Travels with Vasari; Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives

Travels with Vasari is a two-part documentary we’ve had on the PVR for the last 4 years or thereabouts. It’s presented by Andrew Graham Dixon and is about Vasari, and Renaissance Italy. Vasari was an artist in Italy in the 16th Century but nowadays he is much more famous for the book he wrote called “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. Dixon explained that this is the first work of art criticism and art history as we know those subjects today, and that Vasari can be credited with inventing them. The two programmes had a little bit of Dixon talking about Vasari himself (his life, some of his art) but mostly it was a tour round Italy looking at examples of the works that Vasari wrote about. The book was organised as a sort of progression throughout the Renaissance towards what Vasari thought was its crowning glory – the paintings of Michaelangelo. As his subject was the lives of the artists he obviously provided some biographical details for each one as well as discussing their art – but in many cases he stretched the truth or invented things out of whole cloth (for instance casting one artist as a murderer, yet investigative work in the 20th Century showed that said artist died 4 years before his putative victim …).

A good series, I’m not sure why we left it so long before watching it. It also reminded me that somewhere I have a book covering the broad sweep of the history of art via a series of example paintings, and while at one point I was going through it at a rate of a painting a day, I don’t think I ever finished. Must dig that back out again.

Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives was two biographical programmes about two of the great British radicals. Bragg started the first programme by reminding us that while Britain has never had a successful revolution, and it’s flirtation with being a republic ended by inviting the monarch back, nonetheless there have been some notable radical thinkers born in our country. The first programme looked at the life of John Ball – a name that isn’t necessarily familiar to everyone, but I think most people will’ve heard the phrase “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” which is one of Ball’s. John Ball lived during the 14th Century and was instrumental in leading what is now known as the Peasants Revolt. The subject of the second programme was Thomas Paine, an 18th Century radical who was born in England but participated in the American War of Independence (on the American side) and the French Revolution. He wrote several influential pamphlets – like “Common Sense” which was influential in the decision of the fledgling US to declare independence, and “Rights of Man” which was in part a defence of the French Revolution.

Bragg told the stories of these two men as separate tales, but linked them together and to William Tyndale (who he’s previously made a programme about) by the way that their great influence was derived from their use of English to communicate their ideas. And not just English (which was radical enough in Ball’s time all on its own) but plain English that was understandable by everyone rather than just some intellectual elite.

Interesting programmes about two men I didn’t actually know much about beyond their names.

Other TV we watched last week:

Episode 2 of Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century – Suzy Klein talking about 18th Century British music and how it impacted and was impacted by the history of the time.

Episode 2 of Tropic of Capricorn – Simon Reeve travels round the world following the Tropic of Capricorn.

Episode 2 of Lost Land of the Tiger – three part series about looking for tigers in Bhutan.

Episode 1 of Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

The Search for Life: The Drake Equation – one off programme about the possibility that there is life on other planets, looking at each of the factors of the Drake equation in turn to see what we now know about the probabilities. I didn’t always agree with what was being said (for instance I’m not particularly convinced the photosynthesis is as dead certain to develop as they were saying, it’s only evolved once on earth after all). It was also marred somewhat by the visual style which was clearly done by someone who thought the subject of the programme was dull so needed to be jazzed up with shaky cams. Overall, good but not as good as it could’ve been.

Do We Really Need the Moon? – a delightful programme presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock about the moon. She talked about the origin of the moon, what it was like in the past, what it will be like in the future. And a lot about how it has shaped the earth and life on earth. Possibly she credited the moon with a bit too much influence sometimes, but her enthusiasm carried the programme along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very brief notes about the other two series we finished:

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

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

Other TV watched this week:

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

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

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

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

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 🙂

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 😉 ). 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.

In Our Time: The Borgias

The Borgias have a bit of a reputation – poisoning, murder, incest & all sorts of bad behaviour. And particularly shocking in a family that includes two Popes! The experts who discussed this on In Our Time were Evelyn Welch (Queen Mary, University of London), Catherine Fletcher (University of Sheffield) and Christine Shaw (Swansea University).

The programme started with a brief run-down of the salacious details of the “Black Legend” (much as I did just now, but they did it with a quote). Then they moved on to set the Borgia family in context with a description of Italy in the fifteenth century – unlike today it wasn’t a single unified state, instead there were several different states on the peninsula. Some were city states ruled by aristocracy, some were republican city states, other areas were kingdoms (like the Kingdom of Naples), and there were also the papacy. The political interactions of all these various states, and of the families that ruled them were complex and sometimes the rivalries were so bitter that states would rather invite in foreigners than be ruled by a neighbouring state. The papacy had only relatively recently returned to Italy & to Rome, and so was in the process of establishing itself (in temporal terms) in the network of relationships. The Pope held a lot of lands within Italy, including the Kingdom of Naples.

The Borgias enter the story with Alphonso Borgia who came with the King of Aragon when he conquered Naples, as a secretary & lawyer. He was then made a Cardinal, and became Pope as a compromise candidate when there was stalemate between the two leading candidates. Once he became Pope he did the traditional papal thing of making a nephew or two into Cardinals. They were saying on the programme that this nepotism (the word is derived from the Italian for nephew) was fairly standard – that there were really two sorts of Cardinals, those that were respected theologians or churchmen, and those that were there to be part of the government for the Pope’s temporal domains. And promoting your own family to these positions would give you some men on whose loyalty you could count.

So Rodrigo Borgia is one of these new Cardinals and he stayed a Cardinal under several popes for thirty-something years, gaining experience and power as he did so. The experts were saying that he was a very politically savvy man. He was elected as Pope in 1492 and took the name Pope Alexander VI – he’s the (in)famous Borgia Pope. Here’s where in the programme we had the first debunking of a popular legend – he is generally said to have bribed his way to the papacy, but the experts were keen to point out that bribery isn’t quite the right way to describe it. Yes, his various bishoprics were handed out to various Cardinals etc after he became Pope but this was the standard way that things were done. And obviously people who were on good terms with him would be more likely to get given these, but it wasn’t that he systematically went out to gain votes by promising people rewards. Any of the candidates for the papacy would’ve given out their bishoprics to allies after they got the office.

Rodrigo had several children, eight I think they said, and particularly doted on the eldest four (who all had the same mother). These included Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia who are the other main subjects of the salacious legends. They said on the programme that it wasn’t particularly shocking that a Pope had children – but he did raise eyebrows by actually having children whilst he was Pope and by legitimising his children.

They talked about how the generally politically astute Rodrigo had a blindspot when it came to his children. He was trying to ensure the survival of his dynasty after his death and granted Cesare a lot of lands that had belonged to the Pope, which unsurprisingly didn’t particularly go down well. Rodrigo was effectively trying to sweep aside all of the delicate alliances & networks of relationships that existed in Italy and to install his son in a fiefdom of his own. He also once left Lucrezia to handle the papal correspondence whilst he was away from Rome – shocking because women weren’t even supposed to be in the Vatican, let alone be in a position of responsibility. This helped fuel rumours of indecent relations between father & daughter.

When they came to discuss the rumours and legends they were fairly unanimous that most of it was made up by enemies of the Borgias either at the time or after one of Rodrigo’s main rivals had succeeded him as Pope. There probably was one orgy, but there is no evidence of poisoning or of incest. The incest rumours in particular are probably due to someone who would have a distinct bias against the Borgias – Lucrezia’s first husband. At the time the rumours start Rodrigo is trying engineer his daughter’s divorce (because he wants an alliance with someone more useful), and is trying to get the chap to sign off on an annulment on the grounds that he was incapable of consumating the marriage. Which the soon-to-be-ex-husband isn’t particularly happy about, so he’s spreading rumours about how rather than him being impotent it’s more that Rodrigo wants Lucrezia for himself.

However it is likely that the talk of murders was true – some of them at least. But this is not confined to the Borgia family, and it’s worth remembering that not only were the politics of the time fairly cut-throat in general but also the whole period is a time of war. The King of France is marching his armies through Italy (at, I think, the request of some states that are hoping he’ll back them against other states – that whole thing where the internal rivalries are stronger than the external). There’s definitely evidence that Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered on the orders of the Borgia. And perhaps one of the Borgia sons was murdered by Cesare – but there are several other candidates for his murderer. However, Shaw made the point that the Borgias seem to’ve been particularly feared as a family that you shouldn’t cross, and even Rodrigo seems to’ve thought that Cesare overreacted when he felt he’d been insulted. So they certainly weren’t a nice family.

They talked a bit about the later lives of Cesare & Lucrezia – Cesare basically declined from power & ended up dying in some minor conflict in Navarre. Lucrezia died in childbirth at the age of 39, and at that point had a reputation for piety & good business sense – not what you’d think if you believed the stories told about her now.

So the take home message was that the Black Legend of all the evil doings of the Borgias was pretty much propaganda. They weren’t nice people by any means, but they weren’t unusual for a ruling family of the time.

In Our Time: Caxton and the Printing Press

The printing press was invented in Germany around 1440, and by 1476 had even been brought to the relative backwater of England, by a man named William Caxton. The guests on the episode of In Our Time that talked about this were Richard Gameson (University of Durham), Julia Boffey (Queen Mary, University of London) and David Rundle (University of Oxford). I’d heard of Caxton before, because he’s the subject of one of the mini biographies in a book I read earlier this year (“Renaissance People” ed. Robert C. Davis & Beth Lindsmith), but didn’t know much about him.

He was in his 40s by the time he became a printer – prior to that he was a mercer, that is a merchant involved in the cloth trade. He was clearly of some importance, he spent time in Bruges (in Burgundy) as the Governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London in Bruges (I think I have the title right) – basically the representative of all the London merchants to the officials in the city & to the other trading nations there. They got side-tracked when talking about it, so I’m not quite sure why Caxton left Bruges and why he changed career, but in his 40s that is what he did. Moving first to Cologne where he got involved in the new trade of printing, then he went back to Bruges (probably) and proceeded to set up shop printing not just Latin & French books (which would have an international readership) but also books in English for import into England (and pretty much nowhere else, because English wasn’t an international language).

He then moved to Westminster, where he set up shop as the first printer in England (and he remained the only English printer for some time, other printers were of continental origin). They spent a while discussing why Westminster and not London (and as always I was momentarily taken aback that they aren’t the same place – I know this, but I have to remind myself every time). Partly it seems because there was already a book trade in the city of Westminster, so selling print books as well as manuscripts was in some ways more of the same and your customers would already be there. Partly because Westminster had the Abbey and all the religious related printing needs (like indulgences). Partly because the niche that Caxton was trying to fit into was more Westminster oriented than City of London oriented – he wasn’t doing legal documents and such, or pamphlets, he was primarily printing books. And partly because there were taxes and restrictions on who could produce books in the City of London, so setting up shop outside gave him more freedom (and lower bills).

So Caxton’s clientèle were primarily the religious institutions and the nobility – and a large part of what he printed was books in English, which was unusual. He is most remembered for his editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and they spent a while talking about that on the programme. Caxton is credited with helping to cement Chaucer’s status as the première English writer, but they were pointing out that this wasn’t a new thing that Caxton did, he was very much building up an existing reputation (partly as a way of marketing his editions of the books).

Caxton is also credited with starting the standardisation of written English. But the guests on this programme were pretty clear that this wasn’t really the case – yes, printed books did do this (because you didn’t have local scribes copying texts with their local spelling, everyone bought the same edition) but Caxton himself didn’t really have much to do with it. They seemed clear that he did edit things, but was inconsistent within his own works. Also early printed books actually used the vagaries of spelling to their advantage, which I didn’t know before! So if it was more convenient to have a few letters more on a line to make the edges line up nicely then the typesetter would sprinkle a few “e”s on the ends of words, or double a letter or two. Or if you need some less, perhaps you’d take out a “u” or two.

A lot of what is known about Caxton comes from his editorial work, in particular the prologues & epilogues that he added to his books. They did stress, however, that these are often full of clichés so need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. He was clearly good at being a publisher/editor/printer though, because he didn’t go bankrupt which a lot of early printers did. This was due to the high start up costs (you need all the equipment) and because you needed to figure out how many copies of something you wanted in advance, guessing demand right could make the difference between staying in business or going bankrupt. Caxton clearly did, as his business was inherited after his death by his foreman, who gradually moved towards printing things for the legal trade and printing pamphlets. And after a while he moved the business to the City of London – to Fleet Street.

The three guests all seemed very enthusiastic about the subject, and all keen to have their say on every bit, but I did end up feeling a little sorry for Julia Boffey who got talked over more than once. She’d start making a point and one of the others would jump in and she’d be reduced to saying “yes, yes” while they talked.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World; Wartime Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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