March 2015 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.



“By the Mountain Bound” Elizabeth Bear – second book in the Edda of Burdens series. New.

Total: 1


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

Total: 1


Magna Carta (In Our Time Special Series).

Thucydides – In Our Time episode about this Greek historian.

Total: 2


“Ten Years in the Harem: Excavating the Gurob Harem Palace 2005-2015” Hannah Pethen – March EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Dashur.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Lahun.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Hawara.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Dimai.

Total: 4

In Our Time: Thucydides

Thucydides was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th Century BC, and is regarded as a “Father of History” alongside Herodotus – although I confess that before I listened to the In Our Time programme about him I had never heard of him. I think he’s been seen as more of a “historian’s historian”, whereas Herodotus is more of a “popular historian”. The programme also told me that Thucydides’s work is still important in the field of international relations. The experts who discussed him were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Katherine Harloe (University of Reading) and Neville Morley (University of Bristol).

Thucydides was born around 460BC and a citizen of Athens, not much is known about his life. In fact the only details known about him at all are those found in his book on the Peleponnesian War – which includes that he was a general at a particular early point during the war, and he at least lived through the war. This gives a feel for his age as he must’ve been a mature adult at the beginning of the war yet still young enough to survive till the end. The Peleponnesian War was a conflict between Athens and Sparta, and their allies, which lasted for 27 years at the end of the 5th Century BC. Thucydides’s book clearly contains passages written after the end of the war (as he mentions who won – Sparta), but it was never finished. It also doesn’t really mention the role that the Persians played which was important later in the war, the experts speculated that if he’d finished the text he may’ve revised the existing parts to bring in that thread earlier.

Herodotus and Thucydides were writing very different sorts of history, with different purposes. I think they said that Thucydides was writing his history in reaction to the way that Herodotus wrote his – deliberating doing things the way he thought was “proper”. For instance Herodotus is the historian as a story-teller. He doesn’t necessarily believe all the stories he writes down, but he tells them because that’s what the people he’s writing about believe. Thucydides in his introductory section says that he is intending to set down the objective truth about what actually happened. This means that he also rejects supernatural explanations of events. Herodotus is also outward looking – partly by the circumstances of recent history but also because of his interests. The big war that Herodotus talks about is the Greek/Persian war of the early 5th Century BC, and his history is of the world outside Greece. By contrast Thucydides is interested in an intra-Greek conflict and in the history of the Greek world. Even, potentially, to the extent of ignoring the Persian role in the Peloponnesian War (although as I said above he may’ve revised that later if he’d finished the book).

Of course Thucydides isn’t as objective as he would like to present himself, and doesn’t stick strictly to the known facts either. In contrast to modern historians he doesn’t present his evidence, merely says he examined it and has come to the conclusion that what he writes is what happened. So his biases aren’t always clear, but in some cases they are obvious. In particular he generally approves of Pericles, and frequently editorialises about his greatness. He also editorialises about the poor decisions by “the mob” who vote for courses of action that Thucydides feels were wrong. There are also sections of the text that are clearly made up to show how something might have happened. The speeches are a good example of this – as well as Thucydides’s chronological dicussions of events there are also sections purporting to be speeches given by various people. Pericles is given many of these. In style they sound like Thucydides rather than different individuals, so they definitely aren’t accurate representations of actual speeches. Some might be paraphrases of things that Thucydides witnessed, but others are clearly invented out of whole cloth – accounts of secret meetings on the Spartan side for instance that Thucydides was obviously not present for.

In terms of his legacy and his status as a Father of History Thucydides has had a large impact in the past on how historians approach research and objectivity. But all three experts were in agreement that he wouldn’t quite fit in in a modern historical department. Modern history also has commonalities with Herodotus’s approach – looking at the history of a people as that people see it is an important aspect of approaching history. However in the field of internal relations and of war theory Thucydides is still hugely influential, and his work is still used in teaching at military academies like West Point. Which seems appropriate as that was his primary interest – how different states (cities, nations etc) interact, and what are the causes that lead to conflict between them. Not the causes they use to justify aggression but the underlying conflicts and tensions that get the relationship to the point where aggression is a next step.

“By the Mountain Bound” Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series. It is set before the events of All the Windracked Stars (post) so you could read them in either order, but I think it works best as I’ve done it this time (tho obviously as this is my first read of this book I haven’t tried out the other way round yet!).

The three protagonists of the story are the Wolf (Mingan), the Historian (Muire) and the Warrior (Strifbjorn) – the same three as in All the Windracked Stars, although Strifbjorn is reborn as the mortal Cathoair in that book. Muire was central in the first book, this book is the Wolf’s. Strifbjorn and Muire are both immortal Children of the Light, waelcyrge. (Immortal in the un-ageing sense – they can still be killed, for instance in battle.) The Wolf is … not quite the same as them, he is also a survivor from the world before there’s, and was already there when the Children first came into being. When the story opens superficially all is well in the world – we see where the cracks are but there’s nothing threatening about them. The opening chapters establish the world with a wedding between two waelcyrge, where we learn (amongst other things) that Strifbjorn is their war leader and they have no Cynge and no Lady despite setting chairs out for both. Into this good-enough world comes Heythe, who quickly establishes herself as the Lady returned. All is, of course, not quite what it seems and Heythe is soon manipulating the warlcyrge into their seemingly inevitable slide towards apocalypse.

The waelcyrge are not just warriors and avengers of mortals, they are also beings with loves of their own. And this story is also about loving unwisely or too well, and the consequences of that. When waelcyrge marry they share a part of their soul with their spouse via a kiss, but of course you don’t have to be married to kiss the one you love. Yet social pressure keeps most from risking such a thing pre-marriage – after all, if something changes and then you marry someone else then that someone else will discover they are sharing their soul not just with their spouse but their spouse’s previous lover. It’s the idea of pre-marital sex “tainting” those who do it, but applied rather more even-handedly. It’s clear that this attitude is to be seen as one of the flaws of waelcyrge society which Heythe exploits rather than a good thing. Waelcyrge are not terribly fertile, so marrying and having children to replace those who die are exalted to an almost sacred duty – Strifbjorn as war leader is under a lot of pressure to do so to set a good example. And there is no shortage of waelcyrge women who would marry him – some, like Muire, because they are in love with him, some because of the prestige being his wife would bring them. But unknown to the other waelcyrge Strifbjorn and Mingan are not just lovers, but have shared the kiss. And so the world of the waelcyrge is not as robust as it looks on the surface.

This book is a tragedy, not just in the modern sense of ending with dead people but in the original Greek sense too – it’s the inevitable working out of the flaws of the characters & society. The reason I think the ordering of these books works best this way round is that right from the beginning of this book you know where it ends. It ends with the end of the world, in blood and in ice. With Muire, the Wolf and Kasimir the only survivors of an apocalyptic battle pitting waelcyrge against waelcyrge and killing nearly all of them. So even the moments of hope and partial triumph are against a backdrop of watching the world end. It’s not depressing though – in part because for all the world ends in that battle, we also know from the first book that it’s not totally over and that there is yet hope.

In a nice touch this book ends almost exactly where the first one begins. We see some of the same scenes (not word for word, I think, but close enough to resonate), interspersed (and followed) with new information. But the repeated scenes have completely different emotional weight this time. At the beginning of the first book it’s just back story & characterisation – ticking little boxes for who these people are: “Muire, waelcyrge, survivor’s guilt” etc. This time tho, these are people we know and have come to care about over the course of the book and watching them die is heartbreakingly poignant (yet tragically inevitable).

Thoroughly recommended, and at time of writing I’m halfway through the next one & trying to make it last so that my time in this world with these characters won’t be over so soon.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 15)

Trade and Merchants

Trade, both locally and internationally, was an important part of the 13th & 14th Century English economy. Prestwich starts this chapter by talking about the types and volumes of trade during the period. The wool trade was the most significant – at its peak in the early 14th Century around 40,000 sacks of wool were exported per year, the equivalent of around 10 million sheep. This brought in large sums of money to the economy, in 1297 Edward I’s opponents were able to realistically claim that wool was half the country’s wealth. Wool was not the only commodity traded, the wine trade (of Gascony wines) was also important and other goods were traded too. These included cloth (mostly imports), dyes, timber, tin, lead, grain and many other foodstuffs. International trade was obviously affected by wars – not just because of breakdown in relations but also because the Channel crossing became more risky. Trade was also involved in causing wars, disputes between merchants (particularly at sea) could draw in governments.

Trade and the government were linked together in more than one way. Merchants could become prominent at court, and could influence politics. In part because the trade was important to the economy, so keeping merchants sweet was important. And in part because they could provide funds to the Crown, which was a role Italian merchants often filled. Trade was also subject to government regulation and interference, particularly the wool trade. At times the government would propose to seize wool and sell it themselves, so that the profit came to the Crown rather than the merchants – unsurprisingly not a popular move, and frequently the number of sacks successfully seized was far less than hoped for. Over this period customs duties became a more successful way to raise funds for the Crown, and in 1275 a permanent customs system was established. Taxing trade in this way meant that merchants were at times invited to parliament along with the knights and barons. Prestwich says that during Edward III’s reign there were attempts to negotiate customs with a separate assembly consisting just of the merchants – if these had proved successful then the shape of our government might look different today, with a third house to go along with the Lords & the Commons. However the merchant assemblies were an imposition from the King rather than a natural outgrowth of any sort of coherent merchant community. After a few experiments negotiation of customs duties was returned to Parliament.

The elite merchants of the era were Italians, they were in England primarily to trade in wool. As they could draw on the resources of their internationally trading companies they were able to take bigger risks than the English merchants. They were in a position to offer long term arrangements and even loans (often to monasteries) which would be paid back in wool over a long period of time – one such deal involved a monastery providing 140 sacks of wool over a 20 year period with the Italian company paying 20 marks per year (a good price from the Italian point of view). Although they couldn’t charge interest on loans (Christians were forbidden to do so by the Pope) they could accept “payments to cover costs incurred by making the loan”. They also profited from exchange rates – by making a loan in one currency and asking for repayments in another at a favourable rate to themselves. The larger Italian companies often got sucked into making huge loans to the Crown – these played an important role in financing the wars of the English throughout the period. And these loans played a big role in the bankruptcy of the companies who made the loans. Not always because the loans weren’t repaid in full, sometimes the changing political situation meant a company went out of favour (and lost business) because of close ties to hated previous regime.

Prestwich finishes the chapter by considering the English merchants of the time. Towards the end of this period the involvement of the English in large scale trade increased, although it’s not clear why this happened. Small scale trade is much harder to analyse historically – most of the records are about the wealthiest merchants, particularly those who lent money to the Crown. Tax returns can shed some light on smaller merchants in towns but even then it can be hard to tell the different between a manufacturer of goods and someone who is also selling the goods he makes. So overall not much is known about the English merchants of the time.

Magna Carta (In Our Time Special Series)

It’s the 800th anniversary of the first issuing of Magna Carta this year, and so there are currently a flurry of programmes about the document on the BBC on both radio and TV. We been listening to the Melvyn Bragg presented radio series that was on at the beginning of the year as our Sunday breakfast listening. This was a four part series that covered the context for the document, the thing itself, and its legacy.

The first episode was looking at the context for the original “signing” of Magna Carta (it wasn’t in fact signed, as was customary at the time it was validated using the signatories’ seals). The king of England in 1215 was King John, who is a notoriously bad king – think Robin Hood, John is generally the king in those legends. It’s not without its basis in fact – John was always looking out for his own interests rather than those of the realm. He wasn’t even loyal to those who might’ve thought they were his friends – he’d turn against them if it was convenient or if that got him more money or land or power. Unsurprisingly the leading nobles of the day, the barons, weren’t terribly fond of John. Their grievances were that he acted as if he was above the law, he started taking away lands without even a figleaf of legal right to them, and importantly he also lost wars. In particular John managed to lose the bulk of the Plantagenets’ lands in modern France, which was humiliating for the crown.

An earlier crisis around 1205 that turns out to be relevant to the conflict was the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. This was contested – John had a preferred candidate and the canons of the cathedral had a preferred candidate, and the two sides couldn’t come to agreement. Eventually the Pope intervened and appointed Stephen Langton (who was neither sides’ preference) but John refused to accept this. The Pope then placed England under interdict (which meant that priests would not perform the sacraments), a state of affairs that lasted until 1213 when John capitulated. He also sweetened the deal declaring that the Pope was now the feudal overlord of England (thus had secular power in England as well as religious). Archbishop Langton was to be the mediator in the 1215 conflict between John and the barons.

In the second episode Bragg covered the 1215 conflict, and the events surrounding the initial issuing of Magna Carta. At this time King John was still failing to do anything useful in a military sense – this is important as military prowess was an important virtue for a king to demonstrate in order to show himself a true king. Wars are also expensive, so a campaign in France that is lost is a great waste of money which will’ve been primarily raised via taxing the barons. Civil war actually broke out in the summer of 1215, and crucially the city of London joined in the conflict on the side of the barons. John was in an unwinnable situation, and was forced to meet with the barons and come to terms with them. The meeting were held in June 1215 at a place on the Thames called Runnymede – this was neutral territory that was regarded as safe by both sides as it would be difficult to set up an ambush there. The barons showed up in force, and camped there with their army. This was somewhat of a surprise to John who had expected a delegation, so instead of camping on Runnymede himself he stayed nearby and visited during the day to negotiate.

The treaty that was eventually negotiated and sealed at Runnymede is the first iteration of the Magna Carta (although it wasn’t called that at the time). It is both sweeping and curiously specific. So there are the well known clauses that place the king under the law and guarantee the right of no imprisonment save by trial by one’s peers or due course of law. And there are also many clauses about particular grievances, for instance prohibiting fishweirs on the Thames which was of paramount interest to the merchants of the City of London (as the fishweirs impeded progress of shipping on the Thames). John wasn’t actually happy with the treaty, in particular a crucial clause that appointed a council of 25 barons to oversee the King’s actions. However he signed it because there wasn’t much other option, and was even forced to start instituting it before the two sides left Runnymede.

The third episode of this series looked at the immediate aftermath of the issuing of Magna Carta. The first thing John did after the dust had settled was to try to overturn the treaty. As I said in the last paragraph he was particularly unhappy with the clauses granting a council of barons power to enforce the treaty, and the situation was not helped by them treating the King disrespectfully. There were clauses in Magna Carta that were intended to prevent John wriggling out of it, but he made use of his new good relations with the Pope. Having given the Pope feudal overlordship of England meant that the Pope had legal standing to declare the treaty invalid, which he did at John’s request.

Unsurprisingly this did not go down well with the barons – the political situation returned to how it had been before Runnymede, and civil war broke out again. The Pope was now firmly on John’s side and directed Langton to excommunicate the barons who are in rebellion. Langton, however, resisted this (and incurred the Pope’s displeasure) because if he was to be an effective mediator then he couldn’t been seen to be on one side or the other. The French got involved in the civil war, coming in on the side of the barons and by 1216 the south of England is mostly ruled by the son of the French King. If John had not died at this point then the history of England would’ve been quite different!

However John did die, and his 9 year old son Henry took the throne. One of the first things that Henry III’s regents did was to reissue Magna Carta. This was intended to woo the disaffected barons back to the side of the English monarchy, and it was successful. With the barons back on their side Henry III’s forces were able to retake the south of England and drive out the French prince.

This was only the first reissuing of the Magna Carta, the next time was when Henry came of age in 1225. This was in part a symbolic act intended to convey that he would (unlike his father) rule in accordance with the law. The version of Magna Carta issued at this point was partly rewritten (by Langton amongst others), taking out some of the unpalatable clauses (like the council of the barons). This version is the definitive one that is meant when we refer to Magna Carta, and it was reissued several times over the next 100 years.

In the fourth episode Bragg talked about how Magna Carta has become enshrined in global consciousness as a totemic symbol of democracy. Often by people who don’t know exactly what is in it, just that it guarantees the rights of the people to just treatment under the law. I was aware before of the sort of place it occupies in British culture, but I hadn’t realised just how important it is to US culture. Bragg talked to some US historians who explained that the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution is deliberately based on clauses from the Magna Carta. And it still has enormous importance as a precursor document for US democratic principles. The monument in Runnymede commemorating the signing of Magna Carta was erected by US lawyers.

The end of the programme was about whether or not Magna Carta still has relevance today – particularly as the actual clauses in the document are mostly no longer law (I believe there are only 2 left on the statute books out of the original 60-something). Bragg’s conclusion was that it’s not the details that are important, and it hasn’t been for several hundred years. But that Magna Carta is the start of a paradigm shift that we pretty much take for granted today. That people have the right to be dealt with in accordance with the law rather than at the whim of the ruler.