The Blog

History, Fools and Russell Brand

Celebrity culture is not new to the digital age. One and a half thousand years ago, there were plenty of commentators who threw their hands in the air in bewilderment at the way that poseurs gained followings.

Lots of people think historians spend their time in libraries blowing dust off books no one else has (wanted to) read, looking for false doors in grand houses that hide undiscovered manuscripts, or tracking down nice pensioners who used to crack codes during the war at Bletchley Park. Sometimes the fun and action is much closer than you might think.

I've been thinking recently about deviance in the Middle Ages - about those on the periphery of society. Rather than look at kings, bishops and elites, I've been looking at those who either opted out or were rejected by their peers. Some had physical disabilities and/or suffered from diseases that were incurable; others, evidently, had serious mental health issues. These were cruel times for those whose conditions could not be treated or even understood.

But this week, I've had most fun working on fools and eccentrics. And lo and behold, just as I was wondering how to best approach this topic, I opened the newspapers, turned on the TV, listened to the radio and checked Twitter. And there, before my very eyes and ears, was the composite of a man I'd been reading about in a range of sources.

I wonder if you can work out who this reminds you of?

It was unbelievable, wrote Paul of Hellas in the 6th century, that people could be taken in by men who talked quickly and claimed to understand the world around them. Their offers to share their 'wisdom' was laughable, he added: while some listeners were foolish enough to mistake silver-tongued words for intelligence, others understood they were complete nonsense. Such men gave the impression of brilliance and the promise of enlightenment, but in reality offered nothing but empty words.

Celebrity culture is not new to the digital age. One and a half thousand years ago, there were plenty of commentators who threw their hands in the air in bewilderment at the way that poseurs gained followings. St Neilos of Sinai, for example, could not bear the fact that towns and villages were 'groaning' with late antique versions of the cast of Made in Chelsea, X Factor finalists and Russell Brand.

Such people were idiots, according to Neilos, prancing about and posing 'aimlessly and pointlessly'; it was incredible to see them become famous. Who in their right mind, he wonders, would be taken in by hypocritical pseuds and their inane commentaries on contemporary life? As a 6th century Dermot O'Leary would have put it today, 'The Public Have Spoken.' And you can't argue with that.

Other commentators were bewildered by how such supposed sages looked and what they sounded like. Niketas Khoniates could barely hide his incredulity at seeing men with 'bloodshot eyes' and 'completely wild hair' talking centre stage. They were listened to despite the fact that they did not talk, but 'screamed ecstatically as if if stark-raving mad.'

Those urging their own equally ill-conceived version of change and 'Revolution' were fools, wrote authors - echoing David Aaronovitch's epic take-down in The Times this week.

They were obnoxious in person too, hiding the fact that they were wealthy while giving the impression of poverty and concern for the poor. Such men went to great lengths to look the part of holy men - because it suited their act well. Those awful black clothes were an obvious sign of a fool, noted the Life of St. Eunapios in the 5th century. They dressed like monks and holy men, but were driven by the pursuit of pleasure and the desire to satisfy passions.

One such figure infuriated a questioner who challenged his views. The man 'did not answer, but simply lifted his right hand to heaven as if to say 'God spoke to me''.

What annoyed observers most however was the grip that such vacuous figures had on the local population. It was frightening, noted one 5th century writer, that men who were charlatans had a 'power that verged on tyranny' on the general public.

As Paul of Hellas put it, 6th century versions of Russell Brand were obsessed by the need 'to satisfy their own vanity and to fan their thirst for widespread popularity.' Attention-seekers one and a half thousand years ago would say anything to get attention. It seems not much has changed.

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