Tag Archives: Medieval

Up in the Air, In the Margins, On Stilts

I have been pondering several nineteenth-century prints, paintings and photographs of people walking around on stilts in the Landes region of Gascony (now Aquitaine) in France: in their road-less, marshy landscape, this was apparently the best way to get around. And so they walked around on stilts everywhere, doing everything. Very adaptable, they were. The best images are of shepherds, knitting on stilts while they watched their flocks. Most representations of these Landes stilt-walkers (and -sitters) make them look completely natural: it’s only when you take the stilts out of Landes that you know that something odd is afoot. The next-to-last image below is a French caricature mocking a corpulent Englishman on stilts: he clearly looks unnatural. He’s clearly more comfortable than his (presumably English) companions in the near-foreground, but something’s still not quite right. On the other hand, it seems quite logical, if not natural, for an English caricaturist to put Napoleon up on stilts, in another example of patriotic mockery.

Stilts Charades nypl

Stilts Shepherd NYPL

Stilts 1816 BM

Napoleon on Stilts

Prints from Victor Adam’s Charades alphabétiques. (Paris : Aubert, [1836]), the NYPL Digital Gallery, and caricatures (Paris: Aaron Martinet, [1816]), (London: Piercy Roberts, [1803]), British Museum.

The use of stilts to convey a certain precariousness goes way back, to the Renaissance at least. Albrecht Dürer puts Cupid on stilts and we know what he is conveying: love can be a little destabilizing. I’m pretty comfortable with Renaissance allegory but much less so with medieval meanings: when I look in the margins of illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century and before, I find lots of things that I don’t understand, including grotesque and hybrid creations of any and every kind, profane imagery and activities, and people and animals doing all sorts of things, including, of course, walking on stilts. What is the veiled pig doing on stilts? And why would a woman nurse her child on stilts (with a heavy-looking pot on her head)? It’s not quite natural. Somehow only the last man, playing his animal-headed pipe, affects the ease of the Landes stilt-walkers.

Stilts Pig BL FROISSART

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

Stilts Royal MS BL

British Library MSS. Harley 4379, f. 19v; Royal 10 E IV, f. 29v; Royal 14 B V, Membrane 1.


Hearts in Hand

For this St. Valentine’s Day I thought I would explore the heart in hand motif, which is probably familiar to most: there are countless items out there with this emblem, produced for or by the Shakers, the Order of the Odd Fellows, heartfelt lovers and/or mourners in the nineteenth century and a whole host of artisans and entrepreneurs more recently. It’s a captivating image, easily accessible and “read”, and highly decorative, but how did it emerge and evolve?

Hearts in Hand Am Folk Art Museum

Love Token, c. 1840-60, anonymous American artist, possibly from Connecticut, American Folk Art Museum.

Before the love token, declaring that hand and heart shall never part, or the fraternal staff, denoting “cheerful giving”, there was of course the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the object of intense veneration in medieval Europe. While the spiritual origins of today’s generic and secular symbol seem pretty clear to me, the road between past and present is not precisely a straight path. The image of the Sacred Heart is quite standardized in illuminated medieval manuscripts from the thirteenth century on: a heart, often flaming and always pierced, with attendant Crown of Thorns and the Five Wounds of Christ, wounds which were of course on his hands and feet. But there are evolving variations: the late medieval images below have already made the transition to a more worldly message, encompassing pity, love and charity.

Heart in Hand First

Heart in Hand Second

Princeton University Library MS Taylor 17, c. 1500.

Several of the most important medieval saints, including Augustine, Catherine of Siena and Bernardino of Siena, literally hold hearts in their hands as ever-attendant attributes: Augustine’s restless heart is guided by the Lord, and Catherine actually exchanges hearts with Christ. It seems to me that representations of these two saints humanize the heart somewhat, and late medieval romances contribute to that trend. You begin to see quite average people (well maybe not average, but certainly not saints) with hearts in hand. I suppose that the medieval-clothed Caesar is giving his heart to Rome.

Heart of Augustine

heart-catherine MET

Heart in Hand 3

Heart in Hand Via

St. Augustine with heart in hand, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland MS KB 76 F 2; Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging her Heart with Christ, after 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Arras Tapestry, Offering of a Heart, c. 1400-1410, Louvre Museum; Master of the Vitae Imperatorum, Illumination from Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 1433, Princeton University Library MS Kane 44.

The literal and the spiritual depictions of hearts in hand continue right through the Renaissance into the Reformation, eras of intense lay piety and scholarship. Nothing represents this better than the amazing painting by an anonymous Flemish master of a young man holding a heart-shaped book–he may or may not have been a member of a confraternity devoted to St. Augustine– but this focus on the word anticipates the Reformation, when John Calvin adopted the emblem of a flaming heart resting in a hand outstretched to God for his personal seal. So the Sacred Heart would survive the Reformation, in a way. The influences of classicism and realism affected the motif as well–so we also see hearts in real hands, and in that of Cupid, of course.

Heart Shaped Book

Heart Sincerity

Heart burning cupid ceiling

Master of the View of Sante Gudule, Young Man Holding a Book, c. 1485, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Carlo Dolci, Study for the figure of “Sincerity”, mid 17th century, British Museum; Francesco Mergolo, Design for a painted ceiling, 1770s, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum.

And then we’re off: it’s a straight line from the delftware plate below, commemorating a marriage, to the sentimental tokens of today. The heart in hand motif loses its specific Christian meaning and comes to signify charity, friendship, love, benevolence, sentiment–much more general concepts. The Odd Fellows emblem appears not only on signs and banners, but on a myriad of more mundane items, including tools and flyswatters. Valentine’s Day become a holiday–with all that entails.

Heart in Hand Plate 1798 Delft Northeast

Heart Odd Fellows

Heart in Hand Folk Art

Heart in Hand Bonnie Cashin Gloves

Heart Warhol

Dutch Delftware marriage plate, 1798, Northeast Auctions; Heart in Hand, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, c. 1890 Museum Victoria; 19th century paper love token, Peggy McClard Antiques; “Heart in Your Hand” Gloves by Bonnie Cashin, 1974, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Heart in Hand by Andy Warhol, 1954, Christies “Love” Auction.


Edmund the Martyr

Since I tangled with John Foxe the other day I’ve been dipping into some martyrologies–not the best bedtime reading I can assure you! I’m quite taken with the story of Edmund the Martyr (841?-869), and by sheer coincidence, his feast day is tomorrow. I think both English Catholics and Protestants would both recognize Edmund as a martyr at the time of the Reformation (though the latter would never validate his sainthood), and I am surprised that such a vivid writer as Foxe does not go into the gory details of the saint’s death. Edmund was King of one of the smaller early medieval English kingdoms, East Anglia, when the Danish Vikings invaded his territory and and slayed him. The basic events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were supplemented by the more detailed account of Abbo of Fleury in his Life of Saint Edmund (986): so that he might be compelled to renounce Christ, Edmund was imprisoned and tortured by the Danes (led by the oddly-named Ivar the Boneless), first whipped and tied to a tree and shot with arrows ‘until he bristled with them like a hedgehog or thistle’, but his faith remained steadfast. He was then beheaded (not sure whether or not he was alive at this point) and his head thrown into bramble thickets deep in the forest (on November 20). When his men searched for Edmund’s head later, they found it guarded by a wolf who called ‘hic, hic, hic (here, here, here)’, and so it was recovered. If the violence of one’s death is a testament to the conviction of one’s faith, certainly Edmund was a very pious man, and he was apparently recognized as such not long after his death, with a series of remarkable memorial coins. Given the nature of his martyrdom, you can imagine (actually you don’t have to) the other visual images associated with Edmund’s sainthood, from the eleventh century to the present.

Edmund Morgan MS 1

Edmund Morgan 2

Edmund Morgan MS 3

The torture and beheading of Edmund, and the recovery of his head from the guardian wolf, Morgan Library MS M.736, Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund, Bury St. Edmunds (where Edmund’s relics were entombed), England, ca. 1130

The beautiful Morgan manuscript dates from an era in which Edmund was recognized as a patron Saint of a recently-unified England, along with the soon-to-be martyred Thomas à Becket. One can’t help but compare Edmund to another popular Saint, Sebastian, who was tortured and killed in much the same way a millennium earlier: Sebastian has much the same “hedgehog” appearance in his depictions, and was universally venerated during the time of the Black Death because of its metaphorical association with arrows of poison/plague. The late medieval poet John Lydgate, who spent the last years of his life at the monastery at Bury St Edmunds, the martyr’s namesake town, inspired this next group of images, produced for a presentation copy of his life of Edmund which was gifted to King Henry VI in the 1430s.

Harley 2278 f.61

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 2

Edmund BL Lydgate MS 3

Harley 2278 f.66 (min)

Edmunds Restoration BL Lydgate 4

British Library MS Harley 2278, 1430s: Edmund is subjected to torture and beheading, the recovery of his head and reunification of his body.

A few other objects that speak to Edmund’s veneration through the ages: a medieval pilgrim badge, which could represent either Sebastian or Edward, a French Revolutionary print (something about heads?), and a twenty-first century sculpture: designed by Emmanuel O’Brien, constructed by Nigel Kaines of Designs on Metal, and installed in Bury St Edmunds  in 2011.

Edmund Pilgrim Badge BM

Edmund BM

Edmund Bury Statue 2011

Pilgrim badge and print by François Anne David, 1784, both British Museum; Emmanuel O’Brien metal sculpture at Bury, installed in 2011.


Witches and Trees

It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.

Witches Hopfer BM

Witches under a tree 1878

Arthur_Rackham_Witches_Sabbath_1000px

Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.

The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.

Witches at Walnut Tree Guglielmo della Porto mid16th met

Benevento

PicMonkey Collage

Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.

To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree:  the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit:  phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer)  a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.

massa-marittima

Massa Maritime detail

The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.


Why not Alfred?

Very soon we will have a name for the new royal prince and it will probably not be Alfred (all the odds seem to be on boring George or James), but I say: why not?  The  Anglo-Saxon kings are the most English of all English monarchs, and Alfred was, of course, the Great. His lifetime (849-899) was contentious and “dark”, but he shed light whenever he could. Though officially King of the West Saxons, he styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, and most historians think of him as the first King of England–at least that part not occupied by the Vikings. Alfred contained these same Vikings, by building a strong fortification system and a navy (again–what could be more English than this?) He was also that very rare early medieval king–a scholar–and as such translated classical and religious works into the language (Anglo-Saxon, Old English) of his countrymen, promoting knowledge and his native language at the same time. Alfred was truly a keeper of the peace and a unifier of England–both in terms of his military and administrative systems and his codified laws–and the only English king to be titled “the Great”: what better namesake?

NPG 4269; King Alfred ('The Great') by Unknown artist

NPG D9257; King Alfred ('The Great') by John Faber Sr

Alfred Counties

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Alfred 1912 BM

The only way to see Alfred as his contemporaries did is on the many coins from his realm, another sign of his effective kingship. Much later, his image becomes much more legendary: Ninth-century coin, and 1712 print by John Faber Sr., both National Portrait Gallery, London; “King Alfred the Great forming a Code of Laws and Dividing the Kingdom into Counties, Tythings, Hundreds, &”, Charles Grignion illustration from Raymond’s History of England, British Museum, King Alfred the Great attributed to Samuel Woodforde, c. 1810-15, The National Trust @ Stourhead; Print of Frank O. Salisbury’s King Alfred the Great Rebuilding the Walls of the City of London, 1912, British Museum.


Bad Hermits

Somehow I never connected the words hermit and hermitage until yesterday, when I read an article in the New York Times about a new book by Gordon Campbell entitled The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Oxford University Press), which traces “the origins of Snow White’s cuddly dwarf friends and their suburban-lawn counterparts to the 18th-century outbuildings where real people lived merely to provide ambiance.” The article leads off with a photograph of an eighteenth-century  Scottish hermitage (one of only perhaps 200 such structures that survive in Europe) that made the metaphorical light bulb turn on in my head. It also included a charming story taken from the book, about an English nobleman who hired a hermit to live in the quaint hermitage in his garden, for a period of seven years. Apparently the solitude was oppressive, and “subsequent versions of the story have the hermit being caught in the local tavern after three weeks and dismissed, and more recent elaborations include improper relations with a dairymaid” according to Mr. Campbell.

Hermitage

The Surviving Scottish Hermitage/ Photograph by Gordon Campbell, New York Times.

These stories also caught by attention, as they reminded me of the wayward hermit in a magnificent (and amusing) medieval manuscript commonly known as the “Smithfield Decretals”, produced in southern France around 1300 with additional illuminations added in London later on. Its formal title is the Decretals of [Pope] Gregory IX, British Library Royal MS 10 E.iv and it fills 310 folios of text and accompanying gloss–you can read a great post about it here. The images are varied and whimsical:  there are anthropomorphic animals, grotesques, crimes and misdemeanors, amorous encounters, and a very bad hermit, who, enticed by the devil, leaves his hermitage for the tavern, and becomes (in succession) a drunkard, fornicator, murderer, and wild man (surely an occupational hazard for any hermit), before he is ultimately redeemed in the end.

Hermit and Devil BL

Hermit Drinking

Hermit and Woman BL

Hermit clubbing miller

Hermit as wild man

Hermit Confessing

The Hermit and the Devil, followed by the Hermit drinking outside a tavern, in delicto flagrante, clubbing a miller to death, as a wild man  with only animals for company, and confessing his many sins, British Library MS Royal 10 E. iv, early 14th century.


Green with Envy

I have posted about green quite a bit on this blog:  green cards, green men, green rooms, the green fairy, my favorite shade of green. Yet it’s St. Patrick’s Day, so I’ve got to come up with something green–why not the emotion associated with the emerald hue? Shakespeare was specifically referring to jealousy with Othello’s “green-eyed monster” line, but jealousy is just a subset of the more all-encompassing envy, one of the seven deadly sins and the one conspicuous for its complete lack of pleasure: it leads not to material wealth or power or drunkenness, but only to a festering illness in which one literally eats their heart out. This self-inflicted sickness–described as a form of moral rotting–could be one source of the sin’s connection with the color green, as could its association with snakes, either alone or in the form of an allegorical Medusa-like character, but emerald (or chartreuse) envy seems to be more of a modern conception than a medieval one.

Envy 2008 by Michael Craig-Martin born 1941

Michael Craig-Martin, Envy (from the Seven Deadly Sins series), 2008.  Tate Modern, London.

Medieval manuscripts illustrate envy (invidia) in several ways:  on the iconic “Tree of Vices”, accompanied by a demon and its “sprouts” (detraction, treachery, treason, homicide, conniving, pleasure in the suffering of others–what we would call Schadenfreude–resentment, jealousy) and as a woman looking at something or someone with daggers (sometimes literally). Pride is always the root of the tree–the root all the vices– but envy is just one branch up from the fall of Man. Pride, represented by a King-like character riding a lion, and Envy, a sword-bearing woman riding a wolf, are closely associated in the fifteenth-century edition of penitential psalms below, and Envy reveals her jealous nature in a fourteenth-century Roman de la Rose. Green is not her color, yet.

L0029366 Tree of Seven Vices

Envy and Pride 2

Roy19BXIII_royal_ms_19_b_xiii_f006v_detail2 Envy1

The Apocalypse of St. John, c. 1420-30, Wellcome Library, London; British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, c. 1440-1450, and MS Royal 19BXIII, the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, c. 1320-1340.

Beginning with Giotto, the Renaissance shifted Envy decisively towards jealousy and generally portrayed her as an aged woman, tearing at her heart and/or eating an apple to illustrate her complete capitulation to temptation, often grotesque and emaciated, clearly suffering and sometimes chained, almost always with snakes. There’s a rather striking similarity between the depictions of Envy and witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before the conception of envy in particular and the seven deadly sins in general become secularized. A notable exception is Hieronymus Bosch’s famous table painting, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which depicts envy with an illustration of a local proverb about two dogs with one bone seldom reaching agreement. Still no green.

Envy Giotto Arena Chapel 1306

Envy George Pencz

Envy Bosch detail

Giotto di Bondone, Envy panel from the Arena Chapel, 1306; Print by George Pencz, 1541, British Museum; Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things detail, c. 1485.

Looking through allegorical images of envy from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I still don’t see much green, but then again, prints predominate. Lots of snakes are in appearance, which is appropriate for a St. Patrick’s Day post as the cleansing of Ireland of snakes is part of St. Patrick’s mythology. At least the connection between women and this most miserable sin is broken, as envy appears in the form of both sexes and then only as a green snake.

Envy 17th century

Envy Snake 1796

Print by John Goddard, c. 1640, British Museum; “Envy” (perhaps a caricature of the Earl of Abingdon), Anonymous, 1796, British Museum.

Envy is depicted in all sorts of ways by modern artists and illustrators, though the aged-lady-turning-green (grotesque)-with envy certainly comes back with a vengeance! I don’t usually see things exclusively through the prism of gender, but it’s really interesting to me how this most self-destructive of sins is so often associated with women. In two twentieth-century Seven Deadly Sins series, the Belgian artist James Sensor envisions a christening in which the young mother (interestingly dressed in green) is looked on with envy by everyone around her, but by the middle-aged woman to her right with particular vehemence, and Paul Cadmus’s Envy definitely harkens back to the Renaissance. As before, envy does not make for a pretty picture; I think I prefer alternative associations for the color green!

Ensor Envy 1904

Envy Paul Cadums

James Ensor, L’Envie, from the 1904 portfolio The Deadly Sins, Art Institute of Chicago; Paul Cadmus, The Seven Deadly Sins:  Envy, 1947, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 


Reynard the Fox

That fox pulling the papal tiara off Celestine V’s head in my last post reminded me of Reynard the Fox, a very popular medieval fable which developed in the later twelfth and thirteen centuries in France and Germany, from where it spread throughout western Europe:  the many “branches” of Reynard verse are generally grouped together as the Roman de Renart cycle. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism.  But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.49v

Fox Preaching Stowe

British Library MS  Royal 10 E IV, late 13th/early 14th century, and MS Stowe 17, “The Maastricht Hours”, early 14th century.

In every Reynard tale, the fox is summoned before a court of his animal peers, headed by a lion, of course, and called to task for his bad behavior. He always manages to outfox his judges by his cunning. He feigns remorse, confesses his sins, and sets off on a holy pilgrimage of atonement, only to get into more trouble. A death sentence leads to more displays of cunning, exploits and opportunities, and consequently he becomes the sympathetic “hero”, the one for whom we root.

Reynard the Fox Bod MS Douce 360

Reynard Bod Ms Douce Reynard Dead

Reynard as a “pious” pilgrim and on the cart of a fishmonger who has presumed him dead–meanwhile, the fox is working his way through the stock of fish:  Bodleian MS Douce 360, “The Romance of Reynard and Isengrin”, 1339.

I definitely think Reynard’s popularity increased in the late medieval era along with anticlericalism and lay piety, and he makes it into print relatively early. In England, William Caxton published his own translation in 1481, and the “history” was reprinted regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There followed all sorts of literary adaptations, as Reynard, like any outlaw, is readily adaptable. The most famous modern adaptation is Reneike Fuchs, an epic poem produced by Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1794, supposedly influenced by the events of the French Revolution. The editions of this text issued from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Joseph Wolfe, must have been extremely popular as they were constantly in print. There were also a succession of children’s versions of the fable issued in the nineteenth century, and really beautiful artistic editions published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (a reprint of Caxton) and the Insel Verlag Press in 1913.

V0023068EL A fox in a monk's habit is apparently deeply engrossed in pr

Reynard the Pilgrim

Reynard Kelmscott Press 1892

Reinke Voss 1913

Reynard posing as a monk in order to access the chicken coop of a monastery, and as a pilgrim being blessed by a ram-priest, Wolfe and von Klaubach illustrations from 1853 & 1846; first page of the Kelmscott Press Caxton edition, 1892; Cover of first edition of Reinke Voss, 1913.

Reynard lives on in a variety of forms and formats in the twentieth century, and today can be found on everything from pillows to china to chess sets. He seems to have shed a lot of the satirical and moralistic messages of his medieval origins, but he was never that moral a character to begin with so I guess it doesn’t matter!

Reynard the Fox Coffee Service

Reynard the Fox Etsy

Two Reynards that I covet:  a Royal Doulton coffee service from 1935, and pencil illustration of Reynard the Fox Detective.


Hollywood History

This has been quite the year for historical movies: the majority of best-picture nominees are set in the past, even if it’s the relatively recent past of Argo and the very recent past of Zero Dark Thirty. In addition, there has been lots of discussion about the historical accuracy of these films which, while occasionally interesting (particularly the Connecticut v. Lincoln controversy, initiated when Connecticut congressman Tom Coutenay criticizing the film for its portrayal of two fictional Connecticut congressmen voting against the 13th amendment when in fact all four congressmen from the state voted for the amendment outlawing slavery) is hardly news. All historians know that “historical” films are never accurate, but I, for one, still have my favorite films set in the past. I like these films for various reasons– the feelings they provoke, the certain aura or spirit that they might capture, the way they look, the performances, the soundtracks– but I rarely learn anything from them. There are some films that I like to show in class just because they provide a lesson in just how inaccurate “historical” films can be!

lincoln_med

So, in honor of Oscar night, here are my top ten period films, in chronological order of setting. I’ve left out the major epic movies, most of which I do not like either as movies or history, in favor of “smaller” films that are personal favorites.  And remember, I teach medieval and early modern history, so most of my films come from these eras:  sorry, no World War II films, guys (I actually like war films, but I’m more of the Mrs. Miniver and Best Years of Our Lives type, with the exception of submarine movies, which for some reason I adore. If I could add an eleventh film, it would be Das Boot).

Medieval Movies:

The Thirteenth Warrior (1998):  this film was a financial and critical failure, but I like it, or parts of it. Based on Michael Chrichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, the plot is a curious combination of Beowulf, pre-Christian Scandinavian culture, and a real early medieval source:  the Risala of Ibn Fadlan, the chronicle of a 10th century Arab diplomat who journeyed to eastern Europe and Russia and encountered the Vikings along the way.

Valhalla Rising (2009): an extremely atmospheric film in which a one-eyed Norse warrior (Odin?) and his child companion go on a mysterious journey, and end up in the New World. They come out of the fog into a dramatic encounter with Native Americans (apparently played by Tibetans) at the very end of the film. This is not an easy film, but its marriage of mysticism and blind faith are pretty compelling.

The Seventh Seal (1957): Ingmar Bergman’s classic film about a returning Swedish (again–I didn’t realize I was so obsessed with Scandinavia before writing this post!) Crusader’s encounter with the Black Death and Death Personified, with whom he plays chess intermittently throughout the films until Death wins. The scene in which the knight and his companions wait for death/Death at dinner in his castle is haunting, as is their “Dance of Death” at the very end of the film. This is one of the few films which I try to show in its entirety in class, rather than just clips, and the students usually get (into) it.

seventh-seal-chess

A Knight’s Tale (2001):  and on a much lighter note………….you might be surprised to find this film on my list but I love this film’s spirit as well as its use of very deliberate anachronisms. I like to think of Chaucer’s world this way. You can’t recreate the fourteenth century on film anyway, so you might as well have fun!

Henry V (1989): this is my favorite Shakespeare film as well as my favorite Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film. The St. Crispin’s Day speech is of course extremely inspiring, as is the score by Patrick Doyle, most especially the choral epilogue at the end of the Battle of Agincourt:  “Non Nobis, Domine”. Most students have a rather romantic view of medieval warfare, which the long and bloody battle scene helps to dispel.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): it is difficult to over-emphasize the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film, which narrates the examination, trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431 through extreme close-ups of the participants, warts and all. The master negative of the film was destroyed in a lab fire only a year after its release, and so the complete film was lost for decades, until a copy was miraculously found in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the early 1980s. The DVD release in the 1990s includes an oratorio by Richard Einhorn called “Voices of Light” which actually makes the silent film even more compelling, but the real star of the production is actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who appears to be in a near-ecstatic state for most of the film, as if possessed by Joan.

A Queen and Two Kings:

Elizabeth (1998): this film is a historical hot mess which plays with chronology and the facts with abandon—and the sets are terrible. Nevertheless I do like Cate Blanchett’s characterization of the young Elizabeth, and the movie is useful to me as I can teach against it.  I really like the poster too: I have framed versions in both my university and home offices.

elizabeth 1998

A Man for all Seasons (1966):  now here is an example of much more subtle anachronism, with Thomas More not only deified for his faith, but also for his individualism. There were so many English “historical” movies made in the 1960s (The Lion in Winter, Becket, Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots, Lawrence of Arabia, etc…) that I felt that I should include one, and More’s struggle between conscience and obligation to Henry VIII is universally appealing. Paul Scofield as More and Richard Shaw as Henry VIII are both great; in fact, Shaw is probably my favorite screen Henry VIII. If I show clips in class, however, I feel that I have to balance the film’s portrayal of More’s resolute passage to martyrdom with his zealous persecution of Protestants.

Man for all Seasons movie poster

The Madness of King George (1994): a very entertaining presentation of King George III’s descent (and recovery) into a porphyria-induced insanity in the late eighteenth century, and the ensuing Regency Crisis. The actual events seem to be accurately, albeit dramatically, portrayed, but this is not really my period so I can’t critique accuracy; I’m just entertained. Nigel Hawthorne as King George is amazing in this film; he was robbed by Forrest Gump of the Oscar that year.

One War Film:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): an extremely powerful view of another descent, of innocent, whipped-up German boys into the hell of World War One. This film was on TCM several weeks ago and I sat watching it, riveted, even while it was extremely difficult to do so. I think this movie benefits from its age; you can tell that it was made by the same generation that experienced the first World War. And of course all the battle scenes would be computer-generated if the film were made today, which would transition it into video-game territory and rob it of its humanistic power.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

So there you have it:  my top ten list of historical films–for now.  This was tough; I think I would come up with a different list next week, or maybe even tomorrow.  All comments and suggestions are more than welcome (even for war films): the list is always subject to substitutions.


Christmas Casting

In the medieval era and slightly after, Christmas was often the time for making predictions for the coming year, rather than on New Year’s Day. Weather predictions were common, and also more varied prognostications, based on what day of the week Christmas fell. The predictions based on a Christmas Tuesday are not particularly cheery, I must admit, but then neither are they overwhelmingly optimistic for Christmases that fell on the other days of the week.  Here’s the Middle English verse from British Library Harley Manuscript 2252, the commonplace book (an often-miscellaneous journal of very random sayings and bits of information, kind of like a blog!), of London merchant John Colyns, from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, with my hasty translation. It’s been a while since I have tangled with Middle English so there may be some lapses here, but I think I got the gist of this verse.

Yf Crystemas day on Tuysday be, That yere shall dyen wemen plenté; And that wynter wex grete marvaylys; Shyppys shalbe in grete perylles; That yere shall kynges and lordes be slayne, And myche hothyr pepylle agayne heym. A drye somer that yere shalbe; Alle that be borne ther in many se, They shalbe stronge and covethowse. Yf thou stele awghte, thou lesyste thi lyfe; Thou shalte dye throwe swerde or knyfe; But and thow fall seke, sertayne, Thou shalte turne to lyfe agayne.

If Christmas Day be on a Tuesday, many women will die that year; and that winter will see great marvels; Ships shall be in great perils; That year kings and lords shall be slain, And many other people against them. That year will have a dry summer; All that are born in that year shall be strong and covetous. Whoever steals, shall lose his life by sword or knife; But if one falls sick, they shall become well.

Well at least it ends on a somewhat optimistic note!

STC 25949, title page

Ships and people in peril a century later:  The Wonders of this Windie Weather, London, 1613. STC 25949.


         


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