Celts: Art and Identity (British Museum Exhibition)

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn’t think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don’t necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to “the Celts”, and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome – in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It’s not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid’s flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages – covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I’m sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren’t interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren’t naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE – I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it’s one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now – trade links people – and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland – there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx – a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way – the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would’ve loved to’ve taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead – which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It’s not actually my favourite bit of the decoration – that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex – Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course – for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of “not Roman”, particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles – the “not Anglo-Saxon” peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories – we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There’s no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered “noble savages”! The mind boggles.

From the 1750’s onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact – archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh’s work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I’m rather less fond of is what I’d characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There’d been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan’s The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is “Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!”.

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it’s political and political in a “we’re not that lot” sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it’s English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don’t see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement – the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity 🙂

In Our Time: Holbein at the Tudor Court

Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the foremost portrait painters to work in England during the Tudor period (and perhaps ever), and it’s his paintings that shape how we see the court of Henry VIII. Discussing his time at the Tudor court on In Our Time were Susan Foister (the National Gallery), John Guy (Clare College, University of Cambridge) and Maria Hayward (University of Southampton).

They started the programme by setting the scene for the Tudor court of 1526, when Holbein first arrives. At this point Henry VIII has been on the throne for 17 years. Cardinal Wolsey is still his right hand man, and Anne Boleyn has just arrived on the scene. In terms of international politics there has just been a bit of a shake up. Previously Henry VIII was allied with the Spanish against the French – there had been a plan that the two countries would co-ordinate an attack on France, and once successful Henry VIII would get to keep northern France (and be crowned King of France) and the Spanish would claim southern France. However the Spanish had won a victory over the French, but then not divided the spoils with England as Henry VIII thought they’d agreed. So the alliance had broken down, and now Henry VIII was allied with France. Which is another factor in the waning influence of Henry’s Spanish wife, Katharine of Aragon, and in the rising influence of the French educated Anne Boleyn. I don’t think I’d heard anyone explicitly point out this political connection before, the narrative generally focuses on the need for an heir and “true love”.

Hans Holbein’s father was also called Hans Holbein and was also an artist, so generally “the Younger” and “the Elder” are appended to their names to disambiguate them. I don’t think they said on the programme where Hans Holbein the Younger was born, but it was in continental Europe (Germany, if I remember correctly). He was probably educated alongside his brother, by their father, in a wide variety of artistic techniques and media. This included goldsmith designs and techniques, frescos and other sorts of painting, and producing illustrations for printed books. This last was particularly emphasised by the experts on the programme as a new and lucrative market for an artist at the time. In early adulthood Holbein and his brother move to Basel (Switzerland) where they make a living mostly from illustrations and engravings, but also from religious paintings.

Holbein was looking for an opportunity to become a court painter (as it was a lucrative and prestigiuos position to hold). I think they said he had tried to get employment at the French court, but not had much success. In 1526 he moved to London, with a letter of introduction from Erasmus to Thomas More. He had probably sent ahead his portrait of Erasmus as a showcase for what his skills were. Thomas More was apparently not very optimistic about Holbein’s chances of employment in London. He wrote that England was “not fertile ground” – tapestries and theatrical sets where the dominant arts in the country at the time, not portraiture. But the experts suggest that with the benefit of hindsight this may have been because there wasn’t an accomplished portrait artist available until Holbein arrived.

During this first stay in London there doesn’t seem to’ve been much work – he started by being employed to paint theatrical sets, and he also undertook some commissions from Thomas More and from some other members of the elite (although not necessarily the court). Holbein returned to Basel – they weren’t clear on the programme why, nor if he originally intended to stay there. I’m not sure if that’s coz it isn’t known, or if it’s just that the programme was concentrating on his time in Tudor England so they were skipping lightly over the other information.

In 1532 Holbein returned to London. This is just as Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII finally get married, and there is some evidence that Anne Boleyn is a patron of his. There are no records available to say whether or not she actually paid him for anything, but there are several paintings with links to her. Including one painting of her in her nightgown (for which read “dressing gown” not “nightie”) – so he had access to her in informal settings such as her bedchamber which is a distinct mark of her favour. He is also first recorded on Henry VIII’s payroll during this time – so he has achieved his ambition of becoming a court painter. Although apparently he wasn’t paid as well as he might like – the French court painters received more money and more privileges from their king!

Holbein clearly had a knack for politics, or rather for staying out of politics. He remained in the employ of Henry VIII until his death in 1543, through the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and even weathered the storm surrounding Henry’s brief marriage to Anne of Cleves. When Henry was looking for his fourth wife, Holbein was the man sent to the courts of Europe to paint the potential brides. The two best known paintings are that of Anne of Cleves and that of Christina Duchess of Milan (who turned Henry down). It’s known that Holbein didn’t actually get to paint the whole Christina’s portrait from life – he had one 3 hour sitting with her, and quite probably only brought drawings back to London which he subsequently turned into a painting. It’s really quite remarkable that Holbein didn’t fall into disfavour after Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves failed almost before it began. Henry’s complaint was that he found Anne too ugly, but there’s no indication that he blamed Holbein for misrepresenting her (he did blame Cromwell, however). And the experts said that Holbein probably didn’t misrepresent Anne – despite Henry’s distaste she seems to’ve been regarded by contemporaries as a handsome woman. Probably the most Holbein did was minimise the German-ness of her clothing and headdress, so she would look more fashionable to English eyes.

As well as this overview of Holbein’s career in England the experts also discussed some of his better known paintings – you’d think that would be quite hard on a radio programme but I recognised all the works they discussed from having seen them previously, so had the right mental images. One of them was one of my favourite things in the Portrait Gallery when I visited it last year: the surviving half of the cartoon for the Whitehall Mural. The finished piece (which doesn’t survive) was a large dynastic portrait of the Tudors so far. On the left were Henry VIII and his father Henry VII, and on the right were their wives – Elizabeth of York for Henry VII and Jane Seymour for Henry VIII. The timing of this portrait is around or just after the birth of Edward VI, Henry VIII & Jane’s son. The cartoon is the same size as the painting was, so we can see that the viewer would’ve been presented with a lifesize image of the King standing directly in front of them – apparently terrifying for those who saw it. Inspection of the cartoon shows that originally the figure wasn’t full frontal, but Henry apparently wanted that changed so it would have the maximum impact.

Another of the paintings they discussed was the girl with a squirrel that we’d seen in the British Museum’s Germany exhibition in 2014. This portrait combines a clever use of symbols with a warm & touching portrait – the squirrel is not just the girl’s pet, it’s also part of her family’s coat of arms. And they also discussed The Ambassadors, which I think of as “the one with the weird skull in front”. This painting is also not just a portrait of the two men – it also showcases Holbein’s skill at painting many different objects. Including the distorted momento mori motif of the skull, which looks just right if viewed from the side of the painting.

Even at the time of Holbein’s death he was regarded as a particularly good portrait painter, and his reputation has only increased since. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Holbein’s portraits are how we see Henry VIII’s court. Those paintings are what shape our mental image of “the Tudors” and are what take them from a collection of dates and facts and turn them into people in our collective imagination.

The Necessary War; The Pity of War; David Attenborough’s First Life

The Necessary War and The Pity of War were a pair of programmes from the BBC about the First World War that aired a couple of months ago. In The Necessary War Max Hastings put the case for WW1 being, ultimately, necessary despite the loss of life etc. And in The Pity of War Niall Ferguson argued that it was all a terrible and costly (in terms of lives) mistake – this programme finished with a debate. I found myself not entirely agreeing with either position, although I preferred Hastings’s presentation as Ferguson was more than a touch smug and flippant. Both were looking at this from a very British perspective, the question wasn’t so much “was the War worth it?” as “should Britain have gone to war in 1914?”.

Hastings’s main point was that at the time the decision to go to war was made it seemed the least of all possible evils. He argued that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then there was a reasonable chance that Germany would’ve overrun France, and then Britain would later have faced war with a much bigger Germany which would be more capable of disrupting British shipping (and thus the British economy and empire). So he suggested that at the time, and with hindsight, war seemed inevitable the only question was “now or later?”. He also discussed how the atrocities perpetrated by the German army as they rolled over Belgium meant that this was the moral choice as well as the politically sensible one and that a Europe dominated by the Kaiser’s Germany would not be a pleasant place to live. I was somewhat less convinced by his attempt to present the Versailles Treaty as a good thing just because it was better than what the German’s would’ve imposed if they’d won (there’s a lot of room between that and “good” after all).

Ferguson on the other hand thought that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then the world would’ve been a better place both in the short term and in the long run. But I’m afraid he didn’t convince me at all, except that I do agree that with the benefit of hindsight the First World War was an appalling waste of lives and didn’t even produce a lasting peace. His arguments were mostly appeals to emotion and he also used counterfactuals to illustrate what he thought would’ve happened if Britain had stayed out of the war. His key idea was that he thought the conflict would’ve remained European without Britain’s intervention, and that a Germany that had conquered or otherwise overrun France and Belgium wouldn’t have expanded further. There was a strong air of “who cares about the French and Belgians” although he didn’t go as far as to say that – but having recently watched both The Necessary War and the series based on Hew Strachan’s book about WW1 I was struck by his complete lack of mention of the way the Belgian and French civilians were treated by the advancing German army at the beginning of the war. It wouldn’t’ve fit very well with his “playful” suggestion that a Europe “dominated” by the Kaiser’s Germany would’ve been “just like our modern EU” (although he conceded that Angela Merkel is rather nicer than the Kaiser). He didn’t come across as having much more than wishful thinking to back up his idea that peace and harmony would’ve reigned as soon as Germany finished conquering Belgium, breaking the back of France and defanging Russia.

The debate at the end of The Pity of War was both with experts, and with the audience for Ferguson’s lecture (he lectured, Hastings did more of a standard documentary programme). No-one seemed to agree much with Ferguson and he got taken to task for his flippancy about the EU by a rather formidable woman in the audience too 🙂

In the end I think I agree with Hastings that the choice to go to war was the best one that the British leadership could see at the time. And I think without the examples of WW1 and WW2 we wouldn’t all be as wary of global modern warfare – which doesn’t make them good things at all, just sadly inevitable.

David Attenborough’s First Life was a two part series about the origins of animal life on our planet. It goes before his series about the evolution of the vertebrates (which we watched last year), and so only mentioned vertebrates right at the very end. Although it was called “First Life” he really wasn’t interested in anything except animals, and so we didn’t get to see much about the prokaryotes (who were the first life) or even eukaryotes prior to the development of multicellular organisms. And plants were only ever mentioned in passing.

So in episode 1 he covered the evolution of organisms like sponges, and looked at the fossil record of a group of now long extinct animals which had a different body plan to our own. These were all sedentary and had grew by branching with each branch being a smaller version of the whole organism. These died out (Attenborough said “inevitably” but I’m not quite sure why), and the last part of that programme looked at the Cambrian Explosion which is the name given to the sudden rise of diversity of animals with a more familiar body plan. These were generally capable of movement and have head ends and tail ends to their bodies. And even teeth! Episode 2 focussed on arthropods, and in particular the insects and the colonisation of the land. In particular he looked at the way that the development of hard shells to fend off predators lead to being able to leave the water (because their bodies didn’t collapse or dehydrate). And we were shown lots of awesome trilobite fossils from a particularly well preserved fossil bed in Morocco.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 3 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Episode 1 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

Episode 1 of Mud, Sweat and Tractors – series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.

“Figurines in Ancient China: From Prehistory to the First Emperor” Sascha Priewe

Last Thursday we went to the British Museum to go to a talk about Chinese figurines (and we’d hoped to go to another talk later the same day but it was sold out). In this talk Sascha Priewe (a curator at the British Museum) was talking about traditions of figurine making in ancient China and how this did (or didn’t) lead to the First Emperor’s terracotta army. He started by talking briefly about the Ice Age Art exhibition that had been in the British Museum last year (post). This had several examples of small figurines made in Europe more than 10,000 years ago, and you can trace the development and traditions of these figures (again in Europe and also in the Middle East) through the intervening time. This tradition eventually leads to things like Greek statues. However in China it seems (at least from a Western perspective) that the terracotta army buried with the First Emperor appears almost from nowhere in the 200s BC. So his talk was exploring whether or not this was actually the case, and what evidence there is for figurines before these notable (and large and numerous) examples.

The bulk of his talk was an overview of Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology in China, looking at sites where 3D figures have been found. There is a tradition of female figurines found in the northern part of the country during the Neolithic – that may be reminiscent of the earlier European female figurines. But he stressed that this could be an artifact of it being the same people discussing them rather than inherent to the figures. Also during the Neolithic there is a tradition of making phallus models, this is in a different geographical area – the Yellow River valley, if I remember correctly. There’s no indication that these are parts of whole body representations – instead they appear to’ve been created as just a phallus. A little later in (I think) the same area of the country you also find what look like pot lids with a modelled human head on them. Again there isn’t any indication that these are broken off a bigger statue – they appear to be complete as they are. Priewe then talked a bit about the Bronze Age artifacts. There are some developments of art in the round – like the bronze funerary vessels – but in many ways these seem to be 2D art wrapped around a 3D object rather than inherently 3D. While there are some representations of animals during this period (in some places) there are still not large numbers of human figurines.

So the First Emperor’s terracotta army does actually appear to’ve been the start of this tradition in Chinese art. Priewe next turned his attention to where it might’ve come from if not growing out of previous traditions. One suggestion, although he didn’t seem to think it was terribly plausible for the sole reason, was that the First Emperor and/or his immediate predecessors in the Qin culture had learnt of Greek statuary via trade routes across to the area of modern Afghanistan (which would put them in contact with Alexander the Great’s Hellenic empire). His preferred explanation is that the terracotta figures were reflecting a growing shift in funerary beliefs. In the Qin culture immediately before the First Emperor there are indications of human sacrifices buried with leaders. Priewe said that he thinks the terracotta army are a shift from burying your servants to take them with you (which was a recentish development), to burying symbolic figures of your army and your servants. A more cost effective way of ensuring you had the proper entourage in the afterlife than killing a whole lot of trained soldiers etc.

Priewe finished the talk by moving forward in time from the First Emperor showing how this tradition of providing for the afterlife via symbolic figurines and models continued and even extends to the modern day. So he showed us some of the Han dynasty tomb goods (that were on display in Cambridge a while ago (post)) including the toilet for the use of the deceased … He also talked about the Tang Dynasty figurines a bit. And he finished up by noting that in modern Chinese funerals people will burn model houses and money, and even viagra, so that the deceased can take these things with them into the afterlife.

At the beginning of the talk I was a bit worried that it was either going to be too academic or too disorganised to follow easily. But once he got going it was an interesting talk 🙂

A Short Trip to the V&A

While at the V&A for the Treasures of the Royal Court exhibition (post) I also managed to have a look at a couple of other galleries before & after the exhibition. Sadly train times meant I didn’t get long there overall (otherwise I’d’ve had to pay the peak time fare) but I did get some photos!

The photos are up on flickr (here), with some highlights in this post.

I started out in the Medieval & Renaissance Europe galleries, and the first couple of rooms I went into had a strong religious theme. The first room actually reminded me a bit of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (which I still haven’t written up a post about) because it was dominated by a piece of monumental architecture nicked from another country:

Choir Screen from 's-Hertogenbosch

In this case the Choir Screen from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. This room was mostly pieces of sculpture, and the next one I went into was full of altarpieces. These were all spectacularly ornate, like one from France (the Troyes Altarpiece) which had not just the main subject in each carved scene but smaller incidental details behind.

The Troyes AltarpieceThe St. Margaret Altarpiece16th Century Italian Altarpiece

Moving on to more secular art (and I think forward in time) one of the pieces that particularly stuck out to me was a tapestry showing scenes from the Trojan War. One of these was the Amazon Queen Penthesilea kneeling before King Priam of Troy – when I went to the museum we’d only just listened to the In Our Time episode about the Amazons (post), so they were particularly in my mind. Also in this section they had one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, which I somehow found unexpected.

Tapestry, Part of a Set Showing the Trojan WarLeonardo da Vinci's Notebook

After I’d been to the exhibition I went and looked at the British galleries – starting from the Tudors and moving on the Stuarts. I didn’t have long before I had to leave (only an hour or thereabouts) so I was quite brisk, just looking at & photographing things that caught my eye rather than everything they had. This included the Great Bed of Ware, mentioned by Shakespeare in one of his plays – and probably constructed to be a talking point for the inn in question to drum up trade. I also took several photos of the clothing they had on display (and tried to get some of the panelled rooms, but sadly those mostly failed to come out right).

Bust of Henry VIIThe Great Bed of WareWoman's Embroidered Jacket16th Century Gentleman's Cloak

Definitely going back for a longer visit sometime, with the big camera too 🙂

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

The fourth episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance – but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can’t really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver’s 3 part series – the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols – Marr told us some of Temujin’s early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire – allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren’t really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn’t already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more – ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed …) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land – the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as “the Dark Ages” – concentrating on the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it’s right! He’s the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo’s economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper – which (along with lots of Leonardo’s other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn’t a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though 🙂 ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV 🙂

For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We’d been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn’t like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I’d feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would’ve been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain’s food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn’t continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn’t quite’ve been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The “modernisation” of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses – much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going … easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who’d been 7 and a farmer’s son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer’s wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting – and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn’t tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it’s easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended – it’s history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.