Saturday, March 15, 2008

Crappy "history" book

Warning: Prepare for a long, long rant. I would try to be more civil, but I’m too irritated.

My mum bought this a few months ago: Before Scotland, by Alistair Moffat. One of those “narrative histories”, about geographical Scotland before it became political Scotland. In the beginning, it’s actually rather good. Informative, even though there’s naturally a lot of conjecture, and entertaining.

Then we get to chapter seven: “Caledonia”. And not only does it stop being entertaining, but it is often inaccurate and, in some parts, totally invented.

In essence, the entire chapter is one long, righteously indignant rant. You know the sort of thing: the old chestnut about the poor, downtrodden Scots (or Caledonians, in this case) and their nasty invaders. Personally, I like my history books to take a step back from this sort of thing, but I wouldn’t even mind it so much, if it didn’t go on for pages before we even start getting into the actual history of the matter. Moffat might have raised some good points, but I’d already lost interest. We’re five pages into the chapter before we hit anything resembling “history”, in which time Moffat has given us a full rant about the nature of Roman atrocities, of which this is only a taster:

“...the Romans came to what is now Scotland, they saw, they burned, killed, stole and occasionally conquered, and then they left a tremendous mess behind them.”

Hell, yeah! To plunder, to slaughter, to rape, they give the lying name of “empire”, and where they make a desert they call it... oh, hang on a minute...

But that’s just it. Tacitus has already covered Moffat’s main bullet points, and far more eloquently. At least he didn’t kick off on a side-rant about how it’s a “national disgrace” that universities used to insist on a knowledge of Latin rather than Gaelic, which Moffat claims is “native to Scotland”. Given that Gaelic came later and replaced whatever was spoken before that, not only is the above statement wrong, but surely, according to tradition, Gaelic is as much the language of the invader as Latin is. But don’t let history get in the way of your patriotism, by no means. And if you want to promote an interest in Gaelic language and culture, a worthy enough cause, surely your energies would be better spent being out there promoting it.

Oh, and a word in your ear, Mr. Moffat, you don’t “decline” amo, amas, amat; you conjugate it.

But I’m a persevering sort, so I press on. Turns out the opening rant was the least of it...

“The Romans left us nothing of any enduring cultural value.”

Well, apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health...

Oh, you mean in Scotland? Well, why didn’t you say? Why that “us” in there? Am I to infer that this book is intended purely for Scottish people? That’s rather exclusionist, don’t you think? Not to mention we get the mention of the “slaughter of 10,000 of our ancestors at the battle at Mons Graupius”. Ten thousand of whose ancestors? Of Scottish people’s ancestors? Does that include all those people who have been born and raised in Scotland and consider themselves Scottish, who are of European, African, Asian, Chinese, etc. descent? Wow, I didn't realise Calgacus had such extensive contacts.

But let’s extricate ourselves from these sticky areas, and get onto the history part. Inaccuracies, inventions, and pure wishful thinking abound. History enthusiasts at this point may wish to light their flaming torches and get out their sporks.

First, and what should have made me put the book down right then and there, was the mention of Vespasian’s involvement in the original invasion of Britain “as a military tribune”. Wtf?! Vespasian was not a tribune in AD 43; he was the legate of the Second Legion. Hell, even Wikipedia got that one right.

We get a bit on Ptolemy’s tribal map, and for some inexplicable reason Moffat starts getting excited about the Caitt, the “Cat People” from where we get the names Caithness and Clan Chattan. He says, “The Cats may have fought the Romans at Mons Graupius...” Um... maybe... but if you’re going strictly by Ptolemy’s map, there are no Caitt included, and they don’t appear in writing until the Early Historic period, as a kingdom of the Picts.

Then we finally get onto Agricola and his earlier career in Britain, in particular his stint as a tribune during Boudica’s revolution. According to Moffat, “Nothing, however, could have prepared the young Agricola for what he and the XXth Legion saw when they reached the Menai Straits.”

Hold the phone. Where, in the Agricola, does it say that he was attached to the Twentieth Legion? Where does it say he was at Anglesey? There’s a mention of him being invited to share Suetonius’ tent, which implies he was campaigning with him (and makes me want to write Suetonius/Agricola slash, following on from my last post), but Tacitus never explicitly says that his father-in-law fought at Anglesey at the time of Suetonius’ attack. He did stage another attack during his own governorship, but that was almost twenty years later.

We’re then treated to a long description of the battle of Anglesey, which is largely irrelevant, seeing as this is supposed to be a book about Scottish history, but apparently we must never pass up a chance to describe in detail examples of Roman ebulness. Anyway, we get a wonderful description which is pretty much ripped straight out of the Annals, including “black-clad women... Like Furies...” Seriously, if you can’t think up your own similes, at least include quotation marks. Then we get the following: “Behind the warriors were Druids and their ghost fences, rows of skulls facing the legions across the water.” Say what? Where did the skulls come from? Archaeology? The Annals? No, didn’t think so. Stop trying to pass your own imaginings off as fact. This is a history book, not a work of historical fiction.

Well. Allegedly, anyway.

And because Moffat is the type of historian for whom everything must have ritual significance, we get delightful descriptions of the “sacrilege” carried out upon Eildon Hill North and Burnswark Hill. Them ’orrid Romans built forts and camps near these “sacred” hillforts. I agree with him that the Roman presence at Eildon was a very deliberate one, targeting a place which seems to have retained some sort of importance, religious or secular. But Burnswark? Moffat states that by the time the Romans got their grubby paws on it, “like Eildon Hill North it had probably become a fire-hill, used four times a year to mark the Celtic festivals”. Really? How fascinating. Where in the archaeology does it tell us this? And apparently, “Archaeologists believe... that missiles were first fired in anger at the Selgovae defending the long perimeter.” Actually, that theory has been abandoned for quite some time now, but we shall draw a veil over that. After all, a bitter siege makes a better story than legionaries using a mouldering old ruin for artillery practice.

But there’s a lot of this sort of thing. We get things which “probably” or “must have” happened without any decent proof. After the withdrawal from Newstead in c. AD 100, “the enmity between the Selgovae and their eastern neighbours almost certainly spilled over into something more incendiary.” Did it, indeed? What enmity is this, exactly?

And when we get to the Battle of Mons Graupius, Moffat just can’t resist comparing it to Culloden. The parallels are so obvious, didn’t you know? Seriously, I’d be very disappointed if Calgacus was anything like Bonnie Prince Charlie. I like to think the Swordsman actually knew what he was about. (Oh dear, I’m such a Campbell.)

So after Moffat has waxed lyrical on the clans at Culloden (Clan Chattan get another mention, of course), finally we get onto Mons Graupius. And here we get the romantic vision of the Celtic warriors of yore, all woad tattoos and carnyxes. Moffat asserts out of nowhere (though I should be used to this by now): “Some of the warriors in Calgacus’ army will have been drunk.”

Well, it was you who said they were “our” ancestors! Sorry, couldn’t resist. Hey, maybe that’s why they lost. Like the Gododdin. Hmm...

And, of course: “Tacitus does not mention naked warriors at Mons Graupius but it is very likely that there were some.”

Because God forbid we should dispense with old stereotypes now.

And so it goes on. Until we get to the end of Trajan’s reign (AD 117) when, according to Moffat, the Selgovae and the Novantae joined with the Brigantes in rebellion:“Between 115 and 120 warbands mustered, rode out of the Pennines and attacked and destroyed the legionary fortress at York.”

Nothing like this is mentioned in any of our historical sources: all we have is a token mention that by the time Hadrian became emperor, the Britons couldn’t be kept under Roman control. There’s certainly no suggestion anywhere that York was destroyed. This, however, does give Moffat the excuse to give the obligatory story of the “annihilated” Ninth Legion, despite the fact that the legend has pretty much been disproved, and despite the fact that earlier in the chapter he mentioned the legendary disappearance of the Ninth Hispana and the "likelihood that it never happened". But here he says, “it may be that remnants survived and that they were sent on to European postings”. In actual fact, it seems nowadays that the legion as a whole went over to Europe, switched with the Sixth Victrix. What's with the continuity glitch?

And so on. To tell the truth, that was when I finally gave up. If I want to read historical fiction, I’ll look in the fiction section of Waterstone’s for it. And if I want to read an historian with an axe to grind, who isn’t above spinning the odd tall tale, I’ll read Tacitus.

*sporkity spork spork*

Oh, and happy Ides of March to you all. Don't go to the Senate, and don't turn your back on your best friend. ;)


Gabriele C. said...

That rant had me laughing out loud several times.

Even Wikipedia got that one right.
I'm such a Campbell.

That Moffat guy should write Hollywood scripts.

Btw, I left a litte present for you in the comments to the last post.

Gabriele C. said...

Oh, and for the record, there's a theory - one of those no one really takes any serious - that the clan Chattan goes back to the German tribe of the Chatti, though I really wonder how those ever got to Caledonia. They were a pain in the Roman behind along the Rhine and not recruited as auxiliaries.

But it should give Moffat the jeebes. :-)

Crystal said...

LOLOLOLOLOLOL!!! It had me LOL too! I had to go into the other room before I woke Sam up! I LOVE when you RANT!!!

"Oh, and happy Ides of March to you all."

IS this what we call St. Patricks Day over here??? If not, what is it???

Kirsten Campbell said...

Gabriele - Lol. I think the sarcasm helps me keep any homicidal urges at bay. ;)

The whole thing read a bit too much like an Iron Age Braveheart for my liking. Honestly, I'm surprised Hollywood haven't already snapped up Mons Graupius for another vastly expensive, wildly inaccurate swords-and-sandals epic. They've even got a rousing speech included at no extra effort for the scriptwriters. ;)

As for the Chatti, maybe some of them came over to escape Domitian's war and to give their support to Calgacus, only they got a bit... lost? I think I might shove that in somewhere, as a comical intermission. :) Moffat wouldn't like that at all. He seems to think that if you're not descended from one of the original Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and didn't have an ancestor who was slaughtered by the Romans, you ain't Scottish. I wonder how many of the population that actually applies to?

Ooh, a present? I'll have to go and see what it is. :)

Crystal - Glad to provide some entertainment. I'll have to find something else to rant about. :)

Lol, no, the Ides of March are nothing to do with St. Patrick. That's what the Romans called the 15th day of some months, and the 13th day of the shorter ones. The Ides of March are remembered because it was on that date, in 44 BC, that Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Theatre of Pompey.

Crystal said...

Thanks for the info. I've seen that movie a few times and read about him in school but never remembered when he died. I'll have to test my mom on this one and see if SHE gets it right;o)

Gabriele C. said...

The whole thing read a bit too much like an Iron Age Braveheart for my liking. Honestly, I'm surprised Hollywood haven't already snapped up Mons Graupius for another vastly expensive, wildly inaccurate swords-and-sandals epic.

Inluding a love story between Calgacus and Agricola's wife (modeled after William Wallace and Isabella). :)

Because they won't dare to show us Calgcus/Agricola slash.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol, no doubt. But Calgacus/Agricola would be so much hotter. Now, if we can add some Tacitus/Pliny in there somewhere, I'll be all set. :)

...I'm going to get haunted tonight, aren't I?

Kirsten Campbell said...

Crystal - Yaagh, how did I manage to miss your second post? Anyway, you're very welcome!

We did the play in third year at high school, and watched the film then, too. We also used it as an excuse to watch Cleopatra! 'Cause, y'know, you saw him being killed in that. That's why we were watching it. Really. :)