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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Is History a game we play with the past?

Notes from a lecture on diversity in the 15th and 16th centuries

"I have come to think of history as a game - a game we play with the past." - Beverly Southgate

Southgate is Reader Emeritus from the University of Hertfordshire. He proposes that history should adopt a morally therapeutic role that seeks to advance human happiness. This is one of those cases where the ambiguity is clear. Who defines moral? How is therapeutic determined? Who judges happiness? Should diversity be manufactured as a therapy to counter the mythologizing of the past.

I had a passionate debate with a friend, when she said she couldn’t watch The Spanish Princess, Philippa Gregory’s fictionalized account of Katherine of Aragon’s early years in England as there were Black actors in some of the secondary roles and so the illusion was ruined for her. I pointed out that much of the Iberian peninsula had been under moorish rule up until Katherine’s mother and father, Isabella and Ferdinand defeated the last vestiges of that kingdom in Granada in 1492, so not only was it possible, but quite likely that there were people of color, who had converted to Catholicism, in royal service.

The Spanish Princess, Starz Network (U.S.)

The actress who played one of the roles of color, a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon named Catalina de Cordonnes, has said she didn’t know anything about Black Tudors as ”The representation of Black people in period dramas isn't really a thing," neatly, summarizing the state of diversity in popular culture treatments of historical events and people. There are some recent exceptions to that ‘thing’. Shonda Rhimes’s production company ShondaLand's Bridgerton on Netflix in the U.S. leaps to mind. This show generated another spirited debate with my friend.

Stephanie Levi-John as Catalina de Cardonnes, The Spanish Princess, Starz Network (U.S.)

Catalina de Cardonnes (a.k.a. Lina) is based on a very real person. She appears in archival sources although it is unclear if she was a slave or a servant called a slave because of her color. Catalina de Cardonnes was called upon to testify at the divorce proceedings, termed annulment proceedings, that Henry VIII brought against his wife Katherine, of 24 years. This ‘Great Matter’ lead to the creation of the Church of England as Henry traded Katherine of Aragon in for a younger model in the person of Anne Boleyn. The slave or servant Catalina would have been aware of the state of the marital bed sheets from Katherine of Aragon’s first, allegedly incomplete, marriage to Henry VIII’s brother, Prince Arthur. (The reliance of blood spots on marital bed sheets as proof of the bride’s virginity and the marriage’s consummation, is based on misinformation about women’s bodies and how they function. As a result, there is a long, if erratic, history of brides using animal blood from a discreetly stashed vessel to confirm consummation.)

John Blanke in the Westminster Tournament Roll. College of Arms MS Westminster Tournament Roll, 1511.

New research has highlighted that Tudor England was far more diverse than we once assumed. Indeed, Catalina was not the only person of colour who participated in the coronation of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in 1509.

We know that by December 1507 a trumpeter called John Blanke of African descent had been in royal service for while, receiving wages as a trumpeter. Further, he is depicted in art – appearing twice in the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511.

So instead of white washing history, and maintaining the fiction, because that is what it is, that history is primarily white HIS story and does NOT include a whole human narrative conflicting perspectives, overlapping lenses of analysis, and many other aspects that contribute to understanding, and thereby more reflective of the total human condition — should there be ‘black washing’.

Some recent popular culture representations that have been accused of ‘black washing’. As I write this, stories are cropping up in the media about the real and fictional Cleopatra. Would this be morally therapeutic? Is it the role of the historian, or popular culture producer, to counter the mythologizing of the past? And is it a lie? Isn't it just a better reflection of the archival record? Would the man John Blanke please make an appearance alongside Catalina? Would it matter? Or would people like my friend cling to the belief that England was white, Europe was white, and people did not travel?

Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn. Channel 5 Production

Some recent popular culture representations that have been accused o 'black washing include the casting of Black English actress Jodie Turner-Smith playing Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Other examples include Black New Yorker Condola Rashad playing the French heroine Joan of Arc in a stage production of Saint Joan (2020). David Gyasi playing the Greek hero Achilles in Troy: Fall of a City (2018), Sophie Okonedo playing the French Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown (2016), and many more. But Cleopatra is currently the popular culture and historical figure object of debate.

When the casting of Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress best known for playing Wonder Woman in the D.C. Comics universe, was announced some called out the casting of Gadot as the iconic Pharoah/Queen as whitewashing, arguing that the famed leader should be played by a Black actress. Gadot subsequently spoke out on the issue to BBC Arabic, stating, "First of all if you want to be true to the facts then Cleopatra was Macedonian. We were looking for a Macedonian actress that could fit Cleopatra. She wasn't there, and I was very passionate about Cleopatra.”

Gal Gadot as Cleopatra

Adele James as Cleopatra for Netflix

And this week, there is controversy over a Jada Pinkett Smith production for Netflix that cast Black English actress Adele James as the Pharoah/Queen. Producer Pinkett Smith said she wanted to tell the story because 'we don't often get to see or hear stories about black queens.’ One might, probably rightly, lay responsibility for Pinkett-Smith’s comments about Cleopatra as a black queen at the feet of the U.S. education system. On the other hand, how certain are we that there was no intermingling between Greeks and North Africans of color? Are we reverting to the hermetically sealed boundaries again that Professor Beard counters so effectively on her Twitter account? Surely, either approach is more ‘historically accurate than previous popular culture representations of Cleopatra. Netflix has turned off commenting on the trailer as it has become too vitriolic. They should hire Professor Beard to moderate the threads.

Should these portrayals be viewed as therapeutic revisioning of history with the goal being to engender a happier society? Is this one approach to promoting a new perspective on historical diversity? Or is it shock value to generate viewers and to establish writing and production credits in our current culture wars amidst confusion about political correctness or ‘woke’ness?


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