Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human?; The First World War; How to Get Ahead; Precision: The Measure of All Things

We finished three different series over the last week so I wasn’t going to write about any of the one-off programmes as well, but Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human? irritated me sufficiently that I wanted to say why! The premise of this film was that the presenter, David Malone, had always thought of himself as a wholly rational person but then his life had become derailed – his wife had started to suffer from severe depression and it was as if the person she had been no longer existed. In the wake of that, and his responses to it, he started to think emotions were more important to what makes us human than he’d previously thought. So far, so good – I mean I might quibble about how it’s a known thing that no-one’s really totally rational and we know that the mind affects the body & vice versa; and I might wonder what his wife thinks about being talked about as if she might as well be dead. But those are not why I found this programme irritating.

I found it irritating because the argument he was putting forward had the coherency and strength of wet tissue paper. He took the metaphorical language of “brain == reason; heart == emotion” and then looked for evidence that the physical heart is the actual source of emotions. There was some rather nice science shown in the programme – but whenever a scientist explained what was going on Malone would jump in afterwards and twist what was said into “support” for his idea.

For instance, take heartbeat regulation. It is known that there are two nerves that run from the brain down to the heart and they regulate the speed of the heartbeat. There is a physiologist in Oxford (I didn’t catch his name) who is looking at how that regulation works. It turns out there is a cluster of neurones attached to the heart which do the actual routine “make the heart beat” management. The messages coming from the brain tell the heart neurone cluster “speed up” or “slow down” rather than tell the heart muscle to “beat now; and now; and now”. Interesting, but not that astonishing – I think there are other examples of bits of routine tasks being outsourced to neurones closer to the action than the brain is (like the gut, if I remember correctly). Malone took this as proof that the heart had its own mini-brain so it would be possible for it to generate emotions. And so it’s “like a marriage between heart and brain with the brain asking the heart to beat rather than enslaving it and forcing it to beat.”

There were other examples of his failure to separate metaphor from reality – indeed his failure to realise that there were two things there to separate. Take, for instance, the metaphor of the heart as a pump. Malone hated this metaphor, so industrial and mechanical and soulless. Practically the root of everything wrong with modern society! (I exaggerate a tad, but not much.) However, the heart undeniably does pump blood round the body. So he looked at visualisations of blood flowing through his heart (another awesome bit of science) and talked about how beautiful this was – as the blood is pumped around the shape of the heart chambers encourages vortices to form in the flow which swirl in the right way to shut the valves after themselves on the way out. Which is, indeed, beautiful and rather neat – and I learnt something new there. However Malone then carried on about how we shouldn’t keep saying the heart is a pump because the complexity of the heart’s pumping mechanics are too beautiful to be reduced to what the word pump makes him imagine. Er, what? Saying you can only imagine pumps as simple metal cylinders with pistons says more about paucity of your imagination than the pumpness of the heart.

I think part of my problem with this was that I’m not actually that much in disagreement with him so it was irritating to watch such a poor argument for something reasonable. I too believe Descartes was wrong – you can’t separate mind from body. The mind is an emergent property of the body. And there is feedback – our mental state, our emotions and beliefs, affect the body and its functions. Our physical health and physical state affects our minds. It’s not surprising to me that it’s possible to die of a broken heart (ie mental anguish can affect the physical system including disrupting heartbeat potentially fatally in someone whose heart is already weak). But this is not because the metaphor of the heart as the seat of emotions is a physical reality. It’s because mind and body are one single system.

None of us are rational creatures. Emotions are a central part of what makes us human. And metaphors do not need to be based in a physical truth to be both useful and true.

(I also get grumpy about people who think that explaining something necessarily robs it of beauty but that’s a whole other argument. As is the one where I complain about the common equation of industry with ugliness.)

Moving on to what I intended to talk about this week: we’ve just finished watching the BBC’s recent 10 part series about The First World War. This was based on a book by Hew Strachan, and used a combination of modern footage of the key places, contemporary film footage, photographs and letters to tell the story of the whole war from beginning to end. Although obviously the letters were chosen to reflect the points the author wanted to make, using so many quotes from people who were there helped to make the series feel grounded in reality. It was very sobering to watch, and the sort of programmes where we frequently paused it to talk about what we’d just seen or heard. It wasn’t a linear narrative – the first couple of episodes were the start of the war, and the last couple were the end, but in between the various strands were organised geographically or thematically. An episode on the Middle East for instance, or on the naval war, or on the brewing civil unrest in a variety of the participating countries.

I shan’t remotely attempt a recap of a 10 episode series, instead I’ll try and put down a few of the things that struck me while watching it. The first of those was that there is so much I didn’t know about the First World War. This wasn’t a surprise, to be honest, I’ve not really read or watched much about it and didn’t spend much time on it at school (having given up history pre-GCSE). But I’d picked up a sort of narrative by osmosis – the Great War is when Our Men went Over There and Died in a Brutal Waste of Life. And that’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Even for the Western Front – the British narrative is all about it being “over there” but (obviously!) for the French and the Belgians this was happening in their country and in their homes. One of the sources used for this part of the war was a diary of a French boy – 10 years old at the start, 14 by the end – which really brought that home. And (again obviously) the Western Front and the French+British and German troops weren’t the only participants nor the only areas of conflict. I thought separating it out geographically & thematically was well done to help make that point.

It was odd to note how much the world has changed in the last century. Because there was film footage of these people – dressed a bit too formally, but looking like ordinary people – the casual anti-Semitism and racism in their letters and official communications was more startling than it would’ve been from more distant seeming people. Things like referring to Chinese or African troops as “monkeys” in relatively official documents. I’m not saying that racism or anti-Semitism have vanished in the modern world, but there’s been a definite change in what’s acceptable from politicians and so on.

Throughout the whole series the shadow of the Second World War loomed. Obviously no-one knew at the time how things would turn out (tho it seems one of the French generals did make some rather prescient remarks about only getting 20 years of peace at the end of the First World War). But it’s rather hard to look at it now without the knowledge that hindsight gives us. Which ties in with my remark about anti-Semitism above, because one of the things that changed cultural ideas of “what you can say about Jews” is the Holocaust. And other hindsight spectres included the situation in the modern Middle East as set up in large part by the First World War, and of course the Balkans too.

Interesting, thought provoking, and I’m glad I watched it.

Very brief notes about the other two series we finished:

How to Get Ahead was Stephen Smith examining three different historical courts and looking at both the foibles of the monarch and the ways a courtier at that court would need to behave & dress in order to succeed. He picked out a selection of very despotic rulers – Richard II of England, Cosimo Medici of Florence and Louis XIV “the Sun King” of France. I wasn’t entirely convinced about Smith as a presenter, a few more jokes in his script than he quite managed to pull off, I think. But good snapshots of the lives of the elite in these three eras/areas.

Precision: The Measure of All Things was Marcus du Sautoy looking at the various ways we measure the world around us. For each sort of measurement (like length, or time) he looked at how it had evolved throughout history, and at how greater precision drives on technology which in turn can generate a need for even greater precision. I think I found this more interesting than J, because I think it’s kinda neat to know why seemingly arbitrary units were decided on when they could’ve picked anything. I mean the actual definition settled on for a meter is arbitrary (the distance light travels in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second) but there’s a rationale for why we decided on that particular arbitrary thing (the definition before the definition before the current one was that it was 1/10,000,000th of the distance from the north pole to the equator).

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Krakatoa Revealed – somewhat chilling documentary about the 19th Century eruption of Krakatoa and what we’re learning about the certainty of future eruptions of Krakatoa.

24 Hours on Earth – nature documentary looking at the effects of the diurnal cycle on animals and plants. Lots of neat footage and a voiceover with somewhat clunky and distracting metaphors (“Soon the sun’s rays will flip the switch and it will be light” !?)

Episode 1 of David Attenborough’s First Life – series about the origins of life and the evolution of animals.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 9)

The last two chapters of Part II (Politics and Wars) of this book are about the relationship between England and France during the period the book covers, focusing on the Hundred Years War which starts during Edward III’s reign. I’m lumping these two chapters together because the second one is specifically about the English army of the time, which is a subject that I acknowledge is important but am not that interested in personally.

England and France

Prestwich opens the chapter by noting that although with hindsight we see the Hundred Years War (kicking off in 1337) as a coherent thing that’s different in kind to preceding wars, this wasn’t the case at the time. Before King John (so before the scope of this book) the English Kings had control over vast lands in what is now France but after John’s loss of most of this to France all that was left on the continent for the English King was Gascony and even that was disputed by the French. Prestwich lays out how this duchy wasn’t worth much to the English crown in a monetary sense and it wasn’t terribly culturally similar to England. So its worth was mostly as a point of principle and as a base for re-expanding English control to their “ancestral lands”. There had been various campaigns in France in the early years of Henry III’s reign, with not much success. Then in 1259 the unstable domestic situation – which was building up to civil war (which was talked about in the first chapter of this part of the book) prompted the English to negotiate for a more lasting peace with the French. In return for being allowed to control Gascony Henry III gave up his claims to the rest of the lands, plus agreed to do homage for Gascony. Prestwich notes that given how arrogant Henry III was, this clearly wasn’t seen as humiliating for him at the time otherwise he wouldn’t’ve agreed to it even if it was sensible.

In hindsight, this treaty of 1259 can be seen as setting up the tensions that would result in the Hundred Years War. But in the medium term it was a stunning success and relations between England and France remained good for over 30 years after this treaty. In 1286 Edward I even did homage to the new French King as he was bound to do by the treaty terms. So far, so friendly. But tensions started rising not long after. Edward I reorganised the government of Gascony in a way that meant he was taking a more active role in it. And this was happening against a backdrop of the French crown being eager to assert their own royal rights wherever possible (for internal political reasons, I think, so again the fact it was Gascony was almost irrelevant).

War broke out in 1294 sparked by rivalries between sailors from English ports (in Gascony) and Breton sailors. Originally the English tried to keep a friendly relationship with France. Edward I’s brother Edmund and the Queen of France (and her mother-in-law) actually negotiated a treaty that Edward considered binding. It had a complicated series of events to follow, but after Edward did his part the French did not follow through with theirs so Edward felt duped. But Prestwich says it’s more likely that the French Queen just didn’t have as much authority and influence as she thought she did – so she was acting in good faith but wasn’t actually able to make a binding treaty.

Unlike Henry III, Edward I had an actual plan for his war with France. The main goal was to keep Gascony, but it was easier to actually campaign in Normandy. And Edward also masterminded a grand alliance pulling in various other European courts on his side – Flanders, Germany, Brabant, Holland, Guelders. But even having a plan didn’t guarantee success and the English were lucky that the French King was both cautious and fooled into thinking their army was larger than it really was. A truce was agreed in 1297, but peace treaty negotiations dragged on until 1303. In the end what was agreed was that everything should revert to the pre-war situation and friendly relations should be cemented by marriages between Edward I and the French King’s sister, and the future Edward II and the French King’s daughter.

However, you can’t realistically pretend that a war didn’t happen and tensions remained between the two countries. The legal status of Gascony meant that technically nobles there could appeal against the English King’s judgements to the French King, and they were encouraged to do so. Edward II also kept putting off the whole “paying homage” thing. So in 1324 war broke out again – a war that the English didn’t really want and the French weren’t terribly enthusiastic about. Peace was negotiated by Isabella, Edward II’s wife and sister of the current French King, mostly because she had personal reasons for wanting peace. Again the treaty was a restoration of the prior status quo, and Isabella’s son, the future Edward III, came to do homage on his father’s behalf for Gascony. And again this was more part of Isabella’s personal political manoeuvring than done on behalf of her husband – this is the jumping off point for the invasion of England by Isabella and Mortimer that results in the removal of Edward II from the throne.

For the first 10 years of Edward III’s reign there is an uneasy peace, and in 1329 when the first Valois King of France takes the throne Edward did homage to him for Gascony. Relations break down gradually over the early to mid 1330s. As well as the issue of Gascony the interference of France in Anglo-Scottish relations and of England in Franco-Flemish relations was important. There was also a failed crusade that Philip VI of France was going to lead – the Pope cancelled it because peace in Europe could not be guaranteed. Philip thought this was Edward’s fault. There was also the question of who was the rightful King of France. By French succession laws descent via the female line was invalid, so Edward III had no claim to France. By English succession laws he had a better claim (as the past King’s nephew) than Philip VI did. However by doing homage for Gascony he’d tacitly abandoned his claim. In 1337 he changed his mind and in 1340 he altered his coat of arms to include the French coat of arms. When writing to Continental rulers he started to call himself “Edward by grace of God King of France and England and lord of Ireland” (when referring to himself in English correspondence he put England first…). Prestwich suggests that this isn’t necessarily all because Edward wants the French throne – it’s more about getting the Flemish onside, if they can claim to be supporting the legitimate King of France then their position is much stronger than it is if they are rebelling. It’s also about asking for more than you necessarily want in the hopes when you negotiate it’s only down to your true position.

The first phase of the Hundred Years War runs from 1337 to 1340. This was fought much like Edward I’s war in the 1290s, expensively and with the help of allies. The English are a bit more successful however, in particular winning a naval battle at Sluys that did a lot to secure the English coast from French raids. The treaty of Esplechin in September 1340 was the end of this phase, with both sides promising a 9 month truce in all arenas including Scotland and Gascony.

The next phase of the war runs from 1341 through to 1355. War restarted using a succession crisis in Brittany as an excuse with the French and English backing different candidates. This was important as it gained Edward III more allies in French territory and access to more landing sites on the French coast. In 1346 Edward III himself undertook an extraordinarily successful campaign starting near Barfleur in Normandy and marching via Caen to the Seine (indeed nearly to Paris itself) and then north to the Somme eventually meeting the French in battle at Crécy. Pitched battles were actually rare, although Edward did have some reason to court them as winning a battle would be regarded as proof that God was on his side. The success of this campaign was very important, but wasn’t followed up – in part because of the crisis of the Black Death in 1348. However the English definitely had the upperhand in the bits & pieces of fighting that followed over the next several years even if there weren’t many more set piece victories.

In 1353 there was some attempt to negotiate a peace but both sides felt they still had more to gain if they kept on fighting, so nothing was worked out. The next phase of the war started in 1355, and Prestwich titles this “The Black Prince’s War” – Edward III’s son & heir lead the most succesful campaigns of this five year period, mostly raiding expeditions through southern France from Gascony. The major victory of this period was in 1357 at Poitiers when the French King was captured. For 2 years after this there were attempts to negotiate peace and ransom of the French King which didn’t really go anywhere. A final campaign by Edward III in 1359-60 ended this phase of the war. The English desire to continue was damaged by a disasterous storm that devasted the campaigning army, which meant they entered negotiations in a more concessionary mood than previously. Peace was negotiated in May 1360 at Brétigny – Edward III got Gascony, Poitou and several surrounding areas in full sovereignty in return for giving up his claim to the throne of France.

1360 is the end of the scope of this book, so to finish up the chapter Prestwich just notes that the peace lasted only 9 years. And mostly foundered on the actual implementation of the treaty.

The Armies of Edward III’s French War

The most surprising thing about this first section of the Hundred Years War both from a contemporary perspective and with hindsight is how competent the English army was, even compared to the start of Edward III’s reign. In part this is down to experience – the Scottish wars during the 1330s meant that there were men who knew how to command, knew how to organise logistics etc. And also had learnt lessons about which tactics had worked and which hadn’t.

Prestwich goes into a lot of detail about recruitment for the war. It was a worry for the crown initially, so the offered pay was higher than in previous wars. The bureaucracy was simplified too with explicit contracts between crown and commanders that set out how many men they were to bring of what sorts in return for how much in fees. Pay wasn’t the only motivator – the chance of capturing a noble Frenchman who you could then ransom was another form of motivation. And general looting, pillaging and “living off the land” was encouraged on these campaigns. This last also reduced the burden on the English domestically as there wasn’t as great a need to supply the army with food etc as there had been on the Welsh & Scottish campaigns.

When considering the tactics used by the English Prestwich starts off by discussing contemporary explanations for the successes achieved. The English mostly put it down to divine approval, which Prestwich notes is marginally more believable than the French thinking that their failure is down to wearing short-cut clothes … There isn’t much if any written evidence of English introspection about their tactics, but clearly it must have happened as lessons learnt in the Scottish wars are successfully implemented (often by the same commanders) in the French campaigns. However experienced troops and high morale were perhaps as important as the specific tactics used.

Chivalry was important in the 14th Century, and this may account for much of the enthusiasm for the French wars of Edward III. It’s not clear if Edward III was deliberately encouraging the culture of chivalry for this sort of purpose, or if he actually just liked it himself. Prestwich also notes that our association of the 14th Century with a golden age of chivalry is partly just because of what texts etc have survived. For instance the Order of the Garter was founded in 1348 and survives to this day, but it was one of several such things and it’s not clear how notable it actually was at the time. And as always the reality doesn’t live up to the ideals – wars of this era weren’t notably more chivalric in practice than any other era. Looting, pillaging and so on still happened, brutality still happened, and the practice of high ransoms for nobles doesn’t seem to square with the honour & glory rhetoric either.

Prestwich devotes the last two pages of this chapter to the economic effects of the war between 1337 and 1360. There is no clear consensus on whether the war was profitable or detrimental to the English economy. Prestwich concludes that the costs of the war were high in terms of the increased taxation needed to pay for it, and were probably not entirely counterbalanced by income from plundering and ransom high though that was.

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

The Burrowers: Animals Underground

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

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

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

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

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

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome

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

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

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

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

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

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

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

The Story of the Jews

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

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

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

Treasures of Ancient Rome; Treasures of the Louvre

We seemed to go through a phase of only ever discovering TV series after the first episode had already aired, so there’s a few things on our PVR waiting for episode 1 to be repeated. Treasures of Ancient Rome is one of these, and we decided just to watch the other two episodes anyway and come back to the first if we get hold of it. The series premise is Alastair Sooke talking about the art of Ancient Rome, putting it in its historical context. As a presenter Sooke comes across as very enthusiastic and keen to share all his excitement about the subject – reminded me a bit of Dan Cruickshank in that sense (who we call “the Gosh! guy” in our household because he frequently starts his explanation of what you’re looking at with “Gosh!”).

This second episode was about the art of the height of the Roman Empire – running from the Emperor Augustus through to Hadrian. Sooke showed us six or seven representative pieces ranging from a (very large) cameo to Trajan’s column. Along the way we also were treated to Sooke reading relevant excerpts from a translation of Suetonius’s book The Twelve Caesars – which is the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors, all written with lots of scandalous detail. Sooke also spoke to some modern artists who use the same techniques as were used to create the pieces of art he showed us.

The title of the episode was Pomp & Perversion and the programme was looking at both the propaganda and the private art of the Emperors (and others). The propaganda was most clearly shown by Trajan’s column. It’s decorated with a spiralling mural all the way up the length of the column commemorating a victory of Trajan’s – there’s a museum where they have replicas of the reliefs set out so you can see them properly. I’m pretty sure the expert Sooke was talking to got an Asterix reference in when he was talking about it – pointing to the leader of the conquered tribe with an upraised hand he said “you can see him here saying “these Romans are crazy!”” 🙂

There were many examples for the debauchery side of the theme – for instance the Warren Cup. This is a silver drinking cup on display in the British Museum, it’s very well made and must’ve been a high status item. And it is decorated with two explicit scenes of gay sex. A different aspect of the Roman Empire’s reputation for debauchery was represented by one of the many copies of a statue of a man being flayed alive. It was mythological, but even so it says something about a culture if your garden ornaments are that gruesome.

There was also a segment of the programme where Sooke met a modern priest of the cult of Antinous. Antinous was a young man who was the lover of the Emperor Hadrian, and who drowned in the Nile at the age of 19 leaving the Emperor grief-stricken. A cult sprang up after his death, which was apparently on a par with the size of Christianity at the time (bear in mind this is 130AD so Christianity isn’t that big yet). Sooke didn’t say, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the grief of Hadrian had more than a little to do with the spread of the cult – a way of currying favour. The modern priest of the cult was explaining that in more recent times (18th & 19th Centuries I think he mentioned) having statues of Antinous or being a member of the cult was a good way for European aristocrats to covertly indicate they were gay.

I think my favourite of the art that Sooke showed us in this programme is one I haven’t mentioned yet – a fresco that would’ve adorned the walls of a room in the Empress Julia’s villa (wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius). It was for a smallish room with no windows, a place that was a respite from the summer heat, and it was a painting of a garden with trees & flowers & birds. It looked like it would be very peaceful to sit & look at. (And a contrast to the rest of the things in the programme!)

By chance we managed to pick two very similarly titled programmes, both about art for Tuesday & Wednesday. The one we watched on Wednesday was Treasures of the Louvre which was presented by Andrew Hussey, who was another presenter I’d never heard of before – he’s the Dean of the University of London in Paris Institute, and a writer & historian. The programme was an hour & a half, and in that time it managed to fit a tour round the highlights of the Louvre, a potted history of France from the 15th Century onwards & a history of the buildings of the Louvre. Quite a lot but it didn’t feel rushed although it was very obviously only the highlights.

Hussey started with the oldest painting in the Louvre which is from the 15th Century – it’s a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion, surrounded by saints (including Saint Denis with his head in his hands …). But for the purposes of the programme the most important part was that it had a small picture of the Louvre in the background. Which doesn’t look anything like the buildings that’re there today – the Medieval Louvre was a fortress (and Hussey said his preferred etymology for the word Louvre is that it comes from a word for fortress). The foundations of the old Louvre are visible in the basement of the current building, when we visited a couple of years ago I took a photo of them.

The start of the transformation of the Louvre from fortress to museum (via palace) was brought about in the 16th Century by Francis I who ruled France roughly contemporaneously with Henry VIII in England. The Renaissance is beginning in France & Francis rebuilds the Louvre as a fitting palace for a “modern” King – his part of the building is the short end of the U shape of the building I think. He also was a patron of the arts & of artists, and encouraged Leonardo da Vinci to move to Paris when he was an old man. The Mona Lisa came with him & was the first acquisition of what is now the collection of the Louvre.

The Louvre was used as a palace until the French Revolution. As well as showing us different works of art Hussey told us about the King & Queen watching Huguenots get murdered in the courtyard in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He also talked about the various building projects, including linking the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace with the half-mile long Grand Gallery. (Which is where the Renaissance era paintings are today.)

Hussey also told the amusing story of Louis XIV decamping to Versailles because he didn’t like the Parisiennes & the Parisiennes didn’t like him. Because of this move the Louvre was no longer the Royal residence, and so artists could move in – to learn from the works displayed there and produce their own. After the French Revolution the Louvre remained a working place for artists, and also took on the role of public museum. Hussey told us that the galleries were open for the first 6 days of the week for artists only, who were free to take paintings off walls, put chalk marks on paintings(!) etc. For the next 3 days it was open to the public, and on the final day of the 10-day revolutionary week it was closed to everyone for cleaning & necessary repairs. The government at this time also declared all art to be publicly owned so the collections of the Louvre grew.

After the Revolution came Napoleon, who started new grand plans for both acquisition of art & for the buildings. He also commissioned grand paintings of his coronation & other state occasions to properly display his splendidness. During his reign the Louvre started to gain the Egyptian artifacts & also other spoils of Napoleon’s military victories (like The Wedding at Cana, which is a painting I particularly liked when we visited the Louvre). The building works on the Louvre now got to the stage where the plan was for the original Louvre at the end to be linked on both sides to the Tuileries Palace enclosing a vast courtyard.

During the next few changes of regime the museum collections grew. Particularly notable was the formation of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities during the Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy. Champollion was put in charge of this – as the man who first deciphered hieroglyphs he was a very significant figure in early Egyptology. The next important moment for the buildings was the destruction of the Tuileries Palace at the end of the Second Empire. It was burnt down because it was the residence of the Emperor, but thankfully the Louvre itself was not.

Hussey skipped fairly briskly past the two World Wars to come to the second half of the 20th Century. As part of the post-war politics (I think) the Mona Lisa was sent off on a tour of the US – Hussey showed us footage of the painting being shipped to the US & from the Presidential reception for the painting. He said they treated it almost like a head of state, which is a bit mind boggling. The Louvre began to get a bit run down, and as part of sprucing it up and rejunvenating it the glass pyramid was built. Controversial at the time it seems to me to be better than the car park that Hussey told us was previously there. And which I presumably saw, I’m sure I must’ve been to the Louvre when I went with my parents to Paris in something like 1985 or 1986 – and the pyramid wasn’t finished till 1989. Maybe it was a building site? I really can’t remember though. And for the final segment of the programme Hussey talked about a bit of the building that wasn’t even open when we were there in Sept 2011 – the new Islamic Art galleries.

I really haven’t done the programme justice in this recap – I’ve skipped over most of the artworks that Hussey talked about in favour of talking about the history (because I find that easier to summarise!) and even with that I’ve missed out a lot of detail. A programme well worth watching if you want an overview of a large chunk of French history & art history – and an overview of highlights of the Louvre collection. It made me want to go back & see (some of) the things I didn’t look at last time – we spent a couple of days in the Egyptian Galleries but only saw a few key things in the rest of the museum, so there’s lots left to see.

Wild Arabia; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War; Panorama: North Korea Undercover

Over the last week we finished off watching the Wild Arabia series. The second episode looked at the wildlife along the south eastern coast of the peninsula (what I think of as the bottom of it, for no apparent reason!). Part of the programme focussed on the sea life in the region (including turtles coming up to lay their eggs on the beach. Another strand followed two biologists (from Oman) who set up cameras through the region to record the animals that moved past & got some great footage of species that are generally hard to find. Most of the year the landscape is the sort of desert you’d expect, but during monsoon season the winds blow across the Indian Ocean full of moisture and when they get to the cliffs in this region the water comes out first as mist then as rain. And the land is transformed into a lush green landscape.

The third episode looked at the impact of the oil industry and the cultural changes that’s brought on the land and the animals. It was pretty evenly balanced, showing us both the bad and the good effects. The bit that sticks most in my mind was the high-tech camel racing – instead of a jockey each camel has a small robot on its back and the trainers drive alongside the track shouting encouragement to the camel that is played out through a speaker on the robot. And the robot carries a small whip for when the trainer thinks that is required. It was a very odd sight.

The third & last episode of Janina Ramirez’s series about the Hundred Years War covered the time from the English victory at Agincourt (in 1415) to the end of the war in 1453. After the victory at Agincourt Henry V set about conquering France properly – he didn’t just take an army over the Channel to raid, they captured and held cities and towns. And Henry handed out lands & titles to his nobility, this was a Norman Conquest in reverse. The English were helped in this endeavour by the divisions among the French. Charles VI (the Mad) was still on the throne and spent not inconsiderable amounts of time thinking he was made of glass and worrying about breaking – but Ramirez was saying that unlike in England the French saw their King as so sacrosanct that no-one was about to depose him even if he was mad. So real power didn’t rest with the King, instead there were the supporters of the Dauphin (the heir to the throne) called Orleanists who were in charge through most of the south of the country. And in the north of the country (including Paris) were the supporters of the Duke of Burgundy. These two factions were more concerned with their power struggles against each other than they were with what the English were doing in Normandy. So Henry V managed to conquer most of Normandy before there was any thought of stopping him.

Finally the two French factions met to negotiate with thoughts of stopping Henry V – but instead of actually negotiating the Dauphin’s men killed the Duke of Burgundy. Which didn’t go down well with the Duke’s son & heir, so the new Duke of Burgundy formed an alliance with the English. Henry V now had control of the north of France, including the treasure house in Paris. And access to Charles VI. A treaty was agreed between Charles & Henry saying that Henry was now heir to the throne of France. Henry also married Charles’ daughter. And doubts were cast on the Dauphin’s legitimacy, to make him seem a less viable alternative.

Sadly for Henry he was never to be crowned King of France, as he pre-deceased Charles VI by a couple of months in 1422. Henry’s son Henry VI was only 9 months old at the time, and before Henry V died he appointed his brothers as regents and gave them strict instructions about how to proceed – in particular they were to persist with the conquest of France. Ramirez told us how the brothers did their best to follow Henry’s wishes, in particular the Duke of Bedford who was left in charge of the French conquest. Over the next few years he pushed forward with the conquest of France, and eventually England controlled all of France down to as far south as the Loire. Well, almost all – the island Mont Saint Michel off the coast of Normandy wasn’t under English control, which Ramirez told us was a psychological boost to the Dauphin and his supporters because Saint Michel was the Dauphin’s patron saint.

And now the tide was about to turn. Ramirez told us that the Dauphin was a bit of a non-entity, but now he had help from an unexpected source – the peasant girl Joan of Arc who heard messages from God. She won the trust of the Dauphin, and led the French to several victories over the English which was taken as a sign that God was now on the side of the French. During this period of pushing back the English the Dauphin was crowned King of France in Reims as was traditional. The Duke of Bedford tried to counter this by having a coronation ceremony for Henry VI in Notre Dame in Paris – but Ramirez spoke to a French historian who told us that this wouldn’t’ve been seen as a “proper” coronation by the French. All French Kings were crowned in Reims, and anointed with the Oil of Chrism kept there – so a coronation somewhere else wasn’t regarded as real.

Joan of Arc was eventually captured by the Burgundians and then tried for heresy by the English. Ramirez explained it was politically motivated – if Joan of Arc was a heretic then clearly God isn’t on France’s side and the Dauphin would be tainted with heresy as well. Joan was condemned & burnt at the stake – first they burnt her & put out the fire so that people would see that she was dead. Then they lit the fires again to reduce her body to ash so that there would be no relics.

But the death of Joan of Arc didn’t improve anything for the English. After the Duke of Bedford died, trying to fulfil his brother’s wishes to the last, the alliance between England and the Burgundians broke down. The Duke of Burgundy allied with the Dauphin and France was now united against the English.

The programme took a small detour here to consider what sort of man Henry VI was. He’d been brought up sheltered from any dangers and it seemed he was also protected from ever making his mind up. He’d inherited his father’s piety, but not his warrior nature – in fact he’s apparently the one medieval king never to lead his army into battle. Ramirez paid a visit to King’s College Chapel in Cambridge which was started by Henry VI – this building, inspired by Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, is where the money went rather than towards the conquest of France.

In the end the French managed to drive the English completely out of France – England even lost control of the territory in France that it had had at the start of the Hundred Years War. The last battles were decisive victories for the French – they used new war technology and tactics to defeat the now out-of-date English army. I know, but I always forget, that the Hundred Years War ends as cannon and guns become the new weapons of war.

And now the series is over – I enjoyed watching it 🙂 This time period is just before my favourite era of history, so I know a bit about it but this gave a different perspective because it concentrates on the war and not so much on what’s going on in England. If anything I’d’ve liked more details on the French side of it, because what I know of French history is pretty much just the bits where it interacts with England. Once I whittle down my stack of books to read I should add an overview of French history to the list.

We were running late on Wednesday, so looked for a half hour programme to finish the evening with. We ended up continuing the current affairs theme we’ve had recently by watching the Panorama programme about North Korea. The journalist John Sweeney (and presumably an uncredited camera person) joined a tour group doing an official 8 day tour of North Korea, and secretly filmed their visit. It was notable that even most of the sanitised-for-the-foreigners stuff that they were shown on the tour (and actually permitted to photograph) was looked dirty and poor and backward. Whenever the electricity went out, or they couldn’t visit somewhere on the itinerary, it was always the fault of the war. The wording used about the possibility of thermonuclear war was interesting too – always “if war is provoked”, not “declared”, not “breaks out” but “provoked”.

It must’ve taken a lot of courage to make the programme – the consequences of being caught would not be good. But I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way Sweeney kept poking at the edges of what the people he spoke to were allowed to say. Like the segment in the hospital where he keeps asking why there aren’t any patients there. Other parts of the programme had interviews with defectors from North Korea and they were all clear that to say the wrong thing in North Korea meant death and it didn’t matter how high ranked you were. So to try & expose the foolishness of the script these people were following felt wrong – they would believe it would cost them their lives to deviate from it.

As well as the footage within North Korea, and interviews with defectors, there were also interviews with analysts and diplomats. They all seemed to agree that the posturing about nuclear war with the US is really part of the propaganda & brainwashing for the North Korean public – the image of a strong leader is one who is ready to go to war and to destroy enemies so Kim Jong-un needs to use that rhetoric. Tho one expert did say that thermonuclear war might still happen, albeit not because North Korea wants it … just they might miscalculate. Not particularly reassuring.

Wild Arabia; Israel: Facing the Future; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

We’re still trying to whittle down the amount of stuff we have recorded on our PVR so on Tuesday evening we started to watch a series about Arabian wildlife & people narrated by Alexander Siddig. This first episode was called “Sand, Wind and Stars” and was all about the desert in the centre of the Arabian peninsula. As with most nature programmes it’s hard to say much about it, because the point is primarily the visuals. This was a very beautiful programme, lots of shots of endless desert sands and oryx moving across the scene. And close-ups of a variety of animals that can survive in the desert heat. There was also another strand of the programme that followed a man and his son on their way to a camel racing gathering – a Bedouin tradition.

On our normal Wednesday night tv night we started off with a programme about Israel – John Ware visited Israel and spoke to a combination of ordinary people & political or religious leaders (mostly Israelis, but also Palestinian Arabs) about Israel & the future. The thesis of his programme was that Israel stands at a crossroads between a secular future and a religious future.

The programme started with some scenes of Tel Aviv and Ware pointing out that at first glance this could be any cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. But you don’t really have to travel that far to get to the Egyptian border, where the army patrols after attacks on Israel from the Egyptian side of the border. And back in Tel Aviv he spoke to the members of a rock group who are all pilots in the airforce as their “day job”. Israel has been in a state of conflict, if not outright war, with the surrounding Arab nations since the country was founded and this is an always present fact of life for Israelis. And if anything this tension is on the increase in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – for instance Egypt has elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power who are anti-Israel. But Ware said that these are not the issues that are concerning Israelis the most, in the most recent election the candidates campaigned on internal matters. He went to a football match in Tel Aviv and spoke to random spectators about their views on the election and got a wide spectrum of answers from conservative to liberal. Much like you would if you went to a football match in the UK and asked similar political questions.

Ware spent the rest of the programme talking to representatives of various different ideologies & political positions within Israel. One group he talked to were the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who, as the name suggests, are a particularly conservative subset of the Jewish faith. Some of them (all of them?) were living in the region before it was Israel (or are descended from people who were) – and they are predominantly anti-Zionist, believing that the Jewish state shouldn’t’ve been founded by secular authorities and that it should’ve waited for the Messiah. Ware filmed a demonstration by Ultra-Orthodox Jews who wanted to boycott the last election, and pointed out how odd it seems to us to see Jews who don’t want an Israeli state. Or rather, who don’t want this Israeli state. There are also tensions between this community & more liberal Israelis partly because there are a high proportion of the Ultra-Orthodox receiving welfare benefits (because they are devoting their lives to their religion and spirituality rather than supporting themselves). And partly because the more extreme Ultra-Orthodox have tried to impose their behavioural rules forcibly on other citizens who don’t share their beliefs.

Ware also looked at the position of Arabs within Israel – the descendants of those who stayed when the country was founded. He primarily interviewed an Arab man who writes a comedy tv show about the mis-adventures of an Arab in Israel. We were shown clips from it, it made me think of Mr Bean a bit but much sharper edged. The writer talked about how Arabs are often treated with prejudice by ordinary Israelis, and although they are full citizens with the same rights as anyone else in practice they are poorer than other Israelis and often feel like second class citizens.

And of course a lot of space was devoted to the situation in the West Bank (and Gaza to some extent). Ware talked to an Israeli woman who lives in one of the settlements in the West Bank – in an area that’s practically a suburb of Jerusalem. I felt she was very media-savvy, when asked why she lived where she did she said it was “of course” partly for ideological reasons, but then dwelt at length on the beauty of the place, how good it will be for her children to grow up there, how the schools are very good. As a counterpoint Ware also talked to a group of young Arab activists who in the wake of the Arab Spring have been doing very media friendly protests. For instance they boarded a bus travelling from the West Bank into Israel proper carrying signs and having alerted media so they could be filmed being removed from the bus at the border.

There have been long running attempts to get some sort of peace settlement between Israel & the Palestinians who lived in the West Bank & Gaza before Israel attempted to expand into that territory. Mostly this has focussed on trying to set up a Two State solution where the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank & Gaza and the Palestinians will form their own state in those regions. Ware spoke to some people in favour of this sort of solution. One of these was an Arab businessman who is funding and leading a building project to create a Palestinian community in the West Bank with similarities to the sorts of housing the Israeli settlers have – beautiful, modern, a good place to live. He was upfront that part of his reason for talking to Ware was because he wants the world to see that the Palestinians can be builders too, not just the stereotype of destructive terrorists. Another of the people Ware spoke to was an Israeli politician who thought that Israel did not have a God given right to claim any territory that had been in biblical Israel, so they should withdraw & leave the Palestinians in peace.

But there are people at both ends of the political spectrum who believe that the idea of a Two State solution is dead, that the only way forward would be a single state. They believe this for very different reasons, and would like to see very different sorts of single states. The Arab protesters I mentioned a couple of paragraphs above and other more liberal people would like a single state where all the citizens of the state whether Israeli or Arab have the same rights. And that this might mean that Arabs get elected to positions of power in the government and get to influence the direction of the state, and that’s OK.

At the other end of the spectrum the religious conservatives want a single state, where everyone has rights but where only Jews get to have any influence on the direction of the state. Ware spoke at length to a woman who is a politician with this sort of ideology and she was quite clear that she thought that the most important thing about the Israeli state was that it was Jewish and keeping it that way should be paramount. She also felt that Israel has a right to the territory in the West Bank based on the biblical borders of Israel. And in addition she didn’t believe that a Two State solution would be in the interests of Israel’s security – stating that since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza violence from Hamas against Israel in that region has increased.

I thought Ware tried to make a balanced programme, letting the various people say what they had to say without overly editorialising. Obviously he chose who to speak to and how to edit them, but I felt the storyline he was fitting the programme to was that there’s a range of opinion & ideology in the country and it’s not a simple situation. Of course it’s hard for me to tell how balanced he actually was, because I know nothing about Israeli politics!

The second episode of Chivalry and Betrayal covered the period from 1360 to 1415, and was actually mostly about England and the English monarchs rather than the Hundred Years War per se. But Ramirez started off by telling us what the situation was like in France after the peace treaty between Edward III and John II. Whilst there was peace on a national level, and no actual armies going around fighting, bands of English soldiers were going about the French countryside looting and pillaging. These freebooters were sometimes led by knights, but there was no real organisation – every man in it for the profit he could get out of it. I don’t imagine the English authorities tried terribly hard to stop it, and the French were handicapped because their King was still held captive by the English.

Once John II of France died his son, Charles V, could finally take over properly. He declared war on England once more and started to turn the tide against England. His new general, Bertrand du Guescilin, was less interested in the army being perfectly chivalrous and more interested in winning – Ramirez pointed out the similarities here to how Edward III had got the upper hand in the initial stages of the Hundred Years War. Having driven the English mostly out of France, the French also put together a fleet that was much bigger & more capable than the English fleet. This they used to harass the towns along the Southern coast of England. Ramirez talked to an expert on this who told us that the MO of the French was to sail in with the rising tide, then loot, pillage and burn the town. Following this they’d drag the town’s ships out to sea as they departed on the receding tide. 6 hour lightning raids, that would not only destroy a particular town but also strike fear along the coast about where they’d strike next. The townsfolk would obviously appeal to the crown to do something about this, but no help was forthcoming and that’s the next thing Ramirez went on to talk about.

Edward III is still on the throne at this point, but gone are the days of the warrior King he was in his youth. Old sources suggest that he went senile towards the end of his reign, in the 1370s. Ramirez went to look at Edward III’s funeral effigy which has a model head made from a plaster cast of the King’s face after he died – so it’s a true likeness of the man. The expert she spoke to pointed out that there are indications that Edward III had had a stroke or a series of strokes. So she was saying that it wasn’t dementia that affected the King, instead it had a physical cause (I’m not quite sure why that matters – I think it’s more that these days “senile” is a technical term, but back then it would probably have been more broadly applied and cover loss of mental capacity due to a stroke as well).

Edward III was succeeded by his 9 year old grandson, Richard II – because the Black Prince had pre-deceased Edward III. So now England has been pushed out of France and has a child on the throne (after a few years of an ineffective King in Edward III). So there’s a bit of a hiatus in the Hundred Years War & in fact Richard II and Charles VI (the Mad) do agree some sort of peace.

Just as well, because there are other things for the English to worry about – first the Peasant’s Revolt, where the day is only saved by Richard II himself (still young) promising the rebels their demands will be heard then reneging on the promise. But it’s a close call, and the Chancellor (Simon Sudbury) is dragged out of the Tower of London and killed during this conflict. Ramirez visited the church in Sudbury (the village in Suffolk) and saw the head of Sudbury (the man) which is kept there. It’s a skull (obviously) but still has some skin on it. She spoke to an expert anatomist who showed us the marks on the vertebrae which show he was decapitated but not with a single blow, the first cut didn’t quite go all the way through.

Ramirez then visited the National Portrait Gallery and showed us the diptych portable altarpiece that shows Richard II kneeling before Christ, Mary & the heavenly host – as she said, it shows us what sort of King Richard was. Vain and concerned with other things than war. She also showed us an inventory of all the precious things Richard had bought, and pointed out that the country might’ve put up with taxes for war but there was discontent about being taxed so much for the King’s luxury. This contributed to Richard II’s downfall. He’d exiled the future Henry IV, and then when Henry’s father John of Gaunt died Richard extended Henry’s exile and took his inheritance for the crown. Henry came back, raising an army of discontented English, and defeated Richard II to take the throne. He had a claim, as John of Gaunt was a son of Edward III, but was still a usurper.

When Henry V took the throne after his father, Henry IV, died one of his driving motivations was to prove he was a legitimate King. And Ramirez told us that the way he did this was to go back to war with France to show he was a warrior King and that God was on his side. Charles VI (the Mad) is still on the throne in France – Ramirez didn’t tell us much about him, but what she did say was that like Richard II he was more interested in peace. This new campaign by the English reaches its climax with the Battle of Agincourt, which is still remembered today (thanks to Shakespeare) as a great victory for the English. Henry had proven his point, God was on his side.

The Other Pompeii: Life & Death in Herculaneum; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

Pompeii is the city most often mentioned when talking about the places destroyed by Vesuvius erupting in 79AD, but Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explained that Herculaneum actually tells us even more about how the Romans lived than Pompeii does. He started this programme by explaining that the way that Herculaneum was covered up by the ash from Vesuvius means that there is a lot of stuff preserved in Herculaneum that isn’t preserved in Pompeii.

So as well as buildings and the wall paintings & mosaics, there is also a lot of wooden furniture that has survived. This includes things like decorated wooden screens between rooms, or beds and so on. Some of these pieces of wood still have traces of paint & he showed us some wooden ceiling panels where that’s the case. He was telling us that they’ve done analysis of the paint traces and then showed a reconstruction of the vivid colours that it would’ve had originally. Also along that sort of line he showed us the head of a marble statue that had been discovered still with a large amount of the original paint – the hair was a ginger colour and you could see the painted eyelashes & irises of the eyes.

The preservation of wooden objects in Herculaneum also means that a lot of the town’s legal documents were preserved – originally these would’ve been written on wax tablets and the wax is long gone but the traces of the writing are still visible on the carbonised wooden frames. These documents are invaluable for telling us about the inhabitants of the various houses and their lives. He told us about one set of tablets that were a slave girl challenging her status – we don’t know if she won or not, but she was able to go to court and have witnesses called to determine if her mother was a slave when she was born or not (which would determine her own status). He also showed us the citizenship documents of an ex-slave who had managed to make use of the legal system once he was freed in order to become a citizen. Upward mobility appeared to be very common among the inhabitants of Herculaneum, and there were many freed slaves. Interestingly Margaret Mountford said in her programme about Pompeii that Herculaneum was a resort town, but Wallace-Hadrill didn’t mention that idea at all.

When we got to the segment of the programme about the sewers I remembered what we’d seen Wallace-Hadrill in before – Mary Beard’s programme about Pompeii had a section on the Herculaneum sewers where she talked to Wallace-Hadrill (he is the main man in the Herculaneum conservation project after all). Here he spoke to the people doing the investigation of the organic material from the sewers. They told us about the diet of the inhabitants of Herculaneum – a lot of fish, unsurprisingly for a town on the coast of the Bay of Naples. It seems Romans liked their fish whole & crunchy, the fish bones found in the sewers showed signs of digestion even the ear bones from the fish. Wallace-Hadrill then went to a market in the modern town & showed us that much of the fish & of the fruit & veg are still available today.

To corroborate the evidence from the sewers there is also data from the bones of the people found in the boat sheds. Wallace-Hadrill talked to the anatomists who are investigating these bones. They have done some analysis to see what sort of diets people ate (as this shows up in the bone composition) and this backed up the idea of a fish-rich diet. It also showed a lot of variety, they said it was hard to tell what factors affected who ate meat or fish and who was mostly vegetarian because of the social mobility meaning it was hard to identify who was or was not a slave or higher status. One thing they emphasised a lot while talking about the skeletons was that this is a unique resource – it’s a sample of about 10% of the population of the town from a variety of backgrounds & lifestyles. Because they all died simultaneously in this disaster it’s a snapshot of what the town was actually like.

An interesting programme, particularly when put together with the “how did they die” one we watched last week 🙂

The other programme of the evening was the first episode of a series about the Hundred Years War presented by Janina Ramirez. We’ve seen some of her programmes before – she did one about what medieval illuminated manuscripts tell us about the Kings of England, and one about Anglo Saxon treasures.

The Hundred Years War is a conflict between England and France in which started in the 14th Century. In this first programme Ramirez started off by setting the scene – when Edward III came to the throne of England in 1327 he was not just the King of England but also held two duchies within the kingdom of France for which he had to pay homage to the King of France. Edward also believed that via his mother he was entitled to the French crown once the King of France died. However the French disagreed & his cousin Philip took the throne. At this time the French and English courts were tied together not just by blood, they also spoke the same language (French) and had a common culture of chivalry.

Edward refused to pay homage to the new King of France, which lead Philip to try to confiscate his duchy of Aquitaine. Then Edward declared himself the rightful King of France and this started the war. The first major battle was at Caen, where Ramirez pointed out the unpleasant side of chivalry as a concept – it didn’t apply to everyone equally, fellow knights would be taken prisoner & properly treated if they made themselves known. But the townsfolk at Caen were slaughtered wholesale by the English army. After this victory Edward III marched his army nearly to Paris, and then lured the French army to Crécy where he and his army waited at the top of a hill. This battle was a disaster for the French, in large part because Edward III completely ignored the chivalric rules of war. Instead of allowing the numerically greater number of French Knights to close with the English Knights and fight it out he had stationed two divisions of longbowmen (who weren’t nobly born) to target the French as they advanced. The resulting slaughter of both men & horses was responsible for Edward winning the battle. The army then went on to Calais, where they also won.

I think we skipped forward about 10 years here – Ramirez told us some stuff about what was going on in England during this time but I think there weren’t any major battles in France. One of the significant events was the formation of the Order of the Garter – meant to call to mind the Knights of the Round Table this was an elite order of 26 Knights. But as usual Edward’s version of chivalry was heavily leavened with practicality – these Knights were chosen based on their demonstrated ability on the field of battle. The French King created his own order of Knights in response – the Order of the Star. Instead of 26 handpicked proven warriors this order consisted of about 500 Knights, who all swore an oath not to leave the battlefield while they could still fight.

The next campaigns were led by Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. He started with his army from Aquitaine & marched towards Carcassone in the east. As the army passed through France they destroyed any villages, farms or mills they came across. They took the food they needed on the march and then burnt the rest. Once they reached Carcassone the knights at the town retreated into their fortifications, and the English could lay waste to the town (and kill the townsfolk). Again chivalry didn’t count for the ordinary people. Once the English had headed back to Aquitaine again, having made their point, the French King wrote a letter to the townspeople saying how he was sorry they’d suffered (but not actually doing anything about it). Ramirez emphasised how this campaign was a statement of power – look how the English could destroy the land and livelihoods of the French people and their King couldn’t do anything about it.

The Black Prince’s next campaign the following year went northeast from Aquitaine in much the same way. It ended up at Poitiers, where this time the French army was waiting for them. This time the English didn’t have the advantage of high ground, nor the surprise of their archers, but nonetheless they still won – and took the King of France (by this stage Philip had died and Jean II was King) into custody. He and other noble prisoners were taken back across the channel to England and held hostage. A truce was declared at this point (mostly due to the Black Death, Ramirez was saying) and then after a while a peace treaty was signed that gave Edward more lands in France (around Aquitaine mostly). He also held all his French lands in his own right, not as a vassal of the King of France. In return Edward was to renounce his claim to the throne of France … only somehow he never got round to that bit!

In Our Time: The War of 1812

I knew that there was a war in 1812, but it was mixed up in my head with Napoleon & Moscow and I wasn’t really sure who was fighting in the 1812 war … but it turns out it was a war between the British & the United States of America. My lack of knowledge of it seems to be indicative of how important it actually was to the UK (as opposed to the US) but that’s getting ahead of the story a bit. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

The programme was split into three sections – first the context, then the war itself and then a brief discussion of the aftermath & what the war meant to the countries involved. A major part of the context is the on-going war between Britain and France. Partly it was fought via trying to force the US to trade with one or the other party, and imposing sanctions when they disobeyed. But another part of that context is that the British were in dire need of sailors to man their warships, so pursued deserters (or those they could tenuously claim had deserted) even when said men were no longer British citizens. So British Navy ships would stop US ships in international waters, and board them to look for “deserters” who’d then get taken back & put to work in the British Navy. But these so-called deserters may not’ve been deserters at all and may’ve become naturalised US citizens. Or maybe were US born US citizens who’d been impressed into the British Navy at some point in the past despite not being British.

The incidents that actually kicked off the war were two fold – reflecting both parts of this context. Firstly the British said that the US was no longer allowed to sell salted fish to the West Indies, because the British wanted the Canadians to supply it instead (which would keep the money in the Empire). And a US warship (as opposed to a US merchant ship) was boarded by British Navy forces, 4 men were killed and 4 “deserters” including native born US citizens taken off to the Navy. These insults combined with a sense that if the US didn’t defend its honour then it would be forever walked over by other countries, lead to the US declaring war on Britain.

The war itself Bragg described as desultory. Not many battles, the biggest battle actually happened after peace had been negotiated (in Belgium) but before the two forces in America could be told. There were three main areas where there was fighting – Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the Atlantic ocean/coastline. The US believed at the outset of the war that would be able to just march some of their militia into Canada and the Canadians would lay down their arms and join the US – not entirely a foolish idea for the US, they’d just acquired part of Florida through a similar campaign. But the Canadians didn’t, and the US invasion was pushed back. An attempted land invasion of the US by Canadian militia met equally little success though – both militias being good at defending their own territory but less good at invading.

In the Great Lakes region of the US the British were backing the Native Americans, in particular the Shawnee who tried to unite the various Native American tribes to push the white settlers out of their lands. This was ultimately unsuccessful even with British backing, and this conflict was a major factor in the later campaigns against the Native Americans pushing them out of their lands (including the Trail of Tears). Andrew Jackson who was president when the later persecution of Native Americans was carried out became a war hero during this war partly because of his successful battles against the Creek Indians.

The naval arena was the area where the British had by far the upper hand – their army was bigger too, but the British Navy was the première Navy in the world at this time. However two of the biggest successes for the US came in this area. The Battle of Baltimore, which has been memorialised by the poem that turned into the national anthem of the US (the Star Spangled Banner), and the Battle of New Orleans which occurred just after the peace treaty was signed. However the British did have successes as well – they successfully captured Washington after the local militia fled from the British Army force (that heavily outnumbered them as well as being better trained & armed). Originally the intent was to levy a fine (I think that’s what they said) as an indication that the town was captured, but as the Army marched into the town under a white flag they were fired upon – at which point they put to death the people in the house which had fired on them, and burnt down the various government buildings including the Presidential Palace & the Library of Congress. The experts were keen to point out that with the exception of the house which had fired on the army there was no damage done to civilian buildings.

The war came to an end after about 3 years mainly because the tensions that had lead to it went away – Napoleon was no longer ruler of France and Britain was no longer at war with France. Which meant that they weren’t so worried about US trade, nor were they so worried about tracking down deserters. Public opinion in Britain was also against the war – as being a waste of money & men, for no good reason. Peace was negotiated at a meeting in Belgium, and Burk summarised the treaty as saying not much of anything – nothing had changed since before the war & the treaty didn’t really mention any of the things that the war had been about. The other two disagreed with that as a general statement – but they did agree that from the point of view of Britain Burk was right.

From the point of view of the US this had been much more significant – it was almost a second War of Independence, and they felt they had asserted their right to be treated as a sovereign country. And as the news of one of their biggest victories in the war (in New Orleans) reached the majority of the country at the same time as news of peace did, it looked awfully like they’d won the war. Rather than it having been a bit of a damp squib that fizzled out. And from the point of view of the Native Americans it had been a disaster, which lead to public support for their persecution.