October 2016 Vol 66 Issue 10
A Time of Conquest A WOMANâ€™S PLACE The forgotten scholars of medieval Islam SONG OF SAPPHO A new scroll reveals the voice of the Greek poet
Publisher Andy Patterson Editor Paul Lay Senior Editor Kate Wiles Assistant Editor Rhys Griffiths Digital Manager Dean Nicholas Picture Research Mel Haselden Reviews Editor Philippa Joseph Art Director Gary Cook Subscriptions Manager Cheryl Deflorimonte Subscriptions Assistant Ava Bushell Accounts Sharon Harris Board of Directors Simon Biltcliffe (Chairman), Tim Preston CONTACTS History Today is published monthly by History Today Ltd, 2nd Floor, 9/10 Staple Inn London WC1V 7QH. Tel: 020 3219 7810 email@example.com SUBSCRIPTIONS Tel: 020 3219 7813/4 firstname.lastname@example.org ADVERTISING Lisa Martin, Portman Media Tel: 020 3859 7093 email@example.com Print managed by Webmart Ltd. 01869 321321. Printed at W. Gibbons & Sons Ltd, Willenhall, UK. Distributed by MarketForce 020 3787 9001 (UK & RoW) and Disticor 905 619 6565 (North America). History Today (ISSN No: 0018-2753, USPS No: 246-580) is published monthly by History Today Ltd, GBR and distributed in the USA by Asendia USA, 17B S Middlesex Ave, Monroe NJ 08831. Periodicals postage paid New Brunswick, NJ and additional mailing offices. Postmaster: send address changes to History Today, 701C Ashland Avenue, Folcroft PA 19032. Subscription records are maintained at History Today Ltd, 2nd Floor, 9/10 Staple Inn, London WC1V 7QH, UK.
EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD Dr Simon Adams University of Strathclyde Dr John Adamson Peterhouse, Cambridge Professor Richard Bessel University of York Professor Jeremy Black University of Exeter Professor Paul Dukes University of Aberdeen Professor Martin Evans University of Sussex Juliet Gardiner Historian and author Tom Holland Historian and author Gordon Marsden MP for Blackpool South Dr Roger Mettam Queen Mary, University of London Professor Geoffrey Parker Ohio State University Professor Paul Preston London School of Economics Professor M.C. Ricklefs The Australian National University Professor Ulinka Rublack St John’s College, Cambridge Professor Nigel Saul Royal Holloway, University of London Dr David Starkey Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge Professor T.P. Wiseman University of Exeter Professor Chris Wrigley University of Nottingham All written material, unless otherwise stated, is the copyright of History Today
Total Average Net Circulation 18,161 Jan-Dec 2015
2 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
New Worlds: engraving from a 17th-century edition of Gage’s English-American.
FROM THE EDITOR SOMETIMES, WHEN RESEARCHING a period in history, a life stands out and grabs you. For me, Thomas Gage is one such example. Born at the beginning of the 17th century into an old Catholic recusant family – both his parents had been condemned to death for harbouring priests, but then reprieved – Gage joined the Catholic seminary in St Omer at about the age of 12. His father intended him to become a Jesuit, but Gage headed to Spain, where he joined the Dominicans, a move that led his father to disown him. It was the start of a career of extremes. Though barred, as an Englishman, from travelling in Spain’s imperial possessions, he was smuggled in a barrel of dry biscuit onto a ship in Cadiz from where he set sail for Mexico and, with some fellow friars, headed for Guatemala, his ‘second patria’. His experiences there were turned into a compelling travelogue of self-justification, The English-American his Travail by Sea and Land, or, A New Survey of the West Indias, published in 1648. It was not only the first account of life in the Spanish New World by an Englishman, but the first by a non-Habsburg subject. The work was written while Gage was vicar at St Leonard’s in Deal, Kent, which Parliament had granted him following his conversion to the Church of England. A bestseller in its day, the English-American remains surprisingly readable, in spite of its prejudices and serpentine paragraphs. Food is something of an obsession with Gage, probably due to his long periods of privation. He describes, for the first time in English, Mexican foods such as burritos and tamales and writes movingly of the indigenous peoples. Chocolate gets a chapter all to itself. A much less sympathetic personality emerged during the years of the Civil Wars. With the zealotry of the convert, Gage testified in court against three of his former Catholic colleagues. He even bore witness against one of his brothers. As an expert on Spanish America, Gage submitted a plan to Oliver Cromwell for an English expedition to the heart of Spain’s Caribbean possessions: it became, by 1655, the Western Design, the ill-fated attempt to wrench the island of Hispaniola from the ‘Spaniard’. It would result in the death of Gage, in Jamaica in 1656, and sow the seeds for the slow unravelling of the Protectorate. But what a glimpse Gage gave us of the nascent New World. His English-American is a classic of its kind and it deserves a new edition.
South China Sea • Duchess of Hamilton • One in the Eye for Harold?
An incident between local fishing boats could end in conflict between two of the world’s most powerful navies
Shadow on the South China Sea
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a tiny collection of islets and shoals has been the focus of disputes involving seven nations. Bill Hayton AMERICAN and Chinese warships shadow one another around disputed islets, planes jostle in the skies overhead and seven different governments argue over who has the rights to the oil and fish in the waters beneath. At the heart of this is the question of who owns the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea. They may be tiny – their total area is just a few square miles – but they could trigger a global confrontation. There are actually two sets of disputes in the South China Sea: one is about the islets themselves and involves China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and, to a limited extent, Indonesia. The other is about the spaces in between the islets – which is really
Making waves: ‘A New Map of the East India Isles’, from Cary’s New Universal Atlas (1801), by John Cary.
about the rules of the international system, particularly the Law of the Sea – and that predominantly concerns the US and China. It is the overlap between the two disputes that makes them so potentially dangerous. An incident between local fishing boats could end in conflict between two of the world’s most powerful navies. The disputes about the islets began with quarrels over bird droppings and have evolved into arguments about oil and gas. In 1909 Chinese nationalists, already agitated about the ‘humiliation’ of their country by the imperial powers, took umbrage at the activities of a Japanese entrepreneur, Nishizawa Yoshiji, who was extracting guano on the otherwise deserted island of Pratas, half way between Hong Kong
and Taiwan. As a result of this, China mounted an expedition to the Paracel Islands, between the coasts of China and Vietnam, and claimed them for the first time. The Paracels were already well known to the French and British, who had mapped them a century beforehand and named some of them after managers of the East India Company (Drummond, Pattle, Roberts and Money) and others after East India Company ships (Antelope, Investigator and Discovery). The Chinese authorities had never expressed more than a passing interest in them before the 20th century, but in the wake of the Pratas episode they asserted a claim that the islands had been Chinese ‘since ancient times’. During the 1920s and 1930s France (then the major colonial power in Indochina) joined China and Japan in contesting the islands. This was a time of great geopolitical turbulence, in which no country consistently occupied or administered them, although all made haphazard attempts to do so. It was only later that attention turned to the Spratly Islands, hundreds of miles south of the Paracels and named after a whaling captain from the East End of London. On Bastille Day 1933, France annexed six of them and the Chinese authorities began to take an interest. At this point the story becomes curious. In June 1933 the Republic of China (ROC) set up a committee to decide upon the country’s borders and regularise its maps. Much territory had been ceded to foreign powers over the preceding century and OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 3
HISTORYMATTERS the government was unsure whether to continue its claim over it. The fate of the South China Sea islets became mixed up in this map-making process. The committee did not have the means to survey the islands itself so it simply copied existing maps and translated or transliterated the British names into Chinese. In doing so they included some mistakes printed in those maps. As a result we can be reasonably sure that a key source was the China Sea Directory, published in the UK in 1906.
China has been left claiming an underwater feature ... as an integral part of its territory The committee’s naming efforts took them as far south as James Shoal, a small bank just 100km from the coast of Borneo, and as far south-west as Vanguard Bank (between James Shoal and the Vietnamese coast). It is not entirely clear why they did so: both of these features are underwater and so not islands at all. It appears that the committee simply copied a map produced by Edward Stanford Ltd. of London in 1918, which gives particular prominence to both James Shoal and Vanguard Bank. The committee then mistranslated the words ‘shoal’ and ‘bank’ – both of which refer to underwater features in English nautical terminology – by using the Chinese word tan, which means ‘sandbank’, an above-water feature. As a result, the official map published in 1935 featured two non-existent islands. This became highly significant in 1947 when another Chinese government committee declared the James Shoal to be China’s southernmost point. The legacy of this map-making is that China has been left claiming an underwater feature, 1,500km from its undisputed coastline, as an integral part of its territory. Untangling this particular cartographic knot is not going to be easy. Japan occupied both the Paracels and the Spratlys in the run-up to the Second World War. After the war, faced with competing demands for sovereignty from two of the Allies, China and France, the fate of the islands was left open. The 1943 Cairo Declaration says that Japan shall be expelled from them, but does not allocate them to any claimant. China and France grabbed 4 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
half the Paracels each and jostled for position in the Spratlys. The Republic of China occupied the largest island, known as Itu Aba. In 1956 a Philippine entrepreneur attempted to claim the Spratlys for himself as a personal business empire, prompting the ROC (by then, Taiwan), Communist China and newly independent Vietnam to assert – or reassert – their own claims. The discovery of potential oil fields in the early 1970s led to another round of island-grabbing, notably by the Philippines and Vietnam. In 1974 China invaded the Vietnameseoccupied half of the Paracels and has remained in control ever since. It was not until 1988 that China was able to send ships down to the Spratlys, during which time it occupied six of them, adding a seventh in 1994. These are the reefs upon which China has recently built massive air bases. The environmental destruction wrought by this construction has been immense and possibly catastrophic for local fish stocks. Despite the attention that China’s activities generate, it is Vietnam that occupies more than half of the Spratlys – 28 of them – with the Philippines occupying ten, China seven and Malaysia five. In July 2016 an international tribunal ruled that none of them are islands in the legal sense, being unable to sustain human habitation without massive aid from outside. Yet they continue to generate a degree of international attention out of all proportion to their size.
Bill Hayton is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (Yale University Press, 2014). Alternative Histories by Rob Murray
The Good Duchess
It is 300 years since the death of a remarkable Scottish noblewoman. Jane Dismore IN 1921 the demolition began of the largest non-royal residence in Europe. Hamilton Palace in South Lanarkshire, built for the powerful Hamilton family in 1591, had been sold after mining subsidence was discovered. It took over a decade to demolish and only the family’s mausoleum remains. In July 1923 newspapers reported that, under a pillar along the palace’s south front, two flat stones had been unearthed. One bore the inscription ‘Funded by Anna Duches May Anno Dom 1696’. Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton, who died on October 17th, 1716, would surely have been pleased that this record of her work had been found, if saddened by the circumstances. It was an example of her record keeping and preservation, which today provides valuable information about life in a noble household. Known locally as ‘Good Duchess Anne’ for her charitable work, she unexpectedly became head of a family whose dukes are Scotland’s most senior aristocrats. Anne was a rare example of a woman created duchess in her own right, which was not envisaged at her birth in 1632. Anne’s father, James, was 3rd Marquis of Hamilton, the title created for an ancestor’s services to Mary, Queen of Scots. Anne’s mother died when she was six and the death of several children left James with only Anne and her younger sister, Susanna. Anne was James’ heir but it was a tricky time politically. He was chief adviser in Scottish matters to Charles I. Raised as a Presbyterian, he had some sympathy with the Scottish Covenanters and tried to act as a mediator between them and the king, but staunch Royalists became suspicious and made James’ position difficult. Feeling it imperative that the family’s interests be represented by a man, he instead appointed his brother William, Earl of Lanark as heir,
Anne [made] records of every aspect of the palace’s life and, in so doing, produced a remarkable legacy of the work involved in running such a home
Lasting legacy: Anne, Duchess of Hamilton, attributed to Godfrey Kneller, late 17th century.
knowing he would look after Anne and Susanna and ensure they married well. When the Civil War began in 1642, James sent Anne to stay with his widowed mother at Hamilton Palace. The formidable Dowager Marchioness had efficiently managed the family’s extensive estates after her husband moved to London as Lord Steward of the Royal Household. As well as receiving academic tuition, Anne learnt estate management, including dealing with tenants, keeping accounts and supervising the chamberlains. Charles I created a dukedom for James in 1643, making him 1st Duke of Hamilton. Defeated at Preston leading an army for the king, James was executed in 1649, shortly after Charles. His heir William became duke and made Anne his heir above his own daughters. When William was fatally wounded fighting for Charles II in 1651, Anne became Duchess of Hamilton, aged 19. Although in theory Scotland’s greatest heiress, she was almost ruined. James and William had incurred huge debts as a result of the wars and Scotland was now part of the Commonwealth, which frequently punished supporters of the Stuarts. The Hamilton
lands were forfeited and fines payable. Anne was also responsible for Susanna and their cousins, their grandmother having died in 1647. Living in a barn near Hamilton Palace, she refused to be defeated. Her marriage in 1656 to William Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, was a successful partnership: they raised money for the fines, selling Hamilton possessions, until they could reclaim the palace; and Charles II granted Anne’s request to make William 3rd Duke of Hamilton. Looking to the future as head of the family, she ensured their descendants would take the title from her. When the king repaid Anne monies his father had owed hers, they could make the awkwardly designed, cramped palace into a home and a fine house for future generations. Anne put her grandmother’s lessons into practice, making or preserving records of every aspect of the palace’s life and, in so doing, producing a remarkable legacy of the work involved in running such a home. They employed between 30 and 50 servants, mostly men, arranged hierarchically, with a secretary and a lawyer at the top. The few female staff included Anne’s ladies and nursery staff for their
13 children. The accounts show the couple’s desire to be modern, buying silver candlesticks ‘of the new fashion’ and the latest style of drinking glasses. Furniture came from London, Scotland and sometimes Holland. Artwork was recorded and room inventories made. By 1681 the drawing room included ‘3 pictures, a fir table with a red damask cover, a dozen of cane chairs’, while Susanna’s room included ‘4 pieces of arras hangings’ and ‘a single Scots blanket and a single English one’. Anne liked new inventions and the notable purchase of an early mangle is recorded in 1691. Improvements started with William’s extension of the gardens. In 1684 they began a major scheme of work called their ‘Great Design’. Retaining the palace’s north front, they demolished three other sides and built two new wings, so it now faced south towards Edinburgh. Records were kept of workmen and costs; although they used experts, the couple studied architecture and played a leading part in the planning. After the deaths of both William and Susanna in 1694, Anne continued the work on the interior. Particularly magnificent was the oak panelling in the drawing room, transformed by master carver William Morgan into elaborate works of art. The new palace was finished around 1701. Daniel Defoe was so impressed by it that five years later he wrote: ‘The front is very magnificent indeed ... the apartments are very noble ... every thing is exquisitely fine.’ Anne continued landscaping the palace’s grounds until her death, aged 84, having outlived seven of her children. A leading opponent of a union with England, on the basis that it would not resolve Scotland’s economic problems, Anne combined her work in developing local industry with overseeing other Hamilton properties. Her drawing room can be enjoyed today. After being sold to the American press tycoon William Randolph Hearst before the demolition, it has returned to Scotland, where part of it is now on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh. It is a fitting tribute to Anne, 300 years after her death.
Jane Dismore is the author of Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (Blink Publishing, 2014). OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 5
Shot through the Eye and who’s to Blame? Unpicking a tangle of history, myth and misunderstanding reveals why, for so long, we believed Harold was shot through the eye. Martin Foys HAROLD’S DEATH at Hastings by an arrow to the eye remains one of the most enduring ‘facts’ in English history. But this detail may have been the product of historians writing generations after 1066 and the Bayeux Tapestry, the most famous witness to Harold’s death, may not show the king being shot by an arrow at all. Accounts from the years immediately following Hastings make no mention of an arrow when describing Harold’s death. Most only note the bare fact that the king died in battle or, as an early Norman historian puts it, that he fell, ‘pierced with mortal wounds’. One early Norman history, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (‘Song of the Battle of Hastings’), does provide a more detailed account of Harold’s demise, reporting that William and three French knights broke through the English defences at the top of a hill, where they literally took Harold apart: 6 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
The first of the four, piercing the king’s shield and chest with his lance, drenched the ground with a gushing stream of blood. The second with his sword cut off his head below the protection of his helm. The third liquefied his entrails with his spear. And the fourth cut off his thigh and carried it some distance away. This tradition that Harold died by being hacked into pieces reappears in many accounts throughout the period. So where does the legend of the arrow come from and is it rooted in historical fact? William of Poitiers, another early Norman chronicler (c.1077), notes the effectiveness of the French archers against English defences, a detail also included in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry. Some scholars point to an early Italian chronicler, Amato di Montecassino, who wrote a history of the Normans just after the Conquest (c.1080) that reports that, when William fought Harold, he
‘gouged out his eye with an arrow’. But this account is suspect: it only survives in a French translation of the original, written almost 250 years after Hastings, and the translator has mixed in a number of additions and exaggerations to the text. Four decades after Hastings, the French bishop Baudri of Bourgueil wrote a long poem dedicated to Adela of Blois, one of William the Conqueror’s daughters. In it he describes Harold dying by a laetalis arundo (‘a lethal arrow’). Baudri, a writer fond of classical allusion, may have taken the phrase directly from Virgil’s description of a heartbroken Dido wandering like a deer pierced by a deadly shaft. A few decades later, the English historian William of Malmesbury (similarly disposed to quote the classics) uses this exact phrase again, but crucially elaborates that the arrow pierced Harold’s brain and then he was hacked
A stitch up: Top: Harold’s death scene in the Bayeux Tapestry as it appears today. Above: engraving of the scene by Bernard de Montfaucon, c.1730.
A close study of the embroidery’s stitching and prerepair engravings reveals that at least seven modern arrows striking figures have been added
at by a knight as he lay on the ground. Two other 12th-century accounts helped to fix the story in the popular and historical imagination for centuries to come. The English historian Henry of Huntingdon reports that a shower of Norman arrows fell around Harold and one ‘struck him in the eye’. And the Norman chronicler Wace relates that during the battle an arrow grievously wounds the king ‘above the right eye’. Harold pulls it out, but then so many Norman knights attack him that Wace cannot say truly who killed the king. Made only a few years after 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry is often considered the earliest and most convincing evidence that Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye. In the final battle scene the inscription reads: ‘Here King Harold is killed’ (Hic Harold rex interfectus est). The Anglo-Saxon shield wall on the left is breached by a charging Norman horse-
Top: preparatory drawing by Antoine Benoît for Montfaucon’s engraving, c.1729. Above: watercolour of the scene by Charles Stothard, c.1818.
man, cutting down a falling Englishman holding an axe – indisputably identified as Harold – at the centre of the action. However, immediately behind the breached wall, the standing figure with his fist raised has also been identified as Harold. Are there two Harolds in the scene? The case appears easy to make: the word ‘Harold’ breaks around the standing figure’s head and, of course, he appears to be pulling an arrow out of his head. This neatly aligns with the later narratives, where Harold is first struck by an arrow and then killed by Norman cavalry. It is even possible that Wace, who held religious office in Bayeux, could have seen and used the Tapestry itself as a source. But a closer look at the form and history of this scene muddies the water. In other Tapestry scenes with long inscriptions, names are often not close to the figures they represent. In the
earlier scene of Harold’s oath to William, for instance, Harold’s name appears over William’s head. And in Harold’s death scene, the arrow of the figure in question is not original, but was added during 19th-century French repairs; 18th century reproductions show this soldier holding a spear shaft above his head. Not until Charles Stothard’s 1818 watercolour of the Tapestry is it reconstructed as an arrow and not a spear. The modern stitchwork not only turns the shaft into an arrow but actually lowers its angle as it runs behind his head. It is possible that conservators altered the textile’s content to fit later medieval literary traditions. During the 19th century, some scholars believed the Tapestry dated from the 12th century and that Wace’s account was itself the source for the embroidery’s visual narrative. For example, Wace describes the effectiveness of the Norman archers, writing that their ‘falling arrows struck heads and faces, and put out the eyes of many; and all feared to open their eyes, or leave their faces unguarded’. A close study of the embroidery’s stitching and pre-repair engravings reveals that at least seven modern arrows striking figures have been added – all distinctly longer than their medieval counterparts. Such historical revision may also explain one final mystery of the Tapestry: the 17 empty stitch-holes now running in a straight line from the head of the falling Harold in the centre of the scene. Did restorers add one more arrow here and was it then removed because it contradicted Wace’s report that Harold pulled the arrow out of his eye before he was killed?
Martin Foys is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition (SDE, 2003) and an editor of The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations (Boydell and Brewer, 2009). OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 7
1016 | 1066
A CENTURY OF CONQUEST
FEBRUARY 3RD, 1014
Svein Forkbeard dies in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Unable to control the kingdom, his son Cnut withdraws to Denmark, allowing Æthelred to return.
The year is 1013. Having conducted sporadic raids on England for the past two decades, Svein Forkbeard, King of Denmark, invades England along the rivers Humber and Trent accompanied by his son, Cnut, forcing the incumbent English monarch Æthelred ‘the Unready’ into exile in Normandy. By the end of 1013 Svein controls England ...
APRIL 23RD, 1016
Æthelred dies in London, succeeded by his son, Edmund Ironside (Edmund II).
OCTOBER 18TH, 1016
Edmund is defeated by Cnut’s invading army at the Battle of Assandun, Essex. The kingdom is partitioned with Edmund allowed to retain control of Wessex.
NOVEMBER 30TH, 1016
Edmund dies. Cnut is received as king throughout England. Soon recognised as the legitimate successor to the Christian kingship of England, Cnut rules for almost 20 years.
Birth of Harold Harefoot (Harold I), son of Cnut by his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton.
Compiled by Rhys Griffiths
APRIL 15TH, 1053
Godwin dies at Winchester. His son Harold succeeds him as Earl of Wessex, becoming the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king.
William, Duke of Normandy receives a promise of succession from his cousin, Edward the Confessor, who remains childless, out of gratitude for the protection afforded the king while in exile in Normandy.
After a dispute regarding Godwin’s opposition to growing Norman influence, Edward exiles him and his sons. They return the following year with armed forces. Edward then restores Godwin’s earldom.
JANUARY 23RD, 1045
Edward marries Edith of Wessex, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful earls in England and father to Harold Godwinson.
JANUARY 5TH, 1066
Edward the Confessor dies in London. His nephew Edgar Ætheling’s claims to succession are ignored in favour of Harold Godwinson.
JANUARY 6TH, 1066
Harold Godwinson is crowned as king of England.
12 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
SEPTEMBER 25TH, 1066
Harold Godwinson defeats the king of Norway and last great Viking, Harald Hardrada (supported by Godwinson’s own brother Tostig) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. Hardrada and Tostig are both killed.
SEPTEMBER 28TH, 1066
William, Duke of Normandy crosses the English Channel to land at Pevensey. Harold hears of William’s arrival and travels south to meet his army.
OCTOBER 14TH, 1066
William defeats the English army led by Harold Godwinson near Hastings. Harold is killed in the battle.
Cnut marries his second wife, Emma of Normandy, Æthelred’s widow.
Birth of Harthacnut, son of Cnut by his second wife, Emma.
Cnut succeeds his older brother Harald Hardrada as King of Denmark. He becomes the only man in history to be King of England, Denmark and Norway.
Birth of William the Conqueror in Falaise, Normandy, son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy.
NOVEMBER 12TH, 1035
Cnut dies in Shaftesbury, Dorset. His son Harold Harefoot claims the English throne in opposition to his halfbrother Harthacnut, who is in Denmark. The brothers agree to a division, with Harold taking the north and acting as regent to the rest.
JUNE APRIL8TH, 3RD, 1042
Harthacnut, Edward the aConfessor harsh and unpopular crowned at ruler, dies at a Winchester wedding feast. Cathedral, He is succeeded restoring the by his halfHouse of brother, Wessex to Edward. the throne of England.
APRIL 3RD, 1042
Edward the Confessor crowned at Winchester Cathedral, restoring the House of Wessex to the throne of England.
Edward, son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy, is recalled from exile in Normandy, becoming part of Harthacnut’s household.
MARCH 17TH, 1040
Harold Harefoot dies at Oxford, succeeded by his half-brother Harthacnut.
House of Wessex
DECEMBER 25TH, 1066
William is crowned first Norman king of England at Christmas, a date chosen in the hope that the English would be less likely to riot on a religious day. He is known henceforth as William the Conqueror.
William carries out the Harrying of the North, a series of brutal campaigns to subjugate northern England, where rebellions had broken out.
Harold Harefoot has established himself as King of England. Harthacnut prepares an invasion force of Danes.
Alfred Ætheling, the exiled son of Æthelred, lands on the coast of Sussex and attempts to claim the throne. However, he is betrayed by Godwin, Earl of Wessex and dies soon after.
House of Denmark
Work on Domesday At Christmas Book commences. in Gloucester, William the Conqueror commissions a great survey of all taxable land in England and much of Wales known as Domesday Book.
SEPTEMBER 9TH, 1087
William the Conqueror dies in Rouen, Normandy before the completion of Domesday. He is succeeded by his son, William II.
House of Normandy
SEPTEMBER 26TH, 1087
William II crowned King of England.
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 13
BOOK1016 BURNING | 1066
NGLAND IS MORE TYPICALLY THE INVADER, rather than the invaded, but in the 11th century it suffered two successful conquests in the space of just 50 years. The Norman Conquest of 1066 had – and continues to have – an enormous impact on culture, law, politics and language. But it could not have happened without the events of the much less well known Danish conquest of 1016. Following 30 years of repeated Scandinavian raids on England, a brief Danish rule under Svein and then Cnut and an English kingdom divided between Æthelred and his son Edmund, England was unable to sustain its defence during six months of war against Cnut’s armies. It ended in a final victory for Cnut at Assandun in Essex on October 18th, 1016. Edmund died six weeks later and Cnut married Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to form a DanishNorman dynasty. After his death in 1035, Cnut’s empire quickly fell apart and Æthelred’s son, Edward the Confessor, reclaimed the throne. Cnut’s Danish rule may have been short-lived but it destabilised the English kingdom and put new, ambitious Scandinavian players at the top of England’s ruling classes, eager to contest the throne. By 1065 both Harold Godwinson, Anglo-Saxon earl and relative of Cnut, and William, Duke of Normandy, were laying claim to the English throne, although neither was a direct heir. Harold made a series of political moves and allegiances to strengthen his claim and, on his deathbed in January 1066, Edward named Harold his successor. By this point, following the deaths of both the king of France and the Count of Anjou, William, Harold’s rival, had come to dominate north-west France. Simultaneously, Harald Hardrada of Norway made a claim to the English throne, compensating for his lack of legitimacy with a fearsome reputation in battle. He joined forces with Harold’s brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, and led his army to confront Harold at Stamford Bridge on Monday September 25th, 1066. Harald and Tostig were killed and their forces decimated. While victory conferred divine approval upon Harold and his reign, it also meant he was far from the south coast of England when the Norman fleet arrived at Pevensey in Sussex. As William ravaged the south, Harold marched his army southwards and the two met on Senlac Hill, north of Hastings, on October 14th. In a close fight, Harold was slain. The English survivors rallied behind the claims of Edgar
England was conquered twice in the 11th century – in 1016 and 1066 – in what would prove a defining period of its history. Kate Wiles introduces a series of articles on a troubled and contested age of winners and losers. Edward the Confessor gives instructions to Harold Godwinson, in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Ætheling and further skirmishes against William continued through the winter at Southwark and Wallingford. Despite their superior numbers, the English forces surrendered to William and he was crowned as the first Norman king of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. The events of 1016 seem overshadowed, thanks, in part, to the comparative paucity of surviving sources. The aftermaths of the conquests were also very different: Cnut was not the first Danish king in England and he sought consciously to emulate the rule of his predecessors, the English kings, and to provide continuity. While there were changes – and the executions of his potential opponents – the transition between Æthelred, Edmund and Cnut made much less impact than the seismic shift to Norman rule. Within a generation, this relatively smooth handover was overshadowed by the epochal events of 1066 in both the collective memory and the historical narrative of England.
A century of
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 11
1016 | 1066
14 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
The Worcester Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 1079, during which Toki was slain.
HE UPHEAVALS CAUSED BY TWO CONQUESTS of the English kingdom in the space of just 50 years – and the resulting shifts in personal allegiances to those in power – meant that the people swept up in them had to do what they could to survive. On occasion, opportunities arose that could offer some prosperity, but no matter what the fate of ‘English’ men and women was, their experiences determined the shape of post-conquest societies as they were recorded and remembered. The legacy of the Danish conquest of 1016 still weighed heavily on the English when they were conquered again in 1066. While pre-existing Anglo-Danish links may have eased a transition after the first conquest, the Norman Conquest brought with it a complete restructuring of society. The difficulty of responding to a second conquest in 50 years led to serious crisis of identity among the conquered. Histories written shortly after 1066 attempt to make sense of this crisis. The set of histories known to us as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are at the heart of this (see box, page 17). While they would not all long outlast the Norman Conquest, at least two versions continued to be updated in Old English. These texts had previously chronicled important events in Anglo-Saxon history and described many instances of conquest, collaboration and rebellion. Often written in retrospect to fulfil the political purposes of the current king, the telling of previous events and battles shaped the memory of them, while also providing a model for the future. The Chronicles were a way for the English to process their contemporary world. Especially traumatic cases, such as foreign conquests, could therefore be fitted into this continuing history, making sense of loss and providing an example for recovery.
Dying for your lord was a noble action, legendary in its importance and vital to the cohesiveness of Anglo-Saxon society. In the wake of conquest, however, dying for a lord who had lost, such as kings Æthelred ‘the Unready’ ultimately in 1016 and Harold Godwinson in 1066, was no longer culturally or tactically advisable. This was especially true for those on the losing side against William, who brutally put down every rebellion against his rule. Praising those who continued to rebel was fighting for a lost cause. In the face of this new order, post-Conquest Anglo-Saxons needed to find another way to express their cultural identity: one that allowed for bravery in battle, but was not dependent upon rebellion against William. After 1066, numerous attempts were made to overthrow William the Conqueror; but, as the Chronicles relate, each of these ended in failure. The telling of a battle at Gerberoy in Normandy, in 1079, however, allowed its English-speaking audience to hear about an Anglo-Scandinavian warrior playing a traditional, praiseworthy role in battle at William’s side. At first glance, a political struggle between the ageing Duke of Normandy and his young and impatient son on the borders of the Norman duchy – a zone where no-one could be sure whether one answered to the king of France or to the duke of Normandy – was an unlikely setting for a demonstration of Anglo-Scandinavian heroism in the mould of the Old English poem Beowulf. A last hurrah of the ‘Heroic Age’ it might have been, but it also revealed much about how the old Anglo-Saxon ways could survive in the new Anglo-Norman order. The backdrop was the family quarrel of Duke William II (in England, William I – ‘the Conqueror’) with his eldest son, Robert Curthose, who was vying for power in Normandy and who also happened to have
CHRONICLES OF THE CONQUERED
Two conquests of England in quick succession led to a period of shifting identities and allegiances. Courtnay Konshuh and Ryan Lavelle explore how those on the losing side of history tried to forge a place in a new world under new lords. By collaborating, if necessary.
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 15
1016 | 1066 received a ducal title. Behind that quarrel, as with so many civil wars, was an external power, that of the French king, Philip I, who provided Robert with access to a castle, Gerberoy, on the Norman-French border region of the Vexin and gave money to Robert to buy the service of mercenaries. Relations between father and son had reached a level of outright violence as the castle was besieged. In the ensuing battle, William’s horse was killed while under him, just as had happened at Hastings 13 years earlier. With William that day was one man whose service represented the new political order that had emerged between England and Normandy since 1066. Toki of Wallingford was an Englishman, or at least a man who had been brought up in pre-Conquest England, but he also represented the creation of an Anglo-Norman realm. Toki himself may have been a product of the previous, Danish, conquest. Both he and his father Wigot have Danish names; however, the family was obviously mixed, as his sister bore the Anglo-Saxon name Ealdgyth and he had a cousin named Alfred. This would not have been unusual or remarkable; even King Harold had mixed ancestry, his mother Gytha being Danish. The family was clearly well integrated into Anglo-Saxon society under Edward the Confessor and Wigot is addressed as Edward’s ‘dear cousin’ in one of his writs. Wigot had been a royal butler in Wallingford during the reign of Edward the Confessor, an office of no little importance. An action by Wigot in 1066 seems to have led to the final surrender of this crucially important fortified town to William’s army, allowing William to complete his encirclement of London and, with that, eventually take control of the English kingdom. In Domesday Book, Wallingford was linked with the service of housecarls, a group of figures who, like Wigot, owed royal service. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his father’s action, Toki had inherited an office which reflected his father’s status. With William unhorsed and fighting on foot at Gerberoy, Toki gave his own horse to the king. Toki paid dearly for that act of duty: as he was bringing the horse to William, a crossbow bolt shot him dead.
England and Normandy.
HERE IS A LOT TO BE SAID HERE about the new world of the Anglo-Franco-Norman political order into which Toki had arrived. This was, after all, a minor battle, a skirmish even, outside a castle, typical of the type of warfare that was developing in the cross-Channel polities of the 11th and 12th centuries. Crossbows and warhorses were also beginning to characterise the warfare of the period. Whether or not the Normans really used warhorses to such an extent that the practice distinguished them from their English or even French neighbours, the depictions of the Normans as a people for whom cavalry determined noble status were beginning to solidify in the late 11th century, as we can see in the Bayeux Tapestry’s depictions of the Battle of Hastings.
THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES WERE OFTEN CONSTRUCTED IN ORDER TO LEGITIMISE THE CURRENT RULER OR, RETROSPECTIVELY, TO GIVE AUTHORITY TO A GIVEN LINE 16 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Toki’s actions as an Englishman fighting for a Norman lord might be seen as 11th-century collaboration, an action to match his father’s surrender of Wallingford to William 13 years before. The annals composed shortly after the Conquest indeed praise those who rebel against William. However, after half a decade of failed rebellions led by English survivors of the Conquest until 1072, and a failed plot by a Norman and Breton baron alongside the last English earl, Waltheof, who was executed in 1076, it was becoming a less and less feasible position. For the first time since the Conquest, a contemporary Old English history presents this apparent collaborator, Toki, as having obligations to a lord, allowing his support of William to be seen as honourable. The reference to his father may even show the contrast that, while Wigot was unable to remain loyal to Edward, at least his son, Toki, was willing to die for his lord. This reflects an important shift in how collaboration and loyalty are perceived: the English were coming to terms with their new king and their Anglo-Norman identity. It was, after all, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that Toki’s fate is recorded; his act is not mentioned in Anglo-Norman accounts of the battle. The writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were often preoccupied with allusions to the obligations of a man to his lord, praising those who fought and died for their lords and condemning traitors who did not. From the first collection of annals put together in the reign of Alfred ‘the Great’ (871–99), the importance of fighting for your lord, even to the death, was emphasised. In the first year of Alfred’s reign, an ealdorman of Berkshire, Æthelwulf, died fighting the Vikings for
Effigy of Robert Curthose in Gloucester Cathedral.
Alfred and his contribution is memorialised in the annal for that year. Similarly, in the poetic and semi-legendary annal for 757 about Cyneheard and Cynewulf, the importance of dying for your lord, even if he has already died himself, is shown to be the noblest act that an AngloSaxon warrior can perform. This concern with praising loyalty persists as the annals were added to over the next 200 years. The set of annals which chronicle the decline of England under Æthelred and its eventual conquest by Cnut, during the period from 983 to 1016, are largely
concerned with naming and shaming those English lords who were disloyal, either betraying their king and country through inaction and treacherous advice, or by running from battle. This preoccupation with loyalty may seem unusual in a work of history. Descriptions of brave men dying for their lord are perhaps more appropriate to works of epic poetry, such as the ‘Battle of Maldon’ or Beowulf. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were often constructed in order to legitimise the current ruler or, retrospectively, to give authority to a given line. By emphasising that a king had loyal followers, the annals show that he deserved to rule and to be followed. In contrast, when a king was unable to rely on the loyalty of his war-leaders, as was the case with Æthelred, it implies that he was unfit to rule. Indeed, Æthelred’s annals have been interpreted as a retrospective smear campaign against an unfit king: they were compiled during the reign of Cnut, implicitly giving authority to the Danish conquest of 1016. The writers of the Worcester Chronicle, chronicling the years 1066– 80, make sense of the Conquest by framing it in terms of lordship, following patterns that had been set out in the period of Danish conquest, half a century earlier and, before that, in the way that the West-Saxon dynasty had been shaped by their conquests in previous centuries. Most of these annals are concerned with various claims to the English throne. These rebels are not portrayed as being loyal to an Anglo-Saxon king, however, but are rather betraying their new king, William. The rebellions are told sympathetically and, occasionally, the actors are praised, but it is clear that their actions would only result in more deaths. While this section of the Chronicles has multiple authors, they are consistent in their fatalism. In the 1079 annal, however, it is William’s son Robert who is depicted as the traitor. Manipulating his situation where he owed allegiance to his father and lord, King William, as well as his father’s lord in France, King Philip, Robert exploited a potential area of discord between the two for his own gain. He had some justification for this because, as the chronicler notes, he had received the submission of the best men of Normandy and was their legitimate lord; nonetheless, as the previous annals emphasised, treachery against William is pointless and leads only to more loss of life. As a foil to Robert’s action, Toki remains loyal to William, following his father Wigot’s choice. But it is not just about propaganda. Toki remains loyal to William and his role in the battle is not insignificant. He was a bringer of a horse to his royal lord. The act is a reflection of lordship bonds: horses are given by men to their lords in Old English wills, showing that they had been gifts of service during the men’s lifetimes. Old English poems emphasise horses in situations that hinge on loyalty, such as in the ‘Battle of Maldon’, where the cowardly Godric and Godwin run away with the horses of their lord, Byrhtnoth, despite the fact that he had given
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles The key narrative history to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period was written largely in Old English and survives as a series of manuscripts with records of each year’s events. Although the ‘Common Stock’ at the core of all the copies shows that they began with largely the same text, each version is unique and contains different, locally influenced histories. As such, it is perhaps best to refer to them as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The original chronicle was compiled in
the ninth century, in Wessex, and drew on, among other sources, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. It was copied repeatedly between the ninth and 12th centuries and those manuscripts – of which six survive, along with some other fragments – were sent out across the country, where they continued to be updated. The earliest surviving copy is known as the Parker Chronicle, after the 16th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who once owned it. Other copies were sent to Abingdon, Worcester or York and Peterborough.
As well as the typical, brief, annual entries, some key moments are commemorated in more detail. For example, most of the copies remember the Battle of Brunanburh of 937 with a poem: Never, before this, were more men in this island slain by the sword’s edge – as books and aged sages confirm – since Angles and Saxons sailed here from the east …
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 17
1016 | 1066
Robert Curthose at the siege of the castle of Gerberoy. Lithograph by James E. Doyle, 1864.
them horses. In the literature of the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes, the idea of dying for one’s lord still played a role in the heroic expectations of the 11th century, just as in earlier centuries. This was, of course, about expectations. To that end, Toki was demonstrating loyalty to a royal lord according to traditional Anglo-Saxon values. Although Toki presumably did not expect to die at Gerberoy, his death was still important to the way in which an English audience could make sense of what had happened to their kingdom and what affected that kingdom beyond its borders. 18 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Comparisons can be made with Cnut’s conquest in the early 11th century. One character who is conspicuous by his absence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles during Cnut’s reign is a man whose importance, both during Cnut’s reign and in its bloody aftermath, is, in contrast to Toki, well known. Godwin, King Harold’s father, was a relatively minor English nobleman in 1016, who rose quickly through the ranks to become Earl of Wessex, one of the foremost figures in the English kingdom. Godwin’s father, Wulfnoth, had caused some serious problems
COLLABORATORS ARE USUALLY INTRODUCED AS LOYAL TO THEIR NEW LORD, RATHER THAN DISLOYAL TO THEIR OLD ONE
and sister of Harold. As the historian Pauline Stafford demonstrated in a major biographical study published in the late 1990s, for Edith to have commissioned a Life of her husband during his lifetime (at this point he was not a saint) was a clever way of ensuring her survival after the Conquest – the text would be useful for demonstrating Edith’s own worth to a Norman audience, just as it showed her significance to the English. Similarly, by commissioning her own Encomium (a text in celebration of a life), Queen Emma, Edith’s predecessor and Æthelred’s Norman bride, aided her own survival as the widow of Æthelred and Cnut and mother of two would-be kings at a time of uncertainty in the aftermath of the death of Cnut and another of his sons. These commissions show us something about the different ways in which men and women had to respond to conquest. The Norman Conquest is well known for the marriages, probably forced in many cases, of English widows to Franco-Norman noblemen as a way for those noblemen to get their hands on the wealth that came with marriage. We do not know if this also happened after 1016, but Emma’s experience of being ‘fetched’ for marriage to Cnut in 1017 suggests that it would not be surprising if it did. These survivors made the best of their situation. Important women, with links to the Church and its learning, could commission books to show their importance, as families enlarged or loyalties shifted during a conquest. Men might also commission books but expectations of male behaviour meant that serving a new lord could be a more positive act than mere collaboration.
I for Cnut’s luckless predecessor, Æthelred, in 1009, but Godwin’s service in the 1020s allowed Cnut’s authority beyond England to flourish. We only hear of Godwin’s father because one Canterbury chronicler, writing long after the Conquest, chose to add a detail linking his treachery with Godwin in a negative portrayal of the pre-Conquest earl. A positive portrayal of Godwin as the foremost nobleman is given in the Life of King Edward, a book written for Edward’s wife, Edith (his widow by the time it was completed), who was the daughter of Godwin
N SERVING HIS LORD, Toki participated in a tradition that had been established for at least the course of the 11th century. There was nothing new about the 11th-century conquerors of the English kingdom taking Englishmen with them on service outside the realm. William’s ‘ship army’ and ‘land army’, which had forced the King of Scots, Malcolm III, to submit in 1072, was evidently making use of a combined force and the Chronicle author was clearly alluding to the importance of English participants in his use of the Old English word fyrd to describe the armies. In 1073, English soldiers went across the Channel and devastated the county of Maine, which was subject to the Norman duke’s authority. The Chronicles record both English and French troops taking part in the expedition, but it is the English troops who were credited with the dubious distinction of ravaging the countryside in terms that were most characteristic of the Chronicles’ accounts of Viking raids. According to the Life of King Edward, Godwin went with his new king and father-in-law to Scandinavia, serving with him in the campaigns that followed. Although a large pinch of salt is useful to accompany a reading of Godwin’s apparent importance in a book commissioned by his daughter, the fact that Godwin appears on the witness lists of Cnut’s charters after the king’s return from Scandinavia suggests that, if the author exaggerated, he at least had something to build upon. Godwin is said to have presented Cnut’s successors, Harthacnut and Edward, with magnificent ships in the 1040s. So it turns out that ‘collaboration’ was not that uncommon, OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 19
1016 | 1066 although it is not recorded as such and collaborators are usually introduced as loyal to their new lord, rather than disloyal to their old one. Again, Toki is an exception to this, for, while he is presented in William’s reign with no explicit reference to betrayal of Harold, the reference to his father must have been a red flag to an Anglo-Saxon audience. Wigot betrayed Harold; but his son found honour defending his lord William as a true retainer, even dying for him in battle. Nor was Toki’s support of William anomalous after the Conquest. English warriors had also taken part in William’s move against Exeter when that city rebelled in 1068. This made some sense. English warriors were used to riding down ‘rebellious’ territory soon after the accession of a new king and had done so since at least the accession of Edward the Elder in 899. In 1075, for example, before Gerberoy, Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester had led a predominantly English army against Norman rebels, who were acting against the Norman regime in England because of their baronial interests. The repetition of rebellion and response is important; it normalises support of William against rebels. The aftermath of conquest calls the very notion of legitimacy into question. It is tempting to look at these episodes as symptomatic of colonialism, of the Normans using levies raised in their conquered territories to put down rebellion across their empire, as was seen in the British and French imperial adventures of the 19th century. England was a large enough kingdom for the English troops who countered the uprising at Exeter in 1068 to have no connections with the shire of Devon.
However, when we think of the place of the English in the wider worlds of Anglo-Danish and Anglo-Norman conquerors, a different dynamic is revealed. William may not have been Anglo-Saxon at all, yet none of the kings since the Danish conquest had been entirely so. After Cnut, two of his part-Danish, part-Norman sons ruled, followed by Edward the Confessor, whose mother was Norman. Harold was half-Danish and did not even descend from one of the previous rulers. England in 1066 was an ethnically diverse sociey: an increasing proportion of the population since the ninth century was Scandinavian and a substantial number of Normans had settled since Æthelred’s marriage to Emma. Alfred had introduced a number of foreign advisers and there had been immigrants from Wales and Ireland. Wales (where Harold, the Anglo-Danish Earl of Wessex campaigned on behalf of his Anglo-Norman king, Edward) and Maine, Sweden and the Baltic, Norway and the Norman Vexin, perhaps even Exeter, were places at frontiers of expanding polities where loyalties and obligations to a ruler had shifted, as had the opportunities. Despite his Scandinavian name and support of a Norman conqueror, Toki is depicted as an English hero in the annal. It is perhaps this rich background that enabled people to extend their sense of Englishness to include new circumstances and carry on celebrating their heroes.
fter the deaths of all the various people who fought against William, both in England and on the Continent, which are described in detail in the annals from 1066-78, William’s overlordship must have seemed inevitable. In contrast to these worthless deaths, there were many collaborators after Cnut’s and William’s conquests who were able to promote England’s needs under a foreign ruler. The 1079 annal, for the first time, singles out an Englishman dying for William, rather than fighting against him. The reference to Wigot suggests that he, unlike many others, chose the right side in 1066, reflecting a keen sense of pragmatism. After a certain number of losses, unwavering loyalty to a lost cause becomes less praiseworthy. As a result of Wigot’s pragmatism, his son Toki was able to fight and die honourably for his lord, a course of action not open to everyone, due to inflexible lordship bonds. In a way, this annal presents an option for redemption. Wigot should be noted for the invocation of him in the Worcester Chronicle, where the rebellion of a son against his father is a live issue; in the death of Toki here was this reference to a man dying for his royal lord whose own father had been instrumental in the first act of loyal service to the new king in the aftermath of Hastings. The annal for Toki’s death in the cause of his lord looks backwards, in that it pays homage to Anglo-Saxon tradition. Yet it is also focused on the future in its attempt to locate Toki’s actions in the new Anglo-Norman kingdom. In that manner it stands for the experience of many in the conquered kingdom of England in both 1016 and 1066. Courtnay Konshuh is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at St Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan and Ryan Lavelle is Reader in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester.
FURTHER READING Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England (Blackwell, 1997). Michael J. Swanton (ed. and trans.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (Phoenix, 2000). Elaine Treharne, Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020-1220 (Oxford University Press, 2012). Norman archers prepare for battle. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, 1082. 20 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
TheMap Tenochtitlan, 1524 THE CAPITAL CITY of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan was founded in the early 14th century. Built across a series of natural and artificial islands connected by causeways in the swamps of Lake Texcoco, it was to become one of the largest cities in the world, covering more than five square miles and with a population of perhaps 200,000. At its peak it was immensely wealthy, architecturally grand, colourful and full of life. Having only arrived in 1519, the Spanish had razed the city by 1521. Mexico City, capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain, grew up in its place. This map, published in Nuremberg in 1524 along with copies of Hernán Cortés’ letters to Emperor Charles V translated into Latin, was the first image seen in Europe of Tenochtitlan, presented under the Habsburg imperial flag. It has been suggested that this, originally, was based on an indigenous map of the city and thus reflects the inhabitants’ own view of it, before being adapted into a woodcut by European craftsmen. Despite being highly stylised, the general design reflects what is known of the layout of Tenochtitlan. The map is oriented with south at the top. In the centre of Tenochtitlan is the ceremonial precinct, with two towers – the twin sanctuaries to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtil – framing the rising sun above the Great Temple. Surrounding the ceremonial precinct are the royal palaces, further temples and houses, canals and trees, divided into quarters by four roads. On the left is a representation of the Caribbean basin, with Cuba’s eastern point at its edge. Kate Wiles
22 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 23
Islam’s forgotten scholars
The Islamic world produced some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, including a number of remarkable female scholars. Arezou Azad examines who these women were and why their place in history has been neglected.
OETRY HAS A PROMINENT PLACE in Islamic society and the Persianate world. Though people across the Islamic world spoke multiple dialects and languages, Persian served as the language for some of the finest verses of the Middle Ages, created by poets such as Hafiz, Rumi and Nizami. It was the scholar-mystic Jamal al-Din Nizami who produced the verse that described the first encounter between the two protagonists in the epic poem, Leili and Majnun (see page 27). Leili and Majnun are the quintessentially ill-fated lovers, celebrated in Persian and Arabic medieval poetry. Their story was perfected by Nizami, who lived in Ganja in today’s Azerbaijan, in the latter half of the 12th century. Many variants of the story are familiar across cultures, thanks to its dogged survival over the centuries: two people fall in love in a forbidding society, separated (yet unbroken) by the social conventions of blood and class. Whether Leili and Majnun were the Muslim Romeo and Juliet, or stood for the abstract Sufi principles of mystical love (mahabba) and fellowship with God (uns) as some scholars have claimed, there is at least one aspect of their encounter that is understated: the couple first met at school. The exact origins of the story of Leili and Majnun are not known, but we can trace it back at least to pre-Islamic Arabia, that is, before the early seventh century. Six centuries later, when Nizami wrote his poem, he retained the context of a mixed school for his story and the manuscript illustrators in 15th- and 16th-century Herat in Afghanistan painted the school classroom as it must have looked in their time. The evidence shows that medieval Muslim boys and girls studied together in full view of one another. This contrasts sharply with what one might expect from ‘medieval’ Islam, where
24 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
the term is assumed to be synonymous with ‘backward’ and ‘old-fashioned’. Yet scholars in medieval Europe demonstrate that the ‘medieval’ could often be considerably more humane and pluralistic than the ‘contemporary’. DO WE, THEN, FIND a similarly enlightened attitude towards women and education in medieval Islamic texts? Limiting ourselves to Nizami’s descriptions of primary school education is perhaps setting the bar too low, especially knowing as we do that women attained the highest standards of medieval Islamic knowledge. The historian Jonathan Berkey, for example, counts 411 women out of a collection of more than 1,000 15th-century scholars listed in an Egyptian biographical compilation of the time. These women often received licenses, or ijazas (roughly equivalent to a PhD today), to transmit their knowledge on all manner of subjects. The numbers increase if we count the biographies of women embedded within the biographies of their husbands or other male family members, such as fathers and brothers, which have been counted by the historian Ruth Roded and her team. As an example, in one of the first Islamic biographical collections, the ninth-century compilation Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (Book of the Major Classes) by the Iraqi scholar Ibn Sa’d, there are 629 entries on female scholars, but the number increases to 4,250 when we include the women mentioned in the biographies of their male relatives and husbands. The proportion of medieval women scholars may reach as much as a quarter of the scholarly community. It is a fascinating and striking figure that shouts in the face of the popular rhetoric on the supposed ‘silence’ of women in medieval Islam.
‘Leili and Majnun at school’, from Khamsa of Nizami, Herat, 1524-25.
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 25
26 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Left: Muhammad and his wives. Turkish miniature, 18th century. Above: Balkh and its Afghan and Central Asian context today.
The Loves of Leili and Majnun
by Jamal al-Din Nizami
Mark where instruction pours upon the mind The light of knowledge, simple or refined; Shaykhs of each tribe have children there, and each Studies whatever the bearded sage can teach […] And there, of different tribe and gentle mien, A lovely maid of tender years was seen: Her mental powers an early bloom displayed; Her graceful form in simple garb arrayed […] Love conquer’d both – they never dreamt to part; And, while the rest were poring o’er their books, They pensive mused, and read each other’s looks: While other schoolmates for distinction strove, And thought of fame, they only thought of love; While others various climes in books explored, Both idly sat – adorer and adored: Science for them had now no charms to boast; Learning for them had all its virtue lost: Their only taste was love, and love’s sweet ties, Writing ghazals [verses] to each other’s eyes.
F WE BREAK DOWN the numbers, we find that the largest group of women scholars flourished in the very early years of Islam, in the time of Muhammad (d.632). It can be said that the prophet literally surrounded himself with strong and intelligent women. The numbers remain high until about the ninth century, when they drop, only to rise again briefly in the 15th and 16th centuries. How do we explain this rollercoaster trend? Do the numbers indicate an actual decline in educational figures, or were women later written out of history by male chroniclers? The latter argument is popular among feminist social scientists, who pay little attention to historical detail, although there is probably some truth to it. Equally, we have evidence that dozens of elite women wielded inordinate levels of power in the Abbasid royal court and in the offices of provincial governors during the eighth and ninth centuries. One such woman was described in the late 12th-century local chronicle called the Merits of Balkh (Fada’il-i Balkh), written by Abu Bakr Abdullah al-Wa’iz al-Balkhi. We learn that she became the de facto governor of Balkh (in Afghanistan), a large territory that included around 20 towns and substantial rural estates reminiscent of medieval European principalities. Although she remains unnamed and is only identified as Davud’s khatun (‘lady’), we learn that her husband Davud (the Muslim rendition of the name David) belonged to a powerful local family known as the Banijurids. We are told that in the year 848 her husband was appointed as the governor of Balkh, but in the subsquent 20 years of his rule he seems to have become obsessed with the construction of a pleasure palace and surrounding complex for himself which he called Nawshād (‘New Joy’). She assumed the governorship ‘so that she should take particular responsibility for the city and people’. While much has been made of the misogynistic statements on the OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 27
non-compatibility of women and politics in early Islamic texts, such as the administrative manual written by the 11th-century Iraqi scholar al-Mawardi (he explicitly states that a ruler ‘may not be a woman, hermaphrodite, a mute, or a person with a lisp’), the account of this woman in the Merits of Balkh is nothing but complimentary: Some historians have said the caliphal court demanded land tax [kharaj] more than was necessary. The khatun of Davud sent by the hand of the caliphal tax collector her jewels, and they say that the jewels were stitched into her garments of pearls and rubies. She said: ‘This garment has been sent so that they do not demand more grain of kharaj than farmers can reap.’ When the tax collector arrived at the caliph’s court with that garment and related the whole story to the caliph, the latter exempted Balkh from paying its kharaj for that year. He returned the garment, and said: ‘This khatun has taught us gentlemanliness and generosity, and we are ashamed to take her garment.’ When they brought those jewels back to Balkh, the khatun said: ‘I presented these jewels as a gift to the Muslims and inhabitants of Balkh, and I am not taking them back.’ They used them for the building of the congregational mosque and the town’s water canal, and still the pleats and sleeves were left over. 28 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Young women gazing at Kabul from its hills, c.2014.
ERE WE HAVE an example of a just, generous, charitable and dignified ruler. The author would have seen such qualities outlined in the ‘mirrors for princes’ (a type of textbook for rulers), which were in circulation throughout the medieval Islamic world and which find their counterparts among the medieval European Fürstenspiegel, of which Machiavelli’s The Prince is the most famous. This particular anecdote refers to a policy adopted by numerous caliphates, who gave local governors responsibility for tax collection in order to make up for the loss of provincial revenues and pay for their inflated bureaucracy. It was an exploitative practice, which this woman – unlike many of her male counterparts – was unwilling to support. The author is clearly in awe of her courage and perseverance; he even quotes the caliph as ascribing the quality of gentlemanliness to her, a characteristic usually thought of as inherently male. Non-elite women also appeared in the public domain. Although we have far less historical evidence on them, some historians have unearthed and analysed their economic roles and impact. For example, we know that Syrian women in the 14th century and Iranian women in the 16th century worked in an array of occupational fields and disciplines, besides administration and academia, including
Above: the Naw Bahar Buddhist temple, Balkh, 2009. Right: Sharaf Turdyeva and Kurban Kholov in the ballet, Leili and Majnun.
UT THE IMAGE OF the Muslim spiritual woman who is chaste, charitable and poor is a simplistic one: were all women scholars like her? Our accounts on Rabi’a were written many centuries after her life, so whose interpretation do they represent and how reliable are they? It is almost impossible to trace the genealogy of the accounts on Rabi’a, but we can look for comparisons with other women. I recently came across a story of one ninth-century scholar called Fatima and nicknamed Umm Ali (the mother of Ali) who does not match the Rabi’a image. Umm Ali was from an élite class in Afghanistan’s Balkh. This was the ancient Bactra, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in the fourth century bc and is where he married his Sogdian wife Roxelana. It was captured by Muslims in the early eighth century, who wrested control of it from the Buddhists who had run the city and its centrepiece, the Naw Bahar Buddhist temple and monastery, which was visited and written about by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims and envoys from the T’ang court. Balkh, an important crossing point along the s0-called Silk Road networks, was a melting pot of people from different countries, professing a variety of faiths, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity and a set of local cults. By Umm Ali’s time, a century after the conquest, Balkh had become the qubbat al-Islam, the dome of Islam, and the umm al-bilad, the mother of all cities. Balkh was now no longer a place of learning for Buddhist scriptures but a centre for the inter-
Much more study is needed of the ancient texts to bring into sharper focus the contributions made by medieval Muslim women hairdressing, selling at markets and engaging in tax-paying prostitution. Much more study is needed of the ancient texts to bring into sharper focus the contributions made by medieval Muslim women to their economies and societies, beyond looking after hearth and home. Only then can we understand whether these cases are exceptions to a general rule, or whether women were making consistently large contributions to the medieval economies of which they were a part. Putting the numbers aside, what sort of image do scholarly women have in the sources? There is clearly a preponderance of one particular image, namely that of the saintly figure, marked by her unrelenting chastity and devotion to God. She rejects all material possessions and opts for a life of poverty. It is worth mentioning that, despite her relative meekness, this image of the female mystic – exemplified by the ninth-century Iraqi woman Rabi’a al-Adawiyya – still has a public role as a teacher and mentor to her many disciples, both male and female. This contrasts starkly with the image of the female mystic in medieval Europe, who had no public role and, in extreme cases, was even locked away for good in a monastery in order to devote herself entirely to her studies and prayers.
pretation of Islamic teachings. Whether there was a direct transmission of scholastic methods from the Buddhist to the Islamic is still a matter of speculation, although I suspect that some would necessarily have happened, if only inadvertently, through the simple fact that the Arab Muslim rulers hired local administrators. In fact, Balkh was home to the most famous of all local convert families, the Barmakids, who transformed themselves from the keepers of the Naw Bahar Buddhist complex to administrators for the caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad himself. The Barmakid vizier (the equivalent of prime minister) has been immortalised in the Arabian Nights, whose main protagonist is Harun al-Rashid. (We know the story more for the fantastic tales that his slave-girl told the caliph in order to avoid execution.) With this backdrop in mind, we can now imagine Umm Ali, described in three excerpts derived from a range of medieval texts: She sent someone with a message to Ahmad that said: ‘Ask my father for my hand.’ Ahmad did not respond. She sent someone again with a message: ‘Oh Ahmad, I did not think you a man who would not follow the path of truth.’ Ahmad accepted and asked for her hand in marriage. OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 29
Umm Ali excused her husband of paying the later instalments of her bride-price on the condition that he marry her to the great spiritual scholar, Abu Yazid al-Bistami. He took her to Abu Yazid. She came before him and sat down in front of him, her face unveiled. Ahmad was amazed, and said to her: ‘I see that you are unveiled before Abu Yazid.’ She replied: ‘Because whenever I look at him I lose the fortune of my soul, and whenever I look at you I return to the fortunes of my soul.’ As he was leaving, Ahmad asked Abu Yazid for advice. The mystic said, ‘Learn chivalry from your wife!’ One day, an esteemed visitor arrived at Ahmad Khidrawayh’s house. Ahmad said to his wife: ‘I want you to invite this friend in because he is the lord of the generous and free’. She said: ‘Oh Ahmad! Can’t you do that, and don’t you know how one ought to invite these chivalrous people?’ These citations paint a picture of a ninth-century scholarly woman who first of all pursued her future husband with tenacity and wooed him for marriage. He eventually conceded, presumably because she was a good catch, descending, unlike Ahmad, from a noble family. She married beneath her class, which is somewhat reminiscent of Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, who was his employer’s daughter, much his senior in age and the main breadwinner of the family. The same sense of assertiveness can be gleaned from the third excerpt in which we learn that Umm Ali taught her husband the tricks of the trade on how to be a serious mystic (‘Oh Ahmad. Can’t you do that, and don’t 30 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
The shrine of Hazrat Ali, in Mazar-i-Sharif, 2007.
you know...?’). She goes on to tell him the protocol for hosting mystical masters in one’s house, which involves the sacrifice of animals and the display of their carcasses on the streets. The second extract is curious because it implies that Umm Ali was married by her husband to another man, the mystic Abu Yazid. She also did not behave like a normal prospective bride, who would have lowered her veil, but instead removed it. Presumably this marriage would have been preceded by a divorce from Ahmad. Whether such a double marriage actually happened we cannot know, but it is interesting that the author of the excerpt, Abu Nu’aym al-Isfahani, who wrote in the early 11th century, felt it necessary to mention it. It may have been carried out in name only, to enable Umm Ali to be in close contact with another man. This sort of nominal marriage is reminiscent of the marriage carried out on the orders of Harun al-Rashid between his friend, the Barmakid Ja’far, and his sister Abbasa. The caliph reportedly engineered this nominal marriage so that he could enjoy the company of both his unmarried sister and his male friend together. To the caliph’s chagrin, however, Abbasa and Ja’far eventually consummated the marriage and the whole story ended badly. Either way, Umm Ali’s story involves a curious reference to a possible double marriage and it paints a very different picture of female sainthood from the better-known ultra-asceticism of Rab’a. Incidentally, certain kinds of ‘fictive marriages’ are still practised in Shi’ite Iran today as a way of enabling women and men to interact.
MM ALI TRAVELLED extensively in her pursuit of knowledge. Women scholars in the Islamic east were held to the same exacting standards as their male counterparts. They had to travel the notorious routes westwards in order to study under the greatest masters of Islam. This took scholars to cities across vast expanses of the Eurasian continent. Mecca and Medina in the Arabian peninsula were obvious destinations as they were the homes of the prophet, but other centres of learning included Baghdad, Damascus, various north African cities and locations such as Rayy, near modern Tehran, and Nishapur in Iran. By the tenth century, Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand, to the north in Uzbekistan, were added to this prestigious list. Travel in the ninth century was not an easy matter. To go from Balkh to Mecca, for example, Umm Ali’s route to study with her teacher, Salih Abdullah al-Tirmidhi, meant covering thousands of miles of road, with many costly overnight stopovers at caravanserais (the lodgings of the medieval Islamic world, where travellers could seek rest). Only the wealthiest could afford to go on the hajj (the mandatory piligrimage to Mecca); fortunately, Umm Ali’s family had the money to do so. Her great-grandfather had been the first Arab governor of the region of Khurasan (‘the lands of the East’), to which Balkh belonged in the eighth century. Travel expenses included transport, food and lodging for the journeys, which totalled many weeks and months. She is alleged to have sold her estate for this purpose for 79,000 dirhams, which by all accounts was a substantial sum of money. Umm Ali stayed in Mecca for seven years to perfect her skill in reciting her master’s works, in order to then transmit them to her students and disciples upon her return to Balkh. This was the medieval system of ‘international’ transmission of
Female medieval Islamic scholars had it better than one might expect, perhaps even better than today knowledge. Paper had not yet been adopted outside China and even when it was, by the tenth century, it was vulnerable to fire, shipwrecks, theft and suchlike, so memorisation remained important to Islamic scholarship. It meant that Umm Ali had to live apart from her husband for this long amount of time as well. He was dead when she finally returned. This is the image of Umm Ali that we can construct from contemporary sources, but her image has since changed. A later collection of biographies by the 15th-century scholar Jami transformed Umm Ali into a subservient and loyal wife
An image of Umm Ali, in Mazar-i-Sharif, 2009.
who donated to the poor and ‘agreed with her husband on everything’. This new portrayal appears to indicate that the author felt particularly compelled to embroider her biography, perhaps because the image of a woman who was superior to her husband was unpalatable to Jami’s circle. Gone are the allusions to her assertiveness. Gone is the suggestion that Umm Ali’s husband learned the tricks of the trade from her. And, in parallel, up rises Ahmad to become known as one of the forefathers of Sufism. (The term Sufism has not been used before now because this softer strand of Islam does not become a religious institution until the 15th century and later.) This is the version of Umm Ali that has stuck: an early modern narrative that makes her out to be less rough around the edges and subservient to her husband. The context for this change is deserving of further study, but it is perhaps ironic that precisely during the period of the Enlightenment in 15th-century Europe the phenomenal prominence of women in the Islamic world wanes. The reasons for this trend are not yet understood, but will, no doubt, provide much fruitful ground for historians in future. What we can take away from this study of female medieval Muslim scholars is that they were much more prevalent than has been thought previously and that they were part of a Muslim society in which gender parity found its expression in the public domain of work and education. It is well worth keeping this particular aspect of medieval history alive, because it provides an important counter to popular narratives in the media today on the limited role and agency of Muslim women. It is also a reminder that historical processes are not linear progressions; they take erratic and cyclical courses. It is worth pondering, too, that female medieval Islamic scholars had it better than one might expect, perhaps even better than today, and that the time may come when this trend is reversed yet again. Arezou Azad is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Birmingham and the author of Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan (OUP, 2013).
FURTHER READING Margaret L. Meriwether and Judith Tucker (eds), The Social History of the Modern Middle East, vol. 1: A Social History of Women & Gender in the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, 1999). Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Al-Muhadditat: The Women Scholars in Islam (Interface Publications, 2007). Guity Nashat and Lois Beck (eds), Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800 (University of Illinois Press, 2003). Asma Sayeed, Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (Cambridge, 1997). OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 31
PENN’S PLAN for a united Europe Long before today’s project for a European political and economic union, William Penn, the English founder of Pennsylvania, offered a utopian vision of a Europe beyond the nation state, as Peter Schröder explains.
OWARDS THE END of the 17th century the political landscape of Europe was dominated by France. England was still recovering from its civil wars and the upheaval that followed Cromwell’s Protectorate. The Restoration of 1660 had ultimately failed to keep the Stuarts on the throne and, with William of Orange’s accession and the beginning of the Nine Years’ War in 1688, Europe again faced conflict. The previous wars fought under Louis XIV were aimed at French expansion, but in 1688 the tables turned for the Sun King as the Nine Years’ War became a struggle to reinforce French security and the status quo rather than a war of conquest. It was at the height of this conflict, in 1693, that William Penn (1644-1718) wrote An Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of an European Dyet, Parliament, or Estates. He sought an alternative to the 32 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Federal father: William Penn portrayed by Francis Place, early 18th century.
existing, unstable balance of power system and the constant struggle between the different dynastic claims. Penn’s Essay draws a parallel between the lawless state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes and interstate relations. Both scenarios require an arbiter or sovereign who would be able to resolve conflicts or enforce laws. Penn argued that the sovereign princes of Europe should, for the love of peace and order: Agree to meet by their stated deputies in a General Dyet, Estates or Parliament, and there Establish Rules of Justice for Soveraign Princes to observe one to another; and ... before which Soveraign Assembly, should be brought all Differences depending between one Soveraign and another ... Europe would quietly obtain the so much desired and needed Peace. Penn addressed the structural problem that can, according to Hobbesian logic, be resolved only by the creation of
sovereign power, but this time on an international level. The question was not whether European states would be prepared to renounce a considerable degree of their sovereignty. For him, this was a necessity in their own interest. Penn’s main point was that without a federal structure that creates and legitimises a sovereign power on a higher level, there can be no reliable peace in Europe. For Penn it was a given that such a federation should be established. Retaining full sovereignty at the state level and refusing to delegate powers would perpetuate conflict to the detriment of future prosperity in Europe, of which he considered England an essential part. His commitment to the creation of a new sovereign body is a radical early modern plan for European union. According to Penn, it should have the authority to compel members of the association who might not accept its ruling on potential conflicts. The envisaged union would even allow the use of force against non-compliant member states. Penn described in detail the different institutions he envisaged in order to make a unified Europe work. There was no special deal for any of the associated states which, as far as Penn was concerned, was the only realistic way forward to avoid future conflicts and to ensure political and economic prosperity in Europe. It was an Englishman who formulated such far-reaching plans for unifying Europe by establishing a constitutional framework. Two apparently similar proposals, Some Reasons for an European State, proposed to the Powers of Europe by John Bellers (1654-1725) and the Projet pour rendre la Paix perpétuelle en Europe (‘Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe’) by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743), were written towards the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) and can be seen as closely related to the concerns raised by Penn. Like his friend Penn, Bellers was a Quaker. Unlike Penn’s and the Abbé’s writings, though, his short pamphlet does not engage in a systematic evaluation of how to organise a federative constitution for Europe and neither does it spell out the different institutions. He only drew the parallel to the English union with Scotland, which in his mind demonstrated sufficiently that Europe could achieve the same unity. According to Bellers, Queen Anne should ‘use Her endeavours for Uniting the Powers of Europe in one peaceable Settlement’. Although he also touched upon the need for a federal jurisdiction and arbitration between the European states, his argument seems to lack the institutional details and persuasive force of both Penn and the Abbé. Bellers tried to influence the war aims of the allied powers ranged against France. His appeal to interest and utility is mixed with ethical and moral claims but, like Penn and later the Abbé, his proposal was that:
European State and Senate, are excellently well discoursed of, by the Abbot St. Pierre, of the French Academy’. Facing the dilemma that the sovereigns of the European states jealously guarded their prerogatives, the Abbé reformulated the problems already identified by Penn and Bellers. The main concern was to make the European heads of state realise that there was no alternative to a federal European structure, which would only work if it were endowed with a fair amount of power-sharing and working institutions able to arbitrate conflicts between its members.
S TO AN ARBITER for this system of European states under the rule of law, the Abbé envisaged a European union or federation with representative institutions in the form of a permanent congress and law court. The arbiter was, therefore, not conceived as a single person or individual sovereign. European monarchs were asked to give up some of their power: It is absolutely necessary that they [the states] agree to provide sufficient means to give arbitration sufficient strength to execute the general laws and particular judgements. The sword is no less necessary for justice, than the scales, laws and judgements ... which would be useless if arbitration had not the power to execute them. We have to make sure that no one could be tempted to resist the force of arbitration. The challenge was, on the one hand, to establish an arbiter empowered with sufficient authority and powers of coercion and, on the other hand, to ensure that such an arbiter would not misuse this power and thus threaten the liberties of the contracting states. A federative structure of states was the Abbé’s answer to this challenge. A political body based on federative principles would allow for the establishment of a sufficiently strong arbiter but still respect the rights and liberties of the contracting parties. Faced with the demand to share their political privileges with newly established political institutions, the European heads of state preferred instead to continue their pursuit of dynastic and increasingly national interest. Penn and Bellers had little influence on English political and intellectual life. Even the Abbé’s own detailed plan for peace was for a long time considered an eccentric and unrealistic idea. Voltaire’s acid criticism exemplifies this negative view. Under the telling pseudonym of Dr Goodheart, Voltaire published his De la Paix perpétuelle in 1769 in which he attacked the Abbé:
The envisaged union would even allow the use of force against non-compliant member states
At the next General Peace, there should be settled an Universal Guarantee, an Annual Congress, Senate, Dyet, or Parliament, by all the Princes and States of Europe, as well Enemies, as Neuters, joyned as one State, with the renouncing of all Claims upon each other, with such Articles of Agreement as may be needful for a Standing European Law. When the Abbé’s Projet first appeared in English translation in 1714, Bellers commented: ‘The many Advantages of an
The peace imagined by a Frenchman named Abbé de SaintPierre is a chimera which will never survive between princes any more than between elephants and rhinoceroses, between wolves and dogs. Carnivorous animals always tear each other apart at the first opportunity. Criticism of a European union aimed at creating a federal structure in order to provide a constitutional framework for peace and prosperity is nothing new. What seems to have been forgotten is that these ideas were formulated in England some time before they gained traction in Continental Europe. Peter SchrÖder is Senior Lecturer in History at University College London. OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 33
1016 | 1066
Contrary to the cliché, history is not only written by the victors. Katherine Weikert explains how those chronicling the 11th-century conquests in England and Scandinavia tried to rehabilitate the reputations of the vanquished.
N AUGUST 10TH, 991, Ealdorman Byrhtnoth allowed a Viking troop across the causeway from Northey Island onto the mainland of his domain in Essex and was promptly dealt a crushing defeat. His head or his arm was hacked off, depending on which source you believe, in fighting that lasted either three or 14 days – again, pick your source. In the short term, the Vikings had won the decisive land battle which led to Danegeld – a tax levied in England to pay off the Vikings – in the medium term and, perhaps, even cleared the path for the Danish kings Svein and Cnut to rule England. Following Byrhtnoth’s defeat, the propaganda machine went into action. Ælfflæd, his widow, gave Ely Cathedral a wall-hanging illustrating her husband’s illustrious deeds, though what those deeds were we do not know. Ely had already received a laundry list of estates and gifts from Byrhtnoth pre-battle, for which he was praised in Liber Eliensis, the Book of Ely. And the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’ was produced, which contrasted Byrhtnoth’s valour and bravery with that of his men who ran away from the fighting. The conversion of Byrhtnoth’s reputation, from being a man defeated at a crucial encounter to one who would be remembered for his glory, was underway. Yet this was a man who failed. Byrhtnoth is a fascinating case of a failed man and one who in many ways set the model for justifying defeat within the acceptable boundaries of what it meant to be a man in the central Middle Ages. ‘Maldon’, for example, celebrates honour, valour, camaraderie, bravery in battle, all poetic tropes and a particular version of masculinity, in the face of an event that was bloody, painful, deadly and brutal. We remember Byrhtnoth in a version of the story that was far removed from the reality of either him or the event. He became glorious in his defeat, thanks to those crucial few actions post-battle that give us small glimpses of him. Throughout the 11th century we see time and again the brave hero cut down in battle. Both Harald Hardrada and Harold Godwinson fall into this category, in the face of their attempts to conquer or avoid conquest, within a few weeks of each other in 1066. These men bear striking similarities: both died in battle, for example. They were both kings, although not uncontested ones. In the central Middle Ages, a 34 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Statue of Byrhtnoth in Maldon, Essex, 2016.
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 35
1016 | 1066 10th-century Anglo-Saxon sword found in the River Witham, Lincoln.
king who won in battle had a certain kind of authority because of it; if Harold Godwinson had won the day at Hastings, it would have lent an immense amount of support to his authority and legitimacy. So what then happens to those men who fail? How did the world of the North Sea justify these defeated kings? What meaning could be made of a vanquished warrior?
ARALD HARDRADA comes to us in a variety of texts, from Scandinavia, England and beyond. To most English audiences, Harald is familiar as the Norwegian king who attempted to invade England from the north in 1066. He defeated the English under Morcar and Edwin at Fulford, but was then killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Harold Godwinson’s forces a few days later. This defeat is generally seen as the effective end of the major Scandinavian attempts in England, other than King Sweyn of Denmark’s failed campaigns in 1069 and 1074-5. Thus, for an English audience, this northern campaign tends to be the bulk of Harald’s story and his place in the events of 1066. But Harald’s English campaign is only one aspect of a colourful life, told to us through the later Scandinavian sources. He was a warrior with an international career before coming into his kingship. Theodoricus Monachus notes the breadth of his earlier career: This Haraldr had performed many bold deeds in his youth, overthrowing many heathen cities and carrying off great riches in Russia and Ethiopia … from there he travelled to Jerusalem and was everywhere greatly renowned and victorious. After he had travelled through Sicily and taken much wealth by force there, he came to Constantinople. And there he was arraigned before the emperor; but he inflicted an amply shameful disgrace upon that same emperor and, making an unexpected escape, he slipped away. After these adventures and misadventures, Harald returned to Norway and attempted to form a treaty with Magnus I (‘the Good’) for his share of the kingship of Norway. Goods and money exchanged hands. Theodoricus seems particularly annoyed at these events. He states that a counsellor for Magnus informed Harald that, if Magnus gave him half of Norway, Harald should give Magnus half his money, a request that Harald took rather poorly: he had not exposed himself to perils in foreign lands to amass wealth in order to enrich Magnus’ men. In Theodoricus’ version, Harald goes off in a huff after this and is noted as eventually killing two men who were critical of his attempt at gaining the throne. Theodoricus then goes on a chapter-long diatribe against ambition, targeted specifically at Harald. 36 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
HARALD AND MAGNUS BECAME CAUTIONARY TALES. THEIR BRAVERY, THEIR DARING, IS TEMPERED WITH CHARGES OF EXCESSIVE PRIDE But it comes to pass that Magnus and Harald do share the kingdom and, at Magnus’ death a year later, Harald takes over as sole king. The assessment of his kingship comes with mixed reviews, leaning towards the negative. According to the Ágrip, written around 1190 and probably based on Theodoricus, he ‘ruled with great severity, yet peacefully’. For Theodoricus, he was ‘a vigorous man, far-sighted in his decision-making, quick to take up arms, jealous of what was his and covetous of what was another’s’. The saga Heimskringla records some disapproval, but in general is largely supportive of Harald, recording that: ‘He was also brave above all other men, bold, brave and lucky, until his dying day … and bravery is half victory.’ Most of the judgement of Harald’s character actually derives from comparisons with his son and grandson: Olafr, who is Olaf III, and Magnus Berfoettr (Barefoot). According to the Ágrip, Olafr ‘mitigated
Below: Battle Abbey in East Sussex, built on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Right: Harald Hardrada frieze, Olso.
much of what Harald Hardrada had harshly begun and kept up’, pointing out that Olafr was open-handed with his gold and silver, but that ‘In [his father’s] day men lived in great awe and fear, and most hid their gold and treasure’. Harald was clearly tight-fisted with his wealth and riches, something not wholly acceptable in a society where gift exchange cemented important social bonds (and already suggested by Theodoricus’ account of Harald not wishing to enrich the pockets of Magnus I’s men). But Magnus, Harald’s grandson, was cut from the same cloth and both the Ágrip and Theodoricus point this out explicitly: the Ágrip says Magnus was ‘in disposition in every respect more like his grandfather Harald’; to Theodoricus, ‘Magnus was very unlike his father in character, and resembled more his grandfather, Haraldr’.
T IS IN MAGNUS’ DEATH, though, that we start to see what Harald’s reign and his ultimate demise in the act of conquest meant, or seems to have meant, to the Scandinavian sources. Magnus also died on foreign soil, also in the act of conquest: as the nominal king of Dublin, he was killed attempting to expand his territory in Ireland in 1103. The historian Peter Foote has pointed out the similarities: ‘Grandfather and grandson … are alike, the one grasping, the other restless, both aggressive and both killed fighting on foreign soil.’ It is these similarities which point out to us the ostensible purpose of writing about Harald’s and Magnus’ defeats, with Magnus more or less a cypher through which we need to view Harald. In the Ágrip, Magnus ‘won part of [Ireland] straight away and, as a result, grew bolder and then became more unwary, because it
all went well for him in the beginning, just as it had for his grandfather Haraldr, when he fell in England. And the same treachery drew him to his death’. Similarly, in Theodoricus, ‘after winning control of part of the island [Ireland], hoping the rest might be conquered with ease, he began to lead his army with less caution, and fell into the same trap as his grandfather Haraldr in England’. Harald and Magnus both failed in the act of trying to conquer foreign lands, two generations apart, and in the process got themselves killed. Conquest in the early Middle Ages is not necessarily a frowned-upon action, particularly if it is successful and (more crucially) the side that documents that conquest is the victorious one. Being on the losing side is a different matter. So here, Harald’s and – by extension – Magnus’ failure has to mean something else. In the Middle Ages, a king who won in battle had a certain kind of authority because of it. So what then of these men who fail? Of his fall at Stamford Bridge, the Heimskringla records a comrade stating immediately after the action: Harald is dead, and with him goes The spirit to withstand our foes. A bloody scat the folk must pay For their king’s folly on this day. He fell, and now without disguise We can say this business was not wise. Harald and Magnus became cautionary tales. Their bravery, their daring, is tempered with charges of excessive pride, ambition and aggression. OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 37
1016 | 1066 Even the Heimskringla, generally favourable to Harald, points out that ‘his pride was increased after he was established in the country; and it came so far that it was at last not good to speak against him’. The Heimskringla also pointed out, approvingly, that courage was half of success, but it does not mention what constitutes the other half, what Harald was missing in order to have failed as ultimately he did. The Ágrip argues that the same quality felled both Harald and Magnus: excessive boldness. Bravery is good; excessive bravery, particularly when it gets you killed in a foreign land, is to be avoided. Harald is your warning of what not to do: be proud, ambitious, confident, but not excessively so. Yet where does the line between appropriate and excessive bravery get drawn? It is probably the same line as that between victory and defeat.
Viking spearhead, ninth-10th century. Found in the River Thames, Cookham.
WHERE DOES THE LINE BETWEEN APPROPRIATE AND EXCESSIVE BRAVERY GET DRAWN? IT IS PROBABLY THE SAME LINE AS THAT BETWEEN VICTORY AND DEFEAT
38 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
AROLD GODWINSON was killed at Hastings attempting to resist William of Normandy’s invasion of 1066. After a difficult campaign, fighting first at Stamford Bridge, where he repelled the Scandinavian invasion, Harold and the English were then defeated at Hastings by the Norman invaders. Many historians have examined the various chroniclers of these events and their political biases, discussing identity, nationalism, patronage and diplomacy. The men who chronicled these events wrote history at a time when cultural identity could and would be somewhat tempered by the political environment – it was ever thus. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles deal with Harold in ways ranging from mild to mildly enthusiastic. The historian Michael Swanton, for example, has marked the ‘note of enthusiasm’ with which the Worcester chronicler slips in an ‘our king’ in reference to Harold in 1066. But otherwise the Worcester Chronicle is strangely quiet about him: he plays a noticeably slim role in the events of 1066, with the narrative focusing on the roles played by other men in the various battles. The Abingdon and Peterborough chronicles are slightly more informative on his activities. The Abingdon Chronicle for 1052 refers to the treaty between Edward the Confessor and Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and his two sons, Harold and Tostig, as an attempt to stop two English forces fighting one another.This would leave England open to foreign invaders and is perhaps an oblique reference to – and certainly a foreshadowing of – Harold’s depleted English forces at Hastings as a result of his victories at Fulford and Stamford Bridge. During the years 1065-6 Abingdon repeatedly refers to Harold as ‘King of the English’, in contrast to Hardrada, who is usually referred to as ‘king in Norway’. There is a certain level of distance and intimacy implied here, both in terms of geography as well as population. Harold is king of a people, suggesting a certain connection and agreement in a positive light. In contrast, Abingdon implies, Hardrada is a king of a geographical or political place: not necessarily a negative connotation, but without the level of connection and agreement of the population that ‘king of [a people]’ implies. The Peterborough Chronicle is even more explicit in its approval of Harold. It points out that he became king as granted by Edward and was further blessed with his kingship on Twelfth Night, giving him the sheen of godly approval by association with this important feast day. Peterborough portrays Harold as bravely overcoming the Scandinavian force at Stamford before falling at Hastings, due to his fighting with a weakened force as all of his men had not yet arrived at the field of battle. As would be expected, some of the later chroniclers owe something to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. John of Worcester and Symeon of Durham refer to Harold as ‘subregulus’, an under-king of sorts, chosen as Edward’s successor, which gives him a strain of legitimacy. They both note his goodness as a king: patron to monasteries and to the church, a pious and humble man, a friend to all except evil-doers. He was also noted in both as working hard to defend England by land and sea: in a literal translation, working up a sweat to do so. To these chroniclers, Harold slew both Harald and Tostig at Stamford Bridge; he hustled to Hastings, even though some of his bravest had fallen, and stood bravely with the
Above: detail from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold Godwinson crowned as king of England. Below: page from the Worcester Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the first Viking raid on Lindisfarne, Northumberland in 793 and the omens which preceded it.
few who remained with him. But alas (‘heu!’) he fell at twilight. Both Worcester and Durham give Harold’s kingship a definitive end at Hastings – noting poetically that he ruled for the same number of months and days, nine apiece – but thus also casting his kingship as a legitimate one by giving him a term of rule.
YMEON ALSO FOLLOWS the lead of the earlier accounts by the chronicler Eadmer and delves back into the events in Normandy to try to explain the reasons for Harold’s defeat. Thomas Arnold, in his 1885 translation, even notes that: ‘The subdued patriotic grief and silent resignation of [John of Worcester] … do not entirely suit our Symeon … [he makes] the story tell somewhat less for the Normans, and less also against Harold.’ After telling the events of the Battle of Hastings, Symeon returns to earlier scenes in Normandy and Brittany familiar to us from the Bayeux Tapestry. In Symeon’s version, Harold asks the permission of Edward the Confessor to go to Normandy to free two political hostages. (Stevenson somewhat liberally translates this passage as Harold begging the king to ‘liberate’ them, giving a certain sense of passion and urgency to a situation that is probably an exaggeration; after all, medieval hostageship was not what we tend to think of as hostageship now or in the 19th century.) Edward advises Harold that he would not prevent him from doing so, but suspects it will ultimately cause more problems for England. When William has to rescue Harold from Ponthieu, in both Symeon’s telling and Eadmer’s earlier version, William tells Harold that Edward promised him the crown and proposes an exchange of betrothals to cement their alliance. Harold here is not in a great position: seeing danger everywhere and with no means of escape, he acquiesced. This gives us a reasonable excuse for both Harold’s kingship and William’s invasion, while for Symeon it offers an explanation for Harold’s defeat. Even though Harold probably – excusably – made promises he would not deliver on, George Garnett points out that he had perjured and was thus ultimately defeated. OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 39
1016 | 1066
40 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
as a matter of retribution, but rather a defeat that is understandable within the knowledge of what might constitute or explain legitimate failure to an early medieval king. Interestingly, though, throughout the stories of Harald and Harold, there is not a single shred of doubt cast on any of these men’s masculinity. No unfavorable comparisons, no feminising of their character or characteristics. All are still viewed through masculine lenses. These masculine personae had their purposes: even if they flatten our understanding of what it meant to be a man in the North Sea worlds in the early Middle Ages, they were a certain type of shorthand that displayed what was acceptable within a cultural norm. These masculine personae are here on display alongside, or even despite, these men’s failures. Failure, in these cases, did not mean ultimately attempting to feminise the warrior masculinity that was so common in the 11th century. Failure did not mean emasculation. These failed men were still men, with all the masculine trappings.
B Above: Vikings disembark during the second wave of migration to England, 10th century. Left: page from Decrees of Kings of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England showing William killing Harold at Hastings, 14th century.
FAILURE HAS TO BE TURNED INTO SOMETHING ELSE; ALONE IT SERVES NO PURPOSE TO THE CULTURES THAT SUFFER IT For the pro-English, or at least the vaguely pro-English, sides, Harold does everything right (except for perjury). He upholds all of the various kingly things to do: piety, upholding law, working against Tostig when he ‘turns pirate’. He even ticks some of those same boxes of early masculinity that Byrhtnoth does: he stands bravely and resolutely with his men, even in the face of difficulty caused by a lack of them. Symeon and John both refer to him twice as strenuus, translated in the 19th century as – appropriate for 19th-century Anglo-Saxonism – brave and valiant, but perhaps more appropriately for the context, hard-working or resolute. Harold is a legitimate king in these sources, but he is, more importantly, steadfast and steely in the face of what are portrayed as overwhelming odds. Harold’s failure is not valourised, but it is passionately explained and excused. His legitimacy is not in question, so failure is a matter of regular odds. These sources have to explain this failure not
RAVERY, THOUGH, was simply not enough if you were a failed man. If you failed at the one thing that was shorthand for your power as a man – your warrior prowess – you needed to be represented in another way in order to be remembered in a positive light. Hardrada became a cautionary tale. He was brave … but too brave. He made the mistake of being killed on foreign soil and in an unsuccessful invasion attempt at that. His international reputation in the Scandinavian sources was not solid enough to make him anything other than crafty, clever, harsh, aggressive, restless and overconfident following his failure overseas. The sources found use in Harald’s defeat as an example of what not to do as a Scandinavian king. Harold Godwinson is presented as steely in the face of overwhelming odds, a man who in dangerous circumstances agrees to a rival claimant. Ultimately he has to bravely face terrible odds in order to attempt to hold on to his kingship. He becomes a vaguely tragic hero: valiant and steadfast in the face of unfavourable odds. But these failures still had to mean something to their audiences. Failure has to be turned into something else; alone it serves no purpose to the cultures that suffer it. A warrior masculinity, a common trope throughout the early Middle Ages, needed to be tempered by something else in order for that ‘appropriate’ masculinity to be still somehow usable in its representation. What happens to a warrior persona when the person gets struck down in battle? It becomes a heroic defeat. Failure becomes valourised because it is one way to rectify a social, cultural or individual identity in relation to the world around it when hierarchical positions are being upset. Being heroic in defeat allows for a false sense of superiority when prestige and authority has been undermined, when you no longer have mastery of the world around you. Katherine Weikert is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester.
FURTHER READING Rachel Adams and David Savran (eds.), The Masculinities Study Reader (Wiley, 2002). Kelly DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066 (Boydell and Brewer, 1999). Mark Hagger, William King and Conqueror (I.B. Tauris, 2013). Leonie V. Hicks, A Short History of the Normans (I.B. Tauris, 2015). Donald Scragg (ed. and trans.), The Battle of Maldon ad 991 (Blackwell, 1991). Ann Williams, Kingship and Government in Pre-Conquest England c. 500-c. 1066 (Palgrave, 1999). OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 41
1016 | 1066 Redeemed: William the Conqueror riding with his soldiers, English, c.14th century.
In the popular imagination, William the Conqueror is, without doubt, the villain, yet the sources we have for his life are ambivalent. Marc Morris revisits the evidence to show the man behind the mythology: neither good nor bad, but complex and human.
The Conqueror Reassessed
LMOST EVERY OCTOBER for the past 30 years, weather and ground conditions permitting, re-enactors from all over Europe have assembled on the site of the Battle of Hastings to replay the most famous clash-of-arms in English history before an appreciative crowd. While Norman knights and English housecarls slug it out and archers carefully let fly with blunted arrows, spectators are treated to a live commentary intercut with pre-recorded speeches by the two commanders. As you might expect, the English king, Harold Godwinson, comes across as an essentially decent chap, albeit weary and exasperated. By contrast, his adversary, Duke William of Normandy, sounds like a maniac, ranting furiously in a cod-French accent â€“ Napoleon filtered through the lens of Hitler. Unsurprisingly, when the audience is invited to voice their support, there is loud cheering for the home team but only polite and scattered applause for the visitors, barely audible above the booing. In this 950th anniversary year, one suspects that the preferences of the crowd may be even more marked than usual. All of which is to say that the English tend to approach the topic of 1066 with certain hard-wired assumptions, which extend to our understanding of William the Conqueror. If Harold is the doomed hero, it follows that William is the cunning villain and must therefore possess the full panoply of villainous characteristics: authoritarian, duplicitous, mirthless and cruel. That is frequently the way he is written up in popular history books about the Conquest. Recovering the characters of individuals who have been dead for the best part of a millennium is difficult and sometimes impossible, even in the case of kings. The kind of personal correspondence that survives from later centuries and sometimes illuminates their inner thoughts is entirely lacking. This means we can perceive them only through the words of others and, in the 11th century, this means the words of contemporary chroniclers, who are invariably partisan. Most of the main sources for the politics of this period are what we would nowadays regard as propaganda and all of them were written by churchmen, who were inclined to interpret the events they described as part of a divine plan. Such sources can easily lead us astray. In the case of William the Conqueror, it is common for modern writers to quote extensively from his death-bed speech, in which the dying king expresses his remorse for the conquest of OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 43
1016 | 1066 England, saying at one point: ‘I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war.’ This may be true, but these words are not William’s own. They were written 40 years after his death by a chronicler called Orderic Vitalis, who was fond of putting speeches into the mouths of his protagonists. Orderic was born in Shropshire to an English mother soon after the Conquest and was horrified by the violence it had unleashed. His feelings on the subject are clear and understandable. William’s remain unknown. Lost in translation Similarly, the sources can mislead if they are mistranslated. The three most recent academic biographies of William have all maintained that, contrary to modern expectations, some contemporaries remembered the king for his good nature – his cheerfulness, his affability and his generosity. A description of William’s funeral by the chronicler Hugh of Flavigny does indeed use such words, as well as ‘humility’ and ‘eloquence’. Unfortunately it uses them to describe the recently deceased abbot of Verdun rather than the recently deceased king. Once Hugh’s testimony is properly understood and discarded, evidence of a genuinely jovial Conqueror becomes thin. The occasion when the king presented a Norman abbot with a knife and jokingly pretended to stab him with it suggests that, if William did possess a sense of humour, it was not necessarily a sophisticated or endearing one. What, then, can we say about the man who conquered England in 1066? As far as his physical appearance goes, the sources are very limited. On the subject of his reputation, our sources are best described as mixed. Orderic Vitalis, despite deploring the effects of the Norman Conquest, considered the Conqueror himself to have been a good king and described him as a peace-loving ruler who had protected the Church and relied on the counsel of wise men. The German chronicler Wenric of Trier was altogether less forgiving and condemned the king for having established his reign with ‘murder, rape, butchery and torment’. The most interesting verdict on William is that of the anonymous English monk who wrote an obituary of the king in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Like Orderic Vitalis, he praised William for defending the Church and keeping good order, but at the same time lamented the harshness of the Conqueror’s rule. William, the chronicler explained, had oppressed Englishmen by forcing them to build castles, impoverished them with his taxes and introduced a hated new jurisdiction in the form of the royal forest. ‘Assuredly’, the obituary concluded, ‘in his time people suffered grievous oppression and manifold injuries.’ While he condemns him for being harsh, however, this well-informed Englishman does not accuse William – unlike some modern commentators – of being cruel. The Conqueror, it is true, sometimes behaved in ways that today would be regarded as unacceptably savage. On three occasions he is reported to have punished rebels with mutilation, variously depriving them of hands, eyes and feet. Yet in this respect William was no more cruel than any of his contemporaries; the 11th century was a cruel time. In Anglo-Saxon England, for example, slaves could be killed if they offended their masters; they could be stoned 44 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
to death if they were male and burned to death if female. At the same time, some modern historians have argued that William was excessive in incarcerating his enemies for long periods, citing the testimony of Guibert Nogent, who commented that the king did not habitually accept ransoms, preferring to detain his prisoners indefinitely. Again, this was true. By the time of his death in 1087, William had many high-status captives, including his own half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and Wulfnoth, a younger brother of King Harold, who had been held in Normandy as a hostage since 1051. A typical king? This argument, however, misses a fundamental point. What was surprising about William’s behaviour as king of England was not that he imprisoned his enemies for a long time, but that he bothered to imprison them at all. In pre-Conquest England the preferred solutions for dealing with political opponents were banishing them into foreign exile or simply having them killed. Between the start of the 11th century and 1066, the court of every king of England, whether the stereotypically Viking Cnut or the saintly Edward the Confessor, had witnessed multiple political murders. Among
Recovering the characters of individuals who have been dead for the best part of a millennium is difficult and sometimes impossible, even in the case of kings the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, bloodfeuds would simmer from one generation to the next and old scores were settled in ambushes, scalpings and dinnertime massacres. All this changed after 1066. ‘No man dared to slay another’, remarked the author of William’s obituary in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, ‘no matter what evil the other might have done him’. Although many of the English elite had perished at Hastings or during the course of the rebellions that followed, only one high-ranking Englishman – Earl Waltheof of Northumbria – was deliberately put to death, beheaded in 1076 for his role in a plot against the king the previous year. After that no earl was executed in England until 1306. Far from making English politics more cruel, William had ushered in a period of chivalrous clemency that would last for over two centuries. Childhood trauma The Conqueror’s preference for sparing his political enemies rather than executing them might conceivably be traced back to his childhood. When his father, Duke Robert I, ‘the Magnificent’, died in 1035, William was a boy of seven or eight and Normandy was rocked by a bitter factional struggle in which many nobles were murdered: one of them reportedly had his throat cut at Vaudreuil in the chamber where William was sleeping. These experiences, generally assumed to have desensitised the young duke to extreme violence, may conceivably have had the opposite effect. When William eventually took power himself, the killings came to an end. One factor that did have a clear impact on William’s morality from a young age was the arrival in Normandy
of Lanfranc of Bec. Arguably the most famous scholar in Europe in the mid-11th century, Lanfranc had travelled to the duchy from his native Italy in search of a more ascetic form of monasticism, but ended up as adviser and tutor to the future Conqueror. It was to Lanfranc, said the duke’s chaplain, William of Poitiers, that William entrusted the direction of his soul. After the Conquest, William appointed his spiritual mentor as Archbishop of Canterbury and reportedly did everything that he recommended, including ending the slave trade that still flourished in England in 1066. According to William of Malmesbury, the Conqueror was a diligent Christian, attending mass and hearing vespers and matins every day. William’s Christianity contained an almost puritanical streak. Not only did the king, at Lanfranc’s urging, compel priests to put away their wives and mistresses; he was also unusually chaste himself, to the extent that in his youth some contemporaries wondered whether he might be impotent. These whispers were in due course proved wrong, for William went on to father at least nine children, but significantly all of them were conceived in wedlock with his wife, Matilda. The Conqueror was highly unusual by contemporary standards in having no known illegitimate offspring. Plausibly this may have been because he was ashamed of his own illegitimacy. No one called him ‘the Conqueror’ during his own lifetime – that soubriquet did not really began to catch on until the 13th century – but plenty of chroniclers referred to him as ‘the Bastard’, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 1066. William’s piety and sense of moral rectitude had a profound influence on his career. It is common to hear it said that the Norman Conquest was a speculative adventure, a worthwhile punt for a warrior duke engaged in an insatiable quest for wealth. Many of William’s followers were persuaded to accompany him by the promise of fantastic rewards. It is doubtful, however, that William himself regarded the invasion of 1066 in such terms, because the odds against its success were so insanely high. It is more likely that the duke decided to risk everything that year because he believed that the English throne was indeed his by right and that God would therefore grant him safe passage across the sea and victory in battle. This was not an exercise in freebooting of the sort undertaken by his distant Viking ancestors; more a quasi-religious quest, fuelled by the same kind of zealotry that would soon send his successors eastward on crusade. William’s success was due to the combination of his undoubted skills as a warrior and his unshakeable faith. He was, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, ‘too relentless to care, though all might hate him’. He may not have been cruel to his aristocratic opponents, but his unflinching belief that he was right led him to commit acts that caused the deaths of countless thousands of ordinary folk. His notorious ‘Harrying of the North’ during the winter of 1069–70, which reduced England beyond the River Humber to a desert, led to widespread famine and a death toll in excess of 100,000. The words of remorse put into William’s mouth by the half-English Orderic Vitalis may be invented, but we can well believe that as he lay dying the Conqueror had much to repent.
The LongmanHistory Today Awards These awards are made jointly by the publishers Longman and History Today magazine to mark links between the two organisations and to foster a wider understanding of, and enthusiasm for, history. Books must have been published during the year October 1st, 2015 to September 30th, 2016. Publishers should send one copy of each book they wish to nominate, together with a signed statement confirming category and eligibility. Please mark the submission clearly to distinguish from ordinary review copies that may be received. Publishers may be asked to send further copies of titles in due course. In the case of the Picture Researcher Award, researchers may submit their work directly and include a note explaining in what ways they consider the work to meet the standards required. Entries must be received by October 31st, 2016. Please send your entries to: Annual Awards, History Today, 2nd Floor, 9/10 Staple Inn, London, WC1V 7QH NB. History Today’s Undergraduate Dissertation of the Year Award is administered by the Royal Historical Society and entries submitted directly to History Today will not be considered.
BOOK OF THE YEAR
Presented in memory of Alan Hodge and Peter Quennell, co-founding Editors of History Today
A prize of £2,000 is given for an author’s first or second book, written in English, on any aspect of history. The winning book will display innovative research and interpretation in its field and will have contributed significantly to making its subject accessible and rewarding to the general reader. A proxime accessit of £250 may also be awarded. 2016 winner: Sarah Helm,
If This is a Woman – Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (Little, Brown).
HISTORICAL PICTURE RESEARCHER OF THE YEAR
Presented in memory of Jackie Guy, former History Today Picture Editor
A prize of £500 is given to a picture researcher whose work, on any aspect of history, demonstrates originality, creativity, imagination and resourcefulness and involves a wide range of sources, working from a minimal suggestion list or directly from the text. 2016 winner: Maria Ranauro, (Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, Thames & Hudson).
Marc Morris is the author of William I: England’s Conqueror (Allen Lane/ Penguin Monarchs, 2016). OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 45
SAPPHO and her brothers
The survival of a recently discovered song by the early Greek poet is little short of a miracle, says David Gribble. How was it discovered and what does it add to our picture of a complex and elusive figure?
HIS STORY STARTS with a prayer and a song, sung around 600 bc on the Greek island of Lesbos by a woman seeking the safe return of her brother from a voyage. The woman was Sappho, one of the first poets of western literature, labelled the ‘tenth Muse’ by her admiring readers in the ancient world and one of the few female voices we have from antiquity. The brother was Charaxus, who, Herodotus tells us, travelled to Naucratis in Egypt, where he fell in love with the courtesan Rhodopis, and that Sappho afterwards rebuked him in a song. By a miracle of survival, we can once again, for the first time in more than a millennium, read Sappho’s prayer, hear the singer’s voice, experience her hopes for her brother’s return and her trust in the gods. Recovered from the sands of Egypt, and latterly from the storage rooms of a university library, it has recently been published by the Oxford papyrologist, Dirk Obbink. Sappho’s poetry and the mystery of her biography have impressed and excited readers since the ancient world. But the story of the survival of her works is just as exciting and astonishing and the transmission of this new ‘brothers’ song (the other brother being Larichus) is no less so. Sappho was a ‘lyric’ poet, her works accompanied by an instrument (usually a lyre, hence the word ‘lyric’) and in some cases by dancing, too. 46 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
She must have been primarily an oral poet, as writing was secondary to the spoken word. To imagine Sappho composing, we should think along the lines of a singer-songwriter, blending words with music to the accompaniment of a guitar, rather than a Byron or a Shelley at their desk. We no longer have the music to her songs, but the metre of the verse reveals the rhythm at least. Sappho’s songs, like other Greek lyric, were composed in patterns of long and short syllables, patterns which we know, through comparison with ancient Sanskrit verse, go back to Indo-European prototypes. Where the song was performed and for what audience, we do not know. What is clear is that song played a central role in Sappho’s society. Performed at festivals, sacrifices, symposia and feasts, songs composed and performed by experts like Sappho helped archaic (800-480 bc) Greeks express and understand their relationship to one another and to their gods and provided a feeling of community and elevation above the everyday. Although it is possible that the song was committed to writing for its premier performance, it is more likely that it was transmitted orally like the Homeric poems. Sappho’s songs became ‘hits’, memorised and recited at symposia and other events. It was probably only later, in a more literate age, that they were written down. By the time of Pericles
The fragment of papyrus containing Sappho’s ‘brothers’ song. Image courtesy Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford; all rights reserved. Opposite: bust of Sappho, second century ad. OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 47
Sappho was a canonised classic and to read her works was a sign of the reader’s culture and Hellenism
Sappho alongside her fellow lyric poet Alcaeus of Mytilene, vase by the Brygos painter, 480 bc.
in the late fifth century bc Sappho’s songs were circulating in written form. This preserved them, but came with the unfortunate effect of the loss of the music. By the early third century bc, the library of the Ptolemies in the Egyptian city of Alexandria was able to collect nine ‘books’ of songs attributed to Sappho, organised according to the metre in which they were written. The Alexandrian librarians can be seen as the West’s first professional scholars, buying manuscripts in bulk from across the Greek world and editing, collecting and systematising to produce canonical editions, which preserved Sappho and other poets and authors for posterity. The Alexandrians were also poets themselves, inspired not just to collect and preserve the poetry of the golden age of Greece, but to add to it. Sappho’s song about her brothers was in Book One of the Alexandrian 48 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
collection, which contained works in the ‘Sapphic’ metre, including many of her most celebrated songs about love and her family. ‘Book’ in this case means a length of papyrus a few metres long, wound around sticks at each end. The scroll was read by holding the roll in each hand and rolling the papyrus from one hand to the other, to reveal the next ‘page’ of script. Despite the difficulties an Alexandrian Greek must have had in reading Sappho by the time of the Roman Empire, editions of her poetry continued to circulate among the Greek elite who ruled Egypt. Sappho was a canonised classic and to read her works was a sign of the reader’s culture and Hellenism. And, as we know from ancient reactions (such as Longinus’ work, On the Sublime), Sappho’s startling musical and erotic poetry delighted ancient readers as much as it does modern. Copies
of lyric poets’ work were kept and read even in a provincial town such as Oxyrynchus, where most of the papyri recovered from Egypt have been found. It is to these late Greek Egyptian readers that we owe the survival of the brothers song. Egypt – the source of the papyrus paper that allowed its propagation, and the home of the scholars who had carefully collected it – was also to be the place responsible for its preservation. Some time in the third century ad, which we can tell from the handwriting, a copy of Sappho Book One was made and bought by an educated Greek. The scroll was used and loved – at one point it was accidentally ripped and the tear repaired – before it became too damaged for repair and was discarded. A portion of one of the papyrus pages, containing the last five stanzas of the brother’s song and fragments of the first two stanzas of a further song addressed to Aphrodite, survived intact.
threat. Papyrus is a fragile medium and the survival of literary works in the ancient world was dependent on their copying and recopying by skilled scribes. Not long after the Sapphic manuscript was consigned to the scrapheap, the appetite and ability to re-transcribe literary works went into sharp decline. The weakening of the Roman and Byzantine empires reduced the literary class to a tiny group; and in a Christian culture there was little demand for a pagan female poet known for her homosexual erotic poetry. By the 12th century, the Byzantine scholar Tzetzes wrote that the works of Sappho had been entirely lost to time. As Byron wrote:
NE USE THE EGYPTIANS FOUND for waste papyri was to make ‘cartonnage’, a kind of papier-mâché. It was the practice in Egypt to protect mummies not only by wrapping them in linen, but also by applying panels made of this cartonnage material, typically coated in stucco and painted with a standardised image of the deceased. Many papyri have been preserved in this way. Cartonnage was used for other purposes, too: for book bindings, for example. This was probably the fate of the discarded papyrus piece with the brothers song on it. Folded and pasted together with other torn papyri, it may have served for a time to protect another unknown text before finding its way once again to one of Egypt’s papyrus graveyards, where it would continue to lie for the next one and a half millennia – a literary time An Egyptian mummy capsule. trader, c.1875. Mummy Meanwhile, the preservation of Sappho casings were a source and the other Greek lyric poets was under of papyrus fragments.
When Byron wrote these lines Sappho was little more than a legend, her works surviving in fragmentary lines and words (and, in one case, a whole song) quoted by other authors whose works had survived. At the turn of the 20th century, all that was to change. European collectors and archaeologists descended on Egypt in search of antiquities and quickly discovered the literary treasures which, because of the dryness of the soil, could survive, given the right conditions, for centuries, without much deterioration of the papyrus. Huge volumes of papyri were discovered, mostly as scraps in the rubbish tips of provincial towns, such as those at Oxyrynchus, but rarely as whole books accidentally preserved. By the early 20th century, scholars had also realised that the casings of mummies (in a few cases, the mummies of crocodiles) could also harbour lost papyri. A new discipline was born – papyrology – the preservation, restoration and interpretation of the new discoveries.
The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece Where burning Sappho loved and sung, Where grew the arts of war and peace, Where Delos rose, and Phœbus sprung.
OST OF THE recovered papyri were administrative documents, letters, accounts and so on. But literary works were also preserved and by the early 20th century papyrologists were publishing substantial new fragments and, in some cases, whole works, which had been thought lost forever, including hundreds of lines (or fragments of lines) from Sappho. The recovery of papyri from Egypt became a mad scramble between European excavators, their Egyptian workmen, collectors and pillagers. So it was not surprising that a great number of papyri ended up in private hands. It was this route which led to a private collector making a call to Dirk Obbink with a request to examine and identify a papyrus he had recently acquired. The piece of papyrus cartonnage had been bequeathed by a private collector to the University of Mississippi, where it had lain, unrecognised, in its store rooms for years, before being auctioned at Christie’s in 2011 as part of a much larger group of Egyptian papyrus fragments. Only later did the new owner dissolve the layers of compacted papyri to release the Sapphic manuscript. Obbink’s analysis soon showed that the text must be a song of Sappho. It was written in the poet’s Aeolic dialect and Sapphic metre and mentioned two of her brothers, whose names we knew from other sources. Moreover, the text overlaps in places with other, previously published, Sapphic fragments. Its authenticity was finally confirmed by carbon-dating, which dated the papyrus to around 200 ad. The discovery of papyri from excavations in Egypt has all but dried up. It may be that the discovery of new Sappho songs will rely not on excavation from the sands of Egypt, but on fragments of her poems lying, unpublished or unrecognised, in libraries and private collections. The discovery of Egyptian papyri has returned Sappho to us in a way that Byron could never possibly have imagined. Nevertheless, we can still only read about one per cent of the nine books of Sappho collected in Alexandria. What is more, many papyri are exceedingly fragmentary, recording only line ends or beginnings, or in some cases, mere scraps. The new brothers song is unusual in this respect: almost the whole OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 49
Sappho, Inspired by Love, painting by Angelica Kauffmann, 18th century.
poem (apart from the first stanza) is preserved. Many readers have found an enticing, mysterious, or ‘pure’ quality in the fragmentary nature of Sappho’s songs, a ‘pleasure in ruins’. Ezra Pound’s four-word poem ‘Papyrus’, a made-up Sappho-style fragment from his 1916 collection, Lustra, celebrates this allusive and elusive quality of the new fragments, which were then just starting to be published: Spring … Too long … Gongyla … Many of Sappho’s fragments look just like this, marked out with an apparatus of dots for letters where the reading is not clear and square brackets around words or lines that the editor has filled out with suggested completions. Sappho’s fragments become a sheet for us to write our interpretation, make our own Sappho to suit our desires. So, for example, we could restore Pound’s imaginary fragment: Spring [sends forth the flowers, but for me] too long [have I suffered with desire for the lovely] Gongyla, [who has departed] As well as restoration of text, scholars have tried to recreate the social context which gave rise to the songs, from the poems themselves and from ancient accounts. But reliable information about Sappho and her society is hard to come by. Many myths and stories about Sappho circulated in the ancient world, based on false inferences from her songs, fabulous oral traditions and pure invention. Because of the love of women professed in her works, she gave us the common meaning of the word ‘lesbian’. Attempts of modern scholars to explain the context in which Sappho’s songs were performed, though, have sometimes been motivated by a misguided attempt to free her from the taint of homosexuality. They imagined her as a kind of Victorian schoolmistress, educating young girls in music and culture. Many believe that the only reliable information about Sappho comes from what we can piece together from the fragments themselves. Reading Sappho (and trying to interpret the myths, glosses and explanations of later antiquity) is inevitably a process of filling in the square brackets, with the risk of introducing our own prejudices and preconceptions. 50 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
There are some things, however, which we can reliably say about Sappho’s songs and the context in which they were performed. First, it is generally agreed that Sappho’s works were composed for a performance of some kind. These are songs to be enjoyed live. The musicality of Sappho’s verse, the way the vowels and consonants are put together (even without the benefit of musical accompaniment) impressed ancient readers. Second, many of the songs are erotic, infused with a rich sexual vocabulary and imagery akin to that used by other (male) lyric poets. In Sappho, however, the objects of desire, the causes of unbearable eros, which in her songs paralyses the body, stills the tongue and brings the singer close to death, are young women. The word pais (‘child’, ‘girl’) is sometimes used, though whether a relationship between a mature woman and an adolescent is intended, such as those characteristic of Greek male homoerotic relationships, is not clear. There is evidence from archaic Sparta of female groups, agelai, composed of girls before marriage, bound by erotic ties. Papyrus fragments of the (male) Spartan poet Alcman preserve marriage songs to be sung by girls dancing in chorus engaging in stylised erotic banter. Some
Many of Sappho’s songs are erotic, infused with a rich sexual vocabulary and imagery akin to that used by other (male) lyric poets
assistance. They are infused by a sense of the numinous power of gods to inspire, to destroy, to help and to harm. Pre-eminent among Sappho’s gods is Aphrodite, who in the songs inspires eros and the blossoming fecundity of nature and is the cause of ruinous infatuation. Indeed, some have seen Sappho as having some cultic role in the worship of this delightful yet baneful goddess. Finally, many songs have a deeply personal element. Some of them include Sappho’s own name in the text (for example, she imagines Aphrodite addressing her by name) and the names of other individuals, such as Gongyla. The following song preserved on papyrus is a good example. In it the singer consoles one Atthis, whose female friend/lover has gone to the nearby kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, perhaps to marry into a Lydian family: … often, turning her mind in this direction, …. she [honours?] you like a goddess [?]. She delighted particularly in your song. But now she stands out among the Lydian women, As sometimes, when the sun Has set, the rosy-fingered moon Surpasses all the stars; its light Reaches equally over the salt sea and the flower-filled fields; And the beautiful dew is spread out, And the roses and tender chervil and fragrant clover are in bloom. And often as she goes about, she remembers Gentle Atthis with longing, And [her] tender heart is consumed … (Sappho fragment 96, lines 2-17) The songs typically involve or suggest a social setting of some sort, a group (whose members are sometimes named) against which personal relations are played out. Sappho’s contemporary Alcaeus, who lived on Lesbos at about the same time, composed works performed for and in his hetairia, a male social, political and drinking group. Did the women in Sappho’s songs form part of a female hetairia, bound together by the cultivation of elegance and eros, just as Alcaeus’ was by war and wine?
I scholars have even imagined Sappho as the trainer of some kind of ‘initiatory’ group like this, of girls on the cusp of marriage, in which the cultivation of beauty went closely together with expressions of homoerotic feeling. There is no clear evidence for this in the songs. We can safely say, however, that the homoeroticism in Sappho’s songs is rooted in a social context. We should not imagine her as some kind of sexual revolutionary; it is more likely that homoeroticism was an accepted part of the socialisation of her society and circle, like the male homoeroticism we are familiar with from Plato. Most of Sappho’s compositions have a religious dimension: some are ‘hymns’, i.e., songs addressed to a god, calling on their presence or their Ancient Egypt and the Greek world at the time of Sappho, sixth century bc.
T IS IMPORTANT to recognise the limits of our conjectures. Sappho’s songs were probably performed at a wide variety of occasions, which we can only guess at: there is no one simple answer to the question of the context of their composition. So what does the new discovery add to our understanding of this complex and alluring figure and the society that gave rise to her songs? The new song is not about ‘typical’ Sapphic themes like eros, marriage, Aphrodite or the cultivation of luxury. Instead it is about an absent brother. (In fact, we do already have one Sapphic song fragment, number five, addressed to an [unnamed] brother. It was the first papyrus fragment of Sappho to be discovered in Egypt: ‘Lady Nereids’, the singer prays, ‘grant that my brother may return here unharmed to me’.) The first four-line stanza of the new song is missing. When the text starts, we find the singer addressing another woman, whose name, if she was named, has been lost. Some have suggested it could be the singer’s mother but it could be another woman from Sappho’s group; at any rate, it is someone just as closely interested in the fate of the absent man as the singer. The singer is talking about two men, Charaxus and Larichus, both of them identified since ancient times as Sappho’s brothers. The song is an ardent prayer for Charaxus’ return from a voyage and there is no suggestion of criticism of him, so we have to imagine a different voyage from the one in Herodotus that took Charaxus to Naucratis and into the arms of the courtesan Rhodopis and led to Sappho’s ridicule of him (if, indeed, that story is true). The singer must have started by saying something like ‘How often have I told you that worrying about an absent friend will not bring him back any sooner’. And she goes on: OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 51
ANCIENT GREECE Ancient Greek columns and foundations at Messa on Lesbos, a cult site associated with Sappho.
… And yet you are always chattering away: ‘May Charaxus come’, you say, ‘With a full ship’. That, I think, Zeus Knows, and all the other gods. It’s not something You should be thinking about. But rather send me and bid me Make many prayers to Queen Hera That Charaxus may arrive, steering His ship safe back here, And find us safe and sound. Let us Entrust all other things to the gods. Great storms turn quickly Into fair weather. And when the king of Olympus wants To send a divine helper to help someone in Their troubles, that person grows fortunate And richly blessed. As for us, if Larichus ever lifts up his head, and becomes a man, How quickly would we be freed from our great despondency. The new song may not be as sexy, or display such verbal fireworks, as others of Sappho’s songs, but it is a subtle work of restrained emotion, which tells us a lot about Sappho and her society. Though the subject matter may be untypical, the themes and form are vintage Sappho: the consolation of a female addressee, the intimate style of address, the dialogue between women, the theme of departure and loss. These are all familiar themes, seen, for example, in the ‘Atthis’ song. The new song shows us, for the first time in such sustained fashion, Sappho addressing a male world. We know that the Lesbos of Sappho’s day was riven by political conflict between competing families and groups, struggles which dominate the songs of Sappho’s contemporary, Alcaeus. These conflicts, the rise and fall of the fortunes of leaders and followers, their absence away from home, whether for political or peaceful reasons, must have dominated the lives of the women of Lesbos, too, though there is little direct evidence of it in the surviving fragments. The new song presents a scene that must have been played out frequently in the Lesbos of Sappho’s day: women praying for the return (like Charaxus), or the right moral attitude (Larichus), of the men they depend on. 52 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
HE SONG is not really a prayer at all, but rather a preparation for a prayer, a dialogue about the way one should pray and about the proper attitude for women to adopt towards each other, towards men and towards the gods. Getting these things right – the right words to choose, the right moral attitude in adversity (resilience, trusting in the divine, not worrying or ‘chattering’) – obviously matters deeply and the song shows women engaged in rehearsing the words, formulating the attitudes. We have other similar examples in Greek literature of women formulating prayers for missing menfolk: Penelope praying for the return of her husband Odysseus and son Telemachus in the Odyssey, or Electra in Aeschylus’ Choephori, praying for the return of her brother Orestes. But this new song offers a rare glimpse of the construction and presentation of a female value system by women. Both singer and addressee are female – and the original audience of this song was probably all-female, too. Yet the song also reaches out to the male world. The admonition to Larichus to ‘become a man’ seems intended for the ears of Larichus. Eventually the song must have reached the male world in order for it to be transmitted to us. Perhaps, then, the song was also destined for a further audience of men, who receive the message by hearing what women say about them ‘behind closed doors’. If this is right, the song is not just a drama about the lot of the women who wait at home, but an indirect communication to men. The new song, preserved by Alexandrian scholars, Greek-Egyptian readers and literary papyri, gives us not just the experience of a woman 2,600 years ago longing for the return of a missing brother, but an archaic Greek drama crafted by women for women, with a distinctively female morality and a concept of the role of women in the world.
David Gribble is the author of Alcibiades and Athens: A Study in Literary Presentation (Oxford Classical Monographs, 1999).
FURTHER READING Anton Bierl and André Lardinois (eds), The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4 (Brill, 2016). Diane J. Rayor (ed and trans), Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Margaret Williamson, Sappho’s Immortal Daughters (Harvard University Press, 1995).
MakingHistory Despite progress since the 1970s, female historians are still treated unfairly both inside and outside the academy. Things must change, says Suzannah Lipscomb.
A Case of Double Standards WE NEED TO TALK about sex. I do not mean the physical act, or gender as a category of historical analysis. Historians cottoned on to the latter in the 1970s and we are now at a stage where we have moved from positing the need for studies of women (as if they were not 50 per cent of the population) to a position where the study of gender – ‘the social organisation of sexual difference’ (Joan Wallach Scott) – is increasingly incorporated into mainstream historical scholarship. The same is not true of the writing of history. In the last few months two female historians I know have experienced situations that make me wonder about the state of the discipline. In one case a female PhD student published a popular history book and three senior academics disparaged her and/or her work on Twitter on the basis of comments she had made in a newspaper interview to publicise her new book. In conversation she had suggested that, in eschewing grand narratives of male protagonists for a more nuanced, ground-up approach to include the stories of ordinary women, she was doing something important and novel in popular history writing. One of the critics tweeted that ‘actual historians’ had been doing this for a long time, with the implication that the History postgraduate was not an ‘actual historian’. The tweet’s author later claimed it was a typo for ‘actually’ (though one would have thought that would require some additional punctuation, too). Worse was another critic who used Twitter as a forum to dismiss the book and, by inference, the scholar – again in reaction to a line in the interview – as ‘selling banality’. How appropriate is it for a senior academic to rubbish a junior academic’s book, which they have not read, on Twitter, on the basis
of a journalist’s report? It is a question that answers itself. Yet my instinct is that we would not have to answer it if the junior scholar had been male: because it would not have happened. I may be wrong, but I am struck that such treatment is markedly different from the response given to the popular work of well-known non PhD-holding male historians, such as Dan Snow, Dan Jones and Andrew Roberts.
Either the public does not buy many history books by women or publishers do not publish them Another female historian of my acquaintance has had one of her history books made into a television drama. Fantastic. A cause for celebration. Or it would have been if the book had been optioned. But instead her research was stolen and the claim made that as the content is in the public sphere, credit need not be given, despite the fact that it would not be there if this historian had not dredged it out of the archives. Would this have happened if
Into battle: an Amazon attacks a Greek warrior, French, c.1808.
she were a male professor? Maybe, but I suspect not. The thing about sexism is that it is almost impossible to prove; that does not mean it does not exist. In the face of these anecdotes, let us try some more verifiable data. This summer Catherine Fletcher posted a snapshot of the top 10 UK non-fiction list, observing that men’s bestsellers were about maps and geopolitics, travel, the historic shaping of the global economy and physics. The four bestselling non-fiction books by women were all memoirs. Earlier in the year, the US journal Slate found that of 614 popular history titles published in the US last year, almost 76 per cent were written by men. In the UK, in January, four solo women authors appeared in the top 50 history bestsellers. Either the public does not buy many history books by women or publishers do not publish them. Or there is the recent finding of gender bias in responses to academic conference submissions. A study featured in the Times Higher Education Supplement in September found that women’s papers are more likely to be accepted if a gender-blind process is introduced. But, in history, other scholars tend to know who is working in the field. Anonymising does little to disguise the author, so it seems likely that female historians are judged unfavourably in academic circles as well as history bestseller lists. In short, we need to talk about sex, because apparently it matters if you are a female historian. Gender matters not just in historical scholarship but if you are a historical scholar. Sexism is endemic and something needs to be done about it. Suzannah Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities and the author of The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII (Head of Zeus, 2015). OCTOBER 2014 HISTORY TODAY 53
Portrait of the Author as a Historian Is reality simply a collection of unconnected moments and impressions? If so, what does it mean for our understanding of the past? For one Argentine writer, fiction was the perfect place to explore such questions, says Alexander Lee.
Head in the clouds: Jorge Luis Borges in Palermo, Sicily, 1984.
No.4 Jorge Luis Borges Born: August 24th, 1899, Buenos Aires. Died: June 14th, 1986, Geneva.
54 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
JORGE LUIS BORGES’ relationship with the past can seem puzzling. As he admitted in an interview published in 1967, Argentina’s history was in his blood. Born in Buenos Aires, he had been brought up on tales of heroic ancestors who had fought for independence and unity. As soon as he could read, he had been introduced to José Hernández’s epic poem Martín Fierro (1872-9) and had grown to revere the disappearing life of the gauchos as the essence of the Argentinian soul. This underpinned much of his writing. His earliest poems were inspired by his belief that, by con conserving the culture and folklore of the criollos – Argentinians of Spanish descent – he could foster a worthy identity for his still-young country. Later, his short assasstories regularly featured outlaws, assas sins and events from Argentina’s history. Even after achieving international renown, he still wrote on the history of Argenthe tango and lectured on ‘The Argen tine Writer and Tradition’ (1951). continuYet at the same time, he was continu ally drawn to irrealidad, to the fantastical and to the extraordinary. Even when he seemed to be at his most ‘historical’ he delighted in mixing truth with fiction. In the articles later collected in A Universal History of Infamy (1935), for example, the lives of great liars, frauds and fiends were embroidered with whimsical untruths. He found it wildly entertainentertain ing to write pieces that purported to be scholarly, but which were, in fact, figments of the purest imagination (e.g., ‘Three Versions of Judas’, 1944). Above all, he relished transcending, or even destroying, the rigid linearity of time. In stories like ‘The Other’ (1972), time became circular, twisted, inverted, even irrelevant. For Borges, however, there was no contradiction between reality and unreunre ality. Indeed, as he saw it, the vividness of the Argentine past actually depended upon the unreality of everything but the present. Achilles and the Tortoise Borges’ understanding of time arose out of his fascination with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Thought to have been devised by Zeno of Elea in the mid-fifth century bc, it seemed perfectly simple at first glance. One day, Achilles and the tortoise agree to a race. Being the quicker runner, Achilles expects to win easily, but for the sake of fairness,
allows his opponent a head start of, say, 10 metres. Yet Achilles is unable to catch the tortoise. After a certain amount of time, he runs 10 metres, reaching the tortoise’s starting position. In that time, however, the tortoise has run a further five metres. To reach that point, Achilles needs to run for a little longer; but in that time, the tortoise will have run an additional two and a half metres. And so on. Whenever Achilles reaches somewhere the tortoise has previously been, he finds that he has still further to go; and though he gets infinitely close, he can never catch up. It seemed patently false. But the task of proving Zeno wrong had vexed philosophers for centuries. Several solutions had, admittedly, been proposed, including those that focused on the indivisibility of motion and the equivalence of different infinities. But Borges – whose horror of the infinite was expressed in nightmarish tales like ‘The Aleph’ (1945) and ‘The Book of Sand’ (1975) – found none of these compelling. In ‘The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise’ (1929), he instead turned to an argument put forward by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753). Pursuing solipsism to its logical conclusion, Berkeley had argued that nothing existed outside of the percipient’s mind and that, by extension, nothing of which the mind could not conceive could exist. This made it impossible for anything to be infinitely divisible. For Berkeley, every ‘particular finite extension’ – be it a piece of string, or the distance between two runners – was merely an idea in the mind of the percipient and could only be divided into as many parts as he could conceive of. But, since the infinite was beyond human comprehension, it could not be divided infinitely. Once this was accepted, Borges argued, the basis of Zeno’s paradox went up in smoke. Refuting Time The implications of Berkeley’s argument could be pushed even further. If it was granted that nothing existed outside the mind, then it was clear that the mind itself was nothing more than ‘a system of floating ideas, without any substance to them’. For Berkeley, this suggested that selfhood (or ‘spirit’) consisted of the seq-uence of different perceptions that appeared before the mind over time – much as the personality of a character in a film is revealed by the sequence of
frames in which he appears. But Borges disagreed. In ‘A New Refutation of Time’ (1944, rev. 1947), he argued that, since the mind could only perceive what was before it, only the present moment existed. There was no over-arching ‘self’ beyond each perception; and – for the percipient – there was no over-arching ‘time’ beyond the ‘now’. This did not, of course, mean that one perception did not follow another, but rather that each moment was independent. In itself, it had no intrinsic connection with any other, either past or present: just as, in a film, each individual frame is a free-standing image that, when examined in isolation, provides no information about what any others might show. For Borges, the Taoist story of Chuang Tzu’s dream illustrated his point well. One night, the philosopher Chuang Tzu
Borges argued that, since the mind could only perceive what was before it, only the present moment existed (c.369–c.286 bc) dreamt that he was a butterfly. He fluttered about, without any sense of being Chuang Tzu. When he woke up, he did not know whether he was Chuang Tzu who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who was dreaming that he was Chuang Tzu. For Berkeley, the problem was simple. When Chuang Tzu was dreaming, he was a butterfly; and when he was awake, he was a man. But each moment was part of the sequence of perceptions that constituted the spirit of Chuang Tzu. For Borges, by contrast, all that could be said with certainty was that, during the dream, Chuang Tzu was a butterfly and that when he was awake he was a man. There was nothing about either moment that linked it to the other, which was why he was so confused when he woke up. If each instant was isolated from every other, Borges reasoned, there was no satisfactory means of locating it in the chronology of world history, either. Since Chuang Tzu’s dream is well known in China, Borges considered the possibility that one of his readers might dream
that he was a butterfly. If this dream repeated the master’s in every respect, Borges argued, it would be impossible to differentiate between the two. Indeed, since neither moment had any intrinsic relationship to any other, one might even ask if they were not the same dream. This struck at the very foundations of history. If it was impossible to distinguish between two events, then any attempt to locate either of them in a wider chronological context became arbitrary. Were this to occur even once, Borges argued, it would be enough ‘to disrupt and confound the history of the world’, to reveal that there is no thread of objective truth linking events. Borges explored this idea in ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (1939). This purported to be a review of the works of an imaginary French writer who had decided to rewrite Cervantes’ Don Quixote. He set out not to tell the same story in different words, nor even to copy it out, but to ‘repeat’ the book, by putting himself in Cervantes’ place and independently writing his own text in such a way that it would coincide with the original word for word. Against all the odds, he had succeeded in ‘reconstructing’ several chapters and some of the story is given over to assessing the relative qualities of the two texts. Although they are identical, Borges’ reviewer finds Menard’s version vastly superior to Cervantes’ original, since what was a commonplace for a 16th-century Spaniard became an ‘amazing’ idea in the hands of a 20th-century Frenchman. It is, of course, ironic. Given that the two texts were the same, the reviewer would have been unable to tell when either had been written from the words alone. This only showed how arbitrary chronological determination really was, and – by extension – how arbitrary history was, too. For Borges, each moment, in itself, shines like a brilliant stone. But how moments are threaded together is up to us. We can thread them in a line, the order of which suits our tastes; but we can also tie them in circles, loop them back on one another or scatter them randomly about, should the whim take us. They would all tell stories, just the same. And in Borges hands, what stories they were. Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His book The Ugly Renaissance is published by Arrow.
Key works Fictions (1944), The Aleph (1949), Doctor Brodie’s Report (1970) Born in Buenos Aires to a bilingual middle-class family, Borges’ first published work, written aged nine, was a Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. He would later translate – and modify – Kafka, Poe, Woolf and other major writers. In 1914 his family moved to Geneva, where Borges was exposed to the philosophy which would inspire his fiction. His first collection, The Garden of Forking Paths, was published in 1941. In the 1950s, almost blind, he was made director of Argentina’s National Library. Today he is considered among the 20th century’s most important writers, the first magical realist. OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 55
Averil Cameron on travellers to Mount Sinai Claudia Baldoli takes on a history of interwar Europe Robert Carver laments the destruction of Aleppo, jewel of the Levant
REVIEWS LEGEND AND MYTH
Are you related to Charlemagne? An engaging and highly informative study of the legend of Brutus of Troy claims that the myth is as important to Britain’s origins as many verifiable historical events.
THOSE FAMILIAR WITH the obsessive delights of genealogy will have realised that if you can trace your family in Britain back to 1400 you are distantly related to everyone else who can do this and hence to kings, queens and, eventually, to Charlemagne. There is something very satisfying about such a compressed personal claim upon time’s immensity: no wonder the professional genealogist Anthony Adolph mentions on his book jacket that Prince George of Cambridge happens to be his 10th 56 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
cousin twice removed. However, in Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British, Adolph is not essentially concerned with tracing family trees but with the links that have been constructed by fantasy-genealogy as applied to myth and legend and with the powerful meaning these constructs held for our real forebears as late as the 19th century. As he says: ‘Prince George is not really descended from Brutus, but he is descended from many, many generations of ancestors who believed they were.’
Two essential facts emerge early in this intricate, fascinating and densely written account of what did-not-actually-happen but which formed a bedrock of national identity and dreaming aspiration over 1,500 years. One is that the fabled Brutus – who allegedly landed in ‘Albion’ (Britain) at Totnes, slew giants, founded Oxford and London and sired a long line of kings from Arthur onwards – was nothing to do with the assassin of Julius Caesar, but was an exiled leader of the Trojans who survived the
war and the destruction of Troy. The second fact is that, though Adolph ‘wanted desperately to unearth some evidence that Brutus had been a real historical character, heavily disguised by myth’, he was eventually forced to recognise that he was entirely fictitious. So why write his history? The answer is that Brutus is a lodestone of so much that our ancestors recounted as actual history (and has been so enmeshed with other real or partly real beings that have made up the fabric of the perceived story of mankind) that he has acquired a significant presence. In a time when we are increasingly aware of history’s subjective nature and of the way it is continually revisited to reflect newly evolving preoccupations, should it not be just as valid to examine the beliefs, convictions and concepts of identity of those who created Britain as to concentrate on verifiable events, especially as we are still evidently so attached to our myths? The two supposed giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded annually in London at the Lord Mayor’s Show. The London Stone is cherished, though it is probably part of a medieval waymark and nothing to do with London’s earliest foundation. Blake’s Jerusalem has been suggested as a more suitable national anthem than God Save the Queen, although Blake’s vision of Albion’s capital conflated with the rebuilding of Jerusalem is a relatively late addition of the rich mixture of the Brutus myth, an
attempt to work the Lost Tribes of Israel into his already bulging family tree by claiming the exiled Trojans as one of the Tribes. Essentially, Brutus was supposed to have been a great, great grandson of the Greek goddess Aphrodite through her Trojan son Aeneas (the hero of Virgil’s Aeniad). Brutus, in a familiar tradition of Greek mythology – see Oedipus – accidentally killed his father and was exiled to Greece. There he liberated the enslaved descendants of the Trojans and led them on a great voyage to settle in Britain. But, by the time the Welsh bards of the ages we call ‘dark’ had got busy on the story, much, much more had been added to Brutus’ pedigree, carrying his ancestry back from Aeneas to Zeus and thence – with a bold link to a surviving son of Noah – to Methuselah, Cain, Adam and Eve and hence to God himself.
Brutus is the lodestone of so much that our ancestors recounted as actual history and has been enmeshed with other real or partreal beings that have made up the fabric of the perceived story of mankind A key exponent of the Brutus story was the 12th-century Augustinian monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, a passionate reader of ancient books of which he made highly creative use. It seems to have been Geoffrey who introduced the Celtic myths to the story, including the twin giants and the Arthurian strand. The idea that Brutus had been the founder of London appears to have been his, though he was not solely responsible for the way the legend continued to burgeon. His History of the Kings of Britain also contained much factual material on relatively recent rulers
and events and it was eagerly read by the small number of literate people who ran society. As a 20th-century director of the British Museum (Thomas Kendrick) has put it ‘extraneous oddments ... in the course of the Middle Ages stuck themselves like burrs on the accommodating body of [Geoffrey’s] History’. The Tudors, too, had a vested interest in emphasising their ancient Celtic origins. The list Anthony Adolph has quarried out of those who adopted the Brutus story as material for their own creations is a roll call of the great, the half-great, the eccentric and the obsessed. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene Arthur and Britomart both discover the origins that connect them with Brutus; though one should not infer from this that Spenser actually believed this powerfully symbolic history. A century later, John Milton had the same view with his Paradise Lost. The Stuarts continued to make use of the symbolism and the architects of the Commonwealth hijacked it for Republican ends. After the Restoration in 1660 the emphasis shifted to London’s Roman origins, but the playwright Nahum Tate took the theme on in his Brutus of Alba and his play re-emerged a decade later as inspiration for Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. In the 18th century, one Hildebrand Jacob wrote a long and stirring epic poem on Brutus, and so, a little later, did Alexander Pope. Then comes Blake, with his transfiguring visions of the townscape around him. In the Victorian era a mysterious ‘CD’ tried his hand at the subject and in our time the palimpsest of the Brutus myth has burgeoned again in novels, with some Irish, transatlantic or Israeli extras added to it. Brutus is still there, beneath London’s ‘dreaming hills’. But on the evidence of Adolph’s excellent book, sleep he does not. Gillian Tindall Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British by Anthony Adolph Pen & Sword 237pp £19.99
The Tale of the Axe
How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain by David Miles Thames & Hudson 432pp £19.95
OXFORD IS FULL of history, dating back to its settlement in Saxon times. Yet it is rarely associated with prehistory, especially the Neolithic period beginning just before 4000 bc. In the long hot summer of 1976, that picture changed, at least among archaeologists. During the heatwave, distinct large circles appeared in the parched grass of the University Parks. Traces of a major Bronze Age barrow cemetery became visible. Subsequent excavations beneath the Ashmolean Museum’s Sackler Library located another barrow and the ditch of a henge monument near Keble College, just across the road from the Parks. Today, it is accepted that Oxford is built on a major Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial complex. This is one of many intriguing contemporary details in a global history of the Neolithic period, with a focus on the British Isles, by David Miles, former director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit and chief archaeologist of English Heritage. As Miles observes, from decades of personal experience as an excavator and site inspector: ‘A time-traveller crossing Neolithic Britain could, at various times and in different regions, have come across massive and small buildings, megalithic tombs and cairns, earthen long barrows, causewayed enclosures, avenues
bounded by ditches (cursuses), stone circles and henge monuments. In fact, many of them persist even today, dogged survivors whose meanings challenge our imagination.’ All of these structures, including Stonehenge, are discussed in The Tale of the Axe. Its focus, however, is on the stone implements used to build the structures, even if the text periodically loses sight of these small, enduring and revealing objects. Indeed, it was a Neolithic axe, presented to Miles in the mid-1970s by its discoverer, that stimulated him to write his book, as he notes in his prologue. He was then living in Woodstock, near Oxford. One evening, just before dinner, there was a knock at the door and a stranger called Bob stood there holding a sports bag. He announced that he worked in the gravel pit at Stanton Harcourt, near the Devil’s Quoits henge monument. A couple of years previously he
Neolithic Britain [had] massive and small buildings, megalithic tombs, ... the focus of Miles’ book is the stone implements used to build these structures had noticed an unusual object on the conveyor belt. Having heard that Miles was an archaeologist, from the depths of his bag he now extracted a smooth greenish stone (alluringly reproduced in the book) and gave it to a thrilled Miles. Scientific study proved it to be a Neolithic polished stone axe-head made of Langdale tuff quarried in the English Lake District nearly 5,000 years ago. The history of such axes, told in ‘Green Treasure from the Magic Mountain’, is perhaps the book’s most compelling chapter. Archaeologists have discovered a key source of jadeitite axes on the slopes of Monte Viso, a peak OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 57
REVIEWS in the Alps on the Italy-France border, where they were quarried in the fifth and fourth millennia bc. Astonishingly, these axes turn up in large numbers in excavations in Brittany, particularly in and around the megalithic tombs of the Morbihan; and, in Britain, as far north as Scotland’s Dee Valley, over 1,000 miles from Monte Viso. The craftsmanship of these axes, the long distances they were transported and the evident value attached to them by Neolithic peoples for ritual rather than practical purposes provides a driving theme of the book. Long before the construction of Stonehenge (c.3000 bc), or the construction of the first British wheel (c.1300 bc), life in Britain was already remarkably sophisticated, argues Miles. ‘It is human genius that took us from the stone axe to the Kepler Mission’, he concludes – echoing the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a prehistoric rotating bone weapon morphs into a rotating spacecraft.
Long before the construction of Stonehenge ... life in Britain was already remarkably sophisticated The book makes a few questionable statements. ‘Cooking increases the calorific value of food’ is only partially accurate; and Hammurabi’s Mesopotamian law code of 1754 bc is not ‘the first time in human history we can know the names of kings’, given the Egyptian ruler Narmer’s palette, c.3000 bc. But this is to be expected when an author deals in detail with an intrinsically speculative subject, requiring familiarity with diverse disciplines. Overall, The Tale of the Axe is a wide-ranging, eye-opening analysis of the evolution of early human societies that any historian will find informative. Andrew Robinson 58 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Revolution, evolution or reinvention? The idea of the wheel as humankind’s greatest invention became a 20th-century obsession, according to this account of its development. RICHARD W. BULLIET brings a fresh view to a story that interests many: the invention of the wheel, providing new and interesting details about when and why the wheel was first adopted. Unlike existing accounts, Bulliet makes strong and refreshing arguments about the wheel’s origins rather than just describing the first uses of wheeled transport through time. Throughout, he reminds the reader that the notion that the wheel was ‘humankind’s greatest invention’ is a 20th-century obsession. He makes clear that the question of origins, like the wheel, is dependent on the interests and needs of particular societies. In The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions, Bulliet gives serious attention to technical specificity and to local ways of thinking about wheels. He begins, for example, by distinguishing between three types of wheels: wheel sets, in which two wheels are fixed on an axle; wheels that turn independently of the axle; and casters, which are wheels that can pivot and thus face any direction. Each wheel type had different social
and technical requirements. His varied evidence from the wheel’s 6,000-year history draws on archaeology, art, technology, anthropology, linguistics, basic physics and knowledge of animal husbandry. The book is full of interesting illustrations of wheeled transport through history. Crucial to Bulliet’s account are co-inventions, or other things that were needed to facilitate the use of wheels. He observes that flat roads were needed to make the use of wheel sets (like mine cart wheels) and casters profitable. Crucially, these were generally not available in ages or places when uneven earthen paths dominated. Throughout, Bulliet’s discussion is wide ranging and considers how the development of wheeled transport influenced urban planning, gender relations (the need to transport women appropriately) and timekeeping. Bulliet’s story – which necessarily includes more than just the wheel – is original in style and conclusion. His way of thinking about wheeled transport seeks to disprove the most wellknown existing accounts of the wheel, including that of Jared
Diamond, who connects the invention of wheeled transport to the presence of draft animals to pull wheeled carts. Bulliet, in contrast, does not assume that the needs of different societies for wheels were universal but that they were local and unique. Indeed, he even makes one consider, counter to Diamond, if the presence of pack animals might not have led societies away from wheeled transport because they could more easily transport things on the backs of animals. The book argues ultimately that there are probably three different birth places of the wheel, ranging from the copper mines of eastern Europe and mobile homes on the plains of the Black Sea, to the great chariot races of Sumer and the rickshaws of east Asia. The idea of wheels existed in many early societies, as shown by their wheeled toys; a good history needs to explain, as Bulliet does, the changes that result in a society finding wheels useful for transportation. Even in cases where the idea travelled by word of mouth – for example, stories of Chinese wheelbarrows that passed along the Silk Road – still, as Builliet shows, the adoption of a new technology depended on local mindsets. As he ably concludes, understanding local needs is crucial for any historical account: ‘Invention leaves little or no trace … if it is not accompanied by adoption. And adoption … is affected by many considerations. Some are broad, like economic efficiency, military utility, social class, gender, aesthetics and religion; some are local, like availability of wood and roughness of terrain. In illuminating the manifold interconnections among these various considerations, the story of the wheel helps us understand that invention is seldom a simple matter of who thought of something first. Thus does Bulliet’s account transcend the story of the wheel and make us reconsider the nature of invention itself. Hermione Giffard The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions by Richard W. Bulliet Columbia University Press 272pp £19.95
REVIEWS MATERIAL CULTURE
From signs in clay tablets to digital data An impressively detailed and enlightening study of the book argues that this desirable physical object ranks among mankind’s greatest inventions.
HERE IS is a many-sided tale of Alexander the Great and of arsenic sulphide, of Bavarian limestone and of metaphorical black tigers, of Charlemagne and of the mythical city of Crocodilopolis, not to mention of zhu bo (bamboo and silk) and of Hermann Zapf (type designer extraordinaire), all set against a framework provided by the rise and fall of empires and the millennia-long march of technology. It is full of arcane knowledge: the techniques of anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding a book with human skin), or the role played by a book in bearing the brunt of an ambush by heathen guerrillas on St Boniface in 752 (the book survives today in Fulda Cathedral; Boniface died, alas). Keith Houston’s subject is not the content, not the great ideas, of the book in history, but the apparently mundane yet – as it transpires – animating and enlightening adventure from which the physical book took a form that must rank as one of mankind’s greatest inventions. It also acts as a good reminder of how challenging it is to write history away from the well-travelled roads of high
politics and social change: so many false trails, so few neat answers because humans are not always, nor often, orderly, still less dispassionate, about the inventions they record. There is, however, one consistent theme: the high place given by all societies to the book and its precursors; the scribal culture of Ancient Egypt, for example, with its sense of the magical power of hieroglyphs, the palettes, the brushes, the handmade ink of the scribes, their status, survived much longer than Egypt itself as an independent state. What is ‘the oldest surviving book in the world’? Is it the Prisse
When Johannes Gutenberg pulled and released the lever of a makeshift wine press, everything changed ... more books were made in the next 50 years than had been in the preceding 1,000
Papyrus, almost 4,000 years old and today in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris? That was a scroll, so on the grounds that a book might be defined as a substantive piece of writing bound into a document inside a cover, the honour might go to the Etruscan Gold Book, c.660 bc, six sheets of 24 carat gold, bound together with rings. Equally, the 13 leather-bound codices of Gnostic texts from the fourth century ad, found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, feel more culturally convincing to us as ‘a book’. The author in effect presents us with a series of such riddles as he analyses his subject in four main parts, each devoted to particular physical aspects of how the modern book evolved. The first is the diverse materials – tortoise shells, wood, clay, human bones, papyrus, parchment – that were used to record information before the triumph of paper so many centuries after its first invention in China, supposedly by Cai Lun, c.105 ad, but in fact at least a few hundred years before that. Then, in the second part, the long story of how signs scratched on stone and impressed on clay on the plains between the
Euphrates and the Tigris perhaps 5,000 years ago – and once taken to be the footprints of birds scurrying across fresh clay – eventually became writing as we know it. And on to the tangled threads that make up the history of printing and especially what happened when ‘a man called Gutenberg pulled and released the lever of a makeshift wine press, and everything changed’. More books were made in the 50 years after the Gutenberg Bible (c.1455) than in the preceding 1,000; still, the many subsequent advances in printing technology through to the present day played a fundamental role in cementing the cultural importance of the book. The third and fourth sections examine illustrations – before the printed book in the great illuminated manuscripts and in the role at various times of woodcut, engraving, etching, lithography and digitalisation – and lastly such quietly brilliant testimonies to human ingenuity as the page, bookbinding and adopting sizes that suit human beings. Herman Melville even invoked the language of book sizes in Moby-Dick, when he made a taxonomy of whales, secure that his audience would understand that narwhal was ‘octavo’. Today the physical book is often called ‘old technology’. Certainly, it is old. But which is most likely to survive the next 1,000 years? The digital data kept in storage media of dubious longevity, intangibly imprisoned behind a screen or on a range of deeply anonymous objects where the rustle of the paper, the crackle of the glue and the satisfying smell of the book are lost to memory? Or, instead, St Cuthbert’s Gospel, survivor in its original binding of Viking raids and all other turbulences over 1,300 years and safely viewable in the British Library? My money is on St Cuthbert. Jamie Camplin The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston W.W. Norton & Company 428pp £18.99 OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 59
An Alexander for the social media age? An account of Alexander the Great’s treasures is powerful in parts, but seems to have fallen victim to the post-empire, anti-imperialist zeitgeist.
FRANK HOLT has form in the crowded field of Alexander studies. Good form, too: among the many virtues of his Into the Land of Bones (2005), an account of Alexander’s impressive campaigns in what is today Afghanistan, was its even-handedness, its avoidance of blackwashing or whitewashing a wholly Bad or wholly Good Alexander. His specialist 2003 numismatic study of what are known as Alexander’s ‘elephant medallions’ was particularly strong on how views of Alexander tend to vary from generation to generation, depending on changing moral and political evaluative climates. We historians all have an (avoidable) tendency to become the obedient servants of our point of view and most of us historians of Alexander tend somehow to project upon him or through him our dreams of wish fulfilment. It is disappointing, therefore, to have to report that on the evidence of this latest Alexander venture Professor Holt seems to have fallen victim to the zeitgeist, the Geist, that is, of our post-empire, anti-imperialist, 60 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
knock-em-off their pedestal, social-mediated times. Although he does acknowledge the mantra that, in theory, one must judge historical past behaviour and personalities in accordance with the dominant nostrums of their own times, not ours, his text seems to have bought quite intensively and expensively into what he himself describes as today’s scholarly communis opinio on Alexander and his career. Without going quite as far as to endorse the view of those for whom Alexander was ‘a murderous, rage-filled, paranoid, alcoholic, religious fanatic’, Holt does state that ‘Atrocity followed atrocity’ and does nothing to counter ‘the current orthodoxy’ among scholars, according to which he laboured under ‘staggering defects’, being ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian’. Admittedly, the existing ancient literary sources are very far from satisfactory: either they are too biased pro or con, or they are too far removed in time or space or culture from the events and personalities they purport
to relate to be able to construct a realistically plausible account or narrative. In principle, the material sources, archaeological and numismatic, are objective, but still have to be interpreted, and our knowledge of or access to them is terminally inchoate and incomplete.
Holt gives us a powerful account of the ‘treasures’ that Alexander the Great variously ... amassed, garnered, usurped, plundered, looted or extorted What Holt does extremely well is to gather together between two covers much of the available extant data – literary and material – and subject it to the proper historiographical critiques in terms of method. However, he does not give Alexander a fair crack of the evaluative whip. Interpretative charity is in singularly short supply here.
As far as the book’s title goes, Holt gives us a powerful account of the ‘treasures’ that Alexander the Great variously, through war and by other means, amassed, garnered, usurped, plundered, looted or extorted – slaves, livestock and real estate as well as coin or bullion and precious artefacts. Rightly, he concentrates on those material goods that in any way ‘enhanced the power, prestige, influence and/or independence of their owner’, or at least possessor, though whether that amounts to telling ‘the truth’ about them, as claimed, is another matter. Certainly, it cannot be the whole truth, since the available sample set of data is biased, not random. Holt does strongly suggest that Alexander’s overall supervision of them was often far from immaculate, being, at best erratic, at worst irresponsible, and points the finger especially at the gross croneyist overindulgence of which he was guilty towards his Macedonian childhood buddy – and High Imperial Treasurer – Harpalus. However, Holt’s book does not adequately address its official subtitle – showing how that management or mismanagement ‘shaped’ even his own and the immediately succeeding ancient worlds, let alone ‘the world’. Here, Alexander is accused of not living up to a higher standard even than that of what passed for the best economic thought or theory in his own day, as displayed to sometimes risible effect in the work entitled Oeconomica (‘matters to do with the management of a household’, literally, but with wider, ‘national’ or even empire-wide scope in practice) that was attributed rather damningly to Aristotle or his school. The art of persuasion may well reside, as stated, in selection, but Holt has not persuaded me here that his emphasis on the negative yields the best possible kind of history of Alexander. Paul Cartledge The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World by Frank L. Holt Oxford University Press 330pp £19.99
Seven Centuries of Contraband by Simon Harvey Reaktion Books 336pp £25 THIS PACY BOOK is a whistle-stop tour of what the dust jacket calls our ‘dark history’, namely the ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of the law through the traffic of people, goods and ideas. It is a story that stretches across time and space. Harvey ranges from the age of European expansionism
after Christopher Columbus fetched up on the Caribbean islands off the coast of what became known, to Europeans at least, as the ‘New World’, to contemporary Africa, with the ongoing ‘war of contraband’ in Sierra Leonean blood diamonds in West Africa and the equally violent ‘contraband of war’ of the Somalian arms trade in the Horn of Africa. Harvey’s larger argument is that the microhistories of smuggling and contraband are all implicated in, and respond to, geopolitical events as they are used by individuals, groups and nations to gain and maintain political and economic capital and reach. Conflict and war, poverty and desperation are at the centre of many of these histories. By analysing these globally and historically dispersed accounts relationally, the book provides a history and geography of the smuggling world. Indeed, somewhat bleakly, but nevertheless tellingly, Harvey
concludes that contraband, the ‘dark cousin to free trade’, produces and perpetuates warfare and, since warfare is, in one place or another, always occurring, then we now live in a perpetually smuggling world. Smuggling is a compelling and insightful book. The importance of botanical thievery as an agent of English empire in the mid-19th century is just one highlight as Harvey recounts in turn how tea, cinchona (the plant’s bark was used to treat malaria) and rubber were all secretly transplanted from their native habitats by adventurerscientists to sites of cultivation within English control. For instance, cinchona seeds were stolen from Ecuador by the retired naval officer and India Office employee Clements Markham (later President of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Hakluyt Society) in an expedition sponsored by the storehouse of empire, the ‘Museum of Economic Botany’
based at Kew Gardens. Justified as an expedition to save an endangered species, the mission was intended to provide a way of controlling malaria among the workforce in the colonies in order to increase productivity in the cultivation there of raw materials for manufacturing. Occasionally, there are minor quibbles with detail: Francis Drake was not from ‘minor aristocracy’ but of yeoman stock and spectacularly rose up the social scale. In a book of such scope and range, this somewhat broad-brush approach is unsurprising. Written in an accessible and lively fashion, with 30 maps and photographs, Smuggling is an energetic, entertaining and stimulating read. It is highly recommended to all those interested in the connections between smuggling and exploration, contraband and empire and the ways smuggler networks contribute to the global foreign policy of nation states. Claire Jowitt
OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 61
Europe at war and between the wars A wide range of essays on wartime and interwar Europe is especially valuable at a time when the continent is once again menaced by nationalism and authoritarianism.
THIS AMBITIOUS VOLUME on the history of Europe during the two world wars and the interwar years comes out during a period of deep crisis for the European community. As most countries in Europe pass regressive economic policies and populist measures against immigrants amid a surge of racist behaviour, the continent seems to be undergoing a return to forms of nationalism and authoritarianism that many of its citizens had hoped had been eradicated after 1945. As this volume shows, plans for a future based on values of solidarity and respect were formulated even in the midst of the Second World War. In doing so, it prompts reflections on the origins of ideas that continue to provoke passionate debate in Europe today. This multi-author volume is divided into seven sections over 31 chapters. The key approach, which makes this tome distinct from most histories of Europe, is its treatment of the continent as a subject rather than an examination of the relationship between or a comparison of its separate states. As Nicholas Doumanis and Roger Marwick note, the difficul62 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
ty historiographically in moving beyond national histories is in part because the interwar period was characterised by the nationalisation of the masses. From 1918, as the authors explain, the nation became the standard structure for the legitimacy of the state: even popular fronts appealed to forms of patriotism and communism followed a ‘national way’. The attempt to overcome a comparative history of European nations achieves mixed results. Some chapters struggle to engage with broad topics that cover the whole continent and end up providing an investigation of events in different countries. For example, everyday challenges faced by rural societies changed enormously, not only between different countries but also at local level, which inevitably points towards a comparative rather than a pan-European approach. Popular concepts in recent historiography are challenged. In particular, the notions of the ‘30 years’ war’ and the ‘European civil war’ are regarded as impediments rather than useful explanations. Different
chapters deal with the issue of civil wars. According to Anthony Adamthwaite, the concept of a European civil war is not a helpful description of the interwar years, even in Spain or France during their Popular Front periods, as it inevitably portrays events on the continent as the struggle between left and right
A stimulating read ... [that] prompts reflections on the origins of ideas that continue to provoke passionate debate in Europe today and ignores important nuances. Interwar ideologies were not always precisely defined; according to Andrea Orzoff, democracy was ‘a broad church’ and the left, as Pamela Radcliff explains, was incredibly diverse across the continent and at local level. Aristotle Kallis shows that the right was also complex; in particular, in respect of authoritarianism and its various forms of entangle-
ment with fascism. The popular notion of a civil war between two camps in Europe, concludes Mary Vincent, is particularly ambiguous when applied to the transnational level and to phenomena that might be better described as periods of insurrection. A similar critique is supported by Aviel Roshwald with regard to the Second World War. Two chapters on imperial history are a crucial reminder that European history was not only violent within its own borders but also that Europe, and the European democracies in particular, exported violence on a massive scale through their acquisition and management of colonies. The legacy of imperialism is also analysed in the final chapter, which deals with the memory of Europeans after 1945: largely, as is well-explained through a comparative evaluation, a history of censorship. Unlike most recent works on the interwar period, this book tackles the history of Europe from a non-culturalist perspective. In particular, David Priestland on the First World War shows how contemporary historiography has devoted little interest to labour history and class. The idea that the current culturalist strand needs a stronger integration with social history is a welcome contribution, as many historians seem to have forgotten the crucial role that the economy and labour struggles have played in the history of modern Europe. However, the extremely limited use of literature as a source and a tendency to overlook subjects that provoked fundamental changes in the interwar period, such as science, psychoanalysis, religion and medicine, is a weakness. Nevertheless, this is a stimulating read for anyone with an interest in Europe both during the period under discussion and today and an extremely valuable tool for university students and lecturers alike. Claudia Baldoli The Oxford Handbook of European History, 1914-1945 edited by Nicholas Doumanis Oxford University Press 672pp £95
A History of Travellers and Pilgrims by George Manginis Haus Publishing 320pp £20
MOUNT SINAI holds a special place in the imagination as the place where Moses saw God and received the Tablets of the Law. Few who have visited it will forget its grandeur; its vulnerable situation today in a highly sensitive part of Egypt brings it all the more to our attention.
64 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
Add to this a greater awareness of the treasures of St Catherine’s monastery, especially its incomparable collection of icons, fostered by loans to several recent exhibitions. Meanwhile, the St Catherine’s Foundation is sponsoring an extensive programme of restoration and conservation in the monastery’s library, with its thousands of manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic and other languages. St Catherine’s monastery, however, which dates back to the sixth century ad, is not the main focus of George Manginis’ book. Rather, he sets out to emphasise the remains on the summit above the monastery, known by its Arabic name of Jabal Musa. Excavations in the 1990s revealed a substantial basilica constructed over an earlier church building. Manginis carefully explains that the term Sinai denotes the peninsula, while Jabal Musa is part of a mountain cluster known as Horeb, also associated with Elijah. Though
there can be no certainty, he argues for Jabal Musa the Biblical Mount of the Law associated with Moses, as the buildings on its summit seem to indicate. There are many Nabataean graffiti on the rocks of Sinai, wrongly assumed by scholars of the 17th century and later to be in Hebrew, and Christian ascetics were living in remote parts of the peninsula from an early date. Justinian’s monastery, which Manginis, following Procopius, always terms ‘fortress’ and whose impressive walls enclose what is believed to be the original Burning Bush, protected these holy men as much as it acted as a defence against invasion; the basilica atop Jabal Musa seems to belong to the same period. Unlike the monastery and its church, which survive and function today, the basilica on the summit collapsed sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries, possibly after an earthquake.
The monks of St Catherine’s (the name and dedication are much later than the sixth century) have managed to weather many vicissitudes over the centuries until the present day. Manginis is interested in the pilgrims, travellers and scholars who visited it from the medieval period to the 19th century, when the rise of Biblical scholarship under the influence of Protestantism brought a new wave of enthusiasts to Sinai, but also disapproval from the monks when the Russian Tischendorf removed the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus to St Petersburg (though much of it is now in the British Library). Unlike most existing literature, Manginis’ book does not discuss or illustrate the unique collection of manuscripts and icons in St Catherine’s. Instead it offers a different perspective and a fascinating story of the enduring appeal of Sinai over a period of nearly two millennia. Averil Cameron
From Levantine glory to dystopian wreck Now in ruins, Aleppo was one of the great merchant cities of the Silk Road and a favourite destination for adventurous travellers. ALEPPO, SYRIA’S second city after Damascus, is one of the oldest settlements on earth, where Abraham is supposed to have milked his flocks in the fortified citadel. Today much of the city is in ruins, fought over by Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Kurd and Christian. Successively, it was Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, Armenian, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, French, British and Syrian. It is now a wreck of bread queues, various violent militia, artillery duels and aerial bombardment, its citizens fleeing to Turkey, Greece, Germany – anywhere they can. ‘If you do business with a dog you should call him “sir”’, advises a traditional Aleppo proverb, illustrating what the various ethnic and religious factions may have thought of each other, even when tightly leashed in by their Turkish overlords. Today the Turks are over the border and it is a case of dog-eat-dog with a vengeance. Roughly one fifth of this book comprises the text of Mansel’s history, with the rest prose from
travellers’ journals from 1693 to 1920, all but one of whom were men and all but three British. Mansel concentrates on Ottoman Aleppo. We learn about the feud between Janissary and Ashraf (descendants of the Prophet) but nothing about the Sunni-Shia rivalry that is central to the historical division of Islam. President Assad’s Alawites receive but a sentence and the ruling Ba’ath Party is not listed in the index. The souks were once the finest in the Levant, but are now in ruins. The ancient stone buildings are now wrecked. At night, satellite pictures show a city without light. The population, once two million, is now fewer than 500,000. How did it happen? Mansel sees Aleppo as a Levantine city, similar to Alexandria or Smyrna, located on or near the Mediterranean, with economies dominated by international trade, an Italo-French lingua franca, enforced religious toleration, no one ethnic group large enough to be exclusively on top, the European consuls with their independent courts offering
protection and succour. The end of empire did for all of these cities, with rival nationalisms driving out minorities or setting them against each other. Aleppo lasted longest, at peace until 2012. ‘Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut!’ is the war cry of the Western-funded ‘Free Syrian Army’, Mansel informs us, with Syrian Christian bishops supporting President Assad’s Alawite regime against the Sunni rebels. Last year there were calls for the UK to bomb Assad’s forces; this year RAF Tornado jets are assisting in the bombing of the Salafist Sunni forces of ISIS. If you are not careful you can end up attacking both sides and bombing yourself: Aleppo today is what multiculturalism looks like when it goes pear-shaped. The anthology of travellers’ reports is not just padding. Cardinal Newman’s brother, Francis William Newman, in Aleppo in 1831-32, gets to the heart of the malaise: ‘No poetry, no science, no patriotism, for in fact no country – no theatre, no public amusements. The men are without anything that enriches or elevates life. Moslem and Christian live together, yet this is too dangerous in the villages. To mix them would produce frays, insurrections, massacres.’ Outside was even worse: not 500 yards from the city walls, Bedouin and Kurd attacked and plundered 200-300 camel caravans, the Janissary garrison doing nothing. Not everyone was enamoured of Aleppo: ‘Wit was born in Egypt, pointed at Damascus, and died at Aleppo’ is the Arab proverb quoted, in 1851, by the Hon. Frederick Walpole. Only one traveller, Henry Swainson Cowper, mentions, in 1894, that the roofs of Aleppo are flat and that the inhabitants like to spend a lot of time on them. Apart from Gertrude Bell, none of the travellers speak Turkish or Arabic well enough to engage the locals in revealing conversation: observation is what we get. Robert Carver
CONTRIBUTORS Claudia Baldoli is Senior Lecturer in European History at the University of Newcastle. Averil Cameron is Professor Emeritus of Late Antique and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford. Jamie Camplin is a historian and publisher. His next book (with Maria Ranauro) will be entitled Books Do Furnish a Painting. Paul Cartledge is the A.G. Leventis Professor Emeritus of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge and author of Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (Macmillan, 2005). Robert Carver is the author of The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania (Flamingo, 2009), and Paradise with Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay (Harper Collins, 2007). Hermione Giffard is the author of Making Jet Engines in World War II: Britain, Germany, and the United States (Chicago University Press, 2016). Claire Jowitt is Professor of History and English at the University of East Anglia. Her areas of expertise include early modern maritime and colonial history. Andrew Robinson is the author of several archaeological studies, most recently Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion (Oxford, 2012) and The Indus: Lost Civilizations (Reaktion Books, 2015). Gillian Tindall’s latest book is The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey (Chatto & Windus, 2016).
Aleppo: the Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City by Philip Mansel I.B. Tauris 250pp £17.99 OCTOBER 2016 HISTORY TODAY 65
FromtheArchive Over the last 30 years, western ideas about the Ottoman Empire have been transformed, just as Turkish attitudes towards the West have become increasingly negative, writes Erik Zurcher.
Opening and Closing of Turkey’s Past IN OCTOBER 1953, the now centenarian historian Bernard Lewis wrote an article in History Today on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Constantinople, modern Istanbul. In the article he argued that, both then and later, this conquest had been unjustly interpreted in the West as the defeat of Christian civilisation by barbarian Turkish hordes, who were mistakenly seen as brutal, destructive, fanatical and intolerant. In Lewis’ eyes the West’s prejudice against the Ottomans derived from its refusal to use their sources, in particular the millions of documents in the Ottoman archives. At the time, he was right, but Lewis himself belongs to the small group of pioneers who altered this situation. Half a century later the picture has changed completely. Ottoman history is still a comparatively small field, but the studies that have appeared since the late 1980s (when the Ottoman archives were opened up to researchers) have all been based on original Ottoman sources. There has been a quantum leap in our understanding of the history of the Empire and, through popular books, large exhibitions and an ambitious BBC documentary, the new academic insights have trickled down to a larger public. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that, as a result, right now the image of the Ottoman Empire in the West is considerably better than that of contemporary Turkey. In the meantime, the situation in Turkey has changed dramatically. The official celebrations of the conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul on May 29th, 1953 marked the beginning of the shift. For 20 years Kemalist republican historiography had toned 72 HISTORY TODAY OCTOBER 2016
down the importance of the Ottomans in Turkish history, basically telling a story of many successive Turkish states and civilisations culminating in the crowning achievement of the Turks: the founding of the secular republic. Therefore the re-enactment of ‘The Conqueror’ Sultan Mehmed II’s conquest of the city, with the attendant Janissary marches and the restoration of his great castle on the Bosphorus, Rumeli Hisari, was a break with republican tradition.
The Ottoman past is reappropriated as a purely Turkish ‘national’ past In subsequent decades interest died down, but after the takeover of Istanbul by Islamists in 1994 (which brought to power as mayor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now Turkey’s allpowerful president), the celebrations of the conquest gained importance and, with public prayers during the celebrations, acquired a distinctly Islamic character. A huge ‘1453 Panorama’ was opened outside the old city walls and the new Bosphorus bridge was named after Mehmet II. This is all part of a new appreciation of the Ottoman past, in which, for the conservative majority, sultans like Mehmet emerge as alternative national heroes to the republic’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. At the same time, the Ottoman past is reappropriated as a purely Turkish ‘national’ past – an anachronistic view of this multi-ethnic empire. Lewis ended his essay by describing Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as a product of both Byzantine and Ottoman civilisation. After having been a church
for 916 years and a mosque for 481, it was turned into a state museum in 1934. This was always controversial among conservative religious circles in Turkey and it was precisely the 1953 celebration that reignited the debate, with fiery nationalist pamphlets demanding that the museum become a mosque once more. After their takeover of Istanbul in 1994 many of the supporters of the Islamist Welfare Party were disappointed that Erdoğan limited himself to only opening a small part of the building to Muslim prayer. Resentment among both religious conservatives and nationalists continued to simmer. After the brutal suppression of the secularist protests in Istanbul in 2013 (which coincided with the 510th anniversary of the conquest) the call to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque again has become stronger every year. In the current, fiercely anti-western climate in Turkey, it is a distinct possibility and one which surely Lewis would have thought unthinkable in back in 1953. Erik Zurcher is Professor of Turkish Studies at Leiden University and the author of Turkey: A Modern History (I.B. Tauris, 2004).
VOLUME 3 ISSUE 10 OCT 1953 Read the original piece at historytoday.com/fta