Saturday, 31 December 2016

Playing Cards, part 3: Political Packs

In England of the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was a craze for packs of cards illustrating some famous event, with a different picture on each card. Here are some examples. All are taken from modern reproductions, since the originals are extremely rare.

These cards are from a pack called "The Knavery of the Rump", produced soon after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. (The "Rump" was the nickname given to the House of Commons after the expulsion of all the anti-Cromwellian members)

 The cards constantly denounce or ridicule Cromwell and his friends and military commanders, often drawing attention to their humble origins, sometimes inaccurately. Thus, the Seven of Clubs shows Major-General Thomas Harrison, who was in fact a lawyer, not a carpenter. Harrison was a "Fifth Monarchy" man; believing from prophesies in the Book of Daniel that Christ was shortly to return to earth and initiate the "Rule of the Saints". Harrison was hanged, drawn and quartered after the restoration. I particularly like the Four of Spades, with the Earl of Argyle, chief of Clan Campbell, described as "A muckle Scotch knave in gude faith sir"!

The next set is entitled "Marlborough's Victories", and celebrates England's triumph, led by the great Duke of Marlborough, over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) in the reign of Queen Anne. (It is worth remembering that this was the first major successful war that England had fought on the continent since the Middle Ages). The cards are in no particular sequence, and feature battles, famous incidents and leading personalities, and also make propaganda points. Anne is shown triumphing over Louis XIV of France, and also over the Pope, as on the Six of Clubs and the Ace (One) of Hearts 
The Five of Spades, where the devil is shown knocking together the heads of King Louis and the Pope, makes a crude reference to the fact that Louis, at the age of well over seventy, had had to undergo an operation for an anal fistula. The Knave of Hearts shows a government official embezzling money intended for the army. A spectator exclaims, "Oh rogue!", to which the official responds, "I am not the first!", and the lines underneath invite the reader to reflect whether he would have behaved any differently,given the opportunity.  Finally the Knave of Diamonds shows three nations each fighting for what each loves: The Frenchman exclaims, "Ambition!", the Englishman, running him through, exclaims, "Honour!", and the Dutchman, scrabbling on the ground between them, "Money!"

This card is from a pack of 1720, illustrating the "South Sea Bubble"; the world's first-ever stoack exchange "boom and bust". Each card illustrates some ludicrous prospect offered to gullible investors, with an appropriate verse underneath.
This one concerns one of the oddest invention of the time: "Puckle's Machine Gun", which was to fire round bullets against Christians and square ones against Turks. The verse below reads:-
   "A rare invention to destry the crowd
    Of fools at home instead of foes abroad:
    Fear not, my friends, this terrible machine,
    They're only wounded that have shares therein".

The nearest approach to these in my collection is this series, produced in the U.S.A. around 1970, with a different political figure on every card. The black suits are Republicans, the red suits Democrats.
Here we see President Nixon as King of Spades, Henry Kissinger as a puppet-master pulling the strings, Billy Graham with his flock, and Ronald Reagan (then Governor of California) jumping on a hippy. Below are Jane Fonda as Joan of Arc, Mayor Daley of Chicago (the ultimate "machine" politician, George Wallace of Alabama as a cop, and Teddy Kennedy as the would-be King Arthur, completely failing to pull the sword from the stone.

Nowadays a great many commemorative packs of cards are produced. They are colourful and inexpensive things to collect.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas everyone!

A mediaeval nativity scene. I love the baby Jesus stroking the animals, Mary looking suitably exhausted and the helpful angel filling a bath. The artist must have had great fun painting this!

Friday, 9 December 2016

Playing Cards, Part 2: The Origins of the English Pack

Here's a test of observation. You'll have seen these four Kings from a pack of cards literally thousands of times, and they're always the same, no matter which company manufactured them. So can you recognise which King is which, now I've removed the suit symbols? The answer will emerge later.
But how did they come to look like this? 
We saw in the first part of this essay how the four suits with which we are familiar appeared in France, probably in the 14th century, and the design of French court cards has changed little over the centuries. Our court cards copied the French system in having a King, Queen and Servant (called a Knave until the 20th century, but now better known as a Jack), followed by 10 pip cards.

The design of the English court cards  derive from a pack produced in the French city of Rouen in 1567. This is a rather crude modern reproduction of the four Kings from this pack:-      

By the end of the 17th century, English cardmakers had reduced these Kings to a more abstract form, though the derivation is obvious:-

These cards have been immortalised in Alexander Pope's mock-heroic description of a card game in "The Rape of the Lock". The game being played is called "Ombre", a game for three players, with one suit being trumps and tricks being taken, as in Whist or Bridge. Pope does not describe the King of Hearts, but the King of Diamonds is:-

    "Th' embroidered King, who shows but half his face"

 He is always the only King in profile, on British, French and German packs. The King of Spades is described in more detail:-

    "With his broad sabre next, a chief in years,
      The hoary Majesty of Spades appears,
      Puts forth one manly leg, to sight revealed,
      The rest, his many-coloured robe concealed"

It it clearly the King shown above who is being described.
   Finally, we have a mock-heroic description of how the King of Clubs is trumped by the Queen of Spades:-

    "The Club's black tyrant first her victim died,
      Spite of his haughty mien, his barbarous pride:
      What boots the regal circle on his head,
      His giant limbs, in state unwieldy spread,
      That long behind he trails his pompous robe,
      And, of all monarchs, only grasps the globe?"

The King of Clubs is still the only King to have an orb, though nowadays it usually floats unsupported in front of him. Only in the pack which Alfred Cook used to make for Woolworth's did the King of Clubs retain some vestigial fingers under his orb! 
    In the 19th century the court cards "lost their legs" and were turned upside down. It's easy to work out why this happened. With only one suit symbol on each card, a player who was dealt his court cards "legs upward" would have to turn them around to find the symbol, thus giving important information about his cards to his opponents!

So our court cards evolved, as shown here, left to right, from 16th century France to late 17th century England to the present day, becoming evermore less lifelike and more diagrammatic. These are three of the Kings, but the Queens and Jacks followed exactly the same path.

The King of Hearts has had his rather inappropriate little tomahawk changed to a sword held behind his head - though it clearly has a very short blade!

There is just one more curious detail to add, concerning the Ace of Spades, traditionally the highest card in the pack (as indeed it was in Alexander Pope's Ombre game). In the 18th century there was an excise duty levied on every pack of cards, which was enforced by means of a government duty stamp placed on the Ace of Spades. Here is an example from a 20th century pack:-
In 1805 there was even a case in which an unfortunate man named Richard Harding was sentenced to be hanged for forging the Ace of Spades!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Playing Cards:Part 1: Their History and Geography

The earliest European playing cards which survive belonged to King Charles VI of France. In 1392 a painter called Jacquemin Gringonneur was paid for "Three games of cards, in gold and divers colours, ornamented with many devices, for the diversion of our lord the King". A few of these cards still survive: they formed part of a tarot pack.

These are cards from a modern reproduction of a slightly later tarot pack, produced in Marseilles in the 16th century. (All the pictures in this essay are of cards in my collection)
There are 78 cards in a tarot pack. The four suits are Cups, Swords, Money and Clubs, each of which have ten pip cards and four court cards: the King, Queen, Knight and Servant, making 14 cards in each suit. In addition there one card, "Le Mat" with value zero, who is clearly the ancestor of the modern Joker, and 21 "Atouts". These include such cards as the Sun, Moon and Stars, the Emperor and the Pope, and abstract virtues like Strength and Temperance. Death is, of course, number 13. Some are highly mysterious: there is a Lady Pope, "La Papesse", a Hanged Man, "Le Pendu" and "La Maison Dieu", which in mediaeval French meant a hospital, but which is always depicted as a tower struck by lightning.   

There are games which can be played with tarot packs, but nowadays they are mostly used for fortune-telling. Many magicians design their own tarot packs, and often alter them after their own ideas: the suits of Money and Clubs are changed to Pentangles and Wands, the Pope and Papesse become the Hierophant and High Priestess, and so forth.

There are strong grounds for believing that present-day cards derive from the tarot pack. In Spain and Italy the four tarot suits have been retained, and the Queen has been dropped from the court cards, leaving the King, Knight and Servant. This is from a modern Spanish pack:-

and one from Italy. It will be noticed that there are only 12 cards in each suit, with 9 pip cards; the Servant being number 10, the Knight 11 and the King 12. Spaniards and Italians thus cannot play whist or bridge with their native packs!

There are charmingly different suits in central Europe, such as Acorns, Daisies, Leaves, Bells and Shields; and the court cards feature an "Ober" who holds his suit symbol up, and an "Under" who holds it down. Here are a couple of examples:-

The pack of cards with which we are familiar today has its origins in France, probably some time in the 15th century. The French card-makers eliminated the Knight from the tarot pack, leaving a suit of 13 cards with the court cards of King, Queen and Servant (called the Valet in a French pack). The four suits became Coeurs (Hearts), Piques (Pikes, or Spear-heads), Carreaux (Tiles) and Trefles (Clover-leaves). These pictures are a modern reproduction of a French pack from the early 19th century:-

An unusual feature of the French pack is that the court cards all have individual names. The Kings are called Charles (Charlemagne), David (with the harp), Cesar and Alexandre; the Queens are Judith, Pallas, Rachel and Argine; and the Valets are famous warriors: La Hire, Hogier, Hector and Lancelot. (In case you are struggling to remember a Queen with the name of Argine, it is merely an anagram of the Latin "Regina"! I have no idea why)
   The only change in a modern French pack is that the court cards have "lost their legs". They retain their names, albeit partially obliterated by the suit symbol, and King David still has his harp. 

The French system was followed in Germany, where, as can be seen below, the court cards are by far the most beautiful in the world. They are no longer named, though "David" retains his harp and "Caesar" wears a laurel-wreath:-

The French system was also followed in England, and indeed is now familiar throughout the world, though the names of the suits were changed. Hearts remained Hearts, and it is easy to see how Carreaux became Diamonds; but the suit we call Spades is still obviously a Spear-head, and the fourth symbol remains obstinately a Clover-leaf, with no resemblance to a Club at all. Perhaps this is a reversion to the old tarot name for the suit?
 It will also be noticed that in the French and German packs only one King is shown in profile, and, as in British packs, it is the King of Diamonds.

How the British pack reached its present appearance will be explained in the second part of this essay, to follow shortly.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Quiz: Kings and Battles

What battle is linked with the reign of each of these English Kings?


Edward III   
George III
Henry III
Richard III
William III


St. Albans

(To make it a little more difficult, I have given more battles than kings!)

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Real Count Dracula

Dracula was a real person, though he wasn't a count, didn't live in Transylvania and didn't bite people in the neck.
   His name was Vlad, and he was an exact contemporary of Joan of Arc, being born around 1431 and dying in 1476, either assassinated or killed in battle. During his short but violent life he enjoyed one longish stint and two short ones as the elected prince ("voivod") of Wallachia, the southern province of modern Romania. There are various explanations of how he acquired the nickname of Dracula, which he used to sign his documents: one being that his father, another Vlad, was known as "Vlad Dracul": "Vlad the Dragon"; so his son naturally became "Vlad Dracula"; the "Little Dragon". He was also know as the Devil, the Blood-Drinker, and the Impaler ("Tepes"), all of which testify to his fearsome reputation.  

These were violent and frightening times. The Ottoman Turks had occupied Greece and destroyed the Serbian kingdom in the previous century, and were now advancing through the Balkans. In 1526 they were to overwhelm the Hungarians at the battle of Mohacs and extend their empire as far as the gates of Vienna. Dracula's grandfather, Mircea the Old, had been defeated by the Turks in 1396 and forced to recognise the Sultan as his overlord. Wallachia was allowed to remain self-governing, but paying an annual tribute of 10,000 ducats. And the Turks were not the only problem, for the Kings of Hungary ruled over Transylvania and wanted a client of theirs to rule Wallachia, and Stephen of Moldavia, to the north, was also a rival.
   Facing all these different pressures, Dracula's father attempted to remain neutral, and in 1443 he had to send Dracula and his younger brother Radu as hostages to Istambul. Four years later he was murdered by the Hungarians and his eldest son Mircea was buried alive. Dracula was freed by the Sultan Mohammed II and tried to establish himself in Wallachia by swearing oaths of obedience to both the Sultan and to King Mathias of Hungary. He established Tirgoviste as his capital and built or seized a number of castles
   In 1461 the Turks demanded a new annual tribute of 500 boys, to be raised as Moslems and trained as Janissaries; the elite slave-soldiers of the Ottomans. Dracula's response was war. He launched a great raid across the Danube, but his appeal for support was ingored by the Hungarians, and when the Turks counterattacked, his own brother Radu joined them. The Turks failed to take Tirgoviste, and Dracula was able to stage a night attack on their camp, inflicting heavy losses.
   When Stephen of Moldavia supported the Turks, and Dracula's own nobles recognised Radu as their prince, he fled to Brasov in Transylvania, where he was arrested by the Hungarians. He was held for several years, after which he decided to throw in his lot with them. Accordingly he converted to Catholicism and took a Hungarian princess as his second wife. King Mathias then restored him as Prince of Wallachia, but in 1476, fighting against the Turks near Bucharest, he was either killed in battle or possibly murdered. His descendants survived as members of the local nobility for the next two centuries.

Dracula would have been soon forgotten, but for the fact that his reign was marked by a degree of savage cruelty exceptional even by the standards of the time. His favourite technique for dealing with those who offended him was to impale them on a sharp stake, with the other end planted in the ground, and there they would remain until their bodies rotted away. There were many stories about this. In 1459 he invited 500 nobles to a banquet, accused them all of treason and impaled them. The Abbot of Snagov monastery, who protested, was also impaled. Soldiers with wounds in the back were impaled for cowardice. When the Turks attacked Turgoviste in 1462, they were so horrified at the spectacle of 20, 000 impaled bodies planted outside the town in a great forest of stakes that they withdrew. Other people who aroused his wrath were burnt alive, flayed, or dismembered by teams of horses. There were even rumours of cannibalism. Some of the tales about him had a certain grisly humour, such as the man who complained about the stink of rotting corpses, and was impaled on an especially high stake, to place him above the smell; or when Turkish envoys refused to remove their turbans as a mark of respect, saying it was against their religion, and he responded by having the turbans nailed to their heads. If we add up all his supposed victims, it reaches a total of at least 100,000; but since the population of Wallachia at the time can hardly have been more than half a million, this seems unlikely.

How did stories from distant Wallachia reach Bram Stoker in late Victorian England? The local peasants sang ballads about Dracula, portrayng him as a hero who resisted the Turks, and his name became known in Hungary and Germany. As the Turks were driven out from Romanian territory in the mid-19th century his reputation as a local patriot resurfaced. 
    Vampire legends, about the undead who walked at night and drank blood, were widespread, and vampire stories were written long before Stoker's famous work was published in 1897. Even in England there were instances of suicides being buried with a stake through the heart to prevent the ghost from walking (see footnote). Stoker himself never visited Romania, but merely combined the name of Dracula with the vampire legends and the sinister reputation of bats (though the vampire bat is a native purely of central America, and unknown in Europe). Stoker, incidentally, made little or no money from his book, and it was largely forgotten until made into a film in the 1920s. 

            Stoker's book wasn't translated into Romanian until 1973. It was about then that I visited the country, and the Communist regime had just cottoned on to the idea that the Dracula legend could well form the foundation of a profitable tourist industry. Already there were tours of sites associated with Dracula, and the shops sold his a great many items carrying his face or name: plaques, textiles, and even bottles of the lethal plum brandy.        

Since then, explotation of the Dracula legend has really taken off.

This is Castle Bran. Its link with Dracula is tenuous, but it looks good and is well-preserved.
This is Dracula's principal stronghold, in the mountains above Curtea de Arges. The view down the valley was splendidly spooky for our visit. Dracula's first wife committed suicide here, by hurling herself from the battlements. 

The vast majority of Dracula's subjects would have been peasant farmers, and would have lived in huts like this

This is Snagov monastery, near Bucharest, where he is supposed to have been buried.

Traditional fears of the ghosts of suicides walking, and how to prevent it, are shown in the poem "Faithless Nelly Grey" by Thomas Hood. A crippled soldier, home from the Napoleonic wars, hangs himself in despair, so:-
     "They buried Ben at four crossroads
       with a stake through his inside".

Monday, 31 October 2016

An American view of Brexit

There is an interesting sidelight on the Brexit vote in the “New York Times Review of Books”. The Brexit triumph is seen as a howl of rage on the part of the poor white working class in the old declining industrial areas, who were given the opportunity of venting their frustrations on a single target: Europe. Parallels are drawn with Donald Trump’s success in appealing to the same socio-economic groups in the so-called “rust belt” and the backwoods rural districts of America. Trump himself is aware of the parallels, and encourages his supporters by pointing out how Brexit was able to triumph, against all predictions and against the advice of almost all political and business leaders.

   None of this can be explained by traditional class-based theories. Contrast an area I know well: Stoke-on-Trent: rock-solid Labour; the home of traditional heavy industries (ceramics, coal and iron: all in decline for many years), with its own proud local traditions, and strongly Brexit; with another area I know: Richmond-on-Thames: rock-solid Tory, with some of the highest house prices in the country, and over 70% for Remain. To add to the confusion, the Stoke M.P.s backed Remain, but the Richmond M.P. backed Brexit!

The clearest divisions are in education. In America the majority of college graduates traditionally voted Republican, whereas blue-collar workers voted Democrat. This could well change: probably not many graduates are likely to support Trump, but on the other hand he could do well in a state like Pennsylvania, which is full of rust belt industrial towns (Does anyone remember Billy Joel's classic song "Allentown", about the decline of the steel industry there?). In our referendum, an overwhelming majority of people with university degrees voted for Remain, as did the inhabitants of London and the academic centres, Oxford and Cambridge.

Monday, 24 October 2016

A Psychopathic Emperor, and What Followed

The young general Alexius Comnenus, who seized power in Constantinople in 1081, at the age of just 24, founded a dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire for a century. His exploits are recoded in a biography written by his daughter, Anna Comnena. He and his successors faced formidable problems.
   In 1071 the Seljuks, a Turkish people coming originally from Central Asia, had defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, which proved to be one of the most important battles in world history. Soon vast numbers of Turks were flooding westwards across Anatolia, almost reaching the coast. They destroyed the farms to make pasture for their sheep, and many towns were abandoned. The empire at a stroke lost one of its main sources of food and also of soldiers for its armies. At the same time a pagan nomad tribe from the Ukraine, the Pechengs ( or Patzinaks), crossed the danube and raided right up to walls of Constantinople.
    Could Alexius save the empire?  His early problems came not in Asia and the Balkans but in the west. In the same year as Manzikert, the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy, Bari, fell to the Normans under Robert Guiscard. Norman knights led by this terrifying warlord landed in Albania in 1081, slaughtered Alexius's army and prepared to march on Constantinople; but Alexius, probably by judicious bribery, was able to stir up trouble back in Italy and the expedition abandoned. But the wildly ambitious Normans probably always had eyes on ultimate prize: the Empire. In 1085 Robert died, and the subsequent struggle for power between his sons and his brother Roger ended the Norman threat  for the moment. In 1091 the Pechens were roundly defeated, and the Danube frontier remained secure for a long time.
There remained the problem of  the Turks, now controlling all Asia Minor apart from a few ports. But even this threat now diminished. The Sultan Malik Shah died in 1092, and the vast Seljuk territory disintegrated into petty states ruled by Seljuk chieftains or local warlords. Even so, Alexius felt obliged to appeal to the west for help; and appeal which famously resulted in the First Crusade and the formation of Christian states in Palestine. We can be certain that this was not what Alexius had intended, and he would have been particularly alarmed when Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard, established himself as Lord of Antioch.

There was uneasy peace around the diminished Byzantine Empire for the next century. Alexius was succeeded on the throne by his son, John II (1118-43) and grandson, Manuel I (1143-80). Meanwhile a rich and powerful Norman kingdom had been established in Sicily and sounthern Italy; and in 1182 William II of Sicily thought he saw a dramatic opportunity for further greatness.
          When the Emperor Manuel Comnenus died, he left only an 11-year-old son, Alexis II, as his successor. He seems to have been an unpleasant boy, and his mother Mary of Antioch, who was a scion of the crusaders, was unpopular. Distrust of the Latins was increased by the fact that young Alexius was married to Agnes, daughter of the King of France.
      Into this fluid situation there now stepped Andronicus, a grandson of Alexius I. In 1182 he was 64 years old; a tall, handsome, charismatic man who had enjoyed a distinctly chequered career as a result of his constant changes of allegiance and reckless womanising. For some years he had been living in internal exile in a remote castle on the Black Sea. Now, hearing of the troubles in Constantinople, he set out to march on the city. Forces sent to stop him promptly changed sides, and in the capital itself mobs rose up and massacred large numbers of the hated Latins. Alexius, his mother and their supporters were arrested, and Alexius was compelled to sign his mother's death-warrant. In September 1183 Andronicus was crowned co-Emperor, and two months later young Alexius himself was strangled and his body thrown into the Bosphorus. Andronicus then married the boy's 12-year-old widow Agnes. It had been a swift, efficient coup d'etat.

Andronicus was an energetic ruler, who worked hard to stop corruption and improve government efficiency. Unfortunately he also began to show signs of paranoid suspicion, which quickly led to the mass arrest, torture and execution of suspected opponents. Instead of  ensuring stability, this only made things far worse. Soon the Serbs were rising in revolt against the empire, and on Cyprus a distant cousin, Isaac Comnenus, declared himself independent. Other relatives fled to the west, and a mysterious youth turned up in Sicily, claiming to be Alexius II himself.
     Whether King William believed him or not, he saw a golden opportunity in prospect. Ever since days of Bohemond in the First Crusade, the Normans of Sicily had always held visions of themselves as rulers of Constantinople; so in 1185, William assembled an enormous force of 80,000 soldiers and 300 ships, for an invasion. (He didn’t lead it himself , having never commanded in battle, showing how un-Norman the family had become. The army was led by a certain Baldwin, about whom little is known)

The army landed unopposed at Durazzo in modern Albania and marched to Thessalonica, the second city of the empire. Andronicus seemed incapable of organising resistance: five different armies he sent to stop the invaders merely camped at a safe distance, His response was to order the execution of the families of everyone suspected of treason. In August Thessalonica fell, with appalling scenes of murder and looting: perhaps 5,000 civilians were killed. Eventually the soldiers moved on eastwards, and the.fleet sent ahead, to wait off Constantinople for the arrival of the army. But the army never got there! In September, even as the fleet was lying offshore, the citizens of Constantinople decided they had had enough of Andronicus. A nobleman by the name of Isaac Angelus was proclaimed Emperor in his place, and a rampaging mob stormed the Great Palace. Vast quantities of bullion and artistic treasures were plundered, and the city's most revered holy relic; a letter said to have been written by Christ himself, vanished without trace. The Byzantine Empire never recovered from this spoilage. As for Andronicus himself; he was caught trying to flee the city in disguise, and was taken to the Hippodrome, where he was mutilated and tortured to death.
   The Byzantine army now unexpectedly bestirred itself into activity, and having first checked to advance of Baldwin's army, it lulled him into a sense of false security by arranging a truce and then caugt him by surprise with a counterattack in November. The Sicilian forces were routed and driven back in disorder. Few of them survived the winter retreat through the hostile Balkan mountains.

Coincidentally with these events, the Crusader states were overcome with disaster. The great Kurdish warlord Saladin, having unified Syria and Egypt under his rule, now destroyed the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in July 1187, and then three months later took Jerusalem itself. It was never to be recovered by the crusaders, who were now confined to a narrow band of territory along the Palestinian coast. It is said that the Pope, Urban III, died of shock on hearing the news, but his successor, Gregory VIII, was quick to summon the kings of Europe for the Third Crusade.
   The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, was the first to respond, despite being almost 70 years old. He led his German contingent down through the Balkans, and threw the Emperor Isaac into panic as he approched Constantinople. As it happened, his army was ferried across the Bosporus without any untoward incidents; but Barbarossa died before reaching Palestine.
   Richard the Lion-heart of England came by sea. As everyone knows, he failed to recover Jerusalem; but he achieved one long-term change when he seized Cyprus (arresting Isaac Comnenus and imprisoning him in chains), and set up a crusader kingdom there. The island remained under Latin control for several centuries.

Meanwhile in 1189 King William of Sicily died childless. His kingdom was claimed by Barbarossa's son, the Emperor Henry VI, by virtue of his marriage to William's aunt. Henry seized the kingdom by force in 1194, plundered it thoroughly, executed any barons who opposed him, and then died three years later, leaving only a baby son. The richest and most spectacular western state in the Mediterranean had gone for ever, and in a few decades the island began its long descent into poverty and insignificance.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire was sudden and catastrophic. For all his faults, Andronicus had at least been energetic in his attempts to root out corruption. Isaac Angelus, by contrast, quickly turned out to be a completely useless emperor. In 1195 he was deposed, blinded and imprisoned by his own brother, who succeeded him as Alexius III; and who, against all probablilities, proved to be evn worse at the job. The once-proud Byzantine fleet was allowed to rot whilst naval stores were sold off by corrupt officials for their personal profit. The consequences were soon to lead to disaster.
   In 1198 Pope Innocent III proclaimed yet another crusade, the fourth, to cope with the parlous situation in Palestine. This time no monarchs were involved. The crusaders, who were mostly French barons and knights, set sail down the Adriatic in late 1202 in Venetian ships that they had not yet paid for. At Zara they encountered one Alexius Angelus, the son of the deposed Emperor, who promised them that if they helped restore his father to his throne, then Byzantine money would finance the expedition.The crusaders accordingly diverted towards Constantinople.
      Alexius III had plenty of warning of their approach, but, characteristically, took no steps to defend his capital. He duly fled the city and Isaac was duly restored, but then a series of mistakes and broken promises, on top of the longstanding mistrust between Greeks and westerners, led to the crusaders storming the city in April 1204. Constantinople was thoroughly sacked, with appalling scenes of death and destruction; and the great city, which for centuries had resisted Persians and Avars, Arabs and Turks, finally fell to a Christian army. Amidst the carnage the Venetians were the only people to keep their heads, and carried off a magnificent collection of art treasures, many of which can be seen in Venice today.
   A Latin Empire was established in Constantinople, but Serbia and Bulgaria took the opportunity to establish themselves as independent kingdoms. The Greeks did eventually regain Constantinople, but the Byzantine Empire was henceforth only a feeble shadow of its former glory.

So in little more than twenty years, the whole balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean had been irrevocably changed. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily was no more, the Balkans fragmented and the Crusader states and the Byzantine Empire irredeemably weakened. The way was open for the advance of the Ottoman Turks, whose conquests, beginning in the 13th century, would eventually extend through Palestine and Iraq, through Egypt and all along the North African coast, and through south-eastern Europe all the way to the gates of Vienna.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal ...." These mighty words begin the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence, in 1776. But what do they actually mean? And what message do theyhave for us today?
   I shall ignore such questions as how the American Founding Fathers reconciled these words with the existence of slavery, or whether they viewed women as being equal with men (we can be fairly certain that they did not). To avoid confusion on this latter point, I shall use the word "men" to mean "males", and "people" to indicate both genders together.

The concept of equality is closely linked with that of Democracy (as in "one person, one vote"), and also with that of Justice, which Aristotle defined as "treating equals equally"; anything else being inherently unjust. It can also be linked with the concept of Human Rights, and also, more questionably, with that of Liberty. It also forms the basis of most generally-accepted views of Fairness.

So: in what sense are people equal, and should be treated as equal? And what should, or can, the state do about it?
   One fundamental point is that we are clearly not equal by nature. Men, considered as a class, are bigger, stronger and faster than women considered as a class. Some people are much stronger or cleverer than others. Some have wholly different talents. I am no good at music, and not particularly good at games, though I enjoy playing them. My sister is good at music, but disliked compulsory games at school and has never played them since. We were both of us good at schoolwork and passing exams, where many teenagers have struggled.
   Almost all modern political creeds, however, argue that none of these differences are very important: that most people are so nearly equal in nature that the similarities outweigh the differences, and therefore most deserve equal rights and treatment. There are only a few exceptions: for instance, it would not be just or fair to treat infants in the same way as adults, or the mentally disturbed or handicapped in the same way as sane people, particularly with regard to criminal responsibility. (John Stuart Mill, writing in the mid-19th century argued, more controversially, that pre-literate savages could not be treated in the same way as civilized people). This notion of fundamental equality forms the basis of Liberalism, Socialism and modern Conservatism. It is rejected only by such creeds as Fascism, Nazism and various forms of racism, where it is argued that whole groups of humans are so inherently inferior that they cannot be accorded equal treatment. 

It follows from this that there should be equality before the law: that with just a few exceptions (infants, lunatics etc) no groups should enjoy privileges or face discrimination under the law. The abolition of slavery was a vital step forward here, as was the abolition of apartheid in South Africa.

Political equality; that is, "one person, one vote", was always more problematic, because voting gives a degree of power; and it was always argued that many people were simply not intelligent or well-informed enough to vote responsibly. Opponents of democracy, from Plato onwards, feared that the mass of the people were always in danger of voting for demagogues who made wild and irresponsible promises. (The rise of Hitler in 1932-33 might seem to confirm this fear) Anti-feminists joked that women would simply vote for the handsomist candidate, regardless of any other considerations. (This does happen, but is certainly not exclusive to women voters!) Mill thought that in principle everyone should have a vote, and was the first person to propose the enfranchisement of women in Parliament, but thought it best if the most educated people had more than one vote. He also stressed that democracy was unlikely to work effectively unless voters realised that some people might understand the issues better than them, and were prepared to be guided in decision-making.

The main problem arises when we consider equality of possessions. Plainly, people is not equal in wealth, and never have been. Marxists and other socialists have always argued that inequalities of wealth make nonsense of other forms of equality. How can everyone be equal before the law when only rich people can afford the best lawyers? Why should some people be able to buy better healthcare? How can there be equality of opportunity when the children of rich people can gain access to a superior education? And what about democracy? Mr Rupert Murdoch does not even have a vote, not being a British citizen, but has enormous power to influence politics through his ownership of newspapers. So, ought the state try to bring about more meaningful equality through the redistribution of wealth? When I discussed this with my students, someone at this point would intervene to say, "But surely if you've worked hard and made some money, you should be allowed to keep it?" Now if hard work was all that was involved, wealth would not be a controversial issue at all. In reality, however, both wealth and poverty have a strong tendency to be hereditary. Furthermore, some people work hard all their lives and never make significant money at all, whereas others seem to earn large sums for very little effort: media celebrities, for instance. In any case, redistribution of wealth by the state would involve massive interference in individual liberty; and here liberty and equality come into conflict. Conservatives would also argue that property redistribution would tend to undermine personal initiative and ambition, and thus damage the economy as a whole. What is wrong, they would say, in making money to provide your children with a better start in life? Surely this is a natural and laudable instinct?

Closely linked with wealth is equality of outcome. Why should some people get paid much more than others, and should the state do something about it? Certain aspects of this issue are now accepted without dispute: no-one now doubts that women and men should be paid the same money for doing the same job. But inequalities of innate ability come in at this point: it makes sense that a brilliant fooballer should be paid more than one who is less gifted. 
   But why should a footballer be paid vastly more than, let us say, even the world's best badminton player? Or what determines whether a policeman is be paid more than a teacher, or vice versa? In actual fact, such questions are determined by a combination of market forces and state intervention. Sevety years ago, professional sportsmen were paid wages approximately equal to that of a skilled craftsman, and they almost all came from the working classes. That some earn very much more today is largely due to money coming in from television coverage. Ultimately the state determines the wages of its employees, though it also needs to pay attention to market forces: if more policemen are needed, a simple solution is to raise the pay in order to attract more recruits.
   Bernard Shaw once said that everyone should be paid the same, because any other system was just as unfair, and far more difficult to administer. Lenin once proposed that Bolshevik ministers should be paid no more than the average worker's wage, but this idea was soon abandoned, and under Stalin it was announced that equal wages had never been part of communist teaching.
   In general terms, we agree that talent and hard work should be rewarded, and that skilled work should be better renumerated than unskilled; but it's where we go from there that the problems arise.

Most debate occurs around the vague but vital question of equality of opportunity: that all should have an equal chance to succeed. In some cases the meaning is quite straightforward. For instance, if we say that everyone should have an equal chance of becoming an Olympic athlete, it is quite obvious that at least 99% of the population have no chance, because of lack of the necessary talent. The same applies to senior judges, or brain surgeons. What we mean is that there should be no discrimination or exclusion on the grounds of, for instance, race. So far,so good. But here we come up against the problem of inequality of wealth, which gives a huge advantage to the children of the well-off. Not only do they have better access to professions like the law, but the top independent schools even provide wider musical and drama opportunities and better sports coaching. Also, contacts are established giving better access to future careers. So, effectively, inequality becomes entrenched from generation to generation; and even if there is no overt discrimination, children of the rich and well-connected have a huge inbuilt advantage over others. What can, or should, be done about this? 
   The obvious answer would be the provision of an equally excellent education for every child, but exactly how to provide this remains an unsolved puzzle. Clearly the state needs to provide a major role. But what else can the state do to ensure greater equality of opportunity? "Positive discrimination" in favour of people from disadvantaged groups? The imposition of quotas in admission to the universities and professions? These would be a major interference in liberty, and would be greatly resented by those who felt unjustly excluded.

All forms of discrimination begin by arguing that human inequalities outweigh the similarities; the most important underlying assumption being that of different levels of innate ability, deriving from race, gender, class or some other cause. From this, it is argued that political equality and equality of outcome are highly undesirable, and equality of opportunity largely meaningless. Even equal access to education is questionable: giving me an opportunity to learn a musical instrument could well be a waste of time. All discriminatory philosophies maintain that the "best" deserve superior treatment and the "rest" are ignored or regarded with fear or contempt.

(A typical question on all this might be "How should the government be attempting to bring about greater equality", or a more complex one, " 'We may prefer equality to liberty, but we should never confuse equality with liberty'. Discuss")  

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


We visited Poitiers in September for the wedding of our godson. The weather was glorious, and we had time to explore the town.

The region of Poitiers was the scene of three important battles. In 507 Clovis, King of the Franks, defeated and drove out the Visigoths under Alaric II, thus establishing the borders of France. According to legend, Clovis was assisted by a miracle performed by the local cleric St. Hilaire, since the Visigoths were Arian heretics. The church of St. Hilaire, in the south of Poitiers, was founded soon afterwards.

An even older church is the Baptistery of St. John, which dates back to the 4th century, with frescoes from the 12th and 13th centuries.

One of the most important battles in European history took place nearby in 732. Moslem forces had overrun Spain and crossed the Pyrenees to Toulouse, but their progress northwards was now stopped by Charles Martel, “Mayor of the Palace” of the French Merovingian kingdom. Never again was there to be a major Moslem invasion of France. Finally the “Black Prince”, the son of Edward III of England, defeated and captured King John II of France just south of Poitiers in 1356. More about this later.

   Poitiers was under English rule for most of the Middle Ages, thanks to the spectacular career of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
   The province of Poitou, of which Poitiers is the capital, formed part of the Duchy of Aquitaine, a vast and immensely rich domain in the south-west of France. This was the time of the great "Twelfth-century Renaissance", when it was increasingly no longer sufficient for noblemen to be illiterate warlords, and the ducal court at Poitiers was a home for troubadours. The Dukes of Aquitaine could trace their ancestry back for many generations, and tended to regard the Kings of France as uncultured provincial upstarts. Some of the most magnificent churches of Poitiers date from this period, such as Notre Dame-la-Grande in the city centre.

The west front has been restored. Inside there are frescoes and elaborately painted columns.
   The best colours are to be found at the church of St. Radegonde, rebuilt in the 11th century to replace an earlier church destroyed in an earthquake.

Eleanor was born in 1122, the eldest daughter of Duke William and the granddaughter of a crusader. She was taught to read, and her father wrote poetry. When she was 15, her father died. He left no son to succeed him, so Eleanor became the heiress to the province of Aquitaine. The King of France, Louis VI, (known as “Louis the Fat”), saw the dynastic possibilities, and was quick to arrange a marriage between Eleanor and his own son, another Louis, who was just a year older, thus bringing this region, amounting to as much as a quarter of present-day France, under direct royal control for the first time. The young couple had only been married a few weeks when King Louis died, and Eleanor found herself Queen of France.
   The marriage proved to be disastrously unsatisfactory for both parties. Louis was ineffective both as a ruler and a war leader, and Eleanor failed in her principal duty as Queen: after several years of marriage, she had not produced a son and heir, having given birth only to a daughter. Matters came to a head when the young royal couple led the French contingent on the Second Crusade, which proved to be a disastrous fiasco. Under pressure, the Pope gave his consent to an annulment of the marriage in 1152. Under the terms of the arrangement, Eleanor regained her vast inheritance of Aquitaine, which thus passed outside of the control of the French crown.
   Less than two months later, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, a claimant to the throne of England. She was 29 and the mother of two girls, he was only 18; and although a glamorous and exciting figure, he seemed at first sight a youth of very limited prospects, for King Stephen ruled England. But then, sensationally, his luck changed. In 1153 Stephen’s son Eustace died (with Eleanor giving birth to her first son on the very same day), and Stephen recognised Henry as his heir and successor. Then next year Stephen himself died, and in December 1154 Henry and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of England in London. Suddenly they were far richer and more powerful than the unfortunate King Louis, since Henry also ruled William the Conqueror’s homeland of Normandy and his father‘s homeland of Anjou, and thanks to Eleanor they also held the vast fief of Aquitaine.

   One of my few regrets from our visit to Poitiers was that the palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine, where Eleanor held court, was closed to the public, and I was only able to view the outside.

Despite her advancing years, Eleanor and Henry had eight children, of whom Richard became the most famous of English kings, and John the most infamous. They quarrelled bitterly in later years; Eleanor encouraged her sons to rise in rebellion against their father, and in consequence spent several years under house arrest at Salisbury in England, while Henry spent most of his time in France. Eleanor was only freed when Henry died in 1189 and their eldest surviving son, Richard "The Lion-Heart", always his mother’s favourite, succeeded as king.
    The soaring gothic arches of the Cathedral of St Peter date from this era, and it was here that Eleanor and Henry were married.

 The magnificent stained glass window at the east end was the gift of Eleanor and Henry, and shows Henry and his four sons adoring the crucified Christ.

Aquitaine continued to be contested between England and France for many centuries. Much of it was lost by King John before 1216. The Black Prince’s stunning victory in 1356 secured the whole of south-western France for England, but in the 15th century the English position declined rapidly. In April 1429 the Dauphin of France had Joan of Arc questioned by eminent theologians to establish her credibility. They were cautiously supportive, and soon afterwards Joan led French forces to raise the siege of Orleans, generally seen as the turning-point of the Hundred Years’ War.

Today much of the centre of Poitiers is pedestrianised, and the old churches are within easy walking distance of the centre. On Saturdays there is a superb indoor market.
 Our godson’s wedding was held in the 19th century baroque splendour of the Hotel de Ville.

Here is a view over the city from near the statue of Notre Dame-des-Dunes, on the eastern bank of the river. The spire of St. Radegonde is prominent on the left, with the cathedral behind and to the right. Notre Dame-la-grande is in the distance.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Eve and the Serpent

The story of how the serpent tempted Eve used to puzzle theologians. How did it speak to her? And when God cursed the serpent to "crawl on its belly" in future, did this imply that it originally had legs? This mediaeval illustration answers one of these problems, by giving the serpent a human face: a rather feminine one, with long hair and a magnificent crown. Why?

"Eve's tempter thus the rabbins have expressed,
 A cherub's face; a reptile all the rest"
    (Alexander Pope: "Character of Sporus")

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

History and Legends in Mediaeval Art

What I love about these little illustrations is that they show how mediaeval people believed that everyone in the past dressed and behaved just like they did. Indeed, it is possible to date the illustration by the clothes the warriors and nobles are wearing.

Here is David slaying Goliath and cutting off his head. It gives us a good idea of the equipment a knight of the 12th or 13th century would wear!

Here Delila is cutting off Samson's hair.

This is Noah's Arc. The dove is returning with a branch. The flood is receding, but many of the people in the water are clearly not dead yet!

From the Apocrypha: Judith has just murdered the tyrant Holofernes: a suitably bloodthirsty representation..

This depicts the murder of Julius Caesar.

This is the suicide of Nero. Without the caption underneath, we might well think it was King Saul.

A double suicide this time. Mark Antony stabs himself, whilst Cleopatra is bitten by not one, but two asps.

Finally, here is the Greek poetess Sappho reading her works to her friends.

We shouldn't laugh at the artists' ignorance of the past. We all know now that people in past centuries dressed differently from us, but one of the most difficult tasks of a historian is to explain how people in past centuries didn't necessarily think like us either: they often had wholly different priorities and ethical standards. Many historical novelists and makers of epic films fail lamentably in this respect!