My apologies for the lack of a post last week; a combination of dispiritment at the state of the world and a lot to do on the Monday that wasn’t possible to get ready except at the weekend are my excuses. Let me make up for it somewhat with something hopefully a bit more thought-provoking, which I stubbed to think about in April 2017 but still seems worth exploring a bit. It sort of starts here.
I come not to criticise LEGO‘s historicity, you understand; we could go a long way into the difference between the mythic and the historical image of the Viking before we got to a conclusion about whether it is OK that those helmets are horned. But they exemplify something that came to my mind after, in April 2017, my department had an external review, during which one of the reviewers talked about using LEGO as a teaching aid.1 At the time, I confess to thinking this a bit infantile; since then, I must say, I have seen it done well and been converted. A class of first-years in groups each given a small bundle of LEGO pieces and told to build something in ten minutes that expressed chivalry brought out a good few knights on horseback, yes, but also, because of people wanting to use all the pieces or acknowledge that not everyone in the age of chivalry actually was a knight, some quite multi-layered symbolism piled up on those models. In general, it got them putting stuff they’d read into action in a way I don’t think talking would have done by itself, and I only wish I’d had the idea myself.2 So I’m not against the technique, just to make that clear, but a colleague who works on much more modern violence, racism and atrocity felt then that it would be really tasteless and impolitic to try and model anything they taught in LEGO, and it got me thinking.
The thought was, is there a line in history on one side of which this kind of modelling becomes inappropriate or insensitive? When I was a child, this wasn’t a question one would have had to ask, because LEGO basically didn’t do violence: I, a Star Wars fan of early vintage, was always a bit disappointed that their various spaceships and moon exploration sets, fancy or functional, did not feature laser guns. But even then, they did knights and castles sets (though right now they do not, as the last range apparently didn’t sell…), and as we see above it wasn’t long before they embarked on pirates. Again, I am not out to critique LEGO’s choices here, not even the fact that since then they have also done ninja and Viking ranges. But I wonder if we have a cut-off? As far as I can see, pirates is about as modern as they get with anything that’s not current film or TV properties like superheroes, and pirates are almost timeless in the popular imagination anyway, though very much a live concern that happens to people in some seas even so. Obviously there are some non-LEGO toy ranges that come closer to the modern violent than this: Action Man is the most obvious survivor from my childhood, but when I was a child I had (in fact, have recently had to reclaim from my mother’s attic, so now have again, I admit) a lot of farm toys made by a company called Britains who also did toy soldiers. The two aspects of the company now seem to have diverged and split across the Atlantic, but I notice that neither is doing one thing they used to do, cowboys and Indians. So perhaps that has become unacceptable (though somewhat to my horror, the toy soldier section of the company now also has a Vikings range…).
So OK, pirates in popular culture are basically ahistorical, fine, and I suppose one could make the same kind of argument for Vikings, and at least with the Vikings we have contemporary literature of that culture which suggests that many Vikings would have been more or less fine with the idea that their exploits of seafaring, skulduggery (and skull-drinkery) and superviolence would be re-enacted by children with a variety of toys nine to eleven centuries after they were committed.3 Perhaps that’s even true of Western European knights to an extent: the Chanson de Roland and Bertran de Born could be enlisted to support it.4 But I don’t imagine any of these companies are going to start making toys of seventh-century Arab soldiers just because there’s some really powerful early Arabic war poetry; that would be a bit too close to the bone still somehow, wouldn’t it? Likewise, discussions here long past suggest that the fact that New Zealand’s rugby team still do a haka before their matches would not make it OK, or even successful, to produce a range of figures from the Maori wars for children to play with.5
So where’s the threshold? It’s evidently not about time: it’s about relevance. But to whom? Lindesfarne was sacked in 793, as long-term readers of this blog will remember all too well, and apparently England is over that. But we’ve had angry comments on this blog before now about the Battle of Yarmuk a century and a half before, Battle of Manzikert, only three centuries later, and about Byzantine campaigns against the Bulgars and the attitude of the historiography surrounding them to the Bulgarians, and I almost don’t like to remember what else. A lot of this stuff still matters to people in relevant places. How do the average Kalinago person, or any of the people who haven’t made it on a voyage through the Gulf of Aden in recent years, feel about LEGO pirate sets? Slaughters of the past still matter in many peoples’ presents, and I wonder what it says about the European West that it has managed so cheerfully to internalise its medieval ones. Perhaps it’s another case of Kathleen Davis’s arguments in Periodization and Sovereignty, in which we have set such a big barrier between ‘We, the Moderns’, and the past we drag round with us, that everyone on the other side can be reduced to caricatures and mini-figures.6
But they weren’t, you know; for some people that still matters, and I’m not sure the reasons it doesn’t for others are good ones.
1. I should explain that in the UK English I know LEGO is a brand name and the bits they make are LEGO bricks or pieces. LEGOs meaning the bricks is perhaps an Americanism? and has spread, but I, stuck in my childish ways, resist it, so it won’t be appearing elsewhere in this post.
2. Given the which, I should give credit where it is due and it is due to Dr Claudia Rogers, of my current local parish, and from watching whose teaching I have evidently learnt something for my own.
3. Try, for example, the Saga of Burnt Njal, which you can get in Penguin as Robert Cook (transl.), Njal’s Saga (London 2001) or online in an older translation here. It is not shy about bloodshed!
4. Glyn Burgess (transl.), The Song of Roland (London 1990), in Penguin, or again an older translation online, John O’Hagan (transl.), The Song of Roland, translated into English verse (London 1880), online here. There doesn’t seem to be a current English translation of Bertran de Born’s works, but you can find a couple, including the most relevant, on De Re Militari here.
5. I admit that I am rather horrified to find that W. Britain, the original and continuing model soldier side of the Britains business, still make an Anglo-Zulu war range, including a set called ‘Clearing the Yard’ including redcoats carrying away dead Zulu warriors. There are matching ones of redcoats falling under Zulu attack, Zulus looting British bodies and indeed of Zulus attacking a field ambulance, so it’s not as if the violence or indeed the victory is all one way, though the balance of depiction could be interrogated, but aside from that and a smaller range from the Anglo-Egyptian Wars, they seem to have given up on colonial-era figures. Anyway, I digress but I am very surprised to see this still on sale at the same time as we are being so urgently reminded that black lives matter, and it makes me feel a bit queasy about my old toy tractors.7
6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008), which every time I cite I am stuck afresh with regret about the lousy review I gave it a decade ago.
7. Addendum: it turns out that hiding under the name ‘Clash of Empires’ is in fact a range that includes Native Americans and settlers, though more eighteenth-century than nineteenth- and not featuring cowboys. “The historical appearance of European soldiers and settlers and the native people are accurately rendered in every detail.” Now, at $72 a pop, these are not children’s toys any more. People are presumably modelling this stuff, at really quite considerable cost. What leads one to do that, do you suppose?