Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Border Ballads

The Border Ballads are poems and songs, anonymously composed between the Middle Ages and the 17th century, which reflect the turbulent, violent life on the frontier between Scotland and England during this period (The two kingdoms not being united under a single monarch till 1603). There were several major invasions from either side, but also endemic lawlessness, with constant local raids and feuds. The raiding-parties were known as "reivers". The monarchs in London and Edinburgh had no effective control over the border lands; what authority there was being in the hands of the great lords: the Howards, Percies and Nevilles, the Douglases and the Homes. Since to be isolated and alone in these lawless conditions was to be "every man's prey", the people banded together in extended families or clans; Armstrongs, Eliots, Grahams, Nixons and others; who in turn formed alliances or conducted feuds which might last for generations. Those who could afford it built themselves little castles for protection, known as "Pele" towers, the ruins of which still dot the borders.

One of the most amusing accounts of Borders life in the 15th century was written by an Italian priest, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (later to become Pope Pius II). Whilst on a diplomatic mission to Britain, he stopped at a farmhouse on the English side of the river Tweed. When nightfall approached, the  men took refuge in a nearby tower, for fear of Scots reivers, but left the women behind. They explained that the reivers did not kill women: the worst that could happen to them was rape, which didn't matter. Aeneas was also left in the farmhouse: it was explained that, being a stranger, he was unlikely to have his throat cut. During the night, two of the women asked Aeneas if he wanted sex. He turned them down; reflecting that if the reivers did then cut his throat, he would have died in a state of mortal sin! He preferred to spend the night bedded down in the straw with the farm animals.

The Border Ballads tell of the lives lived by the border people. Most of them tell of actual historical incidents. They tell of robberies and murders, feuds and betrayals. The atmosphere is entirely pagan: there is little trace of Christianity there, or indeed of any moral code other than the virtue of courage and the necessity of exacting revenge. As the great historian G. M. Trevelyan (who was himself brought up in the borders) says of the border people in an essay "The Middle Marches",

"Like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as the beasts of the forest; yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, and infinite pity for all the cruel things which they none the less perpetually inflicted upon one another."

These ballads were collected and written down in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most assiduously by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote several poems himself in this style, as did another contemporary Borderer, James Hogg, "the Ettrick shepherd".

My favourite Border Ballad tells of the Battle of Otterburn, which took place in 1388. Like many of the ballads, it is quite long; but here are the first few verses (I have retained some of the archaic spelling, which I think is quite evocative):-

"It fell about the Lammas tide
When the moor-men win their hay
The doughty Douglas vowed him ride
Into England, to drive a prey.
He chose the Gordons and the Grahams
The Lindsays, light and gay
But the Jardines would not with him ride
And they rue it to this day.

Now he has burned all the dales of Tyne
And parts of Bamburghsire,
Three tall towers on Redeswire fells
He left them all on fire.
He marched up to Newcastle
And rade it round about,
Crying, "Wha's the lord of this castle?
And wha's the lady o't?"

Then up and spake proud Percy there
And oh, but he spake high!
"I am the lord of this castle
My wife's a lady gay."
"If thou art the lord of this castle
Right well it pleaseth me,
For ere I cross the border fells
The ane of us shall die!"

And then he took a long spear in his hand
Shod with the metal free.
For to meet the Douglas there
He rade right furiously.
But oh! how pale his lady looked
Frae off the castle wall,
When down before the Scottish spears
She saw proud Percy fall."

(But Percy wasn't killed! He was Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, and he survived to be better known as "Harry Hotspur" of Shakespeare's history plays)

For more information about the Border reivers, see "The Steel Bonnets" by George Macdonald Fraser.

This is Hermitage Castle, latterly a stronghold of the Hepburns, up in the desolate lands of Liddesdale, north of Carlisle. The peculiar low arch on the left led to a local legend that the castle had sunk into the ground under the weight of its own wickedness!


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Days of the week

These are pictures I took of a Roman mosaic in Spain. It was made up of hexagons, six grouped around a central one, showing the heads of gods and goddesses.  Our guide didn't appear to know what they were all about; but looking at them now, it seems clear that they illustrate the gods who signify the days of the week.

The days in a week are named after the sun and the moon and the only five planets visible before the invention of the telescope: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; which were identified with Roman gods (including one goddess: Venus). This gives us seven, which, being a prime number, has magical significance. In English, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus are replaced by the Germanic gods: Tiw, Woden, Thor and Freya.

If we look at the picture below, starting at the top and moving anticlockwise, the sun-god and the moon-goddess are easy to identify, giving us Sun-day and Moon-day. The third figure in the war-helmet is obviously Mars, giving us Mars-day, or "Mardi" in French. In German mythology the wargod was called Tiw or Tiwaz or Tyr, giving us Tiw's-day.

The next picture anticlockwise is Mercury, messenger of the gods with the rather cute little wings. He gives us "Mercredi" in French. Tacitus tells us that the German equivalent of Mercury was Woden, so this gives us Woden's-day                                                                                                           

The next figure, continuing anticlockwise, is Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, wielder of thunder and lightning. The thunder-god in the German pantheon was Thor; so we have "Jeudi" in French and Thor's-day in English. But the last part of the mosaic is a little puzzling.

The cowled figure who completes the circle would appear to be Saturn, the god of old age; hence Saturn's-day; which would mean that the goddess in the centre must be Venus ("Vendredi" in French; the Germanic equivalent being Freya, goddess of fertility; hence Freya's-day). But why is she in the centre, out of sequence?   Was the Roman who had this mosaic made perhaps a particular devotee of Venus? 

P.S. I have since learned from Mary Beard's book on Pompeii that traders in the town referred to markets as being held on "Saturn's day", "Sun's day", "Moon's day", Mercury's day" and so forth. The Romans did not officially have a seven-day week, but perhaps found the idea more convenient to use than their official very cumbersome system of dating.                                                                                        

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Russian Empire

Perhaps the most unexpected achievement of Lenin and Stalin was their success in holding together the vast multiracial Russian Empire created by the Tsars, so that in the end it outlasted all the other European world-empires.

In the two centuries before the First World War the Tsars expanded their empire enormous distances from its ethnic Russian base around Moscow. It now stretched all the way across Siberia to the Pacific, and took the Amur provinces from the Chinese Empire. The Baltic provinces, Finland and most of Poland were incorporated, as were the Christian kingdoms beyond the Caucasus, and the Moslem lands of Central Asia, with their ancient cities of Samarkand and Bokhara. By 1914 ethnic Russians made up less than half the population of this vast empire. Everywhere the Tsars encouraged the local ruling elites to work within the imperial structure in return for their wealth being guaranteed: Baltic German nobles, Cossack warriors, Georgian clan chiefs, even Moslem emirs. In only a few cases did the Russians meet long-term resistance. It took half a century to compel the Chechens and other tribes of the Caucasus mountains to accept Russian rule, and the Jews, of whom great numbers lived in the western regions of the empire, were always subject to discrimination and occasional persecution, with the result that hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, and others became revolutionaries. The Poles never accepted Tsarist rule, and  from time to time they rose in rebellion and were crushed with great ferocity. (I once visited a Polish museum in Berkshire. The theme was entirely anti-Russian: you would never have learnt from it that Germany had twice overrun Poland in the past century; nor was there any mention of the once-great Jewish community in Poland)

Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, but initially they controlled only the ethnic Russian heartland around Moscow and up to Petrograd. Vast areas had to be surrendered to the Germans by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918, but after a vicious and enormously costly civil war, and the collapse of the German Empire, it turned out that almost all the old Tsarist empire had been recovered. Finland and the Baltic lands had been lost. The trans-Caucasian territories of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan attempted to break away, but wasted their energies quarrelling amongst themselves, and were forcibly incoporated into the Soviet Union a few years later. Poland, however, successfully beat off an invasion. By this time, however, the empires of Germany, Austria and Turkey had collapsed, but the Russian Empire was still there, albeit now in Communist garb. The national minorities in the frontier areas, particularly in the Ukraine, suffered particularly in Stalin's collectivisation of agriculture and Great Purge.

The end of the Second World War saw Stalin not only regain almost all the territories lost earlier, but also establish a cordon of client-states in central Europe, where any sign of independence was ruthlessly crushed. Only Finland of the old Tsarist empire now remained outside Soviet control. What was left of the ancient Russian Jewish community was once again persecuted in Stalin's last years, and several of the more awkward racial minorities; Chechens, Crimean Tartars and others; were deported to Siberia, where enormous numbers of them died before Khrushchev eventually let them return to their homelands. Local nationalism was a topic never to be officially discussed in the Soviet Union.

In the end, the Tsarist-Soviet Empire outlived even the British and French empires, and only came to an end with the collapse of communism in 1989-91. But the behaviour of Putin's government in Chechnia, Georgia and the Ukraine suggests that Russia's rulers are even now not fully reconciled to their empire's demise.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

John Stuart Mill on Liberty

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was the son of James Mill, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the political philosophy of Utilitarianism; being the theory that all actions should be judged solely by whether they promote “the greatest good of the greatest number”. John Stuart Mill (hereinafter referred to simply as “Mill”) was brought up according to his father’s unique educational theories, with the result that whilst still a teenager he was writing articles on economics for serious journals, and then at the age of 20 suffered a nervous breakdown which caused him to modify his beliefs. Before this, he had been arrested for distributing pamphlets on family planning and briefly imprisoned as a pornographer. In 1865 Mill was the only philosopher ever to be elected to Parliament, during which time he introduced a motion calling for votes for women, which attracted little support and much ridicule. His advocacy of this, and other deeply controversial matters such as easier divorce, resulted in him losing his seat in the 1868 general election. His most famous work, “On Liberty”, was written in 1859 as a tribute and memorial to his wife, Harriet, who had died the year before.

In this book, Mill advances a powerful plea in favour of a very wide degree of freedom, both of ideas and of lifestyle, but many of his arguments seem rather strange nowadays. Right at the start he announces that he will not attempt to argue that there is any “right” to freedom. “Human rights” was considered by the utilitarians to be a meaningless metaphysical concept (“Nonsense on stilts” according to Bentham): instead, Mill hopes to show that freedom is in the interests of man as a “progressive being”. The whole notion of “progress” is central to Mill’s thought: I shall deal with it at the end of this essay.

Mill shows his Victorian optimism by maintaining that there is no longer any need to defend freedom against a tyrannous government, but instead he detects new dangers in the more democratic society which was beginning to emerge, particularly what he calls “tyranny of the majority”. Society itself, he argues, now exerts powerful pressure upon us to make us conform to certain norms of behaviour, which are frequently mere prejudices without any rational base, thus fettering not only personal development but also changes in society. A democratic society, says Mill, has no more right to compel me to obey than does a single dictator. Mill’s other central tenet is that the only justification for coercing me is to prevent me from doing harm to others (what he calls “other-regarding actions“). “Self-regarding actions”, which affect only me (such as, what clothes I choose to wear) must be absolutely free. Coercing someone “for their own good” is justifiable only when dealing with children or lunatics; it is no way to treat civilized adults.

The second chapter of the book consists of a lengthy argument in favour of free speech and discussion. Nobody, says Mill, ever has the right to suppress new ideas, because that implies infallibility by the censor, and no-one should ever claim to be infallible. On the contrary, new ideas should always be welcomed, since without them there would be stagnation. There is, of course, no obligation to accept new ideas as true, but provided we give them serious consideration before deciding to reject them, something useful has been achieved, since we have been exercising our “mental muscles” in the process. Thus, even erroneous ideas can have an educative effect. Now this is all very well, but I do not see how it could be employed in an argument about, let us say, the censorship of pornography. Also, one will search in vain in Mill’s book for any discussion of how far the state may impose censorship in the interests of “national security”. The mid-Victorians felt so secure that they had no need for an Official Secrets Act!

Mill then moves on to discuss what we might call “liberty of lifestyle”, and which he calls “experiments in living”. He produces a number of different arguments in favour. Man, he says, is not a machine, but should be like a tree, allowed to develop and grow after his own nature. Pressure to conform to custom tends to produce mere “ape-like imitation”, and has no educative effect, whereas “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom”. We should not therefore worry too much about what the neighbours think of us. He goes as far as to call the English middle classes “a collective mediocrity”. The main argument, of course, is that without people who dare to live their lives in an unconventional manner, society will tend to stagnate and progress will come to an end.

In the remaining chapters Mill discusses a number of specific problems, such as alcohol, gambling and even (rather tentatively) deviant sexual behaviour. In each instance he is against any outright prohibition. The argument about alcohol may stand as typical. Undoubtedly, drunkenness is a matter of public concern; it leads to crime and accidents; alcoholics may be unable to hold down a job and so their families will have to be supported from public funds. Does it therefore follow that alcohol should be totally prohibited, and I should be forbidden to have an occasional glass of beer? Certainly not! Most people who have an occasional drink do not become alcoholics, any more than most people who have a flutter on the Derby every year become compulsive gamblers. Perhaps confirmed alcoholics (or compulsive gamblers) should be treated differently from other people; but otherwise prohibition would be a gross interference with the freedom of the purchaser. We may wonder whether Mill’s arguments are applicable to modern concerns which he does not discuss, such as drugs or firearms. Mill also opposes the enforcement of Sunday Observance laws, and says that the Mormons should be allowed to live their own lives in Utah free of persecution. For deviant sexual behaviour, Mill would appear to side with the lady who said, according to legend, “Just as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!” He thinks anything should be permitted, provided it takes place in private and only freely consenting adults are involved. It is not easy to see how these freedoms can be defended without some postulation of “human rights”.

Finally Mill gets himself into a dilemma over the question of education. It is clearly highly utilitarian and conducive to progress that all children should go to school; but this will involve some coercion (since many parents would prefer their children to be out earning money), it will cost a great deal of money, which will have to be met from taxation, and will involve a massive extension of state power, which Mill always opposes. Furthermore he does not trust the state to run schools: no state could resist the opportunity this would provide for indoctrination through propaganda, and state schools would inevitably become “a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”. Mill would have had in mind the schools of France under the Emperor Napoleon III, but his fears can well be applied to later and more totalitarian dictatorships.

The central concept in Mill’s ideology is “Progress”, and this obsession he shared with many contemporary intellectuals, not least Karl Marx. The mid-Victorians were aware that the society they lived in had changed very fast over the previous half-century, and that it had developed unprecedented manufacturing power which was enabling them to take over the world. Other civilisations have been left far behind. How and why had this happened? And how to ensure that this progress continued? Mill believes he has the answer. Progress, he thinks, can only come through individuals who dare to think and act differently from the masses around them: conformity is likely to bring stagnation and an end to progress. He clearly has no faith in the ability of the state to plan and implement progress, and he specifically cites China of his day as a dreadful warning of how societies which are too dominated by tradition will fall behind their more dynamic neighbours. Marx in the “Communist Manifesto” sings a hymn of praise to capitalism, which has taken mankind onto a higher level of civilisation than anything seen before. But Marx believes that capitalism will soon form a drag on any further progress, and will be replaced by a superior form of civilisation, namely, “Communist society”. Forty years later, Marx’s friend Engels (in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”) outlined how after the revolution the new Communist state would plan progress. This was not a notion which would have met with Mill’s approval.

Mill's intention, I am sure, was to create a new basis for morality, which would not be founded on the traditional base of "God commands this." Like all Utilitarians, Mill was an unbeliever. The foundation of his moral code was that the only actions which can be proved to be wrong are those which injure other people - and do them actual harm; not simply offend their religious and moral standards. This is not a foolproof standard of judgement, but is probably better than any other.

In another book, "Considerations on Representative Government", Mill discusses the issue of democracy and freedom. In a democracy, "tyranny of the majority" takes on a political form. Mill argues that a democratic majority has no more right to restrict my personal liberty than does a single dictator. I hope to deal with this matter in a future essay.