Borgia

No Country for Heroes: History and our Narrative Need for Protagonists

Last week, I reviewed Showtimes The Borgias  in tandem with Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and their Enemies. When I finished Hibbert’s work, I was struck by The Borgias’ choice to portray its titular family as the heroes of their own story. I am no Renaissance historian, but from the sources presented by Hibbert, it would seem that most contemporaries agreed that the Borgia family was a blight upon Italy, Christianity, and all humanity. Indeed, the tagline for the show is “History’s First Crime Family!” Sure, every member of the family is shown doing reprehensible things, but by virtue of the show’s narrative structure, they seem more excusable or, at least, less reprehensible than the actions of their enemies. Even the show’s numerous antagonists seemed mis-characterized; Cardinal della Rovere condemns the Borgias for corruption, yet historically, this future pope was no less corrupt, and possibly even more so! Why these character choices, some so at odds with history? As I pondered, I realized that I had already stumbled onto the answer to my questions: narrative structure and, specifically, our need for protagonists in our stories.... Read More
THE BORGIAS (Season3)

Bushels of Borgias: Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias and their Enemies and Showtime’s The Borgias

As any history lover is wont to do, I recently combed through Netflix and added every period piece that I could find to my watch list. I decided to begin, well, at the beginning, or at least with the earliest on my new list. Thus I came to Showtime’s 2011 series The Borgias, starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the Renaissance Pope Alexander VI and patriarch of a famously corrupt Spanish noble family. The show itself was highly entertaining, full of intrigue, backbiting, and monologues that have become the hallmarks of prestige television. As always, Jeremy Irons is magnetic, and even though the Renaissance has never been my specialty, his performance sustained me through events that otherwise might not have kept my interest. As I prepared to review The Borgias, however, I realized that I lacked any foundation for such an historical review. I thus dutifully hunted down a history of the family, and so we come to this tandem review.... Read More
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Give Me More! Max Adams’ The Viking Wars

From first cracking open In the Land of Giants (hopefully coming soon to a Concerning History book club near you), I have been enthralled with what I’ve come to call Max Adams’ Dark Ages Trilogy. Now at last I’ve come to what, for many, is the main event: the cataclysmic clash of cultures—Roman Christian Anglo-Saxon, Irish Christian Celtic and Brythonic, and Pagan Scandinavian—that define the ninth and tenth centuries and the British Isles themselves to this day. Eagerly anticipating Adams’ historical treatment of such oft-tread ground, I dove right in. While I was mostly satisfied by the end, however, as with most endings, I was left wanting just a little bit more.... Read More
knightfall

Sweet Revenge: History’s Knightfall, Season 2

Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by History Channel’s newest scripted history content, Knightfall, and its decision to steer into the motifs of a grail quest that we know, somehow, will lead to the fall of Knights Templar in the early fourteenth century. A little over a year later, its second season premiered to much fanfare, centered almost entirely around the fact that the always wonderful Mark Hamil would be joining the cast as a crotchety old Templar veteran tasked with training the Temple’s new initiates (sound slightly like a recent Star Wars movie, anyone?). Eager to hear more of the mysteries of the Holy Grail and see how, exactly, the tragic flaws of main character Landry de Luson lead to his order’s destruction, I dutifully tuned in.... Read More
King in the North

A Hoard of Knowledge: Max Adams’ King in the North

I was first introduced to the writings of Max Adams through In the Land of Giants, which Kevin and I will hopefully get around to hosting a book club discussion on one of these days. Enchanted by Adams’ compelling prose, especially as it described the elusive world of early medieval Britain, I decided to look up his other works and start from the beginning. That beginning was The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, and Adams did not disappoint with his study of this great Christian martyr and Anglo-Saxon warrior king.... Read More
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Remember the North? Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World

If I had a dollar for every time someone claimed to be writing a book about an “unknown,” “overlooked,” or “forgotten” period of history, I would be a very rich man. So often, these periods really aren’t that underserved, and we’ve even at times considered putting together a post listing the most regularly talked about “forgotten” periods of history. When I came across Michael Pye’s Edge of the World, however, I thought I had hit the jackpot. I have a soft spot for histories of the early Middle Ages (sometimes known as the Dark Ages), and few periods of history can claim more accurately to be unknown, as we must work from scarce written sources and physical evidence to reconstruct an elusive historical narrative of Europe’s rebirth after the fall of Rome. Even better, Pye promised to focus on a region lesser known in this period; rather than look for clues to our modern world in the court of Charlemagne or the remnants of Rome, Pye casts his gaze out into the cold world of the North Sea. Baited with prospects of a world system history of the North Sea in the early Middle Ages, then, I was practically salivating to begin reading. While entertaining, however, Edge of the World would fall far short of my lofty hopes.... Read More
Godless Jeff Daniels

Not God’s Country: Netflix’s Godless and the New American Western

Has there ever been a subject that captured America’s imagination like the Wild West? What American triumph more glorious than the Winning of the West? What more iconic (and retroactively troubling) childhood memory than playing cowboys and indians? What films more seminal to the American film tradition than those staring John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Roy […]... Read More
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A Daunting Scope: Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians

Snapshots of Europe taken at the beginning and end of the first millennium AD could not appear more different. As the millennium opened, Rome was just reaching the apex of its imperial might. The traditionally dominant Mediterranean world extended its tendrils of control across the Celtic world of modern-day France and lowland Britain, while beyond the Rhine and Danube frontiers Germanic peoples pursued a subsistence existence much less developed than their Roman and Romanized neighbors. One thousand years later, Mediterranean dominance was a distant memory. Germanic cultures and kingdoms had replaced Roman imperial rule. Europe’s center of balance had moved decidedly northward, and the eastern plains and forests boasted new states formed by Slavic peoples. Gone was the unequal pattern of development, and the map of modern Europe had largely, if blurrily, taken shape. This Late Antique/Early Medieval period, as Western Rome crumbled and fell, and ‘barbarian’ kingdoms took its place, has long fascinated me, and so I was excited to get my hands on a somewhat general, approachable history of the period by Kings College, London historian Peter Heather. While I found Heather’s work greatly informative, my hopes of reading a sensible, comprehensive narrative of this period were unfortunately left unfulfilled.... Read More
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Yet Another One? History Channel’s Knightfall

About a decade ago, Dan Brown’s super popular The Da Vinci Code launched (or perhaps just made evident) a tidal wave of historical conspiracy media, and no subject received more attention than the Knights Templar. From countless books to inclusion as the villainous secret organization of Assassin’s Creed fame, the Templars’ mysterious origins and dramatic fall from grace have inspired authors the world over. At first, I was wary of this trend when I heard that the History Channel’s first new show in the style of their wildly successful Vikings would be a Templar drama known as Knightfall. To make matters worse, the show would take place in precisely the era most favored by conspiracy theorists (the final collapse of the crusader states and persecution of the order, 15 years later). While Game of Thrones or Vikings it is not, Knightfall did manage catch my interest and entertain me through its campy drama and ringing pronouncements of medieval faith.... Read More
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Imperial (Mis)Adventures: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I love Indiana Jones. From a young age, the adventures of that methodologically irresponsible archaeologist inspired me to explore all the ancient history I could get my hands on. Even so, an historically-minded review of any Indiana Jones movie is not exactly fertile ground. The history of Jones’ archaeological endeavors is highly massaged, to say the least, yet there is another source of historical inspiration in these movies: each one is a period piece set in the 1930s (or 50s, in the case of the unfortunate fourth installment). While the first and third movies are rather straightforward in their Nazi-fighting setting, the second movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is an exploration of British India that has become ever-more fascinating after my own time studying the empire.... Read More