary, but it’s usually described as the story of a 9th-century Englishwoman who disguised herself as a man and rose through the ranks of the church to become Pope. In its medieval form it’s a curious fable, later it’s a scathing attack on the authority of the Papacy, and then today it’s … well … many things. Let’s see what this modern version is all about.

So we open with a history of the popes being written in the late 9th century and Johanna’s name being left out of it. Flash back to the first quarter of the ninth century and we see Johanna growing up in a village full of thatch-roofed cottages, filth and whatnot. Her dad (Iain Glen) is the village priest, and he is a prize asshole. Johanna wants to go to school, girls can’t, kindly teacher, dad’s an asshole, shenanigans, off to school. Oh, and mum tells her all about Wotan, who gives knowledge even to girls, which I am not 100% convinced is a faithful representation of early medieval paganism but whatever.

I want to reiterate that Iain Glen really is a grade-A stinker here; clearly we are in “patriarchal authority is bad” territory, which is hardly surprising given that the “violations of patriarchal authority lol” version of the story is hardly likely to appeal much to a modern audience.

Also, we’re like 25-30 minutes into the origin story at this point. This movie is over two and a quarter hours of earnestness. Anyway, Johanna and her brother Johannes go off to school in Dortmund. They are taken to a big feast in a hall lit by raging flames on the tables, which seems unsafe. The bishop’s court is not notable for its piety; right at the beginning we see people lighting their farts, and when they get there the bishop is a fat drunk with a girl on his knee. A teacher named Odo is a sexist dick, Joan is clever, and a local nobleman, Count Gerold (David Wenham) takes her in as a companion to his daughters. His wife, Richilde, is a capital B, presumably because the filmmakers wanted to portray a female character with a stinking attitude as well. Anyone, young Johanna excels in her studies but Odo continues to be a bag. We’re 40 minutes in, so at this rate it’s going to be a while before she’s Pope.

Anyway, the medieval world is full of filth, intolerance and scoundrels doing scoundrelly things. Time passes and Johanna (now played by Johanna Wokalek) is a young woman. David Wenham has to go off to fight the Vikings, but not before he reveals he’s in love with Johanna, which is pretty creepy considering that he’s twenty-some years her senior and she was raised like a daughter in his house. When he goes off, Richilde decides to get rid of Joan by marrying her off to a suitable jerk.

I swear to God that Richilde, Odo and Iain Glen all had the same conversation with the director:

Actor: so what’s this character’s motivation? They’re just caught up in the norms of the day but they’re fundamentally a caring and empathic person with some weak points, right?

Director: I’m glad you asked that! I’ve prepared a short visual presentation that I think will really help you get the feel of this character.

Actor: This … this is just picture after picture of an anus with sand on it.

Director: Now let’s get out there and get this scene in the can.

But just as the wedding is getting underway, the Vikings attack, killing the bishop and scaring the shit out of everybody else. It is all pretty much like you’d expect, but it’s also the first exciting thing to happen in the whole movie. Johannes saves Joan from the marauding Danes but gets killed; she gets knocked out and left for dead. David Wenham comes back and is at least a little bit sad that one of his kids (or both?) got murdered. Johanna rides a horse mournfully through a forest. I just … I just want this movie to step it up from largo, you know? Anyway, she cuts her hair off, puts on her brother’s close and takes his identity (she has a letter of introduction to be a monk at Fulda for plot reasons). So Johanna is now Johannes and we’re at Fulda and everything is so stately.

So Johanna’s dad is meant to be English, which is why the legend sometimes states that Joan is English. English missionaries in 9th-century Germany would totally have been a thing, so nice one, movie! Johanna trains to be a doctor and tries to prevent everyone finding out she’s a woman. At least she can take comfort in the fact that if they do find out she’s not a man she’ll probably die of old age before they do anything about it. The monks are, you guessed it, assholes, at least most of them. Joan saves a poor family from filth, squalor and disease, continuing her trend of, y’know, piety, charity and good works.

There is a quick battle scene to indicate that we’re in the bit where the empire splits up, and then there’s a fever sweeping through the monastery. Johanna is terrified that the medical exam will reveal she’s a girl, but the kindly old doctor reveals he’s known forever and helps her escape. She passes out from the fever and is rescued by Arn, the now-grown son of the family she helped out earlier. Quiet pastoral idyll happens, and Johanna mentors Arn’s young daughter, but in the end decides to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. John Goodman is the Pope and he isn’t well; his minions send for Johanna. The other doctors are dicks. They don’t believe in Hippocrates because he wasn’t a Christian, which I don’t believe was the case with medieval medicine — those guys were all about Galen, anyway, weren’t they?

Anyway, Johanna wins the Pope’s favour, but meanwhile the emperor is marching on Rome with Gerold in tow. Gerold hasn’t aged a day, but by this point Johanna is about 30, so he’s got to be in his 50s, surely? The Emperor menaces the Pope but Johanna saves the day with trickery, which for plot reasons tips Gerold off about what’s up. Gerold and Johanna are reunited, while the Emperor and Johanna’s enemies scheme against the pope. Gerold pleads to Johanna to come live with him and be his love, but she’s reluctant to be a wife having learned how independent she can be as a man. Gerold understands but says he’s gonna stick by her because of the danger.

Anyway, the baddies assassinate John Goodman, but instead of the baddie candidate being elected, Johanna gets elected and we get some Papal pageantry. Gerold sticks around as head of the guards while Johanna gets on with, y’know, piety, humility and good works. The more of this I watch, the more it seems to me that David Wenham is doing an Iain Glen impression. Anyway, Johanna gets knocked up and they debate whether to flee Rome, but Johanna pleads for more time so she can do more pious, humble good works and advocate for the education of women.

But no: the baddies lay a trap for David Wenham and kill him; Johanna collapses at the exact same moment. She later dies in childbirth and Anastasius takes the throne. He writes a chronicle of the popes, which leaves her out — but then a sneaky bishop reinserts it. And who is this sneaky bishop, who is also our narrator? Why it’s Bishop Arnaldo, who is actually Arnalda, the little girl Johanna mentored back during her pastoral idyll. She speculates that the two of them can’t be the only women in disguise in the church. And that’s that.

This film is actually pretty interesting in some ways, but hoo boy it could stand to be about 30 minutes shorter and to treat everything with less … sombre reverence. You know how some people call boring historical films “history lessons?” Well, I love history lessons. History lessons are my thing. But this movie bored me to tears. Looks nice, though.


Movie Monday: Pope Joan (2009)

Little accomplishments

Today, something like 18 years after seeing it for the first time, I wrote about 1958’s The Vikings for work. I got paid to write not just about it but about The Long ShipsThe VikingThe 13th WarriorAlfred the Great and (deep breath) The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. (Click on the links to see my previous posts about these films.)

I didn’t get paid much — these movie pieces are on the “paying hobby” level more than anything else — but I got (or will get) paid, and that’s nice.

Little accomplishments

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4, cont’d

You know, back when I was being impressed by the first season of this show, I was happy that there wasn’t quite so much gratuitous sex as there was in other historical shows. Flash forward to Season 4 and it’s just Crossbows and Knobbing. It’s still a lot of fun, but the structure of Generic Historical Drama is creeping in, and not to the show’s benefit.

Take Yidu, for example. I was really happy when it seemed that she and Ragnar were just going to be Drug Bros, but it was not to be. Given the glacial pace that this program sometimes moves at, were two scenes of Travis Fimmel taking a bath really necessary?

Anyway, it’s not all me complaining about TV sex scenes. There’s also Ivarr doing his Egil’s Saga impression, with the scene where he kills another kid with an axe — a great little moment. I think Ivarr and the kids are currently my favourite thing about this show, which is a shame because they’re not in it very much. And there’s yet another massacre, with Kalf getting shanked up by Lagertha, who takes power backed by her shieldmaiden squad. Which is OK, but …

… I think this show has kind of a funny idea of how politics works in early medieval societies. This is the third scene this season in which someone has set up a meeting, negotiation or other way to resolve a dispute peacefully and then just killed everyone. Kalf did it to whatsisname, Rollo did it to his dudes and Lagertha did it to Kalf. Why does anyone negotiate with anyone? And how are they going to replace all these dead guys? It’s just … it’s like they saw that the Red Wedding was really shocking and dramatic and now that’s all they know how to do. “… but he kills ’em!”

I am still watching this show. And what’s more, I’m still enjoying it. There are lots of fun little moments. I like the way the characters age. But damn it is dumb sometimes.

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4, cont’d

Brief book update

The end of the month sees even more relaxation of deadline anxiety (hopefully), so I will be able to get around to looking at this pile of books-to-read and recent acquisitions.


I’ve read the Hopkirk already, but I found it in a charity shop and realised I don’t own a copy, so that’s going on the shelf. Underworld of the East is some weirdo maybe-hoax drug journal with an introduction by Mike Jay, so why not; it’s another charity-shop acquisition. The two medieval books are review copies for Fortean Times and the others are interesting history books borrowed from generous friends. I have started Colonel Blood but not got far with it.

That, plus a couple of novels on the Kindle, should keep me reading for a little bit; I’m quite slow compared to a lot of my friends, especially since I often carry around enough teaching-related books and equipment that I can’t carry other books with me when I’m out working.

Brief book update

Witch Trial Wednesday: My talk!

So, I did some rudimentary sound-editing on my talk about witch trials in Essex and stuck it up on the internet. Just follow this link to download it. I was just using my phone, and it didn’t pick up the questions at the end very well, so I cut them out.

I spotted a few errors on listening to it again — the two “missing” prisoners pardoned after the Assizes both died, which I didn’t mention, and there are a couple of places where I said the wrong year (including a really confusing bit where I said 1641 when I meant 1644 or 1645). But overall I think it isn’t bad. You’ll just have to imagine the images.

Again, previous comments about imposter syndrome aside, I think it’s a pretty good introduction.

Witch Trial Wednesday: My talk!

Faking it

So I gave my talk about witch trials in Essex on Friday, and I think it went not badly. Once again, however, I was struck by my feeling of … inadequacy on the topic. I have done the reading you’d expect of me, I hope: I’ve read the major histories, I’ve read many of the primary texts, from demonology books to pamphlets to the relevant laws, and I have a pretty good grasp of the broader historical context, since 17th-century England is one of the topics I tutor.


In short, I’m not a specialist in this subject, but I have a pretty good grasp on the generalities and I’m good at doing the right kind of research quickly. I would never, say, teach an entire class on the subject but I definitely know enough to do an hour’s presentation on it, and hopefully make it entertaining.

And yet I can’t shake this feeling of being a faker. I think it’s part of the fox’s curse I’ve talked about before. For example, I probably teach, oh, 30 minutes of Thirty Years War stuff in my history class. I definitely know enough about the war to teach it in half an hour, but I still feel like a fraud every time I talk about it.

Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, I took an audio recording, and while it’s a wee bit fuzzy (because the audio jack on my phone is broken so I couldn’t plug in a mic) I think it’s not bad, so I’ll aim to put the recording up this week if possible.

Faking it

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4 so far

I can’t tell whether it feels like ages since I wrote about the History Channel’s Vikings or whether it feels like only yesterday — and considering this show’s head-spinningly weird blend of time periods, maybe that’s appropriate. I did spend the first ten minutes of the first episode (I’m up to three so far) trying to remember who the hell all the characters were, particularly in the Lagertha plotline.

From left to right: why do we put up with this asshole, cute little future murderfiend, I know why we put up with this asshole, why does anyone put up with this asshole, poor old dumbhead, Stabs McGee, some asshole, poor old dumbhead

I don’t want to go into too much detail — I’ll save episode-by-episode recaps for when I’m catching up one at a time — but here are my impressions so far:

  • I understand why characters in TV shows never wrap up properly for winter. Band of Brothers did it, with the result that it was hard as hell to tell the characters apart. But maybe don’t send Bjorn out into the freezing snow as a challenge of survival, and then show scene after scene of him running around without so much as a hat or scarf. Or even hair!
  • Mind you, I’m not convinced that “the interior” (of Jutland?!) is the icy, mountainous hell the show makes it out to be, but I think we’ve long since just resigned ourselves to the fact that these Vikings live in Skyrim.
  • One of the problems that writing about history creates is that you have to move as much of the action as possible into the “present” of the story because showing a character discovering something is a better way of introducing it than just having someone explain it. Sometimes this works OK-ish, like with Bjorn discovering fractional freezing, and sometimes it is absolutely stupid. Like … the Franks hire Rollo to defend Paris, and when he explains to them that maybe next time some boats would be handy they act like he’s some great strategist. Guys you are on an island in a river.
  • I do like that, battle scenes and weird mystical interludes aside, this is ultimately a show about politics rather than a saga of heroic warriors. Or, better yet, that it understands that battle scenes and weird mystical interludes are an important part of politics. I can forgive it a lot of silliness for getting that fundamental point about the atmosphere right.

So yeah; I will keep watching, obviously. Hell, I watched The Last Kingdom and that was not nearly as good. It’s a compulsion.

TV Tuesday: Vikings Season 4 so far

History misery

As I have mentioned in the past, I tend to teach and research a lot of different subjects simultaneously because of the number of different students I tutor or things I have to write about. This means that sometimes there are commonalities in what I’m working on. At present that commonality is that things are awful.

At present:

  • the history class are about to start the Thirty Years’ War.
  • several of the tutoring students are covering the Palestinian refugee crisis following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
  • and I’m preparing for this talk on witch trials.


So basically it’s not what you’d call uplifting.

I don’t know what the overall effect of this is, except that it doesn’t do a lot of good for your faith in human nature. I just hope we get a little more variety soon. Just to give you an example: I was thinking “I hope something more hopeful comes up,” and then I realised that I couldn’t think of anything hopeful at all.

Next time Movie Monday comes up I’m gonna watch an inspirational scientist biography or something.

History misery