Turn: Washington’s Spies: The Americans


, , , , , , , ,

Some day soon I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule. But my egregious work load last semester seems to be continuing this semester too. I’ve just been way too busy prepping for a new course to get much blogging done. Sorry.

But I did manage to find time to watch the first season of AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies. I put off watching it for quite a while because I think I expected a Revolutionary-era Reign. And the first few episodes aren’t easy to get into. But as I watched it, I started to notice something quite interesting. The show is actually moderately serious about using real historical characters. At one point late in the season I watched two scenes with a total of about 8 speaking characters and I suddenly realized that every character with dialog was a verifiable historical figure. Given that the average historical TV show is lucky to have more than 25% of its characters be real people, I find myself kinda impressed.


It helps that the series is rooted in a specific book, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network (New York: Bantam, 2007). Rose tells the story of George Washington’s efforts to establish a network of spies who could get him intelligence about Loyalist-held New York City, a major focus of the war efforts. Although Rose discusses a couple of different spies, he focuses his attention on the Culper Ring, which centered on Abraham Woodhull, Richard Townsend, and their handler Col. Benjamin Tallmadge. The book has been very useful to me in checking the facts in the show.


The Revolutionary War

Modern Americans, when we picture the American Revolution, tend to imagine that everyone in the American colonies hated the British and whole-heartedly supported the war. The reality was far more complex than that. At the start of the war, only about 25% of the population actively supported the Revolution, while around 20% were die-hard Loyalists (or Tories, the term for the faction in British politics who championed the power of the king). The remainder of the population either wanted to remain neutral or felt caught between the two competing groups and simply had to navigate the war as best they could, which sometimes involved making hard choices and sometimes involved being plundered by both sides.

The Mid-Atlantic zone during the Revolutionary War was something of a patchwork. New York City, Long Island, parts of Rhode Island, and patches of New Jersey were basically Loyalist territory, whereas Connecticut, much of rural New York, and parts of New Jersey and Rhode Island were held by the ‘Patriots’ (also called Whigs, the term for the faction in British politics that wanted a weaker king). That patchwork of Loyalists and Patriots created challenges for men and women trying to live their lives and go about their business. A Patriot household could easily be located in the middle of a Loyalist community and vice versa. Merchants traveling for business might have to cross the lines between Patriot and Loyalist communities, and Patriot farmers might have to sell their produce to the British Army.


That sort of messiness created fertile ground for espionage, as Rose repeatedly demonstrates. The fact that New York City and Long Island were linked through the fact that the city needed food from the farms and yet the region was not far from Connecticut particularly created an opportunity for Patriots on Long Island to spy on New York City for General Washington, who was badly in need of information about troop movements, preparations for military campaigns, and the like.

That need ultimately drove the creation of the Culper Ring, so called because it’s two major spies, Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend were referred to in correspondence as Samuel Culper Senior and Samuel Culper Junior. The ring was organized by Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, who recruited two men he knew from childhood, Woodhull and Caleb Brewster. Woodhull then recruited Townsend. Using a combination of code, cipher, and invisible ink, these men provided Washington with much-needed intelligence on New York City and its environs.


Col. Tallmadge

The basic system they used is that Townsend wrote out his report, give it to a courier who got it to Woodhull’s town of Setauket, Long Island, and buried it in a box on Woodhull’s farm. Woodhull retrieved the message, added his own observations to it, and then had a local woman, Anna Strong, signal Brewster by hanging a black petticoat out to dry (along with a number of handkerchiefs that signaled where Brewster was to meet Woodhull), and when Woodhull passed him Townsend’s report, Brewster would get it to Tallmadge, who then sent it to Washington. (The detail about Strong’s washing line has never been proven, but relies on local tradition and fits what is generally known about the ring’s operation.)

Between 1778 and 1781, the Culper Ring had a number of major successes. It alerted Washington to a planned assault on French forces at Newport, helped thwart a British attempt to collapse the young American currency through counterfeiting, warned Washington that a raid on Connecticut was actually a diversionary feint, and revealed that a high-ranking American office was planning to turn over West Point to the British, although they were unable to identify Benedict Arnold specifically.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the American characters in Turn: Washington’s Spies.


Abraham Woodhull

Abraham Woodhull was a farmer in Setauket who was recruited by Tallmadge in 1778 to act as a spy because selling his produce gave him a good excuse to be heading into New York City occasionally. Whereas Jamie Bell’s Woodhull is a brave man willing to take risks but reluctant to engage in physical violence, the real Woodhull seems to have been a rather nervous man, constantly worrying about being found out; Tallmadge had to learn to manage the man’s anxieties. But I suppose centering your show around a character like that seemed like a tough sell to audiences.


Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull (that cap, incidentally, is not an unreasonable take on Revolutionary-era headgear)

But other changes are more problematic. The series gives Woodhull a rather complicated back story. He studied law at Yale and was courting Anna Strong (Heather Lind) until his other brother died and his father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally), pressured him to return home to Setauket and marry his brother’s fiancé Mary (Meegan Warner), thus creating a rather complicated romantic knot for the characters in the show.

Unfortunately, virtually every word of the preceding paragraph is false. Woodhull never studied at Yale and seems to have just been a farmer. His father was a judge who by the time of the show was in his mid-60s; whether he was a Loyalist, I haven’t been able to determine. There’s no evidence that Abraham ever had any sort of romantic relationship with Anna Strong, who was married to his cousin Selah Strong (the show gets that detail right) and who was a decade older than Woodhull. Woodhull didn’t marry Mary (another cousin of his) until 1781, and there’s no evidence that she had ever been betrothed to his dead older brother.

As a result, the show winds up inventing things for Woodhull to do that are highly implausible. For example, he’s show giving Tallmadge intelligence that leads to Washington’s famous raid on Trenton. That basic idea isn’t unreasonable (someone must have gotten Washington that information), but the raid on Trenton happened in 1776, and Woodhull didn’t start working as a spy until 1778. In other episode, Woodhull uses his legal training at Yale to act as the prosecutor of a bunch of accused rebels (maintaining his cover while finding a way to demonstrate their innocence), but the real Woodhull had no legal training. Nor did he burn down his own farmhouse to cover his murder of a British soldier. But other incidents in the show, such as him encountering a bandit while traveling to New York City and him using a code-book for his reports, are based on fact.


Anna and Selah Strong

In the show, Anna and her husband Selah (Robert Beitzel) run what appears to be a very successful tavern in Setauket, given that they own that tavern, a very large house, and a substantial number of slaves (who seem to be farmhands, suggesting that Selah is also a farmer). At least, they do until the British government confiscates it all from them because of Selah’s support for the rebels. She actively works with Woodhull, hanging her black petticoat to send messages to Caleb Brewster. Later, thinking her husband dead, she goes to New York and spies on the British by disguising herself as a prostitute. Selah, meanwhile, becomes a Patriot soldier.


Lind’s Strong and Bell’s Woodhull

Most of that paragraph is made up too. Selah Strong was a minor figure in the Patriot movement; he participated in New York’s three provincial congresses in 1775 and 76, which were Patriot organizations. He is described in one letter as a ‘justice’, so he was clearly a figure of some local importance. He was arrested and imprisoned, either in the New York sugar house or on the HMS Jersey (which the show does depict). But they seem to have just been farmers (Rice describes them as ‘neighbors’ of Woodhull, which suggests that they did not live in Setauket proper). So far as I know, there’s no evidence that they ran a tavern (and the fact that he was a justice probably points away from that as well). While it’s possible that they owned slaves, since some residents of Long Island did, in order to own the number of slaves the show gives them, they would have to have owned a large plantation. By the start of the Revolution, they already had six children (none of whom appear in the show).

Anna’s involvement with the Culper Ring is poorly-documented. The whole black petticoat story resents on no better authority than family history, making it possible but not provable (and remember, family authority is the basis for the spurious idea that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag). Beyond that, her only known contribution to Woodhull’s espionage was occasionally pretending to be his wife as he traveled to New York City (a man traveling alone was more likely to be suspected of espionage than a husband and wife traveling together). She may have used Tory family connections to get Selah freed from his imprisonment. Afterward, he took the family’s children to Connecticut, while Anna remained on Long Island, probably because if they had both left their house in Setauket, the British authorities could legally have confiscated the property as abandoned.

Incidentally Selah’s sister was Benjamin Tallmadge’s step-mother. The family ties between the Woodhulls, the Strongs, and the Tallmadges were an important element in the Culper Ring. They tended to recruit people they knew they could rely on, so tapping their family connections was a logical choice.


Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster

The series is actually pretty faithful to the facts of Tallmadge’s life. The historical Tallmadge was the son of Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge Senior (who appears in a couple of episodes, although they call him Nathaniel, presumably to avoid audience confusion). The show glosses over Major Tallmadge’s impressive education. He was already fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew before he arrived at Yale, where he was a classmate of the unfortunate spy Nathan Hale.

Tallmadge enlisted early in the war and in 1778 Washington assigned him to assist General Charles Scott in gathering intelligence. Scott found this work boring and his somewhat traditional view of espionage meant that Scott achieved little of note. Eventually Washington reassigned Scott and gave Tallmadge charge over intelligence, perhaps in part because Tallmadge was a childhood friend of Caleb Brewster, the one relatively effective agent Washington had. Tallmadge proceeded to recruit another friend of Brewster, Woodhull. So Tallmadge is the one who established the Culper Ring (which, incidentally, was named by Washington, not Woodhull as the show claims). Seth Numrich’s Tallmadge is pretty true to those facts. The early episodes show him chafing under Scott’s approach, which seems broadly true.


Seth Numrich as Tallmadge

Caleb Brewster was a whaleboatman before enlisting in the Continental Army. In August of 1778, he contacted Washington and offered to act as a scout to provide information on troop movements. His intelligence proved good enough that Washington assigned Gen. Scott the task of managing Brewster and recruiting other agents. So Brewster was responsible for the project that give birth to the Culper Ring. As noted, Brewster’s role in the Ring was primarily to act as a courier, picking up Woodhull’s report and getting across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Occasionally he added his own observations to the report. The show doesn’t give explore him deeply enough as a character for it get facts wrong or right, although it shows his father Lucas being murdered by Col. Simcoe, which seems to be fabricated (and his father’s name was Benjamin, again probably changed to avoid audience confusion).

In 1776, the British forced Washington to withdraw from Long Island, and Setauket was occupied by the British troops, who seized Setauket Presbyterian Church, which was the parish of Tallmadge Senior. They used it as a stable for their horses, and pulled up gravestones to use to establish a defensive perimeter around the church. In August of 1777, Brewster participated in an amphibious assault on the church. Six whaleboats ferried men across Long Island Sound and the troops laid siege to the church when the British Col. Hewlett refused to surrender it. A fierce gunfight erupted, which the Patriots had to abandon when they discovered that British warships were approaching.

This incident is depicted in the series in relatively true form, except that neither Woodhull nor Tallmadge Junior were present, and Tallmadge Senior was not killed during the siege (in fact, Tallmadge Senior only died in 1786). (Woodhull, incidentally, is buried at the church.) Also note that the attack on the church happened before the establishment of the Culper Ring, not after it.


Daniel Henshall Caleb Brewster

So although the show takes a lot of liberties with the facts in order to create action and drama, I’d have to rank it several steps above a show like Reign in terms of accuracy. It’s at least trying to remain grounded in fact. In my next post, I’ll tackle the three major British characters: Major Hewlett, Col. Simcoe, and Major Andre.


Want to Know More?

Turn: Washington’s Spies is available on Amazon.

Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network is the basis for the whole series. Rose isn’t a professional historian, but he does a good job of laying out the facts around the Culper Ring, as well as around the unfortunate Nathan Hale, and Benedict Arnold, and he makes extensive use of surviving letters (including the Culper Ring reports). He emphasis narrative over analysis more than I would prefer, but it’s a good introduction into Revolutionary-era espionage.


Agora: Religious Troubles in Alexandria


, , , , , , , , , ,

One of the central themes in Agora (2009, dir. Alejandro Amenábar) is religious conflict. The film’s prologue text tells us “The Library [of Alexandria] was not only a cultural symbol, but also a religious one, a place where the pagans worshipped their ancestral gods. The city’s long-established pagan cult was now challenged by the Jewish faith and a rapidly spreading religion until recently banned: Christianity.”


One of the very early scenes in the film takes place in the agora, the marketplace/public square that was the center of any Greek city. We see a Christian monk, Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) debating with a pagan philosopher over a bed of burning coals. Ammonius demonstrates his faith in Jesus by walking across the bed without getting burned, and then he grabs the philosopher and throws him into the fire, where he is badly burned. This ‘miracle’ plants a seed of faith in the mind of Davus (Max Minghella) that will gradually blossom into a full-blown and violent conversion.

The religious upheaval in Alexandria remains front and center throughout the film. In 391, we see the pagan scholars of the Library attack the Christians for the assault on the philosopher, which turns into a siege when the Christians counter-attack, trapping Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) in the Library. Eventually Emperor Theodosius resolves the problem by ordering the pagans to evacuate the Library and letting the Christians ransack it, destroying all the books in it and tearing down the statue of Serapis. Eventually, it is turned into a Christian church.

The second act opens in 415 and explores the rising tensions between Christians and Jews. Ammonius and Davus sneak into a musical performance that many Jews are attending and break it up by throwing stones. The Jews retaliate by raising a false alarm that one of the churches is on fire, and then trapping a bunch of monks in the church and stoning them to death. This leads to the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria.

In the third act, Hypatia becomes the focus of the tensions, as Christians begin to suspect that she is the driving force behind Orestes’ conflicts with Patriarch Cyril (Sami Samir). They pressure Orestes to cut off all contact with her, and eventually she is attacked by a mob of Christians and murdered. Her death is presented as a sort of martyrdom to the cause of freedom of thought and intellectual inquiry.

When the film came out, there were complaints by Christian organizations that the film was propagating stereotypes about Catholics as narrowminded, irrational anti-science bigots. It’s easy to see why the critics felt this way—the Christians certainly come off as intolerant, violent thugs with no interest in understanding the physical world.

The Religious Situation in Alexandria

4th century Alexandria was an extremely complex place. It was one of the largest cities in the ancient Mediterranean. It was one of the major centers of pagan worship, and it also housed one of the largest Jewish communities anywhere in the world after the Jewish diaspora. It occupied two of the city’s five quarters (although that doesn’t mean that 40% of the population was Jewish).


Alexandria was also a major center of Christianity from the 1st century AD onward. Legend claims that the Evangelist Mark was one of the founders of the Christian community there, and by the 3rd century the bishop of Alexandria was considered to be one of the five patriarchs of the Christian world (alongside those of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and later one Constantinople). Other bishops looked to the Patriarch of Alexandria for leadership, although the patriarchs had little formal power over other bishops. (The patriarchs were essentially ‘first among equals’, rather than hierarchically above other bishops).

By the end of the 4th century, the Christianity community was extremely large, although it’s hard to say if it was the majority of the population or not. In the later 4th century, the shifting religious balance of the Roman Empire created all sorts of religious conflicts in many cities. Christians who had up until the early 4th century been the targets of state persecution began to attack pagans and to a lesser extent Jews, but pagans were still strong enough to fight back. Pagans were unused to having to share political and social power with Christians, and Christians increasingly expressed a sense that pagan temples and festivals were inherent threats to them, temptations to sin, and the like. In that situation, both Christians and pagans could easily become target of religious aggression. Religious riots were a frequent problem in larger cities. While Christians did not always win the fights, the fact that the emperors were now Christian meant that they usually triumphed at the end of the dispute.

But the Christian community was not a monolithic group. Early Christianity saw many debates over Christology (basically, the theological issue of who exactly Jesus was and is). In the 3rd century, the Alexandrian theologian Origen emphasized the Unity of God in a way that tended to downplay Jesus and treat him as ‘the image of God’, like light radiating from the sun. In the 4th century the most heated controversy was over the question of whether Jesus was an original part of God or whether the Father had created the Son as his first act of creation. This debate first erupted in Alexandria in the early 4th century when Arius of Alexandria (the proponent of the latter position) got into a heated dispute with Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria. In 325, Emperor Constantine convened the Synod of Nicaea, which ultimately sided with Athanasius and declared Arianism a heresy. But it took close to a century for the issue to finally get resolved, because Arius had many supporters, and Arianism continued to find periodic political support in various parts of the Empire.


St Athanasius

Arianism wasn’t the only issue of controversy. 4th century Christians carried about theology the way that modern Americans care about things like the economy, racial issues, gun control, whose football team is better, and whether Batman could defeat Superman. Alexandria was home to the Catechetical School, a theological school that also taught logic, literature, and natural philosophy (the sort of proto-science that Hypatia taught at the Serapeum. This ensured that there was a substantial number of men who cared deeply about learned matters from a Christian perspective and who were willing to engage in theological debate. In fact in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the leading scholars of the Catechetical School were arguably more important than the Patriarchs of Alexandria in terms of their influence. The Novatianists rejected the idea that mortal sins (such as murder or worshipping of pagan gods) could be absolved, a doctrinal stance that put them at odds with most Christian theologians.

The New monasticism

In the 3rd century, Egypt saw the emergence of perhaps the first Christian monastic communities. These earliest men and women were seeking to reject the temptations of their bodies by indulging in acts of extreme asceticism (things like prolonged fasting, sleep deprivation, doing without property, permanent chastity, and so on), through which they hoped to learn to ‘turn off’ the physical desires of their bodies so that they could gain a clearer sense of God’s will.

But few of these men were ready to simply go out into the desert all on their own. They recognized that there were a lot of ways that novices could get into spiritual danger. So they tended to gather in communities where the more experienced among them could mentor the novices. One of the major centers of this early monasticism formed at Nitria, quite near to Alexandria. By the 390s, it was a community of thousands, large enough to support merchants and bankers who served the needs of the Nitrian monks. Other major communities developed just slightly further away, at Kellia and Scetis.


Because these monastic communities were so close to Alexandria, it was easy for tourists to come to watch them. And it was easy for the Nitrian monks to get involved in Alexandrian politics. So when controversy was brewing in Alexandria, the Nitrian monks sometimes participated in mob actions.

Alexandria was also home to a group of men called the Parabalani (literally, ‘those who risk their lives as nurses’). This group is very poorly documented but it seems to have been a quasi-monastic organization of men who devoted themselves to caring for the sick and burying the dead. This meant they were exposed to things like infectious diseases, especially during epidemics, and were thus risking their lives as an expression of Christian charity (especially since caring for the sick is one of the 7 Works of Mercy that Christ ordered his followers to perform). They were considered to be members of the clergy, and enjoyed some legal benefits that meant that people sometimes falsely claimed to be members of the group and the wealthy sometimes bought their way into them.

The group seems to have been notoriously disruptive in Alexandria. A law issued probably around 416 declared that there were not be more than 500 Parabalani, that their members should all be poor, or to attend public theatrical events or law courts. This was issued “on account of the terror of those who are called ‘parabalani’. “ This suggests that the Parabalani had a tendency to cause trouble at theaters and law courts. In 449, they were accused of bursting into a church and threatening a priest who was quarrelling with the patriarch of Alexandria. So it seems that the patriarchs of Alexandria (or at least the less scrupulous ones) had a tendency to use the Parabalani to bully their opponents into submission.

Turbulence in Alexandria

In 379, the Emperor Theodosius I decided to impose Nicene (Athanasian) Christianity on the entirety of the Empire. He expelled all the Arian clergy from their churches (including in Constantinople, a heavily Arian city). He ordered Demophilus, the Arian Patriarch of Constantinople, to embrace Nicene Christianity or give up his seat; Demophilus chose the latter. Theodosius appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, but another faction tried to sneak in Maximus the Cynic. This group appealed to Patriarch Peter of Alexandria, promising him that Maximus would admit that his patriarchate was inferior to that of Alexandria. But the Constantinopolitan populace was outraged and forced Maximus to retreat from the city. Two years later, Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in an effort to resolve these controversies. After a great deal of wrangling over the question of whether Gregory was qualified to be patriarch, he stepped down, but the Council decreed that the patriarchs of Constantinople had precedence over those of Alexandria, because Constantinople was the New Rome. This ruling so outraged the Alexandrian population that a massive riot engulfed the city, during which the Catechecal School was completely destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

A decade later, in 391, Theodosius issued an order forbidding the public performance of any religious rituals that were not Christian. Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria took control of a temple of Dionysius and when a subterranean worship space was discovered in it, he mockingly displayed the religious paraphernalia that were found therein. This provoked the pagans of Alexandria to riot over this insult. The Christians eventually counter-attacked, probably with the aid of either the Parabalani or the Nitrian monks, and forced the pagans to retreat into the Serapeum. Theophilus apparently appealed to Emperor Theodosius, who responded by pardoning all the pagans for the riot but giving Theophilus permission to destroy the temple.


Theophilus standing on the temple of Dionysius

But Theophilus was not just hostile to the pagans. He also persecuted the remaining Origenists, reportedly massacring 10,000 Origenist monks (the number is probably exaggerated. In 403, he also helped orchestrate the removal of the patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, because John was protecting some Origenists and because Theophilus was hoping to reverse the subordination of Alexandria to Constantinople.

When Theophilus died in 412, a riot broke out over the question of who should succeed him, his nephew Cyril or his rival, the archdeacon Timothy. When Cyril’s supporters won, Cyril quickly began persecuting the Novatianists, evicting them from their churches.

More significantly, Cyril began to quarrel with the Christian governor of Egypt, Orestes, who perceived Cyril as trying to encroach on his political authority. In 415, Orestes issued an edict regulating mime shows, which were extremely popular in Alexandria and were frequently the occasion of violence (remember that law dealing with the Parabalani?). Cyril sent Hierax to find out what the edict involved. Hierax approved of the edict and read it aloud in a theater, which provoked the Jewish population, who considered Hierax a troublemaker and suspected him of trying to incite violence. The Jews rioted and to mollify them, Orestes had Hierax publicly tortured, intending to send Cyril a signal about who was really in charge.

Cyril threatened to retaliate against the Jews, which infuriated them even further. They organized a scheme in which they spread word that a Christian church was on fire. When the Christians turned out to save the church, the Jews attacked them, killing many. Cyril responded by expelling a reported 50,000 Jews from the city and allowing the Christians to plunder them as they left.


St Cyril of Alexandria

Both Cyril and Orestes complained about the other to the emperor and Cyril reportedly tried to broker a peace between them, but he seems to have expected Orestes to acknowledge that as a religious leader, Cyril had the superior authority, which Orestes refused to accept. A group of monks (either Parabalani or Nitrians) attacked Orestes and one of them, Ammonius, hit the governor in the head with a rock. In the ensuing brawl, Orestes’ bodyguard fled, but the Alexandrian population intervened to rescue him.

Orestes had Ammonius tortured to death, but Cyril promptly confiscated the corpse and declared the monk a martyr. The Christian population wasn’t convinced, and Cyril eventually had to abandon his attempts to canonize Ammonius. Popular pressure forced the two leaders to reconcile, but both seem to have attempted to get the upper hand. Orestes sought support from Hypatia, who was influential with what remained of the city’s pagan community, while Cyril began claiming that Orestes was abandoning his faith and that Hypatia was seducing him either sexually or with magic.

Eventually, a mob of Christians attacked Hypatia and either dragged her out of her chariot, took her to a church, stripped her naked and then stoned her to death or else dragged her through the streets until she died. Neither of the two descriptions of her death says exactly who did this, saying only that they were Christians led by Peter, who is variously described as a ‘reader’ (a church official) or a ‘magistrate’ (a secular official). Given the violent tendencies of the Parabalani, modern suspicion has tended to fall on them, and since we know that Cyril’s successor as patriarch used them to violently intimidate his opponents, it’s usually suggested that Cyril was behind the killing, either directly or indirectly. It’s certainly a plausible reconstruction from what we know, but it’s going beyond the sources to say either that Cyril ordered it or that the Parabalani were the ones who did it.


Hypatia (Weisz) about to be stoned by the Parabalani



Agora does a pretty good job of capturing the turbulent nature of Alexandrian politics in the period from 391 to 415. Historically, pagans, Jews, and Christians all took their turns both as instigators and victims of violence, and the film shows this. The sequence it offers of Christians harassing pagans in the marketplace, which grows into an anti-Christian riot until the Parabalani get involved and siege the pagan scholars inside the Serapeum until the emperor orders the destruction of the temple is essentially factual. Where the film takes a liberty is that it emphasizes the destruction of the Serapeum’s library, which is not mentioned in the surviving sources, which instead dwell on the destruction of the pagan idols.


Orestes (Oscar Isaac) rioting against the Christians

Later, the film shows the Parabalani throwing rocks at a theatrical performance, which triggers first a Jewish protest to Orestes, then a Jewish scheme to lure the Parabalani into a church and stone them. That triggers the expulsion of the Jews. Hierax is omitted, as are a few other small details, but the sequence of events is basically true.

Cyril’s attempt to reconcile with Orestes is presented as a power play in which the patriarch puts Orestes on the spot during a church service, reading out 2 Timothy 2: 9-12 (“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. A woman[a] should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;] she must be quiet.”). It’s a blatant attack on Hypatia, and when Orestes refuses to kneel before the Bible, he appears to be defying not just Cyril but God. This incident happened, but we don’t know what verses Cyril read out in the church, or that the incident was an attack on Hypatia. Nor do we have any specific reason to think that Cyril was a misogynist, although it would not be surprising if he was.

After that, people mob Orestes as he leaves the church, Ammonius hits Orestes with a rock, and Ammonius is executed. Cyril proclaims him a martyr, and his fellow Parabalani plot to murder Hypatia, despite Davus’ efforts to save her. Davus stabs her to death out of mercy before she can be stoned, but beyond that, Hypatia’s death happens roughly the way one of the sources says it did.


Patriarch Cyril (Sami Samir)

So the film’s narrative is based around a pretty solid core of fact. Some details are left out or simplified, and a few (such as Cyril’s attack on Hypatia during the church service and Davus’ mercy killing) are invented. The parts of the film that focus on the political and religious strife in the city are about 80% accurate and much of what is not accurate is reasonable invention.

However, the film does oversimplify the conflicts. As I noted, the Christians of Alexandria were not a unified group. Theophilius and Cyril orchestrated violence against the Origenist and Novatianists and other Christians whom they felt were religiously in error. In the film, the Christians seem mostly united behind Cyril. Orestes seems to be almost the lone Christian opposed to him. One of Hypatia’s other former students, Bishop Synesius (Rupert Evans) attempts to support Orestes, but ultimately feels compelled to side with Cyril. The incident that starts all the violence, the throwing of a pagan philosopher into bed of burning coals by a group of Parabalani, actually involved two different groups of Christians.

The film also oversimplifies things by making the pagans, including Hypatia, the only people genuinely interested in ‘science’, while making the Christians almost entirely disinterested in the physical world. The one time the Parabalani discuss the issue of astronomy, Davus (who understands the heliocentric theory because he’s heard Hypatia explain it) says that only God knows the answer. That essentially puts the Christians in the situation of believing that the physical world is just a mystery of faith that cannot be understood through reason. But that’s a caricature of what late ancient Christians actually thought. While they wrestled with the question of how to use traditional (that is, pagan) knowledge, they did not necessarily deny the many accomplishments of natural philosophy. The Catechecal School taught many of the same things that would have been taught at the Serapeum. Christian authors were hostile to the parts of ancient learning that seemed to them explicitly polytheistic, but not necessarily to subjects like mathematics and natural philosophy.

I don’t think the film is actively anti-Christian, although it seems likely that Amenábar’s atheism influenced his treatment of the story. But I can understand why some have seen the film as hostile to Christianity. The problem is that historically, the Alexandrian Christians were in fact pretty violent during this period. Cyril is one of the most unpleasant men ever to have been accorded sainthood, and if anything the film goes a little easy on him by omitting some of his machinations against his fellow Christians.

However, the casting decisions do perhaps unintentionally make the Christians seem more villainous than the pagans. Hypatia and Theon are played by two light-skinned British actors (Rachel Weisz and Michael Lonsdale, although Weisz’s family is Jewish), whereas the two main villains of the piece, Ammonius and Cyril are played by more swarthy-skinned Israeli and Israeli-Arab actors (Ashraf Barhom and Sami Samir). Since American audiences are accustomed to seeing Middle Eastern actors in roles like terrorists, this casting choice tends to encourage the audience to read Ammonius and Cyril as villainous even before we understand what they want.


Ammonius (Barhom) and Davus (Minghella)

The depiction of the Parabalani is also probably unfair to them. In one scene, Ammonius shows Davus the pleasure of feeding the poor, and in another scene they are show disposing of the dead (victims of the riots the Parabalani were involved in), but overall the film offers minimal awareness that this group was devoted to charity. Instead, they tend to be shown lounging about waiting for an excuse to be violent, and many of them are shown carrying swords. We have little information about how this group was organized, how they lived, or how much of their time was devoted to charity, but the film draws them in broad strokes and never tries to give the audience an understanding of wbo the Parabalani were other than violent extremists.

Agora is not a perfect film. As noted, it simplifies and at times oversimplifies things. Its depiction of Hypatia’s research into the heliocentric theory is pure conjecture (although given what we know of her actual interests, it’s not implausible conjecture). It conflates the Serapeum with the Great Library and depicts a single catastrophic destruction of that library when in reality it was more a slow death by many cuts. Its narrative of peaceful pagan science vs violent Christian faith is more simple and tidy than things were in reality. Its depiction of 1st century Roman soldiers in 5th century Alexandria is nonsensical.

But overall, the film approaches its subject with far more respect for the historical facts than most movies. Of its two plotlines, one is basically true while the other is at least respectful of the facts. It delves into a poorly known figure and a moment in time that cinema has rarely (if ever) attempted to depict and manages to provide a reasonable depiction of the events. It treats its audience with respect and manages to explain a complex intellectual puzzle in ways the audience can understand, and it takes as its centerpiece the joy of intellectual inquiry and makes the joy intelligible to non-scholars. I’d rank it as one of the better films on ancient Rome.

This review was paid for by Jerise, who made a donation to my Paypal account. Thanks, Jerise! If there’s a film you would like me to review, please make a generous donation via Paypal and let me know what you’d like me to review. If I can track it down and if I think it’s appropriate, I’ll review it.

Want to Know More?

Agora is available through Amazon.

St Cyril, despite being a rather unpleasant man, was extremely important in the development of early Christianity, and there’s a good deal written about him. Norman Russell’s Cyril of Alexandria would be a good place to start. Russell has also written about Theophilus of Alexandria, Cyril’s predecessor. Taken together, these books would be a good look into the turbulent religious world of Late Roman Alexandria.

Agora: Hypatia and the Heliocentric Theory


, , , , , , , , ,

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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.



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.



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.

The Last Kingdom: Testudos!


, , , , , , , ,

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


, , , , , , , , , , ,

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


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

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


Evans as Marston


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

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

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

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


The three title characters


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



A lot of the film is made up.

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

The film opens with 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.


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.


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 women used to govern their complex relationship. Instead of being a later development of their relationship, as the film depicts, bondage seems to have been one of its early components.

However, understanding what 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).


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 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’s 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.



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.


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.


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.


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


, , , ,

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


The Elder Futhark alphabet

Runes as Magic

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


A typical, if elaborate, runestone

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


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


, , , , , , ,

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


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

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

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


The gifta

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

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

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

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


Amy Wren’s Mildrith

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

The Debt

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

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


One of Alfred’s pence

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

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

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

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


An Anglo-Saxon charter

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


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.


Penitents being scourged by a bishop

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

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

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

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


Uhtred and Aethelwold performing their penance

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

Want to Know More?

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

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

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

The Last Kingdom: The Plot


, , , , , , ,

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


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


Hart as Beocca

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

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

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

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


The martyrdom of St Edmund

Uhtred and Brida go to Winchester, where they meet King Aethelred and his younger brother Alfred. 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).


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.


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).


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.


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


, , , , ,

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


The Architecture

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

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


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

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

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


The Costumes

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


WTF is he wearing?

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

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


That leather armor is rather silly

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

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

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

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


Winter is coming, Jon Snow


Other Bits

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

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

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


Want to Know More? 

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

The Last Kingdom: The Background


, , , , , , , ,

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


The Heptarchy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


A coin of Alfred the Great

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

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

Want to Know More?

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