Agora: Hypatia and the Heliocentric Theory

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Agora (2009, dir. Alejandro Amenábar) is a surprisingly fresh film about ancient Rome. Unlike most films about ancient Rome, which tend to focus on the period from roughly 100 BC to 68 AD, Agora is set in the late 4th/early 5th century AD, as the Roman Empire was entering the decline from which its western half would not never recover. Instead of focusing on sword-and-sandal heroics, it tells the twin stories of the religious upheavals in Alexandria, Egypt (one of the largest cities of the ancient world) and of the intellectual pursuits of the female philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (Rachel Weisz). One of my readers, Jerise, has kindly made a donation to my Paypal account and asked me to review it. I was planning on getting to this film eventually, so thank you Jerise for giving me a reason to get to it sooner rather than later!

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Agora tells a complex story, so this review is going to focus specifically on its depiction of Hypatia. We’ll look at the political and religious upheavals in Alexandria in the next post.

Hypatia

Of the historical Hypatia we know only bits and pieces. She was probably born between 350 and 360 AD, and thus was in her 30s or 40s in 391 when the film opens (making Weisz just about the right age to play her). Her father was Theon of Alexandria, a mathematician of some note who was probably responsible for her unusually high degree of education in an era when women were rarely educated at all. She became a Neoplatonic philosopher and taught male students at Alexandria, numbering both pagans and Christians as her pupils. That in itself indicates that she was held in remarkable regard. One of her pupils, Synesius, went on to become the bishop of Ptolemais in Libya, while another, Orestes, became the praefectus Augustalis, essentially the governor of Egypt, although the film simply calls him Prefect.

According to the Greek historian Damascius (d. after 538 AD), one of Hypatia’s students professed his love for her. Damascius gives two different versions of her response. The more polite version (which he discounts) is that she told him that music was the antidote for love. The less polite version is that she handed him a bloody menstrual rag and said “this is what you really love, my young man but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” Her point in the latter story is that he is merely infatuated with her body, but her body has an ugly side to it.

Of her scholarly works, comparatively little is known, because none of her writings have survived. She is known to have been a mathematician like her father. She was clearly interested in astronomy, because she edited and corrected the most important ancient work on the subject, the Almagest of the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy. The Almagest still survives, so we do have something with Hypatia’s fingerprints on it, as it were. She was also interesting in the geometry of cones. She has incorrectly been attributed as the inventor of the astrolabe and the hydrometer (a device for determining the density of liquids). Beyond that, all we know is that she subscribed to the Neoplatonic school of philosophy and that she was a pagan, a fact that was to become extremely important to her eventual fate. As a Neoplatonist, she probably believed in a single god who had much in common with the Christian Creator.

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Since we have no historical images of Hypatia, here’s Rachel Weisz instead

Unfortunately for Hypatia, late Roman Alexandria was an extremely tumultuous place religiously, with intense political and religious disputes between the pagans, multiple sects of Christians, and Jews. The city was subject to frequent religious riots and acts of violence. The patriarch of the city, Cyril of Alexandria, was locked in a struggle with Orestes, and because Hypatia was a good friend of Orestes, Cyril’s supporters became convinced that she was preventing a reconciliation between the two men.

In 415, a group of Cyril’s supporters attacked Hypatia. According to Socrates of Constantinople (an historian who died some time after 439 AD), a religious official named Peter led a crowd who waylaid her as she returned home on day in a chariot, dragged her to one of the major churches, stripped her naked and stoned her to death with tiles. They dismembered her corpse and had it burned. The 7th century historian John of Nikiu (who seems to have been quite hostile to Hypatia) says that Peter’s crowd seized her, stripped her naked, and dragged her through the streets until she died, and then burned her body. A later and more lurid account claims that the rioting crowd flayed her with sea-shells, a detail that modern scholars entirely discount. Regardless of exactly what happened, it’s clear that a mob of Christians led by Peter murdered her and burned her body. Thus died the most highly-educated woman of the ancient world (at least that we know anything about).

 

Hypatia in Agora

Amenábar’s film manages to include virtually everything we know about Hypatia, although it fleshes out the details considerably with its own invention. But one of the things I love about this film that, with the exception of two fictitious slaves (Davus and Aspasius), virtually every named character in the film was a real historical person. That in itself suggests that Amenábar (who wrote the script) was serious about trying to be historically accurate.

The film opens in 391 with Hypatia teaching Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and Synesius (Rupert Evans). Since Orestes is a pagan, this correctly captures the fact that she taught both pagans and Christians. Orestes is in love with her, makes a public declaration of his love by playing a tune he has composed on the aulos in a theater, and then giving her the aulos. The next day, she responds by giving him her menstrual rag, which he throws down in disgust, not really getting the point she was making. Historically, Orestes is not the student who professed his love to her, but this modest adjustment to fact allows the film to set up the idea that Orestes will be in love with her his whole life, even after he becomes the Prefect.

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Oscar Isaac as Orestes

In the film, Hypatia teaches at the Serapeum, an important temple dedicated to the late Egyptian god Serapis. Her father Theon is described as the ‘director’ of this institution, which contains an enormous library, all that’s left of the Great Library of Alexandria. Although the film does distinguish between the Great Library and the Serapeum library, it doesn’t really go out of its way to do so, giving viewers a sense that Hypatia taught at the Great Library.

The Great Library of Alexandria was founded at the end of the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy Soter, the first member of the last pharaonic dynasty of Egypt, the Ptolemids. At its height, it had over 500,000 books housed in it, far and away the greatest library of the ancient world. It was large enough that the collection wasn’t all housed in one building. The Serapeum was one of the ‘daughter’ libraries.

One of the little puzzles of ancient history is what happened to the Great Library. Although various people have been accused of destroying it, it probably was destroyed gradually by a series of crises, including Julius Caesar’s siege in 48 BC, Emperor Aurelian’s siege in 269 AD, Emperor Diocletian’s harsh actions in 298 AD, Bishop Theophilius’ destruction of the Serapeum in 391 AD, and the Arab conquest of the city in 641.

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The film’s version of the Serapeum. The library is the round building in back

 

Theon may possibly have been associated with the Serapeum, perhaps being educated there, but there is no evidence either that he was the director of the institution or that Hypatia taught there. As a leading philosopher of Alexandria, it’s not a huge stretch to make her one of the Serapeum’s faculty, but that’s an invention of the film.

 

Hypatia’s Astronomy

Another thing I love about this film is that one of its two plots is Hypatia’s drive to figure out an astronomical puzzle. The film opens and closes with the shot of the whole Earth, making it clear that this film is to some extent about astronomy. Early in the film, Hypatia lays out the classical Greek understanding of the universe. The Earth must be the center of the universe because while objects in the heavens move in perfect circular orbits, on Earth objects move in a linear direction downward, toward the center of the universe. If the Earth were not the center of the universe, objects would fly off the planet seeking the center of the universe. In the absence of any concept of gravity, the idea that physical things have an inherent attraction to the center of the universe makes a pretty good explanation.

Hypatia’s slave Davus (Max Minghella) is in love with her. Having listened to her lectures, he builds an orrery, a model of the universe according to the astronomer Ptolemy’s system. It shows the Sun and the planets moving in circular orbits around the Earth, but each planet (including the Sun) also rotates around the moving point on their own circular orbits, known as an epicycle. This was Ptolemy’s attempt to explain some of the irregularities in the observed motion of the planets, irregularities actually caused by the fact that we are observing the motion of the planets from a platform that is itself moving. Orestes ridicules this system as needlessly complex. Why, he demands, wouldn’t stationary planets be more perfect than moving ones?

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Hypatia look at Davus’ orrery

 

That question sets Hypatia off on an intellectual journey that will last throughout the film and through the rest of her life. Every so often the film gives us a scene in which Hypatia and others try to reason out what’s actually going on with the planets.

In my opinion, the film does an excellent job of explaining the logic of ancient astronomy as well as how Hypatia slowly solves the problems inherent to it. In a later scene, she and her students discuss the Heliocentric theory, first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos centuries before. As one of her fellow scholars points out, the Heliocentric theory makes no sense. If the Earth was moving, why wouldn’t there be a constant wind against us as the planet moved? Why wouldn’t objects we dropped fall a distance behind where we were when we dropped them (since the planet would have moved on)? These are entirely reasonable objections to the Heliocentric theory based on what knowledge the Greeks had access to. So while most films tend to depict pre-modern people as scientifically backward and foolish, Agora treats its characters as intelligent, capable of observation and reason, and coming to reasonable conclusions based on what they know.

Later on, Hypatia conducts an experiment in which Aspasius, her slave and research assistant, drops a bag of sand from the mast of a ship as it sails. Instead of falling a distance behind the mast, the bag lands near the mast. So, she reasons, the objection that objects would fall away from us as the Earth moves must be invalid. She begins to think that maybe the Heliocentric theory might be right.

Still later, Hypatia debates the problem of the Earth moving around the Sun with Orestes. She suddenly realizes that the problem is that everyone has been blinded by the perfection of the circle. Maybe the Earth’s movement isn’t circular. But what sort of shape could explain things?

Then she realizes that one of the shapes contained within a cone, the ellipsis, might do the trick. In a scene that is one of the climaxes of the film, she works out the puzzle of the Heliocentric theory as Aspasius watches. It’s a truly beautiful scene that celebrates the joy of intellectual discovery. Have a look.

However, to be clear, there is absolutely no evidence that Hypatia actually did find a way to prove the Heliocentric theory. The film acknowledges in a epilogue text that Johannes Kepler is credited with the discovery. It doesn’t say that everything it’s shown us is hypothetical, which is unfortunate. When the film first came out, I was teaching Early Western Civilization, and I decided to allow my students a little bit of extra credit by going to see the film and then writing a 2 page paper about it. I told them beforehand that there is no evidence that Hypatia proved the Heliocentric theory, but every single student who decided to take the extra credit came away from the film convinced that she had.

That’s why historical accuracy in film matters. Despite the active admonition of a college instructor that the film was going to show them something entirely hypothetical and probably untrue, all of my students found the dramatic visual presentation of the material more persuasive. Film is an incredibly powerful teaching tool, and film makes owe it to their audiences to be more careful about what they teach their audiences. Remember that there is no such thing as ‘just a movie’.

Despite this major flaw in the film, I find myself forgiving Agora on this point. While the film overstates what we know about Hypatia intellectually, Amenåbar is careful to base his film’s speculation on two things that we actually do know about Hypatia: she was interested in astronomy, and she was interested in conic sections. Had she combined those two interests with a certain degree of experimentation, it’s not impossible that she could have worked out a proof for the Heliocentric theory 1200 years early. And in the film, she makes her discovery and is then killed by the Christian mob before she has a chance to tell anyone, so her discovery dies with her. In a nice touch, as she’s dying, she looks up and sees an ellipsis in the dome of the room.

It’s also incredibly rare for a film to depict a woman as an intellectual, a scholar, and a discoverer of truth. Typically, our cinema celebrates the intellectual work of men while glossing over the critical contributions of women. So I find myself liking this film the way I like Hidden Figures, for highlighting a woman for her smarts, not her beauty.

 

But…

There is one really egregious anachronism in the film that bugged me the whole way through. Although it’s set in Alexandria in the late 4th and early 5th century AD, the Roman soldiers are shown dressed in gear from about the 2nd century AD, with rectangular shields, metal breast-plates, pilums, and helmets with a neck-flap, instead of the mail tunics and round shields they should have had. That would be like making a movie set in the modern day and dressing and equipping all the American soldiers as minute men.

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Want to Know More?

Agora is available through Amazon.

There hasn’t been a lot written about Hypatia by scholars, since the hard facts about her are so few. But Edward J. Watts’ Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher might be worth your time.

Also, novelist Faith Justice has written a number of blog posts about Agora, so you might find what she has to say worthwhile.


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The Last Kingdom: Testudos!

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I’ve finally found time to do my last post on The Last Kingdom, after wading through weeks’ worth of term papers and exams. Sorry this post is overdue. I knew I was going to have to re-watch several episodes to formulate my thoughts on the show’s depiction of 9th century warfare, and it took me a while to find the time.

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In the series, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons are equipped nearly identically in terms of their war gear, with one major exception. Vikings get round shields and Anglo-Saxons get rather pathetic small rectangular shields, clearly inferior in terms of how much of their body they cover and also in terms of manufacture (the Viking shields have metal rims, or actually if you look close, painted details designed to look like metal rims). The purpose of this difference is probably so that the viewer can distinguish the Viking troops from the Anglo-Saxons, which is a reasonable issue for the show to struggle with. But it’s wrong historically. Both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons had the same type of shields. Visually, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot to distinguish the two sides from each other.

In the first episode, three Northumbrian eldermen lead their troops against the invading Vikings. At the battlefield, the Vikings form a testudo and wait in position while the Anglo-Saxons charge across the field in an unruly mob, having apparently never seen a testudo before. (For those who are unclear on what a testudo is, I discuss the topic here.) The Anglo-Saxons are unable to penetrate the testudo, although they do force the Vikings to give a little ground and manage to kill a few. This leads to the Anglo-Saxon reinforcements charging in, thinking they are winning.

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The foolish Anglo-Saxons charging the Viking testudo

But then a second Viking unit rushes the field and forms a second testudo behind the Anglo-Saxons. This effective pens the Anglo-Saxons in. The two testudos slowly advance, mercilessly crushing the Northumbrian troops like the garbage compactor scene in Star Wars, only with much bloodier results.

There are a few things wrong here, namely almost everything. First, there is zero evidence that the Norse understood the concept of the testudo, much less had the intensive group military training to pull the formation off. (That is, unless you consider The Vikings, season 1, evidence.) Testudos required a degree of unit cohesion and training that, so far as the evidence allows us to speak, neither the Norse nor the Anglo-Saxons possessed. There’s no reason to think either side would have known about this ancient Roman military technique, much less been able to execute it.

(Ok, a brief digression. There is actually one medieval source that describes Vikings using a testudo. Abbo of Saint-Germaine, a French monk who was present at the Viking Siege of Paris in 886, describes the Vikings as advancing in a testudo. However, in this passage he’s using Roman military terminology, certainly because he’s read some Roman authors and possibly because he wants to show off how well-read he is. The question that historians debate is whether or not Abbo actually understands what a testudo is. Many scholars think that he is using Roman technical vocabulary without really knowing what the vocubalary means. In other words, he’s seen the Vikings using a shield wall and has decided to call that shield wall a testudo, either because he thinks it will make him look more learned or because he thinks that a medieval shield wall is the same thing as a testudo. This is a common problem with medieval authors, not at all unique to Abbo.

And I agree. I think it is much more likely that Abbo is misusing the term testudo here than that the Vikings somehow knew what an ancient Roman military formation involved, because there’s no easy way to explain how the Norse would have had access to military ideas from a culture that died out several centuries before their time. The Norse never fought a classical Roman legion, did not speak Latin, and did not know how to read. So how would they have gotten this information? Occam’s Razor makes me think that Abbo is more likely to have misused the terminology than that the Norse are to have understood this technique. However, this well-educated amateur scholar disagrees with my assessment. So you can decide for yourself.)

Second, the testudo was not really a fighting formation. Its tactical purpose was to allow soldiers to maneuver on the battlefield while taking arrow fire. It essentially puts soldiers into a sort of defensive crouch with their shields locked together. It’s unlikely that soldiers could have fought effectively from that posture, and even more unlikely that they could have held that formation effectively when a large number of hostile soldiers were charging them and slamming into the shields. The idea that a testudo could function offensively to push men back and kill them while still functioning defensively is highly dubious.

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Anglo-Saxons with their crappy little shields.

Third, if you watch carefully, you see two testudos slowly closing together, trapping the Anglo-Saxons within. But there’s a huge problem. The testudo is a straight line. So when two testudos close in on each other, there’s nothing to prevent the Northumbrians trapped within from simply running out at the top or the bottom of the formation. The camera shot is structured to keep the viewer from realizing that is a possibility, but it definitely is.

In reality, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons used a very similar tactic when they had open-field battles. They both employed a formation called a shield wall, which is similar to a testudo but actually possible. In a shield wall, soldiers stand in a long line, close enough together that their shields overlap. The front rank focuses its energies on defense, while the men in the rank behind them focus on attacking over the shoulders of the front rank. Their presence also helps brace the front line, and if a man in the front rank is injured or killed, the man behind him can step up and close the gap.

The shield wall was a very effective formation, probably the most effective formation of the early Middle Ages. Unlike a testudo, it didn’t require long hours of practice to pull off (although certainly some drilling was necessary). At the battle of Hastings in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon shield wall withstood repeated charges by the Norman cavalry, although keeping the men from breaking rank and counter-attacking whenever the Normans retreated was a problem.

The big tactical drawback of the shield wall is that it was a static formation. When it advanced, it ran the risk of losing cohesion, and without cohesion, it lost most of its value. As a result, the Anglo-Saxons tended to take up a shield wall position and then wait for the other side to charge, trusting in the strength of their defensive position. As a result, when two Anglo-Saxon armies confronted each other, they frequently both adopted the shield wall formation and then waited for the other side to charge. They would taunt each other, each side hoping the other would lose its self-control and charge, thereby surrendering the defensive advantage.

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A Roman testudo. Note that it requires fairly tall shields, the sort of shields no one in the MIddle Ages used

So the scene as it’s depicted is sort of the opposite of what would probably have happened if the Vikings had taken up a testudo. The Anglo-Saxons would have done the same and tried to goad the Norse into breaking formation. They were unlike to have charged recklessly and without any structure to attack an unfamiliar formation. We could always assume that the eldermen were stupid, because military commanders did sometimes make shitty decisions, act rashly or with overconfidence, or lose control of their troops. But a plot that requires stupidity to work is a lousy plot.

In the third episode, we see Uhtred (Alexander Draymon) and Leofric (Adrian Bower) drilling a group of Anglo-Saxon men in a shield wall technique. The two sides line up and adopt a shield wall (or what would pass for a shield wall with those crappy little rectangular shields). But then Leofric’s side charges, losing all cohesion, and Uhtred’s side responds by quickly losing cohesion as well. In the second round, the two sides advance more cautiously, probably more the way an actual shield wall would, at least until Leofric’s side charges again and dissolves into disorder. Given that it’s a training sequence, we can forgive that.

Then Uhtred teaches the Anglo-Saxons how to do a testudo, a totally new and unfamiliar formation they’ve never seen before. But Uhtred forgets to make himself part of the shield wall and instead stands in front of it when Leofric’s line charges. It’s a slightly comical moment, but it undercuts the idea that Uhtred is really a great tactician. But overall, this training scene is probably the closest the show gets to showing us something real about how Anglo-Saxons fought.

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Uhtred in front of his testudo. Never mind the boom mike.

The idea that the Norse understood the testudo seems to only go back to first seasons of The Vikings. It’s a good illustration of how an historical film or show can shift the way people think about the past for the worse.

If you need help picturing this battle, the always-amusing Lindybeige has a nice analysis of the first episode.

 

The Battle of Edington

The first season climaxes with the Battle of Edington. The Danes, led by the villainous Skorpa (Jonas Malmsjö) and the less villainous Guthrum (Thomas W Gabrielsson) and the Anglo-Saxons, basically led by Leofric and Uhtred, take up positions opposite each other on a field. Both sides form a testudo, with the Anglo-Saxons suddenly having both their usual crappy rectangular shields and kite shields. The kite shield (which I always think of as the Ice-Cream-Cone shield because in silhouette they look like sugar cones with a single scoop of ice cream on them) seems to have been developed in the 11th century for use from horseback (because the narrow end of the shield can fit between the horse’s neck and the rider’s leg). The 9th century Anglo-Saxons didn’t use kite shields because 1) they hadn’t been invented yet, 2) the Anglo-Saxons were quite resistant to fighting from horseback, and 3) kite shields are rather awkwardly shaped for use by foot soldiers (although foot soldiers can use them). But the production people on the show must have realized that the crappy rectangular shields simply wouldn’t work for a testudo and just threw in some kite shields hoping no one would notice. But I did. That’s why I get paid the big bucks to review shows like this.

Although both sides possess small cavalry units, they’re mostly using foot soldiers. This will become important later on.

The Vikings decide to charge, despite the fact that charging a shield wall is generally a losing tactic. Despite inflicting some casualties (including Leofric), the Vikings are unable to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon testudo, which begins to force the Vikings backward.

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The Vikings (left) collide with the Anglo-Saxons (right). The shields in the middle are the two testudos pressed against each other.

At this point, Skorpa has an opportunity to shift the course of the battle by leading his cavalry to flank the Anglo-Saxon formation which is vulnerable on its sides and read. Instead, he succumbs to his villainy and attacks the Anglo-Saxon camp, killing Uhtred’s current woman and bringing her head back to taunt him with.

That turns out to be a bad idea. The enraged Uhtred breaks from the testudo, leaps over the Viking testudo, and starts slaughtering Vikings, who are unable to do anything in response to his righteous fury (which apparently acts like a power-up in a video game). He single-handedly opens a big gap in the Viking position, allowing the Anglo-Saxons to charge into the breach and slaughter the bad guys, whose eyeliner is no longer able to protect them. Skorpa gets speared in the chest, Guthrum has to surrender and accept conversion, and the Anglo-Saxons get to live happily every after until next season, except poor Uhtred, who gets lots of juicy manpain to chew on because the woman he’s loved for the last two episodes has died.

Some elements of this are plausible. If you substitute shield walls for testudos, you have a basically believable 9th century battle, at least until Uhtred eats his spinach and starts clobbering the Vikings. Skorpa’s actions are more cartoon bad guy than ruthless military leader, but I suppose we could say he decided that a flanking maneuver wouldn’t work because he didn’t have a large cavalry unit and his maneuver might have been countered by the Anglo-Saxon cavalry. It seems unlikely that the Anglo-Saxons wouldn’t have posted any guards at their camp in case of just such villainy, and it’s not clear why the Anglo-Saxon cavalry doesn’t move to stop the raid on the camp. But this battle definitely makes a hell of a lot more sense than the one that opens the series.

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11th century Normans with kite shields

In general, I dislike the show’s treatment of warfare. The show imagines that the Viking were able to beat the Anglo-Saxons because they had a superior battlefield tactic that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t understand, until Uhtred spilled the beans about how to perform the testudo. That’s just untrue. The Vikings did have a tactical advantage, but it was their longships, not their land tactics. The longship allowed the Vikings to get into a coastal or riverine area quickly, attack a surprised community when its defenses were down, and then get away before the local noble could raise a force to respond. However, during the late 9th century, the Norse switched over to conquest rather than raiding. At that point, the advantage that they had was more about numbers than superior tactics, from what we can tell from surviving sources. The Great Army (as the Viking force was called) probably included several thousand men (although historians have debated the exact size because we have no particularly solid numbers with which to make a real estimate). It wasn’t an enormous force, but the typical Anglo-Saxon kingdom probably could only field a force of several hundred fully trained elite warriors, supplementing that force with much more poorly-trained local peasant levies. So the Great Army probably had the upper hand in terms of numbers and battle experience. The force that Guthrum invaded Wessex with was only half the Great Army, but Alfred’s forces were weakened by years of coastal raiding and a few key defeats. Edington might only have involved one or two thousand men in total, but Alfred was gambling a lot on that battle.

The show also has a tendency, like so many modern depictions of ancient and medieval warfare, to privilege the righteousness of the hero’s cause over all other considerations. Uhtred wins his fights not because he is a demonstrably better fighter or because he’s tactically smarter, but because he’s filled with righteous fury that the enemy ultimately cannot prevail against. It’s the sort of assumption that teenagers make about how combat works. In general, Uhtred acts like an indignant teenager and the show tends to reward him for it. I want to like this show, because I love the fact that it’s telling a story about a period of English history that rarely gets much attention, but Uhtred is just such an unlikable and petulant protagonist that I can’t sympathize with him. Sigh.

This review was paid for by a kind donation to my Paypal account by my faithful reader Lyn. Thanks, Lyn! I’ve got a couple more requested reviews to tackle (my apologies that I’ve been taking a while to get to them guys) but if you want me to review a show or film, please make a generous donation and tell me what you want me to cover, and I’ll get to it as soon as I can.

Want to Know More?

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

If you want to know more about Anglo-Saxon warfare, I would suggest the works of Richard Abels. His Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England is excellent. And his Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England is very topical for this series.


Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: Secret Identities for Everyone

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

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

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

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Evans as Marston

 

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

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

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

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

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The three title characters

 

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

 

Unfortunately…

A lot of the film is made up.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

His Relationships

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth and Olive leaning into their first kiss

 

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

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

Later in life, as Elizabeth was sorting through William’s papers, she aggressively culled the documents, and then very carefully decided which of the four children would get which papers. Lepore, who was able to see three of the four sets of papers, was startled to realize that Holloway had given each of the children a sharply different family narrative, as if she was trying to keep each of them from finding out the truth even from each other. Although William drew much of his inspiration for Wonder Woman from “the ladies”  and although Olive functioned as William’s typist and secretary, Holloway insisted that Huntley was much better informed about Wonder Woman’s origins than Olive was. So it seems that neither Elizabeth nor Olive wanted anyone to know the details of their unconventional relationship, and it seems entirely in keeping with that to think that Elizabeth might have lied to Christie in an effort to protect Olive’s privacy. So she may well have been sexually involved with Olive and simply chose not to reveal the fact. Given that the children had no clear awareness that William was Olive’ lover and Donn and Byrne’s father, it seems to me plausible that the trio might have successfully hidden a relationship between Elizabeth and Olive as well.

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth (left) and Olive late in life

 

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

 

Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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Olive in the Wonder Woman costume

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Want to Know More?

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

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

The Last Kingdom: Runes

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

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

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

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

Runes

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

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

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

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

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

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The Elder Futhark alphabet

Runes as Magic

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

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A typical, if elaborate, runestone

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

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

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

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The Glavendrup Stone

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

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

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

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

Want to Know More?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The gifta

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

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

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

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

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Amy Wren’s Mildrith

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

The Debt

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

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

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One of Alfred’s pence

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

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

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

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

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An Anglo-Saxon charter

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

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

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

The Penance

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

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

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

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Alfred being scowly

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

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

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

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

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Penitents being scourged by a bishop

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

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

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

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

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Uhtred and Aethelwold performing their penance

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

Want to Know More?

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

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

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

The Last Kingdom: The Plot

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

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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 had 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. The Anglo-Saxons are suspicious of Uhtred 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 able 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 water, Uhtred 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 show 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.



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

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

 

The Film

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

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

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

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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 of medieval literature; one gets the sense that he would happily gossip about the confessions he hears.

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

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

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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), Marea’s also responsible for managing the finances of the convent, something she seems to have no talent for. Bartholemeo audits her books and apparently finds serious problems.

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

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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.

Edward dying

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

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

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

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

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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.