December 30, 2008

The Dutch Reformation 1520-50

Dutch Protestantism had massive consequences for European history: it fuelled the eventual Dutch revolt, had an important effect in the English seventeenth century particularly the civil war and the Revolution of 1688, and provided a check on French and Spanish ambitions in Germany and the wider world. Understanding its peculiar nature therefore is a vital part of understanding the events that formed the modern world- the English Civil War, the Thirty Years War and the culture of Early Modern Europe. Dutch Protestantism provided an intellectual environment for the philosophy of Spinoza, the jurisprudence of Grotius and the talents of painters like Van Eyck all took their form within a world shaped by Dutch Protestantism.

So what shaped Dutch Protestantism? According to Professor Israel there are two basic phenomena that we need to take account of if we are to understand what was unique about Dutch Protestantism. The first was that the Dutch Church was weak and that Dutch humanism was strong. The Dutch church was large but its presence within society was declining and it was unpopular. Furthermore it did not have appropriate leadership- the Netherlands was ecclesiastically divided between different bishoprics, some in France and in Germany. Into this clerical vacuum came the new techniques of humanism. The subject of humanism and what it meant in the early modern period is incredibly complex but lets assume for the sake of this discussion, that what it meant was a new attitude to texts. A humanist such as Erasmus taught that texts were open to those who might use them with the appropriate scholarly apparatus- consequently what he did for example was produce a Dutch translation of the Bible. Theologically they were committed to reform within the Church- often reform that might look like the reforms that Protestants too favoured, rationalisation we might call it- reforms which swept away clerical privileges and abuses and attempted to focus the Church around its mission- the gospel of Christ.

Such bald summaries will have to suffice to explain the nature of the landscape in the Netherlands- but I hope that gives you the impression that the Netherlands was ripe for the Lutheran movement after 1520 to spread. The last factor which governed how that movement spread was the persecution adopted as policy by the Hapsburg rulers of the Netherlands. Charles V made repeated efforts to bring in to the region the inquisition- fortifying it even after he had brought it in. The effect of this was to force the reformation under ground. Significantly it created a large group of people who temporised- who remained within the Catholic Church but held Protestant opinions. The martyrs who died for the faith were more often Anabaptists than Lutherans- another fact which influenced the progress of the reformation.

What this did was create in the Netherlands, according to Professor Israel, a very different reformation to the reformations that happened elsewhere in Europe. Whereas in Britain for example the reformation received its initial impetus from the crown and a reformed Church, in the Netherlands there was no institutional support for the reformation. Consequently Israel argues that the Dutch Reformation developed in an unstructured way- its heroes were people who in most of Europe were derided. It should also be noted that it developed into a movement of internal reformation- influential theorists like David Joris argued for a reformation proceeding through the spirit. Anabaptism remained stronger in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe- in some provinces up to 25% of congregations did not believe in child baptism. It should also be noted that whereas in the UK- London formed the centre of the reformation, in Holland it was marginal regions like East Frisia where Hapsburg persecution did not reach or amongst exiles in Germany that influential developments like the arrival of Calvinism took place.

The Dutch Reformation was much more fluid and anarchic precisely because it was an underground reformation- it was much less institutional and much more internal for the same reason. It came up from below- partly because of the triumph of humanism and weakness of the Church and partly because of the persecuting zeal of the Hapsburg Emperor. The story of Dutch Protestantism was different to that of English Protestantism because in England the new religion was chained to Parliament and the King, in the Netherlands the new religion was the leading antagonist of the Hapsburgs and only became fettered to the state after seizing a position amongst the people. In that sense, according to Professor Israel, Holland saw a different rhythm either from England or Scotland or Germany.

December 29, 2008

Le Mepris or Marxist Methods for living in a Capitalist World


She discovers she no longer loves Ulysses because of his weakness.

I don't think its safe to review a film on a first viewing- or at least to review a film like this on a first viewing. But Le Mepris or Contempt struck me with such force that I thought I must leave some testament- some record to what it inspired in me at first viewing. It was not merely the beauty of the young Bardot, nor the impassive resistance and majesty of Fritz Lang but something more important than that. Its the breakdown of the relationship at the centre of the film that affected me: that relationship breaks down in a wonderful sequence that lasts over half an hour, which is reminiscent in its triviality and its profundity, of every meaningless argument that ever destroyed a relationship and devastated lives. What Goddard makes is an argument both about the nature of film- of which more later- but also about the nature of life and love. In this sense the view of the film that sees it as a letter from Goddard to his estranged wife Anna Karina makes more and more sense- for what would such a letter be composed of but thoughts about love and about film. And as such there is something private about Le Mepris, something that will never be decoded, something that we will strive to find in this or any review and fail to.

So what is Le Mepris about. An imperious American producer, Prokosch, has hired Lang- the great director- and wants to hire a young screenwriter to rewrite Lang's over intellectual script. Lang has aspirations to make a film about Homer's Odyssey, Prokosch wants more naked mermaids unerotically but nakedly cavorting in the sea (after one such sequence the Producer giggles and squirms in his chair). The writer, Paul, is married to a beautiful ex-typist- Bardot's character, Camille- whom Prokosch takes an immediate shine to. Prokosch invites the two of them back to his mansion: he then invites Camille to take his car with him, he then propositions her on the way to his house and when Paul finally turns up, having lost the way, an hour later Camille frigidly turns from him. The rest of the film surrounds his inability to see what she has been through- and her inability to communicate that to him- this precipitates the final calamity in their marriage. Surrounding it though is the bleak story of the film- in which Prokosch's bizarre speculations about what the Homeric story really means, and his pocket book quotation philosophy, triumphs over Lang's subtlety because he has the wallet. Paul resists the fall. For Lang it is merely a reminder that to live is to suffer.

The language in which this story is expressed is interesting- it is all about ownership. Camille's arguments with Paul are about the fact that she cannot be owned- she can be loved, adored even and can love and adore but she cannot be owned. Her decisions cannot be taken for her. On another plane the same issue appears with the film, Homer's story cannot be owned by an American media mogul no matter how rich. Even the Gods in Odysseus fail to manipulate the wanderer strictly to the paths they have chosen- and what Goddard leaves us in no doubt with is the perception that all claims of ownership ultimately do not provide the kinds of release that they offer. Prokosch may think he is a modern Zeus, actually he is a comic Malvolio with a magnum of champagne. But we can go further and deeper into this: the next thing that Goddard demonstrates is that people do not wish to be or like to be owned. Camille is the vehicle for this perception- as soon as she perceives that her husband is using her as a commodity, her fury becomes an emblem within the film. Furthermore one knows that even if she were to use Prokosch, she would despise him.

If the impossibility of owning another human being is one side of Goddard's coin, then the other side is how to live in a society where demands are constantly made upon one to give up oneself. Three approaches manifest themselves here within the confines of the film- and they surround the three main male characters. Prokosch's approach is to seize control of the universe- but as Goddard shows when you try and do that, the universe has a habit of rebounding on you, causing tragedy not merely to the slave but to the master. The second approach is Paul's and that is a wilful blindness to what is happening to you- an acceptance of the ownership imposed by society because you are too stupid to recognise that your producer covets your pretty wife and too foolish to see how your integrity is being compromised. The third approach is that of Lang: to search for something else- in this case art- and use the society you live in to that end. Not to compromise unless you are forced, and when you are forced give in with a weary nod to that old truth- that in living there is suffering. Lang's position is not merely a directorial nod to the kind of films that Goddard saw as dying, but also within the film it is a nod to the kind of life that wanted people to inhabit: when it comes to the world resigned cynicism, when it comes to art interest and enthusiasm.

Ultimately what Goddard's film is about, is what Lang says that the Odyssey is about, the theme of fate and how to live one's life in a world governed by other forces. For Lang, the hero of the Odyssey represents the human desire to achieve an objective- whether it be art or Ithaca in a world governed by tyrants- Goddard's point in a sense is that Lang represents in this case, an Odysseyan view of life. Whereas Paul would have abandoned the quest to return to Ithaca on Circe's island, and Prokosch sought to become a God himself, Lang keeps on, monocle in place, making the film that he wants to make because he seeks not to enslave, but to produce something of worth. In that sense the artist, the Greek hero and the proletarian worker have become one- in that sense only can we escape, in Goddard's view, from contempt.

December 28, 2008

Holland: the Geographical Foundations of the Netherlands

When I was a kid, I used to make the mistake of calling the Netherlands, Holland. Its a mistake often made- though of course Holland is the largest province within the Netherlands. Its a mistake though, now I learn as (belatedly) I read Jonathan Israel's history of the Dutch Republic, that is excusable- not because the mistake is any less greivous but because historically Holland was the principle duchy which drove the unification of the Netherlands. What is more interesting when analysing the formation of the Netherlands is a simple question- why did the low countries split (effectively) in half in the sixteenth century. Why was it that Holland and its surrounding provinces went one way, whereas Flanders, Brabant and the south turned into what is now modern Belgium?

Israel's answer to this question is interesting- and it rests upon two principle observations about the geographical foundations of medieval politics- the first local, the second multinational. The first observation has to do with the local interior geography of the low countries. Faced with a map of the low countries, the natural boundary constituted by the Waal and Maas becomes instantly visible. This boundary of rivers was the boundary north of which the Flemish and Brabantian forces did not cross. In general both Flanders and Brabant were more concerned about maintaining thier southern border against France than about the natural frontier to the north- thus their influence permeated Artois to the south in a way that it never penetrated Utrecht to the north. With the exception of Zeeland- the Waal Maas line remained the line beyond which the state of Holland could expect to exert little influence and furthermore that they could expect little threat from. This was supported by the fact that according to Israel trade within the Netherlands ran East-West- up and down rivers towards the coast- rather than north south, along the coast, suggests an adequate reason why the southern states never projected their power northward, allowing Holland to develop its primacy in the Northern Netherlands. (It is important to note that even though Holland was conquered by the Burgundians and inherited by the Habsburgs- both kept the older geographical boundaries within the Netherlands as administrative units.)

The second geographical phenomenon that explains the rise of Holland within the north Netherlands is the great rise in irrigation in the late Middle Ages. As Professor Israel documents, the Dutch reclaimed vast tracts of land from the water as early as these centuries- and by doing so they extended the limits of their own land. This created new bases of power- favouring the maritime coastal states whose land increased- and also whose opportunities for trade increased. It is worth thinking at this point about the major challenge to Holland in the Northern Netherlands- which came not so much from the south as from the east. It was the Hansa cities of Northern Germany worried about the Baltic trade who attempted to fund opposition to Holland in the Northern Netherlands. And that bears testament to the second geographical process- which is the long range trade of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, whereby Holland found herself a potential entrepot in trade running down the Baltic Sea out into the North Sea and from there down the Rhine or further down the English Channel. That kind of trade helped fortify the Netherlands later on in history- but even in this early period it led to the German city states seeing Holland's primacy over the Northern Netherlands as a potential competitor to be disuaded.

Professor Israel's work is a distillation of the research work of others- how could it not be covering so many centuries and he is not an expert in the medieval period. But I find his insights into the geographical foundations of the Dutch story interesting and persuasive- it may not be that the details of this are precisely right- but that the story of the Netherlands involves two central facts- the East West boundary of the rivers and the importance of trade from the Baltic seems to me to be undeniable.

December 26, 2008

What's a war?

I do not doubt that people who read in all these books about endless wars with the Volscians will feel surfeited by them, but they will also feel as astonished as I did myself when I examined the historians who were more nearly contemporary with these events, and will ask where the Volscians and Aequi got a sufficient number of soldiers after so many defeats. (VI 12)

War with the Volscians and the Aequi seem to be a constant theme of early Roman history: on the face of it though this seems confusing, war, as we understand it, ruins societies- continuing war for hundreds of years would leave someone exhausted, someone conquered. Here though it seems that hundreds of years of war gave birth to even more wars. Livy himself suggests some reasons for this- he suggests either successive generations of young men were raised to fight Rome and that in previous times the territory inhabited by the two groups was much more fertile than it was in Livy's day. Changing fertility is not unrealistic: Egypt and Mesopotamia used to be incredibly fertile agricultural districts- they are not so now. But I think we can add to Livy's explanations with some suggestions of our own.

Firstly its worth asking the question about who were the Volscians and Aequi. Livy's sources were compiled centuries after the event. It does not seem implausible therefore that what we know of, through Livy, as Volscians and Aequi, were actually collective nouns for invaders in general. There may be a confusion here between several Italian peoples- and what we may see therefore is that these nouns are used generically. Its a thought at least and to some extent Livy agrees noting that it is possible that the new levies were not recruited from 'the same tribes, although it was always the same nation that was at war.' (VI 12)

Secondly there is the nature of warfare. Warfare as we and Livy understand it and as the Romans of Camillus's days understood it are slightly different entities. I wonder whether Livy's sources deceive him into imagining full scale warfare- whereas he should actually be thinking of raiding. We know that Livy himself described the object of the wars that the Volscians and Aequi fought in terms of plunder, I suspect what these 'wars' are is raids for plunder. What we may see here is two things- firstly a bias in Roman reporting- away from reporting failures and particularly from reporting successful raids on cities (and raids on non-Roman sites) and secondly a bias in the reporting to exaggerating the numbers involved. If we think of war bands coming down upon Rome to gain plunder, and sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, with punitive expeditions sent by Rome to fight back, I think we can see a more stable situation in which long term conflict leads neither to destruction nor to absolute victory.

The word 'war' can deceive us. The last thing we should note is that the size of armies and therefore their impact on population levels varies hugely. In the Middle Ages- thousands of men or even at times hundreds encountered each other in major battles: compare that to a First World War army of millions and you can see that whereas it is possible to raise several medieval armies in one country, it would be difficult to raise a second or third first world war size army. The same contrast functions in Livy's case- the wars that he is describing may be wars involving small amounts of people- hundreds, possibly barely a thousand- scarcely numbers that would impact on the ability of the participants being able to fight again. Introduce into that situation the possible importance of plunder and you have a situation in which perpetual warfare is quite possible- indeed probable.

December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas everyone

To everyone who wonders past this blog Merry Christmas- there should be some posting before then so a Happy New Year. I've had a cold for a while which is why posting has been slow- but tis the season of goodwill- hope you and yours are well and have a good time with lots of presents!

December 22, 2008

Penny Bloods and Novels


I've been involved for the last couple of weeks in debates with various bloggers about what has happened to civilisation over the last couple of centuries- has it declined? One of the indicies of that has to be what level of interest there is in books. What people read and what they understood about what they read is a perrenial and interesting debate- as is the question of what people read today and what they understand now about what they read. A useful way of considering that though is to consider what happened in the Victorian era- when popular literature exploded. It is very difficult to work out prices in the Victorian era- but at least one extimate I have seen places the pound at that point as worth twenty five to fifty pounds in today's money- maybe even one hundred pounds. A highly paid skilled workman in the period might expect to earn about 80 to 90 shillings (around 4 pounds) a week. Bear those figures in mind for what comes next.

The economics of book buying are interesting in this context- we have established a raw measure of what a person in the upper working class might be able to spend but not the price of books. In truth books were incredibly expensive. Three volume novels (of which there were many) frequently sold for 31 shillings (a pound was 20 shillings)- those in two volumes cost roughly a pound and a single volume novel was much less, retailing at 5 shillings (but these would be aimed at a younger audience). Publishers complained that the British were not a 'book buying people' and first editions numbered in hundreds of copies not the thousands often seen today. Even Middle Class readers would subscribe to a circulating library which would provide them with the newest fiction, rather than attempting to buy volumes themselves.

What changed was the growth of novels in serial form- retailed in journals like Charles Dickens' All the Year Round, these novels would be sold in parts. Almost all of Dickens's novels were originally published as episodic novels- Pickwick Papers came out in 18 separate parts. Dickens was the best selling novelist of the era: but others like Trollope, Thackery, Gaskell, Eliot and Hardy also published their works in serial form. These were much more affordable for the ordinary public. You can see the effect they had- as leading authors lamented the ill educated general public becoming involved in the process of choosing and designating successful literature: Wilkie Collins for example wrote in Household Words (then edited by Dickens) that 'the future of English fiction may rest with an Unknown public, which is now waiting to be taught the difference between a good book and a bad book'.

Of course that public did not only read novelistic fictions- alongside these fictions, a newly educated public (thanks to philanphropic enterprise and a series of education acts from the 1850s onwards) consumed so called penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. The Penny Bloods were melodramatic romances- often highly fantastical stories of derring do and crime. They caused a moral panic- in 1888 an MP raised questions with the Home Secretary about the effect of the bloods upon young boys, noting that two boys waiting their trial in Maidstone Prison for murder had been inspired by tales of Dick Turpin and Sweeney Todd. These 'bloods' also were published alongside parodies of well known authors: Oliver Twiss, Nicholas Nickerby and the Penny Pickwick were all published by Edward Lloyd when Charles Dickens' works came out and Llyod's imitations were in some cases (Pickwick in particular) vastly possible with hundreds of thousands of copies sold, in some cases more copies sold than the originals.

This profusion of literature suggests something to me though which I think is important. It suggests the explosion of a literary market- and went alongside technical innovations in printing (that Louis James for one described as the greatest innovation in printing between the time of Caxton and the 1960s). What happened was that you are beggining by the end of the 19th Century and beggining of the 20th Century to see a much greater book buying public- a public that stretched far lower into the social structure than it ever had before. You cannot undervalue that change in terms of what it did to society: what it did to the way that society operated, we may still be living with some of the consequences, or with what it did to the educational lives of many many people. Its worth remembering that change, when we speak of the decline of civilisation.

December 21, 2008

Etz Limon

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consumed lives and energies throughout the Middle East: whatever your opinions of the roots of that conflict, its persistance has been a tragedy running through the politics of both sides for far too long. The Lemon Tree deals with that conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian woman and her friends and an Israeli family. The story is pretty basic. The Israeli Minister of Defence has moved into a new house just beside the West Bank/Israeli border: the house borders on the farm of a middle aged Palestinian widow (Salma) who makes her livelihood from her lemons. Shin Bet believes that the lemon grove might represent a security threat to the minister- a militant concealed in the trees might be able to approach and attack his house. The Minister orders therefore that the grove be cut down- the widow, distressed, consults a lawyer and takes the case to the courts, attempting to override the order. The resulting drama both in the case and for the characters takes over the rest of the film.

There are a number of interesting themes here that are worth mentioning. One is something that I have to admit I barely understand- the attachment of farmers to a particular piece of land and to their crops. Trees are twice referred to as semi-human: once by the minister recalling what his farmer father told him, once by the Salma's friend and co-worker to the court considering the case. Salma is offered compensation, but for her as a flashback establishes, the point is the emotional connection that she has with the land. That connection, the implication goes, is almost what has replaced her fled family and dead husband. Her poverty and loneliness are bearable because she has the trees that her father taught her to pick and prune- those trees sustain a pride based on rural cultivation, a pride and self respect that is purely admirable.

Another theme running through the story is the sexism implicit on both sides of the divide. It is strongly implied that the minister is having an affair with a pretty young receptionist, neglecting his wife. His wife emerges as a central character- able to sympathise with Salma but unable to do anything about it: her concerns are dismissed by her officious husband and her one intervention in the plot seals her own alienation from her husband. The sexism is evident on the other side too- and is much much worse. Salma is oppressed by a regional authoritarian traditional male hierarchy, who refuse to let her see her lawyer (who she slowly falls in love with) and rebukes her for allowing her son to work in America. The under current of oppression is constant and Salma's bravery is possibly in confronting her own side of the divide as much as it is in confronting the lawyers she faces in the court. Her own love story with the lawyer illustrates the limits for a woman in Palestinian society.

Lastly of course there is the occupation itself- which is if you like the texture around which the story develops. The Minister's name, Israel, is not an accident. But in general I found this part of the plot dealt with pretty reasonably. The Minister is portrayed as sensible- if you were told that there was a potential threat to your life by the secret service, you might be willing to cut down some lemon trees. The soldiers are portrayed as even more sympathetic- we see a soldier standing on a look out post, but rather than being a sinister presence, he is a comic one- we get bursts from the audio course he is taking, whilst on boring sentry duty, and he comes across as a nice guy. That's true of the secret service men too- they occasionally seem officious but not brutal. As this is a story about Palestinian dispossession- the Palestinian angle is well covered too, indeed the lawyer who is close to the PLO seems fair and willing to take the case pro bono. Good people occasionally break each other's hearts through a bad situation seems to be the message of this film about the conflict- but it cannot deal with any of the deeper roots, the issues that fill the news broadcasts. It is ultimately too simple a story to say anything much about the politics of the region.

As a film, it acheives what it wants to do. I liked two of the performances in particular. Hiam Abbass is wonderful as Salma- she conveys the pride and self respect she feels brilliantly. She does things with a glance, a look away, that could make her a silent film star- she doesn't need speech to convey her emotions. Rona Lipaz-Michael is stunningly beautiful as the minister's wife (something that renders the affair implausible) but she too does a very good job- conveying her difficult role, her inchoate suspisions and her sympathy both with Israel and Salma, with perfect economy. Occasionally there are false notes- but overall the standard of the film is good- the false notes mainly come in the cloying relationship between Salma and the lawyer. In the final analysis though, this film is a simple story with a couple of interesting messages- mostly about the societies that find themselves in this conflict rather than the conflict- and those messages are delivered in an entertaining way.

Cineastes and students of politics might rebuke the film's simplicity: I'd advise you relax, sit back and enjoy it.

December 20, 2008

Alexis Soyer- 19th Century Celebrity Chef


In 1841, the Globe observed that

The impressio grows that the man of this age is neither Sir Robert Peel, nor Sir John Russell, [nor] even Ibrahim Pasha, but Alexis Soyer.

The first two should be recognizable to us all- Peel was a great reforming Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Russell too served as Prime Minister, Ibrahim Pasha an Egyptian general- but who was Alexis Soyer? Soyer was an immigrant to Britain, he had worked an apprenticeship in the kitchens of Versailles in the 1820s and 1830s, became cook to the Reform Club in the 1840s and left that to open his own resturant, opposite the Crystal Palace in 1851. Soyer might not be a well known figure today- but he is an interesting figure. For like Jamie Oliver today, Soyer advised the British government on food and also attempted his own public initiatives to improve the health of the nation. What he did though and the contrast to Jamie Oliver's recent enterprises is an interesting one if we are to understand the different remit of the British state today and in the 19th Century.

Oliver today, for those who do not know, is a well known television chef in the UK and has embarked on an endeavour to improve the food of school kids and the population at large in the UK. Hold that thought in your mind. What Soyer did was very different. His two most famous interventions into politics were separated by almost a decade. In the 1840s, Soyer provided food to Irish men and women starving in the famine. His soups were offered in Dublin for free to releive the situation. The second thing that Soyer did came a decade later- he was instrumental alongside Florence Nightingale in providing better food to troops in the Crimea in hospital. Indeed he invented a portable stove that as the 'Soyer' stove was still being used by British troops in the first Gulf War. Soyer was prompted to intervene by the realisation that the troops in the Crimea were being served worse food than prisoners in the UK.

Soyer's endeavours were directed against two of the main problems of the 19th Century state. He attempted to do something that traditionally food did: stop famine and provide recourse to the starving in moments of disaster. From the 19th Century on, such famines have become less common in industrialised societies but we should not forget how important the fear of famine was as a political factor still. The Irish famine was a key part of an Irish story of neglect by the British: it would have been within living memory for some of those who were around in the Irish civil war (1916-22) and definitely within the living memory of their parents. The other aspect of what Soyer did was to attempt to improve the standards of health within the army. The 19th Century saw a growing movement within Britain towards a proffessional army- cemented in part by the consequences of the Crimea and also by the reforms of Gladstone's 1870 government. But we should be careful to understand what Soyer's endeavours were: they were charitable (in Ireland) or directed to a specific patriotic purpose.

Contrast that to Jamie Oliver who wants to improve the diet of every school kid in England- that is a much more extensive project than anything Soyer wished to do. We are extending ourselves to the whole population- and dealing with a problem that might be one of over abundance rather than scarcity. The difference between Soyer and Oliver's charitable impulses is their scope- and that reflects the increasing scope of the state. From the Boer war onwards, the British state became interested in the health of its citizens- we can detect one of the reasons for that in some of Soyer's work. From the 19th Century, the diet and health of your soldiers became of interest to you as a politician or strategic thinker: in the era of mass warfare that meant the diet and health of your young men as a whole cadet rather than just of the young men serving in the army. Soyer's career therefore indicates one of the reasons why his era would change into the era of Oliver- but its important that we see the aspirations of the British state in the 19th Century not as a step to the 20th but in its own right. Soyer's endeavours allow us to define the scope of what was viewed as possible to do in the 19th Century- and a useful way of understanding the evolution of the state in that period.

December 18, 2008

Camillus's Character

We discussed earlier Camillus the dictator as an archetype of why Livy beleived that Rome needed a dictator. What we also have to realise- again using Camillus as a model- is that Livy believed that offices did not guarentee stability, officers guarenteed stability. Camillus's dictatorship did not harm the Republic because of who Camillus was. Camillus, Livy says, was ready to delegate power- in the war against Antium (closely following the wars that I described in my earlier post) he delegated half his own authority to Publius Valerius, the disposition of a reserve force to Quintus Servilius and a force to protect Rome to Lucius Quinctius as Lucius Horatius was appointed to govern the munitions and Servius Cornelius put in charge of domestic policy (VI 6). The key point here is that Livy argues that Camillus wanted these people to serve as his equals with himself as primus inter pares, relying on his reputation to maintain his ascendency.

Camillus, Livy argues, understood the role of office. He argued that military leadership and service was a 'perpetual opportunity for you to show your mettle and win glory' (VI 7). He clarified his own role as leading commander to his soldiers in a Republican way: 'I have no wish for absolute authority over you' he told them (VI 7). But particularly interesting is what he said to his soldiers about how they should see him:

you should see in me nothing but myself: my resolution has gained nothing from my dictatorship, any more than it lost anything through exile. Nothing in any of us has changed and we bring the same qualities to this war as we brought to earlier ones. Let us then expect the same outcome. At the first clash everyone will act in accordance with his training and habit, you will win, they will run away. (VI 7)

There are two key political points that Camillus makes here. Firstly he denies any pride or ambition based on the offices he holds: he sees them as recognition of his merit rather than as an avenue to further power or to pride. He argues to his soldiers that they ought to obey him from recognition of his merit. What he secondly argues is that Romans in general should behave according to 'training and habit'- their constitution here fits with their military training and leads them to victory. The key point running through Camillus's arguments, whether about honour, himself or the training of his troops, was the argument that Romans should always behave in accordance with their ancestors: their history should be a check upon them.

For Livy, all these things define a virtuous Roman politician- someone granted power over his fellow citizens, occasionally arbitrary power, but aware of the ways that that power fits into a mosaic of historical custom. It also demonstrates a possible use for Livy's history- this is a guide to the princeps about how he should behave to preserve the 'training' of the Romans which has given them empire- then the Princeps, the Emperor, can become like Camillus, a temporary Republican sovereign, rather than a tyrant.

December 17, 2008

Migration to the US

I recently found this wonderful map of migration to the United States- its definitely worth a play with.


Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

December 16, 2008

The madness of Alice Hall

On 17th January, 1709, Alice Hall of the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate was brought to the Old Bailey, she was charged with murder. The account in the trial document makes clear what happened better than any account your humble blogger could supply,

Alice Hall , of St. Giles's without Cripplegate, was Indicted for the Murder of Diana Hartley and Martha Shetton, by Poysoning of them with Rats Bane in Broth, on the 2d Instant. She was a 2d time Indicted upon the Coroners Inquest, for the Murder of the Persons aforesaid. It appear'd that on Sunday the 2d Instant the Prisoner came to a Parish Nurses, and sat down by the Fire; That she was observ'd to take something out of her Pocket, and convey it into a Ladle half fill'd with Broth, stirring it about with her Finger, and put it into the Porridge-Pot then upon the Fire. The Family not knowing what was done, eat of the Broth to the Number of 15, which in an hour or two were taken with Vomiting; it wrought to that degree upon the 2 deceas'd Persons, that they died the Day following. It appear'd that the Prisoner had been with several Apothecaries on the first Instant to buy Rats Bane, and could not get any; that at last she succeeded, but would not discover where she had it. She confess'd that her intent of getting it was to Poyson her self, but was prevented by the Woman, who she thought see her put it into the Ladle; and it did not appear that she had any Design upon the Persons that took it. It appear'd thro' the whole Series of the Evidence, that the Prisoner had been for a considerable time Distracted, and fancied she was Damn'd, that she was a Spirit, and not a Woman; and sometimes was so very Outragious that she was chain'd in her Bed, &c. It likewise appearing that she was under great disorder of Mind when she committed the Fact, the Jury acquitted her and brought her in a lunatick

The case seems particularly sad as soon as you read it. Hall was attempting to commit suicide- to 'Poyson herself' and her failure to do so led to illness amongst 15 other people who ate the poison and death for Diana Hartley and Martha Shetton. The evidence in the indictment and description of the trial seems clear and the jury seem to have accepted Alice's madness as a plausible reason for her to have committed the murder: based on the account above I see no reason why we should disagree.

What I think is more interesting to reflect on though is the form her madness took: according to the trial transcript she beleived that 'she was damned, that she was a spirit and not a woman' and that that belief led to her being so 'outrageous' she was chained to her bed. Alice's madness caused physical action- we should note the response in the 18th Century to such convulsions was purely punitive- to chain the lunatic to their bed would not have struck contemporaries as at all strange or problematic. What in a way is more interesting even than that is the type of madness that Alice had- obviously she felt a delusion about spirits and devils being present not merely in the world, but directly to her. But in her time, indeed even today, that perception is not so strange- plenty of religious people share the feeling that they have seen something- and its not much of a step from Henry Lawrence's view that Christ was the hope of glory within a man to the conception that one is not merely a woman but a spirit. What made Alice mad was in part the content of her beliefs not their nature, and moreover her behaviour. What might have been religious heterodoxy became insanity because of Alice's behaviour- 'distracted', 'outrageous' and a murderer.

What made Alice mad was her inability to live in that society, yet Alice's insanity lies on a precarious borderline, between a belief and a delusion. That borderline is a fascinating place: there would be societies in which Alice's madness would have been perceived as a qualification to be a sage or a shaman, rather than a route to Bedlam. There is an interesting moving line between what human beings consider insane and what we consider sane: that perception has shifted throughout history. Alice's behaviour lay on the insane line of that boundary- and who are we to contradict the jury- but what is interesting is that like so much insane behaviour it is a recognisable varient of some forms of sane behaviour. Her behaviour is an outlier on the spectrum of religious mysticism that is so recognised in the century before her trial: it is not unusual nor that different from the norm, but it was for her fellow citizens insane enough to justify regarding her innocent (in some sense) of murder.

There is such a thing as insanity- its content varies over time- but wherever we find it, I suspect Alice's case helps us comprehend, what we will find will be recognisably human.

December 15, 2008

The Hudsucker Proxy


At one point in the Hudsucker Proxy, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appears. Eisenhower, embodiment of the American fifties appears here because he has to: he is brought on to the stage to tell us something about the film in which he appears. Just as Richard Nixon stands for corruption, and Ronald Reagen for capitalism, Franklin Roosevelt for the New Deal and Harry Truman for the Cold War, so Dwight D. Eisenhower stands for the fifties- the age of American triumph. And American triumph was the triumph of the company man- the Happy Day's Man who went to his office every day, aspired to rise to the top and feared falling to the bottom. The Hudsucker Proxy is about such a man- but it is not about such a man- it is about the dreams of such a man, the dreams of rising high in corporate America or corporate anywhere and the truth that the film maker deems to lie behind those dreams.

Look at it in another way- the Hudsucker Proxy contains an important story. A fool is elevated by the board from the post room to the board room- they need the share price to fall, to maintain control of the company- he though turns out to be a genius, inventing something which noone thought would succeed but which drives profits higher and higher. He is not the only one- every employee of Hudsucker seems to have a dream- an idea that could take the business forward. This film is the ultimate testimony to the American worker- not merely are they all hard working, they are all genii. But there is something corrosive in this laudation- its that there is, to quote Lord Melbourne, 'no damn merit about it'. Merit is absent. The Hudsucker Proxy doesn't redeem the company because of his intelligence- Tim Robbins plays him as an idiot, the lift boy's idea doesn't demonstrate his brilliance- apart from that he is an irritating squirt, the board room bureacrats are fat and flabby, the workers they preside over work in scenes of dull drudgery- sitting in rows, typing out memos.

This is a film with an iconography- circles and squares dominate the amazing visual landscape that is the true star of the movie. Whether it is the boardroom table, the skyscrapers of Wall Street, the hula hoop, the cigars or the suits, circles and squares dominate. In a sense the point I have made above is more revolutionary when expressed through this visual style. The squares represent the corporate hierarchy- the circles the creativity and fatedness of our hero and heroine and yet what we finally see as the film comes to an end is that they are both the same thing. The thing that renders the board room game so hierarchical is ultimately that it depends not on merit but on fate- the circle of fate twists and pulls our hero back to the top but its verdict is always respected, no matter what the truth. The Coens are arguing through the film that the real verdict of capitalism has nothing to do with merit or conspiracy, its all blind luck.

And so their film's style takes its roots from the only period of real subversion in the history of Hollywood- the thirties, forties and fifties. They reference such iconoclastic artists as Katherine Hepburn, Orson Welles (there are obvious references both to Citizen Kane and to the Trial) and Jean Arthur. Their hero is a corporate version of Jimmy Stewart's Frank Capra characters- but whereas in Capra's films Stewart triumphs because of the merit of his case, here we are invited to see that the opposite is true. Setting the film in the fifties brings in Ike but it allows the Coens to revisit genres like the Screwball comedy and film noir, whose characters exposed the darker and more sexist nature of American capitalism. The indictment here is fuelled by the fifties but it also uses a vocabulary which in cinema was last used in the fifties. The style not merely indicates the substance but indicates the substance of the attack.

That is why I enjoyed this film so much- it has the appeal both of being intelligent- and its worth saying well acted and directed- but also of making a compelling case using a historical vocabulary. The Coens may be right or wrong about capitalism- but what they provide us with is a very American critique of the concept which relies ultimately on exposing the old lie that the corporation is a repository of virtue, where merit rises and incompetence falls, that business has a law which isn't luck and that the boss really does know best.

The thing about the Hudsucker proxy ultimately, is that he is as good a boss as anyother.

December 14, 2008

The Black Tulip


Alexandre Dumas's novel, the Black Tulip (full text online here) is a book about Holland in the seventeenth century- superficially at least it is about politics and romance. The politics is that of Holland in the late seventeenth century- involving the brothers de Witt (Cornelius and Jan) who were prominent Republicans and their imprisonment and lynching in 1672. The actual story of the book takes place a little later- and involves their nephew (invented by Dumas and named Cornelius van Baerle) and his imprisonment by the Stadtholder William of Orange on charges of treason. Cornelius though is apolitical- his crime is to hold some letters which incriminate the De Witts in negotiations with France, but he knows nothing of the contents of the letters. The reason that he is actually imprisoned lies in the fact that he and his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, are both racing to find a tulip which is black (hence the title of the novel). Cornelius is imprisoned by the state- and threatened with execution- under the governance of Gryphus, the harsh jailor of the De Witts, and his beautiful daughter Rosa.

Dumas's point in the story is about this conjunction between the detailed politics of the Dutch republic and the life of Baerle. Baerle's life is swept off course by the politics of his relatives- but his real preoccupation is that of an artistic amateur, a developer of tulip bulbs. What Dumas does is give us a realistic portrait of how this obsession drives Baerle- there is a kind of comedy in the way that Baerle operates. When he is arrested, he cares less for himself than for the offsets of the black tulip, faced with a beautiful girl (Rosa) who offers him love, he gives her the idea that his tulips are worth more to him than her love. But despite the ridiculous nature of his obsession there is something healthy about it- there is something principled about a man who cares more for tulips than for worldly success. Though Dumas allows a current of satire to develop about his main character throughout the work, the satire is affectionate. Afterall as an autodidact in flowers, Van Baerle is Dumas's equivalent- the great novelist was equally an autodidact about history- and in this instance, makes a classic autodidact's mistake, thinking that William the Silent and William of Orange were the same person.

Van Baerle's obsessions look healthier when compared to those of others within the book. They are selfless for a start- Van Baerle is like the artist inspired by healthy competition, but not so focussed on that competition that like Boxtel or the mob he loses control of his estimation of the virtues of others. He is to some extent self aware. He is aware of Rosa's emotions for a start and her envy of the tulip as her rival. His real success within the novel lies in his innocence- it is in his innocence of the political motivations of others, that he is able to survive the political downfall of his relatives. The innocence also leads him to become the hero of Dumas's story. Innocence and obsession tie together- what Dumas presents us with is the portrait of the innocent artist, unaffected by the world through his obsession and also through his wealth (this mysterious independent wealth means that Baerle has no need for the world, apart from for the lore of tulips).

Dumas's novel is written with a formidable pace- at times, it feels slightly dated as Rosa faints when a man kisses her hand. Dumas's story is pacy and interesting though- worth reading both for its entertainment value and for its testament to the value of a life lived in the pursuit of a hobby.

December 13, 2008

Dictator: Marcus Furius Camillus

Livy tells us immediately that Rome 'stood at first by leaning upon its chief citizen, Marcus Furius Camillus' (VI 1). What he means by that becomes evident very quickly- the Romans appointed Camillus as dictator and effectively handed him control of the Republic. This office had an ancient and important pedigree within the history of the Republic and it is important to understand why Livy thought it was necessary. In my view the case of Camillus illustrates this importance and provides an illustration of how Livy saw the Roman republic meet a political situation, common to all regimes, which might destroy the Republic. We can best understand the situation and the resolution if we understand the situation in which Camillus was appointed dictator and the consequences of that appointment for Rome.

The Gallic invasion had consequences which were not merely domestic- but international. Rome, Livy tells us, was, as a consequences of its fall, 'held in contempt' even by its allies (VI 2), its enemies the Volscians beleived 'that all their [Rome's] young men were wiped out by the Gauls' (VI 2). We should not lose sight of the political implications of that sense that Rome was weak. Livy tells us of three concrete consequences- and implies a fourth. He tells us that the Latin allies of Rome decided to seize back their autonomy, that the Etruscans gathered together to discuss invasion and that the Volscians decided to invade (VI 2). Rome's allies, Sutrium for example on the border with Etrusca, were threatened by armies. Rome herself was under threat from both the north and the south. This was at a point when Rome herself was depopulated: some citizens having died in the wars against the Gauls, others defected to the neighbouring city of Veii (where they did not need to rebuild their houses but could occupy vacant ones). As soon as the strategical situation eased, Rome sought to recover the citizens who had moved away and extended grants of citizenships to others (VI 4): before that though her resources of man power were low. The strategic situation was dire.

One might well ask though why that situation impelled one to select a dictator. Firstly as Livy is very aware- politics is a matter of perception, of signs delivered to others about your intentions. Secondly we need to understand that Livy and others did not believe in a Republic, because they believed that extraordinary merit amongst its citizens could not be found. Rather Livy did agree that some citizens had extraordinary ability- and at this point in time, it is quite evident from his account that he saw such ability within Camillus. Merely appointing an experienced and able general to the dictatorship had an immediate effect, Camillus was able to suspend laws and conscript those not normally conscripted (VI 2), the appointment threw the Volscians into 'panic' and he relieved and recaptured Sutrium from the Etruscans (VI 2-4). That was partly the effect of his generalship- Livy mentions several of Camillus's strategical ideas having a real impact (VI 4), but also it was the effect of Rome sending a signal- that it was committed to warfare. In a sense what Livy describes- and the way that he describes Camillus's techniques of reanimating the Roman war machine- is the effect of morale on warfare.

This problem is a textbook problem within early modern and ancient philosophy. It is normally called the problem of necessity- in some sense as Geoff Baldwin has argued, it underlay the crisis of 1641 which led to civil war in England. What Livy describes is a situation that threatens the state- and his remedy to that situation is to suspend the slow acting constitutional processes and appoint a temporary dictator, that appointment both sent a signal of the seriousness with which the state took the crisis and delivered the best leadership in the current crisis. Its flaws as a system are easy to perceive- Gaius Caesar and Cnaeus Pompeius were to be dictators- but we need to understand, if we are to comprehend the reasons for the later crises, the reasons why the office was instituted. The wars of Camillus provide us with a textbook case of how the institution worked and why it was brought in: they are thus an illustration of the way that a dictator might contribute to the survival of the state.

December 12, 2008

Top Banana in the Shock Department

Breakfast at Tiffanies- the story not the film- is a bleak encounter with the modern world. It is a work that could only have come from the pen of someone who knew small town America and left it: the small town America whose heroes and villains were made epic by the author’s great friend, Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mocking Bird. Truman Capote does not focus so much in his story on what small town America did and would do about race- as about what the city did and would do with people- especially the young woman at the heart of the story Holly Golighty, traveller. Capote’s interest lay in the fact that this self described ‘independent’, like her tom cat a roamer with no home, finds modern society both the source of her dreams and the source of her inability to find them- like a diamond from Tiffanies, the modern world glistens and is cold.


Holly is a wonderful creation- in my fairly wide reading experience I do not think I have come across a woman so delightfully sexual In the whole of literature. She is a courtesan but no whore- having as she tells the narrator only slept with eleven men (not counting those before she was thirteen or the man she married when she was fourteen!) But she is incredibly seductive- our narrator ends up bewitched and as readers it is hard not to either be bewitched by this charm, this insouciance that proclaims that it hates snoops and mixes irreverently between languages and the cool speech of upper new York- ‘top banana in the shock department’ indeed! But charm is deceptive- throughout this novella, Holly is in trouble and part of our affection and that of the narrator for her is the affection of chivalry and protectiveness- a protective chivalry that on his part is misplaced because he no more than her is caught up in a process of society- the urbanisation of America.


Holly is a creature of anonymity- she is deliberately vague about where she has come from, deliberately vague about where she might be heading. She is introduced to us by the revelation that she might be in Africa. Throughout the novel, she is always moving. We find her in South America, we find her in Los Angeles, in New York and in Texas- as a friend of hers says ‘you don’t know if she’s a hillbilly or an Okie or what?’ We discover though what Holly is- she is like a bee, searching for the perfect flower- searching for a scent of home. She dwells in constant movement both because she is attracted by the prospects opened up to her as a citizen of the world, and because she cannot find a village to be a city of. She seeks a home- but she seeks a perfect home, rejecting what her mothers might have accepted- marriage to a dull Texan who wants her to bring up his dead wife’s children- but longing for the perfect home. It is the fate that the world has opened up to most of us- not by the way a condition of women alone but of all humanity who face a world in which we seek to find the perfect familiar in the strange.


How achievable is this vision, is this dream? Truman Capote faced the same issues as Holly Golighty- he like her was an immigrant from the small town to the big city, from the stultification of simplicity and solitude to the scary city with its boundless possibilities and opportunities for destruction. What Capote gives us is a vision of survival- it’s a vision of how to survive in this world of danger- of besetting problems. Golighty is both naïve and sensible- in the first lies her appeal and her craft, she inspires others to protect her and help her. Its what makes men give her hundreds to go to the powder room. And yet, and yet, she also knows her value- she is cynical enough to know the going rate to go to the powder room- and a suitor who sees her as a naïve little girl is in for a nasty surprise (as we see in her entry to the story proper when she reminds a retreating suitor who took her home that she won’t have sex with him and what’s more, she thinks that he is cheap!) Don’t think that that combination of naivety and cynicism is only sexual- it isn’t- it applies when she gets arrested, involved because of her naivety in delivering messages to a gangster, but cynical enough to know that noone will care if she just runs away- avoids bail and that whilst in New York, it might damage her reputation, no-one will know in Brazil! Ultimately Holly is wiser than our narrator, a penniless narrator for whom art is the thing, for Holly everything is interesting but ultimately only dollars can feed you.


Seeing Holly as a creature of sociology enables us though to see something else. What Capote exposes is the insecurity of living in a world of strangers. We have to trust others- of course- and normally that works. For Holly it does more often than not- and though perhaps she has to trust in her line of ‘work’ more sordid individuals, she finds as we all do that human beings are generally rats but only rats when they actually have to be. What Holly understands is that this nature of humanity makes us both vulnerable and safe in the world of the city- we are vulnerable because ultimately anyone can walk away from us, they can find a new friend, a new associate, a new partner- but we are secure because so can we. Anonymity is a loss because it is a loss of permanent relationships- a loss of permanence- but it is also a gain because relationships which do not work, the man who bites during sex classically for Holly or the selfish flatmate can be left behind like the flotsam and jetsom they are.


Modernity and its most basic condition- the great and teeming city- have bred a new kind of human relationship, farewell the chain of custom and everlasting friendships, welcome the fleeting felicity of closeness followed by forgetfulness. Whatever you think of that movement and that moment, it is a sociological fact, bred not so much by any moral change as by the growth of the great cities of the modern world. Holly Golighty is a heroine of the Jazz Age- she is its spirit and the age is not over- the music goes on and we choose and change partners as we will! That as Capote reminds us is neither good nor bad necessarily- it has good and bad aspects- but it is a change and its one that will dominate our era, and change the nature of our relationships in ways that really will be top banana in the shock department. The process began with Holly, quite when it will end or if it will reverse or what form our societies will finally take is anyone’s guess.

December 11, 2008

The Dubrovnik Renaissance

Dubrovnik, port and entrepot sat on the boundary between the East and the West from the split of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. Such a position as Venice was to find to spectacular effect was incredibly lucrative- but also as Zdenka Janeković-Römer explains in a recent article in the Dubrovnik Annals it facilitated cultural exchange between the East and West, smoothing the way for Greek culture to spread throughout Europe and becoming a centre for the idea of the reunion of the Church and the reconquest of the Balkans in the late Middle Ages.

Dubrovnik originally had been part of the Byzantine Empire. But as the empire began to fall backwards- particularly after the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204- the city began to take an independent course. In particular its history was shaped by the decision to convert not to Greek Orthodox Christianity but to Latin Christianity. However just because it followed a different confessional faith from the Byzantine Empire, as we shall see, it still maintained links with Constantinople. In particular its trading links survived- both with Constantinople with which Ragusa had trading links right up until the 1450s- and with the Greek successor despotic states with whom trade agreements have been found into the 1460s. But it is its cultural links that here we are interested in because Dubrovnik's cultural links both were part of a political and ecclesiastical agenda and were part of a historical process connecting the East and West.

The cultural links that Dubrovnik developed with the East were largely through the reabsorption of the Greek language by the elites. What you see are that cultured men had to know Greek as well as Latin- though translations were faulty, they still existed and notable authors like Hesiod and Isocrates were translated in Dubrovnik, with the translation of Isocrates in particular still important today. Greek texts were also important as they came out of Dubrovnik: we owe our text of Athenagoras's Apologia to scholars in Dubrovnik who maintained it. Ptolemy's Geometry was another document whose Western provenance is owed to Dubrovnik's scholars. No less a Western scholar than Erasmus himself used manuscripts preserved in Dubrovnik in his edition of the New Testament published in the early 16th Century.

This cultural efflorescence based around the Greek language was secondary to a political purpose. From the mid 15th Century onwards, the politicians and priests of Dubrovnik faced an incredibly harsh and severe threat, the Turks. Having conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Turks were not merely an insult to Christendom but a threat to the maritime republic. From then on, the Ragusan Republic sold the idea to the West of an attempted reunification of the Western and Eastern Church. They argued for a conciliar approach to church reunification- and sought to maintain the links between East and West. Of course, as we know, the conciliar approach was rejected by the Papacy, and historical tensions between East and West made reunification impossible.

So the real achievement of the Dubrovnik renaissance lay not so much in a Balkan reconquista- as in a cultural renaissance. The citizens of the republic published and translated Greek texts, provided a centre for philhellenic scholars from the West to find texts from the East and led both to a cultural flowering in the city (the translations and original productions in ancient Greek were acheivements in their own right) and contributed to the rediscovery of Greek literature and language in the Latin West.

December 10, 2008

Leo Abse

A biography from the BBC that is well worth watching of Leo Abse, former Labour MP, who died recently. Well worth a watch- though it will be only up for a week.

December 09, 2008

Milton's Birthday

WHAT needs my Shakespeare, for his honoured bones,
The labour of an age in pilèd stones?
Or that his hollowed relics should be hid
Under a stary-pointing pyramid?
Dear son of Memory, great heir of Fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou, in our wonder and astonishment,
Hast built thyself a livelong monument.
For whilst, to the shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath, from the leaves of thy unvalued book,
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took;
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble, with too much conceiving;
And, so sepulchred, in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

John Milton was born three hundred years ago today. This is what he wrote about Shakespeare. The thing is that it is as true of Milton as it was of Shakespeare.

December 08, 2008

The secrets of the new foundation

Refounding a city involves reconstruction- the Romans spent 'unremitting toil and labour' in restoring their city. More importantly though it meant refounding a political community- and in that sense a religious community. Livy tells us that Rome was refounded in three steps- firstly with the physical reconstruction of the city, secondly with the election of new magistrates and thirdly with the restoration of Roman religion. This last matter is what the historian emphasizes- the other two matters take up a paragraph, but religion, as ever for Livy, is at the heart of his political narrative. As soon as new magistrates are appointed, he tells us that they 'consulted the senate before anything else on matters of religious observance.' (VI 1). This is important- but so are the actions that immediatly come after this search- this consultation of the senate- because they amount to a restatement in religious language of the key principles that underlay the Roman state .

Firstly the magistrates and pontiffs made a search 'for all that could be found of the treaties and the laws, the twelve tables and certain laws of the Kings'- so far so civil but notice the following- 'to some of these even the common people were given access, but those which applied to the sacred rites the pontiffs supressed, largely so they could keep the minds of the populace under control through religious awe'. (VI 1). The point is important and relates both to the use of religion for social control and the class basis of that use in Rome. Notice here the secular magistrates and the priests- who often would be the same people- search for both judicial, political and religious records- and find them and exclude religious ones from their publication in order to maintain political power. This is a world in which the civil and the religious are not divorced but firmly married together and where the imposing posture of the latter supports the social structure and diktats of the former.

Secondly they declared two religious days. The 18th July became the day of the Allia- the battle lost against the Gauls and decreed 'it should be marked by the cessation of all business, public or private'. (VI 1) Secondly 'some think it was also decreed' that religious rites should not be held on two days following the Ides. (VI 1). Livy is here telling us something important- what the Roman state was doing was twofold. They reintroduced the ritual calendar. Also they added to it to memorialise the stress of the state under the Gallic invasion. The calendar was used to bind together the populace in patriotic and religious zeal. If the first measures about secrecy bound religion to social structure, the second sought to bind it to the fortunes of the state. In so doing, the argument was the state might be blessed by divinity, but even more so the people would see the deeds of the state not as political acts on a civil stage, but as religious acts in a moral drama.

It is impossible to understand anything going on in Livy's history without seeing the importance of the binding together of religious and political. Both internally and externally, opposition to Rome becomes impiety if you take the ceremonial functions of the Roman state seriously. In this sense the religious observances of sacrifice and prayer, fasting and idleness, take on a special meaning- they become part of the ideology of an aristocratic city state, fixed for eternity, and anchored in a world both human and divine. They are the perfect riposte to the Gallic invasion- in that they assert both Rome's civilisation and social stratification and its divine blessing.

December 07, 2008

Fire and destruction

The history of the Romans from the foundation of the city to its capture, first under the Kings, then under consuls and dictators, decemviri and consular tribunes, wars abroad and dissensions at home, I have set out in five books, covering matters which were obscure both through their great antiquity, like objects dimly perceived in the distance and because in those days there were few written records, the only reliable means for preserving a memory of past events. A further reason was the loss of most of such accounts as were preserved in the commentaries of the pontiffs and other public and private records when the City was destroyed by fire. From now on a clearer and more reliable account can be given of the City's civil and military history, after it made a second start, reborn as it were from its old roots with increased vigour and productivity. (VI 1)

The first paragraph of Livy's sixth book introduces two important themes we need to consider before moving on to the meat of the book. Livy was a textual historian- his understanding was based on written materials because, as he says here, they were 'the only reliable' means for preserving the past. Therefore Livy's historical abilities were limited- by the fact that his hindsight went back as far as the history of literacy and the extant record. That is true of historians today: history is tied to writing. What Livy faced therefore was a project in the early sections of his book of reconstruction: we are looking at an assembly of fragments into a coherent whole rather than a construction of a whole out of the material of evidence. All historians do something of the first- I have heard historians of the modern world claim that ancient history is more difficult precisely because it involves more of the first type of inquiry. We live with limited means and like Livy any inquiry into that distant a past, where records are scant (today we are worse off than Livy was in terms of the written records for the period). Part of Livy's frustration is that he is forced to rely upon an oral tradition that he considers intrinsically unreliable- he is forced to tales of family history and to fables about the Roman past- and we should not see that tendency stopping with the Gallic conquest and retreat- but rather stopping much later, when Rome's history starts being written.

If that process of a change between reliable written and unreliable oral history- in Livy's view- took place later than this passage implies, then why does Livy suggest it took place earlier. What I think is going on here is that Livy wants to set a second beggining to his history- this paragraph functions as an announcement to the reader. Here, Livy is saying, begins the history of Rome as it can be written. Before this, there was obscurity- but here we have the state that will turn into an empire and into the empire that you and I know. That marriage- expressed fundementally through the character of Camillus, Rome's second founder for Livy, is something that is central to the ideology of Livy's text. Its centrality informs this discussion of the historical record- before this we had a fire and have no records, after this we have records. Livy's point may be based on historical occurence- however no archaeological suggests there was such a fire and we know other Roman historians found documents running back into the fifth century. The key fact here though is less about whether Livy was right about the fire- uncertainty in his history continues after this for a long time- but about the point he wanted to make. Here on in, the story of Livy's history is about Rome's advance- through the conquest of the Samnites, the wars with the Etruscans, the Greeks in the south of Italy and eventually the Carthaginians and the conquest of the world. We have a bracket- on the other side of it is the primitive and distant past about which nothing can be said- on this side is empire, the rise of Rome, the rise of civilisation and the written record.

Livy's ideological purpose therefore gives colour to his discussions of the limitations on his historical enquiry. This third foundation of Rome is a moment at which Livy beleives that the continuous history of Rome down to his day begins.

December 06, 2008

Anatomy Museums


In mid-Victorian Britain there was a craze for anatomy museums- these museums were eventually by 1870 threatened with prosecution under the obscene publications act (1857) and mostly died away. For a while though, Anatomy Museums were places where the learned and scholarly met the populace in an atmosphere of equality- some Victorians saw them as a solution to the public health needs of the time, others campaigned for them to receive a tax rebate from the Treasury and the most popular museums were visited by over 2000 people a week. Dr. A. W. Bates, in Medical History, has just written an article examining the importance of the Museums- why they thrived and why eventually they fell. His arguments are worth considering when we think about the way in which modern medicine arrived at its current professionalised status.

The anatomy museum was the response to a real need. By the late eighteenth century, the dissection of bodies was increasingly difficult to maintain- it was hard to find specimens without breaking the law. As the anatomist Frederick Knox commented 'without the museums, the profession of anatomy would be in the state of a man without a language'. As the eighteenth century opened it became accepted that medical men needed some sort of a training and that that must include knowledge of anatomy. Popular anatomist teachers then arose to fulfill the need- to give pupils training in the arts of anatomy. Frequently what they did was maintain collections of anatomical models which they would demonstrate their arguments with. For people who did not wish to attend a dissection, the prospect of an anatomical model gave them a less sanguine approach to medical training. As the eighteenth century went on more and more of these collections became open to the public- between the early eighteenth century and 1800 Bates estimates that 39 establishments were opened in London. Their primary focus was on supporting the anatomical lecturer- but as the nineteenth century moved on, they became increasingly popular as attractions in their own right.

What they contained were models of the human being. Often these models were based on classical figures- a reclining Venus, a Samson, an Adonis- who could be carefully abstracted from the society of the day. There was a proffusion in particular of female models- partly this was for reasons of a rising interest in obstetrics: one might see in Joseph Kahn's museum, foetuses from the age of two weeks to birth. Anatomy advocates argued that popular knowledge of the subject fortified a more general religious sensibility within society: the knowledge of the mechanism induced in their thinking a recognition of the master mechanic who crafted it. The College of Surgeons in London attempted to monopolise the teaching of anatomy to happen within the Teaching Hospitals- they reckoned without the change from anatomical study to anatomical exhibition. By the 1840s, the Anatomical museums were largely museums- they were run to appeal to clerical and other workers who had both disposable wealth and time. The Anatomical Museums were amongst the few establishments who remained open into the evening and at weekends: both the National Gallery and the British Museum by contrast were closed save for during working hours.

So why did they close? As the anatomical musseums grew, once again they began to challenge the power of the medical proffession. Perhaps this is most noticable in Kahn's case- he started marketting from the late 1850s drugs for venereal disease within his museum. Various marginal and disputed diseases were advertised through anatomical museums. When the obscene publications act of 1857 came into law, it established that in order to publish an obscene publication the offence was not the intention to promulgate obscenity, but the effect of the action of publishing. Consequently defences based on the educative merit of anatomy were difficult to maintain. The medical proffession seized on the law as a means to prosecute some of the museums- and successful prosecutions associated the museums in the public mind with the pornographers prosecuted under the same act. Many doctors in particular disliked the focus on venereal disease- as they argued it encouraged sexual license because such diseases were punishments for sexual indulgence- a similar argument to that used about Aids a century later. The arguments for prosecution were supported by subscriptions in medical societies- and were bolstered by the fact that the law considered such matters were beyond the capacity of the public but within the capacity of the professional. The cool eyed doctor might examine female genatalia in the way that the rough mechanic might not.

In that sense the demise of the anatomy museum represents the rise of the medical proffession. It does that in two ways- firstly by granting a monopoly to that proffession of knowledge. Secondly though and more interestingly it fortified the reputation of doctors as the possessors of special abilities and knowledge. These abilities were not solely medical but also moral. Doctors possessed the ability to look into the arcana of the human body without it being erotically exciting or dangerously provocative: the general public though could not. Hence the anatomy museums perpetrated crimes under the obscene publications act, but the private collections at the Royal Colleges to which only physicians had access did not.

December 05, 2008

Julian and purity

Julian the Apostate (r. as Augustus 360-3) as an emperor attempted to take the Roman empire back from Christianity and return it to a neo-platonist form of paganism (for those who wish to read more about him, this is an encyclopedia article written by two academics which describes his career). He did this both in his policies as emperor- and also in publications. Julian thought of himself as a philosopher and mystic- a devotee of Hellenic values in the world usurped by the Galileans (as he called Christians). The focus of his arguments is what interests me here: in a fascinating article for the Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture, Gorgio Scrofani has attacked an issue which might seem perplexing. Julian's major treatise 'Against the Galileans' includes a paean of praise to Judaism- what Scrofani does is explicate where this defence of the Jews fits into Julian's attack on Christianity and his defence of paganism.

As a defender of Judaism, what Julian sought to do was to defend Jewish ritual and tradition. He wrote

Jews agree with the Gentiles, except that they believe in only one God. That is indeed peculiar to them and strange to us; since all the rest we have in a manner in common with them, temples, sanctuaries, altars, purifications and certain precepts. For as to these we differ from one another not at all or in trivial matters.

This passage is interesting- carefully read it demonstrates that Julian established in his reader's mind that the distinction between monotheism and polytheism was less important than the distinction between a religion of ritual and one that disdained those rituals. What Scrofani argues is that Julian's point here was an attempt to do two things. Firstly it was an attempt to show that Christianity was an innovation of inpurity: Christians, Julian commented at other points, needed to be purified before they could take part in pagan rites. Julian was preoccupied by purity- he wanted priests who were morally and physically pure- because he saw in the maintenance of ritual, the way towards the maintenance of imperial Rome. He saw purity as a guarentee of the stability of the state in the eyes of the gods and therefore of men.

This was also though an attack on an area of vulnerability in the faith. What Julian did by using the Jewish example was attempt to open a breach in the Christian world. His attempt was to take the fight, as it were, to the territory of the Christians, to the old and new Testaments. This attempt to divide the Jews from the Christians picked up on anxieties within the new faith- we know from John Chrysotom and others that there were many Christians who even as late as the third and fourth centuries kept rituals like the day of atonement going. By splitting religion on the basis of ritual- Julian's argument drew together the Hellenes and Jews as heirs of the religious innovations of Chaldea against the Christians.

What's interesting about Scrofani's article is that the nature of Julian's attack and the nature of the breach that he hoped to widen should tell us something about what was new and astonishing in Christian doctrine. Those who argued against Christianity at its inception can tell us a lot about what the new religion was and what was astonishing about it. They also inform us about the preoccupations of the time. For Julian what was new and controversial about Christianity was its failure to emphasize ritual and cultic purity: he saw this as a moral failing- and suggested that it marked a boundary between Judaism and paganism on one side and Christianity on the other. He also saw this as an opportunity- because so many of his contemporaries shared his anxiety. These words from the last pagan Emperor therefore tell us a lot, as Scrofani argues, about the context in which early Christianity developed and about the thing that developed in that context.

December 03, 2008

Crito we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius

An ingenious article from Colin Wells in Arion has just come to my attention. When the Greek philosopher Socrates died, he turned to his companions and in his last words, said 'Crito we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius, see to it' and then died. Socrates died because he had been commanded to drink poison by the state of Athens- and he died quickly and quietly according to Plato. His words though have been a subject of controversy for a long time- most like Neitzsche argue that what Socrates was doing was unfurling a philosophical thesis- proclaiming a message at the moment of his death. Colin Wells though suggests an alternative explanation for the last words of the sage.

What he suggests is that Socrates was behaving as a normal conventional Greek would. He takes us through the moment of Socrates's death- first he drinks the hemlock, then he asks if someone has a drink so they can pour a libation, finding that noone in the room did he prays and then he makes this comment to Crito and dies. The sequence is interesting and suggestive. What Wells argues is that Socrates in reality was doing what all Greeks did when beggining a venture- imploring the success of the Gods for its continuance. Just as you might with a war pray to Ares, so when taking poison, you would pray to the God of medicines and poisons that he would help you die swiftly and smoothly. The sequence suggests that Socrates moved from one adequate form of offering- the libation- to an inadequate expedient- the prayer- and then settled on asking a friend to perform another adequate offering- the sacrafice. Its ingenious as an explanation and its also interesting.

Wells may well be right- I lack the expertise in Greek religion to comment. But if he is, it is suggestive that he is right and that for so long, scholars have misunderstood these words. It is a classic case of the way that we can read ourselves into the past- and read out the historical characters of a given time, read the Greeks out of ancient Greece, read Socrates out of Socrates. What this instance displays, if Wells is right, is the danger of abstracting people from the past out of their context- by reading that phrase, 'we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius' and knowing enough to know that Asclepius was the God of medicine, we can come to any number of suggestions about what Socrates was saying. It is only when we understand a bit more the function of prayer and offering in Greek society that we can get closer to what the philosopher was actually saying- as opposed to what we would like him to say (some argument about life being a disease or quip to the same effect).

Wells discusses briefly the famous question of Socratic irony in the essay- whether we take the statement as ironic is a different matter (it is always difficult to infer irony in people who we have never met and Socrates has been seen as the ultimate in sincerity before- by no less an authority than Montaigne!) but we cannot even recover the irony, if we cannot recover the meaning and this is one more incident, where a deeper knowledge of context can bring a deeper knowledge of the particular act of an intelligent and important thinker.

December 02, 2008

Changing Times


It is often said that the United States is a young country. Its often forgotten that it has a very old constitution- indeed I struggle to think of a comparatively old and unchanged constitution in the same format as the United States has in the rest of the world. Recent events demonstrate this. The election of Barack Obama as United States President, to succeed George Bush in January, was a smooth process. Since November though, numerous commentators on the Democratic side of the aisle have expressed frustration with the fact that their man cannot move straight into the White House to start dealing with the issues that the world and America faces. I am sure Republicans felt a similar frustration in 2000- when George Bush succeeded Bill Clinton. What's interesting about this is that this is a classic instance of a constitution functioning in a way that made perfect sense in the eighteenth century- even if it frustrates people now (and there are good reasons for thinking given the number of appointments to be made, it still makes some sense today).

Think back to 1787. When the United States was founded as this article discusses, the President was actually inaugurated in March- a four month gap between the election in November and his arrival in office. That situation persisted right down to the 1930s- with Presidents awkwardly attempting to be out of the way as their predecessor finished their term (Herbert Hoover in 1928 even went on a cruise around South America to avoid tarnishing Calvin Coolidge's swansong). There are reasons though for that long break- and such long breaks existed in other countries too. In the UK in the 19th Century, elections took place over several days- with party leaders standing in multiple constituencies (to give a famous example Gladstone stood frequently in two or three seats- in 1865 he was defeated in Oxford University and migrated to stand in South Lancashire a month later). The reason was simple- travel meant that Parliaments and Presidents could not physically campaign one week and arrive in office the next. In a country as vast as the United States the distances could be intimidating: travelling between Boston and New York in the far north east of the country could take as much as a day and a half even in the 1830s (after significant transport revolutions including a massive road building program in the early part of the 19th Century). That effected not merely the President but senators and congressmen as well- who needed to travel back to visit and campaign amongst their constituents.

We think of politics as something that happens on television screens. I learnt that Hillary Clinton was to be President Obama's Secretary of State hours after the announcement in Washington. But of course that was not the main means of communication in the days of the American constitution. Then the main means of communication was print- journalism, frequently biassed (just look at the election campaigns of the early 1800s if you think any modern election has been vicious), was produced by all sides. The letter in which a person in London or Washington informed those in his locality about what was going on was frequent too: Dr Cust has shown that such letters developed what there was of a national political consciousness in pre-civil war England. All of these things though were indirect forms of communication between the politician and his constituency: and given the lies and falsehoods told about Adams, Jefferson, Gladstone, Disreali, and the rest, to dispel them you had to go and see your electorate- whether in some systems in mass meetings (like Gladstone's speaking tours) or in other contexts in more intimate consultations with the local gentry. Whereas people in Richmond, Yorkshire cannot escape hearing William Hague on the television at least once a month unless they are determined not to listen, in the 19th Century a Yorkshire MP like Henry Brougham would have to travel back to speak to his constituents.

This physical change on politics has lots of effects- some of which I don't think I have probed in this brief article but I think its vital to understand if we want to understand what elections were like in the past. They looked and smelled differently to our conception of elections today. The delay to Barack Obama's inauguration may frustrate Democrats- just as Bush's might have Republicans- but it is interesting not merely from the perspective of present day politics but from the perspective of the politics of the past. The reasons that there is that delay lie in the fact that our institutions reflect those of our parents and in this case great-great grandparents to the nth degree- whether they are still appropriate is a matter for others- but what they are is an archaeological resource, a hole in the landscape which allows us to see back into the mentalites of the past.