Tag Archives: documentaries

The Normans – documentary by Robert Bartlett

A salutary trend in the BBC’s documentary programming is the production of intense, interesting, 3-part documentaries by the actual experts in the fields — such as Mary Beard’s excellent Meet the Romans and Thomas Asbridge’s The Crusades (no DVD, here’s the book). The first of these that I encountered was The Normans by Professor Robert Bartlett, Wardlaw Professor of Mediaeval History at St Andrews. When it was broadcast, I only caught the second episode, so I happily purchased the DVDs when they became available.

Most people really only know the Normans as the Frenchified Vikings who conquered England in 1066. Bartlett brings us into contact with them from France to the British Isles, from Italy to Sicily and the Holy Land — showing us not just their battles and politics but their art and piety as well. An expansionist power, the Normans were also great promoters of the arts, as Bartlett demonstrates — especially in the final episode.

The first episode of this documentary is called ‘Men from the North’. In this episode we learn of the origins of the Normans and their acquisition of Normandy in the tenth century. This episode takes us from Rollo to William ‘the Bastard’ (or Conqueror) in 1066. We see the ambitions of the early Normans, like Rollo, and their consolidation of power in the North of France, essentially independent of the French King.

We also meet Norman Romanesque architecture, elegantly displayed in buildings such as Mont St-Michel. A picture of architecture goes well beyond 1000 words attempting to describe it:

Episode two is ‘Conquest’ — 1066 and beyond. The details of the events leading to William’s conquest of the powerful and wealthy kingdom of England in 1066 are set forth for us, but the story doesn’t stop there (as it does in so many minds). The viewer is brought into contact with the Harrowing of the North, which subdued Saxon nobles who would not submit to William and ended with the Conqueror (or Bastard) feasting in the ruins of Yorkminster dressed in his full regalia, sent up from Westminster.

But conquest in the North did not end there. The Normans pressed westwards into Wales, and thence into Ireland. The local nobles resisted the Normans for centuries, but their eventual absorption into England’s domain demonstrates the forcefulness of the ambition and activity of the Norman kings and their successors, the Plantagenets (who are the subject of Bartlett’s next documentary series; also excellent — not on DVD yet). The Kingdom of the Scots did the best of Norman England’s neighbours — Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ (yes, from Shakespeare’s Scottish play) was clever enough to secure the fealty of Norman knights by making them into his own vassals instead of the Bastard’s successors.

The third episode, which I watched this morning, is ‘Normans of the South’. Here the story begins in the early 11th century with Norman mercenaries in Southern Italy. These men eventual become the major power of Apulia and Calabria, warring against the Byzantine Empire that still ruled in much of Greek Italy — and even against Leo IX, the first pope to take arms. From southern Italy, the Normans expanded to Muslim Sicily. The first King of Sicily, Roger II, made Palermo a centre of culture and exploited Sicily’s position as a crossroads of the three great Mediterranean cultures of Greek Christians, Latin Christians, and Arabic Muslims. His royal chapel looks like this:

The Normans of the South also participated in the Crusades — Bohemond (an enemy of the Byzantines they were meant to be assisting) established his own independent duchy of Antioch, while his more pious nephew Tancred was the first nobleman to enter Jerusalem and became Prince of Galilee. Duke Robert of Normandy, son of William the Conqueror, also came on Crusade, reminding us that the Crusaders were not all landless younger sons.

The DVD set also came with a doc called ‘Domesday’. I’ve not viewed it yet, but it claims to be awesome. Anyway, this was an excellent documentary series, and I recommend it to you highly.

Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings, Episode 1

Me and a pyramid at Giza. On a camel.

Me and a pyramid at Giza. On a camel.

Today I watched the first episode of what looks to be a very interesting two-part documentary called Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings by Dr Joann Fletcher. If you live in the UK, you can watch it on the BBC here. This episode is called ‘Life.’

Hitherto, my contact with ancient Egypt has been with Pharoahs and mummies, with its monuments and suchlike as well as with, inevitably, the afterlife. Some items from daily life creep in, such as strange head-rests for whilst sleeping that I saw at the Royal Ontario Museum. One of the better Egyptian exhibits is the current permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that traces Egyptian culture from pre-Pharaonic times to the Nubian pharaohs.

Fletcher takes you into the world of daily in the 18th Dynasty, the reign of Amenhotep III (1400s BC), to the village uncovered at Deir el-Medina. The Egyptian name of the village was, in fact, The Village. It was populated by the workers and artisans who constructed the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, about two miles away. Here we are brought face-to-face with Kha and his wife Meryt.

Thankfully, their mummies have never been unwrapped, so not literally face-to-face. Rather, we get to see paintings of them both, a statue of Kha, and the gilt grave-mask of Meryt. The tomb of this couple was found very well-stocked with everything the pair would have needed for the afterlife — which means everything from their own lives.

Kha was the chief architect for Amenhotep III. He designed and helped execute Amenhotep’s tomb. He was a well-to-do, free Egyptian who was fond of black eyeliner and who was so good at his job that the Pharaoh gave him a golden cubit relating his achievements as an architect.

One of the tombs Kha began work on was that of Akenaten, son of Amenhotep III. But that tomb was never finished because of Akenaten’s attempted religious reform and the building of the imperial city of Amarna.

Meryt was the ‘Lady of the House’ — an ancient Egyptian housewife. She would bake the bread and brew the beer made from the grain given to them as their payment (Egypt had no money as yet) and raise their three children.

I could go on. All sorts of details about daily life and the lives of Kha and Meryt. Fletcher read for us ancient Egyptian love poems from potsherds found at Deir el-Medina. We learned about courtship. We learned a bit about religion beyond the giant temples. We learned about food and payment and … life. Life in ancient Egypt.

Hopefully, oh friends in the UK, you’ll have a chance to view this documentary.