The Black Death: Lucy Worsley Investigates – BBC 2

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When I was 13, I got 91% in a biology exam.  Apologies if that sounds like showing off.  It was a very long time ago!  The point is the interaction between biology and history.  Our big topic that year was genetics, and our biology text book had a wonderful family tree showing how Queen Victoria’s haemophilia gene spread through the royal houses of Europe.  So, instead of trying to put iodine on a piece of onion without getting bubbles in it (something which took me eleventy billion attempts, and of which I still fail to see the point), I got to focus on royal history, with particular reference to the Romanovs.  Sorted!!

The application of science to the events of the past was one element of this very interesting programme.  Lucy Worsley really is so good when she’s acting like an adult and not dressing up, even if “Lucy Worsley Investigates” does make her sound like Nancy Drew.  But what really struck me most was how she, and all of us, now view the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  Three years ago, would a programme about medieval plague have used the terms “herd immunity”, “super spreader event”, “frontline worker” or even just “pandemic”?  I think we’ve all got past panic buying toilet rolls, and few people wear masks now, but our outlook on history’s changed.   That’s quite a big thing.

We started off with the scientific facts – how there were variants (another Covid-era word) of the plague, and how it was spread by body lice getting into fabrics, as well as by fleas on rats.  The body lice factor explains what happened in Eyam, so I suppose we knew that anyway, but the emphasis has always been on fleas on rats.   And there was a lot of talk about how this was a new disease, and, because it was new,  it spread very rapidly at first, only ceasing to be so dangerous once herd immunity had built up.  

Lucy kept talking about “Britain”, which was a bit annoying as “Britain” wasn’t a political entity then, and references to the political, economic and clerical authorities wouldn’t have included Scotland,   Just saying!   She talked a lot about the role of economics, and what can be deduced from economic records.  We think of inheritance tax as having been brought in with the People’s Budget of 1909, but there was a form of inheritance tax even in the 14th century.   And she really is obsessed with “fornication”!   Last week, she kept trying to make the witch trials all about fornication, and this week we were told that the Church tried to blame the plague on sin, and especially on loose women.   Thankfully we didn’t get that with Covid … although it has to be said that some deeply unpleasant people in the 1980s tried to make out that the AIDS pandemic was some sort of message from on high.

The Church did have a useful role to play, though.   Priests read out Edward III’s instructions on how to try to deal with the plague, after hearing horror stories about how it’d affected countries on the Continent.  Hopefully they were more like cheery Jonathan Van Tam than grumpy Professor Chris Whitty!   And clerics were also “frontline workers”, as we’d now say.   

We were told that the plague actually increased the role of religion, because, with little hope other than prayer, people turned to religion, deeply distressed at the need for plague pits rather than proper funerals.   No real Covid link there, but how about social change?   As we know, the devastating effect of the plague on the population led to a shortage of labour, and an increase in social mobility and wage levels.   The Statute of Labourers, passed in 1351, tried to keep wages down and tie people to their place of origin, but it just wasn’t practical to do that.  We also heard about improvements to the lot of women, stepping into places once held by men, as was later to be the case during both world wars.   

Are we going to see positive social change brought about by Covid?  Well, here in North West England, where we were so badly affected, we were hoping so, but, at the moment, we’re still waiting.  We’ll see.

All in all, as I said, this was an interesting programme about the Black Death, but I think that the most interesting part about it was the historiography.   We now see the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  I wonder if it’s going to have a long term effect on how we see other aspects of history too.

 

Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow by Lucy Worsley

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I’m not sure whether or not the 99p Kindle offer on this book was to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, but I was very glad of it.  For one thing, I wanted a “royal” book to review, to mark the Jubilee long weekend 🙂 .  For another thing, it makes some very interesting points.  OK, it probably won’t tell you anything major that you haven’t heard before, but the same can be said of most books on history’s best-known figures.  It’s about the angle and the interpretation; and this book, apprising Victoria through 24 significant events or factors in her life, really does do a good job of showing us who Victoria was and what she did.  Lucy Worsley is rather irritating on TV, but she comes across extremely well in writing.

Having said all that, I’m going to take issue with her argument that people had a problem with the idea of a female monarch, and that the nineteenth century was a time in which women’s lives became extremely restricted.  She even finishes the book on a rather miserable note within that theme, saying that her main feeling about Victoria is pity, because ideas about the role of women trapped all Victorian females, and Victoria herself most of all.  I know that there’s the “separate spheres” argument, that women became confined to a domestic role in the 19th century, but I don’t buy it.  Look at pictures of textile mills in the 19th century.  Who are most of the workers?  Women!   Look how many people were employed in domestic service in the 19th century.  Who were most of them?  Women!   As for there being a lack of female influence, tell that to Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale (one of whose visits to Victoria makes up one of the 24 chapters), Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Fry, and all the other middle class women, and upper class women, involved in charity work or campaigning.

And were people really that bothered about the idea of a female monarch?  Princess Charlotte had been extremely popular, and, whether in 1837 or 2022, most people, when asked to name England’s greatest ever monarch, will say Elizabeth (I).

So I must beg to differ with Lucy in that regard.   But I still really enjoyed her book.  She starts the book by pointing out that, throughout the twentieth century, most people’s image of Victoria was of a large, unsmiling elderly lady dressed in mourning.  And that’s exactly how Victoria’s depicted in the statue of her which stands in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.  Then pointing out that that’s changed in recent years, because of the film with Emily Blunt and the TV series with Jenna Coleman, which [the book was published in 2018, before the third season was broadcast] both show her as a younger woman who liked dancing and parties.  Interesting how it’s been popular culture that’s brought about that change, not academia.  The aim of this book is to look into how she changed from the young dancing princess to the sombre old lady.

There’s an amazing amount of detail.  Some of it really feels quite prurient – things like what Victoria wore on her wedding night, how much she weighed at certain times and how old she was when she went through puberty.  That’s very private stuff.

And it’s all personal.  Would anyone write a book entitled “Edward III: Son, Husband, Father, Widower”?  I don’t think so.  Then again, there are plenty of books about Henry VIII which focus far more on his marriages than on such trivial matters as the Reformation or the Battle of Flodden Field!   And, by Victoria’s time, the life of the monarch and political/economic/social events were no longer as intertwined as they were in the days when the monarch ruled as well as reigned.

It’s very frustrating how Queen Victoria is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on Prince Albert, and, equally, how Queen Anne is depicted as being emotionally and politically dependent on her friends.  I once read a book – may have been by J H Plumb, but I’m not sure – which compared Queen Anne’s court to an Angela Brazil novel, with Anne as the new girl and the Duchess of Marlborough as the Head Girl.  Would anyone make similar comments about, say Edward III and Alice Perrers, or Edward II and Hugh Despenser the younger, or James I and the Duke of Buckingham?   No, would they heck as like!

But then a male sovereign is not going to have undergone nine pregnancies, most of them followed by post natal depression.  If we look at our female sovereigns, excluding Lady Jane Grey who only lasted nine days, we’ve had Mary I and her phantom pregnancies, Mary II who had one miscarriage and was unable to conceive again, Anne who (before becoming queen) had seventeen pregnancies but no surviving children (that poor, poor woman), Victoria who had nine pregnancies during the first two decades of her reign, and Elizabeth I who chose not to marry but then had the problem of determining the succession.  Our present queen is the first one whose reign hasn’t been significantly affected by issues relating to childbearing.

Lucy really doesn’t like Prince Albert.  At one point, she describes him as being “pompous and cruel”.  I think that’s a bit much.  OK, he was clearly very insensitive towards his wife and children, but Victoria adored him, he did a lot for the country, and, if he were around now, he’d be in therapy for a long list of issues, most of them probably resulting from what happened with his mother.   She plays down the romantic element of the match between Victoria and Albert, stressing the arranged marriage element instead, and even says that it was Albert who insisted on having so many children.   We’ve all heard the “fun in bed” question, we all know that Victoria didn’t want to breastfeed, and, according to Lucy, Victoria knew about birth control but (presumably for religious reasons?) didn’t approve of it.

So I don’t really see how anyone can claim that Albert was solely responsible for how many children they had.  She also says that, after her marriage, Victoria stops commenting in her diary that she’s worried about her weight, because Albert gave her more self confidence about her appearance.  Give the man a break!

There are a lot of references, tied into the image of family life, to the idea of a middle class monarchy, intended to win the support of the class which held political power from 1832.   Fair point to some extent.  And I think  (apologies for making a sweeping generalisation) that “Good Old Teddy” was far more popular amongst the upper and working classes than Victoria was.  But from 1867, and even more so from 1884, the upper working classes had the vote, even if they weren’t actually becoming Members of Parliament.  And are the middle classes really the only ones with the family values?   I think this gets overstated, especially given the upper middle classes were so keen on sending their kids away to boarding school.   Having nine children was more typing of the working classes than the upper classes, by Victorian times.

She also points out that some people in Ireland referred to Victoria as “the Famine Queen”, and that Duleep Singh allegedly referred to her as “Mrs Fagin” because Britain took the Koh-i-Noor diamond.  It’s something that still happens today, the blaming of senior members of the Royal Family for something that was the fault of politicians or the Armed Forces or business interests.   Prince William has recently been attacked by Caribbean politicians as if he were personally to blame for the slave trade, and booed by Liverpool “fans” as if he were personally to blame for the cover-up over Hillsborough.  It’s not very nice, and it’s certainly not very fair.  But it’s what happens.  As well as the interest in the personality of the monarch, they (and their heirs) become the personification of the nation.  And Victoria in some ways was the personification of an age.  Even books written about the USA ,and other countries which weren’t part of the British Empire, refer to “Victorians”.

Lucy herself is full of praise for Victoria: she acknowledges that she had faults and made mistakes – don’t we all? – but the overall picture she presents is a very positive one.   She gives her a lot of credit for working out a way to reign successfully at a time when a) the political power of the monarch was all but gone and b) many people (so Lucy says) had issues with the idea of a female monarch.   The Crimean War is pinpointed as being a crucial time in the history of the monarchy, with the introduction of the VC, Victoria’s own idea, and Victoria’s letters to wounded soldiers, really making people feel that she cared.  And we do need to know that the monarch cares.   Look at all the calls for the Queen to speak to us after Diana died.  Look at the effect which the Queen’s speech in the early weeks of lockdown had.   And it meant so much to everyone in Manchester when the Queen came in person to visit those injured in the Arena bombing.  The monarch is the head of the nation, and the person to whom people look to lead us in times of trouble, and also in times of celebration.  No politician could ever do that in the same way

The overall message of the book is that Victoria might have seemed like an ordinary woman, but that she was actually an extraordinary woman who led an extraordinary life.  Well, there’s no arguing with that.  Nor is there any arguing with the fact that Elizabeth II is also an extraordinary, ordinary woman leading an extraordinary life.   Great book by Lucy Worsley, and God Save The Queen!

 

Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts – BBC 2

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Do not get me started on the subject of the “Witch Way” bus route, which runs very close to my house and is so named because it originally linked Manchester with the Pendle area, and some bloke evidently thought that using Pendle Witch Trials as a silly gimmick was appropriate.  It isn’t.  At least they’ve removed those pictures of a very sexy-looking witch, sat astride a broomstick, from the sides of the buses.  And, when I visited Salem in Massachusetts in 2019, I was rather bemused to see the “Witch City Mall”, home to a variety of shops, restaurants and beauty parlours.  I appreciate that tourism is big business, but the witch hunts which took place in Britain, across Europe and in America, mainly from 1450 to 1750, weren’t some sort of Disney film.  Thousands of people, most of them women, were judicially murdered; and we saw Lucy Worsley getting distressed, to the point of tears, as she talked about the horrors to which these women were subjected, the terrible fear that other women must have felt that they could be the next to be accused, and how little we hear of their voices, their real stories.

In Britain, witch hunting on a large scale, with the involvement of the central authorities, really began during the reign of James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who was apparently convinced that witchcraft caused a storm which nearly sank his ship as he returned from Denmark, where witch hunts were already common, in 1590 (at which point he was king of Scotland, but Elizabeth I still ruled in England).  This programme focused on the North Berwick trials, which took place shortly afterwards, and particular on the case of Agnes Sampson, the first to be accused.

As a slight aside, do people still take lucky mascots/charms into exams with them?  I used to take a miniature Good Luck Care Bear (remember care bears?!) and a lump of coal, but my elder nephew (aged 13) recently had school exams, and apparently lucky mascots aren’t a thing any more.  Or maybe they are, but only for girls.  I know that some men have lucky pants or lucky socks which they wear for football matches, but I don’t really want to think about other people’s pants, so let’s not go there.   However, lucky charms/amulets, often used by women in childbirth, were apparently considered a sign of witchcraft by the supposedly “godly” witch hunters – although not as much so as marks on the body.  As Lucy explained, there was a strong sexual element to the witch hunts.   There always is, isn’t there?  Men using religion to try to control women.  People getting caught up in some sort of hysterical frenzy.  And all these people, mostly women, being tortured into making confessions, and horribly executed – with Scotland having one of the highest rates of witch execution of any country.

Thankfully, even Lucy realised that this wasn’t an occasion for dressing up.  We got a lot of shots of her sitting in the back of a car, walking around and reading original texts, but she was dressed in Puritanical black and white, as she explained how the Reformation turned up the religious temperature, and both Protestants and Catholics alike got caught up in an obsessive fear of the devil and his works, with local folk healers/wise women, living peacefully in their communities, generally the main targets.  Agnes Sampson, an ordinary women from a small village, found herself hauled up before the king, and then physically and mentally tortured until, broken, she confessed to whatever they asked, and gave the names of other people as well.

As Lucy described the horrible death which Agnes met, garroted and then burnt at the stake, she did become quite emotional, and was really rather moving.  This is a horrible part of history.  Lucy said that the stories of the witches weren’t well-known.  Well, maybe the stories of the Scottish witches aren’t, but the stories of the Lancashire witches are, because they’ve been turned into novels, and even used as gimmicks by tourist authorities and bus companies.   And the term “witch-hunt” is still widely used, to describe a frenzied campaign against people, often innocent, who are perceived to be some sort of threat.   But, as Lucy said the voices of the real women involved aren’t often heard.  She tried very hard to put those voices across, in what made for a fascinating hour’s TV.   Very, very good programme.

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: the French Revolution – BBC 1

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  I thought that some of this was a bit patronising.  Surely most people realise that the institution of monarchy in France didn’t come to an end in 1789, or even 1793; and surely no-one thinks that the French Revolution was a peasants’ revolt.  Also, Lucy Worsley’s childish dressing up is extremely annoying, as is her use of the word “fibs” which I don’t think anyone over the age of eight is in the general habit of using …. although I did rather envy the large plate of French pastries which she apparently found necessary to illustrate the issue of food shortages.  Furthermore, there was a disappointing lack of reference to either tricoteuses or Charlotte Corday murdering Marat in the bath.  People should always mention these things when discussing the French Revolution.  Especially tricoteuses.

Having said all that, I thought she made some extremely good points.  There were three main themes which stood out for me.  One was the demonisation of Marie Antoinette – and I’d draw parallels with Henrietta Maria and Alexandra Feodorovna, as well.  All three had their faults, but they weren’t responsible for their husbands’ failures.  Yet people always seem to find it easier to blame a woman, especially a foreign woman.  One was the way in which French history romanticises the Revolution, conveniently ignoring the Terror, the fact that it wasn’t actually very democratic at all, and the fact that the First Republic only actually lasted for, er, twelve years.  And the third was the way in which British history views it completely differently, due in no small part to Charles Dickens and Madame Tussaud, and puts a lot of emphasis on Madame Guillotine.  I think it was probably also Dickens who popularised the image of tricoteuses.  I really was very disappointed that there was no mention of tricoteuses …

Poor old Marie Antoinette, then.  I think most people are now past the idea of her saying “Let them eat cake” but, as Lucy pointed out, the idea was so strongly held for decades that it even appeared in school textbooks.  I don’t think she ever stood a chance, even when she got married: it was too soon after the Diplomatic Revolution, and Austrians weren’t popular in France.  Then it took her a while to produce an heir … which was because Louis didn’t, er, make the effort.  And, as I’ve said, people love to demonise a woman, especially a foreign woman, and especially to make sexual allegations about her.  In poor Marie Antoinette’s case, she was even accused of abusing her own son.  That’s not widely reported now, but the “let them eat cake” story does still linger.

As for the French view of the Revolution, Lucy wasn’t nastily sarcastic like she was in the unpleasant series about American history, but she did poke a bit of fun at Emmanuel Macron (a man who irritates me a million times more than she does) for making out that the French Revolution was some great exercise in democracy which set the pattern for the entire world.  It was pointed out that the Storming of the Bastille only actually freed a few prisoners, most of whom were forgers and one of whom was an Irishman who thought he was Julius Caesar.  And that the franchise was only extended to some men, not all.  And no women.

I don’t think anyone sees it as a peasants’ revolt, but it does have this image as a mass uprising, whereas, as Lucy said, it started off with a group of upper-middle-class legislators having a meeting at a tennis court.  The “to the barricades” thing belongs to 19th century risings.  French history tends to gloss over that.  And it glosses over the Terror …

… whereas British history is obsessed with the Terror!   Guillotines!  Tumbrils!  Tricoteuses!  Oh, hang on, she didn’t mention tricoteuses.  The guillotine was apparently meant to be democratic, though.  I have to admit that I’d never thought of that, but it was a very good point.  English historians are very familiar with the idea of posh people being beheaded on Tower Hill, with a nice sharp sword rather than an axe in Anne Boleyn’s case, whereas common people were hanged at Tyburn; and Ancien Regime France had a similar system.  Then came the guillotine.  And it didn’t hurt – although I suppose we don’t really know that for sure, as none of its victims can tell us.  But there is still no denying the fact that a lot of people were guillotined, and that the Terror well deserves its name.

Even so, I think that there was still some romanticising in Britain over the French Revolution, especially given the repressive nature of Pitt the Younger’s government.  But I think British historians get more romantic about the American Revolution, even though it was against Britain!

To draw this back to the idea of “fibs”, the point was that the French and British views of the French Revolution are very different but both pretty biased.  Fair point.  Although I remember everyone making a big fuss about the 200th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, in 1989.  We had a “French day” at school – which must have been at least a week early, as we’d have broken up by the 14th.  We were supposed to speak French all day.  Very Chalet School.  Except that no-one really bothered.  But we did get croissants at break.  It was a bit mad that we, in Britain, made a fuss of that.  But then people make a fuss about the Fourth of July as well.  Oh, whatever!  It’s an excuse to eat …

We were also reminded about the obsession with decimalising everything – although, strangely, without any reference to the Brumaire/Thermidor calendar.  And about the use of hot air balloons.  I think the idea of that was to make the point that the revolutionaries were into science, although I don’t think anyone’s ever “fibbed” that they weren’t.   And, apparently, Robespierre wasn’t as bad as people make out.  Hmm.  Oh, and the Tricolore is not really a revolutionary or republican symbol, because the white is the Bourbon colour, and it wasn’t really a thing until the 1848 Revolution, not the 1789 one, anyway.  The word “Tricolore” always reminds me of our school French textbooks.  They were a big thing in the 1980s.

Anyway, despite Lucy’s rather irritating presenting style, I enjoyed this more than her American history series, when she was so spitefully sarcastic about the history of our most important ally, or the previous “Royal History” series when she kept putting across the BBC’s Euro-obsessive agenda instead of talking about what she was supposed to be talking about.  This was much better, and hopefully the rest of the series will be the same.  And I wonder what happened to all those pastries …

 

 

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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When it stuck to telling the story, this was a fairly interesting run-through of the basics of the English Reformation, although it would have been nice if Lucy Worsley had remembered that she was supposed to be appealing to an adult audience and spent a bit less time putting on fake warts, dressing up and sniggering about constipation.  However, I’m not sure that any of the myths it claimed to be dispelling actually exist.  Anne Boleyn’s seen as nothing more than a tart?  No, she isn’t.  That’s Catherine Howard.  Everyone thinks that the Reformation was universally welcomed.  Seriously?  Was it just my school where we had to learn all about the Pilgrimage of Grace, even in the second year?   No-one realises that Catholics were persecuted during Elizabeth’s reign?  Yes, they do.  Loads of stately homes still have priest holes.

If anyone was creating myths, it was the BBC, yet again pushing its own political agenda into what was supposed to be a historical documentary.  Please tell me that we’re not going to get this all through “Back in Time for the Corner Shop”, which starts next week. Cromwell was trying to create a mythical national history?   No.  He was just a clever lawyer manipulating archaic texts in a way that worked for him and Henry.  Clever lawyers do things like that.  The Reformation was about England withdrawing from European affairs?  Well, that quite explains why Henry wasted a load of the money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries on invading France, and Elizabeth got involved in the Dutch war against the Spanish.  Perhaps the BBC thinks that the Mary Rose was on a booze cruise when it sank.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries is to blame for the concentration of power in London?  Tell that to the Percys and the Stanleys!

The parts of the programme which just stuck to the facts, instead of claiming to be trying to dispel non-existent myths and making out that British politics in 2020 revolve around the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, were very good, though.  It was a shame that they didn’t just stick to that, because, considering it was only an hour, it was an impressively comprehensive run-through of over half a century of very eventful history.

It started with Lucy dressing up as Martin Luther and saying that he didn’t really nail the 95 theses to a church door because he was too busy writing about being constipated. I’m not sure what that had to do with Royal history. We then moved on to Henry VIII wanting to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, which is probably the best-known episode in English history.  And, at this point, we did, to be fair, get some genuine myth-busting.  We had the term “Henrician Catholicism” hammered into us at A-level, but, yes, there is inevitably an idea that Henry was a Protestant.  Which he wasn’t.

And there are a lot of myths about Catherine and Anne – and it’s very interesting, because, given how negative the view of Catholicism in England was during the late 16th, 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, you’d think Anne would be seen as the heroine and Catherine as the villain, but it’s the other way round. Catherine wasn’t as saintly as she’s made out to be, and Anne is unfairly vilified – it wasn’t her fault that Henry took a shine to her and scuppered her chances of marrying anyone else – but the programme didn’t go into that. Instead, it talked about how Anne was a very intelligent woman and a genuine Protestant. That was all true, and it’s not often mentioned, but the point Lucy seemed to be trying to make was that Anne’s just seen as a “sexpot”. Is she?

Then it moved on to Thomas Cromwell, and this really was nonsense. Yes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century chronicles did go on about the idea of the realm of England being an empire, and, yes, Cromwell did use that to make up an argument about how the Pope had no authority over English affairs, but he wasn’t trying to create some sort of national myth, just get round the problem of Henry not being able to get out of his marriage to Catherine whilst the Pope was being held captive by Catherine’s nephew.  Geoffrey of Monmouth also said that King Arthur was descended from Aeneas, of Virgil’s Aeneid fame, and I’m fairly sure that no-one thinks that that’s part of any sort of national myth.  If anyone created myths of English history, it was Shakespeare, not Cromwell.  And apparently Henry was pulling out of Europe.  When he wasn’t invading France, presumably.  Or maybe the BBC thinks France is on Mars or something.

We then got a load of utter bullshit about how this was all connected with Brexit.  Right, and presumably Spain staying out of the Second World War was because St James is supposed to have appeared in the middle of the Battle of Clavijo, and the Napoleonic Wars were all about the Song of Roland.  Give it a rest, BBC.  It’s getting very tiresome.  This was supposed to be a history programme.

When Lucy actually shut up about all this rubbish and talked about Cromwell also being a Protestant and the other reasons for the Reformation, what she had to say was interesting, but there just wasn’t enough of it. And the “political earthquake” wasn’t about relations with Europe, it was about the role of Parliament. A lot of kings and their advisors wouldn’t even have bothered with legalities and legislation, but Henry and Cromwell did: that was the political earthquake. Parliament even abolished purgatory! It was a very important moment on the road to democracy. Not a mention of that. It’d have been too positive.

On to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This part of the programme was genuinely very good, explaining that the Dissolution was about destroying the power of the Church, not just about money-grabbing, and also talking about the problems caused by the loss of the monasteries, which had provided shelter and healthcare for people with nowhere else to go, and how Cromwell had introduced legislation aiming to protect vulnerable people now that the monasteries were gone.   I’m not sure that I get the argument that there’s a myth that the Dissolution was a good thing and was welcomed, though.  But I suppose you can argue that there was in Victorian times, when there were all sorts of strange ideas about what went on in … well, convents more than monasteries.

Anyway, this was all pretty good stuff, until out came a lot of waffle about the Dissolution concentrating power in the hands of the metropolitan elite.  Annoying as the BBC’s insistence on spoiling historical programmes by going on about current political issues is, it was quite refreshing to see them having a dig at the metropolitan elite, instead of having a dig at everyone else!   I’m not sure that the argument worked, though.  I suppose you can argue that the monasteries were important centres of learning, but their destruction didn’t affect the power of great Northern families such as the Percys and the Stanleys.  And saying that it concentrated power in the hands of elites made no sense at all – plenty of people who hadn’t previously been part of elites got a boost because they got the monastic land.  Anyone know how far the Earl of Grantham’s title dates back 😉 ?

I was getting rather exasperated by this point, but we then moved on all the to-ing and fro-ing during the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and thankfully the BBC managed to keep its political agenda pushing out of this.  Lady Jane Grey didn’t get mentioned at all, and Edward’s reign only got a few seconds.  On to “Bloody Mary”.  Now, we did the Reformation twice at school, first in the second year and then for A-level.  In the second year, we had some rather ancient text books in which the chapter on Mary’s reign was entitled “Turn or Burn” – which made it sound as if half the country met a nasty end in the bonfires of Smithfield.  Which was rather an exaggeration. But that’s how Mary’s remembered – and, as Lucy pointed out, a lot of that is to do with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Hooray!  This was more like it!  This was a proper history programme!  It also talked about how plenty of “heretics” were executed in Elizabeth’s reign too – although, to be fair, I think people are aware of that.  No-one thinks that life for Catholics was easy under Elizabeth.  Given how much the BBC hates to say anything positive about England/Britain, I wondered if Lucy might have a go at Gloriana, but she was very fair and explained that the Pope’s attitude towards Elizabeth pushed her into taking action against Catholics.

It them all got rather bizarre, jumping back to Anne Boleyn’s time, messing about with fake warts, and interviewing one of the producers of Six The Musical .  But parts of this programme really were very good, and it was just a shame that, as with American History’s Biggest Fibs, as with The Rise of the Nazis and as with Downfall of a King, and, in particular, as with Back in Time for School, the BBC had to spoil it by trying to push its own agenda about modern political issues.  I’m hoping that they’ll have given it a rest with Back in Time for the Corner Shop, but I’m not holding my breath.  It’s such a shame, because these programmes would be very good otherwise.

 

 

 

A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley – BBC 2

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I’ve always rather fancied the idea of Christmas at the court of Henry VIII, although I dread to imagine how many calories people must have got through.  Eat, drink and be merry … before the Puritans come along and put the kybosh on it all!  Decorate your work tools so that they can’t be used: come on, folks, get those office computers festooned with holly and icy.  Keep dancing into January, and then get stuck into a Twelfth Night cake that’s a full yard in diameter.  And make sure you get Henry a good prezzie, because he’ll be opening it in full view of the entire court.  This really was good fun, and, it being the festive season, Lucy’s dressing up didn’t seem that annoying for once.

Henry apparently spent £7,000 on Christmas festivities in 1509.  That’s a serious amount of money even now, never mind over 500 years ago.  And he didn’t even eat most of the food that was put in front of him.  Well, not then, when he was young and slim, anyway.  However, the leftovers were given away to the poor.  Marinated pigs’ ears wouldn’t really do it for me, but it was fascinating seeing the re-creation of the sort of things that would have been on the menu then.  The intricate creations in marchpane particularly caught my eye. You see them abroad sometimes, especially in Sicily, but it’s rare to see them here.

Roast beef … now, that’s more my thing than marinated pigs’ ears would be.  And it was interesting to hear about the Welsh influence on the mead they drank – it’s well-known that Henry VII was keen to play up his Welsh links, but you don’t think so much about Henry VIII doing the same.  A lot of drinking went on!   It’s easy to fall into the Victorian trap of imagining a Merrie Englande that never actually existed, but, in the case of Tudor Christmases, it really did.  Court masques.  Carol singing.   The Lords of Misrule on Twelfth Night.  And all that food!

Twelve days of feasting.  The biggest difference between Christmas then and Christmas now is probably that, in Tudor times, it was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas, with people fasting during Advent.  The pre-Christmas fast still seems to be a thing in some predominantly Orthodox countries, but it certainly isn’t here.  The partying starts well before Christmas Eve, and then no-one really knows what to do with themselves during “Twixmas”, and it’s usually back to work and diets on January 2nd.  I’ve always wanted a Twelfth Night cake, ever since I first read about them in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!  Maybe not one a yard across, though.

Of course, this was only at court, but, even for the less well-off people, Christmas was a time of celebration.  Homes were decorated with greenery – and that’s a tradition going way back before Christianity.  Lords of the manor would usually give out food.  “We want some figgy pudding … we won’t go until we get some!” There were mummers’ plays.   And sports were enjoyed – rather miserably, they were banned for much of the year, to stop rowdy behaviour and to make people concentrate on archery.  Except at court, obviously.  Play as much tennis as you liked there!  But, at Christmas, play as much as you liked anywhere!

Then along came the Puritans.  Mind you, I keep going on about the Puritans spoiling people’s fun, but, until the early 1830s, there were over 30 Bank Holidays in England – secular holidays like Oak Apple Day and Bonfire Night, as well as religious holidays.  Wakes weeks were still going until very recently.  William Harrison Ainsworth writes about Twelfth Night festivities in Manchester well into the 19th century, and Dickens mentions Twelfth Night as well.  So a lot of these festivities long outlasted the Puritans … but didn’t make it through till today.  Shame!  As Lucy said, early January can be a pretty miserable time, and a bit of singing and dancing would liven it up no end.

I really enjoyed this.  It was good fun.  We do still have quite a Puritanical culture in many ways, and it’s easy to frown at excessive eating, drinking and spending, but life is short, winter nights are long, and people deserve to enjoy themselves.  £7,000 in 1509’s money – Google informs me that a labourer’s annual wage would have been £5 to £10 – does seem a bit extravagant, though …

 

Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – BBC 4

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I was expecting this to be just a bit of festive fun, but it was actually surprisingly moving. Lucy Worsley really can do moving, when she’s not dressing up and being irritating. We love to sing. Even when you’re me, and you were told to mouth the words at the school Christmas concert because your voice was so bad that you were putting the other girls off. We feel a need to sing together, whether we’re cheering our team on at football matches or singing Don’t Look Back In Anger when we’re trying to come to terms with a devastating terrorist attack.

Christmas carols go back to the days of wassailing, long before the winter festivities were taken over by the Church. The Puritans wanted rid of them, and any religious-themed music not actually using words from the Bible was frowned on for decades after that, well into the mid-18th century. But people wanted to sing, and, as Lucy said, carols were “the people’s music” – and the religious authorities had to give in. During the famous Christmas truce of 1914, carols were sung, and “Just for a little while, they brought comfort and comradeship, and a little bit of peace”. I think we could all do with some of that. Let the midwinter festivities, regardless of whatever form of religion, if any, they’re associated with for you, be about coming together. Singing’s a really good way of doing that. Even when you’re me, and you were banned from singing out loud during the school concert!

The programme started off with wassailing, and a reminder that midwinter celebrations go back long before they became associated with the Nativity story. We then got some Tudor jollification, complete with a picture of a Tudor Father Christmas. I’ve always rather fancied the Tudor court idea of stuffing yourself for twelve days, but I’m fat enough already – not that that seemed to bother Henry VIII, in his later years. Then the Reformation, and the infamous Commonwealth period – which I prefer to call the Interregnum, but no-one else seems to use that term these days! – when the Puritans were calling the shots and, as we all know, a lot of the Christmas traditions were banned. Out went any form of singing in church other than psalms set to melodies.  Even long after that, the Church of England wasn’t keen on carols –  and the Methodists deserve a big festive gold star for promoting them.  Eventually, the Established Church gave in – the first non-Biblical one it OKd being Hark the Herald Angels sing.

It was quite hard to get it all to fit in with the history of carols, because we don’t actually know how or where most of them came from, and that’s complicated by the fact that, in most cases, the words and the music originated separately! And we honestly don’t know if there are hidden meanings behind, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we did hear quite a bit about the history of some individual carols. Is O Come All Ye Faithful actually a Jacobite song, referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than having anything to do with Christmas? Yes, probably! How far does In The Bleak Midwinter reflect Christina Rosetti’s struggles with mental and physical health problems? I didn’t know that O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by an American minister who’d gone on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to get away from the Civil War – why did I not know that?!

And, whilst the story of the Silent Night music and the flooded church organ is well-known, something that’s never really mentioned is the fact that the actual words date from slightly earlier, 1816, the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which brought such upheaval to the Salzburg area, passed around like a parcel from ruler to ruler. It was the first year of “heavenly peace” for a long time. And that’s the carol most closely associated with the Christmas truce of 1914. Lucy seemed quite emotional whilst she was talking about it. I really hadn’t expected this programme to be quite so moving. It was lovely.

This isn’t a carol (nor was it in the programme, but I’m sticking it in anyway) but it is a Christmas song – Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas, sung by the late, great, Freddie Mercury.

Oh my love
We live in troubled days
Oh my friend
We have the strangest ways
All my friends
On this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas
Yes it’s Christmas
Thank God it’s Christmas
For
One
Day

Could we have some peace and goodwill to all men (and women), please?  Some tidings of comfort and joy?  And some heavenly peace?   Waes Hael (good health)!!   Well done, Lucy.  I really enjoyed this.

Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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This was an unexpected treat. Really entertaining!  I love the idea of Queen Victoria helping to popularise the “wicked waltz”, being serenaded by Prince Albert with songs he’d written himself, holding “impromptu jamming sessions” with Mendelssohn and being so obsessed with Jenny Lind (of Barnum fame) that she cut short a formal dinner with the Prime Minister to go and see her. Not to mention having her favourite celeb singers at her 16th birthday party – how cool is that? We even got brass bands and the Halle Orchestra – hooray!!  And the music halls. I think Lucy Worsley was pushing it a bit by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music; but, in this year which marks the bicentennial of their births, this was an interesting and original take on their lives and influence.

I was half-expecting Lucy to dress up as an opera singer and prance about on stage, but she actually managed to act like a serious historian for once. OK, she changed into a black dress when talking about Queen Victoria’s later years, but it wasn’t a particularly Victorian black dress! It’s usually Suzy Klein who presents the BBC’s musical history programmes, and I hadn’t realised that Lucy was so into music. We saw her playing the piano very impressively!

I’d never particularly thought of Queen Victoria in terms of music, either. Ask me to name a “musical monarch”, and I’d have said George II, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Young Victoria apparently found George II’s type of music boring, but was really into Italian opera. We got this rather lovely image of her, at a time at which she was given virtually no freedom by her mother and Sir John Conroy, being allowed to go to the opera and getting quite obsessive over some of the singers. Some of them came to sing at her 16th birthday party, and she took singing lessons from them. Lucy’s theory was that it was a way for an emotional person leading a very restricted life to express herself. I like that.

We’re all rather past the idea of Queen Victoria as a repressed and grumpy person who was “not amused”, and we know that she was into dancing. I didn’t know that Johann Strauss actually wrote a waltz for her, though. This was at a time when the waltz was still considered quite scandalous, so Victoria was out there at the cutting edge of things! It was rather pushing it to claim that it was Victoria who popularised the waltz, though, especially as she wasn’t actually allowed to waltz – all that bodily contact! – until she married Prince Albert.

Prince Albert did a lot of good things, but he was undeniably rather boring, and he wanted Italian opera and Viennese waltzes out and German classical music in. But he wrote his own love songs for Victoria, and serenaded her with them. That’s so romantic ❤ !! OK, it’d only work if you had a partner with a good singing voice, but Albert and Victoria both did have good singing voices. They played duets on the piano, as well. So sweet!

They did still go to the opera, as well – and I think it was a valid point that their presence helped to make opera-going, which had become associated with drunken posh blokes trying to seduce opera girls, respectable. And they held musical soirees at home. It was overplaying it to say that it was their interest in music which led to the increase in interest in musical entertainment generally, though! It was part of the general growth of leisure activities during the Victorian period, and, to be fair, Lucy did point out the importance of the development of mass production of musical instruments at more affordable prices. We got to see a brass band. Yay, I love brass bands! I’m not sure that Queen Victoria was particularly into brass band music, but, if she wasn’t, she didn’t know what she was missing! And we heard about the birth of the Halle Orchestra. Always nice to get some Mancunian history into any history programme 😉 . Lucy noted that Sir Charles Halle always made sure that some seats at the Free Trade Hall and anywhere else that the Halle were playing were made available at low prices. Music for all!  One thing that wasn’t mentioned was church music, but maybe that wasn’t particularly Queen Victoria’s thing.

Of course, Charles Halle was originally from Germany, and, as Lucy kept saying, the music scene in Britain at that time was dominated by Germans.  Mendelssohn notably spent a fair amount of time in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’d never realised that Victoria and Albert were so pally with him: the Queen’s patronage was a real boost to his career, and he even used to go round to see them and they’d all sing and play the piano together. That’s brilliant! And, whilst I’m vaguely familiar with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, I wouldn’t have thought to connect his interest in Scotland with Victoria and Albert’s well-known love of Scotland. Er, having just looked on Google to see when his Hebrides Overture was composed, I see that it was after a visit to Scotland in 1829, well before Victoria even came to the throne! So that’s another area where Lucy’s arguments were pushing it; but they did undoubtedly create interest in Scottish culture outside Scotland.

Going back to the subject of opera becoming respectable, Lucy then started talking about a Swedish opera singer – and I knew before she said the name that she meant Jenny Lind. How cultured am I?! Well, OK, not very, in fact – I only know about Jenny Lind because of the Barnum connection! But Victoria was apparently a huge fan of hers. She went to see her sixteen times in one season, threw flowers at her, gave her a dog, and cut short a formal dinner with the PM in order to go to one of her shows! She was really keen. And then Prince Albert died … and she never went to a public concert again. That’s really sad – and we got some poignant images, from things she’d written in her journals, of how it’d taken her a while even to listen to music again, but that, when she did, particular pieces reminded her of Albert. I think everyone can identify with that. We’ve probably all got songs/pieces of music which remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. But she chose to have the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music founded in his memory – and that, as Lucy pointed out, says a lot about how important music was to both of them.

We then moved on to the music halls. Much more my sort of thing than German Lieder or Italian opera! And the “By jingo” song, which always annoys me because the peoples of the Balkans got a very raw deal due to the obsession with restricting Russian influence!  Anyway. Lucy then claimed that Queen Victoria wearing black all the time was partly an image thing, and facilitated the branding of the monarchy because everyone knew that she always wore black. I wasn’t impressed with that. It was mourning black, OK – she was in mourning for her dead husband, not trying to look cool l like I did when I was 14 and wanted to wear black because the Stone Roses did!  I’m not even sure what wearing black was supposed to have to do with music – although the idea seemed to be that it was all part of the idea of Queen Victoria as the face of the British Empire, and that music played a big part in promoting imperialism via both music hall patriotic songs and the music of Elgar. Hooray for Elgar – finally, a top-level British composer.  I take the point about music and imperialism, but trying to connect that with Queen Victoria wearing black wasn’t overly convincing!   Oh well.

The programme finished by talking about Wagner’s Lohengrin being played at Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday party, and how Wagner’s music was to become synonymous with the Nazis, and Queen Victoria would have been devastated to know what lay ahead for Anglo-German relations. Things had rather wandered off the point by this time, and topping it off by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music was definitely going over the top, but it was a very interesting programme. The bicentennial of Victoria and Albert’s birth, in addition to the popular ITV series about them, means that we’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year, and it’s going to be difficult to find different and original angles. The BBC managed it with this programme, and Lucy Worsley, who can sometimes be very irritating, did an excellent job with it. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “very, very amused”, with three underlinings, after one Italian opera performance. I was pretty amused by this programme!

 

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (third episode) – BBC 4

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UFOs apparently merit more attention than the McCarthy witch hunts, and Ronald Reagan was only elected president because American radio stations were banned from playing songs in the top 40 (why??) and played music from the 1950s instead.  So, if they took to playing songs from my era, the late 1980s, who would be the next President of the United States?  Tom Hanks, maybe?  Jodie Foster?  Answers on a postcard, please!  And it doesn’t half annoy me when people insist on referring to the Soviet Union as “Russia”.  There were fifteen Soviet republics, OK – fifteen, not one.  Finally, just to prove that the BBC really does intend to wind people up with this programme, Martin Luther King was accused of being a male chauvinist pig.

Lucy Worsley can be great sometimes, but she was incredibly annoying in this.  The smirking.  The excessively bright red lipstick.  The failure to wear a seatbelt.  And just the general feeling that she was mocking everything.  Is there any need to be like that? Most of what she said was genuinely interesting, but I just found her manner extremely irritating.  I think she was enjoying doing something different, though – it felt as if the jolly hockey sticks head girl had been transformed into the school bully.

We were informed that everyone loves 1950s America, because of Happy Days.  I’d have said more because of Grease, which wasn’t mentioned until later on; but you get the idea.   There is an awful lot of nostalgia about the 1950s.  We then jumped back – there was a lot of jumping around in this programme – jumped back to 1945, and the idea that America won the war.  I have to say that I do find it very annoying when people say that America won the war.  Er, what about Britain, and the other nations of the Empire and the Commonwealth?  What about the Soviet Union?  Lucy didn’t mention Britain, presumably because it might have upset all the avocado-eating Britain-bashers whom the BBC loves to please, but she did suggest that Japan’s surrender had more to do with, or at least as much to do with, the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on her than with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s certainly something that Western histories of the Second World War pay very little attention to.

I’d got the impression that this was going to be about the Cold War, so I was expecting it to focus on all the myths peddled by both sides about the other.  I never “did” the Cold War anti-Soviert thing.  OK, I was a bit young for it anyway, only ten when Gorbachev came to power, but I was always too keen on Eastern European history to be negative about Eastern Europe.  I remember being rather upset when most of the other kids in my GCSE history group were astounded to find that Britain had fought on the same side as Russia in the First World War (not to mention on the same side as the Soviet Union in the Second World War).  Even those of us born in the mid-1970s were fed all that anti-“Russian” stuff.  But this programme wasn’t about that after all – only on America’s own ideas about America, the land of peace and prosperity and supremacy.

So we got lots of shots of housing estates built in the 1950s, and pictures of smiling moms and dads and kids.  All white.  We heard the story of a black family who moved into one of these housing estates, and not even in Mississippi or Alabama but in Pennsylvania, and received death threats.  The legal documents for a lot of these properties even included “racial covenants” – and that wasn’t made illegal until 1968.  None of that was surprising, but things like that never stop being shocking.  When Barack Obama was elected president, it felt as if those days might finally be over.  Now, things seem to be going backwards.

The programme then jumped backwards again – to 1950, when the National Security Council warned Harry S Truman (What is it with American presidents and their middle initials?  No-one goes around talking about Theresa M Mary or Angela D Merkel, do they?!) that there was a threat from the Soviet Union, and so America whacked up its defence spending.  It’s horrifying to think of how much money’s spent on defence, when it’s so urgently needed for other things, because we can’t get to a point where all countries are able to trust each other enough to reduce it.  And that never changes.  Again, it seems to be getting worse, with America pulling out of this nuclear arms treaty.

Testing atomic bombs.  This was all told in a very sarcastic tone.  And, OK, it was utterly bizarre.  Day trips were run from Las Vegas to viewing points for the main atomic testing site in Nevada.  People drank “atomic cocktails” and watched “atomic ballets”, and “Miss Atomic Bomb” contests were held.

Meanwhile, rates of cancer amongst those living downwind of the site soared – resulting in around 11,000 deaths.  The authorities knew of the danger, but felt that developing missiles to match those of the Soviet Union was more important than people’s health.  This was nothing we didn’t already know, but, as with racism, knowing something doesn’t mean that hearing it again isn’t shocking.   And the “Happy Days” of the 1950s were overshadowed by the fear of “the bomb”.

Then, from all this incredibly serious and distressing talk about cancer and fear, we were suddenly on to UFOs.  Roswell was 1947, not in the 1950s, but never mind.  Lucy went on at length about UFOs, and even interviewed a man who was clearly entirely convinced that the truth was out there and either didn’t realise or didn’t care that she was making fun of him.  Everything she was saying did make sense, though!   Yes, there does seem to be a conviction in America that, if aliens were going to land on Planet Earth, they would land in America.  Linking this to Manifest Destiny sounds like a complete piss-take, but it’s actually very hard to say that it isn’t true!

Finally, nearly halfway into the programme, we got to McCarthyism.  I was expecting a whole load of spiel about this.  The Red Scare.  Reds Under The Bed.  Everything that it says about repression and victimisation in what’s supposed to be The Land of the Free, and how easily a politician can whip up fear.  But it barely got a mention.  UFOs were apparently more important.

On to Eisenhower and the “military-industrial complex” – arms companies whipping up fear of the communist threat, and pressuring the American government into upping its defence spending again.  The term doesn’t really get used any more – but I honestly hadn’t realised just how much America does still spend on defence.  According to Wikipedia, “In 2011, the United States spent more (in absolute numbers) on its military than the next thirteen nations combined”.  And, from what Lucy said, the Soviets never really had that many missiles … and what’s quite that much defence spending about now?  This episode was quite disjointed, going from bombs to UFOs to Red Scares to military-industrial complexes without any real thread running through it all, but the points were certainly all valid.

Well, I suppose the thread was meant to be myths and fibs, but it just didn’t flow very well.  From B52s to Camelot, and the idea that JFK was fit and healthy and had a perfect marriage.  Hmm.  And that he saved the world at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis – whereas, in fact, the deal was two-way, with the Americans agreeing to remove their missiles from Turkey at the same time as the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba.

No-one ever mentions that, in the West.  Very true.  It would have been interesting to have heard the take on it in Warsaw Pact countries, though.  I know that the programme was meant to be about the USA’s image of itself, but it would have been good to have heard the alternative view.

Then another complete change of topic, from the Bay of Pigs to the 1963 March on Washington.  This bit was fascinating – not so much about what it said, as about the fact that it was said at all.  I’m not that keen on either Abraham Lincoln or John F Kennedy, and find the hero worship of both of them rather odd.  But it’s very unusual to hear anyone criticise Martin Luther King, especially in today’s political climate when people are so quick to label anyone a racist.  People are also increasingly quick to label anyone a sexist – and that’s what Lucy Worsley did with Martin Luther King.  No women spoke on that famous day in 1963.  Why didn’t Rosa Parks, for example, make a speech?  And, apparently, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King were both invited to the White House, but Coretta was left outside whilst her husband went in for a boys’ only get together.

Fair point.  And a brave point, as well.  I think people are becoming nervous of saying what they think, because of the fear of being wrongly labelled as a racist or a sexist.   Or being accused of “cultural appropriation” – it appears that some people are up in arms over a Marks & Spencer vegan biryani wrap.  I felt quite uncomfortable hearing Lucy saying negative things about such an iconic and admired figure as Martin Luther King, and I was annoyed with myself for that.  She wasn’t taking away from everything he achieved and stood for in terms of civil rights for African-Americans.  She was just saying, quite truthfully, that women were not fairly represented within that movement.  But it was still surprising to hear outspoken criticism of someone whom no-one would usually say a word against.

1963 also saw the publication of The Feminine Mystique.  Finally, a section of the programme that followed on logically from the previous section … but, rather than an insight into the changing role of women in the 1960s, we were left with the impression that the entire female population of the USA spent the 1950s and 1960s taking Valium.

And finally, the radio stations.  I must admit that I never knew this, but, in 1967, AM and FM stations in the US were banned from playing “identical content to” the top 40, in an attempt to encourage musical diversity.  I can’t quite get my head round that!   What a weird idea.  So they played music from the 1950s, and everyone got obsessed with the 1950s, and even more so when Grease and Back To The Future came out. Back To The Future was 1985, by which time Ronald Reagan was into his second term of office, but never mind.  So everyone was really into 1950s nostalgia, and that’s why Ronald Reagan became president.  Well, OK, it wasn’t put exactly like that, but that was the general idea.

And I was expecting McCarthyism and the space race …

I think I actually prefer Lucy when she’s being the jolly hockey sticks head girl.   There was something about this series that smacked of … well, to go back to the subject of Grease, it was a bit like the “too cool for school” Pink Ladies and T-Birds making fun of the all-American kids like Patty Simcox and Tom Chisum for helping to organise the school dance and being on the school sports teams.  But, hey, didn’t you always really want to be one of the cool kids who swaggered around with their cool gang jacket slung over their shoulder?  And I’m just proving that, yep, I do 1950s America nostalgia as well!  It’s a powerful myth.  So many historical myths are.

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (second episode) – BBC 4

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It’s extremely annoying when people claim that the American Civil War was about Abraham Lincoln leading an anti-slavery crusade.  It wasn’t. So I was really looking forward to seeing some of those myths debunked, but this second episode of Lucy Worsley’s series just didn’t work as well as the first one did, because most of the  “fibs” being addressed just weren’t things that most people actually believe.  Does anyone genuinely believe that true racial equality in the United States exists even now, never mind that it was brought about in the 1860s?  And, much as I love Gone With The Wind, surely nobody today actually buys that frighteningly romanticised view of slavery?  Those “fibs” just can’t be compared with Paul Revere’s Ride and the ringing of the Liberty Bell, stories that actually do form part of American culture.  However, that’s not to say that the programme wasn’t interesting.  It was.  In particular, it showed just how dangerous the distortion of Civil War history has become in our own time.

As with the first episode, it had several barely-concealed digs at Donald Trump.  It began with a crack about “alternative facts”, and ended with a discussion of racism being immediately followed by a shot of a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap.  I don’t disagree, but the BBC is supposed to be neutral.  I’m so sick of all the bias in the media!  It’s getting worse and worse: it’s becoming almost impossible to find anything that just tells you what’s going on and leaves you to make up your own mind about it, rather than trying to force one viewpoint or another down your throat.  OK, rant over!

The programme started off with the Union myth of the Civil War, which, history being written by the victors and all that, is the official version.  Slavery and reunification.  Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves and saved the Union.  Incidentally, the programme utterly failed to point out that the biggest fib about the Civil War is that it was … er, a civil war.  It wasn’t.  USA versus CSA, not Northern USA versus Southern USA.  Having said which, the same happened with Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  It also reminded us that the war killed 600,000 people, more Americans than were killed in the First and Second World Wars combined.

There’s only so much you can fit into an hour, and, OK, there really wasn’t time to go into the Wilmot Proviso, Bleeding Kansas, popular sovereignty, the Compromise of 1850, Dred Scott, John Brown and so on and so forth, and so we just got a brief mention of the fact that there’d been disputes over whether or not slavery should be extended into the new states being organised in the West.  Then a historian saying that slavery in the southern states would have been worth trillions of dollars in today’s money.

The point being made was that concerns about slavery were economic rather than ideological.  I’m not sure how well that actually worked.  The northern and southern economies were developing along different lines, so it wasn’t really a question of competition; and a lot of the opposition to extending slavery west actually was ideological.  A lot of it was also due to the belief that slavery was actually bad for the economy, which didn’t tie in with what the programme was saying.  Slavery was, obviously hugely economically important for the South, but I’m not at all convinced that opposition to slavery in the North was also about economics.  I think all that talk about economics actually over-complicated things.  Debunking the myth?  Many people believed that slavery was wrong.  That didn’t mean that they wanted, or wanted their husbands and sons and brothers, to go off to fight in a war about it.  Myth debunked!

When we actually got to the war, it was oversimplified.  Yes, OK, there were time constraints, but that was no excuse for factual inaccuracies!  No, it was not a case of nineteen free states versus eleven slave states: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, all slave states, remained in the Union.  And, if you want to be thorough, West Virginia seceded from Virginia!  And there were not eleven states in the Confederacy at the time of Fort Sumter!  Having said which, the issue of the slave states which didn’t secede was mentioned when talking about the Confederate battle flag, which has thirteen stars because it includes Kentucky and Missouri.  And it was a fair point that what everyone thinks of as the Confederate flag is actually the Confederate battle flag.

Oversimplication’s one thing, but blatant errors are another.  The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued after three years of fighting, apparently.  Ahem … Fort Sumter, April 1861, Manassas/Bull Run, July 1861, Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 1862, to take effect in January, 1863.  How do you make that into three years of fighting?!

I rather bizarrely started thinking about The King and I, at this point.  I know that sounds daft, but international perceptions of the American South had been very deeply affected by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a lot of people today say that the first time they heard of that book was when they first saw The King and I.  We also get Deborah Kerr proclaiming that Mr Lincoln is “fighting a great war to free the slaves”.  Yes, all right, all right, The King and I is hardly an accurate reflection of anything; but was that how the rest of the world saw it even at the time?  Quite possibly, yes. There’s a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre.  A letter was sent to him from the working men of Manchester (er, what about the working women?!) saying that they supported his war, his anti-slavery war.  Despite the terrible effects of the Cotton Famine.  By the way, why weren’t blockade runners mentioned in this programme?  If you want to talk about romanticising the Lost Cause, you need blockade runners!  Anyway.  Lincoln wrote back … and, whilst his letter mentioned slavery, he said that his main responsibility was the preservation of the Union.

So who’s inventing the myth?  The whole argument of this programme was that America was telling fibs about its own history, but I think there’s an argument that the myth of the war being an anti-slavery crusade existed outside America well before it existed within America.  It is definitely a myth, though.  Who’s the myth about, Lincoln or the Union?  That all got a bit confused, as well, but Lincoln has very much become the personification of the Union – which is daft in itself, because he wasn’t really that popular.

Lucy made two crucial points here.  Lincoln never seems to have been that keen on immediate emancipation, and certainly not in favour of equal rights for African Americans.  And the proclamation only declared the slaves free in the states of the Confederacy, not in the slave states which remained within the Union.  Battle Hymn of the Republic – “as he died to make men holy let us die to make men free”.  Was the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation supposed to make the war about slavery, even if not for ideological reasons on Lincoln’s own part than to boost morale and support in the North?  Or was it in the hope that the slaves of the South would all run off, knacker the Southern economy even more than it was knackered already and destroy Southern morale?

This is the crux of the matter … but, just as things were getting really interesting, the programme dropped the subject and started talking about Sherman’s march through Georgia.  It didn’t play Marching Through Georgia – you know, the one that gets used as a football song in England – for some reason, although it did play the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with Lucy dressed up as a Union soldier.  And it didn’t mention the infamous quote about presenting the city of Savannah to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present.  Was the march a great act of heroism or was it a war crime?  Well, read Gone With The Wind.  It may be biased, but it doesn’t say anything about Sherman’s march that wasn’t true.  But this all seemed to have got a bit waffly.

However, it got back to the point, with the events at Ebenezer Creek in December 1864, shortly before Savannah fell.  Many fleeing slaves were following the Union Army.  The Army looked on them as more of a nuisance than anything else.  Having crossed the creek, the Union XIV Corps destroyed the pontoon bridges which it had built.  The refugees tried to swim across.  Many of them drowned.  So much for “let us die to make men free”.

Back to Lincoln.  Why did the Gettysburg Address not get a mention in this?  That’s fascinating, because it talks about all men being created equal, but it means the question of whether or not the United States can survive, not whether or not black and white people are created equal.  It never got a mention.   However, we did hear a lot about Lincoln’s assassination.  Dying a violent death can often make someone into a saint and a martyr, whatever they’ve done during their lifetime – look at Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  We were shown postcards showing pictures of Lincoln as a semi-divine figure – and Lucy commented on how the fact that he was assassinated on Good Friday seemed to add to that.  The great Frederick Douglass stated at the time that Lincoln wasn’t the great anti-slavery hero that he was made out to be, but the myth grew.

And, because he was dead, no-one could blame Lincoln for how badly wrong things went once the war was over.  The programme discussed sharecropping, and convict leasing.  Yes, it was appalling.  Yes, it makes a mockery of the idea that the war had anything to do with what we’d now call civil rights.  But it’s not a “fib”.  Everyone knows about it.

So that was the Union.  Well, it was Lincoln.  On to the Confederacy.  Various issues.  The romantic idea of the Lost Cause.  The distortion of Confederate history to try to justify horrifying violent racism.  And the argument that the war was about states’ rights.

Lucy said that it wasn’t about states’ rights – that it was about slavery.  I actually think that it was about states’ rights.  There’d been issues over tariffs going back to Calhoun and Nullification and all that.  But states’ rights were inevitably bound up with slavery, because the disputes between the states were inevitably about economics, and disputes about economics were inevitably about slavery.  So you can’t separate the two things.  However, what is indisputable is that Lincoln’s election brought matters to a head, and led to secession, because he was seen as being anti-slavery.  There’s not really much arguing with that.

But what the programme didn’t say was that the states’ rights argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the war was about Northern aggression.  More about that later.

Fast forward to 1915, and The Birth of a Nation.  It was controversial even at the time – and yet it got huge viewing figures.  Although it’s a Civil War film, its significance is in relation to the Ku Klux Klan – which, as Lucy said, had long since died out at this point, but now made a comeback, complete with white robes and burning crosses … which had nothing to do with the Reconstruction-era Klan.  Reconstruction era, OK.  The Klan did not exist during the Civil War itself.  It was more akin to the Spanish Inquisition than anything else, which was quite ironic as the new-look Klan targeted not only African Americans but anyone else who wasn’t a “WASP” – white Jews and Catholics.  That was more Know-Nothing than Civil War – and the Know Nothings were in the North!

So what’s the issue here?  Well, it’s the distortion of the Southern myth, by people in the South.  The myth was supposed to be that the war was about states’ rights.  Suddenly, the myth became that it was about the persecution of white Southerners.  Incredibly dangerous – and the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the inter-war years, and on into the 1960s, were beyond sickening.  And it’s misusing Southern history.  The Klan didn’t even exist during the war.

And then from violence to romance – with Lucy Worsley trying to dress up as Scarlett O’Hara, and talking about the idea of the Lost Cause.

About Gone With The Wind.  It romanticises slavery.  Ashley Wilkes does say that he’d have freed all his family’s slaves when his father died, but Ashley is supposed to be out of step with everyone else.  It also presents some horrible stereotypes of African American characters such as Big Sam and Prissy.  And it romanticises plantation life in the antebellum South, although a) the book doesn’t do that as much as the film does and b) someone needs to tell Lucy that Scarlett was not the mistress of Tara (well, except very briefly).  What it does not do is romanticise the Glorious Cause, later the Lost Cause.  Throughout the book, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very cynical about “the Cause”, and contemptuous of those who do romanticise it.

Going back to what it does do – yes, it shows how “the Cause” was romanticised, especially by women.  Margaret Mitchell said that she grew up hearing these stories.  She wasn’t born until 1900.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy had been founded only six years earlier, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans almost four years later, almost thirty years after the end of the war.   In this programme, we were told how, in the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had people checking the textbooks used in the South, trying to ensure that they didn’t say anything negative about the Confederacy!   Seventy years after the war, two completely different versions of events, The Lost Cause and the Anti-Slavery Crusade, both completely one-sided, neither accurate, were being peddled.  That’s not unusual, after a war, but when it’s in what’s supposed to be one country … how do you move on?

And the descendants of the freed slaves weren’t really getting a look-in in putting forward either version, never mind getting equal rights.  Martin Luther King, as the programme pointed out, made a very powerful comment about the end of the war having offered black Americans a promissory note, which had never been redeemed.

There still isn’t really a … a take on the Civil War, for lack of a better way of putting it, from the viewpoint of slaves.  People argue about the extent to which the war was about slavery, but the views of those who were enslaved, and the impact on those who were enslaved, never really comes into those arguments.

Back to Gone With The Wind.  Yes, it’s a Civil War novel, but a lot of it is about life in wartime generally. One of the most powerful scenes in is when the casualty lists reach Atlanta, after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Scarlett, reading through the lists, finds name after name of young men she’d grown up with, known all her life.  She becomes so distressed that she can’t read on any further.  Rhett, normally so cynical, is upset and angry at the waste of life.  Mrs Meade learns that her son Darcy has been killed: Melanie tries to comfort her, but there’s little she can say.  The Misses McLure learn that their brother Dallas, their own relative in the world apart from each other, is dead.  Dallas’s sweetheart, Fanny Elsing, collapses in her mother’s arms.  That’s not about slavery, or secession, or any of it: that’s just about war and its devastating consquences.

Also, I’ve just said that it’s a Civil War novel, and that’s how everyone thinks of it, but much of it is actually set during Reconstruction.  Reconstruction was an absolute screw-up, and that’s partly why the “Lost Cause” got so romanticised.  It’s a big part of the myth of Lincoln as well.  If you’re succeeded by an idiot, history will remember you as one of the greats, because you look so good by comparison.  Barack Obama’s place in history is already secured!   It’s hard not to think that everything would have been different had Lincoln been in charge of Reconstruction, because he could hardly have done a worse job than Andrew Johnson’s useless government did.

And, after the war, Suellen O’Hara, one of Scarlett’s sisters, marries a Confederate veteran called Will Benteen.  Will typifies the South far more than the likes of Ashley Wilkes and the other men in the book do.  He comes from a relatively poor family.  It’s unlikely that he ever owned slaves: he wouldn’t have been able to afford to.  He had no political influence before the war: the decision about secession had nothing to do with him.  But he fought for his home state.  And, in doing so, he lost his health (he lost a leg) and his home.

None of this got a mention, and I thought that that was a bit unfair.  I don’t particularly mean in terms of characters in a novel, obviously!  I mean in general.

Lucy said that Gone With The Wind reunified the country!  I suppose it did, in a way.  It was so popular.  That’s a bit mad, really.  I mean, Melanie Wilkes, the sweet, mild-mannered Melanie, who couldn’t believe any ill of anyone, said that she’d teach her children and her grandchildren to hate the Yankees.  Should Northerners have hated  Gone With The Wind?  No.  It’s too good.  And its themes are universal, as typified by that scene with the Gettysburg casualty lists.  That’s the real tragedy of all this.  This war killed 600,000 Americans, and destroyed the lives of many others.   There’s nothing glorious about any war.  Yet this one’s been made to seem glorious in different ways, by different people, for different reasons.

And then on to the present day.  Charlottesville. We all know what happened at Charlottesville in 2017.  This is painful to write about, because it’s so horrible.  2017.  The twenty-first century.  I’m not a great fan of pulling statues down.  For one thing, it provides a flashpoint for trouble.  One man Lucy interviewed said that it’d make more sense to put up educational literature and use Confederate statues as a discussion point. However, what’s happening is that Confederate imagery – flags, statues – has become a modern-day battleground, between people who view it as a symbol of racism and people who use it as a symbol of racism, waving Confederate battle flags alongside Nazi flags, talking about Southern culture in the same breath as they shout anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic slogans.  It’s horrible: there aren’t words strong enough to say how horrible it is.

This is how history gets misused.  A primary school word like “fib” doesn’t exactly cover it.  And it makes it very hard to talk about the Civil War, because it’s got all tangled up with the “alt-right”, with anti-Islamism, with anti-Semitism, with misogyny, with homophobia, with transphobia … none of which have got anything to do with the Civil War.   It’s a long way from Will Benteen.  It’s a long way from Abraham Lincoln.

I once read a book which said that Britain still hadn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1640s.  America certainly hasn’t got past all the issues of the Civil War of the 1860s.  And the distortion of history is getting worse.  This was a very disturbing programme.  Did Gone With The Wind unify America, as Lucy suggested?  I only wish someone could come up with any sort of book or any sort of film that could bring about unity today!  Oh dear.  I started studying the American Civil War in the 1980s.  It really wasn’t like this, then.  Someone pour me a mint julep with extra whisky.  I think I need one!