Archive for July, 2007

Monkey Hangers!

July 21, 2007

My dad was born in Hartlepool, a coastal town and fishing port in North-East England. His favourite piece of tradition from the town of his birth is the legend that has seen the residents dubbed “Monkey Hangers”. Some actually take pride in the name (see below), but others may still take offence, so use it wisely! The story goes that during the Napoleonic wars, a ship was wrecked off the coast. The only survivor was a monkey or ape that was found on the beach. Versions of the story have him wearing military uniform, as I suppose a pet on a naval vessel might be. Whatever the details, the monkey interrogated, found to be unable or unwilling to speak English, and is therefore hanged as a French spy. The idea being that the ignorant and brutal locals had never seen either a monkey, or a Frenchman. Here’s the “official” version of the story as related by the local council.


If your BS detector isn’t twitching by this point, you might need to spend a bit more time reading about urban myths – stories that seem plausible and usually have some sort of political or moral agenda, but are apocryphal or just outright untrue. Rather like the archery origin myth for the two-finger insult that I posted about recently. The difference with historical myths is of course the passage of time; the greater the antiquity ascribed to a story, the more believable it becomes, and the harder it is to check primary sources to see if there’s any reason to believe it. You can rarely prove a negative, but it is usually possible to demonstrate the poor quality of the evidence. And if we have no good evidence, we have no more reason to accept that there is any truth behind the story.

So is there reason to believe that people from Hartlepool really did something like this? Most sources online express scepticism, or at least incredulity. As this page points out, Hartlepool had been a port for hundreds of years; the idea that anyone there might not have seen either monkeys or French people seems ridiculous. It also does smack of the sort of slander that’s thought up by neighbouring towns to impugn their rivals down the road. The specific social history of the area may in fact be where the truth lies.

The town of Hartlepool in the mid-19th Century was changing. The industrial port of what would become West Hartlepool was seen as different, and unwelcome, by the original town’s residents. In effect the two halves were in competition with each other. To express this tension, a comedian and musician called Ned Corvan wrote the “Monkey Song” about the perceived stupidity of the West Hartlepudlian fishermen; you can read the lyrics in the link above, or listen to part of it here. All evidence points to the story being manufactured, and not by another town in the region as one might expect, but internally.

Crucially, as the letter linked above points out, this song appears to have been inspired by an older near-identical tale from Boddam, in Scotland. Though the motivation for monkey-murder in that case is given as salvage law requiring there to be no survivors from a wreck, the connection is clear. Corvan had toured all over the North-East and lowland Scotland, and it does seem likely that he came across the folk song about the Boddamers. Though this is the most plausible explanation, interestingly, it does appear that other similar stories have arisen elsewhere in the UK, for example Mevagissey, in Cornwall. There are likely to be links even in those cases however; any other monkey-related “stupid locals” stories are probably recently borrowed transpositions of the Hartlepool story, intended to add local “colour” for the tourist trade.

In any case, there is simply no mention of the story with reference to Hartlepool prior to Corvan’s 1840s song, despite plenty of local history material dating to the Napoleonic war period. We must therefore conclude that there is no truth in it, and that it was invented in the late 18th Century as a piece of mischief. The only piece of “evidence” to come to light in recent times was a mysterious bone washed up on the beach at nearby Seaton Carew in 2005. Early reports contrived to identify it as simian in origin, fuelling speculation that the monkey/ape might have been real. Tests, however, showed that it was a far more interesting piece of our actual past – a fossilised prehistoric deer bone.

Though rival towns may still use the expression “monkey hangers” to deride Hartlepudlians, the monkey story has since been embraced or “reclaimed” by many of them, especially in a footballing context. A modern folk song has been written about it, and Hartlepool United mascot “H’Angus the Monkey” is something of a celebrity, even becoming mayor in 2002. There’s even a big metal monkey statue on the redevelopment marina:


The monkey story itself most likely isn’t true. But as an expression of local rivalry and identity, it’s very real. It also reflects an awareness of the sort of fear and ignorance of other people that has plagued human history, as this political article shows. Although that author is clearly misrepresenting the story as actual evidence of British ignorance and aggression for his own purposes, we can all well imagine the unjustified killing of an innocent creature by a gang of parochial morons of any nationality. Obsession with our own grotesque nature is probably one reason for the persistence of the story. Now over 100 years old as a piece of folklore, it certainly isn’t going away any time soon. Though apocryphal, in this way it can also be seen as a genuine piece of (social) history.

Vlad “They don’t like it up ’em” Dracula

July 13, 2007

(Titled with apologies to L/Cpl Jones)

This time I’ll be taking a quick look at two fascinating characters, one real, one fictional, who are these days often seen as one and the same. The first, Vlad Dracula (or Tepes) was a 15th Century warrior prince who defended Wallachia from the Turks and though painted a monster by his enemies, remains a folk-hero in modern Romania. The second is Count Dracula, Bram Stoker’s literary classic monster. Many of us today, reading of Voivode Vlad’s real and supposed violent exploits, tend to believe that Stoker must have based his Count upon this very real figure. In fact, the connection between the two is essentially in name only…


I recently watched an episode of a 2005 TV programme called “Legend Detectives” that dealt with the historic Vlad Dracula. It was a real mixed-bag, containing both interesting history and location filming in Romania, and cringe-worthy attempts at “psychic” reading courtesy of the self-parodying Tony Stockwell. Or was it Shirley Ghostman? Anyway, it was still worth a watch, thanks to the efforts of historian Tessa Dunlop and sceptic Massimo Polidoro. I’d have paid money to hear Polidoro comment on Stockwell’s particularly poor hot-reading antics, but one obvious wince of his towards the end did make me chuckle. He has written a good summary of the TV show and the Vlad/Stoker connection here.

Those two emphasised throughout that the sum total of the Vlad Dracula content in the “Dracula” novel are:

  1. The name, changed to “Dracula” before publication.
  2. Several brief references to Dracula having at some stage fought “the Turk”.

Stoker had always intended to call his anti-hero “Count Wampyr”, until he happened upon both the above tidbits in an 1820 book called “Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia”, by a chap called Wilkinson. Accounts of the time used a modern Romanian translation of his name; that of “Son of the Devil”. However, this was originally an official nickname of sorts with positive connotations; “Son of the Dragon“. The former translation suited Stoker’s satanic spin on Eastern European folklore just fine though, whilst the mention of ancient warfare made the Count appear truly an ancient and immortal warrior. This aspect was played up to great effect in the 1992 Francis Ford-Coppola’s 1992 film version of the story (though the visually stunning harness of red armour he wears resembles nothing from history). Both the name and the medieval back-story are vital elements of the Dracula character as we now know it, yet are nothing more than afterthoughts in the context of the original book. Now, the historical Vlad Dracula was a nasty bleeder, no doubt about it. He did a range of deeply unpleasant things to a variety of different people, including both his enemies and his own people. Most famously, he would stick big wooden stakes up people’s naughty bits and into the ground, and let them slowly die.


A German woodcut depicting Vlad indulging in his hobbies

This is why the Turks bestowed a second nickname upon him; that of “Tepes” or “Impaler”. But you have to view this in a medieval context, and realise that as Voivode he was fenced in by a numerically superior enemy, and dealing (albeit brutally) with endemic internal corruption. Such terror tactics don’t seem quite as bad in that light. Additionally, some of the activities ascribed to him by his enemies are quite likely to be false or exaggerated, and some supposed connections appear to have been made in quite recent times, such as his drinking the blood of his enemies (though Florescu and McNally claim to have found one reference to Vlad doing just that). In fact, not even his biggest critics tried to imply that he was any kind of supernatural being. The Romanian Strigoi was quite a different animal than the sort of vampire made famous by Dracula. And no, you can’t equate the staking of folkloric and fictional vampires with this instance of jamming bits of wood into people. You might just as well draw a parallel with, say, the equally fictional Robin Hood…


Why bother learning to differentiate between the two Draculas? After all, the simple link does seem to add considerably to the mythology of the character. Well, for one thing the Romanians aren’t too happy about their historical equivalent of Winston Churchill or George S. Patton being hijacked to sell plastic capes and fake blood (though no doubt it’s a big boost to the tourist industry). But the genie is out of the lamp, and it’s going to be impossible to truly separate the two characters. But we should nevertheless maintain some consciousness of the weak connection between them, and the very real and fascinating history behind the Count’s namesake. Anyone looking to read further on either of these characters should check out the website and publications of recognised authority Elizabeth Miller.

Two fingers up to English history…

July 2, 2007

Archers, Luttrell Psalter

Archers at the butts – from the Luttrell Psalter, c1320-40

Throughout history, events have been interpreted and spun to suit a variety of agendas, often a patriotic or nationalistic one. This is why a good scholar, if in doubt, always goes back to the sources. It’s hard enough to tackle speculative interpretation and outright falsehood in print, but when a myth reaches the public consciousness, either via oral tradition or by today’s mass media, it’s well on its way to becoming an established “fact”. One of my favourite myths is that of the origin for the famous British two-fingered salute – the V-sign. The origin myth, as given here, goes like this:

This salute dates back to the English Longbowman who fought the French during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453). The French hated the English archers who used the Longbow with such devastating effect. Any English archers who were caught by the French had their Index and middle fingers chopped off from their right hand- a terrible penalty for an archer. This led to the practice of the English archers, especially in siege situations, taunting their French enemy with their continued presence by raising their two fingers in the ‘Two-Fingered Salute’ meaning “You haven’t cut off my fingers !”

Even the BBC give this etymology. Huzzah! It’s all very affirming if you have even the slightest romantic or patriotic leanings (and happen to be an Anglophile!). The story even makes superficial sense; archers were skilled and professional warriors, and able en masse to seriously disrupt enemy formations. We’ve all heard of their fearsome reputation, and seen how modern-day archers will indeed draw their bows with those first two fingers. We also think of medieval warfare as particularly brutal. Add a dash of casual jingoism and we can easily imagine the old enemy having an informal policy of cutting off those fingers. With this in mind, it seems perfectly logical that the English archers might make the famous gesture to show that they still had their bow-fingers, and would shortly be putting them to use. The story of this “archer’s salute” is oft-told by modern-day proponents, especially within the re-enactment/living history community. They will even sell you “archer’s pendants” inspired by it! Readers may also be familiar with an email version (originating in the USA) involving the rather more obviously fake phrase “pluck yew”. As Snopes points out, this permutation is palpable nonsense (and probably intended as a mildly xenophobic “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”-style joke). But is there any truth at all to the story?

It was that very Snopes entry that started me thinking critically about this tale. It points out several criticisms, including the unlikely prospect of low-status archers being captured for ransom (a common medieval practice where individuals were known to have the means to pay). The nail in the coffin for me was the realisation that medieval longbows would have required the use of all three main fingers on the strong hand to draw them. As I became more familiar with the retrospective way that origin myths for common memes are constructed (in a similar way to urban myths), I consigned this story to the same mental bin as the fuller on a sword being a “blood-groove“. This was further reinforced when I attended a lecture by the medieval historian Professor Anne Curry, who mentioned the story in passing, saying that she had been unable to find any reference to such a gesture in the primary sources usually suggested (e.g. Froissart).

Whilst reading the fascinating “Blood Red Roses” on the subject of medieval battlefield archaeology, I became aware (as Prof. Curry and many others no doubt already are) of a genuine inspiration for this myth, in the shape of contemporary Burgundian chronicler Jean de Wavrin (or Jehan de Waurin), as referenced in Prestwich’s “Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages” (1996). I was pleased to discover a PDF version of Wavrin’s chronicle, hosted by the quite wonderful people at La Bibliothèque nationale de France. The quote that seems to have started this whole myth; appears in the English translation (found in the Fifth Volume of Book One – page 203 of this PDF document) as follows:

“…And further he told them and explained how the French were boasting that they would cut off three fingers of the right hand of all the archers that should be taken prisoners to the end that neither man nor horse should ever again be killed with their arrows. Such exhortations and many others, which cannot all be written, the King of England addressed to his men”.

Whilst the Middle French original reads like this:

“En oultre leur disoit et remoustrait comment les Francois se vantoient que tous les archiers Anglois qui seroient prins feroient copper trois doitz de la main dextre adfin que de leur trait jamais homme ne cheval ne tuassent. Teles admonitions et pluiseurs autres que toutes ne puis escripe fist lors le roy d’Angleterre a ses gens.”

..and carries a rather amusing modern French footnote, amounting to “this is really anti-French, but hey, all’s fair in love and war!”.

As you can see, the quote gives us the probable origin of the V-sign tale as a contemporary suggestion by the English that captured archers would be mutilated by the enemy. At the same time it strikes a fatal blow to the myth as it makes clear that the number of fingers said to be at risk is clearly three, not the two famously used in the modern gesture. The war-bows of the time, with a draw weight of around 100lb, would certainly have required all three. Interesting that this medieval myth, probably intended to spur on the archers by the demonising of the enemy, should give rise to the modern myth of a nationalistic origin for the two-fingered insult. To me this shows the real value of going back to the source material. Wavrin was actually at the battle, although we should remember that he was present on the French side, and so is unlikely to have heard Henry’s speech first-hand. He was also writing more than twenty years after the fact. But on the plus side, he’s about as impartial as medieval chroniclers get, having ties to both sides in the conflict (his father and brother fought and died on the French side, whilst he fought for England later on).

Neither Wavrin nor any other contemporary source mentions any manual sign of defiance associated with this, and the Agincourt archery story didn’t become popular until the 1990s. It can be seen as both innocent post-hoc rationalisation, and as a conscious attempt to ascribe great antiquity to a culturally distinctive gesture. Either way it’s pretty unhelpful in our understanding either of medieval history, or of the genuine origin of the “V-sign”. Any positive evidence for the latter seems to have been lost, and this myth has been constructed to fill the gap. As this article points out, there is no reference for the gesture before the 1970s. It could be a punk-rock subversion of Winston Churchill‘s “V for Victory” photographs – who knows? [It isn’t – see the comment below]. However it really came about, we can be pretty sure that it’s bugger all to do with medieval archers.