Wednesday 30 September 2009

Oh, Brave New World!

This is my contribution to a debate on one of my social networks.

Yes, this is interesting, Felicity, the sort of thing that really brings the wheels of my intellect into motion. Most questions and debates here, those questions and debates I choose to participate in at all, can be dealt with in a fairly summary fashion. I did see your submission when I was last online and decided to reflect on it for a bit. You deserve a good answer.

So, what have I come up with? Nothing terribly radical, I suppose. I said in previous discussions on eugenics and abortion that if I got pregnant and subsequently discovered through tests-a process that I would insist upon-that the foetus was abnormal, then I would have a termination, immediately and without hesitation. So, I suppose this automatically puts me in favour of forms of genetic modification before I even consider the grander horizons you set out.

Selective breeding has, indeed, been part of the human experience since the very inception of civilization. So why not take the process as far and as high as we can? After all, who would not prefer a world free of disease and disability, a world of perfect and super-intelligent people? Ah, who indeed?

So, let me think some more. In The German Ideology Karl Marx set out the terms of a perfect society, a communist society, where it would be possible to be all that one can be without being anything in particular; one could raise cattle in the morning and be a literary critic in the afternoon, without ever being defined as one thing or the other. But when one of his associates asked who would clean the toilets under communism, Marx quipped ‘You should.’ Yes, the perfect put down. Even so, the question remains unanswered: who should clean the toilets in a perfect world? In other words, who would choose such a thing?

So, there are two possibilities: the first, that genetic modification is too expensive to be afforded by each and all, and second, in a perfectly democratic world all will have such access. There is really no problem with the first: elites will continue to be elites, though perhaps some of the scions will be a little less stupid, a little less ‘degenerate’, than they have been; and, no, I’m not thinking of the divine Paris! :))

Now the second scenario is altogether more problematic, for we live in a world where Cleaners are just as necessary as Consultants. But what loving parent is going to choose the former as a destiny for their child? I imagine that any process of genetic modification would involve choosing only the best elements; intelligence, good-looks and good prospects. But a world full of Consultants would simply collapse into chaos. Some Consultants may even have to force other Consultants to be Cleaners. New and more dreadful struggles may emerge: the Cleaner Wars! Do you see the point I am making? The low and the high, the Patrician and the Plebeian, could not exist, the one without the other.

I said there were two possibilities. Well, actually, there is a third. The process of democratic modification might be ended and one of modification by determination take its place. Some of you who read this may already know what I am driving at. Yes, it’s that Brave New World set out by Aldous Huxley, published in the 1930s, describing a society, where a reproductive technology is an accepted part of life; where children are raised in hatcheries, and where an elite decide, by a process of modification and engineering, who is to be Alpha and who is to be Epsilon; who, in other words, is to be a Consultant and who is to be a Cleaner.

And in the name of Our Ford so it shall be.

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world!
That has such people in't!

Tertullian and the Nature of Heresy

For Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, the Church alone bore the apostolic rule of faith, revered the canon of Scriptures, and bore through its ecclesiastical hierarchy the sanction of apostolic succession. Heretics were those who challenged any of these precepts. They were people who refused to accept the rule of faith, as others did. Instead they challenged people to raise theological questions to which there was no answer, "...being ready to say, and sincerely of certain points of their belief, 'That is not so' and 'I take this in a different sense' and 'I do not admit that'".

Tertullian has it that all such unnecessary questioning automatically leads to heresy-"This rule was raised by Christ, and raises among ourselves no other questions than those which the heresies introduce and which make men heretics!" Heretics, moreover, are those who do not restrict themselves to the Scriptures, but bring in other writings or challenge orthodox interpretations. Heretics are, quitesimply, rebels, in theological and in practical terms.

The answer was to believe and never question. It seems clear what practcal form this kind of thinking would take, to the fires of the Middle Ages and beyond.

Civilization and Death, exploring the Halls of Montezuma

I’m sure that the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City must count among the best museums in the world; it’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever been to, with an absolutely wonderful collection of Mesoamerican artefacts, many from the time of the Aztec Empire. It’s where I first saw the teocalli, a votive sculpture cared at the beginning of the sixteenth century to mark the end of the 52-year calendar cycle, and bearing the image of Montezuma II. Well, now it’s in London, the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the British Museum, focusing on Montezuma himself as well as some of the wider aspects of the culture of the Mexica-the term the Aztecs used for themselves-and the final clash of empires that followed from the arrival of Cortés.

The Aztecs, as most people known, certainly people who have seen Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, built a city that floated on water and a civilization that floated on blood. War and religion were closely united, in that campaigns were essentially pursued against their neighbours with the aim of taking captives who were then fed to the blood-thirsty gods, though this aspect is rather down-played in the exhibition itself. Though not generally understood this was the key to their downfall, not the fact that Cortés’s tiny force had firearms and horses. No, he had allies, Indian allies, enemies of the Aztecs.

So, given that the Aztec civilization was at heart a cult of death Boris Johnson, my favourite mayor in all the world, took to the pages of Monday’s Daily Telegraph to argue that their taste for killing presents a powerful case for colonialism and the intervention in the Americas of the oh-so benevolent Conquistadors (When one civilization deserves a bloody nose from another). Human sacrifice as practiced by the Aztecs was indeed horrible, a process by which the living heart was cut from the body by razor sharp obsidian blades; it certainly horrified the Spanish.

And yet, Boris, and yet. I wonder what an Aztec party coming to Spain would have made of the procedures of the Inquisition; what they would have made of the auto de fé, when living victims were cast to the flames in the name of another God, not a god of war, not a god who needed blood to rise in the morning, but a god of peace and love? Would they have been equally horrified? Yes, probably, because I imagine they would have been unable to work out why this was happening. There again, they may have sympathised with the ‘religious’ sacrifice of the Spanish in the way that the Spanish did not, could not, sympathise with theirs.

Boris, I know, is a Classical scholar and an admirer of the Roman Empire. So, let me take my imaginary Aztec travellers back in time to the days of the Caesars. What would they see? Why, yet another death cult, with ‘sacrifices’ across the Empire not for the benefit of the gods but for the passions of the mob. Now if our Aztecs were as technologically advanced in relative terms as the Spanish, if they came to Rome in the way that Cortés came to Tenochtitlan, if they had been as thoroughly destructive as the Spanish, we may never have heard of Virgil, of Livy, of Horace, of Cicero or of Seneca, as one imperial power built itself on the sands of another.

But I realise that this is all great fun, and that the dear mayor is writing partially tongue-in-cheek. What he and I can both agree on is that this is a super exhibition, worth going to see, and even worth the entirely voluntary sacrifice of a fiver. :-))

Tuesday 29 September 2009

No More Hard Labour

According to a report by Toby Helms in The Observer Joker Brown, 'the best man for the job', could be the last leader of the last Labour government. Yes, you read that correctly-the last ever Labour government. It's not often that The Observer manages to put a little extra spring in my step and gleam in my eyes, but it managed it this Sunday. Seemingly the only hope (oh, God; surely not!) is for the electorate to be offered a chance to change the voting system, at least it is according to Compass, a left-wing pressure group, in a report headed The Last Labour Government. Oh, say that again; say that again!

I assume that these people want the new system to be in place by next spring, though it's not quite clear from the report. What is clear is the horror that David Cameron will inflict on Noo Labour after a victory on the old voting system. Their representation at Westminster, the report continues, would be slashed from 349 at present to a rump of 130 in opposition.

This collapse is partially explained, in the Compass perspective, by the greater likelihood of Scottish independence if the Tories win, the argument here being that they are much less popular in the north and the Scots won't be able to settle down under a government of the right. In that event Labour would lose the 'block vote' of forty-one MPs whose only function at Westminster, so far as I can see, is to act as lobby fodder. But it would also mean the end of the 'Scottish Raj.' How will we ever manage without the Broonies in future? :-)

Seriously, I would be sorry to see the Union end and Scotland and England go their separate ways. But the present situation simply can't continue, with Scottish MPs determining policy for England when English MPs have no say on policy for Scotland. What we can never again have is a situation where a minority Labour government is propped up by the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs. That's the wave of the past.

The second threat detailed by the report is Cameron's plan to cut the number of MPs by ten per cent. This will hit Labour hardest because the biggest reduction will be in areas which have seen the greatest decline in population, most notably the old fiefdoms in Wales and the industrial heartlands. So, we can add a likely loss of another forty-five seats to the Scottish block.

The game is changing, Compass concludes. Voting reform is the only way for Labour to avoid not just a crushing defeat but the strong chance that they may never govern again:

A referendum moves the party from zero chance of the Tories not losing next May to striking distance of a hung parliament and Labour the biggest single party. The decision could decide not just Labour's future for one or two parliaments, not even for a generation, but for ever.

It's super, is it not? It gives an almost transparent view of the intensity of the panic among Noo Labour. They are capable literally of anything in their desperation to hang on to government, possibly even manipulation of the voting system to their own self-serving ends. There is no phony nod to 'fairness' here, nothing of the Liberal Democrat argument. It's about power and nothing besides.

Of one thing I am certain: Noo Labour has done such harm to this country over the last twelve years that the thought of them ever again forming a government is just too awful to contemplate. I welcome the message of this report: it shows just how important it is to retain our present system of voting, just as it is to weed out the Old Sarums, all those socialist rotten boroughs that prop up this rotten government. In this regard the next election might very well be as important as that of 1830. Reform, real reform, is on the Tory side.

I wrote this earlier today but I see from tonight's news broadcast that the Joker has made 'electoral reform' part of his package to be presented to the voters next year. Well, now you know why.

High Windows

I’m really just discovering Philip Larkin as a poet, though I memorised This be the Verse a few years ago just for the pleasure of shocking the other girls at my boarding school. But he is a super poet, he truly is, with a uniquely English perspective on things. At the moment my favourite amongst his poems is the wonderful High Windows with all of its sad ambiguity. And here it is.

England and Saint George

Traces of the cult of Saint George can be dated right back to Anglo-Saxon times. He appears as early as the ninth century in rituals at Durham, and in a tenth century martyrology. There is evidence, moreover, of pre-Conquest foundations dedicated to St. George: at Fordingham in Dorset, at Thetford, Southwark and Doncaster. So he was already familiar to the English well before the Crusades, though it is not until the reign of Edward III that emerges as the most important national saint, replacing Edward the Confessor. It is probably more accurate to say that the cult was identified specifically with the monarchy, rather than England as a whole. Edward I was the first king to display St. George's banner alongside those of Edmund the Martyr and St. Edward.

By the reign of Edward III he had definitely emerged as a 'god of battles', in much the same fashion as Saintiago Matamoros in Spain. In 1351 it was written "The English upon Saint George, as being their special patron, especially in war."

In this regard he was certainly more appealing than the unwarlike Confessor or St. Edmund, who had been defeated and subsequently killed by the Danes. But with the succession of Richard II George once again slipped down the ranks. Richard had little of his grandfather's warlike ambitions, and returned to the veneration of the two native saints.

George was called back to national prominence during the Wars of the Roses, when his name was invoked by both sides in the contest. It was also at this time that his cult spread across the nation at large. Almost a hundred wall paintings featuring the saint date from the fifteenth century, almost always showing him in combat with the dragon. He also survives in pilgrim badges. His secular importance was finally confirmed by the English Reformation; for he alone survived the suppression of the cult of saints, which not even the Virgin herself had been able to do.

Monday 28 September 2009

Christmas Died at Naseby Fight

The Battle of Naseby was, of course, the penultimate Puritan victory in the First English Civil War, a victory of the 'new' England over the 'old'; and Christmas, and all that was associated with it, was very much part of the old. The festival was hated, in the first place, because it was 'popish', and in the second, because it was 'pagan'; it had no authority in scripture and it was the occasion for unseemly and drunken revels, presided over by the Lord of Misrule.

In the 1580s Philip Stubbes had written in The Anatomie of Abuses that;

The more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverising of the realm.

Ah, yes: robbery, whoredom, murder, dicing and carding. Just a typical family Christmas, then!

The festival had also become something of a political battleground between the stricter Protestant sects and Catholic recusants in England; for while it was condemned by the one it was growing in popularity with the other. Catholics, moreover, were quite happy to combine religious devotion with an attachment to the more profane aspects of Christmas celebration. Dorothy Lawson, a Catholic gentlewomam, was noted for celebrating "in both kinds...corporally and spiritually." Christmas thus became a prime target during the period of Puritan ascendency, both before and after Naseby.

The attack began with attempts to divorce the religious from the secular elements of the holiday, with Parliamentary ordinances from 1642 onwards calling for a more 'seemly' observation. The campaign was stepped up in early 1645 with the publication of the Directory of Public Worship, which plainly stated that "Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrent in the Word of God, are not to be continued."

The final victory over the King also saw the victory over Christmas. In June 1647 it was abolished outright. Neverthless, the festival remained popular with ordinary people, and fresh ordinances had to be issued throughout the period of both the Commonwealth and the Protectorate; even people attending church on 25 December were liable for arrest and interrogation by the army. The World is Turned Upside Down was part of a much wider popular and literary response to the whole Puritan campaign, including the wonderful satire The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisioning of Christmas, printed by 'Simon Minced Pie' for 'Cicely Plum Pottage.'

Alas, England, ruled by Cromwell, in much the same fashion as Narnia was by the White Witch, was a land 'where it was always winter and never Christmas.' Old Father Christmas only returned with Summer and the King!

The Vindication of Brutus

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is as much political allegory as it is history. It is both a celebration and a warning; a celebration of the Imperial achievment and a warning over the sources of decay. For the man who walked through the ruined Forum, reflecting on the vanished glory of Rome, as his ears were filled with the chants of barefooted friars, was as much Marcus Brutus as he was Edward Gibbon. For Gibbon, in the guise of Brutus, the root cause of Roman decline was neither Christianity nor was it Barbarians: it was the willful the abdication of the old republican virtues of freedom and public service.

I consider this passage

If a man were called to fix a period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.

It is an age of tolerance, of domestic peace and of social harmony. But yet something is missing; and that something is what Gibbon refers to as the 'inestimable gift of freedom.' I am not talking here about 'democracy', which for Gibbon was a dangerous thing, but the concept of the 'balanced constitution'; of law, social responsibility, civic duty and good governance all working in harmony; the kind of constitution that emerged in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution in England.

It is, if you like, also the constitution of the old Roman Republic at its zenith, before it was destroyed by mob violence, class conflict and civil war. For Gibbon civilized life has to be based on an ideal combination of order and 'rational freedom', created by the Republic but lost by the Empire. The Empire, even the Empire of the Antonines, was based on despotism, and as such was "destitute of constitutional freedom." The Antonine state was, as he puts it, "an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of the commonwealth." In other words, if the rule of the Antonines was benevolent it was benevolent by chance alone. It gave rise to Marcus Aurelius; but it could just as easily give way to Commodus.

The contrast Gibbon draws between Aurelius, the father, and Commodus, the son, was intended to highlight the fragility of the whole Antonine age. Benevolence had been created by chance, not by design, the fundamental truth that lies at the root of all despotism. The image of liberty, to put this another way, was not the same as true liberty. Gibbon admired Marcus Aurelius-just as he admired Frederick the Great-for his personal qualities; but imperial rule was still "absolute and without control." For Gibbon it is a mark of a truly good society that no single individual should be entrusted with absolute power-"Unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians the authority of so formidable a magistrate will degenerate into despotism." After all, virtue and wisdom are not hereditary. Would not Brutus nod his head in agreement?

The other point connected to this-and herein lies the real explanation for the subsequent and relentless decline of the Roman world-is that benevolent despotism is demoralising and enervating. Under the Antonines the days of Cicero and the free nobility are long gone; private comfort has replaced civic responsibility: the Empire is set to decline because the 'will to freedom' has been lost-"as long as they [the nobility] were indulged in the enjoyment of their baths, their theatres and their villas, they cheerfully resigned the more dangerous cares of empire." More than this, in public felicity lay the latent causes of corruption-"The Roman monarchy, having attained its full strength and maturity, began to verge towards its decline." The causes are internal, and the Empire could never have fallen to Barbarians, or been undermined by the Christians, if it had not already been corrupted from within. The Romans may have retained personal valour, but they no longer "possessed that public courage, which is nourished by the love of independence."

Ultimately, Gibbon's view of the whole Roman world, no matter his residual sympathy, is one condescension and superiority; of celebration of his own time, of the age of virtue and progress. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is Brutus' final vindication.

Class in Hate

I saw Our Class on Friday, a new play by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, presently being performed at the National Theatre here in London and running until January.

Set in Poland and following the passage through time of a group of school chums, Catholic and Jewish, Our Class is a ‘Holocaust play’ but not in the form that one might imagine. For it tells a story that many Poles would rather forget, did forget for many years: that Nazi anti-Semitism harmonised with an older tradition of hatred, one with deep roots in their country. By ever tightening circles of fear and hate the story moves through war and occupation to the Jedwabne Pogrom of July 1941, in which Jews were massacred not by Germans but by their fellow Poles.

Paradoxically this is a story that could only really be told after the demise of Communism and the emergence of the new Poland. Previously it raised all sorts of complicated issues: that of Polish people towards the Jewish community in their midst, and that of the post-war Communist authorities towards the political significance of the Holocaust.

The official investigation into the Holocaust in Poland began with the setting up of a commission to gather evidence of war crimes just after the conclusion of the war, which included the Jewish Historical Institute (JHI), a body of independent historians. This was a time when Poland was not yet fully controlled by the Communists, so some degree of openness and objectivity was still possible.

Things changed from 1948 onwards. In 1950 the JHI was placed under the control of the Ministry of Education, with all inquiry not approved of by the Party coming to an end. The new line was to stress the passive response of the Jews to the Nazis, while minimising Polish anti-Semitism and collaboration. It was said that the western emphasis on the persecution of the Jews had only obscured the persecution of the Poles. The official attitude towards the Jews was further modified by the emergence of the state of Israel. Now anti-Semitism was replaced by anti-Zionism; but both still drew on the traditional stereotype of the greedy, manipulative and exploitative Jew.

After Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power, following the 'Polish October' of 1956, old forms of Polish nationalism received at least a partial rehabilitation. This was accompanied by old anti-Semitism wearing new clothes. Jewish people were removed from their positions in both the army and the civil service, while at the same time an active press campaign was launched against all of those associated with the former Stalinist regime. The particular Jewish suffering associated with the Holocaust slipped even further into the background.

The political struggles of the 1960s saw the emergence of even more strident forms of anti-Jewish nationalism, most associated with the group around Mieczyslaw Moczar, notorious both for his xenophobia and his anti-Semitism. After the victory of Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 the position for Poland's dwindling Jewish minority became steadily worse, with all sorts of people being attacked for 'Zionist sympathies', whether they had them or not. The whole programme embraced Holocaust history. Any and every attempt to define this as a uniquely Jewish event was denounced as 'part of a chauvinist Zionist propaganda plot to justify the existence of Israel and turn the world against Communism.' It was, so it was said, a new 'Jewish world conspiracy.' In 1968 all the records of the JHI were taken over by the government. Subsequent to this a conference was held to 'rebut the slanderous campaign of lies in the West...especially with reference to the accusations about the alleged participation of Poles in the annihilation of the Jewish population.' By now the JHI had all but ceased to exist.

The fall of Communism has been accompanied by a new openness; a willingness, at least by some, to confront uncomfortable truths, including the truth of Jedwabne and other matters touching on the relations between the Jewish and Catholic communities during the Holocaust.

The play itself is a remarkable if not entirely comfortable experience. It’s long, three hours long, so it requires stamina on more level than one. The ensemble, only ten strong, are utterly convincing as they move through the childhood and dreams of the 1920s to the adulthood and nightmares of the 1940s. All the performances are memorable but for me the outstanding one was that of Sinead Matthews as Dora, who dreamt of being a film star only to end by being burned alive with her baby and some 1600 other people in a barn. It’s stark; there are no visual distractions; much of the horror is conveyed by mime. More than anything the play is effective as a kind of accusation, delivered from the past to the present.

There aspects of the past that I think we would all wish to forget, not just the Poles. But remembrance is, after all, a human duty.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Lilith-Mother of Witches

If Lucifer was the first male rebel in creation then Lilith has to be the first female. And what a rebel she was: the first feminist; the first witch; the first sexually assertive woman; the first divorcee! As a figure she is an inspiration, a mentor and a guide; a woman who deliberately exiled herself from paradise in search of nothing more substantive than freedom, nothing more important than freedom. For there is nothing more important.

In tradition she takes many shapes, drawing to herself the creatures of the dark and the night, not just witches but Jinn, vampires and demons of all sorts. In Hebrew her name means ‘screech owl’ and she is sometimes depicted in the form of a bird-woman. ‘Lilith’ is also related to the Semitic root word for ‘night.’

She is depicted in Jewish lore sometimes as a beautiful young woman, at other times a hag. She is also depicted as a woman from head to waist, with fire down below, which, I suppose, might very well be a comment on her sexual appetite. :-)) In other depictions the lower parts take the form of a snake.

She also takes on a complete animal form, most usually a large black cat, an owl or a snake. It’s possible that she may have emerged in some ancient traditions as a tree spirit. In one Sumerian myth ‘Dark Maid Lilith’ lives as in a sacred tree with a snake and a sacred bird as companions.

In her most familiar form she appears in Jewish legend as the first wife of Adam, created not from his rib, like Eve, but from the Earth itself at the same time as her partner. Because of this she demanded equal status, which included refusing always to take the ‘missionary position’ when they had sex, seeing that as an admission of submissiveness. And that was not her style; oh, no. When Adam attempted to force her she gave voice to the secret name of the Creator, which allowed her to leave Paradise on wings. All attempts to bring her back failed; for if the angels threatened Lilith threatened even more.

In some accounts Lilith is unfertile; in others she is mother to a host of demons, the Lilin or Daughters of Lilith. The father of these girls is uncertain, with suggestions ranging from Samael, the fallen angel, or even Asmodeus. Lilith is also the original succubus.

She continues to have a strong presence in Jewish fairy-tales and folklore. In the Sephardic tradition she is La Broosha, which simply means ‘the witch.’ Here she often appears as a large black cat.

There seems to me to be some Greek influences in the general make up of Lilith, in that the owl is her sacred bird, as it is for Pallas Athena, and she derives strength from the Moon, associating her with Artemis.

In whatever manner she is a potent symbol, the great mother, an inspiration to all witches, an example to all women.

Thoughts on Hannibal

No, not that Hannibal; the real one!

I must say that I have never entirely understood Hannibal. I would have said, like so many soldiers, that he was a brilliant tactician but a poor politician, except his talents as a politician, though not as high as his talents as a soldier, were still of a comendable order. How otherwise is one to explain his appeal to Rome's Italian allies, his announcment that his quarrel was not with them, but with the power to which they had all been subject.

I also do not think it quite true, as Maharbal is alleged to have said after the Battle of Cannae, that Hannibal knew how to gain a victory but not how to use it. The real issue is that Hannibal the soldier and Hannibal the politician were at variance with one another; he had the power and the means to destroy Rome by a rapid follow-up to Cannae, but his war was still one of limited aims: Rome was to be humbled and weakened, not eliminated. The city, in other words, was to be left with a role but without a confederacy. It might have worked if he had been able to detach the Greek cities of the south from their Roman alliance; but for them his 'barbarian' army was perceived as the greater threat. The moment passed, and by 214BC the Roman fleet was able to prevent supplies and reinforcements reaching Italy. In effect, Hannibal the politican had robbed Hannibal the soldier of the full rewards of victory.

Victorian Female Murderers

Female murderers generally excited extra interest among the nineteenth centuty public, especially as one goes deeper into the reign of Queen Victoria, which introduced all sorts of new notions about the ideal women, her outlook, her attitudes and her place in society. As today the popular press took a prurient interest in these matters, tending to 'demonise' the perpetrators of murder, because only monsters could act in a way that was 'contrary to nature'. Readers were able to lap up in detail the story of Constance Kent, who is alleged to have slit her stepbrother's throat before disposing of his body in an outhouse; or Madeleine Smith, a Glasgow socialite who is alleged to have poisioned her French lover.

There was a definite set of double-standards in operation that made cases like this all the more sensational; for while deviant behaviour in men was deplorable, deviant behaviour by women was unacceptable, especially when it was directed against men, when it tended to be viewed as a hideous perversion. In a sense these women, mediated through the popular press, ceased to have all the qualities that made them women, or human at all. They were most often depicted as 'ugly', 'masculine', 'sub-human' with almost no attempts made to uncover motives. In many ways the press reports seem to hark back to an earlier age, with a murderess presented as a witch-like figure, who had outraged the orthodoxy of Victorian family values. After all, gentle, submissive, passive, self-sacrificing creatures do not strangle babies, no matter how desperate they are, nor do they poison friends and husbands to obtain a little extra income

I'm so Proud to be a Saxon

What was the most important story of last week? Was it the antics of Ahmadinejad or Gaddafi in New York? Was it the meeting of the Security Council? Was it the photo opportunity for the G20 in Pittsburgh? For some, perhaps, but not for me. For me there is only one answer: the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon artefacts in Staffordshire, right in the heart of Mercia, one of the most important-and elusive-of the seven kingdoms that once made up the Heptarchy.

This may very well turn out to be one of the most significant archaeological finds ever made in England, at least the equal to the discoveries made at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk seventy years ago, which cast some light into the English 'Dark Age'. It was made by one Terry Herbert using a second-hand metal detector he bought for £2.50 from a car boot sale, a discovery that would have made even Indiana Jones envy!

These wonderful artefacts, some six hundred and fifty items so far, many in gold and in silver, decorated with the most beautiful Saxon filigree, dates to the period between the late seventh to the early eighth centuries AD, a period of change and transition, a period when the old paganism was giving way to the advance of Christianity. Without exaggeration it has been likened to the discovery of a new Book of Kells or a Lindisfarne Gospel. Dr Kevin Lehy, an advisor to the Portable Antiquities scheme, said that the items represent the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship;

Gold was more valuable at that time than it is now. So gold went to the best craftsmen. This was the best they could do. Cutting these garnets is incredibly difficult. They can't be cleaved. They have to be sawn, then polished. They even set them on gold foil so that they sparkle when the foil catches the light.

The hoard itself seems to be a collection of war trophies, buried for unknown reasons and never recovered. They're a great many sword hilts, confirming a passage in Beowulf that these were taken from dead enemies as tokens of victory in battle.

I would say that possibly the most important thing is the location of the find, right in the midst of what once was the Kingdom of Mercia. This is bound to reveal as much about this place once ruled over by Penda, the last of England's pagan kings, as Sutton Hoo did about the Kingdom of East Anglia. More than that it might tell us some more about the way in which Christianity was received and perceived by what were essentially warrior states.

The question that puzzles me is why and in what manner did an essentially pacifist cult make progress among such blood-thirsty peoples, not just in England but across the rest of pagan Europe. The answer surely has to be in the mode of presentation, in the way the early missionaries depicted Christ; less a New Testament Prince of Peace; more an Old Testament God of Battles. The clue here is one gold strip, possibly a cross fragment, inscribed in Latin by a passage from the Book of Numbers or Psalm 67, taken from the Vulgate, the Bible used by the Saxons;

Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face

So it would seem from this that the Saxon kings adopted Christianity for the political advantages it offered in much the same way that it was adopted earlier by the Roman Emperor Constantine. More precise dating is likely to reveal even deeper levels of interpretation.

The richness of the material, the weight of gold discovered, also says much more about the Anglo-Saxon states, about their wealth and their sophistication. The notion of a 'Dark Age' was always a myth; never more so in the light of the Staffordshire finds. It makes me proud to be a Saxon. :-)

Thursday 24 September 2009

Infinite Monkeys

In Book II, section XXXVII of "De Natura Deorum" Cicero writes;

Is it possible for a man to behold these things, and yet imagine that certain solid and individual bodies move by their natural force and gravitation, and that a world so beautifully adorned was made by their fortuitous discourse? He who believes this may as well believe that if a great quantity of the one-and-twenty letters, composed either of gold or any other matter, were thrown upon the ground, they would fall in such a fashion as legibly to form the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether fortune could make a single verse of them. How, therefore, can these people assert that the world was made by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, which have no colour, no quality-which the Greeks call 'poiotes', no sense? or there are inummerable worlds, some rising and some perishing, in every moment of time? But if the concourse of atoms can make a world, why not a porch, a temple, a house, a city, which are works of less labour and difficulty?

The beginnings, I think, of the Infinite Monkey theory. :))

English Catholics and the Reformation

The problem for English Catholics after the break with Rome was in essence one of politics: the head of the Universal Church was now no more than a foreign potentate, and as their principle allegiance was to the crown, any lingering attachment to the secular authority of the Pope opened them to a possible charge of treason, especially after the excommunication of Elizabeth I.

Yet it should not be assumed that English Catholics always had an uncritical devotion to the Papacy. In the period before the onset of the English Reformation, when Sir Thomas More, later a Catholic martyr, was advising Henry VIII on the composition of his book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a polemic against Luther, he advised the King to tone down some of the arguments in favour of papal authority,

The Pope, as your Grace knoweth, is a Prince as you are. It may hereafter so fall out that your Grace and he may vary whereupon may grow breach of amity and war between you both. I think it best therefore that that place be amended, and his authority more slenderly touched.

I suppose the point here is that pontiffs like Alexander VI and Julius II, were almost entirely worldly figures, who impinged very little on Catholic practice and conscience. It was possible, in other words, to be a sincere Catholic yet distrustful of the Pope. So, those who in the end held to the 'Old Religion' may very well have done so for other reasons than loyalty to Rome.

The real break, the crisis of English Catholicism, if you like, came not in the 1530s but in 1570, with Pope Paul V's bull, Regnans in Excelsis. In forbiding English Catholics to obey Elizabeth and her laws, whether they paid heed or not, Paul effectively forced the government to treat them as a source of potential treason. The new class of 'Recusants', those who now refused to attend their local parish churches, were treated with increasing degrees of severity.

Even so, while there was some plotting against the throne, centering on Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic alternative to Elizabeth, most of those who continued to adhere to the Old Religion, had little or no interest in treasonable actions; and regardless of papal instructions they effectively trimmed and compromised where they could, rendering unto Caesar what was due to Caesar. There were even Catholics who declared openly at the time of the Spanish Armada that if the enemy landed they would come to the defence of the Queen.

By the end of Elizabeth's reign, and into that of James I the pragmatic tendency in English Catholicism was well-established, expressed most particularly in the views of a new class of priests, known as the Appellants. The argument was now put forward that one could be loyal by both Pope and Crown, because the Pope had no claim on the political allegiance of Catholics. In this it is possible to see a 'national' reaction to the 'internationalism' of the Jesuits. In effect, the Pope's authority in civil matters was denied, just as he continued to be recognised as the supreme arbiter in matters of faith. It's worth emphasising that there was nothing new in this. Even rulers as orthodox as Philip II of Spain placed clear limits on the degree of papal interference allowed within their realms.

It was, in short, possible for Catholics to be loyal subjects of a heretical crown, no matter how much the Pope may have disliked this development. The English Civil Wars were to provide the best demonstration of the new dual tradition, with Catholics high among the Royalists.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Tacitus and the Critique of Tyranny

I suppose if people remember anything of Tacitus it will be for the words he put into the mouth of the Caledoanian leader Calgacus just before the battle of Mons Graupius;

Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace

It is perhaps the most devastating critique of Roman power, of the whole 'civilising' mission of Empire ever written, all the more forceful because they were put together by an insider, the son-in-law of Agricola, the man who won the battle. It is a case against aggression; it is also, at a deeper level, the voice of the dead Republic, speaking against the Emperors.

In the Annals Tacitus concedes that the peace of Augustus was a necessary corrective to the chaos of the Civil Wars, though he does not agree that his dictatorship should have been made permanent. But his criticism is even more trenchant; for it is not a call for a return to the Republic, dead and gone; it is a critique of the Roman people, who lacked the strength of will and purpose to stand by their ancient freedoms. By this measure the despotism of Augustus was based on abdication and consensus. The Emperor, he wrote, had "won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn and all men with the sweets of repose." Bread and peace, in other words, had a higher value than freedom. After all, for the hungry, and for the fearful, even slavery has attractions.

For Tacitus safety and submission came at a high price; an Empire established by a desire for peace was maintained by terror. He takes great pains in his writing to record the 'tools of despotism', making note even of the names of informers, whom he considers to be especially loathsome. Rome, the master of the world, was a city ruled by fear, a fear that created a space between people, forcing them into solitude and isolation.

Tacitus, in a sense, identifies with an ideal of freedom, not represented in the self-interested anti-imperial conspiracies of his day. He finds this ideal far beyond Rome in the barbarian tribes of the north, in the Caledonians and in the Germans; in men like Calgacus and Arminius, to whom he also gave a voice in defence of freedom. In the Germania he contrasts the virtues of the barbarians with the vices of the Romans. Their courage, their simplicity and their sense of honour are all admired because, at the deepest level, they recall a time when such values were held high by the Romans themselves.

In the end even the peace secured at the price of freedom was a false trade for Tacitus, a 'dreadful peace', diminishing by degrees through the reign of Tiberius, Nero, and, worst of all, Domitian, savage rulers who produced a savage people. Yet there was still sources of redemption, examples to be followed, none better the Consul Marius Lepidus, who lived through difficult times, always observing the highest standards of conduct. Even under the worst forms of tyranny, Tacitus concludes, moral choices can and should be made.

Heinrich Himmler and the Nazi Millenium

Himmler had his own pet scheme for eastern settlement, which could be subsumed within the general thrust eastwards for lebensraum, but was quite distinct from the Generalplan Ost. All of the details are to be found in The Master Plan: Himmler Scholars and the Holocaust by Heather Pringle.

The Himmler Plan aimed at more than just lebensraum: it was a bizarre scheme for creating a rural idyll in western Russia, harking back to earlier modes of existence, and a more 'authentic' and Germanic way of life. By this, racially pure soldier-farmers would live in medieval-style German houses.

These ideas emerged in part from a work of 1929 by Himmler's close associate, Walther Darre, entitled Farming as a Source of Life for the Nordic Race. Himmler began to move towards a fuller elaboration of his plans with the foundation in 1935 of the Deutches Ahnenerbe Studiengesellschaft für Geistesurgeschichte, or Ahnenerbe for short, meaning 'something inherited from our forefathers. The Ahnenerbe scholars investigated a whole variety of things, from ancient house designs, 'Nordic' animal breeds and even, by Himmler's specific request, the sexual practices of the ancient German tribes! A model farm was also established at Mehrow to the east of Berlin, where some of the notions were tested.

It was after the invasion of Russia that Himmler began to look to wider horizons, working in collaboration with Konrad Meyer, a senior planner and agricultural scientist, on a scheme that could be presented to Hitler. This was called the Master Plan East. By this Himmler and Meyer envisaged the creation of three huge colonies. The first, stretching south of Leningrad, was called Ingermanland; the second, embracing chunks of eastern Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, was known in the plan as Memel-Narew-Gebiet, and the third, incorporating large parts of the western Ukraine and Crimea, was Gotengau.

All three of these areas were to be completely 'Germanised' within a twenty year period. All Slavs and the 'racially unwanted' were to be killed or enslaved, and the areas repopulated with small villages of German and SS settlers. Each village, Himmler told Felix Kersten, his personal masseur, "will embrace between 30 and 40 farms. Each farmer will receive up to 300 acres of land, more or less according to the quality of the soil. In any case a class of financially powerful and independent farmers will develop. Slaves won't till this soil, rather, a farming aristocracy will come into being, such as you still find on the Westphalian estates." The villages would be dominated by a manor house, occupied an SS or Nazi party leader, a little bit like the feudal lord of the manor. Such was Himmler's view of the Nazi Millenium

Büchner, Pain and God

I simply love the plays of Georg Büchner, arguably one of the most startlingly original German dramatists ever. I recall his commentary on the work of Spinoza, particularly his proposition that God exists necessarily; for if we ''think'' God, then God must exist. To this contention, taken from Spinoza's belief in the primacy of mind, Büchner says 'But what compels us to think an entity that can only be thought of as a being?', which he follows shortly after with this thought;

If one accepts the definition of God, then one must admit the existence of God. But what justifies us in making this definition?


It knows imperfections.


It knows pain.

Pain, the phenomena of pain and suffering, is central to Büchner. It is through pain that the eponymous hero in Lenz achieves his most mystical experience; through pain that Lena recognises the route to redemption. It is, for Büchner, through pain that one enters into the presence of God.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

A Dancing Witch-Loving Inkubus Sukkubus

I've mentioned before that I adore the goth, witchy band Inkubus Sukkubus. Here are two of my favourite songs. Abandon you the dreams of youth-this is a tale of a succubus. :-))

Underneath the darkened sky
All along the crooked way
The same story once again
Of sorrow and of pain
One fool in a dream
One black-hearted queen
A tale of unrequited love
That's written in tears, written in blood
She smiles, he cries
He begs, but she denies
As tonight becomes tomorrow
All joy will turn to sorrow

This is a tale of a succubus
A tale of love, pain and lust
And death, and death!

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Where there's love, there is lust
Where there's a boy to give his heart
There's a woman to tear it apart
Where there's giving, there's taking
There's faking, and there's breaking
Where there's trust deceit's right there
The dream becomes the nightmare!

To despair she'll take him
A shadow she'll make him
Before him, the open grave
On his wrist, the razor blade
Young man, hang your head and cry
It's time to suffer, time to dieAbandon you the dreams of youth
Abandon love, hope and truth!

She will crush you, she'll excite you
She'll destroy you, she'll ignite you
She'll take you to a world of darkness
And death, and death!

On a night of dread and wonder
Hear her heartbeat turn to thunder
Now's the time for soul surrender
And death, and death!

Goebbels-the Total War Speech

Josef Goebbels was a superb speaker and propagandist, better, in many ways, than Hitler himself. This carried him forward in the Party, despite his obvious physical shortcomings. Perhaps at no point did he demonstrate this better than in the infamous Total War Speech, delivered in Berlin Sport’s Palace in February 1943. If one wants true insight into the nature of National Socialism, then Goebbels makes a perfect study. It was pure nihilism, and nothing besides.

Thoughts on Stoicism

What follows is my contribution to a debate on another network.

Actually, Puck, that is not what Stoic philosophy is about at all. Are you familiar with The Meditations of the divine Marcus Aurelius? If not I would heartily endorse Joe’s recommendation.

Anyway, Stoicism, as represented through books like The Meditations, is simply a way of determining what is important and what is not. It is not about riding oneself to ‘circumstances’, however that is supposed to be defined, and it is certainly not about allowing ‘natural feelings’ to take their place.

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘natural feeling’ anyway, though this would seem to come much closer to Epicureanism. Stoicism is an entirely rational branch of philosophical thought, as opposed to emotive or essential, a way of viewing everything, from ethics to existence itself, through the eye of the mind, in a mood of complete detachment. Moreover, it is not based on fatalism but realism. It’s a kind of standing back, if you prefer, a withdrawing into oneself, as Seneca puts it in the Letters to Lucilius; hence Marcus’ own process of self-reflection.

Yes there is a strong asceticism to the whole doctrine, but it is this that one finds true peace. The process of reflection, or retreat, also allows for continual self-renewal, a washing away of all pain and resentment caused by direct experience. All of the negative experiences of life are, by this scheme of things, based on ignorance or alienation from the higher, and purer, forms of reason.

The practical aspect is also strong. In some ways it is no better basis for dealing with the frustrations, the silliness and the stupidity of every-day life, and of dealing with all of those who embody those negative virtues, particularly the stupid and the ignorant. Anyway, I feel a quotation coming on, and how I love quotations! This is from Book II Part I of "The Meditations":

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

Yes, indeed. Ave Imperator. :)

Monday 21 September 2009

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

This is the passage from The Wind in the Willows where Mole and Ratty, looking on the riverside for the missing baby otter, come across the Great God Pan himself. It moves me so much, more than I can say.

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror--indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy--but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

`Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?'

`Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. `Afraid! Of him? O, never, never! And yet--and yet-- O, Mole, I am afraid!'

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

Waking the Dead

It’s largely escaped the attention of the world-it’s escaped the attention of most Cambodians-but after all these years some of the architects of the Khmer Rouge genocide are at last on trial. The principle trial, not expected to conclude until next year, is of Kang Kek lew, better know simply as ‘Comrade Duch, head of Pol Pot’s secret police. Duch, who once said that it was a rule of the Party that whoever was arrested must die, is accused of the murder of close on two million people. It was he who was responsible for setting up the infamous Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penn, whose rules, too bizarre even to be described as Kafkaesque, included one admonishing captives from crying out while under torture.

It’s really difficult for me to imagine the horror of that world, a world where to be suspect was to be arrested; where to be arrested was to be guilty and where to be guilty was to be dead. But what is even more difficult to accept is the cynicism of the international community that played politics with Cambodia even after the fall of the unspeakably vile Pol Pot. It’s difficult to believe now that in the game of Cold War politics that the United States aligned itself with China in supporting the Khmer Rouge ‘government in exile’ simply to get back at the Vietnamese and the Soviets.

So the victims were denied any form of justice for years after until most of the survivors died and the dead were forgotten. Cambodia is a young nation and most of the people alive now have no memory of ‘Democratic Kampuchea.’ But the Duch trial, all too late, and far too slow, is still welcome, particularly when one considers that members of the present Cambodian government, including Hun Sen, the prime minister, were once Khmer Rouge cadres. It was only in 2004 that the Cambodian government, in negotiation with the UN, finally agreed that Duch and other senior officials of the old regime should face trail.

I’ve been to Cambodia, been to Toul Sleng and Choeung Ek, the killing field just outside the capital, where tiny children were bludgeoned to death to save the cost of a bullet. They are grim places. It is of some comfort, limited as it may be, that the dead are at last able to cry out in defiance of the rules set by ‘Brother Number One’ and ‘Comrade Duch.’

The Bishop's Crusade

Now, here is an interesting story for you, a story of an English bishop who led a 'crusade', no less, against the schismatic French. His name was Henry Despenser, Bishop of Norwich and nuncio of Pope Urban VI, who took an army into the Low Countries under the sign of the cross in May, 1383. Some years prior to this Urban had sent a bull to the Archbishop of Canterbury, offering crusading indulgences to all those who took arms against Clement VII, his rival in Avignon, who was supported by France and Scotland. Henry Dispenser, described as 'warlike' by his contemporaries, was quick to make his own plans for a crusading venture, which Urban readily approved.

The opportunity came when the people of Ghent rebelled against Louis of Male, Count of Flanders, a supporter of Clement. This also attracted the interest of the English crown, which had important commercial interests in Flanders, and was keen to support the burghers of Ghent. The matter was made all the more urgent after the Flemings were defeated by a French army at the Battle of Roosebeke in November, 1382. Because of this, and the danger the victory presented to English economic interests, Richard II granted Dispenser permission to raise an army. A crusade had the added advantage to Richard in that the expenses could all be met by the sale of Papal indulgences, rather than parliamentary grant.

Despenser and his army landed at Calais on 16 May. Soon after they attacked and slaughtered the French garrison at Gravelines, before moving on to Dunkirk, where they fought and defeated Louis of Male. It was after this high point that things started to go wrong. An attempt to take Ypres was a failure, after which the gains of the spring were lost, and towns previously captured by the crusaders were retaken by the enemy. Gravelines was only given up after Despenser, in his anger, ordered it to be sacked. By October most of the army was back in England.

Despenser was impeached before Parliament for his failure. His temporalities were confiscated and he was ordered to behave in a manner 'befitting his episcopal dignity.' The massacre at Gravelines also did much to discredit the Urbanist cause, just as the unscrupulous sale of indulgences had roused the criticism of John Wycliff and the new Lollard movement. Wycliff denounced both Popes as 'power made'. God's forgiveness, he argued still further, could not be purchased, and that the grant of remission of sins for killing fellow Christians was 'an affront to Christ.'

Sunday 20 September 2009

Bawdy Balladeers!

From his visit to Italy in 1378 Chaucer brought back copies of Boccaccio's two great poems, Filostrato and Tesida, which he subsequently translated and paraphrased. Looking over the whole body of Chaucer's work it is possible to see just how profound Boccaccio's influence was. The themes used in Tesida appear in Anelida and Arcite, the Parlement of Foules, Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight's Tale. Filostrato also provides material for Troilus. The structure of the Canterbury Tales itself would seem to indicate that Boccaccio’s own Decameron cycle was also known to Chaucer. And the one is just as bawdy as the other!

Martin Luther: Father of German Anti-Semitism?

If you ever read Von den Jüden und ihren Lügen (On the Jews and their Lies) you may possibly feel that you have entered into a world inhabited by the likes of Julius Streicher: the language is vicious, the imagery unrestrained in its ugliness.

But look more closely; you will find none of the preoccupations with race and blood that were the key feature of the forms of anti-Semitism promoted by Hitler and the like. For Luther a Jew who converted was no longer a Jew. It's even more basic than that: for the salvation of the Jews was a precondition for the salvation of all. Luther's world was one of imminence; a world poised on the threshold of the Second Coming.

In anticipation of this the forces of Anti-Christ, whether they be Jews, Muslims or Catholics, were gathering, threatening to prevent the final victory of Christ. This was a danger for all, faithful and faithless alike. If the Jews would not convert they must "driven out like mad dogs, so that we do not partake in their abomniable blasphemy...and thus merit God's wrath and be damned with them." It was this fear that explains Luther's explosive sense of frustration at Jewish intransigence, and all of the venom and malice that erupted thereafter.

So, you will find him in the Nazi pantheon, admired by Hitler and the like, with his work displayed in a glass case at each and every Nuremberg Rally. At the time of the Kristalnacht, Martin Sasse, a Nazi and a Lutheran Bishop, was to express satisfaction that the pogrom had occured on Luther's birthday, and that the founder of his church deserved to be remembered as "the greatest anti-Semite of his time."

And yet Luther was a sixteenth century Christian, a Reformer, a man who set German against German in a way that did not sit comfortably with Nazi ideology and racial politics. Rassenpolitik, published in 1943, specifically targets Christianity as an enemy of the National Socialist world view. From this perspective the churches are guilty of building walls were none should exist; of dividing German from German; a place were the marriages between 'Aryans, Jews and Negroes are blessed'. The Reformation started as a 'German Revolution', but degenerated into a battle over dogma, where "Luther finally bound the conscience to the Jewish teachings of the Bible." And thus the real distance is displayed in all its clarity.

I Met Murder on the Way

Here is some goon news for you. Did you know that the murder rate has declined, and declined significantly, since the Middle Ages? Well, it has, though you may have supposed the reverse! Anyway, Peter Spierenburg, a Dutch historian and specialist in violence and crime in the early modern period, takes pains to put the whole question in perspective.

A History of Murder: Personal Violence in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Present is a new, paperback edition of a work intended for a general as well as specialist audience. It was first published in hard cover last summer, at a price that would have frightened off all but the most determined-and affluent-generalist!

It’s certainly a book that should not be overlooked, if you have any interest in the subject at all, full of all sorts of intriguing details and revelations. For instance the murder rate in contemporary Europe is, according to the author, less than a tenth of that in the Medieval period. The decline is marked, falling from a high of 35 per 100,000 of the population each year in the fourteenth century to just 1.4 in the late twentieth century.

The reasons for this are simple enough: violence in the past most often arose in disputes over honour, which a weak state apparatus either condoned or ignored. But through time, with the development of ever more complex structures of coercion and control, the development of what the author refers to as ‘the civilizing process’, honour as a theory and a practice was gradually tamed. The elites to whom this was most applicable gradually accepted that the state had a monopoly of violence, a view that percolated downwards through the rest of society. Honour murder clearly still exists, but in a highly marginalized form.

The explanatory framework through which Spierenburg develops his argument is taken, of course, from the work of the German-born sociologist, Norbert Elias, author of The Civilizing Process. Yes, it’s all very beguiling, if a little top down. It has strengths, yes, but it also has clear limitations, reflected in Spierenburg’s book. Not nearly enough attention I paid to cultural changes, to the rise and development of the nuclear family and the impact this had on the more generalized patterns of violence. The explanatory model, moreover, falls down completely when dealing with serial or recreational murder, not an entirely modern phenomenon, I have to stress.

Still, it’s a good read, full of facts, figures and living examples of a crime as old as humanity itself.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Medieval Childhood

People are always people, and there is no reason to suppose that Medieval parents did not treat their little ones with as much love and affection as those today. Of course, there are always exceptions, and people were more subject to the vagaries of circumstances, particularly economic circumstances, in the past than they are in modern societies; at least in the developed world. However, Medieval sources provide plenty of evidence that attitudes towards childhood have varied remarkably little over time, although, of course, there was a much greater emphasis on corporal punishment in the past. Allowing for all due differences in lifestyle and culture, Medieval children grew up in much the same way as children today.

Let's begin by looking at the very first stages of life. Writing in the thirteenth century, Bartholomew of England observed "The mother loves her own child most tenderly, embraces and kisses it, nurses and cares for it most solicitously." About the same time, Philip of Navara said;

God gave children three gifts: to love and recognise the person who nurses him at her breast; to show 'joy and love' to those who play with him; and to inspire love and tenderness in those who rear him, of which the last is the most important, for 'without this, they will be so dirty and annoying in infancy and so naughty and capricious that it is hardly worth nurturing them through childhood

In Montaillou, his seminal study of life in a French village, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie documents the affectionate interplay between parents and babies, including adults enjoying the sensation of a baby’s skin against there own. In the circumstances of the day, given the low level of medical knowledge, and the general problems caused by hygiene and the transmission of disease, a great many babies and young children died, but again there is ample evidence that these losses were felt severely.

Medieval adults, moreover, had a clear concept of childhood as a distinct phase of life. They believed, in other words, that children progressed through a series of stages, the so-called 'ages of man', each with its own specific features. This was recognised also by both the church and the state: children below the 'age of majority', generally reckoned in the high Middle Ages as between 12 and 14, were not expected to undertake the same religious and legal obligations as adults. When they committed sins, or breached the code of law, they were generally treated with greater leniency than adults.

When children took ill there is again ample evidence that parents did everything in their power to deal with the problem. In some cases this involved, often at considerable expense, trips to sacred shrines, to pray for divine intervention. At Canterbury in the late twelfth century we hear, for example, of one Guibert of Thanet bringing his crippled daughter to the shrine of Thomas Becket, the two walking the whole way, the little girl supporting herself on a staff. Another man came from Folkestone on horseback with his seven-year-old daughter, who could not feed herself because of crippled fingers. Many other parents made the same journey, inspired by stories of St. Thomas' miraculous cures.

Children were also expected to have their own society, with codes of conduct developed in interaction with their fellows. In 1398, the English writer John Trevisa observed that the young "love talkings and counsels of such children as they are, and foresake and avoid the company of the old." The important point here is that children were given the liberty to develop their own unique customs and culture, and there is a lot of recorded detail, concerning the games, rhymes and songs of the time. Play is also well-recorded. In the fifteenth century, the poet John Lydgate mentions running, leaping, singing, dancing, wrestling, climbing trees to steal fruit, football, chess and many other such games. The paintings of Brueghel the Elder give depictions of some of these activities. Similar depictions are to be found in marginal illustrations of the fourteenth century Romance of Alexander, which also show children on hobby horses and playing blind man's buff.

There were also toy manufacturers who catered specifically for children. In the London of 1300 boys could buy model knights and other such toys. These, I think it worth stressing, were not hand made, but cast in moulds, and therefore mass produced. Miniature domestic items were also produced for girls; plates, bowls, jugs and the like. Children's literature, moreover, can be traced as far back as the reign of Richard II.

Education was also important for Medieval parents, and there were a great many schools, though these benefited boys more than girls, who trended to receive what education they had at home from their mothers. The curriculum may have been more limited than today, but masters were no less keen for their charges to develop their imaginations, and pupils were encouraged to write about the things that they liked in their notebooks. A number of these survive after 1400, with scraps of songs and riddles.

Yes, life may have been different. Yes, there were risks. But children were still children; subjects, not objects.

Wagner the Philosopher

Richard Wagner may have read Schopenhauer but he sure as hell did not understand Schopenhauer! Perhaps apes also read the great pessimist with as little understanding as they bring to Nietzsche?!

Anyway, Wagner, by his own account, read The World as Will and Representation several times, impressed by the idea of music as the striving of the will. But he was equally impressed by the notion of the denial of will. His enthusiasm was expressed in a letter to Franz Liszt: "I have...found a sedative which has finally helped me to sleep at night; it is the sincere and heartfelt yearning for death; total unconsciousness, complete annihilation, the end of all dreams-the only ultimate redemption."

He comes closest to Schopenhauer's ideas in Tristan und Isolde, when the lovers express their longing for their individual existence to end. But Wagner transforms this gloomy abnegation to a climax of erotic love, effectively turning Schopenhauer upside down. Tristan and Isolde do not escape the blind force of Will; they just become yet another link in its ongoing evolution. But, what the hell? The sex was good!

The Foundations of English Racism

Continental-style racial theories made their way into England from about 1840 onwards. One of the earliest exponents was none other than Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School, and a leading historian. He advanced a universal theory of world history, in which he assigned a special role to the Aryans, specifically the Germanic races, which included, of course, the Anglo-Saxons. Race theories in general made their way into the oddest corners of British intellectual life. Consider the following;

You never observe a great intellectual movement in Europe in which the Jews do not greatly participate. The first Jesuits were Jews; that mysterious Russian diplomacy which so alarms Western Europe is organised and principally carried on by Jews; that mighty revolution which is at this moment preparing in Germany, and which will be, in fact, a second and greater Reformation, and of which so little is as yet known in England, is entirely developing under the auspices of Jews, who almost monopolise the professional chairs in Germany...

Who wrote that? Why, none other than Benjamin Disraeli in his 1844 novel Coningsby, and himself of Jewish origin.. His view, for all its fancy, was benign: it was, nevertheless, to find a malign echo in the coming development of European anti-Semitism.

But we have to go further north, to Edinburgh, in fact, to discover the man who has been described as the "real founder of British racism." His name was Robert Knox, a leading anatomist and an anthropologist, best known now as the chief client of the Edinburgh body-snatchers, Burke and Hare. His published work included The Races of Men, in which he described the Jewish race as 'sterile parasites.'

For Knox, race was the key to all human activity-"...that the race in human affairs is everything, is simply a fact, the most comprehensive, which philosophy has ever announced. Race is everything: literature, science, art-in a word, civilization depends on it." The highest races were the Germans, the Saxons, and the Celts; the lowest were Black Africans. Though now Knox's work is almost completely forgotten, it was widely admired at the time, by Charles Darwin, among others