December 11, 2009

Entitled Opinions and A History of Rome

Its been a fairly heavy week workwise and the blog has had to take a backseat. Next week I am away and the redoubtable Sulla will be posting on the blog. I thought though rather than arguing about history or about films or anything else today, I'd actually post about something I have just discovered or rather two things I have just discovered. Both illustrate the use that the internet can be put to in the course of civilising us all- including myself. Both are podcasts. The first is Entitled Opinions- this comes from Stanford University and is hosted by Stanford's professor of Italian and French, Robert Harrison. Basically Harrison invites members of the academic community and other intellectuals onto his program and interviews them for an hour about the subject of their specialism. In a sense it resembles In our Time, my favourite BBC podcast, but it is probably slightly less accessible than In our Time. No allowances are made here- there is no dumbing down- there is even an entire discussion with Michel Serre in French. The themes and quality varies widely of course- it depends on how well Professor Harrison's guests adapt to the format. Some of the programs are brilliant though- I particularly enjoyed a series of programs he did with Professor Thomas Sheehan about the historical Jesus and Resurrection Event. Before them I had never paid enough attention to Matthew 27.53- quite what Professor Sheehan makes of that I will leave you to discover.

The second podcast is actually one that was recommended to me by Peter Cuthbertson. Mike Duncan is a great narrator. Basically what he does is take you week by week through the entire history of Rome- starting with the first foundation in 753 BC perhaps and currently he is up to Domitian (I'm a couple of episodes behind so he may have got to Nerva). What he does is to read the ancient historians and some modern historians- he does not pretend to be an expert on what happened- but what he offers is a very accessible and fun introduction to the history of Rome. He has a great sense of humour as well which makes his podcasts very lively and they are intellectually stimulating. What he does is provide you with a chronology upon which you can hang the other knowledge that you have- some of the things he has said have filled in gaps for me in my knowledge of Rome and I'm sure that will be true for many of his listeners- very few people know about the entire history of Rome from beggining to end and its good to have this simple and straightforward, entertaining, amusing and accurate narrative of what happened.

These two podcasts illustrate to me what the internet should and could be about- distributing knowledge from people who know stuff to people who don't, sharing our experiences of the world. So often it is merely a talking shop or rather a shouting shop as one side abuses the other politically or culturally- but it does not have to be like that and both Harrison and Duncan capture ways in which the internet can contribute to, rather than detract from, the enlightenment of mankind.

December 08, 2009

Review: The Eurasian Miracle

The central argument of Jack Goody's The Eurasian Miracle is that there never was a European miracle at all, rather the industrial revolution and what followed it have their roots in bronze age Eurasian culture. Goody argues that throughout the history of the vast continent of Eurasia the pattern has been alternation of leadership rather than one single part of the continent leading towards modernity: in the 900s China led the continent forwards developing printing and gunpowder, Europe led it in the 1800s with the creation of industrialisation. He dismisses all models that claim an exclusive role for Europe in the creation of capitalism, pointing out that mercantile elites thrived in India and China before the European economy got going, indeed that manufacturing too was in part stolen from China by ceramic workers and silk producers in the West. Trade routes bound East and West together across the steppe and the seas and Chinese and Indian traders were just as active as European ones in formenting those routes. He suggests that long distance trade has been a feature of the world since antiquity: with for example an embossed pot with Richard I of England's seal on it turning up in the middle of Ghana in the later middle ages.

Goody's argument is convincing and the essay is interesting. Basically his suggestion that there was alternation rather than a consistant European lead over the East makes sense. There is no such thing as the Needham question, or rather insofar as it does exist, the question only relates to the post 1600 development of the European economy. This position is bold and contradicts the work of people like David Landes. But it does ultimately make much more sense of what we know to have happened in history than the position that Europe inherently led the world: for a start what Goody points out are the simularities between the cultures at either end of the Eurasian continent. Bourgeois taste for example formed the elite foodstuffs both of modern France and modern India and China- possibly modern Mexico as well. Mercantile and manufacturing activities have thrived in the East and the West. Innovations have never been an exclusively European preserve: and indeed it is much more common for no one part of the super continent to be the author than it is for one part. So for example Mesopotamian mathematics was taken up in Greece and India refined, transmitted to Arabia who refined it again and exported it again both to the East and the West.

Goody's book does have some weaknesses. He proposes two alternations- one of which is geographical and the other is theological. That the societies within Eurasia went through processes of secularisation and religious thought and that secularisation was much more fruitful than religion for advance. I am not so sure about that- firstly the great age of humanism was a great age of religion- Sir Thomas More who Goody cites as an example of a secular intellect went to the scaffold for his faith. Secondly religion could often be tied to intellectual innovation- the first public inventor of logarithms, Jean Napier, did so so he could map out the coming of the period of the millenium. Furthermore there are some other assertions that I would question that Goody makes: were universities that key to European progress- by the late seventeenth century in England both Oxford and Cambridge stagnated and no other university emerged to rival them until Edinburgh in the 18th Century. Were merchants always irreligious- the evidence of the enthusiasm for independency in the City of London in the 17th Century again hits back at that. The Italian Renaissance may not have been accompanied by economic recovery as Peter Burke's work makes clear.

There are numerous other instances where I would quarell with his particular interpretation but this is an interpretative essay rather than a supported monograph, and I think that as an essay it succeeds in its purpose. It does repeat itself and occasionally the prose is irritating- but the overall point is absolutely right- there was nothing essential that made European economic development certain and if we are to search for the roots of that development, things common across Eurasia- its vast extent and capacity for inland trade, the invention of writing, are likely to be more important than issues central to Europe. Ultimately modernity has no identifiable parents, it is an orphan whose fathers and mothers are the entire world.

December 07, 2009

Catullus and the way to read Roman poetry

This review of a new book on Catullus reminds me of two things. The first is the excitement with which I read Catullus for the first time, of all the Latin poets I have read, Catullus and Martial were my favourites and though they may not remain so, the biting intensity of their short lines still has an impact upon me. The second thing though is less personal and perhaps more interesting and that is about how Catullus himself should be read, how any Roman poet indeed possibly any poet before a certain point should be read. Catullus, this author comments, must be read out loud: "reading Catullus with the eye is like studying the libretto of an opera without listening to the music". The same thing could be said of so many of the texts that we have left to us from the past- obviously dramatic pieces like Shakespeare and things that were originally meant to be read aloud like Homer or Beowulf, but also the simpler poems and passages that we come across in ancient texts were often designed for their rhetorical flow as well as their look on a page. St Augustine noted with amazement that St Ambrose read silently: to miss the rhetorical flourishes in Cicero or Tacitus or even the sound of Catullus not to mention of Shakespeare, Jonson et al. is to miss what the author was trying to do, what his intention was. In a sense, in order to appreciate everything that can be appreciated about some art, you have to consume it as it was meant to be consumed- loudly and not silently!

December 06, 2009

Review: The Readiness of the People: The Formation and Emergence of the Army of the Fairfaxes

The process of beggining a civil war is neither uncomplicated nor uninteresting. At some point someone has to decide to take up arms and shoot their neighbour, rather than arguing with him ferociously. That is one of the many reasons why it is so hard to fix a beggining to civil wars: the civil war in England began in different parts of the country at different times. Different counties saw different stories take place within them and as John Morrill argued in his Revolt in the Provinces, those stories were connected as much to initial advantage within the civil war as to any pre-existing commitment to one side or the other. The story of Yorkshire in the civil war though is amongst the most interesting: partly because it was in Yorkshire that Sir Thomas Fairfax, the 'rider on the white horse' emerged as one of the leading Parliamentarian figures, the start of a career which would eventually take him to become Lord General of the Parliamentary Armed Forces and one of the architects of the new settlement of 1649 not to mention the restoration of 1660. Before that momentous rise though, Sir Thomas played a secondary role to his father Lord Fernando Fairfax within his home county of Yorkshire.

The story of the Fairfaxes in Yorkshire illustrates two key points about the early civil war. The first is the way in which gentry allegiances overlapped with gentry quarrels and greivances. The standard of Parliament had been first raised in Yorkshire by Sir John Hotham in the East Riding in Hull, at that point the Fairfaxes were still attempting to make peace with the King. Hotham was a client of the Earl of Essex and he and his son dominated military affairs in the East Riding and were unwilling to yield either supremacy or help to the Fairfaxes. The Fairfaxes began their army in the West Riding of the county around the great cloth towns- Bradford in particular- and from there sought to menace the Duke of Newcastle's army. Hotham and Fairfax's rivalry continued right throughout the war and Hotham eventually deserted to the royalist side of the war partly because of his hatred for the Fairfaxes.

Gentry rivalry though does not explain where the Fairfaxes army in Yorkshire came from: it explains where it did not come from-any aid from Hotham. They created their army out of their own retainers but also took advice. Thomas Stockdale of Bilton Park wrote to Lord Fairffax that

The insurrections of the apprentices (as all ungoverned multitudes) are of very dangerous consequences; but God, who works miracles, can, out of such violent actions, bring comfortable effects, which I beseech him to grant to this much distracted empire; and truly the like and much more violent tumults in Irleand, for unjust and irreligious pretences, seem to give warrant and precedent to an opposite irregularity of the same nature, which is for just and religious ends in this Kingdom.

Fernando and particularly his son, Sir Thomas, took this advice eventually. Sir Thomas Fairfax took his small forces and releived Bradford where a popular uprising had seized the town for Parliament and asked his father 'to give to me the power to join with the readiness of the people' and doubted not 'but, by God's assistance to give your Lordship a good account of what we do'. This was unlike most other Parliamentarian military commanders: in Gloucestershire for example the gentry ignored the popular rising in Cirencester and other Yorkshiremen particularly the Hothams were horrified by what the Fairfaxes were doing.

What seems to have propelled the Yorkshire men who rose with the Fairfaxes and eventually in part resisted without them- after Sir Thomas and his father fled to Hull after the Battle of Adwalton Moor- was greivances about royalist behaviour, a sense of Godly vocation and perhaps as importantly reported Irish atrocities. Many of the places were the risings happened were places where Protestantism and in particular puritanism were deeply embedded: Bradford for instance had been a centre of dissent since the Lollards. Ireland was a key factor as well though. In 1642 Joseph Lister recorded in his diary that a man rushed into a Yorkshire church shouting that the Irish had arrived in Rochdale, apparantly the response of the congregation was hysterical with women screaming, men seizing weapons and even children clamouring. This was not unusual and most of the men who joined the Fairfax army did so because they believed that a Catholic invasion was under way: the fact that Newcastle admitted his Royalist army had 'Romish' officers hardly helped. Fear drove these men and women into war.

Hopper's pamphlet about this- that I am reviewing is very interesting and well worth reading. At only twenty pages it is short but it makes the important points I've discussed above. The only thing that really is missing from it is a further discussion of other class reactions in 1641-3 in Yorkshire to the risings. We know from Derek Hirst's work on the Baynes affinity in Leeds in the 1650s that there were massive conflicts between the different elements of the cloth industry that drove the politics of the West Riding: it would be interesting to know how those different elements related to the risings of 1641-3. However in general this is a very interesting short piece of work.