Tag Archives: journalism

The faces of TV archaeology

One of the other things from the backlog that I wanted to talk about was what looks like a case of media misattribution. I want to stress straight away that I didn’t see the TV program in question—I’ve never owned a TV and in any case I’d never tune in on time—so I may have got the wrong impression through reports on the program. [Edit: as indeed it transpires! Please note emendations below.] If so please let me know! But for the moment, there was this National Geographic programme in February about the Ridgeway Viking burial that you’ve heard about here already, a program that got quite widely reported, presented by one Dr Britt Baillie-Warren of Cambridge.

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle in the National Geographic program Viking Apocalypse

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle

On paper, Dr Baillie-Warren seems a slightly odd academic choice to present a program on Vikings in England. I haven’t met her or heard her present or read her work, so in some sense I shouldn’t judge, but the reason I haven’t is because her Ph. D. was on Vukovar in Croatia in the aftermath of the late twentieth-century break-up of Yugoslavia, and her current research is on landscapes in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything less than completely rigorous, I honestly don’t, but there’s nothing of the early Middle Ages in it [edit: although, as has been gently pointed out to me by e-mail, her B. A. was in Medieval Archaeology and she has in fact dug in Iceland]. Nonetheless, she seems to have grasped the nettle and come up with an interesting take on things, going from the isotope testing that revealed the bodies to be non-local and the radio-carbon dating that overlapped the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which King Æthelred the Unready reportedly ordered the execution of `all the Danes in England’ resulting in the burning of St Frideswide’s Oxford as we’ve heard, the apparent equanimity with which they all faced execution and finally the fact that some of the bodies had had their teeth filed in a painful but presumably compellingly disturbing kind of group branding, to suggest that this group were, or modelled themselves on, a band of the almost-legendary Jomsvikings, whose Saga has similar sentiments about facing death and which claims Viking leader Thorkell the Tall as a member, Thorkell being one of the leaders of armies with whom Æthelred had to content at that time and who was definitely in England. (This was seemingly demonstrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle via a trip to the Parker Library, because we know how historical TV makers hate to point out that these obscure manuscripts locked away in ancient libraries are published and translated already, don’t we? Looking stuff up online just isn’t as telegenic.) Now, obviously Thorkell did not get executed on the Ridgeway, because he outlived Æthelred (whose reasonably loyal employee he became) and became an earl under Cnut. And, I might worry about the fact that the Jómsvikinga Saga (also well-published, but never mind) wasn’t fixed in text till the late twelfthis first preserved in a manuscript of the early thirteenth century [edit: something which I have now been told was in fact mentioned in the program], and so there’s every possibility that when it was fixed in text its stories had had recent heroes added to them. So in fact, overall, I’d rather say that the Saga was modelled on warbands like these (albeit more successful ones) than that they were modelling themselves on the stories, let alone the ‘real’ Jomsvikings. That would make these men a kind of second-rate Expendables, a group of soldiers from various places hired to do dirty work by an employer who then turned on them and whose price they paid for it. There’s a good TV program in there somewhere, too, but it’s clear that this too was a very good TV program because of the awe-struck quality of the reporting. So, what’s my problem, mere jealousy at not being invited on?

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

Obligatory picture of the Ridgeway burial pit and its 51 Viking-age bodies, skulls detached

Well, no, or at least I hope not. My problem is simply with the level of contribution that the reporting all seems to have attributed to Dr Baillie-Warren because she was fronting the programme. The Daily Mail goes most overboard with this, as follows:

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end. Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together….

but the BBC story is similar. However, we know that her contribution was the Jomsviking theory and no more, because the actual dig was nothing to do with Cambridge or Dr Baillie-Warren, but was done by a contract firm called Oxford Archaeology (and they nothing to do with the University, lest I be accused of being partisan). It was they who did or got done the radiocarbon dating, the isotope testing and the analysis of the teeth, and you know this perhaps because I reported on David Score of OA telling a seminar about this but the journalists might have known about simply because their respective organs had also published that news some eighteen months previously. But if it goes onto TV with an identifiable face for the theory, apparently, out goes that racial memory. Only the Telegraph, in a rare display of journalistic caution, gives any indication that some of this might not be new news. Now, perhaps as I say the program was clearer about this than the reporting was [edit: and again I have been told that it was, and that OA’s osteoarchaelogist featured in it heavily], and if so I’d be grateful to know, but as it is it really doesn’t[edit: the papers and indeed the National Geographic’s own site really don’t make it] look like credit where credit’s due.

This contrasts weirdly with another case from about a month before, of which I learnt through a protest campaign mounted at the Archaeology in Europe blog and about which I’d also then intended to write, the addition of a co-presenter to legendary British archaeology TV series Time Team. This hit the news, as far as I can see, partly because it was one of a set of changes that caused the long-time stalwart of the programme, Professor Mick Aston, to step down one series prematurely, but also because the company that makes the show, Wildfire Television, had if the newspapers are to be believed decided specifically to add pretty much a token woman without significant expertise, for reasons left as an exercise for the reader:

Mick Aston, the archaeologist, has quit Time Team after producers hired a former model as the programme’s co-presenter.

The 65-year-old, who has been on the show for 19 years, said he had been left “really angry” by changes which led to the introduction of co-presenter Mary-Ann Ochota and some archaeologists being axed.



He was responding to changes first proposed by producers at Channel 4 in late 2010, which included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology”.

An email to archaeologists last year from Wildfire Television, which makes the programme, said it was seeking a female co-presenter who “does not have to be overly experienced or knowledgeable as we have plenty of expertise within the existing team”.

This is the reporting from the Telegraph, on this occasion much further into its comfort zone as you can tell and quite certain what the best way to present the situation is. Certainly, the situation appears to have been bad, as shortly after this Mrs Ochota also announced that she would not do another series and it seems that much has been rethought as to how the program will now continue. But again, ethical reporting has failed here. The first reason is of course that cheap shot, “ex-model”. By that same token you could, equally accurately, describe my current employment as “ex-barman and one-time telesales person hired to teach students Anglo-Saxon history at top university”. In fact, just as I do actually have some relevant qualifications also, Mrs Ochota, while not a research archaeologist like occasional female presenters Carenza Lewis or Helen Geake (of Cambridge both), was not academically unprepared for this gig, because she has a degree in archaeology and anthropology (also from Cambridge…1) and was and is in fact well-known already as a TV anthropologist. (I haven’t met or heard her either, I should maybe make clear.) If Wildfire were genuinely looking for a token woman with nothing of her own to contribute, though, I’d say they got the wrong one. (The coverage in the Daily Mail does quote more of whatever document this was, adding “However, they added: ‘Intelligence, natural curiosity and a passion for archaeology is a must.’” That’s something, I suppose?

TV presenter Mary-Ann Ochota

Mary-Ann Ochota, before her slot with Time Team

Now, when I first read of both these stories I cynically assumed that what we were looking at was TV companies trying to `sex up’ what they saw as a dull subject dominated by men in jumpers (though Professor Aston’s jumpers surely deserve star billing by themselves, even if only as some kind of warning), such as has been complained of about other programs on the Middle Ages. That certainly seems to have been the take of the Telegraph (of whom we might expect no better) and the Daily Mail (of whom we might expect worse and who recorded Mrs Ochota’s arrival with the headline, “‘What’s she got that I haven’t?’ Veteran quits as Cambridge beauty joins TV’s Time Team”; this quote was apparently ‘expressive’ rather than factual, you’ll doubtless be surprised to learn). That should have been enough to warn me, really, if I’m in agreement with the Mail I’ve probably missed something. Nonetheless, the difference in reporting is weird: in the first case we have a bright, young and, yes, female, archaeologist, having other people’s work attributed to her despite an apparent lack of relevant expertise[edit: statements to the contrary], and in the second a bright, young and, yes, female, anthropologist whose archaeological and anthropological training was basically overlooked because the journalists decided it made a better story to focus on her looks. I would guess that it was more the “archaeologists being axed” and the threat to “`cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology'” that made Professor Aston angry, myself, but the actual issues do not seem to be what got the journalists’ attention. As the saying goes in some places, “We ent arrive as yet“.

Time Team at Salisbury Cathedral, 2009

Time Team, including Helen Geake, in 2009, jumpers mainly made safe


1. I grant you that there is possibly a question to be asked here about why every woman I can mention in this post works or studied at Cambridge, but the answer is probably simply “Catherine Hills” so I’m not going to worry about that just now.

964, 1978, who’s counting? Of monks, canons and new toilets

The New Minster, Winchester

The New Minster, Winchester

Here’s a short one. I learnt a little while back from News for Medievalists that the BBC had something to say about an occasion on 5th March when Winchester Cathedral opened the first new part of its building for 500 years. It is, unexcitingly, basically a toilet block (as up till then the cathedral hadn’t had any toilets, apparently!), but they managed to add some excitement by getting it opened by someone they’d just made an Ecumenical Canon, who is no less than Abbot Étienne of the monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire at Fleury, for which reason the new extension is to be the Fleury Building. ‘How very appropriate a choice of canon, if not of facility,’ I more or less thought and then found that the BBC thought so also but not for the reason I expected:

The link between Winchester Cathedral and the Abbey of Fleury goes back to 1978, when the then Dean of Winchester, Michael Stancliffe, and the Abbot of Fleury decided that the Anglican cathedral and the Benedictine monastery should be united in prayer.

And that’s a bit weird because the connection I’d thought of was that the New Minster at Winchester was reformed by Bishop Æthelwold of that see on his appointment there in 964, and he had been trained… at Fleury.1 This seemed like an obvious thing to mention, but then I wondered if the fact that he’d kicked out the canons, whom he found quite displeasing, and replaced them with monks made it, perhaps, awkward to mention that when making a monk your newest canon. Maybe they wanted those lines to stay blurry, I thought. And that would be interesting from the point of view of the continuing relevance of the medieval past to current institutions, and institutional memory and so on. But in fact the actual press release on Winchester Cathedral’s web-pages is happy to acknowledge the older link, just about:

The Cathedral’s origins are as a Benedictine monastery – Benedict being recognised as the father of Western monasticism – and although the Cathedral is no longer run by monks, Benedict’s values are at the heart of its ethos. The strength of the links between Fleury and Winchester are evident as the Cathedral and the Abbey pray for each other every day as part of the more recent rejuvenation of a relationship which stretches back a millennium. There are also regular exchanges between the two communities – including three trips by the Cathedral choir. It is therefore wholly right that the first of these Honorary Canons should be linked to its earliest origins.

They don’t say what that original relationship actually was, of course, but given what we are told of this episode by contemporary sources…

The king also sent there with the bishop one of his agents, the well-known Wulfstan of Dalham, who used the royal authority to order the canons to choose one of two courses: either to give place to the monks without delay or to take the habit of the monastic order. Stricken with terror, and detesting the monastic life, they left as soon as the monks entered…2

… you can understand why Winchester would have wanted to let this pass unmentioned on a happy day 1047 years later. This is not, I think it’s safe to say, how any of us would want to be fired from what we would presumably have thought of as, well, a permanent job. What about the BBC, though? Did they just miss the word `millennium’ in the press release, or what? Well, who knows. But even if they’re not counting, you can trust the historians to remember.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria, not that you can currently see it, or that if you could you could say anything there. Cliopatria’s recent upgrade… has not gone well.)


1. The obvious starting point for learning about St Æthelwold is Barbara A. E. Yorke (ed.), Bishop Aethelwold: his career and influence (Woodbridge 1998).

2. Wulfstan [not the same one!], Vita Sancti Æthelwoldi, edd. & transl. Michael Lapidge & Michael Winterbottom as Wulfstan of Winchester: the Life of St Æthelwold, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 1991), cap. 18, here cit. from Alexander R. Rumble, “The Laity and the Monastic Reform in the Reign of Edgar” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English, 959-975 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 242-251 at p. 242.

Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

As with any type of specialised knowledge, I guess, one of the problems with getting information out to the people at large is that the people at large don’t necessarily have the context that allows them to judge whether something is important, or just hot air. More importantly, often neither do the people who write about it for them. This is of course not news here or elsewhere, but every now and then you gotta vent anyway. Two pieces that went past on News for Medievalists, the messenger it’s OK to shoot, in particular struck me as pieces where it might have been good if a historian of the relevant area and period had been consulted somewhere along the line.

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

The first of these was a piece about a Chinese coin found in East Africa. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of this at all, though the political context into which this, and all the other stuff you may have seen about Chinese naval contact with Africa in the fifteenth century in recent years, is bothersome. Basically, the Chinese government is currently pouring a lot of money into East Africa and, not surprisingly, one of the results of this is a new line of historical and archæological investigation arguing for the importance of China’s early influence on East Africa, an early influence that the Ming state nevertheless more or less threw away in 1433. The main figure of this wave of flag-showing was a Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who more or less came in peace, and he is becoming a powerful symbol of enlightened maritime friendship and patronage for Beijing, which is probably not unconnected with Chinese archæologists recently finding his tomb, empty, although a subsequent announcement admitted that in fact the identification was probably wrong, which to judge by other such stories will mainly allow the ‘experts’ to find the tomb again at some convenient later point. In the reportage of all this they will, of course, rely on exactly the journalistic shortcomings that set this piece off.1 (There is a really good article in Time about the politico-industrial context of all these amazing discoveries here.)

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

So yes, OK, calm down, what about this coin? Well, whatever the Chinese government and its unwitting spokespeople want to make of it, there is no problem with a Chinese presence in fifteenth-century Africa. No, I’m fine with that. The bit that got me was the final paragraphs of the BBC piece that News for Medievalists were robbing, where they talk about how this knocks Vasco de Gama off the map in the “connecting Africa to the world” stakes; China were there earlier. Witness:

“We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,” said Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya.

“Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals. It shows that Kenya was already a dynamic trading power with strong links to the outside world long before the Portuguese arrived,” he said.

You get it? It’s about China beating the West, both in time and in morals. And the obvious thing that’s missing from this is the Middle East, dammit, because this whole area was under a Muslim sultanate at this point and had been for years. It was already connected to a vastly wider world stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco via Baghdad, and I suspect that it is that last name that is one of the problems, because currently it’s probably not politically wise for Kenyan spokespersons to put out pieces saying, “Yah, well of course we used to be real good buddies with Baghdad till you Western guys came along and changed all that.” I could wish that some of the coverage was cunning enough to pick that up, but at the very least they should mention the religion of the Sultan of Malindi and the immense networks that being an Islamic state at that time in history gave a polity access to. They could also mention that the first point East from Africa is not actually China, but India, which had ‘discovered’ this area and its trading potential long before, but India is not currently investing in Kenya as much and I guess that’s why that’s not news. Of course, one might question whether Africa really needed to be discovered at all to be important, or whether this is just past and present colonialism talking, but if discovered and connected to a wider world it had to be, it seems pretty clear those politically-pesky Arabs should be claiming the honour. The other point, though, is more subtle, and this maybe they can be excused for not picking this up. Did you ever hear of a place called Kilwa?

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

No? Kilwa Kisiwani, Venice of East Africa? The Treasure Island of Kilwa? Still nothing? Well, you’re not alone if so, I’d never heard of it either until a few years ago I found myself trying to fix the fact that in a certain database almost all of its coins there present were mistakenly marked as being half-rupees, but it was pretty big. For about three centuries, and peaking in the fourteenth, this island fastness had the run of the east African coast and therefore the ability to channel its trade, which made it extremely rich. It was also, of course, given the day and age, an Islamic state, and a very well-known one: Ibn Battuta stayed there, its rulers communicated with others and its coins (at least, the gold ones, which are weirdly never found locally) travelled great distances through the Islamic territories.2 Zheng He, however, landed at Malindi, and Kilwa’s over-reaching importance in the area hasn’t made it it into any press coverage I’ve seen. Obviously Zheng He’s choice of berth is one reason, although we can probably assume he also went to Kilwa Kisiwani since he is supposed to have travelled up and down the whole coast. I suspect, however, that the big factor in this obtrusive state’s strange absence from the Kenyan-Chinese picture is that its territories are now in Tanzania, and thus it’s nothing to do with the real reason this stuff is getting reported. Tchah.

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

There’s more I could write (off). For example, another News for Medievalists’ post robbing a Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Goldstone headlined “Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan” really needs the Matt Gabriele treatment but I could begin with, “well, one reason that isn’t quite going to work is that Afghanistan is currently crawling with soldiers sent from halfway across the world and every time one of them is killed halfway-around-the-world gets to hear about it almost instantly, by much the same high-speed communications means by which the attack was probably coordinated. These eras are not the same. Also, you used the f-word.” I mean, if what you want to say is that Afghanistan is in the grip of a bunch of territorial warlords whom the government barely controls but hopes to entice by deploying patronage, then yes, that might work, as long as your medieval analogue was, for example, late Salian Germany, but picking France and England at the end of the Hundred Years War as your benchmarks rather knocks the whole thing to pieces. You see, Hamid Karzai, about whose government the article technically is,3 is not, in fact, an occupying power so equating him with England trying to hold France won’t really float. Neither, in fact, will likening the USA in Afghanistan to Plantagenet England, because of Henry V actually trying to rule France directly due to a genealogical claim on it, not just wanting someone friendly in charge there to prevent people in France raiding his coastline or whatever. And of course if one of the players here were founding their riches on their ability to market a massively-important cash crop globally, as are the Afghan warlords with the opium poppy, it was England, with its wool, not France. In other words, for this analogy to work, the USA would need to have displaced Karzai and annexed Afghanistan as a 52nd state largely to protect its own drugs revenue, which almost certainly isn’t the case and certainly isn’t the point Ms Goldstone wants to make. We can leave aside the medievalism-as-contempt-for-the-other motif for others to pick up, I think, and just skewer the inaccuracy.

Oh, you journalists with a little medieval knowledge. Why can’t you all be more like this guy? (Hat tip to Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard for this one.)


1. This is, by the way, approximately half as much as some people have tried to claim for Zheng He, a retired British naval captain called Gavin Menzies having published two books claiming that the Chinese fleet also discovered America and visited all the major ports of Europe. I’m glad to have found a story where a Chinese academic is quoted not only taking this down but also stressing the importance of Islamic seafarers in connecting up the zones through which Zheng He and other Chinese voyagers travelled.

2. On the numismatics I have to thank Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, one of the UK’s two archæologists working on Swahili stuff she tells me, who has a paper about where Kilwa’s coins turn up and publishing some new ones coming out in next year’s Numismatic Chronicle.

3. Obviously, it’s really about how clever Nancy Goldstone is, but I can hardly criticise someone for gratuitously showing off knowledge on the Internet, now can I?

Know ye not that we shall judge politicians? (New Cliopatria post)

Just a note to say that, as promised, I have a new, and lengthy, essay up on Cliopatria asking what, exactly, the world wants its historians to do at this time of, well, global, difficulty. More than you might expect, less than we do, and not what we want to do, is roughly my conclusion. You may like to read…

Bad History to continue (announce and CFP)

There have been a range of good things on the web as usual, but a great number of them have already been accumulated by Judith Weingarten in the latest Carnivalesque! So, instead, let me just follow up on an earlier post by saying, that Bad History series I mentioned is to continue, and it is inviting submissions. I would absolutely love for some of the discerning heavyweight medievalists who sometimes read this little screed here to weigh in on this. I think this is a kind of popular outreach we can all enjoy; I certainly have a candidate myself which I’ll try and put together in the next few days. And, after all, the last time someone did this there was a book in it after a while…

(Hat tips to Cliopatria and archy.)

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.)

Wow. How much is wrong with this?

Is there some reason that explains why these things are got wrong? Why don’t some journalists, when about to trot out some ‘facts’ about history, just check with a historian first? I expect better than this of the Times:

Five things we know about the Anglo-Saxons:

  • The first Anglo-Saxons were mercenaries, brought in by the Picts to defend themselves against pirates.
  • They were not Christians until St Augustine’s arrival in 597 led to their gradual conversion.
  • The Anglo-Saxons were fiercely tribal, with England divided into the kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Essex and Sussex.
  • From Alfred the Great onwards (he died in 899) the Wessex army gradually united England, driving out Danish and Viking invaders.
  • The Bayeux tapestry, which depicts the story of the battle of Hastings, was commissioned by the Normans but is believed to have been made by Anglo-Saxon artisans.

And five things we don’t:

  • How quickly they converted to Christianity is a mystery. The burials at Sutton Hoo, about 625, were pagan but some Christian symbols were found.
  • Much of Anglo-Saxon architecture is unknown. Many buildings were wooden and few are left standing beyond the monasteries and churches built of stone.
  • Little is known about how people, particularly the lowly peasants, lived their daily lives.
  • How Anglo-Saxon women lived is unclear, although they were able to own property.
  • What happened to London between the Roman retreat and the 9th century, when it became a centre of prosperity once more, is not well documented.

Okay, I’ll start with three: one, ‘the first Anglo-Saxons’ were probably, semantically, the scribes who first used the term in a document in an age where everyone else was still seeing Angles and Saxons separately, but even if we allow the anachronistic category, the Anglians and Saxons were hired as mercenaries against the Picts not by them; two, you appear to think, Daniel Foggo, that women cannot be peasants or at least that the two groups count as two zones of ignorance but actually we know about as much about how peasant women lived as peasant men, and that, as a visit to West Stow would show you, is more and more all the time and not so little even now either; and three, you forgot some missionaries. Also, the Times is still apparently convinced that ignorance about London is ignorance about life. I think this is someone writing an article from their undergraduate notes. I’m glad that he thought it was worth doing, but I wish he’d also thought it was worth checking. Any more howlers here anyone would like to call out?

(Hat tip to Archaeology in Europe for this one.)

Fluffy Vikings follow-up

In the event, I’m afraid I didn’t make it to the Between the Islands conference I advertised here a while back. I could only do one day of the three, couldn’t bargain a discount because of this, and work needed me because so many other people were going; also, Alex Woolf, whom I was hoping to catch up with, had to cancel. But now I wish I had because of the press coverage it got. Yes, you read that right: an academic conference, nay, an academic conference on the Middle Ages got reported in, well, I count four different national dailies and the national TV channel’s website. when did that ever happen before? Here are the links:

Now if you look closely at these, you may notice two things. Firstly, none of them actually got somebody who was at the conference to report. These are all reports on the press release by Dr Maire Ni Mhaonaigh. Secondly, they almost all distort the bejasus out of it. Every single headline is based on the idea I lampooned so readily when it appeared to be coming out of the Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic Department that organised this conference itself, at the end of last year, that the Vikings were fundamentally peaceful traders who contributed a great deal to the lands in which they settled (note: settled, not invaded). As you can read there, I would prefer to retain their violent side as well and don’t see why we can’t, but if you look at the quotes the papers give from the press release, it’s clear that Dr Ni Mhaonaigh wasn’t giving the soft-side case, but trying to achieve a balance. Someone who did go to the conference tells me that the word `raiding’ came up an awful lot, and that generally the tone of the papers was not even so pacificatory as the press release, but it is nonetheless true that the papers have only wanted to report one idea, the forty-year-old one that maybe the Vikings weren’t actually single-minded agents of mayhem. Why is that so titillating to journalists, or why do they think it is to the public?

Well, I was without ideas on this except that observing that my teaching experience suggests that really, nobody doesn’t love Vikings. However, I can now point you at a pretty darn clever consideration of this same question by the one-and-only Magistra et Mater, and suggest you take a look. Though I warn you: she uses words derived from `terror’ and therefore may have her blog shut down by the Man any minute. Go quickly, and then muse upon it for it is interesting.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria with revisions for context.)

Once more Mr Nice Guy: the Vikings and violence

(I shall schedule a post about war and violence for 11 o’clock on Armistice Day! Of course! That’ll be, er, something… Anyway. The robot Jonathan Jarrett should cease with this post and real editing resume next.)

We know, of course, that Vikings are always a hot topic. But the latest round of press coverage of Viking scholarship (even the newspapers know that Vikings are a hot topic) is giving me awful dejà vu. If you have a look at this story in The Daily Telegraph, perhaps not exactly Britain’s most forward-thinking go-ahead periodical but as with many others always eager to help so-called scholars make fools of themselves, you will find that we’re back into the fluffy phase of the old raiders-or-traders debate. You know the one? The one where we ignore all the victims’ reports of the violence of the Vikings’ attacks and say how really they were just traders out for a quick buck who didn’t mind knocking over the odd church when there was nothing more remunerative to do. This time we’re not saying how the Vikings weren’t really that numerous so the sources must be exaggerating (which was Peter Sawyer’s take), we’re not saying how the stimulus they brought both to the economy and to the few governments that were able to resist them was vital in developing Europe, which has been argued and argued persuasively, and we’re not even saying that a lot of the places that write stories about how serious the Viking attacks were are trying to explain why they need a lot more land, honest, or where they got the lands of some other less fortunate house from; there’s actually a lot of mileage in that one but it’s not what’s being said here. Instead we’re stressing that the Vikings weren’t really barbaric, because they took care of their hair and liked to dress sharp (or indeed baggy).

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

“Academics claim… ” is never a good sign, is it? Well, Telegraph, and regrettably Cambridge’s Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic, who appear to be behind this latest whitewash in an attempt, among other purposes, to placate the feelings of “British children” who “are quite likely to have Viking ancestry”, I have some small history with correcting myths about the Vikings on the Internet, so let’s make it clear that some ‘academics’ don’t claim this at all. Of course the spin is the Telegraph‘s, who have cherry-picked the bits most likely to contradict what people were told at school. And they include bits that I would never seek to disagree with, like:

Although Norse men and women may have sometimes liked fighting and drinking, and were sometimes buried with weapons, they also spent much of their time in peaceful activities such as farming, building, writing and illustrating.

I know this, OK? Obviously there were farmers back in Scandinavia. They had runes, and could leave us quite complicated messages in them, so no-one should be calling them illiterate. Is anyone? (Although, of course, what is not known is how generally those runes could be read, but as exactly the same dispute is to be had over the Christian West and Latin in the same period, fuelled indeed by the writings of King Alfred, one of its greater literary children, I think we can call that a draw.) And the kick that Viking styles of art gave the West is widely known and again, not to be denied. Here I go not denying it:

Brooch based on Ringerike-style stone carving from Götland

Brooch based on Ringerike-style stone carving from Götland

Right, now my turn. We can also not deny:

  • that as a result of Viking attacks, for all that they exploited internal dissensions, the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and substantial parts of Scotland all fell to Norse or Danish overlordship, and that the last single ruler of the whole Carolingian Empire, Charles the Fat, was forced to abdicate at least in part because of his inability to deal with what his contemporaries perceived as a Viking menace;
  • that Viking armies large enough to defeat the best that the kings of the time could raise, on a good day, were in practically continuous operation on both sides of the English Channel for most of the late ninth century, and over-wintered in Britain and France, where indeed few better than my Department know that they did produce some very lovely metal-work and artefacts at their warcamp before returning to the warpath in Spring;
  • that many Danes, Norse and Swedes made their way East to work as bodyguards for the Byzantine emperors, where they were among the most feared soldiers available to him;
  • that Viking colonies established in what is now Ukraine generated a lot of the income they won, yes, as traders and merchants, by mounting repeated slave-raids into the Slav countries to their north and west, from which indeed the modern English word ‘slave’ derives;
  • that rather a lot of monasteries and churches, being easy undefended targets with money, did in fact genuinely close down because of repeated attacks by the ‘Northmen’;
  • and that the extensive, witty, highly artistic and picturesque Norse literature of later eras delights in stories with ridiculous and if at all possible obscene body-counts and gore ratings, including burning, rape and mutilation.

And you also have to admit, please, that the evidence often used that the Vikings were enthusiastic traders has been of disputed interpretation for sixty years or more—I originally edited here about the relevant paper precisely because I heard about some work coming out of the ASNC team which appeared to have forgotten this. Please, people, remember Philip Grierson. Also, those of you who so love that anecdote about Viking personal grooming, which runs of course:

They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many frivolous devices. In this matter they laid siege to the virtue of the married woman, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobility to be their concubines

will you please take into account that it is by a twelfth-century writer, and that contemporary sources recording the annual attacks and raids should perhaps be given more weight than this however wonderful a story it is? Or, if you prefer, ask what this says about John of Wallingford (for it is he!) and his sense of appropriate hygiene…

I am not, you understand, saying that all Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries were in fact unwashed unscrupulous warmongering cut-throat psychopaths, any more than the ASNC team are saying, through the stencil the Telegraph has placed over their work, that they were all soft-hearted over-barbered craftsmen with poetic souls and startlingly-cut trousers. But everyone seems to want to tip the emphasis one way or the other. We don’t need to! They were all of these things! Sometimes even in the same person, but there were certainly both farmer-craftsmen and boatloads of hairy warriors around at the same time. We can have both! Although, when we admit the hairy warriors, we should bear in mind that just because you’re looting a Christian sacred place in a hit-and-run raid from the sea, you can still at least do something stylish with your hair, as that slate from Inchmarnock that I mentioned the other day, of which I have now found the picture below, shows….

Sketch on slate from Inchmarnock of Vikings stealing St Ernan's reliquary

Sketch on slate from Inchmarnock of Vikings stealing St Ernan's reliquary

And really, it’s not only not a matter of not maligning the living or even the dead (I think many Vikings, however nicely they dressed or how clever a piece of knotwork they could carve, would have felt more than a bit miffed to be called “a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life“). Firstly, it reduces the wonderful interest of this culture to neglect either side. To call them boneheaded illiterate berserkers is obviously unfair; but so is it to neglect the fear and awe that their warriors could bring with them. To emphasise their economic and cultural aspects is important, but not at the expense of the political and military impact they had on Europe. And whatever balance one comes to of those sides, they have to have room for both the artwork and the bloodshed, they have to be able to explain both Jelling style and the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, both runestones and Varangians, both sagas and, well, sagas. All the events and phenomena listed above have to continue to be explicable no matter how nuanced you make your Vikings, because if you try and take the ‘viking’ out of the Vikingr, large parts of ninth- and tenth- century history stop making sense…

An example of one man. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which was kind of to the Viking Age what Altamont was to the hippy era, when it all goes wrong and poisonous, not only did Harald Hardrada King of Norway die, but so did his nephew Olaf. He had been in the thick of the fighting, and he was known to the later writers as Olaf the Flashy, because of his taste in personal adornment. I tell you, you can have both. The era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent…


I’m not going to try and set basic reading for journalists here, but I wonder how many of the readership may have come across the recent articles trying to achieve a balance on the ‘how violent were the Vikings?’ issue, either Jinty Nelson’s summary, “England and the Continent in the ninth century: II, Vikings and Others” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 13 (Cambridge 2003), pp. 1-28; Simon Coupland’s “The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History” in History Vol. 88 (London 2003), pp. 186-203, or most interestingly perhaps, because of doing real exploration of the monastic narratives and the truth behind them, either of Anna Trumnore Jones, “Pitying the Desolation of Such a Place: Rebuilding religious houses and constructing memory in Aquitaine in the wake of the Viking incursions” in Viator Vol. 37 (Berkeley 2006), pp. 85-102 or Hélène Noizet, “Les chanoines de Saint-Martin de Tours et les Vikings” in Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : colloque de Cérisy-la-Salle (Caen 2005), pp. 53-66. For general reading you could probably just start with Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997) and see where it takes you. Not, I’m guessing, into journalism… I would however also like to mention Fergus Fleming’s The Viking Invader, which is a should-be present for any medievalist in your life, and something of which I for some reason don’t have my own copy. Ahem. Christmas is very soon isn’t it? Anyway.

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.