Medieval mirth: as dumb as, if not dumber than, modern mirth.

I recently finished a review of E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots for Fortean Times. The review should appear in due course, and I don’t want to discuss its content other than that I quite liked the book. However, I thought I would talk about an extract from a medieval source that appears in the book — I mention it in the review but didn’t discuss it in much detail.

Anyway, in the 15th century, Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, paid a shocking amount of money to have the automata at the chateau of Hesdin repaired.

There is a bill for the repairs from 1433 that goes into great detail about what the various automata are, and it’s amazing. Here are some highlights:

Item: for … painting the three figures that squirt water and wet people at well. And at the entrance to the gallery there is a device for soaking ladies when they tread on it; and with it he also made a machine at the entrance to the said gallery; which, when the knobs are touched, strikes those who are underneath in the face and covers them with black or white, and also there is a fountain in that gallery, and which spouts water when one wishes and always when ladies come before it. Item: at the exit of this gallery there is another machine that will strike and cuff all who pass through on their heads and shoulders. Item: in the room before the hermit, a machine makes it rain everywhere … Item: … there is a wooden hermit that speaks to people … And also for paving the place where people go to avoid the showers, where they then fall from on high down onto a sack filled with feathers … a bridge that, at will, makes people who walk on it fall into the water. Item: There are machines in several places, and when one touches the knobs one causes a great quantity of water to fall on people. Item: In the gallery there are six more figures … which soak people in different manners. Item: At the entrance to the gallery [there are] eight pipes for soaking ladies from below and three pipes which, when people stop in front of them, [cause them to be] whitened and covered with flour. Item: there is a window and when people wish to open it a figure in front of it wets people and closes the window on them. Item: there is a lectern with a book of ballards on it and when people try to read it they are all covered with soot … Item: There is a wooden figure that appears above a bench … and it tricks people and can make a cry on behalf of my lord the duke that everybody should go out of the gallery; And those who go because of that cry will be beaten by large figures like idiots … 

And there’s more of this. I love it. You think about the refined pleasure gardens of the aristocracy, and this guy strolling around them to the accompaniment of lutes:


But actually his lovingly-crafted automata, and please remember that the repairs on these things cost a thousand pounds, which is a lot of money today let alone in 1433, just spray water up ladies’ skirts, dump flour on people and beat them about the face and neck. He’s like the world’s most powerful eight-year-old.

Medieval mirth: as dumb as, if not dumber than, modern mirth.

Reader question: toy soldiers

Reader Adam asks:

What are your thoughts on the history of toy soldiers?

I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that I have “thoughts,” which is funny considering how much of my mental energy is taken up by thinking about present-day toy soldiers.

Part of the question of the history of toy soldiers — of toys in general — comes down to the vexed question of intent. That is, we definitely see figurines of various kinds throughout history, but are they “toys” per se? In some cases, doubtful: like, these soldier figures from an Egyptian tomb have a ritual/magical function, but I definitely always think of them as a wargame unit when I see them in museums.


I knew a guy when I was doing my MA who was very fascinated by what these kinds of figurines could tell us about the Egyptian military — and he was a wargamer.

You also get what appear to be toy figurines of knights in the middle ages, I do know that: see some examples here.


But it’s really in the 18th century that “toy soldiers” as we know them become a thing, particularly in Germany. I assume this is to do with changing trends in consumer culture — this is also when we get “shopping” as a leisure activity, for instance, and my guess would be that this is also when you start to get any kind of large-scale production (even if not that large-scale) of dolls, dollhouses, jacks, etc. But it’s also true that this is an age of militaries with standard, elaborate uniforms, where a bunch of identical monopose brightly-coloured tin figures is what an army would idealise itself as.


This kind of thing, you know what I mean? That’s the War of the Austrian Succession, so it’s about right era-wise.

And of course, this is also the era that I associate in my mind with the rise of militarism that goes with the nation-state, the idea of armies as institutions. Rrrrroughly; we’re talking long-term trends here.

Now, a lot of these early tin soldiers are made using two-part flat slate moulds, so they’re very thin. When I was getting into wargaming, the books on the topic in my local library made mention of these, although they were understood as primarily a German thing and an older thing.

These are from the Roscheider Hof museum in Germany, for instance. 

As the mould-making technology develops (I assume as rubber moulds get easier and cheaper to make and hollow casting becomes easier? I legit don’t know how that works), you start to get the three-dimensional toy soldiers that most British kids remember. I even had some of these in the day, although heaven knows where they came from. These are the kinds of things H.G. Wells wrote his wargame rules for, I believe.

This kind of thing, y’know. 

And then there’s Elastolin and then plastic moulding becomes practical and you get cheap 1/35 or 1/72 model soldiers, like Airfix toys, and plastic army men in bags and then Gary Gygax is gluing cardboard wings to dime-store dinosaurs to make dragons and then you have D&D which begat Warhammer and so on and so on. I actually like 1/72 plastic figures and buy them compulsively, even though I have almost no use for them. But they’re so varied and economical! Heck, I don’t know. There are a lot of them out there, though. 

So yeah — “toy soldiers” in the sense we understand them are probably a product of the technology and economy for mass-production being available plus uniformed militaries being the norm plus society being very into the pageant and spectacle of the military. Note that a lot of early toy soldiers aren’t in any kind of combat position and there are a lot of military bands, colour parties and so on — you’re clearly meant to be creating a parade with them.

Tangentially, there’s quite a lot of good stuff on the evolution from military wargaming to modern fantasy and adventure gaming in Jon Peterson‘s excellent book Playing at the World, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you have not read it.

Reader question: toy soldiers

Everyone likes a story with characters, redux

So like every other dork in the world I have been listening lately to the hit musical Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill. If you pay attention to this stuff, you will know that it is a huge hit, blends hip-hop with Broadway, yadda yadda. And, of course, it’s about a historical figure, which makes it particularly interesting to me.


Hamilton is particularly interesting because he’s one of those people where I think most people know who he was but I doubt any of us who aren’t really serious students of American history have a sense of what he was like, which is what the musical really appears to be about.

Now, me being me, and having a heart of stone, I like the political songs best. Obviously “The Room Where It Happens” is great, but I’m currently enjoying “Washington on Your Side.”

Let’s show these Federalists who they’re up against / Southern motherfuckin’ Democratic-Republicans! is a great line.

Of course, the play tends to elide much of its history — for instance, it has the Burr-Hamilton duel take place right after the 1800 Presidential election (which is also a fun song) rather than several years later. And this elision has some weird effects. For example, in “The World Was Wide Enough,” Burr sings:

Now I’m the villain in your history / I was too young and blind to see / I should have known, I should have known the world was wide enough / for both Hamilton and me

OK, fair enough, but I suspect “too young” is an artefact of casting a handsome actor in his mid-30s to play the part.


Burr, by contrast, was 48 at the time of the duel — something that the narrative of the play makes clear when Hamilton describes their “thirty years of disagreements.”

Anyway, I’m not nitpicking — that’s the nature of historical adaptation and telling a story that takes place over a long period. What are they gonna do, run off and subtly change the makeup every time they get the chance?

What I’m curious about is how this is going to affect public perception of Hamilton. In cases where there’s only really one work of popular media about a character, we often see that our sense of who that person was — and our sort of instinctive sense of whether we like them — comes from that portrayal. I think that goes double for someone like Hamilton, a guy who people kind of assumed was just another boring pillar of patriotic virtue.

The other really interesting thing about this is that the portrayal of Washington, as far as I can tell, is very much within tolerances: unbending moral rectitude, far-seeing concern, etc. Some things you can’t mess with.

I think that I’d like to see the early US done as some disastrous third-world post-independence shambles, which is what it must have looked like to contemporary British observers.

Everyone likes a story with characters, redux

Movie Monday: Khartoum (1966)


The holidays are over, and we’re back with this hamtastic historical epic. It’s about the 1885 Siege of Khartoum, in which a Mahdist army laid siege to and eventually captured Egyptian-held Khartoum, killing the British officer, Charles Gordon, who was supposed to be evacuating the city but instead was effectively commanding its defense. Cue fourteen more years of war and a lot of heroic portrayals of Gordon, including this one.

And hoo boy is Gordon heroic. That’s what you’re aiming for when you cast Charlton Heston to play someone, and Chuck delivers, portraying Gordon’s doomedness as a form of messianic self-sacrifice but still making him charming and human.

And of course, every hero needs a villain, and what better villain than … er … Laurence Olivier in dodgy brownface with a ridiculous accent?

It was a different age, I get that, but I’m not saying that they should have looked at Olivier’s performance and thought the brownface was inappropriate, I’m saying they should have looked at Olivier’s performance and seen that it was ass.

I have to admit, I have only known a few Sudanese people, and of course regional accents do vary, but I am almost certain that no one from anywhere, let alone Sudan, has ever sounded like Olivier going “my belivvereds, I am the Machdi, forrretold by the priffir Mehurrmerd.” And there are some bits where he’s quite good and clever in his tent showdowns with Gordon, but everything about his ridiculous part is working against him.

Anyway, there are fights, camels, unconvincing effects, and some really splendid uniforms. It has an overture, which is always nice, and it’s on UK Netflix at the moment. It’s weird in a fascinating way, or maybe fascinating in a weird way.

I would say that I liked its portrayal of British imperial policy as a mess of contradictions and compromises rather than a noble crusade or a diabolical plot, but since that is essentially the whole story of what Gordon was even doing in Khartoum in the first place, it would have to have that or totally fail as a story.

Movie Monday: Khartoum (1966)

The fox knows many tricks

As I mentioned earlier, pal Jesse Merlin and I recently started a podcast in which we talk about classic Doctor Who. It’s called Pledge Break and I can’t figure out how to embed the Libsyn player for some reason* but you can find it here.

This charming guy is our Twitter icon. 

We are both big fans of old-timey Who, of course, but we tend to have “specialties” on the show — that is, Jesse knows about acting and TV-making, and I know about history, so we each talk about our special areas. The thing is that of course the historical and historical-influenced episodes bounce around all over the place. So far on the show I have had to talk about:

  • Saladin, his family and the origins of the Ayyubid Dynasty.
  • Medieval castles and warfare.
  • The Renaissance, broadly, including its dating.
  • Bodiam castle!
  • King John and Magna Carta.
  • Iron Age houses and farms.
  • Arthurian myth and legend.
  • Historical weapons and armour.
  • The 1066 campaign.
  • The dynastic politics of 11th-century northern Europe.
  • The Jacobite rising of 1745 and Jacobites in general.

And that’s for the first season-and-a-bit, i.e. the bit where we have still have many episodes to choose from and don’t have to talk about some stuff I really don’t know anything about, like the French wars of religion or something.

It’s actually pretty good for the brain — one of the nice things about having done as much of this stuff as I’ve done is that I’m usually able to grasp new information pretty quickly. I’m sure I will know a fair amount about religious conflict in France by the time we’re done.

To summarise: listen to my podcast, it’s good. Although the intro’s a bit fuzzy; sorry about that.


*The reason is I am a dumbass.

The fox knows many tricks

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

Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

I have written on this blog before about sensationalism and the kind of mixed reaction I have to it. I’ve had several conversations recently, though, that had me thinking about it again. As always, I’m just thinking out loud here — quite unsure how I feel.

So if we’re going to talk about sensationalism, let’s talk about berserkers.


So, if you’re like most people, when you think of the Viking period, you think of berserkers — fearsome warriors clad in bear or wolf skins who would go into an unstoppable battle frenzy! Everyone likes a good berserker, and they turn up in everything from the TV show to games about the period. You can see a few such characters I’ve painted up for wargames above, so don’t imagine that I’m immune to the fascination.

The berserker image is potent, and it’s potent because it’s simple — giving up everything and surrendering yourself to this overwhelming fury. It’s the simplicity that gives it its intensity, and the intensity that gives it its popularity. But like all very simple images, it’s an oversimplification.

I recently watched a video about berserkers by Nikolas “lindybeige” Lloyd, which I thought was very good, although in my view it comes to too sweeping a conclusion: “it wasn’t like this, it was like that,” instead of it “it wasn’t like this, we’re not sure what the deal was,” which I think is where the evidence points.

If you’re interested in reading more, I would check out Berserkjablogg, which I think (I should have written it down) is run by lindybeige’s source. In particular, the cited passages are in this post. Based on the literary evidence — and that’s a whole extra kettle of fish right there, of course, but since the literary evidence is largely where our berserker image comes from, it might as well be what we use to criticise it — it seems like we’re seeing much more complicated, some kind of understood social identity of being a berserk. This identity had something to do with animal qualities, but it doesn’t mean that some kind of unreasoning frenzy was a psychological reality for the Vikings particularly.

Now, to me, that’s actually much more interesting. But just like everyone else, it’s the sensational, romantic version of the thing that attracted me in the first place. And although I don’t hate to lose it — I can keep the fantasy version in my head with the real one with no problem — I do feel like on the one hand I want to deplore the way movies and games simplify everything while on the other hand I want to … revel in it?

Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

Reader questions answered!

A while ago, pressed for time, I asked people to ask me for the answers to questions about history. As they always do, they asked me about things I know nothing about. But I did my best! If you know anything about these topics, you know more than I do, but I’ll do my best.

Why did the Holy Roman Empire never properly form into a country? 

What could possibly be confusing about this?
What could possibly be confusing about this?

“Properly form into a country” presumes that there’s a certain endpoint for the development of a nation-state, which I’m not 100% convinced by, but in Europe, there is a trend toward state formation that I’m in no way smart enough to generalise about. And definitely the HRE is an exception to that trend — it doesn’t become the kind of entity that you eventually see in the 19th century. But I’m not sure that isn’t just because it gets stomped by France early on. That catalyses a lot of the trends that eventually result in the emergence of Germany as a nation, but I don’t know enough about the period and the place to know whether you would have had the same outcome in an HRE that successfully fended off the French. Maybe not, since I think you could argue that its particular form of fragmented feudalism was hostile to those trends? But certainly when you look at a lot of other countries in Europe, Germany is becoming a big nation with a flag and whatnot at the same time they are.

“Lost” countries

Lost countries are kind of interesting — obviously we are all living in some lost countries, since a variety of different English and Welsh and whatever kingdoms and principalities become first England, Scotland and Wales and then the Britain that we roughly recognise. And it’s the same all over Europe — things that we see as being distinct cultural identities originating as combinations of different now-gone countries. And those lost countries persist in some sense even after they’re gone; Northumbria as a kingdom ceases to exist in the mid-10th century, but over 100 years later stuff is going down in the wake of the Conquest and the Danish invasion that reminds you that it was once its own country.

I guess what I mean to say is that in a feudal society the nature of a “country” is a little less well-defined than we’re used to in the modern day. And some of them get subsumed into a larger identity easily (the example in the question was Burgundy, which is a pretty good example), and some don’t (Cornwall retains a really distinct identity, despite having been part of England since basically forever).

I guess what both of these questions are ultimately asking is what even are country, which is kind of an interesting thought in our country at this particular time, right?

Reader questions answered!

Movie Monday Double Feature: Only the Brave (2006) and Go For Broke! (1951)

That’s right, this week it’s two, count ’em two, movies, both of them about the same subject. In this case, the subject is the career of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-American soldiers and famously the most decorated unit in the US Army ever. I’m not going to go into the long history of the unit, but you can read about it at the link above, then maybe check out the terrifying list of Medal of Honor citations. It’s one of those stories that can’t help but be both inspiring and depressing at the same time.

Both of these films have plots, but they are really just intended to teach you about the 442nd and the Japanese-American experience of the war. Let’s take them in order.

2006’s Only the Brave is a little independent film that shifts between the battle to rescue the “Lost Battalion” of the 141st Infantry Regiment and the soldiers’ lives back in Hawaii through a series of flashbacks that begin with the main character, played by Lane Nishikawa, takes a head wound. Is he hallucinating, or is he actually somehow having visions? It’s available on UK Amazon, and probably US as well.

Over on Bad Movie Marathon, we get a little nervous when we find out that a film is written by, directed by and starring the same person. Lane Nishikawa didn’t write this, but he did direct, produce and star in it. Bad omen notwithstanding, it’s good. It’s quite stagey, which I take to be a function of its relatively low budget. The battle scenes happen a lot at night, presumably for the same reason. But you’re not really there for the battle scenes — this is primarily a story about the soldiers and their lives before and during the war; the most important scenes are the flashbacks and the ones of the soldiers just hanging out. And it’s pretty good!

really like how this film just has characters speaking a mixture of mainland English and pidgin and does not give a fuck that it might be hard for the viewers to understand. Like, you can work it from context easily enough, and it’s how those soldiers would have talked. So that’s how they talk in the movie.

The implied romance basically doesn’t happen; I wonder if they just put the scene in so they could put some smooching on the poster.

Similar but almost infinitely weirder is 1951’s Go for Broke!, starring Hollywood utility white guy Van Johnson. Looking at that poster you’d be hard-pressed to tell that there was a Japanese-American character in the film. I can’t zoom in clearly enough to see those little black-and-white cartoons on the poster, but I’m guessing they’re about how hi-larious it is that Japanese-Americans are typically shorter than Van Johnson, a recurring theme in the film. The ad makes it seem like a train wreck, but it isn’t really.

In fact, Van Johnson’s role here is to be the dumbass white guy who comes in to command a unit of Japanese-American troops; he’s initially kind of a racist, but eventually they win him over and he realises what a jerk he’s been. Now, there’s a lot not to like about that idea — after all, you shouldn’t have to win over someone who’s prejudiced against you. That puts the burden on the target of discrimination, who has enough problems already. But I guess that’s a narrative that allows white audience members to overcome prejudice without necessarily having to accuse themselves. Its heart is in the right place; when discussing this movie with friends or my wife, I found myself using the words “for 1951” quite a lot.

It didn’t dance around the subject of the detention centres as much as I thought it was going to, although it doesn’t spend a lot of time on them. A white officer seems to be OK with the camps, even while defending his troops against racist meathead Johnson; but then shortly after that there’s a scene of a soldier assembling a care package for his family back in the camp, which is a pointed comment considering it’s traditionally the other way around.

Now, as you might expect, even in a story that’s about portraying Japanese-American soldiers as heroic, there are still some uncomfortable moments. Still, for 1951 this isn’t super racist; it’s basically just yer typical war drama with that subplot. Many war films deal in cornball stereotypes, and this one is no exception, even when it’s trying to spread an anti-racist message. I think its portrayal of military life is probably quite accurate — a lot of marching, grumbling and waiting punctuated by moments of often-bewildering action. This doesn’t surprise me, since one imagines that many of the audience members in 1951 would be veterans.

Not to mention the cast; some of the soldiers in the film are actually veterans of the 442nd, which is weird. Like, Buffalo Bill and the Indians level weird. Apparently no one in the post-war era thought that this particular piece of authenticity was the phoniest thing imaginable, which just goes to show how our understanding of those concepts has changed.

I found it very interesting that both the movie and the poster had to explain that “go for broke” means “shoot the works,” since I think that if you had to explain “shoot the works” to a modern person you’d explain that it means “go for broke.”

Aaaaanyway, the nice thing about this one is that it is actually in the public domain, so you can watch it right here with a clear conscience!

So yeah — worthy, uplifting, you know the kind of thing. I don’t have anything to say about the 442nd that isn’t obvious.

Movie Monday Double Feature: Only the Brave (2006) and Go For Broke! (1951)