Archive for the 'history' Category

Jean Verdon: S’amuser au Moyen Âge

October 5, 2022

     It’s not a book I’d have chosen to buy, but when I bought a pile of French novels in Luxembourg earlier this year, the assistant said, ‘You get a free book!’ and presented me with a box to choose from… I had read one of Jean Verdon’s earlier books on travel in the Middle Ages and it was fascinating. This one I have to confess to skim-reading a good deal of, particularly the lengthy extracts from documents in mediaeval French.

Life was so different back then: so many religious feast days (and leftovers from earlier, pagan days, too, despite the best efforts of the church) when work just didn’t happen or was limited; of course this counterbalanced those times when you had to work every hour that God sent, but even so… and there were also restrictions in terms of the daylight available for anything productive. It was a time of lurching from feast to famine; so much of the empty time was spent on eating and drinking when that was possible, and hunting and fishing. Peasants had their own produce whereas townsfolk did not, but then they were at the mercy of the weather. There were innumerable taverns – a regulation was passed somewhere once saying there should be no more than one for every eight houses – and prostitution was rife.

Having made the simplistic judgement that things have always been pretty much the same, I then thought a bit more deeply: work as we understand it now was a rather different concept for most people. At one level it was a deeply integrated part of your life and the person you were, with no possible escape from that fate, but it didn’t tie you down in quite the same futile ways it perhaps does today, when you think about what is real work, and what are real necessities.

Equally, there were none of the static, time-wasting amusements that we ‘enjoy’ today; what people did was largely participatory and based on social interaction; the closest a peasant would have got to anything resembling today’s passively consumed entertainments was possibly a travelling mystery or morality play. These, incidentally, were far more sophisticated in terms of stagecraft and mechanics than I’d previously known. And there were processions, royal entrances, public executions.

I wouldn’t have liked to live back then, obviously; life was proverbially nasty, brutish and short, and I have greatly valued the intellectual stimulus of my studies and career. Nevertheless the value of a book like this lies in its ability to make one step back for a while and reflect on what is of real significance and value in our own lives and what is of no real value and serves someone else’s purposes…

Albert Nolan: Jesus Before Christianity

October 3, 2022

     In a way this book covers similar territory to E P Sanders’ book I read and wrote about recently; in another way it’s very different. It’s not so scrupulously detailed or annotated, for a start.

Jesus is seen as a follower of John the Baptist initially, who then turns his attention to the downtrodden, oppressed classes who have no hope of escaping their poverty, which is basically regarded as a sinful state. I’d never thought of him as ‘middle class’ though in terms of the society of his time, he was. Nolan develops a coherent picture of, and interpretation of, Jesus’ work in the context of his time. However, and this is where I encountered the greatest difficulty, he attempts to be dispassionate and analytical against the background of his own faith and what he perceives to be Jesus’ picture of God as well. Faith is opposed to fatalism: things can be done, we can make the world a different place. Nolan’s Jesus preaches community, equality, the sharing of surplus, ie only having what you actually need. He is very clear about the man as radical, and what was new about his teaching and life; Jesus comes across not as a revolutionary in the manner of others of his time, but as someone who can understand and show us what right living is…

For Nolan the central incident sealing Jesus’ fate is the clearing out of the money-changers in the Temple, which made him a known and potentially dangerous figure in different ways to the Jewish leaders and Roman rulers.

I think I said in response to Sanders’ book that his purely rational, historical analysis of Jesus as a human being should make no difference to a person’s faith; I find the confusion of analysis and urge to faith here very unhelpful. Nolan tries to make Jesus human before his death, almost omits the resurrection as an embarrassment, and then somehow tries to make him into an extraordinary figure for those who remained, quite suddenly almost an extension of God; here he lost me, I’m afraid: this bolting of a religious message on to the end did not work for me.

Clearly I’ve been reading a good deal about the man Jesus and his times over recent years; I’m still not sure if I call my response a belief or a faith, but none of the historical investigations have diminished the inspirational teachings I have always seen at the heart of the message…

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

October 1, 2022

     My former students will know, and if you search this blog you will discover, that I have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of literature from the Great War. This novel, which I’ve read several times now, still moves me to tears at the end, and, I would argue, is probably the most powerful novel written about those hellish places and times. And, for the first time, I was struck by the parallel between the end of the novel and the final moments of the epic film O What A Lovely War.

Written in 1929 and the first novel (and film) the Nazis banned on coming to power, it clearly gains from the sense of immediacy – only a decade after the events it recalls. The writer lived through those times; it shows in a way in which no modern novel, no matter how well-researched, can do, and that is not to disparage contemporary writers like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. It’s different from novels which present the British or French perspective; in particular the serious privations of both the men at the front and their folk at home are emphasised.

Remarque’s techniques stand up to scrutiny. The tone of the narrative is matter-of-fact throughout: the message is that you will get used to anything, eventually: the horrors are not dwelt on in gory detail. The tone makes the novel, laconic, the hero old and wise before his time, with a sense of doom ever-present in the back of his mind (just as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, I feel). The language enhances the effect, with the constant feeling that there just aren’t the words available to describe what he and his comrades experience. And there’s also the feeling that insanity is never that far away; even the hero notices and remarks on this. There is that memorable scene in the 1930 film when the men are under endless bombardment, which I still cannot forget even after many years. (Incidentally, why remake the film, as I learn has been done?)

There is a sense of timelessness; home and past are now and forever unreal. I have always found the section where Paul goes home on leave one of the most poignant in the novel. He can have none of that old life back, ever. I realised how much more effectively this is portrayed here, than in more recent fiction, too. Remarque’s style is obviously not contemporary; it takes us back in time in a different way. I found myself trying to work out why, for me, writing from that time is so much more effective, and I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not seduced by plot or story here; there is just warfare; there are just incidents; characters come and go (they are killed)…

This timelessness is enhanced by the wide use of the present tense in the narrative: here it works to convey the sense that there is only now for these men; that technique is gratuitously overused to no effect in much contemporary fiction. What will happen, what can happen for these men if they survive, and when the war is over? There is no future for them; their minds and hopes are already destroyed. The sadness about the love and the sex they will never enjoy is hinted at, just as in Owen’s Disability, which for my money is one of the most powerful poems ever written about that or any war. And Remarque did write a sequel, about what happened to those who made their way back, and in its own way, it’s as grim as this novel.

I remain of the opinion I formed half a century ago: war serves no purpose, war is evil. Some vile people derive power and profit from it: most people suffer. Re-reading this novel, and contemplating current events confirm my feeling.

Norman Davies: God’s Playground – A History of Poland (vol 2)

September 19, 2022

    This second volume of Norman Davies’ history begins with a nation that has vanished from the map of Europe; the idea of Poland survives nevertheless, and he shows us the problems national aspirations can cause. His account of the period is wide-ranging, comprehensive, and he demonstrates a deep level both of sympathy with, and understanding of, the situation of Poles during those years; he is a historian widely read and respected in Poland. Given the absence of a country of which to record the history, he examines things thematically: church, language, history and race create a sense of a nation.

Unless you are prepared to go into great depth, you will never unpick or make sense of the incredible complexity of Polish history, culture and society. Davies manages to do all of this, making things clear and evident, as well as acknowledging that there’s often a touch of the mildly insane about it all…

At another level, the problems really began in 1919, with the task of reconstituting a nation from its very disparate parts, after more than a century of oblivion: the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires had all now disappeared, but each had left a very different mark, culturally, politically and physically, on the Polish space. Although this wasn’t the first time I’d read this magisterial work, I had allowed myself to forget the extent of the horrendous catalogue of bestial Russian behaviour towards the Poles in the part of the nation they occupied (and from which my ancestors came); the picture is of more than two centuries of both Tsarist and Bolshevik domination and brutality. I’d make a glib observation about some aspects of the Russian character and psyche, except that I then remember the atrocities the occupying Nazis carried out; it’s human beings per se that are not a very nice species…

So, to write a fair history of Poland, one needs to have a full grasp of, and be able to explain to others, both the complexities on the ground, and also in hearts and heads; Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder are the only ones I’ve found able to do justice. Davies sets the record of the Second World War straight too, and he’s not afraid to be critical; Poland doesn’t emerge from that period of martyrdom completely covered in glory, and there are those in the current regime who wish to sweep certain things under the carpet. Poland’s shameful treatment by the Western Allies is also fully and correctly catalogued.

A range of necessary maps are included, but I have to say they are reproduced too small and fail to do justice to the subject, mainly through illegibility. Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge at his fingertips. It’s not a recent work – completed before the advent of the Solidarity movement in 1980 – and his summative remarks at the end of the history do read like something from another age; to be fair to Davies, he does acknowledge that historians shouldn’t write about (their) present. I don’t imagine another history this complete and comprehensive being written in the near future.

E P Sanders: The Historical Figure of Jesus

September 3, 2022

  This was a most interesting read, mainly because of Sanders’ perspective and approach, as a historian writing about Jesus as just another historical character, and setting him clearly in the context of his time and society, using all available sources. For any other historical personage this would be standard practice and unsurprising, but the story of this particular character has been so swamped with other approaches, and uncritical veneration, that being faced with a dispassionate investigative approach was a serious eye-opener, at least for this reader.

New fact number one was chronology: Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospels were committed to writing, ergo he did not know the gospels, and neither do the gospel writers seem to have known his letters. Then Sanders unpicks and explains the Roman regime which ran Palestine at the time, and dispels a number of old chestnuts about the roles and powers of a Roman governor, about Pontius Pilate in particular, about Jewish high priests and what they had the power to do, about how Jewish civil society was organised and run. There was clearly a good deal of autonomy as long as the local population behaved.

Sanders’ forensic investigative approach somehow “shrinks” and normalises Jesus: he’s a human character in human history here; nothing of God or Christianity interferes. He shows what a historian can work out from the available material, and there is clearly a good deal more than I was aware of. Comparison of gospels reveals a lot, inconsistencies included, and much can be deduced or surmised; Sanders carefully clarifies what we can be sure of and what must forever remain unclear or unknown.

It is an exhaustive and at times densely-written academic work. The picture which gradually emerges is of a man who clearly believed he was carrying out a God-given mission, who became a thorn in the side of the Jewish authorities, and they quickly organised his execution. What they didn’t count on was what came after. That doesn’t mean the resurrection, the nature of which Sanders makes clear we can never know, but the work of his followers in the aftermath of Jesus’ disappearance, powered by their belief in his imminent return…

Faith is most definitely not part of this historian’s work, and perhaps for this reason, believers may find it disturbing or disorienting, though I personally don’t actually see why this should be the case. I feel a good deal more informed, factually and contextually and that is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really change what I understand to be the message of Jesus’ teaching.

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief

August 13, 2022

     Elaine Pagels explores some aspects of the early history of Christianity in similar vein to various works by Karen Armstrong and Geza Vermes. Here she is focusing on the time between the death of Christ and the formal codification of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine in the early fourth century CE. It’s a fascinating period, and clearly there is a lot of information from those early centuries for researchers who know where to look.

What I find particularly interesting is how what seems to have been a revolutionary but fairly simple message, preached and developed by a man who was executed by the authorities as a dangerous character, evolved and developed into something rather different, ultimately one of the great world faiths with all kinds of doctrines and creeds, and penalties for the unorthodox and heretical. It’s evident that all sorts of things were going on, including battles between different interpretations of Jesus’ original message, and varying accounts of his life and work, written by people who didn’t actually know the man.

Pagels’ particular interest is the Nag Hammadi/Dead Sea Scrolls, and the various challenges and contradictions they bring to the long-accepted canon of scriptural writings. She makes clear that there was never one single, ‘pure’ early version of Christianity but a great diversity of beliefs and practices right from the start, which seems to have been inevitable in those days of slow and difficult communication. She focuses on the differences between John’s gospel – part of the canon of accepted texts – and the Gospel of Thomas, not accepted as canonical by the church. They espouse rival viewpoints, with John proposing a more church-based practice and advocating the divinisation of Jesus, while Thomas offered a more individualist approach to faith and practice; clearly, for whatever reasons, John became the preferred option and Thomas was quietly erased from history: finding God on your own was not what a church organisation wanted.

It was not a surprise to read about widespread division and controversy within a century or so of the death of Jesus. The framing of the four gospels into an accepted canon was largely the work of Irenaeus of Lyons; the focus was on John’s gospel particularly as it allowed the promotion of Jesus as divine and this shaped the development of the early church. Creation of an organisation necessitated orthodoxy for its survival in an era of persecution; by the time Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, its basic structures and beliefs had been codified, and were rather easier to enforce: the earlier and wider variety of beliefs and practices was no more.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt

August 8, 2022

     I’d been meaning to come back to this long novel for quite a while; it intrigued me when I first read it some twenty years ago, but it was nothing like I’d remembered it, this time around. It’s a well-written and evocative alternative history of the world covering several centuries, with a major difference: the Black Death of the fourteenth century did not kill only one third of the population of Europe, but eliminated it entirely, leaving the world to develop along a rather different track. Robinson explored potential futures focused on the Islamic, the Chinese and the Indian worlds, with a major emphasis on reincarnation thrown in…

It’s complex – obviously! – confusing, and at times annoying and rather boring; it’s clearly a tour-de-force for an accomplished writer like Robinson to imagine history on such a grand scale, but it does verge on the self-indulgent. Being a great fan of alternative history, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I shan’t even attempt to summarise the plot. The absence of Europe is thought-provoking in itself, given how we and our various offshoots, the USA especially, have shaped the world as we know it. Christianity has also gone, places have disappeared, and later on, our ancient history becomes the study material for curious archaeologists from other continents.

Imagining how the Muslim world might have developed is an interesting line of development, and I wonder what the reaction of Muslim readers has been to various strands that Robinson explores. The futures he creates are largely impressionistic rather than detailed; other religions and philosophies can get stuck in a rut just like Christianity has done in numerous ways. The effect is convincing, and also frustrating at times when I felt I’d have liked rather more detail to his alternative visions…

The Chinese explore the world in the way that various European nations actually did, and Islamic scientists replicate the investigatory and experimental tracks that actually took place in the West: the Islamic science that we know to have faded rather after the Middle Ages continued to flourish. Fortunately, scientists from all nations conspire to foil the development of nuclear weapons.

Although a world without Europe is very different, Robinson inevitably must remind us that humans are humans: there is still the lust for power, much cruelty, development of weaponry and warfare: in his future the equivalent of the First and Second World Wars are telescoped into one war which lasts over sixty years. It’s a strangely riveting read, and at times I found it hard to believe that a Western writer had written it; equally, I wonder where a non-Western writer would have gone with a similar idea. Robinson philosophises about the world, about power and religion and has obviously researched his material: I didn’t ever find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t a credible development’.

The best science fiction, to my mind, makes us think about and reflect on our own world; if it goes into the future, it makes us consider our own future, too. Humans are the same everywhere, and the big question which faces us now is surely whether we can learn from our history and our mistakes or whether we are condemned to revisiting and repeating them, in which case there’s little hope left. Robinson, from a very different and unusual perspective, and in a challenging work, offers much to think about.

Karen Armstrong: Sacred Nature

July 23, 2022

     In this latest book Karen Armstrong develops her idea that monotheism led people to view nature and their relationships with nature in a different way from other peoples; they came to see ‘God’ as separate from the world rather than an integral part of it. For her, then, the early modern, increasingly scientific and rationalistic world-view, particularly in the West, let to the idea of nature as a resource for human use and exploitation, rather than humans striving to live in harmony with creation which included ‘God’. God thus became something completely separate from the world, and other, the original holiness or sacredness of the world and nature was sidelined, and we have ended up in the current situation where the planet is rapidly being destroyed, in the sense of becoming unliveable for our species, at least.

Armstrong is building on and developing ideas that she has already expounded in recent books; through her knowledge and understanding of religion and history, she argues for a radically different relationship between human beings and the world we inhabit, which would involve, for us in the developed world at least, much sacrifice of what we currently have and enjoy, at the expense of the planet.

It was interesting to learn that apparently, the Chinese have no creation story in their myth or tradition. Her message develops from both Chinese and Indian philosophy, and to a lesser extent from Islam, and is about a world-picture that the West and Christianity has left behind at its cost. She extracts many important, if not vital, lessons from the wisdom of past ages, and yet sadly, she ultimately comes across in this book as disconnected from the chaos that is the contemporary world: I cannot see how, in practical terms, enough of us can begin to bridge the gap she describes, to make the transition she hopes for, and with which many thinking people will surely agree.

She emphasises the importance of quiet and solitude, two things which the modern consumerist world obviously despises and does its best to eliminate from our consciousness. Quiet people, who enjoy solitude, are not ideal consumers; noise, groups, gregariousness facilitate spending money and generate profits…

I enjoyed this book, and it slowed me down and made me think and reflect a good deal. I was particularly gripped by her thoughtful and innovative reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And, though I wish things might turn out differently, I do not see her book changing the world.

John Berger: Ways of Seeing

July 23, 2022

     This seminal work is now half a century old, and still incredibly valid and relevant. As Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media opened our eyes to how print media actually work on us, this short book takes the lid off how works of art operate on the viewer over time, and how we see, consume, interpret pictorial/ representative art, as well as the factors in its production: nothing is innocent, particularly the interaction between viewer and object. We make assumptions, and in the case of many works, the past comes between as well.

So art, too, inevitably, is political, wherever we find it and look at it. Berger deconstructs the sexual politics of art, too, and the objectification of women in art, particularly though not exclusively, through the nude in art. Art was, and to a large extent still is, something for the wealthy to possess and give value to, more stuff for them to squirrel away with their other ill-gotten gains, and oil painting especially was capitalist art par excellence, shown by the period in which it developed, what ii represented, and what it symbolised.

In our day, art has become publicity – advertising – manufacturing glamour and promoting consumption. In exactly the same ways as in earlier days, art creates dreams: you are what you have, what you can afford to have and show off. For Berger the difference is that in the past, art was saying “This is mine, this is what I possess”, whereas now advertising is saying “This is what you can be, in fantasy if not in reality”.

This is succinct and trenchant analysis that is as relevant today as when it was written. It’s very approachable, with one serious caveat: the production of the book, through numerous editions, has become very poor quality, with the reproductions of the various works of art, in monochrome only, so small and fuzzy as to be almost useless as an adjunct to following Berger’s theses. You need the illustrations, and I found that the way to get the best from the work was in fact to watch the original four-part TV series which went with the book, and can now be accessed online.

Lea Ypi: Free

July 11, 2022

     I have a rather strange relationship with Albania, and I have never been there. Some forty or more years ago, during the days of would-be socialist nations, I discovered the nightly English propaganda broadcasts on Radio Tirana, which were preceded by the strident call-sign With Pickaxe and Rifle, and always ended with the words, “Goodbye, dear listeners!” followed by a rousing version of the Internationale. The broadcasts were so over-the-top that they caused much amusement. And there was the Albanian Shop, purveyors of propaganda and the party daily from a basement shop in a Covent Garden back street. Then I discovered the astonishing novels of the only Albanian novelist I’m aware of, Ismail Kadare. You will find reviews of some in these pages, if you care to look.

I think I’ve also read some travel writing about the country. So this book, about growing up and coming of age in Albania at the time of the transition from the age of socialism to the age of capitalism, caught my attention, and it’s both an interesting and a disturbing read. It seems to have received many positive reviews, not all from readers who seem to have understood the complexity or the subtlety of what appears to be Lea Ypi’s message.

The first part, which is at times annoying to read as it’s from a child’s perspective and written in the present, describes the last days of the old regime and the demonstrations and transition to something new and different; the second part is after the change and the attempts, in many different ways, to come to terms with it. It is strange to read of a young person and her family discovering ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, learning its ways for the first time and interacting with it, as well as gradually discovering truths which had been concealed in her past, in many ways and for all sorts of reasons… the importance of ‘biography’ which only becomes clear as the author learns about her family’s real past and bourgeois origins.

The weirdness of the country’s isolation is striking, as is the innocence of an 11 year-old and her perspective and the lack of it, from inside the regime. There is a sense of utter confusion as changes begin, there are no anchors, there is no reliability in anything: the craziness is portrayed from within, with a naive yet questioning tone behind it all; there are serious potential consequences if a child is overheard saying the wrong thing. We can see how people within the system came to think, to rationalise and to explain things to themselves, and the compromises they had to make to remain safe. It’s a bizarre, looking-glass world that makes perfect sense when seen only from within, exactly like our own, if you just stop to think about it.

The author’s tragedy is that she, as an 11 year-old, believes in that now crumbling world, in which it seems that the adults were only going through the motions. The consequences of ‘freedom’, ‘shock therapy’ are truly awful; huge numbers try to emigrate. They were heroes when they were fleeing ‘communism’, but fleeing capitalism they are an unwanted nuisance. You see how millions of innocent and naive people were fleeced by capitalist plunderers, taken in and fleeced by spivs because they were naive and gullible; all sorts of Western plagues and diseases – like AIDS – arrive: we see the meaning of ‘freedom’, and its price.

The author is older now, and she reflects on the new, and different, dilemmas those close to her are faced by. Her family are among the hundreds of thousands ruined by various pyramid selling schemes: how were they to know? And then there is a civil war, frightening from a young person’s point of view but which I remember hearing almost nothing about.

It’s a thought-provoking book, a challenging book, which faces us with the two sorts of freedom we are never really aware of here in the rich West, freedom from and freedom to: each has its (very different) price.

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