Yet more ahistorical nostalgia

Like many people in Britain, I pay attention to American politics, a hobby(?) helped by the fact that I lived for much of my life in the US. This year, what British and American politics have in common is that democratic processes have led to results that many people are unhappy with — Brexit here and the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate back in America.

This is the kind of thing that predictably prompts some people to say “well, this is what democracy gets you in the olden days the told the mob what to think Plato was right all along grah grah grahr.”

“Just find the ablest man” my ass.

This, I feel, is not a position supported by the historical evidence. It’s like that thing about dictatorships being more “efficient” than democracies. You could call Hitler’s Germany a lot of things, but “efficient” is not among them. It was a mess.

And the same goes for that other comparison so beloved of democracy’s critics, monarchy. Monarchies were a goddamn mess in pretty much any country that ever had one. An examination of the history of the British monarchy reveals a catalogue of bunglers, scoundrels, tomfools, irresponsible juveniles, would-be tyrants and just sonsabitches in general that makes the list of American presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes and Andrew Jackson included, look like a Sunday school picnic.

The critics have a point: people are (or at least can be) a bunch of damn fools. But where they err is in assuming that there is some subset of people who are not, and that they can be selected without reference to the aforementioned bunch of damn fools. Obviously, everyone thinks they’re special, but life is full of disappointments like that.

Yet more ahistorical nostalgia

Oranges and lemmings

I have been busy as usual, and didn’t do a Movie Monday — Monday was the first day of my class this term, and I just came home, ate pizza and sat hunched staring at the television for a bit before getting an early night.

But I have not been entirely idle. I had a little trip to London, which was very nice, but notable for this-blog purposes in that I did quite a lot of reading on the various coach and Tube journeys involved. Notably, I read Travels in England in 1782 by German clergyman, novelist, journalist and educator Karl Philipp Moritz, which is … charming. You can find it here on Project Gutenberg, which I assume is where the free ebook I read also came from.


There is something goofy and lovable about Romantic types, even though I … disagree with the way they think about things. There’s something very pleasant about Moritz going into raptures about the sublime natural views of … Richmond. I mean, I’m sure it’s very nice, but it’s weird thinking about the sublime natural beauty of somewhere you can get to on the District Line.

I think my favourite line, however, was this one, one of those “some things never change” moments:

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence.  At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

I also read a book about the Battle of Kursk, which had a lot in common with a lot of the military history I read. That is, it was full of detail about which Corps did this, and which Front did that, and all I retained was the funny stories and an increasing conviction that most of the German high command had spent a lot of their lives starved of oxygen. But if you ask me about this or that Panzer division I’ll be as ignorant as I was before. I may be the worst wargamer.

I have some comments to make about recent historically-tinged news stories, but I couldn’t let characteristically tone-deaf behaviour by that fatuous narcissist Ted Cruz pass without pointing something out. The usual yokels, hacks and hooligans have endorsed Cruz, while slightly more alert right-wing commentators have taken to bitterly regretting his actions. It’s so terrible, they say, that Eastern Christians can’t rely on Western Christians to help them. To which I could only think:


Oranges and lemmings

O Tannenbullshit



The aged artificial tree went up on Sunday here at 1 Gonzo Mansions, and has already accumulated a fine crop of presents. The Amazon boxes are a bit un-festive-looking, but since we have no idea what’s in them we don’t dare open them for fear of spoilers. But amidst the general holiday cheer, there are some odd notes.

One of the things I always find fascinating is when you have a historical misconception that’s on both sides of an argument. This seems to be the case with this thing about the “pagan” origins of Christmas trees.

Here is what we know about Christmas trees: the practice probably comes from Germany in the 18th century and spread to parts of the world where Germans immigrated, like Britain and the US. Subsequently, the media power of the US in particular spread the custom around the world. But people get very excited about the link with “pagan” traditions.

I wish I could articulate how skeptical I am of all this. Take this quote from one Christian site:

Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals.

Mysteeeeeeerious. What do we know about these mysterious rituals, and where do we know it from?

Hmmm. Not much. I guess that’s why they’re mysterious?

Now, I have not studied this in depth, but as far as I can tell the reasoning is, like the Halloween thing, backward. I feel like I can see the fell hand of the 19th-century folklorist here, desperately trying to glide over the fact that Druids were supposedly into oaks and Christmas trees are conifers, looking at any practice that involves decorating the house with any kind of plant (Roman Christians are forbidden from decorating their houses with laurel wreaths. A laurel wreath’s kind of like a fir tree, right?) and seeing a Christmas tree, and generally stretching like billy-o. You start with a custom that’s German and involves a tree, and because you’re a muddle-headed 19th-century German Romantic aswim in volkisch dumbness, you start to have hazy visions of the Irminsul, and quick, you need to explain how this connects to pagan practices in some way. So you round up every greenery-related custom you can find, and instead of any kind of historical thread connecting these practices you fire off a barrage of descriptions of things that are a little bit like each other, but there’s so much of it … and before you know it everyone knows that Christmas trees are pagan, even if no one can point to an actual source.

Hell, I’d even be willing to believe that folky Romanticism was part of what got people so into Christmas trees, summoning up some nebulous image of wintry hospitality and warmth and little cabins with glowing windows in deep snowy woods. (The practice appears to have started in urban areas, actually, but hey.) The association with folky fuzzy concepts of paganism could very well have something to do with why people get into many of these greenery-related Christmas concepts. But that hardly means they’re “inspired by” or even anything at all to do with paganism.

And then there’s the usual seasonal arguments. People decorated their houses with evergreen plants in the winter, eh? No shit they did; they were hardly going to put spring flowers up.

What’s weird is that both sides in the Christmas tree debate seem to credit the same argument. Take this Christian site, which condemns the whole tree idea as non-Christian on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs, and compare to this site, which approves of the Christmas tree on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs. This guy debunks the common idea that Jeremiah 10:1-4 condemns the Christmas tree, mainly by going on to read Jeremiah 10:5 and the following verses.

It’s like this with all Christianity-and-paganism stuff, I sometimes think. One lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s bad, one lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s good, and those who think that maybe neither side has as clear an idea of what Christianity or paganism really are in their historical contexts as they probably could are in the decided minority.

Oh well.

I think what I’ll do is stick some stick-on bows on the Amazon packages so that they look sparkly and festive despite being brown cardboard.

O Tannenbullshit

19th Century Folklorists Have A Lot to Answer For: 2

Noticing that it used an image of Kirk Douglas’s gristly horror-mug from 1958 rapefest The Vikings, friend of the blog Ian pointed toward this article about how things about Vikings are making a comeback and also about how the concept of the Vikings displayed in many of said things is basically one from 19th-century art and literature. Which is mostly true, I think. 

Actually, I thought the interesting thing about Pathfinder was that it portrayed the Vikings as just flat-out no-fucking-around bad guys, and you can see the same in recent films from Poland and Russia (well, recently released over here, anyway) where the romantic Viking national myth must be scorned in favour of some other romantic national myth. 

But yeah, the 19th century. Was there anything it couldn’t screw up? If, when I say “Anglo-Saxons” the image that comes to mind is of some stipply black-and-white picture of guys with trailing moustaches under some kind of oak tree, you can blame the 19th century for that. Hell, you can blame Hegel specifically if you like. Or the brothers Grimm. 

You think I’m exaggerating, but you are mistaken. This is the kind of crap I’m talking about: 



It’s not the stupid hat and the stupid club that I’m concerned about. Oh no. It’s the noble gaze, fixed on some far horizon with new conquests and strange new … 

… sorry, I died for a moment there. 

But it’s true that the whole sort of romantic Viking image comes more or less straight from the 19th century — it was a time of national movements all over northern Europe, and part of that was people from Germany and Scandinavia trying to find some kind of roots for their culture that didn’t make them feel inferior to the people from southern Europe with the big tall buildings. 

You remember how well that ended. But long before the whole murdering aspect of it there was a more harmless putting-on-silly-hats and cultivating-ludicrous-moustaches aspect. Some things were done in the name of folklore that were good. For instance, Elias Lennrot copied down and/or made up the Kalevala, and without that we’d never have had The Day the Earth Froze.

Seriously, 19th-century nationalism brought a lot of literature, history and art into the spotlight that had previously been neglected. It’s doubtful whether my own old field of Anglo-Saxon studies would exist in its present form without sententious Victorian patriots. But on the other hand it’s hard to forgive the cultural legacy that even today dogs the whole subject. 

There’s going to come some time when I snap and decide I love Viking metal. But that time is not now. 

19th Century Folklorists Have A Lot to Answer For: 2

19th-century Folklorists Have a Lot to Answer For: 1

OK, so.


Halloween is coming up, and that means I’m going to talk about 19th-century folklorists and their influence on how we think of the spooky and the marginal in European history. You may want to cover your ears.

Let me start with this cool photograph of a “wild man” from some European folk festival or other. Doesn’t he look awesome? He’s by far not the awesomest, either, and I recommend that you go over to the site of photographer Charles Fréger, click on the menu and select “Wilder Mann,” then spend some time enjoying some great monstrous costumes.


What I don’t recommend you do is pay attention to any of that guff you’ll read on the various sites that have reblogged these images about how these are an interesting survival of paganism or whatever. There are a whole series of mistakes being made here, and I’m not going to go into them all, but just … let me …

let me take a high-level perspective here. In England, just for example, Anglo-Saxon paganism was pretty much done for as a national religion by oh, say, 800 AD or so. 900, tops. It had only been the religion of the country for a few hundred years — the country has been Christian, historically speaking, much, much longer than it ever was pagan in the Anglo-Saxon sense. There may have been a few Romano-British pagans kicking around in the 5th century (although paganism was illegal throughout the Roman Empire by that time, so there won’t have been that many of them), but mainly it was predominantly Christian.

So, if we’re talking about survivals of paganism, we’re talking about something that has thrived, in secret, for more than a thousand years — that’s 2.5 times as long as it was ever a successful public religion, bear in mind — without anybody noticing until some folklorists came along and went “yup, paganism.”

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t any aspects of culture that have some influences from pagan culture. I’m just saying that what we actually have here is a misapplication of the term “pagan.” (As a side note, the OE word “heathen” has a wide variety of different applications, ranging from “pagan” to just “not Christian,” ie secular, but that’s another story.) I’m just saying that the evidence, to most people who have studied the subject in the modern day, seems to point in a different direction. And that direction is that Victorian folklorists were a bunch of Romantic dumbheads (ah, Romanticism, is there anything that isn’t your fault?).

Let me give you an example that I’ve had someone use personally to me (well, on the internet, but close enough). It is also something that is discussed (a bit) in Ronald Hutton’s excellent Stations of the Sun, such that when I read it I went “I knew it!” That example is the Hooden Horse.


That’s the Hooden Horse, a horse puppet that is paraded through the streets of towns in East Kent collecting donations. It used to be that the donations went to agricultural labourers during the lean part of the year, although these days all the money goes to charity in a more official form. Here is a bitchin’ one from 1909, from this wonderful set of photos:

Hail, mighty Odin, apparently.

Now, if you have read a little bit about English begging customs (which is all I have), you will not be surprised to learn that the Hooden Horse is accompanied by a crew of zanies playing various traditional characters, a man dressed as a woman, etc., etc. And it will further not surprise you to learn that at least one modern one is operated by a Morris dance side. You can read a little more about the history on their site.

And it will further further not surprise you to learn that some dingbat has proposed that this is, yes, an ancient Anglo-Saxon pagan custom. Because why? Because, you see, the horse is the symbol of Kent (true), and the legendary founders of Kent are Hengest and Horsa (also true), whose names both mean “horse” (true again), and “Hooden” sounds a little bit like “Odin,” which is a Scandinavian name for the Anglo-Saxon god Odin, sooooo …

Here’s where you lose me. Look at the horse. Look. At. It. There is a dude in there covered by a hood. Could this perhaps be the origin of the term “hooden”? Alternatively, it may be a corruption of “wooden horse,” but whatever. (It is pronounced, apparently, “‘ooden”.)

Let’s look at the numbers here. The first recorded Hooden Horse dates from the early 19th century. It’s a good time for horse puppets, the early 19th century. There’s a probably late 18th-century one in Padstow, and you get them in Somerset as well, although the famous ones there are on May Day, not around Christmas like the Kent example. They’re also not called “hooden.”

So the theory is that this custom, brought to Kent with the very first Anglo-Saxon invaders as a tribute to their god Odin, survived for like 1300 years, passing unscathed (well, OK, scathed, but not destroyed) through the conversion of the English (which began in Kent), the Norman Conquest, the, uh, I dunno, the Reformation, whatever, and despite the invention of the printing press and all that, no one had ever heard of it until like 1807, at lost not written it down.

Or, and I know this is pretty radical, it first appears around 1800 because that’s when it started. I mean, it’s clearly not totally original — puppets and dummies of various kinds are part of lots of begging customs, and people in outrageous costumes likewise, so it’s within an extant tradition, it’s just the horse and whatever that are new.

But it is a tenet of 19th-century folklorists, basically, that working-class people can never be creative. They’re like a ball rolling downhill — something starts them off, and then they trundle along, adapting to circumstances, but no one ever goes “why don’t we…”. From a Romantic airhead perspective, of course, this is a good thing. They’re so much more … volkisch … than us! We have so much to learn from them. Without asking them about what they’re doing, of course. Ha ha did I accidentally say volkisch?

You know what it reminds me of? Ancient astronauts. Now, the whole ancient astronaut thing is fun and all, but it is also (and this is not an observation original to me) totally racist. No one think aliens built Chartres cathedral, although it’s much more complicated than the Pyramids. No one thinks aliens built the Tower of London. But plenty of people think aliens built various things that were built by brown people, even though there is perfectly good evidence for who built them. There’s just an underlying assumption that when whitey builds big complex buildings that’s perfectly normal, but when shifty foreigners do it there has to be some explanation. I don’t think it’s intentional, necessarily — European authors just gravitated toward places that seemed far away and exotic to them — but I do think it’s sort of accidentally telling.

Did you know that the horse as the symbol of Kent dates back to like 1600? Which would have been around the time that people were getting back into studying Old English. I wonder if the horse is the symbol of Kent because “Horsa” means horse, rather than the other way around? I have done no research on this point and would welcome anyone who knows more helping me out.

19th-century Folklorists Have a Lot to Answer For: 1