Versailles: All the King’s Women


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Versailles devotes a good deal of its time to exploring Louis XIV’s rather complicated sex life, so I thought a post on that would be in order.


The show’s first two seasons cover the period from 1667 to 1680, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that it only covered the period from perhaps 1667 to 1670, because none of the characters appear to age significantly. Even Louis’ son Louis the Grand Dauphin, who is perhaps 10 at the end of season 1 doesn’t appear to have aged more than a year or so by the end of season 2, even though 8 years have passed between the events of those two episodes. But Louis’s various relationships are complicated (and fun to read about) so I’m going to survey all the major ones, to give you a good sense of what’s going on. (Those who appear in Versailles have the actress’ name in parentheses.)

The Early Years

When Louis was fourteen years old in 1553, his mother, Anne of Austria decided that it was time for him to lose his virginity. She arranged for one of her ladies in waiting, Catherine Bellier, to spend two years sexually educating him, and then rewarded her by making her the Baroness of Beauvais. (IMDb tells me that Bellier appears in Versailles, but it must have been a very small and passing role, because I didn’t spot her at all.)

In 1654, while he was still sleeping with Belliers, Louis began a relationship with Olympe Mancini, one of the five nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, who, along with Anne, was running the government. That affair lasted until 1657, when she got married to the Comte de Soissons, but they resumed their relationship in 1660 for about a year. Her oldest son was born just six months after her marriage, raising the possibility that he was an unacknowledged bastard of Louis’. Her feelings for Louis seem to have been quite intense, because she repeatedly displayed jealousy toward his later loves.

In 1658, Louis turned his eye toward Marie Mancini, Olympe’s younger sister. He fell deeply in love with her, and gossip began to spread that he might marry her. This upset Anne, who wanted to arrange his marriage to Maria-Theresa of Spain, and it also, somewhat surprisingly, upset Olympe and Marie’s mother. As a result, Marie was sent home to Italy, where she got married in 1661. On her wedding night, her husband remarked that he was surprised to discover she was still a virgin, so apparently Louis’ interest in her somehow never got consummated. In 1658, Louis also had a brief fling with the unnamed daughter of a gardener, who gave birth to a daughter who was never recognized. (Incidentally, Hortense, a third sister of Olympe and Marie, managed to become the mistress of Charles II of England.)

In 1660, Louis married his first wife, Maria-Theresa (Elisa Lasowski). She was his double first cousin (her father was Anne’s brother, while his father was the brother of Maria-Theresa’s mother). He appears to have been faithful to her for about a year, but after that he had both brief flings and long-term affairs for the rest of her life. That didn’t stop him from producing six children with her, although she had the enormous misfortune to outlive all but one of them. Maria-Theresa had little choice except to tolerate her husband’s numerous infidelities, and she even managed to develop friendships with two of his mistresses.


Maria-Theresa of Spain

Henrietta and Louise

A year after Louis’ marriage, his brother Philippe married Henrietta of England (Noémie Schmidt), a rather attractive woman who became good friends with Louis. Rumors began to circulate that they were sleeping together. Even by the standards of the French court, this would have been a genuine scandal, because there was a considerable difference between a married man sleeping with an unmarried woman (which was considered simply fornication) and a married man sleeping with a married woman (which was considered adultery); additionally, it would have meant cuckolding his own brother. Since Henrietta was the sister of Charles II of England, a major scandal around her might well have had diplomatic ramifications. So although Versailles shows Louis and Henrietta being deeply involved and him getting her pregnant, most scholars think that this was just a rumor and that their relationship never moved beyond friendship.

To make Louis’ visiting Henrietta more acceptable, they asked Olympe, a close friend of Henrietta’s, to introduce Louis to one of Henrietta’s ladies, Louise de La Valliere (Sarah Winter), so that Louis could visit Henrietta while pretending to court Louise. The naïve Louise, not realizing that she was a pawn in this intrigue, fell in love with Louis and Louis found her sincerity and innocence so charming that he reciprocated her feelings. This relationship was the first of Louis’ affairs to have real legs. It continued until 1667 and produced five children, the last two of whom were eventually acknowledged, the other three dying in infancy. Louis kept the relationship a secret (at least formally) until 1666, when his mother died. At that point, he made the relationship public and Louise became his first maitress en titre, loosely translated as “official mistress”. Soon after Anne’s death, Louis took communion with both Maria-Theresa and Louise alongside him, a clear statement of Louise’ position.


Louise de La Valliere

Louise was deeply religious, and while she loved Louis, she felt tremendous shame over what she was doing. She disliked their relationship being so open. At the same time, however, she wanted her position and was jealous of his attention to other women, so she wasn’t quite so unwilling to be his mistress as Versailles presents it. She repeatedly fled to convents, and in 1667, after the birth of their fifth child, Louis essentially terminated the relationship, although he kept her on as maitress en titre. Eventually, in 1674, he permitted Louise to join a Carmelite convent. By this point, she had become good friends with Maria-Theresa, who presented her with her veil during the veiling ceremony at the convent and continued to visit her off and on.

Despite having a wife and a mistress, Louis’ eye still wandered. Olympe Mancini hoped that, if he could be pried away from Louise de La Valliere, Louis might return to her. So she schemed to put one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne-Lucie de Mothe-Houdancourt, in his way, and it worked, at least briefly. Louis became quite infatuated with her. The queen employed Madame de Navailles to supervise the young ladies around them. Navailles went to extreme lengths to keep the young men of the court away from her charges, up to installing iron bars on the windows and chimneys of their rooms. Despite that, Louis climbed down a chimney to see Anne-Marie, and dismissed Madame de Navailles from court. But Anne-Lucie was interested in someone else, and apparently resisted Louis’ attentions. The Queen Mother became worried that Louis’ pursuit of Anne-Lucie would prove embarrassing to Maria-Theresa, so she ultimately dismissed Anne-Lucie from court. Louis consoled himself by briefly taking up with Anne de Conty d’Argencourt, one of his mother’s ladies in waiting. But she was also the lover of the duc de Richelieu, which irritated Louis enough that the affair didn’t last long.


Olympe Mancini

In 1665, Louis got interested in one of his wife’s ladies in waiting, Bonne de Pons. Unlike most members of the court, Bonne’s family was upset about the prospect of their daughter becoming the royal mistress, so they shipped her off to get married. Louis’ court had a very rigid formal hierarchy, based on the degree of biological relationship to the king and the age of one’s lineage. (To simplify, first cousins outranked second cousins and so on.) But there was a second hierarchy that scholars call the Shadow Hierarchy. This hierarchy was much more fluid and dependent on less tangible qualities such as appearance, wit, royal favor, and skill at intrigue. Louis’ mistresses sat very high in the Shadow Hierarchy, with the maitress en titre right at the top. Having the royal ear was a precious commodity at Versailles, because position in the Shadow Hierarchy depended to considerable extent at being able to get the king’s attention. Whichever woman Louis was sleeping with enjoyed the rare privilege of spending time completely alone with him, so women who had Louis’ attention became power-brokers at court, able to perform favors for others by mentioning their concerns to Louis. Additionally, Louis rewarded his mistresses and their families with estates, titles, and offices. So the decision of Bonne’s parents to send her away from court is quite unusual.

By this point, Henrietta of England had gotten thoroughly jealous of Louise de La Valliere, so Henriette threw one of her ladies in waiting at Louis. Charlotte-Catherine de Gramont was already married, but her husband discretely chose to go off and fight in a war. Louis broke off with her a few months later, but she continued having affairs with other members of the court until 1668, when her behavior scandalized the court enough that Louis ordered her to leave (although he let her return in 1672).

Madame de Montespan

In 1666, not long after things with Gramont ended, Françoise-Athenaïs, the Marquise de Montespan (Anna Brewster), began pursuing Louis. She was a married woman, with two children, but also strikingly beautiful, witty, well-read, intelligent, and cultured. She was also the cousin of Bonne de Pons, and the younger sister of Gabrielle de Rochechaurt, who may have briefly occupied Louis’ bed at one point. Quite a number of men were interested in her, but she wanted Louis. She wisely cultivated friendships with Louis the Grand Dauphin, Maria-Theresa, and Louise de La Valliere. When both women became pregnant at the same time, they made the mistake of asking Montespan to help them entertain Louis at private dinners, and that gave her the opening she needed. By the end of 1666, she was rapidly displacing Louise in the king’s affections, much to Louise’ frustration. What must have particularly galled Louise was that the king now used her as cover for his relationship with Montespan, a bit the way he had used her initially to cover his friendship with Henrietta. He moved Montespan into a room connected to Louise’ so that he could visit Montespan while maintaining the appearance of visiting Louise.

In 1667, Montespan became the maitress en titre, a position she held until 1681. Although Versailles shows them having only one child who dies in infancy, in fact she was the mother of seven of his children between 1669 and 1678, all but one of whom lived to adulthood and secured recognition from him. Unlike Louise, who did her best to stay out of the spotlight, Montespan openly vied with the queen as a rival. Although Montespan was legally separated from her husband in 1774, the fact that she was committing adultery led her to become the focus of opposition from the Catholic Church, and in 1774, a priest refused to give her communion at Easter. Despite Louis’ efforts to lean on the priest’s superiors, the Church hierarchy held firm and achieved a brief separation between the two. So the conflict between Bishop Bossuet and Louis in the show has a basis in fact, but Bossuet was not so foolish as to try to orchestrate a grand campaign against Louis, nor was the priest poisoned by one of Montespan’s allies.


Madame de Montespan

Despite Montespan’s considerable attractions, Louis still found time for a fling with Anne de Rohan-Chabot, the wife of the prince of Soubise. Louis met her in 1669 and had a short affair with her. They either resumed the affair in 1673 or else it continued at a low level throughout that period, finally ending in 1675. She had two sons that her husband recognized, although many at the court felt they were both Louis’. In that same period, Louis also had a fling with Lydie de Rochefort-Theobon, one of his wife’s ladies in waiting. He “amused himself“ with her (as one letter to the king of Prussia describes it) off and on from 1670 to 1673. Montespan tried to prevent this by having her transferred to the household of Philippe d’Orleans’ second wife, but Louis may have flung with her as late as 1676.

One of Montespan’s challenges was maintaining Louis’ attention during her numerous pregnancies (given that she had used exactly such an opening to get between him and La Valliere). Between 1670 and 1676, her solution to this problem was to offer him one of her ladies, Claude de Vin des Oeillets, as a substitute whenever she was pregnant. Given her jealousy, this was a surprising strategy, but she seems to have concluded that having Louis involved with a member of her household was less risky than him getting involved with someone she couldn’t supervise. Des Oeillets was low-born, the daughter of two actors, which probably reduced the risk as well. He fathered a daughter on her, whom he never acknowledged.

Montespan’s concern for holding Louis’ attention was well-warranted. In 1675, Louis had an affair with Isabelle de Ludres, yet another of his wife’s ladies in waiting. Like Montespan, she was ambitious and hoped to become the new maitress en titre. But Louis wanted their relationship to stay a secret (perhaps because he didn’t want to quarrel with Montespan). So when Ludres openly stated her intentions of displacing Montespan, Louis dumped her. He took up with Marie-Charlotte de Castelnau, a married woman who was the sister-in-law of Anne de Rohan-Chabot, as well as of the Comte de Guiche, one of Philippe d’Orleans’ paramours. He got bored with Marie-Charlotte quite quickly after Montespan gave birth to their last child. But in 1678, he had a short affair with Elizabeth Hamilton, one of Marie-Charlotte’s sisters-in-law, much to Montespan’s irritation.

By this time, Louis was beginning to tire of Montespan. Unfortunately for her, he became interested in her good friend Françoise de Scarron (Catherine Walker), a down-on-her-luck widow of a minor noble. Montespan asked Scarron to look after her bastard children, which brought Scarron to Louis’ attention, although he initially found her strict religious observances off-putting. But he paid her well for her services as a governess and in 1675 he rewarded her with the title Marquise de Maintenon, as a result of which she’s generally known as Madame de Maintenon. Montespan began to quarrel with her, ostensibly over the way the children were being raised, but quite possibly because she was beginning to get jealous of Maintenon. But Maria-Theresa liked her because she felt that Maintenon was a good influence on Louis, remarking that he was treating her far better than in the past when he was more involved with Montespan (who was deeply hostile to the queen). Nothing seems to have happened between Louis and Maintenon in this period, in part because her religious sentiments led her to oppose fornication, but Louis was clearly attracted to her.

Stiff Competition for Louis’ Attention

Apparently unable to decide between the two women, Louis suddenly took up with Marie-Angelique de Scorailles, who was described as being quite beautiful but “stupid as a basket”. She was a lady in waiting to the duchesse d’Orleans. At first the affair was kept quite secret, but then Louis appeared at court wearing ribbons that matched ones she was wearing; she was noticed wearing a cloak made from the same material as his. He became quite infatuated with her, throwing a string of parties for her and taking her to the ballet frequently. Montespan bitterly commented that Louis had three mistresses: herself in title, Scorailles in bed, and Maintenon in his heart. Montespan took her revenge by having a pair of bears let into Scorailles’ apartments, causing the young woman to flee in terror. Scorailles gave birth to a stillborn boy, and although Louis rewarded her handsomely for “being wounded in his service” by making her the duchess of Fontanges, he had already started to tire of her. She died not long after this, in 1681, at the age of 19, probably because of complications from her labor. But word quickly circulated that she had been poisoned, and Montespan clearly had the motive to do so. This was part of the infamous Affair of the Poisons, a major plotline during season 2 of Versailles, so I’ll do a whole column on it later on. However, if you’ll notice, the show does not include Scorailles as a character all. Montespan was deeply implicated in the Affair, although no solid proof of her involvement has ever surfaced. But it marked the end of her reign as maitress en titre, although Louis allowed her to stay at court until 1691. He does not seem to have believed that she was involved in the Affair. Scorailles was the last woman to be a sustained mistress for Louis. After her, his attentions shifted toward Maintenon and to brief affairs with women who soon bored him.


Marie-Angelique de Scorailles

Despite his infatuation with Scorailles, Louis also had a relationship with Montespan’s older sister Diane-Gabrielle. This doesn’t seem to have amounted to very much. He also had a sporadic relationship with Marie-Madeleine-Agnes de Gontaut Biron, who was rather plain-looking but quite good at court intrigue. She managed to get a good marriage out her relationship with the king, but not much else. He also had a short relationship with Jeanne de Rouvroy, a married woman, in 1681.

The same year, Louis turned his attention toward Marie-Anne de Wurtemberg. He bedded her briefly, but Montespan, who by this point was clutching at straws to revive Louis’ affections, persuaded Louis that Wurtemberg had once been the lover of a monk who was trying to find the philosopher’s stone. Since black magic was part of the Affair of the Poisons, even the hint that Wurtemberg was associated with the Parisian underworld scared Louis and he broke off with her.

Still trying to retain a hold on Louis, in 1681 Montespan pushed another of her ladies at him, Françoise-Therese de Voyer de Dorée. But after Louis slept with her, Montespan became jealous and Maintenon chided Louis for the affair, so he put Françoise-Therese  aside. There was also a quick fling with Marie-Antoinette de Rouvroy, but it went nowhere. The next year, there were brief affairs with Marie-Rosalie de Piennes and Madame de Saint-Martin.

In 1683, Louis became interested in Marie-Louise de Montmorency-Laval, who was a lady in waiting to his daughter-in-law. He got her pregnant, which required that she be dismissed from her post. Not wanting to legitimize the child, Louis had her quickly married off to the duc de Roquelaure, who accepted the girl as his daughter, wryly remarking at her birth “welcome, mademoiselle, I did not expect you so soon.”

Julie de Gueméné came from a family whose membership included Anne de Rohan-Chabot and the Chevalier de Rohan, whom I’ll discuss in my next post. The family had been losing its footing at Versailles (perhaps in part due to the Chevalier’s poor choices), so when she was 15, they maneuvered her into Louis’ attention, hoping that she might become his new maitress en titre. He did sleep with her, but nothing more came of the scheme.

Madame de Maintenon Triumphs

Gueméné has the distinction of being Louis’ last mistress. In the middle of 1683, Maria-Theresa fell ill and died. Louis mourned her, remarking that “this is the first chagrin which she has given me.” By this point, he was deeply involved with Madame de Maintenon, but she had probably resisted his efforts to get her into his bed. Montespan was convinced that she was holding out simply as a way to build Louis’ ardor for her, but it is more likely that it was her religious beliefs that motivated her to deny him. But Maria-Theresa’s death cleared the way. Some time between October of 1683 and January of 1684, Louis secretly married her. The marriage was never formally acknowledged, and she did not become queen. But their relationship was obvious. He gave her a lavish suite of rooms across the hallway from his own apartments, and he spent time with her every day from that point on.


Madame de Maintenon

Madame de Maintenon became enormously influential at court due to her hold on the king’s ear. He became increasingly religious because of her, and this probably contributed to his choice to cease taking mistresses, which helped consolidate her position. But it is also possible that he simply loved her enough that other women no longer interested him. After all, his marriage to Maria-Theresa was an arranged one and probably not one he found emotionally satisfying, so it is likely that his many affairs were efforts to meet his own emotional needs (as well as the more obvious physical ones). With de La Valliere, Montespan, and Maintenon, he clearly found women who struck a chord with him emotionally, and when Maria-Theresa died, he was finally in a position to build a permanent relationship with a woman he genuinely loved. At that point, he had no further need of mistresses. Or perhaps his libido simply cooled by the time he was in his forties.

By 1700, she was virtually his prime minister, even though she had no official role at court. Over the years, she persuaded him to replace several key ministers. She was very interested in women’s education, founded a girl’s school at Saint-Cyr, and authored a treatise on education that helped inspire a 1724 ordinance establishing compulsory universal primary education (although it didn’t have much effect). After his death in 1715, she retired to Saint-Cyr. She had no children, unlike so many of Louis’ other women, but she seems to have had some real attachment to Madame de Montespan’s children, encouraging Louis to promote them at court.

Versailles shows Louis’ relationship with four women: Maria-Theresa, Louise de La Valliere, Madame de Montespan, and Madame de Maintenon. It also apparently has a brief appearance by Catherine Belliers, and it makes up a mistress, Sister Hermione (Hannah Arteton) whom he runs into years after he ended the relationship and forgot her. It shows us two children, one of whom died in infancy. The actual total for the period covered by the show is more like 18 mistresses of varying durations (not counting his wife) and 21 children born alive. So, as it did with its depiction of Philippe d’Orleans’ relationships, Versailles substantially tones down the degree of Louis’ womanizing. I find it kind of refreshing to get to say “No, actually, it was much more than the show gives us.”

If you have a movie or tv series you’d like me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and if I can track it down, I’ll review it (as long as I think it’s appropriate for this blog).

Want to Know More?

One of the better guides to Louis’ mistresses is It has a page on each of his known mistresses, as well as a host of other details about life at the court of the Sun King.

As with Henry VIII, Louis XIV has attracted the attention of a lot of non-professional historians who write popular history. An easy introduction to Louis’ affairs is Antonia Frazer’s Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. Frazer is one of the best popular historians, but always read her books with caution. Similarly, Lisa Hilton’s Athenaïs: The Life of Louis XIV’s Mistress, the Real Queen of France is popular rather than academic history, but it’s a good intro to this extremely important and interesting woman.



Thessalus and Medea: A Mother-Son Reunion


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I’m in the middle of reviewing Versailles, but I wanted to take a break and review something rather different. Flying Dutchman Films, who brought us the lovely I Am Henry, is back with another short film, Thessalus and Medea. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to the 17thcentury next time.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the obscure details of Greek mythology, Thessalus is one of the sons of the Greek hero Jason and his witch wife Medea. Greek mythology is a little like comic books these days—there’s no one definitive version of these  characters and stories. Greek authors kept going back to the same stories and telling new versions of them, making up new details for old stories, changing the endings, and so on. The most famous version of the story of Jason and Medea is probably the rather harrowing version Euripides told in his tragedy Medea. In that story, Medea is a Thessalian witch who has helped Jason perform his greatest deed, the recovery of the Golden Fleece . They have two sons, Alcimenes and Thessalus. When they come to Corinth, Jason decides for political reasons to abandon Medea and marry Glauce, the daughter of the Corinthian King Creon.

It turns out that dumping your baby mama and your two kids for a new woman is not such a bright idea when your baby mama is the granddaughter of the Sun and a powerful sorceress. Medea wreaks havoc on the characters in the play. She sends Glauce a poisoned dress that causes her to literally catch on fire and burn up both her and Creon. Then she takes revenge on Jason by murdering their two sons and conjuring up a chariot pulled by dragons to fly off in. It’s a shocking conclusion that probably horrified the ancient Greeks even more than it horrifies us.


Medea in her dragon chariot

But as I said, these stories don’t have fixed narratives. In some versions of the story, Jason and Medea have as many as fourteen kids. Many scholars think that the child-killing was invented by Euripides because there’s no evidence for it prior to the late 5thcentury when Euripides wrote his play. In some versions, Medea finds shelter at Thebes after the killings. In another, she goes to Athens, married King Aegeus and then persuades her step-son Thesseus to kill his father. In yet another, she returns to her homeland where she murders her uncle to put her deposed father back on the throne. Still another version has her flying in her chariot to Persia. Even the ancient Greeks found this plethora of versions somewhat bewildering, sort of like Marvel comics fans after three decades of non-stop reboots.

As it happens, in some versions her son Thessalus survives and goes on to become king of Iolcus. It’s this version of the story that writer-director Jan Hendrik Verstraten has used as the foundation for his short film. In this version Thessalus (David Cotter) survived because he realized something was wrong when Medea (Emanuela Ponzano) tried to poison him and poured the drink out when she wasn’t looking. As a result, when Medea fled, she mistakenly thought she had killed him, and she has lived in Thessaly in an underground labyrinth as an oracle. Now he’s a man of about twenty, and he and a friend, Poseidonius (Rhys Howells) have been sent by the king of Iolcus to kill her. The result is a story that doesn’t exactly tell any specific story from Greek myth, but which still manages to be relatively true to the spirit of the material.

The core of the story, obviously, is the confrontation between Medea and Thessalus, who is understandingly angry at his mother for trying to poison him. Medea, for her part, is shocked by this ghost from her past that has suddenly reappeared seeking vengeance. But like any oracle worth her salt, she quickly understands that there is something more going on here than just Thessalus intending to kill her. Although I generally include spoilers in my reviews, since this is a small film without wide distribution, I don’t want to give anything away about the plot twist that takes the story in a somewhat different direction than would be expected.


Medea bringing a sheep back to life

Thessalus and Medeais anchored by Ponzano’s performance as Medea. She manages to be regal, witchy, and deeply human all at the same time, and she captures the complex mixture of fury at Jason, guilt over the killing of her two sons, and shock to discover that one of them is still alive. Verstraten, like Euripides before him, is interested in humanizing this demigoddess, but whereas Euripides explored her righteous fury at being abandoned, Verstraten probes the feelings she’s lived with since her murderous rage cooled.

Medea’s labyrinth is actually a Napoleonic-era fort. Its odd angles provide a great set for the characters to operate in, and it’s effectively lit with fire and torches to create a moody, mysterious atmosphere that works well for the story.

Overall, I don’t like Thessalus and Medeaas much as I liked I Am Henry. The resolution of the conflict between Thessalus and his mother leaves a little bit too much unspoken, and the film doesn’t explore Medea’s motives enough for my taste. But it’s still a nice effort to explore a forgotten corner of an ancient story.

At the moment, only the film’s trailer is available to the general public because the film is still competing at film festivals. It’s scheduled to become available for on-demand viewing on Vimeo in November. I’ve linked to the trailer below. When the film becomes available, I’ll post my interview with Verstraten.

Want to Know More? 

Thessalus and Medea  is will not be available until November. When it is, I’ll post my interview with Jan Hendrik Verstraten and a link to the film on Vimeo.

Til then, you might consider reading Euripides’ Medea. It’s a challenging play. Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art offers a good window into understanding the text.

Versailles: The Man Who Would Be Queen


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One of the things that really stands out in Versailles is its depiction of Louis’ brother Philippe, the duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), as blatantly and unrepentantly homosexual. So this post is going to look at how accurate that depiction is.



In the Show

Versailles’ Philippe lets it all hang out, so to speak. In the first episode, he makes out with his boyfriend, Philippe, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams) as servants wander by. (To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this Philippe as the Chevalier.) He openly flaunts the Chevalier in front of his wife Henrietta (Noémie Schmidt) and pretty much everyone else. He has a taste for group sex with men. Most startlingly of all, in one episode he comes to a formal event wearing a dress (well, skirts and a corset without a proper over-dress–thanks, Frock Flicks, for pointing that out!) and when someone sniggers about it, Philippe draws a knife and stabs the man in the eye.


Vlahos as Philippe, getting very unhappy that someone doesn’t like his outfit

The Chevalier eventually gets entangled in a plot to overthrow the king and gets sent into exile, but early in season 2 he’s back and being fabulous, making grand statements about which color is going be the winter color this year. At the same time, someone poisons Henrietta, who dies in bloody agony.


In Reality

The show’s depiction of Philippe is broadly accurate. If anything, it tones him down.

Louis and Philippe were the sons of Louis XIII, who had a great deal of trouble with his younger brother Gaston, who was Louis’ presumptive heir until the birth of his nephew Louis in 1638, just four years before the end of Louis XIII’s reign. That fact made Gaston the center of a great deal of intrigue and he twice had to go into exile for plotting against his brother. When the Fronde (a revolt of the nobility against the Crown) broke out, Gaston fought on both sides, and at the end of the revolt, he was sentenced to internal exile at Blois. As a result of this, Louis XIII’s queen, Anne of Austria, was extremely worried that Philippe might grow up to become a problem for her older son.


Philippe, duc d’Orleans

Anne feared that Philippe might some day challenge Louis or become a center of opposition to him, so she seems to have intentionally tried to cultivate a taste for feminine things in her son as a way to make him less threatening and perhaps even distasteful to the nobility. She referred to him as “my little girl,’ declared that he was “the prettiest child in the whole world,” and dressed him more as a girl than as a boy. That shaped him for life. As an adult, he was always comfortable in women’s clothing, and frequently attended balls dressed as a woman. He was noted for his love of ribbons, perfume, rouge, and high heels, although those things were not necessarily gendered female in the 17thcentury. Both Louis and Philippe was quite short and wore heels to add inches to their stature. So the show could put him in women’s clothing a lot more than it does without distorting the facts. This is a rare case of the media toning down historical excess instead of exaggerating it or making it up.


That’s Philippe on the right

Anne was probably relieved when Philippe began to show a taste for men. In 1658, when Philippe was 18, rumors began to circulate that the duke of Nevers had “corrupted” Philippe with the “Italian vice”, and it was around that time that he first made contact with the Chevalier, with whom he formed a life-long, though hardly faithful, relationship.

Throughout his life, and regardless of his two wives, Philippe displayed a marked taste for handsome young men, whom he tended to shower attention and money on. He blew them kisses as he walked through Versailles, and much court gossip turned on the question of his favorites. Since Philippe was the king’s brother (and accorded the courtesy appellation of Monsieur, something the show leaves out), he was invariably an important political figure, although after the birth of Louis’ first son, his importance declined slightly. Who he was sleeping with was therefore an issue that could affect politics, especially in the intrigue-filled environment of Versailles.


The Chevalier de Lorraine

The Chevalier was, strictly speaking, not French, since Lorraine was outside the royal domain. He was described as being “as beautiful as an angel,” although portraits of him don’t apparently do him justice, at least not by modern standards, He was considered vain, arrogant, greedy, and manipulative, and Philippe was an ideal partner for him. The perception at court was that he could easily manipulate Philippe into doing what the Chevalier wanted, since Philippe loved him deeply.

The result of this was that Philippe’s domestic life was exceptionally complex, even by the standards of a Jerry Springer show. Philippe’s first wife, Henrietta, was understandably jealous of the Chevalier, who lived in the same household with her. Philippe told her that he needed the Chevalier’s permission to sleep with her. In 1670, she persuaded King Louis to first imprison the Chevalier and then exile him. But Philippe prevailed upon his brother to call the Chevalier back after just a few months. When Henrietta died a few months later, there were rumors that the Chevalier had orchestrated her poisoning, although an autopsy determined that she had died of peritonitis. (Note that the show gets both the order of events and the cause of Henrietta’s death wrong.)


Henrietta of England

In 1682, the Chevalier got in trouble again, this time for introducing Louis’ illegitimate son Louis de Bourbon to part of their circle. Philippe and the Chevalier had established a sort of secret club for men who liked men. This club met at taverns and brothels and had elaborate rules of a somewhat sacrilegious nature. When Bourbon was 15, the Chevalier introduced him to the club and required him to sign an oath of obedience to the club’s rules, an oath signed not in ink but in Bourbon’s semen, which the Chevalier helped him to collect. Eventually rumors of the club’s orgies reached the king, Most of the club’s members were exiled as a result, but Bourbon simply got sent to fight in the Netherlands, where he died the next year..

Back at court a few years later, the Chevalier got in trouble a third time for orchestrating the illicit marriage of Philippe’s son to one of Louis’ illegitimate daughters.

But Phillipe living with his wife and his boyfriend was just the start. He was also involved with another member of his household, Armand, the Comte de Guiche, who like the Chevalier was handsome, vain, and manipulative. Armand was Philippe’s lover, but he is widely thought to have been Henrietta’s lover as well. That apparently wasn’t enough for Guiche, because in 1665 he also tried to romance Louise de La Valliere, who was Louis’ chief mistress at the time. Louis exiled him in 1662 for plotting with Henrietta to break up Louis and Louise.


The Comte de Guiche

On top of all that, Philippe also found time for a relationship with Antoine Coiffier, a minor noble who served as his head huntsman (whose father, incidentally, may have been a lover of Louis XIII). He is also rumored to have had a mistress, who might have been the married duchess of Mercoeur, since he flirted with her in public.

That last one demonstrates that Philippe might have been bisexual. He definitely had a complicated relationship with his first wife, with whom he had four children, as well as two miscarriages. When he married his second wife, the German Elizabeth Charlotte, he remarked that her plainness meant it would be hard for him to make love to her, but he still managed to father three children with her, including his only surviving son. So while he clearly had a strong preference for men, he doesn’t seem to have been exclusively homosexual as the show presents it.


Philippe and Louis

The two brothers had a rather complicated relationship, something the show manages to capture. In the show, Philippe says on more than one occasion that he was raised to not be the ‘cloud that covers the sun’, and whether or not the real Philippe ever said that, it certainly does describe the way their childhood played out. Anne expected Louis to be a very studious boy, but discouraged Philippe from book learning and encouraged him to play and be frivolous. The duc de Saint-Simon, whose enormous memoires are our best window into life at court, says that as an adult, Philippe was weak of mind and body, excessively timid, obsequious to his brother, and loved to gossip, often making up rumors just to see what would happen. He was also quarrelsome. But despite that, he was well-loved and a central figure at Versailles. When he died of a stroke in 1701, he was deeply mourned and Saint-Simon says that the court felt lifeless and still.

Louis, perhaps following Anne’s advice, worried that Philippe could have become a threat to him and worked to keep him away from any real power, and generally ordered him to leave when it was time for Louis to conduct business. Despite that, Louis adored his brother, who was his only sibling and probably the only person who could really understand him. We might imagine that Louis envied Philippe a little the freedom that he had. Although Louis seems to have despised homosexuality, which was a capital crime in 17thcentury France, he tolerated Philippe’s taste in men, although he was not willing to extend that tolerance to Philippe’s lovers when their other affairs became public. When Louis’ second wife complained that he needed to stamp out homosexuality at the court, Louis replied “should I start with my own brother?” That may explain why Louis was willing to turn a blind eye to the same-sex shenanigans at his court. He loved his brother too much to punish him, but punishing other examples of homosexuality at court would have made him look too much of a hypocrite.

To add further complexity to their relationship, Philippe was a far better soldier than Louis was. In 1667 he handled himself well during an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands. In 1677, he led the French forces at the Battle of Cassel against William III of Orange. He routed William and won the admiration of the court, but his victory irked Louis, who wished to be seen as a conqueror, and who may have worried that Philippe’s accomplishments were making him a threat. As a result, Louis never allowed his brother to participate in military matters again. What seems to have impressed people the most about Philippe’s victory was his intense bravery during the battle; it was joked that he was more afraid of getting sunburned or blackened from gunsmoke than he was of getting hit by a musket-ball.


Louis loved paintings that presented him as a conqueror

So overall, Versailles’ depiction of Philippe and his relationship with his wives, his brother, and the Chevalier all seem pretty reasonable. Although the show tones down some of the luridness of Philippe’s private life, I think it captures something of his complex relationship with Louis and with the Chevalier. Was he actually as frustrated with his situation as the show makes out? I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable take on him.

If you’d like me to review a particular film or show, please make a donation to my Paypal account and request one.


Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

There’s not a lot available in English about Philippe. Nancy Nichols Barker’s Brother to the Sun King: Philippe Duke of Orleans is probably the best option. But it’s been criticized for a very negative depiction of Philippe’s homosexuality, so read it with care. You might also think about reading Saint-Simon’s Memoires, which are a remarkable and lively account of life at the court of the Sun King. Lucy Norton’s translation has been much praised for its style (although it is not the full text).

If you want to know more about homosexuality in Europe in this period, take a look at The Pursuit of Sodomy, edited by Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma. It has articles on a range of issues.

Versailles: The Queen’s Baby


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I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I finally found the time to sit down and watch Versailles, the Canal+ series about the court of Louis XIV. I’d heard that the show was pretty wackadoodle, but as I watched the first episode, I didn’t see anything that I thought was outrageous. Then I got to the end of the episode and, yeah, ok, I see why some people think the show is over the top. There’s a lot for me to talk about in the first season, so you’re gonna get a number of posts on it. Hope you like the series.


The first season is nominally set in 1667, but in reality it covers events from that year down to about 1670 or a little thereafter. Instead of offering a look at Louis (George Blagden) as an somewhat jaded older man, as most film treatments of the subject tend to, it offers us a Louis of only about 30 who is still working to master his kingdom. In the first season he decides to turn Versailles from a hunting lodge into a grand palace (in reality, that project had already begun in 1661), and he offers his court a vision of Versailles as the cultural center of the universe. Naturally, for any story set at Versailles, literal palace intrigue plays a major role in the story.

Incidentally, if you want to know about the show’s visuals, the ladies at Frock Flicks have rendered their verdict on the costuming and it’s not bad, other than the poofy shirts the men frequently sport. I was very skeptical about the hair, since Louis’ reign was famous for men in wigs, but apparently the wigs were more of a fashion statement later in Louis’ reign and the hairstyles in the show are not unreasonable for the 1660s and 70s.


The Baby

At the start of the show, Louis’ wife Maria Theresa (Elisa Lasowski) is pregnant. She’s presented as a dark-haired Spanish beauty, instead of the rather plain-looking blonde woman she was (like all the Hapsburgs, she had a great deal of German blood). At the end of the episode she goes into labor and much to the surprise of the king and his physician, she gives birth to a black girl. The official word is that the baby was stillborn.

VERSAILLES Saison 1 - Episode 7

Lisowski as Maria Theresa


The physician offers the rather improbable sounding theory that Maria’s black dwarf jester Nabo played a joke on her and scared her so badly that it darkened the baby she was carrying. While that theory would be pretty bizarre if a modern obstetrician proposed it, 17thcentury doctors were constantly offering that sort of guess because they believed that a mother’s emotional experiences during pregnancy could have a profound effect on the fetus (a theory that was still circulating at the end of the 19thcentury). (And in fact the comment is based on something that Maria Theresa herself actually said.) Nevertheless, everyone who knows about the black baby assumes that the queen was getting it on with Nabo, and by the end of the second episode, Nabo turns up dead in a fountain.

In the third episode, Louis receives a visit from a Senegalese prince, and since he met the queen once before, it’s broadly hinted that he might be the real father. During the negotiations between Louis and the prince, Louis uses the baby girl as a bargaining chip of sorts, and the episode ends with the prince taking the baby with him.

So is there any truth to it?



Yes. Not much, but a little. First, it has to be said that the show takes liberties with the timeline (I know, shocking that an historical show would do that, right?). There is no way that Maria Theresa had a baby of any kind in the summer of 1667. On January 2nd of that year, she gave birth to the king’s fourth child, Marie-Therese, who was very definitely white. She gave birth to their fifth child, Philippe Charles, on August 5thof 1668. Even if Louis had knocked up his wife immediately after Marie-Therese was born, the baby wouldn’t have been born until October, and Louis would certainly have allowed his wife to recover for a few months before resuming intercourse with her. In 1667 he had two known mistresses, so it’s not like he was having trouble finding a date.

That being said, in 1664, Maria Theresa gave birth about a month prematurely to a baby girl named Marie-Anne, who died about a month later. Maria Theresa had been sick for more than a month before the birth and only recovered in January of 1665. Our best source of information about Marie-Anne was the duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the king who is today remembered for her memoires, an important source of information about Louis’ court. Montpensier says that Philippe, Louis’ younger brother, told her that the baby was born with a very dark, almost violet complexion. If true, the cause of the baby’s coloration was probably a lack of oxygen. Maria Theresa was devoted to Louis, and also probably quite aware of the danger of cuckolding the king, since that would be treason punishable by death. So it is rather improbable that she had an affair with Nabo, or a visiting African prince, or anyone else. The fact that he remained married to Maria Theresa until her death in 1683 is perhaps the best evidence against the rumor that she had given birth to a black child. But the fact that the queen was quite fond of Nabo may well have helped trigger the rumor that he had fathered a baby with her.

But there’s another complication to the story. The same year that Marie-Anne was born and died, another black girl was born. This girl, Louise Marie-Therese, grew up to join the Benedictine convent of Moret-sur-Loing, and was known as the Black Nun of Moret. Although not a lot is known about her, she clearly had some connection to the royal court. Her portrait was painted by an unknown artist who also painted portraits of 22 French kings including Louis XIV. She is mentioned by at least six different authors with connections to the royal court, including Montpensier; one of Louis’s mistresses; and Louis’ second wife, Madame de Maintenon. The duke of Saint-Simon, another important memoirist about court life at the time, says that Louise once greeted Louis’ son as “my brother”. Louis arranged for a rather handsome pension for her. As a result, some have conjectured that Marie-Anne did not actually die but was smuggled out of court and dropped off at Moret.


Louise, the Black Nun of More


However, that scenario is probably untrue, because there’s a much better candidate for her parents. Louis had a Moorish (that is, black African) coachman who had a baby girl. Louis and Maria Theresa acted as godparents for the girl, a not-uncommon gesture for royal servants. After the coachman and his wife died, Madame de Maintenon arranged for the child to be placed in a convent as a favor to the parents. However, that’s not slam-dunk proof, because sometime around 1683, Maintenon secretly married Louis. Her claim that she had given this baby to a convent only dates from the period after the marriage, and it looks like it could be an effort to suppress the rumor that the unusual black nun at Moret could actually have been Marie-Anne. Could Maintenon have lied about the baby in order to help cover up the evidence that Louis was a cuckold?
It’s possible, but like I said, I doubt it. The best evidence points toward Marie-Anne being dark-skinned because she was premature and sickly. But it’s worth noting that what happened to Nabo is unknown. Maybe Louis did have him drowned in some fountain somewhere.

The up-thrust of this is that it’s wildly unlikely that Maria Theresa gave birth to a Senegalese prince’s son. But at least Versailles grounded its rather dramatic story in an actual rumor that was circulating at the time and didn’t just resort to making shit up whole cloth (cough Reign cough).


Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

Louis XIV has been the subject of numerous biographies. Anthony Levi’s Louis XIV is well-regarded.

Tulip Fever: Love Amidst a Speculative Bubble


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Tulip Fever  (2017, dir. Justin Chadwick, based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach) is a modest little movie set in Amsterdam (I think) in 1637. It tells the story of Sophia (Alicia Vikander), a young orphan married to Cornelis (Cristoph Waltz), a wealthy merchant. As usually happens when Hollywood presents May-December marriages, Sophia has an affair with a man closer to her own age, Jan (Dane DeHaan), a painter that Cornelis has hired to do a portrait of the two of them. What sets the film apart from every other iteration of this film are two things, the attempted resolution to the adultery and the fact that history’s first economic bubble, Tulip Mania, was happening at the time.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re thinking about watching this film, you might want to stop reading, since I give away a couple of big plot points.


The Plot

The set-up is, as I’ve already said, pretty familiar. You’ve probably seen a dozen films with that Spring-Winter love triangle. Sophia is Cornelis’ second wife, his first wife having died in childbirth along with the baby. After three years of marriage, Sophia has not produced a child and Cornelis is beginning to talk about divorcing her (which he could have, although realistically Dutch religious authorities only granted divorce in cases of adultery). When Sophia meets Jan, the two of them quickly begin an affair, with a little help from Maria (Holliday Granger), Sophia’s servant and confidante. But then Maria’s boyfriend gets her pregnant and disappears, leaving her staring down the barrel of social ruin. The two of them, aided by an unscrupulous physician, hatch a plot to solve all three problems at once. Sophia will pretend to be pregnant while they hide Maria’s condition from Cornelis. When Maria gives birth, the baby will be presented to Cornelis as his, but they will claim that Sophia died in childbirth, allowing her to run off with Jan. Needless to say, things don’t work out as planned.

The film offers a nice look at how all of those portraits that you see in museums were painted. Jan spends some time making sketches of the couple, and paints their faces onto canvas, but then uses stand-ins and manikins dressed in the subjects’ clothes to paint most of the rest of the painting. He makes multiple studies of their faces and other details before finally executing the commissioned painting. He also talks about the symbolism of the various objects included in the painting: a globe to hint at Cornelis’ occupation as a spice merchant, a pair of scales to indicate an awareness of God’s judgment, and a skull to demonstrate an awareness of mortality. 17thcentury Dutch Calvinists were expected to show off both their economic success and their godliness, so an expensive painting could do both simultaneously. The portrait is intended as a way of saying “Look at me, bitches, I’ve got money, but I know it’s really just a temporary blessing from God.”

Unfortunately, the paintings that Jan does in the film look a lot more like an mid-20thcentury portraits than 17th century ones. But let’s not quibble.


Jan deciding how to pose Sophia


Putting the Tulips in Tulip Fever

A key part of the story is the wild speculation into tulip futures that today is known as Tulipmania. Both Maria’s boyfriend and Jan get involved in speculating in the tulip market. Jan borrows heavily to purchase a rare bulb that he plans on selling to finance his intended life with Sophia. So let’s look at Tulipmania.

The Tulip was introduced into Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16thcentury, and it became extremely popular in the Netherlands in the 1590s, owing to its deeply-saturated color. By this point the Netherlands was rapidly rising in wealth due to the strength of its maritime trade; in the 17thcentury, the Dutch enjoyed the highest per capita income of any people in the world (one reason for all those Dutch paintings). The Dutch had a lot of money to spend, just like Americans in the 1980s, and the result was a thriving market for luxury goods like flowers. The most highly-prized were the ‘Breakers’, tulips that had a primary color broken with stripes of a different color, caused the Mosaic Virus. The most highly-prized were the ‘Bizarres’, which had yellow or white stripes on red, purple, or brown backgrounds. (The film gets this wrong, claiming that the most covered were white tulips with red streaks. I think they decided that red on white was either more striking on the screen or else that red on white had a nice symbolism for Sophia’s lost moral purity.)


Man with a wife and a tulip


In the 17thcentury, the Dutch had perhaps the most sophisticated financial sector in the world, with a thriving futures market. By the early 1630s, a market developed for speculation in tulip bulb futures, in which prices for the more unusual Breaker bulbs rose rapidly, and by 1636, the market for unbroken bulbs also heated up, and tulip bulbs became the fourth-most important export of the Netherlands. In 1635, one sale of 40 bulbs netted 100,000 guilders; for comparison, a skilled labor might earn between 150 and 350 guilders a year. So these bulbs were pretty much worth their weight in gold.

At that point, the market got quite complex. Investors bought contracts for future bulbs and then turned around and sold them immediately. What was changing hands was not the tulip bulbs themselves (which were still in the ground), but the contracts for ownership of those bulbs when they came out of the ground in the summer. Most of the people who bought the contracts never saw the bulbs they technically owned. Trading was done in taverns, with a small fee charged on each sale going to pay for wine, and one can easily imagine that some degree of inebriation played a role in the rising prices.

But then, in February of 1637, the market abruptly crashed. A group of buyers refused to show up to a sale in Haarlem because of an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. The government declared that anyone could void a purchase contract by paying a 10% penalty, and as lawsuits occurred, judges concluded that these contracts were a form of gambling and thus unenforceable. And later in the month the Florists’ Guild decreed that those who held the futures contracts were not obligated to purchase the bulbs; in effect the futures contract became an option contract.


The Semper Augustus Breaker tulip


In 1841, the first modern account of Tulipmania was published by the Scottish author Charles Mackay. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Mackay reported stories of mass irrationalities, lumping together the Crusades, dueling, fortune telling, and (most importantly for our purposes) economic bubbles. He identified Tulipmania as one of three major examples of speculative bubbles. An economic bubble arises when the trade price of something irrationally exceeds its intrinsic value. People buy the asset expecting the price to continue rising and then turn around and sell it, pocketing the difference between the purchase price and the sale price as profit. Eventually, however, the bubble bursts. People realize that the asset is over-valued and stop buying. That causes the prices to start coming down, and there’s a sudden scramble to unload the asset, generally at a loss. (The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Housing Crash of 2008 are both examples of speculative bubbles.)

Mackay’s description of Tulip Mania presented it as a madness that caught a hold of the general Dutch population, with everyone from nobles down to chambermaids and chimney sweeps getting into the market. He reports a story in which a sailor mistakenly ate a rare bulb, thinking it was an onion. (The story is probably false because while tulip petals are edible, tulip bulbs are both unpleasant-tasting and poisonous to humans unless carefully prepared.) Contracts supposedly changed hands hundreds of times. When the bubble burst, thousands were left destitute and some supposedly committed suicide by throwing themselves into the canals.

Tulip Fever definitely presents this view. Maria’s boyfriend buys a batch of plain white bulbs, hoping to make a small profit, but gets lucky when one bulb turns out to be a red-on-white Breaker. He pays 18 guilders for the lot and sells the Breaker for 920 guilders, but then gets robbed. The Breaker’s buyer then donates the bulb back to the convent that grew it, enabling the abbess (an underused Judi Densch) to sell it to Jan, who goes deeply in debt to buy it. Buying it for 1200 guilders, he sells it for 8000. But his creditors refuse to let him leave to fetch the bulb, so he sends his drunkard servant (played by the always-annoying Zach Galifianikis) to pick up the bulb from the abbess, who jokingly tells him it’s an onion. On the way back, he eats the bulb, thus ruining Jan. The market inexplicably collapses the same day.


If you’re a fan of big ruffs, this is the movie for you


The film mis-presents what’s going on. Instead of futures contracts, it shows the actual bulbs changing hands. The buyer gets a contract that is redeemed with the grower, who hands over the bulbs. I suspect the decision to show it this way was made because futures sales are a fairly abstract concept that is likely to confusing many viewers. But it’s hard to understand how a bubble could develop the way the film shows, since bulbs obviously take time to grow, which would probably act as a brake on the market. It was the very intangeability of the bulbs as an asset that allowed the market to get overheated. Also, if the bulbs themselves don’t change hands, that key moment of Jan’s bulb getting eaten can’t happen.

Nor does the film connect Tulipmania to the growing prosperity the Dutch were enjoying in the 1630s. As in 2008, there was too much money chasing too few investments and people felt flush with cash. Detached from its economic setting the whole Tulip Mania element of the film just feels a bit silly.


More Importantly…

Mackay’s story of Tulip Mania is wildly exaggerated. Mackay was a great story-teller, but he wasn’t an historian. In the 1980s, economists began digging into the facts behind his narrative, and much of the story collapsed, its own kind of narrative bubble. Mackay drew on a number of pamphlets written by religious authors who were hostile to the idea of a futures market in tulips because they saw it as immoral. These pamphlets argued that the crash was due to an improper concentration on material things rather than salvation. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence for the movement of tulip prices; the vast majority of evidence comes from 1637, making it hard to say for certain that the prices were actually in a bubble. Contracts did not in fact change hands hundreds of times; the most-traded contracts changed hands five times, and usually much less than that. No one committed suicide over the crash.

More importantly, in contrast to Mackay’s claims, most of the evidence suggests that the people who were investing in tulip futures were wealthy merchants with excess cash to play with, not poor laborers hoping to get rich. Only 37 people are known to have spent more than 300 guilders on a purchase. Whereas Mackay claims that thousands were financially ruined, in actuality, it was probably more like 5 or 6 men who lost their shirts. In fact, most sales didn’t involve actual money changing hands (that wouldn’t happen until the final buyer actually picked up the bulbs in May or June), so unless someone had bought a contract on credit, they wouldn’t have lost much when the market crashed. The only people seriously at risk were those who were expecting to get paid for their bulbs. They still had their assets, but if they had borrowed money on the expectation of the sale, they could have been in serious trouble.

So while the price of tulips did suddenly crash in February of 1637, the scenario that the film presents is basically untrue, though not entirely without foundation. Overall, Tulip Fever is not a bad little film but it’s not exactly a great movie either, and it’s easy to see why it came and went last year without attracting much attention. Maria starts blackmailing Sophia, Jan doesn’t seem like a man likely to inspire adulterous passion, and Cornelis becomes quite sympathetic as the film goes on, leaving the viewer not sure who to root for by the film’s denouement. For a romantic drama, it has a surprising amount of humor, although Cornelis’ repeated struggles to get his “little soldier to stand up” get kind of creepy.

If you have a film or tv show you would like me to review, please make a donation to my PayPal account and request one.


Want to Know More?

Tulip Fever is available on Amazon. Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever is also available.

If you want to know more about Tulipmania, Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is still in print, and gets updated periodically. Or you could get Anne Goldgar’s scholarly study of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, which debunks much of Mackay’s narrative.

Pose: Life on the Margins


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FX recently debuted a new tv series by Ryan Murphy, and I’m really enjoying it, so I’m going to post about it, even though it’s only on its first season and I’ve only seen the first four episodes, which are all that’s been broadcast.


Pose is Murphy’s effort to present the ball culture of Harlem in the 1980s to modern Americans. The show serves as an examination of the lives of gay and trans black people in that period, the AIDS Crisis, and the whole ‘Greed is Good” era, all at once. Its four main characters are Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), a latina transwoman; Angel (Indya Moore), a latina transwoman; Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young gay black man; and Stan (Evan Peters), a white stock broker who works in Trump Tower.


Ball Culture

Ball Culture has its roots as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when an annual drag ball was an important social occasion in the black community. Modern Ball Culture was founded around 1968 when a black drag queen, Crystal LaBeija, became frustrated with the racism of mainstream drag pageants and chose to found her own pageant for black drag queens, the House of LaBeija Ball. By 1987, when the show opens, Ball Culture was flourishing within the Harlem gay and trans community (and it still continues today).

In this culture, a Ball is a combination fashion show and dance competition. Competitors participate in various categories such as Military, Royalty, Femme Queen Realness, or Butch Queen in Pumps. Competitors were judged on their costuming, their appearance and attitude, and their dance skills. There are two somewhat contradictory goals that need to be achieved in order to score well. First, the competitor had to demonstrate ‘realness’, roughly defined as the ability to pass as a member of the category within the boundaries of straight white culture. Second, the competitor had to demonstrate an ability to call attention to themselves in a dramatic way, particularly with the extremely flamboyant style of improv dancing known as Voguing (made famous in 1990 by Madonna’s Vogue video), which makes use of elements like catwalking, duckwalking, and exaggerated arm and hand gestures.


Two men voguing


Ball Culture was (and still is) an expression of the complex social needs of black and latinx gay and trans people. Since these people tended to be rather poor, the balls gave them a fantasy of being well-off and ‘respectable’, while at the same time poking fun at a majority culture they couldn’t easily participate in. But it also showcased an important skill that many blacks and gays have to learn within a wider white heterosexual majority culture, namely the ability to pass as whiter, wealthier, and straighter than they actually are. The ability to pass as straight and middle class, for example, might enable a poor black woman to successfully navigate an encounter with a hostile bureaucrat or enable a gay man to avoid getting beaten up or denied a job. So while the balls were extremely playful, they were also a sort of training ground in which those who can figure out how to pass were rewarded by winning trophies while those who cannot pull off the intended look are scorned with poor judges’ scores and snide comments. While a majority of the contestants were gay or trans, there were categories, such as Military or Business Suit, where straight black men might compete in demonstrations of traditional masculinity, and black women had similar opportunities to showcase traditional femininity.

Because such a large portion of the Ball Culture were social outcasts due to their homosexuality or their improper gender identity, Ball Culture developed the idea of the House. Houses acted as alternative families whose members supported each other and often lived together. Houses were typically led by older or more successful members known as Mothers or Fathers who provided guidance, training in key skills, moral and social support, and perhaps economic assistance to their ‘children’. Members of a House usually adopted the last name used by their Mother or Father. For example, Crystal LaBeija’s ‘family’ were the House of LaBeija, and when Crystal died in 1982, another member, Pepper LaBeija, became the new Mother. Since Pepper’s death, the current Mother of the House is Kia LaBeija.



Ball Culture is the background to Pose. In the first episode, Blanca is a rather frustrated member of House Abundance, whose mother Elektra (Dominque Jackson) is both acid-tongued and ‘legendary’, meaning that she and her children have won a lot of ball trophies. She’s a tough, bitter transwoman who has a keen understanding of both how to make a splash at a ball and how harshly life can treat transwomen. She takes out her frustrations on Blanca and in the pilot she steals Blanca’s idea for a Royalty walk and then literally leads her children on a stealing spree from a museum. Later in the episode, Blanca gets the news that she’s HIV positive and this, coupled with her irritation with Elektra, goads her to strike out on her own and form the House of Evangelista. She recruits Angel, Damon, and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) into her house and moves them into a spacious but decaying apartment that she can somehow afford on her income as a nail technician.


Moore as Angel, walking in the category Royalty


In addition to its look into the world of Ball Culture, what I like most about Pose is its willingness to explore the tough lives and choices that gay and trans black people had in the 1980s. Damon, who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, is thrown out of his house by his parents because he’s gay, and he spends time homeless before Blanca invites him into her apartment and her House. Angel, like too many transwomen, is a prostitute and stripper at a peep show, at least until she meets Stan. Lil Papi is dealing drugs, despite Blanca’s ban on it. The show generally makes clear that its characters are poor and living a hardscrabble life, although it occasionally gets into a certain amount of fantasy about what’s possible; for example Damon’s homeless boyfriend somehow manages to keep his gorgeous jacket in pristine condition despite life on the street. But most of the characters engage in ‘mopping’ (shoplifting) to find items to wear in the balls.

The show is also particularly honest about its trans characters and the struggles they face. The show set a record for the highest number of trans actors in leading or recurring roles (five); Blanca, Elektra, and Angel are all played by trans actresses. These three characters all offer distinct viewpoints on the trans experience. Angel, despite being a prostitute, has a somewhat naïve longing for a traditional romantic life and when she meets Stan, she agrees to let him set her up in her own apartment and be a kept woman. Despite knowing that Stan is married with kids, she tries to engineer a semblance of a normal life with him, but cannot help but worry about his wife. She struggles to understand how a man who says he’s not gay can be attracted to a woman with a penis.

Elektra is also a kept woman, but she has years of bitter experience that have made her hard; she has a keen sense of the limitations that transwomen of color face and her prescription for climbing the ladder is to accept those limits and learn to game them. At one point, she uses her ability to pass as a woman of means to sweet-talk a police officer into releasing Blanca after the latter is arrested. At the same time, while she looks down on many of the transwomen in the show, she is not above resorting to criminal behavior to achieve her goals. She longs to have what the show refers to as “transsexualism surgery”, but her man warns her that if she goes through with it, he’ll end the relationship.


Rodriguez and Curiel as Blanca and Lil Papi


Blanca, however, sees a better world, a promised land for transwomen where they can at least be fully accepted in the gay community; early on she stages a defiant protest of a gay bar that caters to butch gay men and refuses to serve transwomen. This is a particularly nice touch. As gay culture has been presented in the mainstream media, gay men are generally depicted to being fully accepting of transwomen (if transwomen are depicted at all). In reality, transwomen have occupied a complex place in gay society. While queens and effeminate men were the driving force behind the Stonewall Riots, the more butch elements of the gay community have often been unwilling to fully accept them; draq queens and transwomen are celebrated as entertainers but often rejected as sexual partners and scorned for being too effeminate. (On contemporary gay dating sites and apps, it’s common for men to describe themselves as ‘straight-acting’ or to say ‘no fems’.) So it’s good for a show to explore that tension a little bit.

The show also explores the realities of the AIDS Crisis. Blanca’s realization that she doesn’t have a long life ahead of her spurs her to try to build up something that will last, namely a House that will become legendary but will also take better care of its children than Elektra does hers. In the fourth episode, Damon gets sick and Angel discusses the symptoms of seroconversion with him, one of the more frank discussions of HIV I’ve seen on television. The emcee for the balls, Pray Tell (the stand-out Billy Porter), has a boyfriend Costas who is dying of AIDS, and apparently he’s had more than one, as so many gay men in the 80s and 90s did. When he visits the hospital, he discovers that the nurse on duty has refused to bring Costas’ food into his room, and has just left it out in the hallway. That sort of callous, fear-driven treatment of AIDS patients was sadly common in the early days of the AIDS Crisis, and it highlights the need for chosen family of the sort that Houses provided. Thousands of gay men died abandoned by families and medical practitioners, often having to be nursed at home by a lover or gay friend because they either couldn’t afford medical treatment or because hospitals treated them so poorly. At one point Pray Tell discusses how the AIDS Crisis weighs on him and his sex life, and says “I’m scared.” Blanca replies “What is scared to people like us? It’s like water to a fish.” That’s probably the best one-sentence summary of gay life in the late 80s I’ve ever heard.

Refreshingly, the show avoids stigmatizing its characters’ sexual choices. Angel’s life as a sex worker is presented in a very matter-of-fact way, without any shaming of her for it. There’s no indication of how Blanca got infected; was it from a boyfriend, or did she, like Angel have to turn tricks at some point? Damon’s decision to give up his virginity to his boyfriend is explored as a serious choice, the same way it would have been with a straight white teen character, and Blanca gives him a very frank lecture about the realities of gay sex, even explaining that in gay sex there are ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’. Lil Papi admits to have allowing guys to give him blow jobs for money. Stan is shown using a condom when he has sex with Angel.

Meanwhile, Stan struggles with the suffocating materialism of 1980s corporate culture. He’s trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, keep his wife happy, and earn the bonuses that are a measure of status in his social group, and Angel seems like his lifeline to something real and genuine and only for him. James van der Beek plays his Gordon Gecko-like boss with crass enthusiasm; apparently Dawson grew up and sold his soul. The contrast between Stan’s wealth and the other characters’ poverty offers an implicit criticism of Reagan-era economics.

Overall, I really applaud Pose for its choice to focus on such an under-represented segment of society and for its efforts to be relatively honest about the challenges this community had to deal with. Thus far, the show has focused on its characters as sexual minorities and has not really looked at them as racial minorities. I hope it does, because understanding the layered nature of their minority status is key to understanding them. They are not just a sexual minority, they are also racial minorities and in several cases gender minorities as well. The gay community has not fully reckoned with the degree to which white privilege permeates its lobbying efforts, and Pose could help address that problem. Give the show a look.


Want to Know More?

Pose is on FX. The best introduction to Ball Culture is Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is BurningIt’s an excellent introduction to the major elements of the culture, told primarily through interviews. It is also a good window into the lives of black and latinx gays and transwomen, who discuss their dreams and aspirations.

Troy: Fall of a City: Meh


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In my previous post, I talked about whether Troy was a real place and whether the Trojan War was a real event. Regardless of whether it was or not, the Trojan War played a central role in the two greatest works of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and if you were a well-educated Greek, you knew these stories as well as modern people know Shakespeare’s plays. The two Homeric epics have stood the test of time and both tell profound, powerful stories. It’s surprising that modern cinema hasn’t drawn off these well-known classics more than it has.


So I was sort of excited to see the BBC/Netflix series and how it would treat the Trojan War. Sadly, the series is pretty disappointing. The show’s pacing is simultaneously fast-paced and dull, an impressive accomplishment, but probably not one it was aiming for. The acting is nothing to write home about, the dialog feels limp, and the show offers little insight into these ancient characters nor anything to make the story feel relevant to the modern world. The scenery, with South Africa standing in for Asia Minor, is pretty though, and the show’s approach to the Greek gods is sort of interesting, albeit in a rather unsatisfying way. I want to like the show, but I just don’t.

Unlike the 2004 film version of Troy, Troy: Fall of a City makes some real effort to be faithful to the original material. It follows the broad outline of the Iliad: the taking of Chriseis by Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) triggers a plague sent by Apollo that forces him to return the girl. He soothes his wounded pride by taking Briseis (Amy Louise Wilson) from Achilles (David Gyasi), who furiously withdraws from the war effort, and so on.

And it tries to fit in as much of the back story to the Iliad as it can. At the start of the series, Paris Alexander (Louis Hunter) discovers that he’s not some rough commoner but member of the royal house of Troy, which is basically true to the myths, in which Hecuba and Priam are given prophecies that their son will destroy Troy so they order the baby killed, but the kind-hearted servant instead spares the boy. And then the gods ask Paris to decide which goddess is most beautiful. Aphrodite (Lex King) bribes him with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, and the show’s plot is set in motion.

Troy - Fall of a City generics

Francis O’Connor as Hecuba

After he is reunited with his family, Paris is sent on a simple mission to Sparta to give him some experience at diplomacy but he falls in love with Helen (Bella Dayne), who basically Fed Exs herself to Troy, much to Priam’s (David Threlfall) consternation.

When the Greeks want to set sail, they discover that Artemis is angry and will not let them sail until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to her. So throughout the show there are nods to actual Greek myths both large and small, instead of just focusing on the Iliad, which after all only covers one period 9 years into the war without either the beginning or the end. Sticking to just that material would have made a rather awkward story by modern standards.

Unlike the 2004 Troy, which tried to tell the story of Troy without the gods or anything else supernatural, this Troy does include the gods. Throughout the show, the gods intervene in small ways. For example, when Paris first sees Helen, Aphrodite slowly walks through the room.

But at the same time, the show also wants to modernize the story by making the characters more psychological and smoothing over some elements of the story that don’t play well for a modern audience. The show takes an essentially race-blind approach to casting, so that the Greeks and Trojans are played by various black or white actors; Achilles and Patroclus are both black, as is Zeus.


Gyasi (left) as Achilles, talking to Patroclus

As it happens, Chriseis bares a strong resemblance to Iphegnia, so Agamemnon’s reluctance to give her up is more about his emotional trauma from having to sacrifice his own daughter. That’s not a bad twist on the material. But things work less well with Briseis. The show doesn’t want her to just be a slave girl, so Achilles insists that he’s interested in her as a person, and he and Patroclus have a bisexual three-way with her. As a result, Achilles’ anger isn’t over his wounded pride; it’s because Agamemnon has stolen his girlfriend. The reason that’s a problem is that in the Iliad, Achilles’ rage is about his own inability to empathize with anyone else, and the poem ends when Achilles is finally able to achieve a moment of empathy with his enemy Priam. Here, not so much.

Similarly, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) is having trouble conceiving until Helen tells her about a fertility remedy she knows. That’s sort of a nice idea, given the pathos around what will eventually happen to the baby after the city is captured. (Spoiler: in the myths, baby Astynax gets thrown off the walls of Troy so that he can’t grow up to avenge his father’s death.)

But the show feels a need to insert a variety of boring sub-plots because it doesn’t find enough in the Iliad to make the mid-part of the story interesting. After a year of being sieged, the Trojans decide to dig a tunnel that will connect to one of their allied communities. But Paris and Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) have to *yawn* make a daring ride overland past the Greeks to get to that community and then the Greeks figure out what’s up and just after the tunnel gets opened the Greeks slaughter the allies and the Trojans have to close the tunnel. And then it turns out the Odysseus has a spy inside Troy   *yawn* and then Achilles sneaks in and sees his old girlfriend Helen who persuades him to leave but then one of the servants sees and starts to suspect her *yawn*, and then just as the Trojans are about the attack the Greeks, the spy releases all the Trojans’ horses, and…

Yeah. Having decided to tell the story of the Trojan War, the screenwriters immediately decided that they didn’t have enough story to tell and had to come up with something else.


Paris (Louis Hunter) deciding which goddess he’s not going to piss off

Likewise, although the gods are characters in the show, they don’t actually do very much. For example, in the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris have a duel to settle the war once and for all. But when Menelaus is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite intervenes to magically carry him back to Troy, where he can be safe and have sex with Helen (she’s the goddess of love and sex, so the mortals she patronizes get to have a lot of sex). But in the show, all Aphrodite does is briefly distract everyone long enough for Paris to throw sand in Menelaus’ eyes and then run off into the wilderness where he spends an episode wondering why his parents didn’t love him.

At a different point, Hera accuses Zeus of having orchestrated the whole thing, but Zeus denies it, saying that he gave Paris free will to see what he would do with it. But that rests rather awkwardly with the fact that Aphrodite got everything going by bribing Paris with Helen’s love. It also doesn’t really fit with the prophecy that Paris is going to be the cause of the destruction of Troy, or with the fact that Cassandra can see the future. In Greek literature, prophecy is a rich source of irony. Priam, like Oedipus’ father, tries to avoid the prophecy but can’t, while poor Cassandra knows the future but can’t persuade anyone to listen to her.

The Iliad was written before the Greeks had really begun to wrestle with the whole tension between divine will and human free will. The gods are constantly causing things to happen. Athena and Hera want to see Troy destroyed because they are mad at Paris for giving the golden apple to Aphrodite instead. Zeus orders all the gods to keep their hands off Troy, but Hera intentionally distracts him so the other gods can sneak down and interfere. Athena actively suckers Hector into standing and fighting Achilles precisely because she knows that Achilles can kill Hector. So the gods are often ‘Homer’s’ way of giving characters some degree of psychological interiority. Instead of characters making complex emotional decisions, the gods whisper to them to get them to do things. So the whole story is about humans trapped by divine causality because the gods are angry about things. It’s a problematic dynamic, and one that later Greek authors like Sophocles would challenge by articulating notions of free will and human responsibility for their own mistakes.


The show’s approach to costuming is not exactly faithful to Bronze Age Greece

So the show is compromising. It wants the gods to be figures in the show because they’re important to the Iliad, but it also wants the characters to be fully responsible for their own decisions and have complex interior lives because that’s how modern cinema operates. The result is muddy theology and gods that drift around getting dramatic camera shots but not really doing anything. It’s an unsatisfying solution.

So the show isn’t really that good. But if you’re looking for something that tries to tell the stories of the Greek myths, you don’t have a lot of other options, unfortunately.

Want to Know More?

There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.

Troy: Fall of a City: Did the Trojan War Happen?


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In February of 2018, Netflix and the BBC released Troy: Fall of a City. Filmed in South Africa, it tells the story of the Trojan War, drawing fairly extensively off of the Iliad and other Greek myths. Before I tackle the series itself, however, I first need to discuss whether the Trojan War is actually an historical event.


While the Greeks believed that Troy was a real city and the events of the Trojan War were historical, by the 19thcentury, most scholars assumed that the story was fictional and that Troy had never existed. In the 1860s, however one of the first archaeologists of note, the German Heinrich Schliemann, became convinced that Troy was a real place (although Schliemann is sometimes described more as a treasure hunter than a genuine archaeologist). Working from information provided by another archaeologist, Frank Calvert, Schliemann eventually conducted a dig at Hisarlik in modern Turkey, on the northwest corner of Asia Minor. He discovered the ruins of a series of layered ancient cities which he declared to be Troy, although his excavations caused enormous damage to the site, to the point that one scholar declared that Schliemann had done to Troy what the Greeks had been unable to do in ten years.


Heinrich Schliemann

Scholars agree that Schliemann’s identification of the ruins at Hisarlik with the Troy of Greek mythology is essentially correct. But Troy was not exactly one city. Instead the ruins show a whole series of cities at Hisarlik, the earliest being founded around 3000 BC and the latest being destroyed late in the Roman period. By tradition, these various cities are known as Troy I, Troy II, Troy III, and so on down through Troy IX (the highest and most recent city). One layer, termed Troy VIIa, flourished in the 13thcentury, during the Mycenaean Period of ancient Greek history.


The 13thcentury BC is sometimes called the Heroic Age, because it corresponds to the period when according to Greek mythology the major Greek heroes were active. Historians call it the Mycenaean Period, because the archaeological layer characteristic of the culture was first identified at Mycenae. The Mycenaean Period was the first flourishing of Greek culture, characterized by large citadel-palaces and a wealthy warrior aristocracy.

Mycenaean Greece was part of an international network of cultures that included Egypt, Babylon in Mesopotamia, the Hittites in Central Asia Minor, the Trojans in northwestern Asia Minor, and the Minoans on Crete.  These cultures traded extensively with one another and carried on a lively diplomacy in the 14thand 13thcenturies BC. The Mycenaeans developed a form of syllabic script called Linear B that they used for simple record-keeping.

And then, for reasons that historians are still trying to piece together, it all fell apart at the end of the 13thcentury. The Hittites, the Kassite Babylonians, the Trojans, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans all suffered a total collapse. Their societies gave out and never recovered, all within about a half-century on either side of the year 1200 BC. The New Kingdom in Egypt held together for about another century before giving way to the Third Intermediate Period.


The Bronze Age Collapse

There are numerous theories about what caused this catastrophe, which is rightly considered the worst disaster of the ancient world. There was clearly a great deal of violence; most of the Mycenaean and Minoan palaces show signs of violent destruction. Both disease and earthquakes have been pointed to as contributing factors. One of the more interesting theories is that the emergence of iron-working technology destabilized the established military systems of the era, which depended on bronze. Since bronze was inferior to iron in terms of strength and hardness, the spread of iron weaponry would have upended existing military arrangements. Among the Greeks, the collapse was so severe that they literally forgot how to write. Linear B was entirely forgotten, and the Greeks wouldn’t acquire the more familiar alphabetic script until the 9th century, with the result that for about 300 years, the Greek ‘Dark Age’ is totally undocumented. Our best sources of information for the Dark Age are archaeology and linguistics (we know a bit about what Greek was like before the Dark Age and we know what it was like afterwards, so the changes give us some clues to what’s happening in between).

Troy VIIa was destroyed around 1190 BC, although only pieces of it have been found. There is some evidence of a fire in the one part of that level of the city that has been excavated. Some partial human remains were found in buildings, and one skeleton with skull injuries and a broken jaw was found near the city’s walls. Three bronze arrowheads were found. All of that is consistent with some sort of war, although none of it is proof of war. And the city does not seem to have been completely destroyed. The Troy VIIb layer suggests that the city remained inhabited, so that whatever happened to VIIa, it was not a complete annihilation of the community.


The walls of Troy (but not Troy VIIa)

Crucially, a date around 1190 BC is loosely consistent both with the Bronze Age Collapse and with the period when later Greek legend claimed that the Greeks (or more properly the Achaeans, since the Trojans were also a branch of Greek culture) destroyed Troy. So it’s not wrong to say that we have evidence that the Trojan War actually happened. There is reasonable evidence that Troy really was at least partly destroyed in a war and that this probably happened as part of the Bronze Age Collapse.

However, having said that, I immediately have to qualify it. The fact that a war might well have overwhelmed Troy VIIa is not the same thing as saying that the Trojan War as it has come down to us is real. We have no evidence at all that any of the people named in the Greek myths actually existed. There may have been a Troy, but we can’t say that it was ruled by Priam and Hecuba and defended by Hector the Breaker of Horses. We can’t say that Troy’s calamity began when the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen away from her husband Menelaus of Sparta, and we have no proof that the attackers were Achaean Greeks, much less that they were led by Agamemnon and Achilles.

What about the Iliad?

What about it?

Ok, it’s actually a fair question. If the Iliad tells use the names of all the major players in the Trojan War, why am I so skeptical that those were real people?

The answer to that question is kind of complicated and gets into all sorts of questions about when the poem was composed and who composed it. First, it has to be noted that the world the poem describes is filled with all sorts of historical errors in terms of Bronze Age Mycenaean culture:

  • The armor described sounds much more like Archaic period (9ththrough 6thcentury BC) armor than Mycenaean armor. Mycenaean helmets were made of animal tusks, not bronze.
  • The heroes ride to battle in chariots, which the Mycenaeans used, but use them all wrong. Instead of firing missiles at their opponents from fast-moving platforms, Achilles and company ride up to their enemies in chariots, leap out to fight hand-to-hand, and then jump back into their chariots.
  • The Mycenaeans buried their valued dead in vaulted beehive tombs called tholoi, but the dead heroes of the Iliad are cremated instead of buried.
  • The few scraps of written information surviving from the Mycenaean period describe complex distinctions of leadership that are absent from the Iliad.
  • The Iliad fails to mention many major Mycenaean communities.

Despite all of this, we do have some scraps of information from the Mycenaean period that point toward the Homeric tradition. Surviving Mycenaean documents do mention a number of the gods worshipped by the classical Greeks, including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, and Athena. The name ‘Achilles’ occurs in one document as the name of a shepherd. Records from the Hittite kingdom of central Asia Minor mention a place called Wilusa, which might be Ilion (the alternative name for Troy that gave the Iliad its title), whose king was Alaksandu the son of Piyama-Radu; Alexander was the actual given name of the Trojan hero Paris, the son of Priam. Most famously, a throw-away detail in the poem known as the Catalog of Ships mentions a long list of places that existed in the Mycenaean period, some of which no longer existed by the Archaic period. So there are a few hints that a genuine historical tradition lurks under the Iliad.


This Mycenaean suit of armor looks nothing like later Greek armor

Greek tradition claims that the Iliad (and the Odyssey) were written by a blind poet named Homer who presumably composed the poem in one long act of composition. The reality was much more complicated. In the 1920s, American scholar Milman Parry proposed that the poem was composed according to what he termed Oral Formulaic Theory. To be simplistic about it, Oral Formulaic Theory holds that instead of memorizing an enormously long and complicated poem like the Iliad, what oral poets actually did was to memorize the outlines of a story that could be expanded or contracted to fit the poet’s needs during a given recitation. For example, if the poet were performing the Iliad at Ithaca, where Odysseus was from, he could greatly expand the material about Odysseus and perhaps contract the material about Menelaus of Sparta based on what he assumed would go over well with his audience. So instead of reciting the poem verbatim every time, he essentially composed a new version of the poem each time he performed it. To help him in the task of composing on the fly, the poet made use of stock phrases that bought him time to compose the next line in his head as he recited the previous one. For example, when the sea is mentioned, it is always ‘wine-dark’, when Athena appears, she is usually ‘grey-eyed’; that’s the Formula part of Oral Formulaic. Parry was able to prove that this was the way that Yugoslav poets worked when they performed, so his theory has solid evidence behind it as a system of performance.

If that’s true for the Iliad, then it’s much harder to speak of a specific author. Homer wasn’t so much the author of the poem we have today as he is a collective name for the many poets who memorized the structure of the poem and then constantly changed it as they performed it and passed it on to a new generation of poets. Perhaps the poem (or a piece of it) was first composed within a generation of 1190 BC, but by the time it got written down in the 8thcentury, it had passed through so many hands that must have undergone enormous change from its first version. Because there’s no good way to tell what has changed and what hasn’t, it’s impossible to locate whatever original nuggets of fact might still exist in the poem.

It is, however, possible that the written version of the Iliad was reworked by the final person whose hands it passed through. The structure of the poem is, in it own way, quite tight (though not as tight as the Odyssey), and the characters in it demonstrate reasonably consistent personalities. It opens with a declaration of its theme, the wrath of Achilles, and concludes when Achilles is finally able to lay aside his wrath. All of that sort of suggests that a conscious mind was at work, trying to achieve a consistent and satisfying story. So perhaps we can say that Homer is the final editor of the poem.

What’s Actually In the Iliad?

When students actually read the Iliad for the first time, they are often surprised to discover that it doesn’t tell the whole story of the Trojan War. It actually only tells the story of one important moment during the 9thyear of the 10-year campaign. It doesn’t tell us about how the war began; it makes no mention of the Golden Apple that Paris was asked to award to the loveliest goddess. It doesn’t tell us how Aphrodite, the winner of that contest, awarded Paris Helen of Sparta and how he stole her from her husband Menelaus. Nor does it tell us anything about the end of the war. The famous Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy won’t happen for another year after the end of the poem.

Instead, the poem opens with Chryses, the priest of Apollo, seeking the return of his daughter Chryseis, whom Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, has taken as a slave. When Agamemnon refuses, Apollo strikes the Greeks with a plague that forces Agamemnon to return the girl. Butt-hurt over having to give up his war prize, Agamemnon petulantly confiscates Briseis, Achilles’ slave girl. That causes Achilles to get pissed off, so he decides he’s going to sit out the war and just sulk. Given that he’s the greatest warrior on the Greek side, the consequence is that the Trojans have the upper hand. Hector proves a greater warrior than anyone on the Greek side except Achilles.

Eventually Agamemnon swallows his pride and sends Odysseus to Achilles with an offer to return Briseis. But Achilles has built up a good head of anger and refuses. Eventually Patroclus, who is probably Achilles’ lover although the poem never makes that explicit, begs Achilles to let him borrow Achilles’ armor so he can fight. Since he’s wearing Achilles’ armor, everyone will think Achilles has changed his mind and this will boost the Greek morale. Achilles agrees but tells him that he cannot pursue the Trojans if they retreat. But you already know what’s coming. Patroclus ignores Achilles’ command and pursues the Trojans back to the gates of Troy, where Hector fights and kills him, thinking he’s just killed the greatest hero of all time.


Achilles bandaging up his boyfriend Patroclus

Achilles is furious with grief when he learns his sexy daddy Patroclus is dead. Since his mama is a goddess, he gets a new set of armor made by Hephestus himself and goes and wreaks havoc among the Trojans. Eventually Hector goes out to fight him but chickens out and instead they get into a foot-race around Troy. Athena, who is still pissed at the Trojans because she didn’t get the Golden Apple, eventually tricks Hector into standing to fight, at which point Achilles gets Mycenaean on his ass and kills him. Then, because he can’t make Hector any more dead, he ties Hector’s corpse behind his chariot and drags it around Troy a bunch of times. It’s an act of total savagery, but he’s so torn up that his lover is dead that he can’t stop himself.

Eventually, in one of several remarkably moving moments in the poem, the aged Priam goes to Achilles, kneels before him and begs for his son’s body so he can bury it properly. Achilles finally realizes that his grief isn’t any different from Priam’s, and he agrees to return Hector’s body, allowing the Trojans to bury and mourn their great hero.


Priam begging for Hector’s body

At the end of the poem, the writing is on the wall. With their greatest hero dead, it’s clear that the Trojans will lose. But it’s still going to take a year and the most famous military trick in world history to take them down.

In my next post, we’ll look at how Troy: Fall of a City handles this material.

Want to Know More?

There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.

If you’d like to know more about the Bronze Age Collapse, I really liked Robert Drews The End of the Bronze Age.

Turn: Washington’s Spies: Slavery


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I had a few things I wanted to say about the depiction of slavery on Turn: Washington’s Spies. Because of the long gap in posting, I’m going off memory, so this is going to be a much less detailed post than normal, but I figured I’d put a few thoughts out there. It’s great that the show wanted to acknowledge that there were black people around during the Revolution and that some of them played roles in what happened. But I wish it had done a better job of it.

In episode 5, “Epiphany”, Anna and Selah Strong’s slaves are confiscated because of the Dunmore Proclamation. The Proclamation was issued in 1775 by John Murray, the earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor of Virginia. It promised slaves in Virginia their freedom if they took up arms for the Crown. So the Proclamation was a real thing, but the show has almost entirely gotten it wrong. It didn’t grant freedom to slaves of suspected patriots as the show has it; it only granted them freedom on condition of fighting for the British. And it didn’t apply in New York where the show is set, because Dunmore’s authority didn’t run in New York. And it basically required the freed slaves to rebel against their owners.


Idara Victor’s Abigail

Also, although there were certainly slave owners in New York State, it’s sort of odd that Anna (Heather Lind) and Selah are shown as slave owners. In the show, the only clear information we get about their livelihood is that they run a tavern. Perhaps they might have owned a slave to help them run the tavern, but it’s pretty unlikely that they would have owned the roughly dozen slaves the show seems to present them as owning at the start of the episode. Perhaps the Strongs had a farm that we don’t see, but it seems unlikely that they would have needed that many slaves to run it.

One of the Strongs’ slaves, Abigail (Idara Victor) has a young son Cicero (Darren Alford) whom she leaves behind with Anna. Somehow, both Abigail and Cicero are literate. That’s unlikely. It wasn’t common to teach slaves to read and write unless their work would have required it somehow and Abigail and Cicero seem to be domestic servants. But let’s give the show the benefit of the doubt and assume that Anna or Selah taught them to read and write for some reason; although the show makes no indication of it, perhaps the Strongs are devout Christians who care about the salvation of their slaves and wanted them to be able to read the Bible.


Darren Alford’s Victor

But the show suggests that slave literacy was a punishable offense. When Abigail leaves Cicero with Anna, she tells him that he must be extremely careful not to let anyone know that he can read. The implication here is that slave literacy is not allowed and punishable, although it’s not clear if this is supposed to be a crime, or just something white people don’t want slaves to be able to do. It’s true that many southern colonies/states did pass laws against slave literacy because they feared that it could encourage slave rebellions, but none of the northern colonies/states ever passed such laws. So once again the show is incorrectly generalizing from a specific situation in the South to all the colonies.

The most problematic thing in the show, however, is the dynamic between Abigail and Anna. Anna clearly views her slaves as valuable property, because she’s distraught about having them confiscated by the British; it puts her in a very precarious situation economically. That’s reasonable; a dozen or so slaves would have represented a very significant financial investment for any family. But then she goes to Abigail and begs her forgiveness. So despite clearly viewing her as property, Anna also somehow suddenly views Abigail as an actual human being. This feels totally implausible to me. Anna was apparently ok owning Abigail until she didn’t, and then suddenly she feels bad about it. Clearly, the writers realized that having a major sympathetic character be an unrepentant slave owner wouldn’t work for the audience, but given how suddenly the issue comes up (prior to episode 5, there’s no mention of slavery or any hint that the Strongs own slaves), this just felt ham-fisted.


Even worse, Abigail forgives her immediately and the two suddenly become very close friends. Slaves did sometimes become emotionally intimate with their owners—the classic examples are a mistress’ maid and a master’s concubine. But those were very fraught relationships. The slave in question had no say in the relationship and typically used that relationship to try to get protection, less harsh treatment, and other similar things from their owner, in the hope that if their owners felt some affection for them, they would be less likely to do things like beat them or sell their children. So these relationships weren’t normal friendships, because there was such an intense power differential involved, and the slave typically had to conceal his or her real feelings and feign affection and acquiescence toward the owner. So Anna might have thought that she and Abigail were friends, but Abigail would certainly have had much more complex feelings toward her former owner than the show suggests.

The idea that slaves loved their owners and could become close friends with them was entirely a belief that white owners developed in order to help themselves avoid dealing with the brutal realities of owning another human being against his or her will. In general, the owners were deluding themselves, and the slaves were generally actively lying to their owners, faking friendliness because the consequences of expressing their bitterness and anger were too high.

So what the show is doing is taking a fantasy that slave owners came up with make themselves feel better about brutally owning and exploiting other humans and presenting it to us as a real thing that actually happened. Doing that is essentially claiming that slavery wasn’t so bad because slaves somehow enjoyed part of being slaves enough to allow them to form friendships with people they should actually have hated. It’s pretty damn offensive.


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.

One good book dealing with female slaves in this period is Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck’s Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England.

Turn: Washington’s Spies: The British


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I have to apologize for my long and unintentional absence from this blog. The past three months saw me dealing with a tsunami of grading work (as well as two important conferences), which ate up all my energies. I started to write this post, then had to set it aside, and the longer I was away from it, the harder it was for me to gather my thoughts and remember the things I wanted to comment on, without rewatching the first season again. But, now that my semester is finally over, I’m back!

In my previous post, I talked about the American side of Turn: Washington’s Spies. This post is going to look at the four major British characters in the first season: Major Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorham), Lt-Col. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), Major John André (JJ Fields), and Major Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen). Once again, they’re all real people.


Major Edmund Hewlett

In the first season, the British Major Hewlett spends his time in Setauket. He’s taken over the church and is using it as a stable for his horse, as an administrative office, and as a courtroom in one episode. Historically, the British did use the church as a stable, so I doubt they were using it for an office as well, because who wants horse shit all over their office? But let’s not worry about that. Hewlett’s a committed Loyalist who is very serious about law and order, and generally comes across as decent, if quite strict. He’s very focused on keeping order in the town, but eventually has a falling out with Lt-Col. Simcoe because Hewlett at least tries to be a reasonable man.

As this article explains, the historical Richard Hewlett (actually a lieutenant colonel, not a major, and having been given a less American-sounding name) was actually a native of Long Island and spent the entirety of the war there, assigned to various locations. At the time of the Revolution, he was in his 40s, married, and was in the process of fathering eleven children. In fact, Hewlett’s unit were not British redcoats but American loyalists.


Burn Gorman’s Major Hewlett

Assigned to Setauket, he was aware that the town was vulnerable and decided to fortify the church by pulling up gravestones to create a defensive perimeter for his troops to crouch behind. The show builds a whole episode around that issue. Historically, I doubt we know much about that process, but the show does a nice job dramatizing what might have been a moment of significant social tension in Setauket (although the episode studiously avoids touching on any actual religious ideas anyone might have had at the time). The actual Battle of Setauket seems to have been a pretty minor affair; there was a three-hour exchange of gunfire that left one Patriot wounded, and the Patriots decided to retreat for fear that British warships might spot the conflict and intervene. Hewlett received praise from his superiors for his actions.

Hewlett, like many Loyalists, emigrated to Canada when the British surrendered.

Overall, Burn Gorman’s Hewlett is probably as realistic a portrait of the man as is possible, given that we don’t know a lot about the man in terms of his personality, although one person who knew him described him as ‘spirited’, not quite the rather calm, focused figure the series gives us.


Lt-Col. John Simcoe

Samuel Roukin’s John Simcoe is a violent man to the point of sociopathy; he seems like a sadist who has few morals apart from a loyalty to the British Crown.  Over the course of the first season he repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to kill with virtually no hesitation. In one episode, he concludes that the man seated next to him at a dinner party must be an American spy, so he casually stabs the man in the throat like he’s spearing a piece of meat to put on his plate. That depiction is a serious problem, because Simcoe is actually an important historical figure.


Samuel Roukin as John Graves Simcoe


John Graves Simcoe grew up in England and enlisted in the British army in 1770 when he was 18. His unit was sent to the colonies and when the war broke out, he saw considerable action, including the Siege of Boston in 1775-76, and the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777-78, which resulted in the capture of Philadelphia, the capital of the young country. During that campaign, he organized a unit of rangers made up of free blacks and led the battle of Crooked Billet, inflicting significant damage on the Revolutionary forces. His unit proved extremely effective throughout the war, and was the first unit of rangers to wear green instead of red (a rather important innovation for troops that were intended to sneak through forests).

During the war, Simcoe ordered a number of massacres. In 1778, he ordered the slaughter of ten Americans caught asleep in southern New Jersey. But an additional 20 men were taken prisoner either during the assault or soon thereafter. The same year, he ordered the massacre of 40 Native Americans who were serving alongside the Continental Army in the Bronx. So on the surface that would seem to justify the series’ treatment of Simcoe as a maniac.

However in 1777, during the Battle of Brandywine, Simcoe is rumored to have restrained his men from firing on fleeing rebels (one of whom is said to have been George Washington). This act of restraint or mercy potentially changed the course of history, since if Washington had died in 1777, not only the war, but all of American history would have gone quite differently. In another incident, after he forbade his troops to confiscate the property of captives, he discovered that his troops decided to simply kill those who surrendered. Disturbed by this, Simcoe reversed his policy and allowed the confiscation of property in order to reduce the loss of life. He is also known to have approved General Howe’s restraint during the Siege of Boston and Howe’s decision to not burn the city. None of this is in line with Roukin’s portrayal of the man.

But Simcoe’s real importance lies after the war. He was elected to Parliament in 1790. In 1792, he resigned from Parliament to become the lieutenant governor of the newly created loyalist province of Upper Canada (or as we call it today, Ontario). In this capacity, he was responsible for the abolition of slavery in Canada. In 1793, a political incident arose involving Chloe Cooley, a young slave woman brought to Canada by her owner Adam Vrooman. Vrooman had emigrated from New York after the American victory in the Revolutionary War, taking his slave with him. But he began to worry that the government of Canada might abolish slavery, so he decided to sell her to an American who lived across the Niagara River. In the process of loading the tied-up Chloe into a boat for transport across the river, he beat her, and Chloe struggled and screamed for help. Vrooman seems to have successfully completed the sale, but after he returned, charged were brought against him for disturbing the peace, because witnesses had seen the altercation between him and Chloe. The charges were eventually dropped because Chloe was legally his property.


John Graves Simcoe

This outcome offended Simcoe, who leaned heavily on the government council to outlaw slavery, against the opposition of nearly half the council, who were themselves slave owners. The result of his efforts was the 1793 Act Against Slavery, which forbade the importation of slaves into Canada and declared that the children of slave women would automatically be freed when they reached 25 years of age. The Act made Upper Canada the first British colony to take solid action against slavery, although it did not abolish slavery within the province. That wouldn’t happen until 1833, when the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the Empire. In a speech to the council in support of the Act, Simcoe declared

“The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”

Hardly the sentiments of a sociopath. In fact, one historian has opined that Turn’s depiction of Simcoe is so egregious that it would “undoubtedly expose the producers to a defamation of character suit were the people portrayed in the series still alive.“

Incidentally, Simcoe also helped found the city that became Toronto, and he named Simcoe County in Ontario after his father.

Fun fact: Simcoe also sent the first known Valentine in America in 1779, to Sarah Townsend, who unbeknownst to him was the sister of a member of the Culper Ring and who was actively passing information to the ring.


Major John André

John André was a British citizen of French and Swiss descent who joined the 7th Royal Fusiliers based in Quebec. But after about a year he was captured when the Americans invaded Quebec and successfully sieged Ft. Saint-Jean. The siege stalled out the American invasion and ultimately they burned the fort and retreated, taking André and other prisoners back to Pennsylvania. At the end of 1776, he was freed during a prisoner exchange. He became a major in 1778 after joining Henry Clinton’s staff. His charming manner, fluency in four languages, and artistic skills all made him both socially popular and highly useful to Clinton during the occupations of New York and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia he lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house. In April of 1779, Clinton gave him charge of the British intelligence operations.

So the show has him conducting espionage about a year too early. But the show’s depiction of an urbane man who hosted popular parties is basically accurate. He was not, however, a master of espionage. He did effectively impose some organization on Clinton’s intelligence efforts, but he was not especially good at deception and his recruiting of Benedict Arnold seems to have been his one major accomplishment in British espionage. There’s no reason to think that he and Abraham Woodhull ever met.

One detail of the show stood out to me as bizarre. He is always show wearing a rat-tail braid behind each ear. (Oddly, it’s white, even though his hair is brown.) Take a look.


JJ Fields as John André


In a show that made some attempt (but only some) to get basic costuming right, the inclusion of such an obvious 20thcentury anachronism was startling. What the hell were they thinking?

It turns out that the show actually had some legitimate basis for this odd style. Namely, a painting of John André that clearly shows him wearing a rat-tail braid. Take a look.


The title of this painting is “A Soldier called Major John Andre”


Unfortunately, as it turns out, this painting isn’t the right John André. But the fact that rat-tail braids were an actual thing in the late 18thcentury floored me.


Major Robert Rogers

Robert Rogers was a moderately important figure in colonial America. His father brought the family to New Hampshire when Robert was 8. In 1756, he joined the British army during the French and Indian War and recruited a unit eventually known as Rogers’ Rangers, proving remarkably effective at operating in winter conditions. He was a skilled woodsman who learned a great deal from the local Indian tribes and frequently employed them in his unit. He was known for being harsh to prisoners, often killing and even scalping them. In 1763, when Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out, Rogers was involved in an ill-fated surprise attack on Pontiac’s position. Unfortunately, Pontiac was aware of the attack and ambushed it, killing or wounding 54 British soldiers.


After that, Rogers went to England and enjoyed some success as the author of play about Pontiac. He got an audience with George III, who gave him an appointment as governor of what became Mackinaw City, Michigan. Unfortunately, Rogers fell afoul of General Gage, who viewed him as a supporter of one of Gage’s chief rivals. Gage felt that Rogers close ties with the Indians marked him as suspect, and so in 1767, he had Rogers arrested for treason. Rogers was found innocent, but was unable to maintain his position. He returned to England badly in debt, wound up in debtor’s prison, and tried to sue Gage, who bought him off by granting him the rank of major.

When the American Revolution erupted in 1775, Rogers returned to America, but he was in an awkward position. He had been a skilled ranger, but by this time he was a hopeless alcoholic and penniless. His service to the Crown rendered him suspect to the Americans but Gage’s hatred of him meant that serving in the British army was out of the question too. So he tried to play both sides off against each other. He was immediately arrested in Philadelphia but released the next day with a promise not to take up arms for the British.

Fortunately for Rogers, soon after his release, Gage resigned, and General Howe proved more willing to employ him. Rogers then contacted Washington seeking a command. But Washington found out about Rogers’ double-dealing and had him arrested. He escaped and went back to New York, where he climbed up the anchor chain of the British flagship docked in the harbor, snuck past the guards, and crashed a dinner party. That show of skill was good enough for Howe, who commissioned him to recruit a new unit of Queen’s Rangers, with a promotion to colonel. Rogers captured Nathan Hale, Washington’s first attempted spy, in September of 1776.


Angus MacFadyen’s Robert Rogers

But after that, things went downhill for Rogers. The men he recruited into the Queen’s Rangers were a motley group, notorious for pillaging, which made them a nuisance to both Loyalists and Patriots alike. They were also prone to desertion; by early 1777, 80% of the men Rogers had recruited had abandoned their unit. When that became clear, Howe forced Rogers to resign. He went to Quebec the next year, and thereafter to London, New York, and then Quebec again. In 1781, he was captured trying to get back to New York, and wound up in prison. He was sent back to London when the British pulled their troops out at the end of the war. He died in poverty and obscurity.

Despite a fascinating history, Rogers’ one significant contribution to the story of the American Revolution—the capture of Nathan Hale—was already over with when Turnopens, and the activities of Angus MacFadyen’s Rogers are pretty much entirely made up. In fact, by the time the show starts, Simcoe had already taken charge of the Queen’s Rangers.


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.

There’s also a very good blog about Turn: Washington’s Spies, Turn to a historian. It has loads of material on a variety of facets of the series, so if you want to dig into the show more, this would be a good resource.