Blog : Post Category : In With The Old : Page 1

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Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time


There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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Counterfactual

In which we pose an anniversary question


Today: the anniversary of the one date in English history that just about everybody knows. It is – as you’ve probably realised – the 944th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which occurred on October 14th, 1066. And, of course, all that: the death of King Harold II at the hands of Duke William of Normandy, which led to the duke’s coronation as King of England on Christmas Day that year.

It is, of course, slightly silly to posit: what would the world be like now if the Battle of Hastings* had turned out differently. Counterfactual history can always be true, as the narrator of an Umberto Eco novel almost said, because the premise you’re starting from is always false. Nevertheless, it’s an ever-interesting exercise, particularly with an event like Hastings which turned on a rather narrower pivot than you might think. The standard history of the battle, after all, was written for the victor’s brother, and follows a firm melodramatic template: our hero is promised his future inheritance by a pious elder, and our dastardly villain swears loyalty to him. Come the pious elder’s death, our dastardly villain grabs power, God shows his displeasure, and the plot ends with the villain dying a perjurer’s death and our hero getting his just reward.

The battle was a long battle, though, for the time; and it certainly didn’t start off as a rout. At one point, in the confused melee, things definitely seemed to be going the English way: some of the Norman troops had fled, and Duke William appeared to have been killed, disappearing down into the miry slaughter. However, it was only his horse that had been killed, and somehow he survived, climbing up and throwing off his helmet to persuade his troops he was still there to fight for.** It was a very narrow escape, it seems, but from there he eventually succeeded in turning the battle round; and thus, English history proper started.***

Would we be living in a very different world if the battle had been won by the English? Undoubtedly, in both large and tiny ways. The English we speak would be a rather different English, for one thing: probably none of those legal paired phrases like “cease and desist”, “goods and chattels”, and so on. We’d have one fewer national park: the New Forest would never have been built. Moreover, we may well have had a rather more decentralised country. King William overthrew a system of English nobility which had slowly grown up from a loose grouping of tribes sharing a common North Sea culture, a system in which no single family was dominant over the long term, there was no automatic hereditary throne, and the individual royally-qualified families had strong regional power bases. He replaced this with a single dynastic line; in the following thousand years, there have only been three major breaks in the line of succession.**** He made sure this happened by carrying out an economic conquest alongside his military one: destroying the entire economy of Yorkshire and Durham, for a start, and thoroughly replacing the English land-ownership structure, taking economic power out of the hands of the English and giving it over to the new nobility.*****

Would England have been very different if this hadn’t happened? Would rural Yorkshire have denser settlement patterns, and would we still have a single Royal Family? Naturally, it’s impossible to say: on the first point, the Black Death would still have happened, so by 1400 the population in our projected Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire may well have been around the same as it actually was. We’d probably have different northern cities: York, Durham, Newcastle and (probably) Grimsby were already well-established by 1066; Manchester, Leeds and Middlesbrough were nowhere, and Sheffield was a Norman foundation. I like to think, though, that overall the country would have been more like Germany: still with its capital as the nation’s hub, but with a much greater sense of regionalism, and the importance of the regional cities. We’d still have been English, but we might have been English in a rather different England. Whether it would have been a better England, of course, is another of those things that’s impossible to say

* Which, of course, didn’t happen in pier-bereft Hastings, but in the handily-named nearby town of Battle.

** After all, there were a good proportion of mercenaries in the Norman army; you can imagine how keen they would be to continue fighting once the chap paying out the money had gone down.

*** Or at least it felt as if we were taught that in schools 25 years ago. I particularly remember, at the age of 5, watching a Norman Conquest-themed series of the educational TV show Zig Zag, featuring a “will the peasant forced into poaching really get his hand chopped off?” cliffhanger.

**** There was something of a hiccup after all William’s own sons had died, largely because some leaders at the time did not like the idea of a queen regnant. The outline of the start of that phase of history, strangely enough, is almost the same as the story of the Bayeux Tapestry: dastardly villain swears oath but goes on to seize throne, etc. However, instead of the dastardly villain dying within the year during a short and decisive military campaign, this story ends with 19 years of on-off civil war until the villain, King Stephen, died a natural death.

***** And those people who can trace their ancestry back to that newly-founded nobility are, of course, still very proud.

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Secret Passage

In which we look for some Parisian history


Every so often, search requests come in for things like “disused stations on the Paris Metro”. I’mk not entirely sure why, because this site doesn’t have very much content at all on that topic. All there is, in fact, is this post from a few years ago, which wasn’t really about disused Paris metro stations at all: it was more about all the various interconnection lines and mysterious secret underground depots that you can see from a passing train.

When I was in Paris the other week, though, I kept an eye out. Because there are the odd one or two disused stations on the Metro, even if there are fewer than on the London Underground. I kept my eyes open, and I spotted a couple.

Firstly, if you head north along Line 5, across the Seine and through Quai de la Rapée station, you will find that the line quickly disappears underground on its way to Bastille station.* Once in the tunnel, well-lit and easily spotted, there is a stretch of broad station tunnel, heavily graffitied like almost everything on the Paris metro. This is the remains of Arsenal station: off the top of my head, the only Paris Metro station to share a name with one on the London Underground.

Secondly, turn around back to Gare d’Austerlitz, then head westward on Line 10. Past Odéon, there’s a complex network of underground tunnels linking Line 10 to various other routes; the modern line has a complex history. And somewhere in-between all the various connections, past Mabillon station, there is another secret. Croix Rouge station, originally the terminus of the line. It’s harder to spot than Arsenal, but it is there.

Hopefully, then, if people come here looking to spot disused Parisian underground stations, here are a couple of hints. If you want to see what they look like inside, there are photos on the web, of course: where doesn’t have photos on the web nowadays? Alternatively, you might prefer it the other way: sit on the Metro, ignore the buskers and the beggars, and look out the window for a flash of abandoned platforms.

* incidentally, foundations of the original Bastille fortress are visible on the Line 5 platforms at that station.

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Salvation and me

In which we discuss the language barrier


Back when I was 11, I started secondary school, and we started to learn French.* Like most English children who learn French, one of the first words we came across was salut. As a greeting, for use with friends, something like “Hi”.

When I was a few years older, I read my way through my parents’ bookshelves of 1960s and 1970s thrillers. One of the books on it was Papillon, the autobiography of a 1930s French crook called Henri Charrière; a long picaresque tale of his imprisonment in the jungles of South America, on Devil’s Island, and various escapes, recaptures, masturbation, sex with dusky native wives, and so on and so on. I’m not sure how much of the sex made it into the inevitable film version, because I’ve never seen the inevitable film version.**

One thing about Papillon, though, confused me. Not the long story with all its peregrinations and jewels-up-the-bum, but the geography. I’d heard of Devil’s Island before, but I hadn’t realised it was part of a group. Les Iles de Salut. Or, according to the French I’d been taught at school, the Islands of Hi. Something about that didn’t sound quite right. Back then, I couldn’t just pop online and check up on this, though, and so it was a while later that I discovered: salut doesn’t literally just mean “Hi!”. It is, in fact, “salvation”.

Well, that makes rather more sense, despite being rather darkly ironic for the prisoners of pre-war days. It’s somewhat stranger, in fact, that the French apparently use “Salvation!” as something like an equivalent to “Hi!” And there, in my head, the matter rested.

In the meantime, between then and now, lots happened. I read some stuff about the French Revolution one day, then read some more, and later more still, until I knew such vital trivia as Louis XVI’s favourite hobbies, or the name of Robespierre’s dog.*** I certainly knew about the Committee of Public Safety, the body which in many ways became France’s primary executive power in 1793-94; a dour committee of serious-minded men who promulgated government by terror, passing laws that banned any sort of anti-Revolutionary word or deed or thought, the punishment being clean, scientific and egalitarian decapitation.**** “Committee of Public Safety” is a very dull and bureaucratic name for a body convinced that France needed saving from its reactionary self, whatever the cost of the purge.

All of my reading, of course, was in English, my French being just about good enough to order a Metro ticket. So it was only the other day, when we visited the Museé Carnavalet – the museum of Paris’s history – that I found out what the CPS’s real name was. La Comité de salut public. Not just responsible for the public safety, but for the public salvation. The committee to save the French from themselves, whatever it takes.

All of a sudden, in my head, their actions made much more sense than they ever had before. It just goes to show what you can lose in translation, between safety and salvation; or, indeed, between safety, salvation and “Hi!”. Maybe I should have worked on my French harder in school, and the Terror would have made more sense earlier. Salut.

* Actually, there was another abortive attempt to teach me French, by my first school teacher, at the age of 5 or so. It didn’t get very far.

** starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Presumably the masturbation was also omitted.

*** Hunting and locksmithery; and “Brount”. And I didn’t get asked either of those things when I went on the telly.

**** The “egalitarian” part of that isn’t just me using long words: before the nobility lost its Old Regime rights, they alone were entitled to execution by decapitation. The common people got to hang. The guillotine, incidentally, wasn’t as clean as Dr Guillotin thought it would be; it spilled large amounts of blood, so much that the site of the guillotine was steadily moved away from the centre of Paris to try to limit the number of districts which started to get a pink-tinged water supply.

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So bad, it’s … well

In which we consider the history of kings


Last Thursday’s post, I mentioned Gödel, Escher, Bach, the long, complex and self-referential book by Douglas Hofstadter which features a tortoise, Achilles, a crab, Alan Turing and Douglas Hofstadter trying to find the links between self-referentiality, consciousness, and the works of the three titular men.

Well, I’ve finished reading it now. This post isn’t about that, though, but about a TV documentary I watched some months ago, which was one of the worst I’ve ever managed to see. At the time, it was so bad, I thought: I should start the blog up again so I can talk about how awful it is. On the other hand, it was so, so bad, it really didn’t deserve the effort.* That programme was: Britain’s Real Monarch, by everyone’s favourite let’s-popularise-history presenter, Tony Robinson.

Towards the end of GEB, there’s an interesting segment on counterfactuality. I think it was Umberto Eco who said “anything counterfactual is true”,** but Hofstadter points out that we’re always far more likely to consider some counterfactuals than others. Some counterfactuals are intrinsically more plausible than others. I suspect, myself, that some of this is culturally determined: “but what if it had been raining?” is much more likely to occur to someone brought up in England to someone brought up in, say, Algeria. “But what would have happened if Henry V had been a woman?” isn’t likely to occur to anyone’s mind, though, even if they happen to be thinking about counterfactuals in medieval history at the time, and even though it’s almost a toss-of-the-coin event.

The premise of Robinson’s documentary, essentially, was that back in the fifteenth century there was some dodginess going on in the English line of descent, and that Edward IV was not his father’s son. Hence, he Wasn’t Royal. Henry VII also Wasn’t Properly Royal, but from an illegitimate branch of the family; so his son, Henry VIII, relied on his mother’s royal descent: from Edward IV. Ergo, all our kings and queens since haven’t really been Royal at all, but are just pretending. Our real monarch is an ordinary Australian chap, living in obscurity and unawareness in New South Wales, called Mike.

Now Mike, to be honest, came out of the whole thing rather well, as one of the most sensible people in the programme. Far from being unaware, he was well aware that he’s actually an aristocrat, knows he has a title and everything, and knows exactly who he’s descended from. He was probably also well-aware of his claim to the throne, going by his response to Tony R taking him through his family tree. Being a republican, he was probably also rather bored with the idea.

What annoyed me, though, was the whole concept of the programme: that, if things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, This Man would now be Michael, By The Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Defender of the Faith and Head of the Commonwealth. If things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, Mike wouldn’t even exist. He’d never have been born. Neither would his father, his father’s father, and so on. His 19th-century ancestor who gambled the family inheritance away? None of it, none at all, would have happened. It was perfectly possible for Tony R to contemplate that some past uprising would have pushed a Tudor off the throne and replaced them with someone else with True Royal Blood; but not possible for him to contemplate that the family tree of that branch would have changed in any way at all. Even though, of course, their circumstances would have been radically different, they would have socialised in different circles, had different obligations, this documentary relied on the theory that they would still all have married exactly the same people.

The other part of the concept was also, well, rather silly. To my mind, at least, but lots of people still do seriously believe it. That there is, indeed, something in your blood that makes you Magically Royal. Whatever Something it is, it’s very clever, because it disappears if you’re not properly married. I doubt that Tony Robinson seriously believes in that himself.*** It also, somehow, never dilutes, however many prince and princess siblings a king or queen has. If it didn’t, of course, we’d all be very much Royal. The people who still seriously believe in that sort of Royalty tend not to think about where it starts from in the first place: we worship the Queen because she is directly descended from our god, Woden.****

For a long time, as you probably know, there have been disputes in historiography between those who see history as a series of events created by great people and as a series of trends driven by economics, climate and technology. The truth is somewhere in between, but the two styles are as hard to marry as, in the science world, quantum physics and relativity, because they focus on entirely disparate scales. Great People theory is the quantum theory of history: it explains the world by focusing on the tiniest of scales, but at its heart you have to accept randomness as a primary cause of events. Socioeconomic history is relativity: you look at the wide scale of changes in, say, crop yields, and from that explain how society changes just as you can explain a planet’s orbit. An individual invention doesn’t even matter, because someone else would have invented it. Both of these are entirely acceptable ways of looking at history, and both are true, even though they can seem to be incompatible on the surface. Where you go wrong, though, is to base your history from a Great People perspective whilst assuming its events are as fixed and predictable as the onset of the Little Ice Age. That’s the mistake that Tony Robinson made, and all the other writers who have followed the “God Save King Mike!” line of reasoning. History doesn’t necessarily follow iron rails.***** Mike The Friendly Australian isn’t the real King of Britain, despite what his bloodline might be, because kingship in the real world is a little more complicated than that.

* Yes, it really was less well-thought-out than this chap’s documentary work.

** At least, Umberto Eco’s translator, who I think is usually William Weaver, in Foucault’s Pendulum.

*** He was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for a few years last decade; given that political background it’s unlikely.

**** I’m not the sort of person who hangs around genealogical websites, but I do seem to remember, a few years back, seeing a Mormon-driven one that displayed family trees for everyone it knew about. Moreover, “everyone it knew about” included quite a few of the ancient pagan gods of Europe. If you looked up someone linked to the British royal family, then it would, entirely serious and deadpan, give you their family tree right back to Woden/Odin, as their ancestors had claimed was the case.

***** Bear in mind, too, that Way Back In The Mists Of Time the succession wasn’t fixed in any case. It could be willed, or a king could be chosen. William I wasn’t followed by his firstborn son, at least not as King of England; and kings before him were picked by a council from the eligible aristocrats.

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High Speed News

In which we look at trains and the money behind them


Today’s big news story: the East Coast rail franchise is to be temporarily taken into state hands, because the company running it, National Express, has decided that they can’t make the huge wodge of cash that they have promised to pay. Which, to be honest, many many people could have told you was a little unlikely.

The East Coast route has always been seen as a bit of a cash cow, ever since it has been operated by a single company. Back in the 1930s the LNER, the aforesaid first company to own the route from end to end, was struggling somewhat, as most of its profits came from servicing the declining heavy industries of the North-East. So, it negotiated itself away from the non-compete restrictions which hampered its London-Scotland timetable,* and started to introduce faster, record-breaking, headline-grabbing expresses. They introduced the longest regular non-stop train service in the world, and the fastest type of steam engine in the world; and introduced innovations such as at-seat radio services, and the “in-flight movie”. The route has stayed at the forefront of speed, technology and publicity ever since, and at several times has featured the fastest trains in the country.**

By the time privatisation came along, the East Coast route was one of the few profitable rail services in the country. It was quickly grabbed, by Sea Containers, the shipping company which had already bought British Rail’s Sealink shipping line. And everything went smoothly, for some time, because the route did indeed make plenty of money.

In this decade, though, there were problems. As the line was seen as a cash cow, other companies started running competing services over what was already a very crowded and busy route; and their franchise payment went up to £130million per year. Sea Containers tried to bring a court case arguing that there wasn’t enough room for anybody else’s trains on their line, but the case failed. The company started hinting that it was having trouble making money on the route, and that its position was financially unsustainable. In October 2006 the company filed for bankruptcy protection in the USA, and told the British government that they would walk away from the East Coast route if not allowed to renegotiate their contract. A month later, the government told Sea Containers that their franchise was being withdrawn.

In the auction for the rights to run the route from 2007 onwards, Sea Containers played little part, holding a 10% stake in a joint bid made in the names of Virgin and Stagecoach. The winner, though, was National Express. They promised to pay £1.4 billion in total, to operate the route from 2007 through to 2015. Rather more, in other words, than the £130 million per year that Sea Containers had had trouble meeting. You have to wonder what was going on in their decision-making. It must have been obvious to them that the line would have trouble generating that much money. Did they really think they had enough spare cash elsewhere to prop it up with?

It’s not surprising at all, then, that they haven’t managed to keep the line running. It’s more surprising, though, that it apparently took National Express 18 months to realise that their sums were a bit off. Never mind the recession: passenger figures were already falling well before National Express took over, which was partly why Sea Containers had trouble. Maybe they thought they could get things to turn around faster. Evidently, though, they made a mistake somewhere. That still leaves this, though, as one of the more predictable news stories of this part of the decade.

* ever since the mid-1890s, the East Coast and West Coast companies had had a minimum-time agreement restricting the point-to-point average speed of their trains to around 50mph, following the dangerous “Race To The North” competitions of 1895.

** For the past 20 years almost it has had its own specially-designed trains which are capable of 140mph, until recently beating every other domestic train in Britain – but for the whole time, it’s been in the slightly silly position of having a top speed limit of 125mph, leaving that speed advantage unusable.

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The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present


A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all.** The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

** like this person who read my thoughts on the topic and disagreed.

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Calling Dr Jones (part four)

In which we finally finish talking about Tudor Parfitt and the Ark of the Covenant


Series of posts, on here, always seem to take me longer to write than I had planned. It’s now, ooh, at least six weeks since I wrote the first post in this series, so I really should tidy it up and finish it off. For people who aren’t regular readers: some time ago, a Jewish Studies professor called Tudor Parfitt made a documentary about the lost Ark of the Covenant, the Biblical artefact which starred in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in reality has been missing for well over 2 millennia. Professor Parfitt’s theory is that, although the original ark is probably long destroyed, it passed into east Africa, into the possession of a Jewish tribe there called the Lemba, and that its replacement is a war drum now sitting in storage in an Harare museum. Feel free to go back and read what I’ve written so far, if you’re a new reader.

All that is so well and good. It may well, indeed, be true, so far as I’m concerned. However, that’s not the end of the theory. Its logic goes as follows: the ark’s descendant is a war drum; therefore, the original ark must have been a drum too. Even though all the evidence for its existance states that it wasn’t a drum, a drum it is now, so a drum it must have been. In part three, I discussed how, in some ways, this theory is typical of what I suppose you could call “primitive archaeology”: the traditional diffusionist archaeology that held sway until the 1960s. Change was seen as a hard thing to do, and the possibility of cultural change tended to get swept under the carpet.

Change happens, though, in the real world: we can see it every day. It’s hard to see it occurring in the archaeological record, though; and very hard to determine its cause. Archaeological change and historical change are very different beasts.

There is one case in the British archaeological record where archaeology and history match up, and together provide evidence for inward migration. It’s in a small area of East Yorkshire, and archaeologically it’s known as the Arras Culture. It’s distinctive because of its chariot burials, unique in Britain. The nearest parallels are with similar cemetaries in the Ile-de-France region and the surrounding area.* Some of the riding gear buried with the chariots – the bits, for example – also resemble continental riding gear more than British.**

Fast forward to the end of the Iron Age; and the Romans arrive in the area. They have historians with them, and said historians write down the names of the various British tribes that the Romans encounter. The tribe that lives in East Yorkshire? They’re called the Parisii. They’re not the only tribe of that name, though. The Romans had discovered Parisii before, in the Ile-de-France, where they even had a city named after them.*** On the face of it, then, an obvious link. One of the few clear examples of cultural change in the British archaeological record which has matching historical evidence for a migration.

It’s not quite that simple, though. The Yorkshire Parisii and the French Parisii both buried people in chariots, and they used similar riding gear. But if you put a Yorkshire horse bit next to a French horse bit then, although the Yorkshire one looks suspiciously Continental in its general design, it’s still also clearly separate from the French one. Its detail design work will still be distinctively British. Overall, the Arras Culture is something of a hybrid of British and Continental Iron Age styles.

How does this fit in with Tudor Parfitt’s Ark of the Covenant theories? Well, archaeologists have tried to explain the Arras Culture in various ways other than straightforward migration. For example, a British tribe might have been trying to adopt Continental styles and fashions.**** Or, it might reflect a limited migration: a small number of leaders move, bringing their technology with them; but the craftsmen and engineers doing the actual work are British and use the same styles as their ancestors did. And, curiously, this is exactly what the Lemba say happened to them. A small number of priests came down from the north, bringing with them Jewish traditions, laws, and their holy war drum.

It’s entirely possible that this happened. There aren’t many other ways to explain the Lemba’s existence, after all. However, we do know that the priests from the north didn’t bring all the Jewish traditions with them. The Hebrew language, for one thing: the Lemba speak a Bantu language. Just like in Yorkshire, the new leaders brought with them the outline of a culture but not the detail. They brought with them an idea of the Ark, if not the Ark itself, as a holy object through which God could speak and smite, to be carried into battle in front of the tribe. But the concept of the Ark as a reliquary didn’t survive. In the Lemba culture, it became a drum, the literal and thunderous voice of God.

Professor Parfitt is forced to admit that the Harare drum is definitely not the Biblical Ark, because, being wood, it’s straightforward to date. He wants to stick with the idea, though, that the Harare drum is as close to the real Ark as we can get now. It may well be the closest surviving object to the Ark we have, yes. But that doesn’t mean that the Ark was always a drum. Cultural change happens, details of culture get left behind, and things change and adapt. The Lemba’s religion isn’t Judaism as the rest of the world practises it: it is Judaism filtered and absorbed through a small group of priests and the African tribe they evangelised. There’s no reason why we should follow their lead and say that the Ark of the Covenant was a drum, when the rest of Judaism***** says it was a reliquary. Tudor Parfitt’s theory may be partly right, but it is also very flawed, because of his inability to consider how the Lemba culture developed, and how cultures can adapt and change.

* Confusingly, the “Arras Culture” name is nothing to do with France at all; it refers to a place in Yorkshire.

** Specifically: the number of joints in the bit mouthpiece.

*** It’s still there today, apparently.

**** Even today, I can see why, if you came from Hull you might want to imagine you were from Paris instead.

***** Not to mention Christianity, and Islam.

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Calling Dr Jones (part three)

In which we return to Tudor Parfitt, the Ark of the Covenant, and consider how archaeology has changed


About time I finished off writing about SOAS Modern Jewish Studies professor Tudor Parfitt, and his rather dodgy theory, shown on TV in his documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, that the Biblical Ark Of The Covenant was not the ark that is biblically described, but was in fact a drum; that it was taken to Africa, survived in the possession of a Jewish tribe there, and that its final version is now in storage in an Harare museum. Which might make more sense if you read the previous posts I’ve written about it: part one, and part two.

Previously we’ve discussed the theory itself, and its basic flaw: in order for it to be true, every piece of evidence for the original ark’s existence has to mis-describe it in a fundamental way. Now, I want to discuss why Professor Parfitt might have come up with his rather misguided theory. He has trouble with a concept which archaeology itself had trouble with, in general, for many many years. The Parfitt theory states that there is a medieval African war drum which was constructed to replace an earlier Ark of the Covenant, so those earlier Arks, all the way back to the Mosaic period, must have been drums also. This is because Parfitt is unwilling to consider any degree of cultural change.

Cultural change is, as I said, a concept which archaeology has always had trouble with. In traditional archaeology, it was one of several concepts which was not so much discarded as never considered. Change in material cultures was almost always explained by means of migration, often mass-migration: wave on wave of homogeneous and distinct peoples moving about the map, rather like a game of Risk, never themselves changing. There are probably a few reasons for this. For a start, archaeology as a discipline arose after the formulation of the classic “nation state”, and during the period that the Western countries were dividing up the third world with lines across the map in just the same way that archaeologists then divided up prehistoric maps. For another thing, there was a rather patronising attitude that invention was rather too hard for “prehistoric barbarians” to do. If your stereotypical woad-covered Ancient Briton wasn’t up to inventing new stuff, then any archaeological change must come from outside. Small changes in style could be explained by trade; large changes by immigration.* This theory was known as “diffusion”, and was finally put to bed in the late 60s and early 70s.**

Cultural change took a long time to accept, partly because it complicates things. It’s not, itself, an easy explanation, compared to diffusion and migration. Moreover, archaeological theories of change were first adopted by “processual archaeologists”, who explained change in terms of biological and ecological analogies like the spread of muskrat populations.*** They were followed up by “post-processualists”, the postmodernists of the archaeological world, who liked to use words like “hermeneutics“. They introduced some important concepts into archaeological interpretation, but not in a very accessible way; and nevertheless their concepts were still the best means archaeologists had to discuss cultural change.****

Looking at historical evidence, though, it’s hard to see why the supposed correlation between migration and cultural change was accepted for so long. Take British history, for example. In the first millennium AD there were three major migrations that we know about from British history.***** The first, the Roman invasion, probably involved the fewest people of the three, but is extremely well-represented in both history and archaeology. The second, the invasion of the English-to-be, is represented in archaeology quite well, but there is huge debate as to the actual number of people involved. Particularly, genetic research has shown that the old 19th-century theory, that the Angles and Saxons completely replaced the previous Welsh-speaking inhabitants, is almost certainly wrong. The language changed, the rulers changed, but most of the people probably did not. The third, the migration of the Scots from Ireland into western Scotland, is well-known from history; it changed the language of western and highland Scotland, and the government of the whole country,****** but is impossible to find in the archaeological record. There are plenty of buildings and sites from the period in Scottish archaeology, but none of them give any indication that the culture of western Scotland was changing in the way that history tells us it did.

I had intended that this was going to be the final post about Tudor Parfitt’s Ark theory; but this post is growing to be rather larger than I’d thought it would end up.******* Additionally, my dinner’s ready. The final final part of these posts will talk more about cultural change, and show how it could, potentially, correct Professor Parfitt’s ideas.

The fourth and final part of this post follows, here »

* Moreover, changes in metalwork were seen as indicating trade or war, because metalwork must have been a man’s job, distributed either by traders (men) or raiding warriors (also men). Changes in pottery were seen as indicating mass migration, because pottery must have been “domestic”, made near the home, used by women, and so must have indicated homes, families, and therefore population movement. For a long time I’ve wanted to write a history of archaeology, largely because theories like that are so easy to take the piss out of.

** after Colin Renfrew – now Lord Renfrew – used radiocarbon dating with tree-ring calibration to show that metalworking was probably first invented in south-eastern Europe.

*** I’m not exaggerating: when I was a student, we were given, as a prime example of processual archaeology, a paper that compared artefact distributions to the spread of muskrats in, um, Canada I think.

**** the processualists, on the other hand, were pretty hot on technological change. I am, of course, extremely over-generalising on all this.

***** at least before the Danes and Norse arrived, towards the end of the millennium.

****** and gave it its name, of course.

******* and I’m clearly running out of footnotes.

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Calling Dr Jones (part two)

In which we discuss lost relics once more


Time to return to Tudor Parfitt‘s documentary The Quest For The Lost Ark, which I started to discuss last week. A brief recap: Prof. Parfitt has discovered, in a museum in Harare, a 14th-century southern African war drum whose descent can, arguably, be traced back to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, as described in Raiders Of The Lost Ark Exodus:

“Have them make a chest of acacia-wood: two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.

If you remember the film: the prop-makers on Raiders Of The Lost Ark followed this description pretty much spot-on. Tudor Parfitt, though, has another theory. As the Ark’s descendant is a drum, the original Ark must have been a drum also.

There are, though, a couple of glaring problems with this. Apart from one verse in the Quran,* the evidence we have for the Ark’s original existence comes from the Bible; from the Old Testament and related books. In all those Biblical references, it’s described in the same way, as a chest. That’s very clear. For Professor Parfitt’s theory to be correct, then we have to assume that although the ark existed according to our sources, all those sources are wrong about what it essentially was. It’s like saying “I believe the Battle of Agincourt happened just like it says in the chronicles – only it wasn’t a battle. And it was somewhere else.”

Furthermore, it makes good archaeological sense that the chest the Israelites built was indeed a chest. If you follow the description of the Ark in the Bible, it’s a chest, about a metre long, designed to be carried on poles. According to the Bible, it was built just after the Israelites had left their Egyptian bondage; and the Egyptians used very similar chests in their own religious rites. They had portable shrines, chests borne on poles just like the Ark, used to carry iconic statues in religious procession – just as the Ark was carried in procession in front of the Israelites. Indeed, Parfitt’s documentary covered all this, and pointed out that the description of the Ark quoted above is pretty close to a description of an Egyptian portable shrine. He didn’t believe in it, though, because it’s a very ornate object to be built by people wandering about in the desert.

In Deuteronomy there’s a different description of the building of the Ark:

At that time the LORD said to me, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden chest. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the chest.” So I made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands.

None of the ornate decoration, just a wooden box. A box, note. This passage has led some people to believe that there might have been two arks, an ornate one in the Temple and a practical one for use in war; but equally, it could be that the Israelites built a simple chest first and decorated it later.** In any case, it’s still most definitely a box, not a drum.

In order to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant was a war-drum, as Tudor Parfitt thinks, you have to argue that the Biblical Ark of the Covenant didn’t exist at all; and that the Israelites had some other holy object which they carried in front of them, some holy object for which there is no evidence at all. On the other hand, if you’re willing to embrace a more sophisticated model of archaeology and culture than Professor Parfitt apparently is, it’s quite possible that there is a 14th-century AD African war drum which is, in some way, a descendant of a 14th-century BCE*** Israelite reliquary. A lot can change in 2,800 years, after all. In the final part of these posts, we’ll talk about cultural change, the archaeology of Yorkshire, and why a holy chest might well become a holy drum over time.

Part Three of this post follows, here, even though I haven’t got around to the Yorkshire bit yet »

* Which agrees pretty much with one of the Torah’s description’s of the ark.

** Or, this could be a brief summary of the previous chapter which didn’t need to delve into the full specification.

*** That date’s based on Moses’ traditional Jewish birth date, in 1391 BCE

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