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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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In which FP becomes a rather paranoid architectural historian

In field archaeology, there’s a subtle process that field workers undergo called “getting your eye in”. A plain brown swathe of earth, after a few hours’ work, becomes suddenly a complex landscape of shade and texture. A mass of tumbled stone becomes a distinct sequence of structural building and collapse. All of a sudden, the things on the ground start to make sense.

When you’re buying a house, I’ve found, the same sort of thing starts happening on an architectural level. All of a sudden I can spot cracks in plaster I’d never have noticed before, or the slight dimples in walls that can indicate buried wires. All this, of course, is a result of reading surveyors’ reports, reports that are paranoid to mention every slight little thing that could potentially cause a future problem.

“Large degree of springing in floorboard” first makes me think: oh no! We only have to jump too hard and we’ll disappear into the basement. But then, I think back, and start comparing it to other places. I start walking lighter and paying more attention to my feet in every building I enter. The flat we live in now, for example, has very springy floorboards. If you walk too heavily in the living room, you can see the bookshelves moving slightly. In the hallway there’s a big gap between two boards that you can feel through the carpet with your toes, and another patch where you can feel the boards have been cut then never put back securely. And even this isn’t as bad as another flat I lived in briefly a few years back, with floors so uneven I always think of it as: not so much a flat, as a slightly rippled.

Now, I’m not saying that being sharp-eyed is a bad thing. But sometimes it’s possible to be too sharp-eyed, and spot so many little details that it worries you. This “new” house might have bouncy floorboards here and there, but of all the houses we looked at, it probably has fewer of these little flaws than any others of similar age. It is fun, getting the chance to be an archaeologist again, poking around to work out what’s under the garden gravel and how usable the chimneys are.* I hope that eventually, though, we’re going to be able to relax a little, sit back, and not worry that one moving floorboard means the house is doomed to crumble into its foundations.

* One of the chimneys is definitely still open and functional, but that fireplace appears to have had its damper plate patched up with some sort of papier-mache or cardboard, so I wouldn’t fancy lighting a fire in it.

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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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In which we try to justify a one-line description

Talking of Robespierre, I recently said that he was, well, one of the villains of the French Revolution. And – well, he is and he isn’t. He’s also someone who, in many ways, I admire: that’s not really a way you can describe a villain. But, having thought of the handy “for some people he’s a hero, for others he’s a villain” line, I couldn’t bring myself to call him a hero.

“Apologia”, incidentally, doesn’t mean the same as “apology”. It’s something more like “justification”. It’s possible to justify almost anything, of course;* but I think there are good reasons to say that Robespierre couldn’t really be called anyone’s hero.

Admirable, he was. For people who don’t know much about him: he was a fairly dull provincial lawyer who suddenly had a chance to thrust at power. When the King of France decided to call the Estates-General – the closest thing ancien regime France had to a parliament, but lucky to get convened once a century – he strained to get himself elected, then strained to get closer and closer to power on a platform of radical equality and socialism. He wasn’t a typical-looking revolutionary, though: always carefully-dressed, never a sans culotte and refusing to wear the red cap of liberty, he set up a new Deist state religion at the same time as trying to introduce state education. Identifying himself as the revolution personified, he became obsessed with purging France of anyone he considered counter-revolutionary: people could be executed on a rumour that they’d told a joke, with no right to defence. After one final blood-soaked month,** he was purged himself, by the other members of the National Convention, ostensibly on the grounds that he was too lenient to his friends. He was never a dictator, despite his enemies’ claims: if he had been, his death would hardly have happened in the way it did.

So why is he admirable? He started off from a point of principle – particularly, the works of Rousseau – and he never, ever compromised. It caused him problems: he refused to ever admit his mistakes, even when executing someone who had earlier been an ally. But he was the sort of politician who it’s impossible to imagine nowadays: one who said what he believed, who stood by what he believed, and could never consider compromising a policy to further his personal career. His nickname was “the Incorruptible”, and it was used as both a compliment and almost as an insult.

I could never call him a hero, though. Admirable, but not a hero, and for precisely the same reason. Although he was perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for France, he was all too willing to sacrifice other people too. If a friend disagreed with him, however close a friend, then they would end up purged for the good of the country. For the Incorruptible Robespierre, being pure and incorruptible was more important than any personal loyalty; and any form of dissent was seen as treasonable behaviour. Dissent against himself, that is, meaning the same as dissent against the Revolution itself.

Heros, I’d say, should be people you want to adore close-up. Robespierre might be admirable, but he is somebody I’d always want to stay at arms’ length from. He’s not, never could be, a black-and-white person; but if it comes down to hero or villain, then he could never ever be my hero.

* especially if you have access to a word processor.

** during which the guillotine had to be moved further and further from the centre of Paris, as the bloodflow was contaminating the water supply

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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 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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In which we make better documentaries

We sat down last night to watch one of the Christmas present DVDs: Arrested Development Season 3. It got me thinking, after yesterday’s post, about pseudo-archaeological documentaries.

I don’t mean Professor Parfitt’s documentary described yesterday, so much as the far wilder theories produced by, say, Graham Hancock, or the many who have followed on from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. You know the sort: the sort who will tell you, straight-faced, that the Bavarian Illuminati knew the secrets of the Knights Templar, who had found ancient Jewish documents containing the mystical secrets of Egypt and the bloodline of Jesus, whose descendants formed the Priory of Sion, founded the Freemasons, who preserve the secret that Atlantis was in Antartica, and who hope to return to the French throne as predicted by Nostradamus. And that you would already know all this, if it wasn’t being kept secret by a global conspiracy involving the Pope, the British royal family, and the Bilderberg group. That sort of documentary. The sort which is bound, somewhere, to contain the line: “if the documents we had found in the obscure archive were true, it would mean rewriting the history books.”

Anyway, if you didn’t watch Arrested Development – and not many people did – one of its constant features was a narrator’s voiceover, performed by Ron Howard.* A rather sarcastic narrator’s voiceover, pointing out every moment where the characters lie or make a mistake.** And that’s exactly what all those documentaries need.

Presenter: If the documents we had found in the obscure archive were true, it would mean rewriting the history books.

Ron Howard: But they’re not.

A thousandfold improvement, I think you have to agree.

* who has lately been directing a movie based on a Dan Brown book, so will know exactly what I’m talking about.

** which is rather frequently.

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Great Spectacle Wearers From History

In which we consider Robespierre’s eyesight

Since briefly writing about Maximilien Robespierre the other week – particularly, writing about the biography Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr – I’ve had a couple of search hits from people looking for Robespierre information. And one, in particular, tickled me.

maximilien robespierre glasses

Drinking glasses with Robespierre etched on the side? Possibly. But, I assumed, about spectacles. Because Robespierre was famous for wearing spectacles. His whole life, he had terrible eyesight. He habitually wore glasses with green-tinted lenses, and often when speaking, a second pair over the top.

He was both short- and long-sighted, so everything he saw was slightly blurred. His glasses helped him focus, they filtered the harsh sunlight, and they were also props used to dramatic effect as he spoke at the tribune. (Scurr, p10).

Strangely, though, there are barely any portraits of Robespierre that show him wearing glasses. There were probably thousands of images of him made during his lifetime – his own study was practically papered with him – but in just about all of them his forehead and eyes are bare. There is one portrait showing them resting high on his forehead; and one rough sketch, made the day before his death, in which he’s wearing them.

Maybe it’s something about his depiction, often in an idealised fashion; but that doesn’t apply to all the portraits made of him by a long chalk. Maybe, though, it’s about his own personality. Robespierre had something in common with the modern far-left politicans George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan: a noticeable pride in his own appearance and clothing, bordering on vanity.* He always dressed well, as well as he could afford, and fashionably.** Maybe he didn’t want to be seen in glasses, even though he had to wear them all the time. It’s certainly a possibility. If he was around today, I’m fairly sure that he’d go for contacts.

* Apart from that, and their place on the far left, he had very little else in common with them, of course. On the one hand: Robespierre did achieve a position of high political importance in his lifetime. On the other, he’s unlikely to ever appear on Celebrity Big Brother, what with being dead, and all. Robespierre was often libelled in the press; his response was to start his own political newspaper. Court cases weren’t really an option at the time.

** The BBC’s rather unhistorical Saturday-teatime version of The Scarlet Pimpernel was particularly inaccurate here, showing him always in dour black outfits, when he was famous for his brightly-coloured jackets and embroidered waistcoats.

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we have history in words, and archaeology in pictures

Over on the bookshelves – not the bookshelf I talked about the othe day – is an interesting little local book, by an artist called Cleo Broda. It’s called Symes Avenue: Building On The Past, and it’s about the rebuilding of the centre of Hartcliffe, and the ways in which public art was involved in the rebuilding; particularly, community art which celebrates the area’s history.*

Hartcliffe doesn’t have a particularly long history: it was built from scratch in the 1950s and – typically for a 1950s council estate – was shiny and sparkling for the first few years, but decayed. By the time the term “social exclusion” came along, Hartcliffe was a prime example; so the 2000s plan to knock down the old, mostly boarded up shopping street and replace it with a new supermarket and community centre was definitely a Good Thing. The book concentrates on efforts to preserve memories of the estate, record oral histories of its origins, and generally recapture the optimism felt when it was first founded.

Quotes from the oral histories collected during the project fill the cover of the book. Reading through them, I noticed one in particular:

The stone circles at Stanton Drew are three miles from here as the crow flies

I’d heard of Stanton Drew, at some point in my education. And I knew that Hartcliffe was right out at the edge of the countryside. So – look, I’m finally getting to the point – one day, we went out there. To take photos of the stones.

Standing stone, Stanton Drew stone circles Tree, Stanton DrewRecumbent stone, Stanton Drew
Standing Stones, Stanton Drew Standing stone, Stanton Drew Standing stones, Stanton Drew

Partly, it’s the road network that does it. There are no good roads north from there; only the road east-west from Pensford to Chew Magna. If you want to try to head up into Hartcliffe or Bishopsworth, you have to try your luck on the narrow and twisty country lanes. There’s no sign that the sprawling council blocks are only just over the hill.

* if you want a copy, I believe they can be picked up for free from Hartcliffe Library for as long as the print run lasts.

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