19th Century England, 19th Century Europe, Ethan Chandler, Ferdinand Lyle, Josh Hartnett, Penny Dreadful, Showtime, Victorian England
In the second season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, the characters pilfer a box of objects from the British Museum. According to the show, the objects represent the writings of a 11th century British Carthusian monk who was possessed by a demon. He began writing on whatever he could get his hands on, ultimately scratching words onto an assortment of random objects in a bizarre pidgin language derived from Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sanskrit, and several other languages. This hodgepodge language is referred to repeatedly as Verbis Diablo, “the Devil’s Language”. The resulting text turns out to be a sort of autobiography of a fallen angel. It’s a cool idea, but there are a few problems with it.
- There were no 11th century British Carthusians. The Carthusian Order was founded in 1084 by the German Bruno of Cologne in the Chartreuse Mountains of France. The order didn’t arrive in England until 1181, when Henry II founded a Carthusian house at Witham as penance for ordering the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. (Fun fact: In the 18th century, the Carthusians gave their name to green Chartreuse liquor, which they distilled.)
- The collection of objects were apparently housed at this Carthusian monastery and then somehow manage to pass to the British Museum with the collection intact. The fact that this bizarre collection somehow stayed together is somewhere between improbable and miraculous. In 1541, Henry VIII ordered the final dissolution of all English monasteries. The result was the movable property of the monasteries was broken up and scattered. The most important example of this was the monastic libraries, which were for the most part sold off book by book. Modern historians have spent a great deal of energy trying to recreate the catalogs of these lost libraries, and a small number of books have been traced to specific monasteries. In a situation like this, it is hard to imagine that a random collection of worthless objects with gibberish written on them would somehow have stayed together for more than four centuries.
- What makes this even more improbable is that the objects the monk wrote on include a dead bird, a goose-feather quill, and a butterfly the size of a dinner plate. How the hell did any of those things survive nearly a millennium without simply rotting away?
- Verbis diablo is gibberish Latin. Verbis means ‘words’, but diablo doesn’t mean anything in Latin. In Spanish it means ‘Devil’. Proper Latin would be Verbis diaboli, “The Devil’s words”. While verbis can mean ‘language’, it’s not really the most likely way Latin would express the phrase “the Devil’s Language”. A Latin-speaker would probably use lingua (literally, ‘tongue, language’) instead. Perhaps the phrase is supposed to be a pidgin of Latin and Spanish, but that seems unlikely too, since the term seems to be a scholarly one rather than some sort of colloquialism.
- One of the phrases in the autobiography is lupus dei, “the wolf of God”. Josh Hartnett’s Ethan, whose father made him learn Latin as a child, repeatedly mistranslates this phrase as ‘the hound of God’ (the Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle makes this mistake at least once as well). It’s hard to see how anyone who knows Latin as well as Ethan seems to could confuse canis for lupus. Both words are common Latin, about as common as ‘dog’ and ‘wolf’ are in English, and the two words are about as dissimilar in Latin as they are in English. While someone looking at a wolf might mistake it for a dog, the mistake is a fairly implausible one linguistically, especially given that Ethan suffers from lycanthropy and therefore the word for ‘wolf’ probably has some special meaning for him.
Want to Know More?
I got nothing.
I suppose if you want to know more about the history of Satan, you could take a look at Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan. There’s also Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages.
Well, to be fair, you wouldn’t expect the Carthusians to admit to the earlier English monastery, what with the demonic possession and all…
St Bruno: And we are agreed. We shall use our own Rule and not that of Benedict. You seven are the dearest companions and friends I could have. Stephen and Stephen, I know that your work as canons have provided you with the skills to make our community thrive. Landuin, you are my right hand, and I shall ever rely on you. Hugh, you are the holiest man I know. Andrew, Guerin, though neither of you have taken orders, know that I prize you both as much as any other man here. Belphegor, we are agreed, you will travel to England and carry on our work there? Good, then, to work.
Landuin: My Lord Bishop, I bring news about England and Brother Belphegor!
St. Bruno: Lets….just forget about Brother Belphegor. England? You know, thinking on it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of England. It’s somewhere near Norway, isn’t it?
Anyway, main reason for this post is to add a suggestion…Nancy Caciola’s “Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages”
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All I can offer is Kage Baker, specifically The Garden of Iden. Not entirely apt, I concede.
I haven’t seen the second season (too many overly graphic sex scenes in season one for me), but my first thought on reading this is why didn’t they use the Codex Gigas. It’s called the Devil’s Bible, and one myth says it was written by a monk who was possessed by the devil at the time. I know the show is fiction, but I love it when fiction ties in some non-fiction. It really helps you get into the story, in my opinion at least.
I actually just started watching this show and dunno if you’ve written on it before because Gmail is stupid and keeps dumping your posts into the wrong folder, but only a few episodes in I’ve got mixed emotions. I love how the Egyptologist knows more about Egyptian lore/religion than most modern day Egyptologists, and how he gets SUPER worked up that two deities are mentioned together because that would never happen, apparently. But instead of going, “Wow, that’s odd…”, he gets worked into a frenzy as if it’s a portent of the end of days. Also, super love the ominous, “It’s from the Book…of the DEAD!”, which is a far too commonly used trope in films, just as tarot card readers pull the Death card and everyone *GASPS!* because Death literally means death, as in doom and gloom and the end of days, right? Wrong. That kind of thing seriously irks me.
Dorian Gray also looks and acts nothing like I’d ever have imagined. But, I haven’t read that book in over 20 years so perhaps I’m misremembering the depths of his depravity. Hehe I think not though. :p And Frankenstein’s monster just got torn in half. I don’t really remember that either.
Anyway, so you’ve made it to the second season at least, does that mean despite the occasional heavy sigh and fierce eye roll that it’s worth watching? Because I’ll muddle through if you say it gets better.
I’m just finishing up season 2. I’d say the show is worth a watch, although it certainly has some issues. Dorian is pretty much pointless even in the second season, and Sambene is just there just to be a black manservant, but the show finds enough new takes on the material that I think it’s watchable. And I like Eva Green and Timothy Dalton
Thanks! I guess I’ll try to stick with it. It’s not like I have anything better to do. Besides, however unDorian Grayish, the dude is not hard on the eyes. I’m sure he’ll continue to be pointless eyecandy until they decide to write an episode where they reveal his frightening secret (which I’m sure will be just as inaccurate as Frankenstein’s monster being torn in half). Heh
I get just as bent out of shape overly grossly incorrect allusions to literature, largely because in High School I wrote a report on Dracula and the teacher told me that there was nothing in my paper that indicated that I’d read the book and didn’t just watch the movie. I had to go in and throw a fit and show her all of my notes and insist that I read the whole stupid book and perhaps my report was bland because I found the book to be terribly boring. Having been raised on Stephen King, I hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for the classics. Heh Also though, the year before that we read The Grapes of Wrath and I loved it, whereas many of my classmates did not and opted to watch the movie. The teacher added a hilarious trick question regarding our thoughts on the last scene of the book. You can imagine the discrepancies in responses, and I thought it served them right for cheating…AND for cheating themselves out of a great read! I don’t mind minor alterations for translation to film, and maybe even to spice things up a little, but when the only commonalities are the titles, it just bugs the crap out of me.
As it turns out, Proteus isn’t Frankenstein’s Monster; that’s Caliban. I found that an interesting approach.
Years ago, I knew a faculty member in the English department who had a hobby of writing junk term papers on things like the Wedding Scene in Romeo and Juliet. He would write them as if they were serious papers and then upload them to term paper mills.
Oh, that really is interesting. Hmm. I’ll have to pay closer attention next time, I was always really fond of the Caliban character and now I’m kinda sad he got torn in half. Heh Of course though, I haven’t read (or seen) The Tempest in as long as it’s been since I read Picture of Dorian Gray, and most days I can barely remember what happened 8 mins ago, so the fact that I remember any of this at all is a triumph all its own. :p I think there’s a picture of me somewhere swiftly getting younger…