Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Season of the Witch (2011)

Poster for the movie (from Wikipedia)
As Halloween approaches, I thought it might be a good idea to review a medieval film about a witch and the plague. Said movie is, of course, the Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman film Season of the Witch. I have a special interest in witchcraft for a couple of reasons - first, because it was the basis for so much distrust in the middle ages; and second, because one of my ancestors was hanged in Salem for said offense. All that aside, I think that witchcraft (in the historical, devil-worshipping sense) is such an intriguing thing. As I mentioned in previous posts (here and here), what we don't have so much in the modern psyche is the concept of an omnipresent God. In the medieval period, though, and even through to the Enlightenment, people knew that God was around them and that the devil walked among them, sowing trouble for everyone. It is in this setting that the Season of the Witch takes place.
The beginning of the movie shows the trial and execution of three accused witches. After their hanging on the town bridge (an all-too-common location for that kind of thing), a priest attempts to bind their souls using verses from the Book of Solomon and we learn that two of them truly are witches. One manages to return from the dead before priest can complete his excommunication and the priest is killed while the witch escapes. The next part of the movie takes place during "the crusades" which is, sadly, an extremely broad term as currently used by historians. Some historians, such as yours truly, generally define it up through the fourth crusade when Byzantium was sacked by the crusaders. The writers have picked the Smyrniote Crusades due to its temporal proximity with the genesis of the Black Death. This gives them the opportunity to link returning crusaders with a suspicion of witchcraft for causing the plague. It also gave them a chance to make a statement on the crusades in general. During a battle, the main character, a knight named Behmen (played by Nicolas Cage), follows the exhortations of the papal representative to kill everyone in the city they finally breach. After killing an innocent woman and observing the bloodthirsty dispatching of other women and children, Behmen believes the crusade to be morally bankrupt and he and his friend Felson (played by Ron Perlman) decide to depart.
Historically, we know that the crusaders were pretty bloodthirsty. After the capture of Acre, for instance, the crusaders slaughtered the inhabitants, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian alike. Part of it was likely the expression of months of slowly building anger and hatred toward a city that refused to surrender, but for most of these crusaders, this was actually penitential. They believed they truly were doing God's work in the world by killing non-Christians. And if some Christians got killed along the way, that's kind of sad, but they were in heaven and better off for it. Anyway, back to the movie.
The two attempt to make their way back home and after stopping for supplies are waylaid by the local constabulary who ask if they have fulfilled their duties and been allowed to return or if they are deserters. This begins a series of more modern contrivances (including a line stating that "all charges be dropped") that drive the knights to accompany a priest and an accused witch to a monastery where they plan to try the girl. I was going write that I found this somewhat questionable, but crimes like this were generally ecclesiastical in nature. Much like modern day Saudi Arabia's religious police, the church had its own courts independent of secular authorities. In this particular case, it's certainly feasible (and potentially expected) that the malefactor here would be tried in ecclesiastical court.
A few others join the "merry band" to take the girl to the monastery. Through several difficult trials they lose the "red shirts" and end up at the monastery with our core group intact. Along the way and now at the monastery, though, we learn that this isn't just a case of witchcraft but of actual possession - and that the demon really IS the cause of the plague. Somewhat surprising as I had thought the whole thing was going to be a political treatise on "innocent until proven guilty" and "no secret CIA prisons" and such. Color me surprised that it was supernatural in origin! This is where I think the film went wrong - it ended up being a straight-ahead, no-twists kind of production. It's the ambiguity and grey areas that we treasure today. Is it okay to torture if lives are on the line? Under what conditions should our principles take a back seat to effectiveness?
The scriptorium at the monastery (credit: here)
The group tries to exorcise (not exercise) the demon, but the demon flees. The band enter to find that the plague has arrived here as well and the monks have perished. What made this monastery so special? They were copying the Book of Solomon (the same tome used in the beginning of the movie on the bridge). I did like the scriptorium - it was reminiscent of other places, but I fear that, for the era, they had too many books and scrolls around the room. In the mid-fourteenth century it was still wasn't all that common to have rooms of books. That's what made the destruction of the library in The Name of the Rose so devastating. Regardless, there's a nasty fight in the scriptorium and the demon is eventually banished leaving behind a naked girl. Huh. Well, there you are.
I think the idea was intriguing, but there are a lot of things here that are difficult for modern audiences to stomach unless it goes firmly into B movie fare. First, the story is straight - there aren't any twists to make it engaging. Second, the main characters are from a crusade that no one knows anything about. At least some people know about the 3rd crusade with Richard the Lionheart and all. And third, the story plays out predictably (beyond the straight-forwardness of the whole thing). The red shirts die along the way, there is a noble sacrifice, and the demon is vanquished. Yawn.
There was definitely some sacrifice of historical accuracy to make it more appealing and make good use of Ron Perlman. He's a little too much Hell Boy (which my daughter and I love) for the role, but still does a convincing job. As to the main actor, I have a love-hate relationship with Nic Cage. He's in some fantastic movies but he's like Jack Nicholson or Keanu Reeves - he plays himself every time. Sometimes it's the right part for him (like Neo was for Keanu). In this case I think he could have done it had the story not let him down.
What's the final grade on this one? I have to give it a C. It passes and I'll watch it again, but I just wish it had been so much more.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review of the Knights Templar Revealed - Part the First

Cover of The Knights Templar Revealed
As I threatened promised in a previous post, I have been re-reading the book The Knights Templar Revealed in the hopes of doing a reasonable review of the book. I keep getting caught in the trap of wanting to practically do a rebuttal of the things in the book and have to remind myself that I'm writing a review, not a caustic exegesis. So, with that firmly in mind, I think I have re-perused enough to do a reasonable job with the review. Shall we, then? Let's.
The book is sort of split into two separate and distinct sections. The first is a description of the Minoan culture and the theory that these inhabitants of Crete were somehow connected to the megalithic cultures of western Europe. There is the Phaistos Disc (the gold medal on the cover of the book) that one of the authors claims to have deciphered as a kind of calendar (he of course references a previous book that you will have to purchase to find out what the reality is). They also, around the same time, introduce the theory of Salt Lines (part of 366 degree geometry theory, apparently). This theory holds that there are a preponderance of sites along special latitudinal and longitudinal lines that were associated with salt trade in pre-history. An interesting theory, but what does it really have to do with the Templars? Ahhh, patience young grasshopper; all in time.
St Bernard of Clairvaux
Skip ahead a bit and the focus shifts to St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Then things take a pretty interesting turn. The main thinking is that there is a plan, ancient in design and long in implementation, to destroy the Church from within by supplanting it with early Christian beliefs. Bernard is seen as one of the main conspirators in this, supporting the rise of the Templars to ensure that things progress appropriately. That Bernard had some, um, "interesting" takes on Christianity is not all terribly uncommon for the era, even for a church official. Numerous groups sprang up around 1000 AD as there was a strong sense that Christ's return was imminent (think Y2K with a religious bent). So much so that there were several different investigations of these groups by the Church in Rome to see if there was any heresy involved. The Church's teachings at the time were still developing (Mary, Jesus' mother, still wasn't really considered divine before Bernard's time). The main arguments seem to be around using the Cistercian order as a means to the destruction of the Church. The Cistercians has been founded not long before Bernard arrived at Citeaux (the mother house of the Cistercian order) with a full entourage of relatives. Within two years he was given permission to found a daughter house at Clairvaux. The authors seem surprised at this given that there were likely other, more experienced Cistercians in the abbey. I'm not sure, but I think they miss the obvious in that showing up with a group like Bernard did is the medieval equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. Regardless, Bernard goes of to Clairvaux and then apparently engages in all kinds of mischief, like proposing Innocent II as Bishop of Rome (also called the Pope) during one of several schisms when two Popes were elected - the Pope (Innocent II) and the Anti-Pope (Anacletus II) - and you thought medieval history was boring. To the authors, again, this smacks of a long-time conspiracy as Innocent looks to adopt some of Bernard's theories regarding the divinity of Mary. Again - it seems they miss the obvious possibilities that Innocent may have shared Bernard's beliefs or have been swayed by his arguments (by their own admission, Bernard was an excellent politician and advocate).
I am continually amazed by people's desire to find structure where there is none. This is called pareidolia in psychological circles - seeing patterns in random noise. The face on Mars, Jesus on pieces of toast, etc. While I can call "Occam's Razor"* on a multitude of things in these theories, it's almost pointless. "True believers" will see the evidence and "draw their own conclusions" that agree with the authors. Those paid by big pharma (wait - that's just the anti-vax movement claiming that), erm, the historical-academic complex will say that these are just conspiracy theories and the "truth" is being silenced. But honestly - what IS more plausible: that there is a vast conspiracy spanning generations, taking centuries to bring to fruition? or that there are confluences of ideas and powerful individuals who really do change the world?
Masonic Square and Compasses
Given how much our world has changed since the dawning of this country, to think that plans could be executed over centuries is a bit ludicrous. Not even the Freemasons could really pull that off. And again, I AM a Mason. Unfortunately I'm not part of the elevated 33rd degree with access to all the secrets of the universe. But the 33rd Masons I do know don't seem to control the world - they can't even get the trestle-boards out on time...**
This is all to be continued in Part the Second as we may actually get some Templar lore.

* Almost as good as Rule 34 of the Internet or Godwin's Law. You'll notice I've invoked neither in this review - but there's still more to come, so I may yet need to do so.
** Trestle-boards are communications from a lodge of Masons to its members, informing them of upcoming meetings and events.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Trebuchets for Drug Cartels?

The cartel's trebuchet
Sounds like a charity drive, but no, in actuality there was a drug cartel (or, more likely, wannabe cartel given how much/little marijuana was involved) using a trebuchet to launch four pound packs of marijuana from Mexico over the border into the United States. First, I’m happy to see that someone other than recreationists has developed an interest in medieval technology. But a trebuchet that launches four pound packs of marijuana? My God – it would take a full day to launch skyward a truckload of weed and honestly – who thinks the border patrol won’t see a full day’s siege of America?*
Fox News covered the story (link here, but it's spotty). As did MSNBC, whose video still seems to be working here. They attached the axle and mounts to a flatbed trailer, which is sort of ingenious. Not only is it light-weight but it’s eminently portable. Larger trebuchets are a lot less mobile, but that makes sense if you're in for a long siege. It looks to me like they used some kind of bungie cords to act as the counterweight rather than actually providing one. This certainly does simplify the design, but it requires several people to pull the axle back to get enough draw to fling it very far. Other (earlier/medieval) designs took Tim Allen’s advice (I guess it was actually Tim Taylor) to give it “more power!” by providing the counterweight to give it more "oomph". If they'd actually used a counterweight, there's a lot less pulling and a lot less manpower required (which means more green for all involved!).
One thing that’s commonly misunderstood about trebuchets is that they were only capable of lofting light loads and that they weren’t used for taking down walls (this was shown on The Crusades with Terry Jones, a fantastic show if you can catch it). As a result, it's believed they were used to fling early biological and psychological warfare devices at the enemy being besieged.** But contemporary accounts of the siege of Acre during the crusades do claim that they were used to break down the walls of that city:
[B]ut the king of France rebuilt it, until by constant blows, he broke down part of the principal city wall, and shook the tower Maledictum. On one side, the petraria of the duke of Burgundy plied; on the other, that of the Templars did severe execution; while that of the Hospitallers never ceased to cast terror amongst the Turks. Besides these, there was one petraria, erected at the common expense, which they were in the habit of calling the “petraria of God”. Near it, there constantly preached a priest, a man of great probity, who collected money to restore it at their joint expense, and to hire persons to bring stones for casting. By means of this engine, a part of the wall of the tower Maledictum was at length shaken down, for about two poles length. Richard of Holy Trinity, pp 146-147
An earlier trebuchet from Histoire d'Outremer
(used this source)
Yet, catapults certainly weren’t the powerful devices we tend to think of from the fancy of old Robin Hood movies with Errol Flynn. While they could knock down walls if given enough time (as evidenced in Acre), they did commonly toss several smaller projectiles instead of the larger rocks we usually think of with the goal to create lots of smaller damage than one giant miss. Arrows were sometimes used as ammunition as well - until the widespread acceptance of the longbow, the average trebuchet could throw an arrow further than could be shot.
Medieval weapons in general tended to be more along the lines of pragmatic injury-inflicting weapons that the brute force fully destructive kind we tend toward today (tanks, howitzers, cruise missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, etc.). In the medieval mind, an immobilized enemy was as good as a dead one (you could always go back and kill them off once you’d won the battle). The really dangerous ones were the ones still walking around waving three foot pieces of steel at you. For example, broadswords weren’t, as is popularly considered, honed to a razor’s edge designed to hack off limbs – they were meant to break bones and prevent your opponent from fighting back. (The maul, mace, and flail - popular medieval weapons - certainly fall into this category as well.) When fighting an opponent wearing 500 recycled dog food cans as clothing, you can’t really “cut” anything – you have to bash and hope that your steel is stronger than theirs. Or at least it's stronger than the bones and sinew inside those dog food cans. Unless, of course, you can pull off the near impossible and get your blade into someone’s helmet.***
But to wrap up the drug cartel’s re-discovery of a thousand year old device – well done! Now if you can just all resort to cudgels and mauls instead of semi-automatic and automatic weapons maybe northern Mexico will be safer place for everyone.

* I did some calculations and at $10 per gram they were looking at launching $4500 worth of weed (street price) each toss (and admittedly - I haven't been out buying any pot recently - okay, ever - so I don't know if $10/g is a reasonable price). Looking at the packages in the video, I think they measured about 18”x12”x12” (totally scientific, I know, but I do not, admittedly, know how big four pounds of pot is - what I do know generally comes from Mary Louise Parker). Regardless, a GMC Sierra 1500 Pickup truck has a bed size of 83,626 cubic inches which could fit around 32 packages of that size. Let’s say their creative juices are flowing and they get capacity to 40. It looks like it would still take them about an hour to just fill a pick-up truck with $180k worth of weed.
** Common missiles to launch at a besieged foe included dead cattle, corpses, and the heads of the defenders that had been slain. Of course, some of these things are just as dangerous for the besiegers to handle as the besieged.
*** As happened to King Henry II of France in a jousting accident. Okay, it was a lance instead of a sword, but the idea’s the same.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Preview of the Review of the Knights Templar Revealed

I saw the book The Knights Templar Revealed at a Barnes and Noble in some discount bin and thought that I should definitely pick it, definitely (and then I immediately thought of Judge Wopner). I thumbed through it and saw they referenced Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Immediately I began to question what the gist was. No longer was it potentially some interesting and engaging research book - it was now firmly in the "fringe" category. It had the potential to bridge regular research with the fringier parts, so I read it with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Hopeful, but jaundiced.
This post, however isn't the actual review of the book - this is the preview of that review. Why is there a preview and not just the regular review? Because I decided to read Dracula since the time I completed it. So I really want to re-read it again before writing the actual review. Why is that? Well, here's what I recall about it.
First, the book tries to link several different theories about the Templars and early civilization linkages. It thankfully wasn't about aliens helping the Minoan civilization achieve some level of greatness. I mean, I like Stargate SG-1 as much as the next guy, but... Anyway, the authors, Butler and Dafoe, reference a few theories about the monolithic cultures, including Minoan connections to the Levant (the Holy Land), a theory (introduced elsewhere) about Salt Lines, and the Templars. It's so intertwined, though, that I really need to re-read it before I can write something cogent about it.
One thing about these books is that they lay out a very logical argument for their point. They use terms like "reasonable to assume" and "it seems likely" which all "seem reasonable" (heh). The problem is that unfortunately all of these likelys and reasonables result in a very small actual percentage. I'll explain that more in the review when I can actually bring an actual example to bear.
So, in the meantime, what did I think of it? I think they raise some interesting ideas about St. Bernard of Clairvaux. And there certainly are some interesting things raised about Bernard that I will have to investigate. Still, given the rest of material, I just recall it being "interesting". Would I recommend it? While I could punt this off to the "real" review, I will say that I would read it only if you have a strong basis in Templar history and can separate the truth from these "facts". Hopefully I can get through it faster than the first time...