Tag Archives: Guardian

I should not always write off journalists’ history. Only sometimes.

I am establishing a bit of a pedigree here for complaining about journalists writing about history without knowing what they’re on about, so it behoves me to recognise when the opposite happens and something genuinely good appears in the paper. After all, one thread of the discussion down a bit about how pseudo-scholarship gets disseminated is incriminating the media working from out-of-date half-remembered university courses (and probably Wikipedia entries written by people doing the same), and I think they do have a power to inform over and above that which we have and which we need to try and inform in turn, or where that’s not possible, embarrass.

King Athelstan, as drawn by Martin Rowson

King Athelstan, as drawn by Martin Rowson

But this is a good one. A few weeks ago, the Guardian, a British left-leaning newspaper that likes to include small booklets on unnewsable themes like 20th-century poets, cycle maintenance, geographical statistics and so on, did a pair on Kings and Queens of Britain. I only saw the first one, but it was lots of fun. The guilty party is one Helen Castor, whose pedigree has “medievalist” stamped all over it and so it’s not surprising to find that I probably walk past her every few weeks, for she is an academic writing for the papers (and this is good) and has been in Cambridge nearly as long as I have and rather more successfully. Anyway, she should take a bow as not only was this booklet chock-full of memorable factoids and soundbites, but they were all but one at least sustainable while still being interesting. She covered from Athelstan, justifying that choice in good historical terms, to Richard III, but she also explained Athelstan with a box on Alfred the Great, and that included the story of the cakes. The mistake, and as I say the only one I noticed, was that she ascribed the story to Asser not William of Malmesbury, which obviously affects how people who can compare years will read it. So that’s an annoyance but it was possible for her to make that mistake because she mentioned Asser, with his approximate dates, and explained who he was and so on. Now, when do you suppose was the last time anyone read about Asser in a newspaper? So on the whole I am full of praise for this endeavour, which shows not only that it can be done, but that it can be done concisely and accurately without losing punch, interest or, importantly, humour. I’m not so sure about Martin Rowson, the cartoonist’s depiction, of the Anglo-Norman kings, who were surely not piggy and fat as he has them. But that’s a small price to pay for the effect of pulling people in with the drawings. It shows Horrible Histories a clean pair of heels, anyway.

King William I, as depicted by Martin Rowson

King William I, as depicted by Martin Rowson

But then, something else rises to the top. This seems to have caught the blogular imagination but it made me choke on my ever-ready supply of bile (black bile, of course). Some jokers have built themselves a ‘Pictish throne’, I’m sorry, I quote, “a throne built to a design used by the ancient Picts“. Unfortunately these jokers are the National Museum of Scotland. I’m not sure whether it’s the fault of the reporting that it implies that we have a ‘design’ for such a thing as used by the ‘ancient Picts’, or if they got that from the museum’s press release, of which, to judge from the accompanying illustration, reproduced below, there seems to have been one. Now, I mean, look. Once you’re out of the headline the BBC report does clarify:

The seat was created by master furniture maker Adrian McCurdy who drew inspiration from stone carvings.

And the actual NMoS press page is a lot more circumspect, so I might blame the journalists overall. But the key word there is inspiration, because we’re talking about a very few carvings. I can’t immediately find out which stones have such a depiction on it but firstly, and most obviously, from a stone carving you can only guess what material the original object was in: it might have been stone! Secondly, but not much less important, we only have guesses as to what the Pictish stones actually depict in their mise-en-scènes; whatever source Mr McCurdy used may have been depicting, for example, an Old Testament king of Israel, for all we know, or a contemporary king depicted as one, and so on. So there’s really no foundation for this beyond “we made something a bit like what’s on the stone”. I wonder whose spin it is that makes it more here.

Supposedly Pictish throne replica on display at the National Museum of Scotland

"And I suppose now you're queen, is that it?"

(Also, for more on a similar theme see this from Karen Larsdatter at Medieval Material Culture, if you like.)

Guardian good, Guardian bad

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This seems to be especially true if you’re a journalist. If I encounter a newspaper at all, it tends to be The Guardian, because my housemate gets it. I myself would not, partly because I get my news online anyway, and mainly because of the sheer wash of redundant paper it involves; I mean, we read about a twentieth of what comes through the door, and the rest just goes straight into the recycling. It gives me tree conscience. Anyway. The Guardian give a lot of space to their writers. Sometimes, as we have seen, this results in in-depth supplements that give fair balance on a wide range of aspects of something. And sometimes it results in utter under-researched tosh.

Romantic representation of King Alfred and his Witan

A few days ago, in the wake of the London mayoral election, they put this on the front page, an article about the outgoing mayor having turned up at the office to see how the new one was doing. This, I grant you is odd, and it shows something of the complexity of the new mayor’s public persona that although his usual outward image is bumbling and stupid, when asked what they’d talked about he reportedly answered, “The Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot”.

Now I suspect that the new mayor is better-educated than the reporting journalist, Patrick Barkham, who goes on to explain for the clueless reader that this was, “a reference to the tribal assembly of wise men who kept the king in check before the Norman conquest,” and adds, “Weak rulers were dependent on the Witenagemot.”

Now I was going to fulminate at very great length about this, but I don’t even have to, because better attempts exist already to make the Anglo-Saxon king’s council, which may not even have had a formal existence, let alone have been the check on tyranny that Barkham’s education seems to have foisted upon him fresh from the nineteenth century, relevant to US politics than he has made of making it relevant to UK ones. Witness this fine article… Now if only we could get Mr Barkham to read it, and, ideally, to stop writing.