As I mentioned two weeks ago, there is a fairly solid dividing line in history that separates the werewolves we have today (those that change under the full moon, can only be killed by silver, take a half-man half-wolf form, and spread their curse through bites) and the werewolves of the past (change whenever they want, can be killed in the normal ways, take the form of a wolf, become a werewolf through magic ceremonies, etc). That dividing line was the wolfman horror movies of early Hollywood. Before Hollywood we have the old kind of werewolf, after Hollywood we have the modern beast, and the differences between the two are so great that you can argue that they share nothing except the name. Vampires have an extremely similar story, only their dividing line comes in 1819 with the publishing of the short novel The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Polidori’s book is the first place where we see a high society, handsome, rich, and suave vampire who masquerades as a human and sucks the blood of beautiful maidens all over Europe. The book, and a popular play based off of it, sparked a vampire craze in Europe that we could emphasize with today. Just as our current vampire craze has spawned off numerous book series, tv shows, and movies about vampires Polidori’s book inspired numerous plays and novels that expanded on his original vampire, the dashing and dangerous Lord Ruthven. Most of us think of writing from previous centuries of consisting solely of stuffy old “classics” or great works of literature that are far more serious and sophisticated than the commercial trash that is printed today. The truth is that previous centuries had just as much commercial fluff and sensational pop works as we do today. One such work from the 1840s was Varney the Vampire, a serialized story telling the tale of a vampire from week to week. Varney was roughly equivalent to what we might consider comic books today, as it consisted of short stories that emphasized action, horror, and suspense.
Being a work of popular fiction that was written by multiple authors over its run, Varney wasn’t particularly consistent in regards to its vampire lore. The creation of Varney himself is muddled, with several competing origin stories that appear throughout the series. In one account we learn that Varney became a vampire when he betrayed a friend and then killed his own son in a fit of rage, which harkens back to the old vampire legends about great sinners rising from their graves to feed on the living. Another edition has Varney being created by a scientist using electricity a la Frankenstein. Varney often had conflicting abilities and motivations, but from that mess of a work many of the modern vampire tropes were born. Varney has two fangs, leaves two puncture marks on the necks of his victims, has super strength, can hypnotize people, and can turn others into vampires. Perhaps most notably Varney is the first sympathetic vampire in the world; we see the stories through his point of view, and he regularly regrets what he has become. He even attempts to cure his “condition” and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. This is an incredible breakthrough; before this point all vampires, even the Polidori’s, were viewed as either mindless monsters or incomprehensible creatures of pure evil. Varney turns all that upside down by asking what it would like to be a vampire and still retain your human mind, your human memories, and your human outlook.
In other words, Varney brought angst to the vampire mythos. So, The Vampyre made vampires suave and sophisticated, and Varney added angst. That leaves one primarily modern character trait of vampires to go: sexuality. In 1871 a slightly more sophisticated vampire serial appears, titled Carmilla. This story itself is pretty long and suspenseful and full of foreshadowing and all that, but for our purposes it can be easily summarized: a young woman becomes friends with another young woman and then later they discover that one of the young women is a vampire and along the way it’s highly implied that she’s a lesbian as well. This story is notable on two points: introducing the idea of vampires who are hundreds of years old but appear to be children (because they died young) and vampires as sexual creatures. The vampires of the old legends, being revenants, are certainly nothing you could easily think about sexually, and though the vampire in The Vampyre woos women it is only for the purpose of devouring their blood. This is the first story where we get the strong impression that vampires carnal desires could extend to more than just hemoglobin. This 19th century vampire progression finally culminates in what we now consider the crown jewel of vampire lore: Bran Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Dracula gives us the first appearance of arch-vampire Count Dracula himself, and pulls together all the scattered vampire tropes the past century had been throwing out there. Dracula is a suave and sophisticated aristocrat, who not only hungers from blood but also possesses several vampire wives, bringing female vampires and sexuality back into play. True, there is little angst seen from Dracula over being a vampire, but there is certainly a lot of angst among the main characters after Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire of her own. Here we are also supplied with the now traditional modes of hunting vampires: garlic, staking through the heart, holy water, the whole nine yards.
However, Dracula was not a commercial success in its own time. Stoker died in poverty, and arguably Varney or Carmilla were both far more popular during their respective runs. Why then is Dracula the most famous vampire book ever written? Why does its ideas and themes still run through the vampire mythos to this day? Why is Count Dracula more famous than Carmilla, or Varney, or even Lord Ruthven? The answer, as with werewolves, is movies. In 1922 the German film Nosferatu was released to the public. The movie itself was pretty much a take for take adaptation of Dracula but with names changed to avoid having to pay the Stoker estate. Now, the film is important on its own (as we shall see) but it is also responsible for inventing one of the most enduring features of the modern vampire mythos: the vampires vulnerability to sunlight. Before Nosferatu vampires had little trouble walking about during the day. Lord Ruthven wasn’t bothered by it, Carmilla merely disliked it, and all sunlight did to Count Dracula was weaken him slightly. However Nosferatu, deviating from the book, shows the vampire being defeated by the dawn of the sun, whose light causes him to burst into smoke. This weakness to sunlight would by picked up by the vampire stories to come, until we reach the modern day where you can find nerds everywhere complaining about how the sun doesn’t hurt Twilight vampires.
The film was a massive success, and Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. She won her case, and every copy of the film (except for one that survived to the modern day) was destroyed. However the film was so popular that it was soon followed by a stage version which toured Europe and spread vampire fever. (Fun fact: the stage play is where the Count Dracula started wearing that ridiculous black cape with the super high collar. The purpose of the collar was so that the actor playing Dracula could turn his back to the audience and seem to disappear against a black backdrop, creating a spooky effect. Somehow, the silly cape stuck with the character.)
Eventually the play toured the US where it caught the attention of Hollywood. Young producer Carl Laemmle Jr., after seeing Nosferatu’s initial success legally bought the movie rights from the Stoker estate. In 1931 the famous Universal movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was released to huge commercial success. Since that film was released the book Dracula has never gone out of print, and the legacy of Count Dracula was set in stone, along with the all the other “modern” vampires he had come to represent.
Today we’re going to look at vampires. Vampires are pretty popular right now. Just about anybody could tell you what a vampire is these days, even if they’re not a huge nerd or horror fan. Pale, beautiful, suave, mysterious, superpowered creatures of the night who are hurt by sunlight and drink the blood of the living. But as we saw with werewolves last week, monsters can change a lot over time. How old are vampires as we know them?
Like werewolves, the answer is complicated because it depends on what you define as a vampire. If you define a vampire as an undead monster who drinks human blood than vampires have been around since ancient times, and across most cultures. This is a fact you might find between the pages of a YA vampire series, or on a fun Halloween facts page, or even in the dialogue of a TV series. But are vampires really so old, and really spread over so many cultures? No. No, they really aren’t.
To be sure multiple ancient cultures across the globe have stories of blood drinking undead, but these monsters have almost nothing to do with vampires. They are far better defined as revenants. A revenant is a corpse that has left it’s place of burial and roams around performing various kinds of mischief, from slaughtering livestock and spreading plague, to drinking blood and devouring flesh. Revenants take many forms and have many names, but they all share the same basic idea: someone dies and for some reason or another their corpse does not remain at rest.
And when I say corpse, I really mean corpse. Revenants are shambling, bloated, rotting, stinking things. They are not sexy. They are not sauve. They have far more in common with modern zombies than modern vampires.
Now we have scattered stories of various revenants from ancient times up through the Middle Ages. However between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment periods we start to see a more specific type of revenant legend develop. In southeast Europe during this time period is where the vampire legend is actually born. It is during this time period that we begin to see vampire panics, vampire trials, and widespread anti-vampire burial practices (which we’ll get to later). But again, these vampires are far different from the ones we know today. Arguably they are far scarier as well.
It can be hard for modern readers, with their heads full of True Blood and Interview with a Vampire to really understand what these primal vampires were like. Let me try to explain with a short story:
It’s 1672. You are a Bulgarian peasant, living in a small village up in the hills. You know everybody in town and everybody knows you. One day your brother dies. Perhaps he got sick, or maybe it was an accident of some kind, but however it happened he’s dead and it’s time to consign his remains to the earth. The funeral procession brings his coffin up to the church graveyard on top of a hill overlooking the village, where he is given his last rites and buried beneath the earth.
You’re sad, of course. This is a real tragedy, and you’ll miss your brother terribly. However you have to get back to working the land, and you try to put the bad memories behind you. However, in the weeks after the burial, bad things start happening. A local farmer loses some of his sheep: one is found mutilated in the woods. Probably wolves. Then a local boy gets sick. He starts to waste away, turning weak and pale. Soon he can no longer get out of bed. Eventually he dies. They say it was consumption. Soon more people are getting sick. A few more animals have been lost. People are starting to talk. You try to ignore it. Then, one dark, cloudy night, you hear a scream outside your door. It’s one of your goats, and it’s crying bloody murder. You run outside and check the pen, but the goat is gone. The other animals are terrified. You try to calm them down, when suddenly you see him. Your farm is near the old woods, far from town. There isn’t anyone around for over a mile, but there in the trees is a figure is crouched over. It’s hard to see in the dark, but the figure is stooping over something, holding it to it’s mouth. As you watch it suddenly turns to look at you, slowly. It’s too far away to see clearly, but your blood goes cold in your veins. The figure drops it’s load, and begins to lumber over to you. It staggers as it walks, but it’s picking up speed. You quickly run back inside and bolt the door on your little shack. You peer through the crack around the doorframe, and watch as the figure comes closer. It’s a human alright, but not like any you’ve seen before. His body is bloated and his skin blotched with purple like fresh bruises. His clothes are tattered, barely hanging on to his swollen body. The air is filled with the smell of death, clogging your nostrils and almost sending you into a coughing fit. As it comes closer you see that blood is dripping from its mouth and nose, sending red rivulets over a doughy and mottled face. You put all your weight against the door as the creature comes up to it, pounding with its fists.
Suddenly your heart stops as you hear it speak, speak with a distorted and pleading voice. But even through the distortion you recognize it.
“Let me come in, brother. I’m so cold brother. Please. Please let me in.”
And that, my friends, is an old fashioned vampire. A corpse bloated and purple with blood and decay, the corpse of someone you likely knew and perhaps loved, walking about and devouring the living There are a few other noticeable differences between this “classic” vampire and the modern conception. For example, early vampires could come out in daylight just fine and were not hurt by the sun; it was merely that they were more active at night. Also there was no clear idea of how one became a vampire. Some people thought that vampires formed when evil spirits took control of recently killed corpses. This would lead some people to include holy objects such as crosses or communion wafers with the deceased in order to drive such evil spirits away. It’s also the origin of the idea that vampires will be repelled by crucifixes and harmed by holy water.
Another theory was that vampires were great sinners in life who had committed some terrible crime (perhaps killing a loved one, or cannibalism) and that whatever heinous acts they had committed would cause them to become a monster. Others didn’t know why vampires became vampires, but still believed that they could happen and that you had to be prepared. Though a variety of objects and plants (such as garlic and hawthorn, or crucibles and scattered rice) could help protect you from a vampire the creature would continue to terrorize the area until someone hunted it down and did something about it.
That’s why they can still find corpses from this period that have stakes driven through their hearts. However we’re liable to misunderstand this too. The purpose of the stakes wasn’t to kill the vampire: after all, how can you kill a corpse? How can you kill what is already dead? No, the purpose of the stake was to literally pin the creature to its grave, preventing it from physically rising to feast on the living. And stakes are just one of many ways to accomplish that goal. Corpses of suspected vampires had their heads chopped off, their leg tendons severed, their arms and legs bound in iron chains, or any other way they could think of to prevent them from escaping their coffins.
That’s the way it worked: if people started getting sick and dying, or animals disappeared, and people began to suspect a vampire, they would soon form a posse and start digging up recent burials. They would look for a corpse that didn’t seem to be decaying properly, or one that was swollen or showed signs of blood around the mouth. They would then take that corpse and do whatever they could to contain it, hoping to God that it wouldn’t “wake up” while they were doing the deed. Many villages had individuals who were given the particular responsibility of finding and binding vampires: some of these “vampire hunters” even persisted into the 1900s.
Actual belief in vampires peaked between the 17th and 18th centuries, before falling out of fashion during the enlightenment. After that something happened that would transform the vampire legend entirely. But that’s a story for next week. In the meantime, if you bemoan the newest vampire flick featuring hunky bloodsuckers that look like they came out of the pages of a fashion magazine; take heart, and remember a time when vampires were truly something to be feared! Something horrible, gross, unsettling, and terrible.
Next week we’ll find out how all that changed.
Given the magnificent Blood Moon that graced our skies early this morning, a post on werewolves seems appropriate. However, their history may surprise you. Werewolves are not as old as you might think, and the kind we’re familiar with today with bestial, half-human forms, who change at the full moon and can only be hurt by silver, is a thoroughly modern invention.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In ancient times there were some stories about men becoming wolves, but these fell almost entirely into two categories: curses and witchcraft. Ancient legends abound of men and women who were turned into wolves as a punishment by the gods for some slight or another. Other cultures have stories of witches and sorcerers who, among their many magic abilities, could take the form of an animal. However this is far from the werewolf as we understand it today. After all, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books could turn himself into a wolf (well, a big dog) by magic yet we would not consider him a werewolf but merely a wizard with magic powers. And modern werewolves are not impious pagans who were cursed to take the form of a wolf because they cheesed off a deity, especially since the legends indicate that such punishments were permanent transformations, not temporary or reoccurring. With that in mind it’s safe to say that these ancient legends are only tangentially related to werewolves as we think of them.
The Middle Ages Of course after the pagans came the Catholics. What did Medieval peasants think about werewolves? You might think that here is where the werewolf legend began, among those superstitious, ignorant, and unscientific Medievals. However the truth is that your average Medieval peasant didn’t believe in werewolves. Heck, they didn’t even believe in witches! It was the official position of the Medieval Catholic church that witches, sorcerers, warlocks, and other supernatural types were pure pagan superstition. To be sure you could still find some of the old legends of witchcraft related wolf transformations, but only in the pagan pockets of northern and eastern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Lithuania where Christianity had yet to arrive in force. Stories of men transforming into wolves were for ignorant pagans: good Christians knew better than to believe such rot. “Now Mark,” you may be asking, “How can this be? After all, weren’t the Medievals notorious for burning witches at the stake? It’s in Monty Python and everything!” Well that brings us to the next stage of the history of werewolves, and were things really get started…
The Age of Superstition (Better known as the Renaissance)
Though we typically think of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that ended with the re-arrival of reason and logic with the onset of the Renaissance, the fact is that the Renaissance could be easily be renamed “The Age of Superstition.” The period between the 15th and early 18th centuries was characterized by a mania involving all things occult, magical, or supernatural. It was during this period that the famous witch burnings of Europe occurred, as well as the majority of the notable witch trials (including America’s most famous one in Salem). It was no coincidence the interest in Alchemy and Astrology had its height during this period as well. No longer were magic circles, curses, hexes, and animal transformations dismissed as superstition. Books were published about how to identify witches, and with them treatises on the nature of werewolves. It is during this period that we begin to see the beginnings of werewolves as we know them today. Many during this period seriously believed that some men could transform themselves into the form of a wolf, and would set themselves upon their fellow men, ripping and devouring. There were actual werewolf trials were individuals were convicted of being werewolves, but most of these convictions came down alongside general convictions of witchcraft. That’s because these werewolves were still not the ones we know today. While modern werewolves acquire their curse by being bit by another werewolf, the lycanthropy of this period had to be sought out. People supposedly had to actively try to become a werewolf, and there were a variety of possible methods: rubbing the body with magic ointments, making a belt or coat out of a wolves skin and putting it on, drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint, or making a pact with demons in exchange for power. Of course there were stories of people who became werewolves against their will, but not from being bitten. Instead it was said that if a child was too harshly abused by their parents they might run away to the woods and become wild werewolves, or that those who died in mortal sin might rise from their graves in the form of a wolf: a strange cross between a werewolf and a vampire, though we’ll get to the history of the latter another time. Werewolves were different from modern ones in a few other key aspects: for one, they all became wolves instead of half-wolf half men monstrosities like we see today, it was said you could tell a werewolf from a regular wolf because a werewolf had no tail, and some believed that if you cut a werewolf in his human form you would find fur poking out of the wound, as if the person’s skin was merely a covering for the wolf that lived within. However belief in werewolves began to die down by the onset of the 1700s, along with belief in witches, sorcerers, alchemy, and the rest of the baggage of the “Age of Superstition.” The Enlightenment was coming, and there would be little room for such silly beliefs in the years to come, though a few scattered werewolf trials continued in rural parts of Eastern Europe for some time. From there werewolves would be forgotten until the mid-19th century where they, like vampires, would start to feature vaguely in Victorian horror literature. Which brings us to the werewolf’s final chapter:
The Modern Period to Today
Most of what we know about modern werewolves comes from 20th century horror movies. Turns into a wolf under the full moon? Hollywood. Werewolves are half-man half-wolf creatures that walk on two legs? Made up so that makeup and special effects would be cheaper. Werewolves can only be killed by silver? Not seen in any account of werewolves before the 20th century. The curse being spread by bite? There may be some legends that had elements of this, but it didn’t become the primary method until quite recently.
The funny thing about all this is that most of us might assume that the werewolf is a very old monster, going back to ancient legends like the vampire. But we find that it isn’t so. For hundreds of years the werewolf was simply a particular kind of witchcraft, not a proper monster in its own right at all. In many ways the werewolf is a thoroughly modern monster, a horror that was invented in the last hundred years or so.
Still, the full moon can give you a bit of a chill when the night is right; and when the forest rings with the sound of howling, who am I to say that werewolves are too young to be real monsters?
Happy blood moon.
Swiftocracy!: The History of Pencils (Involving High Tech Weaponry, Endangered Trees, and Chinese Emperors)
For the next two weeks each of my posts will be based off requests. For more information about how that happened, look here.
“The history of some completely mundane thing we use everyday.”
Let’s talk about pencils.
You know how they call the graphite inside of pencils “lead,” even though they’re made of graphite? When I was a boy I was told that they used to use lead as the filling, but now a’ days we’re smarter and use graphite because it isn’t deadly poisonous. That explanation turned out to be simultaneously completely false yet essentially true, all while muddling up the surprisingly fascinating history of the common pencil. To sort this out, let’s start from the beginning.
The word “pencil” is based off some kind of latin word that basically means paintbrush (look it up if you’re that into dead languages, I thought I’d boil down to the essentials on this one). However the precursor to the pencil is not a paintbrush at all but a tool known as the stylus that was popular in Roman times. The stylus was nothing more than a vaguely pencil shaped piece of metal. This piece of metal was used to put marks into tablets of wax or to scratch very light and hard to see words onto papyrus. Honestly the words written in wax were probably hard to see too, but if you wanted something permanent or lasting you wouldn’t be using a stylus. A stylus was for temporary jobs where quality wasn’t important, like jotting down a quick inventory of your goods, or doing some math. At some point the Romans, who loved using lead for just about anything, made lead styluses which had the added bonus of rubbing off on the material a little bit leaving a faint black mark. This is as close as we’ll get to an actual lead pencil.
People made do with styluses until somewhere between 1500 and 1560 when a fantastic discovery was made. And by “discovery” I mean “somebody with big ideas found something that the locals have known about for years and never thought was really that interesting.” In the small village of Seathwaite in England shepherds had taken to marking their sheep with some odd grey rocks they kept finding in the hills nearby. The rocks were made of graphite, and Seathwaite was (and remains to this very day) the only place on planet earth where deposits of pure graphite could be found. Seathwaite was sitting on an inexplicably pure and humongous deposit of a substance that nobody even knew existed until the 1500s. When it was properly discovered chemists at the time believed that it must be some strange variety of lead. Soon it was commonly known as “black lead,” which is why we call the graphite in our pencils “lead” to this day.
After its “discovery” people started properly mining it and sawing off big hunks of it to use as styluses. Graphite was vastly superior to lead as a simple marking tool, and far handier than ink for the writer or artist on the go. However graphite is really brittle and breaks easily (as anyone with a mechanical pencil can tell you) so it required some kind of covering to keep it together. The earliest pencils were square rods of graphite that were sawn off a big block and wrapped in string or sheepskin. Eventually somebody figured out that wood was a lot more convenient, and the modern pencil was born.
Artists, writers, and businesspeople everywhere rejoiced at the discovery of graphite and the invention of the pencil. However not long after the graphite mines were dug the English government took them over and strictly limited their output. You see graphite has properties besides being an excellent marking material. Metalworkers found that cannonball molds that were lined with graphite produced incredibly smooth cannonballs. Incredibly smooth cannonballs fire much farther and more accurately than those that are produced without the graphite lining. Britain was establishing itself as a major naval power at this time and they’d just been handed exclusive access to the material necessary for creating the most high-tech cannonballs in the world. They soon put the entire mine under guard. They were so security conscious, and so determined to prevent their enemies from getting pure graphite, that they would mine out as much as they would need for the next few years and then flood the entire mine. When they ran out they would pump out the water, mine some more, and then flood it again.
Enough graphite was released (or smuggled out) to support a small pencil industry. They were so popular that a method was devised to create solid graphite out of a mixture of graphite dust and various chemicals. Impure graphite deposits were found in Germany, and the Germans began selling to the rest of Europe (though their pencils were of far lower quality than the solid British versions). During the Napoleonic wars France found its pencil supplies cut off from both Britain and Germany, and devised a way to make graphite out of graphite powder and clay. Almost all graphite today is made using a similar method, as Seathwaite remains the only location where natural pure graphite can be found and the mines were played out there years ago.
Somewhere in all this pencils went from being square to round. British pencils were recognizable by still having a square core (since they were all sawed off of blocks of graphite) while other pencils had the round core that we’re used to today.
In the 1800’s American’s started making their own pencils so they wouldn’t have to import them. Making pencils was a slow process, and an American by the name of Ebenezer Wood sought to automate it. He came up with a lot of good ideas, but the one that has lasted the longest is the hexagon shaped pencils we’re most used to today. Hexagons could be cut out of wood with far less waste than circles, and the practice stuck.
Another pencil innovation from America was the discovery that Eastern Red Cedar was fantastic for making pencil casings. The wood doesn’t splinter easily, is durable, and smells nice. Soon Eastern Red Cedar was being exported to pencil manufacturers around the world. By the turn of the century Eastern Red Cedar was in such high demand and short supply that people began tearing apart old cedar barns to turn the wood into pencils. It got so bad that during WWII the British government outlawed pencil sharpeners because they wasted too much valuable wood and graphite. All pencil sharpening had to be done the economical way, with a knife. Eventually it was discovered that the Incense Cedar, a tree native to the mountains of California, worked just as well. Today most pencils are made with Incense Cedar wood, unless they’re the really cheap kind.
In 1858 somebody got the bright idea to attach an eraser to the back of a pencil. (INCIDENTALLY, erasers have an interesting history too. People used to use sandstone and pumice to erase pencil marks until it was discovered that breadcrumbs erased marks well. Then in 1770 Edward Naime claimed that he accidentally picked up a piece of rubber when he was reaching for a piece of bread and found it to be a superior eraser (this may or may not be true, as he did make his living as the one of the first eraser salesmen). Before this point nobody really had too much use for rubber; in fact, rubber got its name because of its ability to “rub out” pencil marks. Neat.)
It was around that same time that a huge deposit of high quality graphite was discovered in northern China and Siberia. By this time the Seathwaite deposit was almost used up, so “Chinese lead” was soon known to make the best pencils around. In the 1890s an Austrian company started painting its high quality pencils yellow to signify their luxury status and to make people think about China. Up until this point most pencils were unpainted, to show off the wood. Yellow was associated with royalty in China, in part because of the fabled “Yellow Emperor ” Huang Ti who in ancient times supposedly invented the bow and arrow, wooden carts, and writing. So yellow reminded Chinese of the Yellow Emperor and writing, which reminded of the western world of China, which made them think of all that high quality Chinese graphite. Competing pencil manufacturers released their own yellow painted luxury pencils. Soon everyone was painting their pencils yellow regardless of whether they had any Chinese graphite within them. Today a yellow pencil is as common as dirt, and usually signifies cheapness and mass production. Presumably if they had called Huang Ti the “Red Emperor” thousands of years ago we’d be up to our armpits in red pencils instead. History is funny like that.
So there you have it. From the Roman stylus to the modern Ticonderoga the pencil has a long and inexplicably interesting history. Where would the world be without it today?
Probably using pens, now that I think about it.
By the middle of the 1st century the Roman Empire had a fairly solid footing in Britain. They controlled most of southern Britain and had built colonies and settlements which were doing well. Though there were still hostile tribes to the north the Romans had made alliances with many of the tribes near their own borders. One of these tribes, the Iceni, was ruled by the chieftain Prasutagus. In order to ensure peace and prosperity for his tribe Prasutagus named the Roman emperor as a co-heir of his kingdom, alongside his daughters. However after his death the Romans did not recognize his daughter’s claim. They took complete control of their territories, flogged Prasutagus’s wife Boudicca, and raped his daughters. Seeking justice and revenge against these invaders from the south Boudicca stirred up the Iceni people into a revolt, along with a neighboring tribe known as the Trinovantes.
This is the kind of story that blockbuster movies are made from. A peaceful and proud people are betrayed by a foreign empire. A woman, recently widowed and brutally beaten while her daughters are violated stirs up the countryside, driving the invaders out and restoring freedom to the oppressed. When I started reading about Boudicca I wanted her to succeed very badly. It is a prime example of the “underdog” ideal, and Americans love an underdog.
Of course Boudicca isn’t purely sympathetic. Her rebellion strikes out at a Roman colony known for its oppressive practices. The Romans, not suspecting much trouble and with the main army off fighting to the west, are completely overwhelmed and handily defeated. The colony is utterly destroyed and everyone within killed. It is a little harder to empathize with the underdog when they go around slaughtering entire towns. All the same I still wanted them to succeed. When it comes to slaughtering people the Romans are quite a bit worse off than the Iceni, after all. The Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, returns from conquest to find himself facing a rebellion of massive proportions. Over 100,000 rebels were assembled and marched on Londinium, a wealthy Roman settlement. Paulinus has less than 10,000 soldiers to defend it. He decides to abandon the town, and encourages the populace to follow his example. When the rebels arrive they find no resistance. They burn the city to the ground and kill everyone who remained behind.
While Paulinus attempted to assemble more men the rebels marched on his position. They were confident. The Romans may have been far better equipped, trained, and disciplined, but they were outnumbered at least 10 to 1. The rebels had few good weapons but were tough fighters nonetheless, and ten men with clubs can easily defeat one man with a sword and armor. They can defeat him, that is, provided that they can all attack him at once. Paulinus was smarter than that. He camped his forces in a gully with steep walls and a thick forest to the rear. It would be difficult for an army to attack from behind, and the narrow gully would prevent any attacking force from flanking or putting their superior numbers to good use. Boudicca and her massive army found the rebels hunkering down. Confident in her superiority of numbers and with justice on her side she began an assault on the Roman position. Everything was in the balance. If Paulinus was defeated here then the only soldiers remaining in Britain would be a smattering of isolated legions guarding small settlements. Though she likely did not know it Nero, the current emperor, was considering simply abandoning Britain: after all it was simply a backwater province full of troublesome barbarians on the other side of a large channel. If Boudicca succeeded it is likely that the Romans would have left the island and the Iceni, along with the other tribes, would be free once more.
The Iceni charged up the gully, right into a rain of Roman javelins (known as pilum). The javelin barrage slowed their charge, and a second volley scattered their lines. Seizing the advantage Paulinus ordered his troops to charge into the fray. The well-disciplined soldiers, equipped with armor, shields, and proper weapons, crashed into the Iceni forces like an anvil falling on a pile of hard-boiled eggs. The rebels were unable to flank the Roman troops because of the gully walls. The men in front, dying by the dozen, tried to retreat. They ran right into the still advancing ranks behind them, turning the gully into a giant mosh pit with no room to manuever. The Romans continued their advance, annihilating the rebel forces. In the end the rebellion was scattered and destroyed. Paulinus soon returned order to the province. Boudicca either died of sickness not long after or committed suicide; her exact fate is unsure.
Reading about her horrific defeat left me feeling very sad. I wished that I could go back in time and tell her not to fight the Romans there. To wait them out, or to sack more settlements until Paulinus was forced to come to her. It seemed terribly unjust. People rise up against their oppressors and the oppressors obliterate them. What kind of story is that? At the time it must have seemed a terrible tragedy, especially as the bodies of tens of thousands of rebels littered the battlefield.
But then I started thinking. What if I could go back in time and make it so that Boudicca succeeded? What if the Romans were driven off the islands and the tribes were free once more? The consequences of such a change of history became immediately apparent. Almost 250 years later Christianity would become the religion of the Roman empire. The Roman communities in Britain became primary Christian over time. If the Roman Empire had been driven off then Britain would have remained pagan. What’s more St. Patrick would never have existed. St. Patrick was born and raised in Roman Britain, and he later converted the Celtic peoples of Ireland to the Christian faith. Those Irish Christians would bring Christianity to modern-day Scotland and found monasteries all over the British Isles. They sent missionaries not only to Scotland but to mainland Europe where they converted many barbarian tribes to the Christian faith. They also devoted themselves to copying ancient Roman and Greek texts, preserving them through the time of unrest during and after the fall of Rome. The Irish monks preserved much knowledge in this way. If Boudicca had succeeded then none of this would have come to pass. What seemed at the time to be a great tragedy and injustice was, in the end, for the best.
It makes me wonder what events happening in our own time will be transformed in the light of history thousands of years hence. I am reminded that we can’t see the big picture. Terrible things happen that cannot be predicted: earthquakes level cities, typhoons destroy whole regions, dictators oppress the masses, good causes fail, and injustice appears to prevail. Could it be that in these tragedies lie the seeds of great good that will someday grow and flourish? It certainly seems possible. It would have been amazing if Boudicca had won; but if she had the world would likely have been the worse for it.
It really makes you think.