Thursday, 31 December 2015

Why astrology isn't a science

The fundamental notion underlying astrology is that the heavenly bodies control,influence or predict what happens on earth. This belief goes back to the very earliest ages of humanity, and it is easy to understand why it arose. Our remote ancestors observed the endless turning of the heavens, where different constellations of the stars were visible at different times of the year, the phases of the moon, the rising of the sun in the heavens in spring and its falling in autumn; and they would have wondered why these happened. They would also have noticed that there were certain heavenly bodies which looked like stars but behaved quite differently, for they moved about in a strange way; sometimes reversing, sometimes disappearing for months at a time. The Greeks called them "planets": this is, "wanderers". There were five of them: we call them Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (the outer planets are too faint to be seen with the naked eye), and they were identified with gods. Early observers would also have noticed that these planets were only to be seen in a certain belt of constellations, which also happened to be the path with the sun and moon followed across the sky. These constellations are called the zodiac. To put this in simple terms: the most readily identifiable constellation is Orion, which dominates the southern sky in winter, though it cannot be seen in summer. The sun and moon follow a path just above Orion, through the constellations of Gemini (above and a little to the left) and Taurus (above and a little to the right). Planets may be seen along this same path, but not anywhere else. The five planets, plus the sun and to moon, give us the total of seven, whence come the seven days of the week. In addition, there were such occasional alarming phenomena as eclipses, comets and showers of meteorites.
     To our ancestors, none of this could be accidental, or have no relevance to us: it must be the gods sending us messages, if only we had the knowledge to interpret them. Astrology goes back at least to ancient Babylon, it fascinated the Romans, and gained new life in the Renaissance when, under the influence of Neoplatonism, it was believed that everything in the universe was closely connected in a vast network of mutual influences. Monarchs and even Popes had their horoscopes cast, and the finest mathematicians of the age used their skill to cast them. However, astrology soon came under attack from two different directions. In the great witch-hunt of the 16th and 17th centuries it was denounced as forbidden knowledge; and in the rising movement of scientific thought it was condemned as not knowledge at all, just rubbish. Since the 18th century it is difficult to find anyone of high intelligence who believed in astrology.

Why can't astrology be regarded as a science?

Scientific knowledge involves first and foremost the accumulation of data, and the formulation of hypotheses that attempt to explain the data. All scientific "laws" are in fact theories, and if new and puzzling data appear, then the theories may need to be modified. Astrology is not like this. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the astrological impact of the constellations and planets was based upon centuries of observation; nor were the ideas ever modified. To take an example, when the planet Uranus was discovered in the 18th century, followed by Neptune in the 19th, did astrologers seize on this and say, "Ah! perhaps these discoveries explain certain strange anomalies in our calculations!", and then spend many years gathering evidence as to the likely influence of these newly-discovered planets? Of course they didn't! And what was the astrological impact of Pluto being discovered as a new planet in the 20th century, and then, more recently, degraded from planetary status? We still await a verdict.
  Astrologers have never attempted to investigate or explain the forces behind astrology. Either the patterns seen in the heavens are messages from the gods, or they exert some influence of their own. Which is it? If it is the latter, then some kind of force is being exerted. Let us call it "astrological force". What is its nature? Has it ever been investigated? It is clearly a very strange force, in that a planet can be said to be increasingly influential astrologically despite the fact that, in astronomical terms, it may be moving away from us! All this might have made sense in the Ptolemaic model of the universe, which placed the earth at the centre, but it makes no sense in the Copernican model, with the sun at the centre and the stars inconceivably distant.

 Astrologers make two claims which, though not actually contradictory, are quite different. The first is that our personalities are determined by the pattern of the heavens at the time of our birth. The second is that examining the heavens will enable us to anticipate coming events. Let's examine the first claim. To throw out suggestions at random: are you more likely to be an optimist if born under Leo? To be a creative artist if born under Gemini? Or to have sporting talent if born under Aquarius? Do family, educational and social factors count for nothing? In any case, how were these predictions arrived at? Was it by many generations of careful observation, and modified where necessary? This seems extremely unlikely. Then again, why should the moment of birth be the deciding factor? In the 18th century it was sometimes considered that the moment of conception was more important. (This is why, in Laurence Sterne's novel "Tristram Shandy" the central character has such a confused life: it is because his mother, at that vital moment, asked his father whether he had remembered to wind up the clock! It is also why the radical troublemaker John Wilkes told a silly nobleman who had been born on January 1st that he was obviously conceived on April Fools' Day!). Have astrologers investigated and discarded this theory? Or what about a totally different, and randomly chosen theory; namely that personality is determined by the weather at the time of birth?  Has this been investigated?
     The second claim is that the heavenly bodies afford some prediction of the future. This will involve a philosophical debate concerning inevitability, or fate, as well as the problem of "astrological force" as mentioned above. But there is another problem implicit in this; namely, that almost all events affect several people.
     Think of the following scenario. The footballer Wayne Rooney is injured, and a medical investigation rules him out of a vital international match. Rooney's horoscope should therefore tell him that he will receive bad news. But there is more to it than this. Suppose a young player (let's call him Fred Smith) is called up for his first international appearance to replace Rooney. Smith's horoscope should tell him that someone else's misfortune will work to his advantage. The rest of the England team, the manager and countless supporters will have been alarmed by Rooney's injury; but let's suppose that Smith plays extremely well and England win. All these other people (who will have a variety of star-signs) should therefore be told that they will receive some alarming news, but that it all turns out for the best. Should we anticipate this from the astrologers? What do you think?

My final point is a personal one. I was born on February 18th, and was always told this placed me under Aquarius, but now according to some astrologers this date is under Pisces. Indeed, in one paper just last week there were two sets of astrological predictions, one of which put my date under Aquarius and the other under Pisces! Come on, astrologers! Get your act together!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

               Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Recent Reads: "1606", by James Shapiro

This is an excellent book, published just a few months ago. It deals with the year of the title, early in the reign of James I; the year that Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest plays: "King Lear", "Macbeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra". The purpose of the book is to explain important recent events which would have been passing through Shakespeare's mind as he wrote. The most famous of these was, of course, the Gunpowder Plot of the previous November, and the trial and execution of the plotters in January. Since they were almost all Catholic landowning gentry from the Midlands, they would have had links with Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon, and at least one of them, John Grant, could well have been known personally by Shakespeare. Early in 1606 there was a quite separate rumor that King James had been assassinated, which caused a panic in London. There was also a famous case of demonic possession which was then exposed as a hoax, the King's unsuccessful attempt to bring about a full union between England and Scotland, a royal state visit (a very rare event at the time) from James's drunken brother-in-law Christian IV of Denmark, and a severe outbreak of plague which closed the London theatres from much of the year. So: a very eventful time, which must have influenced Shakespeare's thinking in one of his most creative periods.
    This book is strongly recommended! 

Thursday, 10 December 2015


You can usually only buy chestnuts in the weeks leading up to Christmas; but this recipe of my mother's enables you to have them all the year round. Do it as soon as you can after buying the chestnuts, or they will dry out.

Taking the chestnuts in small batches, cut a wide, deep cross into each pointed end. Place them in a bowl with a little water, and microwave. I find that about 2 minutes 45 seconds is enough for 4 large chestnuts. You will find that the shells have partially peeled back and it is not too difficult to peel them off completely. Do this straight after removing them from the microwave, but beware of scalding your fingers! There may be some of the brown inner skin still remaining, but this doesn't matter: it can be scratched off later if required. Repeat until all the chestnuts are done. Do not let the water in the bowl boil dry, or the chestnuts will bake hard and become inedible.
    When the chestnuts have cooled, try biting one to see if they are soft enough to eat. If not, they may require another minute in the microwave.
    The chestnuts can now be eaten, or used in cooking. Put them in the freezer in a sealed plastic bag and they will keep indefinitely! 

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Iron Harvest of War

If you visit the "Western Front"; the line of First World War battlefield sites that snakes through Belgium and north-eastern France, you cannot fail to notice occasional quantities of old shell-cases and other relics lying about. More are ploughed up every year (plus a few skeletons as well). The farmers call it "The iron harvest". They tend to get left at the roadside.

Some of them are still "live": unexploded. The bomb disposal squads come around ever so often and remove them. The only items that cause immediate action are poison gas shells, which might be leaking.

I found this large shell, about knee-height and appearing to be still live, at La Boiselle on the Somme. While I was taking the photograph a school party came by, from Yorkshire to judge by their accents, and the teacher in charge did the least intelligent thing I have ever come across: he walked up to the shell and kicked it! I was distinctly scared!

One tour-guide told us how children from another school party had found a live trench-mortar shell and had tried to take it home with them. Fortunately it was intercepted and seized by Dover Customs.The bomb disposal squad reported that it was extremely volatile and could have exploded at any moment!

Some of the relics of war are far larger: this concrete pill-box near Ypres, for example. We were told that it is actually upside down, having been turned completely over by a gigantic explosion.

This dugout, also in the Ypres area, was apparently where Adolf Hitler was once based.

Trenches, shell-holes and mine-craters still scar the landscape, but the two battlefields most likely to be visited by British tourists (that is, Ypres and the Somme) are quite different in character. Around Ypres, being low-lying and muddy, the trenches and craters are likely to be flooded with water,

wheres at the Somme, an area of rolling chalkland, they will generally be dry.
This enormous mine crater at La Boiselle was blasted on the first day of the Somme offensive in 1916. The sheer scale of it is given by the tourist coach on the lip. A crater this size will surely endure for centuries to come; perhaps long after the First World War has been forgotten.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Irish Potato Famine, Part 2

(This is a continuation of my earlier essay on the subject)

The Prime Minister when the potato famine first struck was Sir Robert Peel, seem today as the founder of the Conservative party (though it has always retained its traditional name of "Tory"). He was a highly effective administrator, and dominated Parliament, but was frequently at odds with his own back-benchers. He was a convinced free-trader (or, as we would say nowadays, a free-marketeer), distrustful of state involvement in the economy.
          He was aware of the problems facing Ireland from 1845. He appointed a Special Commission for Poor Relief, encouraged local Board of Works, and organised the importation of American grain. This was sold at a penny a pound, and ground up into a kind of porridge (which was nicknamed “Peel’s brimstone" and was not liked!). He also spent £100,000 on flour stocks, to be held in reserve and sold by local committees, not through retailers. This sum eventually rose to £185,000. (To put these figures in context; total government income and expenditure at this time was about £55 million a year)
   No-one died of starvation in 1845, but the next year brought complete crop failure and economic and humanitarian catastrophe. Suddenly, workhouses in the west of Ireland were besieged by starving people demanding admission; five times the workhouses' capacity. The Irish Board of Works, run by local J.P.s, encouraged schemes to provide employment, paying up to a shilling a day for such work as building roads and draining bogs. £475,000 was spent in the first instance, employing 140,000; but officials were swamped by thousands more of the destitute hoping to be taken on. (Also, in order to maintain fairness, it was ordered that landlords would have to pay for any economic benefits they gained by this work). At this time no American grain was available for purchase and distribution.

Peel’s Conservative party was based in the countryside. During the Napoleonic Wars, grain prices had reached unprecedented heights, and with the return of peace, English farmers were worried about competition from cheap foreign grain. Parliament had therefore passed the Corn Laws, banning or controlling grain imports to keep prices high. The Corn Laws had been modified several times from the 1820s, but were still on the statute book. They were bitterly resented by poor, but also by the increasingly influential urban middle classes. Two northern radicals, Richard Cobden and John Bright had formed the Anti-Corn Law League: a highly effective and very influential campaigning group. Peel was very much a free-trader, and had always had his doubts about the Corn Laws, and in January 1846 he announced his intention to repeal them entirely. The Duke of Wellington (who was himself the scion of a family of Protestant Irish nobility, the Earls of Mornington) grumbled, “Rotten potatoes have put Peel in a damned funk!”, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the Irish crisis was merely an excuse to implement a long-intended policy. Even if it eventually led to cheaper grain, how would it help the starving Irish now? Or, if Peel really believed it would help, why not just announce he was suspending the Corn Laws for the duration of the emergency?

       The Conservative party split. The disaffected were led by two great landowning aristocrats, the Earl of Derby and Lord George Bentinck, but their most effective spokesman was not a landowner and was even questionably English. Benjamin Disraeli had been returned to Parliament for Shrewsbury in 1841, but his attempts to gain ministerial office had been rebuffed by Peel. He now joined Derby and Bentinck in a savage campaign campaign against their party leader, accusing him of a betrayal of principles. Disraeli mocked Peel in his political novels "Coningsby" and "Sybil", written at this time; memorably dismissing the Conservative government as "Tory men and Whig measures”, and now he assailed Peel in brilliant speeches of personal abuse. The humorous magazine "Punch" contributed this item to the debate:-

   "A distressing case of bigamy was heard before the Westminster magistrates, when a Mr Peel was accused of entering into marriage with a lady named Free Trade, his first wife Agriculture being still alive". 

    In May 1846, when Corn Law repeal came before the House of Commons, the Tories voted by two to one against their leader; but the measure passed with the votes of  the opposition Whig party and Daniel O'Connell's Irish Nationalists. Despite his doubts, Wellington stayed loyal to Peel, and helped the Bill pass the House of Lords in June. But Peel also wanted to pass an Irish Coercion Bill, trying to deal with rural violence by suspending Habeas Corpus and allowing special courts without juries and detention without trial. There was no way the Whigs or the Irish Nationalists would support this. On same day as Corn Law repeal passed the Lords, the Coercion Bill came before Commons; and by this time many of Peel’s party so hated their leader that 80 Tories abstained and over 70, led by Disraeli, voted against. Peel was defeated and resigned as Prime Minister a few days later. Peel's government was just one of many in the nineteenth century which collapsed because of Ireland! 
          The Tories remained split, with the bulk of the party now following Derby and Disraeli, but the Peelites (who included most of the ministerial talent, including the young William Gladstone) were now separate, and eventually merged with the Whigs to form the Liberal Party. But for the next 20 years politics was very confused, with the divided Tories, the Irish, and the Whigs themselves split by personal rivalry between Lord John Russell and Lord Palmerston. It was a time of weak, unstable governments, coalitions and no clear election majorities for any party. The Tories did not win a majority again till 1874!
    Peel died in 1850. He is often seen as one of the greatest of Prime Ministers, but he had clearly failed to carry his party with him.  Meanwhile, the problems of the Irish famine were inherited by a weak Whig government under Lord John Russell, which survived only because the Peelites made little pretence of opposing it. What would he do?

Russell was an even more doctrinaire free trader than Peel: strongly opposed to state interference in market forces, which in the case of Ireland would mean suspicion of artificial job-creation, or the banning export of food from the country. But the principal weakness of applying free-market doctrines to Ireland was that there was food available, but the starving people had no money with which to buy it.
    Russell was unduly influenced by Secretary Trevelyan, man on the scene in Dublin, who thought free handouts would only encourage what he saw as the Irish tendency to idleness. Reports of a better harvest in 1847 led to the Irish Poor Law Extension Act, which stopped any further financial aid from the central government for Irish poor relief: instead local ratepayers would be responsible. But with no rents coming in, there was a squeeze on the landlords and larger tenant farmers too. In Westport, the Poor Rate was levied at over 50%! Many of the more prosperous inhabitants simply fled from the worst-affected areas.
          Soon there were reports of deaths from starvation, corpses left unburied, even cannibalism. One coroner’s jury, investigating a family who had starved to death, brought in a verdict of willful murder by the Prime Minister! Job-creation schemes run locally by the Irish Board of Works were employing three quarters of a million people, but inexperienced management often resulted in chaos. 300,000 people were receiving daily help from soup-kitchens; a figure which eventually reached around 800,000. Nearly a million were reported to be seeking admission to workhouses, which became grossly overcrowded, and the managers were simply unable to cope. The lack of sufficient clean drinking water, inadequate cleaning-out of filth and no washing of bedding resulted in epidemics of typhus, dysentery and cholera; killing far more people than died of actual starvation. New measures were enacted for setting up fever hospitals adjacent to the workhouses; but these were often no more than temporary lean-to shelters. Between 1847 and 1851 half a million died in these shelters, with a high death-rate also amongst doctors and nurses.  The Castlerea Union Workhouse in County Roscommon was severely overcrowded, and deaths ran at 74 per week, including the boss and his wife!
     The public in England were not completely ignorant of conditions in Ireland. There was, of course, no means yet of publishing photographs in newspapers, but magazines such as the "Illustrated London News" printed engravings by artists of dreadful scenes of suffering. Often these were considered to be exaggerations, or just ignored. "Punch" never took the famine seriously; instead publishing a grotesque cartoon of the Irish Nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell, with the caption "The real potato blight!". In the absence of decisive intervention by the state, a million pounds was raised by private charities; perhaps half coming from the USA. The Quaker Relief Committee was particularly active, distributing food and clothing and attempting some economic improvements, such as the development of a fishing industry. But none of this could do more than alleviate the disaster.

As tenants were unable to pay rent, they were evicted from their holdings. In 1846, 4600 families were evicted, rising to 16,500 in 1849 and 20,000 in 1850. They might be given some small financial compensation, but then their huts were destroyed to stop them coming back. The underlying motive was simply to get them out of the area and make them someone else’s responsibility. But often evicted families just squatted on vacant land, having nowhere else to go!
     In Strokestown, County Roscommon, there was an estate of 9000 acres, which Arthur Young the agricultural expert had once considered to be prosperous. But now 479 families on the estate had paid no rent for two years. In 1847 3000 Strokestown tenants were evicted; the majority soon dying. The Strokestown agent, Major Denis Mahon, decided financing emigration was cheaper than paying the Poor Rate, so he paid £4,000 to assist a thousand Strokestown tenants to emigrate to Canada. 
       Emigration was indeed the only real solution to Ireland's problems. Countless thousands of Irish flooded into Britain's cities, especially Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where lived in the vilest slums and were hated because they were willing to work for  wages well below what an Englishman would consider acceptable. Both Engels and Dickens noted that poorest and most degraded slum-dwellers were usually Irish. Many socialists considered that the influx of cheap Irish labour had seriously undermined the trades union movement.
      Others crossed the Atlantic: 230,000 in 1847 alone; 1½ million between 1845 and 1850: almost a fifth of the entire population of Ireland! But they faced weeks in low-standard, overcrowded ships, where epidemics were all too common. 496 souls from Strokestown boarded the “Virginius” at Liverpool, but by their arrival in Canada 158 had died (plus 7 of the crew) and 180 were ill. (On another ship, the captain had to pay his crew a pound for every dead body brought up from the hold!). On arrival they were held at quarantine stations. 5,500 Irish immigrants died at the Grosse Ile quarantine station in Quebec in 1847, as typhus and dysentery swept Canadian cities. Those who survived were often robbed of any money and possessions they had left by thieves and confidence tricksters. They settled into the vilest slums in New York, Boston and other east coast cities.

Not surprisingly, there was rising rural violence in Ireland. Landlords often accused Catholic priests of stirring up trouble, despite this having been forbidden by the Pope. In August 1847 there was a bitter dispute between the aforementioned Major Mahon of Strokestown and a local priest, Father McDermott; and in November Mahon was shot by unknown killers. Other landlords were also threatened. The government responded with new a Coercion Act; troops and police were rushed in and tenants in the area evicted. In February 1848 two men in Strokestown were arrested (neither being a local tenant), were convicted of conspiracy to murder, and hanged that summer amidst a strong military presence. By 1881 the population of the Strokestown estate had fallen by 88%!

Ireland suffered from a lack of political leadership at this crucial time. Daniel O'Connell's campaign to repeal the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland had failed completely in the early 1840s and his dominance had come under pressure from a more militant group under Smith O'Brien, known as "Young Ireland". O'Connell died in 1847, and it was thirty years before Ireland found another leader of his stature. The British government's willingness to help Ireland was hardly encouraged by the fiasco of O'Brien's attempted armed rising in 1848. The British courts, very sensibly, refused to make a martyr of O'Brien, who was transported to Tasmania but reprieved six years later and allowed to return. 

In the end, the famine petered out, but the population of Ireland has never recovered since. The Irish emigrants took their hated of Britain to the USA, where it endures in tradition to this day. Henceforth, radical republican movements could always expect funding from America.

One unexpected consequence of mass Irish immigration into Britain was seen when the first professional football clubs were formed a generation later. Everyone knows that in Glasgow, where divisions were fiercest, Rangers were the Scots Protestant team and Celtic the team of the Irish Catholics; but there was a similar division in Edinburgh between Hearts and Hibernian; and to some extent in Liverpool (Liverpool versus Everton) and even in Manchester (City versus United). To this day, the Irish tricolour can be seen at Celtic matches.  

Saturday, 14 November 2015


If the gunmen and bombers of Paris yesterday had any coherent political philosophy behind their actions, it would have to be what in the 1960s was called "Situationism": that is, the performance of violent acts in order to provoke a violent response, thereby undermining the moderates on both sides and shattering the myth (as they see it) of a peaceful, tolerant, liberal society.
   The 9/11 New York bombers and the London bombers of 2006 were the same. A moment's thought would have told them that an inevitable result of their actions would be increased suspicion of all Moslems, and therefore further alienation of Moslems within western society. Did they intend this?

Meanwhile, where is James Bond in all this? Back in the 1950s, when Ian Fleming wrote the books, he showed Bond combating fiendish Russian attempts to destabilize the West (though interestingly enough, when "Goldfinger" was made into a film, the Russians were replaced as villains by the Chinese). A present-day James Bond would surely be infiltrating extremist Islamic terror groups, presumably dressed as a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. I await this development in a future James Bond movie!    

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Irish Potato Famine, part 1

This great disaster, unlike anything else occurring in Western Europe for centuries, devastated Ireland between 1845 and 1851; permanently affecting the history of the country. In point of fact, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen: there had already been warnings, such as the famine of 1816; and disaster had been foreseen by the great Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell amongst others, but nobody seemed to have any idea of what could be done to avert it.

The census of 1841 found an Irish population of 8 million (compared with 4 ½ million in 1801: by 1901 it would be back to the earlier figure!) Of these, 80% lived in the countryside, mostly in villages of less than 20 homes, usually without shops or a church. Ulster had the densest population, but here there were mostly small but prosperous farms. Elsewhere the densest population was in Connaught and other western areas, where the real problems lay.
   There the census found the biggest class was half a million “cottiers": labourers who rented land annually, with no further security of tenure, often paying with labour-service rather than with money. Just above them in the class structure were 400,000 smallholders, of whom 65,000 had less than one acre of land. Many of these were no more than squatters, who held onto their tiny farms only because nobody bothered to remove them; and few having any legal security of tenure. There was no industry in Connaught to attract people away from the land, very few good harbours on the coast, and bad roads.
    40% of Irish homes were one-room cabins, with earth floors and without windows or a chimney. (It has been suggested that the census-takers actually underestimated the population of western Ireland, because they refused to believe that any human beings could inhabit the worst of these squalid huts, and so did not investigate them!). Families slept on straw. Women and children usually went barefoot, and clothes were second-hand. Many families would keep a pig (which might live in the hut with them), feed it on scraps, and sell it to pay the rent.
   One third of all land grew potatoes, and three million Irish ate little except potatoes; up to 14 lb. a day for a labourer, plus some milk, with very little meat or bread. This wasn't too unhealthy a diet, since it contained sufficient vitamins and protein; so scurvy and rickets were rare in rural Ireland. But disaster was always likely if the potato crop failed; not just because of shortage of the main diet, but because the poorest Irish had no money to buy anything else!

The land structure was very different from that found in England. Almost all Irish land was held in vast estates, owned mostly by Protestants (many being English, who rarely visited Ireland), or by institutions such as the Anglican church or Trinity College Dublin. Landlords in Ireland had long been criticized by agricultural experts for their financial irresponsibility and failure to make improvements. Many estates were mortgaged after their owners spent too much on grandiose building projects and imported luxuries, while many landowners preferred taking a steady if low income from rents rather than attempting expensive investments in agricultural development.
    97% of land was let, and then often sublet, passing through hands of middlemen, so landlords were cut off from any direct link with the land and left without any responsibilities. Trinity College Dublin had 12,000 tenants, but only 1% paid rents direct to the college; 45% were subtenants of middlemen and others were sub-sub tenants! The rising population led to endless division and subdivision of holdings, especially in Connaught, where 75% of all farms were less than 5 acres in size and hardly any were over 15 acres!  The 1836 Report from Irish Board of Works found almost 2 ½ million Irish living in “abject poverty”
     The system of farming was also unique to Ireland. Conacre was a procedure common in Connaught, where a labourer made annual arrangements to grow potatoes on a patch of land. Often middlemen contracted with a village collective called a Clachan, who farmed the land communally and were communally responsible for collecting the rent. This system was sometimes called Rundale. All these systems seem very mediaeval, though they can be compared with sharecropping in America. In Ulster there was more security of tenure, and compensation could be paid for evictions; for instance, reimbursement to a tenant for any improvements made to the property at his own expense. But in the west, annual tenure meant no security. Middlemen acting for landlords encouraged constant subdivision into tiny holdings: this being profitable because a rapidly rising population meant continuous competition for land. Reliance on monoculture of potatoes would bring disaster if the crop failed: especially since supplementary earnings from traditional cottage industries (such as in textiles) were declining in the face of mechanized factory production.
      The situation was not so much absentee landlords "grinding the faces of the poor" as landlords having no contact with the poor at all: instead leaving everything in hands of middlemen, and being themselves merely inactive proprietors; receiving money from their agents and themselves contributing nothing!

Many people foresaw disaster - but what could be done? Feeding the starving in bad years could only be a very short-term policy. The only real remedy would be a massive reduction of population in the poorest areas. But in the poverty-stricken west a high proportion of the people were illiterate, spoke no English, and had no money: they would find it very difficult to move even to other parts of Ireland, let alone to England or overseas. Someone with money and administrative skills would have to organize and pay them to emigrate - but who would do this? the landlords? the church? the government? Daniel O’Connell and the Irish Nationalists? Without any such radical action the same problems would simply re-emerge the next time the crop failed! There had been warnings in previous years: such as the complete crop failure of 1816, when the aftermath of the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia brought starvation all over western Europe and even in America.

(In the view of the Marxist economists, history shows that the subsistence farmer is inevitably doomed: he never makes enough profit in good years to pay back the debts and arrears of rent incurred in bad years)

The 1838 Poor Law for Ireland set up 130 “Unions” of parishes, each with own workhouse. The system was organised and financed purely on a local basis: the Poor Rate being paid by landowners and better-off tenants. “Outdoor relief” (that is, the giving of cash handouts) was supposed to be banned: instead anyone wanting help had to go and live in the local workhouse, each of which could house about 1000 people. In order to discourage idlers and scroungers, food was no better than in prison, and discipline was harsh. This was much the same as in England, but there was also much governmental prejudice against the Irish. Secretary Trevelyan spoke of the “selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”, who were naturally lazy and would always prefer free handouts to working. Therefore there must be no free handouts: the Irish must be encouraged or compelled to work, to earn money to buy food!

The potato blight first appeared in August 1845, coming from America via continental Europe. Many countries were affected, but Ireland suffered worst. It was a fungus, spread by spores: the leaves of the plant withered, and the potatoes were found to be black and rotten. 
     Nowadays the fungus is treated with copper sulphate to kill the spores, but at that time it was a mystery. There was not much effect in the first year, because most of the crop had already been harvested. The British government authorized the importation of American maize to cover shortages. But 1846 was warm and wet, encouraging the fungus, and the harvest failed totally. 1847 was rather better, but then there was another complete failure in 1848. The situation in that year was complicated by bad grain harvests all over Europe, leading to revolutions and the collapse of governments in many countries. 

    Soon reports were coming in of mass starvation in western Ireland. How would the government try to deal with the situation? This will be discussed in my next essay. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

American presidents: an astrological anomaly!

I spent an idle hour looking up the astrological birth-signs of all American presidents from Washington onwards, and discovered a very odd statistical quirk.
   Every star-sign could boast at least two presidents, and none had more than five, which seems a fairly even distribution; but the result for Aquarius was very strange. Of the five presidents born under Aquarius, no fewer than four died while in office. Two, William Harrison and Franklin Roosevelt, died natural deaths, but Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated; thereby altogether making up no less than 50% of all the presidents who died prematurely. The only Aquarian president to serve out his full term was Ronald Reagan - and he narrowly survived an assassination attempt less than three months after taking office! On March 30th 1981 he was shot in the chest by John Hinckley jnr. and was fortunate to survive (Hinckley was adjudged to be insane).
    What would an astrologer make of this? That Reagan's famous good luck enabled him to defeat the malignant hand of fate? Certainly the figures suggest that Americans could be in for an exciting time if they ever again elect an Aquarian as president!

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Post-modern History

Immanuel Kant suggested a division between “analytic” and “synthetic” truth. A classic example of the difference would be the two statements: “All bachelors are unmarried”, as against “All bachelors are sexually frustrated”. The former is necessarily true by definition; the latter may or may not be true, and needs to be justified or falsified by evidence. 
   All historical statements are necessarily synthetic; even such seemingly basic ones as “Edward Heath never married”, “Hitler hated Jews”, or “The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066”. This is because the truth, or otherwise, of these statements is dependent on the evidence available. Furthermore, because I cannot myself prove or disprove any of them from my own personal experience, I am entirely dependent on what other people have judged to be reliable evidence.
    The “postmodern” school of historiography, which has emerged in recent decades, has argued from this that accurate historical knowledge is impossible, since even well-placed contemporary witnesses might, for all we know, be biased, lying or simply wrong. All any document tells us for sure is the state of mind of the person who wrote it. It is therefore meaningless to ask whether any fact about the past is either true or untrue; there are no facts, only opinions; all are equally valid or invalid, and if we try to judge between them all we do is reveal our own prejudices and preconceptions. Knowledge of the past is impossible, and it therefore does not matter what we say about it.

One simple argument against this thesis is its circularity. If all true knowledge is impossible, and no interpretation is necessarily valid, then this also applies to postmodernist theorising: there is literally no reason why we should consider postmodernism has any validity. However, I would prefer to use the following argument:-

I once read an official Soviet history of the 20th century, where one detail particularly struck me. It concerned the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. In the Soviet account, this became an attempt by the Americans to invade Cuba, which was thwarted by the Russians standing firm. This was not, as I first assumed, a confusion with the Bay of Pigs incident the previous year, which the book had already dealt with. I used to ask my students, why should you think that this account of the missile crisis is untrue, and the one you are familiar with is true? Can you in fact make any judgement at all?
   The only valid answer I could think of is that historical writing in the West is a “free market” in ideas and interpretations, which is backed up by professional rivalry. Competition between historians means that they delight in pronouncing that their rivals have got it all wrong, so if Professor Smith produces a book putting forward controversial ideas, then Professor Robinson will take great pleasure in writing a review that says, politely or otherwise, that Smith has got it all wrong. There are fashions in historical interpretation, just as there are in clothes, and right-wing or left-wing schools of thought. Some decades ago, Jonathon Clarke proclaimed that the Whig and Marxist schools of historical interpretation were well past their sell-by date, and it was high time we had a Thatcherite school. There was never any such free market of ideas in the Soviet Union; the Communist Party alone decreed what was historically correct, and no dissenting views were permitted. Events of the past were blatantly falsified; for instance, the doctoring of old photographs to cut out awkward people like Trotsky, or later on, Stalin. Are things any better in Russian historical writing today? I have no idea.

Clive James, reviewing some years ago an official biography of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, which contrived to avoid mentioning either Stalin or Khrushchev (and, incidentally, Khrushchev’s name never occurred in the account of the Cuban missile crisis I referred to above, nor did Kennedy's), wrote as follows, “Every euphemism, circumlocution, outright omission and flat lie is an eloquent testimonial to the Soviet government’s regard for the truth. The Soviet government has such a high regard for truth that it will go to almost any lengths to ensure that the common people never get even a smell of it”. 
     I wonder whether the Soviet leaders were secret postmodernists, and believed that manipulating the records was of no importance, because all interpretations of the past were equally valid? And what would a western academic postmodernist make of it?  Would he say that it didn’t matter, because the Soviet depiction of events is just as valid as the western one? And, furthermore, can we prove that anything at all happened in Cuba in 1962, or even that Kennedy and Khrushchev ever existed?  

In reality, of course, no-one behaves as if nothing about the past can ever be proved, and that therefore our beliefs about it are of no importance. When confronted with wildly different accounts of events given us by different newspapers, or by politicians and their spin-doctors, we do not throw up our hands in surrender and say, "We can't believe any of them, and in any case it doesn't matter, because it's impossible ever to establish the truth". Instead we use our judgement to attempt to sort out truth from falsehood, just like people have always done. 

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.   

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".

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Popes and Emperors, part 2

 The 9th and early 10th centuries were a bad time for western Europe, which was under attack from three different directions. From Scandinavia came the Vikings in their longships, first as raiders, and then as settlers, not just in the uninhabited lands of Iceland and Greenland, but also in England (the “Danelaw”) and northern France (Normandy, the “land of the north-men”). Meanwhile a non-Indo-European speaking people, the Magyars, migrated from Russia into the Danube basin, where, as a result of confusion with ancestral memories of Attila’s Huns, they became known as the Hungarians. At the same time Saracen pirates terrorized the shores of France and Italy, and even attacked Rome itself. Nowhere appeared safe: even such an inland territory as Burgundy was raided from all three directions. Long-distance trade almost disappeared.
    Organized resistance seemed impossible. Charlemagne’s great empire had been divided into three after the death of his son, Louis the Pious, in 840. The divisions were, effectively, France and western Germany, with between them a band of territory taken by Louis’s eldest son, Lothar. It was thus known as Lotharingia, from which we have the name Lorraine. It included northern Italy. Lotharingia was going to be contested between France and Germany right through to the twentieth century.
    With ever-present danger and the lack of effective central government, feudalism spread. People banded together under a local lord, promising to serve and pay him (mostly with food) in return for protection.  This period saw the appearance of armoured knights and privately-owned castles, making strong central government even more difficult.

Feudalism never really caught on in Italy, but the papacy was now in a very low condition. Popes were at the mercy of the Roman mob, and of armed intervention by Italian and German nobles. One Pope, Formosus, who died 896, was succeeded by his enemy Stephen VI, who had Formusus’s body dug up, put on trial, condemned and thrown into the Tiber. Stephen himself was deposed and strangled later that year. Then the papacy fell into the hands of a powerful family; the Theophylacts. A lady of the family, Theodora, was the mistress of one pope, John X, and her daughter Marozia the mistress of another, Sergius III; and these last two were parents of yet another pope: John XI. In 932 Marozia’s son Alberic made himself master of Rome, imprisoned both his mother and John XI, and appointed some better popes, Leo VII and Agapetus II; but then on his deathbed he arranged for his own son to be appointed pope as John XII, at age of only 19! Despite these deplorable events Rome was a major centre of pilgrimage; not least for visitors from Britain. King Offa of Mercia came in 794, to atone for the murder of Ethelbert; and the future King Alfred came in 854, aged 6, together with his father King Ethelwulf. Canute came in 1027, and Macbeth in 1050 (Contrary with the impression we obtain from Shakespeare, he ruled Scotland for seventeen years!)

But in Germany things were changing. When the Carolingian line ended, the German nobles chose the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler, as their king in 918. He imposed some order, defeating invasions by the Danes and Magyars. He died in 936. His title was elective, not hereditary, but his son Otto chosen to succeed him. He was to be known as Otto the Great; the most important European ruler since Charlemagne. He won a decisive victory over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955, and began the conquest and forcible conversion of the pagan Slavs east of the river Elbe. He also initiated a cultural revival, called by historians the “Ottonian renaissance” But to secure domination over the German princes, control of the Church and the support of the Pope was essential, since bishops and abbots had huge local power. Otto’s brother Bruno was Archbishop of Cologne, Duke of Lorraine and royal chancellor! Conversely, anti-royal bishops could use their local and spiritual power to encourage nobles to revolt.
      In 961, Pope John XII, in conflict with the Roman nobility, asked Otto to help. Otto led his forces into Italy, defeated the Pope’s enemies, and in return John crowned him Emperor. Otto recognized the independence of papal territory, with himself as its “protector”. But John then turned against Otto, who quickly occupied Rome and called a synod presided over by himself. John was convicted of, amongst other crimes, ordaining a deacon in a stable, turning the papal palace into a brothel, castrating a cardinal, being addicted to hunting, and calling upon pagan gods when playing dice! John was deposed and replaced by a new Pope, Leo VIII, who had to swear an oath that no Pope would be consecrated without the Emperor’s agreement. But as soon as Otto left the city in 964, the Romans rose in revolt and drove out Leo. John being dead, they chose a better man as Pope: Benedict V. But Otto refused to accept this, and reimposed his own man. His victory over the church was complete: even the Byzantines had to recognize him; sending a royal princess, Theophano, to marry his son!

Otto died in 973, but his empire survived, despite the unsuccessful reign of his son, Otto II, who was defeated by both the Moslems of Sicily and the Slavs of eastern Germany before dying young in 983; leaving only a 3-year-old son, Otto III, with a Byzantine mother. But the boy proved to be the most amazing character of his time. He took personal control at age of 14, and appointed the most learned man of the day as Pope Sylvester II. Otto III held a very exulted view of his own position (probably instilled by his Byzantine mother), seeing himself as the successor of the Roman emperors and of Charlemagne: styling himself “Caesar”. He was capable of great brutality: when the Romans revolted against his rule, led by Crescentius, a nobleman who drove out Pope Sylvester and appointed his own pope; Otto invaded, executed Crescentius and mutilated the anti-pope: blinding him, cutting off his nose and tongue and banishing him to monastery. Would history have been very different if Otto had lived? But in 1002 he died childless, aged only 21.  
      After this there was always an Emperor, ruling what was generally known as the Holy Roman Empire. But it had no pretensions to universal rule: its territories were limited to Germany and northern Italy, and it had claims to sovereignty over the new kingdoms which had emerged, such as France and England.

When both Pope and Emperor were weak and ineffective there was a lull. Both had limited power: the Emperors ruled Germany and northern Italy (France being now a completely separate kingdom under a new dynasty, the Capetians) but the Imperial title never became hereditary, and the nobles were always jealous of their power and ready to revolt. Many towns in Italy were already becoming effectively self-governing. South of Italy was under no overall control, with still some Byzantine bases, Arabs ruling Sicily, and independent Lombard nobles in constant strife with each other. Normans to appear in southern Italy as bands of mercenary soldiers from about 1017; notably the numerous sons of an obscure knight called Tancred of Hauteville after 1034, who eventually became powerful monarchs.
       Emperor and Pope lived in a symbiotic relationship: until the Emperor had been crowned by the Pope he was technically only king of Germany. The method of choosing Popes was uncertain and anarchic: being acclaimed by the clergy and the people of Rome. The Popes could not control Rome, which was the scene of constant feuds between rival families, and when there was no strong Emperor enforced obedience, the result was often chaos. Many ancient buildings were converted into fortified towers, or demolished to get the building stone. A later writer said of Rome in his own day:-
“The Savelli owned the theatre of Marcellus and the temple of Libertas on the Aventine. The Frangipani had a large central fortress on the Palatine, with outlying forts on the Coliseum, the arches of Constantine and Titus, & the Janus in the Forum Boarium. The Colonna had possession of the mausoleum of Augustus, the Crescenti had the baths of Severus, and the Orsini the theatre of Pompey”.  
            This was applicable to the early middle ages as well. Each family wanted its own man as Pope, and might seek to overthrow a Pope allied to a rival family. Thus in 1046 the Emperor Henry III found no less than three rival Popes! He called a synod, deposed them all, and installed a German as Clement II; but both Clement and his successor were dead within a year, supposedly poisoned by rivals. The next Pope, Leo IX, was a reformer who tried to recover lost ground, only to be captured by Normans 1053.

            In 1054 there occurred an event which still resonates today: a doctrinal breach between the churches of Rome and Byzantium. It was only partly doctrinal; rather more a clash of personalities between the Patriach in Constantinople and Humbert, the Pope’s tactless and aggressive delegate. Many troubles would stem from this, notably the deep mutual suspicion between Byzantines and crusaders which played no small part in the failure of the crusading movement.

In 1024 a new imperial dynasty began when a Salian Frankish nobleman was elected by the German princes as Conrad II. He was crowned in Milan with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, and later was also crowned King of Burgundy. His coronation by the Pope was attended by King Canute of England, and he awarded himself a new title, “King of the Romans”, which would be held by all his successors. Conrad’s son, Henry III (reigned 1039-56) raised imperial power to new heights. He presided over a synod which deposed two rival Popes, and imposed a series of German Popes, two of whom were his relatives. But his reign saw the beginning of moves to free the church from lay control, which were to dominate the long reign of his son, the next Emperor, Henry IV (1056-1106).
            The first of the reforming Popes was Leo IX (1049-54) who, however, was captured by the rampaging Norman mercenaries who were now dominating southern Italy, and died soon afterwards. His successors were obliged to legitimize the rule of the Normans, who now formed a counterweight to imperial ambitions in Italy

In 1073 a monk by the name of Hildebrand was elected Pope, taking the name of Gregory VII. Most previous Popes has come from the aristocracy, but Hildebrand was apparently the son of a Lombard peasant, with a strong regional accent and unprepossessing appearance and manners – though these might be slanders put around by his many enemies. He was not a scholar, but had been brought to Rome by Leo IX, and had risen rapidly in the papal service. His drive was immense, and his ambitions for the papacy limitless. Not only did he continue his predecessors’ campaigns to enforce clerical celibacy and outlaw simony (the sale of clerical office), but he made extremely ambitious claims in his document, “Dictatus Papae”. The Roman church, he said, was founded by God and answerable to God alone; it was incapable of error; the Pope could be judged by no man, but could depose bishops and even Emperors. Crucially, he claimed the sole right of investiture: appointing bishops and abbots, which could not be done by any lay ruler. This at once brought him into conflict with several monarchs, who saw investiture as an important aspect of their political power. In 1073 a dispute over a bishopric led Gregory to describe King Philip I of France as an oppressor of the church, and to threaten him with excommunication and deposition, though in the end the problem was sorted out. Gregory approved of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, though William ignored his suggestion that England should be held as a fief of the Holy See.
There was a spectacular contest over investitures between Pope Gregory and the Emperor Henry IV, who saw the control of bishops and abbots essential for his government, both for administrative tasks in an age of widespread illiteracy and to check the power of his nobles. He had already tussled with the previous Pope, Alexander II, over the appointment to the Archbishopric of Milan. Now in 1075 Gregory severely reprimanded Henry for disobedience, and early next year Henry got the German bishops to denounce Gregory (styling him “the false monk Hildebrand“) and demand his abdication. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry. The German nobles took this as great opportunity to rebel. Henry, realizing he was outmanoeuvred, made a tactical surrender to the Pope at Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077; waiting barefoot in the snow for three days before Gregory agreed to see him. Gregory was not fooled by this dramatic show of penitence, but formally forgave him. Meanwhile the German princes declared Henry deposed, and elected Rudolf of Swabia in his place. In 1080 Gregory, finding Henry prevaricating on promises he had made, declared him deposed and recognized Rudolf as Emperor. Henry retaliated by summoning his own assembly of bishops, which declared Gregory deposed from the papacy. Soon Rudolf was killed in battle, enabling Henry to strike. He invaded Italy, and in 1084 he entered Rome, where Gregory had been deserted by most of his clergy. A specially-convened synod now appointed Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III. Gregory had taken refuge in the Castell Sant’ Angelo (formerly Hadrian’s tomb), and appealed to Robert Guiscard’s Normans to rescue him. Henry withdrew at Robert’s approach. For three days, Norman troops (who included Moslem mercenaries from Sicily) thoroughly pillaged Rome. Churches, palaces and ancient temples were destroyed, the area between the Coliseum and the Lateran burnt down, and thousands of Romans killed or taken prisoner and sold as slaves. Greater damage was done than the Goths and Vandals had managed six centuries earlier. Pope Gregory was taken to safety in Salerno, and in 1085 he died. “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile”, he said. One wonders whether the Romans would have agreed.

             Gregory might seem to have lost this battle, but reform of the church was now unstoppable. There were no more really scandalous popes after this; and just a decade later, in 1095, Pope Urban II, a Frenchman, preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont, and the papacy gained new prestige. Because the Emperor Henry IV continued excommunicate, the Germans played no part in the First Crusade: a campaign dominated by the French, Normans, Lorrainers and Bohemond’s soldiers from Norman Italy. Indeed, Henry’s German territories suffered greatly, because the first action of the crusaders was to slaughter Jews in the Rhineland. Over a thousand were killed in Mainz alone, to the disgust of Henry, who took the Jews under his personal protection. Archbishop Ruthard, who had failed to prevent the massacre, had to flee to Flanders to escape the Emperor’s wrath.
     Henry’s end was ignominious. He remained excommunicate; his own family revolted against him; his son took him prisoner and forced him to renounce the throne, and he died at Liege in 1106.
       A strong central government structure was never created in Germany. All mediaeval kings were originally elected, but in France, England and elsewhere nation-states were gradually formed and elective monarchy changed to a system which was de facto hereditary. But the Holy Roman Emperors were always elected by the nobles, even in the eighteenth century. Only the doomed state of Poland had elective Kings by that time.
            In Italy, things were even more shambolic: every prince, city or trouble-making faction could decide whether to support Emperor or Pope, or more likely, play them off against each other whenever seemed advantageous. By the end of the twelfth century names for the two sides had emerged: papal supporters took their name from Welf, the Duke of Bavaria; main opponent of the Emperor in Germany: imperialists took theirs from the town of Waiblingen in Swabia; a stronghold of the Emperor. In Italian, these names became Guelfs and Ghibellines; but were often no more than excuses for local rivalries. Milan would always be opposed by Pavia, and Verona by Padua: Florence and Lucca were usually Guelf, so Siena and Pisa were Ghibelline: within Florence the Buondelmonti family were Guelf, so their rivals the Ubertini were Ghibelline, and so forth.  Some historians attribute the failure of nation-states to emerge in Germany and Italy before the nineteenth century to the rivalry of Popes and Emperors in the early Middle Ages. 

Pope Gregory VII was proclaimed a saint in 1606.