January 2013 in Review

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, you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“Bitten” Kelley Armstrong. Part of Read All the Fiction, urban fantasy with werewolves. Taken to charity shop.

“Gridlinked” Neal Asher. Part of Read All the Fiction, space opera with cyberpunk flavour. Kept.

“Before The Golden Age 1” ed. Isaac Asimov. Part of Read All the Fiction, short stories from 1931& 1932 plus autobiography of Asimov from birth (1920) to 1932. Boxed up.

“Ran Away” Barbara Hambly. Historical mystery set in 1820s Paris & 1830s New Orleans, one of the Benjamin January series. Library book.

“The Desert of Souls” Howard Andrew Jones. Arabian Nights-esque fantasy set in 8th Century Baghdad, with overtones of Sherlock Holmes. Library book.

Total: 5


“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham. Part of Chapter-by-Chapter, an overview of the sweep of Chinese history from the Paleolithic through to the death of the last Emperor in the 20th Century.

Total: 1


Thread of Silk and Gold. An exhibition of Meiji era Japanese textiles at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Total: 1



Total: 1


The Borgias. In Our Time episode about the Borgia family in Renaissance Italy.

Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. In Our Time episode about the epic Persian poem the Shahnameh.

The Upanishads. In Our Time episode about one of the groups of sacred texts of the Hindu religion.

Total: 3



Lost Kingdoms of South America. The history & archaeology of four cultures in South America.

Prehistoric Autopsy. What we know about the lives & looks of 3 ancestors of modern Homo sapiens.

Wartime Farm. What life was like for farmers during World War II, part re-enactment.

Total: 3

“Ran Away” Barbara Hambly

A couple of months ago in a thread about book recommendations on Realms Beyond kjn said he thought Barbara Hambly hadn’t really found her voice until “Bride of the Rat God” and then the historical mysteries she wrote after that (by which I think he meant the Benjamin January books). Which I thought was interesting, because I’ve read several of Hambly’s books (including “Bride of the Rat God”) and enjoy them a lot but I haven’t actually read any of the Benjamin January series or indeed anything more recent than “Bride of the Rat God”. The ones I’ve read are mostly portal fantasies, published in the 80s & 90s. So when I saw “Ran Away” turned face out at the library and noticed the cover said it was “The new Benjamin January novel” I picked it up to read.

Benjamin January is a free black man, the son of slaves, who lives in New Orleans. This book is mostly set in 1837 (with an extensive flashback to Paris in 1827). He’s trained as a surgeon, but makes his living as a musician because in that time & place white people don’t like black people being medics. I assume the earlier books give some indication of how come he has the medical training and the rest of his good education in the first place – it’s not the subject of this book. There’s a few things like that which reminded me I was reading the most recent book in an established series, but in general it stands alone well.

The story opens with January being told by his mother that “the Turk” has murdered his two concubines that morning in a jealous rage – it’s the gossip of the town, with lurid details & everyone knows it must be true that a heathen like that would do such a thing. January insists that it can’t be true, he knows the man and knows he’s not like that. And then we’re off into a flashback to 1827 when January lived in Paris with his first wife, a North African ex-Muslim woman. Because of his medical training his wife enlists his help on behalf of one of the concubines of the Turk, who it turns out has been poisoned by one of the Turk’s other wives. When she then vanishes January is the person the senior wife of the harem comes to to help find her and make sure she’s safe. A bit hard to write that plot-starting summary because I don’t want to give away too much of how it works out. But suffice to say that this flashback (which is the first half of the book) demonstrates that indeed the Turk is not the sort of man to murder the concubines. The second half of the book returns to 1837, and January’s efforts to find out who did murder the dead girls and why. The two mystery plotlines are well done, I didn’t find the answers to them obvious at the beginning but when the story got there they felt right. They also linked together well, with things from the first half showing up in the second half (and something that had niggled at me as being unresolved in the first bit was in fact a minor plot point later 🙂 ).

When I think of Hambly’s books I think of well-drawn, solid feeling characters who are often square pegs in round holes and intricate societies where there are hierarchies & manners that keep people reminded of their place and role. (I’m not sure I phrased that well, hopefully I’ve got the idea across). This book is no exception to that – and in some ways is more unsettling because this is an actual society from history and people like January or any of the other main characters will’ve actually existed.

One of the themes of this book seems to be how all the different sub-cultures of “society” are actually much the same under the skin, and how petty all their reasons to feel superior to each other are. Like how much the high-society girls looking for husbands at the Paris balls are the same as the coloured demi-mondaine of New Orleans being presented to society to meet white “protectors”. And how the concubines of the Turk aren’t worlds away from these black mistresses of those white men, despite the latter despising the lives of the former. Or there’s the slave woman who is very clearly sniffy about January’s social status because he’s a darker black than her but he’s a free man and she can be (and has been) bought and sold with no respect for any of her wishes. And the French of New Orleans don’t mix with the Americans, the old aristocracy of France are “above” the “new people” who gained status with Napolean or in the Revolution. Having just read some 1930s stories I was particularly struck by how this is a book with many racist, classist and sexist characters, but it manages not to be a racist, classist or sexist story. People are people, good or bad or indifferent because of who they are personally not because of some stereotype.

I’m not sure I’d say that this is better than the earlier Hambly I’ve read (tho it’s been a while since I read the others), but I would definitely say it’s as good. She’s one of my favourite authors, and clearly I now need to buy everything else she ever wrote – I have about a dozen books already, but there seem to be at least as many others I’ve not yet bought, including the Benjamin January series 🙂

In Our Time: Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

The Shahnameh is an epic poem, twice as long as the Odyssey & the Iliad put together, written in 10th Century AD Persia about Persian history. It took its author, Ferdowsi, 30 years to write and is still regarded today as one of the important pieces of Persian literature. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Narguess Farzad (University of London), Charles Melville (University of Cambridge) and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (British Museum). The two women are Iranian, and particularly towards the end of the programme were very enthusiastic about how important this poem is to Iran & to the cultural identity of the Iranian people.

At the time it was written it was a few centuries after Persia had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs at a time when the Caliphate was no longer a strong force across the Islamic Empire. The Persian people had kept oral traditions of their culture, and their own language, and during this period there was a reassertion of Persian culture. Ferdowsi was writing as part of this cultural movement & he was setting out to retell pre-existing prose records & oral tradition as poetry because he believed this would be easier to remember. So it was a self-conscious effort at writing something for posterity. It’s written in early modern Persian, so is still understandable today even if somewhat archaic. The format is rhyming couplets, and a specific meter – I think they said it was 11 syllables, a pause, 11 more syllables for each line, and the middles and the ends of the lines in a couplet rhyme. I’m not sure if that means it’s A: A, A: A, B: B, B: B or if it means it’s A: B, A: B, C: D, C: D (if you see what I mean). They said he was a very good poet and within the strict meter he uses the feel of the language to fit the things he’s writing about. So battles have words that feel short and energetic, but scenes like banquets are more flowing words.

The poem is split into three parts – myths, legends & history. The myths are what we might think of as pre-history – the first people (cave dwellers), the coming of gods, that sort of thing. The legends are the stories of heroes, and of early kings and early battles (and these may or may not’ve happened, but certainly didn’t happen like they’re told). And the history is the stories of the Kings of the Sassanid Empire – which runs from around 200AD to the Islamic conquest of Persia in about 650AD. This is accurate in the sense that the right kings are named in the right order, but it’s not really telling you about what happened when, it’s more of a manual for “how to be a good Persian King”. There are lots of dialogues where the wise advisor tells the new King how to rule – reminds me a bit of Ancient Egyptian literature which has a whole genre of that sort of thing.

After it was written it wasn’t all that popular at first – it must’ve survived, and been copied around because it’s referred to in other literature. But it comes into its own once the Mongols conquer Persia, as a way of Persianising the new rulers and of showing what it means to be Persian. Since then it’s occupied a central role in Persian education & culture – they were saying that it’s taught in schools and that even people without formal schooling would learn sections of the poem.

“Before the Golden Age 1” ed. Isaac Asimov

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is a phrase that commonly has two definitions – the first of these is the era when Campbell was editing Astounding Stories and the writers included people like Isaac Asimov. The other definition is that the golden age of science fiction is 12. That the stories that you read around that sort of age when you’re just discovering your own tastes in fiction are the ones that stick with you through your life. This anthology is a selection of stories that Isaac Asimov remembers reading in the 1930s – in his own personal golden age – that had an influence on his writing and thus on “The Golden Age”.

As an aside, I’m not sure I quite agree with either definition – both that those 1940s stories of The Golden Age aren’t (in large part because of my own age) going to be the best thing ever for me. And also that I think I’m still discovering new books & stories I think are as good or better than the things I read in my teens.

But still, as a conceit for an anthology it’s a good one, and as well as reprinting the stories Asimov writes about his own life. He comes across as very full of himself, but also aware of that and poking fun at his own ego. I suspect if I’d ever met him I’d’ve found him irritatingly smug, but the tone works OK in an autobiography.

This volume covers the years 1931 & 1932, when Asimov is 11 & 12. I bought it sometime in the mid-80s, about ten years after it was published. Its been years since I last read it, and mostly what I remembered was that the stories seemed dated, a few were still quite good but most were pretty “meh” to my more modern eyes. That’s a fairly accurate summary – with the addition that some are downright bad to my more grown-up modern eyes. The science tends to be wrong (either because we now know more, or because the author didn’t know what was known then), they tend to be full of info-dumps and “As you know, Bob” conversations. Some of them work despite this.

And they all have what one might euphemistically call “the attitudes of their time”. The sexism tends to be in the absence of women, and in the lack of personality for the women in those few stories with any female characters – the sort of thing you can excuse for any one story as being that the author just happened to choose a male protagonist. But when you look at the collection as a whole there’s a pattern – nobody thought a woman to be interesting enough to be the protagonist or even a primary character (with the exception of the alien in the Williamson story at the end). The racism is … mostly of the same sort. I wrote the little notes on the stories before I wrote this intro & you’ll spot the bit where I’m suddenly taken aback. There are three stories in the middle that are appallingly explicitly racist, two of them (a duology by Meek) to a degree where if you took the racism out there’d be no story left. I skim read the second of those, and wouldn’t’ve even done that if I hadn’t been going to write about the book.

I’ll be keeping the book, but boxed up – primarily for the autobiography and for the nostalgia.


“The Man Who Evolved” Edmond Hamilton

Story about the future evolution of humanity, a morality tale of the “meddle not with things you do not understand” type. Also felt like the H. G. Wells story “The Time Machine”, in that it was a scientist building a contraption to find out how the human race developed & demonstrating it to his friends. The science is dreadful (evolution Does. Not. Work. Like. That. and I suspect even a biologist in the 1930s would wince at it) but the story is still compelling.

“The Jameson Satellite” Neil R. Jones

Another “what will it be like in the far future” tale. In this one a man works out how to perfectly preserve his body after he dies, by shooting it into space in a rocket to orbit the Earth. Much much later he’s discovered by aliens, who are metal men (Zoromes from the planet Zor, I kid you not) who were once biological but have transplanted their brains into metal bodies and now live forever. The science is equally as wince-making as the last one but I have a higher tolerance for bad orbital mechanics etc than I do for bad biology 😉 The “radium repulsion rays” to prevent meteors hitting the rocket were a bit much tho … It was still a fun story to read, I keep wanting to use the word “charming”.

“Submicroscopic”, “Awlo of Ulm” Capt. S. P. Meek

Woah, these two were very much a “product of their time” to an extent that they didn’t have anything to recommend them today. Man builds machine to shrink himself, finds submicroscopic land inhabited by beautiful white people who are being attacked by brutish black savages who want to eat them. The sequel introduces scientifically advanced cruel yellow people with slanty eyes who’d like to enslave them. The hero wins the day because he’s the WASPiest WASP that ever WASPed, and also has guns but if he hadn’t he’d still’ve won. Asimov notes in his afterword that he was uncomfortable with the “touches of racism” he noticed in his re-read, but I’d say that “touches” is inadequate to even begin to describe the level of racism. Oh, and sexist too – these are the first stories in the book to have a woman mentioned at all, but she’s not a person she’s a plot coupon. Save the princess, marry the princess, save the princess (again), duel someone to the death for the princess, duel someone (else) to the death for the princess, reflect on how you didn’t kill them brutally enough because of what they threatened to do to the princess… So I think that’s actually a step back from the woman-free state.

“Tetrahedra of Space” P. Schulyer Miller

A story in the tradition of Wells’ “War of the Worlds” – aliens land, some plucky earth men persuade them to move on when something common on Earth turns out to be poison to them. Astonishingly purple prose, which made me giggle out loud at times because it was so overwrought. Here’s a sample:

It was beyond all reason — all possibility! And yet — it was! Now I could see them clearly, rank on rank of them in orderly file, some hundred of them, strewn in great concentric rings about the softly glowing spheres — harsh as the black rock itself, hard, and glittering, and angular — a man’s height and more from summit to base — great, glittering tetrahedra — tetrahedra of terror!

Unfortunately, also a very racist story 🙁 I kept trying to give it a pass coz I was enjoying the main plot, but it kept getting worse – there’s a nasty subplot to do with a South American native/Portuguese “breed” on the “wrong side” (i.e. his mother was white). However, in contrast to Meek’s stories I feel that it could be edited to remove the racist attitudes & the racist subplot and at the end you’d have a story where the essential plot was the same, just stripped of the 1930’s unpleasantness. (The science would still mark it out as from that time period, mind you …).

“The World of the Red Sun” Clifford D. Simak

Time travel in the style of H. G. Wells – with a well thought out machine that has believable flaws. Plucky 20th Century men save the world of the far future! Given how thought through the time machine was it was startling that the men of the far future still spoke English. An enjoyable story.


“Tumithak of the Corridors” Charles R. Tanner

Far future Earth, long post-invasion by Venusians & the start of the story of how people won back their planet. The framing story is that this is a reconstruction of “how it must’ve been” told from even further in the future. This is one of the stories that had stuck in my mind from reading this book when I was a teenager and I think I like it just as much as an adult – caveats about 1930s story telling styles still apply, tho, and I can’t exactly call it non-sexist or non-racist. It does actually have a couple of women with speaking parts who have about as much personality as the male secondary characters – but that means pretty much none. No overt racism & even an explicit statement that people come in many sorts, good & bad, regardless of nation or era – but everyone’s white except the savages who live in the dark (who are slate-coloured) which is somewhat problematic. Well thought through consequences of the living arrangements of the people, tho the science/arts divide made me roll my eyes a little. My favourite of this volume.

“The Moon Era” Jack Williamson

Another man in a machine goes on an adventure story – this time the machine is invented by an old wealthy childless man who summons his never met before impoverished nephew and announces that if he takes the trip in the machine he will inherit the fortune. The trip is supposed to be to the Moon & back, and indeed he goes to the Moon but the time he arrives is not the time he left the Earth. The alien he meets is female – has to be for the plot to work, but she’s no plot coupon she has a personality of her own. A melancholy story, which I liked although I didn’t quite buy the ending.



To break up the walls of text I thought I’d start interspersing some posts with photos that I’ve taken – sometimes new, sometimes not (this one was taken in Paris in Sept 2011), sometimes singly, sometimes in batches.

Prehistoric Autopsy; Lost Kingdoms of South America

The last episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was about Lucy – one of the most famous fossils of our ancestors (and the only individual (as opposed to species) I’d actually heard about before this series). She was a member of the species Australopithecus afarensis and lived a little over 3 million years ago. She was discovered in the early 70s, and at 40% complete was one of the most complete specimens of a hominid from that era.

This programme felt like there was a bit more padding than the other two – not quite as much to tell us about, partly because there’re fewer fossils available to figure things out from. But there was still quite a lot 🙂 From the bones that do exist (both Lucy’s and others) they can tell that this species was bipedal & walked upright – even tho they don’t have the foot bones they can see the shape of the knee joints and the pelvis. This is corroborated by data from some preserved footprints, that are presumed to be Australopithecus afarensis because that was the only primate species that’s been found in that area at that time. Experts have analysed the shape of these footprints and compared it to both human and chimpanzee footprints in similar material. The Australopithecus afarensis footprints are much more like the human ones – they have a non-opposable big toe, and the pressure patterns (like deep heel prints) are similar to human ones.

They also showed us the pelvis bones of chimps, humans & Australopithecus afarensis – you can see the difference between the chimp one & the other two really clearly. But the differences between the Homo sapiens one & Australopithecus afarensis one are much subtler. The scientist Roberts was talking to also pointed out that you can see changes in the birth canal – Australopithecus afarensis would’ve found it harder to give birth than a chimpanzee because the canal is not as wide, due to the demands bipedalism puts on the shape. But not as hard as a modern human – the brain size of Australopithecus afarensis is still pretty small, only a little bigger than that of a chimp, so the fit would not be as tight nor would it require quite as much changing of position from the baby on the way out.

Australopithecus afarensis may’ve used tools. This was a pretty controversial piece of evidence – and Roberts & McGavin didn’t agree on how plausible they thought it was. And it was nice to see how that was presented – there wasn’t a feel of some fake monolithic “the opinion of the scientists”, it was presented in a much more true to reality way. Some scientists think this, others aren’t convinced, everyone’s interested in seeing more evidence. Actually the whole series has done well on this front, they took great care to tell you about the caveats and where the evidence was slim. Lots of “we think because of reasons” and less “we know”.

Anyway, back to the tools – there’s an animal bone, found in the same context as a juvenile Australopithecus afarensis, which has two parallel grooves on it. In the grooves are fragments of hard igneous rock (as opposed to the sandstone that was encasing all the bones). This may be evidence that Australopithecus afarensis used sharp rocks to butcher meat (in some crude sense). But it may also have been due to accidental trampling of a dead animal that drove a stone against the bone. Given chimps use tools like twigs, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Australopithecus afarensis did – but really there needs to be more evidence than a single bone.

They also had a segment on how Lucy might’ve communicated – which was probably via facial expressions as well as vocalisations, because pretty much all primates do that. To illustrate this they showed us a little bit about some new research starting on Japanese Macaques, which has the eventual goal of seeing how many different facial expressions they can tell apart (and I think they have hopes of figuring out what they mean, not sure how though).

The model they built looked really good, as all of them have. They said at the end of the programme that the models were going out touring museums round the country, but when I looked it up we’d missed all the dates (because we time-shifted the programme by 3 months). A shame 🙁 Although apparently the exhibition was aimed at kids, so maybe it’d’ve been a bit shallow. There also doesn’t seem to be a tie-in book for the series, another shame – I’d’ve bought it 🙂 I did find another Alice Roberts book on Human Evolution, so if I like the book of hers we have (when I get to it) then I’ll pick that up.

Having finished up Wartime Farm last week we started on a new series – this time something that we’re only time-shifting by a couple of weeks. The series is Lost Kingdoms of South America, which is clearly inspired by the previous BBC series called Lost Kingdoms of Africa. The primary difference between the two series (as well as which continent they’re on) is the presenter – the African one was presented by Gus Casely-Hayford, who is an art historian whose family come from Ghana. The presenter for this current series is Jago Cooper, who is an archaeologist who specialises in South American cultures but not (as far as wikipedia tells me) from South America. So that gives a slightly different tone to the programmes (not better or worse, just a different perspective).

This first episode was about the Chachapoya people of Peru. Who I must confess I’d never heard of before watching it (although it became clear I should’ve at least known the name). A good start – because I’d sort of assumed we were going to get first the Aztecs, then the Incas then perhaps the Mayans, you know all the peoples we’ve all heard of before. Instead we got an intriguing people whose society really wasn’t the same as our expectations for the place & time.

The Chachapoya lived in the north of Peru, in the Andes, from about 400AD until around the time the Europeans arrived on the scene. The name we use is the Incan name for them & it translates as the Cloud People because of their high altitude villages & towns. Cooper interviewed an archaeologist in Lima who said she thought only about 5% of their sites have been properly excavated, if that. So there’s a lot still to find out.

One of the themes of the programme was that when thinking about these people we really need to take our Western preconceptions and throw them away before we can understand them. For instance the first thing we think is “but why did they live so high?” – because that’s the altitude that was best for cultivation of maize & potatoes. They lived where they could grow their food, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. And why did they live somewhere so remote? It wasn’t remote for them – both because the people were more willing to travel further between settlements, and because the rivers and the geography of the Andes at that point combined to funnel trade from the Amazon Basin to the Pacific Coast through the lands of the Chachapoya. So not remote, but on a busy trade route. Cooper showed us some artifacts found in Chachapoya sites that included things like feathers from birds only found in the rain forest in Brazil.

Early in their culture they buried their dead up in caves on mountain cliff-faces. These were astonishing – Cooper needed the help of modern equipment and experienced mountaineers to get to these caves where the bones lay. But the floors of the caves were worn through repeated visits, so this didn’t seem to be a case of burying your dead somewhere out of the way. Later they mummified their dead – and this is why I feel I should’ve heard of them, because I knew there were Peruvian mummies, I just didn’t know which culture made them. Which is poor, really – but now I do 🙂 These mummies weren’t like the Egyptian ones which were buried & left to last out eternity in their tomb. These mummies were carried around from place to place in bags, and sometimes taken out & displayed in some fashion. A very different relationship with the dead.

Another difference in their society from what we might expect is that they don’t appear to have had a hierarchy – the Spanish had referred to this in writing from the time they arrived in South America, but there’s also evidence for it in the archaeology. The villages that’ve been investigated don’t seem to have elite housing – all the housing is the same sort of shape & size. I wasn’t entirely clear how they can tell that the one larger building most villages have is a ceremonial site & not an elite site, but they were clear that this was the case. There are also no signs of elite burials – all the dead that have been found are treated in the same. This is pretty unusual for a human society.

They also don’t seem to’ve been bloodthirsty in the way that the Aztecs & the Incas are – no human sacrifice was mentioned, nor ritual bloodletting. And in another difference from the “canonical” South American civilisation story they were conquered & dispersed by the Inca before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish actually allied with the Chachapoya to fight against the Inca. Although the Europeans did deal the final blows to the Chachapoya way of life – both through converting them to Christianity, and via the diseases they brought with them.

“China: The World’s Oldest Civilisation Revealed” John Makeham (Part 4)

Partition and Conflict: The Period of Division

This is a short chapter, just 18 pages, and probably I should’ve read it right after the last one & done a post about the two together. But then again, it covers another 400 years from about 200AD through to about 600AD. And about half a thousand different names and kingdoms (some exaggeration for effect here 😉 ). So it was a bit confusing.

Orientation dates: Diocletian became Emperor of Rome in 284AD. Constantine became Emperor in 306AD, and called the Council of Nicea in 325AD. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410AD. The Anglo-Saxons migrate into (or invade) Britain over the period between 400AD and 600AD. The Merovingians ruled Francia from 481AD through to 687AD. Muhammed was born around 570AD and Islam was founded in 610AD.

So this 400 year period is actually the equivalent of one of the Ancient Egyptian Intermediate Periods – the country is divided, and ruled over by different kings or emperors in different bits. But there is still a high degree of cultural continuity within the area as a whole and across the time period. I admit I was a bit surprised by the length of this period between unified Chinas – I’d somehow assumed that once it was unified back in 221BC the core pretty much stayed that way except for brief periods thereafter.

I found the writing for this section quite confusing, and even as I’m flicking back over it to write this post I’m sometimes struggling to figure out quite who did what when & what the country afterwards (or before) was called.

The Three Kingdoms

The beginning of the end for the Han was in 189AD when a civil war broke out that would eventually lead to the division of the Empire into three parts (the “Three Kingdoms”). A general called Dong Zhuo entered the capital city, Luoyang, and took charge of the two sons of the recently deceased Emperor. Instead of supporting the new Emperor (the elder son) he replaced him with the younger son who “ruled” for 30 years under the thumb of Dong Zhou and later Cao Cao & his offspring. This line eventually took the title Emperor around 220AD. The kingdom they ruled over was in the north of China and called Wei.

In the south of China there ended up two kingdoms – which I think derive from the “loyal rebels” who originally supported the new Emperor of the Han Dynasty back in 189AD. But I’m not quite sure. In the south east was the kingdom of Wu, ruled over by Shu Quan & descendants (who didn’t claim to be Emperors until 229AD). And in the south west (including modern Sichuan) was the kingdom of Shu Han ruled over by Liu Bei and descendants (Emperors shortly after 220AD) – these guys claimed descent from the Former Han so I think were trying to set themselves up as more legitimate than the others.

This period of Chinese history is apparently often represented in art and storytelling – particularly famous is “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which is a novel by Luo Guanzhong, written around the 14th Century. The book also makes the point that the period in question was culturally rich and splendid, including a poet (Cao Zhi, son of Cao Cao) who is still recognised as one of China’s greatest poets.

The Two Jin Dynasties

Next there was a brief period of unity before it all dissolved into chaos again. Sima Yi murdered Cao Shuang in 249AD and took over the kingdom of Wei. His grandson succeeded in conquering Shu Han in 266AD and set himself up as the Emperor of a new Dynasty – the Jin. He conquered the Wu in 280AD and all looked set for a newly unified China to continue in serenity.

Unfortunately his son & heir was mentally incompetant (that’s exactly what the book said – no details as to what they meant though) and when he came to the throne in 290AD the whole thing started to collapse. Infighting between consort families eventually lead to the War of the Eight Princes and the Jin Dynasty lost control of the north of China in 316AD. That’s the end of the Western Jin.

The Eastern Jin keep control of the south of China for another hundred years. It didn’t sound like it was a particularly peaceful or settled period – lots of refugees from the north causing friction with local warlords. And eventually the Jin ruler actually hands over power to the start of the Liu Song Dynasty out of a feeling that the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Jin.

As an aside – I’m wondering if the naming of Dynasties as Western then Eastern is linked in Chinese somehow to Former/Later or Early/Late. Linguistically I mean. This particular pair seem to have no connection to a west->east movement of power (unlike, say, the Zhou much earlier whose capital did shift over time).

Chicken Headed Ewers
This is the time of the chicken headed ewers!

The Sixteen Kingdoms

While the Eastern Jin were ruling the south the north was split into several different kingdoms which rose & fell during the 4th & 5th Centuries. To add to any confusion one might have about this period of Chinese history they have also mostly taken names from earlier Chinese kingdoms of the Warring States period – like Zhao or Qin. A way of legitimising themselves, perhaps? Which might be particularly important for these kingdoms because they were mostly ruled by members of the Five Barbarian Peoples – who were descended from the peoples to the north of China.

These peoples were not actually barbarians, the word is just the epithet used by the Chinese to describe the non-Chinese (and therefore perceived as uncivilised) that neighboured them. And despite this period sometimes being called “The Barbarian Invasions” they mostly didn’t invade either. They’d often been co-inhabiting the northern region of the empire alongside the “native” Chinese, and becoming assimilated into their culture. The exception is one of the last of the groups to appear on the scene – these are the Särbi, and they were nomadic herders who are the ancestors of the Mongols. A branch of these (the Tagbatch) would eventually re-unite northern China around the end of the 4th Century.

The Southern and Northern Dynasties

We’re now entering the last hundred years of this period between unified Chinas. In the south between 420AD & 581AD there are a series of short-lived dynasties starting with the Liu Song who were handed power by the last of the Jin. Each seems to come to power in a military coup then not long out-last their founder. In the north the Tagbatch rule the whole area for quite some time first from a northern city called Pingcheng, then moving south. Then a civil war breaks out around 525AD – this war destroys the capital city Luoyang. Eventually the Sui dynasty rise up from the Wei valley area and re-unite northern China before setting their sights on the conquest of the south.

Again the book makes the point that despite the political turmoil this is a time of growth and cultural achievement. New maritime traderoutes between the Eastern Jin in the south of China & Japan, South-East Asia and India lead to great economic growth and the rise of what might be called the middle class (my phrasing, not the book’s) – wealthy merchants and tradespeople, who didn’t have the political power or social status of the aristocrats but certainly were a large part of keeping the country solvent. Poetry became cemented as one of the central parts of Chinese culture during this time – this is when it became expected that an upper class gentleman would be able to write poetry as a matter of course. Mentioned in passing a couple of times was that Buddhism and Daoism started to spread to a degree to rival Confucianism, I’d’ve liked more discussion of this but perhaps it will be revisited later in the book.

Tangents to follow up on: The various peoples to the north of China who form the Sixteen Kingdoms, what their history is before & after this time.

Whew. I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about what was covered so briskly in the book. But on the plus side, I think I’ve got it put into some order in my head now, which is after all the purpose of writing an essay about it 🙂

In Our Time: The Borgias

The Borgias have a bit of a reputation – poisoning, murder, incest & all sorts of bad behaviour. And particularly shocking in a family that includes two Popes! The experts who discussed this on In Our Time were Evelyn Welch (Queen Mary, University of London), Catherine Fletcher (University of Sheffield) and Christine Shaw (Swansea University).

The programme started with a brief run-down of the salacious details of the “Black Legend” (much as I did just now, but they did it with a quote). Then they moved on to set the Borgia family in context with a description of Italy in the fifteenth century – unlike today it wasn’t a single unified state, instead there were several different states on the peninsula. Some were city states ruled by aristocracy, some were republican city states, other areas were kingdoms (like the Kingdom of Naples), and there were also the papacy. The political interactions of all these various states, and of the families that ruled them were complex and sometimes the rivalries were so bitter that states would rather invite in foreigners than be ruled by a neighbouring state. The papacy had only relatively recently returned to Italy & to Rome, and so was in the process of establishing itself (in temporal terms) in the network of relationships. The Pope held a lot of lands within Italy, including the Kingdom of Naples.

The Borgias enter the story with Alphonso Borgia who came with the King of Aragon when he conquered Naples, as a secretary & lawyer. He was then made a Cardinal, and became Pope as a compromise candidate when there was stalemate between the two leading candidates. Once he became Pope he did the traditional papal thing of making a nephew or two into Cardinals. They were saying on the programme that this nepotism (the word is derived from the Italian for nephew) was fairly standard – that there were really two sorts of Cardinals, those that were respected theologians or churchmen, and those that were there to be part of the government for the Pope’s temporal domains. And promoting your own family to these positions would give you some men on whose loyalty you could count.

So Rodrigo Borgia is one of these new Cardinals and he stayed a Cardinal under several popes for thirty-something years, gaining experience and power as he did so. The experts were saying that he was a very politically savvy man. He was elected as Pope in 1492 and took the name Pope Alexander VI – he’s the (in)famous Borgia Pope. Here’s where in the programme we had the first debunking of a popular legend – he is generally said to have bribed his way to the papacy, but the experts were keen to point out that bribery isn’t quite the right way to describe it. Yes, his various bishoprics were handed out to various Cardinals etc after he became Pope but this was the standard way that things were done. And obviously people who were on good terms with him would be more likely to get given these, but it wasn’t that he systematically went out to gain votes by promising people rewards. Any of the candidates for the papacy would’ve given out their bishoprics to allies after they got the office.

Rodrigo had several children, eight I think they said, and particularly doted on the eldest four (who all had the same mother). These included Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia who are the other main subjects of the salacious legends. They said on the programme that it wasn’t particularly shocking that a Pope had children – but he did raise eyebrows by actually having children whilst he was Pope and by legitimising his children.

They talked about how the generally politically astute Rodrigo had a blindspot when it came to his children. He was trying to ensure the survival of his dynasty after his death and granted Cesare a lot of lands that had belonged to the Pope, which unsurprisingly didn’t particularly go down well. Rodrigo was effectively trying to sweep aside all of the delicate alliances & networks of relationships that existed in Italy and to install his son in a fiefdom of his own. He also once left Lucrezia to handle the papal correspondence whilst he was away from Rome – shocking because women weren’t even supposed to be in the Vatican, let alone be in a position of responsibility. This helped fuel rumours of indecent relations between father & daughter.

When they came to discuss the rumours and legends they were fairly unanimous that most of it was made up by enemies of the Borgias either at the time or after one of Rodrigo’s main rivals had succeeded him as Pope. There probably was one orgy, but there is no evidence of poisoning or of incest. The incest rumours in particular are probably due to someone who would have a distinct bias against the Borgias – Lucrezia’s first husband. At the time the rumours start Rodrigo is trying engineer his daughter’s divorce (because he wants an alliance with someone more useful), and is trying to get the chap to sign off on an annulment on the grounds that he was incapable of consumating the marriage. Which the soon-to-be-ex-husband isn’t particularly happy about, so he’s spreading rumours about how rather than him being impotent it’s more that Rodrigo wants Lucrezia for himself.

However it is likely that the talk of murders was true – some of them at least. But this is not confined to the Borgia family, and it’s worth remembering that not only were the politics of the time fairly cut-throat in general but also the whole period is a time of war. The King of France is marching his armies through Italy (at, I think, the request of some states that are hoping he’ll back them against other states – that whole thing where the internal rivalries are stronger than the external). There’s definitely evidence that Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered on the orders of the Borgia. And perhaps one of the Borgia sons was murdered by Cesare – but there are several other candidates for his murderer. However, Shaw made the point that the Borgias seem to’ve been particularly feared as a family that you shouldn’t cross, and even Rodrigo seems to’ve thought that Cesare overreacted when he felt he’d been insulted. So they certainly weren’t a nice family.

They talked a bit about the later lives of Cesare & Lucrezia – Cesare basically declined from power & ended up dying in some minor conflict in Navarre. Lucrezia died in childbirth at the age of 39, and at that point had a reputation for piety & good business sense – not what you’d think if you believed the stories told about her now.

So the take home message was that the Black Legend of all the evil doings of the Borgias was pretty much propaganda. They weren’t nice people by any means, but they weren’t unusual for a ruling family of the time.


Welcome to the new home of the posts I’ve been putting on livejournal! 🙂 I’ve copied across the last few months worth of posts (but not the comments), so it should look a little familiar.

I decided to migrate it across to my own site partly because I’m beginning to think I’ve got posts I might miss if LJ were to vanish. And partly because it was an excuse to play around with a new website design & some new software 🙂

Hopefully I have most of the wrinkles ironed out – if you spot a broken link or visual infelicity please do let me know! I’ve got it set up so you don’t have to register an account to comment, but if you don’t then your comment gets stuck in moderation till I deal with it so don’t be surprised if it takes a little while.

Prehistoric Autopsy; Wartime Farm

The second episode of Prehistoric Autopsy was all about Homo erectus, and they were building a model of Nariokotome Boy. This is a 1.5 million year old near complete Homo erectus skeleton & the most complete one ever found. They started off with context, again – Homo erectus only died out relatively recently, but was around for 2 million years, which is the longest of any human species. It’s also one of the first hominids that can be thought of as human, and we and all the other ones that were around in the recent (geologically speaking) past are descended from them. They also lived outside Africa, and were the first hominids to do so.

Homo erectus co-existed with several different hominid species over time – they talked in detail about one, Paranthropus boisei. The skull they showed had a massive jaw, a skull ridge and very flared cheekbones to fit the chewing muscles behind. A diet of particularly solid things seems plausible, like nuts and seeds. As well as that sort of food there’s evidence of wear from grasses on their teeth.

They showed us research into the climate over the time period – I loved this bit, there’s just something so neat about being able to find out what the world was like so long ago with such a simple concept. They do it using samples taken of the sediment on the ocean floor. It’s laid down layer upon layer over time, and you can look at things like the sort of mud it is and the sorts of plant seeds/pollen you find in it to build up an idea of what the weather and landscape was like on nearby continents. We got shown a particular example of a core where you could see a colour change in the mud from top (~5000 years ago) to bottom (~10,000 years ago), and told us that the changes correspond to a change in the nearby climate (East Africa, if I remember right) from wetter to more dry. Over the 2 million years that Homo erectus existed the climate seems to’ve undergone lots of swings between hotter & colder or wetter & dryer conditions and they speculate that why Homo erectus survived and the other hominids didn’t is that Homo erectus was more adaptable.

And that they were more adaptable because of their bigger brains and because of the different way they interacted with the environment around them. There’s evidence that Homo erectus used fire, and they cooked their food (at least at the end of the time period, I wasn’t clear if there was no evidence from earlier on or if they hadn’t done the analysis (yet)). Their tools are more sophisticated than earlier hominid tools – instead of just breaking rocks for a sharp edge their tools are carefully shaped and show evidence of being planned and involving skill to make. So Homo erectus seems to’ve had the cognitive ability to shape the environment to suit themselves, rather than put up with the environment they find themselves in. There’s also evidence that they took care of older members of their groups – a skull has been found where the individual lost their teeth a few years before death, and quite clearly wouldn’t’ve survived without help.

Because of the model building the programme also spent some time discussing the probable physique of Nariokotome Boy. Homo erectus show many adaptions for running, and were probably lean and hairless (to the extent that modern humans are hairless, I mean). Because of the lack of hair they’d’ve had dark skins to protect themselves from the UV of the African sun – and this limited their spread north, they don’t seem to’ve got the low melanin mutation that permitted us to live in more northern climates. Also in this section they showed us evidence that Homo erectus may’ve suffered from tuberculosis, which is astonishing – it is a disease that we get from cattle originally, and was assumed to’ve become a human disease only more recently when modern humans started living in close proximity to cattle because they’d become herders. The marks and signs on the Homo erectus skull they were looking at (not Nariokotome Boy, another one) were very similar to the ones on a modern human who’d died of TB, so seemed convincing evidence. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions.

We also watched the last episode of Wartime Farm, which unsurprisingly covered 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war, as well as wrapping up with a “what we’ve learnt” segment. So they were mostly concentrating on the fact that once the war was won, that didn’t mean life returned to how it had been pre-war – not only did people still need fed, but in some ways the situation was even more precarious because Britain was close to bankrupt and couldn’t afford to import food yet the fields were becoming less fertile due to a lack of manure and from being over-farmed. They also talked about the celebrations that people had (and the thing they dramatised was a firework elephant, which was awesome 😀 ). And they harvested the wheat crop they’d spent the year growing, using a brand new combine harvester (well, 70 year old one …).

This was a good series, although I’ve struggled to write more than a paragraph per episode. I’m not quite sure why, but I guess partly because there was a lot of “look at how we did things” which isn’t easy to transform into text. I did feel that they spread it all too thin, perhaps they couldn’t do it half the number of episodes, but I do think they could’ve cut it down a bit. The format of half-dramatising, half-telling still feels like it shouldn’t’ve worked, but they pulled it off very well.