King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons
The last episode of Michael Wood’s series about King Alfred & his descendants was about Æthelstan. He was the only of King Alfred’s grandsons to be born while Alfred was still alive, and was the son of Edward who was King of Wessex after Alfred. Yet his ascension to the throne was still controversial. Edward had 14 children, by three different women – two of whom were crowned Queen (consecutively, I imagine, but Wood didn’t say). Æthelstan’s mother wasn’t one of these more important wives, and so Edward’s designated heir was one of his younger sons. However Æthelstan believed himself to’ve been chosen by Alfred (having met the man, and been “knighted” by him). He was brought up in Mercia by his aunt Æthelflæd, the Lady of Mercia, and after Edward’s death he lost no time in taking control of first Mercia and then Wessex. He was crowned in Kingston on the border of the two countries. He didn’t stop there, either – he was the first King of all the English, fulfilling Alfred’s dream. He claimed overlordship of the King of Scotland and the Kings of the Welsh too, although that may’ve looked different from the perspective of those countries than it was represented by Æthelstan in his charters etc 😉 He was a King in his grandfather’s mould – both warrior & learned. He too looked to Rome for a certain degree of legitimacy, and was well read in religious texts. He had no children, Wood suggested that this might’ve been as the result of negotiation with one of his brothers – that Æthelstan would rule, but his brother’s children would inherit.
I enjoyed this series 🙂 One thing I particularly liked which I’ve not mentioned so far is that there was a lot of reading from the original texts in Anglo-Saxon (with subtitles, obviously). I like the way the language sounds, alien yet just on the edge of familiarity.
The Story of the Jews
In this episode of Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews he discussed the Jews of Eastern Europe & their impact on the world. Schama’s mother’s family were Lithuanian Jews so this was personal history for him. A lot of Jews had moved to Poland during the period where that kingdom was one of the more tolerant places on the continent. After Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria & Russia at the end of the 18th Century it became less welcoming to Jews, but many still lived there (of course) – mostly restricted to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. Schama described how finding joy in the harsh environment of the Pale lead to the development of Hasidic Judaism – an ecstatic & less rigid form of the religion than more orthodox traditions.
The harsh conditions, and increasing pogroms, lead to many Jews emigrating from the Pale to the USA – seen by many as a promised land where they could be people rather than outsiders. There they had a large impact on US culture. Schama talked about the lower East Side of New York where many of these emigrants lived, and he talked about the many song-writers who came from that area and wrote some of the memorable songs of early 20th Century US music. Names like Gershwin and Harburg, songs like “Over the Rainbow”, and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”.
The programme was bookended by the Holocaust, so despite the moments of beauty & joy in the middle it was still a sobering piece of viewing.
The Wonder of Dogs
Having finished off several series recently we started up a new one. When I’d spotted The Wonder of Dogs in the listings we’d not been quite sure about it, so we started watching it soon after recording so that we could cancel it if we wanted to. No need to worry tho, this first episode was entertaining & interesting. In the series Kate Humble, Steve Leonard & Ruth Goodman are talking about all things canine – they are based in a village in England and are using the dogs of the village to illustrate many different aspects of canine biology & history, and also talking to various experts. So in this programme they were mostly looking at the astonishing variety of dogs.. Goodman looked at the history of a few of the different breeds – like chihuahuas, greyhounds and bulldogs. Up until Victorian times dog breeds weren’t really formalised, there were different sorts of dogs for different sorts of jobs (or fashion accessories) but there weren’t defined types. They also looked at the underlying biology of the dog – how the bone structure is always the same, just different in scale or precise configuration. Humble talked to an genetic expert who said that all the variety in modern dogs is down to just 50 or so genes, and that the rest of the dog genome is the same as their wild grey wolf ancestors. Quite a lot of “look at the cute dog” to the programme, but some interesting facts in there too 🙂
A303: Highway to the Sun
This programme was a one-off that we’ve had sitting on the PVR for months & months and never quite got round to watching. I’m not sure it was quite what I was expecting, but this was rather fun 🙂 Tom Fort (who I’d not heard of before) drove a Morris Minor Traveller along the A303 from start to end, stopping at places with historical significance and covering approximately 5000 years of the history of England. So we had the Amesbury Man for prehistoric stuff as well as Stonehenge, we had some stuff about the Romans where the road runs along the old Roman road, we had some stuff about Alfred (someone’s 18th Century folly on the site of a battle of Alfred’s), and more modern stuff like toll roads and even the many many attempts to shift the position of the A303 away from Stonehenge (which have all failed so far). Fort also met a variety of interesting people … including a man who uses the A303 as the perfect place to collect roadkill for his dinner.
Fun, and worth watching 🙂