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 🙂

Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World; The Search for Alfred the Great

Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World was a one-off 90 minute documentary about the history of Easter Island presented by Jago Cooper. The canonical story about the Easter Island culture is that they became so obsessed with building the Moai statues that they cut down all the trees to move them around, at which point the soil promptly eroded away and the culture collapsed due to being unable to grow food. Violence, destruction of statues and cannibalism followed. There’s then a moral lesson drawn about what we, the modern global society, should learn about using up all your resources.

The thesis of Cooper’s programme is that when you actually examine the evidence it’s clear that the traditional story is wrong. Over the course of the programme Cooper talked to several experts in the history and archaeology of Rapa Nui (the proper name for Easter Island and it’s people) both from Rapa Nui and from other countries. The experts didn’t always agree on the details (most notably about the date of arrival of people on Rapa Nui) but the overall picture was clear. Easter Island is the last inhabited place on Earth to become inhabited, somewhere between 100AD and 1200AD. As the Polynesians spread out into the Pacific Ocean they had a standard method of colonising new islands. A group would go out in boats looking for new lands, and when they found something suitable they’d take note of where they were then plant some yams and return home. A larger colonisation group would then set out with all the amenities they’d need to set up a self-sustaining society, and by the time they got there they would have yams to eat. Rapa Nui was the last island found in this eastward migration, and because it’s so far from any other land it became isolated after it was settled. From whenever that was till the arrival of the first Dutch ship in 1722 AD the Rapa Nui people believed themselves to be the only people in the world, and the island was the only land in the world surrounded by an endless sea.

Rapa Nui was forested when the islanders arrived, and did become deforested over the next several centuries. However, this wasn’t anything to do with moving statues and wasn’t even a catastrophe. Cooper told us that the statues are more likely to’ve been moved by “walking” them using ropes, rather than pulled on wooden runners. And even if they were using wood to move their statues, it wouldn’t’ve needed that many trees. One of the experts interviewed had done the calculations – he knew how many trees could’ve grown on the land, how many trees you’d need to cut down to move a single statue a particular distance, how many statues had moved how far. And it was an insignificant number of trees to move all the statues using wood, as compared with the starting number.

Instead of being the results of foolish disaster it’s much more likely that the trees were cleared to create space to grow crops just as is the case in other places around the world. The Rapa Nui people used several methods to keep the soil thus exposed both there and fertile. One things they did was to use rocks to cover the fields in a technique called “stone mulching” (I didn’t quite understand how this worked beyond the obvious idea that the rocks stopped the soil from blowing away – wouldn’t it also stop plants from germinating?). There is also evidence that they landscaped areas so as to collect and channel water – the only fresh water on the island comes from rain – and they planted trees in the damper areas generated by this. And they planted some crops (like banana trees) in caverns where the roofs had fallen in – shaded and out of the wind.

When the first ships arrived, on Easter Day 1722, they found a vibrant and healthy society – which was rather surprised to find it wasn’t alone in the world. That visit was brief, and amicable. When the next ships arrived, about 50 years later, they found a much reduced population and notably that the Moai statues were toppled over. What had changed? The traditional story involves civil war and cannibalism, but there’s no archaeological evidence for that at all. Instead Cooper said the most plausible explanation is that European diseases caused a severe drop in population in this previously isolated society. I think he said that 90% of the population is thought to’ve died – and so of course you have societal changes, that’s a very traumatic event. The statues show signs of being deliberately lowered to hide their faces. One possible explanation is that the honoured ancestors who were supposed to protect them had failed so were toppled. Another is that the Rapa Nui wanted to hide what had happened to their people from the ancestors, so this was a way of covering their eyes. Society was still basically healthy, however, as shown by the evolution of new rituals (like the birdman cult).

And then the European powers did what they did so often – many of the natives were taken off as slaves to work in South America. Those who remained were forced to live in only one small part of the island and poorly treated, while the rest was given over to intensive sheep farming. This use of the land is what caused the soil and the ecosystem to become as poor as it is today. At one point in the 19th Century there were only 36 families on Rapa Nui who had children – and all the native Rapa Nui people today are descended from these people. The culture has only survived in fragments from oral histories written down in the early 1900s – these same fragments are what started the modern fascination with Easter Island. The modern Rapa Nui are fiercely proud of their island, and its history, and are trying to get independence from Chile (their current political rulers).

This was a fascinating programme, well worth watching. Cooper does get a little carried away with how perfect life was before the Europeans arrived, but I think that’s partly to highlight the contrast between the traditional story about the island and what the evidence tells us.

Another one-off programme that we watched this week was The Search for Alfred the Great. This was presented by Neil Oliver and followed the recent attempts to find the bones of King Alfred. The structure of the programme was three intertwined strands – a biography of Alfred, the history of his bones after his death and the scientific examination of the bones we have.

The biography of Alfred didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know – we’ve recently watched Michael Wood’s series about Alfred and his heirs (post) which covered the subject in more depth. The history of Alfred’s bones was new to me, however. His body has been moved at least twice since his original burial. These initial two moves are well documented – he was buried first in the Old Minister at Winchester. Then after completion of the New Minister (that he himself set in motion) he was reburied there. After the Norman Conquest there was another rebuilding of the church (to its current form) and the monks associated with the first New Minister were moved to somewhere else – Alfred was reburied in their new abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation the story of Alfred’s bones gets more murky – they stayed buried as the abbey was demolished around the graves and were forgotten to some extent. When the area was redeveloped into a prison in the 18th Century the convicts doing the ground breaking for foundations discovered sepulchres and bones – the valuable bits were sold, the bones were scattered. But an antiquarian did write about it, and about how these might’ve been Alfred & his family’s tombs. Later a Victorian claimed to have re-found and re-dug up these bones – eventually those were bought by a local church which re-interred the bones in the churchyard with a note that they were probably Alfred. This Victorian is the dodgy link in the evidence chain.

And this is where the modern analysis comes in. The bones from the churchyard were exhumed and analysed using modern techniques. I was a little surprised when near the end of the programme the carbon dating all came back as “too recent” – the 5 skeletons in the grave dated between 1100 AD and 1500 AD. Surprised because I thought I’d read that they’d found something plausible. All became clear shortly afterwards when Oliver moved on to talk about a modern partial excavation of the disturbed abbey site. This had turned up a few bits of human bone but funding had run out before proper analysis was done. Carbon dating on a fragment of a man’s pelvis indicated a date of ~900 AD, so the right era. There is nothing to say if it’s Alfred or not, but it’s possible. The main take home message is that it is likely worth excavating the rest of the site properly so see what else might be found (if anything).

An interesting programme. And well done to Oliver and the other people involved in making it for making a programme that was still worth watching even tho the central question wasn’t answered!

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures – series presented by Richard Fortey looking at three mass extinction events and showing us modern examples of the species that survived them.

Episode 2 of Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve – a programme about the history of (Christian) pilgrimage, pilgrimage sites and the modern incarnation of it.

Episode 1 of Baroque! From St Peter’s to St Paul’s – gloriously over the top series about Baroque art and architecture, presented by Waldemar Januszczak.

This Week’s TV Including Anglo-Saxons, Jewish History, Dogs & the A303

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 🙂

This Week’s TV including Cute Fluffy Animals, Roman Women, an Anglo Saxon Queen and Jewish History

The Burrowers: Animals Underground

The second episode of The Burrowers continued with the three main species they were looking at in the artifical burrows – with a main theme of “leaving the nest for the first time”. The rabbit babies had their first trip outside, the water voles got over their dislike of each other & had some babies who then visited the outside, and the badger orphans bonded into a group and took their first trip out.

As well as this they showed us what an actual wild rabbit burrow looks like – by pouring concrete down an abandoned one and then excavating it (which presumably actually happened before they built their artificial one). And Packham also told us about moles. I hadn’t previously realised that moles keep larders of zombie worms. When they catch a worm first they squeeze the dirt out, then they bite the head off and in the process they inject it with their venomous saliva which paralyses the worm. And then they put the still living, paralysed, headless worm in a larder where it stays fresh until they want a meal. o.O

The third episode was set in summer and was mostly wrapping up & talking about what the future holds for the various creatures. The rabbits by this stage had had three litters each – as soon as the female finished giving birth each time the dominant male mated with her. Thus ensuring that all the baby rabbits came out of the nest in waves (presumably there’s some initial way they set up the synchronisation for the first litter) to overwhelm the predators. Only one in ten rabbits normally survives to the age of 1 due to predation, which frankly is just as well given 10 rabbits turned into over 50 in just a few months. They didn’t say on the programme, but that behaviour also means non-dominant males don’t get much of a window of opportunity to impregnate the females. Most of these rabbits were apparently going back to the breeders, but some were staying for future study.

The water voles managed to have another litter as well – almost despite themselves as the breeding pair still didn’t seem to get along peacefully. They’re all being released into the wild in Scotland somewhere as part of a regeneration programme. And the badgers are also being released into the wild. They actually moved out of the pre-prepared sett and started digging their own in their enclosure. The researchers had been testing their response to badger calls by playing sounds in their sett, and they’d provided extra bedding while the badgers were away. So I reckon the badgers moved out coz they thought the old sett was haunted 😉 Noises in the darkness where there were no badgers, randomly appearing plants in rooms you didn’t leave anything in … who’d want to live somewhere like that? 😉

A fun series, although to be honest not much of note beyond “aww, look at the cute fluffy animals”.

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome

The last episode of Catharine Edward’s series about powerful Roman women covered more ground & more women than the first two. The themes linking them together (other than “these are the rest of them”) were that these women were generally outsiders to the aristocratic Roman culture that the women of the first two episodes came from, and they mostly wielded their power more overtly. Edwards started by telling us about Caenis, who had been a slave to a member of the Imperial family (Antonia, mother of Claudius). Caenis had had an affair with Vespasian long before he was Emperor (and when she was still a slave). She was given her freedom, and after Vespasian’s wife died the two resumed their relationship – however her low social status meant that he could not marry her. Once he became Emperor she continued to live as his wife in all but name, and exerted quite a lot of influence over him including some degree of control over access to him. Next up was Berenice who provides an object lesson in how Roman Emperors weren’t as all powerful as they might hope. The Emperor Titus (son of Vespasian) had formed a relationship with the Jewish Queen, Berenice, while he father was still alive. Once he became Emperor he was forced to bow to public pressure & to set her aside – she was too old (i.e. past child-bearing age) and too foreign.

The next three women were all foreigners, and all related. The wife of the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Syrian woman called Julia Domna. She wielded power alongside her husband much more openly than previous Empresses, and was popular & respected when doing so. After Septimus’s death their son’s inherited jointly, which ended badly as one might imagine. Despite never forgiving her older son for murdering his younger brother she still helped to run the empire, and was grief-stricken at his death (although mostly because she wouldn’t have power any more after that). The next two Emperors were both put on the throne by female relatives of Julia Domna. Sadly the first of these teenage boys was utterly useless as Emperor, and despite the best efforts of his mother Julia Soaemias to rule through him he was overthrown by his aunt Julia Avita and her son Alexander. Alexander might’ve made it as a decent Emperor, but his mother forgot the cardinal rule of keeping the army onside and got stingy with their pay – with the obvious result.

Last of the powerful Roman women was Helena, who can’t really be missed out – mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross (amongst other pious things). Edwards credited her as a major influence on Constantine’s move towards Christianity, and of his changing imperial policy to make the Empire Christian.

A good series, Edwards managed to make it both informative & fun. We did at times wonder how the Roman Empire had got anything done or lasted as long as it did – so many of the Emperors seemed useless or overly concerned with their own debaucheries at the expense of the Empire.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

The second episode of Michael Wood’s series about the Anglo-Saxons was mostly about Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great. Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward in Wessex, and his daughter Æthelflæd was married to the King of the Mercians. The main political crisis of the time was caused by Alfred naming Edward his heir. Alfred had succeeded his elder brother and re-taken Wessex from the Viking’s who’d killed his brother. His nephew Æthelwold had in many ways a better claim to the throne than Edward, but was cut out of the succession by Alfred. So once Alfred died Æthelwold rose up in rebellion, with the help of the Vikings who still ruled East Anglia & Northumbria. He was eventually beaten back by an alliance of Wessex & Mercia led by Edward & Æthelflæd.

Æthelflæd is known as the Lady of the Mercians, and after her husband’s death she ruled on her own. Unusually for the time there is documentary evidence for her power & rule – the “official” record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t refer to her much, but there is a chronicle written detailing the same events from her perspective (in the sense of she’s the main figure of the chronicle not in the sense of a first person account). She is recorded as acting as a King – she leads armies, she plans military campaigns, she acts as a diplomat. Wood tells us that without Æthelflæd & her leadership of Mercia there would not have been England as we know it. Æthelflæd was even succeeded by her daughter, the only time this has happened in English history, but she was removed from power by her uncle (King Edward of Wessex) and he ruled Mercia as King of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Story of the Jews

The third episode of Simon Schama’s series The Story of the Jews covered the promise of integration of the early Englightenment, and the subsequent dashing of those hopes with the rise of a particularly anti-Semitic form of nationalism. At the start of the Enlightenment a spirit of toleration was growing – that put forward the idea that a Jew could be a person who just happened to follow the Judaic religion and should be treated like any other person. Many Jewish families in Germany & France began to integrate into the culture of the country they lived in, becoming members of society & even notable members of high society. Moses Mendelssohn was one of the first examples of this. Although some of his descendants (like Felix Mendelssohn the composer) were baptised, other families like the Beer family remained true to their Jewish religion & heritage. One of the prominent members of the Beer family was Giacomo Meyerbeer (who started life in Berlin as Jacob Beer, changing his name when he moved to Italy) who was a very popular composer of operas in Paris. He was an early patron of Wagner’s – encouraging him and providing him with opportunities to stage his own operas. Schama had other examples, including banking families & others – the common thread was that they generally thought of themselves as German or French or whatever people who happened to be Jewish, rather than Jews who happened to be living in whatever country it might be.

Sadly this promising mood of integration & an end to prejudice against the Jews didn’t last. Wagner as mentioned above might’ve had a Jewish patron initially, but he published anti-Semitic rants against Meyerbeer late. He took the stance that “true art” had much to do with nationalism and roots in a country and that Jews by definition could not be a part of that and so could not produce any real art – which frankly is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start to shake one’s head at it. This nationalistic stance was common in the late 19th Century, and incidents like the disgrace of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew in the French Army, for allegedly passing state secrets to the Germans hardened this anti-Semitism. The propaganda was that Jews could only be loyal to each other first, and their “adopted” countries second … along with the usual collection of prejudices dating back medieval times. And the rising anti-Semitism lead to a change in Jewish attitudes too and the rise of Zionism. Instead of integration into other countries & cultures many Jews now wanted their own country where they were already the culture.

The programme ended where one would expect – with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, as the extreme towards which that anti-Semitic strain of nationalism was tending. A sombre end to a period which had begun with such hope.

This Week’s TV Including Tigers, Jewish History, the Indian Ocean & King Alfred

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle

Having been to the zoo last week & seen the tigers there, we decided to watch the series about tigers narrated by David Attenborough that we’d recently been recording. It’s a relatively old series (2008), but we hadn’t seen it before. The tigers in a national park in India have been filmed using cameras carried by elephants, or motion-sensing cameras left at spots the tigers frequent. As the tigers aren’t bothered about having elephants around (even ones with cameras & people sitting on top of them) this allowed the programme makers to film the tigers’ natural behaviour.

The three programmes followed a litter of tigers cubs from a few weeks old through to maturity. So it started with four cute fluffy little tiger kittens plus mother, and went through to having a pack of five tigers wandering about (just before the family split up). And lots of footage of young tigers failing to hunt in a variety of amusing ways. Also some footage of the other animals they shared the national park with (and not just their prey animals) – including a selection of monkeys, some jackals, leopards, and peacocks.

A good series 🙂 Although I did find it a bit annoying that the narration constantly said things like “The elephants decide to move on”, because I’m sure it was the mahouts who decided to move on …

The Story of the Jews

This is a new series, presented by Simon Schama, about the history of the Jews. He’s positioning it very much as his way of telling the story of the Jews, rather than a definitive “one true history”. In the intro to the first episode he talks about how Jews are spread through the world and don’t share a common culture, or language, or skin colour, or even common beliefs – but what they have in common is the shared story of their heritage, and the words of their bible.

The bulk of the episode covered the history of the Jews from when they arose as a religion/tribal group through to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Firstly he covered some of the biblical stories that are possibly more metaphorical than actual – ie the Exodus with Moses (although there is no archaeological evidence for any of that story), which is still an integral part of the Jewish ritual calendar. And also the fight between David & Goliath, which is probably a story personalising a much longer lasting border conflict between the Jews & the Philistines. He visited a site which has some of the earliest archaeological evidence for Jews following Jewish practice – a fort on the border between Israel & the Philistines where there is evidence that the population didn’t eat pigs (lots of other butchered animal bones, no pig bones), and that their temple had some similar features to later Jewish temples.

Moving on to more solidly historical events he talked about the exile in Babylon and how that shaped the cultural identity of the Jews. While the elite of their society were in Babylon they spent time editing & refining the words of the Jewish Bible into what they considered the definitive version. So on return to Jerusalem those who’d remained behind had to be dragged up to the right standard (presumably much to their dismay). Schama also told us about the Jews who’d fled back into Egypt, to Elephantine Island, when the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem. Their faith & practice had begun to take a different course, much to the disgust of the new purists in Jerusalem. Including setting up a Temple where they performed animal sacrifice in their town, which was against the rules (the only Temple in which animal sacrifice was permitted was the one in Jerusalem). But this offshoot didn’t flourish – disputes with the other non-Jewish inhabitants of the town resulted in the destruction of their Temple, which removed their local focus of worship.

As obviously this is about the Jews he skipped over Jesus with a mere mention, spending more time talking about Herod and dwelling on the mystics who lived near the Dead Sea (and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls that are visions of the apocalypse they believed was coming). And Schama finished up by talking about the ill-fated Jewish rebellion against the Romans that led to the destruction of the Temple. He mentioned he’d been brought up to regard the historian Josephus as a traitor to his people, and that attitude was still very clear 😉

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fifth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean took us from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh & was quite thoroughly depressing. In Sri Lanka the focus was on the aftermath of the civil war with children in the north of the island being taught how to identify mines & shells and what to do (Don’t Touch, Find an Adult). And in the capital Reeve talked to a man who runs a newspaper that is critical of the government. His brother (and co-owner) was murdered, equipment has been destroyed and current staff get death threats – the government does not like being criticised.

In India & Bangladesh he looked at the destruction caused by the demand for prawns. He went out on a trawler with some fishermen dredging for prawns, and it was shocking how little they caught in their nets. Dredging for prawns results in a lot of fish being killed because they’re not wanted. Reeve then visited prawn farms in Bangladesh … great idea, right? Unfortunately, no. To farm prawns you flood your land with sea water & then it’s contaminated with salt so you can’t ever move back to growing rice, fruit & veg. The water also contaminates your drinking water supplies, and your neighbours’ land. So a whole area will end up farming prawns as the only thing their land will support and having to buy all their food & water.

And lastly container ship recycling takes place in Bangladesh – another great idea in theory that kinda fails in execution. The workers who break down the ships are not safe – 8 die a month, many more are injured. And the oil & other waste products contaminate the ocean.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

We also started watching a recent series presented by Michael Wood about the Anglo-Saxons. He is setting forth the idea that three of the most influential kings of England were Anglo-Saxon – King Alfred & his successors. The first episode covered King Alfred’s reign. Alfred wasn’t originally going to be a King – he was a younger son of the King of Wessex (one of the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 9th Century). While he was a young man, and his brother was King, the Vikings conquered all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Alfred’s brother was killed, and Alfred himself fled into the marshes of Somerset. Here he re-grouped over the next few years, and gathered warriors – he then pushed the Vikings back from Wessex & Mercia. He was referred to as the King of all the English kin, but by the end of his life the Vikings still ruled in Northumbria & East Anglia.

The programme didn’t just follow the military side of his life (via the records in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle), but also looked at the ways that he was a good peacetime King. He reformed the economy, and the coins that were minted after he re-took the two kingdoms were much higher quality than previous. He also laid the foundations of south & west England’s towns & cities – many burgs were founded during his reign. These were partly military garrisons to stand ready against any future Viking incursions, but they also became the economic centres of their areas (because they were safer places to conduct your business). One of these burgs was London – it already existed, obviously, but there are references to Alfred re-laying out the streets, or re-founding it (the Anglo-Saxon word is hard to translate).

Alfred was also involved in the translation of “all the important books that a man should read” into Anglo-Saxon – mostly religious texts & commentaries. He was keen to return the country to a state of wisdom & learning, like he believed it had been before the Vikings came. And because the education of people had been interrupted by the decades of war he thought that the books should be translated from Latin into a language they understood.

I already had an idea of the rough outline of Alfred’s story, but the next couple of programmes cover people I don’t have even that much knowledge of, which will be interesting 🙂

Time Team: The Hollow Way; Michael Wood on Beowulf

We decided to watch a couple of programmes that we’ve had on our PVR for 3 or 4 years and somehow never got round to actually watching before. First was an episode of Time Team about a medieval village that used to exist around a farmhouse at Ulnaby, County Durham. Obviously being Time Team they only had 3 days to do a fairly superficial excavation of a handful of areas around the site. But what they did manage to discover was that the peak of the occupation seemed to be around the 13th to 14th Centuries – finding pottery & house walls, and also references in documents. The original assumption had been that it had been deserted in the Black Death (1348) or as land use throughout the country was re-organised in the 15th Century with many villages evicted. However their digging found evidence of occupation up to the 17th Century (lots of tobacco pipes) and there was also documentary evidence for the village up till then as well (names of people pardoned for being involved in the Rising of the North in 1569 (by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I). So their conclusion was that it had petered out gradually around & after that time.

And not really much else to say about it – Time Team tends to be fairly superficial, but it’s normally fun to watch.

Another programme we’d had sitting around for a while was Michael Wood on Beowulf. This was partly a retelling of the Beowulf story and partly about the poem & the world the poem was written for. The retelling part of the programme featured Julian Glover reciting/acting a modern English translation of the poem to an audience of Anglo-Saxon re-enactors in Kent who were all dressed up in their reconstruction royal hall, and had just had a feast. So that was very much “as it would’ve been” (except cleaner, lighter, politer & less drunk, I expect! 😉 ).

For the parts of the programme about the world of the Anglo-Saxons & the origins of the poem Wood spent a lot of time in East Anglia, where the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England were. As he said, the Anglo-Saxon presence here was an immigrant one, and the poem looks back to their ancestral homelands in Denmark & Sweden. He compared it to tales of “the Old Country” told by Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans these days. He visited Sutton Hoo (of course) and talked about how there are ship burials in the poem and that’s what was famously discovered at Sutton Hoo. The King who was buried there was probably Rædwald who was not just a local King but was overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. And he & his lineage (and subjects) were probably the target audience for the original incarnation of the poem. Wood told us that there are references to ancestors of Rædwald at various points in the poem, so it seems likely the original poet was well informed about Rædwald’s genealogy (and wanted to associate him with the heroes of old).

One of the things that is interesting about Beowulf in context is that the world it was composed for was a Christian world, but the world it was about was a pagan world. So the hero Beowulf & his companions are all presented as old pagan heroes, but there is some interestingly Christian imagery & crossover. For instance the monsters, Grendel & his mother, are referred to as the seed of Cain (so the descendants of Adam’s son Cain who kills his brother Abel). Wood visited Northumberland to talk about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is a very Christian & Anglo-Saxon history. And also to tell us about The Dream of the Rood, which is an Anglo-Saxon poem which is overtly Christian & about a dream about talking to Christ on the Cross. It has a certain amount of pagan imagery, in a sort of mirroring of the Christian imagery in Beowulf. Wood was explaining this sort of cross fertilisation between the pagan & Christian worldviews as being part of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and of fitting the new religion into their history.

So the programme has visited areas near where we currently live and areas near where J grew up, and in discussing the relationship of the Anglo-Saxons to the history of the world around them Wood visited Weyland’s Smithy which is in Oxfordshire which completed the set (as it’s an area near where I grew up). What Wood was talking about here was that the Anglo-Saxons knew they lived in an old world – they saw the Bronze Age monuments & burial mounds in the landscape & peopled them with gods & heroes. And it is this old world that Beowulf fits into & explains.

The poem was written down around 1000AD, but was probably composed some time earlier & passed down orally. Despite being an East Anglian work (probably) the version that’s survived is written in a West Saxon dialect, as part of a compilation of “texts about monsters”. Wood visited the British Library to see the original manuscript, which was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century and is very fragile.

A good programme, I’m glad we kept it. I do have one quibble about the filming of it – all the exterior shots were very heavily processed & vignetted. Sometimes that worked (particularly on shots of bleak fenland while Wood was telling parts of the Beowulf story), but often it felt overdone.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

“The Age of Tragedy” was the title of the fourth episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music and it was all about music of death and destiny (and doom!). Even the more light-hearted stuff from the late 19th Century could have these sorts of themes. Goodall opened the programme with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which can be seen as the inspiration for these themes – and we got to hear some of while being shown the sorts of paintings of hell & tormented souls & demons that inspired this type of music.

He then moved on to Italian opera, including the stuff of Verdi, which at first seemed out of place for his primary theme but let him introduce one of the secondary themes of the programme. He talked about how this was the mainstream entertainment of the day – not just expensive seats & toffs in top hats, but the middle classes also went to the opera. And the tunes and songs were written in a lively, memorable style, they were picked up by barrel organ players & played in the streets for anyone passing by. These were the songs everyone knew the words to – just like pop music or a musical of today. Classical wasn’t yet something for “the serious people” – which is the theme he returned to at the end of this programme. Tying it back to the death and destiny theme he pointed out how these operas (like La Traviata) let good respectable Victorian-type people have their cake & eat it – you get to enjoy seeing the people in the story acting scandalously, and then they get their comeuppance by dying miserable, so the moral order was upheld.

We then returned to more Germanic music and the majority of the programme focussed on the music (primarily concerned with death and destiny) and innovations of Liszt – Goodall structured this section around a list of Liszt’s innovations (yes, the pun was clearly intentional, like all the puns Goodall has managed to get into this series 🙂 ). It was quite a long list, fittingly as Liszt had a long & prolific career. He was also one of the first international superstars of music – Goodall told us that women frequently became hysterical at performances (implied tho not stated was the comparison with Beatlemania).

One of Liszt’s innovations was the symphonic poem – instead of a whole four movement, 40 minute symphony these were shorter one movement pieces. They were normally based on a particular non-musical artwork, so Goodall talked us through one piece that was about a particular painting (of the defeat of Attila the Hun in about the only battle where he was defeated) showing us how the musical motifs were related to the elements of the image. He then developed this further by relating it to a more modern form – this can be thought of as the origins of film scores.

Another innovation was the movement for “nationalistic” music – so for Liszt this was taking the Hungarian folk music tunes of his own country & writing music based on them. This became a important strand of classical composition, but didn’t bear much resemblance to the actual folk music of the countries concerned beyond tunes that were vaguely reminiscent. This leads to concerns about appropriation in cases where the composer isn’t relying on their own country’s tradition – for instance Dvorák’s New World Symphony uses themes that are inspired by African-American music or Native American music. Which is a debate that’s been relevant ever since – coming up again with blues & with jazz & with world music.

And this list of Liszt’s innovations moved onto the last section of the programme by listing Wagner. Wagner was clearly inspired by Liszt and Goodall went through many of the innovations that Wagner is credited with and pointed out how Liszt had in fact done it first. However he did point out that even if Wagner wasn’t as innovative as his devotees would like to think, he had better tunes! He also spent time talking about the way that Wagner changed the format of opera from the lighter more variety performance like Italian operas. Wagner was writing operas that were one coherent piece of music, rather than a selection of songs – and he made great use of leitmotifs for each character or concept in the story to bring the music together and to enhance the visual and storytelling aspects of the opera. And he used parts of the opera Parsifal to showcase this. Again you can see the comparisons with modern films.

And as Goodall was talking about Wagner and giving him credit for the good things in the music and operas he wrote I kept thinking “he’s not a Wagner fan”. And just before the programme got to the point, I remembered why one doesn’t like Wagner – he was appallingly anti-Semitic (and racist) and not in a “oh well, product of his time” sort of way. Even by the standards of his anti-Semitic culture he was regarded as an extremist, and he published things that suggested the best course of action to the newly unified Germany was to get rid of all the Jews. After his death his music was used by the Nazi regime as part of their national mythology and Hitler was a big fan of the music, the programme showed us footage of the surviving Wagner family welcoming Hitler to their house.

And after that sobering segment Goodall closed the programme by talking about how he feels that Liszt & Wagner’s devotees have had a long-lasting impact on the perception of classical music. Their music is held up as serious music for serious people, who think about things and understand the true meaning of art. Not like that popular frothy stuff written by people like Gilbert & Sullivan, or those Italian operas, or the music of Offenbach. So a split developed between highbrow “worthwhile” music, and the rest which was looked down on by those who approved of the highbrow stuff.

Waldemar Januszczak’s series about the Dark Ages finished up with an episode about the Men of the North – which in this case means not just the Vikings but also the Anglo-Saxons and the Carolingians. Discussion of the three cultures were woven together through the programme, but I think it’s easier for me to seperate them out when I’m writing about it.

The Carolingians were really only briefly mentioned – this is the name of the ruling dynasty of the Franks at a time when the Frankish empire grew to stretch across a large part of Europe. Charlemagne is one of the most famous Carolingians, and Janusczcak showed us the throne of marble and the chapel that he had built. It was designed as an answer to the Cordoba mosque, so has some similar motifs (like the stripey arches, in this case in black & white not red & white). But as a whole it’s very different – more heavy and more brutal. The more portable art of the period was very opulent with lots of gold, and encrusted with jewels. This was all a reflection of the mindset of the culture – God was on their side because they were just that special.

The segments on the Vikings showed us some of the same art work that we’d seen in the Neil Oliver series (post) – in particular a boat which had been part of a burial, and a stone that commemorates the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Unlike the Oliver series this series doesn’t do the high amounts of messing about with depth of field, so we actually got a proper look at carvings on the boat which are very impressive 🙂 The themes were also somewhat similar to the Oliver programmes – the reputation the Vikings had wasn’t the whole story, they were also artisans as well as looters.

In the sections on the Anglo-Saxons Januszczak showed us the Lindisfarne Gospels, paying particular attention to the celtic influences in the art – the interweaving patterns in the borders & the illuminated capitals. He also showed us a grave-marker from this time – a cross with this interwoven patterns – and that lead to one of the giggle-out-loud moments of the programme. He said, as he was describing it, that it was his favourite because “it’s not quite right, a bit wonky, and you just want to hug it”! We also got the Sutton Hoo treasure – you really can’t miss it out if you’re talking about spectacular Anglo-Saxon art. And Januszczak also showed us a modern craftsman (who used to be a forger, but now makes original designs) making a silver brooch of a style akin to the Alfred jewel (which we also got shown).

I’ve enjoyed this series, and it’s a shame it’s finished now. I do have my doubts about the historical accuracy (see my post about the first episode for an example) but it was entertaining and nice to see all the various objects & buildings. Januszczak was a good presenter and his quirkiness grew on me.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 4

This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories – both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it … and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with “and also known as the Father of Lies” 😉 I did wonder what the Chinese might’ve had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don’t know but I rather suspect that they’ll’ve had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history – history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don’t know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China – he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England – both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one – the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you’d hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them …) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.