Monday, 30 June 2014

Castles of the Welsh Marches

The borderland between England and Wales was a "wild west" for most on the Middle Ages. Wales was conquered by Edward I in the late 13th century, though there was a major rising under Owain Glyndwr, who proclaimed himself Prince of Wales in 1400, but was driven from his strongholds and died around 1415. Because of the turbulence and lawlessness, the great noble families who dominated the borderland, Bohun, Clare, Mortimer, Montgomery and others, known as the "Marcher Lords", were given extraordinary powers. Later, under the Yorkist kings, the Council of Wales was set up, usually under a member of the royal family, to try and impose some law and order. It was only in the 1530s that the Marcher lordships were abolished, with Wales fully integrated with England and Welsh M.P.s elected to the Westminster Parliament. The borderlands remain thinly populated even today.

The region boasts a number of fine castles. One of the best is Ludlow, the seat of the Council of Wales, still dominating the crossing in the River Teme to the west. (I have more pictures of Ludlow castle on an earlier blog entry)

Clun castle was a stronghold of the Fitzalans, but the large windows in the late 13th century keep suggest that it was not expecting a serious assault by that time

Montgomery castle is over the modern border, in Powys. It was first built in the 1220s, and stands on a natural outcrop of rock in a splendid position overlooking the plains to the north and east. It was partially destroyed after surrendering to Parliamentary forces in 1644.

Wigmore castle, in Herefordshire, was founded not long after the Norman Conquest, and soon came under the control of the Mortimer family. Their most famous member was Roger Mortimer, who in 1327 deposed and murdered Edward II and for a brief while ruled England as the lover of Queen Isabella, before himself being overthrown and executed by the young Edward III in 1330. But the Mortimers soon returned to favour, and all English monarchs since the 15th century have been descended from them

Shrewsbury was once the site of an important castle, but what we see now is mostly a replacement built by Thomas Telford at the end of the 18th century.

All that survives of Bridgnorth castle is the Norman keep, now leaning at a precarious angle!

The "castles" at Stokesay and Acton Burnell are really only fortified manor-houses, designed to do no more than look impressive and perhaps deter the odd Welsh cattle-raid. (See other blog entries for details and pictures of these)
Some castles only survive as earthworks, like the remains of this little motte-and-bailey at Rushbury, nowadays defended only by sheep.
The motte at Pulverbatch doesn't even have sheep!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Sunni and Shia

The division between Sunni and Shia Moslems, which has become so prominent in Iraq, goes back to the earliest days of islam,and has received far too little attention from our political leaders.
    The success of the First Crusade was very largely due to this division. Jerusalem had recently been taken over by the Egyptians, who were ruled by the Fatimids, a Shia dynasty. The Egyptians and the Turks (who were Sunni) hated each other at least as much as they both hated the crusaders, and were never able to co-operate properly against them. But once Saladin had conquered Egypt and restored it to the Sunni faith, the crusades were doomed.
   Saladin was a Kurd, from a family of mercenary soldiers. His battles against Richard the Lion-Heart won him the reputation in Europe as a romantic chivalrous warrior. Dante in his "Inferno" places Saladin, uniquely, in the circle of "Virtuous pagans", alongside the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. But as far as I am aware, Saladin is given far less status in Moslem tradition.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The hero in mythology

In his writings on mythology, such as "Jocasta's Crime" and "The Hero", Lord Raglan discusses the characteristics of a typical mythological hero. We can list these, with a few additions and amendments:-

*The hero is the firstborn child (often the only child) of his mother, who may be of royal descent, or a priestess

*His father is of royal descent, often closely related to the mother, but:-

*It is believed that his true father is a god

*His birth takes place in unusual circumstances, and is attended by various signs and omens

*Soon after his birth, powerful people attempt to kill him, and he has to be spirited away to a distant place

*Little is known about his childhood and youth, though there may be the occasional story illustrating his prodigious talents

*Embarking on his career, he undergoes some ordeal or religious initiation, or:-

*Alternatively, he may kill a monster, or the existing king

*He then marries a princess, who may be the daughter of his predecessor, and becomes the king

*He may be a warrior-king, but he also prescribes laws and religious observances, and rights social injustices

*Eventually he loses the favour of the gods and/or his subjects, and is driven out, or:-

*He is betrayed to his enemies by someone close to him

*He suffers an ignominious death, often on top of a hill

*He is not succeeded by his son (often he has no children)

*He has no tomb, but:-

*There are several holy sites devoted to his cult

Lord Raglan then runs through the stories of various heroes to see how well they tally with these criteria, mostly from the classical corpus (i.e. Graeco-Roman): Oedipus, Theseus, Romulus etc, but then ranging further afield; through Moses, Siegfried, King Arthur, Robin Hood and Llew Llaw Gyffes to Nyikang (Sudan) and Watu Gunung (Java); noting the similarities of the stories.

Why should there be such extensive similarities? Raglan, drawing upon the pioneering work of Sir James Fraser ("The Golden Bough") wonders whether the myths have spread outwards from a central source (perhaps Egypt?) and are based upon an ancient religious ritual: the Sacred King who is sacrificed every year to ensure the continuity of the seasons and the fertility of the crops. Robert Graves ("The Greek Myths") wonders if the myths are a distant memory of events which actually happened, in the time of the Indo-European migration into Europe in the early Bronze Age. Neither theory explains how similar stories are told in very distant cultures. Perhaps the myths embody ideas deep within the human psyche? Freud suggests this in "Totem and Taboo"

As an alternative, we may ask how reliable is our understanding of the myths and legends of distant cultures. These were mostly collected from peasant oral traditions by 19th century western European researchers, and translated and retold for western European audiences. Both the collectors and their readers would have been steeped in the classical traditions, and would always be inclined to interpret the new stories in that light: they would know in advance what ought to happen to a mythological hero! For the same reason, genuinely historical heroes tend to get suitable legends attached to them, especially concerning their frequently obscure childhood years. Such pseudo-history may become attached to, for instance, Alexander the Great or William Wallace.
      Raglan carefully refrains from giving a rating to Jesus considered as a mythical hero, but maybe the same considerations apply. The notion that God could come down to earth and father a child upon a human woman would be anathema to orthodox Jews, but very familiar to anyone brought up on the Classical myths. We are likely to have a convergence of stories, from history through pseudo-history, legend and mythology to pure fiction: from William Wallace through Robin Hood and King Arthur to Hiawatha.

The theories of Raglan and Graves are generally discounted by modern scholars, but have been very useful to novelists: for instance, the ritual sacrifice of the Sacred King as being an actual historical event features prominently in Mary Renault's "The King Must Die"

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Utilitarianism and the Arts

The founding father of utilitarian philosophy was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He argued that everything should be judged by its "usefulness"; by which he meant its ability to increase pleasure and diminish pain. These two concepts were self-defining: "pleasure" = "what I to like to experience": "pain" = "what I dislike". The purpose of the arts was obvious: namely, to give people pleasure. But this led to a famous controversy, which has been summed up in the phrase, "Poetry versus Pushpin" (Pushpin being a trivial game played in pubs). Some people enjoy reading Shakespeare; other people enjoy playing pub games. But can we say that in any sense it is "better" to read Shakespeare than to play pub games? Bentham thought, "No". The purpose of both poetry and pushpin is to provide pleasure to the participant: if it achieves this, it has fulfilled its purpose; if it does not, it has failed. It is quite futile for me to tell someone that he "ought" to like Shakespeare, rather than "wasting his time" playing pub games which he enjoys.

Bentham's most famous follower, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) took a very different attitude. Mill was a mid-Victorian, and an exact contemporary of Karl Marx, and like Marx he was obsessed with the idea of "Progress", a concept quite unknown to Bentham's contemporaries. The western world was industrializing, creating a completely new form of society, and in consequence was rapidly taking over the rest of the world. Nothing like this had ever happened before in all human history. Why had this progress occurred, and how could it be maintained? Mill's answer to this was different from Marx's. To Mill, progress was achieved by individuals who dared to think for themselves; to experiment with new ideas and new ways of living: conformity led to stagnation and the likelihood of being overtaken by more progressive cultures. Mill has been accused of being interested only in a "clerisy"; a small elite of enlightened individuals who would provide leadership and guidance, but this is most unfair. What Mill wanted was for the whole community to be "a mentally active people", who would be prepared to think for themselves and make rational judgments, not simply blindly accept what they were told. Mill therefore argued for greater democracy, including votes for women, because he believed the mass of people in his day were capable of independent thought; and, furthermore, that participatory democracy would encourage it.
     Mill therefore profoundly disagreed with Bentham on the "Poetry versus Pushpin" issue. There was no question that, from the point of view of achieving progress, reading Shakespeare was much better than playing pub games. Reading Shakespeare encourages you to think about important issues! It involves exercising what Mill called the "mental muscles", which, he believed, just like the physical muscles, would atrophy and decay without frequent use. The purpose of the arts is educative: they should be a stimulant, not a sedative. If a poem or a painting is "difficult" to understand; so much the better! By striving to understand it, even if you eventually decide you don't like it, you have achieved something; exercising your brain and expanding your field of knowledge. If we are to progress, both as individuals and as a society, we must always be open to new ideas, to accept that other people might know more than us, and to listen to them. Of course, this does not mean we always have to accept the new ideas, or to believe what the so-called experts tell us, but we should always give such things careful consideration, although we may ultimately reject them. Without this process, replacing the old ideas with new ones where necessary, there can be no progress.
      (Living in the 20th century, Mill would have made the point that taking time to study Shakespeare could, at the very least, be highly utilitarian in that enables you to pass exams and thus qualify for a better-paid job. Nowadays, with soap operas and pop songs being the subject of university dissertations, this has become more questionable: though Mill might have conceded that the important thing is the exercise of the critical faculties rather than the subject itself. And we shall pass over the people who are able to earn a good living by playing, not pushpin, but other pub games!)

I once discussed with a conservative philosopher the question of whether there had been any "progress" in the arts (he thought not). The point I made was that where there has undeniably been progress is in access to the arts. The great mass of the people can now experience good art, literature and music (however we choose to define "good"), at little or no cost, in a way unimaginable until quite recently. I'm sure Mill would have approved.    

What, and who, ultimately decides whether one poem or painting is in any sense "better" than another? Bentham would have said, what is best is what gives most pleasure to most people. Mill undoubtedly thought that some poems and novels and paintings were better than others, and if pressed he would probably have said, listen to what the experts have to say and then make up your own mind. But are there any objective standards by which the arts can be judged? A rigid classicist like, Doctor Johnson in the 18th century, would unhesitatingly say, "Yes!" But things are less clear today. If merit were to be decided by democratic vote, then the latest soap-opera would be judged better than Shakespeare, chocolate-box art better than all abstract expressionism, and a pop song better than Mozart or Beethoven, and we are right back to Jeremy Bentham. Should instead the evaluation be done by a handful of cognoscenti, as Mill was accused of favouring? But that sounds distinctly elitist, and furthermore calls into question the validity of democracy in other fields as well, such as the assessment of the government's economic policy. I cannot see any easy answer to this question.

Once when I was talking to a man who lectured in modern art, I admitted that I found much of it difficult to understand. He replied (rather loftily, I thought) that a mere layman like me couldn't be expected to understand these things; it should be left to the experts to provide guidance. I told him that he was in danger of converting me to Socialist Realism. This is a term which merits explanation.
    It is often forgotten that Russia at the start of the 20th century was one of the great centres of experimental abstract art, with such masters as Malevich, Tatlin, Chagall and many others. Several of these artists supported the Bolshevik revolution, but when things had settled down, Lenin instructed them to start producing revolutionary art. They replied that their art was revolutionary, but of course that was not what Lenin meant. To Lenin, art served no purpose unless it was easily accessible to the mass of the people: pictures painted with photographic accuracy, straightforward novels and stories about ordinary people's lives, poems which could be readily memorized and recited, tunes which everyone could hum on their way to work. Anything over and above this was elitist and (the ultimate hate-word!) "bourgeois". Also, the arts had a propaganda purpose, pointing the way to the communist future. As our guide put it on my first visit to the Soviet Union, "'Art for art's sake' was replaced by a superior concept: 'Art for the people's sake'". This was utilitarianism in the arts returning with a vengeance! What resulted was Socialist Realism.
    What was so destructive of the arts in the USSR was not so much Socialist Realism in itself as the fact that soon nothing else was officially permitted, and that under Stalin all the arts became instruments of crude propaganda. Paintings showed mostly scenes of heroic workers and peasants, and literature was full of the most servile praise for the Soviet leadership and its achievements. Many of the brightest literary talents, like Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, perished in the purges; others, like Anna Akhmatova, were officially denounced but managed to survive. Even in music, Shoshtokovich found his opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtensk" savagely attacked and was forced into a grovelling recantation. (It has been pointed out that Stalin shared with Hitler the artistic tastes of a mid-19th century conservative: a preference for paintings which had a clear and obvious "message", for poetry which rhymed, for music which had recognizable tunes) Russian cultural experimentation was damaged beyond recall.
    In the end the Soviet Union and the whole communist system collapsed, largely because it was unable to keep up with the capitalist west in productivity or in living standards. This would not have surprised Mill. He never had any faith in the ability of the state to plan progress, and always cited Russia (under the Tsars in his time, of course) as a country whose progress was severely retarded by an oppressive government and a lack of individual freedom. We in this country are fortunate in that the artistic tastes of our political leaders are of no importance whatsoever!  

 George Orwell once said that the only true test of the arts is survival: will the books still be read decades or centuries later? By any literary standard, George Meredith was a much better writer than Conan Doyle, yet hardly anyone reads Meredith's novels nowadays, whereas Sherlock Holmes is one of the best-known fictional characters in the world. (Interestingly enough, Conan Doyle thought his best work was his historical novels, which are now completely forgotten). Orwell's definition is not foolproof, but I have yet to hear a better one.  

Monday, 2 June 2014

Beaumaris Castle

Anglesey, the island off the north-west coast of Wales, was once the centre of the Druid religion, which the Romans were at pains to exterminate. In the 13th century it was strategically important in Edward I’s conquest of Wales: not only did it control access by sea to the whole Snowdon massif, but as a comparatively flat area it provided the best farmland in north Wales.
Edward seized the island in 1267, in his war against the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, only to return it to Llywelyn in a peace treaty a few months later. In 1272 Llywelyn was killed in battle and his brother Dafydd was captured and executed the next year. After more revolts in 1294-5 Edward was determined on a permanent subjugation of Wales.

Anglesey was taken by amphibious assault in spring 1295. A town called Llanfaes in the most easterly part of the island, commanding the entrance to the Menai straits between Anglesey and the mainland, was destroyed and its inhabitants resettled in Newborough. In the hope of attracting new settlers, the place, which was low-lying, was renamed “the beautiful marsh” – “Beaumaris” in Norman French, which was still the language of the court. (Compare the Marais district of Paris). Here Edward’s master-builder, James of St. George, was instructed to build a castle.
Since the site was completely flat, with no natural defensive features, Master James designed a classic concentric castle, square in shape, with a moat supplied from the sea, a gatehouse and inner and outer baileys separated by a massive inner wall.

The castle looks as if it was intended for comfortable living as much as for defence. Certainly it was never finished, and was never attacked. The town of Beaumaris lies outside the gatehouse: a peaceful little coastal resort, with fine views across the narrow straits to the looming mass of Snowdon.