Hypatia: The Mythmaking Continues
Thanks to those who appreciated my article on Hypatia and the new movie Agora (below). The premiere of the film at Cannes got quite a bit of coverage, most of which dutifully parroted the film-maker's distortions of history, some of which decided to declare Hypatia "an atheist" and a bit of which added some tantilising details:
There is also no question as to what side the filmmakers are on. The Christians in "Agora" are more preoccupied with slaughtering than spirituality and the only truly principled character is Hypatia the atheist, who may have come close to proving that the Earth revolves around the sun 1,200 years before Johannes Kepler. She is the only one who never sacrifices her unwavering "faith," in reason and intellectual freedom, for personal gain.
(Film Review: Agora by Natasha Senjanovic, Hollywoodreporter.com)
At first I thought that snippet about Hypatia discovering heliocentrism might have been a fevered addition of the journalist's, but on reading some other synopses of the film it seems that the movie depicts her being murdered by the dreadful, Dark Age-inducing fundies just as she's on the brink of "a major discovery". Guess which one. I suppose that's one way to really rub in the whole "Dark Age that set human progress back by over 1000 years" thing, with the help of a truck load of "poetic licence" (also known as "making shit up").
And even the pre-release publicity is already working its magic on people's grasp of the history. Over at FriendlyAtheist.com they have not only swallowed the stuff about her being an atheist hook, line and sinker but have also begun to absorb other bits of the film and present them as real history:
Hypatia was a little-known but brilliant woman — a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, librarian… and atheist. When Christians tried to take over Alexandria, it was Hypatia who saved a number of rare books from their destructive hands. The Christian mob later labeled her a witch, stripped her, and set her on fire. She’s a hero and martyr for atheists if ever there was one.
(Rachel Weisz to Play Atheist in New Movie)
There's at least five errors of historical fact in those two sentences, not least of which is the cute bit about how Hypatia "saved a number of rare books from their destructive hands " - a detail that appears nowhere in any historical source and which seems to have been gleaned from, you guessed it, the trailer for the movie.
At the other end of the spectrum, it seems neo-pagans are also claiming Hypatia as their own. That has a bit more credibility than claiming she was an atheist, but they are also claiming her as a martyr for paganism, which is about as ahistorical:
[Agora], more than any other recent film set during the classical period, will be closely watched by modern Pagans (especially Hellenic reconstructionists). Many of whom consider Hypatia to be one of the primary martyrs of pre-Christian pagan religion.
(Hypatia Comes to the Screen, The Wild Hunt)
And the faithful are getting the message, judging by comments on another article about the movie on the same blog:
May the Queen of the Underworld continue to heap blessings upon the brave and beautiful Hypatia. May the injustice that took her from this world- and the monstrous spiritual imperialism which still exists, and which destroyed the progress of humankind- be taken swiftly away by the hand of Fate and given its just desserts ....
The thing about this story is you can't whitewash what happened to this Great Lady at the hands of Christians, because even the Christian telling of her martyrdom is gruesome and damning. Christian feather-ruffling by the naked truth is something that is too rarely done these days.
I'm beginning to wonder who is going to claim Hypatia as their own next. UFOlogists? Scientologists? Mormons?
Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the global economy, my copy of Dan Jones' Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 arrived on my desk yesterday, less than week after ordering. Jones is a postgrad Medieval historian and journalist on a mission to revive interest in what he regards as a shamefully neglected period of history. The Uprising of 1381 is certainly a good place to start and if the glowing recommendation of David Starkey is anything to go by ("Bold. Surprising. Unputdownable"), it will be a good book to have by the fire with a glass of red at my weekend trip to the Blue Mountains in a couple of weeks. And yes, of course I'll be reviewing it here. Jones and his publishers are billing it as "the first full popular account (of the Revolt) in a century", which makes me wonder if Alastair Dunn's The Peasants' Revolt: England's Failed Revolution of 1381 or Mark O'Brien's When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 weren't "full" enough or simply weren't "popular", since both were published only five years ago. Still, another book on the subject isn't going to go astray.
Given my recent reviews of James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire and Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000, I think I will have to add Adrian Goldsworthy How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower and Tom Holland Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom to my review wishlist. Both Goldsworthy and O'Donnell cover similar ground; as do Holland and Wickham. It's great to see that, after years of neglect, there's a veritable plethora of accessible and scholarly books on the end of the Empire and the first half of the Middle Ages. Wickham has also recently reviewed Holland's book for History Today in an interesting article entitled "In the Medieval Moment", where he makes some judicious criticisms.