October 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.


Josephus – In Our Time episode about the 1st Century AD Jewish Roman historian Josephus.

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“Understanding Egypt: Language, Layers and Meaning in the Nile Valley” Carl Graves – October EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1



Doctor Who: Under the Lake.

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Armada: 12 Days to Save England – series about the Spanish Armada presented by Dan Snow.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Deir el Bahri.

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Armada: 12 Days to Save England

Back in June of this year the BBC did a three part series about the Spanish Armada and how (astonishingly) England wasn’t conquered by Spain in 1588. It was billed as “part dramatisation, part documentary” so I was a bit concerned in advance that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. But it turned out to be on the right side of the line for my tastes – a selection of set pieces but mostly a straightforward documentary series. The main presenter was Dan Snow, who we’ve seen do a selection of history documentaries in the past, more than one with a naval theme. There were several talking heads throughout the series – the primary one was Geoffrey Parker, who is an expert on James II of Spain. He’s discovered & researched a lot of documentation kept by James II on the Armada including a report from the second in command of the fleet which gave his opinions on why the invasion failed. Another strand of the documentary segments was two naval historians discussing the tactics the Spanish & English fleets used, and showed us them by pushing ships about on a battle map. Of the two, I recognised Sam Willis who we’ve seen present other documentaries and I forget who the other chap was. The conversations between the two of them were sadly a bit stilted and at times made it feel like Willis was explaining himself and his theories to his PhD supervisor in a meeting!

The two main threads running through the series were the naval tactics of the two sides and the more human side of the personalities & foibles of the key players in the war. I’m not really interested in military history per se so I hadn’t looked into the details of the Armada before – just absorbed the narrative of “superpower of the day goes up against plucky minor country and somehow fails, mostly due to inclement weather”. God Is On Our Side, and all that sort of thing. The reality is, of course, more nuanced than that. Whilst the storms around the north & west of the British Isles are what finally finished off a lot of the Spainish fleet, they’d actually already lost before they sailed through the storms. The English had got the upper hand through better tech and new tactics to go with it (including sailing in to their own gun range to fire on the Spanish, then sailing away before getting to a range where the Spanish could reply). However supply issues (Elizabeth I was both unwilling and unable to pay for sufficient ammo, or even food for the sailors) meant that this wasn’t decisive. The Spanish also lost by their own actions, largely due to a strict adherence to the original plan by the commander despite that plan having fatal flaws from its conception let alone after they met the opposing fleet.

The two fleets had similar command structures – political appointment at the top, second in command an experienced seaman. The key difference was that Francis Drake (the English second in command) was actually listened to. The Duke of Medina Sidonia (commander of the Spanish fleet) had been Spain’s second choice and wasn’t keen on taking the job because he had no naval expertise – but sadly for the Spanish his reservations about his own abilities meant he insisted on following James II of Spain’s original plan to the letter. This plan was that the fleet would sail round to the English Channel and pick up the Spanish army in Holland, together the combined forces would invade England (from Kent, iirc). But the plan didn’t include any detail for how the navy & the army would combine and communication between the two was not established in time for the plan to be put into action. And eventually after several failures to co-ordinate with the army, and battles with the English where the Spanish were at a disadvantage to begin with and then loss, finally the Duke’s nerve broke and he took the fleet round to the north & west to get away from the English fleet and back to Spain. His second in command repeatedly suggested alternate courses of action: a pre-emptive strike on Portsmouth to bottle up the English fleet; capture a deep harbour on the English coast and settle in to figure out how to meet up with the army in relative safety; etc. But the Duke wouldn’t deviate from the plan, and so they lost.

Part of the Duke of Medina Sidonia’s problem was that James II was something of a control freak. I knew pretty much nothing about James prior to this program other than: married Mary I of England, failed to have children; tried to marry Elizabeth, was refused; tried to conquer England, failed. So the characterisation of James in this documentary was particularly interesting to me (and I should really add a biography of him to my to-read mountain). He was a deeply pious man, and this fuelled much of his desire to get England under his control – rescuing it from the taint of Protestant heresy. He was also a micro-manager. In this case he’d laid down a Plan, and left the Duke of Medina Sidonia in no doubt that if he deviated from The Plan then there would be trouble. He was also a compulsive note-taker and prefered to communicate with his underlings by the written word. Which is why we know he was a micro-manager – there are archives full of his notes.

I liked the characterisation of Elizabeth I in this programme – the Gloriana myth she and her PR team promoted was talked about, but they portrayed the woman herself as the Tudor she was. Mean (in the financial sense), paranoid and a control freak. Made me think of the biography of Henry VII that I read several years ago (and am convinced I wrote up a review for a previous incarnation of this blog, but now cannot find): “Winter King” by Thomas Penn.

Overall I enjoyed this series – made me aware how little I actually knew about the Spanish Armada (and Spanish history) and then educated me about it 🙂

In Our Time: Josephus

Josephus was a Jewish and Roman historian in the 1st Century AD who wrote (amongst other things) about the Roman-Jewish war that lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the 18th Century this book was widely read by Christians as it appears to provide historical evidence for Jesus; and Josephus was held up as one of the great historians. However to Jews he was a much more controversial figure and wasn’t read or referred to until much later in the Enlightenment. Talking about Josephus’s life, times and legacy on In Our Time were Tessa Rajak (University of Reading), Philip Alexander (University of Manchester) and Martin Goodman (University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies).

They started the programme with some context for the Jewish-Roman war. In the 2nd & 1st Century BC under the rulership of the Maccabees Judah had become independent. During this period it had formed a sense of itself as a Jewish nation, and so when it became a province in the Roman Empire Judah didn’t assimilate into the Empire as well as the Romans would’ve liked. To some extent the province had a special status – they had a bit more independence than was generally the case. The Jews & their religion were well treated and the Herods ruled as client kings of the Romans. However there was a strand of thought within Judean society that they should be independent, and this was particularly pronounced in the priestly classes and the elite.

Josephus was born in 37AD to a family in Jerusalem who were members of the priestly elite. He was highly intelligent and well educated. Stories about his education have parallels to the stories told about Jesus’s education – the bright boy who quickly surpasses his teachers in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. When the Jewish-Roman War broke out in 66AD he, along with many other intelligent educated sons of the priestly elite, became a general. He had no experience in leading troops, nor did his fellow generals. Unsurprisingly the war is a disaster for the Jews, and the Romans quickly put down what they see as a rebellion of one of their provinces. However, it’s important to remember that most of what we know about this war comes from Josephus. And he wrote about it after the fact when he had become Romanised and for a Roman audience. So his bias is against the Jews.

Josephus doesn’t entirely whitewash his own actions in the war when he’s writing about it. One of the stories he tells reflects badly (by the standards of his community) on him – possibly he only tells it because it was widely known and so better to put his own spin on it rather than miss it out completely. During the war he was leading troops who were holding out against a siege, but they were losing. The acceptable thing to do in these circumstances was to commit suicide rather than surrender, and this is what the others want to do. Technically it’s not suicide – each man is to kill another until there is only one left who will commit suicide. Josephus tries to talk his troops out of this, but fails. Eventually there are only two people left, Josephus and one other, and finally Josephus succeeds in talking this other man into surrendering rather than dying. This failure to pursue the honourable path is one of the things that shaped Josephus’s later legacy amongst the Jews.

When he surrenders Josephus is captured by Vespasian and taken to Rome as a slave. He tells Vespasian that he has had a vision that Vespasian will become Emperor – which at the time seems extremely unlikely. However, two years later this comes to pass. This little story needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt as the only sources for the vision and timing of the revelation of said vision are Vespasian and Josephus who both have vested interests in it being true.

Josephus worked for Vespasian as a scholar and interpreter, first as a slave and later as a Roman citizen. He wrote a history of the Jewish-Roman War, which is one of the books that he is remembered for. This was written for a Roman audience, and so it was tailored to please his masters and his potential customers for the book. For instance Josephus justifies his defection to Rome by saying that he believes God has withdrawn his blessing from the Jews and it has passed to the Romans. He does also explain the Jewish side of the war and this theme is taken up again in a later book about Jewish history, laws and customs. This is again written with his Roman audience in mind, and is a thorough explanation of his home culture to the people of his new culture.

Josephus’s legacy is two-fold. Amongst early & medieval Christians he was revered as a historian, in large part because there is a passage in the Jewish history book which refers to Jesus. This would be the earliest historical (i.e. non-Biblical) reference to Jesus and was tremendously important to Christian readers of his books. The experts all agreed that this reference was almost certainly inserted into the text in the 3rd Century AD by a Christian bishop. It’s possible that there was some stub of a reference to Jesus but not the longer description and reference to his Christian followers that is in the version that we now know. The originals of his works did fall into obscurity but in the 18th Century were rediscovered and re-translated. And at that time his history books were widely read by ordinary Christians.

His legacy amongst the Jews was much less positive. He was remembered as a traitor – both for failing to commit suicide when he should’ve and for later becoming a Roman citizen (and for his belief that God had changed his mind about who His chosen people were). As a result his books were not much read by the Jews, and were not translated into Hebrew. However much later, in the Enlightenment, there was a shift in attitude to the story of Judaism in some parts of the Jewish community. Some wanted their history told in the new scientific style of the Enlightenment era, which was quite a change from the Rabbinical tradition (which is fairly ahistorical). Josephus’s works are a good source for what Judaism was like before the Temple was destroyed. They also provide perspective on the immediate impact of the Temple’s destruction – as at the time it was assumed it was a temporary setback, not the permanent disaster hindsight showed it to be.

Doctor Who: Under the Lake

Another two-parter! Which is a little annoying as we’re extremely unlikely to get a chance to watch the next one live … OK so fewer people I read/follow online seem to be talking about Doctor Who so there’s less chance of inadvertent spoilers, but even so it’s a bit annoying to have to wait even longer to find out what happens!

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

Felt like a very classic Who episode in some ways – a locked base episode with running down corridors as the dominant activity, complete with monster of the week that baffles/intrigues the Doctor and a Reason the TARDIS won’t be terribly useful. A big difference, tho, was that once the Doctor introduces himself everyone (nearly?) is all “oh, the Doctor, UNIT, yes we know these things”, he probably didn’t even need the psychic paper. So we don’t have so much faffing about with people trying to assert authority (except Pritchard and it was quickly established he was the one no-one was going to miss when he died).

Ended with a somewhat less easy to unpick cliff-hanger than the last one. I mean, it’s again obvious that the Doctor isn’t dead just like Clara & Missy weren’t. But I’ve less of any idea of how they’re sorting it out: teleport seems less plausible … holograms? we’ve had that flagged as a possibility by the Clara-hologram in the “faraday” cage room (so not a faraday cage, but hey it’s science fantasy not science fiction, that’s the mantra to keep in mind). J pointed out that two of the deaths previously were off-stage with no body visible (top-hat-alien dude and the heroic commander) so maybe the ghosts don’t require death to be formed, but in the case of Pritchard the Creepy Corporation Guy we did actually see his body so that too seems less than plausible. We’ll find out in a week (or two) I guess 🙂

I liked that Cass (second in command, deaf) was characterised primarily as “cleverest in the room when the Doctor steps out” and “sensible”, and deaf was not her defining feature. I think it’s going to turn out to be plot relevant though – we had her skill at lip reading used this episode. But the thing we had flagged up several times during the episode and not resolved was that she won’t let her translator into the ship because it’s dangerous. So she’s perceiving something the others aren’t – could be just she’s the cleverest one, but also maybe not a coincidence that “earworm” was the analogy the Doctor chose?

Odd little interlude in the middle with the Doctor cautioning Clara about “going native”, and the offhand reference to the TARDIS only being big enough for one of him. Clara as wannabe-Doctor or Apprentice Doctor (to be more fair) has been a running theme for most of the time she’s been in the show. That and her seeming inability to take any of the threats seriously – it’s all an adventure and she quickly forgets/doesn’t care about the risks. They’ll win in the end, right? No-one important dies … Which sits oddly against the compassion>* theme of the previous episode. So, yes, odd. Also odd was the Doctor being again ill at ease with the social politnesses of human society – I have a feeling that Moffat Who in general has been keen to use such things to play up the alieness of the Doctor. But it doesn’t sit well with me – in that I don’t expect the Doctor to need cue cards and Clara’s help to remember to say “oops, yes, sorry for your loss” when he tactlessly holds forth about the exciting possibilities of someone’s friend’s death. I do think the tactlessness in the first place is in character tho 😉

I don’t think the titles have anything particularly season-arc significant about them after all, in fact I’m at a loss there – either there’s nothing obvious for the red-thread running through the season or I’m being dumb. Both are eminently possible … and I did forget to look for the wedding ring this time, I don’t think it was a shoved under our metaphorical noses. I like that the sunglasses are a Thing that we appear to be keeping – fits with the “don’t believe what you see” sort of themes too, changing perceptions though the right lenses etc. Even if not significant to the arc (if they’re not) titles are still interesting to think about – I so rarely notice titles (yes, I know, bad reader/viewer, no biscuit) that I forget to think about how they tie into what they’re titling. Under the Lake still pings as Arthurian to me, and we do have a sword popping up as prominent feature of the episode, abeit not literally. Before the Flood is more biblical tho: the sinful world before it was cleansed. And an Ark, a survival pod if you will …