Trip report: in search of the historical Amphibalus

If you know me, you will know that I have been fascinated with the engimatic Saint Amphibalus ever since someone (my MA supervisor, maybe) told me about him back when I was doing my MA. If you’re not familiar with Amphibalus, here’s the scoop:

Saint Alban is one of the most important British saints; I think he’s the oldest? If not, he’s close. He was (the story goes) a guy in Roman Britain who protected a priest fleeing from persecution. Observing the priest’s humble, self-sacrificing piety, Alban was moved, converted to Christianity and wound up getting martyred, as one does. In most of the early sources, the mysterious priest is just called “the priest.”

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In the 12th century, good old Geoffrey of Monmouth is writing The History of the Kings of Britain, and in it he gives the priest the name Saint Amphibalus. It’s amazingly unlikely that Geoffrey had access to some evidence about the guy’s real name, assuming he ever existed at all, but what we don’t know is whether he just made the name up or whether he was recording what people were calling the priest at the time. The name may be a mistranslation based on a word for “cloak” — there’s a bit in the story where Alban and the priest swap cloaks to help the priest evade capture, I guess?

About 40 years after Geoffrey, the abbey of Saint Albans discovered the body of the saint, presumably in an effort to kickstart a lucrative relic cult that would help them out of their financial difficulties. That kind of thing happened all the time in the middle ages. Some historians believe that the bones dug up and identified as Amphibalus belonged to a pagan Anglo-Saxon burial, which I think is speculative but not implausible.

Anyway, why do I mention this? I mention it because this past weekend I was in Saint Albans visiting family, and I got to go to the cathedral for the first time. Now, there’s a lot to write about about that cathedral, much more than I can really cover in this post: it’s got a lot of preserved 12th-century material! It reuses Roman stuff! It’s sited outside the Roman settlement on a cemetery location! Christina of Markyate! In short, it’s got all the things I love about a medieval cathedral.

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It’s got medieval wall paintings!

And it’s also got the shrine of Saint Amphibalus:

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As you can see, the shrine is pretty beat up, but that doesn’t mean that Amphibalus is no longer popular. Dear me, no! In fact, we happened to turn up during the festival that celebrates the feast day of Saint Alban, so we got to see some proper material expressions of popular piety in the form of the huge puppets and various costumes used during the procession.

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Here’s the saint himself.
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Here’s the executioner’s eyeballs, which pop out of his head to larn him for killing Saint Alban.
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And here’s Amphibalus looking quite cheerful!

I know it sounds like I’m making fun, but it’s actually nice to see Amphibalus still part of the life of the community. He may be made-up, or at least heavily embellished; indeed, he may be a combination of legend and pious fraud, but I’m awfully fond of him and I’m glad he’s still around.

Trip report: in search of the historical Amphibalus

Books I don’t need but still buy

Over the last few days, as is my wont, I bought some used books. Some came from a book stall at the fair that happened this past weekend in my neighbourhood, others from charity shops.

Here are the history-relevant recent purchases:

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I read Ray Page’s book ages ago, and although I’m sure it’s out of date now, hey, it was £1 and it will be handy to look some things up for someone who is not a runes guy. And I gueess I do tutor the impact of Empire part of the history GCSE, so a big illustrated book about it could come in handy.

I have no earthly use for a collection of engravings from 17th-century alchemical texts. But it was £1 and they’re so cool.

This … is the kind of thinking that has led me to own a lot of texts relating to esotericism and the occult.

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Well, I say “lots.” It’s obviously not “lots” by the standards of someone who actually studies the subject, but I’m not that. And insofar as I care about magical and supernatural beliefs — and I do — the things I care least about are alchemy and sort of 18th-19th century ritual magic. And yet I do keep acquiring books about them.

Partly it’s because there are a lot of books out there on the topic, and partly, I think, it’s because they look so cool. I can’t pass them up!

I suppose it does provide lots of material and cool set-dressing for other creative endeavours, but I do worry that people will get the impression that I’m some kind of genuinely knowledgeable occulty type, when I’m just a sort of aesthetic dabbler.

Books I don’t need but still buy

It’s history story time!

In an attempt to get myself making more things, I have recorded a short video of me telling a funny historical story. Another will follow.

These are intentionally short and kind of light in order to help me avoid the anxiety that otherwise really gets in the way of me writing about historical topics.

You may notice that this video is much nicer in terms of production than previous ones! That is because I have enlisted the aid of friend Jason to make it so. The look and sound of the thing is his doing; any mistakes are mine.

Enjoy!

It’s history story time!

TV Tuesday: Tutankhamun (2016)

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Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 is one of the great stories of archaeology. It’s got everything: buried treasure, international intrigue, irresponsible speculation, a spurious story about a curse. It’s got everything but a love story.

Or perhaps I should say that it didn’t have a love story until ITV got their hands on it.

Tutankhamun (the TV series, as distinct from Tutankhamun the person) is a four-part miniseries that follows the adventures of Howard Carter (Max Irons) from the 1900s through to the beginning of his partnership with Lord Carnarvon (Sam Neill) and then to his discovery of the tomb in 1922. To its credit, it then pushes on with the years of excavation and post-excavation work until the dig finally ends in 1930.

This does mean that visually things are a bit odd: Max Irons is in his early 30s, which is about right for Carter in the early 1900s. But Carter was 48 when the tomb was found and well into his 50s by the time the excavation wrapped up. This leads to a much younger, more heroic-looking Carter on screen than existed in reality.

That may be because Tutankhamun is very focused on its love stories — one between Carter and a lady named Maggie Lewis (Catherine Steadman), who I believe is fictional, and one between Carter and Carnarvon’s daughter, Evelyn (Amy Wren). I am given to understand that the idea of a relationship between Evelyn and Carter is something that has long been rumoured, although I don’t know of any reason for it other than that neither of them were married and they spent a lot of time around each other. Perhaps there’s more to it; I’m not an expert.

Actually, let me correct myself here: the love stories aren’t the main narrative focus of the show, something I realised as I was writing the previous paragraph. They just stand out because they’re the things that aren’t a more or less straightforward retelling (condensed and hyped up, of course) of the process of discovery. Everything else is exaggerated: for instance, the story starts with Carter just straight-up punching a tourist, which is not what happened, I don’t think. He actually just took the side of site workers against the tourists in an argument. Again, perhaps there was more to it: I’m not an expert. But the point is that it’s a sexified version of something that genuinely did take place. There are lots of other instances where complex situations are rendered simple; that’s pretty common in historical TV but it can lead to characters seeming a bit dimmer than they ought to sometimes.

One thing that Tutankhamun does that’s quite good is give some impression of the political and social context of Egypt in the 1920s. Again, it’s not a perfect portrayal, but it does avoid some of the worst problems: this kind of exploration story can easily drift into colonial-adventure narrative, so it’s nice that this one does do something to locate its setting within its colonial context, even if it’s a little simplistic.

You could say that for the show overall, really. Many of the relevant points are sketched in, and it’s nice that some of them are addressed that often aren’t in shows about archaeology, but it’s a little too realistic to have a satisfying central conflict and a little too melodramatic to be completely educational.

So Tutankhamun is … not bad. It’s well-made and the parts are adequately to well acted. I think my favourite appearance was Rupert Vansittart as Flinders Petrie, who is only in one scene but completely steals it. It’s not terribly innovative and the dialogue is occasionally clunky, but overall it’s pretty enjoyable. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, and if you’re already knowledgeable about the story I doubt you’ll learn much. I learned a certain amount, but I am not sure people share my habit of watching historical TV while obsessively looking things up to fact-check. Shame, really; sometimes I think that’s the best way to do it.

TV Tuesday: Tutankhamun (2016)

Movie Monday: The Physician (2013)

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I seem to watch a lot of very long, worthy European historical dramas. This one is … well, it’s OK. It’s the 11th century, and young Rob (Tom Payne) is an orphan who gets raised by an itinerant barber-surgeon/quack (Stellan Skarsgård). Deciding he wants to go be a proper doctor after seeing a Jewish physician pull some advanced stuff, he sets off to Isfahan to study with the great Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). Along the way he has all kinds of adventures, with sandstorms and religious fanatics and daring rescues the Black Death and whatnot, and solves medical puzzles and falls in love with a girl (Emma Rigby) who is wedded to another and all that kind of thing.

And, you know, it’s … average. It has that general feeling of just slight predictable inadequacy that a lot of otherwise fine movies I cover here on movie Monday have.

Like a lot of films set in the middle ages, it takes a few central points (medicine in the Muslim world was very advanced compared to Europe in the 11th century, Ibn Sina is one of the greatest minds of the era) and expands them into a pretty by-the-numbers medical/personal drama with a little bit of action.

I understand that the portrayal of 11th-century England at the beginning is just meant to look like, you know, darkness, illness, ignorance, superstition and poverty, but it would help if it looked more like an ignorant, superstitious 11th-century. How did this dude wind up being called Rob? Was the author of the novel (I assume he has the same name in the novel) just too tired to Google “Old English name” or something? (I accept there may have been some people in England called Robert, I dunno, but it’s like setting your novel in modern-day Kentucky and calling the hero Etienne-Laurent de Saint-Luc. You’d only do it if you were making a point.

Anyway, I know this is short but I don’t have much to say about this. It is an OK average historical adventure movie.

Movie Monday: The Physician (2013)

Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

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Queen Christina of Sweden is a fascinating character; the only surviving child of the great Gustav II Adolph, she inherited the throne when he died in 1632. Once she came of age, she led Sweden out of the Thirty Years’ War and generally established a reputation as one of Europe’s weirdest and most interesting monarchs. She loved philosophy and learning, corresponded with Descartes, had all sorts of court intrigues, rejected the dress and behaviour expected of her as a woman, refused to marry and ultimately converted to Catholicism and abdicated the throne.

The problem of this film is, of course, that Christina’s actual life is much stranger and more interesting than this film wants to make it. It has a lot of good bits, but ultimately a voyage of philosophical discovery just isn’t all that cinematic an experience. It has a couple of additional problems: it’s in English, but most of the actors aren’t native English speakers, so it feels a little stilted and clumsy. It doesn’t feel like it can assume much knowledge about Swedish history on the part of its audience (probably fair), so it explains everything from the ground up, necessarily simplifying it. It’s also committed to telling as much of the story of Christina’s reign as possible, which means that everything feels a little … compressed.

Of course, the thing that attracted the most attention about this film when it came out is that its central love story is between Christina and one of her ladies in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre. This is one of those suspected relationships that is impossible to prove but looks not unlikely, and it seems to be the thing about this film that made the most lasting impression on fans and critics — both because it’s a historical drama with a relationship between two women at its centre (rare enough) and because it’s the only part of the plot that the film really gives any weight to, which is weird considering there’s all this fate-of-nations stuff going on.

But there are discrepancies in this plotline, presumably created to make Christina more sympathetic. For instance, in the film Sparre’s marriage is shown as something ginned up to separate Christina from her lover. In reality it happened at Christina’s instigation, which suggests a more complex attitude on the queen’s part.

So The Girl King feels rushed, and rushed in a way that gives it a weird emotional tone; it can only hit the highlights, so everything is turned up to 11 all the time. It lurches from exposition to crisis to confrontation to more exposition, with too little time to let its setting and characters breathe. It has some good performances, including Malin Buska as Christina and Patrick Bauchau as Descartes, but overall it feels jumbled. And it still leaves out most of her life, an eventful time that would just retroactively complicate things further.

I did like the little touches: the flock of sheep outside the cathedral was my favourite.

Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)

There’s a certain enterprising charm to the way that Netflix UK sells slightly shopworn programmes as exciting new things. Case in point: Saints and Strangers, a two-part historical drama about the colonisation of Massachusetts first shown on the National Geographic channel over Thanksgiving 2015.

It’s one of your prestige historical dramas, two feature-length episodes with lots of grey mist and lovely South African scenery. It’s got some medium-sized names in it: Vincent Kartheiser, Natasha McElhone, Raoul Trujillo and the inescapable Ray Stevenson.

The interesting thing about dramatising “the first Thanksgiving” is that the nicest way you can play it is as a tragedy — after all, this initial moment of rrrreeeeelatively peaceful interaction between Europeans and Native Americans is all going to go to bloody hell by the end of the century. The show does address that point — including a real sucker punch at the end in which they reveal that an adorable moppet who appears during the first Thanksgiving scenes grows up to be Josiah Winslow, the colony governor who commanded the English forces during King Philip’s War.

As a drama shown on the National Geographic Channel, Saints and Strangers does seem to take its educational mission pretty seriously. In some ways, this is a good thing — it presents quite a complex, ambiguous image of Squanto, for instance — but in other ways it’s a weakness. After all, the real history, by dint of being history, resists convenient narrativisation. We’re left with Kartheiser and Stevenson being agonised about the morality of their action, which is … a little sickly-feeling, since we know how it all ends. I am not in a position to say that they didn’t agonise, but there is something a little distasteful about retroactive agonising over convenient deaths.

Like a lot of historical shows, this one struggles with the dialogue. All the English-speakers speak in a schmancy, convoluted way, talking about how things are diminutive or how they will unleash a wrath of violence or whatever, but it only occasionally sounds like something someone from the 17th century might say. And they say ’tis. And then every so often they ask someone if they’re OK. I mean, I get that it’s not going to be Shakespeare, but all you would have to do is pick half a dozen expressions that were in use in 1620 and not in the modern day and use those strategically. That or just have them speak in modern English. I know it’s a difficult line to walk, but they sound like LARPers used to sound.

Native American parts are played by Native American actors speaking Abenaki, a related language to the one the locals would have actually spoken. So that’s good, especially since it means we get to see Raoul Trujillo playing an older, wryer version of his usual badass warrior.

Overall: it’s OK. It’s definitely a bit of a pageant, and I wouldn’t move it to the top of you list, but it has some good bits and it looks nice.

I gotta say, though, I like Ron Livingston, a bigger fan you won’t find, but I don’t know that he’s quite right for his part in this.

TV Tuesday: Saints and Strangers (2015)