murreyandblue

A great WordPress.com site

Archive for the category “television reviews”

The true identy of the Black Death….?

Miniature out of the Toggenburg Bible (Switzerland) of 1411 

Last night I cheered myself up by watching the PBS documentary The Mystery of the Black Death. No, that opening sentence was facetious, because I have to say that the programme was actually very interesting. And rather uncanny in that it was stated the pestilence started in Italy, then Spain, and then gradually spread through the rest of Europe. Eerily familiar in present circumstances, right?

This documentary traced the progress and symptoms of the Great Pestilence, which has traditionally been identified as bubonic plague. No! Bubonic plague didn’t follow the same pattern as the Great Pestilence (not named the Black Death until later on). The buboes of bubonic plague were absent in all contemporaneous descriptions of what struck Europe in 1347/51. And rats couldn’t have been to blame because there weren’t any at that period.

Well, there were a few, of course, but nothing like the teeming hordes we all envisage. There are small hints of this ratless society, e.g. the fact that dovecotes were built with “nesting” spaces going right down to the ground. This wouldn’t have happened had rats been much in evidence. Rats climb, yes, but medieval people wouldn’t have made it so inviting and easy by providing rat feasts at ground level.

Another indication was that although owls eat rats, no rat bones have been found in the regurgitated pellets of medieval owls. Loads of mouse bones, and so on, but no rats. Why not? Presumably because there were no rats to eat.

So the programme delved into what else other disease it might have been. It concluded that the Black Death was spread by human touch, not rats or fleas, and that it was mostly likely something closely related to ebola.

Whether you agree with the reasoning or not, the programme is very interesting, and I recommend it. But not if you’re squeamish!

If you cannot receive PBS UK, you can see more here.

Britain’s Lost Battlefields (with Rob Bell)

Channel Five’s reputation for history programmes has risen greatly over the past few years. At the heart of this, first in a Great Fire of London series with Suzannah Lipscomb and the ubiquitous Dan Jones, has been the “engineering historian” Rob Bell, who has toured bridges, ships, buildings and lost railways in his own amiable, enthusiastic but authoritative style.

Now, only four days after completing series two of Britain’s Lost Railways, Bell is back, touring some of our great battlefields. The series, initially shown on 5Select, starts at Bannockburn, progresses to Hastings, Watling Street, Bosworth and Naseby, as well as Kett’s Rebellion. Perhaps the six episodes could have been shown chronologically by the battle years?

The third, fourth and fifth shows, however, do form a neat triangle in the East Midlands, if you accept the suggested location of the Battle of (the very long) Watling Street. Featuring historians such as Matthew Lewis, Julian Humphreys and Mike Ingram, the hangun (or arquebus) is described with respect to Bosworth, as is the evolution of the musket to the forms used at Naseby, together with commanders such as Fairfax and the Bohemian brothers: Rupert and Maurice.

Climbing up on Solsbury….sorry, Salisbury (Cathedral)….

Salisbury Cathedral

Well, impressed as I am, all I can say is “rather him than me”! Go up there? Never! I hate heights. But for those you who are made of sterner stuff, this BBC South video of the nooks, crannies and heights of Salisbury Cathedral is well worth watching.

The new titans of Bosworth….?

No words are needed, I think! Except to say that I doubt if Starkey and Schama ever see themselves in this light!

Bone Detectives start with Thanet’s Bronze Age secrets….

I have just watched the first episode of Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets, featuring Dr Tori Herridge and the delightful Raksha Dave, whom I remember from Time Team, but who is now much in TV evidence. In this new series we’re promised episodes from different periods and different places all over Britain, but this first one was from the Isle of Thanet.

Thanet, of course, is no longer and island, but it was still detached from the rest of Kent as late as Tudor times, when the Wantsum Channel had to be crossed by boat. Earlier than that, it was broad enough to be a strait.

It is suggested that in the Bronze Age, and probably before then too, Britain was thought to be a sacred island of the dead, and seemed to shine out of the sea with its pure white cliffs. The name Thanet may be derived from a goddess of death (I didn’t quite catch the name) and the Wantsum Channel might have been the Styx? Whatever, to get to Thanet, one had to cross water.

The Thanet place of interest in this first episode was Cliffsend, where a housing estate is now but early in this decade there was only large sandy field. The only thing remaining from the field is a single mature tree. There is, apparently, no evidence at all of people actually living here during the Bronze Age, but they did come to what became Cliffsend in order to honour the dead.

When the present housing estate was due to be built, archaeological excavations took place, to investigate the area before it became impossible. What was found astonished everyone. There was a many-barrowed cemetery from around 2000 BC, each barrow about 20m in diameter. There was no sign at all of true settlement, but a lot of broken pottery, animal bones, broken quern stones and so on, which suggested many feasts and ceremonies which must have been to do with death and the dead. Oh, no! Not the dreaded rituals again, complete with processional ways! But in this instance I think the conclusion is probably correct.

The dig became exceedingly interesting and original when it came to a mysterious pit, some 50m NE of the cemetery. Human skeletons were found in it, with right at the bottom, those of two neonatal lambs. Then, on top of them, was the carefully arranged skeleton of a very elderly woman. She was on her left side, curled up tightly, holding a small piece of chalk to her lips in her left hand. Her right hand was more extended, with her index finger pointing toward one of the nearby barrows. There were two more neonatal lambs in her lap, and she had been killed by sword blows to her head.

Now, in the Bronze Age swords were very rare, and probably for ceremonial use only, which suggests that the manner of her death was sacrificial. And not necessarily that she was unwilling to die, because her finger pointing to the barrow might well indicate a plea to the dead for their help with some situation then besetting the area. Her life might well have been the price to pay. Which is guesswork, of course, but there has to be some reason for the way she points. And what is the piece of chalk to her lips all about? That must remain a mystery.

Anyway, the old lady and the four lambs were not alone in the pit, for there were four more remains, two teenaged girls, two juvenile girls, and a mature man, although he was only a partial skeleton and a little distance away, so may not have been really connection with the others.

Some of the bones were sent for testing, and it turned out they were older than the old woman! How very, very strange. Now, if I tell you more, it will spoil the programme’s “punch lines”, so you will have to watch it to find out. But I do recommend this first episode. It bodes well for the rest of the series. You can watch the series on Channel Four at 8 pm on Saturdays, but also find out more on Goodreads

My final comment is on the programme’s sponsor, Tilda (rice), which declares it’s proud to help promote “escapism on 4”. Um, escapism? I’m not sure that a documentary about Bronze Age burials comes under that heading!

History isn’t “horrible”, it’s essential….!

Richard III – from ‘Horrible Histories’

“…Imagine knowing the entire list of British monarchs by heart at age 10. Imagine knowing about cavemen courting rituals or what soldiers ate during World War I. Imagine becoming so invested in the life of the infamous King Richard III of England that you joined the Richard III Society, a group dedicated to finding his bones and solving the mystery of what happened to his nephews over 500 years ago…”

The extract above is from this study breaks article which, as you might guess, is all about ‘Horrible Histories’!

It made me think, because I did know my English/British monarchs by the age of 10…by 8/9 in fact. There was a chart on my bedroom wall and it faced me when I sat up in bed. I noticed Richard III even then, because he was so different from the rest. Slender, dark-haired, troubled…or so it seemed to me. The other kings/queens seemed more or less expressionless (except for Henry VII, who looked out of the chart in that rather crafty, sideways manner we know and love so well!)

A present-day friend tells me: “There was a frieze over my classroom door { at the same age} with them all on from Alfred, including the years. I did the research and writing, although none of us could reach where it was placed.”

There’s no doubt that history lessons used to entail knowing our stuff. Nowadays, it seems, they’re taught that the world didn’t exist before World War I. Medieval? What the heck is that? So, the likes of ‘Horrible Histories’ are to be welcomed, because they introduce modern children to the past. It’s their past, after all. They should know how their country developed to become what it is today…and realise that it wasn’t a process that came into being magically in the year 1900!

PS: And if help is needed to remember history and its facts, then there’s nothing better than a good song. So try this one.

Susan Calman’s Secret Scotland

This excellent programme, now on its second series, has seen the diminutive Glaswegian comedienne visit parts of Scotland that she had not previously, “behind the scenes” areas or, in the case of the Borders, driven straight through to work in England.

Last year, Calman visited places like Edinburgh Castle (left), Stirling (to fry fish, among other things), Loch Ness, Orkney and Melrose’s legendary Greenyards (below left) to practice sevens skills where the truncated game was invented.

This year, she has been to the Cairngorns (including Balmoral), Dunrobin and John O’Groats among other north coast venue, followed by a return to Glasgow visiting a music hall, making chicken tikka masala, sampling Irn Bru, meeting the footballer Rose Reilly and using the “Subway”. To end the series, she went to Skye to shear sheep, Perthshire and Fife (including Scone Palace, tree planting, Caithness Glass and DC Comics in Dundee) and then Ayrshire and its environs (celebrating Burns, sampling Dunlop cheese, remembering J.M. Barrie at Dumfries and visiting Dunure Castle with its tunnels) and Arran (testing a Viking longboat, tasting seaweed and changing a bulb at a lighthouse).

A great “feasting” hall where Edward IV and Richard III dined….

I have just watched an episode of Digging for Britain (2014, series 3, episode 3, entitled “North”) in which Alice Roberts presented a section about an archaeological dig that had at that time been going on for five years at a large 15th-century hall owned by Sir John Conyers.

Sir John Conyers

Sir John had served both Edward IV and Richard III, was a Knight of the Garter, and carried Richard III’s sceptre at his coronation. Both kings were said to have dined at the hall. He fell from grace under Henry VII because he supported an attempt to topple Henry and replace him with Edward, Earl of Warwick, the imprisoned son of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of both Edward IV and Richard III.

Hornby Castle before partial demolition

I didn’t hear any actual identification of the site of the dig, and so imagine they didn’t want to invite unwelcome intrusion. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’m prepared to be put right, but all I picked up was that it was in North Yorkshire, and was a vast “feasting” hall (capable of holding upwards of 1000 people) where many artefacts were being found. Maybe it was at Hornby Castle, Yorkshire, which was Sir John Conyers’ main base. But that’s my guesswork.

Anyway, after Bosworth and the attempted coup, the site that became the dig described in 2014 was sacked by Henry VII, using cannon, and set on fire, reducing it to rubble. What I couldn’t quite decide was whether it was just the great hall that suffered this fate.

On the assumption that it was Hornby Castle in North Yorkshire, this webpage gives a lot of archaeological details, going back to 2011. The work there was still ongoing in 2018.

An unexpected conclusion

Who do you think you are? is always an interesting programme and is disappointing to see only eight episodes in the series. In the past, Sir Matthew Pinsent, Frank Gardner, Danny Dyer and Clare Balding have all been revealed as proven descendants of Edward I. That has not happened in 2019 and few lines have gone back as far as the eighteenth century, so I hoped that the concluding episode’s research could beat that.

Wrong

Wright

As it turned out, it did go back a long way. The subject was Mark Wright – not the red-haired central defender (left) who scored against Egypt in 1990, heading home a Gascoigne free kick, but a “reality show” star and former semi-professional full-back who was born only three years before that, who had a feeling that his complexion pointed to some Italian ancestry. This Mark Wright (right) was accompanied in the earliest scenes by Eddie, his paternal grandfather, who had collated his knowledge in advance, particularly about his own grandfather and namesake.

Edward Wright senior was a builder whose materials occasionally fell off the back of carts and was imprisoned for this on one occasion. On another, he was said to have left for America after another conviction and passenger lists proved that this really happened as opposed to being a cover for another “stretch”. With the help of Mark Smith (left), the arms and militaria expert from Antiques Roadshow, he proved that Edward Wright sourced horses for the British Army before signing up after reducing his age to serve in the First World War.

Next, Mark discovered that his grandfather’s  mother came from a Jewish line named Simons/ Simmons, through which he was able to visit the 1701 Bevis Marks synagogue (right), built for the Sephardi (Iberian and North African) Jewish community whom Oliver Cromwell had allowed back into the British Isles.

Further research took him to Spain, in particular Jaen in Andalucia, where his ultimate known ancestor Antonio de Castro/ David de Mendoza, a fencing master, was born in 1661 and then brought up there. This was a family of “conversos”, but frequently came under suspicion from the Inquisition. Antonio, as he was known, was arrested and tortured, tried, convicted and imprisoned before escaping to Amsterdam with his wife and children, where they resumed an overt Jewish life. His nephew Miguel was then arrested and, possibly because of Antonio’s activities, burned, a fate he shares with an ancestor of Simon Sebag Montefiore, her brother and sister. On a brighter note, Mark was able to meet a distant cousin who is also a Mendoza descendant.

“Mordecai Mendoza”(Bernard Cribbins)

Wright actually showed a real flair for genealogy, enthusiastically drawing up tables on paper and spotting the religious significance of the name Mendoza. Might we hear more about his family some time?

Medieval (sic) Murder Mysteries

This is a six-part series, first shown on “Yesterday” (a UKTV channel) in 2015 but is available to view on their website here. The producers used pathologists, coroners, historians, barristers and other writers to form their conclusions, some of which are more reliable than others.

The first episode, which surely misses the mediaeval timescale, is that of Christopher Marlowe, stabbed in a Deptford tavern in 1593: in self-defence, a brawl or a targeted assassination? Marlowe’s possible involvement with heresy or espionage, Raleigh or Cecil is investigated in depth. The riddle of Edward II‘s fate at Berkeley Castle is tackled next – could he really have died by poker or suffocation or could he have escaped? Their conclusion points in the latter direction, although the current Berkeley heir leans towards the ultra-traditional legend.

The third show is about Arthur of Brittany, son of Geoffrey and nephew of John, who seems to have been disposed of in a particularly grisly manner in Brittany – blinding and castrating, either of which could have been fatal through shock. Several Byzantine Emperors, from 800 onwards, had been blinded, to prevent them from ruling effectively and castration would prevent him from reproducing, although death would not necessarily be intended. The fourth, again un-mediaeval, case covered Amy Robsart’s fall down a staircase at Cumnor, Oxfordshire after sending her servants away – accident, suicide, murder to free her husband Dudley to marry Elizabeth I, murder to stop him from ever marrying Elizabeth? Both suicide and murder are less probable, as the pathologist argued, because Amy might have survived as an invalid for a few years and remembered her assailant if there was one. There was no mention of the cancer I have heard, elsewhere, that she suffered from, although the staircase is the series emblem.

Inevitably, the “Princes” feature, in part five. Sadly, as with Edward II, many of the “experts” may understand their own professions well but seem not to appreciate the level of “Tudor” propaganda and have not approached the case with open minds, which skewed their conclusion against the high probability of one or both being sent to Burgundy. The final case was that of Juan (Giovanni) Borgia, the acknowledged son of a Pope (Alexander VI), who was definitely murdered and dumped in the Tiber – but as a random victim, by his brother Gioffre, the Orsini family or someone else? An Orsini had just died in a Papal prison.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: