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!

Monday, 12 September 2016

Views of Florence

This is a view of the city from across the River Arno. From the left, Giotto's tower, the Duomo and the Palazzo della Signoria.

The building of the Duomo (cathedral) was begun at the end of the 13th century. When Brunellechi designed the dome in the 15th century, it was the first dome constructed in western Europe since Roman times.

The campanile (bell-tower) was designed by Giotto in the 14th century, and completed by other architects after his death.

From the tower, there are magnificent views over the city. This is the Palazzo della Signoria,

and the baptistery.
The baptistery dates from the 11th century, and features the famous bronze doors by Ghiberti. The cupola has mosaics in Byzantine style. Dante was baptised here.

The Palazzo del Popolo, otherwise known as the Palazzo Vecchio. It was built in the early 14th century, with many later additions. It was once the home of the Medici family. It faces the magnificent Piazza del Popolo. The Uffizi gallery is just round the corner.  

Do not be put off by the obviously unfinished facade of San Lorenzo! It contains some of Michelangelo's greatest work,including the Laurentian library and the medici tombs.

The Ponte Vecchio across the River Arno.

Crossing this bridge will bring you to the Pitti Palace of the Medici. From there, it's well worth climbing the hill to San Miniato al Monte, one of the oldest churches in Florence.

Finish at the Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic view over the city, which is where we started.

Friday, 2 September 2016

1968: A Year of Revolution?

If 1967 was the "Summer of Love", then 1968 was the year of revolution. I remember it well, since it was my last year at Cambridge. There was great excitement on the student Left, and it was obligatory to stress your proletarian roots, especially if you'd been to a major public school. The inspiration, however, was driven almost exclusively by events abroad.
    Unlike the student Left of the 1930s, the inspiration did not come from Russia; and indeed the Soviet brand of socialism was specifically repudiated by most student radical leaders. The Soviet Union had long since ceased to be radical. Persecution of Russian dissidents increased in 1968, and in the summer came one of the salient events of the year. Alexander Dubcek of Czechoslovakia had led a promising movement towards a less oppressive form of communism. This attracted much popular enthusiasm, but on August 21st Russian forces invaded, to put an end to the "Prague Spring". Although there was no violence, these events finally killed any illusion that the Soviet Union could be considered a force for progress.
    More promising in some eyes was China, where Mao's "cultural revolution" was at its climax, as the former premier, Liu Siao-chi, having confessed to being a "capitalist roader", was expelled from the Communist party. He was to die miserably of ill-treatment; just one of many. The posters and scenes of mass action were undenaibly exciting.  and the extreme levels of death and destruction involved in the cultural revolution were not yet apparent to westerners, Then there was admiration of Cuba, with its young, charismatic leader, who was furthermore the enemy of the United States, the ultimate bad guy of 1968.
   The Cold War was in abeyance at this time, and the main great-power hostility was between Russia and China, with mutual and savage denunciation; so much so that some experts were even predicting a war in the near future. This potential conflict, however, was little noticed by student radicals in the west: the war that concerned them was, of course, in Vietnam. 

   By early 1968, American troops in South Vietnam were approaching half a million. In January came the Tet offensive, when for the first time the Vietcong launched direct attacks on the cities. Although all these failed, at enormous cost to the attackers, the American government became convinced that the war could not be won, and, with protests against the war, and against the "draft" that sent young men to serve in Vietnam, rising at home, began to search for a way out of the conflict. President Lyndon Johnson had done more for black Americans than any president since Lincoln, but his identification with the Vietnam war made him a deeply hated figure. I can well remember how his appearance on newsreels would bring a chorus of boos from Cambridge students. At the end of March, Johnson announced that he would not be running for re-election. The man looking most likely to succeed him, Bobby Kennedy, was then murdered in early June, leaving a serious gap in the leadership of the Democratic party.
   The demonstrations and sit-ins that swept college campuses in the summer of 1968 were paralleled in the Black community. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April. For some time, his non-violent methods had been coming under attack from the more militant "Black Power" movement, but his death was greeted by a week of rioting and looting. At the Mexico City Olympics, two American athletes gave the Black Power salute on the medals rostrum, and were promptly sent home in disgrace. Left-wing student radicals and black power activists came together at the Democratic party convention in Chicago in August, where they were indiscriminately clubbed by Mayor Daley's police.

Simultaneously, similar but quite unconnected events were taking place in Paris. French students had their own grievances, and at the start of May clashes with the police erupted throughout the Latin Quarter. May 10th was the "night of the barricades". President de Gaulle at firdt seemed willing to make concessions, and at the end of the month announced new elections to the French National Assembly. Riots continued, but it quickly became clear that the students were isolated and lacked mass support: in particular, the powerful French Communist Party failed to back them. Next month the government banned demonstrations and outlawed many of the student bodies, and then won a landslide victory in the elections.

By comparison, protest movements in Britain, though widespread, were entirely derivative. They concentrated on Vietnam, despite the fact that not a single British soldier had been sent there: Harold Wilson's Labour government had, as we now know, successfully resisted intense American pressure to commit troops. Wilson's government had passed a number of important reforms: abolishing capital punishment, outlawing racial discrimination and decriminalising homosexuality; but in the eyes of the radical Left all this counted for nothing compared with the fact that Wilson gave verbal support to the American war. I witnessed Denis Healey, the minister of defence, being booed and heckled by students for this very reason. 
   The Rolling Stones captured the mood of 1968, with the song "Street Fighting Man" on their "Beggar's Banquet" album. It embodied what some radicals presumably wanted, and violence was predicted in Enoch Powell's notorious "Rivers of blood" speech, delivered in April. but in Britain, unlike in America and France, street fighting never really took off. 

In every case, the 1968 attempts at revolution not only failed, but led to distinct swings to the Right. In Czechoslovakia, Dubcek and his friends were expelled from the Communist Party, and the country settled down to a dreary few decades of low-level reression. De Gaulle resigned as French President in 1969, but was succeeded by his former Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou. In Britain, Harold Wilson unexpectedly lost the 1970 election to the Conservatives. And American politics saw a real and lasting sea-change. Ever since the Civil War, the old slave-owning states of the south had voted Democrat, largely because Lincoln had been a Republican. Lyndon Johnson expressed the fear that, by enacting his Civil Rights legislation, he could have lost his party the south; and in the 1968 Presidential election this did indeed happen. George Wallace, the openly segregationalist governor of Alabama, swept to victory throughout the south, and Richard Nixon was in consequence elected President by a small margin, in a clear negation of the hopes of the Left.

Jeremy Corbyn is my age. I suspect he formulated his ideas in the turmoil of 1968. I wonder if he has learnt anything since.

Monday, 29 August 2016


Everybody called him Sasha: he was never sure whether he had any other name. He could never remember a time when he had not been hungry or afraid. His earliest memories, which still resurfaced in his dreams, were of fighting: men shooting, buildings burning and bodies in the streets. He could barely picture his parents, who had both disappeared around that time. When the fighting had finished he was brought up by a woman who said she was his aunt, though she treated him more like a servant: setting him to chop firewood or shovel away snow, never giving him enough to eat and beating him if he complained. Eventually he ran away, and lived for a while by begging and stealing until he was big enough to get a job at Mr. Fenstein’s factory. He earned little there, for after years of malnutrition he was not strong enough for heavy tasks. His workmates jeered at him for his weakness and also because he could hardly read or write, and girls looked scornfully at his ragged clothes.
Then there was more fighting, and soldiers occupied the town. They spoke a strange language, but Sasha learned to pick it up; and when they found he was always willing to help them in return for food, they laughed and said he was a lad with promise. After a while they took him away for training.
The training was tough, and many of the duties very unpleasant, but Sasha never complained. Why should he? The barracks were far more comfortable than the doss-house which had been his home, and the food and clothing were the best he had ever enjoyed. For the first time in his life he was able to get washed and shaved properly, and have a decent haircut. Finally, when the training was completed, he was ordered to report to the railway station for transfer to his place of assignment.
As he dressed in his brand new uniform and looked at himself in the mirror, Sasha for the first time in his life felt a sense of pride. Now at last he had status: he was somebody! He walked through the streets and noticed that people who had once treated him with contempt now regarded him with wariness, even fear; and stepped off the pavement to make way for him. It made him want to smile, but he thought it best to keep his expression stern and hard. Now he was showing them! Now he could get his own back! And if Mr. Fenstein or anyone else failed to show him proper respect, he’d quickly demonstrate to them who was the boss now!
Sasha reached the station, where a train was drawn up. Much of it consisted of cattle trucks, but not for him! Oh no! He’d be travelling in a proper carriage with his new comrades, the other men of his unit!
It would probably be a long journey, because the destination painted on the train was somewhere he’d never heard of: Auschwitz.     

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Young Lloyd George

David Lloyd George, the most famous of Welshmen, was actually born in Manchester in January 1863; the son of two schoolteachers. Eighteen months later his father died, leaving his widow pregnant, and with a baby son. Fortunately her brother, Richard Lloyd, came to the rescue, helping the family move to his home at Llanystumdwy, a village in north Wales.
   Lloyd George later boasted that he was the first "cottage-raised man" to rise to the Premiership. This was strictly accurate, but Richard Lloyd was no downtrodden proletarian. He was a shoemaker (factory-made shoes had yet to appear), and as a skilled craftsman and a lay preacher in the Baptist chapel he was a respected member of the village community. He took great interest in his nephew's upbringing.
   Despite the limitations of local educational opportunities, Lloyd George was able to qualify as a solicitor, and set up a law firm in partnership with his younger brother William. (It was named, rather oddly, "Lloyd George and George"). He was active in local politics whilst still a teenager, and rose to prominence by his campaigns for the rights of local Nonconformists against the power of the established Anglican church, to which hardly any of the villagers belonged. As a result he was adopted as Liberal Party candidate for the local constituency of Caernarfon Boroughs, and in March 1890, following the death of its Tory M.P., was elected to Parliament by a majority of just 18 votes. He was to represent the constituency through to when he was elevated to a peerage just weeks before his death in 1945.
   There can hardly be a greater contrast between Lloyd George's background and that of Winston Churchill, his friend and colleague in the great reforming Liberal government before the First World War. Churchill was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, born in the splendour of Blenheim Palace and expensively educated at Harrow school; though he maintained he derived little benefit from it, and largely educated himself by extensive reading whilst a subaltern in the army in India. As an angry Conservative M.P. later remarked to Stanley Baldwin, the party's leader, "L.G. was born a cad and never forgot it: Winston was born a gentleman and never rememebered it".

Richard Lloyd's cottage can still be seen in Llanystumdwy.
This is the back door. The shoemaker's workshop is on the right. Inside there was a kitchen and parlour downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. As was usual in such cottages, there was no indoor lavatory; instead there was a privy at the end of the garden.
Inside, the cottage and workshop are maintained as they would have appeared. No photography is permitted inside, but instead there is an excellent Lloyd George museum in a modern building next door, which is well worth a visit.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Shrewsbury Parliament, 1283

King Edward I sumoned the third Parliament of his reign at Shrewsbury in the autumn of 1283. It was attended by a large number of lords, plus bishops, knights representing the shires of England and burgesses from the corporate towns. The reason for meeting there was because of Shropshire's proximity to the border with Wales. Edward's campaign to conquer Wales had led to the death of Prince Llewellyn ap Gruffudd the previous year, and then in June Llewellyn's younger brother Dafydd, after a career devoted to changing sides, had finally been captured near Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, in June. Edward was determined to make an example of him, and the Parliament was accordingly summoned to witness Dafydd's trial and execution.
   The verdict was inevitable. Dafydd was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be dragged at a horse's tail through Shrewsbury, hanged, cut down whilst still conscious, disembowelled, and his body cut into quarters and fed to the dogs. Such a savage and degrading punishment had never before been visited on someone of such high rank: as the chroniclers noted, with a touch of unease, it was "in previous times unknown".

   A few days after disposing of Dafydd, King and Parliament decamped to the home of Edward's Chancellor, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Burnell, in a village a few miles outside Shrewsbury, which is still called Acton Burnell. Victorian constitutional historians believed that this was the first occasion when the Lords and Commons met separately, with the knights of the shires taking the momentous decision to place themselves alongside the town burgesses in the Commons; but there seems to be no certainty about this.
    Burnell, a career cleric, had been a member of Edward's household since the 1250s, and was now one of his most trusted advisors. Amongst other things,he drew up the Statute of Westminster, regulating how future Parliaments should be conducted. Edward tried several times to have him made Archbishop of Canterbury, only to have the appointment vetoed by the Pope, who, justifiably, objected to Burnell's immoral personal life (he had fathered five illegitimate children!) and the way he had accumulated vast personal wealth by blatant simony. He died in 1293.

These are some pictures of the surviving mediaeval buildings at Acton Burnell. In 1284 Bishop Burnell was given a "licence to crenellate" his house; that is, to build battlements; but it isn't really a castle. (In this way it is comparable with the contemporary Shropshire "castle" at Stokesay, which was built by another of Edward's friends: the wool-merchant Lawrence of Ludlow). What Burnell built for himself was a refined and sophisticated mansion, whose very lack of defensibility showed how the country was becoming more peaceful.

Nearby is the church of St. Mary, built at the same time; but little remains of the large stone barn where the Parliament is supposed to have met.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Great Orme Copper Mine, Llandudno

The Great Orme is a massive lump of limestone rock overlooking the seaside resort of Llandudno in north Wales. Copper ore, greenish in colour, seems to have been excavated from the site as long as 4,000 years ago, presumably in the first instance where the veins of ore outcropped on the surface. Later a vast quantity of waste rock covered the site, and it was only when this was removed after 1987 that a network of Bronze Age tunnels and caverns was discovered. These extend over five miles and reach a depth of  250 feet, but it is guessed that what has been excavated so far is only a small part of what is down there.
    The Bronze Age miners has no excavating tools other than picks of deer antler and shovels of the shoulder-blades of oxen. Some of the tunnels are so narrow that they must have been worked by small children. Working conditions, with no more light than that from little lamps of animal fat, can hardly be imagined. As veins became exhausted, the tunnels leading to them were filled with waste rock, which is now being painstakingly removed, so that some of the tunnels are now open to visitors.
     This is the entrance, on the right, with the exit to the left of it:-

A tour of the tunnels is a most interesting experience, but cannot be recommended to the very tall, the obese or the claustrophobic!

How these early peoples first discovered how to smelt copper from the ore, and to alloy it with tin (which is quite a rare metal) to make bronze; and whether these developments spread out from a central source or were discovered independently in different parts of the world, remains a mystery to archaeologists.