September 2013

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

"The Woken Gods" Gwenda Bond. YA urban fantasy set in a modern world where the gods have woken up, too much boyfriend not enough mythology. Library book.

"Black Feathers" Joseph D'Lacey. Horror/fantasy/alt-history story following a teenager's quest to find the Crowman in a dystopic Britain. Library book.

"Limits of Power" Elizabeth Moon. Fantasy, fourth book in the Paladin's Legacy series set in the same world as the Deed of Paksenarrion triology. New.

"Greywalker" Kat Richardson. Urban fantasy about a private investigator who sees ghosts after recovering from being dead. Library book.

"Delusion in Death" J. D. Robb. Futuristic crime/detective/thriller. Part of the Eve Dallas series. Library book.

Total: 5

Non-Fiction

"Plantagenet England 1225-1360" Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1

Concerts

Fish at the Junction, Cambridge 16/9/2013.

Roger Waters playing The Wall live at Wembley, 14/9/13.

Total: 2

Museums

Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum - British Museum exhibition about the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Total: 1

Photos

Colchester Zoo - a set from the zoo.

Ivory Bracelets.

Tiger.

Toothy Grin.

Wine Cups.

Total: 5

Radio

Pascal. In Our Time episode about the life & work of Blaise Pascal.

Turkey: The New Ottomans. A three part series putting modern Turkey in a historical context, and looking at its relationships with the Arab World & the West.

Total: 2

Talks

"Meteorites in Ancient Egypt" Diane Johnson. Talk given by Diane Johnson at the EEG meeting in September about her work on meteoric iron in Ancient Egyptian objects.

Total: 1

Television

Non-Fiction

A303: Highway to the Sun. Tom Fort drives along the A303 & talks about the history of the area.

The Burrowers: Animals Underground. Nature series about the lives of British burrowing animals - rabbits, badgers & water voles - filming them in artificial burrows.

Egypt's Lost Rival. Documentary about the city of Qatna which is in modern day Syra and was contemporaneous with the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the programme was both about the history & about the excavation of it.

The Egyptian Job. Documentary about the robbing of Amenemhat III's tomb, I wasn't keen on the framing narrative for the programme (overly fictionalised for my tastes).

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve. Simon Reeve travels around the coast of the Indian Ocean.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons. Series presented by Michael Wood about King Alfred & his successors.

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome. Three part series about the lives of powerful women of the Roman Empire, presented by Catharine Edwards.

Quest for Egypt's Lost King. Documentary about Akhenaten & Amarna. Sadly took a nose-dive off the plausibility cliff towards the end.

The Story of the Jews. Series presented by Simon Schama about the history of the Jews.

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle. Nature series about tigers growing up, filmed by cameras carried by elephants.

Ultimate Tut. Documentary about Tutankhamun, including another theory as to how he died. Presented by Chris Naunton.

The Wonder of Dogs. Kate Humble, Steve Leonard & Ruth Goodman talk about the history & biology of dogs.

Total: 12

Tags: Admin

Kyra is a teenager living in Washington, D.C. - but this is a Washington after the gods have woken and are walking the Earth among us. After her father disappears she & her friends band together to try & find him. What Kyra finds is that she's not just a normal girl, and the reasons for her father's disappearance have implications for the whole world.

I picked this up from the library after I read a review of this on Tor.com, and it mentioned that instead of the "normal" pantheons of gods that you often find in fiction like Greek or Norse gods this book had Egyptian gods (amongst others). So I thought I'd give it a go, despite it being Young Adult. I think one reason I have problems with this book is that I'm not the target audience any more - I suspect at age 13 I'd've liked it a lot more. It feels very "young".

There wasn't really much Egyptian mythology. Sekhmet has been executed shortly after the gods woke by the Society as a show of power over the gods - and that's a shame coz I'm fond of Sekhmet. But I guess if you (i.e. the Society) want to make a point about how living gods can be killed then killing off a personification of rage & war makes that point well. The on-screen Egyptian god is Set, along with a Sumerian god (Enki), the Voodoo god(?) Legba and a selection of other trickster gods (Coyote, Loki, Hermes all get walk-on parts). Sadly Bond refers to Set as jackal headed*, which then made me wonder how well researched any of the gods I didn't know about were.

*According to the books on Egyptian gods that we have, it isn't known what the Set animal actually represents and it's thought to be completely mythological ... wikipedia on the other hand says the Set animal is a jackal in one of the articles. Did all of the mythology come from wikipedia? I don't know enough about the rest to know.

The world-building in general was a bit on the insubstantial side. It didn't feel like the world existed outside of where the author was looking. Too much of the world seemed to be carrying on as if it was business as usual as if when the gods woke everyone just kind of shrugged and got on with life. But then when "cool facts" were needed we had differences - like horse drawn carriages coz tech is affected (how?) & no-one flies anywhere coz interference by a god when you're on a plane is more likely to be fatal. The government has apparently been replaced by the Society - in the US? in the world? I don't know. Most of the time the fact that there's a country outside Washington D.C. isn't obvious, let alone a world outside the US. And apparently (and plot-importantly) this all happened only 5 years ago, but it feels far too settled for that. It could be that Kyra is just uber-sheltered (a distinct possibility) but it would've been nice if the reader was made more aware of that even if Kyra herself didn't notice.

There's a phrase I've seen used in reviews of various books elseweb - "Too much boyfriend, too little X". And that sums up most of my impression of the book - in this case X is Egyptian mythology, or maybe just mythology in general. I could've done with less of Kyra's drooling over the love interest's muscular chest, and more attention paid to the world the story was in. Overall a disappointing read that could've been cool.

King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons

The last episode of Michael Wood's series about King Alfred & his descendants was about Æthelstan. He was the only of King Alfred's grandsons to be born while Alfred was still alive, and was the son of Edward who was King of Wessex after Alfred. Yet his ascension to the throne was still controversial. Edward had 14 children, by three different women - two of whom were crowned Queen (consecutively, I imagine, but Wood didn't say). Æthelstan's mother wasn't one of these more important wives, and so Edward's designated heir was one of his younger sons. However Æthelstan believed himself to've been chosen by Alfred (having met the man, and been "knighted" by him). He was brought up in Mercia by his aunt Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia, and after Edward's death he lost no time in taking control of first Mercia and then Wessex. He was crowned in Kingston on the border of the two countries. He didn't stop there, either - he was the first King of all the English, fulfilling Alfred's dream. He claimed overlordship of the King of Scotland and the Kings of the Welsh too, although that may've looked different from the perspective of those countries than it was represented by Æthelstan in his charters etc ;) He was a King in his grandfather's mould - both warrior & learned. He too looked to Rome for a certain degree of legitimacy, and was well read in religious texts. He had no children, Wood suggested that this might've been as the result of negotiation with one of his brothers - that Æthelstan would rule, but his brother's children would inherit.

I enjoyed this series :) One thing I particularly liked which I've not mentioned so far is that there was a lot of reading from the original texts in Anglo-Saxon (with subtitles, obviously). I like the way the language sounds, alien yet just on the edge of familiarity.

The Story of the Jews

In this episode of Simon Schama's Story of the Jews he discussed the Jews of Eastern Europe & their impact on the world. Schama's mother's family were Lithuanian Jews so this was personal history for him. A lot of Jews had moved to Poland during the period where that kingdom was one of the more tolerant places on the continent. After Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria & Russia at the end of the 18th Century it became less welcoming to Jews, but many still lived there (of course) - mostly restricted to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. Schama described how finding joy in the harsh environment of the Pale lead to the development of Hasidic Judaism - an ecstatic & less rigid form of the religion than more orthodox traditions.

The harsh conditions, and increasing pogroms, lead to many Jews emigrating from the Pale to the USA - seen by many as a promised land where they could be people rather than outsiders. There they had a large impact on US culture. Schama talked about the lower East Side of New York where many of these emigrants lived, and he talked about the many song-writers who came from that area and wrote some of the memorable songs of early 20th Century US music. Names like Gershwin and Harburg, songs like "Over the Rainbow", and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?".

The programme was bookended by the Holocaust, so despite the moments of beauty & joy in the middle it was still a sobering piece of viewing.

The Wonder of Dogs

Having finished off several series recently we started up a new one. When I'd spotted The Wonder of Dogs in the listings we'd not been quite sure about it, so we started watching it soon after recording so that we could cancel it if we wanted to. No need to worry tho, this first episode was entertaining & interesting. In the series Kate Humble, Steve Leonard & Ruth Goodman are talking about all things canine - they are based in a village in England and are using the dogs of the village to illustrate many different aspects of canine biology & history, and also talking to various experts. So in this programme they were mostly looking at the astonishing variety of dogs.. Goodman looked at the history of a few of the different breeds - like chihuahuas, greyhounds and bulldogs. Up until Victorian times dog breeds weren't really formalised, there were different sorts of dogs for different sorts of jobs (or fashion accessories) but there weren't defined types. They also looked at the underlying biology of the dog - how the bone structure is always the same, just different in scale or precise configuration. Humble talked to an genetic expert who said that all the variety in modern dogs is down to just 50 or so genes, and that the rest of the dog genome is the same as their wild grey wolf ancestors. Quite a lot of "look at the cute dog" to the programme, but some interesting facts in there too :)

A303: Highway to the Sun

This programme was a one-off that we've had sitting on the PVR for months & months and never quite got round to watching. I'm not sure it was quite what I was expecting, but this was rather fun :) Tom Fort (who I'd not heard of before) drove a Morris Minor Traveller along the A303 from start to end, stopping at places with historical significance and covering approximately 5000 years of the history of England. So we had the Amesbury Man for prehistoric stuff as well as Stonehenge, we had some stuff about the Romans where the road runs along the old Roman road, we had some stuff about Alfred (someone's 18th Century folly on the site of a battle of Alfred's), and more modern stuff like toll roads and even the many many attempts to shift the position of the A303 away from Stonehenge (which have all failed so far). Fort also met a variety of interesting people ... including a man who uses the A303 as the perfect place to collect roadkill for his dinner.

Fun, and worth watching :)

J. D. Robb is a pen name for Nora Roberts who writes mostly romance & romance/crossover novels under her real name. Robb writes futuristic crime/thrillers, and her protagonist is Eve Dallas, a police lieutenant in a future NYPD homicide division. There are loads of these books, all called Something In Death, this one (Delusion in Death) is last autumn's one (there appear to be two per year). In it Dallas must figure out what could make a bar full of perfectly normal business people suddenly slaughter each other - leaving 80 dead and nearly no witnesses. What could've caused this, who did it & why? And can Dallas stop the perpetrator from doing it again?

These books are guilty pleasure books for me, candy floss for the brain - ok in small doses but you wouldn't want too much. There's definitely a formula for these, a pattern to the shape of the story that holds true across the whole series. And I have the distinct feeling that the choice of a futuristic setting is to remove the need to have the murder methods be plausible with today's tech or have the police follow acceptable to now standards. She's even written in a collapse of society & rebuild in between now & then so extrapolation from here to there doesn't need to be obvious. (Although having said that, the world she's invented for them does hang together pretty well it's not just a get out of jail free card she's put some thought into it.) It doesn't stop them being fun reads, and a series that I will pick up the next instalment of as soon as I see it in the library (and mostly finish reading while standing in the library) but I won't bother reserving them.

Robb/Roberts's strength is creating characters and making them feel real, and distinct. Obviously in this series Eve Dallas and the other recurring characters get fleshed out gradually over the course of several books, but even the one-offs for this book feel like individuals. Even the antagonist - who's a pathetic weasel of a person, not a meglomaniac or caricature.

I don't know if I've really got anything else to say about this book - fun but possibly not worth looking too closely at the plot in case I see holes.

A couple of days after the Roger Waters gig (post) we went to another concert - not quite at the opposite end of the size spectrum, but certainly close! At pretty near the last minute J decided that he did want to see Fish on this leg of his tour for his new album, and picked up tickets for the gig at the Junction in Cambridge on 16th Sept.

The support band was Lu Cozma. There was just herself & her guitarist on stage, and to be honest I found her set fairly unmemorable. She had a good voice, and the songs were pleasant enough but the only one I really liked or remembered was her cover of Sarah McLachlan's "Building a Mystery".

Lu Cozma

The Fish set was memorable though :) It's been a while since we've been to a Fish concert where he's had a full band - the last couple have been on the acoustic tour that he did for the last few years. The set obviously had a selection of songs from his new album ("A Feast of Consequences"), including three of the five song group about the First World War. As well as older Fish songs, there were also several Marillion songs from early albums - including "Script for a Jester's Tear" which is one of my favourite Marillion songs, and now I've heard both Marillion and Fish play it live this year, so that's pretty cool :D

FishSteve Vantsis
Fish
FishRobin Boult

It was a good evening :) I've a few more photos up on flickr here.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century Frenchman who was a scientist, mathematician & philosopher. Several of his ideas are still recognised today - either still in use (for instance some of his mathematical work) or recognised by the naming of modern things (like the programming language Pascal). Discussing him on In Our Time were David Wootton (University of York), Michael Moriarty (University of Cambridge) & Michela Massimi (University of Edinburgh).

Pascal was born in 1623, and died in 1662 age 39. David Wootton gave us some context for the France of the time which he called essentially the time of the Three Musketeers - so Richelieu is in charge in France, the country is allying with Protestants in the Thirty Years War but in terms of internal politics there is a big crackdown on Protestantism. In the wider world Galileo is active at this time - which took me by surprise as I think of Pascal as nearly-modern but Galileo as end-of-medieval and clearly that's not a sensible distinction! Descartes is also still alive when Pascal is born.

Pascal was educated at home, his father had planned that the boy should be told about various subjects young but then not study them until later when he was ready for them. But the young Pascal had other ideas - for instance figuring out Euclidean geometry himself once he'd been told about it, rather than waiting till he was taught the subject. One of the people on the programme (I forget which one) said that Pascal was Mozart type levels of genius - just in maths, science & philosophy rather than music. One of Pascal's first notable works was inventing a mechanical calculator while he was still in his teens - he did this to save his father time (his father was a banker and thus had lots of adding up to do).

Pascal's work in physics was on one of the big questions of the day - could there be such a things as a vacuum or not. Aristotelian ideas said no, but an actual experiment suggested yes. Pascal repeated the experiment - taking a tube filled with mercury & closed at one end, then inverting it in a basin of mercury. The level of the mercury in the tube drops and a space opens up at the top of the tube, there's nothing this space can be full of, so it must be a vacuum. Pascal also took these experiments further - looking at different liquids (like water), and testing the effects on the height of the mercury at different heights above sea level. He was one of the first to demonstrate that air had pressure, and that this pressure varied with altitude.

Pascal also had an influence on the future of science & the scientific method. He hadn't been brought up reading Aristotle as the "answer" to all the questions about the natural world, and he didn't believe that you required a metaphysical starting point to answer a physical question. So he said that in science there was no appeal to authority, nor was there Truth, just that you looked at the facts as they were and explained them as best you could. Then when more facts were known you might have to change your mind - you'd not have Truth, just have got as close as you could under the circumstances. One of the experts said that Pascal was one of the first people to actually demonstrate this way of having scientific progress - other writers before him had talked about how you could progress in science but he actually did it.

Pascal was also interested in mathematics & he corresponded with Fermat. One of his theorems to do with the geometry of conic sections is still used by mathematicians today. Pascal's triangle was mentioned briefly on the programme as another example of his mathematical legacy. He was particularly interested in probability, and would work on gambling problems for French aristocrats he knew. He & Fermat worked on a particular problem to do with what the pay out should be for a game of Points that is interrupted before the end. In Points a coin is flipped multiple times, each time it's heads player A gets a point, each time it's tails player B does. First player to 10 points wins the pot. How the pot should be split if it's terminated early depends on what the probabilities of each player winning from the state it's in (rather than just splitting it according to how many points so far). Pascal & Fermat's work has had far reaching implications in a lot of the business world, not just in gambling or the specific problem - like insurance for instance.

Later in life (if you can call it that for someone who dies so young) after some sort of intense religious experience Pascal turned away from science & towards religion & religious philosophy. Here he believed strongly in appeal to authority - he built on the work of earlier philosophers who said that human reason is too weak to comprehend the Truth of the world in a metaphysical sense. And so in contrast to his scientific ideas Pascal felt that religious Truth is revealed and is unchanging. Pascal had become a member of the Jasenists, a Catholic sect that built on the ideas of Augustine in the same sort of way that Protestants did - in particular believing that people cannot come to a state of grace through their own efforts, they must be chosen by God to receive God's Grace and so only the chosen are saved. Mainstream Catholicism of the day believed that by doing good and repenting sin you could come closer to being saved, and so the Jesuits regarded the Jansenists as heretics just as much as Protestants were. One of Pascal's later works was written to argue that the Jesuits & mainstream Catholicism were wrong, and it was partly arguing based on appealing to the authority of Augustine and saying that the Jesuits were diluting the true Christian morality to make it more palatable to the masses. This work is credited by some later Catholics as having damaged the reputation of the Jesuits enough to have been a contributing factor in their suppression in the late 18th Century.

Pascal's Wager is one of his philosophical ideas that is still remembered today. Massimi pointed out that it was never intended to convert an atheist, but was aimed at sceptical Christians. In it Pascal says that given there are two states - either there is a God or there isn't - then there two ways to wager: either bet for God or bet against God. Given this, how should you bet to maximise the chance of a good outcome? If you bet against God and you are wrong, then you will suffer eternal damnation after death, so the best thing to do is to avoid that - bet for God and even if you're wrong you'll suffer no consequences. This doesn't work if you believe there is no God, you need to have doubt about that. It also doesn't say anything about whether or not Christianity is the Truth - Massimi pointed out that one objection to Pascal's Wager is that the same argument can be made for any religion. And if you enjoy this world's pleasures then there is also a down side to betting for God, making it a less obvious choice (definitely no pleasure now as vs. possibly no pleasure later, a more complex situation to weigh up) - which was not a problem that Pascal had. He said once that life was like being chained in a dungeon in the dark, and every so often the guards come in and strangle someone. Cheerful fellow ...!

In the summing up section of the programme they discussed how Pascal's legacy lives on in science & mathematics but is most influential in religious thought. The three experts credited him with laying the foundations of modern Christianity - in that faith & religion now are seen as something that you choose to believe in without needing a rational argument. And that is a very Pascalian way to see it.

Joseph D'Lacey's book Black Feathers is set part in a world just sideways to our own, and partly in the future of that world. The "present day" parts follow Gordon as he grows up to the cusp of puberty then has to learn to live in & deal with the dystopian & crumbling society of 2013's Britain - a world that's like but not like our own, where the sinister Ward have taken over the role that the police & the government should be playing. The future follows Megan, again a child on the verge of becoming an adult. Her poor but idyllic sounding childhood ends as she's called to be apprenticed to Mr Keeper, a shaman-like figure who remembers the story of the Black Dawn & the coming of the Bright Day. Gordon & Megan's stories are interlinked - most prominently through the figure of the Crowman. Venerated, worshipped and feared in Megan's day, he's just whispered about as a shadowy figure in Gordon's time and somehow Gordon is linked to him. There's something dreamlike about the story, which seems appropriate to both Megan's initiation into mysteries & Gordon's search for the Crowman. It's a dark & twisted dream, tho - gruesome and unpleasant things happen - and it's not clear if ultimately it's going to come to a good or a bad end.

I'm ... not sure what I think of this book. I started off really liking it, but somewhere along the way I forgot that it was the first part of a series (a duology I think) and then it just kinda stopped. There's not much in the way of resolution to either story thread and yet I wasn't really left wanting to find out what happened next - I'd sort of run out of enthusiasm for it. Like somehow I thought the idea only had legs for one book's length and now I'm left thinking "oh, there's another whole book to fill?".

There's stuff I did like - the ambiguity of the Crowman for instance. The things the characters say imply ultimately he (it?) is a force for or personification of something good or at least mostly beneficial even if not in ways that humanity can always comprehend. But the way the narrative shows him to the reader is as much darker and twisted, I'm not sure if there's anything "good" about the Crowman at all. But equally he's set against the Ward, who are definitely not good at all - they're a menacing caricature of secret police that don't seem to have any redeeming features at all. So this is not a face off between good & evil, but it is a face off with evil.

But overall, I'm not sure what I think. And I suspect by the time the next book is published next year I'll've forgotten about the series.

The Burrowers: Animals Underground

The second episode of The Burrowers continued with the three main species they were looking at in the artifical burrows - with a main theme of "leaving the nest for the first time". The rabbit babies had their first trip outside, the water voles got over their dislike of each other & had some babies who then visited the outside, and the badger orphans bonded into a group and took their first trip out.

As well as this they showed us what an actual wild rabbit burrow looks like - by pouring concrete down an abandoned one and then excavating it (which presumably actually happened before they built their artificial one). And Packham also told us about moles. I hadn't previously realised that moles keep larders of zombie worms. When they catch a worm first they squeeze the dirt out, then they bite the head off and in the process they inject it with their venomous saliva which paralyses the worm. And then they put the still living, paralysed, headless worm in a larder where it stays fresh until they want a meal. o.O

The third episode was set in summer and was mostly wrapping up & talking about what the future holds for the various creatures. The rabbits by this stage had had three litters each - as soon as the female finished giving birth each time the dominant male mated with her. Thus ensuring that all the baby rabbits came out of the nest in waves (presumably there's some initial way they set up the synchronisation for the first litter) to overwhelm the predators. Only one in ten rabbits normally survives to the age of 1 due to predation, which frankly is just as well given 10 rabbits turned into over 50 in just a few months. They didn't say on the programme, but that behaviour also means non-dominant males don't get much of a window of opportunity to impregnate the females. Most of these rabbits were apparently going back to the breeders, but some were staying for future study.

The water voles managed to have another litter as well - almost despite themselves as the breeding pair still didn't seem to get along peacefully. They're all being released into the wild in Scotland somewhere as part of a regeneration programme. And the badgers are also being released into the wild. They actually moved out of the pre-prepared sett and started digging their own in their enclosure. The researchers had been testing their response to badger calls by playing sounds in their sett, and they'd provided extra bedding while the badgers were away. So I reckon the badgers moved out coz they thought the old sett was haunted ;) Noises in the darkness where there were no badgers, randomly appearing plants in rooms you didn't leave anything in ... who'd want to live somewhere like that? ;)

A fun series, although to be honest not much of note beyond "aww, look at the cute fluffy animals".

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome

The last episode of Catharine Edward's series about powerful Roman women covered more ground & more women than the first two. The themes linking them together (other than "these are the rest of them") were that these women were generally outsiders to the aristocratic Roman culture that the women of the first two episodes came from, and they mostly wielded their power more overtly. Edwards started by telling us about Caenis, who had been a slave to a member of the Imperial family (Antonia, mother of Claudius). Caenis had had an affair with Vespasian long before he was Emperor (and when she was still a slave). She was given her freedom, and after Vespasian's wife died the two resumed their relationship - however her low social status meant that he could not marry her. Once he became Emperor she continued to live as his wife in all but name, and exerted quite a lot of influence over him including some degree of control over access to him. Next up was Berenice who provides an object lesson in how Roman Emperors weren't as all powerful as they might hope. The Emperor Titus (son of Vespasian) had formed a relationship with the Jewish Queen, Berenice, while he father was still alive. Once he became Emperor he was forced to bow to public pressure & to set her aside - she was too old (i.e. past child-bearing age) and too foreign.

The next three women were all foreigners, and all related. The wife of the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Syrian woman called Julia Domna. She wielded power alongside her husband much more openly than previous Empresses, and was popular & respected when doing so. After Septimus's death their son's inherited jointly, which ended badly as one might imagine. Despite never forgiving her older son for murdering his younger brother she still helped to run the empire, and was grief-stricken at his death (although mostly because she wouldn't have power any more after that). The next two Emperors were both put on the throne by female relatives of Julia Domna. Sadly the first of these teenage boys was utterly useless as Emperor, and despite the best efforts of his mother Julia Soaemias to rule through him he was overthrown by his aunt Julia Avita and her son Alexander. Alexander might've made it as a decent Emperor, but his mother forgot the cardinal rule of keeping the army onside and got stingy with their pay - with the obvious result.

Last of the powerful Roman women was Helena, who can't really be missed out - mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross (amongst other pious things). Edwards credited her as a major influence on Constantine's move towards Christianity, and of his changing imperial policy to make the Empire Christian.

A good series, Edwards managed to make it both informative & fun. We did at times wonder how the Roman Empire had got anything done or lasted as long as it did - so many of the Emperors seemed useless or overly concerned with their own debaucheries at the expense of the Empire.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

The second episode of Michael Wood's series about the Anglo-Saxons was mostly about Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great. Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward in Wessex, and his daughter Æthelflæd was married to the King of the Mercians. The main political crisis of the time was caused by Alfred naming Edward his heir. Alfred had succeeded his elder brother and re-taken Wessex from the Viking's who'd killed his brother. His nephew Æthelwold had in many ways a better claim to the throne than Edward, but was cut out of the succession by Alfred. So once Alfred died Æthelwold rose up in rebellion, with the help of the Vikings who still ruled East Anglia & Northumbria. He was eventually beaten back by an alliance of Wessex & Mercia led by Edward & Æthelflæd.

Æthelflæd is known as the Lady of the Mercians, and after her husband's death she ruled on her own. Unusually for the time there is documentary evidence for her power & rule - the "official" record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn't refer to her much, but there is a chronicle written detailing the same events from her perspective (in the sense of she's the main figure of the chronicle not in the sense of a first person account). She is recorded as acting as a King - she leads armies, she plans military campaigns, she acts as a diplomat. Wood tells us that without Æthelflæd & her leadership of Mercia there would not have been England as we know it. Æthelflæd was even succeeded by her daughter, the only time this has happened in English history, but she was removed from power by her uncle (King Edward of Wessex) and he ruled Mercia as King of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Story of the Jews

The third episode of Simon Schama's series The Story of the Jews covered the promise of integration of the early Englightenment, and the subsequent dashing of those hopes with the rise of a particularly anti-Semitic form of nationalism. At the start of the Enlightenment a spirit of toleration was growing - that put forward the idea that a Jew could be a person who just happened to follow the Judaic religion and should be treated like any other person. Many Jewish families in Germany & France began to integrate into the culture of the country they lived in, becoming members of society & even notable members of high society. Moses Mendelssohn was one of the first examples of this. Although some of his descendants (like Felix Mendelssohn the composer) were baptised, other families like the Beer family remained true to their Jewish religion & heritage. One of the prominent members of the Beer family was Giacomo Meyerbeer (who started life in Berlin as Jacob Beer, changing his name when he moved to Italy) who was a very popular composer of operas in Paris. He was an early patron of Wagner's - encouraging him and providing him with opportunities to stage his own operas. Schama had other examples, including banking families & others - the common thread was that they generally thought of themselves as German or French or whatever people who happened to be Jewish, rather than Jews who happened to be living in whatever country it might be.

Sadly this promising mood of integration & an end to prejudice against the Jews didn't last. Wagner as mentioned above might've had a Jewish patron initially, but he published anti-Semitic rants against Meyerbeer late. He took the stance that "true art" had much to do with nationalism and roots in a country and that Jews by definition could not be a part of that and so could not produce any real art - which frankly is wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to start to shake one's head at it. This nationalistic stance was common in the late 19th Century, and incidents like the disgrace of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew in the French Army, for allegedly passing state secrets to the Germans hardened this anti-Semitism. The propaganda was that Jews could only be loyal to each other first, and their "adopted" countries second ... along with the usual collection of prejudices dating back medieval times. And the rising anti-Semitism lead to a change in Jewish attitudes too and the rise of Zionism. Instead of integration into other countries & cultures many Jews now wanted their own country where they were already the culture.

The programme ended where one would expect - with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, as the extreme towards which that anti-Semitic strain of nationalism was tending. A sombre end to a period which had begun with such hope.

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