June 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.



The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg – fantasy with desert flavours, a slave who’s more than he seems, and demons possessing souls. Part of Read All the Fiction, I only ever bought the first two books and these will be going to charity.

Total: 1


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

Total: 1


Gathering of the Clans.

Half the Man I Used to Be.

Head First.

Lord of All He Surveys.

Total: 4


Beowulf – In Our time episode about the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.

The Eunuch – In Our Time episode about eunuchs in Assyria, China and Rome.

Total: 2


“An Ancient Flash Flood and Stratigraphy in the Valley of the Kings” Stephen Cross – talk at the June meeting of the EEG.

Total: 1



Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman – Michael Wood presenting a programme that was half a biography of Mary Arden and half general social history of the Tudor period.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Karnak Temple Complex.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Temple of Mut at Karnak.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Theban Tombs of the Nobles.

Total: 3

The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg

As I continue to (slowly!) read through the fiction on my shelves I’ve got to two books by Carol Berg – they are the first two of her trilogy The Rai-Kirah. The books are called Transformation and Revelation. I never bought the third one, and it’s things like that that’ve made me taken on this project – did I not buy it because I didn’t fancy it? Did I not buy it because I never got round to it? Should I buy it? It’s definitely not the only series where I’ve got a couple then not the rest.

The protagonist of the story is Seyonne, an Ezzarian who has been a slave in the Derhzi Empire for 16 long and brutal years when the story opens. In the first chapter he is bought by the heir to the Empire, Prince Aleksander, branded on the orders of one of he Prince’s companions (as a form of revenge on the Prince) and forced to brand said companion by the Prince. Aleksander is spoilt, cruel and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t destroy people when it takes his fancy. Seyonne once had magical powers before they were tortured out of him by the Derzhi, and the very fact of his slavery has made him outcast and unclean in the eyes of his own people – he’s just going through the motions of life until he dies. It doesn’t exactly seem like the start of a promising relationship – but there’s more to Aleksander than meets the eye at first, and Seyonne is drawn into not only caring about the Prince but also joining forces with the Prince to save him & the world from the Rai-Kirah demons he was trained to fight in his homeland.

As I read the first book I was assuming that I hadn’t finished buying the trilogy because I’d just forgotten to pick up the third book. The story sucked me in and carried me along. Whilst there were things I wasn’t keen on when I finished it and thought about them, there were other parts I liked. The setting was interesting – not a faux-Europe, instead something with desert flavours. The Derzhi were once nomads in the desert, and this came through in the ways their empire was set up and how their aristocrats interacted. For instance, hospitality rules (sharing food and drink) are still important despite their change of lifestyle, which was plot relevant. I also found the magic interesting. The Rai-Kirah demons come through from another world and set up residence in human souls – the Ezzarians have learnt ways to enter the victim’s soul and fight to drive out the demon. That was Seyonne’s role in his society before his capture. I also like the relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander. I feel it did go too quickly from the very low point at which it started to trust and liking, even with the help of Seyonne’s mystical sense that Aleksander is worth protecting. But still, I didn’t notice that until I’d finished the book, if you see what I mean – I was hooked into it while I was reading it.

Sadly I didn’t really buy any of the interpersonal relationships except the building friendship between Seyonne and Aleksander. Particularly not the relationships between Seyonne and the women in the novel. And that was one of my problems with the second book in the trilogy. I was much less keen on the series after reading it, and I am now intending to give these to charity rather than complete the series.

The second book takes what we know about the world so far, and makes us – and Seyonne – doubt it. Are the Rai-Kirah really just rapacious demons trying to conquer the world? Where did the Ezzarian’s abilities come from? And why is Seyonne’s heavily pregnant wife now not pregnant and pretending she never was? This last is the driving force of the plot for the beginning of the book, which was a shame as it made me cranky every time that bit of the plot came up. I didn’t buy into Seyonne and Ysanne’s relationship, their utter lack of trust in each other and inability to just have an honest conversation made me unable to believe they’d ever been in love ever. And yes, it’s not supposed to be idyllic (far from it), and Seyonne is supposed to be being an idiot, and Ysanne isn’t supposed to have his best interests at heart and I don’t think she’s supposed to’ve been in love with him. But even knowing all of that didn’t make me any more interested in reading about it. And having spent the first few chapters gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes at the characters I wasn’t inclined to be charitable about the rest of it. I suspect if that plot line hadn’t existed I’d’ve enjoyed the rest rather more, but it does exist.

Another problem I had with both the books was the sheer level of physical & mental abuse that Seyonne absorbs. I’m not sure I believe that he could be either alive or sane by the beginning of book 1 (given the backstory we see later) … and certainly not by the time that Berg has finished gleefully torturing him over the two books I read.

So my overall verdict is that Berg has some interesting world building and ideas, but ultimately I found the execution too flawed.

In Our Time: Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf is probably the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon literature – it’s certainly one I was aware of, and had an idea of the shape of the story before we listened to the In Our Time episode about it. However it was unknown until the 19th Century when a single manuscript copy dating from around 1100AD was discovered. The three experts who discussed it on the programme were Laura Ashe (University of Oxford), Clare Lees (King’s College London) and Andy Orchard (University of Oxford).

Even tho the surviving version of the poem comes from the 11th or 12 Century, it was probably composed around 750AD. It’s sometimes said to be a little earlier: “from the time of Bede” (who died in 735AD). But Orchard pointed out that Bede is known person from a known time so estimates tend to gravitate towards him. The subject of the poem is older still – it’s a poem about long ago & far away about history that the listeners were expected to already be aware of. Some of the characters in the poem are real historical personages who lived around the 5th Century AD (however this doesn’t include the hero Beowulf). This is a Christian English poem about the listeners’ pagan Danish ancestors, written in a time before the Danes were seen as a foreign threat.

There are three sections to the poem. The first tells of the hero Beowulf travelling to another kingdom and fighting the monster Grendel, who has been terrorising the country. Grendel is a misshapen man who fights without a sword and so Beowulf wrestles with him and wins the fight by pulling off the monster’s arm. Said arm is then hung up as a trophy when Beowulf returns to the king of the country. The second section tells us about Grendel’s mother who comes to avenge her son, as is her legal right. She lives beneath the sea and Beowulf goes to her lair (or hall) to fight her with a sword. The third section of the poem is set 50 years later, when Beowulf is an old man and has become a king in his own right. The story of how he came to be king is told in flashbacks, while the main plot of this section revolves around him fighting a dragon which is terrorising his country. Unlike the first two monsters this is a truely mythological beast instead of fantastical but plausible. Beowulf goes to fight it in its lair, and at first is losing the fight despite his heroic skill. With the help of his men, and using a sword from the dragon’s lair, he finally defeats the dragon but dies in his moment of triumph.

The poem has a very non-linear structure, and after its rediscovery 19th Century critics used the repetition as an example of how it was a poor poem. Modern scholarship strongly disagrees with that opinion! The narrative circles around the story with each repetition of an event giving you new details or nuances, or new references to other literature etc. For instance in the first part the poem first tells one about the fight, then Beowulf tells someone about the fight, then Beowulf tells the king of the country Grendel was terrorising and then Beowulf tells his own king. All have differences that tell you more about the event. This isn’t the only sort of non-linearity – there are also flashbacks (for instance in the third section as I mentioned above), and asides that tell you how some side-event turned out later. Or who owned a particular sword once the current owner died after the end of this story, and so on.

The poem was written to be heard rather than read. The experts read out sections in the original Anglo-Saxon, with Orchard in particular making it sound vibrant and alive (even if incomprehensible – I didn’t get very far the one time I started learning Anglo-Saxon). However it probably wasn’t an oral composition, instead it was written down with the intention that it should be read out. It is a very literate poem, with references to other literature of the period and before including classic Latin literature. Orchard pointed out parallels with things like the Aeneid, which the Anglo-Saxons of the 8th Century AD would’ve known.

It wasn’t just a story about heroes and monsters, and tales of derring do. The peom was also about the ending of one era and the beginning of the next. It tells the story of the pagan Beowulf from a Christian perspective, and contains Christian motifs and structural elements. Most obviously the three-part structure which is more of a Christian motif than a pagan one. And the narrative moralises about the actions of the protagonists – a running commentary of “that’s how it was then, but we know better now”. The pagan culture valued valour & honour, but the Christian one valued non-violence and godliness. The poem reflects that change and the tension between the old ways and the new.

I think the biggest thing this programme told me was how much more there is to Beowulf than I’d realised. I’m pretty sure we have a translation in the house (somewhere!), I should find it and read it sometime 🙂

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 17)

I’m into the home straight with this book – and actually finished reading it a while ago, I’ve just got a backlog of posts to write 🙂 This is the penultimate chapter, all that’s left after this is the conclusion.

Population and the Black Death

The overall picture of population changes in England between 1225 and 1360 is first growth in the 13th Century, followed by a plateau in the early 14th Century and a catastrophic decrease caused by the Black Death in 1348. However despite this clear big picture the details are more difficult to get a proper grasp of, and so Prestwich spent the first half of this chapter looking at the sorts of evidence used to assess the population and discussing the sorts of numbers these indicate.

The population of a region is affected by three things – birth rate, death rate and migration – and Prestwich looks at these in turn. There’s very little evidence for what the birth rate in England was during this period – births were not required to be recorded. And it is difficult to make generalisations from what data there is because birth rates vary within populations & across time. There is some evidence that people tried to control the size of their families (via herbal concoctions or coitus interuptus) despite the disapproval of the Church. However a lack of understanding of reproductive biology & the female anatomy meant that this was difficult to do successfully. Prestwich notes that there is very little evidence for abortion (or attempted abortion), nor for infanticide. Death rates were affected by environmental causes like famines, and also by economic circumstances. Prestwich suggests that the growth in the 13th Century may’ve lead to the population outstripping the ability of the cultivatable land to feed it, leading to the plateau in the early 14th Century. Migration to and from England had little effect on the overall population, however internal migration had a large effect on the population of particular towns etc.

Prestwich next works through a couple of examples of starting assumptions and hypotheses to arrive at some estimates for the overall population at the peak at end of the 13th Century. All the methods of calculating the population have their own problems, and the margins of error are huge. However Prestwich suggests figures of between 4 million and 7 million, with 5 million being a plausible number to keep in mind. This is about two to three times the population at the end of the 11th Century (which one can estimate using the Domesday Book as a starting point). For a couple of modern comparisons: the modern population of Scotland is of the order of 5 milliion people, in contrast the population of London in 2013 (according to wikipedia) was on the order of 8.5 million.

On a more local level there are sometimes surviving records that give a better indication of population levels in a particular community – but historians disagree about how reliable these are (and how to extrapolate from what’s there). For instance manorial court records survive for some areas – like Coltishall in Norfolk where numbers of tenants can be calculated: 119 in 1314, 168 in 1349 and 74 in 1359. That doesn’t tell you how big their families were but it does suggest a rising population which then falls sharply after the Black Death. Prestwich goes through a few examples of the types of records that survive and what they can tell us. He also discusses the indirect evidence that can be used – like how much land is in cultivation (more suggests more people need fed). Or how much tax was returned from a community.

The second half of the chapter discusses the Black Death. This was probably the biggest human catastrophe ever to affect England – up to half the population died. It is generally said that the Black Death was an epidemic of Yersinia pestis (bubonic plague), and I had thought this was a known thing. However Prestwich devotes three or so pages to discussing the problems with this identification and what alternatives there may be. The argument against bubonic plague being the Black Death is that the symptoms & fatality levels as well as the spread speed & pattern of the disease do not match that seen in more modern outbreaks where we have much more accurate information. The usual answer to this is that the bacillus has mutated significantly since the 14th Century, and thus the disease we see now is not the disease they suffered. Prestwich is very keen to point out that this is just a hypothesis, and other explanations should not be dismissed out of hand. He doesn’t, however, have a favoured answer – he lists three possibilities (anthrax, influenza, a viral haemorrhagic disease) but also explains why they are implausible.

The epidemic, whatever it was, arrived on English soil sometime in June 1348 at the port of Melcombe Regis in Dorset. By November it had reached London, and in 1349 it spread throughout the country. Mortality was highest during the late spring & early summer of 1349. Death rates can be estimated using the surviving records although these generally do not list cause of death so some interpretation is needed to arrive at figures. Although perhaps as much as half the overall population died this was not evenly spread through society. The higher aristocracy were much less affected with only one member of the royal family dying in the outbreak, and only 13% of the parliamentary peerage in 1349. Clergy were more affected than this – with figures ranging from 29% to 60% in different areas. Those who resided with their congregations were more affected than those who did not. Mortality among monastic communities was very variable with some being nearly wiped out and others barely affected. Mortality amongst the rural population was much the same as for the clergy who resided amongst them (unsurprisingly). Data for the urban population is much more incomplete but one might assume it would be higher than in rural areas due to the greater numbers of people in close proximity. There are indications such as numbers of wills registered compared to a normal year or how many tax payers are recorded that back up this assumption.

The immediate effects of this huge loss of life on the economy & on government are surprisingly limited. The greater amount of available land (due to deaths of the tenants) and the death toll combined to reduce the number of landless labourers available to work did exert pressure to raise wages for labourers – and similarly for other professions in urban areas. However the government acted to freeze wages to pre-Black Death levels, and the long term economic effects of the population drop don’t show up till after 1360 when these measures began to fail. The mechanics of government and law & order also show surprising resiliance – the effects that show up in the period this book covers are primarily in low tax revenues and greater difficulty fielding large armies. The effects on the Church were greater. With so many dead clergy there weren’t as many truly appropriate candidates as needed to fill the vacancies. However again there was no danger of a collapse of the system. Society in general was also very resilient. There must surely have been an effect on the general population of seeing half the population die in such a short space of time, but Prestwich says it’s difficult to detect in the contemporary sources.

Prestwich finishes the chapter by reminding us that longer term effects were much greater – transforming society during the 15th & 16th Centuries.

Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman

Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman was partly a biography of a specific woman – Mary Arden, the mother of William Shakespeare. But there’s not really enough surviving detail about her life to get the full picture from, so the gaps were filled in with more general information about the sorts of lives women (and men) of the time lead. The presenter, Michael Wood, did a good job of stitching the two sorts of information into a coherent whole, so it didn’t feel disjointed or patchy.

Mary Arden is an interesting person to look at the life of, not just because of whose mother she is, but also because of when she lived and what sort of person she was. She lived through a time of great change – she was born around 1537 near the start of the English Reformation, and died in James VI & I’s reign having lived through the whole of the Tudor changes of religion. It’s easy to forget that these changes all took place within a lifetime. Her personal situation also changed a lot over this time, showcasing some of the increased social mobility of the era.

Mary was born the youngest daughter of a relatively well-to-do husbandman, and had seven older sisters. Her family were part of the local gentry so in marrying her John Shakespeare was moving up the social scale. John & Mary Shakespeare were a part of the growing middle class in England. John was primarily a glover, but also involved in other trades. They marry in the 1550s, and begin having children – Mary was to bear eight children in all, of whom 5 survived to adulthood. William was her third child, the first son and the first to survive infancy. The programme used this as a hook to explore the dangers of childbirth in this period for both mother & offspring, and infant mortality (and the effect it would have on the parents).

John and Mary rose in the world both socially and financially during the early years of William’s life. John is a respected member of the Corporation of Stratford upon Avon and eventually even becomes Mayor of the town. They owned land both in the town and outside – Mary had inherited her father’s land when he died. Which is particularly interesting as she was the youngest daughter – perhaps she was his favourite? Perhaps she was the best at the financial management necessary to run the farm? John Shakespeare was also involved in less respectable financial trading. He leant money at interest (strictly forbidden by the church), and also got involved in the illegal wool trade. This was a very lucrative business – all wool trading was supposed to be done through Crown approved channels at Crown approved prices, and paying duty on the trade. So there was money to be made by a middleman who avoided the official routes. Michael Wood speculated that Mary was also involved in the trading – in part because as the person who would be at the house most of the time she’d be the obvious point of contact. And in part because there are indications she was good at financial management.

The wool trading was to be the Shakespeare family’s downfall. There was a clampdown on this illegal activity, and John Shakespeare was one of those who was caught. The family were financially ruined, and spent several years living in fear of their debts being called in. John stopped attending church or the meetings of the town corporation, because those were places where his creditors might find him to demand their money. This, of course, had social consequences for the family. They also had to sell off land to pay back the debts that were called in, and even take young William out of school. The family’s fortunes only turned around after William had moved to London and begun to make a name for himself (and money!) as a playwright and actor. Once he had money he provided for his parents and so Mary lived on into a comfortable old age.

I was mostly interested in the tidbits of information about Mary herself so that’s what I’ve discussed most in this blog post, but the programme also did a good job of covering the social situation & changes of the time. For instance it looked at what the religious and social changes actually meant to the ordinary person of the time. And at some issues specific to women – childbirth in particular as I mentioned. Also how women lived in general – housework, household management etc.

In Our Time: The Eunuch

Modern Western culture is unusual in having no role for eunuchs in the machinery of bureaucracy – throughout history in a variety of different cultures castrated men have played an important part in governance (and in some cases in the arts). The In Our Time episode about eunuchs took a compare and contrast approach to three cultures in which eunuchs were particularly important. The three experts each had a different speciality: Karen Radner (University College London) talked about Assyria, Shaun Tougher (Cardiff University) discussed Rome and Michael Hoeckelmann (King’s College London) was an expert on China. The aim was to draw out the parallels between the three situations but it didn’t quite gel into a cohesive picture for me – particularly the Rome section as it always seemed to be different to the other two. So although all three threads were interwoven in the programme I’m separating out the Roman bit in this write up.

In Assyria and China the origins of using eunuchs in the bureaucracy came from the idea that they were safe to have around the royal women. They were trusted palace servants whose lack of family ties were an important part of that trustworthiness. In addition the future ruler was often brought up with & by his eunuchs, so the bond formed between them was particularly strong. In both these societies being a eunuch was seen as a way to get ahead if you were from a poor family.

Whilst a lack of family ties was part of the rationale for creating eunuch servants it seems that the level to which this was true varied over time in Assyrian and particularly Chinese culture. Eunuchs might seek favours for their birth families, using their closeness to the ruler to their family’s advantage. The position of eunuchs in Chinese culture was cyclical and later in each cycle eunuchs would start adopting children and posts might become “hereditary” – which rather defeats the original purpose of using eunuchs in these roles. This cycle was tied to the history of the dynasties of Chinese rulers: as a dynasty began to decline the eunuchs would gain more power. Then when a new dynasty conquered/overthrew the previous one they’d stamp their authority more firmly on their servants.

Radner, talking about the Assyrians, was keen to point out that as a farming society they would’ve been castrating their livestock and so knew the effects (on size & strength) before they started to do this to people. A noteworthy feature of eunuchs in Assyrian society was that they were also the ruler’s bodyguards as well as his bureaucrats. Not quite the effete image that we have of eunuchs (mostly based on Italian castrato singers, I think).

In Assyria the eunuch was created by cutting between testicles & penis – the minimum necessary operation. However in China the entire apparatus was removed, and kept in a jar to show the Emperor on demand. Chinese eunuchs were an interesting exception to the normal Confucian idea where family was more important than anything – and this is a part of why they were restricted to serving the Emperor. He was the only person important enough (as semi-divine Son of Heaven) to be able to over-ride the proper order of things. And there’s a paradox as well: eunuchs had status and power, yet castration was also used as a punishment. The two things co-existed but were entirely separate (you didn’t become a eunuch after punishment by castration).

In contrast to these two cultures, in Rome having eunuch servants was a status symbol. They are a part of the Roman obsession with Greek culture, and the Greeks had got the idea from Persia (via Alexander the Great’s conquest). So a eunuch servant was a luxury, and having one showed that you were sophisticated and rich. It wasn’t restricted to the ruler (or ruling class), even though later (in Byzantine times) the eunuchs became important in the bureaucratic machinery of the Empire. They also became prized for their singing voices – and in Europe this lasted into the 20th Century.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the programme felt a little disjointed – perhaps they needed to pick a different third culture (if there is one). Tho I can see why Rome would feel the obvious choice.