Britannia, Season 3 – Sky Atlantic

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   I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in my history books about the Roman occupiers of Britain being cannibals, but, according to “Britannia”, they were just that.  Well, one of them was, anyway.  The poor bloke who ended up being served up at a banquet wasn’t even chopped into pieces and put in a stew.  He was wheeled to the table in a long silver dish, intact,  covered in a) all the trimmings and b) his helmet.

It all started off quite peacefully.  New series, new theme tune – Children of the Revolution.  Who knew that Ancient Romans and Celts were into Marc Bolan?   The Roman general with the Scouse accent had now got a nice pad in St Albans, but was in the doghouse all round because he’d lost track of the mysterious girl with magic powers, and wasn’t having much joy getting any information out of the guy who previously claimed to be 10,000 years old.  To add to his woes, his wife turned up.  This was when the rot set in.  First of all, she told him off for putting on weight.  Then she asked him where his sword was.  It was at the polishers, claimed he.  Ah.  Well, what was the sword that’d been found sticking out of a stump, then, asked she, brandishing it about.  He tried to claim that it wasn’t his, but failed dismally because it’d got his name on it  Engraved on it, that is, not marked with a Cash’s name tape.  She also crawled about sniffing the floor for any signs that other women had been in the place.  As you do.

Having found that he did, indeed, have a mistress around the place, she said that it was better than doing unspeakable things with his socks.  Too much information.  And then she had his mate served up for tea.

Meanwhile, Phelan, the dispossessed prince, was training as a druid, and was told to change his name to Quant.  Maybe druids were into Mary Quant make-up as well as glam rock.  Or maybe they just didn’t want their new guy being associated with Pat Phelan.  He was dispatched into the woods to find some moss, but sat around chatting to a centipede and then came back empty-handed.  And then the girl with the magic powers stabbed the guy who’d claimed to be 10,000 years old because he’d forgotten her name.  Or something.

I don’t know what the scriptwriters on this are on, but I suspect that it’s something rather stronger than mead.  Or vino.  And I think they may have had a little too much of it.  But at least it was entertaining.  It was so totally bonkers that you just had to laugh.  I mean, what on earth?!

Hild by Nicola Griffith

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I was expecting this to be about nuns at Whitby Abbey. Instead, it involved the future St Hild having a passionate affair with her maidservant and then making an incestuous marriage to her illegitimate half-brother.  So it would be fair to say that it was a lot more exciting than I was anticipating!   Apparently it’s intended to be the first of a trilogy, though, so the nuns at Whitby Abbey will presumably materialise in the second and third books.

Novels about the Dark Ages are hugely problematic, because we just don’t know very much about what went on. They often become more fantasy than history, which is understandable, but, from a historian’s viewpoint, very frustrating.  They often involve Vikings, presumably because most readers are going to be familiar with the Vikings, even if that entails a totally inaccurate image involving horned helmets et al 😉 .  And they usually focus on male warriors.

This book doesn’t do any of those things. There is a sense of fantasy, but I think that’s inevitable when writing about people about whom so little is known.  There is an element of the supernatural, with the idea of Hild as the king’s “seer”, but that was part and parcel of the culture – and, when you think about it, it’s no more fantasy than the beliefs of today’s organised religions, just less familiar.  And a lot of what people imagine to be the product of Hild’s imaginary powers is actually information that she’s cleverly found out by keeping her ear to the ground and sending people out to find out what’s going on.  There are no Vikings – the raid on Lindisfarne wasn’t until 793AD, and this was set in the 610s, 620s and 630s.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Vikings, but I was looking for Anglo-Saxons and Celts!   And much of the focus is on women – Hild herself, her mother, her sister, various other royal women, and their female friends and servants.

Nicola Griffith is very keen on the concept of the “gemaecce” or “gemaecca” – a formal friendship between two women who are not blood relatives or romantic partners but who live and work together. It sounds fascinating, and it would be great to write a long essay on the role of female friendships in literature, but, although the word is real, she made the concept up.  She says that she “repurposed” the term.  “Repurposed” sounds like something that an American politician would say, but never mind!   Most of what’s in the book is invented, but it has to be, because we just don’t know very much about Hild’s life, and we don’t know nearly as much about the events and lifestyles of the time as we do about, say, the Tudor period.  “I made it up,” she says in the afterword.  Well, our Yorkshire neighbours are supposed to be blunt!

It’s a period that most people know very little about, and, whilst that gives the author a lot of scope for invention, it also means that there’s no real framework, and very little to work with – so it’s really very brave to tackle something like this by way of a historical novel, rather than fantasy. She’s stuck to the facts where they are known – although she’s got Hild as the niece of Edwin of Northumbria, whereas she was actually his great-niece.  It’s such an incredibly crucial period of English history, the overlap of Anglo-Saxon – and Jutish, although the poor old Jutes tend to be forgotten! – and Celtic cultures, and the Conversion.  Some of the characters are Anglo-Saxons, some are Celts, and some are of mixed heritage.

The known figures are there – King Edwin of Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia), Hild’s mother Breguswith and sister Hereswith, and Hereswith’s husband, Ethelric of East Anglia. The events that are known about – or known insofar as we can know them, mainly from the writings of Bede – are there, the alleged poisoning of Hild’s father whilst he was in exile in the Celtic kingdom of Elmet.  That isn’t in Wales or Scotland or Ireland, but in part of what’s now the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire.  Everything’s so … blended, for lack of a better way of putting it!   We see the characters switching from Anglo-Saxon English to Brythonic Celtic dialects.  We even get a lot of Anglo-Saxon words in both the narrative and the dialect. Because that’s how it went – it wasn’t just a case of one population being moved along as another one came in.  It rarely is.

The other crucial overlap, of course, was between Christianity and … ugh, I don’t like the word “paganism”, because it always sounds so condescending and negative. Between Christianity and traditional polytheistic religions, let’s say.  I love the way Nicola Griffith tackles this.  A lot of … OK, this isn’t a fantasy novel, but there is so much overlap in writing generally between the Dark Ages and fantasy novels and mythical worlds, and C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien in particular have to have Christian undertones to everything.  Not that I ever picked up on the religious undertones in the Narnia books when I was a kid: they passed me by completely!

Anyway, to get back to the point, some authors would have made a big spiritual deal of the actual conversion scenes, whereas others would just have been completely cynical about it all. The way Nicola Griffith deals with it is just works really well for me – Edwin has decided that he and other members of the court should be baptised (this is what actually happened, on Easter Day 627), and it’s for political rather than religious reasons, and none of them really know very much about Christianity – it’s just case of going through a ceremony.  Hild wonders if she’ll feel, or even be, different afterwards; but she doesn’t, and she isn’t.  “I’m still me.”   I really liked that.  I’m not in any way knocking anyone who has found a religious ceremony to be a very profound process and has felt different afterwards, but we are who we are, whatever we think or do about religion.  And history shows that most people do just go with the flow, whether it’s the Conversion or the Reformation.  There are always going to be some people who do feel very deeply about it all, but I really liked Hild’s reaction as shown in this.

In between the political events (and I’m including the Conversion in that), there’s just so much in this, about the lives of the people – their work, their food, their socialising, their entertainments, their travelling around, and their relationships. The maidservant with whom Hild becomes romantically and sexually involved is originally a slave – I think most people are well aware that slavery was practised in England in Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, but it’s not written about very much, and maybe it’s a subject that should be covered more.  There’s a lot about weaving, which took up so much of women’s time during the period – but not in a boring, technical way.  We meet people of all social classes.  We also see the importance of literacy, at a time when most people were not literate (and before the Church took control of education) – Hild is able to read and write, and her sister learns to do so in order for them to be able to keep in touch.  There’s an awful lot in it.

Much of that will be historically accurate, insofar as the amount of information available allows it to be, but we sadly know very little about Hild’s life. We know about her parents and her sister, and that she was Edwin’s great-niece, and we know that she became Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey in her early 30s and then, famously, Abbess of Whitby Abbey – making it so prestigious that it was chosen as the venue for the first ever Synod within the Kingdom of Northumbria.  From what Bede says, she was an intelligent and widely-admired woman, who gave advice to kings and princes and was the patroness of the poet Cadmon.  But we have very little idea what went on in her life before she became an abbess.  For all we know, she might have had an illegitimate half-brother, and been married off to him!  OK, it’s highly unlikely, and I’m not sure why Nicola Griffith came up with that storyline, but we just haven’t got much clue.

And, for all we know, Hild may have had a relationship with her maidservant. Nicola Griffith points out that there’s nothing anywhere to tell us about views on sexuality in the Dark Ages.  Her view is that it was Christianity which made sexuality an issue.  There are certainly arguments for that: we know that it wasn’t a big deal in Ancient Greece, for example, for people to have relationships with partners of both sexes.  Maybe in some ways, it wasn’t until Victorian times that same sex relationships really became seen as a social, and legal, no-no.  If you look as late as the Stuart period in England, it was widely known that James I was bisexual, and there were also rumours – although they probably weren’t true – that so were both William III and Anne; and no-one seems to’ve had a problem with that.

It’s not a big deal in the book, because the idea is that being bisexual wasn’t a big deal in the 7th century, but the book has won a bisexual fiction award.  There is unfortunately still a big problem in the attitude of most religious towards LGBT issues, so including LGBT themes in a book about a saint could be seen as controversial, but I don’t think that’s what the author intended – as she says, we don’t know much about attitudes towards sexuality in the Dark Ages, and it’s quite possible that it just wasn’t an issue, and people just formed relationships with partners without being too bothered about whether they were men or women.  Although, if she did mean to be controversial, who could blame her?  I’ve read several comments on social media about the distress caused to friends by the negative attitudes of their respective religions towards LGBT issues.  And there’s also the issue of many religions towards women – the point’s made in this book that Hild doesn’t find Christianity particularly positive about females.

But we don’t know. A lot of work has been done on Anglo-Saxon history.  Do first year undergraduates at Oxford still have to study it, or has that changed now?  But we still know very little about it, compared to most of the other historical periods generally covered in historical novels, and that is very frustrating!  But as much as possible of what is known is woven (pun intended – there is a lot of weaving in this book!) into the fabric (again, pun intended) of this novel, alongside what’s a product of the author’s imagination.  And it’s a good read, and I’m quite disappointed that the rest of the trilogy hasn’t been written yet.  Just don’t be expecting to read about the lives of nuns, because there are no nuns here!

Britannia – Sky Atlantic

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The main thing we learnt from the first episode of this much-publicised new Sky hysterical “historical” drama series (other than that King Cogidubnus appeared to have been spirited away and replaced by Zoe Wanamaker) was that it is a very bad idea to pray to Mars (or presumably any other god/goddess) whilst on the toilet, especially if one is a bloke and therefore incapable of multi-tasking.  So doing runs the risk of being taken unawares by the enemy, dragged off, tied up, tortured and then thrown over a waterfall.  Such was the unfortunate fate of a Roman legionary from Numidia who, having been advised by his general (David Morrissey, disappointingly not playing the general with a Scouse accent) that the best way of conquering a country was to relieve oneself all over its woodlands, went off to do so, decided to offer up a few words of supplication to the god of war at the same time, and was captured by a single unarmed Celt who just happened to be lurking about.  Right.

This wondrous series is set during the second Roman invasion of Britain – i.e. not the one led by Julius Caesar (covered in Carry on Cleo with a fairly similar degree of accuracy to that employed in this), but the one 87 years later, in AD 43.  Obviously the Romans didn’t realise that things had switched from BC to AD, but that’s beside the point.  It was explained that none of the Celts had realised that the Romans, led by Aulus Plautius (the aforementioned general, who’d obviously heard about the British weather, because he was wearing a fur coat) were coming, despite the fact that the Roman army had been marching north-westwards for weeks, because they were all too busy scrapping amongst themselves to take any notice of what was going on elsewhere.  Despite this, there was some talk of making an alliance with the Gauls, apparently involving a British woman, who’d already got a British husband, acquiring a French husband as well.  Obviously bigamy is a very bad thing, but it certainly sounds a lot cheaper than paying £45 million to boost security around Calais.  However, the Gauls evidently hadn’t managed to tip off the Britons than the Romans were heading their way.  So much for Entente Cordiale.

We know from all the previews that two tribes of Celts are going to band together to try to see off the Romans, but, at the moment, they’re very much separate, which all got a bit confusing. The first lot we met, the Cantii, consisted of a lot of Druids, some men who weren’t Druids, and some women with Northern and Midland accents who bossed about the men who weren’t Druids.  I was rather concerned by the unfortunate lack of woad.  They all had white stuff on their faces, but no woad.  Anyway, they were all busy with a solstice ritual when along came the Romans, who killed some of them and took the rest prisoner.  However, one young girl was rescued by an attractive outlaw.  I’m not sure whether the idea was that the Celts all spoke Latin, the Romans all spoke ancient Brythonic or both, but no-one seemed to have the slightest trouble understanding each other.  Also, there was a lot of swearing.  I thought it was supposed to be the Anglo-Saxons who swore all the time?  Never mind.  Even worse, some of the Roman soldiers split their infinitives.  I can’t stand it when people split their infinitives.

The other Celtic tribe, the Regni, led by Zoe Wanamaker, did have woad. Hooray!  Zoe plays Queen Antedia.  Regrettably, Queen Antedia never actually existed. As far as we can make out, the resistance to the Romans was led by two brothers (supposedly the sons of Cymbeline, about whom Shakespeare wrote a play), Caratacus (no relation to the dad) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Togodumnus.  Caratacus is sometimes identified with the legendary Welsh king Caradog, who is also supposed to have been connected with King Arthur, which doesn’t really work as King Arthur, if he existed, wasn’t around until several centuries later.  Togodumnus, more realistically, is sometimes identified with the King Cogidubnus, the one who appears in Stage 2 of the Cambridge Latin Course and is the intended victim of a plot in which Quintus, our old pal from Pompeii, gets tangled up.

Now, Cogidubnus was the King of the Regni/Regnenses. So where was he?  There is definitely no reference in the Cambridge Latin Course to a Queen Antedia.  I think we should be told.

Er, yes. Well, none of this makes very much sense.  Let’s face it, no-one really knows that much about what actually happened, other than Boudicca’s Revolt and that wasn’t until AD 60 or AD 61.  But I’m quite sure that Tacitus never said anything about anyone being captured whilst praying on the toilet.

The whole thing was an absolute load of rubbish. But, do you know what?  It was entertaining.  I was laughing all the way through it.  I don’t think it was meant to be funny, but it was.  It was one of those things which are just so bad that they’re good.  I am definitely watching the rest of series!  Bring it on!

The Celts: Blood, Iron & Sacrifice – BBC 2

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Next week we’re getting Asterix and Obelix: this week we got Iron Age poo. Hmm. Neil Oliver and Alice Roberts started off by making the very valid point that the importance of the ancient Celtic tribes is often overlooked. People tend to be familiar with the Celts in the British Isles, and – thanks to Asterix and Obelix! – the ancient Gauls, but that’s about it. An important point which they didn’t make is that even the name “Celts” (not that the Celts themselves actually used the word) tends to be mispronounced in English-speaking countries: I remember once going on a school trip to the Manchester Museum with an exasperated teacher who had to keep saying “It’s Keltic, not Seltic: they weren’t a football team!” :-).

However, having said that the Celts tend to be overlooked in favour of other ancient and Dark Age civilisations, they seemed to spend a lot of the programme worrying about what the Romans thought of the Celts, including a lot of references to “noble savages”, a term which belongs to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries rather than to the Iron Age. The Celts didn’t leave a lot of writings behind, so we are largely left to interpret them through the eyes of the Romans, but it would have been better if Neil Oliver had spent a bit less time complaining that the Romans had got the Celts all wrong and a bit more time talking about the Celts themselves. Oh well, never mind!

Long before the Celts even came into contact with the Romans, they dominated large parts of Iron Age Europe, in what’s known as the Hallstatt culture, named after a village near Salzburg where major excavations of ancient Celtic sites have taken place. This was where Neil Oliver and a local archaeologist went down an old salt mine, and the archaeologist helpfully explained that traces of Iron Age poo can still be see on the walls of the mine (I don’t even want to know how it came to be in the walls) and that, when the area gets wet, it still smells. That was rather too much information, but I can see that from an archaeological viewpoint it would be very interesting.

Neil and Alice then moved on to the early clashes between the Celts and the Romans. Three and a half centuries before the Gallic Wars described in Julius Caesar’s horrendously boring book, and over four and a half centuries before the revolt of the Iceni, the Celtic-Roman clashes which most people know, an army of Gauls defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia and went on to sack Rome. This is never talked about! The early Romano-Gallic Wars in general are never talked about. The Punic Wars, the next major “lot” of wars fought by the Romans, are well-known, but not the early wars between the Romans and the Celts. So well done to BBC 2 for drawing attention to this, and to the early history of the Celts in general.

There was also some talk about the Celts on the Algarve, and how people don’t associate the Celts with the Iberian peninsula … which I actually thought was a bit odd, because the term “Celtiberian” is quite well known, and Galicia, the north-western-most part of Spain, seems to be very keen to emphasise its Celtic past. Incidentally, Celta Vigo, unlike (Glasgow) Celtic, do pronounce their name with a hard C rather than a soft C!

Anyway, next week we move on to the battles between Julius Caesar and Vercingetorix. Better known as the age of Asterix and Obelix! Let’s face it, the comics are lot better than Julius Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum … but, again, it’s a part of history which is only really known through what the Romans wrote. The lack of early Celtic writings is probably the main reason why Celtic culture’s neglected, and, again, well done to the BBC for trying to focus attention on it.