Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Encounter, affair, battle in Charny's Questions, part 2

Looking again at the questions, I find more that are relevant to the problem I discussed in this earlier post:

16. Charny asks:

Two captains are in the field to fight and there is a great number of men at arms on either side. And so one of the captains and his people are defeated. And the other captain who has overcome him has killed his people, taken a great number of the defeated and gained horses and plenty of other goods. And when the evening comes none consider this to be a rencontre, besoigne or bataille . How can this be and what should it be called?

28. Charny asks:

There is a battle (bataille) between two captains in which one party is defeated and many of the party are dead, concerning whom some say that some of those who are dead are not dead but defeated; and many other say of those who are dead that they are dead and defeated. How can this be?

29. Charny asks:

There is a battle as above in which there are many captured, concerning whom some say that although they are captured, they do not regard them as defeated; and there are many others who consider them to be captured and defeated. How can this be?

30. Charny asks:

There is a battle as above in which many men at arms of the defeated party depart and go away. Some consider that these have gone on their honor without being defeated; and many others consider that those who have gone are defeated. How can this be?

I am sure you will all find this clears things up immensely!

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Don't forget Franca Iacovetta's talk

It takes place Friday afternoon. Details here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Upcoming special topics course: Food, land and subsistence in human history (HIST 3276)

In Winter term, Dr. James Murton will be offering a 3-credit course on this crucial topic. If you like big-picture history that is relevant to current concerns, this may be for you.

Encounter, affair, battle in Charny's Questions

Charny's Questions have no answers. Sometimes you can guess the answer, but other times lacking illumination from another source, it's near impossible to figure out what he means.

Here's a puzzle that someone learned in military history or Old or Middle French literature may able to help with. How does one distinguish between a rencontre, a besoigne, and a bataille? Just an idea of where to look would be very useful.

Here are my translations of the relevant "War" questions.

13. Charny asks:

There are three types of combat in the field. One is called a rencontre (encounter). How is it called a rencontre and why, for some say that a rencontre takes place between a thousand men at arms or more on one side and the other? And if one party fights and defeats the other and takes possession of the field, if it is not called a besoigne (affair) nor a bataille (battle), how should it be designated, then?

14. Charny asks:

Men at arms are in the field, and a thousand men or more fight; and one party defeats the other and takes possession of the field. And it is said that it was nothing but a besoigne (affair), halted as it was by nightfall, and should not be called a rencontre or a bataille . How should it be designated?

15. Charny asks:

When should a bataille be called a bataille and why that rather than something else?

Update: See this later post for more relevant questions on this terminological issue.

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Well done, HIST 4505 Chivalry seminar

Tooay the History 4505 seminar on Chivalry discussed a classic and difficult problem -- "courtly love." It was a student-led discussion and students did almost all the talking. They did very well, all of them, and I thought I should thank them publicly and in a semi-permanent fashion.

Towards the end of the class I remarked on how the lone questing knight became the symbol for "love," a subject that clearly fascinated monks, intellectual clerics, and lots of others during the 12th century.

I made on comparison in class -- of how a marginal group could create a popular "Gangsta rap" where the marginal gangsta is the hero to gangstas and non-gangstas alike, but here's another one that may be more on the mark:

Cowboys, who were in fact one step up from being bums, became symbols of all that was great in America -- without writing much cowboy fiction or fact themselves. I bet most cowboy fiction was written in New York City.

How's that for an off-the-cuff thought?

Baghdad’s flashpoints

Thanks to the McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau, a PDF map of violence in Baghdad and the neighborhoods where it was located this past weekend.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Great Frieslander

In the 1390s Friesland (Frisia) in the Netherlands was, if we are to believe the chronicler Froissart, some kind of republic. It had no lord and refused to submit to the Count of Holland, Zealand, and Hainault, who claimed the region and launched more than one expedition to make good that claim.

Says Froissart,
We will ...speak of the Frieslanders, who, as I was informed, had been long acquainted with duke Albert's intention of marching against them with a powerful army. They held many councils on the subject, and determined to combat their enemies at the very moment of their landing; for they said they should prefer death with liberty, to being slaves; and would never quit the battle while alive. They also resolved not to accept of ransoms for any person, however high his rank, but to put their prisoners to death, or keep them in banishment from their own countries.
This unwillingness to ransom noble prisoners marked them apart from most of the rest of Europe, and defeated Frieslanders were slaughtered in the same spirit by the lords, knights and squires who sought to conquer them.

But I do have to wonder about "the great Frieslander:"
Among these was a Frieslander of high birth and renown: he was of great strength and stature, for he was taller by a head than all his countrymen. His name was Yves Jouvere; but the Hollanders, Zealanders and Hainaulters called him "The great Frieslander." This valiant man had gained much reputation in Prussia, Hungary, Turkey, Rhodes and Cyprus, where he had performed such deeds of valour that he was much spoken of.
That Froissart says he was "of high birth" doesn't count for much with me. I am fascinated by his renown. Yves Jouvere had acquired a reputation by touring to all the usual crusading fronts that footloose, ambitious young nobles frequented. When he went to such places, how did he present himself, and how was he received?

Image at the top: a modern view of Friesland.

Beautiful music and classics

Do you know that you can find a classic poem by searching for one distinctive phrase with your favorite search engine?

Search for "my soul was sorely shaken" and you will find a poem that was set to music and sung by the most beautiful female voice over the credits of the recent movie version of The Merchant of Venice. Unfortunately on my screen the lettering is too small to read composer's or singer's name.

The movie made me realize what a true classic piece of art is. The respect with which the play is treated by the movie makers shows us that this is not just another good or historically significant play. That incredible ballad is one tiny piece of the production, one many people will pay no attention to, but it is perfect, and was offered up to the audience and perhaps to the spirit of Shakespeare, because it was only right. Reverence, that's the word.

One other thing worth noting. Portia is played by Lynn Collins, whom pictures on the net show to be quite an attractive young woman. In the movie, the makeup people have made her look quite supernatural. Have a look at her while she watches Bassiano try to chose the right box.

Update: Thanks to a commenter, I now know that the singer is Hayley Westenra. Returning to the Bridal Ballad, listening to it, and reading the lyrics over, I have come to realize that the song is not mere decoration, but taken together with the last scenes of the movie proper adds a whole new element to the production. Oh, well done!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

What's going on in Iraq...or rather, Washington

There is so much killing and disorder in Iraq at the moment that any summary, even one as full as that given by Today in Iraq, is going to be inadequate.

However, a list of recent articles on "Post-Saddam Iraq" in The New Republic gives me a pretty good notion what is happening in high American circles.

You have to sign up for a free registration to read the entirety of the articles, but I think the list of articles is enough.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Charny's Questions on War, #71

Many of Charny's Questions on War concern the proper relations between prisoners taken in war and their captors, who were entitled to demand a ransom. This question might be subtitled, is a prisoner a slave?

71. Charny asks:

A man at arms has made another his prisoner in proper warfare. So they agree that the prisoner’s ransom is to be paid at a certain time if the prisoner is able, and the prisoner remains near his master under his oath without any other captivity. So one day the master comes to the prisoner and swears on the holy gospels and similar things that if he does not pay his ransom at the term, when the term is past that the master will cut off his head. And about this time news comes to the prisoner that he will not be able to pay his ransom. So he begs his master to lengthen the term and the master is not willing and swears as before. What ought the prisoner do? Is he able to go without evil reproach?

The picture is of Boethius in prison, a different situation to be sure.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

A text on judicial duels in 14th century France

A friend of a friend has used the wonderful Gallica service of the Bibliotheque National de France to rediscover a description of how duels were fought in the French region of Guyenne in the 14th and 15th century.

Gallica makes available, free of charge, much of the vast holdings of the French national library in the form of PDF files. I have used it myself to do work that would otherwise have been impossible from a base in North Bay.

The text in question is transcribed and translated into modern French in this article: L. Lacouture,

Formalités des duels et combats judiciares en Guyenne dans les xiii
e ou xive siècles

in Bulletin Trimestriel de la Société de Borda 38 (1914): 73-87.

If you follow the link above, the entire journal issue comes up in PDF format in an Adobe Acrobat window (if you have the program); the article actually starts on p. 107 of the PDF file.

It takes some patience to use Gallica, actually, but so much is available through it that I call it wonderful despite the various problems.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tirant lo Blanc

This is a late 15th century chivalric novel from Catalonia. I've just discovered that there is a film of the book, just released this year. The official website of the film froze my browser; the Internet Movie Database entry doesn't make it sound very promising.

Bertran de Born and Ezra Pound on medieval war

I quote the following poem of Bertran de Born, one of the more bloodthirsty poets of the 12th c, from Cheyette's Ermengard of Narbonne, p. 278.

If both kings are bold and fearless,
we'll soon see fields strewn with bits
of helmets, shields, swords, and saddlebows,
and the trunks of men split down to their breeches,
and we'll see horses running aimlessly,
and lances sticking from ribs and chests,
and joy and tears and grief and happiness,
great loss and greater gain.

Trumpets, drums, banners, pennons,
standards, horses white and black,
we'll soon see, and the times will be good,
as we'll part usurers from their money,
and mule drivers will not dare to go on roads
in broad daylight, nor townsmen without fear,
nor merchants on their way from France.
Those who gladly rob will be rich.


Richard will measure by hogshead and bushel
his gold and silver, and think it happiness
to spend and give...
He'll want war more than a hawk wants quail.

Cheyette quotes Ezra Pound's comment on this song:

This kind of thing was much more impressive before 1914 than it has been since 1920.

Cheyette's Ermengard of Narbonne

I just recently finished reading Frederic L. Cheyette's Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours and was much impressed.

There are parts of the book that were a little dry. If I understand the situation properly, the region and time Cheyette is interested in, the south of France in the 12th century, just before the Albigensian Crusade changed its society forever, is very short on narrative sources (chronicles and histories) and much of its history must be reconstructed from charters and other surviving archival materials. So much of the "history of events" concerning this lost world is made up of little details Cheyette has dug up in his exacting research, connected into a somewhat speculative reconstruction of high politics. Without much in the way of colorful, anecdotal detail, it's a little hard to follow, especially since noble men seem to have been awfully fond of the name "Raymond."

I should make clear that Cheyette is quite aware of the traditional stories concerning the troubadours of the region and their patrons, he is just properly skeptical about the tales they tell.

So much for my reservations. This book and its subject fascinated me, because Cheyette's understanding of 12th century society effortlessly flows in a number of sections that come across as perfect essays on their topics: the nature of lordship, the "culture of fidelity," the nature of heresy and opposition to heresy. All the cliches of medieval history are absent.

Finally, this is a beautiful book, from the wonderful cover (better in the original than in the above reproduction), to the black-and-white sketches and photos that evoke the cityscapes of the time, to the better-than-average maps, to the physical features of the book: size, paper quality, typesetting.

Yes, even in these degenerate days there are well-typeset books. Or at least one.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gwynne Dyer speaks at NU, Monday November 27, 7 pm

Gwynne Dyer, a well-known commentator on military and international affairs, will be speaking at the NU Theatre (F 213) on Monday, November 27, at 7 pm.

From the press release:

Dyer’s lecture, entitled Back to the Great Game, will look at current global issues through the lens of history. [...] The most dangerous times in history are the periods when the pecking order of the great powers changes. It is normal for the reigning power to search desperately for ways to stop or slow the decline of its power. It never works, but those foredoomed strategies for staying on top caused great destruction the last few times that the wheel turned. It could happen again. The time may come when we see the ten-year military agreement between the United States and India that was signed in June, 2005 as the starting gun for the new Cold War. Or worse.

To attend the lecture, please register online at: The lecture is free of charge and is open to everyone.

Derek Neal speaks on romance literature, Friday Nov. 17, 3 pm

How can we use non-realistic fiction to understand the past?

Dr. Derek Neal of Nipissing University will be addressing this issue at the Department of History's first seminar for 2006-7.

Date and time: Friday November 17, 3:00-4:30
Room: A 122

Light snacks will be served.

All are welcome!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A second question on war from Charny

I'm posting for fun and comment questions posed by the French knight Geoffroi de Charny in the early 1350s, for the consideration of his peers. For more background see this earlier post, or my book, Jousts and Tournaments (sidebar on this blog).

Here is "question on war":

87. Charny asks:

Fifty knights have taken it upon themselves to fight against a hundred on a certain named day; and the day of the battle comes. The fifty defeat the hundred and many deeds of arms are done by either party. Which would you prefer: to be considered the best knight of the hundred or the worst of the fifty in respect of this day?

Riddle me that!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Netherlandish diptychs in Washington, DC

If you are going to be in Washington, DC before early February, maybe you should check out this display at the National Gallery: Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych.

If you are not going to be there, or are looking to be convinced the trip would be worthwhile, check out this on-line feature.

The future of American policy in Iraq

I'm doing my level best to avoid commenting on the Iraq war, but as I am teaching a course now that will eventually have to discuss that war, perhaps there is a bit of justification for doing so here.

In today's Guardian (UK) there is an opinion piece by David Cox that predicts no big changes in US policy in Iraq, simply because no alternative is available:

President Bush has not clung to his present path because of the absence of accredited opposition. For months, it has been obvious that he would clutch at any alternative he could find, and now he has effectively said as much. The policy is the policy because there is, for now, no alternative. Soon, the new Congressional leadership will be buttressing it, not replacing it.

Cox suggests that things will continue much as they are now, except that misery will increase, until

In 2008, John McCain will win the presidency without making any campaign commitments on Iraq. His military background and past record of demanding more troops will equip him to take the step Bush cannot take now. Within his first hundred days, he will order a sudden and unannounced exit from Iraq. Helicopters will lift American commanders from Green Zone rooftops, as Iraq's democratically elected leaders are dragged away and lynched. Yes, the TV pictures may well remind you of other such pictures, imprinted on your memory in 1975.

Cox's column is presented as the "pessimistic" scenario, with another column by Robert Fox as the more optimistic, yes change is coming, version of the near future. Me, I think Cox is also too optimistic, that the current situation cannot possibly last until Inauguration Day, 2009.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

One of Charny's Questions on War

Back in 2001-2 I translated and interpreted Charny's Questions on the Joust, Tourneys and War, which I eventually turned into the Chivalry Bookshelf title Jousts and Tournaments (see sidebar for a link to the publisher).

Charny was a French knight of the first half of the 14th century, an active campaigner, a commander of armies, and man who was of some influence in the court of King Jean II. King Jean inherited a losing war from his father, Philippe VI, and one of his efforts to turn things around was the foundation of an early royally-sponsored order of chivalry, the Order of the Star.

In connection with a meeting of the Order, Charny wrote three sets of questions, concerning "the law of arms" as it applied to the three characteristic activities of "men at arms," jousting, tournaments, and war. Some of these questions were philosophical, most were technical discussions of subjects like the proper running of a tourney or the rules governing ransoms, but all of them were raised for discussion without any answer being provided. And indeed for most of them it is difficult to see that there would have been an unambiguous or generally accepted answer. (Charny several times says after outlining a case, "many good reasons are given on either side," or some similar phrase.)

I sometimes think that if there were answers given, this would be among the most famous texts on chivalry, but as it is it's pretty obscure, indeed not properly published or easily available even to scholars. I've done something to make the jousting and tournament questions more accessible, and now I'm going to try to do the same for the more numerous and difficult war questions.

Here's a preview as I start reviewing my draft translation, one of several questions that opens up a whole range of new possibilities. Who would have imagined this scenario would even be a debating point?

85. Charny asks:

A hundred men at arms are in the field all prepared to fight against a hundred others, all of them as good and as well mounted as they are, and the horses on either side are completely armed, and well covered, because they have promised to fight on their horses as long as their horses can last, if they are not killed at the hands of their enemies, and without any advantage from deceit. One of the parties does not have any weapons except for their hands, but they have good spurs on their feet; those in the other party each have a good sword in their hands but no other weapons, but they have no spurs and can’t get any. Which of these would you rather be?

Comments welcome.

I've borrowed the beautiful modern depiction of a 14th-century tournament from the Heraldry Society of Scotland.

Try clicking on the image for a bigger version.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dropping the pilot, then and now

In 1890, the young Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian and then German chancellor who had created Wilhelm's empire for him. The British cartoonist Sir John Tenniel (famous now for his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland) turned this into the classic picture "Dropping the Pilot" (referring to the practice of hiring a pilot to get an ocean-going ship out of the harbor, who of course left the ship after the job was done):
Steve Bell, virulently anti-Bush, anti-Blair cartoonist for the Guardian, has this version in tomorrow's edition, referring to the firing of Donald Rumsfeld:
An illustration, if you will, that it's sometimes hard to read even the political cartoons in the paper without a sense of history.

Mark Crane at Toronto, November 10

Mark Crane will be speaking to the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto on Friday, November 10. The talk will take place at Room 205, Northrop Frye Hall, 3:30-5:30.

Mark's topic will be"Unlearned Lutherans: A Paris Doctor's Defense of Universities Against Luther, 1532."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The great danger to Ontarians today

From the Globe and Mail:

Nearly two-thirds of all unintentional visits to hospital resulted from falls last year, according to CIHI figures. That is drastically higher than the next leading cause, motor vehicle crashes, which only accounted for 10 per cent of all hospital visits.

And what they are talking about is people falling from ladders doing chores around the house.

This is one of those things you never would think of if someone didn't check the facts systematically.

Meet Business students from Dubai, Thursday November 16

Nipissing University will host a visit from 10 female Business students from Dubai Women’s College (DWC), their professor Dr. Bashir and a chaperone, on Thursday, November 16, 2006.

These DWC Business students will give two different presentations and we inviting Nipissing students to attend. This is a unique opportunity for our student body to engage and become informed about Emiratisation and the HR Challenges (at 10:00) and the Role of women in the development of UAE (at 11:30). Each presentation will last 1 hour.

The room location for both of these presentations is H160. It holds a maximum of 40 people, so seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-serve basis. Questions and discussion is encouraged.

Karen Strang
International Services and Programs Administrator

Tel: 705-474-3450 ext. 4105

E-mail: karens @

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Chivalry seminar: Song of Roland

I'd like to note that three other scholars contributed to my Chivalry seminar, on the topic of the Song of Roland, this Monday. Present in person were Derek Neal of Nipissing University and Andrew Taylor of the University of Ottawa, who kindly drove up from the capital specially to participate. Anna Klosowska of Miami University of Ohio contributed by letting us kick around a draft of a paper she gave this summer at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds (UK).

I had a great time; I hope others enjoyed themselves, too.

Today's elections in the United States

This is George Caleb Bingham's "Verdict of the People," part of a series of pre-Civil War paintings evoking the evolving American democracy. Clicking should give you a larger image, thanks to Humanities Web.

I was struck today by the thought that this depiction is rather Manichaean in its use of dark and light. For what that's worth.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bronze-age plate armor from Greece

Thanks to David Meadows' Explorator , and the Greek English-language newspaper Ekathimerini, here's an article on a Mycenaean suit of armor now in need of conservation.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Crusades in the Context of World History

At a recent Crusades Studies Forum in St. Louis, Missouri, Alfred J. Andrea gave an interesting survey of the connections between an older style of Crusades history and the concerns of World Historians. With his permission, Andrew Holt has posted an illustrated version of the lecture at the Crusades Encyclopedia.

The illustration above shows a salt-cellar from Benin, West Africa, depicting 16th century Portuguese crusader-explorers.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Empires of the Word

I was about to say that Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word has more details about language history than any human being would want to know when I realized how ridiculous a statement that was, given what I've been reading lately.

The focus of this book is on major world languages, how and why they have spread, and what political, economic, religious and cultural functions they have served. The result is a huge survey of "early history" and one that is particularly free of Eurocentrism and its equally useless brother, anti-Eurocentrism. It's not free of huge generalizations, some of which are probably off-base, but huge generalizations on a subject most people never think much about is the whole point of this book.

My guess is that most people who will enjoy this book will want to spend a lot of time with it, and not necessarily read it front to back.

If you are interested there are a number of reviews on the Web.

I will be returning NU's copy to the library later today, with luck.

A vast trove of re-enactment pictures

For those of you can't get enough re-enactment pictures, see this. That site is linked to a special collection of the recent Hastings re-enactment.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Peasant villages of Roman Syria

Why is this not better known?

As someone who has worked on the history of Late Antiquity, I was aware that there was extensive archaeology associated with prosperous olive-oil production in Roman Syria. Until I read Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages, I had no idea of the nature of that evidence.

Have a look above, and at what Wickham says on p. 443, speaking of Syria and Palestine:

What makes this region special are the astonishing standing ruins of villages that still survive in, especially, the Limestone Massif of north-east Syria...arguably the most significant monuments to the late Roman world surviving anywhere, for they are monuments to the peasant majority, not to rich but atypical elites...

There are some 700 deserted late Roman villages on the Limestone Massif... of which at least fifty are well enough preserved to be capable of study without excavation. They consist of groups of houses, built without much sign of planning, with only rudimentary streets and public spaces. Villages vary between eight and 200 houses...The houses are made out of well-cut squared limestone, and are generally two storeyed...These houses were built with considerable care, 'comme des temples romains,' as Georges Tate has written, and are often elaborately decorated with mouldings, relief sculpture, and colonnading... there are houses surviving to the roof pediment, 10 metres above the ground, and others with their doors (always made of basalt, imported from the plains some 40 km to the east) still in place.

There is a Wikipedia article on the ruins of Serjilla (source of the picture above) which calls Serjila one of the "Dead Cities" of the area. Other web sources use the Dead City term, too. But the evidence all indicates that this is something more interesting. It, like all the rest is a Dead Peasant Village. A peasant village of really comfortable peasants, making a pile selling oil to the international market, but socially peasants all the same.

Why hasn't someone done a gorgeous coffee-table book about this? There might even be money in it.

Thomas Cahill's latest

The publisher sent me a copy of Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the recently-released book by the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization in hopes of getting a review. I've never read a Cahill book before, and I was a bit skeptical about this one. But I gave it a look anyway.

Well, it's not really a book for a professional historian. Cahill seems to specialize in writing about the great western tradition of Christianity + Classicism, and how much we owe to those ancient streams of thought. This is not exactly new territory for me. However, I can see why some people really like him. His writing is elegant. Also this book is illustrated with a plethora of gorgeous color photos. I once worked in a printing factory and was fascinated by how the pictures were done. Such high quality reproduction on uncoated paper! No doubt there's some new process that allows this and makes it possible to produce a book like this at a reasonable price.

One thing that usually puts me off about such appreciations of the Great Traditions is that they tend to be genteelly triumphalist: you and I, good reader, are the heirs of all this glory and we can be sure, as we sit over cigars and brandy in the library, that we are better than other people.

Well, Cahill's not like that. I found to my suprise at the end of his book that he is angry and alarmed about how the Great Traditions he values are being corrupted from within. I'm quite aware that this, too, might be a classical trope (see the opening pages of Livy), but since I'm alarmed by the present, too, I'll give Cahill credit for being an honest man with two working eyes in his head.

Re-enacting a medieval market in Italy

Richard Nokes helpfully directs us to a slide show depicting a re-enactment in Bevagna, Italy. The photos were posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education (USA).

All video politics, all the time

Thanks to the internet there is an Amazonian volume of video material easily available to anyone with a computer and a high-speed connection.

One subject being thoroughly covered in this way is the upcoming US Congressional election. This time around you can see clips of cable and broadcast news and interviews, partisan advertising, and low-cost on-the-street journalism. It certainly adds a vital dimension to text reporting.

And without commercials!

For an example, see Crooks and Liars, which is high on video content.