Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

“The Age of Tragedy” was the title of the fourth episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music and it was all about music of death and destiny (and doom!). Even the more light-hearted stuff from the late 19th Century could have these sorts of themes. Goodall opened the programme with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which can be seen as the inspiration for these themes – and we got to hear some of while being shown the sorts of paintings of hell & tormented souls & demons that inspired this type of music.

He then moved on to Italian opera, including the stuff of Verdi, which at first seemed out of place for his primary theme but let him introduce one of the secondary themes of the programme. He talked about how this was the mainstream entertainment of the day – not just expensive seats & toffs in top hats, but the middle classes also went to the opera. And the tunes and songs were written in a lively, memorable style, they were picked up by barrel organ players & played in the streets for anyone passing by. These were the songs everyone knew the words to – just like pop music or a musical of today. Classical wasn’t yet something for “the serious people” – which is the theme he returned to at the end of this programme. Tying it back to the death and destiny theme he pointed out how these operas (like La Traviata) let good respectable Victorian-type people have their cake & eat it – you get to enjoy seeing the people in the story acting scandalously, and then they get their comeuppance by dying miserable, so the moral order was upheld.

We then returned to more Germanic music and the majority of the programme focussed on the music (primarily concerned with death and destiny) and innovations of Liszt – Goodall structured this section around a list of Liszt’s innovations (yes, the pun was clearly intentional, like all the puns Goodall has managed to get into this series πŸ™‚ ). It was quite a long list, fittingly as Liszt had a long & prolific career. He was also one of the first international superstars of music – Goodall told us that women frequently became hysterical at performances (implied tho not stated was the comparison with Beatlemania).

One of Liszt’s innovations was the symphonic poem – instead of a whole four movement, 40 minute symphony these were shorter one movement pieces. They were normally based on a particular non-musical artwork, so Goodall talked us through one piece that was about a particular painting (of the defeat of Attila the Hun in about the only battle where he was defeated) showing us how the musical motifs were related to the elements of the image. He then developed this further by relating it to a more modern form – this can be thought of as the origins of film scores.

Another innovation was the movement for “nationalistic” music – so for Liszt this was taking the Hungarian folk music tunes of his own country & writing music based on them. This became a important strand of classical composition, but didn’t bear much resemblance to the actual folk music of the countries concerned beyond tunes that were vaguely reminiscent. This leads to concerns about appropriation in cases where the composer isn’t relying on their own country’s tradition – for instance DvorΓ‘k’s New World Symphony uses themes that are inspired by African-American music or Native American music. Which is a debate that’s been relevant ever since – coming up again with blues & with jazz & with world music.

And this list of Liszt’s innovations moved onto the last section of the programme by listing Wagner. Wagner was clearly inspired by Liszt and Goodall went through many of the innovations that Wagner is credited with and pointed out how Liszt had in fact done it first. However he did point out that even if Wagner wasn’t as innovative as his devotees would like to think, he had better tunes! He also spent time talking about the way that Wagner changed the format of opera from the lighter more variety performance like Italian operas. Wagner was writing operas that were one coherent piece of music, rather than a selection of songs – and he made great use of leitmotifs for each character or concept in the story to bring the music together and to enhance the visual and storytelling aspects of the opera. And he used parts of the opera Parsifal to showcase this. Again you can see the comparisons with modern films.

And as Goodall was talking about Wagner and giving him credit for the good things in the music and operas he wrote I kept thinking “he’s not a Wagner fan”. And just before the programme got to the point, I remembered why one doesn’t like Wagner – he was appallingly anti-Semitic (and racist) and not in a “oh well, product of his time” sort of way. Even by the standards of his anti-Semitic culture he was regarded as an extremist, and he published things that suggested the best course of action to the newly unified Germany was to get rid of all the Jews. After his death his music was used by the Nazi regime as part of their national mythology and Hitler was a big fan of the music, the programme showed us footage of the surviving Wagner family welcoming Hitler to their house.

And after that sobering segment Goodall closed the programme by talking about how he feels that Liszt & Wagner’s devotees have had a long-lasting impact on the perception of classical music. Their music is held up as serious music for serious people, who think about things and understand the true meaning of art. Not like that popular frothy stuff written by people like Gilbert & Sullivan, or those Italian operas, or the music of Offenbach. So a split developed between highbrow “worthwhile” music, and the rest which was looked down on by those who approved of the highbrow stuff.

Waldemar Januszczak’s series about the Dark Ages finished up with an episode about the Men of the North – which in this case means not just the Vikings but also the Anglo-Saxons and the Carolingians. Discussion of the three cultures were woven together through the programme, but I think it’s easier for me to seperate them out when I’m writing about it.

The Carolingians were really only briefly mentioned – this is the name of the ruling dynasty of the Franks at a time when the Frankish empire grew to stretch across a large part of Europe. Charlemagne is one of the most famous Carolingians, and Janusczcak showed us the throne of marble and the chapel that he had built. It was designed as an answer to the Cordoba mosque, so has some similar motifs (like the stripey arches, in this case in black & white not red & white). But as a whole it’s very different – more heavy and more brutal. The more portable art of the period was very opulent with lots of gold, and encrusted with jewels. This was all a reflection of the mindset of the culture – God was on their side because they were just that special.

The segments on the Vikings showed us some of the same art work that we’d seen in the Neil Oliver series (post) – in particular a boat which had been part of a burial, and a stone that commemorates the conversion of the Danes to Christianity. Unlike the Oliver series this series doesn’t do the high amounts of messing about with depth of field, so we actually got a proper look at carvings on the boat which are very impressive πŸ™‚ The themes were also somewhat similar to the Oliver programmes – the reputation the Vikings had wasn’t the whole story, they were also artisans as well as looters.

In the sections on the Anglo-Saxons Januszczak showed us the Lindisfarne Gospels, paying particular attention to the celtic influences in the art – the interweaving patterns in the borders & the illuminated capitals. He also showed us a grave-marker from this time – a cross with this interwoven patterns – and that lead to one of the giggle-out-loud moments of the programme. He said, as he was describing it, that it was his favourite because “it’s not quite right, a bit wonky, and you just want to hug it”! We also got the Sutton Hoo treasure – you really can’t miss it out if you’re talking about spectacular Anglo-Saxon art. And Januszczak also showed us a modern craftsman (who used to be a forger, but now makes original designs) making a silver brooch of a style akin to the Alfred jewel (which we also got shown).

I’ve enjoyed this series, and it’s a shame it’s finished now. I do have my doubts about the historical accuracy (see my post about the first episode for an example) but it was entertaining and nice to see all the various objects & buildings. Januszczak was a good presenter and his quirkiness grew on me.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

The third episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music covered about a hundred years – from 1750 to 1850. This takes us from Haydn to Chopin via Mozart, Beethoven and more. Goodall’s two themes for the period were the changing social status of the composer, and the turn to simplicity in musical structure after the complexity of Bach etc.

At the start of the period composers were effectively servants – you found a rich patron and wrote him the music he wished. I’d guess it wasn’t that simple in reality, but that was the social status of the composer. Over this time period composers began to work freelance, and so their revenue stream also began to depend on the tastes of the paying audience. But it increased their social status, brought them above the salt so’s to speak.

The complexity of Bach’s fugues, and the moral uprightness of his & Handel’s work gave way in this era to the simpler forms of symphonies, and an emphasis on pleasant & entertaining music (having not much to do with the turbulent political times, that included the French & American Revolutions). Goodall talked about how the music became simpler both in overall structure and in harmonic structure. Simple is not being used as a value judgement here, incidentally. So in terms of overall structure he was saying that a lot of symphonies can be summed up as – take a short theme, repeat the same note pattern starting on a different note, finish with a phrase as long as the first two put together that brings us back to a satisfying conclusion. Then do it again. Which leaves a lot of room for different sorts of phrases and themes, and satisfying conclusions, but still gives an overall simple structure that the piece is constructed around.

In terms of harmonic structure he was saying that the numbers of different chords used in a single piece of music narrowed considerably – most of a piece of music now would be constructed on the first, third and fifth chords (for the key the music was in). He demonstrated with a couple of examples that this could be the sole chords used for about three quarters of a piece of music – all the other possibilities now only took up a relatively small proportion of the music. And then they had a short segment of a string quartet & singer all dressed up in 18th Century style playing what sounded like chamber music of the time, and then you realised the words the woman was singing were the words for Rockin’ All Over the World … which lead into a joke about how these three chords are “still the status quo in much music of today” *groan* πŸ™‚

Goodall also talked about how Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony inspired other composers to use their music to paint pictures in sound (Mendelssohn was his example of one of these composers). And he talked about the single voice & piano songs of composers like Schubert – and compared them with the novels of Jane Austen with which they’re approximately contemporary, and pointed out that Schubert’s emotional maturity etc come off rather poorly compared to Austen. This was another point where the long-lasting nature of the music of this period was pointed out – we first had a man singing a Schubert love song, which was juxtaposed with a clip of Adele singing Someone Like You. Definitely felt like they were both a part of the same tradition.

Waldemar Januszczak moved on to discuss the art of Islam in the third episode of his series about the art of the Dark Ages.

And somehow I haven’t ended up with much to say about this one. I’m not sure why – I think I ended up approaching it as more “look at the pretty things” than anything else.

Januszczak visited several places where you find Islamic art (mostly but not all mosques), and discussed not just the beauty of the mosaics, buildings etc but also the religious symbolism behind some of it. (And hopefully got it right – a lot was stuff I hadn’t heard before). Throughout the programme he also placed quite a strong emphasis on how modern more fundamentalist traditions of Islamic art aren’t the only ones – there was figurative art from early on, not just “decadent princes” decorating palaces with things they shouldn’t, but also in art that was intended to represent paradise and to have religious worth.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

In the second episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music he covered a couple of hundred years or so from just after Monteverdi’s first opera (early 1600s) through to Bach & Handel (mid-1700s). He categorised this as a time of innovation, comparing the various developments in music to the advances in science at the time – which came across a little oddly to me, but then when he was talking about Bach it almost made sense.

The first half of the programme was mostly about Italian composers, like Vivaldi, and their development of the symphony & the concerto. He told us how the original symphonies, and even the start of the modern orchestra, grew out of the instrumental overtures to ballets performed at the French court at this time. The violin was a new instrument at the time (developed out of the folk violin) and instead of having just one playing there would be several of them. And this is obviously the way orchestras are set up. He also talked about how concertos are about the contrast between a large group of players and another smaller one, which I don’t think I actually knew before.

He also talked about the chord changes & sequences in both the music of composers like Vivaldi & in modern pop music, and played some examples of contrasting pieces with the same chord sequence. And I was struck (again) by the realisation that this is not how I listen to music. One of the things I always found hardest about music exams (for flute) was the aural section where I had to do things like identify intervals, or later on identify chord sequences. When I listen to music I hear the melody line and lyrics & the rhythm, even after a lot of practice I still struggled to identify a particular chord sequence (it always felt like guessing, just my guesses got better with practice).

The programme then moved on to the German composers who came after those Italians – Bach & Handel being the featured examples. Goodall talked about (and demonstrated) the complexity of Bach’s fugues & how they’re made by taking a theme and then transforming it in strict ways (different tempo, different key, not just any different notes). And then playing these transformations at the same time as the original, or offset a bit (in some regular fashion, again). And then the whole thing weaves together into a coherent and beautiful whole. Bach could not just write these, but could improvise them as well, which is an astonishing feat. (This segment of the programme made me want to re-read “Gödel, Escher, Bach” again … which I think is the third time I’ve thought that in 6 months, I must bump it up the non-fiction list πŸ™‚ )

In talking about Handel Goodall discussed the oratorio form – which effectively was born because the Pope disapproved of opera. I’m writing this about 2 weeks after watching the programme (I have brief notes) so I may be confused, but obviously the Pope’s opinion didn’t hold much sway in Protestant England nor for the Protestant Handel but I think what Goodall was saying was that Handel still saw an opportunity to occupy a niche in the music production business & so brought it to England as a music form. And it went down well with the English because it was choral/vocal music without the melodramatic acting.

Something else the programme talked about was that during this time period the notes of the scale were standardised. I knew that how we (the Western World) subdivide the scale isn’t the only way to do it – after all we’re arbitrarily drawing lines on a continuous spectrum & saying this is one note, and this is another. But I hadn’t realised that it was so recent in terms of Western music that the scale was narrowed down to the 12 notes we use today – Goodall was saying that previously notes like C♯ and D♭ were actually different, which I suppose I’d always figured was true sometime but hadn’t thought through.

The second episode of Januszczak’s series about art in the Dark Ages was all about “the barbarians”. As I said in passing above – I’m finishing writing this nearly 2 weeks after we watched the programmes so I’ve undoubtedly forgotten stuff. In this programme he basically covered the art of the various Germanic/Slavic tribes that we lump together these days as “the barbarians that toppled the Roman Empire” and his point was that actually they had art and culture of their own, they weren’t just the stereotype of thuggish murderous brutes ripping down the pretty things from a better civilisation.

He started with the Huns, who actually had a fairly big empire to the north-east of the Roman Empire. They get a pretty bad press, and one of their leaders (Attila) gets even worse press, but Januszczak showed us a lot of beautiful golden objects made by these people. And also showed us the reconstruction someone is planning of the palace of Attila the Hun, which looks rather splendid (and probably highly inaccurate). And I had the somewhat belated realisation that Hun and Hungarian is likely not a coincidence. But how did the Huns get their gold to make their beautiful objects? By running protection rackets on other cultures! Effectively they’d show up with their pointy swords & arrows, and after a bit of striking fear into the hearts of the townsfolk they’d suggest sending tribute of gold & such would help peaceful relations.

And then we moved onto the Vandals – all the way through the programme Januszczak was making the points that the names of these tribes have picked up perjorative meanings that we use to this day. The Vandals were pushed out of the north east by the Huns, and moved into Spain … then pushed out of Spain by the Visigoths into Africa. Where they conquered Carthage from the Romans. And Januszcak’s point here was that from the art you can’t really tell when they did this. There’s mosaics of much the same styles before & after, for instance. And there are things like documentation that the Vandal rulers actually repaired the public baths after they’d fallen into disrepair under the last of the Roman rulers. So not at all the reputation that goes with the later use of the word.

And he also discussed the Goths … which provided a lot of (possibly unintended) amusement. For starters, wtf with all the references to modern goths & satanic symbols? Personally I guess I associate that more with metal, not with goths. And what’s with a man who dresses in black and wears a massive gold ring decorated with a skull doing talking dismissively of “camden town goths”? He doesn’t look a million miles from some edges of that scene πŸ˜‰ Mind you, I wasn’t quite sure if it was tongue in cheek here, or real dismissiveness – my amusement may’ve been the sort of reaction he was going for. He also made me giggle when he was talking about “barbarian bling” after all the artful shots of that skull ring of his, and I’m pretty sure that was intentional πŸ™‚

Anyway, the point he was making with his discussion of modern goths was to compare these back to the real Goths and say that actually the real ones were Christians and were rather cheerful. The Ostrogoths (the eastern ones) are the ones that sacked Rome in the end – they made beautiful mosaic art in their churches. And from the Roman point of view the problem wasn’t that they were pagan (they weren’t) it was that they were heretics – Arian Christians. The Visigoths (the western ones) drove the Vandals out of Spain, and you see beautiful horseshoe arches in their church architecture. And this gave him a neat segue into the subject of the next episode – the art of Islam – as you see these horseshoe type arches in mosques in Spain.

And overall this programme reminded me I don’t know much about these various “barbarians”.

Howard Goodall’s Story of Music; The Dark Ages: An Age of Light

We started watching two new series this week – both picked from the selection we have recorded because they’re in HD and our PVR is filling up! So we began with the first episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music. The format of the show is just a little different from what I’m used to with documentaries – instead of Goodall going out on location somewhere he’s in a studio and the programme cuts between location footage, singers in a studio/on location and Goodall. Sometimes he has a keyboard to play, sometimes there’s other bits of graphics to illustrate what he’s saying, but a lot of the shots of him are him standing there. Which makes for quite a different feel – which I rather like, variety is good.

In the introductory segment he pointed out that there are many ways to tell the story of music, but this one is his – and I think it was a good idea for him to be so upfront about that, because his biases were very apparent in this particular episode. He opened with a brief trot through pre-history and ancient history – the theme for this segment was that there’s evidence of music throughout the time that there’s been people, but we don’t know what it sounded like because there was no musical notation. In some cases we have discovered instruments (like Lurs from Denmark – curly horns, hence Lurpak Butter and their logo of two curly horns), but this only tells us the sorts of noises they could use to make music not what the music was like. And then he was on to his main subject – which was really the development and styles of Western music. And possibly only some of that, I’m not sure I believe that there was no popular or secular music before the troubadours in the 12th Century.

So we started the story proper with Gregorian Chant – plainsong initially, which is just one vocal line and all the voices singing that in unison. Then he talked us through the adding of harmonies – first adding boys to the choirs got you two lines an octave apart, then they thought about 5ths & 4ths. Then more interesting intervals (like thirds), and more lines (so you can do triads of root-third-fifth, for instance). And the different lines not just singing the same thing in parallel always the same distance apart, so chord progressions were developed.

In parallel he also talked about the development of the system for writing music down from its beginnings as a mnemonic scribbled above the words to a developed system that lets you know which note, for how long etc. And discussed the addition and development of instruments (and this showed his biases as well, because some of these came from the Arabic world so clearly the rest of the world is doing its own musical development, he’s just not telling us about it). Other developments included the change of which line holds the melody (originally the tenor line did – hence “tenor” because that’s derived from the latin for “to hold”), and changing how the tunes went with the words. By that last I mean that it became more important for the words to be understood (he used an example of a Savonarola prayer set to music where the words were a political statement, and also of hymns for the congregation or opera where the words tell you the story) – so the composers made them have fewer notes per syllable so you could more easily hear what’s going on.

And we finished up with Monteverdi’s first opera being performed in 1607 – which Goodall held up as the point at which all the pieces of the Western musical tradition were in place. The general rules of harmony, the instrumental accompaniment and so on.

While I enjoyed watching this programme I am not sure he’s always on the right side of the line between clear jargon-free explanations & patronising explanations – for instance calling the note representations for early music writing “squiggles” didn’t quite sit right with me (he did say they were properly called “neumes” but then continued to say “squiggles” instead). But maybe I’m being over-sensitive here πŸ™‚

Next we started watching The Dark Ages: An Age of Light which is a recent series about the art of the Early Medieval period – from the latter part of the Roman Empire up through to the time of the Norman Conquest. (He started with orientation dates! I approve πŸ˜‰ ). This period has been characterised in the past as a time when civilisation ceased & people reverted to being barbarians – I don’t think anyone really thinks that any more but just in case you do this series aims to demonstrate that it’s a false idea. Over the series Januszczak is going to look at the art of various different groups of peoples, this first episode looks at the Christians – with an emphasis on the third & fourth centuries AD. I guess to partly start us with the familiar.

So first we looked at very early Christian art – the stuff you find in the early burials in the catacombs under Rome and (possibly) in Pompeii. This is mostly symbols rather than representations of Christ or other people. The fish, the anchor, the ☧ (Chi-Rho, from which we derive “xmas” for Christmas). Jonah being swallowed by the whale (or regurgitated by) as a symbol for Christ’s resurrection. The sort of thing that doesn’t jump up and shout “I’m a Christian” while waving its arms around, but does let other Christians know that & keeps it all more low key. Januszczak did make the point that the persecution of Christians wasn’t as complete as later tales suggest, but this use of symbolic art does suggest people were keeping it hidden as a matter of course.

I said “(possibly) in Pompeii” above – and I said this because there’s a reasonably long segment of the programme where he discusses the ROTAS squares found in Pompeii (so dating from AD79 or earlier) as a Christian symbol. A ROTAS square is inscribed like this:


And if you take all the letters and re-organise them you can make them into a cross constructed of two PATERNOSTER (crossing at the N) with A & O spare (twice). So that’s a cross, two Our Father’s and two lots of Α & Ω (or the beginning and the end). Which all sounds pretty Christian, and that’s how he was presenting it on the programme – a secret Christian symbol. But as Mary Beard discussed on her blog shortly after this programme aired, these days it’s thought not to be a Christian symbol – the argument is that it’s too early for the cross & the Α and Ω to be Christian symbols, they aren’t seen as such till the 3rd Century by which time Pompeii’s been under ash for over a hundred years. Also early Christians were much more likely to be using Greek letters rather than Latin ones. There’s no other evidence for Christians in Pompeii so it’s more likely that this is a Jewish symbol, as there’s plenty of evidence for Jews in Pompeii – and Our Father and Α and Ω show up in Jewish prayers & Jewish cultural contexts at this time.

So that’s a bit of a shame. J and I were also wincing at some of the description of the Egyptian goddess Isis later on in the programme, which taken together makes me concerned in general that whenever Januszczak says something I didn’t know before that perhaps that’s because it’s wrong. A programme to watch for the broad sweep of things & to look at the art, but not to learn the details.

Moving on, he started to talk about the earliest representations of Christ – these are not much like the later art, Christ is a boyish almost feminine figure with curly blonde hair & carries a staff or wand (with which he performs his miracles). Januszczak seemed to be both arguing that this was more likely to be realistic than the later bearded Jesus figures (being earlier, and showing the Turin Shroud to be fake as it has a typical medieval style Jesus face), and that it was based on the god Apollo. Obviously both are unlikely to be true – and actually I think I’d like to’ve seen him look at some of the Eastern Christian art of the same time period. Do they have Apollo-like Jesus figures? Or if not, what?

The later depictions of Jesus (by which I mean 4th Century here, after Constantine) shift to a more mature-looking man – one that wouldn’t be out of place as a senior member of Roman society. Which mirrors the shift from a small hidden cult to the imperial religion. The femininity of his form is also lost because that role has been taken on by Mary – her cult within Christianity starts up later than Christianity itself. This segment included the bit that we were wincing at – he discussed the Egyptian goddess Isis and was wrong in most of the details. However he might’ve been talking about the Isis cult within the Roman Empire (and neither of us know much about the details of that, or how it differs from the parent religion in Egypt). Anyway, the imagery of the Madonna and Child is so similar to that of Isis suckling Horus that it’s suggested that the one was modelled on the other as a way of bringing in a feminine side to the religion where there wasn’t before.

In parallel to looking at the paintings Januszczak also discussed the architecture of Christianity – the first churches were converted from rooms in people’s houses, and you wouldn’t know they were there from the outside. But as Christianity became the imperial religion it needed imperial style buildings both to show how important it was and to hold the larger numbers of worshippers. These were based on Roman basilicas, which were large halls in which public meetings were held. Christian basilicas moved the entrance to one of the narrow ends so that you walked in to face the altar in the apse at the other end (re-purposed from the place where a magistrate would sit). This left a large hall for the worshippers to congregate in and the priests to process through. Other Christian architecture of the time was smaller round buildings, built around a tomb. These were places for contemplation, as opposed to the larger & noisier basilicas. But over time the two forms were merged – the apse that the altar sat in in a basilica became larger and domed like a mausoleum at the end of the basilica. These grand buildings were decorated with fine art – including the more mature and senator-like Jesus images.

As with most programmes about art it’s worth watching just to see the various artworks, but I do wish I was more convinced that he was always getting the details right.

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 πŸ˜‰

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