Also, Agincourt was bullshit

Speaking of Henry V, the myth of Agincourt is bullshit. Every armchair dilettante historian will always wax poetic about the glories of the English longbow and the virility of King Henry V but such ridiculousness belies the true nature of war … and the world.

Wars are never simply won by technology. And the world is never changed by the sole “great man.” These are convenient lies-simplifications to avoid the reality of our complex chaotic existence. Simplifications to justify the unjustified, unsupportable (over the long term), and immoral accrual of overwhelming socio-economic power in the hands of a tiny group of privileged males because they “earned” it, “deserve” it, and/or “made empires” through their own indomitable will to power. A laughable conceit, if not so destructive to all of humankind.

But I digress.

 Illustration of Agincourt from
Chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet: en deux livres, avec pièces justificatives

While the longbow may have played a decisive role during one phase of the battle known as Agincourt (and in some ways during the Hundred Years War), the battle itself would be a historical footnote, like the resounding British victories on Long Island and Manhattan during the Revolutionary War, if not for factors completely unrelated to technology or Henry V’s leadership/martial skills. In other words, Henry V and his relatively small band would have inevitably been forced out of France regardless of Agincourt if the French had their shit together. Which they didn’t.

During this time, the French Civil War (1407-1435) divided what we now know as “France,” primarily between Burgundy and Armagnac. Screw the myth of English longbowmen, Henry faced only Armagnac forces, who were also already technically fighting Burgundian forces–and the Burgundian”French” troops happily sat by as the Armagnacs lost to Harry at Agincourt. At other times, the Burgundians actively provided aid to beleaguered English forces.

You see, if France was united, even if the English forces had somehow won Agincourt against both the Armagnacs and Burgundians, they would have inevitably lost the war/campaign.

Indeed, the moment the French Civil War ended (or, more accurately, when this particular phase of intra-French rivalry ended) and French forces united (Burgundy, Armagnac, etc.), there was no way England could keep any part of France over the long term (Ah, but Calais, … what of Calais? Go back to your armchair).

Despite this cold and stark reality, the (typically male) historian will repeat the childish rhetoric of the “strong” King Henry V who gained France and then his “weak” son King Henry VI who lost it (he was weak-minded, mind you, but that’s not the point). Utter bullshit. No English King could have maintained such a powerful foothold in a united France (=at least Burgundy+Armagnac).

Moreover, even at home, King Henry VI’s “weakness” was also beyond his control, as the internecine fighting between the so-called Yorkists (who at times controlled the town of Lancaster and not York) and the so-called Lancastrians (who at time controlled the city of York but not Lancaster) was also inevitable, although made very lively by an array of fascinating and capable characters (alas, poor Warwick the “kingmaker,” the Percys, the Nevilles, the Beauforts, the Baratheons, …). Moreover, in these “Wars of the Roses,” * the French played an important role in almost every decisive win by either side-another fact usually glossed over in the myth-making history of “Great Men.”

It’s impossible to reconcile a coherent and full understanding of real world facts with the predominant historical myths of “great” man determining the destinies of countries/wars through their own merit and brilliance, and/or “weak” leaders losing their countries/wars through their inherent “weaknesses,” “fatal flaws,” and/or “corrupt ways.” Utter bullshit. And incomprehensible as a belief system to anyone who reads and understands the facts of the historical record (vs. those read “biographies” of …. great men).

Yet this myth of the Great Man is alive and well today, and actively rotting away the foundations of our democracy, our economy, and actively sabotaging any rational attempts at planning for the future of humankind. But I guess it is helping to build our new “Republic,” our Grand Republic of privileged (mostly) white, (mostly) male Great Leaders. Huzzah!


* The name “Wars of the Roses” is an anachronism, as the English for hundreds of years called them simply the “civil wars.” The name “Wars of the Roses” didn’t gain use until the 1800’s, after Sir Walter Scott popularized the name in a novel (based on a pretty cool garden scene, Act 2, Sc. 4, in Shakespeare’s H6p2, which itself was written more than a 100 years after those civil wars). But you can easily prove me wrong by finding the phrase being actively used and understood by any populace anywhere before 1829. Please, go ahead.

Not that the white and red roses weren’t significant, but the truth is H7 magnified their significance in choosing his emblem of “reconciliation,” a combo of the red and white roses, as the Yorkist and Lancastrian forces had a number of symbols, emblems, and sigils over the course of those civil wars, and roses never figured highly among them (particularly as identifiers of own’s forces in battle).

H7’s, the Tudor rose of reconciliation, with Yorkist red somewhat more dominant even though H7 was a Lancastrian (a politically astute choice):

The White Rose of Lancaster (not so important as a visual representation of Lancastrian forces, particularly in battle, before the reconciliation):

The Red Rose of York (never so important as a visual representation of Lancastrian forces, particularly in battle, before the reconciliation):

Wha-huh? King Harry a dupe?

I was just re-watching the Henry V part of The Hollow Crown and was gobsmacked by the first scene, where the Archbishop of Canterbury plans to avoid taxes by convincing young King Harry to attack France.

Yeah, that’s what I said. I’ve watched/read this play multiple times and I didn’t remember that little chat.

This is no interpretation: the characters are quite clear–what matters most to them is stopping this bill (of new taxes on the Church); getting Henry V to attack France is simply the means to that end:

Ely. But, my good lord,

how now for mitigation of this bill

urged by the commons? Doth his majesty

Incline in it, or no?

Cant. He seems indifferent,

Or rather swaying more upon our part

… ;

For I have made an offer to his majesty,

As touching France, to give a greater sum

Than ever did at one time the clergy yet

Did to his predecessor’s part withal.

H5, Act 1, Sc. I, lines 69-81

Nice. Yes, I had forgotten that the first conversation in the play was between two people contriving to manipulate the young king into a war in order to avoid taxes. Moreover, while this reasoning is also in Holinshed,* Shakespeare reverses Holinshed in terms of the Tennis Ball Embassy, where the Dauphin mocks Henry by sending him a “treasure” of tennis balls, which happens in Holinshed before the Archbishop’s justification of war with France, not after, as in Shakespeare.

In all, this makes a joke of Henry’s seemingly wise and circumspect warning to the Archbishop below about the evils of war before the Archbishop attempts to justify a war with France.

For God doth know how many now in health

Shall drop their blood in approbation

Of what your reverence shall incite us to.

Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,

How you awake our sleeping sword of war;

We charge you in the name of God, take heed.

For never two such kingdoms did contend

Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops

Are every one a woe, a sore complaint

‘Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords

That makes such waste in brief mortality.

H5, Act 1, Sc. II, lines 18-28
[Yagottalove “our sleeping sword of war”-perhaps the title for a documentary about how the American public was misled into a war with Iraq?]

Yeah, good King Harry’s not about to just jump into a war with France, … just watch what happens next.

After the Archbishop’s lengthy justification speech, which Laurence Olivier’s movie version rightly portrays as completely incomprehensible (sometimes even to the Archbishop himself), the Dauphin’s ambassadors come on stage with their treasure of tennis balls. This insult is the last straw, so now Dirty Harry’s gonna cross the Channel and beat the shit out of the Dauphin and his country:

… I will dazzle all the eyes of France,

Yea, strike the dauphin blind to look on us.

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his

Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul

Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance

That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows

shall this, his mock, mock out of their dear husbands,

Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down,

And some are yet ungotten and unborn

That shall have cause to curse the dauphin’s scorn.

H5, Act 1, Sc. II, lines 275-288

So all it takes is an Archbishop who wants to avoid taxes coinciding with a stupid and admittedly very unwise mocking practical joke (which, remember, happened in Holinshed before the Archbishop’s speech) to start a full-fledged war with another country across the English Channel?

[Yagottalove “mock castles down”-also a fine title for a book/short story/movie. About what? Misplaced rage? The rise of FoxNews?]

Granted, Shakespeare’s audience would probably have no problem with any of this, and still venerate the “fighting” and “proud” King Henry depicted here. Who the hell cares about the particulars anyway? The man on the Tudor street held no illusions about the moral/ethical justification for war: that’s the King’s problem, we’re just the King’s subjects.** Besides, wasn’t Agincourt awesome?? Dude.

Still, it seems strange to bother even having it in there at all. Why? To be historically accurate? Leaving things out was never a problem for Shakespeare, never mind the fact his sources weren’t accurate in the first place.

But this particular reference would have some powerful overtones for Shakespeare’s audience. Some 60 years earlier Queen Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had done far, far worse to the Church by essentially taking everything away. I’m not referring to making England a Protestant country, but rather the wholesale looting and destruction of monasteries, priories, friaries, and convents that followed (much of the loot of which Henry VIII did indeed use to prosecute his wars). Unlike the mythical and distant battle of Agincourt, the “dissolution of the monasteries” would be something still very much in the living memory of Shakespeare’s audience.

Frankly I don’t know how Shakespeare’s audience would hear this opening conversation, but I doubt they would have seen these prelates as the laughable fops portrayed in Olivier’s Henry V. At this point, anti-Catholic tensions were high, and this Archbishop of Canterbury may have been seen as a conniving, money-grubbing sonuvabitch using big fancy words and convoluted “learned” arguments to start a war so he could stay rich. Or perhaps the complete opposite–the opening chat being a subtle and sad foreshadowing of a much later King who ruthlessly took much more than mere “taxes” but some of the institutions themselves?

Or possibly both?


* The events in many of Shakespeare’s history plays follow the Holinshed Chronicles. Indeed, sometimes Shakespeare uses the exact same descriptive phrases, such as here, where the Archbishop says the new tax intends to take “As much as would maintain, to the king’s honor / Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights, / Six thousand and two hundred good esquires / And to relief of lazars and weak age / Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil, / A hundred almshouses, right well supplied; / And to the coffers of the king beside, / A thousand pounds by th’year.” Holinshed says the bill would “maintain, to the honor of the king and defense of the realm, fifteen earls, fifteen hundred knights, six thousand and two hundred esquires, and a hundred alms-houses for relief only of the poor, impotent, and needy persons, and the king to have clearly to his coffers twenty thousand pounds, … .” This is a very minor example, Shakespeare elsewhere lifts entire descriptive paragraphs from Holinshed.

** See, e.g., H5, Act IV, sc. 1, lines 131-134 (or Star Trek:TNG, S3E10, “The Defector,” as spoken by a disguised Patrick Stewart *not* playing Captain Picard, but rather playing the character Bates): “Ay, or more than we should seek after. For we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.”

Old blog entry- Japanese Prints: Inventors under Adversity!!

[originally written 2012: see:]

These just tickle my fancy, mostly based on what I’m imagining they’re about. You can find them on the Library of Congress website, prints and photographs collection, and reading the notes, you will find they are Japanese woodcuts, dated “between 1850 and 1900,” donated by a Mrs. E. Crane Chadbourne to the Sackler Gallery of Art in 1930.

I imagine the prints to be part of the society-wide remaking of Japan before, during, and after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the Japanese “westernized” themselves with a vengeance. One of the prints has typewritten notes at the bottom, indicating that the “Department of Education” was somehow involved. These prints are the equivalent of medieval morality plays and Soviet posters from the 1920’s; they are proselytizing pieces of propaganda, intending to teach the viewer how to think about things. They were trying to create a new ethos. An “innovation nation” perhaps? Yes, but the real thing, not the pro-“entrepeneurship” schlock that seems to ooze from every corner of the corporate media machine nowadays.

What I find funny is that all of these Western inventors/innovators seem to be beseiged or a little crazy in every woodcut: are we really supposed to emulate them?

James Watt,
Inventor of the Steam Engine

James Watt Japanese Wood Cut
This is “James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, collect[ing] steam from a boiling kettle while his aunt rebukes him for his nonsense.” Wha-a-a-at?!? I have no idea if this is based on any historical reality. See Watt’s Wikipedia entry.

Bernard Palissy,
Inventor of Enamelled Pottery

Palissy Japanese Wood Cut
“Bernard Palissy, inventor of enamelled pottery, burns chairs to keep the furnace going” while his wife flees in terror and his child flees in good humor. True that, see below:

See Palissy’s Wikipedia entry:
At times he and his family were reduced to poverty; he burned his furniture and even, it is said, the floor boards of his house to feed the fires of his furnaces. Meanwhile, he endured the reproaches of his wife, who, with her little family clamouring for food, evidently regarded her husband’s endeavors as little short of insanity.

Richard Arkwright,
Inventor of Spinning Machiney

Richard Awkright Japanese Wood Cut
“Arkwright sending his wife to her parents because she deliberately broke his spinning wheel.” But, why, honey, why?!?! No idea if this happened or not. See Arkwright’s Wikipedia entry (with juicy patent fights!!).

Thomas Carlyle,
Author and Historian

Thomas Carlyle Japanese Wood Cut
“Carlyle horrified to see his manuscript burn after his dog upsets a lamp.” No idea if this happened or not. See Carlyle’s Wikipedia entry.

John James Audubon,
Bird Naturalist

John James Audubon Japanese Wood Cut
“Audubon discovering that his work was eaten by a rat.” See Audubon’s Wikipedia entry (“After his return to Kentucky, he found that rats had eaten his entire collection of more than 200 drawings”).

John Heathcoat,
Inventor of the Knitting Machine

John Heathcote Japanese Wood Cut
“Heathcote [sic] displaying the first successful result from his knitting machine to his wife.” I admit she doesn’t seem horrified, disgusted, or royally pissed off. But, on the other hand, he’s the only guy on the list I’d never heard of, so fame may depend on adversity. See Heathcoat’s Wikipedia entry