Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: Secret Identities for Everyone


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When I first heard about Professor Marston and the Wonder Women ( 2017, dir. Angela Robinson), I was really excited. The film is a biopic of William Moulton Marston, the Harvard-trained psychologist who was the creator of Wonder Woman. Marston lived a rather unconventional life and I was interested to see how Robinson, who also wrote the film, would treat Marston.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to see this movie, you might want to put off reading this until you’ve done so, because I discuss the plot of the film in detail.

The film tells the story of Marson (Luke Evans) and his ferociously intelligent but academically-thwarted wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are trying to develop a prototype lie-detector at Radcliffe when they meet Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the niece of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, who takes one of Marston’s classes. The Marstons are feminists and believers in free love (the early 20th century term for sex outside of marriage), and they are both attracted to Olive. Elizabeth figures out a way to make the lie-detector work, and after several rounds of lie-detector Truth or Dare, the three admit they are all attracted to each other and start a polyamorous relationship long before that was a thing,


Evans as Marston


Unfortunately, word of their unconventional (not to mention unethical) relationship leaks out and the Marstons are dismissed from Radcliffe right around the time that Olive announces she’s pregnant. Elizabeth takes work as a secretary and William starts trying to make a living as an author. Along the way he encounters a bondage fetishist and the threesome discovers that they’re all kinky; Elizabeth is dominant while Olive is submissive. (Magic lassos, anyone?)

All of this sparks an idea in William. He will write a new comic book involving a female superhero who defeats her opponents through love. As a psychologist, William developed what he called DISC Theory, which focuses on two dimensions of people’s emotional behavior: whether they perceive their environment as friendly or hostile and whether they perceive themselves as having control or lack of control over the environment. Control in an antagonistic environment produces Dominance, control in a friendly environment produces Inducement, lack of control in an antagonistic environment produces Submission, and lack of control in a friendly environment produces Compliance. His character, Suprema the Wonder Woman, was conceived as a demonstration of these principles, as well as an expression of his sense that women are inherently superior to men because they are not automatically aggressive.

Despite Elizabeth’s skepticism, William sells the character (sans her original name) to a comic book publisher and makes a good deal of money writing the character. Olive and Elizabeth both have children. But one day during a kinky romp in their house, a friendly neighbor walks in, discovers the threesome in flagrante delicto, and their world collapses around them. Elizabeth demands that Olive and her children leave to start a new life. William is investigated by a morality crusader; her ‘interrogation’ of him forms the film’s frame tale. William develops cancer, and is eventually able to persuade Olive to return by getting Elizabeth to drop her Dominance and enact Compliance with Olive. The film ends shortly before William’s death, with an epilogue text that explains that Olive and Elizabeth continued to live and raise children together for the next several decades until Olive’s death.

The film is very well-done, if not at all subtle about its themes. Olive and Elizabeth are together William’s perfect woman and both contribute components to Wonder Woman’s character. The film liberally peppers panels from early Wonder Woman comics into scenes of the trio’s life, illustrating how their sexual interests were freely expressed in the comic. When the three of them first make love, they do so in a theater prop room, which allows Olive to be dressed as the goddess Diana, Elizabeth wears a cheetah-print coat, and William is dressed in a WWII pilot’s outfit; anyone who knows Wonder Woman will immediately spot the references to Wonder Woman’s secret identity, her arch-nemesis the Cheetah, and her love interest Steve Trevor. William’s lectures on DISC Theory act as chapter headings for the film.


The three title characters


It’s interesting that in a biopic about William Marston, he’s not really the main character, which is not a bad thing, since as an actor, Evans is very pretty to look at but not really a very dynamic presence. The main focus is on Elizabeth and Olive’s complicated relationship, and Hall shines as Elizabeth. Every time she’s on-screen, she absolutely commands attention, which both fits the historical Elizabeth’s ferocious self-confidence and helps explain why William adores her so deeply. Heathcote’s Olive is a gentle woman but one willing to pursue her desires and stand up for herself against Elizabeth’s harshness. And the film handles their polyamorous relationship in a very sensitive way, never treating it as freakish while still acknowledging the difficulties it created for them.



A lot of the film is made up.

Yes, the film is “based on a true story.” But that doesn’t mean it’s based very closely on it.

The film opens with Marston and Elizabeth already at Radcliffe, and in doing so glosses over a good deal of interesting stuff in Marston’s earlier life, including the fact that he wrote at least four screenplays that got turned into silent movies (including one directed by DW Griffiths). He claimed to have supported himself as an undergraduate at Harvard that way. He also spent a year in Hollywood working for a film studio. Marston’s natural gift for attracting media attention was quite useful there, but ultimately he returned to New England. The man lived a very interesting, if not entirely successful life, but much of it gets cut out in the interests of focusing on the relationships at the heart of the film.

Marston didn’t invent the Lie Detector. He invented a precursor to it that focused on systolic blood pressure. He repeatedly used it for experiments, some of which were basically publicity stunts, and both Elizabeth and Olive helped him conduct these experiments, but there’s no evidence that the trio ever used the device on each other to uncover their secret feelings. The actual Lie Detector, more properly called a Polygraph (because it measures several body functions, including systolic blood pressure) was invented by John Augustus Larson, whose protégé Leonarde Keeler improved on it and then patented it. Marston’s work was certainly important to the development of the device, and Marston frequently claimed to have invented it, but that’s a considerable exaggeration. It was Keeler who made all the money on it.


Marston doing a publicity stunt with three women at a movie theater


The film greatly simplifies Marston’s employment history. He never actually taught at Radcliffe, but did teach at several other universities, including founding the Psychology Department at American University. He was not fired because of his unconventional relationships; rather departments just stopped renewing his teaching contracts. It’s possible that word of his relationships played a role in this, because at least one letter in his file at Harvard hints at improprieties, but that’s as much as we can say about why his academic career faltered. He also had a law practice (since he and Elizabeth both went to law school) and tried to insert himself into various famous criminal investigations (such as the Lindbergh case) as an expert on lie detection. One of the cases he was involved in, the Frye case, resulted in an important appeals court decision about when scientific experts can be introduced as witnesses, a decision that still gets cited today. He worked for the FBI briefly. He also ran at least four separate businesses, all of which failed, and one of which got him charged with mail fraud, although he was found innocent (that trial is probably why American University dismissed him). All in all, Marston was something of a publicity hound and a bit of a grifter, which doesn’t come through in the film at all.

Also, he can’t be Professor Marston if he’s not working at a university. Professor is a job title, and he didn’t have it, except perhaps for a year at American University.


His Relationships

The biggest problem in the film stems from its misrepresentation of the relationship between himself, Elizabeth and Olive. The film suggests that the Marstons had an essentially conventional relationship until meeting Olive in the mid 1920s. In fact, by that point, the Marstons already had at least an open relationship, because while Marston was working for the Army during WWI, he met Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, a divorcée several years his senior. By 1919, she had moved in with the Marstons. For the rest of Marston’s life, Huntley moved in and out of wherever the Marstons were living; she had a permanent room in the house they raise their children in. The exact nature of the relationship is unclear. Although Margaret Sanger, who knew Marston’s circle quite well from the 1920s on, said that the relationship was non-sexual, Huntley herself described it as a “threesome”. She and Marston were certainly lovers, but there’s no clear evidence that she and Elizabeth were intimate. The film complete omits Huntley, but it’s clear that the Marston trio was really more of a periodic quartet.


The Marston clan: Elizabeth is far left, Olive far right, the three boys are their sons, the girl on his right is his daughter, and the woman on his left is Margaret Huntley


Nor were Huntley’s sexual interests purely vanilla. When she met Marston, she was already a devotee of “love-binding”, what modern kinksters call bondage. The film claims that Marston stumbled across a group of bondage fetishists in New York some time after Olive had moved into his household, when in reality he was probably already familiar with bondage before he met her, thanks to Huntley.

Nor was Huntley the only sexual adventurer in Marston’s circle. Marston’s paternal aunt, Carolyn Marston Keatley, was a believer in an early form of New Age spirituality, maintaining that the world was entertain an age of free love. She maintained a regular weekly gathering at her Boston apartment where about 10 people, including the Marstons, Huntley, and eventually Olive, would gather regularly. These meetings seem to have been devoted to exploring female sexual power; the women routinely went naked, and a set of meeting minutes from this group strongly suggests that group sex and bondage were a regular part of the activites. These meetings seem to have laid the foundation for the philosophy that Marston and his women used to govern their complex relationship. Instead of being a later development of their relationship, as the film depicts, bondage seems to have been one of its early components.

However, understanding what Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive (and Huntley, when she was around) did sexually is complicated, because there is conflicting evidence. The aforementioned evidence about Huntley and about Keatley’s meetings strongly suggests that kinky sex was a basic element of their dynamic, but the Marston’s children have insisted in interviews conducted by historian Jill Lepore that they never saw any hint of bondage in their household and that neither Elizabeth nor Olive would have tolerated such things.

Even more problematic is the film’s central conceit that Elizabeth and Olive were lovers, because Marston and Elizabeth’s grand-daughter, Christie Marston, insists that this was not the case. Christie says that she knew her grandmother quite well and had many frank conversations with her. Christie insists that the two women lived together as “sisters” rather than lovers. She points out that Angela Robinson made no effort to contact any of the Marston family and therefore Robinson’s treatment of the relationship is entirely fictitious. We know that the two women maintained separate bedrooms, and on one occasion when they visited Sanger, she arranged from them to use a room with two beds. There is no explicit evidence that the two women were ever lovers (and as we’ll see, their children had no clear idea that Olive was intimate with their father, even though one of the children caught the two of them having sex).


Elizabeth and Olive leaning into their first kiss


Despite that, there’s certainly reason to speculate that Elizabeth and Olive might have been lovers. Marston had a remarkably contemporary view of sexuality, maintaining that homosexuality was entirely natural and that sexual desire was not inherently connected to a person’s gender (which he considered more social than biological). He found lesbian sex arousing and claimed to have watched women having sex; it’s not a far leap to guess who those women might have been. The notes of the Keatley meeting group talk about a ‘Love Leader’, a “Mistress” and their “Love Girl” coming together to form a “Love Unit.” That certainly sounds like Elizabeth had some sort of sexual relationship with Olive. “The ladies” (as the family still calls them) continued to live together for decades after Marston’s death, and long after their children had moved out.

And while their children and grandchildren certainly knew the trio well, there’s reason to think that their testimony is not entirely reliable. As Lepore has documented, the Marston trio were remarkably dedicated to hiding the nature of their relationship, even from their children. Olive invented a husband who fathered two sons on her and then died. She never told her sons Donn and Byrne that Marston was their father; as adults, the sons finally pried the truth out of Elizabeth, who only told them on the condition that they never ask their mother about the matter again. Olive was, in fact, so dead-set against anyone learning the truth that she threatened to commit suicide if her sons pressed her on the subject of their father. Marston adopted both of Olive’s sons to help protect the family secret, and Olive was variously passed off as either a domestic servant or a widowed sister, to prevent neighbors from gossiping. But the fact that Donn and Byrne felt there was something their mother wasn’t telling them suggests that they might have had suspicions that they had been lied to.

Later in life, as Elizabeth was sorting through Marston’s papers, she aggressively culled the documents, and then very carefully decided which of the four children would get which papers. Lepore, who was able to see three of the four sets of papers, was startled to realize that Holloway had given each of the children a sharply different family narrative, as if she was trying to keep each of them from finding out the truth even from each other. Although Marston drew much of his inspiration for Wonder Woman from “the ladies”  and although Olive functioned as Marston’s typist and secretary, Holloway insisted that Huntley was much better informed about Wonder Woman’s origins than Olive was. So it seems that neither Elizabeth nor Olive wanted anyone to know the details of their unconventional relationship, and it seems entirely in keeping with that to think that Elizabeth might have lied to Christie in an effort to protect Olive’s privacy. So she may well have been sexually involved with Olive and simply chose not to reveal the fact.

However, against that interpretation, we must set the fact that some of Marston’s co-workers at All American Comics (which was later sold to DC Comics) seem to have been fully aware that he effectively had two wives. In fact, Marston seems to have been quite the ladies’ man his entire adult life, and numerous people were aware of it. Marston’s mother was fully aware of what was going as, as were Margaret Sanger and Olive’s mother Ethel (and quite possibly two of Olive’s uncles, who performed as drag queens on the vaudeville circuit). So the family secret wasn’t so important that Marston didn’t tell people.



If I had to guess, I’d say that Elizabeth and Olive did have sex at least occasionally, since the meetings of Keatley’s group seem to have involved that sort of thing. But it’s a far cry from that to the film’s version of the relationship, in which Elizabeth kisses Olive before Marston does and the three regularly share a bed at night. Marston seems to have maintained separate sex lives with each of them, and given that there’s no concrete evidence that the two women saw themselves as lovers, it’s best to not read too much into things.

In the film, Elizabeth only finally acquiesces to Marston’s relationship with Olive when Olive has a baby. She goes to work as a secretary because someone in the family has to be earning some money. In reality, Elizabeth was very career-oriented and had struggled to figure out how to make that work with being a mother, something else she wanted. Olive was the solution to her dilemma; Elizabeth would be a career woman, and Olive would be the stay-at-home caretaker for the children. Far from being a secretary, she was an editor at the Encyclopedia Brittanica and McCall’s, and eventually began the assistant to the chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance.

The movie claims that after about 5-6 years, the trio’s secret was revealed when a neighbor wandered into their house and caught them in a bondage scene together. The trio came under so much social pressure that Elizabeth forced Olive and her two sons to move out, and Marston was only able to reunite them at the end of his life by using the fact of his cancer to goad them into a reconciliation. That never happened at all. The trio’s secret was never found out by their neighbors (or if it was, it was tolerated). Olive never moved out of Marston’s household, and given that Marston and Elizabeth had legally adopted both her sons, she probably couldn’t have taken her sons with her if she had.


Elizabeth (left) and Olive late in life


Another problem with the end of the film is that it distorts what happened medically. About a year before he died, Marston contracted polio, and gradually lost his ability to walk, spending his last months bedridden. During that period, he developed cancer, but the family chose not to tell him about the diagnosis (secrecy ran deep in the Marston household, it seems), so that he died never knowing what he was suffering from.


Wonder Woman

The film also gets a chunk of the comic book side of the story wrong as well. In the film, Marston comes up with the idea for Suprema the Wonder Woman, despite Elizabeth poo-pooing the concept of a female superhero, and pitches it to MC Gaines (Oliver Platt), the head of All American Comics. In reality, Marston had already been working with All American for some time before he pitched his concept. Gaines realized that having a well-known psychologist who could say that comics were healthy reading for children was a good thing, so he paid Marston a monthly fee to act as a consultant. Marston was always good at making headlines, so they were a natural fit for each other.

When Marston invented Wonder Woman, Elizabeth was not against it. In actuality, she was the one who told him that the character had to be a woman. Marston was trying to express his ideas about submission to loving authority, and Elizabeth pointed out that because he was trying to create a totally different kind of superhero, it ought to be a woman. Marston was already essentially a female supremacist, so it made sense.

The film suggests that Wonder Woman was a combination of Elizabeth and Olive, and that may well be true. Elizabeth was an extremely strong and assertive woman, and Olive was much more docile in many ways, which would fit Wonder Woman’s aggressive nature and her docility when she is bound by a man. But Marston seems to have modeled Wonder Woman physically much more on Olive than on Elizabeth. In the film, Elizabeth is tall and athletic and dark-haired, while Olive is shorter and more soft-looking and blonde. In reality both women were dark-haired, and Olive was taller than Elizabeth.

The scene in which Olive puts on a burlesque costume and accidentally inspires Wonder Woman’s costume is false. Marston created the costume in co-operation with the artist Henry George Peter, who partly modeled her on pin-ups he drew. But Olive did contribute one element of the costume; Marston had given her a pair of bracelets that she wore every day and those were the direct inspiration for the Amazonian bracelets that deflect bullets.


Olive in the Wonder Woman costume


The film’s frame tale involves Marston being forced to meet with a committee run by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), who is disturbed by the sexual themes in the comic. Gaines says that he cannot protect Marston from Frank, so that if Marston can’t convince Frank that the comic is wholesome, Wonder Woman will be taken away from him. The truth is quite different. Frank actually worked on a committee that reviewed children’s literature. Gaines hoped for their stamp of approval, but Frank was troubled by the copious amounts of bondage, and never accepted Marston’s theories about willing submission to loving authority, which he fully admitted were part of what the comic was about. Eventually Frank resigned from the editorial advisory panel reviewing All American comics.

But Frank never had any real leverage that could have forced Gaines to take away the character from Marston. Gaines was making too much money off of Marston’s character to ever threaten his star author that way; by the end of his life, Wonder Woman was regularly appearing in three different comic books and an internationally-syndicated newspaper strip. Marston worked on these up until just shortly before his death, although his assistant Joye Hummel was increasingly scripting the comics from his notes. So the entire frame tale of the movie is made-up. Gaines did come under some pressure over Wonder Woman while Marston was writing her, but the real attack on comic books and Wonder Woman was just beginning to take shape as Marston was dying.


It’s not hard to see why Frank found material like this problematic


Marston would certainly have been very disappointed to see that the next writer to control the character was Robert Kanigher. Where Marston was a full-blown feminist convinced of women’s moral superiority to men, Kanigher was an outright misogynist who despised the character he was being asked to write, and reduced her to a love-starved simpering editor of a woman’s romance magazine, desperate for Steve Trevor to marry her. It was not until the publication of the first issue of Ms Magazine in 1972, which put Wonder Woman on its cover, that Wonder Woman began to return to her feminist roots.

Despite being largely invented, I still like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. It’s a well-done story that brings a fascinating and rather neglected trio of historical figures to the awareness of the viewers. It’s a moving portrait of a polyamorous family at a time well before that was a thing. And it doesn’t hold back from the original feminism that made Wonder Woman such an inspiration to many of the women of Second Wave feminism.

My next post will finish up looking at The Last Kingdom.

Want to Know More?

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is still playing in theaters, so it’s not available elsewhere yet.

If you want to know more about Marston, his women, and his famous creation, I cannot recommend Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman highly enough. She painstakingly pieces together the secret life the Marstons worked so hard to keep hidden, and she does an excellent job setting Wonder Woman in the context of 1920s feminism, showing how the issues of birth control, suffrage, women’s right to work, and so on are played out in the pages of Sensation Comics. It’s honestly one of the best pieces of historical scholarship I’ve read in a long time. If you have any interest in Wonder Woman, this is a must-read.


The Last Kingdom: Runes


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One of the things that people tend to know about the Norse/Vikings is that they used runes for magical purposes. The Last Kingdom employs this trope; Ubba has a sorcerer who uses them. There’s been a lot of misinformation around runes, so now that I’ve gotten through the massive pile of student papers I’ve been struggling with for the past three weeks, I figured I would do a quick post on the issue.


In the show, Ubba has a sorcerer (whose name I wasn’t able to catch, so I’m just going to call him the Sorcerer) who ‘casts runes’. He has a pouch of clay or stone tiles, each of which has a rune on it. He throws them on the ground and looks at them and makes a divination based on what they tell him. I’ve seen similar versions of this scene a number of times in other shows and films.

It’s total bullshit. There is precisely 0 evidence that the Norse ever employed runes in this fashion. As a divination method, it is inspired by the Chinese I Ching and perhaps by western Tarot cards, both of which use randomization as a mechanism for divining, as well as unclear references to Norse divination by lots. But the idea that Norsemen used runes in this particular way doesn’t go back much further than the late 1980s, when some occultists being using them this way. In the 1990s, someone began marketing a commercial set of runes that was sold at bookstores and Renaissance Faires. But rune tiles are completely ahistorical. There’s also no evidence that runes were used on pendants worn around the neck; that’s another contemporary use.

But that doesn’t mean that runes themselves are ahistorical. The Norse did genuinely use them, so we need to look into that a bit more.


Runes emerged in Germanic culture (of which Norse culture was one branch) somewhere in the period between 100-250 AD, as the Germanic peoples had increasing contacts with the Romans. In origin, runic scripts are attempts to replicate the Latin alphabet. Different Germanic peoples developed different runic scripts; we have surviving examples for the Norse, Goths, Anglo-Saxons, Frisians, and Franks. The oldest surviving runic inscription dates to around 300 AD, but it was certainly not the first of its kind. I’m going to focus primarily on Norse runes, just to keep this short.


A wooden staff carved with runes found in the early 9th-century Oseberg burial

Unlike the modern alphabet, runes were not designed to be written down, so there is no cursive form of them. Rather they are designed to be carved, originally on wood and later on stone, bone, walrus ivory, and metal. This origin explains several features of runic script. It is made up entirely of straight lines, because those are easier to carve and less likely to disappear into the writing surface; they are carved perpendicular to the grain of the wood, with no horizontal strokes, which would tend to disappear into the grain (and perhaps split the wood, if it was a thin surface).

Additionally, because they have to be carved, they are not used for long texts, such as letters or histories. Instead they tend to be shorter texts, often just a statement of ownership or manufacture, such as ‘Thorstein carved this’. Longer texts exist, but texts of more than 25-30 words are fairly rare.

A third characteristic is that runic script is simple and economical. Most runes are simultaneously individual letters and specific words. For example, in the Norse runic alphabet, the letter T is also the rune for ‘sword’ (as well as the name of the god Tyr), while the rune for K means ‘ulcer’. So an individual rune in an inscription can be either a letter or a whole word. For the sake of brevity, double letters were written as a single rune. The earliest Norse alphabet, called the Futhark (from its first 6 letters) had 24 runes, but shortly before the Viking period started, this was simplified into the Younger Futhark alphabet, which had only 16 runes; the letter K did double duty as the letter G, and some sounds used in Proto-Norse fell out of use in later Old Norse. Runes could also be written in either direction. Since inscriptions often don’t have word separation, accurately interpreting these inscriptions can be challenging.


The Elder Futhark alphabet

Runes as Magic

19th and early 20th century scholars confidently maintained that runic script was a magical language, meaning that its original purpose was magical and that non-magical uses only emerged later on. There were several reasons for this. First the word ‘rune’ means ‘mystery, secret’. Second, a lot of early runic inscriptions seemed to be untranslatable gibberish, which was interpreted as being magical (sort of like ‘abracadabra’). The pagan Norse poem Havamal contains a reference to runes being used to temporarily bring a dead body back to life, and later Norse sagas show runes being used for a variety of magical purposes; for example, Egil’s Saga contains an incident when an improperly written charm makes a man ill, until Egil erases the mistake and re-carves it properly, curing the man. The T rune has been found on several swords; since labeling a sword ‘sword’ seems a bit redundant, it’s been suggested that this was some form of magical charm. Put together, these seemed to point to runes primarily have a magical function.


A typical, if elaborate, runestone

But more recently, historians have tended to move away from the ‘magical hypothesis’. It rests on an assumption that early Germanic society was so primitive that it had no practical use for a writing system, so that all writing had to have a magical function. The fact that some inscriptions are unintelligible does not automatically mean that they were magical words; we may simply not know enough vocabulary to translate them. It’s also been pointed out that the inscriptions most likely to survive were high-status inscriptions made on rocks and metal objects, whereas less important inscriptions (like the Norse equivalent of a shopping list) would have been made on more perishable media like wood; it’s likely that we have lost the majority of all runic inscriptions ever made and so our sample is skewed. And Norse sagas were all written centuries after the conversion of the Norse to Christianity. Icelanders clearly thought that their pagan ancestors had use runes for magical purposes, but that doesn’t mean that their ancestors actually had used runes only for that purpose.

None of this means that Norse sorcerers didn’t employ runes for magical purposes. Havamal is good evidence that runes did have a role to play in Norse magic, and the early medieval Sigurdrifumal mentions runes being used to protect against poison in ale, to facilitate child-birth, to protect ships, to improve one’s speaking ability, and as “gladness-runes”, among others. The aforementioned T rune inscribed on a sword is most reasonably explained as a magical charm. What it does mean is that Norse sorcerers wrote their magical texts using the same alphabet they wrote their grocery lists and love letters in. So runes were not inherently magical, but Norse magic probably employed writing on at least some occasions.

Very few surviving examples of runic inscriptions are obviously magical. The Glavendrup Stone in Denmark, like many runestones, is a simple memorial to a dead man by his family. But then it asks Thor to ‘hallow’ the runes. The text ends with a curse against anyone who damages or moves the stone, declaring him to be an outcast. But it’s not clear that the curse has power because it was written in runic script, or simply because the carved declared the curse. For that matter, it’s not clear that the curse is actually supposed to be supernatural rather than social in nature.


The Glavendrup Stone

A more clearly magical use of runes can be found on the pre-Viking Age Björketorp Stone in Sweden. Its inscription reads “I, master of the runes, conceal here runes of power. Incessantly [plagued by] maleficence, [doomed to] insidious death [is] he who breaks the monument. I prophecy destruction.” What’s not clear is why someone would carve this on a stone. What’s the point of writing “I curse the person who messes with this curse”? Scholars have offered various suggestions about missing gravesites, fertility rituals, and other options, but there’s no clear explanation for the stone yet. But it’s clear that the carver felt that the act of carving the runes was magically powerful in some way, either because the runes made concrete a spoken curse or because the act of carving them was inherently magical.

The Gummarp Stone in Sweden memorializes a man named Hathuwulf, and then repeats the F rune three times. Since the F rune is also the word for wealth, it’s been suggested that this was a magical charm for wealth, but who is supposed to receive this wealth is not clear. So while Norse literature has an idea of runes being used for magic, actually pinpointing examples of runes actually being used that way is harder, and understanding what the point of those examples are is harder still.

A 1st century Roman source, Tacitus’ Germania, claims that the Germanic peoples performed divination with “signs” in groups of three cut from a “nut-bearing tree”. His description doesn’t make it clear how these signs were used for divination. But they are unlikely to be runes, because the runic script hadn’t been invented yet. And this predates the formation of the Norse culture by half a millennium. A highly unreliable 14th century saga claims that the Norse performed divination by means of sacrificial “chips” that were marked with the blood of a sacrifice and then thrown to the ground. But this reference makes no mention of runes. Another Christian source claims that the Norse drew lots for divinatory purposes. That’s the closest we get to a notion of rune tiles being used for divination, but the text makes no mention of runes on these lots. So there’s no actual evidence that runes themselves played a role in divination. That hasn’t stopped 20th century occultists from making up an entire divinatory system from runes. But that’s an artifact of contemporary culture, not medieval Norse culture.

So the next time you see someone “casting runes” in a show or movie, loudly shout ‘bullshit!’ at the screen. If anyone complains, tell them to talk to me.

Want to Know More?

The Last Kingdom is available on Amazon, as well as on Netflix. The first book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is also called The Last Kingdom.

There are a metric shit-ton of books on Amazon that promise to teach you about runes, but of that shit-ton, approximately one is actually a scholarly book about runes, Sven B.F. Jansson’s Runes in SwedenIt’s a lovely guide to Swedish runestones, with great illustrations. R.I Price’s Runes is a nice little introductory books on the topic, but I couldn’t find it on Amazon, so it may be out of print.

If you want to know more about historical Norse magical practice (as opposed to modern invented practices), one really excellent book is Magic and Witchcraft in Europe, v.3: The Middle Ages, edited by Benkt Ankerloo and Stuart Clark. Only the second section deals with Norse magic, but it’s a very good essay about genuine Norse witchcraft, called seithrSeithr did not, so far as we know, involve runes at all, so it’s a bit of a tangent from our topic, but a good read nonetheless.

The Last Kingdom: the Law, the Church, and Marriage


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Partway through the first season of The Last Kingdom, our hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Draymon) gets married to Mildreth (Amy Wren). This starts a plot thread dealing with a debt owed to the Church that I think is worth looking at, because, as usual whenever medieval law or religion is involved, things go wrong historically.


In the third episode, Uhtred presses Alfred (David Dawson) to give him land. Alfred counters by offering him a bride who has land, and he decides to take the offer. Episode 4 is where the marriage happens. Evidently there was a meeting not shown in the episode in which Uhtred negotiated the details of the marriage with her godfather, Odda. Her father is dead, but it seems a little odd that he would be negotiating with Odda instead of an actual kinsman of hers, since godparents did not have any legal rights over godchildren, but perhaps Odda is actually a kinsman as well as a godparent (which would be fairly irregular, since godparents were not typically relatives of the child) or perhaps her entire family is dead and it was decided that Odda as godparent was the only person around to be responsible for her.

Odda’s son, Odda Jr, (Brian Vernel) has the hots for Mildred and tries to bribe Uhtred to not marry her, presumably because he wants to marry her himself. Unfortunately for him, that would have been a no-no, because since his father is Mildrith’s god-father, he has a spiritual kinship with Mildreth that would render the marriage a form of incest. The show never explicitly says he wants to marry her, and he’s an all-around rotter anyway, so perhaps he just wants some semi-incestuous sexytime with her.

The unseen meeting is technically the engagement ceremony, the beweddung (the ‘wedding’), and it was normally the critical moment of the whole marriage as far as the law was concerned. Engagement was a legal contract, with witnesses, and was often accompanied by a feast to celebrate the establishing of new ties between the two men. Once the beweddung has taken place, groom and bride’s family are legally committed to the union, and if either of them tries to back out, they owe the other side a stiff fine. Socially this would have been an important moment as well, and Uhtred would probably have met Mildrith at that point. However, her presence was not legally required; what mattered was her father’s presence and Uhtred’s. The beweddung would eventually be followed by the gifta, the ‘giving’ of the bride at the nuptial ceremony. In the show, the gifta apparently happens a day or two after the beweddung, but the two ceremonies could actually be months or even years apart. The gifta was less important, but the show assumes it’s the more important one because for modern Westerners, the engagement has become a nominal practice and the nuptial ceremony has become the focus of all the attention as well as the legal heart of the arrangement.


The gifta

Uhtred pays a “bride price” of “33 pieces”, presumably of silver, that is, shillings. Technically this would have been the ‘handgeld’ or weotuma, paid by the groom to the family of the bride at the engagement ceremony. It compensated the family for the loss of their daughter and her labor and also demonstrated that the groom had the resources to support his wife. However, by Alfred’s time, the handgeld was given to the bride herself. In the show, Odda momentarily tries to keep the handgeld for himself, but it is finally presented to Mildrith by Odda Jr at the nuptials, although it turns out that he’s kept almost half of it without her knowing it. (Uhtred later correctly says that this money belongs to her legally, so Odda has cheated her.)

At the nuptials, Father Beocca (Ian Hart) blesses the wedding. Modern Americans would assume that this was necessary for the marriage to actually be a marriage, but as I’ve mentioned before, the participation of a priest was not a requirement for a marriage to be binding. It’s a social nicety and a religious blessing, but the beweddung was legally the key moment in the joining of the couple.

Then the couple rides to her estate, Lyscombe, which legally is his estate, since it would be the dowry from her family to him. Uhtred would have had control over the property. During the ride, Uhtred discovers there’s a complication involved in this deal, which we’ll get to late. When they get to Lyscombe, Mildrith proceeds to give away some or all of her handgeld to the peasants who have come to congratulate her on her marriage. From a financial standpoint, this is a very foolish thing to do, because that money was intended to help support her when she becomes a widow. It’s also a fairly extravagant gift, since a shilling was enough to purchase a couple acres of land. And, as we’ll see, she’s deeply in debt. However, generosity was an important Christian virtue and Mildrith later decides to become a nun, so perhaps she’s trying to emulate the extravagant disdain of wealth that saints were expected to demonstrate.

Then the newlyweds have sex. However, the show skips over another important moment. After sleeping with her, assuming she was a virgin, a new husband was obligated to pay his bride her morgengabe, or ‘morning gift’. The morgengabe was financial compensation to the bride for the loss of her virginity. The failure to pay this was a statement that the bride was not a virgin, and it was mattered legally. If he married her thinking her a virgin and then discovered that she wasn’t, he would have grounds to repudiate the marriage and sue her father for fraud. Like the handgeld, the morning gift was the bride’s personal property, outside her husband’s legal authority.


Amy Wren’s Mildrith

So there are three important moments in an Anglo-Saxon wedding: the beweddung, the gifta, and the payment of the morgengabe. The show has chosen to give us only one of them, the gifta, arguably the least critical of the three legally, out of the mistaken sense that it was the most important one. Modern audiences don’t care much about the legal niceties and assume that the blessing of the nuptials is the emotionally critical moment, but I’m far from convinced that an Anglo-Saxon would have seen it that way.

The Debt

On the ride to Lyscombe, Mildrith reveals that there’s a complication. As she explains it, her dead father made an arrangement with ‘the Church’. She says that to find favor with God he gave the Church 1/10th of the yield of his estate, and ‘they’ demand this payment even when the crops fail or the Danes raid. The bishop sued her father. It’s not clear what court this was, but she says “the Church is the law, and the law decreed that my father owed them a huge sum.” He died right after that. Alfred, she says, could “remove the debt”, but he has chosen not to. Then she reveals that the amount owed is 2,000 shillings. There’s a lot wrong here, so let’s pick it apart.

In the Anglo-Saxon period, 1 librum (a ‘pound’) was worth 48 shillings, while 1 shilling was worth 4-6 pence (the exact exchange rate fluctuated over time, so let’s say it’s 5 pence to the shilling). 2,000 shillings is 10,000 pence or about 42 libra. Translating medieval currency into modern currency is quite difficult, since their economy was drastically different from ours. Instead of trying to declare an equivalent dollar amount, I’ll do what historians do and talk about prices in the Anglo-Saxon so you can get a sense of the buying power of that money. One shilling was enough to purchase a ewe and lamb, so that sum would purchase a massive flock of sheep. A common house dog cost about 4 pence. A sword cost around 240 shillings. 1 librum could purchase around 120 acres of land, so that sum would purchase around 5,000 acres. In other words it’s a huge sum of money.

One of Alfred’s pence

Since that sum was accrued off of 1/10th of Mildreth’s estates, either her father had a massive estate of which we don’t see much evidence (since her hall is a small house in need of repair), or else her father let that debt run up for a very long time. If her father controlled estates large enough to generate that sort of debt in a just a few years, why was her handgeld so low? If she’s that rich, why didn’t any other noble try to marry her? (She says there were other suitors but “none suitable”, perhaps a reference to her god-sibling Offa Jr.) In other words, these figures don’t make a lot of sense based on what little evidence we have to work with.

But honestly, the math is the least of the issues here. It’s not clear who her father made this deal with. Was it the local church attached to her father’s estates? A local monastery? One of the bishops of Wessex? It’s never explained. I doubt it’s the local “parish” church (in quotations because the actual parish system won’t develop for a few more centuries), because if it’s on his land, he would probably be the proprietor of the church and therefore he’d be making a deal with himself and could let himself out of it if need be. What would make the most sense historically is that he made this deal with a local monastery, since early medieval nobles frequently made donations to a monastery that had an association with their family, in exchange for being able to retire there late in life, but I suppose he could have done it with the bishop for some reason. The fact that the bishop is the one who sued him would suggest that it was a deal with the bishop, so that’s what I’m going to say.

It seems highly unlikely that he signed this deal with the bishop personally. Most Anglo-Saxon bishops were monks, who were trained to think about money as being evil, so most bishops probably won’t have accepted such a deal personally, for fear that the gift might lead them into sin. Instead, Mildrith’s dad probably made the deal with the local cathedral as an ecclesiastical institution. So he probably made the contract with the dean or the treasurer of the cathedral chapter (as the staff of a cathedral was collectively known) and gave the gift to the cathedral for its support and maintenance, or perhaps to build a new chapel or something.

But whatever deal he struck was very odd. Normally, if a noble wanted to give a gift to an ecclesiastical institution he would make it in either movable goods (livestock perhaps, or much less commonly cash) or else he would give land free and clear. He would give an estate to the cathedral and the cathedral would take it over and manage it and it would become part of the permanent endowment of the cathedral. But that’s not what Mildrith’s father did. Instead, he gave the cathedral not the land, but rather some sort of usufructory rights on the land; he gave the cathedral the income from the land but not the land itself. And even more strangely, he didn’t give whatever produce or livestock the estate produced. He guaranteed the cathedral a set revenue from the estate regardless of how much the estate actually produced. That’s pretty bizarre, and it was an idiotic thing to do unless he was rolling in money and absolutely certain that he could afford to make up the difference between what the land actually produced and the revenue he had guaranteed to the cathedral. I’m not a specialist in medieval land law, but I’ve never run across a deal like that in my own research and it sounds suspiciously like it was made up to create a situation where poor Mildrith just happens to owe a vast sum of money she can’t pay. But perhaps some specialist in Anglo-Saxon land law can correct me on this.


An Anglo-Saxon charter

But wait! There’s more! The bishop “took [her father] to law”. In what court? His own episcopal court? Her statement that the Church “is the law” seems to mean it was the bishop’s court. That strikes me as suspicious, because that would make the bishop simultaneously judge and plaintiff, a highly irregular situation. Technically, the archdeacon might have been the one to bring the suit, since they handled most of the bishop’s financial matters; perhaps Mildrith is just using ‘the bishop’ as short-hand for the clerical officials under the bishop, but it still amounts to the bishop bringing suit in his own court. Since the gift was probably made to the cathedral rather than to the bishop, it might have been the cathedral treasurer who brought the suit, in which case it would have been the treasurer as representative of the building suing Mildrith’s father in the bishop’s court, in which case the bishop did not bring the suit at all and the bishop sat in judgment. That’s the most likely scenario, if we assume that Mildrith is wrong about who brought the suit.

But if the suit was brought in the bishop’s court, it was done under canon law, which would explain her statement that the Church is the law. But if this was an entirely canon law matter, why can King Alfred ‘remove’ the debt? Does she mean that Alfred has the legal power as king to simply void the contract? The only way that makes sense is if the suit was brought in the royal court, following secular law, with the bishop (or deacon or treasurer) as plaintiff, Mildreth’s father as defendant, and Alfred (or one of his officials) as the judge, and even then it naively assumes that the king can just make up the law as he goes. If it was secular court case under royal law, her claim that the Church controlled the proceedings is nonsense, and if it was an episcopal suit under canon law, her statement that Alfred can waive the debt makes no sense. Perhaps she means that Alfred has the money to pay the bishop what is owed and simply refuses to do so. But if that’s the case, why would she assume the king would intervene to pay her father’s debts?

Now, on top of all that, the show assumes that because Uhtred is Mildrith’s husband, he is now locked into paying this debt. A conversation between Odda and Alfred confirms that this was part of Alfred’s intention. He wants to test whether Uhtred is reliable or not. But he’s forgotten one tiny detail. Anglo-Saxon law allows the groom to divorce his wife and sue her kin for fraud, which is pretty much what Alfred and Odda have just perpetrated. They’ve gotten Uhtred to marry on false pretenses, leading him to think that Mildrith is much wealthier than she actually is. Luckily for them, he’s as ignorant of Anglo-Saxon law as whoever dreamed up this scenario in the first place. He accepts that he’s on the line for the debt and it drives the next several episodes’ worth of action as he tries to find a way to pay the debt.

The Penance

However, that legal gibberish is a masterpiece of detailed historical research compared to what happens in the next episode.

Uhtred leads an attack against the Danes and scores a major victory. He’s warned to present himself to Alfred before anyone else can claim credit for the victory, but instead he goes to Lyscombe to meet his wife and newborn son. This somehow allows Odda Jr to claim all the credit for the victory, because apparently no other Saxon at the battle noticed that Uhtred had single-handedly engineered it and because Alfred is apparently a gullible fool.

When Uhtred learns about this, he rides back to Winchester and barges into the royal chapel, interrupting a church service that Alfred seems to be leading personally (but, to be fair, there’s someone dressed like a bishop standing next to Alfred, so let’s assume the show understands that kings don’t get to lead church services). Uhtred rages at Odda Jr and draws his sword. This understandably pisses off Alfred, who declares that Uhtred has broken the king’s peace, broken the peace of Christ, and brought weapons into a sacred place. He declares that he will punish Uhtred and sends him out to wait in the courtyard.


Alfred being scowly

Eventually Ealdorman Wulfhere shows up with Aethelwold (Harry McEntire) in tow, who has been caught drunk. Wulfhere tells Uhtred that the punishment for drawing a sword on the king is death. That’s doubtful, since Anglo-Saxon criminal law focused almost entirely on what injury has been done (no harm, no foul, basically), and injuries are either avenged with an equal injury or else handled by fine. Drawing a sword on the king might be an injury to his dignity or his peace, but it’s not the same thing as killing the king, so it would have been handled with a fine. But Alfred is being merciful. Instead of killing Uhtred, Alfred (via Wulfhere) sentences Uhtred to perform penance instead.

There is so much wrong here, I’d put my hands through the tv screen and strangle the scriptwriter if I could. Unfortunately I can’t. So I’m just going to have to explain what the hell penance is so that you too can see how idiotic this is.

Penance began in early Christianity as a way to make up for having committed a major sin, like sleeping with your wife’s sister or sacrificing to an idol. The original idea was that while minor sins could be readily forgiving, once a person was baptized, they were expected to avoid all egregious sin. But if they committed an egregious sin, they had one chance to make things right by confessing the sin and performing a penance to atone for the failing, such as prolonged periods of fasting (for example, fasting on every holy day for a year), prayer, alms-giving, and so on. For a grievous sin, this was a one-time ritual and having performed it rendered one to some extent a second-class congregant; for example those who had performed penance could not be ordained as priests and they could not receive the Eucharist until the bishop reconciled them to the congregation. In other words, this was a very severe religious punishment for a severe sin. It was not automatically a public matter, but penitents frequently made a public confession of their sin as part of the process.

By the 7th century, however, under the influence of early medieval monasticism, a new system emerged that is technically called Tariffed Penance. Under this system, penance was no longer simply for severe sins, but potentially for all sins. It was no longer a one-time ritual, but was rather to be performed repeatedly, as often as a sinner had need of it. Penance was now tariffed, meaning that the penance was graded according to the severity of the sin. This gradually gave rise to the sacrament of confession and penance employed in modern Catholicism (“say 10 Hail Marys” for that sin), which is still essentially Tariffed Penance.


Penitents being scourged by a bishop

But in order for penance to have any value, the sinner in question has to confess his sin to a priest and repent. And before he can do that, he has to actually be a Christian in the first place.

So there are several problems here. 1) Uhtred doesn’t see himself as a Christian and the people around him don’t see him that way either, although Alfred, Beocca, and Mildrith are trying to push him in that direction. There’s no point in him doing penance because he’s a pagan and is going to Hell regardless. 2) Uhtred hasn’t confessed any sin to a priest. He clearly doesn’t repent of anything he does in that scene because he’s convinced he’s right. No repentance, no confession. No confession, no penance. 3) Alfred isn’t a priest and doesn’t have the authority to impose penance on anyone. 4) Penance isn’t a punishment for a secular crime, which is specifically the thing that Wulfhere says Alfred is punishing Uhtred for. (Alfred did accuse Uhtred to two religious offenses (disrupting a church service and drawing a weapon in church), but that’s not what he’s actually punishing Uhtred for doing.) Penance is a punishment for sin, not crime.

So this is like Donald Trump sentencing someone who tweeted at him to say 10 Hail Marys. Actually that’s a poor analogy, because we have free speech laws. This is like Donald Trump sentencing someone who pulled a gun on him to say 10 Hail Marys. That’s not a great analogy either, because 10 Hail Marys isn’t a very serious penance. This is like is a scriptwriter who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about making up some bullshit because medieval people did penance and medieval people had kings, so clearly the two of those things must somehow intersect at some point.

As if all of that wasn’t dumb enough, the penance involves Uhtred and Aethelwold crawling through mud on their knees begging Alfred’s forgiveness while a crowd jeers and throws things at them. It’s true that some penances did have an element of public humiliation to them (condemned heretics sometimes had to participate in a barefoot public procession to a local church carrying a candle, for example), but while shame was a part of such procedures, it wasn’t meant to be a spectacle of ridicule like a public execution. Penance was intended to be a form of spiritual healing.


Uhtred and Aethelwold performing their penance

On this issue, The Last Kingdom is just another example of how people project nonsensical ideas about an all-powerful church back onto the medieval past while simultaneously making up whatever they want around law, because, hey, medieval law must not make any sense.

Want to Know More?

The Last Kingdom is available on Amazon, as well as on Netflix. The first book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is also called The Last Kingdom.

If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon marriage, there are a number of good books on Anglo-Saxon women, but unfortunately they’re all out of print. Helen Jewell’s Women in Medieval England covers more than just the Anglo-Saxon period, but it’s a good introduction to the topic.

If you want to know more about penance,  Robert Meens puts the ritual into its social context in Penance in Medieval Europe.

The Last Kingdom: The Plot


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Ok, now that I’ve gotten some of the snarkiness out of my system, it’s time to discuss the actual plot of The Last Kingdom, based on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series. Unlike The Vikings, this show has the merit of following the broad outline of the actual events, although the main character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is fictitious, and so the show is obviously taking liberties by inserting him into what really happened.


The show’s protagonist is very loosely based on, or perhaps most reasonably ‘inspired by’ Uhtred the ealdorman of Derby, an Anglo-Saxon noble of the 10th century who is often thought to have been a member of the Bernician royal family that ruled Bebbanburg (modern Bamburgh) in Northumbria. In the period from 930 to 959 AD, two nobles named Uhtred appear as witnesses to royal charters; little is know about either of these men, but the fact that they were witnesses to royal charters means they were significant nobles. But the Uhtred of Bernard Cornwell’s novels is at least half a century too early to be either of these men, since he was born sometime in the late 850s and would have literally have to survive to about 100 to be one of them.

In 866, his older brother is killed by Norse raiders, which results in him being rebaptized by Father Beocca (Ian Hart) from his original name of Osbert to Uhtred, his older brother’s name. I’m not quite sure what the point of including this is, since it doesn’t seem to make any difference in the story, and it would have been highly unusual. Certainly by the 12th century, rebaptism was theologically unacceptable, but I’m not sure if that was the case in the 9th century or not. Even if it were a violation of canon law in the 9th century, we could probably forgive it by saying that Father Beocca was not trained in the details of theology.


Hart as Beocca

Soon afterward, though, Uhtred’s father leads an army against the invading Vikings and gets slaughtered. Uthred, who is about 9 at the time, has not had any training in fighting, but tries to fight, gets knocked out, and taken as a slave by Earl Ragnar (Peter Ganzler), along with the girl Brida. Ragnar is clearly part of Ivar the Boneless’ Great Army that invaded England in 865. Ragnar raises the two of them and essentially becomes their foster-father because he is impressed with their spirit. At one point, when a dispute breaks out between Uhtred and the boy Sven, he punishes Sven by putting out of his eyes.

About a decade later, a vengeful Sven attacks Ragnar’s stead and kills almost everyone, but the now-adult Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) and Brida (Emily Cox) escape. Initially, Uhtred tries to reclaim Bebbanburg, but his uncle (pretty reasonably, in my opinion) refuses to accept this total stranger’s claim.  When Uhtred learns that Sven has blamed the slaughter on him, Uhtred and Brida try to clear his name by going to the new Danish warlords, Ubba (Rune Temte) and Guthrum (Thomas W. Gabrielsson).

They catch up with the warlords just in time to witness them killing the East Anglian king Edmund, which places the events of the first episode or two in 869. That means that Uhtred and Brida have somehow aged about a decade in the space of 3 years. This sort of distortion of time is a serious problem with the first season, because they ride straight to Winchester in 871 and then manage to spend a year or so (long enough for Uhtred to get married and have a son who dies as an infant) serving King Alfred (David Dawson) in the lead-up to a battle that happens in 878.

Edmund’s death is roughly as it reportedly happened. Historically, Edmund was tied to a tree and used for archery practice and then beheaded. In the show, after Edmund explains the story of St Sebastian to Guthrum and Ubba, he’s tied to the pillar of a church and shot with arrows. Since the legend asserts that Ubba was one of the leaders who instigated this, the show is basically following the facts as they are commonly known.


The martyrdom of St Edmund

Uhtred and Brida go to Winchester, where they meet King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. They are suspicious of him because he dresses more like a Dane than a Saxon (remember, the Danes wear mullets and too much eyeliner, while Saxons wear their hair short and have odd diagonally-buttoning tunics). But Uhtred proves his worth because he knows how the Danes think. Aetheled gets himself killed at the Battle of Ashdown, so Alfred becomes king, despite the fact that Aethelred has a son, Aethelwold (Henry McEntire).


The plot around Aethelwold becomes incredibly grating, because the show refuses to understand how early Germanic kingship operated. Modern audiences imagine that kingship is always passed from father to oldest son (primogeniture), and so film-makers insist on imposing that model on monarchy everywhere, despite the fact that it was only invented in the 12th century under specific conditions in Europe. The Anglo-Saxons had no concept of primogeniture at all

Instead, like most early medieval Germanic peoples, they used a system in which any man whose great-grandfather had previous been king might qualify to inherit the crown. In practice, this usually meant that the kingship stayed within a loose group of second cousins. When the king died, his successor was the man who had the best combination of several qualities: biological relationship to the previous king, skill in battle, political support, reputation for generosity, and (after the conversion to Christianity) support of the Church. The most vital characteristic is that the prospective king had to be an effective warrior, because the king’s primary duty was to be a war-leader. He had to be to inspire loyalty and courage in battle and that required being a brave warrior himself. No candidate who lacked that quality was likely to become king until the late 10th century, when Aethelraed Unraed became king at 12 years old as part of a political coup probably orchestrated by his mother.


Sulking is Aethelwold’s only real talent

When the historical Aethelraed died in 871, the reason his son Aethelwold did not become king is that Aethelwold was a very young boy at the time (his exact birthdate is unknown, but he was probably about two or three). In the series, Aethelwold is an adult, but even if we leave aside that issue, McEntire’s Aethelwold would never have become king because he lacks all the other qualities of a king; he’s a coward who has never fought in a battle, a drunkard, a craven opportunist, has no political support whatsoever, and spends most of his time idiotically complaining to everyone that he is the real king (thereby demonstrating a total lack of political understanding). No one in his right mind would follow this jackass into battle or support him as a ruler.

In contrast, the historical Alfred was an adult, a warrior with a reputation for bravery and tactical knowledge, and a man of considerable learning, because he had been slated to become a priest. He was, in fact, the youngest of the five sons of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. All four of his older brothers had previously been kings of Wessex and had predeceased him. Additionally, according to one source, when Aethelraed was alive, Alfred enjoyed the position of secundarius, which seems to have designated the king’s successor. Even after Aethelwold’s birth, Alfred was his brother’s intended heir.

More Battles

As the season winds on, Uhtred works to undermine the Danes. The Danes seize the fortress of Wareham, which happened in 876, and he briefly winds up a hostage there. Immediately thereafter, when Ealdorman Odda gets trapped on a hill without waater, he sneaks down to the Danish ships and burns them single-handedly, then kills Ubba in single combat. This enables Odda to win the battle of Cynwit, which happened in 878, not just a few days after the situation at Wareham. Then the Danes attack Winchester and drive Alfred and a few supporters to flee into the Somerset Marshes.

In reality, the Danes attacked Reading (not Winchester) and forced Alfred into the Marshes in 877. Alfred led resistance to the Danes over the winter (something the series completely omits) and then in 878 defeated the Danes at the battle of Edington near Ecgbert’s Stone (not Edward’s Stone, as the show has it).


Alfred before Edington

So all the major political and military events of the series beginning with Edmund’s death actually happened, and with the exception of Cynwit, they’re shown in the correct historical order, but the passage of time is off, compressing a decade’s worth of events into what appears to be perhaps 18 months total. As readers of this blog know, other shows and films have been guilty of far worse manipulation of events. The pace of the show is a bit too brisk for my preferences, but things happen in the right order and the basic facts are correct (once you factor out the non-existent protagonist). Edmund really was killed by being shot full of arrows by the Vikings, Aethelraed really was killed at Ashdown and Alfred really did succeed him, Odda really did win the battle of Cynwit and Ubba really did die there, Alfred really was forced into hiding in the Marshes and really did defeat the Danes at Edington, and Guthrum really did convert to Christianity as part of his peace treaty with Alfred. All of this puts the shows light-years ahead of nonsense like Reign or Salem.

What Bugs Me

My big gripe with the show plot-wise, apart from the truly asinine character of Aethelwold, is that Uhtred repeatedly does really stupid shit and then gets upset when it works out badly for him. After he engineers the defeat of Ubba at Cynwit, he is explicitly told that he needs to go to Alfred and claim responsibility for the victory so that someone else won’t claim credit first. Instead, he goes off and spends time with his new wife, and when he gets to court he’s shocked to learn that Odda’s transparently villainous son Odda Jr, who is already gunning for him, has claimed victory for the battle.

Then a few episodes later, Uhtred decides he’s going to lead his Christian Saxon men on a raid into Cornwall against fellow Christians in order to get the wealth he needs to pay off his wife’s debts, even though Alfred has a peace treaty with the Cornish. So he has his men disguise themselves as Danes so that no one will know that Uhtred and his men are breaking the treaty. But after supposedly taking pains to disguise their identities, he repeatedly tells people his real name, doesn’t wear a helmet or in any other way disguise his face, and lets his men fraternize with the Cornish king’s men for a day before teaming up with a group of Danes to slaughter the king and his men in order to steal their hidden treasure. And then when he gets back to Winchester, he’s shocked to discover that a witness has gone to Alfred and reported that Uhtred of Bebbanburg has broken the truce, and then gets mad when one of the men who went with him and warned him not to do all this stuff admits it’s true.


Those are great disguises, guys. No one will ever recognize you as Uhtred and Aethelwold!

It would be one thing if the show made clear that Uhtred is immature and making dumb choices because he’s overconfident. If the show was clearly trying to depict Uhtred gradually learning a series of lessons about what it takes to be a great leader in 9th century England, I’d think that was actually pretty smart of them. Instead, the show clearly expects the viewer to sympathize with Uhtred’s shitty choices and feel outraged when he can’t get away with them. It wants us to accept Uhtred as a natural-born leader and cunning tactician, all the while showing him doing incredibly dumb things.

But that’s my opinion as a viewer, not my opinion as an historian.

This review was paid for by a generous donation from my reader Lyn. Thanks, Lyn! If you’re interested in a review, please made a donation to my Paypal account and tell me what you’d like me to review.

Want to Know More?

The Last Kingdom is available on Amazon, as well as on Netflix. The first book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is also called The Last Kingdom.

If you would like to know about the reign of Alfred the Great, Alfred P. Smyth’s Alfred the Great would be one place to start, although at 800 pages, it’s quite dense. Or you could read Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, which brings together many of the primary sources on Alfred into one fairly readable book.

The Last Kingdom: The Physical Culture


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I should really start my discussion of The Last Kingdom with a discussion of plot, but I feel the need to start with the physical culture of the series: the sets, costuming, and props. My only real reason for this is that every time I start to write about the plot, I keep finding myself getting irritated about the physical culture, so here we go.


The Architecture

On a superficial level, the show captures a general sense of what 9th century England looked like. The Anglo-Saxons were, like most Europeans of this period, not remarkably sophisticated engineers. Most of their secular buildings were built of wood rather than stone and therefore generally survive only as post-holes that can support a variety of reconstructions. And most of the buildings we see are simple one- and occasionally two-story wooden buildings. We see several farms, such as Ravn’s and Mildrith’s, which have lots of bare-timber structures and wicker fencing, which is probably ok, although the roofs are usually not pitched steeply enough for the thatching to do its job properly (steeply pitched thatch will encourage water to roll off, whereas a shallow pitch will tend to hold the water and therefore cause the thatch to rot). The various towns we see have structures that are not unreasonable approximations of things Anglo-Saxons might have built, although they often look just a little too sophisticated for the 9th century, but given that we have only a very poor idea of what Anglo-Saxon domestic architecture looks like, I think we can probably give the series a pass on this. A few of the more important halls have a partial second floor, which is probably wrong, but again, given the poor state of the evidence, I couldn’t say for sure they’re wrong. (And if any of my readers happens to be a specialist in Anglo-Saxon or Norse architecture, feel free to correct me.)

Although most stone buildings in England in this period were churches, the Anglo-Saxons did reuse some of the surviving Roman stone and brick structures, sometimes incorporating a ruined stone wall into a new wooden structure. Alfred’s capital, Winchester, is mostly wooden buildings, but he has a palace that is clearly supposed to be a surviving Roman structure. It has brick walls, stone arches, and bronze doors and window-frames that suggest Roman style. It makes sense that Alfred would have chosen such a structure as his palace if one had existed, but it’s stretching the bounds of plausibility to think that a Roman structure would have survived in such excellent condition 4 centuries after the end of the Roman period. I’m sure the reason for this is that the set designers wanted this major set to stand out from the endless number of wooden halls that the show has to use, and to suggest that Alfred is a more sophisticated man than many of the other leaders of the period, but every time the show does a scene here, I find myself distracted by how wrong the set is.


That’s a VERY Late Roman palace you have there, Alfred

The palace also has a classic ‘jail with iron bars and door lock’ in it, that would be right at home in a Western. No such structure ever existed in Anglo-Saxon England. I’m doubtful such a thing existed anywhere during the Middle Ages at all.

But more problematic than Alfred’s palace is the fortress at Wareham, which the Danes occupy. From the outside, it appears to be a wooden palisade with wooden buildings inside. That’s totally plausible for a 9th century fortress. But inside, all the buildings are made out of mortared stone, with some of the structures being three stories tall. This makes no sense at all. First, the architecture is way too sophisticated for 9th century masonry (which, as I said, is mostly churches anyway). The Anglo-Saxons simply did not have the engineering ability to build three-story domestic structures out of stone. Second, given that stone walls are stronger than wood, logically, when you build a fortress you put the stone walls on the outside and the wooden structures on the inside. So this set inverts what such a structure would have looked like if the Anglo-Saxons had been able to build it. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that the internal buildings are taller than the external palisade and would have been visible in the external shots of the fortress, so apparently the set-designers just said “Fuck it. I don’t wanna build another goddam wooden hall today. Let’s design something that makes no sense but looks kinda cool. No one will notice.”


The Costumes

Again, very superficially, the series looks right. The women are mostly dressed in ankle-length tunics that are not overly form-fitting, and the men are mostly wearing knee-length tunics over pants, while the more important men at Winchester wear ankle-length tunics that aren’t fitted. But when you look a little closer, the costuming doesn’t measure up.

In most cases, the tunics (both men’s and women’s) have no trim at the neckline, the wrist, or the lower hems, so they’re just long drab sacks in dull browns and greys. They usually don’t seem to have undertunics, so apparently they’re wearing those tunics against their bare skin. That’s unlikely. The purpose of the undertunic was to protect the skin from the heavier fabric of the tunic (which is otherwise likely to chafe at sensitive spots) and to catch the wearer’s sweat, thereby lengthening the life of the tunic and reducing the need to wash it.

Work garments might have undecorated, but the nobles at least would have had something fancier for important occasions. These fancier tunics would have been made of bright colors and would have had trim of a contrasting color, both to be decorative and to strengthen the garment at points where it would be easy to snag and rip the garment. Fancier tunics would probably have had embroidery on them as well, but the costume designers don’t seem to have wanted to take the trouble to embroider anything.

The nobles of Wessex, up to and including Alfred (David Dawson), all wear long tunics that open down the side, so their tunics are essentially coats with a left side that reaches over to the right hip and shoulder and is held in place by small clasps. That’s a totally fictitious garment for the period.


That weird diagonal opening is totally wrong. Also the neckline is way too high

Queen Iseult (Charlie Murphy) at one point wears a gown made of a shimmery silvery fabric that I think is supposed to be cloth-of-silver. While such fabric could have existed in this period, it would probably have been staggeringly expensive and therefore unlikely that a poor Cornish queen would have owned such a garment. She certainly wouldn’t have gone riding in it. And she definitely wouldn’t have had a form-fitted coat to wear over it.

Occasionally, the show goes totally off the deep end. In one scene, Uhtred’s friend Brida (Emily Cox) is wearing what I can only describe as a Cookie Monster snuggy. At other times she gets a cute little leather vest that was all the rage at Forever 21 a few years back. Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) frequently wears what looks like a black shirt with leather bands sewn onto it with little metal disks sewn on the leather, with a matching sleeveless tunic over it. And all the Danes wear absurd amounts of fur. Apparently when it’s time to go out raiding, they just grabbed the nearest floor-rug and threw it over their shoulders.


WTF is he wearing?

When the men wear belts, they’re always modern Ren Faire belts with double d-rings instead of a buckle. In case you didn’t know it, the belt buckle is a very old piece of technology, going back to at least the Romans, whereas the double-d belt is a very recent invention (or so I’ve been told). Buckles are far better at holding a belt closed that double d-rings, which is why medieval men wore belts with actual buckles.

The armor varies between the plausible, such as mail byrnies, and the bizarre, such as elaborate stitched-together leather tunics. In some scenes, Uhtred gets to wear the suspender-harness from a set of Goth lederhosen. Some of the men have leather plates sewn onto leather or cloth, some have leather gorgets, it’s just a random assortment of vaguely early-medieval looking armor. But most of the helmets are plausible, so that’s something.


That leather armor is rather silly

Uhtred’s sword is not a 9th century sword. It has a curved crosspiece in a period when swords did not have crosspieces at all. And he wears it on his back, which wasn’t a thing.

The men of Cornwall carry short rectangular shields with a big hole in them, which sort of defeats the whole point of carrying a shield at all. But then, they also fight with pitchforks and use them like quarterstaves rather than thrusting weapons, so clearly they’re idiots who deserve to get massacred.

Also, the show is convinced that the Danes liked to paint their faces. And they generally wear mullets and way too much eyeliner. Sigh.

Oh, and is it just me, or are they trying to copy Jon Snow’s look?


Winter is coming, Jon Snow


Other Bits

Alfred has a library in which all the books are scrolls. The scroll as a piece of writing technology was pretty archaic in the 9th century, having been superseded for several centuries by something called a ‘book’. Ok, more precisely it’s called a codex but it was such a big step forward in durability and accessibility that scrolls entirely vanished.

Oh, and while some Norsemen did file horizontal grooves into their teeth, they didn’t file them down to points, because among other things, it makes biting your tongue really painful.

TL:DR, most of what you see on the screen is wrong, at least once you dig into the details.


Want to Know More? 

The Last Kingdom is available on Amazon, as well as on Netflix. The first book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is also called The Last Kingdom. If so, you might prefer An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, by Peter Hunter Blair, is an excellent introduction for the casual reader.

The Last Kingdom: The Background


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The BBC’s The Last Kingdom covers some of the same ground as The Vikings, but covers it from the Anglo-Saxon side of things. The series is based on Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories novels. My faithful reader Lyn has made a very generous donation and asked me to review the series, so today we’re going to start with the historical background to the events of the series.


The Heptarchy

The period between roughly 500 AD and about 829 AD in Anglo-Saxon England is often called the Heptarchy, the ‘Seven Kingdoms’ of Anglo-Saxon England. The name refers to the seven smaller kingdoms into which the region was divided: Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria The name is a bit of misnomer, because the reality was a bit of misnomer. Northumbria was really made up of two sub-kingdoms—Bernicia and Deira—that were sometimes united and sometimes independent. Some of these states were generally subservient and overshadowed by others; for example Essex was regularly dominated by its southern neighbor Kent, which in turn was increasingly dominated by its Western neighbor Wessex. And the list omits a variety of other groupings, such as Lindsey, Middle Anglia, the Hwicce, Magonsaeta, the Isle of Wight, and so on. So the Heptarchy were only the most important states of the period, and they were not all truly independent states at the same time.

By the start of the 9th century, the Heptarchy was really four states: Wessex (which had absorbed Sussex), Mercia (which had to some extent absorbed Essex and Kent), East Anglia, and Northumbria. The history of East Anglia is very poorly understood, because very few documents survive from East Anglia, and our two best sources of information on the period of the Heptarchy, the Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, largely ignore East Anglia or mention developments there only in passing. Similarly, while Mercia is better-documented, most of our sources come from either the Northumbrian or West Saxon perspective.


These four kingdoms were poorly prepared for the start of the Viking raids. The early Viking raids, in the period from the end of the 8th century down into the 840s, were essentially hit-and-run raids that targeted remote monasteries or unsuspecting communities. They sailed in on their longboats, attacked a target that was not expecting them, killed those who opposed them, plundered what they cold easily carry, and then left quickly. These raiding parties were typically quite small, since a single longship would hold somewhere between 45 and 60 men.

The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did not maintain navies, and barely had anything resembling a standing army. Kings maintained a personal warband of professional soldiers, but these tended to be small, numbering perhaps a few dozen men. When warfare was expected, the king would summon the nobles of the kingdom, who would arrive by a set date with their own warbands and local levies, and out of this assemblage of small warbands the king would have an army of several hundred men. But raising this army took time, and the Vikings got in and got out as quickly as possible, using a tactic that was well-suited to take advantage of this weakness in the Anglo-Saxon military system.

The earliest raids were expeditions from Scandinavia that lasted a few months and then returned home for the winter, since sailing on the open seas in winter was a bad idea. But starting in 850, the Vikings began to ‘overwinter’, usually camping out on a coastal island and then resuming their raids the next spring.

The initial Anglo-Saxon response was a sort of paralysis, because their whole military system had no good answer to Viking tactics. In 865, we find the first recorded example of tribute-paying. The king of Kent paid the Vikings a sum of gold and silver to go elsewhere instead of raiding them. The effort failed, since the Vikings took the money and then raided anyway, but paying tribute became a common response to the threat of the Vikings anyway, since the Vikings typically did go away for a season.

But in 865, another important development occurred. A Viking named Ivar the Boneless arrived in East Anglia with a much larger force than a typical Viking raiding party. We have no actual numbers for Ivar’s army, but Anglo-Saxon sources call it the micel here, the ‘Great Army’. Ivar forced the East Anglians to provide him with supplies to overwinter on land. The next year Ivar’s army attacked the Northumbrian capital of York, taking advantage of a civil war going on there, and seized control of the city, turning it in the basis for the Viking Kingdom of York, which lasted down until the 950s.


Using York as a base, Ivar wreaked havoc across England. In 869, he plundered Mercia. In 869, he slew King Edmund of East Anglia (reportedly by tying him to a tree and using him for archery practice) and essentially destroyed the whole kingdom. In 871, Ivar’s forces killed King Aethelraed of Wessex. Over the next several years, Ivar’s men occupied London and slew the king of Mercia, essentially tearing away the northeastern half of the kingdom away, and leaving the rest of Mercia to limp along in an alliance with Wessex. After that, the Great Army split into two portions. One group, under Halfdan, was based at York and focused on the conquest of Northumbria, while the other, under Guthrum, focused its attentions on Wessex, which was now ruled by Aethelraed’s younger brother Alfred, known to history as Alfred the Great. Deira was absorbed into the Kingdom of York, leaving just Bernicia and Wessex of the original Heptarchy.

If you want to learn about Anglo-Saxon history, Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England is excellent, but at more than 800 pages, it might be a bit much for you.


A coin of Alfred the Great

This is the background to The Last Kingdom. The hero of the story, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Draymon), is enslaved when he is 11 in 866 after his father, the ealdorman of Bebbanburg and raised as a slave by the Danes until his owner-cum-foster father Ragnar is killed by some villainous Danes and he and another slave, Brida (Emily Coz) wind up roaming across England until Uhtred eventually takes service with Alfred.

As we’ll see in my future posts, the series is quite a mixed bag.

Want to Know More?

The Last Kingdom is available on Amazon, as well as on Netflix. The first book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is also called The Last Kingdom. If so, you might prefer An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, by Peter Hunter Blair, is an excellent introduction for the casual reader.

The Little Hours: Nuns Behaving Badly


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The Little Hours (2017, dir. Jeff Baena) is, as the name suggests, a modest little film dealing with some immodest nuns. The film is set at a convent in 14th century Italy and is strongly inspired by two genuine medieval tales, the 1st and 2nd stories from the 3rd day of Boccaccio’s Decameron.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to see this film in the theater, you might want to wait to read this until after youv’e done so, since I discuss plot points, including the resolution of the film.

The Decameron, for those unfamiliar with it, is a medieval collection of stories with a loose frame-tale, sort of like the Canterbury Tales you might have read in your high school English class. Instead of a group of pilgrims telling stories as they head for Canterbury, Boccaccio’s ten story-tellers have fled Florence to escape the Bubonic Plague and have holed up in a villa outside the city for two weeks. To amuse themselves and to distract from the death outside, each day they take turns telling stories on a proposed theme (with two days off each week for chores and holy days), so they tell ten stories on each of ten days (hence the work’s title, ‘the Ten-Day Event’). That structure allows Boccaccio to tell a whole range of stories from the comic to the tragic to the morally instructional. The third day’s tales have as a theme something acquired or lost and regained with great difficulty.

The first tale deals with Masetto, a handsome young man who passes himself off as a deaf-mute in order to take work at a monastery of 8 nuns (in medieval usage, ‘monastery’ can refer to a house of either monks or nuns). Since they think he can’t speak, the nuns decide to explore the pleasures of the flesh with him, which he’s only too willing to allow. So he becomes their stud bull, servicing the nuns (including the mother superior) so frequently that he’s exhausted. Eventually he breaks down and demands that the nuns give him a set schedule, which they agree to because they don’t want to lose him or risk him spilling their secret. So he lives there the rest of his life, keeping the nuns happy and fathering a lot of children in the process.

The second tale deals with King Agilulf and Queen Theodolinda, Theodelinda has a servant who flirts with her and eventually he beds her by deceiving her into thinking he is the king. Theodolinda is fooled, but Agilulf realizes he has been cuckolded. He follows the servant back to the chamber where all the servants sleep and manages to figure out which one of the sleeping men in the darkened room is the guilty party. He cuts off a lock of the man’s hair to identify the man the next day. But after he leaves, the clever servant uses the scissors to cut off hair from each of the sleeping servants, so that in the morning the king cannot figure out which man to punish. He warns all the servants that he knows what is going on, but does it without harming his wife’s reputation.


The Film

About two-thirds of the Little Hours is drawn from these two stories. Masetto (Dave Franco) is the horny servant not of King Agilulf, but of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), an obnoxious blowhard whose wife loathes him. Masetto sleeps with her, but Bruno discovers it, leading to the whole hair-cutting sequence. Realizing that Bruno is on to him, Masetto flees and runs into Father Tommaso (John C. Reilly), a drunkard priest who befriends him (leading to a very funny drunken confessional sequence).

Tommasso is the priest for a small convent filled with unhappy and rather unspiritual nuns. Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) take out their boredom and frustration by physically and verbally abusing the convent’s male worker so much that the man quits. Tommasso introduces Masetto to Mother Marea (Molly Shannon), telling her that Masetto is a deaf-mute.


Three unruly nuns

This leads Alessandra and Fernanda into having sex with Masetto, while a rather confused Ginevra (who’s probably a lesbian anyway) thinks she’s had sex with him but doesn’t really understand what sex actually involves.

Then the film leaves its source material completely. Fernanda’s friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) is part of a witch’s coven, and the two of them decide to sacrifice Masetto in a fertility ritual. But Ginevra, tripping balls on belladonna, unintentionally breaks the ritual up, thus saving Masetto and accidentally exposing the whole shenanigans at the convent to Bishop Bartolemeo (Fred Armisen), leading to a rather amusing episcopal visitation of the house in which all is revealed.

Masetto gets sent back to Lord Bruno, but the three nuns help him escape back to the convent, where everything ends happily with the assurance that all the principal characters other than Bruno will be getting a lot of sex.

The humor of the film is rather broad, in keeping with its ribald source material. Baena, who is also the screenwriter of the film, has made the amusing choice to write the characters as anachronistically 21st century in their dialog and outlook on life. Apart from Franco and Micucci, who do a lot of mugging for the camera, all the actors give rather understated performances. If, like me, you’re not a fan of hipster comedy, you’ll probably find Offerman and Armisen more grating than funny, but Franco and the nuns are well-cast for this story. Fernanda has a lot of anger and violence roiling within, Alessandra is sexually and romantically frustrated, and Ginevra is a follower rather than a leader, at least until her repressed desires explode out of her.

The film largely captures the spirit and much of the substance of medieval farces, which are often at least as bawdy as some modern comedies. If anything, the film down-plays and avoids some elements of medieval farce, which is frequently far more violent, scatological, and misogynistic than its modern descendants. In the film, Masetto only sleeps with two of the nuns a total of three times, whereas in the original, every nun in the house has her way with him non-stop. So whereas modern audiences might assume the film is exaggerating medieval humor, it’s actually downplaying it a little.


Franco’s Masetto pretending to be deaf

Despite its comedy, which milks the contrast between its medieval setting and the contemporary-minded characters for all its worth, the film actually has a lot to say about the 14th century Italy. Late medieval authors loved mocking unspiritual clergy, and with the exception of one elderly nun, none of the women at the convent are actually following the rules (although Marea does seem to take her job seriously, apart from her affair with Tommasso). To modern audiences, the comedy is simply the contrast of supposedly pious nuns doing things such as swearing like sailors, threatening to assault people, and fornicating, but these are in fact exactly the sorts of things that many 14th century people suspected nuns actually did. Alessandra is so unspiritual, she can’t even reflect on her own sins during confession; instead she steals Ginevra’s confession by eavesdropping on it. Tommasso the drunken, bumbling priest is another staple of medieval literature; one gets the sense that he would happily gossip about the confessions he hears.

The three young nuns are not in the convent because they feel a calling to the spiritual life, but because their families have put them there. Alessandra’s father is a merchant, and she thinks she’s there simply to be educated before getting married, at least until a visit from her father makes her realize that he’s probably planning on dumping her there permanently so that he doesn’t have to shell out for her dowry. Fernanda and Ginevra’s backstories are never clarified, other than a throw-away joke that Ginevra is actually Jewish, but Fernanda is played as a bored rich girl stuck at a boarding school when she’d rather be out partying with her friends (complete with a scene in which Marta sneaks into the convent and all the girls get drunk on sacramental wine and start making out with each other). To me, these characters ring true (apart from Ginevra’s Jewish ancestry) because that’s how many young women actually wound up as nuns. Alessandra’s story is played for laughs, but I’m certain more than a few young women tragically lived out exactly that story.

Similarly, the bishop’s visitation, a sort of trial in which the moral failings of the nuns are revealed and punished, is played for laughs, but records of dozens of such visitations still exist for both male and female houses, and they reveal large numbers of monks and nuns who evidently found life in a monastery not to their taste. Cases of run-away nuns abound, and fornication was a regular problem, as both actual events and moralizing tales make clear. Even the lesbianism in the film can be documented in period sources. To us, The Little Hours is funny because it’s absurd, but to 14th century Italians, Boccaccio’s story is funny because it’s true.


A genuine medieval image of nuns harvesting a penis-tree

The nuns here are bored, and take out their frustrations on those around them. They live lives of dull manual labor, although the upper-class Alessandra cheerfully dumps her laundry onto Ginevra because the latter girl is “good at it.” Alessandra is apparently good at needle-work, which gets her out of some of the drudgery, but partway through the film Marea orders her to double her production, so even her social class can’t protect her from unpleasant work. The nuns abuse their male servants for no reason other than that they can; Fernanda has a habit of pulling weapons on people. Ginevra is a tattle-tale, constantly running to Marea to reveal every minor offense her sisters make. Underneath the humor is a revealing portrait of the way many monks and nuns actually responded to their living situation. By the 14th century, most monks were likely to have actively chosen the life they were living, and were frequently permitted to leave their houses, but many nuns were there against their will, and the rule of enclosure (which stated that nuns were not supposed to leave their convents for any reason at all) meant that many of these women struggled with the mind-number sameness of their daily routine and chafed at the constant close contact with other nuns.

The film also has a sub-plot dealing with finance. The convent needs an income to support its residents. Alessandra’s father is supposed to be paying money to the convent for her, but he’s either stingy or business is going badly (as Tommasso gossips), so he’s not giving what he’s supposed to. The convent makes money by selling the embroidery of the sisters, using Tommasso as their business agent, but he drunkenly ruins one shipment by letting his cart tip into a stream. In addition to being the spiritual leader of the house, something she seems to have some interest in (to judge from the readings she delivers at meals), Marea’s also responsible for managing the finances of the convent, something she seems to have no talent for. Bartholemeo audits her books and apparently finds serious problems.

These were genuine issues at convents, because the rules about keeping nuns separate from men often meant that women with no business experience wound up having to make major financial decisions. In some cases, the abbesses rose to the challenge, either making good choices themselves or finding other nuns who had a head for business and thereby building their house into a financial power, but in others, poor choices produced fiscal crises that led to impoverishment.


Plaza’s Fernanda WILL cut you

The only truly false note in the plot (as opposed to the anachronistic attitudes) is the witchcraft element that brings the film to its climax. Although the 14th century did see the beginnings of a concern about groups of witches engaging in abominable activities, what the film shows us is straight out of a 16th century panic about witches’ covens, naked orgies, and human sacrifice (although instead of sacrificing adult men like Masetto, these post-medieval fantasies focused on the murder and cannibalism of babies). The film’s depiction of the witches also draws off of 20th century neo-pagan ideas of witches as engaging in an alternate religious system. These witches seem to be housewives and young women who are performing a “fertility ritual” of some sort, and it’s not entirely clear that they plan to actually kill Masetto. Fernanda, at least, is not the malevolent baby-killer of early modern anxiety, and Marta doesn’t seem to be either, although her motives are not developed at all. Both women are like naughty college students looking for something the conventional religion of their society does not offer them. Boccaccio does not tell stories about witches, although in one story a character describes a supposed secret society of revelers that uses some of the stock charges about witches, but which are eventually revealed to all be a prank on a gullible doctor. Far from being a believer in witches, Boccaccio seems to be a skeptic, something that is true of far more medieval people than popular imagination would allow.

The Little Hours isn’t trying to recreate a story from the Decameron. Instead, in the phrasing so loved by Hollywood, it’s ‘inspired by’ the stories. It takes whatever pieces it wants from two tales and plays with them freely, which is exactly what medieval authors like Boccaccio and Chaucer did with their source material, and what Shakespeare was going to do a few centuries later. In that sense. Jeff Baena is true to the spirit of Boccaccio, and he manages, perhaps unintentionally, to give a reasonable lesson in what life in a 14th century convent might have looked like.


Want to Know More?

The Little Hours is still in the theater, so it’s not available for purchase or streaming yet.

Boccaccio’s Decameron has more than a little in common with the somewhat more-famous Canterbury Tales, and it’s actually complete! Give it a read.

Graciela Diachman’s Wayward Nuns in Medieval Literature looks at medieval stories of bad nuns and the historical evidence for them. Similarly, Judith Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renassance Italy looks at one particularly scandalous abbess, Benedetta Carlini, who not only had a sexual relationship with another nun but also faked visions and stigmata. She is perhaps the first well-documented lesbian in Western history.

The White Queen: Two Points about Priests


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To wrap up my comments on The White Queen, I’ll end with two small points about late medieval religion.


We’re Going to the Chapel and We’re Gonna Get Married

In the first episode, Edward IV (Max Irons) has a clandestine marriage to Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) before a priest, with her mother as the only real witness. Elizabeth assumes this means they are married, but then her brother Anthony (Ben Lamb) warns her that the whole thing could have been a sham marriage with a fake priest. That allows the rest of the episode to milk drama out of whether Edward will acknowledge the marriage or not.

But it’s a serious misrepresentation of the way medieval marriage law worked. By the 9th century, it was becoming established that marriage was governed by canon law, the law of the Church, making religious officials the final arbiters of who was and wasn’t married. Initially, the emphasis was placed on two basic principles: only monogamous marriage was permitted and divorce was not. Other issues quickly got draw in as well, including the famous prohibition on consanguinity—medieval canon law defined a wide range of relationships as within the bounds of incest and therefore unacceptable as marriage partners (eventually, one could get a dispensation on this from high religious officials).


Edward and Elizabeth consummating their marriage

But it wasn’t until the 12th and 13th centuries that canon lawyers and theologians began to tackle one of the thorniest and most surprising questions. Was sex required for marriage? The obvious answer was ‘yes’. Since reproduction was seen as the purpose of marriage, it stood to reason that an unconsummated marriage was not a true one. But that ran smack up against one of the most celebrated pieces of medieval theology, the assertion that Jesus’ mother had remained a virgin her entire life. If sex was required for marriage, then Mary and Joseph were not married.

Such a conclusion was unacceptable, because it meant that Mary and Joseph were living together immorally and Jesus had been raised in sin. So by the 13th century, canon lawyers had figured out a work-around–there was more than one way to make a marriage, and it all depended on what vows were exchanged. If the wedding vows were phrased in the present tense, then they constituted a legitimate marriage regardless of whether sex happens or not. If, on the other hand, the vows were phrased in the future tense, they constituted a legal marriage only if consummation happens later. So if Edward said to Elizabeth something like “I marry you” (using words of the present tense), they were married, even if they never have sex. But if he said “I will marry you” (using words of the future tense), the marriage was not truly made until the couple has sex. So medieval theologians could be certain that Mary and Joseph had been legally married because they must have exchanged their vows in the present tense.

On the other hand, canon lawyers said that there was one thing that wasn’t required for a legitimate marriage, and that was the presence of a priest. Unlike any other sacrament (except emergency baptism), marriage did not require the presence of a priest, although the Church strongly recommended that one be present to bless the couple and to act as a witness. This meant that clandestine marriages (like the one Elizabeth and Edward had) was a huge issue in late medieval law courts. There were numerous cases in which a person came forward claiming that they had secretly married someone else years before. This was most common in matters of inheritance, but other issues could come up as well.


A medieval marriage (note the absence of a priest)

The fact that clandestine marriages were still valid ones is the main reason for that old cliché in Hollywood marriage scenes—the moment when the priest says “If anyone can show a good reason why these two should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” What it’s basically saying is “Does anyone know if either of these people has already participated in a clandestine marriage?” That’s also why the traditional wedding vow is “I do,” not “I will.” It’s words of the present tense, to eliminate any uncertainty about whether the marriage was legitimate.

I suspect that most 15th century nobles would have known this, since marriage was a huge issue politically and socially for them. So it’s likely that Anthony, Elizabeth, and Edward would probably all have understood that the language used at the ceremony was what mattered. So when Anthony is questioning his sister’s marriage, what he would have focused on is not whether Edward provided a fake priest, because a fake priest can still preside over a real marriage. What he would be asking is “what words did you use in the vow?” And if Elizabeth says “I will marry you,” he’d follow up with “have you had sex since then?”

The episode skips the actual ceremony but shows the couple in bed together soon afterward, so regardless of which vows they exchanged, by the time Anthony is talking to his sister, Edward and Elizabeth are husband and wife legally.


Shuffling Off This Mortal Coil

Several characters die in their beds in this series: Isabel Neville, Jacquetta, Edward IV, Lady Beauchamp, and Anne Neville. Isabel’s happens off-stage, but Anne shows up immediately afterward. and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) walks out of Lady Beauchamp’s before her mother dies. The other three all get to die on camera. But there’s something missing in all of these scenes. The priest.

Edward dying

Why is no one bleeding this man? He’s obviously dying!

Later medieval religion had a highly-developed body of rituals around the process of dying, because dying was one of the most spiritually-perilous things that could happen to a person. If the Devil tricked a dying person into abandoning their faith in a moment of despair, there was a strong chance that person would go to Hell. So it was assumed that the dying process was a moment when a person needed as much spiritual support and assistance as possible.

The ideal death, in the late medieval mind, was dying in bed surrounded by family and community and priest. This is not because it was a chance to say goodbye, but because these people would help the dying person to die well. In a full death-bed ritual, when it becomes clear (or seems likely) that someone will die soon, a priest is sent for and the local community and family of the person will gather at the death-bed. The priest will arrive and will do a variety of rituals: saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary with the dying person, anointing the person with consecrated oil, presenting the person with a crucifix and asking him or her to kiss it, asking the person to affirm their faith, and performing a final confession. Unlike the normal private confession, this confession is usually public, so the dying Edward will be asked about all his sins toward his loved ones gathered around him, and those gathered may well suggest things he ought to confess. Final reconciliations with those he has quarreled with may be sought, to reduce the time in Purgatory.

In the case of a king or queen, there’s an added political dimension. The king needs to make clear who is going to succeed him. This would already have been legally determined, but a death-bed statement helps strengthen the new king’s legitimacy. If the heir is a minor, the king needs to declare who ought to govern and have charge of his son. The death of a king or queen needs to be above reproach and clearly not a case of murder, so witnesses needed to be present who aren’t just the family, such as the Chancellor or the Treasurer.


Jacquetta’s death-bed

The White Queen mostly gets that part right. Edward is asked about who is going to governing for his son and so on. But for some reason, none of these important people die with a priest present, and the emphasis is entirely on the emotional reactions of their loved ones. There’s no hint these men and women lived in a society in which religion played a major role and that they probably had some concern for the state of their souls. The only character for whom religion seems to matter is Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and even she barely seems to interact with a priest; there’s no priest at her mother Lady Beauchamp’s death-bed and she spitefully quarrels with her mother, which medieval society would have seen as horrificially impious. Every high noble family would have had a chaplain on its staff, and kings and queens would have had personal confessors who functioned as spiritual advisors and guides, but none of these characters meet with a confessor.

Obviously, the religious elements have been largely stripped out of the story because modern audiences aren’t generally interested in such things, and elaborate death-bed rituals would get in the way of what modern audiences really want to see, which is lots of tearful goodbyes or final turns of the knife (in the case of Lady Beauchamp and her bitter daughter Margaret). But in a series that genuinely tried to get the basic historical facts right, it’s a damn shame that they didn’t include at least a few elements of the late medieval death ritual.

Also, because I doubt I’ll ever have a genuine reason to post it, I feel compelled to post what is, in my opinion, the greatest graphic for a scholarly book ever printed. It’s from James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, and it flowcharts the sexual decision-making process that early medieval penitential manuals theoretically expected a couple to go through when deciding whether to have sex. By the 10th century, these manuals were no longer being so fussy, so there was only a period of about 200 years when this model might have applied. But it’s too beautiful to pass up.



Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you want to know more about medieval ideas about marriage, a good starting point is Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle AgesTheir books are directed more at laymen than scholars, and this one does a pretty good job of surveying the evolution of medieval ideas about marraige and family structure.

If you really want to dig into the legal issues around marriage, there is no better book than James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval EuropeI had the pleasure of having Brundage as my undergraduate advisor, and that flowchart is absolutely typical of his dry sense of humor. But don’t be fooled; this is a very scholarly book and not for the faint of heart.

If you’re curious about late medieval dying rituals, John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History might be a good place to go. Although it’s specifically about the Bubonic Plague hitting England in 1347-48, it has a very good chapter on the rituals of dying (which the Black Death proved a perfect storm against).

Purchasing any of these books through their links is a great way to support this blog, since I get a small percentage of the proceeds and you get to learn something.


The White Queen: Richard III


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The last three episodes of The White Queen deal with Richard III’s seizure of power after his brother Edward IV dies in 1483. This portion of the series definitely falls on the ‘Yet So Far’ side of this series, and I figured it deserved a post of its own.


The show’s take on Richard is an interesting one. Shakespeare and the Tudors in general depicted him as a scheming villain who would stop at nothing to get the crown. But this Richard (Aneurin Bernard) is a basically decent man, who remains loyal to his brother until late in Edward’s reign, when frustrations with some of Edward’s choices and growing tensions with the Woodvilles lead him into betraying his nephew Edward. His wife Anne (Faye Marsay) hates Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) and thinks she is a literal witch who caused the death of Anne’s sister Isabel, and she urges her husband to take action against the Woodvilles. And while Richard and Elizabeth sincerely try to find a way to trust each other, Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and her husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) actively lie to both sides to encourage distrust between them so that Margaret’s son Henry Tudor (Michael Marcus) can take the throne. So this Richard is a decent man simply unable to find a way to make peace and must therefore do evil instead.


Bernard’s Richard in a very snappy outfit

The reality was somewhat more complex than that. The later 15th century was a harsh period politically. Over the previous century and a half, two kings were usurped (Edward II and Richard II), there were two royal minorities (Richard II and Henry VI) and one disastrously incompetent king (Henry VI); all of that made the power of the crown more unstable than it had been in the 12th or 13th century. At the same time, the wars in France had made several noble families far richer than in previous centuries, closing the gap between the monarch and his most powerful subjects. Parliament did not yet have institutional structures to enable it to resist the pressure of aggressive kings and nobles, and the law courts easily succumbed to pressure from nobles to give highly biased rulings. All that meant that politics during the last decades of the Plantagenet dynasty were characterized by a certain dog-eat-dog ruthlessness. In the 1470s, George of Clarence and Richard (who had married sisters) were eager to get their hands on the fortune of their mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Warwick, so they prevailed upon Edward and Parliament to have the countess declared legally dead so their wives could inherit her estates, despite the unfortunate woman being very much alive and in evidence.

Richard did not get along well with the Woodvilles during his brother’s reign. Like many other nobles, he resented them grabbing up marriage partners and important offices, and the Woodvilles likewise disliked him, at least in part because by the end of the reign, he was next in line should anything happen to Edward’s children.

When Edward died unexpectedly, leaving behind his 11-year old son Edward as his heir, it necessitated the appointment of a regent to govern for him for several years. Richard became Lord Protector, a title invented for his father the duke of York during Henry VI’s mental incapacity. That automatically created tension between the Dowager Queen Elizabeth, who as mother of the king could be expected to have a great deal of influence with young Edward, and Richard, who as Lord Protector was now the most important official in the country. For Richard, this created a dilemma. He might be politically ascendant for the next few years, but Elizabeth’s influence over Edward meant that the young king would probably absorb his mother’s dislike for Richard. Eventually, Edward would be old enough to assume power, and at that point he was likely to be hostile to Richard.

So Richard was in a bad position. It was probably just a matter of time before the Woodvilles found a way to use the young king against Richard, perhaps stripping him of his offices and honors, and perhaps even finding an excuse to execute him. It was either do or be done to eventually, and Richard decided to do.


Richard III’s skeleton shows he really did have a deformed spine

Right after the old Edward’s death, Richard intercepted young Edward’s maternal uncle, Earl Rivers, who was escorting their nephew to London. He arrested Rivers and took charge of the young king, claiming that there was a plot to deprive Richard his role as Lord Protector. Whether there was any truth to his claim is unknown, but it’s not entirely implausible. He had installed Edward in the Tower of London. The Dowager Queen took all her remaining children and sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. But several days later, she agreed to release her youngest son Richard (Edward’s full brother) to the Lord Protector in order to participate in Edward’s coronation, which was supposed to happen on June 22nd.

Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath and Wells (but not the baby-eating one), told Richard that he had performed a marriage ceremony for Edward to a different woman prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which meant that his marriage to Elizabeth was bigamous and therefore invalid, which in turn meant that young Edward and Richard were illegitimate and the Lord Protector was therefore the rightful king. Whether Stillington had any evidence to support this claim or if he was just giving Richard cover for what he had decided to do is unknown; given Edward’s amorousness, the claim is certainly not impossible, but most historians feel Stillington was lying.

Regardless, this gave Richard the ammunition he needed. On the 22nd, instead of a coronation, a sermon was preached outside Old St. Paul’s circulating Stllington’s claim and declaring the two boys bastards. On June 25th, Earl Rivers was found guilty of treason and executed and the next day Richard publicly agreed to become king. He was crowned on July 6th, completing the coup. After the summer of 1483, neither of the young princes were ever seen in public again.


The Princes in the Tower

What happened to Edward V and his younger brother Richard is unknown. It’s virtually certain they were murdered at some point (a pair of skeletons often thought to be them were discovered in a disused staircase of the Tower of London centuries later), but who actually killed them, we don’t know. Shakespeare and other Tudor authors put the blame on Richard, while people interested in defending Richard have offered a variety of other suspects. No serious scholar thinks that Richard personally stabbed or strangled them, but it is inconceivable that they were killed without Richard’s agreement; they were simply too important for some nobleman to sneak into the Tower and do them in without Richard’s knowledge.

The series takes an interesting approach to this question. It never resolves the issue. Someone enters the young king’s chamber in the Tower and he is startled awake, and that’s the last we see of him. For the remainder of the series, all the major characters wrestle with what happened to the boys. Elizabeth agonizes over the rumors that they are dead. Richard seems haunted by the question, and eventually goes to see Queen Elizabeth, asking her if her witchcraft stole them away, so it’s pretty clear that he didn’t do it. At different points both Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville instruct underlings to kill the boys, so the viewer is left with the puzzle of whether one of the nobles or servants of Richard, Margaret, or Anne did the deed.

Queen Elizabeth and her daughter send a curse after whoever murdered the young king, and Anne eventually sickens and dies, so the show appears to point the finger at her. But she asks one of her lackeys if he did the deed and he denies it, absolving her of the guilt she is carrying. Margaret likewise wrestles with the issue of whether she can orchestrate the murder of Prince Richard, whom she literally brought into the world; her husband Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves) takes enormous pleasure at forcing her to say she wants the boy dead.


Bernard as Richard and Marsay as Anne


This approach has two virtues. First, it avoids passing judgment where historians have no definitive answer, and second, it dramatizes the widespread uncertainty felt at the time over what had happened to them. No one in 1485 knew the answer (except whoever did the deed), so the show leaves us hanging the way events left everyone at the time hanging.

However, ultimately, it’s a cop-out. As I noted, serious historians agree that Richard was responsible for their fate, even if he didn’t murder them with his own hands. The series is more than willing to show things that didn’t happen, such Edward, George, and Richard personally smothering Henry VI, or the Woodvilles conjuring hurricanes, so to suddenly demur at this point is just cheating. And Gregory is more than willing to give us her rather improbable take on a variety of issues, such as why Richard III was interested in his niece Elizabeth, so refusing to give us her solution to who done it feels cheap, like reading an Agatha Christie novel that ends with Poirot admitting he has no clue who the murderer is.

Furthermore, the series veers off wildly into La-La Land with this whole incident, because after Richard snatches young Edward, Queen Elizabeth manages to smuggle out her younger son Richard to Flanders under the name ‘Perkin Warbeck’, and somehow finds a lookalike boy to pretend to be him, so that King Richard mistakenly thinks he has Prince Richard in the Tower. This imposter somehow never gives the game away, nor does young Edward.

For those of you less familiar with the actual reign of Henry VII, one of the rebellions against him was in the name of a pretender named Perkin Warbeck. So Gregory is claiming that Perkin Warbeck actually was the man he claimed to be. It’s a cute twist, but utterly improbable.


The Battle of Bosworth Field

The show’s take on the battle that ended Richard III’s brief reign and life is pretty sad. The show clearly didn’t have a lot of money for battle scenes or even decent stuntmen or a good fight co-ordinator, because the two battles that are shown are both laughably bad. The most obvious problem is that the Battle of Bosworth Field takes place in a forest. The two sides have no formation, so as with so many other bad renditions of historical battles, the battle is depicted as a series of one-on-one fights with soldiers on both sides running in from both sides of the camera. There’s lots of sword-slapping-on-sword pseudo-fighting, and few of the men carry shields. There’s no sign of the cannons Richard used to harass Henry’s men as they maneuvered around a nearby marsh. There’s no cavalry, even though Richard’s charge straight at Henry’s position was one of the critical moments in the battle; had he succeeded he would have killed Henry and ended the battle right there, but instead he failed and wound up isolated and unhorsed, which led to his death. At least the men are wearing reasonable approximations of real period armor (although, as always, they go into battle mostly without helmets so the audience can see the actors’ faces).


Note the total absence of a field

I can totally appreciate that a miniseries doesn’t have the budget to realistically recreate a battle involving perhaps 15-20,000 men. Cavalry charges are expensive to stage. But it can’t have cost more to stage the fight in a field somewhere rather than a forest. It’s pretty clear they staged it in a forest because it made it easier to disguise the fact that they only had about 20 guys. Perhaps this might have worked for some other battle, but this particular battle is so famously set in a field, that’s its whole freaking name! Trying to dodge the issue here fails so badly it calls attention to how poorly the fight is staged. Given that it’s the climax of the whole series, it would have been nice if they had found another way to handle it.

Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

The best book I know on Richard III is Charles Ross’ appropriately-named Richard IIIRoss was, until his tragic murder during a break-in, probably the leading historian of Edward IV and Richard III and his take on these two men and their era has strongly influenced my approach to the series. I can’t recommend his books on them highly enough.

The White Queen: Witchcraft


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My first post about the BBC series The White Queen took a ‘So Close and Yet So Far’ approach. But a few people thought that it was more close than far. That’s mostly because I decided to save a couple of big things for separate posts. Here’s where we really get into the Far parts.



Throughout the series the Rivers women, including Jacquetta (Janet McTeer), Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) and Elizabeth of York (Freya Mavor) all practice witchcraft. In the first couple episodes it’s entirely about predicting the future, and so I thought that the show was taking the approach that Jacquette was just engaging in a little folk magic that happened to give the right answer about whether her daughter was going to get married.

But no, the women are in fact witches. As the series goes on, not only do they occasionally use magic to predict or shape the future, such as ensuring that Elizabeth gives birth to a boy, but they also go for larger-scale things. Over the series they conjure a small hurricane that nearly sinks Warwick (James Frain) and George of Clarence (David Oakes), create a fog that covers Edward IV (Max Irons) as his army approaches Warwick’s at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, and produce a storm that prevents Henry Tudor from sailing from Brittany to join Buckingham’s Rebellion in 1483. (In all three cases, this weather did actually happen historically.) They also curse Warwick and George to die for killing Queen Elizabeth’s father and brother; that one takes a long time to play out, but the show suggests that the curse really did work. Elizabeth briefly curses Richard with a pain in his hand that he feels. The Elizabeths also curse whoever killed the princes in the Tower; the show suggests that Anne Neville’s death in 1485 was due to that curse. All three women ‘have the sight’ and periodically get visions that correctly predict the future.

And everyone around them knows they are witches. Lord Rivers jokingly asks “what spells are you two weaving this time?” Queen Elizabeth jokes that if they burn a portrait of Margaret of Anjou, she and her mother will both get hanged as witches. Clarence and Anne both repeatedly accuse them of witchcraft, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in their personal lives. Clarence hirers an astrology to protect himself from Woodville magic, but it get misunderstood as an attempt to kill Edward. The only person who doesn’t think the Woodville women are witches is Edward.


Elizabeth and Jacquetta working a spell


So, to be clear about what the show does, it purports to be a historical narrative about the Wars of the Roses and it shows the Woodville women successfully using magic to manipulate the events. Their magic justifies many of the odd twists and turns the Wars took over the years. It never bothers to address why these magically powerful women didn’t just use their magic to directly kill their enemies like Clarence and Richard, so the narrative is just sort of ham-fisted about it.

There is an increasing trend in the past decade or so of ancient and medieval historical films and show throwing in magical elements. I have no problem with movies and shows depicting ancient and medieval magical practices; nearly all societies have magical practices of some sort, so it’s not unreasonable to show medieval women occasionally resorting to magic in hopes of achieving their ends. But I have a big problem with stories that claim to be historical showing those magical practices as producing real effects. At that point, a film or show crosses the line from history into fantasy.


The Basis for the Claims

Philippa Gregory’s idea that the Woodvilles were actual witches does have a small nugget of fact in it. In 1469, during the period when Warwick had taken control of Edward and was trying to run the government through him, Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft. A man named Thomas Wake gave Warwick “an image of lead made like a man of arms of the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and mage fast with a wire, saying that it was made by [Jacquetta] to use with witchcraft and sorcery.” Wake got a parish priest to support this by claiming that Jacquetta had also made two figures of the king and the queen, presumably some form of love magic to ensure that Edward would marry her daughter.


A drawing of Richard Neville, the earl of Warwick


The charges were obviously political. Wake’s son had died fighting for Warwick against Edward and he may have been involved in the death of Lord Rivers. Warwick had just arranged the execution of Lord Rivers and one of his sons, and was clearly now maneuvering against Jacquetta as part of a sustained attack on the Woodvilles.

Jacquetta pushed back by writing a letter to the mayor and aldermen of London, reminding them that back n 1461, she had save the city when Margaret of Anjou wanted to destroy it. Jacquetta had been a close friend and lady-in-waiting to Margaret, so her personal influence apparently helped sway the wrathful queen. The citizens of London repaid the favor by sending a letter supporting her to Warwick via George of Clarence.

That didn’t stop the trial, though. Edward was forced to order an examination of the witnesses, but by the time came for the trial before the Great Council (in this case, essentially a session of the House of Lords), Edward was back in charge and the case against Jacquetta collapsed. The witnesses recanted their testimony, and Jacquetta asserted what was, at least in canon law, an entirely valid defense that Wake was a long-time enemy of hers; whether this particular canon law principle was carried over into English Common Law on witchcraft I’m unsure of, but if something similar applied, this would have disqualified Wake as an accuser by establishing that he had an obvious motive to lie.  The Council, clearly understanding where the king’s sympathies lay, acquitted Lady Rivers and agreed to her request to include the proceedings in the official records of the Council. Jacquetta was clearly a smart woman, and knew that having an official note of her acquittal might come in useful if the charges were revived later on.

And in fact the charges were revived in 1484 when Richard III asked Parliament to declare that Edward and Elizabeth had never been legally married because Elizabeth and Jacquetta had used magic to procure the marriage. By this point Lady Rivers was already dead, and Richard needed Parliament to make this declaration because it justified his seizure of the throne. Parliament did as it was told and declared the marriage invalid.

These two incidents, which were clearly motivated by politics, comprise the sum total of all the actual evidence that the Woodville women ever practiced witchcraft. It is out of these false charges that Gregory spun this entire subplot for her books. She worked within the framework of the known facts, which is commendable, but by blowing these details up into a major part of the story and inventing a host of facts that are literally impossible, such as controlling the weather, she took her story off into fantasyland. And Gregory has falsely claimed in an interview that Jacquetta was convicted and spared only by Margaret of Anjou’s intervention.


Philippa Gregory


In the show, Warwick tries Jacquetta for witchcraft while he has control of Edward. He brings in a witness (not Thomas Wake) to make the same accusations; Jacquetta protests that she has never seen the man before, rather than trying to disqualify him as an enemy. Since Jacquetta is actually a witch, the whole scene represents very serious danger; although the accuser is making things up, what he’s inventing is somehow correct. She is saved by calling a witness of her own, Margaret of Anjou, who she was close friends with years ago. Her strategy is that Warwick is dependant on Margaret politically and militarily, so he won’t be able to oppose her in this trial. It works and Jacquetta is acquitted. But this all rests on the false assumption that medieval English courts worked like modern ones, a mistake that other tv shows have made as well.


Jacquetta on trial


What is really frustrating to me about this is that the series had a perfect opportunity to explore the way that witchcraft accusations were generally motivated not by actual evidence of witchcraft but by political or personal motives. It was a charge that women were vulnerable to because this culture associated witchcraft with women rather than men. (Men were much more likely to be accused of learned magic, such as the malicious astrology charge brought against George of Clarence’s personal astrologer.)

In the later part of the Middle Ages, English society gradually began using accusations of magic for political reasons. In 1419, Henry V believed that he had been a target of a magical plot. In 1431, witchcraft was one of the charges against Joan of Arc. In 1441, Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester was accused of treasonous astrology when she had an astrologer forecast the death of Henry VI. She was convicted, forced to do public penance, divorce her husband and suffer life imprisonment. In 1450, Henry VI’s government accused the rebel Jack Cade of using sorcery. As already mentioned, in the 1470s, George of Clarence was implicated in treasonous astrology. Looking forward a generation of so, Anne Boleyn was accused of witchcraft by Catholic propagandists, although contrary to Internet claims, witchcraft was not one of the charges brought against her at her trial (although Henry VIII may have once made an off-hand claim that she had ensnared him through witchcraft).

So Gregory could easily have written a subplot in which the charges of witchcraft were entirely false and used that to explore the way that women were culturally vulnerable to ideas about witchcraft. Instead, she chose to actually reinforce the cultural bias around women as witchcraft by making them genuinely guilty. That really pisses me off, because in a way, it re-victimizes these two women.

If you like this post, please think about making a donation to my Paypal account to help me afford to pay for Starz and the other pay services I uses for this blog. Any donation is appreciated! Or follow the links below to purchase one of the books below. I get a small portion of the proceeds.

Want to Know More?

The White Queen is available on Starz, and on Amazon. The three novels it is based on are The White QueenThe Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s DaughterThey are also available as a set with two other novels.

If you’re interested in this issue, you can read this blog post, which digs a bit further into the evidence for the Woodville women as witches (and explodes it). The author of the post, Susan Higgenbotham, is a novelist and author of The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous FamilyShe’s not a professional historian, but she’s clearly dug into the sources on this.