Sunday, May 30, 2010

Robin and Marion and Robin Hood and the Monk

Here is my pitch for a film script of the Robin Hood story, free of later revisionism.

Robin Hood tells his merry men he wishes to go to church to hear mass in Nottingham, and he takes Little John with him. On the way, they stop to shoot arrows for penny stakes, and eventually Robin wins five shillings but Little John says he hasn’t. They quarrel and part.

Meanwhile, Marion, a pretty shepherdess, is wooed by an amorous knight. She rebuffs him, telling him her heart belongs to Robin the shepherd. She warns him that her boyfriend’s back and he’s going to be in trouble (Hey down a down, her boyfriend’s back.)

The knight storms off, looking for Robin the shepherd, planning to beat him soundly.

Little John has second thoughts, and goes to Saint Mary’s church to find Robin. A monk tells him that no-one of that name has been there yet. Little John leaves five shillings with the monk and asks him to give them to Robin when he arrives.

Robin the shepherd comes to the church and the monk gives him the five shillings.

The knight meets a potter, and asks him where he can find Robin. The potter directs him to the forest, beneath the greenwood tree. The knight leaves for the forest.

Robin Hood meets little John, and tells him that he hasn’t met a monk, so Little John returns to recover the money. Robin Hood returns to meet Much the miller’s son and the other merry men beneath the greenwood tree.

Medieval sitcom hijinks ensue.

Robin Hood (2010)

Steve Muhlberger's review pretty much agrees with my own impressions. The recreated world seems very real and richly detailed even though an informed viewer can spot anachronisms. A lot of the action is set against sweeping panoramas of medieval landscape and seascape. This is a movie that benefits from a big screen.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, William Marshal and Richard are portrayed well and with reasonable fidelity to their historical character. It's great to see the Marshal finally get a major role on the big screen. (His portrayal in Lion in Winter was spot on in showing his competence and value to the crown, but he didn't get a lot of lines) Bad King John is complexly bad. Isabella of Angoulême, John's hot jailbait second queen, has a more interesting role than I expected.

I can forgive most of the anachronisms as driven by dramatic or practical reasons rather than carelessness. The visored or open faced sallets sometimes worn are from a later era, but convey knightly status and allow characters' faces to be revealed or concealed as needed. Glazed windows are anachronistic, but it looks like Ridley Scott found an existing building to shoot in, and removing the windows for the shoot would have been an expensive process.

Although ramped landing ships were used in this era, the landing craft in the film look too much like WWII Higgins boats. Recreating the big galleys actually used would have been tremendously costly, let alone training the extras to carry out the difficult stern first beaching.

The anachronisms and ahistorical moments were not intrusive enough to stop me from enjoying the film a great deal.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Marian: Warrior Princess

Modern viewers who think that the kick-ass Maid Marian in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is just revisionist modern feminism might be interested in the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian

The surviving version is thought to date from the 17th century.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Landing Ship (Horse)

Then began the mariners to open the ports of the transports, and let down the bridges, and take out the horses; and the knights began to mount, and they began to marshal the divisions of the host in due order.

Geoffrey de Villehardouin [b.c.1160-d.c.1213]: Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Frank T. Marzials, (London: J.M. Dent, 1908)

So the fleet came to land, and when they were landed, forth came the knights out of the transports, all mounted; for the transports were built in such fashion that they had doors, which were easily opened, and a bridge was thrust out whereby the knights could come forth to land all mounted.

Robert of Clari's account of the Fourth Crusade

Those sources called the horse transports uissiers. Other names included chelandium, tarida and dromon. They were big galleys capable of carrying 12-30 horses. The big thirty horse taride of Charles I of Sicily shipped 108-110 oars. The doors and ramps were at the stern between two sternposts, so the vessels backed onto the beach to unload and load. They were shallow draft: in Villehardouin's account the knights jumped from the transports into waist-deep water.

The vessels are covered in more detail in: Bull, M. (2003). The experience of crusading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

More on the ships and the landing here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Kevin Costner's Robin Hood... lovingly eviscerated by Got Medieval and Per Omnia Saecula

Cruel but fair.

For a Limited Time in NYC: the Magna Carta, Durer and the Limbourg Brothers

At the Morgan Library through May 30th: one of the earliest engrossments of the Magna Carta from 1217.

That is to say, it isn't what was signed at Runnymede, but it is an original legal document because it bears the royal seal.

It is written in the strikingly small, fair chancery hand of an era when parchment was bloody expensive and labor was cheap. Let us give thanks to the papermakers, who over the centuries of development of their craft changed our lives so much for the better!

By 1217 John was dead, so his son's name is at the top of the page, because the rule of law will outlive a man, if you do it right.

Also at the Morgan, a choice collection of images by Durer, through September 12th. Durer's virile and expressive pen strokes are also worth seeing in person.

At the Met, conservation of the currently unbound Belles Heures gives a rare opportunity to see all of its illuminated pages as individual leaves. The Met provides magnifying glasses to better appreciate the splendor of the work in person. You can appreciate the life that minute decorative punchwork brings to gold leaf backgrounds,or gold and silver highlights on the surface of a troubled sea. This is well worth seeing in person, if you can, before the manuscript is rebound. The exhibition runs through June 13th, 2010.

I write this on the last day of The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy. Fortunately, the web site still contains a wealth of useful images.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Are We to Continue to Languish in Low Earth Orbit?

Above, I paraphrase a question from a friend.

My answer is no, if we don't weaken.

Let me put U.S. human space flight in perspective. Late in 2008, our best hope to send humans beyond LEO was the mammoth Ares V launcher. Based on the funding actually in place by 2010, the program of record might have allowed missions to Lunar orbit by the late 2020s.

The proposal of the current administration would emphasize orbital propellant depots, with a mission to a near Earth asteroid around 2025. Less challenging missions, like Earth/Moon Lagrange Point One or Lunar flyby or orbit, could happen earlier.

That sounds like a move in the right direction.

When Will We Want a Heavy Lift Vehicle?

We might not need a big HLV for a while, depending on how well propellant depots work. And we might be able to get by with something much smaller than Saturn V for a long time.

A heavy lift vehicle can simplify operations, and can be the most cost effective launcher at sufficient flight rates, but most of the kind of missions that need a HLV also need very expensive spacecraft, so it will be very difficult for NASA to fund the high flight rate that makes heavy lift cost effective.

We have a proposal from JSC for a 110 tonne to LEO Shuttle derived launch vehicle, with estimated operating costs that approximate fixed costs of $2 billion a year and $300 million a launch on top of that. Assuming a propellant depot to avoid manifest inefficiency, three would be needed for a pair of Orion + Altair sortie missions, or $2.9 billion a year, not counting the spacecraft.

With a practical propellant depot in orbit the same payload mass could be launched by a dozen uprated Delta IVH launchers with RS-68A engines. If we assume those launches are allocated 90% of fixed costs of $500 million and marginal costs of $170 million per launch (probably high at that flight rate) you spend about $2.5 billion.

The biggest problem with the SDLV is that you're stuck with the fixed costs even when you don't have that many, or even any, suitable payloads.

And even if you can justify the high flight rate that makes a heavy lift vehicle cost-effective, it takes a long time to recoup the development cost of a big launcher. JSC estimates $8 billion for their plan, which keeps the design as similar as possible to the Shuttle. This design keeps development costs down by keeping changes to Shuttle components and infrastructure to a minimum, but would be handicapped by the higher marginal cost of the side-mount carrier and a more restricted shroud than in-line designs.

That said, orbital transfer and storage of cryogenic propellant may be more difficult than proponents think. That might make an HLV the optimal solution.

However, Ed Kyle has an interesting post on another way to do a sustainable manned program here:

Using a storable earth departure stage requires more mass in LEO per mission than LH, but you can use existing EELVs and avoid the huge fixed cost of a dedicated NASA-owned HLV.

With low boiloff LH storage you can avoid the performance hit of storable propellant, and that technology is baselined for Mars in NASA's latest study. Low boiloff methane propulsion is also baselined for Mars. But even if these technologies prove difficult, a storable stage can work as a fallback.

Although Ed Kyle would probably prefer to go to the moon first, a big storable stage is also an enabler for asteroid missions.

In short, we may be able to do a very respectable human space flight program beyond LEO without a huge HLV. With propellant transfer in orbit, the ability to put 35-40 tonnes in LEO would enable a robust program earth to either Near Earth Objects or the Moon. Deferring a decision to build a big HLV until we know more, as Obama’s NASA proposes, makes a lot of economic sense.

The biggest obstacle to this sensible idea is political: a number of people in Congress like the money the current plan sends to their districts very much.

In fairness, there’s a principled argument for a Shuttle derived launch vehicle as well: Shuttle solid boosters and main engines are powerful and reliable, and if we disperse the teams that build and launch them we will lose a capability we may never get back.

Online Froissart, Medieval Cooking and Other Resources

Professor Martha Carlin's Home Page Medieval social and economic history, with a focus on English urban history and archaeology, food and diet, and household technologies. A rich array of links and resources.

Online Froissart This online edition and translation allows you to access and search transcriptions of multiple manuscripts.

Thanks to Steve Muhlberger for finding these.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Commercialized Crew Transport to Low Earth Orbit

The Obama administration proposes to use private contractors to transport crew to LEO, as proposed by the Augustine Commission. This is a good thing. There has been a lot of criticism of the plan, particularly from politicians with a vested interest in keeping money flowing to NASA centers and suppliers of Ares components, but many of the arguments are wrong.

It’s true that inexperienced start-ups like SpaceX may bid for the work, but there will also be veteran companies like ULA, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing who build and launch the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets the government trust to launch billion dollar spysats and planetary spacecraft. Unlike Ares I, these launchers are already in operation, and have a pretty good track record. Atlas V has had 11 consecutive successes out of 21 launches. The one mission failure, a second stage engine that shut down four seconds early in the second burn, would not have threatened a loss of crew on a manned mission to LEO. With a launch abort system Atlas V will almost certainly be at least as safe to ride as the Space Shuttle, even without additional improvements to reliability from further flight experience. There’s every reason to think that the Atlas V 402 can ultimately surpass the reliability of Delta II and Ariane IV, which both had more staging events, engines and motors to go wrong.

Companies like Lockheed-Martin are certainly capable of building a manned spacecraft, and Lockheed-Martin is being trusted to build the Orion spacecraft for NASA today.

Now the "commercial" manned launches proposed by the Augustine Commission are only commercial compared to government owned and operated launchers like the Shuttle or Ares I. The government is going to be the main customer and any non US government passengers will be at best a welcome supplement to the NASA purchased flights. The private/foreign manned market is relatively small at current or reasonably foreseeable prices in the immediate future. A US company might be able to sell seats on a marginal cost basis of $20 million a flight, which is within the range of prices the Russians have offered in the past. At that price they’ve been able to sell up to one a year to private customers.

Norm Augustine has offered the analogy of U.S. air mail contracts for early airlines in the 1920s. The government would be the anchor customer providing most of the funding. This would, however, be a big improvement on the government owning and operating its own unique launcher to get crews to LEO. Aside from avoiding the pathologies that afflict government agencies, more flights shifted to the private launchers will improve their economies of scale.

The one criticism that has merit is that the $6 billion proposed by NASA may not be enough. There is one reason to think it will be: that was about what it cost in today’s dollars to develop Gemini and put it on an existing launcher. But even if twice as much is needed, it will be less than NASA expected to spend for Ares I and Orion.