Batty Great Aunt Margaret Hodgepodge suggests we use the occasion of the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession in 2009 to have a bit of a collective bellyache about being English (hat-tip W&W). Does she ever turn up to cabinet meetings in her nightie? I think we should be told. I must admit I haven’t actually finalised my own plans for celebrating the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession yet, but at the moment they involve turning thirty so I’m quite open to the idea of distractions.

I wonder why Henry VIII? On consulting my voluminous memory, I find that there are several other monarchs since 1066 whose accession anniversaries have fallen under the current government. Have they been hubristically planning to make a big thing of Henry VIII’s anniversary ever since 1997, or have other candidates been given the chop along the way, so to speak? I wonder what Batty Aunt Margaret’s researcher’s notes looked like?

John – 1199 – is a Disney character voiced by Peter Ustinov. Nickname “Lackland” would draw unwanted attention to the housing crisis.

Henry IV 1399 – deposed his predecessor, faced rebellion in Wales, set events of Wars of the Roses in train. Not inspiring.

Henry I – 1100 - hm, everyone knows medieval history is pointless and rubbish, but let’s see what Wiki says…

Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which formed a basis for subsequent challenges to rights of kings and presaged the Magna Carta, which subjected the King to law.

The rest of Henry’s reign was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury. He used itinerant officials to curb abuses of power at the local and regional level, garnering the praise of the people

Ha, strike him out! Last thing we need is a medieval monarch who is more liberal and competent than the Labour party.

Edward VII 1901 – playboy. Reign saw zenith of Liberal Party. Hm.

James I 1603 – united England and Scotland – don’t even GO there, the SNP will bay like prairie wolves.

Edward II 1307 – probably gay, which is good, but deposed and murdered, bad. 

Anne 1707 – died youngish after lots of miscarriages, was a bit jowly. Nah. Too close to the Bill of Rights for comfort.

Henry VIII 1509 – absolutist monarch who confiscated private property from his subjects, used fear to demonise religious minorities, constantly involved in sleazy scandal – hey, he almost makes us look good!  

The Tories meanwhile are probably holding out for 2013, which will be the six-hundredth anniversary of the accession of Henry V, victor of Agincourt, and de facto the monarch who gave the English language a royal seal of approval when he took his coronation oath in English, whatever Batty Aunt Hodge might think. Not many people know that.

For an authentically Lib Dem flavoured reign I think I’d plump for Edward III (1327-1377). Not only did he have a dark and anti-disestablishmentarian sense of humour (“I shall never again appoint a chancellor I cannot hang”), lose bets to Rose, his laundress (it’s true, it’s in the Patent Rolls), and re-mould the office of Justice of the Peace to allow more types of case to be tried locally and accessibly, but his reign oversaw the development of parliament as an institution that could answer back. In 1341, the plucky half-formed little Commons refused to grant him a tax to fund the French wars unless he listened to their grievances first, thus establishing a pattern of tit-for-tat that ultmately prevented the equivalent of the French Revolution in England. The Good Parliament of 1376 saw the first open rebellion in the Commons against the wishes of the Crown (with the tacit backing of some of the lords), and the appointment of the first Speaker.

You get exactly the same sense of the uncannily familiar in the economic and social fabric of the time. The Black Death killed possibly up to a half of the population in 1348, and killed off the new shoots again in 1361. That meant a sudden surfeit of land and no-one to work it, and the market – and the enterprising individual within it – duly got to work. People could suddenly be a little more choosy about who they worked for, how much they were paid - they got a taste of setting their own terms. Legislation attempting to deal with the situation by fixing wage rates was as much use as a pebble against a flood.  They negotiated their way out of the already archaic serfdom bonds so that by the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the peasants in question were not so much downtrodden starvelings yearning to be free of their bonds as prosperous kulaks incensed at the idea that anyone should be able to order them around. The heightened individual wealth led to the first trends of conspicuous consumption among the mass of the population (and, predictably, the first laws attempting to curb it).

The period also saw the first highly amusing almighty database-style cock-up in the history of government administration. In 1371, a tax was to be collected for prosecuting the French wars (again), and for the purpose of working out how much each parish would need to pay, the number of parishes was estimated at45,000. Actual number? 8,000. The first clumsy fledgeling attempts at progressive taxation were made, with a scale ranging from 10 marks on the Duke of Lancaster down to a groat on the baldricks. The Bible was translated into English, the first gun was fired by an English army, the first English bankers jostled for business with the old Italian banking houses, most of the Inns of Court and a flood of Oxbridge colleges were founded to train up the administrative class - lawyers, priests and government ministers.

It really is possible to see the modern nation struggling to be born in the fourteenth century, and from this side of English history, the Tudors appear as a bit of a self-absorbed, absolutist, panicky aberration with control-freakish tendencies. But it’s written by the winners and all that, so their version of the medieval era has stood. They were, really, the original spin doctors. I’m sure I don’t need to, ahem, labour this too much more…

Following the whole Fairytales of New York malarkey, I had noticed Alex Wilcock’s unlikely-sounding account of the derivation of the word “faggot”, and was forced to weigh my deep-seated concern for sound etymology against the fact that I weally, weally wuv him, especially when he is having righteous anger. Love won (doesn’t it always) but then Jonathan Calder dismantled Alex’s flight of fancy anyway, so I am free to follow up.

Merriam-Webster offers this:

Main Entry:
earlier and dialect, contemptuous word for a woman or child, probably from 1fagot
usually disparaging : a male homosexual 

And the “1fagot ” definition referred to in there is as follows:

Main Entry:
or fag·got \ˈfa-gət\
Middle English fagot, from Anglo-French
14th century
bundle : as a: a bundle of sticks b: a bundle of pieces of wrought iron to be shaped by rolling or hammering at high temperature

The date of the word’s modern usage is given here as 1914, which fits with the account given in the passage Jonathan quotes, but the meaning shows that it was a much older dialect word. Originally, it was a perjorative for women and children, presumably later extended to men considered effeminate. It is said to be ultimately derived from the Middle English term for a bundle of something, usually firewood.

That clarified things somewhat, as Jonathan’s quote seemed to suggest that the word sprang into existence in the early twentieth century which is almost never the case. That last step about the firewood seemed a little odd to me though, and I started working on an alternative derivation (one of the most fun things I have ever learnt is that dictionary etymologies are often guesswork and sometimes just wrong) based on the stem of “faggot” being the same as that in “fey”, “fairy” etc, and the “-et” sounding suffix just being the usual diminutive you get in lots of Middle English words (piglet, cygnet etc). Then it occurred to me that there are two related casual insults for old women: “baggage” and “bundle”. Are these milder disparagements the surviving siblings of the word “faggot” perhaps, both applied to older women while “faggot” was applied to younger ones and children, before it was translated across to gay men where it acquired properly nasty overtones?

There is probably much more I could extrapolate, but I see that you have to go and wash your hair.

I highly recommend the piece by Madeleine Bunting over at Comment is Free today on one of my pet subjects. Being, as I am, lazy, and also involved in protracted and difficult negotiations with a seven-foot Norwegian spruce, I find I can do no better than lift the most pertinent few paras clean out of it:

The “medieval” has become a form of cultural shorthand, and it serves many purposes. It’s not just about plotlines or a stunning aesthetic – it is also used as a pejorative term. People talk of Africa as medieval, or argue that Islam is “stuck in the middle ages”. Medieval becomes synonymous with hard, short lives, barbarism, and a brutal, arbitrary use of violence. We are both captivated and repelled by this period of our past.

Dig a bit deeper and some fascinating explanations emerge of why the medieval should still have such cultural currency. For all the huge differences between today and 12th-century Europe, there are also remarkable parallels which, arguably, bring these two societies closer together than any in the intervening period. First, we share pervasive anxiety about an apocalypse: while we fear climate change our medieval counterparts feared the end of the world. Second, we share a fear of Islam and uncertainty about how to deal with it. Should we fight it (as they subsequently did in the Crusades) or attempt to win converts? Islam’s capacity to exert such a powerful hold over its growing number of followers left 12th-century Europe baffled and insecure about its own certainties. Does that sound familiar?

Third, the emergence of a cash economy for the first time since antiquity prompted deep concern. The pursuit of profit produced inequality and contemporaries bewailed the breakdown of community and family. Finally, there was a crisis of authority in 12th-century Europe, with the church and nobility riddled with corruption and a revolution in government as it sought to expand its power into its subjects’ lives. Our corollary is a political process eviscerated by apathy and disillusionment, while the state insists on acquiring unprecedented new powers through ID cards, DNA databases and surveillance.

 I also quote, with love, the best comment, from one Lepetomane:

What did the middle ages ever do for us? Start of trial by jury, start of parliamentary government, start of a banking system, rise of universities, habeas corpus…yes, but what did the middle ages do for us….?

The cranky, shadowy world of medievalism is in uproar at the news that Melbourne University is to drop its Viking Studies Programme. As many as seven people have tutted, quite a number of post-doctoral research fellows have mentioned it in the pub, and at least one boiled egg was very messily decapitated indeed by a Reader in Anglo-Saxon Literature at a northern Russel Group university as a result of being told the news over breakfast.

Ahem, no not really. Rather ashamed of all that actually. Medievalists and Liberal Democrats have much in common. Both are perceived as niche specialists on a hiding to nothing, our very existence seems for some reason to offend the Labour party beyond sanity, while the robustness of our collective intellect and the rigour of our method is grudgingly admired by others in the know. Most of all we share a common frontier of self-deprecating humour that sometimes makes us far too accommodating of ridicule. Mainstreamers have a go at us for being irrelevant and fail to understand that their argument is as circular as time; if a lot of people say something is irrelevant, it proves nothing more than that it is irrelevant to them.

Anyone who has studied history or something similar will have experienced at some point that strange tug towards the esoteric, the unfashionable, the full-on bizarre, some hidden corner of their subject that fascinates them out of all proportion to the amount of space it occupies in the National Curriculum. It seems that at Melbourne University, the Viking Studies programme is being dropped in spite of exceptionally healthy student numbers. Somehow that vague received wisdom that medievalism is irrelevant is enough to outweigh the on-the-ground democracy of quite a lot of people being really jolly interested, thank you very much. People are on the whole efficient with their brainpower and other resources; if a significant minority think that studying medieval history is the most important thing they could be doing with their lives, then it’s fair to say that they get a lot out of it, intellectually and personally.

History is relative. No one period of history has innately more value than any other. Not a single person born during the twelfth century is any less complex, any less deserving of study and understanding than a person alive today. No common experience – be it in the form of a shared pop culture, the self-promotion of an expansionist nation state or the song of a victorious warrior band – is inherently superior to any other. You learn as much about human beings, law, society, constitutions, institutions and ideology from studying medieval history as any other sort. Any historical studies teach you to build your own skeletal way of understanding a society. After you’ve learnt to do that, you can flesh out the skeleton an infinite number of times in any way you wish. I could take the same tools I learnt studying medieval history and use them on the French Wars of Religion without a problem. I won’t because there are far more important things I could be doing with my hair, but I could. (Oh, it’s a joke, it’s a joke. Early modernists, lay down your arquebuses)

It’s because of this total mismatch between the general received wisdom and the actual real-life relevance of medieval studies to many people that I feel the Melbourne Viking Studies course leader is being a little too understanding here. She wasn’t even consulted on her subject being axed. But decency compels her to admit that the world will go on without Viking Studies. Yes, but that isn’t the point. If we really need to slim down spending on humanities in order to boost the sciences and maintain technological progress (in itself arguable) then fine, but why is it medievalism that suffers? Shearing away subjects on the grounds of chronological distance is going to result in monohistory. This will be a real loss to education and western thought and it will happen partly because medievalists, like Liberal Democrats, are just so damn reasonable.


Medieval societies essentially faced the same problems as modern ones, as this clip demonstrates

I am too afraid of commitment to go to the cinema very often. Going to see a film involves sacrificing time and money with no certain guarantee that enjoyment will result. If I start a book and don’t like it, I can put it down again. If I go to the pub and it’s no fun, I can leave. If I watch a film on tellybox and it only half holds my attention, I can make some tea or paint my nails, read the IKEA catalogue or do a bit of blogging perhaps. But to walk out of a cinema is an admission of entertainment failure and a wanton waste of eight pounds fifty, which you only handed over in the first place so that someone else could control your environment, shroud you in over-heated darkness, crick your knees into arthritic shapes, put small, rumbustuous children behind you and the tallest man in Holland in front of you, give you a raging thirst and a queasy popcorn-filled stomach, and then finally churn you abruptly out of this isolation tank into a somehow unnervingly different world from the one you departed three hours earlier, blotchy-sighted, dehydrated and poorer by some twenty quid. No, you may keep the cinema as far as I am concerned.

Withal, being in the business of making my hangover a chicken and mushroom risotto this evening, I was pleased to find Elizabeth on terrestrial because it falls into the vast category of films I have always badly wanted to see, but didn’t go to the cinema for because it didn’t have the words “Pirates”, “Lord” or “Rings” in the title. I am a creature of habit, you see.

I think I and my hangover were just a little disappointed, after the several years’ low-key build-up. Visually it was gorgeous, and the emotional journey of the young queen from nervous tender-hearted moppet to divine untouchable was subtly drawn – so subtly that I only really noticed that this was what the film was all about in the last twenty-five minutes. I told you I don’t go to the cinema much.

But my main problem with it was that I judge historical films by how successfully they wrestle reality out of history – and I am not, for all the love of heaven, talking about historical accuracy. I really couldn’t give a toss about historical accuracy. No history is accurate anyway, fictional or not. It’s a non-starter to set out to reproduce a historical personage’s mind, opinions, speech, the way they moved through the world and the way that world acted upon them. Your portrayal of even the best recorded individuals, in the most well-documented periods, is never, ever going to amount to even ten per cent of the “truth”, even if we could agree on what the truth is, so you are really better off not bothering and serving the needs of your story instead.

In the case of Elizabeth, that means running a few different plots and happenstances together in a fairly freewheeling way, and it means involving a few people with things they were probably not, in fact, involved in. Fair enough, if it suits the story. I’m no expert anyway – I never could get on with the Tudors, ever since we “did” them twice at school, and “doing” history before GCSE mainly involves colouring in pictures of Henry VIII’s wives. What bothers me far more is that I have no better conception, having watched the film, of what sixteenth-century England was all about. And I think if you fail to answer – even to ask – that question, you have failed to create a piece of working, breathing historical fiction.

This may surprise, but my favourite historical film in the whole entire world ever is Gladiator. Now that I went to the cinema for, and I have never before or since walked home from seeing a movie in such an altered state. It was breathtakingly true to the Roman world. The storyline was an almost complete fabrication from start to finish, but everything I had ever read and thought about Rome was there in the very warp and weft of it – the centrality of family, household gods, the republican ideal, the elevation of talented generals to positions of power, bread and circuses, patricide, the pointlessly bloody frontier provinces, the influx of provincial talent to the political arena. The notion of being a good Roman, and what that was.

The opening and closing images of the film, as Maximus dreams of his modest estate and then returns to it in death, are pretty much an inspired recreation of the sturdy Roman landowner who leaves his farm only to vote or fight when required to do so for the good of Rome. He has done his work for the patria, now he returns to till the soil. The Catos, Elder and Younger, are the source material here, the Elder for his writings on agriculture and the Younger for his famously humourless integrity. The Catonian tradition of the noble, hard-working Roman, master of the world but humble in the home. I’m no fan of either – it’s hard to be, especially when they’re talking about knocking slaves on the head when they get old and feeble – and the ideal selfless Roman aristocrat was a myth even in their day, never mind by the period in which Gladiator is set, but I don’t care. Someone had immersed themselves so thoroughly in the memes, instincts and forces of a long-dead era that the story rang true, so true it provoked an emotional response in me which had nothing to do with the fate of the characters. Hector in The History Boys has it right, though he is talking about written fiction, when he says that coming across a thought in a book identical to one of your own is like “having someone reach out and take your hand”. And if you are thinking this is a rather elevated sentiment to be applying to a Ridley Scott movie, I riposte that Hector is famously an enthusiast of the lowbrow alongside the high.

And they didn’t stop at the Ladybird Book of Rome either. The staging and scripting of the palace scenes between Commodus and his sister are practically an open homage to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Any piece of story-telling that draws on both original material and other stories that have previously been based on it, and makes them into a flowing narrative entire of itself, is a sophisticated day’s work. Put simply, Gladiator tells you what Rome is all about, what it was about at the time and what it is about now, to us. Yes, it does this with almost ludicrous inaccuracy, including the biggest lie of all in the implication that the Republic was restored after Commodus’ death (which needless to say did not take place in the arena). But it gets away with it, because this is a story conceived by person or persons unknown who are actually interested in the period, interested in what ideas were floating around and what made the political machine tick. They are not interested in staging one-damn-thing-after-another history, or in making a contemporary point. Accusing the film of inaccuracy is as irrelevant as complaining that there are too many different surviving versions of the legends of King Arthur.

Contrast all this with the diabolical shambles that was Braveheart. This film ought on the face of it to please a historian more because it has considerably better claims to your poor old threadbare “accuracy” than either Gladiator or, for that matter, Elizabeth. But it’s not really about twelfth-century Scotland. It’s about eighteenth- and by extension twentieth-century America. If you’re going to have authentic historical personages all but saying the word democracy, it’s safe to say you’re not in the slightest bit interested in the twelfth-century or what you can do with it, and you’re making the wrong film. I do wonder why on earth Crazy Mel bothered. The fact that Patriot came out a year or so later should tell its own story.

And while Elizabeth is nothing like that crass, I am still left with the impression that someone at the heart of the making of that film failed to move beyond the lazy, cliched cloak-and-dagger stuff you learn while colouring in Anne Boleyn’s dress aged nine and a half. What is this “power” that keeps flowing around everywhere and getting into the bedhangings (of which there are many)? Why does everyone sit at the end of long oak tables and talk about their enemies “moving” against them? What does that even mean? What is the actual stuff and substance of all the skulduggery that is supposedly happening at court under the cover of a well-executed quadrille? What do people engaging in skulduggery actually say to each other?

Prithee, my lord, it is time for our skulduggery. The Spaniards look more powerful by the day.

Indeed, see how the ambassador’s eyebrow is a half-inch more lowering than it was heretofore. But soft, my lord! The Lord Chancellor is near. Let us retire to this shadowy recess and plot.

These aren’t people, these are cardboard cut-outs. This isn’t a recreation of the politics of an era, it’s a dead-end alternative world conjured out of a simplistic textbook by someone who hasn’t stopped to ask themselves how it all worked. The glossiness of both production and direction only just disguises the fact that one plotline scene succeeds another like the worst sit-up-and-beg tv thriller. The acting and decent, clean scripting mercifully free of cod-Elizabethanisms ultimately save Elizabeth, but Blackadder II lampooned the hell out of this stuff over a decade before it was was made. The film is interested in the personal journey of an ordinary young woman who suddenly faces great responsibility, and this it succeeds in putting across. But it’s not remotely interested in Tudor politics and it’s only interested in the most wet-palmed way in religious strife, and ultimately that just means the one storyline that is successful gets held up.

Why bother creating fictive history if you’re not interested in the history itself? No-one can be the master, Robert Graves, but film-makers can and should emulate the love he had for his subject. I, Claudius was of course televised very successfully. I chanced upon an old post by Alex Wilcock about this, and I think everything he says about the memorable high-drama moments, the mafiosi overtones, the vividness of the character portraits underlines very effectively what a well-conceived body of work the books were. That’s why they translated so well to screenplay despite being virtually a dialogue-free zone. The world they depict is a real, operative model, the twisting and heavily populated storyline hangs from one conceptual peg. Most importantly, Graves was a man convinced that the slice of history he was remaking was important. Not interesting, not diverting, not scenic, important. And that is what makes good historical fiction, because it’s one of our oldest traits as creatures with a consciousness to recognise internal conviction in a narrative, and to respond to it.


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