Sunday, 1 February 2004

The birth of the Middle Ages

Listening to:

Nothing more than the hum of my computer’s fan.

Just read:

H. St. L. B. Moss, The birth of the Middle Ages.

This is a thorough, though rather dry history of Europe from 395 to roughly 800. In 395, the emperor Theodosius the Great died. From then on, the western (Italy, Gaul, Spain and England) and eastern (Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt) parts of the Roman Empire led separate existences, never to be reunited under one government. In 800, Charlemagne was crowned “emperor” in Rome by the Pope, emphasising the split between the West, and the East, where there was still a powerful Byzantine Empire.

This is not to say that the Byzantine Empire didn’t influence what was happening in the West. Under Justinian, in the sixth century, the Byzantines controlled most of the Italian peninsula. Even if the Byzantines soon turned their attention to more pressing matters on their eastern frontiers (first the Parthians, and then the great Islamic empire), Western Europe still paid intellectual homage to the idea of the Roman Empire, even if that Empire was now head-quartered in Constantinople.

Moss’s book is good because it describes not only the evolution of power structures in the West (barbarian kingdoms and the Papacy), but also in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world as well. The first of these three topics is easily the most confusing because there is no obvious narrative thread to grab hold of. Instead, it is a tale of constant ups and downs as various kingdoms and peoples wax and wane. Different flavours of Goths, Lombards, Franks and Vandals all have a part to play, and there is no overarching principle or theme with which to simplify the story. It’s all terribly chaotic and contingent. Sometimes the Pope looks to the Eastern Church for authority and alliance; sometimes to local representatives of the Empire (based in Ravenna), and sometimes to the Franks (hence his coronation of Charlemagne). Because the political story in the West is so difficult to grasp, the sections of Moss’s book on social, economic and cultural developments are rather easier to read. There he generalises, and presents a story that is easy to appreciate. Trade collapses so that only luxuries make long journeys, and people are forced to become self-sufficient. Kingdoms are not administered by salaried officials, but by members of a king’s retinue. A king’s personal wealth becomes the same thing as the state’s Treasury.

Moss’s descriptions of the rise of Islam, and of the Byzantine Empire are interesting and readable. Again this is because there is an obvious narrative for him to bring to our attention, and the story comes across well. Moss is quite willing to wax lyrical about, and comment on the evolution of, art from the various regions whose history he relates. This also helps to leaven what is otherwise a long and complicated story.

Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Star Wars comes to Australia

Listening to:

Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I’m not talking about the missile defence scheme, though John Howard does seem to be quite keen on the idea (see this amusing spoof web-log). No, I’m whinging about the awful pronunciation the vast majority of the media give to the name Nauru. (This is often in the news because it’s where Australia has dumped a number of its recent boat-people.) Almost all of the journalists I’ve heard here pronounce it Na 'roo, with the stress on the second syllable. I hear this and can’t help but think of the Star Wars planet Naboo, home of Jar-Jar Binks. How hard would it be for these guys to learn that it should be something much closer to 'Now roo? Sheesh.

Friday, 13 February 2004

England under the Stuarts

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in A, D959, played by Alfred Brendel. This is one of many cheap double CDs from Philips (438 703-2), and is definitely a bargain.

Just read:

G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts.

This is a substantial history of just over a hundred of England’s most significant years: the 17th century, and the start of the 18th century. In this period, the primacy of both the Church of England and Parliament was assured. England did not follow France and Spain into despotic monarchy, and laid the foundations for its powerful position in the 18th and 19th centuries.

England’s first Stuart king, James I, came to power in England after the death of Elizabeth I, in 1603. He commissioned the King James translation of the Bible, and was king when the Gunpowder Plot attempted to blow up Parliament. His son, Charles I was executed by Parliament in 1649. Charles I’s son, another Charles, was reinstated after Oliver Cromwell died and his Protectorate collapsed. Charles II’s brother, James II was deposed after a short reign, when Parliament arranged and supported an invasion by William of Orange (the Glorious Revolution of 1688).

This was an eventful century. Much of the conflict was caused by religious differences, and this is a link to the events of the previous century and the reigns of the Tudors. But even though factions tended to align themselves along religious lines (Catholics, Presbyterians, Puritans, middle-of-the-road “Anglicans”), much of the conflict stemmed from the relationship between Parliament and the monarch.

Trevelyan provides a good narrative history of the period, including what is almost a denouement describing the successes of Marlborough duing the reigns of William and Mary, and Anne. He focusses on political history, and is clearly quite sympathetic to the Whig, or Liberal cause. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing much to argue for in the reigns of any of the Stuart monarchs. He’s sympathetic towards Cromwell, despite the dead-end that the Protectorate represented, claiming that Cromwell was basically thrust into an impossible position. Trevelyan is also very positive about the Quakers, who came into being in this period. Trevelyan mentions them and their leader, George Fox, positively on a number of occasions.

Ultimately, this book is good simply because it covers what is an important and interesting period in sufficient detail, and in an interesting manner. Trevelyan’s obvious partiality is not so much a problem; rather it works as an unsubtle way of keeping the reader’s attention (particularly if the reader agrees with what Trevelyan writes!)

Sunday, 15 February 2004

The crucible of Europe

Listening to:

Bach, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147. A cantata written for performance on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 1716. (Naxos 8.554042)

Just read:

Geoffrey Barraclough, The crucible of Europe.

This short and readable book is another in my current history bout. It takes up where Moss’s The birth of the Middle Ages left off, with the reign of Charlemagne. It concentrates on the ninth and tenth centuries, and follows the fortunes of those areas that were a part of Charlemagne’s empire: France, Germany and northern Italy. Barraclough also includes one brief chapter on England.

First, Barraclough explains how the great Carolingian Empire collapsed into a multitude of statelets over a relatively short period. It’s easy to imagine that the death of a great leader should prompt the undoing of his achievements, but Charlemagne’s empire was stretched even before his death. It was an ongoing military enterprise that depended on continuing expansion for its health. When it stopped expanding as its own ability to govern what it had taken declined, it started to collapse in on itself. Then there were also significant external pressures leading to downfall. Attacking from the North, the Vikings represented a serious, ongoing danger, one that the Franks had no real answer to. In the East, Slavs and Magyars threatened the borders, and places like Saxony, nominally within the Empire were restive. In the South, Saracen pirates threatened the Mediterranean coasts.

In relatively settled, but rural France, political unity was quickly lost, and political power devolved to the county, a level at which self-defence could be organised. On these units French feudalism was to gradually emerge. In Germany, the pressures of life on the frontiers of Christendom meant that a strong central state had a real raison d'être. Much larger political units, duchies, were the rule, and later, under Otto I, Germany was the most significant power in Western Europe. It controlled chunks of Italy, and manipulated the Church up to the level of the Pope. In Italy, life was relatively settled, as in France, and the cities and towns remained significant centres. Feudalism in the French style, centred on the county, did not arise. Instead, cities and bishops came to dominate the political scene.

Barraclough’s chapter on England is a strange little interlude. He quickly tells the story of how Alfred grew the kingdom of Wessex into the dominant force on the island, eventually managing to expel the Danish invaders. Barraclough describes the administrative arrangements in England, and contrasts them with what was happening in the other areas of interest.

I read this book in a single sitting, and appreciated its interesting mix of narrative history with comparative analyses of political and administrative systems.

Tuesday, 24 February 2004

An outcast of the islands

Listening to:

Andrew March, Marine—à travers les arbres. Winner of the Masterprize 1998 competition.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, An outcast of the islands.

This is Conrad’s second novel, and a prequel to his first, Almayer’s folly. It tells the story of the downfall of Willems, a Dutch clerk in the South-East Asian town of Macassar. Willems fancies himself quite rotten, but is actually without any real virtues. Given the chance to redeem himself, he always takes some other option. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that this is going to be the case, so the novel is really about watching how his gradual descent messes up the lives of the people around him. Standard Conradian good cheer, then.

The setting for most of the novel is the same as the setting for Almayer’s folly, an obscure Malaysian village, on an isolated river. Willems ends up there after his downfall begins in the colonial world of Macassar. He is supposed to be sitting things out before his benefactor and patron, Lingard, sorts things out for him. Unfortunately, Lingard’s return is delayed, and Willems goes a bit haywire. He is getting on badly with Lingard’s agent in the village, Almayer, and is exploited by a disaffected faction within the Malay political structure. All sorts of disruptive change ensues.

I liked the political intrigue side of things, and the lush writing about the jungle and its oppressiveness is also very effective. The love interest is reasonably sympathetic, but the woman’s character is not entirely believable. The love affair at the heart of Almayer’s folly, is more believable, more engaging, and more important to the overall plot. Here it’s just another opportunity for Willems to mess up someone else’s life.

Not top drawer Conrad, but flashes of great writing, and a reasonably engaging story.

Wednesday, 25 February 2004

A weird world pot-pourri

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 4. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ion Marin.

Weird stuff I’ve spotted in the last little while: