Recently, King Arthur flour is having a moment, as people under stay-at-home orders turn to baking to fill time and relieve stress. King Arthur flour has ramped up production and posted recipes, blog entries, and how-to-videos aimed at the quarantine market.
I had actually been thinking about King Arthur flour and planning my own blog entry about it even before the virus hit us. In fact, I’d just picked up the interlibrary loan books I needed when my institution went to remote learning, but the demands of online teaching meant I haven’t been able to blog until now.
King Arthur flour had come up in my Making History class (an introductory course for history majors) as part of our study of medievalism (the appropriation of medieval material in modern contexts). We’d read about American medievalism in Marcus Bull’s Thinking Medieval, which had a passing mention of the Knights of King Arthur, a boys’ organization similar to the Boy Scouts, founded in New England in 1893.1 In class, I asked the students if they were aware of any other Arthurian connections associated with New England, and one student answered right away, “You mean King Arthur flour?” I did. But I didn’t know anything more about the company than the name and that they were based in New England. Time for research!
I knew that Howard Pyle’s illustrated retellings of the King Arthur stories (which I read as a child and which I’m sure influenced my choice of scholarly specialty) dated from around 1900.2 Given that the Arthurian boys’ clubs were founded in 1893, I wondered if the flour company also began around that time and could be seen as an example of a fin-de siècle American fashion for things Arthurian.
It turned out that I was half right. The company was actually founded in Boston in 1790, not 1890, as Henry Wood and Company, selling flour imported from England. They began selling American-grown and milled flour in the 1820s. In 1896, the company, known since 1890 as Sands, Taylor, and Wood, introduced a new, high-end flour. One of the partners, George Wood, had recently attended a play about King Arthur in Boston, and, in the words of the company history published in their 200th anniversary cookbook,3
came away feeling that the values inherent in the Arthurian legends, purity, loyalty, honesty, superior strength and a dedication to a higher purpose, were the values that most expressed their feelings about their new flour. So it was decided that King Arthur would be its symbol.
The new product was introduced at the Boston Food Fair in 1896, promoted by a man dressed in armor riding through the streets of Boston on a horse. An article in the Boston Post described the scene:4
A horseman clad in glittering armor and armed cap-a-pie [head-to-foot] has been creating no small sensation of late as he guided his prancing steed through the streets of the Hub. No stranger contrast can well be imagined than this figure of medieval romance set down in the busy turmoil and traffic of modern Boston.
It seems at first sight that one of Walter Scott’s heroes had come to life again, or, perchance, that a new Don Quixote had arisen to tilt against the deadly trolley.
The Crusaders’ cross gleams on the coat of mail and adorns the silken standard that he bears aloft. It is, in truth, King Arthur come to earth again—the picture of that gallant warrior is literally perfect. The standard bears the legend ‘King Arthur Flour,’ and the inference is obvious—that as King Arthur was a champion without fear and above reproach, so is King Arthur Flour the peerless champion of modern civilization.
The writer makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in accuracy. Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (which we also read in Making History) was enormously popular in the nineteenth century and enormously influential in creating the modern understanding of the Middle Ages (which is the reason we read it in Making History), but it has nothing to do with King Arthur—it’s set in England in the late twelfth century, the time of Good King Richard and Bad Prince John.5 Further, King Arthur never went on Crusade, so his depiction with a Crusaders’ cross can’t really be called “literally perfect.” And I’m not at all sure what Don Quixote is doing there. Over a thousand years of history has been compressed into a single medieval moment—King Arthur, Crusaders, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Don Quixote all ride through the streets of modern Boston at the same time.
This medieval mashup is also seen in the original King Arthur Flour logo, a version of which still adorns the company’s bags of unbleached flour. In the original version, not only is King Arthur dressed as a Crusader—a Templar, in fact—but in the background you can see palm trees and a desert sun setting behind the walls of a Middle Eastern city.
This discrepancy was eventually noticed by the company, and in the 200th anniversary cookbook, the author, Brinna Sands (married to a fifth-generation member of the Sands family that had been involved with the company since 1840), wrote,6
When our logo was conceived a century ago, the artist inadvertently placed King Arthur in the Middle East as if he were a crusader. King Arthur may have been a crusader, but not in the sense the term is generally accepted. His Crusade was in the land of hill fort “castles’ and ancient oaks which we have substituted for the palm trees and mosques.
The logo is simplified now, with neither palm trees nor ancient oaks in the background. They still celebrate the Arthurian connection, however. The company name was changed from Sands, Taylor and Wood to The King Arthur Flour Company in 1999.7 The commercial product line (sold only in 50-pound bags) includes Sir Galahad (all-purpose), Sir Lancelot (high gluten), and Round Table (low protein) flours. Queen Guinevere, however, has been dethroned, as her namesake product, a bleached cake flour, was discontinued when they developed an unbleached version. The campus in Vermont, where they moved in 1984, is known as Camelot.
I’ll definitely be doing some research on the Arthurian boys’ clubs for a future blog. But now I think I’ll go bake something.
In the last entry, we saw how Magna Carta was modernized in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Today we see a similar transformation in Ironclad.
Like Ridley Scott, Jonathan English, director of Ironclad, released in 2011, claims historical accuracy for his film. Like those of Ridley Scott, English’s claims don’t hold up.1 Compared to Robin Hood, Ironclad has more historical and less folkloric content. Ironclad is based on a real event, the siege of Rochester Castle, and its characters, although a mixture of real and fictional, do not include any mythical figures like Robin Hood. Nonetheless, Ironclad’s treatment of Magna Carta is equally as modern as Robin Hood’s and, in fact, is even more strongly reminiscent of an eighteenth-century document, the Declaration of Independence.
Ironclad is set in the fall and winter of 1215, during the baronial rebellion that followed the failure of Magna Carta. The film focuses on the siege of Rochester Castle, in which it imagines that seven brave defenders held off the forces of John and his mercenary army. (The director, Jonathan English, has acknowledged his inspirations included The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai).2 These medieval magnificent seven are led by Baron William of Albany and Thomas Marshal, a troubled Templar who in the course of the siege falls in love with Isabel, wife of the castle’s lord, Reginald Cornhill.3 John ultimately takes the castle, but is unable to follow up on his victory when an invading French force shows up, led by Prince Louis, son of King Philip. John flees, and the film ends with John’s ignominious death by dysentery after losing his treasure in the Wash while Thomas and Isabel ride away from the castle to live, presumably, happily ever after.4
While the time period of Robin Hood is well before the actual time of the granting of Magna Carta, the action of Ironclad takes place in the months after Runnymede. Magna Carta still plays a large role in the film, however. The civil war of late 1215 is presented as resulting from John’s attempt to take revenge on the supporters of Magna Carta; the defenders of Rochester Castle see themselves as defending the ideals of Magna Carta. However, the Magna Carta of Ironclad is not the Magna Carta of Runnymede. To paraphrase Greta Austin, who claims that all medieval films are “modernity in drag,” Magna Carta in Ironclad may be described as “the Declaration of Independence in drag.”5 Like the Declaration, it has a single author. Like the Declaration, it is signed by its supporters. Like the Declaration, the physical object, the document itself, is seen as significant. And like the Declaration, the meaning of the document has been transformed from its original context to be something else.
In Ironclad, Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton is presented not only as a supporter of Magna Carta but also as its sole author. Langton was identified as the author of Magna Carta at one time, but today the scholarly consensus is that its composition was a group effort, with Langton perhaps insisting on clause one, on the liberty of the English Church.6 In Ironclad, however, when we first meet Langton in the episcopal palace at Canterbury, he tells Thomas, “I am to be excommunicated for writing Magna Carta.”7This is understandable for dramatic reasons—the story is easier to follow if we can attach a face to the document everyone is fighting over. But in addition, Stephen Langton is the stand-in for Thomas Jefferson.
The script refers several times to John’s “signing” Magna Carta. In reality, Magna Carta was not signed but sealed.8 Interestingly, a few references to sealing the document do creep in—it’s almost as if the screenwriters knew the proper term but frequently lapsed into the familiar error. This confusion is already evident in the film’s opening sequence, where a voiceover spoken by Charles Dance, who plays Stephen Langton, provides the historical background necessary to understand the rest of the story:
“It was agreed that John could remain on the throne, on one condition—that he would sign a document upholding the rights and privileges of all free men, but ultimately limiting the power of the monarchy. [At this point we see John sign the document.] The Magna Carta was sealed at Runnymede on the fifteenth of June in the Year of our Lord twelve hundred and fifteen.” [emphasis mine]
The look of this scene is clearly influenced by nineteenth-century visual representations of what the artists imagined to have happened on June 15, 1215. Do a google image search with terms like “Magna Carta signing” and you’ll see plenty of examples.9 The one I believe the filmmakers chose is an 1864 illustration by artist James Doyle.10 In the illustration, John is in a tent, seated at a table covered with a red tablecloth embellished with gold brocade. He is surrounded by standing knights and clergymen. Through the open back of the tent can be seen more tents spread across a rolling green meadow next to a river.
In the opening sequence of Ironclad, there is an establishing shot with a tent-covered meadow next to a river; the camera then takes us inside John’s tent where he is seated at a table covered by a red cloth embellished with gold brocade and surrounded by standing knights and clergymen.
The writers did enough research to know that Magna Carta was sealed. They must have just assumed it was signed as well, partly from the influence of the visual tradition they were following, but also because in modern times we expect important legal or governmental documents to be signed. A bill doesn’t become a law until the President signs it; the Declaration of Independence couldn’t take effect until the delegates signed it. So Magna Carta must have been signed as well.
The parallel of Ironclad’s Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence extends further. The prop Magna Carta used in the film was neither a duplicate of one of the surviving 1215 copies nor modeled on the eighteenth-century facsimile (as Robin Hood’s was). Rather, Ironclad’s Magna Carta has a similar layout to the Declaration. John’s signature is centered below the main text, in large letters—like his namesake president of the Continental Congress—with the other signatures in columns to its left and right.11 In fact, the leaders of the baronial revolt did not sign it either, but our familiarity with the Declaration of Independence has conditioned our expectations of what such a document should look like.12
On the must-see list of any first-time visitor to Washington, D.C. is the Rotunda of the National Archives, where the “Charters of Freedom” exhibit reverently showcases the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Americans revere the Declaration as a physical object.
Ironclad has a similar view of the importance of the document itself. In an early scene, John and his Danish mercenaries arrive at the castle of one of his enemies. John shows him a copy of Magna Carta and, pointing to it, asks if this is his handwriting. The baron claims he was forced to sign it; John grimly replies, “I know the feeling” and has the man hanged. Later on, John is shown in a sacked burning castle surrounded by heaps of bodies; one has a crumpled-up bloody copy of Magna Carta stuffed in its mouth. When the rebels first occupy Rochester castle, a member of the resident garrison protests, “The rebellion’s over. The king surrendered to the Great Charter.” Albany then pulls a copy of Magna Carta out of a leather tube and says, “Magna Carta. This one sealed by the King’s own hand. And now he’s executing everybody who supported it.”13 Late in the siege, when the defenders are coming to realize that they are doomed, Reginald Cornhill wants to negotiate a surrender. Squire Guy, the idealist youth among our “Magnificent Seven,” objects, saying, “We swore an oath, to Albany—to England.” Cornhill answers, “Your oath is worthless. Magna Carta is worthless. The Church has annulled it. Whatever happens here is meaningless.” He leaves the room and Guy silently unrolls Magna Carta and looks at it. Almost the last thing we see in Ironclad, after a final Charles Dance voiceover that narrates John’s death and the loss of his treasure in the Wash, is a shot of Magna Carta floating in muddy water.
Ironclad’s view of Magna Carta’s broader significance is also informed by modern expectations and parallels the popular understanding of the Declaration of Independence. In the popular mind, Jefferson’s list of all the crimes of George III is forgotten; all that we remember is “All men are created equal” and the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Similarly, in Ironclad all the technical clauses of Magna Carta are ignored and its scope is extended to, as the initial voiceover sequence puts it, “upholding the rights and privileges of all free men.” English echoes this judgment in his commentary, where he references America’s other founding document: “The Magna Carta of course is one of the original documents that formed the basis of liberty and justice for all men and was the basis of the American Constitution.” When John first confronts the rebels at the walls of Rochester castle, Albany reminds him that he “sealed a charter giving the people of England freedom.”14
This emphasis on “the people” and “freedom” is especially notable in the words of Squire Guy. When Thomas finds out that Guy has never killed anyone, he tells him, “Then you will learn that it is not a noble thing.” Guy counters, “Not even when it’s for freedom?” Thomas, the disillusioned Crusader, replies, “Not even when it’s for God.” When Cornhill asks the company at dinner in the castle why they support the rebellion, Guy proclaims, “Because we are for the people.” Again, English reinforces this sentiment in his commentary: “The central theme of the film is worth—the worth of men, the worth of the people; that’s essentially the concept of the Magna Carta.” 15 Finally, the last words spoken in the film reinforce this idea of Magna Carta as a declaration of freedom that was ahead of its time: “In time the great keep of Rochester was rebuilt. It stands to this day. So too does the noble dream that was Magna Carta.”
No one has ever made a straight historical movie that tells the story of Magna Carta—one that begins in John’s reign, climaxes at Runnymede, and doesn’t have any legendary figures in it. Some studio missed a great opportunity for a 2015 release. But why has no one made such a film? Perhaps it’s because Magna Carta now exists more in memory than in history, and in memory it’s no longer tied to specific events (apart from the signing ceremony, which didn’t even happen). The legacy of Magna Carta has turned it into a document about freedom and modern constitutional democracy. Whatever it meant in 1215, this is what it means now, so even in movies that are set then, Magna Carta is presented with the significance it has now.
The directors of both Ironclad and Robin Hood claim to be telling historical truths, but both are incorrect. Not just because they are careless with historical facts (although they are), but because both films are a-historical. Ironclad at least keeps Magna Carta tied to its own historical moment, but then turns it into the Declaration of Independence. Robin Hood takes Magna Carta completely out of history, placing its origins in the 1160s or 70s and its resurrection in 1200 and transforming its content into a generic “rights of man”—in effect, making it timeless, and, in true Enlightenment fashion, universalizing it.
Both these movies perpetuate the Enlightenment stereotype of the Middle Ages. If the Middle Ages are the Dark Ages—by definition, unenlightened—then if anything positive appears in the Middle Ages, it must be modern. The filmmakers have clothed a medieval document that arose at a specific time and place, out of specific circumstances, to meet the needs of specific people, in Enlightenment dress. Truly, “modernity in drag.”
The year 2015 saw considerable attention paid to Magna Carta on its 800th birthday. Books were published, aimed at audiences both popular and scholarly.1 The Magna Carta Trust organized a myriad of special commemorative events, including lectures, exhibits, walking tours, conferences, and performances. The Library of Congress displayed Lincoln Cathedral’s 1215 copy of Magna Carta as part of an exhibit titled “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor.”2 Not to be outdone, the British Library mounted a major exhibit, “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy,” that reunited all four surviving 1215 copies of the document.3 One medium that did not participate in this commemoration, however, was the cinema. There were no Magna Carta-themed major releases in 2015.
It’s not as if the early Plantagenet era as a whole has been neglected by filmmakers. Of all the eras in medieval history, the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth century time of Henry II and his sons is perhaps the best-known to an English-speaking audience. Modern movie-goers have become well-acquainted with the period from films like Lion in Winter and the various versions of Robin Hood. In fact, if you watch these films in the correct order, you can learn much of the story of the first Plantagenets (if you don’t mind a few inaccuracies).
Becket (1964) tells the story of the conflict between Henry II and the archbishop of Canterbury, culminating in Thomas Becket’s 1170 martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. 4Lion in Winter (1968) dramatizes the tortured emotional relationships of Henry, his Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John after the death of Henry the Young King in 1183.5The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is set in 1194, with John ruling England as regent while his brother King Richard was held captive on his way home from Crusade.6 Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, released in 1973, duplicates this setting, 7 but Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood of 2010 begins with the death of Richard in battle in 1199 and depicts the early days of John’s reign.8Ironclad (2011) jumps to the civil war that occurred in 1215.9
Most of these films are set prior to 1215 and therefore don’t include Magna Carta as part of the narrative, although it could be argued that the near-universal depiction of John as a tyrannical bully is a type of foreshadowing, given that the audience knows what’s coming.10Two exceptions to the cinematic silence regarding Magna Carta are the 2010 version of Robin Hood and 2011’s Ironclad.11
Robin Hood, which purports to present the “real story behind the legend,” imagines that an early version of Magna Carta was drafted by the Robin Hood character’s father. Ironclad is a dramatization of the siege of Rochester, part of the civil war that ensued after Magna Carta was granted in June 1215. In both films, Magna Carta is represented as a document more modern than medieval. Specifically, both Robin Hood and Ironclad transform Magna Carta into a product of the Enlightenment.
directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe as Robin, opens in 1199,
with King Richard’s army besieging the castle of Chalus in southern France. When
Richard is killed by a crossbow bolt, the archer Robin Longstride, who had been
confined in the stocks for insubordination, takes advantage of the situation
and escapes along with a few fellow soldiers. As they make their way home, they
interrupt an ambush by the French of a party of English knights who are
carrying Richard’s crown. Robin and his buddies drive the French away, but the
English knights are all killed. As one of them, Robert Loxley, is dying, he
commends his sword to Robin and asks him to return it to his father, from whom
he was estranged. Robin and his friends take on the identity of the dead
knights as a means of getting passage across the Channel. On the boat, he reads
words etched into the sword’s hilt: “rise and rise again until lambs become lions.”
After safely delivering the crown, thereby informing John of his brother’s death, Robin travels to Nottingham to discharge his promise to the dead Robert Loxley. There he finds the knight’s widow, Marian, and her elderly father-in-law, Walter. Walter asks Robin to assume the identity of his dead son Robert in order to protect Marian and the estate from the depredations of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin is reluctant at first, but agrees when Walter tells him his own history.
Robin’s father, Walter tells him, was a stonemason who, many years ago when Robin was a small child, led a revolt against tyranny. As Walter tells the story, we see the events in flashback. Robin’s father had carved the revolt’s slogan, “Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions,” into a slab of stone, and little Robin pressed his handprint in the wet mortar. Robin’s father wrote a manifesto—a “charter of liberties”—but the revolt failed, his father was executed, and the charter was forgotten. Walter produces a copy of the charter and tells Robin its time has come once again. In the meantime, a traitor in John’s court, Godfrey, has incited a baronial revolt against John and plotted an invasion of England with French king Philip Augustus.
In his persona as Robert, son of Walter—or, we might say, Robert fitz Walter12—Robin joins the baronial rebellion against King John’s tyranny. He convinces the barons that rather than remove the king, they should demand that he issue a charter that would guarantee their liberties. John agrees to the charter and, having reconciled with the barons, goes to the Channel coast to meet the French invasion. The invasion is repelled thanks to Robin’s military leadership (aided by Marian, who shows up on the beach wearing a perfectly-fitting suit of armor she apparently had hanging in her closet). Now that John’s throne is secure, he sets the charter on fire and makes a speech of his own, asserting that he rules by Divine Right. The film ends with Robin being declared an outlaw and taking to the forest with Marian. The final words on the screen are “And so the Legend begins.”
Like most historical films, Robin Hood claims historical accuracy.
In the “Director’s Notebook” included on the Blu-ray version of the film,
Ridley Scott says,
“I think the idea of Robin Hood is so tied up historically in terms of was he real? I believe he was real. There was somebody who existed who ignited the flames of this idea, this legend. But what’s interesting is digging up all those facts, because people think they’re just facts of fiction, the facts created by some writer of a fictional idea, when actually they’re not, they’re real, they’re absolutely real.”13
And like most historical films, those claims to historical accuracy don’t hold up. To take just one example, there was no epic battle on the beach in 1200 between an invading French force led by Philip Augustus and English defenders under King John—because Philip Augustus never invaded England. And don’t even get me started on the Higgins boats.14
The presentation of Magna Carta in Robin Hood is also historically dubious.
The filmmakers have given their Magna Carta a chronology that is, shall we say,
confused. The film opens in 1199, with Richard’s death. In the documentary
“Rise and Rise Again: Making Ridley Scott’s Robin
Hood,” Ridley Scott claims that they deliberately chose that date to
distinguish this version of Robin Hood from
earlier ones. In the classic Robin Hood retellings going back to Sir Walter
Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the
historical moment is 1194, while Richard is being held captive in Austria on
his way home from the Third Crusade. His brother Prince John is ruling
tyrannically in his absence and plotting to usurp the throne. Both Ivanhoe and the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood (heavily
indebted to Ivanhoe) conclude with
Richard’s triumphant return and restoration of legitimate rule. Ridley Scott,
however, deliberately rejects that narrative:
“What we’ve tried to do is redefine the times, in fact shift the timeline. We kill Richard instead of having him ride in and save the day. But I think it’s more historically accurate, in my opinion anyway, in terms of what the cultural melee [sic] was that a Robin Hood character could rise out of.”15
Yet if they wanted to introduce Magna Carta into the story, it’s still fifteen years too early. And the backstory makes it earlier still. Walter Loxley tells Robin that his actual father had drafted a charter of liberties several years ago, when Robin was a small child. (Robin had earlier told Robert Loxley that his father abandoned him at the age of six.) Robin is presented as a grizzled old veteran who had fought with Richard on crusade, including at the siege of Acre (1191), so he must be at least in his 30s (Russell Crowe was 46 when the film was released). This dates the writing of the original charter to the 1160 or 1170s.16
The real Magna Carta arose out of the specific circumstances of the end of John’s reign, but we are given no hint of what prompted Robin’s father to write his charter back in the days of Henry II (who is not actually mentioned), unless it is understood to be generic medieval tyranny. When Robin as an adult resurrects his father’s charter and urges John to grant a new one, John does so, only to renege on his promise and publically burn the document. Perhaps he has to do this to leave room for the real one to be granted fifteen years later.
The time period that best fits the presentation of Magna Carta in this film, however, is neither the mid-twelfth nor the early thirteenth century; it’s the eighteenth century. The first hint of a modern overlay on the film’s ostensibly medieval setting is the occupation of Robin’s father—a stonemason. Recall that many of the American Founding Fathers were Freemasons. The content of the film’s charter of liberties also evokes the Age of Enlightenment more than the Middle Ages. In the “Making Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood” documentary, Oscar Isaac (the actor who plays King John) states, “The issues that [the film] deals with are enormous. I mean freedom, you know, the rights of man.” In the “Director’s Notebook,” Ridley Scott characterizes Robin Hood as follows: “He’s captured everyone’s imagination by being the definitive athletic warrior who has the rights of men as part of his main principle.” He’s Super-Philosophe-Man!
Robin’s speech at Barnsdale in front of the barons and King John also has a modern ring to it. The beginning of the speech at least attempts to sound medieval. Robin denounces tyranny using a metaphor of cathedral-building, probably inspired by his newly-discovered masonic origins:
you try to build for the future, you must set your foundations strong. The laws
of this land enslave people to its king. A king who demands loyalty but offers
nothing in return. I have marched from France to Palestine and back, and I know—in
tyranny lies only failure. You build a country like you build a cathedral—from
the ground up. Empower every man, and you will gain strength.”
But as he continues, his call for a charter of liberties begins to sound like a mashup of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights:17
your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of
liberties, allowing every man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from
conviction without cause, or prison without charge, to work, eat, and live on
the sweat of his own brow, and to be as merry as he can, that king would be
great. Not only would he receive the loyalty of his people, but their love as
Guaranteeing safety “from conviction without cause or prison without charge” recalls the due process amendments of the Bill of Rights.This item, at least, might be said to stem from Magna Carta’s famous clause 39, “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, or will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land,” usually taken to be the origin of due process.18
“Allowing every man to forage for his hearth” is rather awkwardly worded. I assume he’s not talking literally about collecting kindling in the woods but is referring more generally to private property rights, repeated when he asserts the liberty “to work, eat, and live on the sweat of his own brow.” The echoes of John Locke in this sentence shift to Thomas Jefferson with the final liberty enumerated, “to be as merry as he can.” The rights of man, according to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of merriness.
John’s response to Robin’s passionate
oratory is, “What would you have? A castle for every man?” To which Robin
rejoinders, “Every Englishman’s home is his castle”—thereby anticipating not
only Magna Carta, but also Edward Coke’s 17th-century legal dictum. The
historical confusion continues later, when John publically renounces and burns
Magna Carta. He makes a speech using the language not of the rights of man but
of absolute monarchy:
did not make myself king; God did. King by divine right. Now you come to me
with this document, seeking to limit the authority given to me by God.”
Magna Carta is the Bill of Rights, then John is James I or Louis XIV.
Given the eighteenth-century sound of the charter, it’s appropriate that the production designers gave the physical document an eighteenth-century look as well. In 1733, after a fire two years before had damaged one of the four surviving 1215 copies of Magna Carta, the engraver John Pine was asked to produce a facsimile, now in the British Museum. Pine apparently thought the unadorned text of the 1215 parchment looked too plain, so around the outer border of the document he added, in color, the coats of arms of the 25 barons whom clause 61 of the document entrusted with its enforcement.
In the movie, when Robin finds a copy of the charter his father had written and hidden away years before, we see that it was modeled on the 18th-century facsimile.
In other words, a 2010 movie uses an image of a 1733 copy created as a result of a 1731 fire of a 1215 document that is imagined to have been drawn up decades before by the father of a legendary character.
Last week’s blog entry on the various Russian national anthems and their connections to historical events got me thinking about connections between history and the patriotic music of other European countries. National anthems are an expression of nationalism, one of the ideologies that arose in nineteenth-century Europe. Nationalism demands that an individual’s first loyalty should be to one’s nation—not to one’s family, or city, or religious denomination. Nineteenth-century nationalists understood the nation to be defined by shared history, customs and traditions, and especially language. 1 The national anthems of many nations arose out of their specific historical circumstances and reflect those countries’ own national identities. This is apparent in the anthems of Britain and France.
The oldest example of a tune with patriotic words being used in a public capacity (which can be our working definition of a national anthem) is probably Britain’s “God Save the Queen” (or King, as the case may be). It is first documented in 1745, during the Jacobite rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Here is how the British royal family’s website explains it:
In September 1745 the ‘Young Pretender’ to the British Throne, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, defeated the army of King George II at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.
In a fit of patriotic fervour after news of Prestonpans had reached London, the leader of the band at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, arranged ‘God Save The King’ for performance after a play. It was a tremendous success and was repeated nightly.
This practice soon spread to other theatres, and the custom of greeting monarchs with the song as he or she entered a place of public entertainment was thus established.2
The tune is probably older than 1745. I found references to it as originating in medieval chant, but that doesn’t seem likely. It doesn’t sound at all medieval, to me at least, and I suspect this is an example of medievalizing—falsely attributing a medieval origin to lend antiquity and legitimacy. Interestingly, the British Parliament has never officially recognized “God Save the Queen” as a national anthem, but that seems appropriate for a country with an unwritten constitution.
In the nineteenth century, other countries decided that they wanted national anthems just like Britain’s—and I mean just like Britain’s. It became the fashion for countries to write their own words to fit the tune of “God Save the Queen.” Russia did it; the imperial anthem of Russia from 1816-33 was “The Prayer of the Russians,” set to the tune of “God Save the Queen” (replaced after 1833 with “God Save the Tsar”). Other examples include various German states, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and (I didn’t see this coming) the nineteenth-century kingdoms of Siam and Hawaii. Even the United States got into the act, with “America,” usually referred to as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”3 Most of these countries eventually replaced the borrowed anthem with a homegrown one, although the English tune sometimes remains as an additional patriotic song (as does “America” in America).
The first song officially recognized as a national anthem was France’s “Marseillaise,” first sung in 1792 by soldiers from Marseilles marching to fight in the war to defend the French Revolution against the Austrian Empire. Strictly speaking, “God Save the Queen” is an example of a royal anthem, as is “God Save the Tsar” (the American equivalent is “Hail to the Chief,” played to greet the president). The “Marseillaise,” in contrast is truly a national anthem. Compare the lyrics “God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen,” to “Allons, enfants de la patrie.” Instead of being addressed to a royal him or her, the “Marseillaise” is addressed to a national “us.”
These two anthems not only had their origin in specific historical circumstances; they also reflect each nation’s national identity. Britain’s “God Save the Queen” is a royal anthem, appropriate for a nation united under a monarchy. This identity is found even in the name “United Kingdom.” More specifically, Britain is a constitutional monarchy created by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a constitutional settlement that was challenged (but not overturned) by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 (when the song originated). The “Marseillaise” is a revolutionary anthem, appropriate for a revolutionary nation—the French Revolution began in 1789 when the delegates of the Third Estate declared themselves to be the National Assembly. It is telling that during nineteenth-century regimes that were counter-revolutionary—under Napoleon and the Restoration monarchs Louis XVIII and Charles X—that the “Marseillaise” was not used.
Stay tuned for a discussion
of the anthems of Germany and Italy!
I teach a course called
“Harry Potter and the Middle Ages.” It’s an approach to medieval culture that
takes the Harry Potter books as a starting point; we learn about the medieval
background to many of the elements JK Rowling used to construct the Harry
Potter universe. The course is organized around the Hogwarts curriculum. For
example, in conjunction with Care of Magical Creatures, we study medieval
bestiaries and medieval map-making (both Fantastic Beasts AND where to find
them). Transfiguration and Potions classes offer the opportunity to learn about
Alchemy is clearly an important theme in the Harry Potter books, starting with the title and plot of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 1 It does not appear to be one of the courses offered at Hogwarts, however; perhaps Rowling wanted to save it for her underlying structure. In any case, learning more about alchemy enhances our understanding of both the Harry Potter books and of the Middle Ages.
The more I read about alchemy, the more I realized that mercury is a key substance in the alchemical worldview. Many medieval and early-modern alchemists hypothesized that the starting point for generating the Philosopher’s Stone was to mix mercury and sulfur (which may or may not refer to the physical substances that go by those names); this is known as the Mercury-Sulfur principle. I also realized that the meaning of Mercury is multivalent, with multiple connections to multiple things. Let’s trace some of those connections. The words in bold face are shown on the accompanying diagram.
was a Roman god, the Roman counterpart to the Greek messenger god Hermes. In late antiquity, Hermes also became
identified with Hermes Trismegistus,
or “thrice-blessed Hermes,” a figure to whom many early alchemical writings were attributed, known collectively as the Hermetic corpus and which were
influenced by Neo-Platonist thought.
This Hermetic tradition is evident in the term used by medieval alchemists to describe
what they did to keep air out of a piece of equipment, a term we still use—“hermetically sealed.”
In addition to being the name of a god, Mercury is also the name of a planet. Ancient and medieval astrologers believed that the stars and planets influenced life on earth. Which planet a person was born under influences that person’s personality. Someone born under the influence of Jupiter might grow up to be jovial (jolly), while Saturn’s influence would make you saturnine (gloomy). The influence of Mercury, the fastest-moving planet, results in a personality that is mercurial (quick to change).
In ancient cosmology, each of the seven planets was associated with one of the seven metals. (“Planet,” from the Greek for “wanderer,” was the term for any heavenly body that “wandered” in relation to the fixed stars that form the constellations, which stay put. So the Sun and Moon were considered planets, but the stationary Earth was not.) Some of the associations are obvious—gold goes with the sun, silver with the moon. Mars is associated with iron, both because of the planet’s rusty-red color and because the god of war would have used iron weapons. Venus is copper, which in the ancient Mediterranean came from the island of Cyprus, where Venus was born from the sea.2 Saturn is lead, the heaviest of metals for the slowest of the planets. Jupiter gets tin because that’s what’s left over, and the planet Mercury, the fastest-moving planet associated with the god with winged feet, gets the slippery-slidy metal Mercury.
With one exception, we no
longer use these associations. But alchemical texts might speak of combining
Jupiter and Mars when they mean tin and iron. The only one of the metals that
still retains its planetary name in common use is Mercury. There is, however,
also a name that refers to the metal only—quicksilver.
“Quick” here means “living,” rather than “speedy”; think of cutting your nails
to the quick. So “quicksilver” is “living silver.” The Greek name for the metal
is “hydroargyrum,” or “liquid silver.” This is the source of
the modern chemical abbreviation for mercury (or quicksilver)—Hg.
So what does all this
have to do with Harry Potter? Well, which character has a name that’s a form of
the god/planet/metal we’ve been talking about? That’s right, Hermione (a feminine form of Hermes).
And what’s her last name? Granger.
So what does that make her initials? HG.
And what do her parents do? They’re dentists.
What do dentists traditionally make fillings
out of? Mercury. Coincidence? I think not.
Lawrence M. Principe. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago and
London: University of Chicago Press, 2013.