History of the World According to the Movies: Part 34 – Life in Cavalier Europe

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I don’t think my movie history series of the Cavalier years could be complete without a picture from Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon. Sure it was a commercial flop with mixed reviews upon its release but I think its price tag was worth the effort to bring the 18th century to life like never before. In many ways, this is an underrated masterpiece of scenery and costume porn which should live throughout the ages. If you haven’t watched this, you certainly should go on Netflix and rent this one. I guarantee watching this movie is well worth your time.

The Cavalier years in Europe were an eventful time in other European countries. You had the rise of the Netherlands which was a haven for religious freedom, tulips, trade, and painting by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer. You have Vasa Sweden, a dominant European power at the time with one of the biggest screwed up royal families at the time, wars with Russia, and Queen Christina. In Denmark, you have King Christian VII a crazy asshole king who married King George III’s sister who like to dress in guys clothes and sleep with the Danish king’s chief minister. Of course, you also have Germany with its divided little city states which was home to Johann Sebastian Bach and other great German composers of that time. Then you have Italy which invented opera and other musical concepts we use today like writing music on paper, constructed many ornate buildings that defined architecture of the period, and also produced many great artists all the same. Nevertheless, you had the extraordinary Casanova who trotted the continent as well as changed jobs at the same frequency he changed women. Still, there are plenty of things the films in set in this era get wrong, which I shall list accordingly.

Denmark:

The Danish royal court spoke Danish during the 18th century. (The court language at the Danish court was German. Danish was referred to as, “the people’s language.”)

Princess Caroline Matilda (sister of King George III) met King Christian VII while he was relieving himself against a tree. (According to one historian, their first meeting was seen as “exceedingly romantic” to the point where Christian “committed a number of awful breaches of etiquette by embracing and kissing her repeatedly in the presence of the whole Court.” Of course, she was 15 while he was 17 and they were engaged already. Also, Christian VII would later get tired of her.)

King Christian VII’s main vice was excessive masturbation. (Christian VII’s excesses also included drink, sado-masochism, handsome young men and prostitutes, most famously Støvlet-Cathrine, or Catherine-of-the-Boots. Also, he had a brutally abusive upbringing at the hands of his guardian complete with regular beatings that had him writing on the floor in agony. Still, he was plagued by severe mental illness throughout his life, which would make his brother-in-law King George III sane by comparison {but at least George was a nicer guy crazy or not}.)

Johann Struensee and Queen Caroline Matilda bonded over their shared passion of Enlightenment ideas. (There’s scant evidence of intellectualism in Caroline Matilda’s biographies. Yet, Struensee was a free-thinker.)

Queen Caroline Matilda and Johann Struensee’s relationship was a pure and charming romance. (Contrary to the Danish film A Royal Affair, there was gossip Struensee was also having an affair with one of Caroline Matilda’s ladies-in-waiting at the same time named Elisabeth von Eyden.)

Copenhagen was shocked by Queen Caroline Matilda’s extramarital affair with her husband’s chief minister. (The Danish court was more outraged by Caroline Matilda’s habit for transvestitism than her extramarital affair {because she lived in the 18th century and the Danish court thought the concept of spouses loving each other was appallingly bourgeois}. Also, she was actually more sturdily built than she appeared in A Royal Affair.)

Johann Struensee encouraged King Christian VII’s carousing and whoring. (He actually advised the king to improve his marriage with his wife.)

Vasa Sweden:

Queen Christina of Sweden gave up the throne for love. (She gave it up because she wanted to convert to Catholicism {illegal in Sweden at the time} and there was a growing discontent in her arbitrary and wasteful ways. She was also known to have granted tons of ennoblements and suffered many nervous breakdowns. Still, as far as her appearance goes, she was butch and ugly and had traditionally male-like mannerisms, interests, and way of dressing as well as might have been biologically intersex. But she’s played by Greta Garbo.)

Queen Christina’s abdication was a spur of the moment decision. (She had prepared for it long in advance in order to ensure a smooth transition and as little fuss as possible. She then left the country out of conviction, not romantic infatuation. Still, Christina was a relatively sane, competent, and eccentric female ruler in a dynasty filled with nutjobs. Also, she actually technically king of Sweden.)

The Netherlands:

Jan Vermeer never painted his wife. (He did paint her and while she was pregnant {well, it’s sometimes said but opinions from art historians differ whether she was or if 17th century Dutch fashions made women look that way}.)

Jan Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce arrestingly lifelike scenes. (There’s no physical documentary evidence he did and art historians argued over this.)

Jan Vermeer used his lover as a model in Girl with a Pearl Earring. (He may have used his 12-year-old daughter for this painting and the emotional affair between him and Griet probably never happened.)

Girl with a Pearl Earring was considered obscene in its day. (At most it would’ve been subtly sensual in an era when people like Rembrandt and Rubens were painting full on nudes.)

William of Orange was King of Holland. (He was Stadhouder of the Seven Netherlands, never King of Holland. Yet, he would later become King of England though.)

The Young Woman with a Water Pitcher was painted in 1665. (It was painted in 1662-1663.)

Spain:

The Spanish Inquisition examined Francisco Goya’s “Los Caprichos” etchings in 1792. (Goya created these etchings in 1797.)

Divided Germany:

“Music for the Royal Fireworks” was played in 1671. (Handel composed the piece in 1749.)

William Friedermann Bach competed against Louis Marchand and died a young man. (Actually his dad Johann Sebastian Bach competed against Marchand. Also, William Friedermann Bach lived around 1710-1784 which means he was in his seventies when he died.)

Ludwig van Beethoven had his first public recital when he was 12 and his dad said he was 9. (He was 8 and his dad said he was 6.)

Ludwig van Beethoven was humiliated for a poor performance as well as beaten by his dad. (His dad never humiliated him in public. Also, if he had beaten Beethoven for anything, it was probably because he was a drunk. Still, as the oldest surviving child, Beethoven had to take care of his younger siblings at a young age because of his dad’s alcoholism and his mothers death when he was 16. He started out as a musician by giving piano lessons.)

The Scientific Revolution:

Most European scientists weren’t superstitious and believed in rational thought. (Isaac Newton experimented with alchemy and so did his peers. Also, he wrote a great deal about religion, too.)

Casanova:

Casanova was one of the biggest skirt chaser extraordinaire of his day. (Casanova was also a deacon, lawyer, military officer, writer, violinist, con man, pimp, gourmand, dancer, businessman, diplomat, spy, politician, medic, social philosopher, cabalist, librarian, and playwright. He was a man of far reaching intellect and curiosity as well as a devout Catholic who believed in the power of prayer, ironically. Not to mention, he also gambled as well as had sex with numerous women but he also respected them as people and believed in sexual consent. However, his sexual behavior wasn’t much out of norm, especially in the world he lived in. As for his looks, he more likely resembled Adrien Brody {a more appropriate casting choice historically and personally speaking} than Heath Ledger {who actually portrayed him, cute but not someone you’d want to play the kind of guy Casanova was}. Then again, between Casanova and Adrien Brody, Brody is more likely the hotter one of the two.)

Casanova had sex with 3,800 women. (His memoirs recorded sex between 122-136 women along with several men. From losing his virginity at 16 to his death at 73, this would mean 3 lovers a year. Quite chaste for the 18th century.)

Casanova fell afoul of the Inquisition for having a passionate affair with a nun. (It was more over him spreading heretical ideas about astrology and the Cabbalah. Still, he probably wished the Inquisition could’ve tried to nail him on banging a nun. However, when it came to sexual indiscretions, the Inquisition didn’t give a shit.)

Casanova believed in women’s education. (From The Guardian: “Casanova’s interest in women’s liberation seems to have extended mostly to liberating their bosoms from their bodices.” In other words, he believed women were entitled to as much sexual fulfillment as men {and said that most of his sexual pleasure comes from her enjoyment, which was unheard of at the time}. Though he did value a woman’s intelligence {also praising their wit and brains as well as beauty} and never judged her sexual behavior. As to women’s education, I believe his editor Jean Laforgue might’ve added it in a version of the guy’s memoirs.)

Casanova lost interest in women who yielded to him. (He was a man who rekindled affairs with past flames and kept lively and affectionate correspondences with past loves well into his old age. He was even happy to meet his love children.)

Casanova was an irresistible seducer who never fell in love with any of his conquests. (He did have many meaningless hookups but he fell deeply in love with many of the women he met, though not always succeeding in winning their hearts.)

Cavalier Life:

Sword fighting could happen at any place and at any time for any reason and would go on for a long time until one of the combatants was killed or injured. (To quote Stewart Granger from Scaramouche, “Mr. President, the deputy from Soissons will be absent from this assembly… permanently” or “3 to 6 months or so says the doctor.”)

Protestant countries became more prosperous because of their work ethic. (Actually, it had more to do with the fact that Protestant nations were more or less compelled to become more secular and religiously tolerant than the Catholic ones, especially in the Netherlands. Also, they were near a coastline and had widespread trading economies, colonies, urbanization, constitutional monarchies, and the incident with the Spanish Armada which deprived Spain of its superpower status. Still, there were plenty of scientists and engineers living in Catholic countries at that time as well and weren’t being persecuted by the Inquisition either. France was also a world power as well and Spain still had a large empire.)

Belgium existed in the 18th century. (The Kingdom of Belgium didn’t exist until 1830.)

Straight men in the 18th century never wore makeup. (Aristocratic men did and wore wigs and elaborate clothing, too. As TTI said, “they’re hyper-heterosexuals whose feminine mannerisms are supposedly a way of attracting women.” Yet, the only guys who were makeup in history movies on this era are suspected to be gay with the exception to Barry Lyndon.)

People ate grapes in the 1600s northern Europe. (They wouldn’t even be eating them in Paris.)

The causes of the Seven Years War aren’t well known to historians. (Prussia had invaded a rich region in Austria 16 years before in the War of the Austrian Succession, which Austria wanted back. Meanwhile Great Britain and France were feuding over some disputed territory in North America as well as India. Nevertheless, though American schoolchildren may not know much about Prussia and Austria’s situation, they would definitely know the situation between Britain and France, especially if they lived in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where the whole thing started with the involvement of a twenty-two year old Virginia militia Colonel named George Washington.)

Champagne was consumed in wide champagne saucers during the 18th century. (It would’ve been consumed from tall conical glasses. This glass design wasn’t invented until 1850.)

People ate with four point forks during the 17th century. (They were invented in the 18th century.)

Musketeers never used muskets. (They did, but only in battle.)

Wigs were never vermin infested. (They were vermin magnets and attracted lice. Some of those women’s wigs were styled with lard, starch, and powder applied over cage frames and horsehair pads.)

18th century noblewomen had outrageous wigs. (They were even more outrageous since some of them could have birdcages in them, complete with actual birds. Still, I can understand why films made in the 18th century usually kind of down play these looks for good reason since these wigs were ridiculous.)

“Amazing Grace” was an 18th century hymn. (The tune we know today was composed in the 19th century, though the lyrics existed in the 1790s. Thus, in Amazing Grace, the eponymous song wouldn’t be sung back then like we would. But this inaccuracy is justified. )

Dresses had very modest cleavage or none at all. (17th and 18th century fashions were obsessed with cleavage and pushed up boobs. For a brief period in the 18th century, it wasn’t uncommon for some women in the French court to expose one breast completely to look fashionable.)

Churchmen and Jesuits were corrupt and evil. (Sure the Catholic Church and other established churches were corrupt, but clergymen at the time had human failings like anyone else.)

Chandeliers always existed for the swashbuckling hero to swing on during a fight scene or to drop down on his enemy.
Thrown swords always hit their targets. (Odds of this working 100% of the time are impossible.)

Good sword fighting consisted with two combatants to hit each other’s weapons with an impressive clang. (Sorry, Errol Flynn and other sword fighters, but real cavaliers didn’t fight that way in duels. Real sword fights were much more gory and violent usually resulting in nasty bloody wounds or body parts being chopped off. If anyone from Hollywood would face a real swordsman from that era, he’d be dead. Still, using moves in a sword fight from an Errol Flynn movie would basically render a sword useless as well as cause extreme stress to the blade. Basil Rathbone, Cornel Wilde, and Tyrone Power’s fights onscreen were notable exceptions of real life sword fighting minus the blood since they were skilled swordsmen in real life.)

A sword fight indoors usually destroyed an entire room.

Great historical actions such as wars were decisively influenced by the love affairs of certain characters. (I doubt that many great historical actions were decisively influenced by love affairs of historical personalities. Kings and royals, may be but nobles, not so much.)

Little boys never wore dresses. (Uh, there’s some picture of a 18th century French prince wearing one just like his mother and sister. Besides, these were the days that boys didn’t wear pants until they were potty trained. Yet, little boys in movies set during this period are usually wearing pants.)

Highwaymen were dashing and debonair gentlemen thieves of armed robbery. (Yes, highwaymen were the rock stars of their day alongside pirates, but they tended to be romanticized since they road on horses, and therefore were considered a cut above common bandits. Their executions tended to attract large crowds. Still, most of these guys weren’t nice people at all.)

Master swordsmen also took gymnastics and choreography lessons.

All swashbuckling heroes fell for high-born women of quality able to generate a lot of chemistry and belligerent sexual tension.

Weapons laden dirigibles existed during the 17th century. (Seriously? Why do you have these in a Three Musketeers movie, Hollywood? The Mongolfier brothers wouldn’t be born for another century.)

Elderly men could survive with a gaping hole in their chests and let doctors stick their mucky fingers in it during the 17th century. (This is probably not possible and very disgusting. Still, in these days surgery was dangerous, violent, and performed by barbers.Physicians would usually reserve their skills for more genteel treatments.)

Europeans ate pineapples during the 17th century. (Pineapples were used as decoration at this time because refrigeration would basically rot them out since transportation by boat usually took a month or more.)

Tobacco was only seen as a recreational drug. (It was also seen as a health cure in Europe at this time, kind of like medicinal marijuana.)

The waltz was a popular European dance in the 18th century. (Only a century later. Back then, it was a highly scandalous European dance in the same way twerking would be considered today.)

Soldiers tossed away ramrods once they were done with them. (No soldier would do such a thing because they would need this after firing to reload. In the days of single shot firearms, only an idiot would do this deliberately.)

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