Merovingian Bees: Recasting Identity through Heritage
A few years ago, I watched a 93-part episode series on the History of the Christian Church, taught by Professor Ryan Reeves of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. The video series is, by the way, immensely educational and creatively put together. One of the most effective techniques Reeves uses is to start each video lecture a bit off kilter, a bit off topic. (I do the same thing in my own blog posts, so of course, I’m going to appreciate the rhetorical move, lol). Part of the fun, and intellectual journey, comes in seeing where his points go and how he connects thoughts together. It’s similar to the type of move Gladwell makes in his writing. In one of his videos, Reeves covers the reign of the “The Merovingians,” a dynasty that ruled during the early Middle Ages; their kingdom roughly covered most of France and some of Germany. However, in a typically Reeves-esque move, he begins not with 8th Century medieval Europe but rather with Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th Century.
In early 19th century France, Bonaparte was trying to establish the legitimacy of his rule. In order to compete with the symbolism of the Fleur-de-lis, which was associated with the powerful House of Bourbon dynasty, Bonaparte needed to find and appropriate another powerful symbol, and he found one from an earlier French age. This age was that of the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled France from the 5th Century to the 8th Century, and one symbol these early rulers used were the Merovingian bees. These symbols, sometimes referred to as cicadas, were found in the tomb of the first Merovingian king, Childéric. His tomb was discovered in 1653 and eventually made their way to France in 1655.
About 150 years later, Napoleon would find his own use for these golden cicadas. He saw in them a powerful invocation of French heritage, culture, and rule. These bees pre-dated, and in that sense, carried more authoritative legitimacy, than the Fleur-de-lis of the more aristocratic Bourbon dynasty. This is all to say that Napoleon was acutely aware of the power of symbols to awaken a sense of pride, convey a sense of ethos, and invoke a communitarian association with the past. Symbols tells stories, and stories tell us–among other things–who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
More Examples of Invoking History
The Merovingian bees aren’t the only example, nor the most famous, of how history can be invoked in these ways. In the New Testament, in the book of Hebrews, there is a powerful invocation of the past between chapters 10 and 12. In this portion of that book, the unknown author invokes the past pillars of the Judaic religion to emphasize the importance of faith, and recast the actions and beliefs of these ancestors within a Christian teleology.
After spending the entirety of Chapter 11 referencing the pillars of the Judaic (and Christian) faith, the author then invokes them as watching over and urging on his contemporaries: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” These great cloud of witnesses are functioning rhetorically in the same way for the author Hebrews as Napoleon’s Merovingian bees did for him–as an invocation of the past, to frame the present, and to remind or create a sense of shared identity and purpose.
There are any number of other examples, as well. In the book, The Plantagenets, Dan Jones includes information about how Henry III would use holy relics and legendary histories–such as that of Edward the Confessor–to develop a sense of English identity and use the pageantry of the crown and the Church to bolster his own authority in the eyes of his subjects. Two centuries later, Henry VII would stretch and twist the historical imagery of the white and red roses to recast an epic multi-generational struggle into the Wars of the Roses–a way that he, as Henry Tudor, would be perfectly cast to resolve. This was a stretching of the truth, to be sure, but Henry Tudor knew the way history can be told and retold to create identity and community, even if in the telling some facts change.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks and its Literary Origins
The are innumerable more examples than these, and I’m sure, dear reader, you may have thought of a couple examples, yourself. But each of these above examples came to mind, recently, as I revisited a classic children’s film, one that I likely haven’t seen in about 30 years. That film was Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), a Disney production starring Angela Lansbury and David Tomlinson, and based on two children’s books by Mary Norton. The first of these, The Magic Doorknob, was published in 1943, and the second, Bonfire and Broomsticks came out in 1947.
The publication dates of the books strike me as very interesting, since the first came out, right smack dab in the middle of World War II, and the second was published just two years following the war’s ending. I’ve not read the children’s books yet (though I am too), but anyone who’s seen the film knows that it’s set in England during WWII, and presumably at a point in the conflict when the possibility of a Nazi invasion of England was still very possible.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
The film begins with three young children from London needing shelter and care from a small town in the countryside. They are orphans, which makes their plight all the more dire. The film implies that the London Bombing Raids are happening, and so the government is trying to get as many children out of the city as possible. These three children would really rather stay in the dangerous city that they know than the dreary countryside where they don’t know anyone. To make their new living arrangements all more unappealing, the woman who takes them in, Miss Price (Angela Lansbury), doesn’t really care for them and only reluctantly agrees to house them because she’s legally obligated to do so.
One strength of this film is that each of the three children has a distinct personality. Carrie (Cindy O’Callaghan) has a motherly and cautious air about her; Paul (Roy Snart) is a whip-smart little kid without a filter, and the oldest of the bunch, Charlie (Ian Weighill), is cynical about implausible things, but whose heart is still capable of great imagination. Just as the kids are about to escape back to London, they discover a secret that makes their stay worthwhile; it appears that Miss Price is an apprentice witch.
As the children confront Price about her supernatural avocation, a power struggle begins. They want to blackmail her, but they don’t know quite for what, and she quickly adapts to this new dynamic. Oddly enough, from these power games, the kids and Price get to know each other better and develop a positive rapport. This is where the plot starts to take shape. Price receives word that the school of witchcraft that she has been attending has closed down.
This in intolerable, she explains, but here we begin to see that there’s more to Miss Price than meets the eye. Price is upset for two reasons. One fits with what we know about her: she’s focused on herself, and she doesn’t like not getting the final lesson she paid for. But she also implies that her desire for the final lesson–something she calls, “Substitutiary Locomotion”–has to do with national interests in fighting the German Nazi War Machine. She doesn’t say how, but it’s clear that she sees her application of Substitutiary Locomotion as something she can contribute to the war effort. She must know the secret language for this final powerful spell.
To retrieve the spell, she travels with the children via a magical bedknob to London to track down Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson) who has recently shut down his one man College of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When she finds him, she discovers he is not what she had envisioned, but for motives both high and low, the two of them team up with the help of the children to find the secrets of Substitutiary Locomotion. Their journey takes them to far away lands, such as the island of Naboombu, to a den of mysterious thieves in London, to the everyday commerce of Portebello Road (where they must deal with the London Bombing, but also get to see British soldiers and sailors), and to a night time battle with an incursionary Nazi force landing on the shore.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Heritage, and Identity
As I was viewing this film–the first time since my childhood–one of things that struck me was the recurrent backdrop of war, heritage, and nationalism throughout the story. The movie begins and ends with a group of volunteer veterans singing, “The Soldiers of the Old Home Guard.” It’s notable that these old soldiers have costuming and props that indicate they are not well equipped or ready for a fight, but what they lack in skill, they attempt to make up for in pride. In the opening sequence you can see aged men, some whose helmets don’t fit, some with shovels instead of guns, and some just clearly not ready for a fight at all. It’s kind of like if Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction were part of a national guard.
But that’s the point, perhaps. It’s the idea that the national defense is up to everyone, and everyone has a role to play. It’s the same idea connected to the British Government’s asking people during WWII to provide the military with any spare metal they might have had at home. People brought all kinds of scrap metal from their homes and around town. The British citizens were lead to believe this scrap metal would be used to build airplanes and other weaponry. And some of it may have been, but plenty more was just thrown in junk yards. The real purpose of the scrap metal was create a sense of national community and give British citizens a sense of agency.
Symbols of British lore and national feeling are almost omnipresent in this film, once you start noticing them. For instance, when they go to Naboombu, the king’s medal may invoke symbols of the British Crown, which Price and the others desperately try to steal (they’re British and traveling to foreign lands; what did you expect?). Throughout their excursion to this mystical island, there’s a medieval subtext to the animated kingdom. The island, the king, the football game, and even the medals, all harken back to a conglomeration of British history, lore, and legend.
And then there’s the ending of the film, wherein Price awakens British knights, 18th and 19th century soldiers, bowman (perhaps in reference to the Battle of Agincourt), and Scottish Bagpipe players, among others. It is an assemblage, not just of an army but of a composition of British lore and pride. That The Magic Doorknob was published in 1943 and that the film is set in the middle of the darkest moment for the British during the war suggests that these historical references are probably more than just cultural touchstones to enliven the story.
They are a powerful invocation of the historical and imaginary past of the the British islands. The film, in this vein, can be seen as a rhetorical expression of patriotism, a connection of Britain’s past to it’s struggle against fascism in WWII. That Price conjures up soldiers from a millennium of British history to help her fight the Nazis recasts her and the other characters in this film not as a ragtag band of misfits trying to fend off invasion but as inheritors of a rich history of culture and military might.
To borrow language from Hebrews 11, they are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” from centuries and battles past. The heroes, activated by Price’s Substitutiary Locomotion, have the imprimatur of British authenticity to legitimize their fight, just as Napoleon had with his Merovingian bees. They cast that imprimatur not just on themselves, but on their fellow combatants–Price and the others–and by extension, on the audience. This is a film that invokes a sense of national identity and pride, though in a sleight-of-hand humorous way.
More generally, I was pleasantly surprised by how the film holds up upon reviewing as an adult. When I watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks as a child, I had not yet seen Angela Lansbury’s incredible performance as Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Knowing how she could play the Lady McBeth-esque wife of a Senator in that film gave me a new appreciation for her performance as Price in Bedknobs. The film’s soundtrack is catchy, and each song advances the story, character development, or theme in its own way. Overall, it’s well worth watching, either for the first time, or as a repeated viewing.