The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Apr 22, 2008

Mediaeval Season

It's the Mediaeval Season on BBC Four nowadays, and one such as I that revels in all things Mediaeval, this is great news. I am stuffed silly with excellent television and sated with eye candy as well. In many cases, the eye candy and the high quality informational content is simultaneous. Good.

There is a trend nowadays in historical programming to re-enact and dramatise key points, a sort of parallel to all the immensely successful narrative histories, full of verve and (sometimes) unintentional comedy. The father-and-son team, Peter and Dan Snow, once presented a series on the various British wars (Battlefield Britain, if you must know), in which actors in the roles of the opposing sides, were interviewed as though by CNN. Invariably, each one of them said in a broad Essex accent It was carnage. An accurate statement, no doubt, but providing very little illumination; and after the third interviewee had pointed out the carnage, it became a game to count the number of times the word would be used in the sequel.

There are few interviews in the BBC 4 programme list, but there are several shaky-cam shots of galloping cavalry and Welsh warbows firing into the sky. (And don't get me started on the whole handheld video and its supposed realism.) Luckily, BBC appears to be toning down these cliches, but try as they might, they are unable to get rid of the talking heads, many of whom appear in episode after episode.

Anyway, onwards and forwards. The eye candy I referred to above is Alixe Bovey, well-known in professional history circles as a researcher into mediaeval manuscripts. Now, erudition hardly suffices in this visual world of ours (clearly, classical music has fallen into the trap as well): if you look uglier than Betty, you don't have much of a chance at TV fame. Alixe, flame-haired and mod, with a ring in her upper ear, is ill at ease in front of the camera, which tends to linger on her and her convertible as she drives across the country, but she has an engaging Canadian accent and a subdued enthusiasm that is quite fetching. Her series of programmes is titled In Search of Medieval Britain, and follows the famous Gough Map, one of the most accurate renderings of the state of Britain. It dates from around 1360, and may very well have been the first road map of the country. The programme is not pitched at anyone with a serious thirst for knowledge, so there are shots of beautiful countryside, jump-cut battlefield scenes, and the odd interview with English Heritage employees - a bit baffling, considering that Alixe is an expert in the period. In the first episode - North - she talked about Durham cathedral, York Minster and its enormous stained glass windows, and the underwear-less monks of Fountains Abbey.

A brief detour into the chemistry of stained glass was interesting, but the rest of the episode was ho-hum. In the second episode, Alixe was in the West - Gloucester and Wales. She discussed the hapless Edward II who was supposedly interred at Gloucester cathedral after having been brutally murdered with a red-hot crowbar up his fundament; on the other hand, rumours have been circling for the last six hundred years that he escaped to France, and the body in the cathedral is of a doorman he killed as he escaped.

Eye candy or not, Dr Bovey is certainly game for some rough and tumble. She attempts medieval archery with the great warbow, a Welsh invention of peerless power. The draw on one of these yew-hewed weapons is anything from 80 to 100 kilogrammes (imagine lifting that weight with one arm, and think on the fact that an archer in 14th century British warfare could be called on to do so every ten seconds for a whole day, day after day); the one she managed to notch and fire (and, indeed, hit a target!) was considerably less powerful; still, a worthy achievement considering how much controlled power is required to wield the bow. Now, bows are a source of considerable fascination for me and I would have appreciated some detail into the construction of the Welsh version, the precursor to the deadly force the decimated the French chivalry at Crecy and Agincourt, but nothing was forthcoming. Instead, Dr Bovey went on to the river Usk, where she met the reconstructors of a 500-year old trading ship, and hied thence to Caerphilly Castle, rowed in its moat, and talked about its impregnability.

When it comes to intelligent programming, Terry Jones is your man. In the mid-nineties, he created a series called Crusade, in which he put on the full armour of a medieval knight and stomped his way across inhospitable terrain from Constantinople to Jerusalem, following the First Crusade. This programme, characterised by his superb humour and considerable research, is now being repeated. Now, of course, Jones is a sceptic and a bit of an iconoclast. His main thesis - that the (first) Crusades were a political machination by a militant pope to assert authority over various European kings, and religion was a cynical means to his ends - naturally disturbs many people who like to ascribe more virtuous reasons for entire villages to depopulate and head for the Holy Land to remove the heathen. Of course, many of these military pilgrims were yobs and didn't really care whether the people they murdered were Muslims or not. And in any case, they were an ill-trained rabble and at the first serious engagement with the Turks, they were wiped out.

It seems to me that BBC Four's Medieval Season mainly concentrates on British history, despite the broadcast of Terry Jones' Crusades. This view is further confirmed by yet another series by Terry Jones that is being shown again - Medieval Lives. In these episodes, Jones takes on individual archetypes of the period - the knight, the peasant, the minstrel, the monk, the damsel, and so on - and busts the myths that pervade them. For instance, he says
In order to sell their package of conservative intellectual authoritarianism, the writers of the Renaissance had to make out that the intervening centuries were a time of darkness and ignorance into which they would now shine the light of ancient knowledge.

The distortions, obfuscations and downright lies which they and admirers of the Renaissance ever since have fastened onto the Middle Ages still infect our historical vision. The very fact that we call that period (whatever it is) 'the Middle Ages' is but one example. The idea that it is a limbo between the bright lights of the classical World and the even brighter lights of the Renaissance is enshrined there in the very title.

But the medieval world wasn't a time of stagnation or ignorance. A lot of what we assume to be medieval ignorance is, in fact, our own ignorance about the medieval world.
The programme that I saw was on the minstrel. It points out that most minstrels were not the itinerant musical heroes of legend. They were poor servants who were called upon to serve at their lord's pleasure, multitalented and benighted, juggling, singing, bawdy and beaten. The true bards who created new genres of song were upper-crust dukes on whom the bawdy began to pall. They then created music of genius and adumbrated it with lyrics of grace, romance, chivalry, love.

There are also several one-off programmes. I missed Stephen Fry's presentation of the Gutenberg Bible. Luckily, iPlayer will come to the rescue - I'll be downloading the programme for viewing later on my handy laptop. Another one I missed - How To Build a Cathedral. I don't think I'll regret it forever if I were never to see it, because, really, it's all been done (and superbly!) by David Macaulay in a PBS production; even better, check out his lovely book Cathedral - The Story of Its Construction.

More to come: a dramatised story of medieval robbers (Heist); the invention of romantic love and sex in a solidly puritanical era (Inside the Medieval Mind); and my current favourite art critic, Andrew Graham-Dixon on the priceless art heritage of Britain that managed to escape the purges of Protestant extremism. Good, good.


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