Monthly Archives: February 2016
Anyone with a moderate interest in history will know that in the later years of his reign, Henry VIII seemed to have an identity crisis. His personality change from a generous and virtuous prince into a monster and tyrannical king is well documented, and has been debated by Tudor historians for decades.
It has long been thought that this change came about due to a particularly bad jousting accident on January 24 1536, when Henry was thrown from his horse, who in turn fell upon him, causing a two hour loss of consciousness. Although he recovered, the incident, which ended his jousting career, caused serious leg problems, which plagued him for the rest of his life.
Now this has been corroborated by the scientific community. According to neurobiologists at Yale University, the accident may well have caused an undetected brain injury that profoundly affected his personality and memory. The team retrospectively analysed the nature of Henry VIII’s well documented personality change, proposing that
the Tudor king’s jousting habit may have led him to suffer from “traumatic brain injuries” similar to those experienced by American football players. An analysis of his “symptoms” led them to conclude that “the picture was so consistent with the sequel of chronic concussion, intellectual honesty would dictate writing about traumatic brain injury in Henry”.
This comparison between NFL players and Tudor jousters struck me as all too apt, because both pastimes represent the pinnacle of masculinity for their day.
Tournaments through the ages
Jousting tournaments originated in the 12th century. They were central to the world of medieval chivalry, used as training grounds for knights in the achievement of prowess, honour and renown. In the early tournaments, the mock battle (the mêlée) was not formalised, or even confined to the field at hand. Knights would be assigned to two opposing teams and would charge at each other on a given signal: a practice that was not at all dissimilar to medieval warfare.
By the 15th century the mêlée had grown completely out of fashion and had been replaced by the single combat that was now the high point of the tournament. The joust was fought between two individuals, the knights riding from opposite ends of the lists to encounter each other with lances. It was much easier to identify the victor in the jousts compared to the mass participators in the mêlée.
By the reign of Henry VIII, the joust had become a more formalised competition. Rules had been introduced, including score cheques and prizes. The tournament included three basic categories of martial encounter: the joust, the tourney and the foot combats, or fighting at the barriers. In the tourney teams of knights fought on horseback with swords, staves and clubs, rather than lances, but as in the jousts, the number of strokes delivered determined the number of scores. The foot combat involved two contestants fighting on foot with a variety of weapons, such as swords, pikes, clubs or poleaxes. Henry’s men needed to be expert in all three contests if they were to succeed in the Tudor tournament.
Henry held more than 50 tournaments at his court, most in the first 20 years of his reign. He had been taught to engage in combat on both foot and horseback and he was trained in a variety of weapons, and put these skills to the test by frequently competing in tournaments – up until his 1536 accident. Henry would often take on the role of chief challenger, leading a team of four to six knights into the tiltyard ready to compete against the opposition, not unlike the role of the captain of the England football squad today.
Like modern day sports events, Tudor tournaments attracted competitors, spectators and foreign guests from far. They were one of the few occasions for ordinary people to see their king and his courtiers, and in their best guise: the chivalric displays of tournaments emphasised the majesty of Henry VIII and his nobility and their superiority within Tudor society. It was an important arena in which men could demonstrate their individual prowess in front of a vast audience.
In the Tudor period the medieval knight was still considered the ultimate male pinup. One man who was able to fully embody this knightly ideal was Charles Brandon, considered the Wayne Rooney of the jousting world. Brandon was able to build for himself an entire career that was founded on his ability to achieve high scores in the tiltyard. Surviving score cheques from the Tudor court illustrate that few men could beat him. Skilled jousters were given the unique opportunity to prove that they were better than the king, and he rewarded their displays of chivalry and masculinity. Of course, this was a sticky game – it was in their interest not only to give the king a well fought match, but ultimately they still had to ensure that Henry won in the end.
Luckily, today’s football players don’t have that particular delicacy to deal with. No need to lose on purpose. But other aspects of this ideal of medieval masculinity transmit perfectly into the modern world. Henry Cavill, who recently played Brandon in the television series, The Tudors, has since starred as superhero legend Superman in Man of Steel. Superman, an icon of heterosexual masculinity, is quite literally the modern version of the erstwhile man of steel, flying on horseback down the tiltyard in his plate armour supported by his superhero body.
So whether a “silly boy with a horse and a stick” (as Jocelyn of A Knight’s Tale so eloquently put it), a man kicking a ball or flying in his iconic cloak, the ideal male proves himself with props aplomb.
Vikings are pretty trendy of late. Marvel’s Thor films, for example, gave Viking mythology the Hollywood treatment and plonked its characters in contemporary America. There have been multiple Viking exhibitions, and the new season of the History channel’s show Vikings, loosely based on the legendary Icelandic sagas, is about to hit the small screen, too.
So you may find it hard to avoid overhearing details of the adventures of Vikings’ King Ragnar Lothbrok and his fellows in coming weeks. Undeniably, the names of the television show’s characters, such as Bjorn Ironside, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, and Ivar the Boneless, stand out jarringly from the usual linguistic landscape, and with the confirmation of new characters being added to the cast, this horde of oddball Norse names is sure only to get weirder.
High time, I think, for a masterclass on Viking names.
In all societies names are important linguistic signifiers of identity. They also carry historical information in various ways. In the modern English-speaking world, for example, people are familiar with the convention of given names paired with a surname – e.g. Joseph Henry Bloggs.
But the names of Viking-Age Scandinavians typically consisted of single given names combined with patronymics marking paternal descent. As an example, let’s take the legendary hero Ragnar himself. Written in Old Norse, the sagas describe Ragnarr Sigurðsson (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd). This convention is particularly useful for tracing genealogies. Rather than following the tangled branches of a surname’s family tree, these names more clearly convey genealogical information and can be linked together to neatly unpack family histories.
For example, using the sagas, Ragnar’s name could be expanded further to Ragnarr Sigurðsson, Randvéssonar (Ragnar, the son of Sigurd, the son of Randvér). This structure, still in use in Iceland today, has allowed modern Icelanders to reliably trace their family histories for a millennium.
But if he was born Ragnarr Sigurðsson, where does Lothbrok come from, and what does it mean? The third common component of Viking-Age Scandinavian names was a nickname, Ragnar’s being Lothbrok, or loðbrók in Old Norse. So his full name is Ragnarr loðbrók Sigurðsson. Nicknames were especially important to Viking-Age Scandinavians, as evidence suggests that their stock of given names was extremely thin. Apart from introductions, sagas tend to describe their characters solely by their first and nickname for easier identification. This is why we most often hear about Ragnarr loðbrók, rather than his full name.
An individual’s nickname could even become so ubiquitous that it replaced a given name, as pointed out by Diana Whaley. She highlights examples from the sagas, such as a Thorgrim, named after his father (Þorgrímr Þorgrímsson), who was renamed Snorri, a nickname describing his tempestuous nature.
Though Viking-Age Scandinavians placed greater importance on nicknames than many of us do today, their nicknames functioned in the same way we’re used to: each described a particular aspect of an individual’s nature or life that carried particular resonance. This was not always desirable: names such as Ulf the Squint-Eyed, Eirik Ale-Lover, Eystein Foul-Fart and some that are even worse demonstrate that people rarely had a say in the nicknames they carried.
The makers of the Vikings TV series have attempted to address the idea of Viking nicknames and where they come from, particularly those of Ragnar’s sons, but Ragnar’s nickname – Lothbrok – has gone unexplored and has even been used almost like a surname in the series. This is probably because it means “shaggy trousers”. At first this hardly seems a nickname befitting a Viking warrior king, but then again, neither does Finehair, the nickname of one of the confirmed new characters being introduced to the show, Haraldr Hárfagri.
But while some nicknames are downright slanderous, Ragnar’s and Harald’s are in no way belittling. In fact, they actually contain information about the heroic exploits of their bearers. The sagas tell us that Ragnar earned his nickname from his use of shaggy garments to protect against the bites of a giant serpent he killed, while Harald earned his by swearing never to cut nor comb his hair until he had conquered the whole of Norway.
Other names convey something about the physical attributes of their bearers: such as Walking Hrolf, who apparently was too big to be borne by a horse, or Thorsteinn Dromund, who purportedly moved as slowly as a great warship. Some can even reveal something about the way the individual dressed or their international outlook: such as Bare-legged Magnus, who is recorded in one source as having adopted a more Gaelic fashion sense, and Olaf Sandal, who seems to have taken to wearing contemporary Irish footwear – when he is named in sources, his nickname even usually appears in its Irish form.
These nicknames are essential to historical or fictional portrayals of these characters. Whether used in a medieval saga, or a modern television series, they connect characters to complex webs of allusions, involving family histories, personal back stories, and even more distantly related tales. They were vital in driving the narratives of the sagas and today are an under-utilised resource for reimaginings of these stories.
Britain is a nation of tea drinkers – but for how much longer? New research released by the National Food Survey suggests that Britons are falling out of love with their morning “cuppa”. But in fact the UK has been losing its taste for tea for decades. Tea consumption has fallen steadily since “peak tea” was reached in 1956. When tea was rationed during World War II, the ration was 2oz (56g) per person per week. At 25g of tea per person per week, Britons now consume less than half the amount of tea they did during the war.
This might seem like a blow to a core component of British identity, but the British “way” of making tea – black tea, frequently served with milk and sugar – is comparatively recent in origin. When tea was first consumed in Britain in the 17th century, most Britons made green tea, drunk from tiny porcelain cups without handles. Though some took it with a little sugar, tea was almost always served without milk. During this period, all tea was from China, and the most popular kinds were green tea, though increasingly some preferred “bohea”, an oolong that produced a pale reddish-brown infusion.
It wasn’t until the 1850s that tea from India started to be imported in any quantities, and the British fondness for Assam, Darjeeling and Ceylon teas began to form. The tea they produced was more like what we expect now: tea that quickly stains the water a dark brown colour, with a pronounced and tannic flavour, suitable for taking with milk. And in its time, this shift was certainly driven to some extent by what was considered cool.
Tea from India and Sri Lanka was grown on substantial industrialised plantations, managed and financed by predominantly British companies, employing large numbers of indentured Indian workers. Rather than the artisanal production processes of Chinese smallholders, tea production in British India was mechanised as far as possible. By the 1920s, the introduction of new “rip-tear-curl” technology allowed the tea leaves to be processed and cured almost entirely by machine. The machines produced the super-oxidized “black tea” we are now familiar with, losing some of the more delicate flavours of the handmade method. This tea was cheaper and more efficient for tea companies to produce, and, because it made a darker and more tannic brew, was welcomed by consumers.
The 20th century also saw the adoption of an American invention, the teabag, which brought convenience and efficiency for the consumer, but also enacted a little economic miracle for tea companies. Teabags further reduced the quality and the quantity of tea needed to satisfy consumers. Teabags could be filled with the lowest grades of tea, the waste grades of dust and fannings. Over 96% of tea in Britain is now made with teabags. Nobody pretends this is good tea.
The decline in tea consumption might be attributed to changing tastes, and increased competition from hot drinks with more glamour, especially the various varieties of hot foamy milk and coffee served up by the espresso coffee chains. Despite the fact that some of these drinks often contain a “dangerously” high level of sugar, as Action on Sugar recently claimed, they remain enormously popular with young consumers.
So the decline in tea consumption is partly the fault of the tea industry. Industry analysts talk about how tea appeals to the throat and the mind. “Throat” describes how much tea is consumed, literally poured down the throat. “Mind” describes how tea is understood, and what it means. Despite commanding a considerable residual hold on the throat, tea’s share of the hot drinks market is declining because its grip on the mind is weak. To the mind, tea is comfortable, homely, ordinary – and a little boring. Tea is just not very cool, and as a result, it is slowly losing “throat appeal”.
In order to revive tea, some industry pundits argue they need to win the battle for the mind first. This is what coffee did: the CEO of Starbucks Howard Shultz is fond of saying his company revivified the retail coffee market in the United States by recovering “the romance of coffee”.
So it’s encouraging that numerous tea retailers, both small boutique operations and large conglomerates, have recently opened gourmet tea retailers on the high street, seeking to extend customers’ interest in more diverse (and higher priced!) tea experiences. There will be more, as the tea industry seeks to find ways to make the British way of taking tea an aspirational experience once again, not merely a brief encounter between a mug and teabag. Hipsters may be the only people who can transform tea’s fortunes.
Federal Liberal MP Dennis Jensen has come under attack for telling Parliament the Australian government should not be funding people to live a “noble savage” lifestyle in remote Indigenous communities. To link the idea of the “noble savage” to Indigenous Australians in 2016 is unquestionably offensive, but to understand why it’s worthwhile probing the term’s chequered history.
The modern myth of the noble savage is most commonly attributed to the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He believed the original “man” was free from sin, appetite or the concept of right and wrong, and that those deemed “savages” were not brutal but noble.
The idea can be found also in theology as an explanation for the degeneration of 18th-century society. The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, claimed that,
in the beginning man was made right with regular, pure affections.
But “he” became diseased and degenerated, obsessed with the things of the world.
James Cook brought Enlightenment ideas and sciences to the South Seas in his journeys around the Pacific, and was perhaps expressing Rousseau-style sentiments when he described Australian Aborigines in noble savage tones:
They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing …
They were, Cook famously declared in his Endeavour journals, “far more happier than we Europeans”.
Through the 19th century, as empires swallowed Indigenous lands, the idea of the noble savage receded and the reverse negative stereotype of the dangerous, brutal savage prevailed.
Both typecasts relied on the idea that the Indigenous peoples of the world were in an original state, “primitive”, “backward”, the ancient ancestor to “modern man”, the infants of humanity. Metaphors of time forged the social relationships of colonialism.
The noble savage re-emerged with Karl Marx’s critique of empire in the mid to late 19th century. It was expressed most powerfully by his partner, Friedrich Engels, who tied his revolutionary hunger for freedom from Victorian restrictions to the belief that human societies were originally led by women, and were characterised by the absence of jealousy and a state of almost free love.
In his famous fourth edition of Origins (1894), Engels claimed that the most perfect example of this society could be found among Australian Aborigines.
Engels berated those who argued for the brutal savage, for those “philistines in their brothel-tainted imagination” who viewed Aboriginal sexual relations with abhorrence.
Many historians and anthropologists have questioned his reading of the Australian texts, in particular Fison and Howitt’s landmark study of Aboriginal and Pacific Island societies, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880), that formed the basis of his analysis.
Engels’ noble savage proved particularly tenacious through the 20th century and became a kind of pagan foundation for the Soviet State, an argument against both Christianity and the West.
Free love was held to be the gift of the revolution, an attempt to recreate the perceived sexual freedom of Indigenous peoples.
The idea of the noble savage became a romantic foil to the alienation and inequities of capitalism and was restated by the neo-Marxists of the 1970s.
Yet another version of the noble savage can be found in New Age romanticism. Indigenous peoples are credited with special powers, such as healing or enhanced spirituality. New Age practitioners might seek to recreate or dance through Indigenous ceremonies, often with little idea of their original meanings.
Dream catchers and unattributed dot paintings on bags produced in China prove that there is money to be made from this model of the myth.
Scholars have long recognised that both the noble and the brutal savage are fantasies of the European mind that kept Indigenous peoples in a suspended state of either elevated purity or perpetual evil.
The noble savage binds Indigenous peoples to an impossible standard. The brutal savage, by contrast, becomes the pre-emptive argument for Indigenous failings.
The ideal of the noble savage has led to considerable derision. James Cook’s most famous biographer, J.C. Beaglehole, dismissed Cook’s passage on Aborigines as,
preposterous sublimity, this nonsense on stilts.