In Our Time: Ashoka

Ashoka was the ruler of a vast empire in the 4th Century BC which included nearly all of India. He is known today from both archaeological evidence (a series of pillars & rocks inscribed with his edicts) and textual evidence (later Buddhist histories). The three experts who discussed him on In Our Time were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies), Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and Richard Gombrich (Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and University of Oxford).

Shortly before Ashoka’s time northern India in the Ganges valley was populated by a set of smallish but relatively sophisticated states. The experts made a comparison with pre-Socratic Greece or with the state of affairs in China at the time. The dynasty of which Ashoka is the third ruler changed this – they started to conquer the other nearby states and Ashoka himself greatly expanded the empire.

Not much is known for sure about Ashoka’s life. Both sorts of available evidence have obvious flaws & biases. The Buddhist histories are written significantly after Ashoka’s death, and follow a clear conversion narrative – so the early years are portrayed as Very Bad so that he can then convert and live the rest of his life as a Very Good Buddhist. Both bits of that narrative are obviously suspect and were likely exaggerated for effect. Gombrich was particularly keen to dismiss any evidence arising from this (he came across as somewhat of an Ashoka fanboy to be honest). Frazier and Appleton were more open to using these texts whilst being aware of their pitfalls as sources. The other evidence is the pillars and rocks with his edicts carved on them, and Gombrich was very keen to hold these up as Ashoka’s own words which were therefore innately trustworthy – I thought it more likely they were also biased as they were intended at the time as a propaganda tool.

His early life was probably quite violent – it seems that although he was of the ruling dynasty he wasn’t the designated heir, and he may have committed murder in order to take the throne. He then embarks on a series of military campaigns to consolidate the empire he has “inherited” and to expand it. By the time this phase of his career finishes he rules from Afghanistan to nearly the southern tip of India, an incredibly vast empire. And then he has some sort of epiphany, a road to Damascus moment. The edicts say that this was a response to the slaughter at one of his last battles at Kalinga where many many civilians were killed. The Buddhist histories say that he met a Buddhist monk and this monk taught him a better way to live. Regardless of what it was (the cynic in me wonders if he’d just run out of expansion room), after this he stopped fighting wars and concentrated on ruling his empire both peacefully and justly.

Having become a Buddhist and renounced violence he ruled for another 40 years. The edicts set out a moral code and say how Ashoka is going to rule. The very fact of their existence is testimony to one of the things that Ashoka did for India – he introduced writing to the region. This means that although these were set up throughout his empire the ordinary people and even the higher status people wouldn’t be able to read them. So there were also literate officials posted to the same place so that they could read them out and explain them to people. They set out the ways that people should behave, based in large part on Buddhist ethics & morality (although he didn’t follow any of the contemporary Buddhist texts exactly). There was an emphasis on the welfare of the people, and they promoted the idea that everyone should do good deeds now in order to benefit themselves in both this world and the next. Interestingly although he preached respect for all religions the edicts were also fairly anti-Brahmin (the forerunners of Hinduism) and against the caste system.

In the wrapping up stage of the programme the three experts discussed whether the edicts were a sincere representation of Ashoka’s plans, beliefs etc or whether they were a cynical piece of propaganda. All three thought it was sincere, but pointed out that this is a very modern Western way of framing the discussion. We tend to set those two things as a pair of opposed opposites, sincere vs. pragmatic, but at the time there would be no paradox in both sincerely believing in Buddhist ethics and also erecting the edicts as a pragmatic political act.

They finished by discussing Ashoka’s legacy. He was instrumental in making Buddhism a worldwide religion, spreading it outside its Indian birthplace throughout his empire and beyond. And in places like Sri Lanka he is remembered for this, and for bringing writing to these areas. However in India his legacy is slight, and is primarily through being rediscovered in the modern era when the edicts were translated. Gombrich discussed how as Hinduism rose to prominence in India Ashoka’s reign and empire were minimised & forgotten in histories of the country – due to his being Buddhist and to his anti-Brahmin, anti-caste stance. His legacy is most clearly seen as being the source of the ideas against which Hindu ideas about kingship and society were reacting.

In Our Time: Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling is one of the most well known British writers of the late 19th & early 20th Century – I suspect nearly everyone has heard of something he wrote (“The Jungle Book”, “If–“, “Tommy” …). His reputation as a great writer in modern times has been overshadowed by the fact that he was an apologist for the British Empire with the sort of racist views that that entails. Discussing his life and works on In Our Time were Howard Booth (University of Manchester), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Jan Montefiore (University of Kent).

Kipling was born in India in 1865 to British parents, and his early childhood seems to’ve been idyllic. He was primarily brought up by an Indian nanny, and in his memoirs recalled that Hindi was his first language – he relates being sent in to see his parents with the firm instruction to remember to speak English to them, and having to laboriously translate it out of the Hindi he thought in.

At the age of 6 he was taken to England where he and his younger sister boarded with a couple in Southsea for the next 6 or 7 years. This wasn’t unusual – it was customary for the children of English families in India to be sent “home” at that sort of age. What was unusual was that he and his sister didn’t stay with family. One of the experts (Karlin?) suggested that Kipling’s mother felt that her siblings weren’t likely to treat her children well. This was a traumatic time for Kipling and not just in contrast with the life he’d left in India. The couple he was living with were abusive, the woman in particular. She firmly believed that Kipling was evil and going to hell, and treated him accordingly. One of the experts said that the only good thing in this time was that Kipling didn’t lose his closeness with his sister, despite the differences in the way the two children were treated.

Kipling was reprieved when he reached his teens, as he was sent to a minor public school (again, as was usual for a child of his social class). He thrived there, and this was the first time during his life when he actually had the opportunity to make friends. While at school he became involved with the school newspaper, which was the beginning of his career as a writer. When he was 17 instead of going on to university he left school and returned to India. He began work as a journalist both reporting news and writing stories for the paper. The experts speculated that this was why the short story was his preferred length – he’d learnt his skills writing to a restrictive word limit and this is what he became best at.

Having made something of a name for himself as an Anglo-Indian writer by his mid-twenties he returned to England with an eye to making a name for himself outside that rather narrow remit. He established himself in London, and began what the experts presented as a calculated campaign to establish himself as a writer. At the time London was something of a literary hotspot, and he met many of the big names of the day – including Henry James who was much taken with Kipling (and vice versa). He published prolifically – both short stories and poems – and was fortunate to write at a time when copyright had been legally codified. Between his constant stream of new material, and his ability to make money from his back catalogue by publishing collections and reprints, he made a lot of money over his lifetime.

Kipling married an American woman, who was the sister of his best friend, and they lived for several years in the US in the 1890s. On the programme they talked about how much Kipling liked America – both the countryside and the people – but didn’t really discuss why they returned to the UK. After he and his family returned it seems that Kipling became more involved in politics, using his writing to deliver political messages. He was a great supporter of the Empire, in a paternalistically racist sort of way (the need to look after the poor savages). In the early years of the 20th Century, after the Boer War, he also began to talk about how the British Army needed to be improved (and better treated). He was one of the members of the establishment who saw Germany as a looming threat that Britain would end up in conflict with sooner or later.

I confess I’d somehow assumed that Kipling died long before the First World War, but this is not the case – he lived until 1936. During the war Kipling was involved in a couple of different ways. He was involved in writing propaganda for the war effort, and then after his son’s death in 1915 he was also heavily involved in the committee that organised the memorials and graveyards for the war dead. He was responsible for the choice of wording on the gravestones and memorials. And for the way the names on the memorials were organised – in alphabetical order instead of by rank, and including the missing-presumed-dead as well as those whose bodies were found (his own son’s body was not found).

This programme felt oddly rushed – in particular we didn’t get to hear much about his work (although a bit more than I’ve recapped here). While writing this blog post I checked the wikipedia article to make sure I had my dates correct, as I usually do, and I noticed that there seem to be several bits of Kipling’s life that are a bit glossed over. I guess it was just a bit of a bigger subject than would easily fit in 45 minutes.

The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain; Tigers About the House; The Birth of Empire: The East India Company

The First Georgians: The Kings Who Made Britain was a series presented by Lucy Worsley which ties into an exhibition at Buckingham Palace this year to mark the 300th anniversary of George I taking the throne. The series (and presumably exhibition?) focussed on Georges I and II who are often overlooked a bit in the rush to get to George III and the madness and loss of the American colonies. As well as the two monarchs Worsley also looked at the other important members of the family during this time – starting with the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who was the originally designated heir to Queen Anne. Sophia didn’t live long enough to take the throne, so it was her eldest son George who did. Other members of the royal family discussed were the spouses of the two Georges: Sophia and Caroline; and Frederick Prince of Wales (son of George II and father of George III).

The Hanoverians were brought in as monarchs of the United Kingdom by an Act of Parliament designed to avoid the “disaster” of a Catholic monarch. This of course was fertile ground for conflict – which boiled over in 1715 and 1745 with the Jacobite rebellions. As well as being Protestant they had another advantage – they were a family, with more than one heir already lined up! It was hope this would usher in a period of a stable Protestant monarchy. And it did, in one sense, but they were a pretty dysfunctional family. George I’s wife spent the last 30 years of her life locked up after having an affair, George I and George II did not get on, neither did George II and his son, Frederick. As well as all their disastrous fallings out the family also had some problems with being accepted by the populace of their new country – they were seen as foreigners, and George III was the first of the dynasty to be born in England! Both George I and George II were seen as more interested in Hanover than they were in the UK, Frederick was the first to truly put the UK first – mostly as it would annoy his father.

This was a time of great change in British society, and Worsley’s thesis was that some of this was due the trickle down effect of the Georges’ on the society around them. For instance in George II’s reign the concept of “the opposition” in parliament began to rise. This is because Frederick provided a secondary focus for the politicians – a place in the political system where you could disagree with the King whilst still being loyal to your country.

A good series about a couple of Kings I often overlook at bit, and it has definitely made me want to see the exhibition.

Tigers About the House was something completely different 🙂 Giles Clark is a zookeeper who is in part of the team who look after the Sumatran tigers in a zoo in Australia, and for the first couple of months of the lives of a pair of cubs he was bringing them up at home. The tigers in the zoo aren’t ever going to be reintroduced to the wild, and are handled often by the keepers (and sometimes by the public) so this was a good way to familiarise the cubs with humans while they were young. But it wasn’t in any way domesticating them – it seemed more like the keepers ended up as friends of the tigers (whilst still respecting them). As well as the strand of “ooooh, cute tiger babies” the programme also had a message about conservation. One of the reasons this Australian zoo is so keen to have their tigers handleable, including by the public, is that this encourages people to contribute to conservation funds. Sumatran tigers are being hunted to extinction by poachers in the wild, because their bodies are used in traditional medicines and as luxury goods – there are only a few hundred tigers left in the wild, and they may become extinct in the wild in the next few decades.

A very cute series, which did its job at raising awareness of the tigers plight in the wild.

The Birth of Empire: The East India Company was a two part series presented by Dan Snow looking at the history of the East India Company, and how they accidentally established the British Empire. It was full, as you might expect, of British people behaving poorly towards the Indians. But different phases of the history had different sorts of poor behaviour. Snow split it into two halves for the two episodes – in the first part of the history the Company was wholly independent from the British Government, and wholly concerned with profit. Going to India as a member of the East India Company was a good way to become spectacularly rich – providing you survived the climate and the diseases that came with the climate. It also seemed to have less formalised racism – men who went to India with the Company frequently married or otherwise had relationships with local women, and could take on some of the local customs (including but not limited to polygamy). But profit was the main focus, and this lead to the spectacularly poor management of a famine in Bangladesh (including selling food out of the region in order to make a profit rather than feeding the people) that appalled the public in Britain. The Company was brought under the oversight of Government after this, and the second phase of its history began.

This phase was to see the rise of the civil service and also increasing education of the the Indians. But it also started to move from trade with India to ruling India. In part because the Government oversight was back in London and couldn’t really do much to restrain the ambitions of the men on the ground in India. This era also saw the rise of a much more racist attitude towards the Indians, regarding them as innately inferior. And it was this attitude that lead to increasing tensions between the Indians and the Company – and this boiled over in the Indian Mutiny (otherwise known as India’s First War of Independence) in 1857. There were atrocities on both sides, and public sentiment in Britain was that the Company had been at fault in letting it happen. This was the catalyst for the British Government taking over ruling India and the end of the East India Company.

An interesting series that reminded me (again) how little I know of the history of India – I need to add a book about the subject to my (huge) list of books to read 🙂

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve also watched:

Episode 4 and 5 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

Episode 1 and 2 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

The Secret Life of the Sun – one-off programme with Kate Humble and Helen Czerski looking at the sun and the solar cycle. Lots I didn’t know or only had a vague idea about (like how long it takes for photons to get out of the sun!).

ISIS – Terror in Iraq – Panorama episode about the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of the ISIS Islamic state. Thoroughly depressing, full of atrocities committed by ISIS – the conclusion seems to be that as they want to spread throughout the world the question isn’t if the West end up in conflict with them, but rather when.

Britain Underwater – Panorama episode that aired in February about the flooding in the Somerset Levels (and other areas of the UK). Depressing, and looked at how there are no long term answers that will keep everybody from being flooded.

TV Including Greeks, Indian Railways, Sweets, Ottomans, Neolithic Britons and 20th Century Britons

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The last part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama looked at what happened after Greece was conquered by Rome. It felt a little less focussed than the previous two episodes, possibly because the Romans aren’t as much his thing as the Greeks? The theme was that Rome both preserved this art form (and Greek plays, too) and also changed it along the way. Early Roman culture frequently mimicked Greek culture. Scott positioned this as them seeing the Greeks as “this is how a civilised culture acts” and so imitating it to make sure everyone knew they were civilised too. Then later there’s more of an element of “we can do it bigger & better” – the temples & monuments still have that classical style but they’re much more over the top. So drama got a foothold in Roman culture as it conquered the Greek city states in Italy, and gradually became a common sort of entertainment. In Greece drama had been closely connected to the political process & the people who produced it (playwrights, actors etc) had high status. In Rome drama was only entertainment, and while playwrights might still command respect actors were much lower status. And woe betide the playwright who took too obvious a dig at the powers that be, much better to stick to safe subjects.

An interesting series about something I didn’t know that much about 🙂

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

In the second & final part of John Sergeant’s trip on the Indian railway he travelled from north to south. Along the way he talked about the construction of the railways. I hadn’t realised everything was shipped across to India from Britain, because there wasn’t the industrial capability in India to build it. This includes not just the tracks and so on, but the actual trains themselves. He also visited a Maharajah’s palace – once upon a time the train ran direct to the door, as part of the British Empire keeping the Indian Princes onside.

The railways revolutionised Indian transport – prior to the British building them transport for most people was by foot or by animal. The increased mobility both connects people to the wider country, and allows for a lot more trade. Obviously the British benefited from that first, but modern Indian businessmen still use the same railways for their goods transport. The railways also generated a lot of jobs (and many of those jobs went to people who would otherwise have been shunned – Anglo-Indians for instance who weren’t welcomed in either English or Indian societies). And this is still true today. Sergeant visited a laundry facility (where it seemed it was all done by hand) and a leather workshop (again, handmade bags for all the railway employees/business).

So the railways have brought much good to India, but it was at a high price. Sergeant visited Bhore Ghat just south of Mumbai where the engineering difficulties of building a railway through a mountain range in a hot country with Victorian technology lead to a lot of deaths. Europeans tended to die of fevers, the engineer who was supposed to be running the project died not long after he arrived in India but his wife took over the project management and it was still completed on time & under budget. The Indians tended to die from industrial accidents and many more of them died.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets

This programme was a combination of a history & survey of British sweets, and personal reminiscences by Nigel Slater. I think I would’ve preferred more history/survey & less autobiography – particularly as I only have the vaguest idea who Nigel Slater is. But it did fit the primary theme of the programme, that sweets can be very good memory triggers. And as the programme went on I definitely had my own trips down memory lane – sweets I remembered, adverts I remembered, memories associated with particular sweets (in particular I hadn’t thought about peppermint creams at xmas for years, I don’t remember when Dad last made them either. Marzipan fruits too!). The bits & pieces of history were also interesting – I don’t think I ever knew that cocoa (the drink) was being pushed by the Quakers as an alternative to alcohol in a part of the Temperance Movement in the Victorian era. Which “explains” the Quaker origins of the chocolate companies. I also didn’t know that UFOs and aniseed balls both derive from medicine packaging of a bygone era.

Fun, but I’m not sure how much appeal it would have if you aren’t of the right age & country to remember the sweets.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

This is a recent series covering the history of the Ottoman empire, with an emphasis on how this history affects the current politics & unrest in the Middle East today. In the first episode Rageh Omaar covers the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire, the first two hundred years or so. A lot new here for me, I don’t really know much about the history of the Ottomans. They start as a nomadic tribe of horseback warriors, who fight as mercenaries as part of how they survive. From settling down in 1300-ish near the Turkish town of Sogut they start to conquer the lands around them, and construct a settled Ottoman state. At first this included a lot of the land around Constantinople but not the city itself, but in 1453 Mehmed II’s army succeeded (with the help of their superior military tech – cannons) to capture the city and turn it into Istanbul (here, have a free They Might Be Giants earworm. You’re welcome)*. This was a hugely symbolic moment – it was seen as the victory of Islam over Christianity. This was also the point where the Ottoman state began to turn into the Ottoman Empire. So far the Ottomans had been fighting Christians, and fighting other Muslim states was not the done thing – this changed when tensions increased between the Ottomans & the Safavid Empire. As the Safavids were Shiite and the Ottomans were Sunni the “obvious” solution was to declare the Shiites heretics, and then they were fine to go to war with – which is still having repercussions today.

*Omaar gave the impression the Ottomans changed the name of the city, but while I was looking for that vid I ran across a few mentions that it might’ve been the Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know which is right, but I still got that earworm during the programme 🙂

Omaar also talked a bit about life in the Empire in this period – the Sultan with his harem of concubines, fratricide between rival sons of the Sultan, Christians as tolerated but second class citizens. In his eagerness to emphasise that life in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t as bad as later history might suggest (i.e. the folk history of the peoples in Greece & Bulgaria etc who were conquered by the Ottomans) I think Omaar went a bit too far towards apologising for them. In particular the “it wasn’t that bad” of children being taken from (Christian) conquered families as slaves – army for the boys, concubines for the girls) – was a bit tenuous: they wouldn’t take your last son! it was quite a good life! Or the comparison of the fratricide to the succession wars in Europe in the same time period (Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War) – doing your killing by policy rather than sometimes having wars isn’t quite a good v. bad distinction to me 😉 How about two shades of grey?

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The second episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was desperately padded, with not much new stuff – if I’d seen the older series I think I’d’ve been rather disappointed. The two excavations were both of neolithic burials – one in Dorset & one in Orkney. The Dorset one is near a great earthwork called the Dorset Caucus – function unknown, and probably unknowable. One reason this burial is notable (apart from just because neolithic burials are only rarely found) is that in the original work they used isotope analysis of the teeth of the four skeletons to show that two had grown up in one area and two in the area where they were buried – the woman and the youngest child weren’t local, the two older children were. This was apparently the first proof of concept for using this sort of analysis on teeth, and all the problems that the PhD student (at the time) had had getting people to let her do analysis on their skeletons suddenly vanished once she’d been on telly. I suspect the way it was presented in the programme is likely to’ve been simplified to make a nice story 😉 One new thing for that burial was that in the last 15 years someone has done analysis of snail shell fragments in soil samples across the area, these have changed the perception of the landscape the people lived in – not dense forest across the whole region, but changing from wooded to cleared at the Dorset Caucus. The other new thing is that by correlating radiocarbon dates with archaeological evidence they’ve figured out there’s a 45% chance that the woman was alive when the earthwork was being constructed. A datapoint I was a trifle underwhelmed with (as I was also underwhelmed with the DNA evidence shown earlier about relationships between the woman & children) – the narrative of the show presented this as far more conclusive than it actually sounded like.

The Orkney burial had been in a pretty poor condition when discovered – fragile rotted bones & lots of missing bits. Originally assumed to’ve been as a result of a burial rite that involved letting the bones be picked clean by animals before interring them. But they’re now pretty sure this can’t’ve been the case – the missing bits include the bigger bones, not just the small ones. Some other bones from the area (and time period?) have had holes drilled in them after they’d been interred for a while, so clearly this culture had a different attitude to dead people than we do. No “rest in peace” here. And that was pretty much it for this half, only it was dragged out to about half an hour somehow. Oh, there was also something about a new tomb discovery only the excavations there aren’t very advanced yet.

A Hundred Years of Us

The second episode of this series was a mix of the fascinating and the banal. Banal included Phil Tufnell being a cheery chappy and finding out that Working On A Farm Is Hard (with c.1911 techniques) – not exactly news. But the segment on tuberculosis, and the start of the NHS, was fascinating – they had interviews with a woman who’d been a nurse in a sanatorium in 1948 and with a surviving patient from that sanatorium. The patient had been about 15 years old in 1948 and was one of the first people to be given streptomycin after the NHS started – if it had been left much longer she’d’ve died, and 12 weeks after treatment she was well enough to leave the sanatorium and go back home. If the NHS hadn’t been formed there’s no way she or her family could’ve afforded treatment, that’s why she was in the sanatorium waiting to die in the first place.

Other topics for the episode ranged from holidays (and the rise & fall of the Butlins style holiday camp), hats, to the end of rationing after WWII. There was some peculiar editing of the sat-on-the-sofa-chatting segments that meant people got obviously cut off and it didn’t look very smooth.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

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

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle

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

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

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

The Story of the Jews

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

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

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

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

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

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

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

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

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

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

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

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

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

This Week’s TV with Buried Treasure, Historic London, King Arthur & the Indian Ocean

Secrets of the Saxon Gold

This is another Time Team special this time about the Staffordshire hoard which was discovered in 2009. It was (one of?) the largest collection of Saxon gold to be found in Britain, and so is interesting both to the general public & to archaeologists – hence this Time Team special. Even after a year of examining the items at the point this programme was made there’re still a lot of unknowns – Tony Robinson did his best to nail down a theory for why the hoard was buried, for instance, but really the answer is “don’t know”. I think they all agreed the best guess is it was gathered to be melted down & remade, and buried during a crisis then the owner never returned through death or other misadventure.

But there was also a lot of other information that had been found. Like they’d managed to date it to within about 50 years (after the last datable coin of ~650AD, before the art style changed in ~710AD). So that’s contemporary with Sutton Hoo. They had also managed to trace where the gold & garnets had come from – reinforcing the knowledge that the Saxons were connected to a large trade network stretching across Europe & Asia. And because a lot of the pieces were damaged already they can learn more about how these items are made.

London: A Tale of Two Cities with Dan Cruickshank

This programme about London in the 17th Century was presented by Dan Cruickshank & looked at the changes between two published surveys of London. The first was written by John Stow & published in 1598, the second was an updated edition by John Strype & published in 1720. Between these two years you have the Civil Wars, the Plague of 1665 & the Great Fire of London in 1666. You also have a change in England’s place in the world, which is reflected in the ways the two surveys talk about the Thames. In 1598 it’s all about defence – you would be able to see invaders sailing up the river in time to do something about them. In 1720 it’s more about access to trade & the rest of the world. As well as a potted history of the century Cruickshank also talked about how the geography of London changed – not so much in the centre despite the fire, apparently a lot of people rebuilt their houses where they’d once stood. Instead the changes were in the outward expansion of the city – to the east this was driven by the new docks at Deptford & Blackwall, and the need for closer housing for the workers. To the west it was driven by new homes built for the gentry, and their demand for suitable places to shop and entertainment.

Interesting programme – and a neat way to look at the history of the city during this period.

The Making of King Arthur with Simon Armitage

The Making of King Arthur was originally part of the BBC’s Norman Season a couple of years ago and has been sitting on our PVR ever since. In it Simon Armitage looks at the development the Arthurian legend, from the perspective of how the story evolved rather than whether or not there’s any truth behind it. After a bit of scene setting about how the Arthurian legend is still told in the present day Armitage starts with the appropriation of the Welsh stories of Arthur by the Norman conquerors. From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Normanification of the legend it gets further Frenchified by poets across the channel. They introduce some of the key elements of the legend we remember – like the quest for the holy grail, and the Lancelot/Guinevere love story. And then it comes back to England & English with Thomas Malory’s Mort d’Arthur (which we listened to an In Our Time about a while ago (post)). Throughout the whole programme Armitage had people reading from the various works he was talking about – normally chosen to thematically fit the work or point Armitage was making. Like the lady who works at Monmouth Priory reading a bit from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book, or a man (Erwin James) whose writing career started whilst in prison reading from part of Malory’s book. Slightly bizarrely Armitage also visited a woman who keeps the remnants of what she believes to be the Holy Grail – this is said to be the cup that was kept in Glastonbury Abbey until it was dissolved in 1528. It then passed into the keeping of the Powell family until the 1950s, when it moved again to a hidden location. (This is the Nanteos Cup, to disambiguate it from other claimed Holy Grails.)

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The fourth episode of Simon Reeve’s series about the Indian Ocean started in Oman & ended in the Maldives. In Oman he showed us Iranian smugglers, and a remote village on an island that still live in a traditional way catching fish. He skipped over Iran other than to talk about it, and moved on to India where he visited Mumbai. As always we got both sides of the city. First a festival of Ganesh showing the touristy-happy side of life, and then visiting the people whose fishing village has been subsumed into the city for the seedy underbelly. How humankind is fucking up the oceans was the theme for the rest of the programme. First over-fishing in India, where even the captains of the fishing boats say catches are going down year on year yet the industry is expanding. Then on to the Maldives where the coral is suffering from changes in the temperature of the ocean – even a small change of temperature can kill the coral polyps and the death of the whole section of reef is not far behind. And finishing with a visit to the island where the rubbish goes – which is basically a heap of rubbish, bits rotting, bits burning, seeping into the sea through the sand & falling off the edge of the beaches. There were highpoints to that section of the programme too – line & pole tuna fishing, for instance, for a sustainable way to harvest food from the ocean. Also a project to regrow the coral in the ocean and keep the reefs alive.

In Our Time: The Upanishads

The Upanishads are some of the sacred texts of Hinduism, originally transmitted orally from father to son in the priest families they were written down in the 6th Century AD. They consist of a series of dialogues about the nature of the universe and the nature of knowledge. And I’d not even heard of them before listening to the In Our Time episode about them. The experts on the programme were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and University of Oxford), Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (Lancaster University) and Simon Brodbeck (University of Cardiff).

They started by putting the texts in context – the oral versions date from about 700BC and are the last part of the Vedas, which are the rituals performed by Hindu priests. The Vedas are part of the ancient concept of religion as control of the world – these rituals are spoken in the right way at the right time, with the right ceremonies, and then the gods and world will become ordered in the way you desire. The Upanishads were developed during a time when the tribal societies of the Indian subcontinent were starting to coalesce into kingdoms, with larger urban centres, and are concerned with the meanings and knowledge behind the rituals. They’re presented mostly as a series of dialogues between pupil and teacher (with the roles of teacher & pupil being taken by various different people – sometimes father & son, sometimes husband & wife, sometimes King and sage (in either role)). I’m not quite clear on why they started to be written down, perhaps it was just a more general transition from oral to written culture? But even after they were first written down they were still for the priestly class, not for general consumption. Over time commentaries on them were written by religious leaders, and closer to modern times they were translated first into Persian and then into Western languages & became more widely known.

There was an interesting division between the experts. Brodbeck seemed to concentrate on how the texts were about knowledge and about how to transmit and to learn that knowledge. And the other two were more interested in what the texts had to say about the Hindu beliefs about the nature of the universe. Interestingly they were saying that the Hindus were not interested so much in “who created the world” like many other religions, but more in what came before there was a world and before there was a creator – this is the concept of Brahman (I think) which is the universal cosmic power & is described using many different analogies in the Upanishads. They also discussed the desire for immortality reflected in what the Upanishads said, and how this is different from the Western concepts of immortality. In our culture immortality is about the continuation of the personality – either living forever or dying and going to an eternal afterlife as yourself. But in the Hindu religion it can be about the immortality of one’s lineage – one’s children are one’s immortality, they carry on the line. Or it can be about the immortality of the Atman (which again is described with many analogies in the Upanishads but roughly translates as the self). And this isn’t your personality, if the Atman is reincarnated the new life isn’t related to the old one & doesn’t remember it or anything, even tho it’s the same immortal Atman. And a goal is to die finally and become part of the Brahman, in an immortal existence that has no more personality or suffering like there is in the world.

Ritual & Revelry (British Museum Exhibition)

The British Museum currently has an exhibition on the art of drinking in Asia called “Ritual and Revelry” which runs through till 6 January. We visited it on 23 November as we were in London for a concert that evening.

The Exhibition

The bulk of the objects in the exhibition were in a single room in the museum – with just a couple in the room immediately before it. They were laid out in three groups according to their use. On one side were pots, jugs and pictures of these things that were used in ritual & religious contexts. On the the other side were the same types of things but they were used in social contexts. And in the centre were four cases, 3 of which were to do with tea drinking and the last was about bhang drinking. Or you could see it as divided between vessels primarily used for water, vessels used primarily for alcohol and those for tea (listing them in the same order). Each section had objects from right across the sweep of Asia, so you could see the similarities between the areas, and the interconnectedness of the different cultures.

LotaFrog Shaped KendiYay Khwet GyiKundikaKapala (Skull Cup)Jue

The ritual side of the exhibition was mostly concerned with water containing vessels, such as the Indian lota which were originally made from gourds. The various different pots could be used in a variety of ways, and it seemed most started out as everyday water containing pots made out of gourds. Later they were made out of metal (such as bronze) and also gained religious symbolism. They could be used for drinking water or for pouring water as an offering, or over oneself as a ritual cleansing procedure. There were also some more startling objects – including a cup made with part of a human skull, which is used in some Buddhist rituals. Sometimes filled with human blood! I think, tho the label wasn’t clear, that that would be as an offering not as a drink.

Tea SetBrazierTea cupsTea BrickJian Ware Tea Bowl and Cup Stand

I didn’t know that when tea was first drunk it was made from dried & powdered tea leaves, which were whisked into hot water rather than steeped in a tea pot. Tibetan butter tea is still made like this (using yak butter as well as water and tea, frankly it sounds vile to me but it’s probably very nutritious). The tea is imported into Tibet in bricks, just as all tea used to be sold. Steeping tea didn’t really take off until the 15th Century, and then a change in apparatus was needed – the more familiar to us teapots and strainers, rather than whisks.

The middle section also included a case with some paintings of people drinking bhang which is a drink I’d never heard of before. It’s made from the flowers & leaves of the female cannabis plant, and is hallucinogenic. It can be drunk, or smoked in a hookah.

Brush Washer in the Shape of Li BaiArrow VaseElegant Gathering at the Orchard PaviliionSake Bottle in the Shape of A Young Man Holding a Bottle of SakePicnic Set

The third section, on the social side of drinking was about alcohol. I was astonished to find out that “toddy” is an actual drink – it’s Indian, and mildly alcoholic and made from palm sap. The jugs used by the toddy tappers to collect the palm sap look very like the lotas displayed over in the ritual section – and are still made out of gourds.

A large part of this side of the exhibition concentrated on the Chinese – particularly the Tang era poets called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, who were renowned for producing their greatest work whilst drunk. There were also vases that were used in Chinese tradition drinking games – you aimed arrows at the openings in the pot, and if you failed to hit then you had to have a drink of something alcoholic. Obviously this would be a bit of a vicious circle 😉 The Japanese objects here were all to do with sake – I particularly liked the slightly recursive sake bottle in the shape of a young man holding a sake bottle. Sadly you didn’t pour the sake out of the bottle opening, instead you took the chap’s head off to pour.

I’ve got more photos up on flickr, in this set.

Other Things

Retail: As it’s not a major exhibition there wasn’t a dedicated shop immediately after you left, so I’m not even sure if there was particular stuff relating to it. They do normally have tea sets and sake sets in the shop, so perhaps that was it. I should look and see if there’s a book next time I’m at the museum.

Stuff I should know more about: More of the history of the countries that make up Asia – I’m starting to rectify my lack of knowledge of Chinese history soon (I have a book to read, anyway), but I still have not much of a feel for Indian history let alone the rest of the continent.

Other exhibits: We also went and looked at the new information they have up about the 3500BC (naturally) mummified man in the Pre-dynastic Egypt gallery. They CT scanned him, and have (possibly temporarily?) got a touch screen display set up where you can look at the pictures this generated. It has a 3D image of the body, and you can move it around, look at various levels (ie skeletal, or with muscles etc). And look at cross sections. It’s pretty neat to play with (tho we did have to wait a while before we could look properly), and well labelled. They discovered from the CT scan that he was probably killed by a knife thrust through the back of the left shoulder – so quite probably a murder victim. And once you’ve seen it on the scan all labelled up it’s nice to be able to look at the actual mummy and see it there as well.

Other places: That evening we went to a performance by Niyaz, of which more another time.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; In Search of Medieval Britain

Started off the evening with the third episode of Andrew Marr’s History of the World – this one was about the Word and the Sword, basically the rise and spread of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam with a few side stories. He started off with the story of Ashoka who killed and conquered his way to ruling an empire that covers most of modern India. But then after witnessing the appalling slaughter he himself had caused he converted to Buddhism and spent the rest of his (long) reign promoting peace and tolerance throughout his land and actively spread Buddhism as a religion.

The first of the side stories was about the First Emperor of China – who came to power around the same time as Ashoka and in much the same murderous way. But he had no moment of conversion, instead ruling his newly unified China with an iron fist. His mausoleum is apparently enormous – the only part that has been excavated is the Terracotta Army, but there’s a palace extending back beneath the hill behind where that lies. After his death (of mercury poisoning from an “elixir of immortality” which was anything but) the Han Dynasty ruled over China for about the same time period as the Roman Empire existed – and this was the next topic.

Well, sort of. What he actually covered was the final fall of Egypt, Cleopatra & Caesar’s relationship and then their deaths (skipping quite quickly over the Mark Anthony bit) and Egypt’s assimilation into the Roman Empire. The spin he was putting on this was that Caesar effectively saw that Cleopatra was worshipped as a god in Egypt and thought this was a good idea so went home to Rome to do the same. Leading to the Senate not being happy and murdering him (but actually all his successors were worshipped as gods, so the idea took hold). And then he cast the rise of Christianity as being partly a reaction against this politicised religion in the empire, people going back to a faith in something that was more personal to them. This wasn’t quite the spin I was expecting, so it ended up feeling like he’d kinda skewed things to make it fit his theme for the programme.

Early Christianity through to its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire was told through the lens of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent spreading of the gospel throughout the empire, and Perpetua’s imprisonment and martyrdom for her faith. And ending with the Romans having effectively assimilated the faith into their political & military structures.

The feeling of stretching to fit the theme was not helped by the next side-story which really did seem shoehorned in. We had a brief trip across to the Americas, and the Nazca people. These are the people who made the massive line drawings on their land, and their civilisation collapsed around 600AD due to human exacerbated environmental disaster. Basically they were cutting down trees to create more arable land, but then when they had 30 years of excessive rain the lack of trees meant the soil was washed away. Which made the succeeding 30 years of drought even less survivable than it otherwise would’ve been. This didn’t really fit the theme, but it happened in this time period so they told us about it anyway, with some reference to the religion and the increased numbers of human sacrifices during the end of the civilisation as they frantically tried to appease their gods.

And then it was back to the theme – with the meteoric rise and spread of Islam. They did another good job of juxtaposing the stories told to highlight the similarities between the different topics. In this case we had the almost martyrdom of Bilal to mirror Perpetua’s martyrdom as the entry point for the story of early Islam. Bilal survived, however, to become the first muezzin. And the spread of Islam by conquest was contrasted with the slower spread of Christianity by the travels of the Paul and the Apostles.

We were running late this week, so only had time for a half hour programme for the second one of the evening. We have had a couple of episodes from the middle of a series called In Search of Medieval Britain sitting on the PVR for ages, so we watched one of them. The premise of this series is Alixe Bovey (a lecturer in medieval history at Kent) travelling about the country following the Gough Map (a map dating to 1355-1366 which was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1809). In the episode we watched she visited Melton Mowbray, Lincoln and Sherwood Forest. In Melton Mowbray she helped make an authentic pork pie from the era. In Lincoln she visited the cathedral, which for 200 years held the title of tallest building in the world. Then the spire fell down in the 1500s (probably because the wood frame rotted) and it was no longer taller than the Great Pyramid. It was still the tallest point in Lincolnshire though. And finally in Sherwood Forest she told us about real outlaws (who were a much more murderous and unpleasant bunch than the fictional Robin Hood), and visited the oldest pub in the country. She also talked to some people who were making authentic medieval beer – with hissop instead of hops as the bittering agent. It was amusing to see her not drink any on camera, the “oh it’s delicious” after the camera panned away from her was pretty fake I think 😉

I wish we’d managed to record all of these, this one was quite fun 🙂