More notes in passing

Holiday continues! Thoughts continue to be in the form of brief notes!

  • The hits keep coming, assuming that by hits you mean Romanesque churches — as I do. Today, while wandering around Como itself, we stumbled across a neat little 11th-century church, although sadly it was closed and we couldn’t go in. And this church was not on the historic city maps, even though it was well within the area they covered. It was just so minor compared to the city’s other historic churches, I guess, that it was not included. Crazy.
  • Speaking of the less-mapped parts of medieval Como, we also came across a series of buildings that showed a rebuilding history like you wouldn’t believe. I did a certain amount of architectural history in my MA, and I can tell you want some of the scars on this architectural Frankenstein mean, but to make sense of its history? You’d need an expert. And again, no signs, no nothing, because compared to a lot of the other stuff there this is nothing.2016-06-29 15.34.202016-06-29 15.34.48
  • The Roman baths close at 2 PM on a weekday, which seems crazy to me but what do I know?
More notes in passing

Some brief thoughts while away from home

So, as I mentioned last time, I am in Italy, and I will probably not do a complete blog post until I return. However, here are a few quick notes about things I’ve been seeing:

  • They have some Romanesque churches up in this piece, or perhaps I should say Romanesque-Lombard. I always like to check out an 11th or 12th century church when I see one, and in Britain that’s pretty rare; Cambridge has only a few, and I feel like I know them pretty well. But here they’re everywhere; I think I’ve seen half a dozen so far.
Check out that blind arcading. 
  • There was quite a lot of partisan action in the area during WWII — it’s right around here that Mussolini was killed — and there are little memorial plaques to partisans everywhere. There’s a walking trail of notable partisan events, although I haven’t followed it, merely happened on some of its signs. One of the most notable is Teresio Olivelli, a partisan fighter who died in a concentration camp and who, if my Italian is right, they’re trying to get made into a saint. As I understand it, he’s currently “venerable,” which means that the church recognises that he was a person of exceptional (“heroic”) virtue and permits people to pray to him for intercession and see what happens. The statue of him I saw was under a plaque on the side of San Lorenzo church, commemorating its completion in 1934 and therefore giving a nod to Mussolini. Which is a bit awkward, but I like it. History is awkward sometimes.


  • I could say something about historical expectations in church architecture and how even the more recent ones around here are sort of generally old-timey, although whether that’s for reasons of ideological symbolism or just aesthetic consistency I couldn’t say. Or both; indeed, aesthetic consistency can be an indicator of ideology.

Anyway, that’s just a few things I’ve noticed and a little thinking out loud. More later.

Some brief thoughts while away from home

The feel of history happening

Unless you’ve been asleep (which, in fairness, some people have), you’ll have noticed that a large and far-reaching historical change has just happened in my country. Quite apart from my views on the matter, which I’m always happy to discuss in person or on G+ or whatever, I think it’s an interesting lesson in the progress of history.

In case you’re wondering, I do not like the experience of history happening to me. It means staying up all night wondering what’s going to happen as a result of things that are at least mostly outside my control. I suppose it teaches you some empathy for the bad decisions people find themselves faced with — most of them much, much worse than the ones I’m still speculating about.

In almost completely unrelated news, I am going on holiday from tomorrow for a week, so posts on the blog will be sporadic if there are any. Normal service should be restored the week after next.

The feel of history happening

Historical “accuracy,” Game of Thrones, all that kind of thing.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been keeping up with Game of Thrones, and like a lot of people I’m aware that the story has its origin in various bits of later-medieval history, at least loosely. And it certainly plays a role in a particular genre of story about the middle ages, despite all its dragons and zombies and kingdoms the size of North America or whatever.

We are to believe that there was once a view of the middle ages which I describe as the “Ladybird Book of Knights” view, which is that maidens were fair, knights were brave, peasants were poor but honest, yeomen were sturdy, friars were jolly, and kings were either good or bad. I don’t think anyone has ever actually believed this except possibly G.K. Chesterton, and there’s a good chance he only affected to. I remember a Richmal Crompton William story in which romantics who believe in Merrie England have the mickey taken out of them, but I was confused by it (as by so many things) because I had no cultural referent.


Most modern filmmaking about the Middle Ages comes from the school of thought that says that everything in history was covered in what I shall broadly call ‘filth.’ Unless it is a movie about the Crusades, where substitute ‘sand’ for ‘filth’ throughout. You can all think of examples of this, I’m sure. As a result, filth has come to be a signifier for realism, even when applied in places that don’t make a lot of sense. I’m sure I’ve gone on before about how people in movies don’t have hemmed shirts, or wear clothes held together with whip-stitches of electrical cable. The realistic thing actually looks too nice to be considered realistic.

The problem arises from the fact that the visual signifiers of “realism” are attached to this EXTREME!! version of something like medieval politics to reinforce some facile assumptions about how society was just a wall-to-wall festival of rape and political assassination. Not that they didn’t have either of those things, of course; I’m just saying that we’re at the point where covering things in filth creates a sort of visual shorthand for “here’s a surprising fact” and people extrapolate, perhaps unconsciously, from there.

And I think that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about the visual storytelling of Game of Thrones — we’ve somehow accepted this everything-at-11 grey griminess as a marker of realism, and very cleverly the creators have used this to portray stuff that is absolutely bonkers as a grittily realistic portrayal of the darkness in the human yadda yadda. And people seem to accept it.

Mind you, the books tried to avoid precisely that problem by making everything realistically muddled, confusing and slow, and we saw how that turned out.

Historical “accuracy,” Game of Thrones, all that kind of thing.

Movie Monday: Houdini (1953)

“Say, fellas, let’s make a movie about Houdini.”

“Sure! What’s the angle? Like a lot of theatrical set pieces, with Tony Curtis providing Houdini’s trademark vigour and athleticism?”

“Sounds good. But what about the plot?”

“Well … it could be a romance about him and his wife.”

“Sure! Working together in vaudeville, life on the road, the thing with his brother.”

“Oh … well, let’s leave out the brother. And instead of working in vaudeville together, let’s say she’s a schoolgirl and she meets him when he’s performing in a sideshow. And instead of being a showbiz team, let’s say she’s super reluctant about his magic and always complaining and nagging.”

“Ha! Just like a woman. I love it. What else?”

“Well, we should portray his magic as a dangerous quest that eventually killed him.”

“The obsession with power, man’s hubris — great stuff. So how did magic give him appendicitis?”

“Oh, we’ll leave that part out and just say he died doing the water torture pagoda.”

“Great. Makes sense! And of course we can have him hunting phony spiritualists.”

“Sure! But we don’t want to offend anybody who believes in magic, so let’s have a plot where he’s searching for the secret of dematerialisation. But we don’t want to come down too hard on that side, so let’s just make sure it goes absolutely nowhere.”


“The immigrant kid making good in America — it’s a classic.”

“Oh, I don’t think we’re going to have time for that in this movie.”

“Right, right. That’s smart. So how long is a good running time for a movie? About an hour and a half?”

“Hour and three quarters; we have all those performance scenes to fit in.”

“Sure, sure. And how many scenes of someone doing a trick do you think we’re gonna need? Like … eighty million or so?”

“Sounds good.”

Movie Monday: Houdini (1953)

The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood

It has been a while since I finished a book that wasn’t for work in some way, whether something my students were reading or a book was reviewing. I’ve started a lot of books, but I haven’t finished one lately. Until, that is, I finished The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood by Robert Hutchinson, which a friend lent me.


And it’s … OK. The problem is fundamentally that the subject is a lot more interesting than the actual book. Thomas Blood was one of those scoundrelly adventurer types who emerge in times of political instability — in this case, the post-Civil War and Restoration period. He was a military veteran associated with various mostly failed anti-Stuart risings, kidnappings and robberies, most notably the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels in 1671. He’s right in that very interesting overlap between organised crime, terrorism and intelligence.

But the book is … well, let’s just say it’s not very well written. Let me give you a sample sentence:

With the prospect of war with the Dutch looming ever nearer on the horizon, accompanied by the unacceptable risk of concurrent sedition and insurrection being fomented amongst religious dissidents, it was imperative not only to deactivate the known renegades but also to quieten nonconformist resentment and anger at the congregations’ treatment at the hands of the government.

Which is Hutchinson’s way of saying:

As war with the Dutch approached, Arlington decided to counter the threat of nonconformist sedition not only by moving against known troublemakers but also by addressing some of the congregations’ grievances.

It’s like he thinks every sentence in the book is going to be the only one you read. Or, like, this kind of thing:

Matthew Pretty, who drew pints of ale from the tavern’s barrels … 

“Who drew pints of ale from the tavern’s barrels.” Or, in English, “the barman.” And ale doesn’t have anything to do with anything, because Pretty’s actual testimony, reproduced in the next paragraph, describes a group of men coming into the tavern and ordering … wine. It’s just words for the sake of words, and it makes an interesting story hard to read.

And so much of it is just stock phrases. Consider:

Ormond busied himself dispatching instructions the length and breadth of Ireland to destroy the conspiracy, root and branch. 

Or, if you prefer:

Ormond sent out instructions to destroy the conspiracy. 

Anyway, it’s still an engaging story, but Hutchinson’s prose style makes it much harder to read than its roguish main character and exciting incidents would suggest.

The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood

TV Tuesday: Rebellion (2016)

When in doubt, I can always rely on Netflix to serve up a worthy historical spectacle or two. Or at least, I like to think I can. That’s why, on a night mainly devoted to tidying my study (seriously, it looks pretty great now) I put on the 2016 Irish historical miniseries Rebellion. And it’s … it’s OK.

That trailer, though, I dunno.

Anyway, the idea is that it’s the story of the 1916 Easter Rising, told from the perspective not of Famous Historical Personages but of a range of different characters: a socialist socialite, her wastrel brother, a secretary at the Castle, a soldier in the British army, his militant socialist brother, a nationalist revolutionary, etc., etc. They represent a varying range of views about the question of Irish independence, they’re all affected by it in different ways, you know the drill.

They clearly spent a lot of money on it, the performances are all good, and it does (to my inexpert eye) a pretty good job of evoking life in WWI Ireland. But unfortunately I’m not sure it succeeds either as a historical epic or as a character-focused drama.

The idea, I guess, was to have the different characters represent different viewpoints: so soldier guy Art doesn’t necessarily love the British, but his family needs the money and he views his revolutionary brother Jimmy as an irresponsible troublemaker. Secretary May works for the British government, and her connection to the Rising is personal rather than ideological. Nationalist Gaelic-Romantic type Frances, on the other hand, is all full of piss and vinegar about the nation, while Jimmy cares about the workers … that kind of thing. You get the picture.

But the result is that some of the personal subplots feel empty. Like, Elizabeth (the socialite) has a drunk, useless cynic of a brother, who gets into various scrapes as the story progresses. But, like, there are people shooting at each other in the streets. Who gives a shit if some moustached douchebag needs some money? And May has an affair with her boss, but he’s a self-centred jerkoff, and, again, who cares? A nation is being born amid the fires of revolution but her encounters with her boss’s wife are really awkward and clearly we’re meant to care about that but it just sort of produces bathos. I guess the point is meant to be that life goes on even amid the chaos, which is, fair enough, an important point to remember. But it’s hardly gripping television.

As a result of this focus on the fictional characters and their personal problems, the historical characters wind up getting short shrift .They can’t not be in it, after all, but they’re in it so briefly that they wind up as sort of caricatures of themselves. Literally 50% of Michael Collins’ lines are just him saying “Michael Collins.” Did you know that Patrick Pearse was a pious, ascetic nationalist? And that James Connolly was a gruff socialist? I don’t even know if he was gruff, but he has an appropriate moustache for it.

I feel the same way about this as I did about Young Bruce Lee. It’s more interesting in its evocation of setting, in its look and feel, than in its narrative. It’s not bad, but it’s never really great, and part of that is just that it tackles a subject that is very resistant to anything other than straight-faced, reverential treatment.

TV Tuesday: Rebellion (2016)

Fighting the last war

My friend Kit moved recently and was kind enough to ask if I wanted some surplus books. I tried to be moderate, but it didn’t quite work out like that. Anyway, this pile arrived today:


As you can see, the period Kit is mainly interested in is a little later than mine … except.

It so happens that this year I’ve been tutoring quite a lot of 17th-century history, and even a little bit of 16th-century stuff. Some of these will come in quite handy if that happens again next year — I find the OU primary source volumes particularly useful for showing to students.

And then I stayed up until two in the morning reorganising my study to find places for them on the shelves. It does look much better now, though. Next I’ll actually sort the shelves by subject.


Fighting the last war

Movie Monday: Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)

In the original version of this review I referred to the guy who plays the big Viking as Not Actually the Guy from Amon Amarth, but it absolutely is The Guy from Amon Amarth! I’ll be danged.

… and that should tell you what kind of a movie we’re dealing with before we even get started.


Anyway, Northmen is not based on a particular historical tale, but I’m running low on directly historical movies I can actually summon up the enthusiasm to watch. It’s your basic adventurey survival tale: some Vikings get shipwrecked, capture a princess, team up with a monk and try to get home. There’s the Nice One, the Backstabby One, the Gruff Mentor, the Big Guy (that’s the Amon Amarth guy), and so on. The princess’ dad sends a bunch of Stormtroopers out to look for her. There are fights and castles and whatever.

It’s an OK way to pass the time, or maybe to have on in the background while you’re doing something else, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. It’s 100% an “if you like this kind of thing, you’ll like this kind of thing” effort. It does have some pretty fun fight scenes, with an appropriate sense of over-the-top badassery.

Obviously, it’s set in Skyrim, like most Viking movies, from the beautiful landscapes (Germany, I guess?) to the patchy leather armour to the grime and blue light everywhere.

What is interesting is that in the opening voiceover and during the movie itself, the main character, Asbjorn, quotes a poem talking about how Vikings need to always be on the lookout for enemies and should “never sleep in a house.” I knew it sounded familiar, but despite having sort of echoes of the Havamal, that’s not what it is at all. I recognised the rhythm, although the translation is slightly different than the one I’m used to. Anyway, I remembered some of the rest of the text and was able to look it up.

The poem is from Fridthjof’s Saga, by Swedish writer (and later bishop) Esaias Tegnér. This long poem is an adaptation of a genuine medieval Norse saga, but as far as I can tell, the section being quoted, “The Viking Code,” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the original, which, as is the way of sagas, does have a fair bit of poetry in it.

The relevant passages are this sort of thing:

Now he floated around on the desolate sea, like a
 prey-seeking falcon he rode,
To the champions on board he gave justice and law;
 wilt thou hear now the sea-viking’s code?

“Make no tent on thy ship, never sleep in a house, for
 a foe within doors you may view;
On his shield sleeps the viking; his sword in his hand,
 and his tent is the heavenly blue.

See how short is the shaft of the hammer of Thor, but
 an ell’s length the sword blade of Frey;
‘Tis enough, for your weapon will ne’er be too short if
 you dare near the enemy stay.

“When the storm rageth fierce, hoist the sail to the top,—
 O how merry the storm-king appears;
Let her drive! let her drive! better founder than strike,
 for who strikes is a slave to his fears.

It is the usual combination of medieval chivalry, Romantic foofaraw and some actual Edda material, and it goes on for quite a bit after this. Can you imagine someone from an actual seafaring culture talking that bollocks about it better to founder than to set the appropriate amount of sail for the wind? Ships ain’t free, y’know. Ironically, the bit in the film this is quoted over does in fact end with the ship foundering and most of the crew being drowned, so, y’know; maybe take Asbjorn’s advice with a pinch of salt.

And you might not think it, but for a while Fridthof’s Saga was the big thing in Swedish literature. It was a huge success in the 19th century and into the early 20th; Kaiser Wilhelm had a huge statue of Frithjof set up in Norway, people talked about its expressions of primal spirit, all that kind of thing.

Which I guess is no more than to say that the Hollywood Viking world is very much the world of Scandinavian nationalism and Romanticism; those ideas have seeped so far into how we see the middle ages in general and the Vikings in particular that it’s really, really hard to get away from them.

Movie Monday: Northmen – A Viking Saga (2014)