In Our Time: Prester John

Prester John was the greatest Christian King who never lived. All through the Middle Ages there were persistent legends (sometimes backed up by apparent documentation) about this powerful priest-king in the East who was ready to bring his powerful armies to attack the Muslims in concert with the Western Crusaders. The experts who discussed these legends on In Our Time were Marianne O’Doherty (University of Southampton), Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture) and Amanda Power (University of Sheffield).

They opened the programme with a bit of a discussion about the historical truths in which these legends might’ve been rooted. During the early Middle Ages there was a large Christian population in the Middle East and in India. There’s evidence that Western Christians were in contact with them – for instance King Alfred (of England) sent some people to India. It’s written about as if the journey wasn’t anything particularly special – a long way, and a relatively rare event but perfectly doable. These Christians weren’t from the same branch of Christianity as the Western Church, and the two Churches would’ve regarded each other as heretics. They are sometimes referred to as Nestorian Christians, but that is a bit of a derogatory term and it’s politer to refer to them as the Church of the East or the Syrian Church. The schism between this Church and Western Christianity hinges round a theological point about the nature(s) of Christ. Western Christianity (or monophysitism) holds that Jesus’s human nature was absorbed into his divinity and he had only one nature. However those who followed Nestorious believed that Jesus had two natures that were only loosely connected (this is called dyophysitism) – he was both divine and human and those were separate from each other. So there was a substantial Christian population in the East (probably larger than in the West), which dwindled after the rise of Islam – after which the legends of Prester John began to develop.

The first forms of the legend are known from the 12th Century AD. One of these is an account of a visit to the Pope in 1122 by an emissary from Prester John. It’s not clear to modern scholars what, if anything, this is actually based on – if there was any visit from anyone that got garbled in the reporting or if someone just made it all up. The emissary purportedly says that he has come form Prester John’s kingdom to the east, and that Prester John had been leading a force to aid the Christians at Jerusalem. However the army had been unable to cross a river on the way, and had been forced to turn back. The account of this emissary’s visit gives details of the fabulous force that Prester John had available, and gave hope they would make another attempt to join the Crusaders.

Another early piece of “evidence” for Prester John was a letter that was purportedly sent from Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor in 1165, and subsequently translated into German and forwarded on to the Holy Roman Emperor. This letter goes into detail about what life is supposedly like in the land that Prester John rules. It’s an earthly paradise, full of wondrous beasts. Everyone lives long and virtuous lives, and after death they don’t rot and will return to life at the Day of Judgement. The kings are always called Prester John and combine the roles of secular and religious leaders in one person. The experts on the programme said that it’s extremely likely that this letter was originally written in German – it doesn’t read like translated Greek. There’s also no obvious reason why the Byzantine Emperor would be forwarding his post on to the Germans! The most plausible explanation for the letter is that it’s a piece of propaganda produced by the Holy Roman Emperor’s court. At the time he and the Pope were embroiled in a power struggle, and a document that explained how perfect everything would be if the secular leader of a country was also the spiritual leader was rather useful for the Holy Roman Emperor.

It seems odd to us as modern people to think that these tales of an earthly paradise (of an incredible nature) were so easily believable, but the programme pointed out that during this era there was a large body of literature of tales of wondrous lands beyond the known world. This is the period where maps have areas labelled as where the Doghead people live, and where the people live who have their faces in their torsos. Around the 12th Century and onwards this begins to change, as more people travel and write more accurate travelogues. It’s a slow change though – not all the early travelogues are written by people who’ve actually been where they claimed to be. For instance the author John Mandeville apparently travelled to Prester John’s land and met him – but a lot of other things in Mandeville’s book are made up, and most of the rest appears to’ve been copied from other books. There’s no indication Mandeville actually went anywhere! He’s not the only example of this from the time, either.

The rise of the Mongols changes the legends of Prester John a bit. There are some stories about Prester John being conquered, but other stories suggest that maybe he was never in Central Asia and his land is actually in India. Another blow to the believability of the legends is that travellers visit the Mongols from Europe, and whilst they meet Christians they don’t meet or find any evidence of Prester John. (Nor do they find any wondrous beasts, or Dogheads etc.) They do try and make an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims, but this doesn’t interest the Mongols.

And later still as China becomes more well known to Europeans it becomes ever more implausible that Prester John and his kingdom could be anywhere in Asia. By the 14th Century AD the legend of Prester John has shifted to Africa, and Ethiopia is the new focal point. As an aside one of the experts (I forget which one) said that you could think of the 14th Century as “the century when Ethiopia discovered the West”. Ethiopia had been Christian since the early AD period, and in the 14th Century they sent emissaries to the Pope and to some of the European kings. They seemed to fit in with some of the Prester John stories – in particular the “long lost Christian Kingdom” aspects of it. And they also seemed to fit other legends about the Queen of Sheba. But the legends still weren’t true. Which apparently didn’t stop European travellers from visiting Ethiopia and asking the rather bemused locals about Prester John.

They finished up the programme by talking about whether or not people actually believed the stories at the time. I think the overall conclusion was that mostly they probably didn’t, it was just a good story or a useful one for propaganda purposes. However there were examples of people who did believe – for instance during the Crusades some commanders made strategic errors because they believed they were about to be joined by Prester John’s army any time now.

In Our Time: The Science of Glass

Glass is odd stuff. We’ve been making it so long that one tends to forget that it’s both artificial and really quite odd. The In Our Time episode about glass talked both the science of glass and glass-making, and the history of it. The experts discussing it were Dame Athene Donald (University of Cambridge, current Master of Churchill College, my old college, but here in her context as a physicist), Jim Bennett (University of Oxford) and Paul McMillan (University College London).

On the programme they intertwined the historical and the scientific discussion, but I thought the joins showed rather more than they usually do and so I’m going to split the threads up in my writeup. We first know of glass manufacturing about 5,000 years ago, by the ancient Egyptians who made beads of it initially. Over time they learnt to make larger and more complex objects like bottles & ornaments. The Romans developed the technology further. They invented most of the techniques that were used before the Industrial Revolution, like glass blowing for example. In ancient Egypt glass was primarily used for decorative or luxury goods, but the Romans used glass for both everyday and finer objects – including wine bottles (which struck me as an awfully modern way to store wine!).

In the Renaissance era the Venetians were famed for making particularly fine quality glass. The city attempted to keep a monopoly on glass-making by keeping their methods secret & forbidding glass-makers to leave the city. Which didn’t entirely work, unsurprisingly. One of their secrets was a way of making very transparent glass which was useful for lenses. Something I learnt from this programme was that spectacles first appear in the 13th Century AD which is much earlier than I’d assumed. Once lenses were being made to correct people’s sight it was only a relatively short step to making lenses for scientific instruments. Glass is part of the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution – not just lenses but also for making scientific instruments or vessels. There is a feedback loop between the demands of the scientific experiments driving new glass making technology and better glass instruments expanding the possible experiments that can be done. Industrial production of glass as we know it today begins in the Industrial Revolution.

The whole of the history discussion was very Eurocentric so I had a little look on wikipedia after we’d listened to the programme to see whether this was a fair reflection of the world history of glassmaking. The answer (based on a tiny amount of effort on my part) is … maybe? Glass making in China appears to’ve arrived late – during the Han Dynasty and probably influenced by trade goods from the Roman Empire. I didn’t find anything about the Americas, so I don’t know if that means they didn’t invent glass making or if no-one cared enough to add it to wikipedia. It’s odd to think that something so ubiquitous today might’ve been discovered once & once only.

Making glass (not good glass, just glass) is deceptively simple. In essence the process is to heat up sand till it melts, and then cool it very quickly and you end up with the transparent solid that we call glass. One of the experts pointed out that the necessary temperatures are those that would be reached by a bonfire on a beach – so it was probably discovered in Egypt by people (briskly) putting out campfires in the desert. Although a large body of empirical knowledge of how to make glass was built up over the next 5,000 years it was only relatively recently that we gained any understanding of what is actually going on, and the science of glass & glass-making is still not entirely understood. It’s actually more difficult to make glass out of pure sand than when there are impurities present, pure sand needs a quicker cooling step. So when making glass other things are often added – like potash or lime.

One of the complicated things about glass formation is that the phase transition from liquid sand to glass is not well defined – which is an oddity in physics. An example of a well defined phase transition is that from liquid water to ice: it happens at 0°C no matter how you cool the water. But the point at which liquid sand becomes glass depends on the precise starting conditions and the precise heating & cooling regimen – and it isn’t predictable using the current state of knowledge. Glass isn’t even a usual solid – it’s not crystalline, and that’s why the speed of cooling is important. If it cools too slowly it will crystalise and you don’t get glass. So instead of the atoms lining up in neat little rows they appear to just stop where they are. This non-crystalline nature of glass is what gives it some of its characteristic properties. It is brittle because there are no planes of atoms able to spread over each other when pressure is applied. I think they also said that the transparency is down to there being more routes for light to take through the structure, but I’m not sure that makes sense to me so I may’ve mis-remembered.

Glass in the technical sense is a broader term than just silicon glass (the stuff we generally call glass). You can make a glass using sugar – that’s what sweets like glacier mints are made of. And something I knew but had never really thought about is that spectacles & things like motorbike crash helmet visors aren’t made from silicon glass. Instead they are made using large polycarbon molecules – these can never crystallise so are much easier to work with. And the glass produced is not prone to fracturing, which is obviously important in those usages. I assume there are other downsides which mean we don’t use these glasses for all applications.

From the title I hadn’t expected this to be as interesting as it was – I didn’t realise how much wasn’t known about glass (nor how unique a discovery it was).

In Our Time: Josephus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Our Time: The Lancashire Cotton Famine

Before I listened to this episode of In Our Time I had no idea that the American Civil War had caused hardship to so many people in Britain. The cessation of cotton imports from the Southern USA after war broke out led to the cotton mills in Lancashire shutting down, and several hundred thousand of people became unemployed. And yet the directly affected workers were still overwhelmingly on the side of the Northern USA, and for the ending of slavery. Discussing this on In Our Time were Lawrence Goldman (University of London), Emma Griffin (University of East Anglia) and David Brown (University of Manchester).

The cotton industry was one of the biggest industries in Britain during the 1850s and 1860s. Cotton was imported and made into textiles in mills in the new industrial towns like Manchester and other places in the North West of England. Nowadays factory jobs are low status, and low paid, but at that time these jobs were skilled labour and were well paid. The factory production of textiles replaced the older piece work system, where weavers worked in their own homes. In the new system there were potential jobs for the whole family, from quite an early age, so families were relatively well off as compared to their rural counterparts.

The south of the US had a climate that was particularly suitable for growing high quality cotton, and so 90% of the cotton that entered Britain came from the slave plantations in the US. Thus the outbreak of war in 1861 had the potential to cause significant disruption to the cotton industry. The North blockaded the ports of the South preventing the export of cotton – and the South also didn’t make much effort to break the blockade because they misjudged the mood of Britain vis-à-vis the continuance of slavery. At first the lack of cotton imports didn’t cause many problems. The owners of the mills had been able to see which way the wind was blowing and had stockpiled cotton in case there was a problem. This was only an extension of normal business practice – having reserves in case the harvest failed was common practice. But by 1862 these reserves were running out and mills started to first slow down operations and then shut down all together. At first families could attempt to minimise the effects. As they were relatively prosperous they might well have savings, and providing they could keep one member of the family in a job then that income plus savings might tide them over for a while. Eventually, however, the hardship affected most mill workers and their families.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph the South had misjudged the political and economic situation in the UK and the public antipathy for slavery. They had assumed that the UK government would intervene to protect the cotton supply, so decided to hasten that by not trying terribly hard to break through the blockade. However cotton wasn’t the only important part of the British economy, and some of the other key pieces relied on trade with the North (for instance a lot of the nascent financial industry was heavily invested in Northern US business opportunities). There were also other potential sources of cotton – a bit of lead time was necessary to diversify and to improve the quantity & quality of these alternatives, but they were viable in the long term. Politically speaking the Establishment did have some sympathy with the South (a sort of fellow feeling for another aristocratic based system). But other factions in Parliament were more radical and more anti-slavery. The Government as a whole were also inclined to caution – intervening on the losing side of a civil war could be disastrous for future relations. And their caution was wise – after a while it became clear that the South were losing.

The general public was quite well informed about what slavery in the Southern US meant. There were articles and editorials in newspapers, and ex-slaves would tour the country giving talks and raising funds for the anti-slavery cause. Some escaped slaves even had their freedom bought by funds donated by mill owners & their workers. The strength of anti-slavery feeling was such that during the Cotton Famine a mill workers’ association wrote to Lincoln to encourage him to continue the fight against the slave-owners, despite the effect it was having on their livelihoods. Their general sentiment was that while it was awful to be out of work, it was more important for slavery to be eradicated.

Obviously public opinion wasn’t completely one-note, there are exceptions to every generalisation and there were also pockets of pro-South feeling in Britain even outside the Establishment. One place that was more pro-South was the city of Liverpool. It was here that the cotton arrived, so there were representatives from the South living there and working as factors involved in trading the cotton. This meant more contact with Southerners as people rather than as the far away subjects of anti-slavery speeches. The experts suggested that this is one of the roots of the Liverpool/Manchester rivalry – different parts of this cotton industry with different priorities finding themselves on opposite sides of a conflict (ideologically even if not actually).

The consequences of the Cotton Famine on British culture were surprisingly far reaching. For instance it began changing the way the public and the Government thought about welfare. When several hundred people were suddenly out of work the existing poor laws were found to be inadequate. One reform brought in after this was that legislation was passed to allow councils to employ the unemployed to build public works. And rather than letting people starve or putting them in workhouses (which would’ve been completely overwhelmed) funds were raised to be distributed amongst the unemployed so that they could buy food.

The dignity and unselfish way that the workers behaved during this period of hardship also changed the way the working class were thought and talked about at the time. There was a feeling that obviously the “working man” would riot if he had no food nor employment, and would be unable to see past his own needs to that of other people. But during the Cotton Famine there was only one riot – and that was when one town decided to distribute funds as tokens rather than money to “save” the people from the temptation of misusing the money. It was the disrespect that caused offence. And as mentioned above the mill workers were to a large extent pro-North and anti-slavery in sentiment, despite their own hardship. The overall behaviour of the mill workers during this period undermined one of the main arguments against extending the franchise to all men. Clearly the common man actually was capable of seeing beyond his own self-interest to the bigger picture. So although change didn’t happen immediately, the seeds of it were beginning to be sown.

So from a conflict over slavery on the other side of the world came the first steps towards universal suffrage and a welfare state! Not something I had previously realised.

In Our Time: The Earth’s Core

Despite being relatively close to us the inside of the Earth, and particularly the core of the Earth, is difficult to investigate. Primarily because we can’t just look at it – and the deepest mines or boreholes are only 10km deep which is tiny compared to the 6,000km that is the Earth’s radius. So everything needs to be logically deduced from the readings that we can take. Discussing what we know about the Earth’s core and how we know it on In Our Time were Stephen Blundell (University of Oxford), Arwen Deuss (Utrecht University) and Simon Redfern (University of Cambridge).

Prior to the 19th Century the assumption was that the Earth was the same all the way through – rocks where we can see, so rocks everywhere. But in the 19th Century scientists realised that the theory of gravity required a denser Earth than is possible if it’s just rocks and so they postulated an iron core. This was also the time when scientists began to be interested in how the Earth was formed. The consensus at the time was that it formed by condensation out of a hot cloud, and it was still cooling. This explained (at a time when radioactivity wasn’t known) why it got warmer the further you went underground. So at the time the best explanation for the structure of the Earth was that it had a hot liquid iron rich core surrounded by a rocky shell.

However even in the 19th Century it was clear that there were problems with this explanation. If you spin an uncooked egg, it wobbles – so why doesn’t the earth? During the 20th Century it began to be postulated that the core was two phase – a solid core with a liquid coating. One of the experts on the programme, Arwen Deuss, used seismological readings to show that this was the case. When there is an earthquake seismographs on the other side of the Earth detect the shockwaves that have travelled through the planet. Before Deuss’s work it was thought that there was a shadowzone where no waves were detected because they had failed to pass directly through the centre of the Earth – so it was thought that the core was a different phase to the rest of the planet and the waves couldn’t travel through it. Deuss showed that there are very faint delayed waves detectable in that shadow zone, and that mathematically the best model to describe how these waves are delayed and how they are diminished is one where the core is solid but it is surrounded by liquid. The seismic waves cannot travel through liquid in the same state as they travel through solid, and each transition between states uses up some of the energy in the wave. A wave that travels directly through the core will transition from solid to liquid to solid to liquid and lastly to solid again. As well as each transition using up energy it takes time (hence the delay) and changes direction (so the waves aren’t in quite the same places you’d expect if they had no transitions).

The current theory is that the inner core is an iron crystal that is forming out of a less pure molten iron fluid around it. This iron crystal is about the size of the Moon, a fact which I find mind-boggling. The crystal is still growing and this is not a consistent process, sometimes it grows more quickly and sometimes more slowly. The experts said there is evidence of some sort of discontinuity that formed 500 million years ago, but no-one knows what caused it. The crystal is also split into two pieces. One of the experts made an analogy with the land/sea divide up here on the crust, but I didn’t really follow that. The crystal is also different in the north/south direction as compared to the east/west direction – seismic waves take longer to travel east & west than they do north & south. It’s not known why this is: perhaps to do with crystal alignment, or perhaps it tells us something about the shape of the core.

This solid iron crystal is rotating within the liquid it sits in, I think at a slightly different (quicker?) speed than the whole of the Earth rotates. It’s this rotation that is the cause of our magnetic field (which is another piece of evidence in favour of the two phase theory). And the magnetic field is what protects us from cosmic radiation so in some sense you can say that the two-phase spinning core of the Earth is why there is life on Earth. The current theory is that Mars and Venus have cores that are too solid or too small to generate enough of a magnetic field to protect against radiation. That’s an untested hypothesis, and so Deuss would like to put seismographs on one (or both) of the other planets to see what she can detect about their internal structure.

Bragg closed up the programme by attempting to encourage them to talk about practical uses that have come out of this blue-skies research – but it seems at the moment this is still in the blue-skies phase.

In Our Time: Brunel

The name Isambard Kingdom Brunel conjures up thoughts of the Great Western Railway, and other successful engineering projects that are still well regarded today. But on the the In Our Time episode about him Julia Elton (former President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology), Ben Marsden (University of Aberdeen) and Crosbie Smith (University of Kent) explained that this is not all there was to Brunel, and he wasn’t always as successful as his modern reputation suggests. His reputation during his lifetime was mixed – he was an innovator, but also prone to over-reach.

They started the programme by briefly discussing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Isambard Brunel, who was born in France before the French Revolution. He fled to the US as a refugee during the Revolution, and subsequently moved to England. He married Sophia Kingdom, an English woman who he’d met in France during the Revolution. He was a highly successful engineer, and he educated his son to follow in his footsteps.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in England, and his early education was biased towards science, maths & engineering and came from his father. He was then sent to school to get a proper gentleman’s education to complement this (Greek, Latin and so on). Afterwards he spent some time abroad before returning to England to work as an engineer with his father. The big project that they were working on was a tunnel under the Thames river. This didn’t go as well as was initially hoped, although it was ultimately successful. The ground under the river is not very good for tunnelling through – instead of the clay they hoped for it was gravel. This meant that the progress of tunnelling operations was slow and also dangerous.

Brunel chafed at working in his father’s shadow and was very keen to make a name for himself independently. While he was in Bristol convalescing from an accident during work on the Thames Tunnel he got involved in a project to build a bridge there. This was funded by money left in someone’s will which had been invested until the interest earnt meant that it was enough to cover the project, and then there was a competition for the design of the bridge. Brunel put his own design in, and won – although the bridge that was built was a slight redesign of his idea, because a Grand Old Man of engineering (whose name I forget :/) said that Brunel’s design wouldn’t work. I’m not quite clear if this expert was right or not – bucking the conventional wisdom was to be a noticeable Brunel trait, and often he was right. His approach to engineering was a scientific one – to work from first principles, to experiment and to keep meticulous records. This could be a double edged sword, “the way things have always been done” is not necessarily wrong. This project also highlighted another of Brunel’s key traits – his showmanship. Despite the project running out of money before the bridge was finished, the grand opening still went ahead as Brunel planned.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the Great Western Railway is what I particularly remember Brunel for, and this was his next big project. Unsurprisingly, his winning bid flung out all the precedents for railway design and started over from scratch – much to Stephenson’s disgust. Brunel was aiming for the luxury end of the railway market and so ended up with a design incompatible with other parts of the evolving rail network – his track was a wider guage and his trains were larger than those in the rest of the country. Brunel was initially in charge not only of the engineering of the railway but also of the locomotives, and once again he started over from first principles. Sadly this was not a success, and an inquiry set up to investigate his failures ended by taking control of locomotive design away from him.

Having had overall success in his foray into railway engineering Brunel moved into ship building. This was a natural extension of the Great Western Railway – the idea being you’d travel from London to Bristol by GWR train and thence to the USA by a GWS ship. This project started out as a very nice example of the good in Brunel’s approach to engineering. Here conventional wisdom said that if you built a bigger steam ship it would sink, for what are in retrospect silly reasons. Brunel’s start from scratch approach meant that he challenged that assumption and discovered that big ships will float. This meant that Brunel’s ships could carry more fuel, and so weren’t cutting it quite so fine when crossing the Atlantic on a single tank of fuel.

But then he gets carried away and keeps increasing the size of the ships – not all of these larger ones were successful. Although I’m not sure if this was all down to bad design, or if bad luck also played a part – because once he had some bad luck then his mixed reputation would lead to people assuming it was obviously his fault. When his designs and business ventures worked, they worked pretty well, but as soon as something stopped working public confidence in his abilities dropped. And even when things did work there were always niggles and things that might’ve been better designed differently – like the railway that wasn’t compatible with the other networks. His reputation during his lifetime and immediately after his death was decidedly mixed.

One of the experts on the programme, Julia Elton, summed up Brunel’s modern reputation as fitting into a narrative we like – the lone heroic figure taking on the establishment and succeeding when they said he’d fail. She thinks that Stephenson was a much better engineer – but Brunel was a better showman. Brunel also kept diaries throughout his life – one set of personal ones, one set of engineering “lab books” – which meant that when his descendants wanted to promote his memory they had ample material to work with.

In Our Time: Matteo Ricci and the Ming Dynasty

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who went to China in the 16th Century with the aim of converting the Chinese to Christianity. He wasn’t particularly successful in that goal, but he was influential on European attitudes to China & vice versa. Discussing him and his mission on In Our Time were Mary Laven (University of Cambridge), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Anne Gerritsen (University of Warwick).

Ricci was born in the Papal States and educated by the Jesuits up to university age. He then went to Rome to study to become a lawyer, but soon decided to become Jesuit priest instead. The Jesuits were a fairly new order at the time, part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The central difference between them and the other orders was that they were directly obedient to the Pope. They vowed to travel wherever they were sent, making them more mobile than the monastic orders. Their raison d’être was to convert the world to Catholicism – as part of showing the superiority of their branch of the faith over the Protestant variant.

The Jesuits saw China as a chance to replicate the success of the conversion of South America, with a hope that perhaps they might even replicate the Spanish conquest of South America. Europeans at the time were aware of China, but it wasn’t a particularly well known country nor was it understood. Before the Ming Dynasty came to power (in 1368AD) there had started to be some trade and contact between Yuan China and Europe (c.f. Marco Polo, who I’m sure we listened to an In Our Time about but I can’t find a post writing about it). However when the Hongzhu Emperor came to power & founded the Ming Dynasty trade with the outside world was forbidden. In practice this didn’t stop contact between China and Europe, but it did reduce it significantly.

Ricci’s over-arching strategy was a tried and tested one for the Catholic Church, although he took some of it to further extremes that his superiors were happy with. His aim was to integrate himself into Chinese society and to make contact with the elite – the idea was that if you can convert the top (the Emperor in this case) then you will convert the whole country. Another part of the strategy was to make accommodations for the current beliefs of the people when explaining Christianity to them, to make it sound not so far from their pagan religion. The theological rationale for this was God had left “hints” in the pagan faiths so that the Catholics would be able to convert the pagans. And then presumably after converting the country the idea would be to tighten up the theology, but Ricci didn’t get anywhere near that far in the process.

When Ricci first entered the country the Buddhist faith seemed like a good point of entry to hook in his audience – so he dressed like a Buddhist monk, and his teaching made analogies to Buddhism. However as he slowly progressed through the country to Beijing he came to realise that Confucianism was more important in Chinese culture, and so began to dress like a Confucian scholar. He learnt Chinese, and invented a romanisation system so that he could write the words down for other Europeans to learn from.

His role as an analogue of a Confucian scholar dovetailed nicely with his purpose as a missionary – he met with Confucian mandarins to discuss philosophy and other learned subjects. One point of entry into scholarly society was his creation of a world map – he tactfully put China in the centre, flanked by Europe and the Americas. This was interesting to the Chinese as they didn’t know much about either Europe or the Americas, and let Ricci start talking about the Pope and Christianity too. He also translated books between Latin and Chinese so that knowledge flowed both ways between the cultures.

Ricci was successful in working his way across the country and in meeting the elite of Chinese society. He eventually was able to enter the Forbidden Palace and “meet” the Emperor – this wasn’t an actual meeting, the Emperor didn’t do such things, but Ricci was able to meet senior officials and courtiers (and eunuchs) several times. From the Emperor’s perspective this was part of the normal diplomatic business – a foreigner arriving to pay his respects to the Emperor and tell him how wonderful he was. There was not the chance that Ricci had hoped for to interest the Emperor in Christianity.

Ricci used the accommodations strategy that the Church endorsed, but took it much further than his superiors would’ve preferred. He wrote a book in Chinese comparing Christianity and Confucianism in order to point out how similar they were. And in this book the life, death and resurrection of Christ were relegated to a sort of footnote – covered in a single paragraph near the end. When the Pope eventually found out about this demotion of such a crucial part of the Christian faith he was not pleased with Ricci.

The biggest stumbling block for the conversion of the Chinese was the Christian insistence on exclusivity – the Chinese culture was very tolerant of multiple religions and generally people would use appropriate rituals from more than one religion during the course of their lives. The Christian idea that you should just worship one God was alien to them. While Ricci did have some small success in converting people (not that many tho) they didn’t always give up their other rituals and observances. Long after Ricci’s death this was to cause tension between the Pope and the Chinese Emperor. The Pope had discovered that Chinese Catholics were still honouring their ancestors in the Confucian fashion, and forbade this. And the Chinese Emperor unsurprisingly saw this as foreign interference in the governance of China.

Ricci remained in China until he died, and was honoured after death by the Emperor granting permission for his burial in Beijing (rather than in the designated foreigners’ graveyard). Whilst he wasn’t the only member of the Catholic mission to China he was the person who had the most influence. His grave has been a tourist attraction in Beijing from the time of his burial through to the present day.

In Our Time: Sappho

Sappho was a 7th Century BC Greek poetess, but I rather suspect the thing she’s best known for in modern culture is for being the reason we call lesbians lesbians. However, it was for her poetry that she was renowned in ancient Greece. Discussing a little bit about the woman and a lot about her work on In Our Time were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Margaret Reynolds (Queen Mary, University of London) and Dirk Obbink (University of Oxford).

Saphho lived on Lesbos, which is an island between mainland Greece and Turkey – both in a geographical sense and in a cultural sense. Whilst they were definitely Greek there were eastern influences on both their culture and their language. Their dialect of Greek was not the same as the Greek of Homer and would’ve sounded a bit exotic to the mainland Greek people of her time. She was a lyrical poet, which means that her words were set to music – accompanied by the lyre or other instruments. The work of a lyrical poet was an important part of ceremonies, and was also important to memorialise events. Obbink said that what survives is a bit like having the words to an opera, but not the music.

To the Greeks Sappho was “The Poetess” in the same was that Homer was “The Poet”. A lot of her work was written down and still read long into the classical era. In the Library at Alexandria there was a 9 volume text containing all her poetry. But most of what survived to be rediscovered in the Renaissance did so as fragments in other texts – later translations and quotations in textbooks and commentaries. Much more recently papyrus fragments have been discovered from what were originally whole poems written in her native dialect – I hesitate to say originals as I think these would post-date her time but it would be like discovering fragments of a “Complete Works of Shakespeare” after only knowing his work via quotations from other books in modern English. More of these papyrus fragments occasionally get discovered – Obbink has recently found and translated some previously unknown fragments. These can radically change our understanding of a poem where they overlap with previously known pieces.

The subjects of her poetry were very personal in nature rather than mythical as is the case with Homer. Her poems contain several expressions of her desire for and love of other women, hence her later reputation as a lesbian. Some of the language and metaphors that she uses for desire have become a standard part of the repertoire of imagery – e.g. fire in the veins. The people in her poems are often specific named people, and she names herself in her poetry as well. Despite the first person perspective and specificity of the poetry it’s not clear if it was actually autobiographical. In particular it’s not clear if she was actually a lesbian, and if she was it’s not clear if anyone in her culture at the time cared (although it is clear that they did care later on).

Hall suggested that Sappho’s poetry might indicate that in her time and place there were women’s symposiums running in parallel to the men’s ones. Men’s symposiums are well attested through Greek culture. Hall explained them as semi-public gatherings which in effect provided poetic and ritualised training of the next generation in how to be civilised. They were where a young Greek man learnt how to be “a Greek man”. There are no records of women’s symposiums, and in parts of the classical Greek world (like classical Athens) women’s lives were so restricted that they seem implausible as an idea. However Sappho’s time and place were different, and women’s voices survive so rarely from this era (I’m not sure if Sappho is unique or just almost so) that no evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

In her own time and during later Greek culture Sappho’s poetry was very popular. However she began to become less revered during the Roman period. Her dialect of Greek had died out and so understanding her poetry wasn’t a question of picking up the text and reading it, it required a commentary or a translation. It became even more obscure in the Christian era when it dropped out of the standard curriculum altogether because the subject matter was too much about worldly, sinful things like desire for a beautiful woman. And because of her obscurity her work was not often copied, and thus no copies survived intact. Fragments of her work were only discovered in the late Renaissance, and early translations downplayed the sauciness of the texts.

Since rediscovery Sappho’s work, and Sappho herself, have often been taken up by the women’s movements of various eras. Because there is so little known about the woman herself, and even her work, it’s relatively easy to shape her into an icon. Whether that is for intellectual liberation as in the 18th Century or the sexual liberation of the 20th Century. One of the experts suggested that it’s also because of the position of Greek culture in our own culture as one of the “roots of civilisation”. As the vast majority of what survives from Greece is male voices and male culture that can lead to an equation of men with civilisation. So if you’re putting forward women as the equal of men against this cultural backdrop it’s good to have an example of a feminine Greek culture.

This programme concentrated on the poetry and the legacy of Sappho rather than the woman herself – as there is so very little that’s actually known about her. So it was well complemented by the TV programme “Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford”, which we watched not long after listening to this. The TV programme was more focussed on Sappho the person – although of necessity it was more about the broader culture of the period than the individual. It also looked at the legends that have grown up around the woman in more modern times.

In Our Time: The California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold in a river in January 1848 and not only did it make some individuals rich but it also had a significant impact on the politics and economy of the USA and the world. Discussing it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

When gold was discovered in what would become the state of California the land it was discovered on was not actually under the control of the USA. War between the USA and Mexico ended in February 1848 with the signing of a treaty that had the Mexicans cede that part of the continent to the USA. I imagine once they knew what they’d signed away they weren’t best pleased. At the time the area was inhabited by around 150,000 Native Americans, down from a previous population of 300,000 due to diseases and other effects of the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. There were also around 6,000 Mexicans and other assorted immigrants.

News of the discovery of gold was initially slow to spread, and didn’t get taken seriously by the outside world until late 1848. Thus the gold rush proper was in 1849 – and until I listened to this programme I hadn’t really put two & two together and realised that the song Oh My Darling Clementine refers to the gold rush (“In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner forty niner, And his daughter Clementine.”).

In 1849 the population of the area increased significantly – by 1850 there were 100,000 settlers who had been drawn there by the gold. Most of the new immigrants were young men looking to get rich. The region was not yet a state, and it had none of the apparatus of government – amongst other things no law enforcement nor even laws. One of the experts described it as like “a stag party, they came and trashed California”. Most came to mine gold and hopefully make their fortunes that way, but those who came to sell supplies (mining equipment & food alike) to the miners were the ones who were most likely to become rich. This second category included Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University.

These new settlers came from all over the world. From all 21 states of the USA and from 25 other countries. Not just Europeans either, there were settlers from various South American countries and from China. The journey to the territory was an arduous one no matter where you were coming from, and particularly so from Europe or the East Coast of the USA. By land it took 5 months, and there are few places where it’s possible to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. By sea – you could cross the Pacific from China, or sail round the bottom of South America, or cross the continent at Panama (by land, the canal is not there yet) – all of which options have their difficulties and dangers.

The scale of mining operations progressed quickly. At first the stereotypical image of the lone miner panning for gold in a river was pretty accurate, and it was possible for individuals to set up on their own and strike rich. But as time went on mining techniques became more intensive and required more capital to set up. No longer did a lone incomer have much of a chance of getting his lucky strike on his own. As it became more industrialised it also became more destructive. By this I mean they were doing things like diverting rivers and blowing up parts of the mountains in order to extract more gold. As well as this physical destruction of the environment there was also a lot of mercury used in the gold extraction processes – which ended up in the rivers of California.

California may’ve started out as a lawless place in 1849 but it became incorporated as a state of the USA very quickly. In 1852 they had got themselves organised and went to the Senate with their constitution already written and asked to be made a state. At this point they already had double the number of people necessary to be considered. This had an unforeseen knock-on effect – they were the 31st state and were a free state. At this point in the USA’s history tensions were rising between the North (free states) and the South (slave states) although it would be another few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861. To ease the tension states were being admitted in pairs, one slave and one free at a time. However California’s swift self-organisation side-stepped around that procedure and unbalanced the Senate. Utah and New Mexico were admitted as slave states to re-balance it but didn’t actually have a slave owning economy.

And in a reminder that the issues are never simple: despite being a free state California is actually one of the first to enact institutionally racist laws. One axis of this is the regulation specifically of Chinese immigration. Another is protection and governance laws concerning the Native American population. Despite the idealistic name these laws actually disenfranchised and dispossessed Native Americans. There was also official encouragement of the lynching of Chinese & Native Americans who “stepped out of line”.

Obviously the biggest effect of the gold rush was on the economy – not just of California and the USA but also globally. For instance one of the experts made a case that the gold rush was critical for the Industrial Revolution in the UK. If there had not been more people with more money to buy the goods that the newly mechanised UK industry was producing then it would not have happened so fast or so succesfully.

The gold rush also affected the culture of the USA. For instance the American Dream mythology began as a spiritual Puritan vision of the City on the Hill being a shining beacon of virtue for the rest of the world to look up to. But after the gold rush this changes to a more material idea – you don’t go to the USA (or to the West Coast) to live the best life you can, you go to get rich quick. California still occupies this sort of cultural space – you go to California to [find gold]/[be a film star]/[join a tech startup] (delete as appropriate). Hollywood and Silicon Valley are the descendants of the strike it lucky & get rich quick ethos of the gold rush.

Towards the end of the programme they talked a little about the role of women in this era of California’s history. The main point they brought out was that there weren’t many women, and so in some ways their social capital was higher than in other parts of the USA. The example used was that divorce was easier for a woman to initiate. I’d’ve liked it if they’d spent a bit more time on this – my notes that I’m writing this up from say that I thought they had more to say about the knock-on effects of this on modern US society.

In Our Time: Al-Ghazali

Al-Ghazali was a leading intellectual in the Islamic world of the 11th Century AD, a philosopher, lawyer, teacher, thinker and mystic who made important contributions to Islamic philosophy and to sharia law. The experts on In Our Time who discussed his life and work were Peter Adamson (LMU in Munich), Carole Hillenbrand (Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities) and Robert Gleave (University of Exeter).

The era in which Al-Ghazali lived was one of political change. The caliphate was beginning to collapse, and the Christian Crusaders were fighting for and conquering parts of the Middle East. There was a rump of the old Umayyad caliphate in Spain, and their Abbasid replacement had for a while been a figurehead government with the Shi’ite military holding the actual power. When Al-Ghazali was alive the Shi’ites were in control in Egypt, but the Sunnis had restored the caliphate to actual power in the east (where Al-Ghazali lived). This was an intellectually rich era, with many important and influential scholars. An important piece of context for Al-Ghazali’s life and work is that he was born when the translation movement had just finished its project of translating the works of the Greek philosophers into Arabic.

Al-Ghazali was born in the 11th Century in Persia and was of humble origins. He was orphaned, and so doesn’t receive his education because of his family connections – instead he is identified as being particularly clever. He was educated in all the subjects that an Islamic intellectual of the era should be – including the Qu’ran and Sharia law. He clearly excelled as when he moves to Baghdad in 1090 he soon gets the best job in the city, when he is still only 33. During the 5 years he lives in Baghdad he is the most senior person in the biggest mosque in the city. His primary duty is teaching, but the role is also a political one – for instance he wrote a tract rebuking the Shi’ite rulers of Egypt.

During his time in Baghdad he writes a work called The Incoherence of the Philosophers which is a rebuttal of the use of Aristotle and the other Greek philosophers in Islamic religious philosophy. this sets him in direct opposition to the leading thinker of the previous generation. The main thrust of his argument is that the Greek notions of causality leave no room for the actions of God in the world. For example if you hold a flame to cotton then the Greek philosophers would say that the fire causes the cotton to burn. But Al-Ghazali believes you need to leave space for God and for miracles. So it is God that causes the cotton to burn when the flame is held to it, and God could choose that the cotton doesn’t burn (i.e. a miracle would occur).

Al-Ghazali was also influential in the field of Sharia law. His work on this topic was philosophical in nature and focussed on the principles behind the laws. These are more important than the details of the laws themselves because an understanding of the principle behind a law will allow the law to be adapted to the changing realities of the world.

After he had been in Baghdad for five years he suffered some sort of breakdown. He left the city and his high status job and wandered as a Sufi mystic. Sufism is focussed on a direct personal and mystical connection with God, and this contrasts with mainstream Islam (which focusses on obedience to the laws). Although he lived a life outside the teaching structure of Islam he continued to publish on philosophical matters – now within the Sufi tradition. At the time Sufism was not very closely aligned with the rest of Islamic thought and it was Al-Ghazali’s work in this part of his life that brought it and mainstream Islam closer together.

In their summing up at the end of the programme the experts said that although a lot of his writing concerned philosophy (and he played an important role at the time) his lasting legacy is in the field of Sharia law.