Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The thing is, here's the thing: 99.9% of all people who bitch about movies or TV or what-have-you being historically inaccurate are either just trying to exercise some kind of know-it-all superiority or are your typical shrieking nerds desperately striving to create a factual basis for a subjective dislike. That's natural. However, in many cases they're right.

Not because of the boneheaddery, not at all. But because, in most cases, historical "accuracy," whatever the christ that means, is part and parcel of a larger problem, which is that the past is being packaged to viewers as familiar, and that's about the worst fucking thing that could ever happen to you.

I was going to talk about Warren Ellis's Crecy, but what are the odds that any of you here have read it? It has one really good thing going for it, which is that it portrays the English army of the Hundred Years' War as essentially terrorists. That's a worthwhile endeavour; the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a terrorist is a good experience for the brains. But the rest of it is just a bunch of cock, regurgitating half-understood myths about medieval warfare.

That's not a criticism; that's par for the course. Instead, let's talk about something you've all seen, Mel Gibson's film Braveheart, which is a fucking pile of nads. In slow motion.

So you're expecting to hear a bunch of elitist whining here about how the film is nuh historically accurate, and I hope you won't be disappointed, but there's a deeper message I'd like to communicate. Filmical bullshit falls into some different categories:

a) easy/lazy/artistic. The soldiers in the film wear these scale-mail or jack-of-plate trousers, and it looks fucking stupid. But this is clearly a choice made by some ridiculous twat of a costume designer who thinks it looks "medieval," or at worst doesn't think that Americans can take a film seriously where the bad guys have no pants on. Whatever.

b) inspired by ignorant Hollywood notions of "dramatic necessity", i.e. the romantic relationship between Mellington Mellorson and that one French chick, which is impossible, etc. Sure, but film got to have a love story! Love story am of the goods! I'm just amazed there isn't a demeaning stereotype of a black person in this film. So this is horseshit, but it's horseshit that is fundamentally nothing to do with history, so whatever.

c) an explicit load of revisionist bullshit. And this is where it fucking matters. If you portray the conflicts of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in this way, you're portraying them as part of an ongoing conflict between two types of people. English people are like this, and Scottish people are like that, and the conflict will always go on because They Hate Our Freedom. See also The Patriot.

Now that's easy to think. But in fact, the real history is complicated and weird, and involves Norway and Sweden and stuff. Scotland's relationship to England changes, and there are weird questions of identity, and the Scots claim to descended from the Scythians, and Robert the Bruce murders someone in a church. It's not easy to think.

And therefore fuck all attempts to portray the past in this reassuring light, because your ancestors were not just like you. They were in some ways, but in other ways they were huge fucking weirdoes, and the sooner you begin the process of trying to get your head around that, the smarter you'll be, especially if you're able to come to the conclusion that you also are a giant weirdo and half of what you do makes no sense whatsoever.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Viva Mexico, I guess

You know, on my good days I think of the Conquest of Mexico as one of those periods that don't bother me too much. It's the same reason I like the First Crusade, the eastern front in WWII, and the Russian Civil War. Which of these packs of cunts am I supposed to feel sorry for?

Take the First Crusade for example. Subsequent crusades really involve the Crusaders either spending a lot of time roughing up people who don't deserve it (well, so does the end of the First, but as a Bohemond fanboy I seldom think past Antioch) or foolhardily taking on people they should never in a million years fuck with, like Saladin. But the first is pretty evenly matched, and pits a bunch of venal military adventurers and dopey religious fanatics against a barbarian invader, a meddling empire, and a popular general who basically staged a coup. Every faction involved are a bunch of goddamn swine, and there's no reason to feel bad if (as is inevitable) something shitty and awful happens to one of them.

Same, in principle, goes for the conquest of Mexico. Cortés and the Aztecs seem to be in some kind of race to see whether the Conquistadors can possibly be a more bloodthirsty bunch of theocratic bullies than the Aztecs.

All of this came into my mind recently when reading Bernal Díaz del Castillo's Conquest of New Spain, which I seriously recommend everyone here should read, although the first part is actually pretty boring. You're well into the thing before they even get to Mexico, or maybe Guatemala. I don't remember. Point is, it's an account of the savage bastards of history written by one of the savage bastards himself, now a broken-down old man trying to earn a little cash for his old age by telling about his part in one of the great fucked-upednesses of history.

Problem is, I've found I can't really not care about the Conquest of Mexico anymore. Plus, although it isn't really anything to do with the Conquest, that piece of fucking filth Apocalypto (which has some brilliant action scenes, and which to be honest I really enjoyed, but is still a bunch of fucking garbage from the perspective of an angry historian, which is of course the perspective of this blog) has added to the "actually getting a little annoyed by motherfuckers trivializing the bits of the past they don't belong to" pile.

None of which is to the normal purpose of this blog, which is to present first-person accounts of the big fear or whatever. So allow me to recommend some reading whose every word will harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, and so on, right up to the part about thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine. With me so far? Good! To begin:

* Ho! Check that shit out! It turns out Bernal Diaz's book is available on the intertron! You speak Spanish, right? I know I don't. The rest of your lazy asses are just going to have to buy a cheap Penguin paperback like I did.

* Chipping away at my cruel objectivity about World War II was an accessible collection of the works of Vasily Grossman, who kept all kinds of notebooks and diaries about his experiences as a war correspondent on the Eastern Front in WWII. As you can maybe guess by the name, he was Russian and Jewish, so these experiences include fun stuff like the Germans killing his mom. If the Germans killed my mom, I'd probably write a book with a title like The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland as well. I've always wondered if that kind of goony Stalinist bullshit sounds better in Russian.

Of course, everything sounds better in Russian to me; such a beautiful language. TO make yourself feel better after all that Russian doom and gloom, why not enjoy this hip recasting of one of the world's best national anthems in a groovy, feathered-mullet 1990s version?

Sorry, guys. Next time an actual historical thing and less of my ranting.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Weird shit you find in the trash I: The Coppergate Helmet

Yeah, yeah, over two months. Suck my nuts; I don't work for you. You want to hear about the Coppergate helmet or not?

So, you know, some people will throw out a perfectly good pair of shoes, or maybe an apple that still has a couple of bites left on it. You might throw out pens that don't write very well but probably have some use left in 'em because you're too lazy to draw all those fucking pages of little circles. People's moms are always throwing out their invaluable baseball cards or comic books that would have been worth a fortune if they had kept 'em, unless everyone else's moms had also not thrown theirs out, in which case they wouldn't be worth shit.

But you are extremely unlikely to have ever thrown anything like the Coppergate helmet into the garbage. As a side note, if you have, please contact me at once, because you are clearly both rich and out of your fucking mind, and you sound like my kind of people.

Anyway, yeah, in 1982 some archaeologists were watching construction going on at this site in York where they were gonna build a mall -- it's actually a pretty nice mall, I guess, has a little whisky shop in there and a cool Viking museum where you can see a guy pooping -- when there's a clang as the shovel of the mechanical digger hits something. The boss dude runs over, thinks it's a rock. Instead it is this thing here:

Now, you don't have to know much about archaeology to know that's pretty old with the chain mail and whatnot -- in fact, it's over a thousand years old -- and that it's in pretty good nick. In fact, it's in stunningly good condition for an Anglo-Saxon helmet. There are two other ones known from England. The first is the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, which you may recognize from heavy metal album covers or whatever:

Pretty rad, huh? But in fact, it doesn't look a goddamn thing like that keen replica. It looks like this, after meticulous restoration:

A bunch of rusty-ass metal attached to a mock-up frame. And what do you want? 1300 or so years in the ground will fuck your shit right up unless you get the right kind of soil and whatnot. And don't even get me started on the Benty Grange helmet, which looks like fucking this:

Check out that fucking nasty-ass pig hat.

Anyway, by comparison the Coppergate helmet is like the Rolls-Royce of Anglo-Saxon helmets, with its fancy Latin inscription and that badass duck glowering at you from between the eyebrows, and all kinds of curlicues and gold and whatnot.

Now, the Sutton Hoo and Benty Grange helmets both come out of burials, where some high muckity-muck would get buried with all his gold and jewels and unidentifiable metal shit that archaeologists call things like "standard" and "axe-hammer" in order to cover up the fact that these items are totally unique and nobody knows what the fuck they are -- at all, in the case of the Sutton Hoo standard. At least that hammer-looking thing is pretty clearly for caving motherfuckers' heads in. But I digress.

But this Coppergate helmet doesn't come out of anything fancy like that. Let's take a look at the contents of the pit this bad boy was found in to see if we can establish some context. We like context, right?

A sword-beater, a churn dasher, a crucible fragment, a fragment of hearth lining, seven little bits of slag, three fragments of iron, a piece of antler, and a rubbing stone. You don't need to know what a sword-beater or a churn-dasher are (I do, depressingly enough), but suffice it to say that this is basically a bunch of junk. Although the dating of what went into where when is not totally clear and probably never will be, this is basically a bunch of trash in a hole in the ground.

So you're some kind of eighth-or-ninth-or-whenever century Anglian dude, important and wealthy enough to have this awesome helmet with the chain mail and the gold and that menacing-ass duck. How does that go from pride of place atop your ruddy, bearded nogging to being in a dirty hole in the ground full of garbage and no one taking it out again?

I am trying to imagine a version of that story that doesn't involve someone getting their shit fucked up hardcore, and it really just isn't coming to me.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Profiles in Toadying IV: the aforementioned Sulpicius

The only thing I can say about that shiny, purple-haired bishounen version of St. Martin is that it is not the kind of thing that would be out of character for Sulpicius to write. Hagiography is definitely an uncritical type of writing, but the bits of Sulpicius's Life of St Martin where he talks about meeting the saint read like self-insertion fanfic.

Intercourse of Sulpitius with Martin.
FOR since I, having long heard accounts of his faith, life and virtues, burned with a desire of knowing him, I undertook what was to me a pleasant journey for the purpose of seeing him. At the same time, because already my mind was inflamed with the desire of writing his life, I obtained my information partly from himself, in so far as I could venture to question him, and partly from those who had lived with him, or well knew the facts of the case. And at this time it is scarcely credible with what humility and with what kindness he received me; while he cordially wished me joy, and rejoiced in the Lord that he had been held in such high estimation by me that I had undertaken a journey owing to my desire of seeing him. Unworthy me! (in fact, I hardly dare acknowledge it), that he should have deigned to admit me to fellowship with him! He went so far as in person to present me with water to wash my hands, and at eventide he himself washed my feet; nor had I sufficient courage to resist or oppose his doing so. In fact, I felt so overcome by the authority he unconsciously exerted, that I deemed it unlawful to do anything but acquiesce in his arrangements.

I'm just saying.

Yeah, yeah, calling early medieval hagiographers a bunch of emotional fanboys is hardly tough work; I will, however, get a more substantial post going on the Conquest of Mexico once I finish Bernal Diaz del Castillo's The Conquest of New Spain. Firsthand accounts, that's what we live for here at the GHP. Also, that shit is fucked up. I'm just saying.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I know I say this a lot...

but there are times when I worry about Saint Sulpicius's mental stability. Presented without comment:
In these circumstances, I seemed suddenly to see St. Martin appear to me in the character of a bishop, clothed in a white robe, with a countenance as of fire, with eyes like stars, and with purple hair.

-- letter to the Deacon Aurelius.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

No time for love, Doctor Jones!

Busy at the moment, but a mini-post to help pass the time. You think of the Classical period -- you know, Greece and Rome, shit like that -- as being a period we actually know a lot about. But what you never hear about is where that information comes from. One of the things that we know about the period is that they had lots of horses, and they gave them names. But where do you think we got that list of horses' names? Baby's First Book of Greco-Roman Equestrian Names? My ass.

Where we got them from is curse tablets. These are little tablets of lead that people scratched magic spells onto and dropped down wells or buried in graveyards or whatever. Their texts are rad. And our largest source of horse-names are these tablets, where desperate gamblers or ardent racing fans have placed a curse on the horse they want to nobble in the chariot races.
It's a wonderful world. Also, cool pictures here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

England demands more women's names

So when Emma, daughter of Count Richard I of Rouen, married King Æthelred II ("the Unready") of England in 1002, she found that the English had trouble with her name. Instead, they called her Ælfgifu. She certainly enjoyed more status at court than the king's previous wife, Ælfgifu. But when Æthelred died in 1016, she married the conquerer, Cnut "the Great," King of Denmark, Norway, England, and "part of Sweden." She had to compete for his affections, however, with his previous concubine/wife, Ælfgifu.