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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

Aethelwold

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.



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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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. In anything, the film down-plays and avoids some elements of medieval farce, which isfrequnetly 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.

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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 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.

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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), she’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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.





The White Queen: So Near, and Yet So Far

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Philippa Gregory’s work as a writer of historical fiction has drawn a great deal of criticism from historians, even though she has a bachelor’s in history and a doctorate in 18th-century literature. And the BBC series The White Queen, which is an adaptation of three of her Plantagenet novels (The White Queen, the Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter), was not well-received by critics. But it’s something medieval, which I needed after my Fall of Eagles sojourn in the 19th century.

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The series focuses on the middle and late phases of the Wars of the Roses, opening in 1461, a few years after the Battle of Towton in which Edward of York and his brothers George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester have overthrown the Lancastrian Henry VI and established Edward as king. At the start of the first episode he meets, falls in love, and married Elizabeth Woodville .

Elizabeth came from the absolute bottom level of the English nobility. Her father, Sir Richard Woodville, was a mere knight (and technically therefore not actually nobility at all), while her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of a Flemish count and widow of Henry VI’s uncle. He was only given a noble title in 1466, two years after becoming the king’s father-in-law (although the series calls him Lord Rivers all the way through).

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Elizabeth Woodville

This marriage was a problem for several reasons. First, as noted, Elizabeth was essentially a commoner, whereas Edward ought to have married a member of the high nobility. Second, the Woodville clan had been Lancastrians, and only accepted Edward in the wake of the marriage. Third, The Woodvilles were a large family; Elizabeth had two sons by her previous marriage to Sir John Grey and she had a staggering 14 brothers and sisters (although her oldest brother died when he was 12). This huge family had to be provided for out of Edward’s patronage simply to make them appropriate in-laws for the king, and that made them appear as grasping upstarts to the established English nobility. Fourth, Edward conducted the marriage in secret; he was known to be highly-sexed and had already had several flings with women.

Finally, the marriage was a problem because Edward’s chief supporter, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, had been negotiating to marry Edward to a French princess. Edward allowed Warwick to keep negotiating for some time after his marriage, but finally revealed that he already had a wife, humiliating and infuriating Warwick. Warwick was the most wealthy and powerful man in the kingdom, and his role in the Yorkist revolt against Henry VI had earned him the nickname the Kingmaker. This incident began the fracturing of the alliance between Edward and Warwick that ultimately led to Warwick conspiring with Edward’s brother George and then with Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. Had Edward done the proper thing and married the French princess, it’s quite possible that the Wars of the Roses would have ended in 1461 and perhaps the Plantagenets would still be ruling England. So a story that focuses on this marriage and its consequences is certainly a great idea.

So Close…

As I watched the series, I found myself becoming impressed by it. The first half of it does a fairly good job of following the actual events. It opens with Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) presenting herself to Edward (Max Irons) as he rides past her home, hoping to recover her late husband’s estate, which had been confiscated because he had been killed fighting for the Lancastrian cause three years earlier. Edward becomes attracted to her and she initially resists (because in romance novels, women who just give in and have sex are sluts, don’t you know) but accepts Edward’s marriage proposal. In the series, this is presented as Elizabeth being uncertain about her feelings until Edward proposes, but a more plausible scenario to my mind is that Elizabeth intentionally held out for marriage (much like Anne Boleyn did with Henry VIII two generations later) because she knew Edward had a reputation as a womanizer and saw the marriage as a way to advance her family. After all, Jacquetta had been a high noblewoman and certainly understood how the court worked, and that’s somewhat the way the show presents her mother as well. (Janet McTeer’s Jacquetta is one of the real bright spots in the show.)

The next several episodes trace the growing conflict between Warwick (James Frain) and Edward. It presents the Woodvilles as being the catalyst for this alienation, which is basically correct. Elizabeth seeks to find husbands and wives for her siblings and her two oldest sons. Traditionally, this has been seen as evidence that the Woodvilles were seeking to rise about their station, but the series does a nice job of looking at it from their point of view as a family suddenly thrust into the thick of English politics and needing to establish a genuine power base. And Edward begins giving the Woodvilles high offices, thus depriving Warwick’s family of a different source of wealth and power. But Elizabeth’s parents also manage to offend Warwick by insisting on their precedence at court over Warwick.

Warwick favors an alliance, or at least a peace, with France, but Edward begins to favor an alliance with the dukes of Burgundy, who in this period were rivals to France. Jacquetta was related to the royal house of Burgundy, so it’s unclear whether Edward is simply engaging in his own foreign policy or if the Woodvilles were pushing him toward Burgundy. Warwick is eventually revealed to have a secret deal with the king of France for land there, so the series put sthe focus more on why Warwick wants France rather than why Edward is favoring Burgundy.

The series also does a nice job of milking tension out of the fact that the first three children after the marriage were all girls. On paper, the fact that Edward’s first son wasn’t born until 1470 seems like a minor detail. But the show explores the reality that until Edward had a son, his hold on the throne was tenuous, because his heir was his brother George (David Oakes). Since Henry VI was still alive, Edward’s opponents could choose to support either the old king or George. That made the Woodvilles all vulnerable as well.

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Edward IV, Elizabeth, and their young son Edward

Eventually, Warwick grows frustrated and begins to plot with George. Historically, George married Warwick’s daughter Isabel in defiance of the king’s wishes in 1469 and then he and Warwick rebelled and seized Edward. Rather than deposing him in favor of George (which is probably what George was hoping for), Warwick tried to rule through Edward, keeping him prisoner in Warwick castle, but the English nobility refused to accept this and since Warwick was unwilling to kill or depose Edward, eventually he had to release the king and seek a reconciliation.

But that collapsed quickly. Warwick and George fled the country, made an alliance with Margaret of Anjou to put Henry VI back on the throne, and invaded at the head of an army that successfully forced Edward and Richard of Gloucester to flee to Flanders. Warwick returned Henry (or more properly his wife Margaret) to power. But this realignment encouraged France to declare war on Burgundy, and Burgundy supplied Edward with an army with which he was able to return, defeat and kill Warwick at the Battle of Barnet, and reclaim the throne, deposing Henry for a second and final time.

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The Battle of Barnet

As I was thinking about that rather complex sequence of events, I assumed that the series would simplify things the way most historical films do. I expected it to omit Warwick and George’s initial rebellion and attempt to rule through Edward and just jump to the rebellion that deposed Edward in favor of Henry. But much to my surprise, the series played out the events roughly as they happened. The only major details it omitted were things involving people outside the show’s main circle of characters. (For example, neither Louis XI or the duke of Burgundy ever appear in the show, and their actions are barely even mentioned. Likewise the actions of English nobles like the earl of Pembroke and the earl of Devon during the rebellions are glossed over.) That impressed me a lot and I started thinking that I might have to declare this one of the best historical productions I’ve seen. In general, down through the end of Edward’s life, the show hits most of the major events of the reign in the right order. When it simplifies, it usually doesn’t oversimplify.

…And Yet So Far

Sadly, as the series goes on, though, it starts going wrong. One major issue is that it starts employing speculation and gossip as fact. For example, after Edward recovers his throne, he and his brothers go to the Tower and smother Henry in his bed to remove the threat. Elizabeth somehow stumbles upon them and witnesses the murder. The fact that Henry conveniently died the night before Edward’s re-coronation was so suspicious that most people assumed at the time (and still do today) that Edward ordered Henry’s death. A generation later, Thomas More’s History of Richard III says that Richard did the deed, but since More was writing during the reign of Henry VIII, he would have had to write about Richard as a tyrant, and Richard is known to have not been in London at the time of Henry’s death. Edward must surely have ordered the killing; Henry was too important a political pawn for someone to kill him without at least the king’s tacit approval. But it’s absurd to suggest that Edward himself did the deed. That’s what low-level servants are for.

The historical Edward eventually had a falling out with George. After Isabel died in 1476, George began to harbor ambitions to marry the duchess of Burgundy, a move that would have made Edward quite uncomfortable because of its political implications. When Edward refused to consent to it, George left court permanently. Then in 1477, it was learned that George had employed an astrologer to forecast his brother’s death. Trying to predict the time of the king’s death was seen as temptingly close to trying to cause the king’s death. George compounded the mistake after the astrologer’s execution by having a former Lancastrian protest the execution in Parliament. That was the last straw, and Edward arrested George, tried him for treason (personally acting as the prosecutor), and then executed him. Rumor has it that he was drowned in a butt of Malmsey, but no one really thinks that’s how George was dispatched.

However, the series (which gets the basic facts mostly right, if a little simplified) shows him being drowned in wine. On its own, it’s a forgivable moment of melodrama, but by this point, the show is starting to go seriously wrong, including things that are either total speculation or else just plain wrong.

A major problem in the series is its depiction of Margaret Beaufort, the Countess of Richmond and mother of Henry Tudor, who becomes Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth Field. Margaret was the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III through his fourth son John of Gaunt and Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford. Although Gaunt eventually married Katherine and had his children with her legitimized, the act of legitimation explicitly declared them ineligible for the throne, But after the death of Henry VI and his son Edward, Henry Tudor was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne.

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Margaret Beaufort

In the series, Margaret (Amanda Hale) has two major characteristics: a profound, if not obsessive, piety and an absolute conviction that her son will become king some day. Margaret’s piety, at least in later life, is well-established, so that’s a reasonable take on her. However the show depicts her as a hard-core Lancastrian, but it’s a little unlikely that Margaret was personally opposed to the Yorkists. Her second husband, Edmund Tudor, was a Lancastrian, but she was married to him at 12 and widowed at 13, barely having enough time to get a child with him. Her third and fourth husbands were both Yorkists whom she got along well with. She was close enough with Elizabeth Woodville to be chosen as the godmother of one of her younger daughters. And during Richard III’s reign, she was actively plotting with Elizabeth against him.

Any Lancastrian sympathies she had must have been because her son was the Lancastrian claimant, which means that while Henry VI and his son was alive, she probably had no serious expectation that her son might inherit; his claim was weak and the king had a son who had plenty of time to have children of his own. Even after 1471, it is improbable that she had high hopes, because Henry was a long way from the throne; he would only inherit if Edward; both his sons; Edward’s brother George; George’s son Edward; Richard; and Richard’s son Edward all died (and that’s ignoring all the daughters, who had claims as well). In fact, they did all die, but it probably wasn’t until Richard seized the throne that Margaret might have begun thinking her son had a good shot at the throne.

But Hale’s Amanda is insistent from the very first scene she’s in that the Yorkists are all illegitimate and that her son is destined to be king. She obsessively nags her third husband and Henry’s uncle Jasper about it, and after she marries Lord Stanley (Rupert Graves), the two of them begin to actively scheme for it. By Richard’s reign, the two of them are playing both Richard and Elizabeth in a hare-brained scheme to get rid of the princes in the Tower, engage Henry to Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth and then depose Richard. Historically, Margaret and Elizabeth Woodville did decide to unite their two families, but that was only after it became fairly clear that Elizabeth’s two sons were dead.

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Hale as Margaret

In my next post, I’ll talk about one the show’s HUGE problems.

Production Choices

I normally don’t say much about production issues, but for some reason the series’ production choices really caught my eye. Frock Flicks has a few pointed observations about the generally boring outfits the women were given (especially Anne Neville and Margaret Beaufort, both of whom are stuck wearing one dress for several years). But the show has a charming dearth of black leather and open doublets, so it deserves a little praise.

The show was filmed in Belgium, and they used a lot of historical sites to stand in for places like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and various royal and noble palaces. There are definitely a few issues, such as many of the staircases having metal railings, and some of the paintings in the background are clearly 16th century or later. A An enormous bath-tub Elizabeth uses in the second episode really stands out. And much of the architecture just screams that the show wasn’t filmed in England. The windows, for example, are all wrong.

Normally that sort of thing doesn’t bother me at all. The nature of historical filmmaking often requires compromises like that. The actual locations might not survive, or might not be open to film crews, or might just not be available. Appropriate buildings often have modern features like railings that make finding good shots tough. Production budgets can be tight, so using locations that are already furnished with quasi-medieval furniture and decorations helps save money. But for some reason, in this series, the locations were constantly knocking me out of the story-telling. It just doesn’t look like England, despite the frequent inserted shots of London’s White Tower.

More problematically, the show spans 21 years (1464-1485), but there is almost no effort made to age the actors appropriately. For the first five episodes or so, that’s not a problem, because only about 6 years pass, but in the last several episodes, it starts to become an issue. Several of the male characters grow beards, and some of them are giving a little grey at the temples, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Margaret Beaufort is a particular problem. The actress looks the same in 1485 as she does in 1464. When she’s playing scenes with the boy Henry Tudor, this isn’t a serious problem. But in the last episode, when she’s opposite Michael Marcus as the adult Henry she could plausibly be playing his girlfriend instead of his mother. A little bit of make-up would have gone a long way in this series.

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See what I mean?

 

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 looking to learn about Edward IV, for my money the best book is Charles Ross, Edward IVHis The Wars of the Roses is a very good introduction to the events. David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower is a good look at Edward’s queen.





 

Fall of Eagles: Communism

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The one 19th century ideology that Fall of Eagles addresses head-on is Socialism, or more properly the subset of Socialism that is Communism, obviously because it played such a huge role in the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. So the series focuses on the Communists in two episodes, “Absolute Beginners” (episode 6) and “The Secret War” (episode 12). The former deals with Vladimir Lenin maneuvering to take control of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, while the latter sees Lenin and his followers smuggled into Russia during the Great War.

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Marx and Engels had developed the basics of Communist theory in the 1840s. In Marx’ view, history was driven by a process of class struggle. In various societies, the details differed, but there were always two social classes, an upper dominant class and a lower class oppressed by the upper class. Eventually the two classes would come into direct conflict and the upper class would make conditions for the lower class so oppressive that the lower class would revolt and overthrow the upper class. Then the lower class would restructure society with itself as the new upper class, while a new oppressed lower class would eventually emerge from the selfish actions of the new upper class. This cycle of oppression, overthrow, and restructuring was, for Marx, the engine of all historical change.

As Marx saw it, the French Revolution had put the ‘bourgeoisie’ on top, by which he meant the class of men who owned the factories, mines, railways, banks, and other elements of capitalist manufacturing. They controlled all the elements of industrial production except for the labor to run the mines and factories. The labor was provided by the ‘proletariat’, the manual workers, who were being horrifically oppressed by the brutal working conditions in 19th century factories and mines (child labor, excessive hours, low wages, dangerous working conditions, and so on). Communist theory primarily makes sense in the context of the Industrial Revolution, which by the 1840s was in full swing across Western Europe.

Marx predicted that the next cycle of revolution would involve the proletariat rising up and overthrowing the bourgeoisie. They would seize control of the state, which would take over the running of the factories on behalf of the workers. Essentially, the workers would be running the factories they worked in. Because of that, the factories would no longer be oppressive to the workers, and because the workers were not oppressing themselves, there would be no new lower class. Thus the cycle of class struggle that had driven society since the beginning of history would come to an end because a classless society would be created.

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Karl Marx

 

So much for the basic principles of Communist thought. For Lenin and his fellow Russian Communists, the big debate was how to apply this model to Russia, where the country just barely beginning the Industrial Revolution. The country’s economy was overwhelming agrarian in nature, with only a small number of extremely brutal factories having been established by 1900. Without the Industrial Revolution and an industrial proletariat, how could the Proletarian Revolution occur? Since Marx’ ideas were understood by his followers to be scientific the way that Newton’s Laws of Gravity were scientific, it appeared to many Russian Communists that things would have to get worse before they could get better; the Russian bourgeoisie would have to be encouraged to seize control of the Russian state and spread the brutality of the Industrial Revolution before there was a large enough proletariat to achieve the Proletarian Revolution. Ultimately, Lenin came to disagree with that view, arguing that it was possible to leapfrog the Industrial Revolution and achieve the Proletarian Revolution in a largely peasant society. His modification of Marx and Engel’s theories came to be called Leninism.

But the RSDLP was more than just Lenin, and many other Russian Communists had different ideas. Lenin’s chief position of influence in 1900 was as a member of the board of the RSDLP’s newspaper Iskra (‘Spark’), which was published somewhat sporadically because Lenin had to keep relocating because of pressure from various governments. By 1902, Lenin and Iskra was based in London, with an editorial staff that included Lenin, Julius Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, and later Leon Trotsky. In 1903, this group was able to convene the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP, first in Belgium and, when that meeting was broken up by the Belgian police, then in London.

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Lenin

In London, a rift opened within Iskra’s board. In a debate over how to define ‘party member’, Lenin pushed for a definition in which a party member was a member of one of the party’s recognized organizations (and therefore under the party’s control), whereas Martov advocated for a somewhat looser definition of any person who was working under the guidance of the party (but not necessarily a formal member of any organization). While the difference was small, it represented something quite large. Lenin had a vision of a party of professional revolutionaries who were financially dedicated to the party with a large penumbra of less committed sympathizers, whereas Martov wanted a more broadly-based group of activists who were all moving in the same general direction but not necessarily completely in unison with the RSDLP’s theories. Lenin’s position allowed for the existence of a class-like group of guiding intellectuals, whereas Martov represented a more traditionally Marxist classless system. When the issue came to a vote, Martov’s position won out by a slim majority of 5 votes (out of a total of 51). But 7 of Martov’s supporters later walked out, mostly over the question of how to handle Jewish members (should they be grouped together as the Bund, their own branch of the party, or not?), giving Lenin the majority of 2 votes that he needed to establish his definition of party member.

This led to a rift between Lenin and Martov, who was backed by Zasulich, Trotsky, and eventually Plekhanov. Lenin ultimately labeled Martov’s faction the Mensheviks (‘the Minority’) and his faction the Bolsheviks (‘the Majority’), despite the fact that neither side had a consistent dominance over the party. However, when Lenin’s attempt to restrict the editorial board of Iskra to just three (himself, Lenin, and Plehanov) was defeated, Lenin left the paper, giving it over to the control of the Mensheviks.

 

Lenin in Fall of Eagles

Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the aggressively determined Lenin (more than a little of his later performances as Captain Picard shine through). Not only does he look a startling amount like Lenin, he perfectly captures the man’s moral certainty. “Absolute Beginners” focus closely on the debates around Iskra and the 2nd Party Congress, so the episode appears set in 1903.

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Stewart as Lenin

 

The episode doesn’t delve very deeply into the Marxist ideas at the root of the Communists’ goals. Perhaps the author assumed that the viewers already understand basic Marxist theory. Instead, we get a debate between Lenin and Zasulich (Mary Wimbush) over the question of whether the Russian peasantry can be combined with the proletariat or not. As Zasulich points out sarcastically, the peasantry will have to be involved in the revolution because there are too many of them for Lenin to massacre, but Lenin dogmatically insists that only the proletariat can be involved in leading the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Then an ugly incident occurs in which a messenger arrives with word about a party member, Nikolay Bauman. Bauman had gotten a married party member pregnant and then began spreading malicious rumors about her (which included a vicious satirical cartoon of her as a pregnant Virgin Mary). The woman committed suicide. Martov (Edward Wilson) is very upset about the incident, but Lenin refuses to even meet with the messenger because Bauman was a good party worker, which in Lenin’s mind means that they should overlook his “personal misdemeanor’. Zasulich is disgusted by Lenin’s decision and storms out. The episode presents this as the thing that triggered Martov’s eventual falling out with Lenin.

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Wimbush as Zasulich

The Bauman incident certainly came to be seen as an ethical distinction between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, but moreso after the rift had occurred than as a cause of it. But the episode is very hostile to Lenin. He is depicted as hard and doctrinaire and essentially power-hungry; at one point, he has a fever dream in which he repeatedly says “I am the party!” When he learns that Martov has gone to Geneva to meet with Plekhanov (Paul Eddington), Lenin immediately suspects that Martov is maneuvering to betray him, so he goes to Geneva and plots with Plekhanov to seize control of the party.

The episode then devotes a full 15 minutes to the debate over the definition of ‘party member’ at the 2nd Congress. Martov and Lenin lay out their differences quite clearly and Martov wins. It’s clear that Martov still regards Lenin as a friend and tries to soothe over their differences, but Lenin clearly regards him as an enemy. He manipulates matters to offend the Jewish delegates in order to get them to walk out (and blatantly locks Martov out of a key meeting in order to achieve that). He accuses Martov of betraying his principles in a scheme to achieve control, when in reality it’s clear that Lenin is the one who’s angling for power. He uses Martov’s desire to patch up their friendship to force Martov to denounce the Jewish Bund, leading to the walkout by the Jewish delegates. The impact of the walkout on the voting is never explained, so the emphasis here is mostly on Lenin being a dick to his former friends.

Then Lenin proposes reducing the Iskra board to himself, Plekhanov, and Martov, prompting Zasulich to denounce him and walk out, leading with her several more delegates. Martov rejects his nomination, having realized that Lenin is a vicious schemer. Trotsky (Michael Kitchen) also denounces him and walks out, while Lenin sits impassively watching the responses. By the end of the episode, Lenin is convinced of his own righteousness, but has alienated almost all of his previous friends.

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Wilson as Martov

 

While this portrait of Lenin is not false, it is perhaps incomplete. It makes no attempt to show why Lenin was able to inspire such devotion among his followers, and his persuasiveness appears to be purely intellectual, not driven by his intense charisma. Stewart’s Lenin is not so much charismatic as overbearing, and it’s unclear why his wife Nadezhna (Lynn Farleigh) stays with him after he destroys Zasulich. In reality, he was deeply devoted to her, and passionately fond of children. (His love of children actually became an element of later Soviet propaganda.) But these more positive traits would detract from the view of Lenin the show is offering, and so they are disregarded. This is perhaps an artifact that Fall of Eagles was made during the Cold War, when Western culture had to cast Soviet figures in a negative light.

This is my last post on Fall of Eagles. I’d like to thank my reader Stephen for pointing me toward this series, which I’d never heard of before. Hopefully you feel like you got your money’s worth from these reviews. If there’s a film or tv show you’d like me to review, please consider making a donation to my Paypal account; if I can track it down and think it’s appropriate for the blog, I’ll give it a review.

Want to Know More?

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

If you’re interested in Lenin, one of the best biographies of him is by Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography.

It’s sometimes criticized for its scholarly focus on small details, so if you want something a bit lighter, you might try Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, which deals with his role in the Great War and his fateful train journey into Russia in 1917.


Why I Think Confederate is a Bad Idea

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Last week, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced plans for their follow-up HBO series, to be called Confederate. It will tell the story of an alternate United States where the Confederacy won the Civil War. Slavery is still legal and the country is heading toward the Third American Civil War.

The announcement aroused a great deal of controversy from people who objected to the idea of the series. A big part of the concern has stemmed from the fact that Benioff and Weiss have not challenged GoT’s white savior narrative that dominates Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline. It’s true that the basis for that narrative is George RR Martin’s writing, but they’ve done nothing to make that narrative less racially problematic or to improve the character development of the few black characters on the show. So it’s easy to see why so many people think that they can’t be trusted to tell a story centering around the actual real-world racism of the American slave system.

Given the nature of this blog, I figured that I should add my thoughts on this proposed series. I’m white, which obviously shapes the way I think about issues of race, and I don’t claim to be an arbiter of what people ought to think about these issues. But since my wheelhouse here is history and film/television, I feel obligated to say something.

Counterfactual scenarios are certainly worth thinking about. Historians often need to think about the what ifs in order to get a sense of what was at stake in a historical moment. In order to understand the impact of George Washington on the United States, it’s important to contemplate what might have happened if Washington had not stepped down after two terms as president. So a question like “what if George Washington had been less committed to democracy?” is valuable to ask, even if there’s no way to prove the answer to it.

But this show isn’t really asking “What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War?” because the Confederacy’s goal in the Civil War was not to conquer the North, just to achieve independence from the United States. The scenario the show envisions is one in which the South did not break away from the United States, but rather fought the North to a stalemate (according to this interview, at any rate), so that the Union somehow persisted without resolving the issue of slavery. That strikes me as a pretty improbable scenario. If the North couldn’t defeat the South, I’m not sure how they could force the South to continue participating in the Union.

But let’s not worry about the fact that the scenario they’re describing doesn’t really seem plausible. The deeper issue is not how they frame their alternate history but rather whether this show is a good idea at all. And I think the answer is that it’s not.

The Problem with the Whole Idea

My objection to the show is that it assumes that because the Confederacy no longer exists, it must therefore be a neutral force in modern society. That’s the assumption that gets made about monuments to Confederate leaders today—that because they memorialize people and events from the mid-19th century, they must not be anything more than markers of the past, a past that some people choose to take pride in.

The reality is far more complex than that. Confederate monuments were often erected not simply as memorials of the past, but as efforts to shape the moment they were built in. For example, in 1924, Charlottesville, VA, used the building of a couple of Confederate memorials as tools to push black people out of desirable neighborhoods by signaling that they weren’t welcome in there. In the 1950s and 60s, a number of Southern states chose to start flying the Confederate flag at their statehouse as an expression of resistance to the Civil Rights movement. In the late 19th century, the earliest of these monuments were erected as part of an effort by groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans to rewrite the history of the Confederacy and establish the myth of the Lost Cause, which falsely claims that the issue of States’ Rights was the primary cause of the Civil War, rather than the issue of slavery that was the actual cause.

So Confederate symbols are not simply markers of a long-vanished past. They are rather active players in a current debate about the meaning of the past. These monuments attempt to shape our understanding of the past, to render the Confederacy more acceptable by denying key facts and replacing them with a more palatable fiction. In that sense, these monuments already represent a What If scenario. What if the Confederacy had been motivated by something other than a desire to enslave black people? What if the Confederacy had been a valiant effort to defend states against an over-reaching federal government, rather than an attempt to defend one of the most brutal forms of slavery every devised?

Since the era of Reconstruction, most efforts to tell stories about the Confederacy have in fact been Counterfactual scenarios. From Birth of a Nation (What if slavery was actually good because black men were sexual predators?) to Gone with the Wind (What if the slaves were actually happy because the slave owners were nice?) to Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled (What if there were no slaves in the South during the Civil War?), American film-makers and authors have been reluctant to admit the truth about our slave-owning past, because the truth is brutal and ugly and profoundly shameful. We don’t want to admit that our white ancestors did terrible things to our black ancestors.

There is a strong argument to be made that even though the South lost the Civil War, it won the Reconstruction. The South was able to undo many of the effects of having lost the Civil War. While black people were no longer legally property, white society found ways to deny them many of their legal rights. Jim Crow laws functionally stripped a large swath of the black population of its right to vote down into the 1960s. Sharecropping and the prevention of labor unions in much of the South enabled employers to continue their addiction to cheap labor. Lynching and other forms of domestic terrorism kept black people subservient to whites and too fearful to challenge the existing situation.

And these issues have not gone away just because the Civil Rights movement succeeded. The end of lynching was followed almost immediately by the emergence of the Law and Order movement and the massive expansion of the prison system in what many feel amounts to a new form of slavery (since the 13th Amendment does not prohibit forced labor if the laborer is a convicted criminal). The fact that in modern America police seem able to kill black people with near impunity takes on new meaning when considered in light of the degree to which police and sheriff’s departments colluded with lynching in the Jim Crow era. So-called Right to Work laws continue depressing wages in many parts of the South.

My point here is that the United States has never truly had a reckoning with what the Confederacy and slavery actually involved and the way they shaped us. Instead, the entertainment industry has fed us a lot of Counterfactual fantasies designed to soften the facts, to help us look away from the painful truth toward something more palatable. Only a few films, such as 12 Years a Slave (pointedly, a film with a British director and two non-American leads), have made a real effort to show us the brutal, sordid truth about our slave-owning past. So it seems likely to me that any television show that Benioff and Weiss might make will fall into the trap of not telling us the truth, because that’s what Hollywood stories about the Confederacy do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And on this topic, if it’s not telling us the truth, it will actively promote some version of the lies we have been telling ourselves since the North lost the Reconstruction.

After all, in order to have modern GoT-style drama, there needs to be moral ambiguity. Some of the slave owners have to be nice people, and some of the abolitionists have to be nasty people. But a Cersei Lannister-style abolitionist who will sink to any depths to win must inevitably suggest that maybe abolitionism wasn’t such a pure cause after all. If Sansa Stark owns slaves but dislikes doing so and tries to be nice to them, it implies that slavery must not have been quite as awful as it was because some of the owners must not have been so cruel. There’s just no way to tell HBO stories without compromising about the fundamental immorality of slavery.

Benioff and Weiss say they are aware of the need to get this right, as the interview I linked to above shows. They will be sharing showrunning and writing duties with Michelle and Malcolm Spellman, a black husband-and-wife team, presumably because they feel it’s important to have a strong black viewpoint represented in the inner circle. In the interview, they stress that they understand that many of the racial issues from slavery are still around. They seem to be intending to use the show as a vehicle to dramatize the way that racial issues today are connected to slavery. That’s certainly a laudable goal if they can pull it off.

The problem is that it’s a huge ‘if’. Race is a massive and in some ways intractable problem in American culture. The fact that previous story-telling about slavery and the Confederacy has tended to contribute to the problem rather than its solution leaves me pessimistic that any Confederate Counterfactual scenario could help shift people’s minds.