mon 10/08/2020

Domesday, BBC Two/ Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Domesday, BBC Two/ Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, BBC Four

Domesday, BBC Two/ Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, BBC Four

How - and how not - to make history programmes for the television

Dr Stephen Baxter with the Exon DomesdayBBC/Kemi Majekodunmi

What was originally a coincidence of reviewing – two dispatches from the Dark Ages, Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons on BBC Four and Domesday on BBC Two – in fact turned into a remarkably instructive diptych of how and how not to make history programmes for the television.

They say television adds 20 pounds, but what this really means is that it accentuates what is there already

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To dr Ramirez I was sorry that you accepted without question the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. There is substantial research suggesting that it did not happen in anything like the way Bede described and most historians have long accepted; i.e., there was no mass invasion. There was probably an increased movement of people from north west Europe into eastern and southern England resulting from the vacuum left by the Romans, but that was the richest and most densely populated part of the country; probably two million people lived there and there is no evidence that they were replaced or displaced by an Anglo Saxon invasion. Nor is there evidence for a massive depopulation at this time of north west Europe. So, no battle sites in England, no deserted villages in Friesland. Bede’s myth has also led to a long-held and widespread belief that the Anglo Saxons brought the English language here but without a massive invasion and genocidal destruction of the Romano/English people a new language could not have been established in 150 to 200 years. With neither invasion nor genocide, we have to accept a continuity in population and consequently, the origins of the English language have to be put back to pre-Roman times. A good argument exists for a common population in eastern England and what is now north west Europe going back to the mesolithic, with later seaborn links after the flooding of Doggerland. I think Caesar might support that. It would have been useful had you been able to link Anglo Saxon art found in England with finds from north west Europe from c500 AD (or, following my argument, from before that). It is quite possible that there was a flowering of art in England after the Romans left. I was also disappointed in your treatment of the arrival of christianity; Augustine’s mission was not that significant: christianity survived the departure of the Romans . To repeat the silly myth about Angles and Angels was not helpful. Augustine came to a court with a christian queen, as I remember. You underplayed the influence of the Celtic church, which was evangelising throughout the north long before Augustine’s arrival, and the survivals in the west, particularly at Whithorn; hence you missed the artistic influence of the celts on the east of England in your Anglo-Saxon period. (I particularly missed the Bewcastle cross). There is much more Celtic influence than you noted; a nod to the neolithic tradition at eg Newgrange would have been informative. The contribution of Rome was surely less important. I recall from your programme only the depiction of feet. Your argument for a synthesis of styles of Roman and Anglo Saxon was certainly not established on your evidence. I was not happy about the impression you gave of a homogeneous Anglo Saxon art stretching from c500 to the Franks casket of c 800 but unfortunately, it is not possible to remember all the little niggles without seeing the programme again, which I can’t. I found your reading of and in old English quite beautiful and wish I could hear more. Richard Frost, 11 Catherine St Whitehaven

Evidence? Gildas, Nennius and Taliesin all indicate that there had been a considerable influx - an invasion if you prefer - and the accounts of, or references to, the battles of Mons Badonicus, Chester, Catraeth (Catterick) and Dyrham all back this up. How good is the argument you mention for the "common population" as you call it? Caesar's Gallic War Bk 4 doesn't mention it, and I'm not aware that Suetonius does either. And where are the peer-reviewed papers to back the claim up?

In regards to the programme I enjoyed Dr Ramirez’s enthusiastic approach to the subject. However I was disappointed by Dr Ramirez appointing this continual 'lazy' acceptation of an Anglo-Saxon invasion for this period, 400-600 AD. If she reviewed some of the recent research into this subject she would have realised there is very little evidence to support the 'mass invasion' theory. With the scientific advances in Archaeology, instead of finding mass graves, evidence of invasion / genocide, we are finding evidence of integration in some parts of Eastern England. Even within Bede's work, the names of the early Wessex kings strangely have British names. The only contemporary writing we possess for this period, Gildas (De Excidio), describes 3 boat loads of Saxons, not exactly an invasion force. Plus the battles mentioned by Robert have never been properly identified or their location found and all except Mona Badonicus were mentioned in literature written many centuries later. Only Mons Badonicus was mentioned by Gildas, and this a British victory. From the little evidence we have for this period, the best that can be said in respect of an Anglo Saxon invasion, is that its numbers were maybe no more than 15,000. It was predominately a warrior class, whom eventually became the ruling elite over the native population.

I watched both documentaries; I know a little bit about the subjects covered, though neither falls within my own academic field. I'm glad you were enthused by Dr Ramirez, but I'm astonished by your negativity about Dr Baxter. I thought his programme was excellent, though an old pro like Michael Wood might have given the same material a little bit of extra 'zing'. I don't watch much telly and most of what I see gives me a headache, so I didn't mind the quiet visual style of 'Domesday'. The 'greatest sin' of historical broadcasting is not eschewing eye-candy; it is conveying misleading information. You say that the figure on the Finglesham belt buckle is Odin, and indeed this identification was presented during 'Treasures' pretty much as a fact. In reality, that interpretation of the piece is not very much more scholarly than Mr Frost's theory of pre-Roman English (see previous comment). I should make it clear that I'm not blaming Dr Ramirez for this. I have read some of her academic work and it is excellent, which makes it all the more disappointing to me that she was involved in delivering such an unscholarly script - I sincerely hope she is given complete script control in her future projects, and that her next producer picks the brains of the 'Domesday' team rather than being seduced by the 'infotainment' culture that your review so sadly typifies.

Dr Ramirez would have had greater credibility had she not continually referred to the 5th century as the 4th, the 6th as the fifth, used prostate for prostrate and showed a caption of 'Durham Cathedral, Northumberland'.

Why all the camera shots of Dr. Ramirez's worn-down boots- a visual metaphor for a journey through time, perhaps? Sue W

Thanks for these very scholarly comments! It's not my period, so I won't comment on her historical accuracy, but I think it's a little unfair to say that what I really want is 'infotainment'. My point is much more about the aptness of the medium: Dr Baxter has little charisma and the idea for the show was not especially visual, therefore don't put it on the TV; Dr Ramirez has plenty and her idea needed illustrating, so do. Obviously, there's no point praising something because it's entertaining but wrong: what I was saying was that you have to choose your idea and your presenter and your medium with great care. @philaletheia (neat name!) in particular: you used a slightly sophistic trick, if you don't mind me saying: you said 'broadcasting' where I said 'television': as I make clear, TV and radio are very different beasts, and you can't deny that Dr Baxter's show didn't suit the TV.

OK, re-reading my comment, I was a bit unfair to your review and possibly to 'Treasures' as well. But I do think tv would be impoverished if it was only allowed to cover subjects that were inherently 'televisual'. We'd never see any political history, for example, if that were the case. Anyway, I shall be looking out for future broadcasts by both these presenters - and also for your review of them!

The arrogance of Dr Ramirez is utterly breathtaking. She offered not one jot of evidence that snakes and birds related to (much later) Norse mythology, she had clearly never read Eric Stanley on Anglo-Saxon paganism. She refused to acknowledge that the subject had been studied by scholars before her. To indulge this level of superficial assertiveness in this way is a disgrace, those who support her are guilty of dumbing down art history. Nor can she distinguish the shoes shown in the MacDurnan Gospels from bare feet. Michelle Brown would have done a far better programme.

I couldn't agree with you more, Cute. Even I, who am a mere laywoman, could see they were shoes or slippers not cloven feet. She's a fool.

oh dear - although i'm not a oxbridge academic specialist, i do have eyes and even i can see that and anglo saxon 'swirl', vs. a celtic whorl is no evidence for a postulated stylistic, religious and cultural gulf between the 'anglo-saxon' and the 'celtic christian' - possibly the high quantity of mascara around Dr Nina's eyes is obscuring her capacity to see clearly and make sound judgements? she really ought to buy herself some books printed in the 21st century and stop abusing her free library pass at the Bodleian

All you "SNOOTS" (Toffee nosed tories) Who have criticised and slagged off. Dr Nina Ramirez, should be ashamed of yourselves, she is one of the best and a wonderful narrator of her subject and of the english and Nordic language, quite extraordinary, can any of you snoots match anything quite like it? I doubt so, she was a breath of fresh air, a real Woman and all you can do is criticise her, the stiletto heel boots, looked great, she looked great, also did a wonderfull job of it... More power to You, Dr Nina Ramirez and thank you for such a well presented programme tonight, the 24th August 2010. From an avid supporter... Mr John, bone specialist.

Watched "Treasures..." for the first time and thought they'd resurrected a presenter from the Clothes Show and given her 20mg of speed. Lots of walking, lots of talking. Little said, grand sweeping generalisations were made interrupted by primary school history. The minute the Ashmoleum appeared i waited for the "when I went to Oxford.." bit and I wasn't disappointed (although interstingly she didn't study history there). In fact her knowledge is spread thinly, an admirable Art Historian but not one who actually informed me about anything i couldn't have got out of a basic Norse Myth book. The only thing worth watching is how she frantically bobs her head and chants "yes,mmm,yes,hhhmmmm" when soemone's responding to a question.

she was absolutely, incredibly bad. she had not done her homework, she did not know her subject, and her manner, when dealing with other people was laughable. she also referred to chancel as 'Chancery', amongst other blazing gaffes. when she is on in future, i will be reaching for the controller to change channels.

Having been gripped by the scholarly approach of Dr Baxter, who was somewhat dry and plodding, but extremely informative, I waited with anticipation for the next instalment. However, one hour on and I had learned nothing new. Same old same old, with disconcerting and elementary vocabulary and factual errors. Very disappointing. (And was what it with those boots??)

To John Gerry, who wrote about us Snoots... there are plenty of other programmes you could watch, with 'real women' in them (big brother, X factor et al). Most of us snoots watch programmes like this to be informed, not titillated, and Dr Ramirez did neither.

Just watched the Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons and was amazed at how poor it was. Assertion followed assertion, none of it backed up with any evidence. At one point she used the Sutton Hoo hoard (7th-9th centuries) as evidence that the Anglo-Saxon invaders (5th century) didn't live in "hovels". A candidate for the worst historical documentary ever made.

I have to confess that the Anglo-Saxon time is not my area of expertise, but as an archaeologist and architectural historian I was absolutely amazed that such a program was broadcast in the first place. It was worse that what some of my students have been producing. Generalisations, methodological mistakes, outdated (even for a non expert like myself) research. It was a pity that the Anglo-Saxon hoard did not receive better treatment by the BBC.

Ah! I see the historical revisionists are at it again, denying any significant Anglo-Saxon, i.e. English influence on England (the country they named after themselves), the English language (which they brought here), and the majority of English place-names being of Old English origin. According to these so-called scholars, an insignificant number of these people managed to change the name of a country, force the natives to speak English and exchange their own culture for theirs, as well as then forcing those who lived in the area now known as Wales to call it such - a name derived from an Old English word, meaning 'foreigner', effectively referring to themselves as such. Forgive me if I regard that as complete claptrap. I'm sick to death of hearing the same old rubbish about "there isn't any evidence to suggest..." Well as so much evidence has no doubt been lost then it's a rather big assumption to put this forward as evidence that only a small amount of people had such a major influence. The same goes for the DNA evidence (that's a laugh) that's put forward to support this twaddle. Theories based on dodgy science which prove nothing - especially when you realise that such samples have been taken from remains that have been contaminated and decaying for well over a thousand years. The fact that geneticists hold several different theories on the subject only bears out my point. Unfortunately academics can also look at history in regard to it fitting their own agendas, be they political or otherwise. Write your own English ancestors out of their own history if you must, but not all of us are convinced with the feeble evidence that you provide in your endeavours. As far as I'm concerned, you're too wrapped up in your Celtocentric (my word) theories. Well you can shove them up your **** (replace the asterisks with a nice Old English word for backside).

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