Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

09 February, 2010

The Tudors and the Politics of Tying Each Other Up

This past weekend I finished watching season 3 of The Tudors. It's a fun watch which focuses on Henry VIII's uxorial tribulations as well as the stratagems of the European monarchs and the Holy See in their pursuits of power. Plus the queens, consorts and sundry courtiers, played by only the most handsome of actresses, get nekkid. It must have been odd for Joss Stone, a rather comely lady, to have been told she'd be playing Anne of Cleaves, a woman that Henry found unattractive. Amidst all the fun and tender bosoms, my only real gripe is that as season 1 wore on, the character of Henry became sharply focused on wives and political machinations. To be sure, the real Henry was ruthless in his pursuit of authority but the show made nods to his other qualities which seemed to disappear as the first season wore on. There was a brief scene of him playing either "Greensleeves" or "Pasttime With Good Company", but scenes like this quickly disappear. We get the lust and the power plays but precious little of Henry as a musician, author, or intellectual. I guess I can understand the change but I still miss the more balanced portrayal of the early episodes. Plus Henry's gastronomic side is completely absent. OK, they're not going to show Henry plumping up because, well, portly people aren't allowed to be TV heroes and the producers surely don't want us to see an overweight man bedding a young hottie. Still, from what I've read, Henry had very refined tastes and his kitchen cooked up fantastic meals. Sure, that the king was a late-medieval foodie doesn't really impact his relationship with the Pope, but such things make a more (ahem) rounded character.

Being a bit of an antiquarian, I am often pondering just how historically accurate some of the elements of the show are when I'm watching it. Obviously time is compressed and some characters are composites of multiple real-life people with yet others being made out of whole cloth. But what about the way the period is represented? From reading, most of the costumes they use are from the Elizabethan period which is still 20+ years away while the carriages are Victorian era.

I began thinking about the way the characters speak as I was reading Chris Humphrey's The Politics of Carnival: Festive misrule in medieval England. While I suppose that the way they talk in the show works fine for a 21st century audience, it seems a far cry from the following which is a description of the "alleged effects of watching Robin Hood plays, probably written by Sir Richard Morison and communicated to Henry VIII sometime after the dissolution of the monasteries:

in somer comenly upon the holy daies in most places of your realm, ther be playes of Robyn hoode, mayde Marian, freer Tuck, wherin besides the lewdness and rebawdry that ther is opened to the people, disobedience also to your officers, is tought, whilest these good bloodes go about to take from the shiref of Notyngham one that for offending the laws shulde have suffered execution.

The show began in media res of the Great Vowel Shift and I'm not sure exactly how Mr. Morison would have pronounced the above but I'm thinking he probably did so a bit differently than we, and by extension, the cast of The Tudors do . Plus the speech of people back in the first half of the 16th century would be littered with words we no longer use today because they refer to things or actions we no longer use or perform or they just fell out of fashion. I don't recall anyone talking about putting on a hacqueton before jousting or eating a kechyl.

As far as food goes, it seems pretty authentic. For one thing, I haven't noticed any forks which were still decades away. And wasn't it at the end of season 2 when Henry gets a tart that is presented all fancily nested with bits of a swan? That sounds period to me.

If you're curious about the kitchens that Henry's feasts were prepared in, let me show you one:

This is the kitchen at Hampton Court Palace which is a living museum today staffed with dedicated reenactors who cook Tudor dishes with period ingredients and period cookware. One weekend a month visitors are allowed inside to witness the cookery first-hand. More photos are at their Flickr stream.

Lastly I will blather on for a short space about Humphrey's The Politics of Carnival: Festive misrule in medieval England. As with the book on clocks I wrote about previously, this book was not exactly what I expected. However, it was not as disappointing as the former.

The Politics of Carnival isn't really a history book, although there's plenty of that. It is more of an argument in an intra-academic squabble. Despite this, it isn't laden with academic jargon and is quite accessible to a layreader such as myself.

So what is "festive misrule"? As it relates to the book, these are celebrations such as Hocktide or May Day where social norms are inverted. For instance, people might forage through the land of the gentry for wood to burn on a May Day fire, an act which on any other day of the year would be considered trespassing and entailed fairly strict punishment. On Hock Monday men tied up women and would only release them for a kiss while on Hock Tuesday women tied up men and refused to let them free unless they received cash on the barrelhead.

Humphrey is critical of prevailing ideas about these occasions as they tend to put festive misrule into one of two categories: either safety-valve or social protest. That is, most academics view it as those times of the year when the ruling class lets the plebs blow off some steam and thereby maintaining the status quo or as days when truly popular protest emerges from below to threaten the status quo. While Humphrey allows for these possibilities, he instead urges people to look at the historical record and try to understand that occasions of festive misrule have to be taken on a case-by-case basis and that the people who took part in them may have had very mundane reasons that had nothing to do with the folks upstairs trying to oppress nor those folks downstairs attempting to voice opposition.

The book goes into depth with a couple examples but Humphrey presents one very early and very simply. Rather than, say, viewing women tying up men on Hock Tuesday and only releasing them upon payment as a comment on gender relations, why not view it as a way for the women who partake of the custom to raise money for their church?

One thing Humphrey didn't mention to my recollection was the momentum of social customs. The motivations of people who originate a custom are one thing, but to someone a hundred years later, the celebration is something that your family has engaged in as far back as anyone can remember and that you have seen done in your community since your earliest memories. Why do most of us here in the States put up Christmas trees, give gifts on 25 December, sing carols at that time of year, etc? While the roots of these various aspects of Christmas are well known – some are ancient, some arose only in the Victorian era – most people don't stop to think and ask why these traditions exist. These are things our parents did and their parents before them and our neighbors, co-workers, etc. all do these things. We do them because that's just what you do for Christmas. Similarly, a 15th century peasant may engage in Hocktide fun not because he or she is trying to make a political statement but simply because they were born into a society which already had a tradition which said that, a couple weeks after Easter, you run around and tie each other up on a couple days.

To bring this back to The Tudors TV show, Wikipedia notes that Henry VIII outlawed Hocktide festivities as he thought they encouraged disorder.

As I said earlier, Humphrey is concerned with how students learn about and how academics talk about festive misrule. I don't have a horse in that race but I still got a lot out of the book. When I first read about Hocktide, I tried to imagine something like that happening today. That would go over like a lead balloon, I thought. But it occurred to me that we do have something akin to it, even if it doesn't involve whole towns or happen a couple weeks after Easter – jail'n'bails. Someone gets locked up in a rickety cardboard cell until enough donations are solicited to bail the person out. It's not an uncommon way for charities to raise money. Granted, it probably has absolutely nothing to do with Hocktide, but it shows the idea of raising money for charity by playfully restraining someone and getting donations to free them goes back a long way.

Another thing that I found interesting was when Humphrey examined an example of festive misrule in Coventry in 1480. He drew heavily upon The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's register: containing the records of the City Court Leet, or, View of Frankpledge, A.D. 1420-1555 with divers other matters. Humphrey explains that "It records the discussions and outcomes of the twice-yearly meetings of the 'Leet', which was ostensibly a court, but which had developed as a forum for legislation regulating many aspects of life in the town." Thanks to the Internet, anyone wishing to brave the Middle English can read it for themselves.

When examining the events of 1443 in Norwich, Humphrey describes a dispute the town had with the local monastery. The town had mills on the River Wensum which became dilapidated and were replaced. The abbot lodged a complaint saying that the city's mills were interfering with the ones on his property which were there first. Arguments and arbitration followed and an agreement got nullified by a legal technicality. The mills got damaged along the way and this forced the town's bakers to haul grain to mills 10 miles away. What struck me about the whole affair was just how modern it sounded - the dispute, the payment of damages, etc. Today it might be a factory or farm polluting groundwater or perhaps a dispute over electricity-producing windmills but such jurisdictional conflicts continue to arise.

So, do we have festive misrule today here in the States? Halloween is the only thing that comes to my mind. People can eschew business casual in favor of costume, homes are egged and TPd, and probably other things that I can't think of right now.

Since it is Tuesday, I'll finish by saying that the book begins with a quote from Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher who had a namesake on LOST which airs tonight and I can't wait to watch it because I have a theory about Jacob's cabin that I can't wait to elucidate upon here and I also have another great theory about Esau and how the Black Rock ties into all this. Ahem.
|| Palmer, 4:25 PM


When Ereck and I watched the first season of "The Tudors," we called it "The Hooters," because there were a lot of hooters. Ah, pay cable.
Blogger Kenneth, at 1:57 PM  
Speaking as a straight male, I believe Tudor T&A is a good thing.

However, I think the nudity (ahem) petered out a bit in seasons 2 and 3.
Blogger Palmer, at 2:03 PM  

Post a Comment