How Accurate Is: The Prague Cemetery (Book, Umberto Eco, 2010) Part 1

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco

(Warning: spoilers are present here. They are present everywhere. Also, I get that I am using two referencing systems here; I apologize if this annoys anyone, but hey, that is one of the perks of having your own website: you get to reference things however you want! That said, if anyone finds them truly offensive and/or inaccurate, please let me know.)

Hello everyone! Today’s post is going to be on The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, published in 2010. This is a well-crafted piece of historical fiction, and so I am likely going to spend more time detailing what this book did right than what it did not, not that that is a bad thing.

The Prague Cemetery is set in the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, and partly focuses on conspiracies in European history- from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to anti-Freemason rantings, this book has it all. At the same time, it dips heavily into the actual historical events of the period. The book begins in Italy prior to unification and ends in France in the 1920s. The protagonist is certainly an unusual choice for a main character; a professed Anti-Semite, the opening pages of the novel (which takes the form of a diary) are comprised of a vicious tirade against, in this order, Jewish people, Germans, Italians, Frenchmen (and women), Jesuits, and Masons, with scattered other racial stereotypes (“vain as a Spaniard… unwashed as an Englishman”) thrown in for good measure. In short, the main character is neither likeable nor a particularly accurate narrator. This, however, is the central conceit of the novel; the protagonist is slowly recovering his memory of the events he has had a hand in over the years, which range from the Italian Wars of Unification to the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The sheer range of events present in the book means that I will likely do several posts on it. Therefore, I will begin at the beginning- the treatment of the Italian Wars of Unification in the book. Continue past the link (Next time I promise there will be some actual information before the link) for more.

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How Accurate Is: Catch Me If You Can (Movie, 2002) Part 2

An example of a counterfeit cheque.
An example of a counterfeit cashier’s cheque.

Hello everyone! Today will be my second post about Catch Me If You Can, in which I will talk about some  minor inconsistencies between the official story of Abagnale’s life and the film version. I hope you enjoy!

  • During Abagnale’s time in New York City before he began forging cheques, he looked for work as a deliveryman; however, because he was so young, he was not paid particularly well. This was, then, why he changed his age on his birth certificate.
  • During his time as a physician, he named himself Dr. Frank Williams, not Frank Conners as the movie depicted (Conners was an alias he used, however). Furthermore, he claimed he went to Columbia, not Harvard.
  • It took him two months of studying to pass the Lousiana State Bar (which did not require a law degree at the time), rather than the two weeks depicted in the movie.
  • After his year in prison in France, he was not extradited- rather, he went to Swedish prison for a year and was then extradited.

See after the link for some more information on Catch Me If You Can.

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How Accurate Is: Catch Me If You Can (Movie, 2002) Part 1

CatchMe

Hello everyone! Today, I will be posting about an entirely new subject, which is the 2002 movie Catch Me if You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, as well as Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and Amy Adams in supporting roles. One of the reasons I chose to post about this movie was that it was from a more recent period, so I thought it might be interesting for those of you who aren’t interested in the medieval history I have done so far. I actually quite liked the movie; it was fast paced, told an interesting story, and appears to be mostly accurate to real life, at least as told by Frank Abagnale Jr. himself in his book and interviews.

Now, I know it seems a bit silly to simply take Abagnale at his word on these things, what with him being a convicted forger and con man, but the information I have gotten is from a speech he gave only two years ago, and he seemed genuinely contrite; he has apparently refused pardons from three successive presidents because he doesn’t think “that a piece of paper can absolve him of his crimes”. Therefore, I don’t know what motive he would have to lie at this point, and in any case since he was still a minor when he committed the crimes I don’t believe that the police records are public, so I have little choice except to take him at his word here.

There are several important differences between the real life of Abagnale and the plot of the film; perhaps the most important is that Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent played by Tom Hanks, is not a real person, but instead is a compilation of various FBI agents who worked on the case. Continue past the link for the complete list.

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How Accurate Is: Vikings (TV Show, 2013-) S1E4

(Spoilers are eternal. They are also present within this post.)

The_Ravager

Hello everyone! Today, I am going to do another post on Vikings, this time on episode 4. This was a fairly good episode all around, and it was certainly dramatic, with several large fight scenes scattered throughout the episode and a few smaller ones as well. Furthermore, the plot advanced significantly, setting up the final confrontation between the jealous Earl Haraldsson and Ragnar Lothbrok, the protagonist. In terms of historical accuracy, this episode wasn’t the worst yet; as always, however, there are some things to talk about.

  • As previously mentioned, the raid which was depicted in this episode was historically quite short; the Vikings slew the sheriff, as they did at the end of the previous episode, and then immediately left. They did not raid a nearby town.[1] (Obviously, I understand that that would have been boring; however, if I excused historical inaccuracies for plot reasons, I wouldn’t have much to talk about, would I?)
  • Furthermore, it appears that the specific raid depicted (i.e., on the village) was not a historical raid, or at least I could not find any trace of it if so. (for a theoretically complete list of viking raids, see here)
  • As previously stated, the fact that few slaves were captured in the raid is slightly inaccurate; historically, slaves were a major source of income for viking raiders.[2]
  • While it is possible that a (another, counting Athelstan) priest in Northumbria would have spoken Norse at this point in history, I don’t know how likely it is; I have been unable to find any sources on the matter, however. (Although this site does talk about the spread of Norse to England, it doesn’t give enough dates)

I am going to talk about some of the things the episode did well after the link. (Also, see references there, as usual)

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Video Game Recommendation: Crusader Kings II

Ck2

For today’s post, I will be doing another recommendation. This time, the recommendation is for one of my favourite games of all time: Crusader Kings II. Released by Paradox Interactive in 2012, many expansions now exist for the game, which explains the relatively cheap price tag for the full game- never fear, however, as most of the features are not unique to the expansions. Mostly, the expansions only unlock new characters, with the features they brought with them into the game also available in the basic version (to which I linked). Perhaps I should explain. In the game, you can play as any landed character in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and India (subject to expansions ownership) between the years 1066 and 1337 or in the years 867 and 769 (those last also subject to expansion ownership).

What does the game mean by landed characters? For the purposes of the game, it is any count or above (which I know is a little bit of an misnomer for many cultures at the time, but that is why I recommend a mod- see below). So, you could either begin a game as the King of France or as the count of Champagne, or any of hundreds of other characters. From the moment you begin, the game is about preserving your dynasty, the feature which has earned it its reputation as a medieval soap opera. You can marry, have children, and then play as those children once your character dies, meaning a single game can span approximately 600 years if you play for the maximum possible time. For someone who is interested in history and/or strategy games, this is the perfect game, in my opinion, at least. Furthermore, the depth of the game is quite impressive; the differences between various religions are modeled mostly accurately, and no group of people is demonized, as the name could suggest. True, odd results sometimes come out of the game, like England being invaded by the Mongols, but this is all part of the charm.

Furthermore, if you are really into history, I would suggest the Historical Immersion Project, which is an impressive mod for the game that redoes the map (at the cost of India and the 769 date, but you can forego the map portion of the mod if you wish) and gives many of the characters in the game more cultural events and localized titles. Tired of seeing your German dukes called dukes? Now they can be called Herzogs instead! This mod enhances the historical feel of the game, making an already brilliant game that much better.

This game receives my highest recommendation- true, the price tag is a little steep for the full game, but thanks to Steam games are often on sale (as Crusader Kings II is while I write this post), and so I would recommend picking up the base game and then waiting for a sale to purchase the expansions. I have over four hundred and fifty hours in this game, and I see no reason to stop any time soon. Endless replay value and historical immersion are, for me, the perfect combination, and if you feel the same, don’t hesitate.

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How Accurate Is: Kingdom of Heaven (Movie, 2005) Part 3

(Again, spoilers)

Hello everyone! Today will be my third post about the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven- if you are tired of this subject, never fear, because my next post will be about another subject. Today, I will be focusing on the characters whom I did not speak about last time- Guy de Lusignan, Reynald de Chatillon, and Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem, who went unnamed in the film.

Guy de Lusignan in front of the walls of Tyre.

Guy de Lusignan:

The principal difference between the actions of Guy in the film and history is that Guy was much closer to power historically within the Kingdom of Jerusalem than depicted in the film; for example, he was the regent for Baldwin IV in 1183, although his perceived weakness in front of the barons at the Pools of Goliath led to Baldwin resuming government and even besieging Guy’s fortress of Ascalon.[1] However, the fact that he was able to take power at all demonstrates that he was not entirely outside the circle of power in the court; furthermore, the affections of Sybilla guaranteed him the throne after the death of Baldwin, which is something the film cast doubt upon. True, historically the supporters of Sibylla had her divorce Guy in an attempt to force him off of the throne, and Guy had been forbidden to take the regency for Baldwin V by Baldwin IV (an order which was disobeyed) but she never considered betraying him for a moment, and thus his succession was certain.

One thing that was not exaggerated, however, was the dislike and distrust that many of the barons held towards Guy; when he succeeded to the throne, Baldwin of Ibelin, the brother of Balian, defected to Antioch along with many other barons, and Raymond of Tripoli, one of the most powerful men in the realm, refused to swear fealty to him.[2]

Finally, Guy had not merely sallied forth from Jerusalem before the disaster at Hattin because he was spoiling for a fight; he had been on his way to relieve Tiberias, a citadel under siege by Saladin’s forces. It was held by the wife of Raymond of Tripoli (who was not in the film). Raymond declared that he was willing to sacrifice his wife if it meant that Jerusalem could be held. Guy at first agreed but was then convinced otherwise by the Grandmaster of the Knights Templar, Gerard.[3] This may seem like a minor difference between history and film, but at least the relief of Tiberias was a purpose for the attack; in the movie, the army of Jerusalem was destroyed solely through Guy’s ineptitude.

For more characters, continue past the link.

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How Accurate Is: Kingdom of Heaven (Movie, 2005) Part 2

(Once again, spoilers will be present here.)

The site of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin (1187)
The site of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin (1187)

Hello all! Today, I will be posting my second post on the film Kingdom of Heaven. Today’s post will be about historical inaccuracies in the depiction of many historical characters who were present in the film. I hope you enjoy!

I will begin by talking about the principal characters of the film. First, I will talk about the protagonist, Balian.

Balian of Ibelin:

For those of you who were wondering, Balian of Ibelin is a historical personage; historically, he was the brother of Baldwin of Ibelin, who fled Jerusalem after refusing to swear fealty to the newly crowned King Guy in 1186. [1] Ibelin is near the Mediterranean Coast of what is today Israel. Unlike in the film, the real Balian was not merely a village blacksmith and the illegitimate son of a nobleman, but the lord of Ibelin through legitimate inheritance, as the youngest son of Lord Barisan of Ibelin; his elder brothers inherited Ramla (the first died).[2] Similarly, Balian was never romantically involved with Queen Sibylla, as in the film, but was instead married to Maria Kommene, with children (his line was the sole line that persisted out of his three siblings).[3] The closest the film’s affair between Balian and Sibylla comes to the truth is that there a story goes that Balian had been considered as a potential match for Sibylla when a husband for her was being sought. However, first Conrad of Montferrat and then Guy de Luisignan were found instead. Balian was in charge of the defence of Jerusalem, having been captured at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, where Jerusalem’s army was annihilated, but released by Saladin (who allowed him to return to Jerusalem to retrieve his family on the condition that he not stay; he disobeyed this last). By all accounts, his defense was a brave one, but in the end doomed. The city held out for ten days, from September 20th to 30th, 1187. Balian was able to negotiate a treaty whereby the citizens of Jerusalem could purchase their freedom (for ten dinars for a man, five for a woman, and one for a child), and left the city thereafter for Tyre.[4] Balian did not return to France following the events of the fall of Jerusalem, but instead aided Guy and then Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade until his death in 1193. [5]

So, the portrayal of Balian in the film is not especially accurate, although it is correct in many of the basic facts of his life; Balian was lord of Ibelin, and he was the head of the defence of Jerusalem. The principal inaccuracies are his false background, the romance with Sibylla, and the fact that, in the film, he was not present at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. All in all, the changes that were made appear to have been made to further the drama and romance of the story. For information on other characters, continue past the link.

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How Accurate Is: Kingdom of Heaven (Movie, 2005) Part 1

(Warning: This post, as usual, contains spoilers.)

Jerusalem_Seal
The standard of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

Hello everyone, and welcome to another post! Today, I will be talking about the first film for this blog: Kingdom of Heaven (2005), starring Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, and Eva Green. I am still trying to work out the format I will adopt for posts about movies, but for now I am thinking that I will do several smaller posts on different aspects of the movie. I suppose I will begin this post with my impressions of the movie.

Visually, the movie was extremely striking. The scenery was beautiful and the battle scenes extremely well done. The characters were occasionally interesting, though more often reduced to black and white; the character of Reynald de Chatillon, for example, seemed to exist only to hate Muslims (although he is known for little else historically, to be fair). From a historical perspective, I have mixed feelings about this movie. On the one hand, it is a surprisingly kind take on the Crusades, a subject about which too little is known; on the other, it is rife with confusing inaccuracies, and treats many of its subjects unfairly. To that end, in this first post I will be attempting to clear up some of the confusion about the sequence of events as presented in this film. For more, continue past the link.

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How Accurate Is: White Collar (TV Show, 2009-2014) S1E11

WhiteCollarJadeElephants

Today’s post will be a little shorter than most of the recent ones because I wanted to point out a glaring historical inaccuracy in a show I was watching recently, one I feel is representative of how television, movies, and other media often completely disregards history when it suits them, even if it would take little effort to ensure accuracy. In this case, the episode is White Collar, Season 1 Episode 11 (This post will have spoilers for this episode of White Collar: S1E11)

Around the middle of the episode, the protagonists discover the goal of a thief who has recently robbed several very wealthy men: obtaining a set of five jade elephants supposedly given to diplomats from “all over the world” in 1421 by the Chinese Emperor (Yongle, 1402-1424) to mark the opening of the Forbidden City. Before I get into what, in my opinion, was the worst mistake this episode made, let us examine the accuracy of this statement. It is true that the Forbidden City was formally completed in 1421, and that thereafter Beijing was the capital of Imperial China. [1] At the same time, the sixth treasure voyage of Admiral Zheng He left in March 1421 with the stated goal of returning diplomats who had been brought to China on a previous voyage. [2] Thus, this statement is not entirely absurd, although it is unlikely since a large portion of the Forbidden City was destroyed in 1421 in a fire. [3]

So, although it is technically possible that the origin story of the elephants could be true, the true mistake in the episode is odd and, frankly, inexcusable. Directly after establishing a vaguely plausible reason for the existence of these elephants (which, I remind you, involves China and Chinese history), the Japanese ambassador arrives and demands the two elephants they have on hand, since they are “a priceless piece of [Japanese] history”. It was at this point that I grew confused. I had been willing to swallow the flimsily constructed backstory for the elephants, but it is beyond confusing that the same set of writers, writing an explanation for the elephants involving China, would immediately claim that they are the property of the Japanese government. No further mention of China, in fact, is made in the entire episode. Did the writers of the show simply assume that no one would notice that they had switched the country they were referring to? Did they honestly not know that Japan and China are two separate countries? I could not tell you, and neither, I suspect, could the original writers.

So, as I hope you have seen, this error is emblematic of the way that today’s media often disregards history (and even internal consistency) in pursuit of an interesting plot. The writers never provide an adequate explanation for how all five elephants wound up in New York City, not in the museums of the countries who originally obtained them, nor do they at least succeed in repeating the same backstory twice. While I was amused watching this episode, I was not impressed.

References:

1 University of California, Berkeley. “Timeline: A Chronology of the Ming Voyages”. n.d.

http://orias.berkeley.edu/pallop/timeline.html

2 University of Maine Farmington. “Forbidden City- History”. Last modified January 2010.

http://hua.umf.maine.edu/China/HistoricBeijing/Forbidden_City/

3 University of California, Berkeley. “Timeline: A Chronology of the Ming Voyages”. n.d.

http://orias.berkeley.edu/pallop/timeline.html

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Book Recommendation: Vanished Kingdoms, Norman Davies (2012)

Vanished_Kingdoms

For today’s post, I am trying something a little different: a book recommendation. This is something I am thinking of doing every once and a while, in between shows, etc. or when I have less time to make a post. These posts will involve recommendations from among the various history books I have read. Today’s book is Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies. This is one of my all-time favorite books, and almost certainly the best non-fiction book I have ever read. It is often beautiful and sad at the same time, particularly the end of each section, relating the fall (or absorption) of its subject; the sweep of history is accurately and movingly conveyed as the demise of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, or the fading memory of Prussia, are related. The book goes into some detail on, as the cover states, “the history of half-forgotten Europe”, discussing long-dead nations such as the Kingdom of Aragon or the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (which only lasted for a single day, one of the most fascinating things I learned while reading the book).

This book is, frankly, a remarkable read. It manages to condense many disparate subjects and hundreds of years of European history into one volume, and does an excellent job with each subject it touches upon. I had only heard of perhaps half of the nations in the book (and my knowledge of many, I confess, only came from playing the Paradox Interactive games Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV), and other chapters, such as the chapter on the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, changed my perspective of European history entirely. (Believe it or not, prior to reading this chapter I had no notion of the German connections of the British royal family, other than a vague memory that Queen Victoria had been related to Wilhelm II.)

The book is approximately 740 pages long, so don’t pick it up unless you legitimately enjoy reading about history; however, as far as I am concerned, this book is a worthwhile read for historical novices and veterans alike, for the brilliance of its prose alone, to say nothing of the knowledge it confers.

I hope you all enjoyed this book recommendation; let me know if you would like to see other posts in this vein in the future. I will post something new fairly soon, probably something I haven’t touched on before, so keep your eyes on our Twitter and Tumblr feeds. Thanks everyone, and see you next time.

 

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