Friday, 15 October 2010

BBC Peasants' revolts v Time Team's Real Vikings

In a head to head battle between history programmes on essentially at the same time and purporting to appeal to the same viewership, it is fair to compare the two episodes I had to watch this week. Keeping in  mind I had just watched 24 hours straight of Chilean miners being rescued in a TARDIS like pill. BBC coverage of which I wrote about here, and in which I praise the trio of BBC reporters who for all intents purposes  won the world cup of special coverage. It's important to note that they did it by making the miners real and constructing a well connected narrative you could follow and care about. Remember this when I compare the two programmes, it's mightily important.

First out of the block was the BBC Michael Wood's Story of England. In case you've missed this so far, the acclaimed Michael Wood proposes to tell the story of England entirely from the perspective of one town. The Village of Kibworth in Leicester.  In this week's instalment, Peasants' Revolt to Tudors
, he takes us from post plague peasant revolt ( say that ten times fast) to Tudor stability. Yet again he guides us through  a series of important document with the occasional scattered mention of prominent local families. The story is of Poll taxes which apparently have never gone down well, that lead to revolt and peasant reform. It's the less discussed rise of education through the increasingly self taught lower classes. By self taught, I of course mean they were given lessons by locals who gave of their time and made sure they created a large pool of educated, literate potential merchant class citizens of the future. I'll admit the information about the Lollard rebellion that prepared the way for the reformation was important and well presented.

Unfortunatly, the episode could not hold my attention. Of course I was knackered beyond words, even after a full day of rest from watching miners, but that's the point. A good programme would have held my interest. Most of the information and locations were nothing new. The perspectives were mere touches of information where less timid historians would have plunged into fearlessly. So many opportunities  to delve into specifics in a structured, less haphazard manner were missed. For example, when they visited the Brown house, they took a core sample that estimated the approximate age of various parts of the house. But they didn't give us a proper tour, section by section. Even the tantalizing view of the methods used to join the beams was rushed and sloppy. Yet again we are shown a series of maps telling of the changes in land ownership and land usage, but it's so fast and poorly explained, the assumption is that we are too stupid to understand or to care. In the previous week, we at least got to meet a jury and saw it at work. This week,  nothing really. Yet again, we're shown a field trip that concludes little and archaeology that turns up nothing of any real value as far as moving the story along. Despite  the Lollard uprising motto, "The fair society" ( which he  failed to mention) echoing through human history and British history,  little attempt is made to connect the dots.

If I have a major criticism of this entire series, it is this. If you are doing a ground up history from the more proletarian perspective, you need to establish a few threads that connect the entire narrative.  In a special about a merchant woman from the 1400's or 1500's , Professor Wood weaves a tale going as far back as her grand father and how he got the land and the market stalls she eventually fought to keep in the court of law. This programme worked because we had a solid connected story from grand dad to father to daughter to her children and her two husbands. In History of England, he should of selected three of the oldest families in Kibworth, a Roman one, A Saxon one, a Vikinger one and lastly a Norman one. By  tracing the stories of theses families from Roman occupation to the present, as best he could, we would have had a real sense of history attached to people. High borne people , lowly peasants and aspirational merchants. would have taken shape through the stories of those 3 to 5 families. Sometimes overlapping, sometimes eclipsing the other in influence. What is it to be a Villain, what does it mean to be a serf? What happened to the old Saxon nobility? They didn't just disappear. All of them continued in some form or another.  Sadly, we never get a clear picture of any of the families, if anything it resembles the sort of outline you present your professor when you propose a research paper. This has the feel of scattered un structured, un analysed data. I'm not opposed to old information being presented again, but I do demand that there be some point and logical conclusion that connects the data presented, and that it be done in a compelling way. If you've never studied the breadth of English history, this will be an eye opener, history 101.  But for the veteran history enthusiast, it's all a bit scattered and pointless with the occasional fresh bit of information.

As tired, sleepy and bored Michael Wood left me, the next programme woke me up like a cappuccino and biscotti served by a sexy waitress wanting my number.

C4's, The Real Vikings, a Time Team special.  presents us with a big question. Tony Robinson asks who were the real Vikings. Were they the cruel blood thirsty rapists or some kind of misunderstood farmers? Then they do a radical thing, they take the collected wisdom of recent digs and research and construct a new better more realistic picture of the real Vikings. Bereft of nobles and kings, this new version of history paints a picture of a mercantile people with far reaching commercial links as far as Russia,Afghanistan, Egypt  and as close as Ireland. From the brutal and tragic attack on Lindisfarne in 793 to the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. The Vikings ran the Danelaw bringing in thousands of settlers, farmers, craftsmen and metallurgists. Tony and company , via a new dig in the Hungate area of York, show us the mercantile side of the Vikings. Through it, we find a well organized group that urban plan a residential district and a warehouse district that separates the production, storage and merchandising of posh advanced goods as well as ivory and furs. Property and ownership are not alien notions. They do however prefer arcs over the Roman grid system in new developments.   Just how good at trade were they? A chalice from France filled with coins from around the known world of the day, shows they were masters of the sea long before Nelson and his mates built an Empire.

Were York's Vikings pigs? apparently not. They had an  area of cesspools well away from the rest of the work areas. This of course does not mean they were immune from the risks that even a well put together well chilled larder could not combat. In the cesspools, we find Viking Poo, yes 1000 year old faecal matter that sheds light on diet and health as well as variety of foods eaten. Though they may have had worms, these were not poor savages, but prideful wealthy people concerned with primping and appearance complete with bling knives made by metallurgists who would not be surpassed in skill until the industrial revolution.10th century Viking York, according to contemporary accounts, was crowded but organized, it had a population of at least 30,000 at a time when such a City would have been seen as a major world  centre of trade.  Representatives from every corner could be found there and they were clearly not suffering or poor.

Were at least some Vikings capable of great savagery? Yes, we visit a site in Northern Wales that shows the massacre of a family. Bound and then brutally executed.  You could conclude that this was all the proof you needed the Vikings were unparalleled bastards of the first degree. But you'd be wrong. Further south, in the Saxon borderlands, a pit containing the bodies of 51 men. Tied, necks cut clean through and jaws broken, these men were not just killed, they were mutilated. And they were all Vikings. So please, lets be clear on one thing. Saxons,  Romans and  Normans were all cut from the same cloth, capable of the same savagery when the mood struck them. The rules or values of one group were not their evil to our good. Again using sources outside of the Saxon chronicles and Viking Chronicles, we learn the Arabs knew them to be good traders and honest if you did not harm them first.

The culture that Vikings brought to England was poetic and epic, in the sort of prideful way all warrior cultures do but hardly Vogon bad, They bring us at least 2000 words we still use today and they did in short order accept Christianity. Going from burning Churches to  building them and attending older ones they had left standing. According to the Domesday book, in parts of the North of England, 9 out of 10 people still living there were of Scandinavian origin.

There is a lovely bit when one of the regular loonies from Time Time, visits the Orkneys to show us a selection of manky Viking graffiti.  " so and so was here with a maiden and showed her a good time " But not in those words. These were normal people like you and me, except that some of them were fierce warriors, but back then who wasn't? I can watch stuff like this all day long. And before I forget, they didn't wear those silly horned hats.

Last bit you'll not want to miss before C4 takes it off the player, 1066, The Battle for Middle Earth.   A dramatisation in not quite ye olde English of the three major battles that changed the face of English history. A fresh view told in the words and traditions of the people of the time. You  will gain a deeper understanding of the time and you'll never again read Lord of the Rings in the same way ever again. It's one thing to be aware of the inspirations of Tolkien, but to live them like this is a perspective changer. Must watch telly.

In case you're interested, mate of mine Mr Keith Topping has done a canny interview with Tony Robinson.

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