Medieval matters #1: The Last Kingdom, Robin Hood and how to learn Old Norse in lockdown

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove rounds up the latest medieval content on the website this week – and reveals how he's been trying to learn Old Norse. Plus, what else is new in the Middle Ages?

Old Norse: Page from the manuscript Codex Regius, which was written in Iceland and contains the poems of elder Edda. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

What’s new in the Middle Ages? As the most medievally-inclined member of the HistoryExtra team, I’m going to start a weekly round-up of what I’ve been enjoying in the world of medieval history. I’m going to take a broad view of what medieval means, so anything from late Roman up to the late 15th century will be fair game. And actually, I’ll probably allow myself an occasional interlude into prehistory too. If anyone reads this, I’m going to cajole my colleagues to do similar round-ups for later periods and genres of history.

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My plan is to highlight what’s been happening on HistoryExtra from a medieval perspective, on our podcast, and in our print magazines BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. Plus, I’ll generally be keeping an eye open for anything else that’s going on medieval-wise.

A big week for Anglo-Saxon and Viking fans

So, first up, it’s been a big week for Anglo-Saxon and Viking aficionados because Netflix has dropped the entire 10 episodes of the fourth season of the Bernard Cornwell-penned The Last Kingdom. King Alfred is dead and we’ve got Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed front and centre in the action. I don’t know what viewer figures have been like but I’m guessing a lot of people have been bingeing, given the state of the world right now. Certainly a lot of you have been enjoying our The Last Kingdom content on the site – if you’ve not seen it yet, this page is a good place to start. Ryan Lavelle, historical advisor to the series, has been blogging his way through all ten episodes for us too, giving us the lowdown on what to look out for from a historian’s perspective. Check it out here.

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in season 4 of 'The Last Kingdom'. (Photo by Joe Alblas/Carnival)
Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in season 4 of ‘The Last Kingdom’. (Photo by Joe Alblas/Carnival)

Meanwhile, back in the real world, pandemics are unsurprisingly still big news, and we’ve seen lots of people reading over our Black Death content on the site.

In the current issue of BBC History Magazine, there’s loads of great stuff, including a feature by Catherine Rider on medieval magic. She did a great piece for the site at the start of the year on medieval ways to look ahead to the new year.  I’m not sure anyone would have predicted 2020 would have shaped up quite as it has though.

I’ve been having fun recording lectures over Zoom with speakers from our sadly Corona-cancelled Medieval Life and Death Day. We’re going to run the event virtually in the next couple of weeks, so I’ve already had a preview of Hannah Skoda’s talk on medieval violence (see here for a piece she did for us a while back on the topic), and Chris Woolgar’s on medieval food. We’ll have the rest of them recording by the end of this week I hope, so keep checking the site for when we put them live.

There are a couple of podcasts I’ve been working on to mark your diaries for. I’ve had a fascinating chat with Dr Remy Ambuhl about prisoners of war in the Hundred Years’ War, and today I’ve been talking to Professor Judith Jesch about the Viking Age for our lockdown ‘Everything you want to know’ podcast series. I had some great questions to put to her from our social media followers, but I didn’t quiz her on Viking warrior women, because she’s already written about it for us . Those are for the future, but we’ve had some podcasts go out over the last week that might pique your interest: Sam Willis and James Daybell on The Unexpected Vikings (it’s been quite a Viking-y few days), and last Sunday’s ‘Everything you want to know’ episode on British prehistory (I warned you I’d allow myself to dip back earlier than the Middle Ages).

What else? I watched Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner) version with my kids last weekend. They hated it, and I didn’t find it as gripping as first time round, but it sparked a bit of a debate about the best Robin Hood film when I mentioned it on Twitter. I’m reminded that we picked some great Robin Hood films to watch here, and we’ve separately explored cultural representations of Robin Hood too.

The latest medieval news

In other news, researchers in Portugal have been trying to replicate medieval monastic inks and in Scotland, plans are afoot to try to build a replica Iron Age broch (prehistoric again, but they were sometimes reused in the Viking period). Brochs are brilliant. If you have a chance to visit one ever (after lockdown obviously), the Broch of Gurness is spellbinding. I’ve been chatting to the people behind the Broch replica project on twitter and might well come back to this story in the future. Everyone should have a browse around the British Museum’s newly launched Online Collection  – it’s a fabulous resource with loads of great images of medieval artefacts and beyond. Check out the Lewis Chessmen close-up.

I’ve decided to have a crack at learning how to read Old Norse while in lockdown

Finally, I’ve decided to have a crack at learning how to read Old Norse while in lockdown. I’ve got a beginner’s guide that’s been glowering unopened at me from my bookshelf for a while now, so it seems like a good time to give it a go.

I glibly put out a tweet announcing my intentions and Old Norse scholars Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir (who inspired me to try after I chatted to her on the podcast about her book on Viking women a while back) and Chris Callow offered some words of encouragement. Chris pointed me to some very useful resources on the website of the Viking Society for Northern Research  with a free downloadable textbook there too, along with a very helpful quick chart to basic grammar here  So suddenly I’ve got a wealth of resources at my fingertips, and no excuses really. I’ll report back on how that’s going next week. I’ve also been trying to learn how to do a handstand, but that’s not going too well either.

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David Musgrove is content director of HistoryExtra, plus its sister print magazines BBC History Magazine, BBC World Histories and BBC History Revealed