The History Girls 1: The Romans and The Roses

What a lot of these we’ve got now!

Is it a coincidence that the one I consider closest to my style, and with whom I most identify, is the most celebrated Professor Mary Beard? Do others feel the same? She wants to discover and explain even those details of historical life we tend to keep quiet about, despite our interest in them. Our minds tend to cycle round certain ideas, only some of which are usually for public consumption, but Mary investigates and explains all parts of our thought cycles even those “underwater”, in such a down-to-earth way.

Here she’s happy to explain something while still brandishing the headless broomstick she’d been pointing with:

Prof. Mary Beard, in her programme on Caligula.

Prof. Mary Beard, in her programme on Caligula.

We’re reminded of the term used to describe our hands’ exploration of an object, called “manual parsing”, which she seems to be imagining doing here, just as she’s conventionally parsed a million Latin sentences. (…If we have that many!)

And here she lures us down a dark Roman alley – the one where Caligula was assassinated, I expect 🙂 :
Surely part of her appeal must be because we keep our “Mary Beard” mental concept quite close to our “Margaret Rutherford” concept.

When I worked at Esso I heard first hand how they liked to recruit classics scholars (i.e. Latin, Greek etc.), in the case of salesmen at least, because they sold a lot of oil. A surprising number of people who became formidable in other areas, (for me, Stuart Sutherland, the famous psychologist, comes to mind), had done classics; it does seem to prepare people well, perhaps by presenting all the kinds of things that can happen in life, the various things people did when they happened, and what the consequences were. I wonder what the ancient equivalents of a dirty Twitter storm might have been? Whatever they were, Mary will know, and will be able to handle it! Good old Mary 🙂 . [Update: It seems there’s just a very few weeks’ difference between us! I expect we had our first Latin lesson within a couple of days of each other 🙂 .]

A recent notable arrival on the scene is Professor Catharine Edwards, from Birkbeck (where my mother was as it happens). The way she unwound the tales of three classic Roman imperial women famous for their machinating, or perhaps we might say the machinations they felt driven to, removed any doubt we might have had that a special sort of woman could cast spells on their victims, even when they knew it was happening :-S . Having thought hard about the appeal of certain TV personalities and why I watch them, like for example, Jeremy Clarkson, I’ve set up a three-part scale to account for it. The first part is “Like?”. The second is “Approve of?”, and the third is simply “Watch?”. With Clarkson, the judgement is simple: Like – N; Approve of – N; Watch – Y. With Danny Baker, it used to be: Like – N; Approve of – Y; Watch – Y (though after seeing his short series on LPs, I changed Like to Y).

The “Catharine Edwards Effect” that leaves you like a rabbit in the headlights and sends you happily to your doom, results in: Like – Not Sure; Approve of – Not Sure; Watch – Yes, possibly from behind the settee, or strapped to the mast, as appropriate. Those three programmes could have been watched with the sound off, and you wouldn’t miss much because of the recurring theme of endless vaguely similar but hard to remember family relationships, and repeated exilings, poisonings and stabbings… and yet she’d still convey that essence of ruthless allure and power :-S .

I’ve selected a screen-grab below, where Catharine is invited onto Mary’s Caligula program, showing a very straightforward image.

Again, from Mary's Caligula programme

Again, from Mary’s Caligula programme

There are however many frames where Prof Edwards’ dramatic spirit jumps right out of the screen at you… but I’ve decided not to be cheap, nor to risk frightening my readers, so I’ll just offer the one below, and also this one of the two professors professoring together.
I wouldn't have expected Mary to be the bigger of the two, but it seems like it here.

I wouldn’t have expected Mary to be the bigger of the two, but it seems like it here.

Some months more people reach my website by googling “How old is professor Catharine Edwards” than for all the other methods of access and search queries added together. It’s a fairly innocent question I suppose, and I’m glad to be able to give a categorical answer: “Old enough to know what’s what, and young enough to be able to do something about it!” She seems to have written her first book in 1993: “The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome” and she must have got her BA before then, surely, but she may have been pretty quick out of the blocks. On her 2013 BBC Four TV series “Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome” she appeared younger than people usually do when their hair is completely grey. I think she just went grey early, and thought, rightly, that it looked kind of cool and interesting, so left it that way. She became a professor in 2006 which might have been a bit earlier than average.

She does have a remarkable facility for facial expressions, and can flick through a rapid sequence of little looks that all too many viewers will understand as coming from a position of extreme power, and directed at those expected to comply absolutely and very quickly. She might not have built the skill entirely herself – this kind of thing could have been largely picked up in her youth from someone close to her, though I don’t doubt she has used it for its apparent purpose. But anyone noticing this and being tempted to write harsh critiques of those programmes should remember that she is an author and a teacher, and her administrative duties are carried out in the modern world, and I hope in a respectable setting, and will be fairly open. Remember also that she’s female and might not be terribly tall. As Jack Nicholson said to Shirley MacLean (in “Terms of Endearment”, was it?): “Everyone uses what they’ve got.” Good, widely-read reviews of her TV series might have led to more programmes from this expert and riveting personality!

Just this week I learned she was on Twitter, and also learned from it that university teachers are on strike! It’s amazing what you don’t get told on BBC radio news! Her comments show encouraging understanding for the cause, and it’s surprising how little coverage of the strike is reflected on some other professors’ Twitter streams.

And here’s another tale of three women: those at the heart of The Wars of the Roses, in BBC Two’s “The Real White Queen and Her Rivals”.

Phillippa Gregory. from the website for The Real White Queen and her Rivals

Phillippa Gregory. from the website for The Real White Queen and her Rivals

This time, Phillippa Gregory isn’t so much telling us what it was like to be there facing the machinatrices, but imagines what it must have been like to have been them. (At least they had power a lot of the time, but even if you weren’t a mum at 12, it was impressively worrying: all draughts and no privacy, and the toilets were terrible! And as for the… ouch – don’t even think of it!)

This brings us to what I’d like to present as a classic challenge for today’s media:

How to explain the Wars of the Roses! Scientists are always telling themselves they/we have to get out there and take it to the people. But can there be a better standard educative challenge than this subject? Understanding some stories is simple because they are simple. Then there are stories that are too complex to understand the first time through: The Hundred Year’s War is like that.

Janina Ramirez, in the BBC's Chivalry And Betrayal: The Hundred Years War Note: there are some most banal comments on that blog page!

Janina Ramirez, in the BBC’s Chivalry And Betrayal: The Hundred Years War
Note: there are some most banal comments on that blog page!

However, listen a couple of times to, say, Janina Ramirez’ account of it, and you can, like me, remember a few corners of the jigsaw, ready to fill in the rest in time: Starts around The Black Death, and I think involves the Black Prince early on; then, embarrassingly but inspiringly, it largely consists of landing in various places in France and embarking on one great swathe of destruction after another all over the French Countryside. (I’m beginning to understand why the French don’t mean to indicate a feeling of hospitability and delight by the phrase “The English are disembarking”.) Agincourt and Henry V, and before that Crecy, come into it; the French didn’t seem to learn anything from Crecy, but towards the end of the war they learned to jump on the archers before they were ready (not a good episode of the archers that time, one imagines). Towards the end you get Joan of Arc, and afterwards some of the characters go on to be involved in The Wars of the Roses.

But the Wars of the Roses fight much more stubbornly to retain their incomprehensibility:

First: complex family relations. Second: everyone milling about all over the place, here, there and everywhere. Third: they keep stopping and starting, and each round isn’t automatically easy to tell from the others. And finally, they keep rearranging the sides. (Surely Shakespeare’s “Wind-changing Warwick now shall change no more!” shows how he, too, got exasperated with this!) Oh – actually there’s a further “finally”: the names Henry, Edward and Richard are too conceptually similar: the same number of syllables, and all classic names of kings (inevitably!). And the first names of Elizabeth (Woodville), Anne (Neville) and Margaret (Beaufort) are all recent members of the royal family as well as being (mostly) famous actual queens.

We need structure. We need maps, time charts, and family trees to be displayed on screen all the time, and the updates should be linked between the charts, showing who was doing what, where, and when. The graphics would need to be dovetailed in, of course, with the narration. Well that at least happens already, but the rest will never be done for TV because it would look to the viewer too much like work, like a lesson. Besides which, it would require too much screen area, and probably stop-and-start control by the viewer. Maybe though, just maybe, there could be some mnemonic… some three-line ditty… some allegory that could provide a basic outline.

Anyway, all media studies courses should require the student to present a 1-hour on-screen account of the Wars of the Roses, in a way that left 70% of people (randomly tempted off the street with ice-cream) with a basic understanding of the main phases, the main people, the main actions, and the main places. I think Mr. Gove would find that satisfyingly crunchy!

Helen Castor (see next episode) also included the Wars of the Roses, in her series “She-Wolves: England’s Early Queens”. But her particular angle was the feminist issue, not just in those times, but with an intended echo into the sociology of today. At the end of the series she refers to the vitriolic attacks aimed at women, apparently merely for doing a task possible for them, and normal for men… or even for merely not being men. And when she says “vitriolic”, we can see she really means it and talks from personal experience, probably repeated personal experiences, even though she does cut a rather cool figure as she wafts along the corridors of history, graciously weaving her tale.

She must have had unfair behaviour directed against her, just as her would-be queens had; it’s a form of groupism and it’s a natural tendency. Some varieties go out of fashion but in whichever versions people can get away with, they’re always trying it on. Helen does not look like an avid campaigner in office politics, or any kind of street-fighter, or whatever would make people think twice before having a go. It’s always gone on all through history and it continues unchecked… or does it? No! See
next episode

[Update March 2015: From August 2013 when I first posted this, to the appearance of a piece by The Daily Mail, featuring mini-interviews with another set of History Girls, but still using that phrase in the title, took three months 🙂 . Actually, it’s rather a good piece, especially by the standards of the Mail. …f you forget that they’ve taken the trouble to give their ages, and only selected those in their 30’s! (Apologies for the wrongish apostrophe, but I think I’m beginning to endorse an extra use for it in such circumstances!)

Also, I didn’t know when I wrote and chose the title for my piece, that there already was and still is this rather good blog actually called The History Girls :-S .]

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7 Responses to The History Girls 1: The Romans and The Roses

  1. Pingback: The History Girls 2: The Next Generation Strikes Back | sciencepolice2010

    • Hi Andy – One problem is that there seems to be no elegant way to correct an inelegant balance of this sort. Though some would say having more female presenters did lend elgance! There’s been plenty of imbalance the other way.

      Cheers anyway.

  2. Pingback: On watching Prof Catharine Edwards last night | seamasodalaigh

  3. jennifer harrison says:

    Although I know the story pretty well, I got totally lost. I think it was all those busts with re stuck on noses
    And it was rather late at night

  4. Yes – there certainly were a lot of similarities! That made it rather difficult to remember the details, but as the stories were so similar the overall message was pretty clear 🙂

  5. Trance State says:

    Repeat of Catharine Edwards show about psycopathic Roman females recently. Yes even women can behave as badly as men, it appears.. A conveyer belt of female ‘dr.s’ and ‘prfessors’. I dont believe there was a male contributing scholar. That’s sexism. Turn the tables around, a series on ancient Greece, on the Minoan civilisation (Bethany Hughes),on Rome, with no female contributors? There’d be an outcry. Hypocrites.

  6. Hi Andy – One problem is that there seems to be no elegant way to correct an inelegant balance of this sort. Though some would say having more female presenters did lend elgance! There’s been plenty of imbalance the other way.

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