In Our Time: Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf is probably the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon literature – it’s certainly one I was aware of, and had an idea of the shape of the story before we listened to the In Our Time episode about it. However it was unknown until the 19th Century when a single manuscript copy dating from around 1100AD was discovered. The three experts who discussed it on the programme were Laura Ashe (University of Oxford), Clare Lees (King’s College London) and Andy Orchard (University of Oxford).

Even tho the surviving version of the poem comes from the 11th or 12 Century, it was probably composed around 750AD. It’s sometimes said to be a little earlier: “from the time of Bede” (who died in 735AD). But Orchard pointed out that Bede is known person from a known time so estimates tend to gravitate towards him. The subject of the poem is older still – it’s a poem about long ago & far away about history that the listeners were expected to already be aware of. Some of the characters in the poem are real historical personages who lived around the 5th Century AD (however this doesn’t include the hero Beowulf). This is a Christian English poem about the listeners’ pagan Danish ancestors, written in a time before the Danes were seen as a foreign threat.

There are three sections to the poem. The first tells of the hero Beowulf travelling to another kingdom and fighting the monster Grendel, who has been terrorising the country. Grendel is a misshapen man who fights without a sword and so Beowulf wrestles with him and wins the fight by pulling off the monster’s arm. Said arm is then hung up as a trophy when Beowulf returns to the king of the country. The second section tells us about Grendel’s mother who comes to avenge her son, as is her legal right. She lives beneath the sea and Beowulf goes to her lair (or hall) to fight her with a sword. The third section of the poem is set 50 years later, when Beowulf is an old man and has become a king in his own right. The story of how he came to be king is told in flashbacks, while the main plot of this section revolves around him fighting a dragon which is terrorising his country. Unlike the first two monsters this is a truely mythological beast instead of fantastical but plausible. Beowulf goes to fight it in its lair, and at first is losing the fight despite his heroic skill. With the help of his men, and using a sword from the dragon’s lair, he finally defeats the dragon but dies in his moment of triumph.

The poem has a very non-linear structure, and after its rediscovery 19th Century critics used the repetition as an example of how it was a poor poem. Modern scholarship strongly disagrees with that opinion! The narrative circles around the story with each repetition of an event giving you new details or nuances, or new references to other literature etc. For instance in the first part the poem first tells one about the fight, then Beowulf tells someone about the fight, then Beowulf tells the king of the country Grendel was terrorising and then Beowulf tells his own king. All have differences that tell you more about the event. This isn’t the only sort of non-linearity – there are also flashbacks (for instance in the third section as I mentioned above), and asides that tell you how some side-event turned out later. Or who owned a particular sword once the current owner died after the end of this story, and so on.

The poem was written to be heard rather than read. The experts read out sections in the original Anglo-Saxon, with Orchard in particular making it sound vibrant and alive (even if incomprehensible – I didn’t get very far the one time I started learning Anglo-Saxon). However it probably wasn’t an oral composition, instead it was written down with the intention that it should be read out. It is a very literate poem, with references to other literature of the period and before including classic Latin literature. Orchard pointed out parallels with things like the Aeneid, which the Anglo-Saxons of the 8th Century AD would’ve known.

It wasn’t just a story about heroes and monsters, and tales of derring do. The peom was also about the ending of one era and the beginning of the next. It tells the story of the pagan Beowulf from a Christian perspective, and contains Christian motifs and structural elements. Most obviously the three-part structure which is more of a Christian motif than a pagan one. And the narrative moralises about the actions of the protagonists – a running commentary of “that’s how it was then, but we know better now”. The pagan culture valued valour & honour, but the Christian one valued non-violence and godliness. The poem reflects that change and the tension between the old ways and the new.

I think the biggest thing this programme told me was how much more there is to Beowulf than I’d realised. I’m pretty sure we have a translation in the house (somewhere!), I should find it and read it sometime 🙂

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.

Literature of the English Country House (Course on Future Learn)

I’d not intended to overlap courses on Future Learn, because I thought it might end up feeling like it was taking up too much of my time. I was right, but I’m still glad I took the Literature of the English Country House course even tho it has overlapped with two courses that I’d already signed up for. And to be honest it was part of why I found the Portus archaeology course so disappointing in the end (post), because this one was much more to my tastes!

This course was an 8 week course run by Sheffield University about, as you might expect, English literature that deals with or takes place in country houses. All the videos were filmed in country houses so that we could see the sorts of places the texts were talking about. The first seven weeks each looked at a particular aspect of country house literature, roughly moving forwards in time as we went. And then the last week was a review of the previous weeks, and a test to see if you’d got the right idea.

The first week also introduced us to the concept of close reading – it was a course pitched as being for everyone, so this made sure we were all aware of the technique. Whilst it wasn’t something I’d ever been formally taught I’ve been reading a few in depth analyses of books and book series online over the last few years so the concept was familiar to me. The general point is not just to read for the surface meaning, but once you’ve done that to go back and read more closely paying attention to word choice and the broader context of the piece. This doesn’t just show you how the author built up your impression of a scene, but might also give you greater insight into what they are saying (intentionally or unintentionally).

The texts we read were mostly excerpts from longer works tailored to demonstrate the points the course was making. In week one, as well as the skill of close reading (illustrated using a scene or two from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night), we also looked at modern misconceptions about country houses and country house literature – namely that they were only places of harmony between the elite and the rest of the countryside, and that women didn’t write literature in the 17th Century. These were illustrated by a poem by Ben Johnson (To Penshurst) which by praising one place (and family) for its harmonious perfection also lets one know what normality really was. And we also read an excerpt from a work by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Week two focussed on entertainment in 17th Century country houses – both the amateur (illustrated by a poem written by a servant to celebrate a child’s 2nd birthday) and the professional (illustrated by the scenes from Hamlet where the travelling players visit Elsinore). In week three we looked at politeness in the 18th Century – which they explained was a bit of a broader concept than it is now. It wasn’t just about whether you said “please” and “thank you” in the right places, but also the way you spoke, the clothes you wore and whole sum of your public behaviour & presentation. Personally, I think we might still stretch politeness as a term to cover all of that sort of thing, but perhaps I’m not understanding the nuances here. This week was illustrated first with an excerpt from the Spectator, a humorous piece about the differences between country & town manners. And also by an excerpt from a novel by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire featuring a husband who was polite in the mode of the town but very much not nice.

Week 4 was devoted to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The passages we read were about Elizabeth Bennet’s visit to Darcy’s house – which is thought to be modelled on Chatsworth. And these passages were used to illustrate a narrative technique which Austen used that was revolutionary at the time. This is “free indirect discourse” where the boundaries between the narrator and the thoughts of the character are blurred. In week 5 we turned to the darker side of country house literature – the country house as a sort of malevolent presence or with a weird or reclusive owner. This was illustrated with a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and also by Dickens’s Great Expectations. The latter was also used to look at points of view within the story – because the story is told by Pip when he’s much older so you get a mingling of the young boy’s reaction to Miss Haversham and the older man’s more considered view.

The 6th week was all about childhood and the literature devoted to it, which was rather fun. So we had some of Lear’s nonsense rhymes, and an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland. And the final week of reading brought us up to the end of the country house era – the 19th Century, and Oscar Wilde. The excerpts this week included a couple from The Canterville Ghost, which started out as a witty look at the trend of wealthy Americans buying up old British country houses from impoverished aristocrats. But by the end (our second excerpt) seemed to’ve turned into a rather saccharine piece of sentimental Victorian religiousness!

I enjoyed this course a lot. It’s a shame I had so many other things on at the time, I’m not sure I entirely did it justice while I was working through it – but the stuff is all still there to go back over again if I want to in the future 🙂

In Our Time: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.

The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.

Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.

The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.

Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.

During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”

The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.

Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Shakespeare and His World (Course on Future Learn)

Shakespeare and His World was a 10 week course on Future Learn which finished just a couple of weeks ago. The course was run by Warwick University and presented by Jonathan Bate (with Jennifer Waghorn as moderator). And in the 10 weeks it covered a huge amount of ground! Each week focussed on a particular theme and there were 6 or 7 video lectures, each of which featured an object from Shakespeare’s time – most of these were from the collections of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, and most of the videos were filmed there. And eight of the weeks featured a particular Shakespeare play, which also illustrated the weekly theme. We were looking at both what the plays told us about the time they were written in, and what contemporary events & things influenced the writing of the plays. As well as this we also looked a little at the plays as plays rather than historical items – their themes & characters and so on. Obviously in the time available all of this was covered at a fairly superficial level – an overview rather than anything in depth, but there were normally links to places to find out more about the featured objects and some ideas for further investigating the plays.

Week 1 was an introductory week which looked at what we know of Shakespeare’s life story and also set him in context as an Elizabethan playwright and poet. We also read Venus and Adonis, one of Shakespeare’s poems. The second week was the first one with a play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The theme was Shakespeare’s time in Stratford, in particular his schooling, and this was a good play to illustrate it because although the town in the play is Windsor there’s internal evidence that suggests Shakespeare was actually basing it on Stratford. And he made use of the sorts of people he would’ve known growing up to provide characters for the play – in particular there’s a small part for a schoolboy called Will which is generally assumed to be an author-insert.

Week 3 used A Midsummer Night’s Dream to focus on the theatre in Elizabethan England – chosen because of the play within a play sequence. Week 4 was about war, using Henry V as the illustrative play. Bate made the point in this week that Shakespeare was a war poet for the first half of his career – England was at war with Spain in this period – so Henry V isn’t just looking back to former glories but is also saying something about contemporary events in particular the defeat of the Armada. Week 5 moved on to look at finance, using the Merchant of Venice. As well as the obvious use of Shylock the moneylender to think about how Elizabethan money & finances worked, we also looked at how Shakespeare often used Venice as a mirror for London. And of course we also covered Elizabethan attitudes to Jews, as well as looking at how Shylock has been portrayed through the ages since the play was written. Shakespeare himself seems to be making a more nuanced point than some later stagings of the play.

I’m afraid this is turning into a bit of a laundry list, but I’m trying not to go into too much detail otherwise this post will go on forever!

Week 6 used Macbeth to look at witches and medicine. Because of studying the play at school around 25 years ago I was expecting the bits about witches, but I hadn’t really thought about what the play tells us about medicine of the time before. Sadly the discussion section for this week (about similarities and differences between modern & 16th Century medicine) got over-run by people enthusing over herbal remedies being better than “all those chemicals” and misplaced nostalgia so I stopped reading it before my blood pressure rose too much. The seventh week used Othello to look at the interactions between Christendom and the Islamic world. Again Shakespeare is more nuanced than some later stagings of the play – the villain of the play, after all, is Iago who is a white Christian (although notably with a Spanish name). Othello the Moor is basically a good man who is led astray by Iago’s playing on his insecurities.

The eighth week looked at what Classical culture meant to the people of Shakespeare time, and also to look at how “the East” was regarded. The illustrative play chosen was Anthony and Cleopatra which obviously gives us an image of orderly moral Rome vs the opulent decadence of Egypt. And it was also a play designed to appeal to James VI & I by implying he occupies the place of Augustus in his own time, seen in the play as unifier and peacemaker. Week 9 was the last week with a play – fittingly this was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last solo authored play. This was used to illustrate the “Brave New World” of the Americas that the Stuart age was beginning to successfully colonise. And also to think about how the art of the theatre was similar to the art of magic in The Tempest so Prospero’s final speech retiring from his art can be seen as Shakespeare’s final speech too. And the last week was a brisk trot through Shakespeare’s legacy looking at how he grew from being regarded as one of the Elizabethan playwrights into “the Greatest Playwright of All TIme”.

I’m glad the information, including videoes & links, is still available on Future Learn for those of us that did the course – I’m not sure I got everything out of the course that I could and some weeks I definitely skimped on due to lack of time. Even tho by the end I was thinking it had out stayed its welcome a bit (8 plays in 8 weeks is a lot to read and contemplate) I’m glad I did it 🙂

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Secrets of the Arabian Nights; The Secrets of Stonehenge: A Time Team Special

The second episode of Helen Castor’s She Wolves: England’s Early Queens was about Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou. Neither of these women ruled England in their own right, but both ruled in the name of a man (son & husband respectively) and neither have been remembered kindly by history. Rather unfairly, I think (although Isabella brought it on herself to some degree).

Isabella was the daughter of the King of France & was married to Edward II when she was only 12 years old. The marriage didn’t get off to an auspicious start when Edward sat his favourite, Piers Gaveston, closer to Edward at the feast than Isabella was and they ignored her to concentrate on each other. Even at this young age Isabella was very aware of the respect due to herself as a daughter of a King and a Queen herself. However, despite the fact that Edward was besotted with his favourite, Isabella set out to behave like the perfect Queen & wife.

Gaveston’s behaviour and indulgence by the King wasn’t just annoying & insulting to Isabella, it also wasn’t going down well with the nobles at court. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point where the barons took up arms against Edward & his favourite, and they had to flee – with Isabella in tow. The situation was only resolved with the capture & execution of Gaveston. Relations between Isabella & Edward must’ve got better after this – if nothing else they started having children including the future Edward III. Isabella had therefore performed one of the critical duties of a Queen in ensuring the succession, she also played the Queenly role of peacemaker in mediating between Edward & the rebel barons.

However she was to play a critical role in the re-emergence of hostilities. She was travelling with her household when they were caught in a storm, and sought shelter at Leeds Castle (in Kent). The Lord of the castle had been one of the rebels but he was away, and his wife refused Isabella entry. Isabella was furious and ordered her men to force their way in, at which point the soldiers in Leeds Castle fought back (as you would) and six of Isabella’s men died. Edward called this insult to his Queen treason & used it as an excuse to beseige the castle, eventually capturing it & imprisoning the lady & her children. The lady’s husband was executed. I’ve got chronology muddled a bit here (I don’t think Castor did tho) and by this stage Edward II had already taken up with his next poor idea for a favourite – Hugh Despenser. Castor characterised Despenser as a political predator (and we got nice visuals of a raptor of some sort flying about and tearing at some sort of prey). She also said that she believes that relationship to’ve been platonic, unlike the one with Gaveston.

So now relations between Edward & the country are deteriorating & so are those between Edward & Isabella. Tensions are rising between England & France, too. Isabella seizes her chance when her brother (now King of France) wants to negotiate a peace – she volunteers to go to France to negotiate on England’s behalf. Once in Paris she organises for her son Edward to join her, and instead of returning to England as a dutiful wife she returns at the head of an army, fighting to depose Edward II & set Edward III in his place. She’s practically welcomed in, Edward II’s reign had become tyrannical and unpopular. Once Edward II was captured Edward III was crowned & Isabella ruled as his regent. Edward II subsequently died, almost certainly at Isabella’s orders (but not via the red hot poker of later myth). Isabella was widely regarded as the saviour of England at the time.

But she’d already sown the seeds of her downfall. Whilst in Paris she’d also taken up with a knight called Roger Mortimer (Castor made a lot of use of chess metaphors in this programme, in particular referring to the Queen making her move with her Knight & Pawn (Edward III)). So when she started to rule as regent she had her own favourite by her side, not quite what the nobles wanted to see. And she had always been very aware of her own majesty, and this only got worse when she was running the country – she and Mortimer enriched themselves at the Crown’s expense. So in the end Isabella was overthrown in her turn, by her son. Mortimer was executed, but Isabella was allowed to live on.

(Isabella is one of the viewpoint characters in “Iron King” by Maurice Druon that I read earlier this year, it’s set around the time of Edward III’s birth. Druon has her & Mortimer (very much pre any relationship) conspiring to catch her sisters in the act of adultery, oh the irony.)

The second half of the programme was devoted to Margaret of Anjou – the French bride of Henry VI. Henry had been King since he was 9 months old, when his father Henry V died. Unfortunately at the time Margaret of Anjou married him he still wasn’t showing much signs of capability to rule – he was 23 by then. And it got worse – Margaret became pregnant, but shortly before the baby was born Henry slipped into a catatonic state. The court was already divided into factions – one centred round the Duke of York (who had his own claim to the throne), one centred round the Duke of Somerset (who was pro-Henry). Castor was telling us that Margaret would’ve prefered that she was named regent – she felt she had the right as the King’s wife & that she was a more neutral choice than the other two. However it was the Duke of York who got the job. This is where the Wars of the Roses begin to properly kick off.

Henry did recover his wits (such as they ever had been), so the Duke of York was no longer regent. However relations between the Yorkist & Lancastrians had deteriorated to the point where civil war broke out. Margaret was firmly in the Lancastrian camp, keen to protect her husband & son’s right to the throne. Henry was fought over & captured/released and generally passed around like pass the parcel. Castor told us of the king sitting in the centre of St Albans, guarded by soldiers, while the fighting raged through the town – not participating, just bewildered as he was fought over. In the end York won, not to control the king but to rule in his own name. (By this stage it’s not the original Duke of York, it’s his son Edward who ruled as Edward IV.) Margaret & her son (and husband? I can’t remember where Castor said Henry was) fled the country. Whilst in France she worked tirelessly to drum up support for her husband’s cause, but not very successfully.

Eventually the chance she’d been waiting for arrived – one of the major Yorkists, the Earl of Warwick, became dissatisfied with the King he’d put on the throne. Warwick regarded himself as “Kingmaker” and felt that if this one wasn’t working out, why all he needed to do was put a new one on the throne. So he switched sides, and promised Margaret that he’d work to return her husband to his rightful throne. Margaret was quite canny about this, she accepted his aid and then waited with her son in France until Warwick had delivered on his promise. Only then did she set out for England.

Sadly for Margaret just as she and her son were landing in England the Yorkists re-grouped and retook the crown. Margaret & her forces were forced into a battle in which her son took part for the first time. He died and as he was Henry VI’s only heir, with him died the hopes of Margaret for keeping her husband’s line on the throne. Henry VI was a Yorkist captive again, and died shortly afterwards in the Tower of London. Margaret lived the rest of her life in France.


Secrets of the Arabian Nights was a standalone programme presented by Richard E. Grant all about the stories of the Arabian Nights. He traced their origins in the Middle East & beyond, and how they got to the West. He also talked to several critics & others about the impact they still have in both East & West today. And we also got treated to some retellings of some of the stories.

The stories come from a thriving oral tradition originating with merchants travelling the Silk Road & other trade routes across Asia. The prominence of merchants in many of the stories is a legacy of that. These stories were subsequently fitted within the Scheherazade frame story, and written down as The 1000 Stories. They came to the West via a Frenchman called Antoine Galland in the 18th Century – he was fluent in Arabic & Persian & other Middle Eastern languages, and he translated an Arabic form of the stories into French & published it. The book was a great success – partly because it was exotic and new, with sorts of stories & magic that aren’t the common tropes of Western literature (flying carpets were an example Grant mentioned repeatedly). And partly because it was the right thing at the right time – there was already a fashion for fairytales, and these stories fitted into that niche. Due to the success of the stories Galland was pressured to provide more, and he did – he said he’d heard the stories from contacts in the Middle East, but Grant pointed out that this was pretty dubious. It’s more likely that Galland invented them or significantly embellished them. I knew already that what we have in the West isn’t quite the same as the original, but I hadn’t realised that Aladdin & Ali Baba were among the extras.

Galland’s book was translated into English where again it was a success and helped establish the craze for “oriental” fashions in Britain. It was also disapproved of by the more strait-laced – Grant quote one lord who felt that it was encouraging the “Desdemona complex” (which is every bit as racist as you might imagine). And then in Victorian times the Arabian Nights stories were significantly bowdlerised & re-purposed as children’s stories. Which is really the form that most of us English speakers run into them first today.

Grant spent some time talking to a variety of critics both European & not. They were mostly in agreement that one of the themes of the book as a whole (in the original) is female sexuality & desire. They also drew out a feminist theme to the collection of stories. The framing story of Scheherazade is about a king whose wife betrays him, so after killing her he goes on to marry & then execute a woman every night. As revenge. Scheherazade uses her wits & her storytelling abilities to not just save herself but to slowly change the King’s attitudes. They were saying at the beginning the stories she tells fit with the King’s misogynistic & vengeful ideas, but over the course of the stories she emphasises wisdom & reflection over vengeance, and seeing women as people.

In the Middle East today (well, 2011 or 2010 when this was filmed) the book is controversial. It’s regarded by some as immoral – too much drinking, too much sex, people aren’t rewarded for being good they’re rewarded for being lucky, and so on. Grant talked to an Egyptian author & publisher (Gamal al Ghitani) who has published a new edition of the stories – he has received death threats & there was pressure on the government to ban the book because it was indecent & not Islamic enough. Gamal al Ghitani was clear that he felt this was rubbish, that the extremely conservative Islamist groups weren’t right about the only way to be a Muslim. And that these stories are an important part of Arabic heritage & should be read & learnt about by modern people.

It was a good programme, interesting & the dramatic re-tellings of stories were fun 🙂


Secrets of Stonehenge was a Time Team special we’d recorded several years ago, about a team excavating at and near Stonehenge. It felt very padded, in what I think of as “Discovery channel style” – i.e. the sequence went: cliff-hanger, ad break, re-cap, small bit of something else, next cliff-hanger etc. And while it did belabour the point about theories only lasting so long as there’s evidence to support them, it also made a lot of use of “and now they’ve proved” language *rolls eyes*. However. It was fun to watch, as Time Team generally is. A particularly amusing moment was when Robinson said “to help the archaeologist Time Team has built a life size replica of the henge at Durrington” … well, no, I think you did it so you had something cool to show on the telly 🙂

The excavations were led by a chap called Mike Parker Pearson, and his pet theory (which evolved over the 6 years of excavations) was that Stonehenge fit into a ritual landscape involving a progression from life to death. The henge at Durrington, built of wood, was a place where people came to feast each midwinter. They then travelled down the river Avon and along the avenue to Stonehenge, which was the place of the dead. There they buried some of their ancestors (mostly adult males, who were relatively fit – Pearson speculated this was a royal line). Some of this left me hoping it was based on better evidence than they showed us (i.e. that the people would process along the river scattering ashes?), some of it was more compelling (i.e. evidence of feasting on pigs of a particular age at the Durrington site implies feasting at a particular time of year).

Another strand of the programme talked about the previous excavations at the site – it was a minor enough theme I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it except that I wanted to make a note of one rather appalling part. One of the modern excavators, back in the 50s, was a man called Richard Atkinson. Although he did a lot of work on the site none was recorded and none was published – so effectively he dug it up & disturbed it all for no gain. Not what you expect from the modern era! Wikipedia is somewhat kinder to the man citing overwork & illness, so perhaps that too was hammed up to make “good telly”.

Overall I’d say it was fun but not necessarily accurate (or nuanced).

In Our Time: Icelandic Sagas

The Icelandic Sagas were written down in the 13th Century and tell the stories of the original colonists of Iceland and their descendants. On In Our Time the context & contents of these sagas were discussed by Carolyne Larrington (St John’s College, Oxford), Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (University of Cambridge) and Emily Lethbridge (Árni Magnússon Manuscripts Institute in Reykjavík).

Iceland was settled primarily by Norwegian aristocrats and their households from the 9th Century AD onwards. In Norway at the time the King was beginning to centralise more power which wasn’t going down well with these aristocrats, hence their move. As well as the Norwegians there were also other Scandinavian settlers, including some who had settled in parts of the British Isles first. And a not insignificant number of Celtic women from the British Isles. The society they set up in Iceland didn’t have a King, instead there were 36 or so chieftains who met at the Althingi to decide on laws & settle court cases. The sagas are often about these court cases, which makes them sound rather dry but these cases would be to settle things like family feuds which had got out of hand with lots of death on both sides so they’re anything but dry.

During the programme they told us the plot line of part of one of the sagas – the Laxdæla saga. In this two foster brothers (their genealogies are told in an earlier part of the saga) make a trip to Norway & they leave behind in Iceland a woman (Guðrún) that one of them (Kjartan) intends to marry. She would rather have made the trip with them, but was told it wasn’t appropriate. Kjartan remains in Norway longer than his foster brother (Bolli), who when he returns fails to pass on greetings from Kjartan to Guðrún and instead gives her the impression that Kjartan has found himself a new woman. Bolli & Guðrún marry, and when Kjartan returns to Iceland he’s not happy with this state of affairs. Eventually Bolli kills Kjartan, and then Kjartan’s brothers seek vengeance on Bolli & kill him. Guðrún is pregnant with Bolli’s son at this point, and when the boy grows up he seeks vengeance on his father’s killers. The saga as a whole tells the story of all four of Guðrún’s marriages.

Christianity came to Iceland around the year 1000AD, and with Christianity came the writing of books. At first religious texts were the only books written down but by the 13th & 14th Centuries the Sagas were being written. They were explaining that the coming of Christianity influenced the way these sagas were told or rather written down – in some ways the stories are divided into what might be thought of as an Old Testament & a New. So the people who lived prior to Christianity reaching Iceland are often depicted as virtuous pagans (by Christian ideas of virtue) or incidents in their stories are pre-figuring eventual conversion or reflecting biblical imagery.

Lethbridge talked about how the sagas are very much rooted in the landscape of Iceland. The places where events take place are real places that you can go and visit. And people who live nearby can tell you the stories that are associated with their local area. The sagas are still very much a piece of the identity of Icelandic culture, and the return of the physical manuscripts when Iceland became independent after the Second World War was an event that a lot of the population turned out on the streets to witness. People living in Iceland today can often trace back their family history to the people talked about in the sagas.

There is some debate about how much of the stories in the sagas are true. Clearly the supernatural parts (like the dead who don’t stay in their graves but come back to fight you) didn’t really happen. But in terms of the non-supernatural stuff some of it can be corroborated from other sources, although some can be disproved or disputed using these sources. For instance people & places exist independently of the sagas, and some of the events are recorded in more sober histories. But equally some descriptions of laws or events are clearly written long after the fact as they’re anachronistic for the time the saga is set. One of the experts said you can think of the sagas as being like historical novels – the facts are used but then dialogue & details are added to make it a good story.

The sagas generally share a narrative style. They are written fairly neutrally, and talk about what people said or what people did not what they were thinking. The narrator doesn’t take sides or judge the characters. The furthest they go is to say things like “and many men agreed this was not wise” – putting the judgement in the things other characters said at the time. There are interludes of poetry, said to be composed by the characters in the saga, which do convey something of the internal thoughts of a character and the experts were saying that this poetry was possibly composed at the time of the saga’s stories and passed down orally.

Women in Iceland in the era that this stories took place did not have legal standing – and so had to work through the men in their lives. The experts said that despite this women in the sagas are written about much like men, as real people, and the sagas will often have female characters who do act and get their own way. Even if it is through men because of the legal system, they’re still shown with agency of their own.

Near the end of the programme Bragg went off on a little diversion about language. He repeated a story he’d heard about speakers of Cumbrian dialect being able to make themselves understood to Icelandic speakers & vice versa after a little bit of time & some good will on both sides. The experts agreed that there’s sufficient Norse influence in Cumbrian dialect that this is plausible (and I think they agreed that the particular story he’d heard was true too).

In Our Time: Le Morte d’Arthur

The form of the Arthurian legend that was written by Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur was the first English language prose form of this legend, written around the 1460s & it had a lot of influence on later stories about Arthur. Discussing it on In Our Time were Helen Cooper (University of Cambridge), Helen Fulton (University of York) and Laura Ashe (University of Oxford).

They opened the programme by setting Malory in context – Cooper told us a little about the times he lived in, which was the end of the Hundred Years War and the start of the Wars of the Roses. This meant that he lived through unsettled times in a political sense. He himself wasn’t a very nice man – Cooper said that even by the standards of the time he was a thug, and he spent at least 15 years imprisoned for crimes ranging from cattle rustling to rape (the latter might’ve been consensual adultery – a husband could bring charges of rape under such circumstances). Being as he was a gentleman he was under house arrest rather than shackled in a dungeon, and he must’ve had access to a library during this time as his imprisonment is the period when he wrote Le Morte d’Arthur.

The Arthurian legend already existed in various forms by the 1460s. One of these forms was a pseudo-historical Arthur – crowbarred into the time between the end of the Roman Empire (in Britain) and the Anglo-Saxons, a mythical King who was British not Roman or Anglo-Saxon and who lead armies into battles & nearly defeated the Roman Empire. I think they were saying these English sources were in poetic form. There were also various French prose romances which were about Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table and their deeds, and chivalrous exploits. Malory’s tale took both these Arthurs and wrote one coherent book which both had elements of the pseudo-history and elements of the chivalrous romance. And was an English prose work, which was also new.

One of the experts (I forget who :/ ) made the point that Malory’s work was ground-breaking for romances of the time. His prose style was a lot more direct than the French sources he drew upon, which was a refreshing change (or so she was saying). And his focus on the characters and their stories was fairly new in English prose literature of the time – and is a part of what’s made this work last and influence more modern literature.

They also spent some time discussing the content of Le Morte d’Arthur – the theme they talked about that’s stuck with me is how the tragedy of the Arthurian Court is built into the premise. Arthur isn’t one of the Knights, he’s the King who sends out his Knights on their quests etc. Lancelot is the “best Knight” (although not the most spiritually pure Knight, he doesn’t get to find the Holy Grail after all) – and who should the “best Knight” be with but the “best Lady”, and that’s the Queen. And the downfall is brought about because other Knights are jealous of Lancelot, and so bring the whole thing out into the open where it can’t be ignored. So it’s that Lancelot is best that’s what brings about the tragic end. (The experts were also all saying that Lancelot seemed to be Malory’s favourite character.)

After Malory’s death the manuscript was printed (and edited) by Caxton and two forms of that have survived to the modern day. A while after the publication the book fell out of favour, but in Victorian times it was revived – chivalry as a concept was part of the cultural attempt to deal with having an Empire, and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a chivalrous romance became popular again. And spawned more Arthurian stories & re-tellings from then through to the modern day.