August 2014 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 (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)



“Hell and Earth” Elizabeth Bear. Fourth book in the Promethean Age series, part of Read All the Fiction. Kept.

Total: 1


Literature of the English Country House. A Future Learn course covering 17th, 18th & 19th Century literature of English country houses.

Total: 1


Discovering Tutankhamun – exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.

Total: 1


Butterflied Banana.

Total: 1


Spartacus – In Our Time episode about the gladiator Spartacus who led a revolt against Rome in the 1st Century BC.

Strabo’s Geographica – In Our Time episode about Strabo’s Geographica, a book written in the late BCs/early ADs about the “known world” of the Romans.

Total: 2


August EEG Meeting – just a few notes about the members talks and book auction.

“The Coffins of the Senior Lector Priest Sesenebenef: A Middle Kingdom Book of the Dead?” Harco Willems – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology for 2014, this year given by Harco Willems about the texts on a particular Middle Kingdom coffin.

Total: 2



Doctor Who: Deep Breath.

Total: 1


Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

Do We Really Need the Moon? – a delightful programme presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock about the moon. She talked about the origin of the moon, what it was like in the past, what it will be like in the future. And a lot about how it has shaped the earth and life on earth. Possibly she credited the moon with a bit too much influence sometimes, but her enthusiasm carried the programme along.

Dolphins – Spy in the Pod – slightly disappointing documentary series about dolphins.

Lost Land of the Tiger – three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Melyvn Bragg’s Radical Lives – two part series consisting of two biographies of notable English radicals.

Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century – Suzy Klein talking about 18th Century British music and how it impacted and was impacted by the history of the time.

The Search for Life: The Drake Equation – one off programme about the possibility that there is life on other planets, looking at each of the factors of the Drake equation in turn to see what we now know about the probabilities. I didn’t always agree with what was being said (for instance I’m not particularly convinced the photosynthesis is as dead certain to develop as they were saying, it’s only evolved once on earth after all). It was also marred somewhat by the visual style which was clearly done by someone who thought the subject of the programme was dull so needed to be jazzed up with shaky cams. Overall, good but not as good as it could’ve been.

Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Tales from the Royal Wardrobe – one-off programme presented by Lucy Worsley about the clothes of the English & British monarchs since Tudor times.

Travels with Vasari – Andrew Graham Dixon goes round Italy following the footsteps of Vasari who wrote one of the first art history books in the late Renaissance.

Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Total: 12


A Visit to Leicester, June 27-28th 2014 – my wander around Leicester while J was in a study day, includes the cathedral, the Guildhall and a couple of museums.

Total: 1

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Doctor Who is back! And because it’s a new Doctor the episode was packed full of other characters we already know, to give a bit of continuity. As well as a time and place we’ve seen before.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

So I’ll get the nitpicking over and done with first. I’ve never been fond of the manic/messed-up Doctor of the immediate post-regen episodes. I do understand that it makes a certain amount of sense (changing one’s body and personality all at once seems likely to be reasonably traumatic, and anyway it always happens at times of stress for the Doctor) but I find it rather tedious to watch. I also thought that Clara is one of the few (new Who) companions who’d be able to cope fine with the regeneration – even if she doesn’t remember all the lives she had where she saved the Doctor during his regenerations she must surely remember that she went into the timeline to save all the previous hims. So I didn’t really buy her surprise and trauma over the whole thing. Also – the Matt Smith cameo, given his regeneration came as a surprise I’m not quite sure how come he could ring her a few hundred years before it happened (remember he got old on Trenzalor).

OK, nitpicking done.

I liked the various sets of mirrors the episode set up – some were rather unsubtle, some more so. The Doctor sleep translating the dinosaur for instance, where it’s clear how much he identifies with the dinosaur. But that also parallels the clockwork cyborg, who’s also alone and out of his time and struggling to cope. And Madame Vastra, for that matter. And all of them have their own ways of dealing with that – Vastra has Jenny and her detective stuff, the Doctor has his companions and his version of detective stuff, the cyborg is looking for Paradise (which is a less useful coping device) and the dinosaur hasn’t quite figured it out yet (and never gets a chance to, poor dino).

Concealment, masks, facades, disguises and seeing things truly were the major theme of the episode, of course, whether in the plot or the character development. Quite impressive how they tied everything into that from the small stuff to the obvious big things (like the Doctor’s new body).

References galore, both in and out universe. The most obvious being the recurrent theme of Vastra as Sherlock Holmes and Jenny as Watson, or them both as the Avengers. With, obviously, the differences that being a lizard makes. And callbacks to previous Doctor Who episodes – notably Girl in the Fireplace, and I wish I could remember how that ended and where the ship ended up. Was it the Doctor’s fault the ship was in Victorian London? And was landing in Glasgow at the end another call back – to the end of Sarah Jane’s run.

I guess we’ve seen the hook for the season arc – who is making sure Clara & the Doctor meet up? Presumably the sinister Mary Poppins-esque figure who welcomes the cyborg to “Paradise” and introduces herself as the Doctor’s girlfriend. Which of course is another parallel in reverse, because we’ve just finished the “I’m not your boyfriend” scene (and a big yay! to that as I was getting a bit fed up of the Doctor-picks-up-cute-girl-and-flirts trope). J and I were wondering if this could be Tasha Lem, although in the Christmas episode she seemed more on the Doctor’s side than the woman did in “Paradise”.

Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century

There seems to be something of a tendency for historical documentaries (about Britain) to announce that some aspect of the era under discussion is “the foundation of the modern world”. In Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century Suzy Klein’s thesis was that the musical world of 18th Century Britain was the start of the music and entertainment business as we know it today. Even after watching the series I felt that was perhaps a bit of a grandiose claim, in that I suspect an in depth look at the musical world of the 17th or 19th Centuries would be able to make similar claims about those centuries. However, scepticism about this era as sole origin story aside, they were good programmes.

The three programmes dealt, roughly speaking, with the three words in the subtitle in order. In Episode 1 Klein introduced us to the musical styles of the era – Handel of course featured prominently throughout the series. Music in the 18th Century was part and parcel of forming the new British identity. Songs like the real (God Save the King) and unofficial (Rule Britannia!) national anthems come from the 18th Century, and were originally much more politically nuanced than their current status as “general patriotic songs”. God Save the King is a song that says you’re on the Hanoverian side in the Jacobite rebellions; Rule Britannia! makes you a part of Frederick Prince of Wales’s side of his political (and personal) disputes with his father George II.

Episode 2 (thus Mischief) was about music’s place in the growing pleasure-seeking culture of 18th Century Britain. Times were good, the money was rolling in from the Empire, people were getting richer and traditionally upper-class entertainments – like musical performances – were becoming accessible to lower down the social scale as well. This is an era of the commercialisation of music and musical performance: concerts were even put on for paying audiences! And it was an era of the super-star performer and composer. Handel and Mozart being only two of the big name composers who worked in London during the 18th Century. Individual opera singers could become famous as much for their extravagance and their behaviour as for their singing voices (and there’s definitely shades of modern celebrity culture in that!).

Episode 3 then took us back to the other side of music – its spiritual power. Klein talked about the Methodists and their invention (re-invention?) of British hymn singing, so many tunes or words for hymns come straight from Charles Wesley. The power of songs and singing to in effect remake the world into a better one wasn’t confined to the church. Songs were important in the abolition movement. I’d also not realised that the song Amazing Grace dates back to this era.

I enjoyed this series, I thought the music of the era was an interesting lens to use to look at the history and the social changes that happened during the 18th Century.

Due to being away & also Diablo III arriving this last week we only watched one other programme:

Episode 3 of Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

A Visit to Leicester, June 27-28th 2014

Towards the end of June J and I spent a day and a bit in Leicester. We headed across on the Friday evening, arriving with enough time for a leisurely dinner but not really time to do anything else. On the Saturday J was busy for the whole of the day with a study day about Egyptian mummies, held in the New Walk Museum, so I visited a few of the sights on my own. And took photos! The whole album is on flickr and several of them are in this post. Click the images to go to flickr for a larger view.

New Walk

The “New Walk” is a 200 year old pedestrian street which they seem very proud of – and it is rather pleasant to walk along and photograph!

New WalkNew WalkNew WalkNew WalkNew WalkJohn Biggs Statue

I was amused by the Dominicans and their glossing over of that whole little Reformation thing in their claim to’ve been here continuously since 1247 … I mean, perhaps there were Dominicans continuously through the years it was illegal to be Catholic, but it feels more likely that they missed a year or two here & there 😉 The statue at the end of the walk, near the council offices, was of John Biggs – the name meant nothing to me, so I’ve had a look online and I’m only slightly the wiser. He was MP for Leicester in the 19th Century, and it appears he was a radical and a Non-conformist. But other than that I didn’t find much about him (with a rather cursory search – but there’s no wikipedia page for him, for instance).

Leicester Cathedral

The cathedral was in somewhat of a state of disarray when I visited – the outside area was being refurbished as part of the general facelift of the surrounding streets to accompany the new Richard III Visitor Centre (I managed to visit a month before that opened). And inside was being set up for the ordination of priests that afternoon, so there were chairs and labels and so on everywhere and people bustling about.

Leicester CathedralLeicester Cathedral

The inside of the cathedral felt in some ways quite Victorian or early 20th Century – the stained glass and the internal decor, I mean. But there are bits that are considerably older – according to the leaflet I picked up the nave is mostly 13th Century (bits early, bits late). And there are other parts that are 15th Century.

Leicester CathedralLeicester Cathedral

The church is dedicated to St. Martin, so one window shows the basic story of the saint (meets a beggar who is actually Christ, gives him part of his cloak).

Leicester CathedralLeicester CathedralLeicester CathedralLeicester Cathedral

There are some rather old memorials – including some from the Civil War era. I was also rather amused by the more modern sign up in the side chapel dedicated to St Katharine – it contains memorials to the Herrick family, and was “made fit for divine service” by members of the family from the US in 1929. Which does make one wonder what state it was in before!

Leicester CathedralLeicester CathedralLeicester CathedralLeicester Cathedral

Richard III

Obviously everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last couple of years knows that Richard III’s body was discovered by an archaeological excavation of a council car park in Leicester in 2012. I managed to visit Leicester at precisely the wrong time to see any of the exhibits relating to that! I was visiting a month before the posh new visitor centre was opened, and the temporary exhibition in the Guildhall was closed (presumably the stuff was being properly set up in the new exhibition space). All that was on offer was a statue outside the cathedral, a memorial stone inside and the reconstruction of his face in the Guildhall.

Richard IIIRichard IIIRichard IIILeicester Cathedral

The Guildhall

Leicester Guildhall

The earliest bits of the Guildhall in Leicester date back to the late 14th Century, with most of it dating to the 15th Century. It used to be the place where the City Corporation met, and where the Mayor and the Town Recorder did their thing. It was also a place where theatrical performances were held during the 17th Century – and quite possibly Shakespeare performed there. Records definitely do show that a company he was part of performed there – the Earl of Leicester’s Men. And it’s also known that Richard Burbage (leading man for whom many of Shakespeare’s central parts were written, including Hamlet) performed there. So it seems reasonable to assume that Shakespeare was involved somewhere along the line. These days I think it’s just a museum, although I believe you can still get married there if you so wish.

Leicester GuildhallLeicester GuildhallLeicester Guildhall

All in all it fitted in rather well with the various Future Learn courses I’ve done this year – two Shakespeare ones, an English Literature one (which included some Shakespeare) and a history course on 15th Century England (run by Leicester Uni, using Richard III as the jumping off point). So I spent a while looking around and taking photos. I particularly liked the coats of arms of various of the monarchs over the years (mostly in the Mayor’s Parlour). Upstairs they also had a room kitted out as it would’ve been for the Town Recorder to lodge there whilst doing his duties – quite bare bones really. The rest of the upstairs is a library (in the sense of “room of books” not in the sense of “lending library”).

Leicester GuildhallLeicester GuildhallLeicester GuildhallLeicester GuildhallLeicester GuildhallLeicester Guildhall

Jewry Wall and Jewry Wall Museum

I had a quick look around online before we went to Leicester to see what there was to see, and saw that one of the tourist attractions was the Jewry Wall Museum next to the Jewry Wall. And was much puzzled by the name – I didn’t have strong associations between Leicester and Jews, but of course that could just be my ignorance. As it turns out, the name is nothing to do with the Jews. It’s a corruption of Jury Wall, and only began to be spelt that way in the 19th Century. And the wall itself is the only remaining section standing of the old Roman baths (which have since been excavated). For centuries after the Romans left it was used by the townsfolk as the landmark by which the town jurats (or elders) met, hence the name that developed. Or so said the signs in the Jewry Wall Museum – looking it up on wikipedia just now to double check it seems there’s some doubt about that (or wikipedia would like there to be, always hard to tell).

Roman BathsRoman Baths

The Jewry Wall Museum houses material that’s related to Leicester’s past – mostly from Roman to Medieval times. It’s a curious mix of old-fashioned and very new – I believe it’s been kept open by volunteers and donations, so not much chance for systematic modernisation. It’s also quite a small museum. I rather liked it, there were several interesting items and they also devoted a reasonable amount of space to talking about archaeological methods and how they’ve developed over the centuries since the Enlightenment. I was particularly impressed with their selection of Roman wall paintings, all found locally.

Jewry Wall MuseumJewry Wall MuseumJewry Wall MuseumJewry Wall MuseumJewry Wall MuseumJewry Wall Museum

New Walk Museum

My final museum of the day was the New Walk Museum. I was actually getting a bit museumed out by this stage – but I only had about an hour to kill before J was done with his study day, and he was in this museum so it seemed the sensible place to hang out and wait for him. I walked round most of the museum but didn’t take that many pictures. I’m not quite sure what the thematic statement for this museum was as it contained a pretty diverse mixture of things. There was an Egyptian collection, a set of dinosaur (+ friends) bones, a room aimed at children themed around sight and colour vision, a gallery of Picasso ceramics, a gallery about naturalists, a room with a Sikh fortress turban in, a room with a variety of objects organised by what they were made of and how they were made plus an art gallery which had a children’s play area in the middle of it. The overall impression was this was a space full of “stuff we have at hand”!

New Walk MuseumNew Walk MuseumNew Walk MuseumNew Walk MuseumNew Walk MuseumNew Walk MuseumNew Walk Museum

All in all a good day out, lots of interesting stuff seen. I do want to go back at some point to see whatever they’ve done with the new Visitor Centre for Richard III (and perhaps in a bit they’ll’ve finished digging up all the streets in the city centre which does rather spoil the look of the place as you wander about!).

“Hell and Earth” Elizabeth Bear

Hell and Earth is the second half of the story begun in Ink and Steel (post). I have unfortunately left this too long between reading and writing up (3 weeks? maybe more) so this will be briefer notes than originally intended.

This pair of books are very much two halves of a larger story – although there’s some degree of resolution at the end of Ink and Steel (and it’s not a cliff hanger), most of the plotlines don’t come to fruition until this book. But this half of the story feels more like Kit Marlowe’s story (where the first half was more Will Shakespeare’s or perhaps more balanced between the two). Over the course of Ink and Steel Bear set up her world where the land of mortals (England as ruled by Elizabeth I) is linked to the court of the Daoine Sidhe (as ruled by the Mebd). Now Elizabeth is dying, as all mortals inevitably must, which threatens the Fae due to this linkage as well as potentially plunging the mortal world into the chaos of a succession crisis. But that’s almost the B-plot, the main thrust of the story is Kit discovering what was done to him in his youth that’s left him with PTSD and symbols carved into his flesh. It wasn’t just petty sadism on the part of his tormentor, but is another way in which Kit is a tool that has been shaped to fit a long term plan to alter the stories that shape the world.

Mortality is a thread that runs through the whole book – it even opens with the discovery of Edmund Spenser dead in his home. But it’s not just mortality that keeps cropping up it’s also the aftermath and the grieving, and how the people left behind cope. Not just Elizabeth and whether & how the country and the Fae are going to survive the turmoil of her passing away. But also on a more intimate level – Will is dying, slowly but surely, as all mortals will. But Kit is not entirely mortal any more and beginning to live with the realisation that all that he loved in the mortal realm will inevitably fade away.

As with Ink and Steel (and Bear’s books in general) one of the things I like best about this world she has created is the sense of reality, even tho the plot and premise are fantastical. The characters react plausibly to the situation(s) they’re in, I have a strong sense of personality for them all. Even if I might not predict what’s going to happen next it doesn’t feel forced, rather grows organically out of the characters & their interactions.

I wish I’d either taken a few notes or written this up sooner, as I’m sure I had more to say. It’s a series that continues to feel like it would reward paying close attention and taking notes, whilst still being a lot of fun to read on a surface level. There’s another book in the series just recently come out, which I’ve not picked up a copy of yet – I need to rectify this soon! 🙂

Travels with Vasari; Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives

Travels with Vasari is a two-part documentary we’ve had on the PVR for the last 4 years or thereabouts. It’s presented by Andrew Graham Dixon and is about Vasari, and Renaissance Italy. Vasari was an artist in Italy in the 16th Century but nowadays he is much more famous for the book he wrote called “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. Dixon explained that this is the first work of art criticism and art history as we know those subjects today, and that Vasari can be credited with inventing them. The two programmes had a little bit of Dixon talking about Vasari himself (his life, some of his art) but mostly it was a tour round Italy looking at examples of the works that Vasari wrote about. The book was organised as a sort of progression throughout the Renaissance towards what Vasari thought was its crowning glory – the paintings of Michaelangelo. As his subject was the lives of the artists he obviously provided some biographical details for each one as well as discussing their art – but in many cases he stretched the truth or invented things out of whole cloth (for instance casting one artist as a murderer, yet investigative work in the 20th Century showed that said artist died 4 years before his putative victim …).

A good series, I’m not sure why we left it so long before watching it. It also reminded me that somewhere I have a book covering the broad sweep of the history of art via a series of example paintings, and while at one point I was going through it at a rate of a painting a day, I don’t think I ever finished. Must dig that back out again.

Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives was two biographical programmes about two of the great British radicals. Bragg started the first programme by reminding us that while Britain has never had a successful revolution, and it’s flirtation with being a republic ended by inviting the monarch back, nonetheless there have been some notable radical thinkers born in our country. The first programme looked at the life of John Ball – a name that isn’t necessarily familiar to everyone, but I think most people will’ve heard the phrase “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” which is one of Ball’s. John Ball lived during the 14th Century and was instrumental in leading what is now known as the Peasants Revolt. The subject of the second programme was Thomas Paine, an 18th Century radical who was born in England but participated in the American War of Independence (on the American side) and the French Revolution. He wrote several influential pamphlets – like “Common Sense” which was influential in the decision of the fledgling US to declare independence, and “Rights of Man” which was in part a defence of the French Revolution.

Bragg told the stories of these two men as separate tales, but linked them together and to William Tyndale (who he’s previously made a programme about) by the way that their great influence was derived from their use of English to communicate their ideas. And not just English (which was radical enough in Ball’s time all on its own) but plain English that was understandable by everyone rather than just some intellectual elite.

Interesting programmes about two men I didn’t actually know much about beyond their names.

Other TV we watched last week:

Episode 2 of Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century – Suzy Klein talking about 18th Century British music and how it impacted and was impacted by the history of the time.

Episode 2 of Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Episode 2 of Lost Land of the Tiger – three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Episode 1 of Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

The Search for Life: The Drake Equation – one off programme about the possibility that there is life on other planets, looking at each of the factors of the Drake equation in turn to see what we now know about the probabilities. I didn’t always agree with what was being said (for instance I’m not particularly convinced the photosynthesis is as dead certain to develop as they were saying, it’s only evolved once on earth after all). It was also marred somewhat by the visual style which was clearly done by someone who thought the subject of the programme was dull so needed to be jazzed up with shaky cams. Overall, good but not as good as it could’ve been.

Do We Really Need the Moon? – a delightful programme presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock about the moon. She talked about the origin of the moon, what it was like in the past, what it will be like in the future. And a lot about how it has shaped the earth and life on earth. Possibly she credited the moon with a bit too much influence sometimes, but her enthusiasm carried the programme along.

In Our Time: Spartacus

Spartacus was not just the subject of a famous film, but also a real life gladiator in the 1st Century BC who successfully escaped and orchestrated a slave rebellion in Italy. He had some success for a couple of years before being killed by Crassus, and his rebellion was put down. Talking about it on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Maria Wyke (University College, London) and Theresa Urbainczyk (University College, Dublin).

The programme began by putting the era in context. The 1st Century BC is a time when Rome has conquered large swathes of the the land around the Mediterranean, but has not yet become an Empire. It is still running this territory using the political mechanisms and infrastructure of the city state it used to be. The line between politicians and generals is blurry, and both roles are filled by the same people – to be a general you need to be elected to public office. The republic runs on slavery, there are large numbers of slaves throughout Roman ruled Italy. This segment of the programme overturned an idea I’d acquired (I don’t know where from) that the more recent slavery in the US was somehow qualitatively different from slavery in the classical world. That slavery in the classical world was more along the lines of being unable to leave your job, rather than being penned in at night and treated as if you weren’t really human. But Beard explained that whilst house slaves might not have such a bad life, the majority of the slaves were agricultural slaves. And Italy was covered with plantations – large farms each owned by a family who kept a large number of slaves to work the land, and treated them poorly and kept them penned in under guard when they weren’t working.

So it’s not that surprising that slave revolts were a thing that happened in this time period. Spartacus may’ve lead the most famous one but it was neither the first nor the most successful. There had been a couple of large scale revolts during the century preceding Spartacus’s revolt. Both of these lasted for 5-10 years before being put down, and in one of them the former slaves took over Sicily and set up their own independent country (state? community? I’m not sure of the right word here). It wasn’t always just slaves that got involved, either – disaffected free people from the various Italian city states that had been subsumed into the Roman Republic also rallied to these rebellions.

What’s known of Spartacus’s early life is pretty slim, he was originally from Thrace in what is now the Balkans. He was captured, along with his wife, and sold into slavery. There is some speculation that he may’ve been in the Roman army for a while (before capture? after capture? I’m not sure) due to his later success as a general. He definitely ends up as a gladiator in a training school in Capua by 73BC, and whilst being a gladiator was often a punishment there’s no evidence it was for any particular reason perhaps increasing his sense of injustice. Spartacus along with 70 or so of his fellow trainees successfully escaped from this gladiatorial school. As Beard said, escaping was the easy bit – keeping highly trained fighting men locked in once they decided to get out was almost certain to be beyond the resources of the school. There is one source that says the men escaped using kitchen implements as weapons, before finding a cache of gladiatorial weapons after they’d got out.

Once out the gladiators made for the slopes of Vesuvius (which was not actively volcanic at the time) trying to evade the Roman soldiers who were now hunting them. The sources say that the gladiators and others led by Spartacus set up camp in an area surrounded by steep cliffs, with only one narrow path out – and so the Romans set up camp at the end of the path and planned to starve them out. But Spartacus displayed the military ability he was to become famous for, and organised the men to make ropes from the abundant vines in the region they were camping. They then abseiled down, snuck round to the Roman camp and took them by surprise. After this they were armed with army grade weapons, made for practicality, rather than gladiatorial weapons (made as much for show as use).

After this quite a lot is known about what the force did and where they did it, but nothing about motivation. So it’s known that many people joined this revolt over the two years it lasted, both slaves and free people as I mentioned above, and by the end there were about 10,000 people involved. It’s also known that early on the group split more than once with a Spartacus led force going one way and a force led by someone else going the other way. Generally what happened there was that Spartacus won his battles, the other leaders weren’t so successful. But what we don’t know is why this happened – arguments over leadership? disagreements about where to go? attempts to spread themselves out to make better use of available resources?

Spartacus led his force up to the north of Italy to the alps, but once there didn’t cross and instead led his army back down through Italy to the south of the country. Some people speculate that this was because he changed his mind – initially they say he intended just to go home, but then he decided to try and take down Rome (whether to replace it, or to abolish slavery or some other reason). But the experts on this programme seemed to think it was much more likely that if his original intent had been to go home he’d’ve gone across to the east coast of Italy and got on a boat for Thrace as quickly as possible. Instead they speculate that the movement up and down the length of Italy was partly to keep the army fed – they were basically scavengers and keeping a large force fed off the land (even with help from sympathetic locals) would mean they would need to keep moving. And also by marching throughout Italy they could gather support from the non-Roman city states – ending up in the south of Italy perhaps with an eye to getting to Sicily where a previous revolt had been successful for a while.

But Spartacus was to be defeated in 71BC by an army lead by Crassus. Crassus was a wealthy Roman citizen who was a general and politician. Bragg referred to him as a statesman, but Beard corrected this to “thug”. It’s important to remember that as officials were elected every year then it would be very useful to someone like Crassus to have a victory under his belt to show off about to the electorate. So Crassus took a considerable fighting force to hunt down Spartacus, and was in the end successful. Opinion was divided between the three experts as to whether or not the average Roman would actually have been much bothered about this slave revolt. One point of view was that if you were living in Rome it would all seem to be happening “over there, somewhere else”. But the other was that being surrounded oneself by slaves all of the time would make it a frightening time.

Spartacus’s legend grew after his death. This is down, in large part, to the needs of Crassus’s PR campaign. By building up the rebellion lead by Spartacus to be a big deal he made his own victory look that much more impressive. In actual fact it wasn’t, as I said earlier, the most successful slave revolt. Much later, in the 18th Century AD the legend that had grown up around Spartacus was taken up by the movement for the abolition of slavery. And since then it has been used by many different groups of people as a rallying point for their cause – ranging from the left wing (ie Karl Marx) to the right (ie Ronald Reagan).

Literature of the English Country House (Course on Future Learn)

I’d not intended to overlap courses on Future Learn, because I thought it might end up feeling like it was taking up too much of my time. I was right, but I’m still glad I took the Literature of the English Country House course even tho it has overlapped with two courses that I’d already signed up for. And to be honest it was part of why I found the Portus archaeology course so disappointing in the end (post), because this one was much more to my tastes!

This course was an 8 week course run by Sheffield University about, as you might expect, English literature that deals with or takes place in country houses. All the videos were filmed in country houses so that we could see the sorts of places the texts were talking about. The first seven weeks each looked at a particular aspect of country house literature, roughly moving forwards in time as we went. And then the last week was a review of the previous weeks, and a test to see if you’d got the right idea.

The first week also introduced us to the concept of close reading – it was a course pitched as being for everyone, so this made sure we were all aware of the technique. Whilst it wasn’t something I’d ever been formally taught I’ve been reading a few in depth analyses of books and book series online over the last few years so the concept was familiar to me. The general point is not just to read for the surface meaning, but once you’ve done that to go back and read more closely paying attention to word choice and the broader context of the piece. This doesn’t just show you how the author built up your impression of a scene, but might also give you greater insight into what they are saying (intentionally or unintentionally).

The texts we read were mostly excerpts from longer works tailored to demonstrate the points the course was making. In week one, as well as the skill of close reading (illustrated using a scene or two from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night), we also looked at modern misconceptions about country houses and country house literature – namely that they were only places of harmony between the elite and the rest of the countryside, and that women didn’t write literature in the 17th Century. These were illustrated by a poem by Ben Johnson (To Penshurst) which by praising one place (and family) for its harmonious perfection also lets one know what normality really was. And we also read an excerpt from a work by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Week two focussed on entertainment in 17th Century country houses – both the amateur (illustrated by a poem written by a servant to celebrate a child’s 2nd birthday) and the professional (illustrated by the scenes from Hamlet where the travelling players visit Elsinore). In week three we looked at politeness in the 18th Century – which they explained was a bit of a broader concept than it is now. It wasn’t just about whether you said “please” and “thank you” in the right places, but also the way you spoke, the clothes you wore and whole sum of your public behaviour & presentation. Personally, I think we might still stretch politeness as a term to cover all of that sort of thing, but perhaps I’m not understanding the nuances here. This week was illustrated first with an excerpt from the Spectator, a humorous piece about the differences between country & town manners. And also by an excerpt from a novel by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire featuring a husband who was polite in the mode of the town but very much not nice.

Week 4 was devoted to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The passages we read were about Elizabeth Bennet’s visit to Darcy’s house – which is thought to be modelled on Chatsworth. And these passages were used to illustrate a narrative technique which Austen used that was revolutionary at the time. This is “free indirect discourse” where the boundaries between the narrator and the thoughts of the character are blurred. In week 5 we turned to the darker side of country house literature – the country house as a sort of malevolent presence or with a weird or reclusive owner. This was illustrated with a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and also by Dickens’s Great Expectations. The latter was also used to look at points of view within the story – because the story is told by Pip when he’s much older so you get a mingling of the young boy’s reaction to Miss Haversham and the older man’s more considered view.

The 6th week was all about childhood and the literature devoted to it, which was rather fun. So we had some of Lear’s nonsense rhymes, and an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland. And the final week of reading brought us up to the end of the country house era – the 19th Century, and Oscar Wilde. The excerpts this week included a couple from The Canterville Ghost, which started out as a witty look at the trend of wealthy Americans buying up old British country houses from impoverished aristocrats. But by the end (our second excerpt) seemed to’ve turned into a rather saccharine piece of sentimental Victorian religiousness!

I enjoyed this course a lot. It’s a shame I had so many other things on at the time, I’m not sure I entirely did it justice while I was working through it – but the stuff is all still there to go back over again if I want to in the future 🙂

Monday Link Salad

A new app I’ve put on my phone recently that I really quite like is Journey. It’s a journalling app and I’ve been using it for about 10 days now. I’m doing several different streams of things – like photos/notes of meals, photo + notes on the garden, brief notes on the TV we watch and so on. It syncs to Google Drive, and then there’s a webpage to see what’s been synced (only you see your own), and has a variety of sharing options for single entries – my photo per day that I put up on facebook & G+ have been written in Journey first for the last few days, and then I share it from there. The sharing still seems to have a few bugs (like not populating the text into facebook …) but one of the options is to “share” the text to the clipboard, so that’s actually quite convenient – just open up the facebook or G+ app then paste in the text and select the right photo.

TV I’m setting recording today: