February 2014

For some odd reason the BBC had a new documentary series about The Stuarts and then only aired it in Scotland. I can see that it was intended to tie in with the upcoming vote on independence but it was straightforwardly a documentary rather than a piece of propaganda. So I'm not really sure why it was kept north of the border. We only spotted it because I'd recorded something else off BBC2 Scotland to avoid a clash, and there was a trailer for The Stuarts.

The presenter was Clare Jackson, who I don't think I've seen anything by before, and her thesis was that the Stuarts were the defining royal dynasty of Great Britain - despite the actual creation of the United Kingdom only happening almost by accident at the end of the Stuart era. She took us through the whole 17th Century (and a smidge beyond) in chronological order. The first episode covered James VI & I, and the early years of Charles I. The accession of James to the English throne in 1603 after Elizabeth I's death had been a time of optimism - for James and for his new country. James's dream was to unite the two countries in the same way that the crowns were now united, however he wasn't able (even with his high degree of political skill) to persuade the English in particular to do this. Jackson also covered the seeds of Charles I's autocratic leanings - in particular she pointed at his visit to Spain, whilst he was trying (and failing) to negotiate a Spanish marriage for himself. At the court of the Hapsburgs he got a taste of how royalty "should" be treated.

The second episode covered the civil wars and the Restoration. In this episode Jackson was keen to stress how the way we're taught British history today (particularly in England) simplifies and prettifies this collection of conflicts. We're often presented with it as "democracy vs. autocracy", and the parts of the war outside England are often ignored. She said it is better compared to modern conflicts like the violence & genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And she emphasised the Irish parts of the Civil Wars, which were not pretty in the slightest and still have repercussions today. Cromwell is a divisive figure - either a hero (from a Protestant point of view) or a villain (from the Catholic point of view). She also pointed out how Cromwell was by the end King in all but name (hardly the champion of democracy that English school history would like to portray him as) and after he died his power and title passed on to his son. Who was sufficiently bad at the job that Charles II was invited back to England.

The last episode could be thought of as the long decline of the Stuarts ... we started with the disaster that was about to be James VII & II. Charles II had been fairly astutely focused on remaining King - he might've had Catholic leanings and a Catholic wife but he'd stayed a Protestant (until his deathbed, perhaps). His brother James, however, did convert to Catholicism and was fervent about it - he resigned public office rather than give up his Catholicism. Charles never managed to sire a legitimate heir, so James was next in line to the throne. Charles did his best to mitigate the problems with his having a Catholic heir - he had James's daughters brought up Protestant and married them to good Protestants (like William of Orange, a diplomatic necessity as well as an internal political one). So when James did come to the throne it was seen as a brief blip before Mary & William took over - dealable with. When James's new wife had a son this changed and it was time for more direct action, William was invited to invade (this is the Glorious Revolution) which he did and by chance he won bloodlessly. William and Mary, and then Mary's sister Anne after them were childless so after Anne the next possible Stuart heirs were the Catholic descendants of James. And this is what finally brought about the creation of the United Kingdom that had been James VI & I's dream. England wanted the Protestant Hanoverans to inherit after Anne died, Scotland would've preferred the Stuart heir - and so the crowns and thus the countries would part unless Parliament succeeded in passing the Act of Union.

A good series, I really don't know why it was confined to the Scottish bit of BBC2.


Bible Hunters wasn't a promising name for a series, but actually it turned out to be pretty good (with some flaws). Jeff Rose took us through the 19th and early 20th Century attempts to find or confirm the truth of the Bible. The first episode focussed on the New Testament, and the efforts of 19th Century scholars and explorers to find early copies of the Gospels. The idea was to show that the Gospels were indeed the inerrant word of God, and that the narrative of Jesus life and ministry was correct. Egypt was the target of these expeditions because of the early monastic tradition in the country dating back to much nearer the time of Jesus life than anything in Europe could do. Some monasteries (like that at Sinai) have been inhabited continuously since at least the 3rd Century AD. What was found shook the certainty that nothing had changed as the Bible was copied and translated over the centuries. In particular the ending of the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels, thought to've been written first) was different, and different in an important fashion. The modern end of that Gospel has Jesus seen after his resurrection, and the women who went to his tomb are instructed to go forth and tell people the good news. The 2nd Century version of the text ends with the women finding the empty tomb, being told by an angel that Jesus has risen, and being afraid and telling no-one. The programme built this up as being a cataclysmic blow to the faithful, and certainly it causes a lot of problems if your faith requires the words in the Bible to be literally the whole truth and literally unchanging.

The second episode looked more generally at what expeditions to Egypt showed about both the general truth of the biblical world view and the construction of the canonical texts of the Bible. As the history of Pharaonic Egypt began to be examined it cast doubt on the accuracy of the Biblical stories about the history & age of the Earth. For instance when the Dendera zodiac was found it was thought to be 12,000 years old (now known to be false, it's Ptolemaic) and how did that square with Usher's careful calculations about the Earth having been created in 4,004 BC? And other Gospels were found buried near old monasteries - which had been hidden after the official choice of the four we now know as being the canonical books. These included a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, which gave a bigger role for women in the early church than in later times. And also Gnostic Gospels.

The format of the programme was Rose going to various places in Egypt, and also talking to various academics from a variety of institutions about the history of the people who found these things and the history of the ideas. And it was interesting to watch, but I kept running into things that made me stop and think "wait, is that really true?". Which then casts doubt on the accuracy of other things that I didn't already know something about. For example Bishop Usher's calculation of the age of the Earth was mentioned, and Rose told us that "everyone believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old" at that time. But as far as I was aware by the time Usher was doing his calculations there were a lot of people (if not most people) who thought the Earth was much older than that - Usher was more of a last-gasp of outdated thought rather than mainstream. I could be wrong, it's not an area I know much about but things like that let the doubt in. Another example was that the EEF (forerunner of the modern EES) was presented as being solely about proving the truth of the Bible when it started - but when we visited the EES last September (post) we were told that although the biblical links were used to get more funding preservation of the ancient monuments as things in themselves not as "it's in the bible" was also an important goal. The discrepancy could well be down to spin, but again this lets doubts creep in about the accuracy or spin on the rest of the programme.

I am glad I watched it, but I don't know if I'd trust it on the details without cross-checking the facts.


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History - two part series about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, part dramatised documentary presented by Suzanne Lipscomb.

Episode 2 of Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - this was part of the BBC's Tudor Season in 2013. It's a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you'd need to know if you could travel back there.

Robins of Eden and The Rabbits of Skomer - two rather retro-feeling mini nature documentaries, lasting just 10 minutes each.

The Joy of the Single - programme about singles, talking to various music industry people. Covered things like the history of the single as a phenomenon, the physical object of a 7" vinyl single and the sort of emotional impact that various singles had on these people.

Episode 2 of The Great British Year - series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses - programme presented by Kevin Fong about the senses. Not much new footage, instead it made use of the last 40 years of Horizon to pull out illustrative bits and pieces from the archives. Some neat things to see, but in other ways it felt a bit shallow.

This chapter of Plantagenet England is the last of the strictly chronological chapters. It covers the 30 years from Edward III taking full control of his kingdom in 1330 through to 1360, which is the cut-off point for this book - Edward reigns for another 17 years after that. The end point of the book was chosen based on the ending of a phase of the Hundred Years War, which is why it stops part way through Edward's reign. This chapter is about England's internal politics during this period, the next two chapters will look at Anglo-French relations (focussing on the Hundred Years War) and the English army of the time.

Orientation dates:

  • The Yuan dynasty ruled China from 1279 to 1378 (post).
  • Edward III born 1312, reaches his majority in 1330 and dies in 1377.
  • Philip VI "the Fortunate" rules France as the first king of the house of Valois from 1328 to 1350.
  • David II ruled Scotland from 1329 to 1372.
  • The start of the Hundred Years War is in 1337.
  • The Black Death reached England in 1348.
  • John II "the Good" rules France from 1350 to 1364.

England Under Edward III

When Edward III took power in 1330 the prestige of the English monarchy was in a bit of a state. The incompetence of Edward II and the avarice of Isabella & Mortimer (see the chapter before last) had significantly eroded royal authority. Prestwich says Edward III restored his authority in two main ways - firstly be being successful in war and secondly by using the established patronage system to build up support for his rule. Victory over Scotland in 1333 was key to the first part of this - even though it wasn't an end to war against the Scots it was a victory which was a change after the defeats that both the previous regimes had suffered.

Edward III was in the fortunate position of having a lot of land to give away to supporters - when he'd taken the throne he confiscated the lands that Mortimer had built up during his time in power. Later he gained lands by seizing them from French priories. These sources of land weren't part of the hereditary crown estates, so there were no restrictions on Edward's ability to grant them to people he wished to reward. He used these opportunities wisely - not just rewarding those who had helped him to power, but also granting lands to a wide range of other members of the court and aristocracy who he wished to cultivate. By not confining his generosity to a narrow clique (as his predecessors had done) he managed to build up broad support for his kingship. He also managed to strike a good balance between rewarding people sufficiently and not depleting his own resources. Despite Edward's skill as a politician his reign was not without its own political crisis. As with the 1297 crisis in his grandfather Edward I's reign (discussed a few chapters ago) it was the demands of war that brought matters to a head but it was also complicated by other economic difficulties. There was inclement weather in 1338 & 1339 which led to a failure of the 1339 harvest and widespread famine.

The war with France started in 1337, and as Edward III hadn't built up financial resources in advance of it this required heavy taxation and the imposition of duties on wool exports. Wool was also taken by the government to be sold to raise money (another time honoured way of generating funds). Overall between 1337 to 1341 the demands of the crown (by all the various means) came to £665,000 which was a huge sum at the time. The army had to be supplied as well as paid, and corruption of officials led to its own problems there. Instead of the previous method of requesting each sheriff to provide specified amounts of foodstuffs the new system was to commission individuals to gather the foodstuffs from a wide area. In 1338 Thomas Dunstable was one of these individuals, and was subsequently removed from his position later that year and accused of many offences - including taking foodstuffs for himself, taking bribes to exempt places and falsely accusing men of refusing until they paid him fines. The country felt the taxes etc were a heavy burden, and on the other side the king was exasperated with how hard it was to finance his war. He had to resort to borrowing money, at first from Italian merchants and later from English merchants. The amount of debt he was taking on was also a concern for Parliament.

The crisis came to a head in 1340-41. The King was mostly abroad in France pursuing his war. His government was split between the household officials with the King in Flanders and the administration left behind in England under the nominal regency of Edward III's 9 year old son Edward (later the Black Prince) and the practical control of Archbishop Stratford. By late 1340 the King was convinced that the administration England was actively working against his interests, so Edward III unexpectedly returned to London and undertook a thorough purge of the administration (including Archbishop Stratford). The dispute between Edward III and Stratford rumbled on for about 6 months, but it was conducted in the realms of propaganda rather than via violence. Stratford wrote a treatise setting out his position in French and circulated it widely, the King had his own position set out in a Latin treatise (circulated less widely). Stratford undertook a point by point rebuttal of the King's accusations. And so on. It was settled (after some argument) when Parliament met in April 1341 - Stratford humbled himself to the King and was restored to some degree of favour. And in return the King accepted many of Parliament's demands, although he refused to sack the ministers he trusted. Despite the apparent capitulation of the King he actually restored his position of authority pretty quickly, and didn't follow through on many of the promises he made.

In combination with the crisis in England was another similar one in Ireland - in 1341 revenues from Ireland were significantly down and Edward III sacked most of his minister there. He even went so far as to revoke all land grants since 1307, but backed off on that after there were many protests. However the Ireland crisis was pretty much dealt with by that stage.

The aftermath in England took longer to resolve, even though Edward III regained his power and authority quickly. One change in the immediate aftermath was that Edward had lost confidence in clerical ministers particularly in the post of Chancellor, and for the next 5 years new appointments as chancellor were all laymen. However this didn't last long, in part because the normal reward for ministers was a church living, which obviously couldn't be granted to laymen. Another change of circumstances that helped the situation settle down was that the strategies employed in the French war changed from 1342 to ones that required less of a financial burden on the country. Taxation was still required to finance the war, but even tho there were arguments about the levels required there was no threat of crisis. Prestwich attributes this in part to Edward's skilful political strategy - promising what he needed to get what he wanted then only following through when necessary, accepting criticism even if he didn't change.

During this time period (the 1340s & 1350s) the House of Commons (as it would later be known) continued to grow in importance. It was still in many ways an unpolitical body - people were not elected to it with the idea that they would put forward a particular point of view, and neither King nor Parliament tried to stack it with supporters when reforms were made to who attended. Even tho it was becoming more important the social status of the attendees didn't rise, in fact in general it decreased. Men who were chosen to attend from the counties still tended to be notable in their area, but were less and less often knights. From 1340 Parliament was also effectively secular below the level of the peerage. Prestwich also notes that the election of lawyers was discouraged. In the 1350s instructions went out that those elected should "be not pleaders, nor maintainers of quarrels nor such as live by pursuits of this kind". Somewhat different to today!

By the time that the Black Death hit England (in 1348) a political consensus had evolved in the wake of the 1340-41 crisis. Surprisingly in the aftermath of the plague this consensus was not disrupted. Although it would lead to major social changes (as might be expected when up to half the population dies) the immediate effect on government was to bring the bits of what one might call "the establishment" together. The representatives in the Commons saw their interests as aligning with the magnates, and Parliament with the King - they all wanted to ensure that the previous status quo continued. Relations between secular and church authority continued to evolve through these decades. Notably the papal curia tried to flex its muscles in the appointment of clerics to bishoprics. By 1343 there was much discontent about this, and the representatives in Parliament complained that a lot of money was leaving the country via these foreign cardinals. The King was able to gain favour with the representatives by issuing statutes to attempt to curtail the papal right to appoint clerics, and to prevent too many cases being tried in the papal courts. Prestwich notes that this wasn't so much a change in the relations between King & Pope, but more an indication of how he would respond to the demands of the representatives.

Prestwich concludes this chapter with a glowing character portrait of Edward III - I think he approves of him ;) This 30 year period had been one of success and stability, and Prestwich puts much of the credit for that on the King. Although Edward III did get into irresponsible levels of debt at the start of the French war he was in general a hard-working man who took his responsibilities seriously. He didn't indulge in favourites (very unlike his father) but instead was generous in his patronage to many different people. This combined with his pragmatic approach to politics (promise what you need to, then only follow through if necessary) meant that he had wide reaching support throughout the country. He somehow managed not to get a reputation for unreliability (unlike his grandfather), and he didn't hold grudges (which made the aftermath of the 1340-41 crisis much less problematic). In terms of relationships with his family Edward III was markedly different to some of his predecessors. Prestwich compares him to Henry II here - despite having several sons Edward III managed to have a more harmonious family than Henry II, and to delegate authority to his eldest son keeping him onside. He allowed his children their own way in terms of marriages rather than just using them as pawns, even the girls. He was conventionally religious, but not overly mystical. Prestwich says the evidence suggests that Edward III enjoyed being King, and that his court enjoyed his company - whilst politics was taken seriously Edward III's court also indulged in the more frivolous side of life with tournaments and so on.

Tangents to follow up on: a biography of Edward III, and more about his family too.

The In Our Time episode that we listened to this Sunday was quite a chewy one for first thing in the morning! Its subject was Ordinary Language Philosophy which is a school of philosophical thought that dominated the subject during the first couple of decades after the Second World War. It then fell out of favour in the 1970s, but may be making something of a comeback now. The three experts who talked about it on the programme were Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford), Ray Monk (University of Southampton) and Julia Tanney (University of Kent).

Ordinary Language Philosophy is a strand of Analytical Philosophy which developed in opposition to the idea that in order to do analytic philosophy you need to formalise the language used. Like the rest of analytic philosophy it grew out of the work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell on defining what a number is. This school of philosophy (and mathematics) took the stance that to properly understanding a word you needed to look at it in its context rather than in isolation, and they used formal logic to talk about the underlying structures of sentences. This was also covered in the In Our Time episode about Russell which I listened to & wrote about a year ago.

Ordinary Language philosophers took the idea of context further, saying that studying sentences in isolation doesn't give you enough context to understand their meaning. "The apple is red" means something different when you're saying it because your eyesight is being tested or when you're saying it because you hate green apples but someone has thoughtfully given you a red one. Tanney also gave a third example of context that felt much more clumsy - if you're talking about colours for painting then you could be defining red by the apple (but you wouldn't say that exact sentence so I think the analogy breaks here).

The main thrust of Ordinary Language Philosophy was a desire to bring philosophy back to reality. The members of this movement felt that a lot of philosophical problems could be shown to not be problems at all if you were willing to consider how words were actually used in their everyday contexts. The example they talked about on the programme was Socrates desire to think about questions like "what is truth?". In his dialogues the other person would try and answer the question by talking about examples of truth, but Socrates would want the essence of truth not examples. And Ordinary Language Philosophy took the view that this was the wrong way to go about it - considering examples of truth in their real world contexts is how you build up an understanding of what "truth" is.

The three main thinkers that they talked about on the programme were Ludwig Wittgenstein, J L Austin and Gilbert Ryle. Originally Wittgenstein had agreed with Bertrand Russell that formal logic and formalisation of language was necessary to undertake philosophy, but he returned to these ideas in the 1930s in Cambridge and changed his mind becoming one of the main proponents of Ordinary Language Philosophy. Ryle and Austin were both at Oxford, and another name for this philosophical movement is Oxford Philosophy. At the time Oxford was one of the main centres of philosophical thought in the Western world - but oddly they said on the programme that Ryle and Austin didn't really work in collaboration or discuss their ideas with each other.

The example of the sort of work that these philosophers were doing that's stuck in my mind from the programme is Austin's work on the nuances of excuses - which he was interested in from a moral philosophy point of view. He was interested in the difference between "it was a mistake" and "it was an accident" - at first glance you might think these are roughly equivalent, but there's actually a significant difference in agency between the two excuses. If you say something was a mistake you are accepting responsibility for it, but if you say it was an accident then it's something external to yourself that went wrong. So the excuses represent different moral statuses and different levels of culpability. The story Austin used to illustrate the difference was re-told by Mulhall - imagine you and your neighbour both have a donkey and you graze these donkeys together on common land. One day you decide that you don't want a donkey any more and so go to the common to shoot it. You carefully aim, and fire but once you get to the donkey you're horrified to discover that the donkey you've shot is your neighbour's donkey! So when you go to your neighbour with his donkey's corpse you say "I'm sorry, it was a mistake". But if instead you'd aimed at the right donkey, but just as you fired the donkeys moved and the wrong donkey got hit by the bullet, then you'd say to your neighbour "I'm sorry, it was an accident".

They ended the programme by discussing the "death" of Ordinary Language Philosophy in the 1970s. Tanney and Mulhall seemed to think that this was premature - the criticisms weren't so great as to make the philosophy worthless, and Tanney in particular regarded herself as a part of that school of thought. And she was keen to stress that she felt it should become a significant line of thought again. Monk seemed a little more on the critical side, although he didn't actually outright say one way or the other.

Mary Beard recently gave a lecture on the long cultural history of silencing women's voices, the text is online. Which juxtaposed well (in the sense that it's similar cultural roots) with the programme we just watched on how Greek attitudes to luxury still affect our own. And juxtaposed in a timely fashion with the bigotry in SFWA thing that's been rumbling on for the last year - the latest iteration of which blew up just recently and includes someone critiquing a woman's appearance as a part of a rationale for dismissing her. Having read the lecture just before I read about the SFWA thing it was interesting to see how many times I saw it linked in comments.

Ben Goldacre on the NHS data sharing plan - he says with well thought out arguments and evidence things that match my gut feel on it. Having the data available to medicine would be extremely useful and is a Good Thing, it's a shame they're botching the explanation and the regulatory side of it :/

Reshaping Reality has a post up on how science works, the fundamental uncertainties at the roots of physics & thus the whole of science and why scientific literacy matters which includes a list of blogs and books about science.

James Nicoll's micro reviews of the Science Fiction Book Club books of July 2000 - the one that caught my eye was SUBURBAN GODS (2-in-1 of HOW LIKE A GOD and DOORS OF DEATH AND LIFE) by Brenda W. Clough, that he recommends and I've never heard of.

Also from James Nicoll some potential reading list generators - list of women authors who debuted in the 1970s, and 1980s with recommendations from people about books of theirs to read. Mine are in comments on those posts. Lots of them I've not read anything by, gonna give the lists a little time to multiply then construct myself a list of books to look for.

Ever wondered what the cryptic spray paint marks are on UK pavements?

In the "OMG I'm old, how'd that happen?" department is this: Descent is 19 years old!! Not a game I ever really got the hang of, I remember J liking it a lot tho. While we were at uni. Which is clearly only yesterday.

Also off RPS (I'm a bit behind on reading it) is confirmation that Steam Tags really are as bad an idea as I thought they would be. They do seem to've added functionality so you can report tags but what rock have they been hiding under for the last decade or two to not realise that unmoderated open to all tagging on the internet was going to generate problems?

Chroma looks interesting, but a bit of an odd idea ... could be good, could be terrible, have to wait & see. And Doom 4 looks like it's going to be a thing ... can't work out if that's exciting or not, I got more into Quake (3 and 4) than any of the Dooms.

Trying to read old Scottish documents? This might help - via my father, who managed to decipher the 17th Century marriage record that I completely failed to read :)

Cats taking selfies ... because the internet is for cat pictures.

"The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August" by Claire North is a book I'd like to read - similar underlying premise as Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life" (post) but goes in a different direction. Link via Lady Business.

Apps installed recently include Crowdsourced Weather which uses the sensors on your phone to detect local weather data. Doesn't seem to have many people using it yet according to the map, but I now have on my phone something that tells me the barometric pressure, the magnetic field of the earth where I am, the temperature (using an algorithm to figure it out from battery temp, a little flaky) and how light it is. This may not be particularly useful but it makes me happy :)

Also using Muzei, which gives you a new backdrop every day or so, each one is a famous work of art. A little bit of art appreciation on my phone :) There's plenty of plugins for things like NASA's APOD too.

And finally got round to installing Untappd, which lets you track which different beers you've tried. It also lets you spam facebook/twitter/foursquare with what you drink, but I'm not doing that ;)

The TV programmes I told the PVR to record this week are rather WW1 heavy:

Baroque! - From St Peter's to St Paul's was a three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about Baroque art and architecture. The three programmes moved in geography (covering Italy, Spain & the Netherlands, and Britain respectively) and forwards in time. He started off with the story of how baroque art has its roots in the Counter Reformation - basically intended to propagate the "right" Christian message via eye-catching art. In particular as a response to the more austere Protestant sensibility, a sort of "you say we have too much art? we'll show you too much art!". As the movement took off in Spain (via Naples - a Spanish colony) the religious subject matter became darker and more visceral. Baroque artists also became the court painters of the era. Januszczak was entertainingly dismissive of the Hapsburg rulers of Spain & the Spanish Netherlands (and to be fair, there's a lot there to to be dismissive of) while extolling the virtues of their taste in art. The Spanish court paintings were one of the vectors that introduced baroque art & architecture to England - Charles I's visit to Spain when he was hoping to marry a Spanish princess brought him into contact with the court culture and painting. This wasn't to be the baroque movement's first jump to a Protestant nation - that was the Netherlands. Once the baroque took a hold in England it was given extra space to grow because of the Great Fire of London - about half of the last episode of this series was about the various churches (including St Paul's) which were rebuilt in a baroque style after that disaster.

I've found it hard to write about what was in the programmes, because a lot of the point was (unsurprisingly) the visuals - Januszczak showed us a lot of paintings and buildings both well known and not. The style of the programme was gloriously over the top, as befits the subject matter. Well worth watching :)


This week we also watched both parts of a series that we've had on the PVR for ages - Guilty Pleasures. This series was about how modern attitudes to luxury have been shaped by our cultural roots. It was presented by Michael Scott, who's a classicist, so it's no surprise that the first episode was about the influence of the Ancient Greeks; the second episode was about the influence of medieval Christianity. In Ancient Greece he followed three strands of Greek attitudes to luxury - the first of these was the Athenian democracy that spent time and legislation on trying to prevent ostentatious private luxuries by channeling the urge to consume into public luxuries. And tried to tie society together by having ritual communal luxuries - like sacrificing large numbers of cows which would then give every citizen some meat. The Spartans in some ways had their downfall through unsuccessfully navigating this tension between public & private luxury. As prominent Spartan citizens began to gather wealth to themselves rather than live in the spartan communal fashion their society began to decline. And the last society he touched on in that episode was the Macedonians who embrace luxury (for the ruler) much more than the Athenians or Spartans - they use their wealth as a propaganda tool and to enhance the division between the ruler and the ruled (unlike the more egalitarian principles of Athens or Sparta).

By the middle ages luxury has become a sin. Having contact with luxurious things is supposed to lead you into ever worse sin - fine foods, fine clothing is just a precursor to other indulgences. Scott also talked about how the Black Death actually led to increased luxury for the people who survived. People at the lower reaches of society in particular gained land and better pay because there was a lack of labour available. Which increased the feelings of guilt around luxury. Another factor was that the plague was seen as God's punishment on people, and so at higher levels of society people took a second look at their lives and came to the conclusion that God was not pleased about their sinfulness (including their luxuries).

And Scott tied it together at the end by thinking a little about modern attitudes to luxury, in particular in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. The Greek influences can been seen in how we generally react to conspicuous consumption as divisive, and the medieval influences are most obvious in the very idea of a "guilty pleasure".


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of The Stuarts - a series about the Stuart Kings of England & Scotland, presented by Clare Jackson, and about how they shaped the United Kingdom and how they were shaped by it. Broadcast on the Scottish version of BBC2 only.

Episode 1 of Bible Hunters - series about the search for early texts of the Bible in Egypt.

Episode 1 of Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - this was part of the BBC's Tudor Season in 2013. It's a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you'd need to know if you could travel back there.

New Secrets of the Terracotta Warriors - Channel 4 one-off programme about the terracotta army found buried near the Emperor Qin's grave in China. Partly about the history of Qin era China (the first unification of the country in c.200BC, and partly about the techniques currently being used to learn more about the terracotta soldiers. A little shallow.

Episode 1 of The Great British Year - series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Britain's Most Fragile Treasure - Janina Ramirez programme about the East Window in York Cathedral. How it was made, who made it, how it's being conserved, and what the various scenes and stories are.

As you might've noticed from the piece of whimsy I posted a few weeks ago I've been doing a course on Hamlet with Future Learn. This is my first foray into the world of massive online courses, and also the first non-science course I've done since 1990. All in all I think it was rather successful - I learnt stuff, I enjoyed it and I only had a couple of moments where I thought to myself "ah, yes, this is why I did science instead" ;)

The course described itself as follows:

This course introduces the many ways in which Hamlet can be enjoyed and understood. Six weekly videos discuss the play’s fortunes in print, and its own representations of writing and theatre; its place in the Elizabethan theatrical repertory; its representation of melancholia and interiority; its fortunes on the modern stage; its appeal to actors; and its philosophy.

And had no pre-requisites other than an ability to read Hamlet, so that seemed a good one to jump in on. I'm not quite sure I got what I was expecting - part of which is down to me: I'd expected more about the text or play itself, and the course was more about the meta level of how it's been performed since. Which it does say in the description really, so my failure there. However it was also very focussed on Hamlet the character, rather than the play in a broader sense and I really don't think that Hamlet is the only interesting thing in the play even based on my own meagre knowledge.

The technical set-up for the course is that each week had a list of steps, say a dozen of them. Some of these would be short video lectures and some would be articles (or links to external content). And there were also discussion steps, and assignments. You could add comments to all but the assignment steps (which were more formally peer reviewed). So each video and article would have a few comments which I looked at or not depending on how interested I was. And the discussions would have a few hundred comments (mostly on topic) and I made sure I always commented on these and read a reasonable number of them - basically made sure I participated (otherwise what was the point of doing a course rather than read a book). The final step was always a short multiple choice quiz meant to primarily be a review of the week (but see the end of this post).

The first week of the course was an introduction to the course itself, and to the text of the play. I'd not realised before that there were three versions of Hamlet that survive from the 17th Century. There's the First Quarto, which has different names for people and feels like it's a "pirate" copy poorly transcribed from notes taken in a performance or from an actor's memory. The Second Quarto is much better quality (in terms of the flow of the lines and so on) and has all the right names for people - it's pretty much unstageably long though, as it would take 4 hours to do it all. And finally there's the Folio version, which is a cut down version of the Second Quarto one. We were encouraged during this week to think about which of the versions of the text might count as "the real one", and whether any particular performance might consititute the definitive version. And also whether the play as performance or the play as text was the more important.

The second week was a bit disappointing for me. It was billed as being about the Elizabethan audiences for the play, and the context the play was written in. However it felt very shallow, with most content being provided by a link to the Shakespearean London Theatres Project (which was interesting, but it felt a bit like cheating for them to point us there rather than provide content themselves). And the bulk of the time I spent on that week was taken up with trying to plough through The Spanish Tragedy, which is a play by Thomas Kyd who may've written a version of Hamlet before Shakespeare did. We were encouraged to discuss the reactions of Elizabethan audiences to Hamlet (and to write a review as if we were there, hence my little bit of whimsy) - sadly if you followed the steps linearly that discussion happened before we got the links to ShaLT and information on the audiences. The other discussion that week was on what we thought Kyd's Hamlet might've been like, and what if anything we thought might've been surprising about Shakespeare's Hamlet to audiences that knew the earlier play. My conclusions were that Kyd's Hamlet would probably've been more straightforward and more like an action film, but Shakespeare's Hamlet is one that gives you something to discuss afterwards. And it's the plays/books/films/stories that you discuss or want to talk about that you remember.

The third week picked back up in quality, and was the start of a three week exploration of Hamlet's psychology which felt like the core of the course. This week focused first on the theories of the mind of Shakespeare's contemporaries. We learnt about the four humours, and what Hamlet meant when he talked of himself as a melancholic. Towards the end of the week Freud's ideas were introduced, and we were told a bit about how Hamlet has been used as a fictional case study by several psychologists. In the discussions we were encouraged to think about what (if anything) is wrong with Hamlet and whether or not he was faking his madness. We were also invited to talk about how much sense it makes to use Hamlet as a case study for psychological theories that were constructed centuries after Shakespeare died. I was astonished how divisive this subject was. Some people couldn't move past a literal viewpoint: "you can't psychoanalyse or diagnose a fiction person because they don't exist". Which just strikes me as orthogonal to the point. Obviously you can't really diagnose them with anything, but thinking about the theories in relation to the character can tell you something about the character and also about the theory. In both directions it's a tool for shining light on something in a way you might not've considered before.

Week four moved on to thinking about modern stagings of the play, with an emphasis on how the Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet's relationship with his mother came to dominate 20th Century stagings of the play. Even if the production doesn't interpret it that way, there's still always a bed in the closet scene (which is just Hamlet and Gertrude) and it's choosing to not be Oedipal about it rather than just not being so, if that makes sense. There was an assignment during this week, for peer review, that asked us to look at a particular scene that's only in the First Quarto and we had to decide if we would include it if we were staging the play. The scene itself has Gertrude receiving news of Hamlet surviving the attempted murder on Claudius's instructions (which happens off stage). This changes the feel of the end of the play - she knows more, and she's unambiguously on Hamlet's side after this scene. I rather enjoyed thinking about this assignment, and I would've liked more of the course to be like this. I decided that I wouldn't want the scene included, because I felt it was a bit out of character for how I see Gertrude - to me it reads almost like Hamlet's wishes for how his mother would react. It's full of things like "For murderous minds are always jealous." which I could see Hamlet saying about Claudius, but not Gertrude (who I see as somewhat more pragmatic and possibly even aware of Claudius's initial murder of Hamlet Sr.). I'd quite like to read a story of the events in Hamlet from Gertrude's point of view, I bet they'd look quite different.

The fifth week was the one where I had my "oh yes, this is why I did science" moment. The focus of the week was on an interview with Jonathan Slinger who played Hamlet recently, recorded when he was about halfway through the run. And we were invited to consider such weighty questions as whether or not the role of Hamlet was seeping into his interview persona. And I really don't care. The other half of the week was another theory of Hamlet's psyche - Slinger's director had a view that Hamlet had bipolar disorder, and Slinger played him as someone who didn't know they had it rather than knowingly. My exasperation with this bit was because part of the discussion after this was about "would tragedy have been averted if Hamlet had been diagnosed and medicated?". Perhaps? But then it would've been a boring play, so that just felt like a daft question. Not an illuminating question like considering if bipolar disorder fits as a diagnosis could be (and to be fair we were invited to discuss that too) but just rather daft. Also bipolar disorder doesn't mean "crazy person" and the questions and discussion thread veered rather closer to that than I was comfortable with. The assignment for the week was comparing the "different versions of Hamlet we've seen" to say which best fit Hamlet's own advice to actors in Act 3 Scene 2. Which is difficult to do when you've not seen one full production let alone more ... I wasn't the only person commenting on that in the weekly feedback section. I did do my little 500 word essay on the subject and peer review a couple, but really all I learnt from that was that I can successfully waffle for 500 words even when I don't have much to say. Looking at the length of posts I write here on a regular basis, that doesn't come as much of a surprise to me (nor anyone else, I'd guess)!

The sixth and final week returned to more of a highpoint. The theme this week was the soliloquy "To be or not to be". We'd had a practical exercise at the end of week 5 to read it out loud ourselves, and this week started with Pippa Nixon (who played Ophelia in the same production that Slinger played Hamlet) reading the soliloquy. We were then asked to think about the meaning of it (and to paraphrase it ourselves, quite a fun exercise) and in particular to discuss how it fit within the Christian context of the time it was written and how it transcends that context. I would've liked more of this sort of consideration of the text in the whole course. The second half of the week was thinking about women playing Hamlet - Pippa Nixon talked about how she'd like to play Hamlet, and how she thought the changing of the central family relationships to a father-daughter and a mother-daughter one would change our perceptions of the play. There wasn't a discussion section for this which I think was probably just as well - I read a few of the comments on the video & article sections and some of them made me roll my eyes quite hard (and there were even comments that can be paraphrased as "but if Hamlet's a girl then you have to make Ophelia a man otherwise how can they have a relationship??"). I do think it'd be interesting to see a female Hamlet done straight - just changing the pronouns and no other textual alterations. And see how that changes how you see the character, or doesn't change it. In the same way that staging the play with different dress can interestingly change the feel of it (from clips I've seen, anyway).

Overall this was an interesting course, even if I'd've preferred a slightly different one! It was run by a team from the Institute of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University, and I thought that most of the material was well thought out and well presented. They also responded very well to any criticism. For instance at first there were no places to leave feedback, but after people started to say things in one of the discussions each week had a dedicated feedback section added. And not only that, but if something came up that was easily fixable on the fly it was done - the quizzes at the end of each week included material not in the course which was disconcerting and confusing to several of us at first. But it was by design and the description of the quiz was changed to make it clear that we weren't supposed to know all the answers, it was a) for fun and b) supposed to point you to other things you could think about.

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a name I was vaguely aware of, but I couldn't bring to mind why. And as we listened to this In Our Time programme about him I realised I'd also heard of some of his ideas, at least in passing, but never attached them to the name. The three experts who were discussing him were Adam Kuper (Boston University), Christina Howells (Oxford University) and Vincent Debaene (Columbia University).

Lévi-Strauss was born in France in 1908 to secular Jewish parents. Kuper described him as being part of the French "bohemian bourgeois" intellectual elite of the time. Lévi-Strauss went on to study philosophy at university in Paris, where he had such notable figures as Satre as classmates (Satre was specifically mentioned because of later debates between the two men). After graduating Lévi-Strauss initially became a teacher but hated it, and so took an opportunity that opened up in Brazil as a Professor of Sociology. This is despite not liking travel and not liking fieldwork - clearly it was better than being a schoolteacher. In 1939 he returned to France, but not long after had to flee to the US.

At this point in the programme they also talked a bit about Lévi-Strauss's politics - he was very active in the socialist movement as a student. He later said something about discovering politics was not for him, and the experts on the programme were suggesting this was due to disappointment over not being called back to France to take part in government during the 1930s. His political opinions became more conservative over the years, and by the 1968 Student Revolution in France it wasn't something he was interested in participating in.

It was during his time in New York that Lévi-Strauss began to write the first of the books that would make his name. He did a survey of what was known about the kinship rules of every society in the world. What he was interested in was applying the ideas of structuralism to this sort of anthropological data. Structuralism originated in linguistics, looking at the grammatical rules that underlie language and Lévi-Strauss was looking for the underlying structures that determine kinship. His premise was that the big difference between animals and humans is the incest taboo (which is now shown not to be the case - other primates also appear to have the equivalent of the incest taboos when not in captivity). So he saw the whole of the development of human society as growing out of the need to exchange wives with other tribes, and by comparing all the different societies he distilled out of the data a set of three possible models for kinship rules and for how this exchange was achieved. The impact of this book was huge within anthropology, although not so much outside the field. And it's one of the works that has lead to him being considered one of the fathers of modern anthropology, and the father of structural anthropology.

The book that brought him to public attention outside the field of anthropology was Tristes Tropiques - a memoir of his time in Brazil. But the most famous of his books was La Pensée Sauvage (the title is often translated as "The Savage Mind", but Debeane was pretty scathing about the accuracy of that translation, preferring (if I remember right) "The Primitive Thought"). In that his thesis was that there is no fundamental difference between the thoughts and thinking processes of "civilised" and "primitive" people; it's their culture that shapes how their thoughts are expressed rather than underlying differences. He also set out the idea that given modern Western scientific thought is such a small part of the spectrum of human thinking we shouldn't restrict ourselves to only examining it. Instead we should try to understand the whole range. It was this book that lead to fierce debates between Lévi-Strauss and Satre about the nature of freedom. I think it was Satre on the side of people being completely free to act as they chose, and Lévi-Strauss who felt they were constrained by the underlying rules of society. Which the discussion in this programme tied into the increasing conservativeness of Lévi-Strauss's politics.

The last of Lévi-Strauss's works that they discussed on the programme was his four volume book on mythology. This compared the myths of all the indigenous peoples across the Americas and looked at the underlying links and structures. There wasn't time for them to go into much details, but I think the gist of it was that Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that the whole continent shared a common structure of myth and that many of these myths were in conversation with each other.

In some ways I felt like this was a bit of an odd programme - in that it felt like it was made a few decades too soon. Lévi-Strauss only died in 2009 (even if most of his important work was published by the 1980s) and I'm not sure there's been enough time to get the necessary distance to look back on his contributions. J disagrees with me here, he thinks that would be a different programme and this one was fine as it was.

Blood and Iron was, I think, the second Elizabeth Bear book I ever read and it's the one that made me a fan. This and its companion volumes (there are four in the series so far) are Bear's take on the urban fairies/elves and urban fantasy sub genres. This one and Whiskey and Water are set in the modern day and the other duology (Ink and Steel & Hell and Earth) are set in Shakespeare's England (with Shakespeare as a character). The basic premise is "what if the Fair Folk of myth and legend were real?". It's not the cosy imaginings of Mercedes Lackey's urban elves books (which I do like too) instead it's more akin to the old ballads and the Celtic mythology. The Tam Lin story is one of the stories that binds this book together, along with the story of Arthur.

There are three viewpoint characters - Elaine Andraste, Matthew Szczegielniak and Keith MacNeill. The other two are important, but Elaine is the pivot around which the story turns. She is a changeling, part fae and stolen away from her mortal life some years ago by the Daoine Sidhe. Her name was used to bind her to the service of the Mebd, Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, she is now the Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe and at the beginning of the book she has done her best to subsume her sense of self into her office. She never thinks of herself as Elaine, instead she is Seeker. To some degree the book is about her coming to terms with who she is, who she was and what her heritage is - both from her Fae ancestry and the surprises in her human ancestry.

When the book opens the world is beginning to go through another iteration of a cyclical story. The Dragon Prince has been chosen. The Merlin has been born, but not come into true power yet. And the Mebd sends the Seeker off to find and bind the Merlin - like Nimue did before her. We know the story best as the story of Arthur: at times of need the Dragon Prince arises and fights back against the threatened conquerors aided by the power of the Merlin. But the Dragon requires a price for this - the Dragon Prince must spill the blood of innocents and if he doesn't, then he will fail. And it's also told that he will be betrayed by someone close to him. Bear works various historical figures into this narrative as past Dragon Princes so the cycle is repeating roughly once in 500 years. I particularly liked the inclusion of Harold Godwinson as a Dragon Prince, betrayed by his brother and refusing to pay the Dragon's price so lost to William the Bastard in the end.

The Seeker and Keith MacNeill are linked by the past - Keith is the father of her child, and the man who gave her name to the Mebd so she could be bound. The first of these resonates with the Tam Lin story - Janet has a claim to Tam because he is the father of her child, and that's important for why she can win him back from the tithe to Hell. And the second link is important thematically within this story. He doesn't betray her to the Mebd out of hate, but out of love. He's a werewolf and lives much longer than a normal mortal - but if Elaine is bound to the Fae then he won't have to watch her grow old and die. But even tho his intentions were good, she still feels it as betrayal. And choices are important in this story - the choices you make for yourself, the choices you make for others. And there's a constant theme of that which you give freely or choose to do yourself being more important than the same actions when coerced.

Matthew is actually the viewpoint in which we start the book - he's not Fae at all, he's a mortal magic user and a member of the Prometheus Club. The Prometheans exist to protect humanity against the Fae. They try to stop them stealing people and are gearing up for an invasion and final binding of Faerie to complete the job started by the iron of the railways. Matthew's beloved older brother is a mortal who was taken to dance for the Faerie court, and returned when he could dance no more - many years older and crippled. Revenge for this, and wanting to ensure it happens to no-one else, are what drives Matthew and why he is one of the Prometheans. He works closely with a senior Promethean, Jane Andraste, mother of Elaine. And he sees them as sharing the same motivations, although over the course of the story it becomes clear that it's not as simple as that.

This is a very dense book (in a good way) - I've given, I think, some idea of some of the intertwining plotlines without giving away too much. But there's more I've not mentioned - like the tithe to Hell, which you'd expect from the Tam Lin story. And Morgan le Fay and Arthur are both characters in the book. And there's not just the Daoine Sidhe, but the Unseelie Sidhe as well ruled by their own Queen and with their own desire to bind the Merlin. One of the things I like about the book is the sense of complexity and a fully fleshed out world - there's more going on than just what we see and even if what we see is of great importance that doesn't mean that the other things aren't also of great importance too. But it's not the sort of complexity that makes me feel like it's a game of Jenga - where if I pull out a piece to examine it too closely it'll all fall to pieces. (Moffat era Doctor Who is a bit like that, for all that I enjoy it I do feel I need to be careful not to look too closely.) Blood and Iron is the sort of complex that almost makes me want to go through it taking notes to see how it all fits together. For instance in a conversation about the Tam Lin ballad one character says about something "it says it twice so it must be important". And the line in question (Tam Lin being the father of Janet's child) is important to the story, but there's more than that. I'd noticed that "the rules are different for the ones who were gods" had come up a couple of times by then (and there's a pay-off to that later in the book). So what else is there that's said twice that I've missed? And I'm sure there's plenty of passing "offhand" references in this book that will turn out to have pay-offs in one of the other books.

The choices people make is, I think, the thematic thread that connects the whole story together. For instance, a lot of the book revolves around the price one is willing to pay to get one's goals. And about choosing your goals carefully. There's a lot I could write about that side of it, but the thing that I wanted to talk about is the emphasis on stories. This is a world where the stories we tell shape the world itself. Arthur didn't exist, and yet there he is asleep on his bier waiting for his foretold return. His story has been told so many times that he does exist now. You might wonder how come Hell exists in this world where the celtic mythology is true, but again that's because of the stories - the rise of Christianity created Hell (and Heaven) and now they do exist. And you could see that as being fatalistic - if you find you're caught up in a story then you know how it's going to play out. And you could see that as absolving you from the need to choose, but that would be a choice in itself. Because the thing is - if the stories we tell are what shapes the world, then you can choose to tell the story differently. But like everything that will come with a price, and are you willing to pay it?

This is one of my favourite books, and definitely as good second time through when I knew roughly where it was going. I really should sit down one day and go through more slowly taking notes.

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