Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pendennis Castle

In the 1530s, as Henry VIII feared that his breach with Rome might lead to war with either of the great Catholic monarchs of western Europe, The Emperor Charles V or Francis I of France, or indeed with both of them, he ordered the construction of a string of fortresses along the south coast of England. Pendennis castle in Cornwall is one of the most complete of these. It was built in 1539 to guard the mouth of the Fal estuary and the safe anchorage inside, known as Carrick Roads. 

Pendennis is one of the first English forts to be designed specifically for cannon, and in consequence is utterly unlike a mediaeval castle in its design.It is low to the ground, 
but with several gundeck levels, and planned to enable its cannon to have a broad sweep over the estuary and the sea.



 A smaller but similar castle was also built at St.Mawes, on the opposite bank of the entrance to the estuary.

As it happened, the Spanish Armada of 1588 sailed straight past all Henry VIII's castles and did not attempt any landing on the south coast, which, in retrospect, might have been a more effective strategy. But the danger from Spain was present for the rest of Elizabeth's reign, and Pendennis was surrounded with a pentagonal fortification in 1597.

Pendennis was never attacked by a foreign invader. The castle only saw action when it endured a four-year siege in the Civil War, terminated when its Royalist garrison was obliged to surrender in 1646. It was rebuilt and modernised in the 18th century, and formed part of the coastal defences in both World Wars, when anti-submarine mines were laid across the estuary.   Until 1957 it was used for artillery training. 
     The site is now administered by English Heritage, and includes a later barracks and a museum.

Although Falmouth is now a major port, it was not built as a town until 1613. The earlier town was Penryn, a short distance upriver. Both Penryn and St. Mawes became classic "rotten boroughs", continuing to elect two Members of Parliament apiece, despite their very few inhabitants, until the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Wizard and the Sword

Udlotwyn was seated outside his cottage in the warm sunshine when he sensed coming towards him up the hill a sword with a man. When they were within sight he knew that his fears were justified.
    The man proved to be a youth; probably not more than about seventeen. He rode a good horse, but rode it clumsily, suggesting it did not belong to him: probably he had stolen it somewhere. But it was the sword he wore that worried Udlotwyn, for the sword was a demon.
   In past aeons, there had been many demons in the world, but now there were few: it was many years since Udlotwyn had seen one. They had come from Outside, he had been told, and the mighty wizards of past ages had striven to trap and imprison them, to preserve the world from the chaos and destruction they brought. He guessed that this one had been imprisoned in a sword ("Not a wise thing to choose!" he thought), and then buried deep in the earth for safety. Perhaps this youth had turned it up with his plough, and now he imagined he was possessed of a mighty weapon; but in fact the sword was possessing him. It would urge him on to deeds of violence, telling him that he could become a mighty hero, but in fact it would drain him dry, and when he was no more than an empty husk it would discard him and find a new bearer. In the meantime, he,Udlotwyn, would have to be very careful, for the demon in the sword would doubtless seek to kill him. Demons always hated wizards.
     Udlotwyn put forth his powers, out of practice though he was. Ignoring the youth, who would be under the sway of the sword, he concentrated on the most vulnerable target: the horse. By the time it reached the cottage,the horse was convinced it had gone lame in its right fore hoof and was limping badly.
   "Ho, wizard!" called the youth, brandishing his sword, "Bring me out your treasure, or I shall kill you now,rather than later, and slowly, rather than quickly!"
   That's the demon talking, thought Udlotwyn: how else would he know I'm a wizard? But the demand for treasure shows that the youth still has a mind of his own, otherwise he would have killed me immediately instead of wanting treasure. If I proceed carefully I may yet escape with my life.
    "Greetings, Sir Knight!" he said, "My treasure you are welcome to take, for what would an old man like me want with treasure? But it is hidden, and many spells are needed to unlock it,which will take time. But I see you horse is lame: you will not be able to ride far with him unless I cure him. I have food inside, and good water in my well. Pray you: stay a while in my humble cottage while I release the treasure".
   The youth dismounted, and being unaccustomed to riding, he had to return the sword to its scabbard in order to descend. Immediately the demon's hold over him was reduced, and Udlotwyn had little difficulty in persuading him that he was both hungry and thirsty. When the youth had come inside the cottage and was seated at the table, Udlotwyn placed before him not just bread, but the choicest wines and sweetmeats such as might be set before a monarch. Udlotwyn could sense the sword screaming Do not trust him! it's a trick!, but the youth's greed was now in full control of his mind, and it was not long before he had fallen into a deep drugged slumber.
    Udlotwyn unbuckled the youth's sword-belt and, taking care not to touch the sword with his hand, carried it to the back room and locked it in. He then returned to the sleeping youth and caused him to walk, all unawares, out of the cottage and mount his horse, where Udlotwyn secured him to the saddle. The animal was now recovered from its imaginary lameness, and he gave it a slap and commanded it to walk on. When the youth awoke,he would have forgotten everything that had passed. Udlotwyn hoped that the owner of the horse would not punish him: without the sword he seemed to be a harmless enough young man. Udlotwyn then returned to his cottage, sat down and wondered what to do next.
       Once, long ago, he reflected, the world was full of magic; but over the centuries it has all seeped away, and soon there will be none left. It is many years now since I met a wizard: maybe I am the last one. And this sword, perhaps, is the last demon remaining at large. But with no more wizards, who will be able to control even this single solitary demon? I must now watch over it, for as long as there is life in me.
     He entered the back room and with great reluctance drew the sword from its scabbard. Instantly he perceived the power of the demon as it spoke in his mind. Take me, master! it said. Together, none can resist our strength! Together we shall rule the world! But Udlotwyn knew it was only a deception. The demon in the sword would use him to spread death and destruction, and eventually, though it might take many years, in the end it would drain him dry and abandon him. But what could he do? It was said that in the past there had been mighty wizards who could expel demons, back to the Outside from whence they came. But I do not have that power, he thought: nor is there anyone remaining who could instruct me.
     He could still feel the sword tempting him with visions of power and glory, but although there was turmoil in his mind,he managed to resist, and decided on a plan. I must keep the sword here, he thought:  and then I must stay here to guard it; if necessary till the end of my life. But I must also place it somewhere even I will be unable to retrieve it, for I do not know whether I shall always be able to resist its temptations.
    He took the sword from its scabbard. Immediately it resumed speaking to him, promising wealth and glory. He felt his mind tottering as he walked across the back garden to the well. The sword guessed his intent. No, master, no! it shrieked, do no reject this chance! You can rule the world! You can restore the glorious days of magic! It took the last vestiges of Udlotwyn's will to take the cover off the well and drop the sword down. He heard it splash into the water far below. He the picked up several large stone and dropped them down until he was sure the sword was buried. He was utterly exhausted as he replaced the cover.
   He could still hear the voice of the sword, but it was now distant and faint. Maybe it would be best, he thought, to have a new well dug, in a different part of the garden. I shall say that the water from the old well is bad. As the men dig out a new well, I shall use the earth to fill in the old one. I had better do that part of the work myself, lest they should hear the sword and be tempted to look for it.
    He settled down to start his vigil. He would be there a long time.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Politicians as Monks

I was reading Friedrich Heer's book on the Holy Roman Empire when I was struck by the following comment, referring to Pope Gregory VII's campaign in the 11th century to enforce celibacy on the clergy and stamp out simony (the sale of clerical office). Heer wrote:-
   "Eliminate simony along with clerical marriage, and the clergy could be turned into monks. All great purifiers and radical revolutionaries want to turn men into monks: one thinks of Robespierre, but it also applies to  Lenin, since he trained his professional revolutionaries to renounce (.....) all binding attachments to other individuals".
   I'm sure this is right. Just as monks renounce the world with their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, so revolutionary extremists have demanded that their followers must abandon the things that motivate their fellow-creatures - the delights of love, achieving a reasonable standard of living, providing for their children, extending a helping hand to their friends - in order to give total dedication to the cause. Now of the examples Heer cites, Robespierre seems to have been virtually sexless, and his disapproving prissiness put him at odds with his sometime ally and eventual victim, the sensual, Rabelaisian Danton. Lenin was married but childless. Hitler's sex-life remains a mystery: he married Evan Braun only the day before their suicide. None of them appear to have been motivated by personal monetary gain. Mussolini, by contrast, was only too human in his lust for women and wealth; which is perhaps one reason why he was never fully convincing as a Fascist dictator. Karl Marx had a family, but made little attempt to earn money. He was perpetually short of funds, but that was because his financial management was hopeless: in fact he had inherited a comfortable legacy, and was given substantial sums by the successful businessman Engels.   
    It seems to be the case that we expect today's politicians to be so high-minded and idealistic that they are immune from the normal human motivations mentioned above: in other words, to be like monks. But, a cynic would protest, what is the point of engaging in the risky business of seeking political power unless you can thereby earn a decent living for your family and provide well-paid jobs for your friends and supporters? This was certainly the way political leaders behaved in Britain until a couple of centuries ago, and it is still the case in a great many countries today. Indeed, it is a truism that in an undeveloped economy virtually the only way of acquiring wealth quickly is to get into government and get your hands in the public till. Many noble families in Britain today owed their original rise to prominence thus. By contrast, today's political leaders in Britain at least are not paid well by executive standards, and very poorly paid compared with those on the national media who abuse them.
     When people tell me that politicians shouldn't be motivated by personal gain, I have one of two responses. If these people are on the political left, I say, "You mean like Hitler?", and if on the right, I say, "Like Lenin?"   

The only comparable group I can think of is creative artists; who, if they concentrate on producing work that the public actually wants to buy, are often accused of being "mercenary", and of betraying something called "artistic integrity". But creative artists too may have families to support, and do not want to be monks.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

"Claudine in Paris", by Colette

I had been told that Colette, the French writer, produced “light” novels. I chanced upon one of her early works, “Claudine in Paris”, in a charity shop and thought I would give it a go. I was astonished!
   This is the second of the “Claudine” novels, as narrated by Claudine herself. In it, Claudine, aged 17, and her father, leave their village home and go to live in Paris. They visit her father’s aged sister and meet her grandson, Marcel, who is Claudine’s own age. The aunt clearly has hopes of Marcel and Claudine getting together, but Claudine soon realises that the dandified youth is a homosexual. Instead she finds herself attracted to Marcel’s father, Renaud, a middle-aged widower. Quite by chance, Claudine meets an old school-friend, Luce, whom she remembered as a timid, mousy little thing, but who is now living in luxury as the mistress of a fat and unpleasant but very rich uncle. (Amongst other things, he makes her dress up as a schoolgirl and threatens to spank her if she gets her sums wrong). Luce delights in showing off her expensive new clothes and jewellery, but Claudine is disgusted; less at the immorality than at the thought of going to bed with an ugly old man. Next, Claudine receives a proposal of marriage from her father’s young assistant, but although she likes him, she turns him down flat. Her maid, a splendidly earthy woman from the village, approves, recommending “trying out” a prospective husband first, to see if he’s any good! Instead Claudine goes to see Renaud, and, knowing him to be a great womaniser, offers to be his mistress. He rejects this, and instead insists that Claudine marries him. Reluctantly, she agrees.

    A “light” novel indeed! I checked to see when the book was first published. It was in 1901! It would be controversial enough even today, would it not? It’s no wonder that our ancestors thought French novels were highly immoral! 

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Moslem Spain

Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, died in 632, and under his successors, the Caliphs, the new religion created a vast empire through the Middle East and North Africa. Alexandra fell in 642, followed by Carthage in 699, and in 711 a raiding party crossed the straits into Spain. They were commanded by Tariq, who landed at an impressive rock which became named after him: “Jebel Tariq”, the Mountain of Tariq; or as we would say: Gibraltar.
    In less than five years Tariq’s little army, of only a few thousand warriors, had smashed the Visigothic kingdom which had ruled Spain ever since the collapse of the western Roman Empire, killed the king and captured the capital of Toledo. 30,000 prisoners are said to have been shipped out as slaves. The whole of Spain apart from a small northern strip was now under Moslem rule, and expansion continued into France until the Moslem advance was finally defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours in 732.
   The Moorish rulers called their state “El Andalus”. It soon acquired a measure of independence because of events far away.
   In 661 the fourth Caliph, Ali, was murdered, and power was seized by Mu’awiya, who proclaimed himself Caliph and established his capital at Damascus, where his successors formed the Umayyad dynasty.  Ever since then Islam has been divided, because Shia Moslems maintain that only Ali’s descendants can be the true Caliphs. In 749 a revolt against the Umayyads began in Iran and quickly spread, until the last Umayyad ruler, Marwan II, was cornered and killed in Egypt, and all his relatives except one were hunted down and slaughtered. A new ruling dynasty, the Abassids, was established, but their centre of power was in Iraq, where a new capital, Baghdad, was founded in 762. Spain now lay at the far distant end of the Islamic empire, and the last of the Umayyads, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape and make his way there. Moorish Spain became an independent Emirate, and in 929, as the Abbasids declined, Abd al-Rahman III proclaimed himself to be Caliph.

   Moorish Spain was the most brilliant civilization of the early Middle Ages in western Europe. Besides its artistic and architectural achievements it was notable for its philosophers, Avicenna (Abu Ali al-Husayn: 980-1037) and Averroes (Abu al-Walid Mohammed ben Ahmad : 1126-98) through whose translations and commentaries on Aristotle ancient Greek thought first spread to Christian Europe. There was also a substantial Jewish population, tolerated by the Moslems and famous for their poets
   The capital of El Andalus was Cordoba, on the Guadalquivir river. Here the Great Mosque was begun in 785, with additions and embellishments added in later centuries, notably an elaborate mihrab. After the Reconquest, a cathedral was built in the heart of the reconsecrated mosque. 
    The tragedy of this great civilization was that the formation and growth of small Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain in the 11th century: Leon, Navarre, Aragon, Castile and Barcelona; coincided with the disintegration of the Caliphate into a series of petty states. Al-Andalus was assisted, or invaded, by various new forces of militant Islamists from Morocco: Almoravids, Almohads (whose leader, Ibn Tumart, proclaimed himself the Mahdi) and later Marinids. Many of these groups were culturally primitive and had little sympathy with the glittering culture of Al-Andalus. Cordoba itself was sacked by Berber soldiers in 1032, and in 1085 Toledo fell to Christian forces. The famous warrior known as El Cid dates from this era. In fact his career was distinctly ambiguous in its loyalties, since he was prepared to fight for either side, and held Valencia as a fief of the Almoravids from 1094 till his death in 1099.

Pope Eugenius II proclaimed a crusade in Spain. Would-be crusaders from north-western Europe found this a much easier focus for their activities than making the long and hazardous journey to Palestine; and in 1147 forces from England, Scotland, Normandy and Germany seized Lisbon, where the kingdom of Portugal was soon afterwards established.
   In 1212 King Alfonso VIII of Castile won a decisive victory at Los Navos de Tolosa, and this was followed over the next few years by the capture, one by one, of Cordoba, Valencia, Seville, the Balearics and the Algarve. By the end of the 13th century, Moorish Spain was confined to a strip in the south-east, with its centre at Granada. That this enclave held out for the next two centuries must be attributed to rivalries and disputes between the different Christian kingdoms. Once Spain was united by the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1479, Granada was doomed.
   Moorish Spain came to an end when Sultan Boabdil surrendered Granada in 1491. Ferdinand and Isabella entered the city in triumph in January 1492; which by coincidence was also the year when they decided to sponsor an Italian sailor named Christopher Columbus in his scheme to reach China by sailing across the Atlantic.
      The centuries of Moslem rule in Spain had profound consequences. It was estimated that there were about 300,000 former Moslems who were now officially baptised Christians, and the original purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was to investigate whether former Moslems and Jews were still secretly practising their old religious rituals. Also a very large number, even of the highest Spanish aristocracy, had Moslem or Jewish ancestors; and the hunt began for men of “pure blood”, without this contamination. Before long the decision was made to deport from Spain all Moslems and Jews, with disastrous effects on the Spanish economy.


The most visible sign today of Moorish Spain is the architecture. 

This splendid building is a former synagogue in Toledo, dating from the 12th century, and is now known as Santa Maria la Blanca. Since there was no specifically Jewish architectural style, it was built on Arabic principles. There was a major massacre of Jews here in 1381.

La Giralda in Seville: once the minaret of a great mosque and now the bell-tower of the cathedral. The lower part of the tower is Moorish, the upper part is 16th century Baroque.

The amazing arches in the great mosque of Cordoba, which was converted to a cathedral

Finally, some pictures of the Alhambra of Granada, one of the most magnificent buildings in Europe, if not the world.




Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Robert Graves and the White Goddess

Robert Graves is remembered for his poetry, his autobiography “Goodbye To All That” with its harrowing descriptions of life in the trenches in the First World War, and for his historical novels, particularly “I, Claudius”, which was made into a notable TV series. He also translated Suetonius’s “The Twelve Caesars” for Penguin Classics.
    One of his particular interests was mythology; particularly searching for common themes underlying different myths. In 1948 he published the strangest of his books: “The White Goddess”, which he described as a “historical grammar of poetic myth”. The book is actually a series of essays on a variety of topics, such as ancient Welsh poetry, the secret name of the Jewish God, known only to the High Priest, and the meaning of the mysterious number 666, the number of the beast in the Book of Revelation. But his main interest is in the notion of the great Triple Goddess, in her three forms of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Graves believes traces of her can be found in mythology all over Europe.  He also sees the Goddess as being the true Muse for a poet.

In the 19th century, scholars realised that almost all the languages of Europe were similar in structure and basic vocabulary, and that they seemed to be linked to Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language. The explanation postulated was this:-
    In the middle Bronze Age, around 2,000 B.C., Europe was invaded by a new people: the Aryans. They originated north of the Caucasus mountains, which are today the frontier between Russia and Georgia. (This is why, in American crime movies, the corpse of a white man is described as “Caucasian”. In the Second World War, Himmler sent an SS mountaineering team to plant a sacred banner on Mount Elburz in the Caucasus, to show that the Aryan race had returned to its homeland. Because of the unfortunate association with the Nazis, scholars nowadays prefer to use the term “Indo-European” rather than Aryan). Another branch of the Aryans moved through Persia (Aryan and Iran being essentially the same word) and into northern India.
    The Aryans, it was thought, were a male-dominated warrior society who worshipped the Skyfather, who was called something like “Di” or “Deiwus” (from which we derive the names Zeus, Deus, Jupiter and the Germanic wargod Tiw; and which, as J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out, survives in English only in the word Tuesday!). The earlier inhabitants of Europe, by contrast, were female-led and worshipped the mother-goddess, who was identified with the earth and with fecundity.

In 1955 Robert Graves’s two-volume edition of the Greek myths was published by Penguin Books. This massive compilation summarized over 170 myths, from stories of the creation to the travels of Odysseus, and Graves added his own interpretation to each of them. In this he was strongly influenced by Sir James Frazer’s famous survey of myths of the world, “The Golden Bough”, published in 1922, and perhaps also by Sigmund Freud’s venture into the world of ethnology and myths in “Totem and Taboo”. Amongst Frazer’s most famous ideas are that of the King, waiting for the man destined to kill him and take his place as consort of the Queen: the sacred King who is ritually killed every year to ensure the fertility of the crops. Graves thus saw the Greek myths as reflecting in legendary form the long contest between the indigenous matriarchal inhabitants of Europe and the incoming patriarchal Aryans; how Kings eventually ceased to be powerless consorts to be sacrificed and replaced every year, though ritualistic traces of this continued for many centuries, long after the original meaning had been forgotten. This theory, Graves believes, explains such strange and mysterious stories as, for instance, the murder of King Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra on his return from Troy; or Oedipus and his wife/mother Jocasta. Graves also thinks that the famous story of Paris, the young Trojan, meeting Hera, Athene and Aphrodite on Mount Gargarus, with a golden apple which he must give to the most beautiful of them, is a misunderstanding of an ancient icon showing the Sacred King before the Triple Goddess. In another of his books, “Hebrew Myths, the Book of Genesis”, Graves links all this with the Jewish mythological figure of Lilith, Adam’s other wife, who was an immortal witch-queen. 
   It should be pointed out that most scholars do not accept Graves’s theories at all. But he has had enormous influence on writers of fiction; seen most notably in Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die”, which retells the story of Theseus and the Minotaur on Gravesian lines. A comparison would be with Margaret Murray’s famous book, “The God of the Witches”, where, although the ideas behind it are rejected by modern scholars, the influence on the writers of fantasy and horror fiction has been huge.   

Footnotes:
Even the notion of the all-conquering Aryan invaders in their horse-drawn chariots has been challenged. The domination of a new language does not necessarily imply a massive population replacement. Modern genetic evidence often suggests only fairly low levels of immigration. However, the idea of the ancient mother-goddess has been revived by Marija Gimbutas.  You can hear her theories in a lecture on youtube, and they are discussed in Richard Rudgley's book, "Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age".