Film and TV

Delving deep into film and TV depictions of the past.

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones’ Medieval Crap

Content warning: minor spoilers for Season 7 Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.

Talk about “Same Shit, Different Day”. In the Season 7 opener of Game of Thrones, poor Sam learns the hard way—in a stomach-turning montage—that manure is serious business in Westeros. This is just as it was in the Middle Ages, and, interestingly, continues to be to this very day.

A medieval chamber pot, held at the Yorkshire Museum. ref.1992.69

Just as it does in hospitals and nursing homes today, care of the sick and elderly in the Middle Ages involved bedpans. And just like twenty-first century bedpans, medieval bedpans needed to be emptied and cleaned, as we see Sam doing over and over. At least Sam doesn’t appear to also be on diaper duty as well, as medieval wife Margery Kempe was during her husband’s long illness. Lucky Sam.

Without widespread indoor plumbing, handling the necessaries is a constant challenge, and not just in the Middle Ages or in medievalesque places like Westeros. Many homes in some US cities were not connected to city sewers until the 1950s and ‘60s; some parts of rural America (like rural Alaska) still do not have indoor plumbing. Whether in medieval England, Westeros, 1930s Philadelphia, or 2017 outside Chicken, Alaska, wherever chamber pots and outhouses are a reality, somebody’s going to have to empty and clean them out.

But where to put all this crap?

While Sam might not see it that way, since the Citadel doesn’t quite offer deluxe accommodations, he’s got it relatively easy. Why?: he can dump the bedpans into a toilet. Toilets have not changed very much over the centuries, though the plumbing attached to them certainly has.

The earliest surviving wooden toilet seat dates back about two thousand years and was found at a Roman military installation in northern England. While the Roman toilet seat looks a lot like what Sam had to work with, the Roman toilet flushed using a rainwater system. If Sam were to have walked a bit further, he might have found public privies like those mentioned in Lincoln in the Canterbury Tales. Similar public toilets existed in most medieval English cities, some constructed directly over rivers, others over open cesspits. These could be lethal—literally. Toilet seats occasionally rotted and broke, leading to a rather ignoble end, as happened to Richard le Rakiere in 1326.

People longed for private flushing toilets in the Middle Ages. Some Londoners got quite creative in rigging up indoor plumbing. This included one Alice Wade, who was forced to dismantle her home-made flush toilet in 1314 when neighbors complained to the city that her scheme had blocked a gutter.

If Sam were in a large medieval city, an alternative might have been for Sam to walk the pans outside, or to an open window, and dump them into the drainage ditch running down city streets. But one had to be careful about dumping chamber pots—they could definitely annoy one’s neighbor, as Maud Frembaud did in 1369. Even the Tower of London placed its royal privy on the side secluded from public view: no one wanted to see that.

A man relieving himself, from an unknown medieval manuscript.

Even though medieval people did not fully understand the disease vector presented by all this excrement, they understood it to be a public nuisance and made efforts to rid themselves of it. Rather than allow such sewers to stagnate, medieval city officials made every effort to flush ditches with channeled rainwater and through carefully controlled local streams, including some of London’s “hidden rivers.”

By the late Middle Ages, London and other English cities had a range of city officials in charge of waste removal to protect citizens’ health and safety. Medieval waste gutters, and even twentieth-century sewers in cities, often emptied into rivers. This raised the risk of contaminated drinking water. The very well-paid waste officials in London and other, smaller, medieval cities worked together with a host of entrepreneurs to clean the streets, gutters, and cesspits that ran around and under public toilets. These workers carted the collected human and animal waste of the city outside the walls where manure and other rubbish could be sorted by type and dumped on mandated piles. From here, manure could be used for a range of purposes: as fertilizer, fuel, an ingredient in making saltpeter, or other things. (Though it was not safe fertilizer unless it was properly processed.)

Sam’s labors in service towards becoming a Maester seem almost monastic. But even he doesn’t consider it work in service to the gods; some medieval people did. Margery Kempe cleaned up after her husband strong in the belief that her service brought her closer to God. Saints, such as St. Catherine of Siena, who took physical care of the sick and dying were revered for cleaning sores and bedpans with (miraculously) glad hearts. Medieval culture even made special room in its spiritual hierarchy for those whose jobs were dirty but necessary for a healthy society, whether that job was muck carter or plowman. As one early textbook young noblemen like Sam, “the plow feeds us all.”

Manure, including human “nightsoil,” remains a grave threat to public health today. Most of twenty-first century America has forgotten the horrors of typhoid and cholera, but there is an ongoing epidemic in Yemen, and one very recently in Haiti. Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are also well aware of these dangers; believe it or not, the best practices in handling  military latrine waste remains a hotly debated topic. And the looming threat of climate change could even pose a threat; with water tables rising and funding for infrastructure falling, wastewater treatment in the US is threatened. Let’s hope we don’t all end up like Sam, scrubbing shit during endless extreme weather.

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Game of ThronesRace, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Game of Thrones’ Racism Problem

Part XXVI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Helen Young. You can find the rest of the special series here

This promotional image of the ensemble cast of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones features only one actor of color: Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo.
This promotional image of the ensemble cast of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones features only one actor of color: Jason Momoa who played Khal Drogo.

Game of Thrones doesn’t just have a “diversity problem,” it has a racism problem. The casting and the lack of well-developed characters of colour that attract most critical attention are the visible tip of the iceberg of racism that lies under the surface of the show. That iceberg doesn’t just reflect the race problems of modern-day America, it reflects white privilege and a racist Eurocentric way of thinking about the world that goes back to the Middle Ages.

The tip of the racism-berg is important, and it’s a good place to start. Game of Thrones doesn’t even pass what Manohla Dargis called the “DuVernay test” (modelled on the Bechdel test). The Bechdel test offers a simple way to gauge whether women are represented as full and complete characters; the DuVernay test (named after Selma director Ava DuVernay) does the same for characters from racial minorities.

Although they didn’t call it “the DuVernay test,” Nadia and Leila Latif outlined what such a test might look like in an article for The Guardian during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy:

Are there two named characters of colour? Do they have dialogue? Are they not romantically involved with one another? Do they have any dialogue that isn’t comforting or supporting a white character? Is one of them definitely not magic?

Missandei and Grey Worm, the only two remaining significant characters of color in Game of Thrones. They are also in (something of a) relationship, and the vast majority of their dialogue is about Daenerys.
Missandei and Grey Worm, two remaining significant characters of color in Game of Thrones. They are also in (something of a) relationship, and the vast majority of their dialogue is about Daenerys.

After six seasons, Game of Thrones has yet to pass. Missandei and Grey Worm, the only remaining notable characters of color (who were called “really deep characters” by casting director Nina Gold recently), are not “deep” enough to cause the series to cross the basic threshold that the Latifs offered. And change does not seem to be coming; they didn’t have so much as a line between them in the first episode of season 7.

Grey Worm, Missandei—and before them Khal Drogo—are some of the most developed characters of colour in the show. But they exist as bit-players in the story of Daenerys Targaryen, the (possibly) last member of a family that Nina Gold, the Game of Thrones casting director, described as “in the books [they are] these white, white people.”

Daenerys’ travels in Essos are the main vehicle for characters of colour to be included in either the show or the books (the Dornish story arc is the other, and it has its own problems). The problem is that her narrative is essentially a “white saviour” plot, a common trope where a white outsider saves a community of colour from some sort of terrible plight, gaining prestige, power, and self-awareness in the process; think the movies Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves, and Avatar.

Although Daenerys’ problems governing in Slavers’ bay have been taken as a subversion of the white saviour plot, by the end of season six she had established at least a gesture towards resolution and sailed for Westeros with her dragons and army. It’s here that the structural racism—the part of the ice-berg that’s under water—comes in. Everything that Daenerys has done in Essos is in the service of her goal: claiming the throne in Westeros. The people of color of Essos become her army—a tool to be used in achieving her ends.

A medieval illumination in a manuscript of Guy of Warwick, featuring two armies with knights at their head, facing off.
Guy of Warwick. Illumination in BL Royal MS 15 E v.

The white saviour plot device goes back to at least the crusading romances which emerged in the late twelfth-century. In just one of them, the legendary English knight Guy of Warwick (or Gui de Warewic as he was called in the original Anglo-Norman poem) saved the Christian kingdom of Constantinople from a Saracen army (the real crusaders sacked it).

This is where some white savior narratives might end. But Guy’s story goes on, just like Daenerys’ does once she’s freed the people of Slavers Bay. Guy defeats a dragon and a giant, gaining power in the Middle East before returning home to England to save the nation from invaders from the north (Vikings) and found a dynasty. He begins life as an archetypal ‘squire of low degree,’ unable to win his lady or have any real power in England, but gains both through his adventures overseas.

Is this sounding familiar? Daenerys hasn’t actually saved Westeros from the white walkers (yet), but in the latest episode we found out that she’s literally sitting on top of a mountain of dragon-glass, the only weapon we know of that works against them. Her attention, like Guy’s in the medieval romance, was always focused on “home.” Everything else that happened, and everyone else they encountered on the way, is a tool for getting back there and accumulating power.

I’m not suggesting that Daenerys is deliberately modelled on Guy of Warwick or any other specific medieval figure fictional or historical. The point is that western culture has seen “Other” places and people as a source of power to be used for its own ends for centuries—in the case of Guy, going on a millennium. That perspective is what underpinned European colonisation and imperialism for centuries, with devastating effects that are still ongoing around the globe.

The idea that Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin’s novels depict “the real Middle Ages” is often used to try to deflect criticism for the lack of racial diversity (and high levels of violence, especially against women). But as we have been exploring throughout this series, the idea that the “real Middle Ages” was an all-white affair has more to do with modern fantasies about racial purity than it does with historical reality. If we’re going to look to the Middle Ages to explain race relations in Game of Thrones, it’s medieval literature not medieval history that we should read.

Game of Thrones and Martin’s novels aren’t aberrations, they reflect a way of thinking about the world that centres on Europe and Europeans and sees Others as either tools to serve the needs of a white person and their power, or irrelevant. It’s a way of thinking that is at least as old as the Middle Ages. Game of Thrones has racism problems because the world has racism problems.

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Film and TVRace, Class and Religion

Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds: Bloody Experiments in Impossible History

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is not a typical historical film. It is certainly an historical film—at least by a simplistic definition of what an “historical film” entails: it is set in the pre-Civil-War wild west and deep south, and it has all the detailed and well-researched visual details—set pieces and costumes—which have become a central defining trope of the contemporary historical drama. That said, at a more basic level it does not have the same relationship with history that most other films given the title “historical” do. Instead, Django,[1] like Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds (2009), re-renders history to match the topoi and narrative arcs typified by a particular film genre. It even goes so far as to explicitly and self-consciously create historically-absurd scenarios in furtherance of its cinematic goals. Tarantino deploys those things for which historical films are most often criticized—unintentional anachronism, historical implausibilities and absurdities—intentionally, developing a sophisticated interplay between the expectations of “historical accuracy” and cinematic fantasy. This is a controversial approach that at once bolsters and threatens to derail his intentions: with one hand, to render a compelling vision of the institution of slavery, and with the other, to smash that institution to pieces. (more…)

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FeminismFilm and TV

Modern Rape Culture and BBC’s Banished

by Phoebe C. Linton

Editor’s note: This is a second part of our continuing conversation on sexual assault in the media and in historical realities. As a result, this article includes frank discussions of the depictions of sexual violence.

One of the criticisms of our last article on the topic was that it amounted to “a man writing about men writing about women.” Thanks to Phoebe for offering up her perspective on the topic.


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FeminismFilm and TVGame of Thrones

Was Sexual Abuse Normal in the Middle Ages?

Content and Spoiler Warning: The below article contains both spoilers for Season 5, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones as well as frank discussions of rape and sexual violence.

Editor’s Note: This article is significantly longer than usual for The Public Medievalist. I did this because the topic is a very difficult one, and there are a lot of issues explored here that demand a longer form to even scratch the surface. Thanks also to Amy Kaufmann for reviewing this article and offering very helpful suggestions for revision.

Don’t believe it.

As a medievalist interested in popular culture, I’ve been asked by a handful of people to comment on that scene from a recent episode of Game of Thrones (season 5, episode 6). If you saw it, you probably know which one I mean: Sansa Stark is married to Ramsay Bolton—the currently-reigning Worst Person in Westeros (a title always under fierce competition). Predictably—and horribly—he then rapes her on their wedding night. At this point in the show, Sansa is many things, but not so naive as she started out. It is heavily implied that she knew what she was getting herself into, but accepted this fate so that she can get closer to the targets of her vengeance. That doesn’t make it any less horrible though—and obviously does not in any way equal consent.

Since its airing, there has been considerable discussion on the internet about that scene; some accused it of being “gratuitous.” Considering that the show is one of the most popular depictions of the medievalesque in recent years, depicting marital rape in the show this raises a number of questions about the realities of sexual violence in medieval Europe. (more…)

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FeminismFilm and TV

Bechdel Testing the Middle Ages

Recently, I took a brutal, ten-hour transatlantic red-eye flight. And I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, that of the three films I chose in order to pass the time (The Big Lebowski, The Dark Knight and The Muppets), none of them passed the Bechdel Test.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Bechdel test is a basic gauge of female representation in films. The rules of the test are pretty simple. In order to pass, any given film must have:

  1. Two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

There are a few variants to the test. But that the above three rules constitute its most basic form, as invented by Alison Bechdel, creator of the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For“. Here is the strip in which she invented the test [click to enlarge]:


The test in this form intentionally sets the bar for female involvement in films ridiculously low. And yet, it was pretty shocking (or sadly perhaps not shocking at all), how when people first started examining films this way, few passed. (more…)

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Film and TV

Mel Gibson, you Magnificent Bastard.

Note: The following contains spoilers for the film Braveheart.

So let’s talk about Scottish Independence for a moment.

As many of you are probably aware, on 18th of September, 2014, the people of Scotland will take to the polls to answer one simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Well, it’s obviously not that simple of a question. And even as an outsider I have some strong mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, as an American who loves Scotland and would love the opportunity to work there, I am in favour of independence since that seems quite likely to reverse the United Kingdom’s increasingly draconian policies and attitudes towards immigrants of all sorts. And on a less self-interested note, I would love to see a Scandinavian-style democracy emerge in a newly-minted Scotland, which seems a possibility (if they were not totally bankrupt, that is). That said, Scottish MPs vote in a relatively socially-liberal bloc. If they left, would likely lead to an even-more conservative United Kingdom—not something I relish the thought of.

Setting aside politics though, on a more abstract level I feel as though a separated UK would be worse off. When united, to me the UK is more than the sum of its constituent parts. And separating those parts raises difficult questions of identity for those people living in Scotland who are suddenly made to choose—if not their ethnicity, then their nationality in a way they hadn’t had to do before. For those in Scotland who identify themselves positively as British and Scottish, September 19th would be a profoundly bizarre experience of self-redefinition.

As an historian, it would also be disappointing to see the 300-year experiment, begun with the 1706 Treaty of Union, come to such an end.

And if that were to come to pass, I think that at least a small portion of the blame or credit could be laid at the feet of one anti-Semitic, misogynistic Australian: Mel Gibson.

When it was released in 1995, Braveheart was a huge success, both critically and financially. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. Its release also resulted in a significant uptick in tourism for Scotland, and perhaps most importantly in our discussion here, the Scottish National Party jumped in the polls almost overnight. As Colin McArthur wrote in his book Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: Distortions of Scotland in Hollywood Cinema, Braveheart’s effect on Scotland was “seen by some as manna from heaven and others as an unmitigated curse.”

Among medieval historians, Braveheart is a joke.

Its inaccuracies are legion—and not just in the little incidental ways that are easy to ignore. To recap briefly:

But all of these other inaccuracies must bow and scrape before two others which have a profound effect on the messages in the film. They work by tapping into something deep within the Scottish identity that has given Braveheart such a powerful ability to shape Scottish self-conception and Scottish politics.

Major inaccuracy #1: The Scots are different.

Braveheart goes to great lengths to promote a single idea of what it means to be Scottish. In the film, the Scottish are a people on the edge of the world, wild, unkempt, barely civilized. Take Wallace’s character, for example: instead of reality, where Wallace was a local gentryman, in Braveheart he is remade as a peasant-warrior with education provided by a rich uncle. Wallace’s secret marriage in the woods connects with an idea that the Scottish are more connected to the land than their English counterparts, and his doing so in the forest before a stone cross rather than in a church are a reference to ideas of Celtic-druidic-mystical tradition which, though historically dubious, were very popular in the mid-90s.

This “mystical” connection to the land is only reinforced in the many scenes with lengthy shots of endless green mountains, such as the opening scene which is simply of the vast, craggy scenery (backed by mournful bagpipes) or the montage of Wallace climbing through the mountains. This seeks to equate the Scots with their unique landscape (though obviously not so unique—as those shots were filmed in Ireland). In battle, the difference between the Scots and English couldn’t be starker. In Braveheart the warriors fight with weapons typically associated with “barbarians” – axes, clubs, hammers, cleavers and sharpened stakes—against English swords, lances and longbows. The Scots taunt their enemies, lifting their kilts at them and screaming for their freedom in the face of armoured, uniformed English discipline. It is a war not just of English versus Scottish but of individuality versus conformity. The Scots fight not just for the right to be independent, but for the right to be Scottish.

But despite their barbarity, the Scots are shown to be far more noble than their English counterparts. The English occupiers are depicted as universally cruel, and Gibson himself described the character of Edward I in his film as a “psychopath”. One of the chief sins of the English, a surprisingly-common trope in epic films, is sexual deviancy (think of the sexually-deviant villains in 300, or Gladiator, or Spartacus or even, perhaps, The Matrix). Not only is there the previously-mentioned Jus Primae Noctis, but Wallace’s rebellion begins as three English soldiers attempt to rape his wife (the old, gap-toothed one even licking her face to add that extra creep-factor). Edward I’s son is show to be weak and ineffectual either because of or as part of the fact that he is a homosexual**, and his father seems all-too-interested in bedding his son’s young bride.

By contrast, Wallace and his pack of “noble savages” are shown to be remarkably erudite and completely chastely-hetero. Wallace, despite his rough exterior, impresses his wife and later shocks Princess Isabelle with his command of French and Latin. Wallace himself is willing to endure unspeakable tortures at the hands of the English rather than betray his principles by begging for mercy.

All of this goes some way towards painting the English and Scottish as fundamentally different people. Certainly, there are some ethnic and cultural differences between the English and the Scots, though the cultural differences are, in some ways, more pronounced today than they were during Wallace’s 13th century. This is due to the nationalist movements in the 19th century which successfully wrought Scottish and English identities, often out of whole cloth. Literally.

In reality, particularly among the upper-classes (like Wallace was), during the Middle Ages the English and Scottish were practically indistinguishable. Sometimes they were literally indistinguishable, especially along the Scottish borders; many aristocrats—both Scottish and English— held lands on both sides of the border simultaneously. However, it is a truism in life that in order to truly hate someone enough to kill them, you have to first see them as fundamentally different to you. They must not just be people with different ideas and goals, but different sorts of people entirely— or worse, sub-humans. I don’t need to go into detail to explain how dehumanizing your enemy can result in horrific atrocities.

And thus in Braveheart we see a clash not just of people, but of cultures and civilizations. The Scots are the rough-and-tumble underdogs, simultaneously noble and savage—which is, not incidentally, a way that Americans like to fantasize about their own revolution against the English. The English are conformist, abusive, deviant psychopaths. If you believe this vision of the past even a little, it is easy to see how you might not want to be in the same nation with those people.

Major inaccuracy #2: The English have always oppressed the Scots

When William challenges the English parley at Sterling, he makes a bold request.

“Lower your flags and march straight back to England, stopping at every home you pass by to beg forgiveness for a hundred years of theft, rape, and murder. Do that and your men shall live. Do it not, and every one of you will die today.”

In reality, the English, under Edward I, had invaded Scotland only the year before Wallace’s rebellion had begun. Prior to that, Scotland was a fully independent kingdom. The notion, repeated during the film in earnest tones, that their fight for independence is one of creating a new nation for themselves after countless years of oppression is ludicrous.

But while it may be ludicrous, it is powerful. Viewing the past in this way—where even the “time immemorial” of the Middle Ages carries its own long memory of oppression—grants an ancient precedent to Scottish nationalist movements. Moreover, it reconfigures the map; England is the centre, and Scotland is the periphery. Edward I’s England is reconfigured as a proto-British empire, and the Celtic peripheries are proto-colonies. In the film, the English do what they have always done, and what they continue to do: oppress those across their borders unless they are fought.

This relates clearly not only to the aforementioned American ideas about their past, but to the current Scottish concept of their relationship with their neighbours to the south. When focusing on the Scottish Wars of Independence, it becomes easy to see all of history as oppression by the centre upon the peripheries. The Act of Union which brought together the two countries was not achieved by conquest, but by a union of the crowns as the Scottish king James VI became the ruler of both Scotland and England, as James I, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

That is not to say the Scots do not have grievances against the English, both in contemporary politics and during the 13th century. But the way that Braveheart figures itself as the once and future story of Scotland asks the Scots to see themselves as the aggrieved party in their relationship with England not just today but for all time.

So, I’ll be blunt: Braveheart is a terrible history.

It’s terrible not just because of its myriad little historical inaccuracies, but because of the major ways in which it tried—with some success—to reshape the debate about what it means to be Scottish, both outside Scotland and within it. That debate has continued apace, and will come to a head on the 18th of September.

But allow me to be controversial here. In some ways, Braveheart is a truly great history.

Let’s ignore the historical content. Let’s even ignore the messages in the film for just a moment. It’s a good film. Despite being ludicrous, perhaps even because of it, it is emotionally engaging and moving. The simple fact that an historical film such as this may have had a small or large effect on the self-conception of an entire people, as well as the fate of their country is unprecedented. Whether it’s done in a dubious way, and to good or ill effect, as a public historian it is difficult not to respect that kind of public impact. It shows historians what can be gained—and also possibly what can be lost— from working together with Hollywood.

I say this half- with loathing and half- with awe: Mel Gibson. You sir, are a magnificent bastard.

The author in an HMV store, Sterling, Scotland. June 2014
The author in an HMV display in Sterling, Scotland. June 2014



* Sure, some medieval Lords got up to all manner of shenanigans mistreating those beneath them. But the rich taking advantage of the poor is hardly unique to the Middle Ages.

** The homophobia rampant in this film is a whole other can of worms, and the topic for another post.

Head Image Credit: © Copyright Paramount Pictures, 1995.


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Film and TVRace, Class and ReligionWhat is History For?

Would I Have Owned Slaves?

Note: This contains minor spoilers for the film “12 Years a Slave

Buzzfeed has flooded everyone’s Facebook pages with a peculiar sort of public history.

This takes the form of quizzes with titles like Which Founding Father is your Soulmate?, Where Should You Go in a Time Machine, or What Period in History do you Really Belong in?  They’re a silly bit of fun, to be certain, and obviously of very dubious quality. But they call towards a deeper impulse within public history: to imagine yourself in an historical context. It is first-person imaginative history, though of a very uncomplicated sort. This is the same way—though on a more sophisticated level—that participants in Renaissance Faires and historical re-enactors engage with the past. Though in my experience working with re-enactors previously, many of them tend to revel in an uncomplicated, romanticised version of the past.

But what happens if we complicate the idea and complicate the history? Is there any way that we can, in a more historically valid way, imagine ourselves in the past? And does our doing so offer us any further insights into the past or present?

As I have written in a forthcoming article, my first job in public history was as an historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. One of the most difficult conversations I had with visitors involved the question of slavery. Washington was a slave owner.  And that fact caused cognitive dissonance in visitors—that one of the nation’s greatest heroes engaged in one of its greatest shames. Sometimes, their attempts to rectify this dissonance manifested as this question: “Was Washington good to his slaves?” When responding, I would offer the question: “How could you be good to a slave?” Some offered ideas like feeding them well, offering humane accommodation, or refraining from beating them. But I would often repeat my line of inquiry until they came to what I believe to be the best answer: you set them free.

Once this is established, we can then talk about how Washington compared to other slave owners.  He stacks up about average. He enacted some cruelties against his slaves and some mercies. He famously freed all the slaves that he owned* but only upon his death, when they were, by definition, of no more use to him.

And this, I hope, went some way to imagining both our historical heroes and slave owners in a more complex and complete way. We must first establish and emphasise that slavery was wrong, full stop. And despite the standards of the day, it was evil— though it is part of the privileged position of the present that we see it that way. But not all slave owners were created equal; though slavery dirtied all the hands involved, some radical abolitionists did risk wealth, social standing and even their lives to do away with it. And on the other side, some hands are immeasurably dirty.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight Pictures 2013

The film 12 Years a Slave does an excellent job of portraying the moral complexity of the institution of slavery. The director explicitly set out to portray, just as the memoir on which it is based does, the range and variety of people who engaged in, benefitted from and suffered under the slave trade. White people are shown benefitting actively or passively, militating against the system or enthusiastically embracing their abusive place within it. The African-American characters are similarly complex. Some passively accept the system, though most struggle, each in their own way, to find a way to survive or even benefit (for certain values of the word) within it. But the fear the system creates forces them often to comply with injustices. The protagonist, Solomon Northrop, is forced to whip another slave. The alternative would be to die. One of the fundamental cruelties of the system is that it encourages you, or even forces you to do horrible things in order to survive, in order to get by.

Reflecting on the film and my work at Mount Vernon, and considering the complex range of interactions with and reactions to slavery in Antebellum America, I find myself wondering how I would react if I was living as a white man in the south at that time. Certainly I— and I hope most people,  would like to think that I would see slavery for what it was, an unmitigated evil, and fight against it. But that seems like too much wishful historical thinking—a projection of modern values onto an imaginary, romanticised past. Instead, I think it a better tack to really think about my own complex reactions to the thorny political and social issues of today, and see how my reactions to today’s injustices compare to a hypothetical person from the past.

Historians typically avoid discussing their own personal and political perspectives in their work for fear of being painted as unobjective or biased.

But I think when exploring history through this first-person imaginative space, it is important to do so.

Politically I tend to be very liberal, especially socially. I believe strongly in social justice, I am in favour of environmentalism,  I am a feminist and am in favour of gay rights. But doing so is easy for me. I vote accordingly, and my teaching and writing reflects this perspective. But I doubt anyone would consider me a radical. I’ve only been to two protests, I’ve never broken the law in accordance with these beliefs (like, say, chaining myself to a tree or attacking whaling ships). I can only count one instance where I put myself any physical danger, defending a woman from a few drunk creeps, in accordance with my beliefs.

But I know that I let many things slide. I know that eating meat is very bad for the environment, but I am not a vegetarian. I try to conserve energy, but if it’s hot I will put on the AC. I am against sweatshops and refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, but don’t check the labels before I buy a t-shirt. I buy free range eggs, but don’t ask whether the restaurant does so before ordering breakfast. I have lent vocal support to my gay friends, but have neither sacrificed my time to march with them nor my money on donating to the cause. I am, I’m afraid to say, something of a liberal of convenience. Push does not generally come to shove about it, and if my support of those ideals threatened my life or safety, I’m afraid to say I would probably try to find a way to keep both my ideals and my life. I suspect many people behave in the same way.

So if I imagine myself realistically in the Antebellum south, who would I be? Not the passionate abolitionist, I’m afraid. I hate to say it, but I would likely be a character of convenient conscience. Had I owned slaves, I would probably free them in my will as Washington did, and think myself quite virtuous for doing so. In terms of Twelve Years a Slave, I might be a William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch’s character), a man who owns a slave plantation but seems to treat his slaves with relative kindness. But, he does not militate against the system or free his slaves and, when his safety is threatened by Solomon’s conflict with an overseer, elects to sell Solomon rather than risk himself. Or I hope I would be Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt’s character), a Canadian who is vocally against slavery and will argue convincingly against it because he risks little by talking. But when he is presented with an opportunity to right a serious wrong but, in attempting to do so, lose his job and risk his life, he does it. In so doing, he saves Solomon. Of course it’s important to point out that he only does so when the injustice he sees is made both personal—in that he knows and has come to respect Solomon—and also illegal— which gives him the ability to act against it by alerting the authorities. But notably, he does not try to free all slaves. He frees the one who begs him with tears in his eyes to do so, but only because he can do so without violating the law.

There are two ways to react from examining the past introspectively in this way. The first is complacency: to shrug one’s shoulders and fall back on the axiom that we all live according to the standards of our day. Surely there will always be injustice, and who am I to fight against my age?

The other, perhaps more interesting, way to view it is to use the past to reconsider my own actions in the present. If I really do feel strongly about social injustice, perhaps I should act more on my conscience, lest I continue to class myself as someone who might shrug and demure in the face of the injustices of the past.

Historians generally do not engage with the past in this fashion, and public attempts to do this too-often fall back onto cliché and romanticism. But there might be a way that historians can work together with their publics to better imagine, and appreciate, the complexity of  past people by reflecting on the complexity of our present selves.

* Note: Washington freed all the slaves he owned, but most of the slaves held at Mount Vernon were owned by his wife’s family, and so he had no power to free them. 

Photo Credit: Twelve Years a Slave, Open Library

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