A long answer to a short question

So today a tutoring student and I were working on a thing about Gothic architecture. She was a little confused by the term, of course, because to her Gothic means, well … y’know, Goths.

So we had to have a conversation that went a little like this.

“OK, in the middle ages there’s a style of architecture called Gothic. It has pointy arches and flying buttresses (I did not use this term) and things like that.”


“So then in like the 18th and 19th century there’s a trend in literature that is spooky and dark and mysterious, and since people think of the middle ages as spooky and dark and mysterious it gets called Gothic.”


“So then when in the late 20th century there’s a subculture who are likewise into looking spooky and dark and mysterious, they adopt the same name, but of course time passes and the ones you know from school probably don’t look like 19th-century vampires at all any more. If they ever did.”


“Aaaaaand of course none of this has anything to do with the historical Goths, who lived way earlier, except that some tiresome pain in the ass of an art historian decided to make fun of the people who made Chartres cathedral for being like barbarians.”

Destroying the glories of Rome, GEDDIT?!


(It was not clear.)

(The “if you’re a goth, where were you when we sacked Rome” t-shirt is dumb.)

A long answer to a short question

Perceived as knowledgeable

As some of you may know, I teach a (not-history-related) summer course, and yesterday I was at a meeting for it. One of the questions that came up was the age-old one of what to do when a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to.

This actually doesn’t bug me too much, and hasn’t for a while. I was thinking about it, and I suspect that it’s for two reasons. The first is that I’ve cultivated a certain attitude of erudition, which seems to have been successful enough that I can just get away with not knowing stuff.

The second is that I’m pretty up-front about it: a lot of the time I’ll say, I dunno, “there was a lot of public resistance to anaesthesia until Queen Victoria publicly endorsed it in eighteen fifty … threeeee?” (It is 1853; I looked it up. But I wasn’t sure of it at the time.) And then we can look it up together. Hopefully, once you’re doing that, students can see the process as a joint search for knowledge, etc., etc.

It’s a good thing, too, because, history guy or not, I am absolutely terrible at remembering most dates.

Perceived as knowledgeable

Movie Monday: The Last of Robin Hood (2013)


I’m sure Errol Flynn’s penchant for younger women was no secret, but I didn’t actually know very much about him, so I was surprised to find out quite how much younger. That seems to be mostly the point of The Last of Robin Hood, which stars Kevin Kline as Flynn, Dakota Fanning as his … girl … friend? … Beverley Adland, and Susan Sarandon as Beverly’s mother Florence.

We begin with Flynn’s death and the media scrutiny that turns on Beverly in its wake. We then flash back to the pair meeting. Beverly is a 15-year-old chorus girl and Flynn is … well, Errol Flynn, if not so young as he once was. He charms her, invites her out, dazzles her with promises of a movie-star career and then rapes her. And it is straight-up portrayed as rape, with Beverly a mess afterward … but gradually the two reconcile and begin a relationship, at first behind Florence’s back and later with her connivance.

Beverly can’t really act or sing, so her career goes nowhere even with Flynn’s patronage. He gets old and dies, she’s a mess, the publicity is awful, and Florence publishes a trashy tell-all book that makes Beverly’s life even worse. Hurrah.

I think the thing I struggle with is that, despite having watched it, I’m not sure what this movie’s deal is. I can’t think what I got out of it other than an object lesson in everyone winking at a movie star being a colossal dirtbag. You might say that the film attempts to take a neutral tone and just present the facts, but somehow the equal weight given to the rape, her gradual acceptance of Flynn as a lover and all the inside-baseball Hollywood stuff mean that none of it really has any punch. I felt like I’d just watched a PowerPoint presentation on the relationship — which in turn means that it feels like the film soft-pedalled the horror of both Flynn and Florence.

Which is a shame, because the cast is good and they do good work. They’re just never really given a point worth making. Perhaps the murky, ambiguous psychology of the story doesn’t fit the TV-movie version of Hollywood glamour that The Last of Robin Hood tries to project.

There is a brief scene in which Flynn makes Cuban Rebel Girls, which is fun. It’s always enjoyable to see how actors handle playing characters who can’t act.

Movie Monday: The Last of Robin Hood (2013)

More free stuff gloating

As I have possibly mentioned before, the library at the school where I work periodically gives away old books that have been withdrawn from circulation. Most of them aren’t in fields I’m interested in — history isn’t a big part of the curriculum — but you occasionally do find some quite interesting stuff. Yesterday I grabbed these:


I’m less interested in the modern politics of the police, but the history section in here is very clear and would have been super useful when I was making Tuesday’s post about the history of policing. And although I don’t know much about medieval theatre, the first words I saw when I flipped the book open to a random page were “by my balls!” so you know it’s going to be enjoyable on some level.

More free stuff gloating

Where the hell have my books gone?

We own a lot of books — not as many as some, but more than most, and just about as many as we can conveniently store here in the study plus a bookcase for fairy tales and inconsistently-selected mythology in the bedroom.

But as I was recording the first of my proposed reader questions videos today, I realised that I could no longer find my copy of Richard Fletcher’s Bloodfeud, which is about how what you might call “police” problems were handled in Anglo-Saxon England. I’m certain I used to have it.

And for that matter, I swiped my mother’s copy of Pd James’ The Maul and the Pear Tree, which was about the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and now I don’t know where that is. And I think I left my copy of The London Monster in Germany some years ago, but if I didn’t I don’t know where the heck it is.

Since I like having books and hate losing things, it’s been a stressful afternoon.

Where the hell have my books gone?

The end of an era

… or a term, anyway. My foreign students are going home this week, so today was my (somewhat rushed) last session with them.

One of the things I think about a lot is how many opportunities I had when I was an undergraduate and how I failed to take advantage of them. There were so many resources, so many great teachers, available to me, but I didn’t take the chances, partly because of a lack of confidence and partly because at the time I didn’t really know what I wanted to focus on.

I feel a little bit the same way about each year of teaching. Every year I think of a bunch of new things I could do, and every year I feel like both my knowledge and my lesson plans improve — but then I feel guilty because I wasn’t able to apply that new knowledge to the previous year.

Not that I think I did badly — I’m just very conscious that this the students’ one chance to go through my class and therefore I want it to be as good as it can.

Now that that’s over, though, we should be back to some proper historical curiosities from Friday — hopefully, at least.

The end of an era

Long weekend fatigue

I have been away over the weekend, and I’ve been sufficiently busy that I have not found much to write about. I saw some nice late-medieval/Renaissance buildings while I was running around, but I was doing too much running around to really think about them or even take a lot of pictures.

The end of term is approaching for my history students (they go back to their parent school for a few weeks), and I’m just finishing up marking here. I always end each year with a feeling of … hopelessness. Given the limits of my time, my resources and my abilities, I always feel like I’ve only begun to make a dent. Some subjects may make sense to teach in a particular sequence, but funnily enough history isn’t really one of them, and I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve left my students with much more than a glancing familiarity with the topic.

I don’t know what else I can do, though; I suppose they know a little more than last year’s bunch.

Long weekend fatigue

So sleepy.

It’s been a busy few weeks, and I don’t have a brainy thing to say at the moment. I have started in on some of the history podcasts, which are making me think about how I learn and recollect stuff. I’m sure I’m missing a lot, because I only listen when I’m doing something else, which means that my attention periodically gets distracted. Unlike a book, however, the podcast just keeps going, so when my mind snaps back to (at least partly) paying attention to it, I’ve probably missed some things.

However, the result so far seems to be that I’m learning the kind of bits and pieces that I know about most periods of history. And honestly, most of the time that’s what I wind up using, either as setting detail in a game, an illustrative quote in a lesson or whatever. So I would say that they’re working as intended, although one of these days I am still going to sit down and read up on one or two of these subjects. Whenever I get the chance.

So sleepy.