Harlots, Housewives & Heroines

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls is a three part series about women in Restoration England, presented by Lucy Worsley. The three episodes each focus on a sort of woman – the harlots, housewives and heroines of the title; although the last of these categories is a bit forced. Worley’s thesis was that the second half of the 17th Century was actually a rather good time to be a woman (relatively speaking). The Civil War was in part responsible for this due to the high levels of mortality – the highest rate in English history before the First World War – and it was interesting watching this around the same time as Britain’s Great War (post) because some of the ideas about how mortality leads to social change were the same. This being a Worsley series there was a certain amount of dressing up through all three episodes – ostensibly to show us the different sorts of clothes worn by different sorts of women but in reality I think it’s because she finds it fun! This isn’t criticism, I’d be inclined to do the same if I had the opportunity 🙂

The first episode (the harlots) was actually about upper class women, who were labelled this way to reflect the notorious licentiousness of Charles II’s court. He had many mistresses and these women wielded great power. The second episode looked at what it was like to be a more ordinary woman in Restoration England – a housewife. Worsley also talked about how the shortage of men due to the wars meant that this era was when the concept of the spinster and the old maid arose and were labelled. The final episode took some of the notable women of the age as its jumping off point (Nell Gwyn, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Benn etc) but really it was about the women who didn’t fit into the other two categories – what was it like to be a young woman in service in London, for instance. And also a discussion of the new career of actress as women were for the first time allowed on stage.

An interesting series, worth watching.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 3 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Episode 4 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Episode 1 of Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities – 3 part series looking at three key cities each in a different key year in the 20th Century.

Episode 1 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

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 🙂

The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain; Tigers About the House; The Birth of Empire: The East India Company

The First Georgians: The Kings Who Made Britain was a series presented by Lucy Worsley which ties into an exhibition at Buckingham Palace this year to mark the 300th anniversary of George I taking the throne. The series (and presumably exhibition?) focussed on Georges I and II who are often overlooked a bit in the rush to get to George III and the madness and loss of the American colonies. As well as the two monarchs Worsley also looked at the other important members of the family during this time – starting with the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was the originally designated heir to Queen Anne. Sophia didn’t live long enough to take the throne, so it was her eldest son George who did. Other members of the royal family discussed were the spouses of the two Georges: Sophia and Caroline; and Frederick Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III).

The Hanoverians were brought in as monarchs of the United Kingdom by an Act of Parliament designed to avoid the “disaster” of a Catholic monarch. This of course was fertile ground for conflict – which boiled over in 1715 and 1745 with the Jacobite rebellions. As well as being Protestant they had another advantage – they were a family, with more than one heir already lined up! It was hope this would usher in a period of a stable Protestant monarchy. And it did, in one sense, but they were a pretty dysfunctional family. George I’s wife spent the last 30 years of her life locked up after having an affair, George I and George II did not get on, neither did George II and his son, Frederick. As well as all their disastrous fallings out the family also had some problems with being accepted by the populace of their new country – they were seen as foreigners, and George III was the first of the dynasty to be born in England! Both George I and George II were seen as more interested in Hanover than they were in the UK, Frederick was the first to truly put the UK first – mostly as it would annoy his father.

This was a time of great change in British society, and Worsley’s thesis was that some of this was due the trickle down effect of the Georges’ on the society around them. For instance in George II’s reign the concept of “the opposition” in parliament began to rise. This is because Frederick provided a secondary focus for the politicians – a place in the political system where you could disagree with the King whilst still being loyal to your country.

A good series about a couple of Kings I often overlook at bit, and it has definitely made me want to see the exhibition.

Tigers About the House was something completely different 🙂 Giles Clark is a zookeeper who is in part of the team who look after the Sumatran tigers in a zoo in Australia, and for the first couple of months of the lives of a pair of cubs he was bringing them up at home. The tigers in the zoo aren’t ever going to be reintroduced to the wild, and are handled often by the keepers (and sometimes by the public) so this was a good way to familiarise the cubs with humans while they were young. But it wasn’t in any way domesticating them – it seemed more like the keepers ended up as friends of the tigers (whilst still respecting them). As well as the strand of “ooooh, cute tiger babies” the programme also had a message about conservation. One of the reasons this Australian zoo is so keen to have their tigers handleable, including by the public, is that this encourages people to contribute to conservation funds. Sumatran tigers are being hunted to extinction by poachers in the wild, because their bodies are used in traditional medicines and as luxury goods – there are only a few hundred tigers left in the wild, and they may become extinct in the wild in the next few decades.

A very cute series, which did its job at raising awareness of the tigers plight in the wild.

The Birth of Empire: The East India Company was a two part series presented by Dan Snow looking at the history of the East India Company, and how they accidentally established the British Empire. It was full, as you might expect, of British people behaving poorly towards the Indians. But different phases of the history had different sorts of poor behaviour. Snow split it into two halves for the two episodes – in the first part of the history the Company was wholly independent from the British Government, and wholly concerned with profit. Going to India as a member of the East India Company was a good way to become spectacularly rich – providing you survived the climate and the diseases that came with the climate. It also seemed to have less formalised racism – men who went to India with the Company frequently married or otherwise had relationships with local women, and could take on some of the local customs (including but not limited to polygamy). But profit was the main focus, and this lead to the spectacularly poor management of a famine in Bangladesh (including selling food out of the region in order to make a profit rather than feeding the people) that appalled the public in Britain. The Company was brought under the oversight of Government after this, and the second phase of its history began.

This phase was to see the rise of the civil service and also increasing education of the the Indians. But it also started to move from trade with India to ruling India. In part because the Government oversight was back in London and couldn’t really do much to restrain the ambitions of the men on the ground in India. This era also saw the rise of a much more racist attitude towards the Indians, regarding them as innately inferior. And it was this attitude that lead to increasing tensions between the Indians and the Company – and this boiled over in the Indian Mutiny (otherwise known as India’s First War of Independence) in 1857. There were atrocities on both sides, and public sentiment in Britain was that the Company had been at fault in letting it happen. This was the catalyst for the British Government taking over ruling India and the end of the East India Company.

An interesting series that reminded me (again) how little I know of the history of India – I need to add a book about the subject to my (huge) list of books to read 🙂

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve also watched:

Episode 4 and 5 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episode 1 and 2 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

The Secret Life of the Sun – one-off programme with Kate Humble and Helen Czerski looking at the sun and the solar cycle. Lots I didn’t know or only had a vague idea about (like how long it takes for photons to get out of the sun!).

ISIS – Terror in Iraq – Panorama episode about the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of the ISIS Islamic state. Thoroughly depressing, full of atrocities committed by ISIS – the conclusion seems to be that as they want to spread throughout the world the question isn’t if the West end up in conflict with them, but rather when.

Britain Underwater – Panorama episode that aired in February about the flooding in the Somerset Levels (and other areas of the UK). Depressing, and looked at how there are no long term answers that will keep everybody from being flooded.

In Our Time: Pocahontas

Pocahontas only lived for around 22 years, but her short life became an integral part of America’s national mythology. A lot of the things we “all know” about her are wrong, or misleading. Even the name we know her by wasn’t her real name – more of a nickname, meaning “naughty child” or something of that sort. The three experts who discussed what we actually know about her life on In Our Time were Susan Castillo (King’s College London), Tim Lockley (University of Warwick) and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia).

Pocahontas first appears in the historical record around 1608, when she’s described as a girl of about 10. Although that age is just a guess by a contemporary given the rest of what is said at the time she’s certainly pre-pubescent (not acting nor dressed like an adult woman), and the experts agreed that a birth date of around 1595 seems plausible. She was the daughter of Powhatan, who was the primary leader of the Native American tribes living in the Tidewater area of Virginia. There were several sub-chiefs below him in status, and he was expanding his empire/area of influence. The society she grew up in was matrilineal, but the chief was always a man. So although she was daughter of the chief she wouldn’t convey the right to leadership herself or inherit any power. She was, however, Powhatan’s favourite child.

In 1607 the English made another attempt to establish a colony in North America. This was a government encouraged effort, but the English government weren’t particularly involved in funding any of the colonisation preferring instead to rely on private investors. North America had been pretty much ignored by the Spanish colonial forces because it didn’t have as readily available gold as South America. But the English were beginning to want their own overseas empire (to play with the big boys) and this was available real estate that might be able to be be made profitable. Roanoke, the first colony, had failed and Jamestown (this new effort) also ran into significant trouble. The experts on the programme were pretty scathing about this – they said that too many of the colonists were gentlemen who didn’t know what they were doing. So it wasn’t just the challenge of farming in an unfamiliar land, it was also the challenge of getting people who’d never farmed before to learn and work hard enough and do it quickly enough to feed the colony. The colonists had to be bailed out more than once by the local Native Americans (led by Powhatan) who provided food that got at least some of them through the harsh winters. In 1610 the remaining few colonists (about 60 out of the original 1000) were in the process of leaving to go home to England when 900 new colonists arrived and forced the original colonists to return to Jamestown to carry on.

Pocahontas is first mentioned by John Smith, who is one of the English colonists. In 1608 he has some sort of meeting with Powhatan (which results in help for the colony and relatively good relations between the peoples). In a letter about that event he mentions Pocahontas. And around that time (afterwards?) she and other children of the Native Americans would come to the English colony to play with the children there (hence the descriptions of her that suggest she’s pre-pubescent at the time). She is also the person who comes to bring the gifts of food from Powhatan (as someone who has status but isn’t threatening in any way, conveying the peaceful intentions of Powhatan at that time). Writing much later (in fact after Pocahontas’s death) Smith elaborates his story and this is where the legend of Pocahontas saving the life of an English colonist comes from. His later account says that he was going to be executed by Powhatan, but Pocahontas put herself between him and her father and persuaded Powhatan to let him go free. The experts were clear that this is most likely to be a later fabrication on Smith’s part because Pocahontas is already becoming mythologised. However if it is accurate, then it’s actually most likely that Smith misinterpreted a staged ritual scene as a reality and that possibly this was some sort of adoption ceremony. Nowhere in Smith’s accounts of his meeting(s) with Pocahontas does he suggest any sort of romantic relationship. At the time of their interaction she was still a child around 10-12 and he was 30 years old, so it seems pretty unlikely. This is a much later addition to the myth – to make it “a better story”.

Pocahontas then vanishes from the record again for a few years. On the programme* the experts said that she is thought to’ve married during this time – to a member of a nearby chiefdom mostly under her father’s control. On a visit to her husband’s people (in 1613 says wikipedia, I don’t remember if they said the date on the programme) Pocahontas was tricked into getting on an English boat at which point she was captured and brought back to Jamestown. During her time in captivity she was converted to Christianity. This is important because one of the rationales given by the English for why it was morally good to colonise North America was that they would then convert the natives to Protestant Christianity rather than let the Spanish convert everyone to Catholicism. This was a goal more talked about than done, unlike the Spanish empire there weren’t mass efforts to convert by the English, however Pocahontas was held up as an example of the “good” that could be done here. So that contributed to both her celebrity status when she visited England, and her later mythologisation.

*Wikipedia disagrees and thinks this first husband is likely apocryphal. I’m inclined to go with the experts on In Our Time over wikipedia but as I looked something up on wikipedia for this paragraph I noticed and thought I’d mention it.

Relations between Powhatan and Jamestown fairly obviously deteriorated into fighting after Pocahontas was captured. However peace was restored but Pocahontas didn’t return to her people, instead she remained in Jamestown where she married an Englishman named John Rolfe in 1614. Rolfe had been shipwrecked in the Bahamas on his way to Virginia, and his wife and child had died there. When he eventually made his way to Jamestown he brought with him a Bahaman strain of tobacco – which was easier to grow, and more to European tastes, than the native Virginian tobacco. So he played a prime role in the future profitability of the colony. In private letters he talks of his love for Pocahontas, but in more public letters he stresses that he is not overcome by lust instead he’s doing this for the good of the colony etc. On the programme they talked about him being a bit of a conflicted man – he was prone to overthinking things. However they agreed that he probably did love Pocahontas, just that in the very racist society of the England of the time (including the colony in Jamestown) it was an almost perverse thing to do to marry a Native American woman. Not just a heathen, but not even white. Bragg notes in his blog post on the Radio 4 blog that there were only three interracial marriages in Virginia in the 17th Century of which this was the first.

Relations between Powhatan and Jamestown definitely improved after this marriage. There’s some indication that Powhatan was trying to bring them into his empire as a sub-chiefdom like the others (and this started back with John Smith in 1608). They talked a bit on the programme about how one of the problems with relations between the two peoples was differing views on landownership – not just who owned it but completely different systems. This blew up again (after Pocahontas death) as the English colony expanded. The Native American view was that the land you were using was your land, but all of the towns they had were only semi-permanent. The normal process was that the tribe would settle somewhere and the women would farm and the men hunt in the surrounding forest – once the farmland was exhausted and needed to be left fallow the whole community would up sticks and move. But the English came along and started clearing forests or settling on land that wasn’t currently in use because they saw it was “empty” and “unowned” but the Native Americans saw it as not currently in use by anyone but that it would be in future. So the English were reducing the amount of land available for everyone, and later in the century began pushing the Native Americans off even the land they were using as relations between the peoples deteriorated further.

In 1616 John Rolfe and Pocahontas visited England. They didn’t talk much about Pocahontas’s personality on the programme (because we don’t know much) but they did stress that she is thought to’ve been a curious and intelligent woman. So this trip to England was in part because of her desire to know more about the world her husband came from. However it was also something of a diplomatic mission – she was treated as a foreign princess by the English, and her brother (who was involved in Powhatan’s administration) and his wife also accompanied them on the trip. So there was some degree of diplomacy going on and some degree of espionage. There’s an anecdote (possibly apocryphal) of her brother bringing a counting stick to count how many of these English there are … but before they even get to London he’s already thrown the stick away as there are too many to count. I think they said that all the people Powhatan ruled over totalled about 15,000 at the time so that’s quite a big difference between the two countries. Pocahontas and her husband were presented to King James at court as a part of their trip – Rolfe himself was too low status for this sort of treatment so it’s definitely her status that’s driving this. It’s interesting to wonder what would’ve happened if she’d lived – this feels like it’s shaping up to be an alliance of sorts between Powhatan and the English. If Pocahontas had lived long enough to mediate diplomatically between the two would it have lasted longer? But then again probably not, too much entrenched entitlement on the part of the English colonists I suspect.

Pocahontas and Rolfe were actually on their way home to Jamestown when Pocahontas fell ill. On March 10th 1617 there’s a record of a meeting between some English officials and Pocahontas where she’s not mentioned as being in ill health. But on the ship from England she becomes ill and the ship returns to Gravesend where she dies and is buried on March 21st. The experts on the programme preferred the theory that she caught something like dysentery – there’s no indication of a long decline so some sort of catastrophic illness seems most plausible. Later theories (particularly from modern descendants of Powhatan’s people) also include the idea that she was poisoned. But there doesn’t seem to be evidence that the English wanted her out of the way, and that seems to be as much a part of the myth as the romantic relationship with John Smith.

The Stuarts; Bible Hunters

For some odd reason the BBC had a new documentary series about The Stuarts and then only aired it in Scotland. I can see that it was intended to tie in with the upcoming vote on independence but it was straightforwardly a documentary rather than a piece of propaganda. So I’m not really sure why it was kept north of the border. We only spotted it because I’d recorded something else off BBC2 Scotland to avoid a clash, and there was a trailer for The Stuarts.

The presenter was Clare Jackson, who I don’t think I’ve seen anything by before, and her thesis was that the Stuarts were the defining royal dynasty of Great Britain – despite the actual creation of the United Kingdom only happening almost by accident at the end of the Stuart era. She took us through the whole 17th Century (and a smidge beyond) in chronological order. The first episode covered James VI & I, and the early years of Charles I. The accession of James to the English throne in 1603 after Elizabeth I’s death had been a time of optimism – for James and for his new country. James’s dream was to unite the two countries in the same way that the crowns were now united, however he wasn’t able (even with his high degree of political skill) to persuade the English in particular to do this. Jackson also covered the seeds of Charles I’s autocratic leanings – in particular she pointed at his visit to Spain, whilst he was trying (and failing) to negotiate a Spanish marriage for himself. At the court of the Hapsburgs he got a taste of how royalty “should” be treated.

The second episode covered the civil wars and the Restoration. In this episode Jackson was keen to stress how the way we’re taught British history today (particularly in England) simplifies and prettifies this collection of conflicts. We’re often presented with it as “democracy vs. autocracy”, and the parts of the war outside England are often ignored. She said it is better compared to modern conflicts like the violence & genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And she emphasised the Irish parts of the Civil Wars, which were not pretty in the slightest and still have repercussions today. Cromwell is a divisive figure – either a hero (from a Protestant point of view) or a villain (from the Catholic point of view). She also pointed out how Cromwell was by the end King in all but name (hardly the champion of democracy that English school history would like to portray him as) and after he died his power and title passed on to his son. Who was sufficiently bad at the job that Charles II was invited back to England.

The last episode could be thought of as the long decline of the Stuarts … we started with the disaster that was about to be James VII & II. Charles II had been fairly astutely focused on remaining King – he might’ve had Catholic leanings and a Catholic wife but he’d stayed a Protestant (until his deathbed, perhaps). His brother James, however, did convert to Catholicism and was fervent about it – he resigned public office rather than give up his Catholicism. Charles never managed to sire a legitimate heir, so James was next in line to the throne. Charles did his best to mitigate the problems with his having a Catholic heir – he had James’s daughters brought up Protestant and married them to good Protestants (like William of Orange, a diplomatic necessity as well as an internal political one). So when James did come to the throne it was seen as a brief blip before Mary & William took over – dealable with. When James’s new wife had a son this changed and it was time for more direct action, William was invited to invade (this is the Glorious Revolution) which he did and by chance he won bloodlessly. William and Mary, and then Mary’s sister Anne after them were childless so after Anne the next possible Stuart heirs were the Catholic descendants of James. And this is what finally brought about the creation of the United Kingdom that had been James VI & I’s dream. England wanted the Protestant Hanoverans to inherit after Anne died, Scotland would’ve preferred the Stuart heir – and so the crowns and thus the countries would part unless Parliament succeeded in passing the Act of Union.

A good series, I really don’t know why it was confined to the Scottish bit of BBC2.

Bible Hunters wasn’t a promising name for a series, but actually it turned out to be pretty good (with some flaws). Jeff Rose took us through the 19th and early 20th Century attempts to find or confirm the truth of the Bible. The first episode focussed on the New Testament, and the efforts of 19th Century scholars and explorers to find early copies of the Gospels. The idea was to show that the Gospels were indeed the inerrant word of God, and that the narrative of Jesus life and ministry was correct. Egypt was the target of these expeditions because of the early monastic tradition in the country dating back to much nearer the time of Jesus life than anything in Europe could do. Some monasteries (like that at Sinai) have been inhabited continuously since at least the 3rd Century AD. What was found shook the certainty that nothing had changed as the Bible was copied and translated over the centuries. In particular the ending of the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels, thought to’ve been written first) was different, and different in an important fashion. The modern end of that Gospel has Jesus seen after his resurrection, and the women who went to his tomb are instructed to go forth and tell people the good news. The 2nd Century version of the text ends with the women finding the empty tomb, being told by an angel that Jesus has risen, and being afraid and telling no-one. The programme built this up as being a cataclysmic blow to the faithful, and certainly it causes a lot of problems if your faith requires the words in the Bible to be literally the whole truth and literally unchanging.

The second episode looked more generally at what expeditions to Egypt showed about both the general truth of the biblical world view and the construction of the canonical texts of the Bible. As the history of Pharaonic Egypt began to be examined it cast doubt on the accuracy of the Biblical stories about the history & age of the Earth. For instance when the Dendera zodiac was found it was thought to be 12,000 years old (now known to be false, it’s Ptolemaic) and how did that square with Usher’s careful calculations about the Earth having been created in 4,004 BC? And other Gospels were found buried near old monasteries – which had been hidden after the official choice of the four we now know as being the canonical books. These included a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, which gave a bigger role for women in the early church than in later times. And also Gnostic Gospels.

The format of the programme was Rose going to various places in Egypt, and also talking to various academics from a variety of institutions about the history of the people who found these things and the history of the ideas. And it was interesting to watch, but I kept running into things that made me stop and think “wait, is that really true?”. Which then casts doubt on the accuracy of other things that I didn’t already know something about. For example Bishop Usher’s calculation of the age of the Earth was mentioned, and Rose told us that “everyone believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old” at that time. But as far as I was aware by the time Usher was doing his calculations there were a lot of people (if not most people) who thought the Earth was much older than that – Usher was more of a last-gasp of outdated thought rather than mainstream. I could be wrong, it’s not an area I know much about but things like that let the doubt in. Another example was that the EEF (forerunner of the modern EES) was presented as being solely about proving the truth of the Bible when it started – but when we visited the EES last September (post) we were told that although the biblical links were used to get more funding preservation of the ancient monuments as things in themselves not as “it’s in the bible” was also an important goal. The discrepancy could well be down to spin, but again this lets doubts creep in about the accuracy or spin on the rest of the programme.

I am glad I watched it, but I don’t know if I’d trust it on the details without cross-checking the facts.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History – two part series about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, part dramatised documentary presented by Suzanne Lipscomb.

Episode 2 of Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – this was part of the BBC’s Tudor Season in 2013. It’s a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you’d need to know if you could travel back there.

Robins of Eden and The Rabbits of Skomer – two rather retro-feeling mini nature documentaries, lasting just 10 minutes each.

The Joy of the Single – programme about singles, talking to various music industry people. Covered things like the history of the single as a phenomenon, the physical object of a 7″ vinyl single and the sort of emotional impact that various singles had on these people.

Episode 2 of The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses – programme presented by Kevin Fong about the senses. Not much new footage, instead it made use of the last 40 years of Horizon to pull out illustrative bits and pieces from the archives. Some neat things to see, but in other ways it felt a bit shallow.

This Week’s TV with Buried Treasure, Historic London, King Arthur & the Indian Ocean

Secrets of the Saxon Gold

This is another Time Team special this time about the Staffordshire hoard which was discovered in 2009. It was (one of?) the largest collection of Saxon gold to be found in Britain, and so is interesting both to the general public & to archaeologists – hence this Time Team special. Even after a year of examining the items at the point this programme was made there’re still a lot of unknowns – Tony Robinson did his best to nail down a theory for why the hoard was buried, for instance, but really the answer is “don’t know”. I think they all agreed the best guess is it was gathered to be melted down & remade, and buried during a crisis then the owner never returned through death or other misadventure.

But there was also a lot of other information that had been found. Like they’d managed to date it to within about 50 years (after the last datable coin of ~650AD, before the art style changed in ~710AD). So that’s contemporary with Sutton Hoo. They had also managed to trace where the gold & garnets had come from – reinforcing the knowledge that the Saxons were connected to a large trade network stretching across Europe & Asia. And because a lot of the pieces were damaged already they can learn more about how these items are made.

London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank

This programme about London in the 17th Century was presented by Dan Cruickshank & looked at the changes between two published surveys of London. The first was written by John Stow & published in 1598, the second was an updated edition by John Strype & published in 1720. Between these two years you have the Civil Wars, the Plague of 1665 & the Great Fire of London in 1666. You also have a change in England’s place in the world, which is reflected in the ways the two surveys talk about the Thames. In 1598 it’s all about defence – you would be able to see invaders sailing up the river in time to do something about them. In 1720 it’s more about access to trade & the rest of the world. As well as a potted history of the century Cruickshank also talked about how the geography of London changed – not so much in the centre despite the fire, apparently a lot of people rebuilt their houses where they’d once stood. Instead the changes were in the outward expansion of the city – to the east this was driven by the new docks at Deptford & Blackwall, and the need for closer housing for the workers. To the west it was driven by new homes built for the gentry, and their demand for suitable places to shop and entertainment.

Interesting programme – and a neat way to look at the history of the city during this period.

The Making of King Arthur with Simon Armitage

The Making of King Arthur was originally part of the BBC’s Norman Season a couple of years ago and has been sitting on our PVR ever since. In it Simon Armitage looks at the development the Arthurian legend, from the perspective of how the story evolved rather than whether or not there’s any truth behind it. After a bit of scene setting about how the Arthurian legend is still told in the present day Armitage starts with the appropriation of the Welsh stories of Arthur by the Norman conquerors. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Normanification of the legend it gets further Frenchified by poets across the channel. They introduce some of the key elements of the legend we remember – like the quest for the holy grail, and the Lancelot/Guinevere love story. And then it comes back to England & English with Thomas Malory’s Mort d’Arthur (which we listened to an In Our Time about a while ago (post)). Throughout the whole programme Armitage had people reading from the various works he was talking about – normally chosen to thematically fit the work or point Armitage was making. Like the lady who works at Monmouth Priory reading a bit from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, or a man (Erwin James) whose writing career started whilst in prison reading from part of Malory’s book. Slightly bizarrely Armitage also visited a woman who keeps the remnants of what she believes to be the Holy Grail – this is said to be the cup that was kept in Glastonbury Abbey until it was dissolved in 1528. It then passed into the keeping of the Powell family until the 1950s, when it moved again to a hidden location. (This is the Nanteos Cup, to disambiguate it from other claimed Holy Grails.)

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fourth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean started in Oman & ended in the Maldives. In Oman he showed us Iranian smugglers, and a remote village on an island that still live in a traditional way catching fish. He skipped over Iran other than to talk about it, and moved on to India where he visited Mumbai. As always we got both sides of the city. First a festival of Ganesh showing the touristy-happy side of life, and then visiting the people whose fishing village has been subsumed into the city for the seedy underbelly. How humankind is fucking up the oceans was the theme for the rest of the programme. First over-fishing in India, where even the captains of the fishing boats say catches are going down year on year yet the industry is expanding. Then on to the Maldives where the coral is suffering from changes in the temperature of the ocean – even a small change of temperature can kill the coral polyps and the death of the whole section of reef is not far behind. And finishing with a visit to the island where the rubbish goes – which is basically a heap of rubbish, bits rotting, bits burning, seeping into the sea through the sand & falling off the edge of the beaches. There were highpoints to that section of the programme too – line & pole tuna fishing, for instance, for a sustainable way to harvest food from the ocean. Also a project to regrow the coral in the ocean and keep the reefs alive.