Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

No, It Is Not Anti-Semitic To Question Whether Jews Are An Ethnic Minority

March 3, 2021

Ever keen to bash the Beep, the Torygraph printed another story yesterday accusing the Corporation of anti-Semitism. Benjamin Cohen, the CEO of Pink News, had been invited on to Politics Live to debate whether Jews should be included as an ethnic minority in the national census. Coming out of the show, Cohen tweeted how offended he was by the question, and that he was the only Jewish person facing a panel of four gentiles. He was absolutely sure that Jews should be treated as an ethnic minority, and asked rhetorically if the Beeb would have asked that question of a Black or Asian guests.

Actually, it’s a very good question whether Jews are an ethnic minority, and colour is a part of the issue. Before the rise of biological racism, Jews were largely persecuted in Christian Europe because of their religion. The persecution generally ceased if they converted. Before the outbreak of Nazism and the horrors of the Third Reich, the majority of Jews in Europe did not wish to be seen as a separate people from those the countries in which they lived. The British Jewish establishment opposed the Balfour Declaration because they believed that Jews were ‘Englishmen of the Jewish religion’. The British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, they feared, would lead to Jews being viewed as foreigners, whose ultimately loyalty was to the new state, rather than loyal British citizens.

Even now there is a healthy debate within Judaism about whether it is a ethnic group, a religion or a descent group. Not all Jews are happy with being considered an ethnic minority. The comedian, opera director and broadcaster, Dr Jonathan Miller, is one of them. One of the team of satirists in Beyond the Fringe, along with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, Miller was once introduced as a Jew on a programme covering the jolly funsters. Miller responded by stating that he was a ‘Jewish’. He had not interest in being an ethnic minority.

Jews also differ from the other groups regarded as ethnic minorities in terms of race, and socio-economic status. Traditional, indigenous European Jews are White, as the founder of modern scientific racial classification, Ludwig Blumenbach, maintained. Some of them, like Tracy-Anne Oberman, are more ‘Aryan’ in appearance than the Nazi scumbags, who abuse them. Which shows how wrong scientifically Nazism is, as well as evil. Where there has been anti-Semitic abuse and violence, it has been generally directed against Orthodox Jews, no doubt because of their characteristic dress and appearance.

The British Jewish community is also largely more prosperous than other ethnic groups. The mighty Tony Greenstein has cited sociological studies that have shown that 60 per cent of British Jews are upper middle class. Furthermore, while there is still anti-Semitic persecution and hostility, Jews don’t suffer from the same level of prejudice as Blacks and Asians. Tony again has quoted statistics showing that 77 per cent of Brits have positive views of Jews. Those that don’t generally regard them as no better or worse than anyone else. The number of people with negative views of Jews has risen from 5 to 7 per cent, but they’re far outweighed by the mass of the Brits who don’t share their opinions. This is no doubt one of the reasons the NF decided to stop goose stepping about in Nazi uniforms in the 1970s. When National Action turned up in Liverpool a couple of years ago screaming their hatred, the good peeps of that fair city, including socialists and trade unionists, chased them out of town. Literally. They had to retreat to the train station to await the next train out of there.

While the persecution of the Jews has been particularly vicious, it’s reasonable to compare it to the persecution of dissident Christian groups in Europe. Such as the Manichaean heretics in the Middle Ages, and Protestants in Roman Catholic countries. In Britain before Roman Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholicism was banned. It had to go underground in Ireland, and worship was carried out at secret locations in the countryside. British Protestant nonconformists, such as Quakers, Baptists and Methodists, were barred from serving on juries or in local and national government. By law their chapels had to be built five miles away from towns. You can also compare the British Jewish community’s current prosperity with the Quakers. The actual membership of the Society of Friends was small, but they became influential and prosperous businessmen because of their exacting standards of commercial conduct. You could trust them. A book I read a few years ago on the history of the Jewish people, written by an Anglican clergyman, made the same claim about them. The Jewish laws governing food purity meant that, if you bought a wheaten loaf from a Jew, that’s exactly what you got. Instead of being full of cheats determined to defraud gentiles, Jewish businessmen could be trusted. As for the traditional Jewish prohibition against marrying outside the religion, there are also Christian sects, such as the Exclusive Brethren and Particular Baptists, who also reject marriage with those outside the sect.

In short, Jews are integrated and accepted into British society to a far greater extent than Blacks and Asians, who are obviously different because of their colouring, dress and religion. Muslims are particularly subject to suspicion and abuse following 9/11, and are, with Blacks, generally poorer and more marginalised than the rest of British society.

I suspect the issue here isn’t so much about the question of whether Jews constitute an ethnic group in themselves, but over the benefits membership of an ethnic minority confers. Ethnic minorities are specifically protected by law against persecution, and in the case of Blacks and Asians may be assisted by affirmative action programmes. Even though Jews don’t suffer the level of violence and prejudice that Blacks and Asians do, they are still regarded as particularly vulnerable. As a result, they enjoy a degree of protection far greater than other ethnic minorities. For example, there’s the Community Security Trust, a paramilitary vigilante set up to protect Jews, synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish sites and monuments from attack. The group is supposedly trained in self-defence by members of the Israeli security services. This is, as far as I know, unique. I am not aware of any other ethnic group or religion being permitted their own private police force. Far from it. When the Islamofascists in London launched their Muslim Patrols harassing non-Muslims outside their mosques, they were rightly pounced upon by the authorities and arrested. But the CST is allowed to continue, stewarding Zionist and pro-Israel rallies despite reacting violently to counterdemonstrators. At several of these rallies, Muslim and Jews marching together in protest against Israel were forcibly separated and beaten. The victims included elderly Jewish women and rabbis.

The Zionist Jewish establishment were also able to exploit the general high regard and acceptance of Jews in British society by mobilising it to smear Jeremy Corbyn and his followers as anti-Semites. This is part of the general ultra-Zionist campaign to suppress criticism of Israel and its monstrous persecution of the Palestinians. Mass rallies and protests were arranged, and the lies and mendacious denunciations repeated in the national news and press.

Other ethnic groups have not nearly received such sympathy and support. For example, while the Labour party actively complied in the witch-hunt against suspected anti-Semites in the party, it has been extremely reluctant to investigate and punish those responsible for the racist bullying of Black and Asian MPs and activists. Probably because the racist bullies were the Blairite plotters and saboteurs, who collaborated with the anti-Semitism smear campaign as part of their own attempts to oust Corbyn. The affirmative action programme designed to assist Blacks and Asians achieve the same level of prosperity and acceptance as Whites are still extremely controversial. And rather than support allegations of racism by members of those ethnic groups, the reaction of the right-wing press has largely been to denounce them.

It therefore seems to me to be a good question whether Jews should be treated as an ethnic group, rather than simply a religion practised or not by some Brits, not so very different from various traditional Christian sects, which were also persecuted by which are now accepted as integral parts of British culture. I think that the determination by Jews like Cohen to retain their demarcation as an ethnic minority is doubtless partly motivated by a quite understandable fear of the return of the biological racism which led to the monstrous horrors of the Holocaust.

But I also wonder how much also comes from Zionist ideology. The IHRA definition of Zionism claims that it is anti-Semitic to deny Jews their national aspirations. Jews are a nation, and so it is supposedly anti-Semitic to deny them the right to their own state, Israel. But these national aspirations become highly questionable if Jews are not seen as a nation or ethnic group, but as a religion. Zionism becomes spiritual, not political. Jerusalem and Israel become the spiritual centres of the Jewish faith, just as Christians regard them as the spiritual centres of their religion. But this does not necessarily translate to a desire to return to the Promised Land. Some Jewish denominations removed the traditional Passover toast, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’. Many other Jews simply repeated it as part of the revered ritual celebrating their deliverance from Pharaoh’s persecution in Egypt without actually meaning it.

All this makes me wonder whether the Torygraph’s article isn’t really about whether British Jews really constitute a separate ethnic group or not, but whether it’s was just a way of exploiting the anti-Semitism witch hunt to attack the Beeb, a favourite Tory target, on the one hand, while subtly trying to reinforce support for Israel on the other.

Real Boob Armour from the Middle Ages?

January 3, 2021

There was a bit of controversy a few months ago over an episode of the Star Wars spin-off TV show, The Mandalorian. The Mandalorians are a race of mercenaries, one of whom was the Star Wars film villain, Boba Fett. The show’s titular character roams the Galaxy with a baby clone of Yoda righting wrongs as law and order has broken down in the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. Or I think that’s what the show’s about. The row erupted over an episode which showed female Mandalorians wearing fitted breastplates shaped for women’s breasts. Feminist critic of video games and the SF/Fantasy genre was not impressed, and posted a tweet expressing her disapproval.

She was then answered by the show’s fans, who certainly did not believe that such armour was sexualising or demeaning women. Many of those rebutting Sarkesian were women. One of them posted an interesting piece by a female veteran of the Iraq invasion, who described how uncomfortable the breastplates worn by American squaddies are, particularly for women. She wanted breastplates shaped for women’s breasts. Others pointed out that women boxers today wear breastplates to protect their boobs.

I found this picture of a set of armour from the later Middle Ages at Churburg in Frederick Wilkinson’s Arms and Armour (London: Hamlyn 1978) p. 66. As you can see, the breastplate really is only a strip across the upper torso, leaving the stomach, throat and shoulders protected by chain mail. I don’t doubt that the armour was made for a man. There are records of women fighting in armour during the Middle Ages, such as Joan of Arc, but they were very much exceptions to the rule. When they did fight, they wore men’s armour. However, looking at the Churburg armour, it does seem to me to be the kind of armour women may have worn if they were a regular part of medieval armies and it was made especially for them.

There’s an awful lot of SF and Fantasy in which the women warriors do indeed wear very little. But I don’t see the female breastplates on the Mandalorian as sexualising the women mercenaries. Indeed, from the above illustration – which is admittedly for a man – it does seem to be the kind of armour fighting women would wear in such a society.

Time Team Creator Tim Taylor Attempting to Bring Back Show through Patreon on YouTube

December 14, 2020

Remember Time Team? That was the popular archaeology show on Channel 4 that ran from the late 1980s to the early part of this century. Presented by Tony Robinson, who played Baldrick in the Blackadder series, the show broadcast each week a short archaeological investigation of a different site. These investigations only lasted three days and attempted to solve a particular historical or archaeological. It would begin with the questions raised by the site they were excavating that week. Was it really the location for a Roman villa, lost Norman castle, or medieval manor house, for example? Robinson would lay out what has been found so far, stating what they hoped to find and saying a bit more about the excavation and who would be taking part, before finishing, ‘And, as usual, we’ve got three days to find out’.

It was immensely popular, at least for Channel 4 shows and archaeology programmes. It spawned a number of tie-in book and publications. Some of the programmes were written up as pamphlets in a series of Time Team Site Reports. In the spring/summer of 2004 or 5 the show also embarked on their Big Dig. This was a piece of mass archaeology involving the general public. The goal was to get the British public digging test pits up and down the country in their back gardens or other premises, and see what they found. And the British public joined in with enthusiasm. Some of the excavations were carried out, not just by the fit and able, but also by people with learning difficulties and/or physical disabilities. It was part of the show’s ethos to get everyone involved. They were also keen to demonstrate that archaeology wasn’t just about the rich, kings, princes and the nobility, but also about ordinary people. Hence there were a number of shows devoted to excavating industrial sites, such as a very early, pioneering factory in Birmingham dating from the industrial revolution. This was important not just for its role in the country’s industrialisation, but as a place where ordinary peeps worked. The Team also excavated further abroad. In one edition, they went to St. Kitt’s to dig on a former sugar plantation. This dated from the period of British transatlantic slavery. The show therefore discussed Caribbean plantation slavery and its horrors, and also excavated the site of the quarters of the estate’s enslaved workers. In another edition, Robinson also described the horrendous living condition of the urban working class in the 19th century, as recorded by the inspectors. This described people living in cellars mouldy with damp and with rags stuffed into the cracks in windows. One of these hovels also had a dead baby on the floor. He also described how factory owners would also purchase children from the workhouses to labour in the factories. Robinson’s a member of the Labour Party, and there was real anger in his voice when describing these horrors.

Time Team sort of fizzled out a few years after the death of one of its founders, Dr. Mick Aston, and a row over choice of presenters. One of the Team had been dropped, and replaced by a model. The new presenter had actually done a degree in archaeology, but this caused a nasty background argument. I believe the lady at the centre of row chivalrously offered to step down.

Now it seems the show might be coming back, though on YouTube rather than television. Tim Taylor, the show’s creator, posted a video on YouTube on the 11th December 2020 giving an update on how the attempts were progressing so far, and what remained to be done. The show’s being financed through subscriptions on Patreon, and the video’s partly an appeal for more people to join. The show also has its own Patreon Channel, on which videos will appear over the next few days of Helen Geake, Carenza Lewis and Phil Harding discussing the plans for Stage 1. They’ve started looking at sites and contacting key team members. Stages 2 & 3 will involve more research, site mapping on their new digital database, collecting key paperwork for each site, assembling potential experts, talking to local communities, and then creating a PD – Project Design, the archaeological strategy. They will also be auditioning new field archaeologists for Stage 3, with the possibility of a ‘dig off’. That will be when they really build the Team. They managed to get 1,000 patrons in 3 days, but in order to get Stages 2 & 3 underway they need to have 3,000 patrons by the end of January 2021. When 2 & 3 are complete, they’ll share the list of sites, so that people can choose which sites go forward to stage 4, where they visit those locations. Taylor states that the show depends on people supporting them on Patreon and appeals for more people to become members and patrons. He tells the viewers that they’re posting an old Time Team episode on their Time Team Classic YouTube channel on Sunday – yesterday, 13th December 2020. The show ends with a message of support from Robinson.

Time Team ANNOUNCEMENT Next steps and news from Tony Robinson! – YouTube

This is really interesting, and I’d like to see the show come back, but have mixed feelings about it. While the programme has been immensely influential and has doubtless got people interested in archaeology, it has not been without its detractors. The criticisms I’ve heard are that the Team never wrote up their findings and didn’t fill in the sites after they’d finished. This is only what I’ve heard, and so I couldn’t swear it was true, though I did hear about them not filling in their digs from two different sources. This has led to accusations that they have been trashing sites. That said, the Team were professional archaeologists with the exception of Tony Robinson, and some of the TV presenters brought in for the specials, such as Sandi Toksvig when they were digging up Viking York. She was obviously chosen because she’s Danish. They also had the support of some very senior British archaeologists, such as Francis Pyor, who was the head of one of one of the major British archaeological societies. Mick Aston, a founding member of the Team, was a lecturer at Bristol University, as was Dr. Mark Horton, who appeared on several of the shows before going off to front Coast. Raksha Dave, another member of the Team, has also subsequently appeared on various history/ archaeology shows. Although nothing is said about her ethnicity, Dave’s Asian, and I think her presence on the programmes wasn’t just due to her skills as an archaeologist, but also to try and widen the discipline’s appeal and include people from ethnic minorities. Like very many other academic subjects, there’s a concern in archaeology to recruit more people of colour. Mark Horton is particularly keen to see more people in general take up archaeology. When Bristol University launched its exhibition on the city’s involvement in the Slave Trade, ‘A Respectable Trade’, back in the ’90s the Uni also launched a scheme to interest young people, in which a prospective future archaeologist would be sent to work on an excavation in the Caribbean. Again, nothing was said, but it’s the kind of project, which I think they devised in the hope that it would appeal particularly to Black youngsters.

It’ll be very interesting to see if Taylor’s successful, and show comes back, if only YouTube. And there’s clearly a space there for more people from ethnic minorities to enter the subject and, perhaps, join the show as presenters.

Hopefully, if it does get off the ground, it will inspire more people, of all colours, to get involved in archaeology. The future’s yours, folks! Get those trowels ready!

Is the BBC Really Trying to Change the Name of the Anglo-Saxon Period Because They Think It’s Racist?

December 12, 2020

Simon Webb posted this video on his ‘History Debunked’ channel nearly three weeks ago, on the 23 November 2020. In it he discusses the BBC’s decision to stop calling the period between the departure of the Romans in 410 AD and the Norman Conquest of 1066 the ‘Anglo-Saxon period’ because the term is apparently perceived as racist. A BBC programme he was listening to on the radio referred to it as ‘the early medieval period’ and there is, or was, apparently, an article in the Corporation’s BBC History Magazine stating that there are moves to change it, as it deters Black people studying it because they associate ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with White supremacy. And in America there are moves to stop using the term altogether and simply refer to it as the early middle ages.

Webb takes this view that this is an attempt by the Beeb to rewrite the past so that it resembles the multicultural present. But he points out that his was the period when what had been Roman Britain was settled by Angles, Saxons and Jutes. ‘English’ comes from the word ‘Anglish’, for Angles, who also supplied the country’s name, England, from Engla Land, ‘Land of the Angles’. He states that this process of settlement is described in the last chapter of his book, Life in Roman London, published by the History Press, which is one of the few popular treatments of this subject. As for the term’s racial connotations, well, the Anglo-Saxons were White. Webb shakes his head in amazement at this attempt to rewrite history in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and wonders where it will end.

The BBC wish to replace longstanding historical expressions – YouTube

I’m not sure what’s actually going on here. Historians have referred to the period between the Fall of the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest for a long time as the early Middle Ages. It used to be referred to as the Dark Ages. Some older readers of this blog will no doubt remember Michael Wood’s great series, In Search of the Dark Ages, broadcast by the Beeb in the ’70s/’80s. However, historians and archaeologists have largely stopped calling the period that as more has been found out about it, and the period has increasingly seemed to be less dark. I think it might still be used for the couple of centuries after the departure of the Romans from Britain and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon England. Other terms used for those centuries are ‘Post-Roman’ and ‘Sub-Roman’. And the term ‘early Middle Ages’ of course makes perfect sense for the rest of Europe, which weren’t settled by the Anglo-Saxons, although northern Germany, the Netherlands and Jutland in Denmark were their ancestral homelands from which they migrated to Britain. The term also makes good sense for Ireland and the Celtic parts of modern Britain, Wales and Scotland. But in the context of English history, the period absolutely should be called the Anglo-Saxon period. That’s what the people, who founded and created England have been called following King Alfred himself. There were Black people seen in the British Isles and Ireland during this period. Round about the 8th-9th century or so the Vikings of Dublin brought in a shipload of ‘blamenn’ – blue, or Black men. I think the historian David Olusoga has also talked about the arrival of another shipload of Black people in Cumbria round about the same period. Medieval people certainly knew that Black people existed. They describe them as living in Africa and believed they had acquired their Black complexion through being burnt by the sun. But Black people in Europe at the time would have been very, very rare and the vast majority of the population would have been White. That’s not racism, but a simple statement of historical fact.

I’m afraid that racism has cast a very long shadow over this period ever since the Nazis. For many years I was a member of a Dark Age re-enactment society, Regia Anglorum. This tried to recreate the history of the British Isles round about 1066. While re-enactment in Britain is largely acceptable, except for World War II, or at least, the idiots who want to dress up as the SS, in Germany it’s regarded very much with loathing and contempt. This is because of the appropriation of the history and archaeology of the Teutonic tribes and the Vikings by the Nazis. The overtly Fascist fringe has done the same over here, harking back to the Celts and especially the Anglo-Saxons. As a result, some perfectly historical symbols were banned for very obvious reasons. Some of the pottery from migration period Anglo-Saxon graves is decorated with the Swastika, and you can find it on rock carvings in Scandinavia. But obviously no self-respecting re-enactor for the early middle ages is going to use it on their clothing or equipment because of the connections with Nazism. I can’t talk about re-enactment as a whole, as it’s a very large milieu and there were are large number of different groups, but the organisation I joined was very definitely non-racist and certainly had members from different ethnic groups. A number of the people in Regia when I was there, including some of its leading members, were Jewish. And their religion made absolutely no difference to anyone, whatsoever.

From what I can make out, there was little racism in Europe until after the Middle Ages. There was conflict between ethnic groups, states and nations, but little in the way of racism based on colour. From what I’ve read I think that modern racism really emerged through transatlantic slavery, although I think that the wars with darker skinned people, such as the Arabs and Moors during the Crusades and the Muslim conquest of the Balkans also played a part. The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ history, simply refers to a period. It has, or shouldn’t have, any connotations of racism or White supremacism.

This needs to be got across, assuming that some people genuinely feel that it is somehow racist and that this isn’t a misperception or exaggerated reaction by whoever makes these judgements after Black Lives Matter. But to stop calling that period of English history ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is in itself a falsification of history. It should go on being called the Anglo-Saxon period, but also made clear, if necessary, that it is an historical term, not one from any racial or racist ideology.

A Message for Keir Starmer from a Master of Persian Literature

December 2, 2020

I’ve just started reading Barbara Leonie Picard’s Tales of Ancient Persia (Oxford: OUP 1973). It’s a children’s book, one of a series of books on world folktales and legends. It’s really a retelling of the great Iranian national epic, the Shahname, or ‘Book of Kings’, composed by the poet Firdausi in the 12th century AD. By this time Iran was very definitely a Muslim country, but the book is about the great heroes of Zoroastrian myth and legend, fighting for the good god, Ormuzd or Ahura Mazda, against the evil god Ahriman, his demons and tyrants.

One of these tyrants is Zohak, an Arab prince who has been corrupted by Eblis, the Islamic Satan sent by Ahriman. After arranging for him to seize the thrown and introducing meat-eating, Eblis asked to kiss Zohak’s shoulders as a reward. Zohak allows him, and this results in a pair of monstrous serpents sprouting from his shoulders. Monstrous reptiles that grow back as soon as they are cut off, and can only be satisfied through eating human brains. So every day, two people have to be brought to the royal palace to be killed so that their grey matter can be fed to them.

But Zohak has been warned in a prophecy that a hero, Feridun, will arise and slay him. Forewarned, Feridun runs off to the mountains, where he gathers a small army of loyal followers against attack.

The Persian people put up with Zohak’s oppression until one day a blacksmith, Kava, arrives at the palace. He wants justice. He has had eighteen sons. 17 have been killed, and only one of them remains. But he has been taken and he wants him back, to comfort him in his old age. Zohak agrees to restore the son, and asks him who has done all this. Kava replies that it is him. He has had 17 of his sons killed to feed the serpents. Zohak, however, keeps his promise, and gives his son back to him. Kava seems satisfied at this, and so Zohak believes he will be loyal to him. He therefore asks Kava to swear an oath he has made everyone else in Persia swear, that Zohak is a good and just king and they love him. Kava, a man of integrity, is utterly outraged and not only refuses to swear the oath, but smashes the tablet on which it’s written and storms out. He puts his blacksmith’s apron on a spear turning it into a banner and seeks out Feridun. The two then raise an army. As they march through Persia they are greeted as liberators and people flock to their cause. Finally they storm the palace, Feridun kills Zohak and seizes the throne.

All very stirring stuff, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with Starmer and the Labour Party? Well, I believe there’s a message here for Starmer. He isn’t a demonic creature like Zohak, and I’m pretty sure supernatural snakes aren’t coming out of his shoulders to munch on people’s brains. Except in a symbolic way, of course. His leadership is so partisan and inept it does seems to be result of mind-destroying stupidity. But in his partisanships and petty vindictiveness he is pushing people into rebellion. He’s done this through his purge of Corbyn’s supporters and the left of the party, and increased this in his suspension of the former Labour leader himself. He’s been forced to reverse this, but has refused Corbyn the whip. But what has added insult to injury is that he and his chairman, David Evans, have issued diktats forbidding ordinary Labour members and constituency parties from discussing any of this, or rejecting the E.H.R.C.’s report on anti-Semitism in the party.

As a result of this and other massive failures by the leadership, ordinary members are leaving the party in droves. People are defying him, taking to social media to discuss all this while a string of local constituency parties, Labour affiliates and trade unions have passed motions of solidarity with Corbyn. Some have also passed votes of no confidence in Starmer and Evans.

A rebellion is going on. And it’s been provoked not only by bad, overbearing and partisan leadership, but by an attempt by the same leadership to stifle debate and discontent. Just like Zohak tried to cover up his tyranny by making the people of ancient Persia swear an oath that he represented good government.

I wonder if there wasn’t a piece of political commentary in this. It’s a great story, and in a freer Iran you could turn it into a fantasy epic, like the Chinese have with Monkey. But apart from its entertainment value, I think Firdausi was also including an important political lesson. He was writing for the shah, Mahmud of Ghazni, and while monarchy everywhere in the Middle Ages was absolute or near absolute, there were rebellions against it. Hence, in medieval Europe at least, there was the literary genre of ‘mirrors for princes’, advising them on good, popular government.

The message here is simple and eternal. A leader can only push people so far before they will rebel. And they will do so even if, or especially because, of edicts trying to silence them and enforce absolute loyalty.

It’s a timeless message for rulers and leaders. And what makes great literature is that it can speak across time and place to make comments on politics and the human condition.

Including to Starmer. But he’s not listening to anyone except the other Blairites.

Gotz von Berlichingen’s Account of How He Got His Iron Hand

November 16, 2020

One of the landmarks in the history of artificial limbs was the iron hand specially made for the German knight, Gotz von Berlichingen after his own was shot off by the Nuremberg forces at a battle at Landshut in Germany. Berlichingen was in born in 1480 in Wurttemberg, where his family were knights. G.G. Coulton includes his description of how got had his real hand shot off and an iron one made so that he could continue his military career, in his collection of medieval texts, Life in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967), vol. 2: 135-7 along with a number of other stories from the old soldier’s memoirs. Coulton states that Berlingen has been described as the last of the robber barons. From 1541 onwards he fought for the German emperor Charles V in a series of wars, first against the invading Turks, and then against the French. The great German poet and playwright Goethe wrote a play based on his life, and Coulton claim that the romanticism of his memoirs influenced Sir Walter Scott. Von Berlichingen’s account of the loss of his hand is as follows:

I will now tell how I came by my wound. You must know that on Sunday, as I have related above, while we were skirmishing again under the walls of Landshut, the Nurnbergers turned their cannon upon friend and foe alike. The enemy had taken up a strong position on a dyke, and I would fain have broken a spear with one of them. But as I held myself still and watched for an occasion, suddenly the Nurnbergers turned their cannon upon us; and one of them, with a field-culverin, shot in two my sword-hilt, so that the one half entered right into my arm, and three armplates therewithall; the sword-hilt lay so deep in the armplates that it could not be seen. I marvel even now that I was not thrown from my horse; the armplates were still whole; only the corners, which had been bent by the blow, stood forth a little. The other half of the sword-hilt and the blade were bent, but not severed; and these, I believe, tore off my hand betwixt the gauntlet and the arm-piece: my arm was shattered behind and before. When I marked now that my hand hung loose by the skin, and that my spear lay under my horse’s feet, I made as though nothing had befallen me, turned my horse softly round, and, in spite of all, came back to my own folk without let or hindrance from the enemy. Just then there came up an old spearman, who would have ridden into the thick of the fray: him I called to me, and besought that he would stay at my side, since he must see how matters stood with me. So he tarried with me at my prayer, and then he must needs fetch me the leech. When I came to Landshut, my old comrades told me who had fought in the battle against me, and in what wise I had been shot, and that a nobleman, Fabian von Wallsdorf, a Voiglander, and been struck and slain by the same shot, not withstanding that it had struck me first; so that in this wise both friend and foe took harm alike. This nobleman was a fair and goodly gentleman, such that among many thousands you would scarce find any goodlier to behold…

From that time forth, from the Sunday after St. Vitus’ day until Ash Wednesday, I lay in Landshut; and what pain at that time I suffered, each may well imagine for himself. It was my prayer to God that, if I stood indeed in His divine grace, then in His own name He might bear me away to Himself, since I was spoiled now for a fighting man. Yet then I bethought me of a man at arms of whom I had heard my father and old old troopers tell, whose name was Kochli, and who also had but one hand, notwithstanding which he could do his devoir against his foe in the field as well as any other man. Then I prayed to God, and considered within myself that, had I even twelve hands, and His grace and help stood not by me, then were all in vain. Therefore, thought I, might I but get me some little help by means of an iron hand, then I would prove myself as doughty in the field, in spite of all, as any other maimed man. I have ridden since then with Kochli’s sons, who were trusty horsemen and well renowned. And in all truth I can think and say nought else, – now that for wellnigh sixty years I have waged wars, feuds and quarrels with but one fist,-but that God Almighty, Everlasting and Merciful, hath stood wondrously and most graciously by me and at my side in all my wars, feuds, perils

Coulton’s book also has an illustration of the iron hand, based on a engraving preserved by the family.

As you can see, it seems to be an adaptation of the gauntlet and armour for the arm. I think the great 16th century French doctor and surgeon, Pare, created similar artificial limbs, and it shows that medieval science and medicine were rather more advanced than the usual received view of superstitious ignorance. Berlichingen and his hand seem to me to be a great model for a Fantasy or SF character, and I do wonder if Michael Moorcock used him as the basis for the artificial hand wielded by his hero, Corum, who is, like far more famous Elric of Melnibone, another incarnation of his Eternal Champion.

A Common Sense Exorcism from a Sceptical Medieval Monk

October 12, 2020

The view most of us have grown up with about the Middle Ages is that it was ‘the age of faith’. Or to put it more negatively, an age of credulity and superstition. The scientific knowledge of the Greco-Roman world had been lost, and the Roman Catholic church retained its hold on the European masses through strict control, if not an outright ban, on scientific research and fostering superstitious credulity through fake miracles and tales of the supernatural.

More recently scholars have challenged this image. They’ve pointed out that from the 9th century onwards, western Christians scholars were extremely keen to recover the scientific knowledge of the ancients, as well as learn from Muslim scholarship obtained through the translation of scientific and mathematical texts from areas conquered from Islam, such as Muslim Spain and Sicily. Medieval churchmen had to master natural philosophy as part of the theology course, and scholars frequently digressed into questions of what we would call natural science for its own sake during examinations of theological issues. It was an age of invention which saw the creation of the mechanical clock, spectacles and the application of watermills as pumps to drain marshland and saw wood. There were also advances in medicine and maths.

At the same time, it was also an age of scepticism towards the supernatural. Agabard, a medieval Visigothic bishop of what is now France, laughed when he was told how ordinary people believed that storms were caused by people from Magonia in flying ships. The early medieval manual for bishops listing superstitions and heresies they were required to combat in their dioceses, the Canon Episcopi, condemns the belief of certain women that they rode out at night with Diana or Herodias in the company of other spirits. Scholars of the history of witchcraft, such as Jeffrey Burton Russell of Cornell University, argue that this belief is the ancestor of the later belief that witches flew through the air with demons on their way to meet Satan at the black mass. But at this stage, there was no suggestion that this really occurred. What the Canon Episcopi condemns is the belief that it really happens.

The twelfth century French scholar, William of Auvergne, considered that demonic visitations in which sleepers felt a supernatural presence pressing on their chest or body was due to indigestion. Rather than being a witch or demon trying to have sex with their sleeping victim, the incubus or succubus, it was the result of the sleeper having eaten rather too well during the day. Their full stomach was pressing on the body’s nerves, and so preventing the proper circulation of the fluids responsible for correct mental functioning. There were books of spells for the conjuration of demons produced during the Middle Ages, but by and large the real age of belief in witches and the mass witch hunts came in the later middle ages and especially the 16th and 17th centuries. And its from the 17th century that many of the best known spell books date.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is G.G. Coulton’s Life in the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia, Coulton was a professor of medieval history, who had originally studied for the Anglican church but did not pursue a vocation. The book’s a collection of medieval texts describing contemporary life and events. Coulton obviously still retained an acute interest in religion and the church, as the majority of these are about the church. Very many of the texts are descriptions of supernatural events of one kind or another – miracles, encounters with demons, apparitions of the dead and lists of superstitions condemned by the church. There’s ample material there to support the view that the middle ages was one of superstitious fear and credulity.

But he also includes an account from the Dutch/ German monk and chronicler, Johann Busch, who describes how he cured a woman, who was convinced she was demonically possessed through simple common sense and folk medicine without the involvement of the supernatural. Busch wrote

Once as I went from Halle to Calbe, a man who was ploughing ran forth from the field and said that his wife was possessed with a devil, beseeching me most instantly that I would enter his house (for it was not far out of our way) and liberate her from this demon. At last, touched by her prayers, I granted his request, coming down from my chariot and following him to his house. When therefore I had looked into the woman’s state, I found that she had many fantasies, for that she was wont to sleep and eat too little, when she fell into feebleness of brain and thought herself possessed by a demon; yet there was no such thing in her case. So I told her husband to see that she kept a good diet, that is, good meat and drink, especially in the evening when she would go to sleep. “for then” (said I” “when all her work is over, she should drink what is called in the vulgar tongue een warme iaute, that is a quart of hot ale, as hot as she can stand, without bread but with a ltitle butter of the bigness of a hazel-nut. And when she hath drunken it to the end, let her go forthwith to bed; thus she will soon get a whole brain again.” G.G. Coulton, translator and annotator, Life in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967) pp.231-2).

The medieval worldview was vastly different from ours. By and large it completely accepted the reality of the supernatural and the truth of the Christian religion, although there were also scientific sceptics, who were condemned by the church. But this also did not stop them from considering rational, scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena when they believed they were valid. As one contemporary French historian of medieval magic has written, ‘no-one is more sceptical of miracles than a theologian’. Sometimes their scepticism towards the supernatural was religious, rather than scientific. For example, demons couldn’t really work miracles, as only God could do so. But nevertheless, that scepticism was also there.

The middle ages were indeed an age of faith, but it was also one of science and rationality. These were sometimes in conflict, but often united to provide medieval intellectuals with an intellectually stimulating and satisfying worldview.

‘I’ Article on ‘Bardcore’ – Postmodern Fusion of Medieval Music and Modern Pop

August 5, 2020

I’m a fan of early music, which is the name that’s been given to music from the ancient period through medieval to baroque. It partly comes from having studied medieval history at ‘A’ level, and then being in a medieval re-enactment group for several years. Bardcore is, as this article explains, a strange fusion of modern pop and rock with medieval music, played on medieval instruments and with a medieval vocal arrangement. I’ve been finding a good deal of it on my YouTube page at the moment, which means that there are a good many people out there listening to it. On Monday the I’s Gillian Fisher published a piece about this strange new genre of pop music, ‘Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1199’, with the subtitle ‘Bardcare reimagines modern pop with a medieval slant. Hark, says Gillian Fisher’. The article ran

“Hadst thou need to stoop so low? To send a wagon for thy minstrel and refuse my letters, I need no longer write them though. Now thou art somebody whom I used to know.”

If you can’t quite place this verse, let me help – it’s the chorus from the 2011 number one Somebody That I Used to Know, by Gotye. It might seem different to how you remember it, which is no surprise – this is the 2020 Bardcore version. Sometimes known as Tavernwave, Bardcore gives modern hits a medieval makeover with crumhorns a plenty and lashings of lute. Sometimes lyrics are also rejigged as per Hildegard von Blingin’s offering above.

Algal (41-year-old Alvaro Galan) has been creating medieval covers since 2016, a notable example being his 2017 version of System of a Down’s Toxicity. Largely overlooked at the time, the video now boasts over 4.4 million views. Full-time musician Alvaro explains that “making the right song at the right moment” is key, and believes that Bardcore offers absolute escapism.

Alvaro says: “What I enjoy most about Bardcore is that I can close my eyes and imagine being in a medieval tavern playing for a drunk public waiting to dance! But from a more realistic perspective , I love to investigate the sounds of the past.”

In these precarious times, switching off Zoom calls and apocalyptic headlines to kick back with a flagon of mead offers a break from the shambles of 2020. Looking back on simpler times during periods of unrest is a common coping mechanism, as Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at New York’ Le Moyne College explained in her paper on nostalgia: “Nostalgic yearning for the past is especially likely to occur during periods of transition, like maturing into adulthood or aging into retirement. Dislocation or alienation can also elicit nostalgia.”

The fact that Bardcore is also pretty funny also offers light relief. The juxtaposition of ancient sound with 21st-century sentiment is epitomised in Stantough’s medieval oeuvre, such as his cover of Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. Originally from Singapore, Stantough (Stanley Yong), 35 says: “I really like the fact we don’t really take it very seriously. We’re all aware what we’re making isn’t really medieval but the idea of modern songs being “medievalised” is just too funny.”

One of Bardcore’s greatest hits, is Astronomia by Cornelius Link, which features trilling flutes and archaic vocal by Hildegard. It’s a tune that has been enjoyed by 5.3 million listeners. Silver-tongued Hildegard presides over the Bardcore realm, with her cover of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance clocking up 5 million views. Canadian illustrator Hildegard, 28, fits Bardcore around work and describes herself as “an absolute beginner” with the Celtic harp and “enthusiastically mediocre” with the recorder. Her lyric adaptations have produced some humdingers such as “All ye bully-rooks with your buskin boots which she sings in rich, resonant tones.

HIldegard, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes the Bardcore boom can be “chalked up to luck, boredom and a collective desire to connect and laugh.”

In three months, the Bardcore trend has evolved with some minstrels covering Disney anthems, while others croon Nirvana hits in classical Latin. While slightly absurd, this fusion genre has ostensibly provided a sense of unity and catharsis.

The humming harps and rhythmic tabor beats evoke a sense of connection with our feudal ancestors and their own grim experience of battening down the hatches against the latest outbreak. Alongside appealing to the global sense of pandemic ennui, connecting to our forbears through music is predicated upon the fact that they survived their darkest hours. And so shall we.

While Bardcore’s a recent phenomenon, I think it’s been drawing on trends in pop music that have happening for quite long time. For example, I noticed in the 1990s when I went to a performance of the early music vocal group, the Hilliard Ensemble, when they performed at Brandon Hill in Bristol that the audience also included a number of Goths. And long-haired hippy types also formed part of the audience for Benjamin Bagley when he gave his performance of what the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf probably sounded like on Anglo-Saxon lyre at the Barbican centre in the same decade.

Bardcore also seems connected to other forms of postmodern music. There’s the group the Postmodern Jukebox, whose tunes can also be found on YouTube, who specialise in different 20th century arrangements of modern pop songs. Like doing a rock anthem as a piece of New Orleans Jazz, for example. And then there’s Orkestra Obsolete, who’ve arranged New Order’s Blue Monday using the instruments of the early 20th century, including musical saws and Theremin. There’s definitely a sense of fun with all these musical experiments, and behind the postmodern laughter it is good music. An as this article points out, we need this in these grim times.

Here’s an example of the type of music we’re talking about: It’s Samuel Kim’s medieval arrangement of Star Wars’ Imperial March from his channel on YouTube.

And here’s Orkestra Obsolete’s Blue Monday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

African History in Maps

July 5, 2020

Colin McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of African History (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1980).

This is another book which I though might be useful for those with an interest in African history and archaeology. Colin McEvedy wrote a series of similar books, showing the progress of history through maps. They were on ancient, medieval and modern history, as well as an Atlas of World Population, with Richard Jones. This does the same for Africa, using maps of the continent from geological times through to 1978. The earliest is of the planet 175 million years ago, when Africa was part of a single supercontinent, Gondwanaland. Subsequent maps show how this had split into the modern continents by about 50 million years ago. This is followed by a map showing the development of the Great Rift Valley and Lake Victoria. The book then goes on with maps showing the early pre-human and human sites, the emergence of the different racial populations and language groups, and the various African peoples and the great states and civilizations, beginning with Nubia, Egypt, and Carthage. It shows the great migration and movements of peoples and their dispersion across the continent, and its population at various points in history. The maps also show Africa with southern Europe and the near east to illustrate how the empires from these areas expanded into Africa, such as Rome, Persia and the Arabs. Sometimes the movement of conquest was in the other direction, such as Carthage, whose territory included part of modern Spain, and the Almoravids, who rule Islamic Spain and part of northwest Africa. Some maps are of the continent as it was known to the ancient and medieval geographers in 1350, as well as the travels of Ibn Battuta, the Portuguese voyages of 1482-8, Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India of 1497-8, population and trade routes c. 1600, the foundation of European enclaves and trading forts, the population in 1800 and the European geographer’s view of the continent the same year and then in 1856, the European exploration of the east African lakes, and their invasion and conquest of the continent. The emergence of the newly independent African states is shown in a series of maps from 1960 onwards. The last map is of the African population as it was expected to be in 2000.

The blurb for the book runs

This is a succinct account of civilisation in the continent that gave birth to the human species.

It is a fragmented and turbulent history in which the movements of peoples contrast with the creation of permanent states – Egypt, the earliest organized kingdom in the world; Carthage, the trading city that built an empire to rival Rome; Nubia; Abyssinia; Mali, the land of gold; Benin and Zimbabwe. Seamen probe its coast, traders cross its deserts and gradually the exploiters move in; and then, in the twentieth century, Africa finds the leaders it needs to re-establish its independence and create the nation-states of today.

Using the formula successfully established in his previous historical atlases, Colin McEvedy outlines this progress with the aid of fifty-nine maps and a clear, concise trext. Though his synthesis will be especially useful to those involved in the teaching of African history, its broad perspectives will undoubtedly appeal also to the general reader.

This is obviously a dated book, and I’m not sure if some of the anthropological language used to describe some of the African races would be acceptable today. For example, the book distinguishes between Negroes, Pygmies and Bushmen. Obviously much of the book is very much as Africa was seen by outsiders, such as Arab travellers like Ibn Battuta, and the European explorers and conquerors. This is doubtless partly because many African cultures did not possess a written language before the appearance of Europeans. They did possess their own oral histories, and the Islamic empires of north Africa and Christian Abyssinia/Ethiopia were literate. In the case of the Islamic states, this was in Arabic, which served as the official language in the same way Latin did in medieval western Europe.

Despite its limitations, I still think this might be useful for people with an interest in African history. The texts accompanying each map are short, often no more than two pages, so the book should be accessible to ordinary people and not just university students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book on Slavery Around the World Up To the Present

June 23, 2020

Jeremy Black, Slavery: A New Global History (London: Constable & Robinson 2011).

One of the aspects of the contemporary debate over slavery is that, with some exceptions, it is very largely centred on western, transatlantic slavery. This is largely because the issue of slavery has been a part of the controversy over the status of Blacks in western society and the campaigns for improving their conditions and combating anti-Black racism since the abolitionist movement arose in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it ignores the crucial fact that slavery is a global phenomenon which was certainly not confined to the transatlantic slavery of the European empires. One of the arguments marshaled by the slaveowners was that slavery had existed since antiquity. Both the Romans and the ancient Greeks had possessed slaves, as had ancient Egypt. It still existed in Black Africa, the Turkish empire, the Arab states and India. Hence slavery, the slaveowners argued, was a necessary part of human civilisation, and was impossible to abolish. It was ‘philanthropic’ and ‘visionary’ to demand it.

This was partly the reason why, after the British had abolished slavery in their own empire, they moved to attack it around the world. This meant not only freeing the slaves in the West Indies and their South American colonies, but also at Cape Colony in South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Hong Kong and further east in the new territories of Malaya, Fiji and the Pacific Islands, and Australia.  Most histories of slavery focus on transatlantic slavery. However, Jeremy Black’s book discusses it as existed around the world.

The book’s blurb concentrates on European slavery in the Americas. It runs

The story of slavery – from the ancient world to the present day

In this panoramic history, leading historian Jeremy Black explores slavery from its origins – the uprising of Spartacus and the founding of the plantations in the Indies – to its contemporary manifestations as human trafficking and bonded labour.

Black reveals how slavery served to consolidate empires and shape New World societies such as America and Brazil, and the way in which slave trading across the Atlantic changed the Western world. He assesses the controversial truth behind the complicity of Africans within the trade, which continued until the long, hard fight for abolition in the nineteenth century. Black gives voice to both the campaigners who fought for an end to slavery, and the slaves who spoke of their misery.

In this comprehensive and thoughtful account of the history of slavery, the role of slavery in the modern world is examined and Black shows that it is still widespread today in many countries.

But Black begins his introduction with the case of Hadijatou Mani, a Niger woman, who was sold into slavery at the age of 12 and subsequently beaten, raped and prosecuted for bigamy because she dared to marry a man other than her master. She successfully brought her case before the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, which ruled in her favour and fined her country. She stated that she had brought the case in order to protect her children. Slavery is officially outlawed in Niger, but the local customary courts support the custom by which the children of slaves become the property of their masters.

Black then describes how slavery was truly a global phenomenon, and the treatment of slaves at Cape Coast in Ghana resembles the treatment of Christian slaves taken by the Barbary pirates. And its history extends from the ancient world to the Nazi genocide of the Jews. He writes

The mournful, underground dungeons at Cape Coast Castle and other bases on the low, watery coastline of West Africa where African slaves were held from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries prior to shipment to the New World are potent memory of the vile cruelty of slavery, and notably of the approximately 12.5 million Africans forced into this trade and transported on about 35,000 transatlantic voyages, yet these dungeons are not alone and should not crowd out other landscapes where slavery was carried on and the slave trade conducted. Nicholas de Nicolay’s mid-sixteenth-century account of slave dealers parading their captives naked to show that they had no physical defects, and so that they could be examined as if they were horses, with particular reference to their teeth and feet, could have referred to the world of Atlantic slavery, but actually was written about Tripoli in modern Libya, where large numbers of Christians captured from Malta and Sicily by the Barbary pirates of North Africa were sold.

Indeed, the landscapes of slavery span the world, and range from the Central Asian city of Khiva, where the bustle of the slave market can still be visualized in the narrow streets, to Venice, a major entrepot for the slave trade of medieval Europe albeit not one noted by modern tourists. The range is also from Malacca in modern Malaysia, an important centre for the slave trade around the Indian Ocean, especially under the Muslim sultans but also, from 1511, under, first their Portuguese and, then, their Dutch successors, to the few remains of the murderous system of labout that was part of the Nazis’ genocidal treatment of the Jews. The variety of slavery in the past and across history stretched from the galleys of imperial Rome to slave craftsmen in Central Asian cities, such as Bukhara, and from the mines of the New World to those working in spice plantations in east Africa. Public and private, governmental and free enterprise, slavery was a means of labour and form of control. (p.2).

The book has the following chapters

  1. Pre-1500
  2. The Age of Conquest, 1500-1600
  3. The Spread of Capitalist Slavery, 1600-1700
  4. Slavery before Abolitionism, 1700-1780
  5. Revolution, Abolitionism and the Contrasting Fortunes of the Slave Trade and Slavery, 1780-1850
  6. The End of Slavery, 1830-1930?
  7. A Troubled Present, 1930-2011
  8. Legacies and Conclusions.

I feel very strongly that the global dimension of slavery and the slave trade needs to be taught, and people should be aware that it isn’t simply something that White Europeans forced on to Black Africans and other indigenous peoples. British imperialism was wrong, but the British did act to end slavery, at least officially, both within our empire and across the world. And odiously slavery is returning. After Blair’s, Sarkozy’s and Obama’s bombing of Libya, the Islamist regime in part of the country has allowed slave markets selling Black Africans to be reopened. Sargon of Gasbag, the man who broke UKIP, posted a video on YouTube discussing the appearance of yet more slave markets in Uganda. He pointedly asked why none of the ‘SJWs’ protesting against the racism and the historical injustice of slavery weren’t protesting about that. Benjamin is a member of the extreme right, though I would not like to accuse him personally of racism and the question is a good one. As far as I know, there are no marches of anti-racist activists loudly demanding an end to racism in countries like Uganda, Niger, Libya and elsewhere. Back in the ’90s the persistence and growth of slavery was a real, pressing issue and described in books like Disposable People. But that was over twenty years ago and times have moved on.

But without an awareness of global history of slavery and existence today, there is a danger that the current preoccupation with western transatlantic slavery will just create a simplistic ‘White man bad’ view. That White Europeans are uniquely evil, while other cultures are somehow more virtuous and noble in another version of the myth of the ‘noble savage’.

And it may make genuine anti-racists blind to its existence today, an existence strengthened and no doubt increasing through neoliberalism and the miseries inflicted by globalisation.