February in podcasts

This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show).  There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book.  Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times.  I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.

Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects.  In fact he tweeted this the other day;

The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.

He does seem to manage the time better nowadays.  When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series.  Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes.  It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary.  Some introductions add a nice personal touch too.  The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.

The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish.  There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy.  Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show.  It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it).  I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).

Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas.  I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven.  The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good).  I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison.  The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative.  I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.

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The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I recently read Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin and very much enjoyed it.  One of the most striking tales from it (possibly second only to the one about the housebreaker and the tortoise) is that of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.  I’m now reading Irwin’s history of Orientalist scholarship, The Lust of Knowing, and the story reoccurs.  Thus I feel compelled to share this strange idea with anyone who hasn’t heard it.

220px-vegetable_lamb_28lee2c_188729In medieval tales, the Vegetable Lamb or Scythian Lamb or Barometz is a plant-animal hybrid that lives in central Asia, or Russia, or perhaps the Black Sea area near Persia.  It consists of a lamb that is rooted to the earth by a umbilical cord like stem.  The lamb can flex this stem such that is can eat grass in the immediate circle around it, but is prevented from moving beyond that and must then either starve or drop off the plant as a ripened sheep (sources seem divided as to which one; or perhaps just generally confused).

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The story really came to public attention in the fourteenth century with the tales of Sir John Mandeville (whoever he may have actually been) and the travelogues of various friars.  As late as 1683, a German doctor called Engelbert Kaempfer would search for the lamb in Persia, before reasonably deciding that it was a myth, possibly due to some local farming practices.

Wikipedia quotes some priceless poetry on the topic:

E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb

Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden

For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around

Demetrius De La Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata

Back in reality, the legend seems to be perhaps rooted (!) in an old Jewish text, or perhaps a misunderstanding of cotton fibres or even due to a furry looking Asian fern – Cibotium barometz.  Answers may also be available for the Barnacle Goose (or Bernacle), but there’s only so much of this I can take in one sitting.

The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

I’m not usually up to date on my literary pursuits, but this one feels almost contemporary.  In September last year The Darkening Age came out to some discussion and argument.  Nixey, brought up as a strict Catholic, sees herself as balancing a wrong – that the image of early Christianity is all love, hope and charity; where the reality could be violent, perverse and oppressive.  To this end, the book obviously opens with the destruction by Christians of a pagan temple in Palmyra – playing it off against more recent religious extremists.  It’s not subtle, nor is it meant to be, but at times it comes across as rather slippery – it sometimes feels like a long succession of straw men, cherry picking and incomplete information.

35450727At it’s best, Nixey gives likely semi-fictionalized descriptions of Christian atrocities and madness, and these do cover interesting snippets of history.  The graphic descriptions of the destruction of the beautiful temple of Serapis (and its library), and the mob killing of the philosopher Hypatia are gruesome and vibrant.  The abbot Shenoute’s housebreaking is shocking.  And the story of St Anthony and his demons is just weird.  Unfortunately, when Nixey tries to generalize the book feels shallow.  Her chapter on the exaggeration of Christian martyrdom adds little beyond what Gibbon suggested in the 18th century.

The book also feels rather shallow when it comes to the Pagans that Nixey would defend.  Having recently read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling The Gods, the classical world seems very one dimensional religiously and intellectually in The Darkening Age.  We switch between the first, third and sixth centuries at the drop of a hat; between Gaul, Egypt and Constantinople; between Stoics, Epicureans and Neo-Platonists.  The old fashioned moralist end of Rome is ignored in favour of the Libertine end (Catullus’ sex life rather than Juvenal’s homophobic rants).  Their rejection of some foreign cults (Manichees or the Druids) brushed aside for their incorporation of others (Isis or Mithras).  There is little on why Pagan polytheism really differed in behaviour from monotheistic Christianity (something that was a particular stand out in Whitmarsh’s book).

I understand it’s a different sort of book – but frankly, I’m not sure that it is that novel to suggest that early Christianity could be strict and fanatical.  That image is so ingrained within fiction (for example, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods or many Bernard Cornwell books) and other history books that I don’t really need a lopsided polemic to open my mind to it.  In this polemic parts of the book start to feel a bit tone deaf – a step back to the “Dark Ages” that so many late antique scholars and early medievalists have worked to enlighten; a focus on the lurid literary sources of religious propaganda, with very little input from archaeology beyond a few shocking examples of statue defacement.

Despite many caveats (“Not all Christians …”) and some exciting story telling, it either doesn’t convince or feels trivial.  The main problem is not so much that she mis-represents Christianity, but that in doing so her version of Paganism feels so passive and one dimensional.  Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians is getting on a bit now; but I found such a vibrant portrait of late paganism in that, and such a balanced view of the different relations between the religions, that I can only recommend wading through that instead!

Wonder Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin

32919654The quote from The Guardian on the back of the book compared it to a mix of AS Byatt and Terry Pratchett.  Perhaps, but I’d throw in Hilary Mantel and Umberto Eco.  There’s something in the mix of the realist portrayal of medieval life blending with constant surrealist tangents.  What they really meant though was that the book will reward multiple readings, it is enjoyable first time round but there are so many allusions and references that you can come back again and again.

Irwin starts his book with Anthony Woodville dying at the Battle of Towton before being resurrected with an unfortunate tendency to see the dead walking.  The book then follows the real life Anthony Woodville’s path through the Wars of the Roses: switching sides to the Yorkists, temporary exile, a court favourite under Edward IV, before quickly falling out of favour under Richard III.  Along the way, he battles the Bastard of Burgandy in a two day duel and delves into his literary interests – translating works into English and even having them printed by William Caxton.

As a bibliophile and as a medieval man, Woodville explores the world through stories and rumours.  And so Irwin uses these throughout – as characters meet they share stories, and these tales shift and change as their context changes.  Thus the tone of the book swings wildly: with a very funny story about housebreakers using  tortoises with candles mounted on their backs, alongside darker, almost tragic material.  Familiar stories like Appointment in Samarra show up too – I’m sure there would be even more, if my mythology knowledge was on a par with Irwin’s!

The characters in the book are fantastic too.  Not necessarily deep, but certainly memorable.  The scheming alchemist George Ripley, the Machiavellian constable John Tiptoft (known as “butcher of England”) and the mysterious writer Thomas Malory all particularly caught my imagination.  Irwin conjures a strange sort of world – rich and detailed yet shallow and mysterious; a last flourishing of romance before the modern world begins to kick in.  It’s imaginative, bizarre and (in truth) at points I wasn’t really sure what on earth was going on; but that just will just spur me to read it again – it’s that sort of book.

Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe

51-hmkcphel-_sx322_bo1204203200_Gene Wolfe is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, and there is an element of the fantastical to this set of novels set in ancient Greece.  The Latro of the title is a mercenary (probably Roman) who fought for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, where he suffered a head wound and developed severe amnesia.  A helpful doctor gave him some scrolls and a writing implement and from there on he writes down his experiences, so that he can remind himself of them as the memory fades.  It is the story in these scrolls that we read.

If that isn’t enough of a gimmick, Latro also seems to have developed the ability to interact with gods and ghosts.  Thankfully the book is far more than this twist.  For me where the book shines is the feeling of being immersed into ancient greece – not so much the places (Latro tends not to get too descriptive in his writing) but the people, who they are, how they interact, what they believe.  From a historical perspective, it is great fun seeing Latro meet the likes of the poet Pindar, the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Thermistocles.

As ever Wolfe loves playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator and there are some twists and turns that will have you leafing back through the book to check for any hints you missed.  Personally I’m very much looking forward to re-reading these soon.  For all that, it is far from a cartoonish book, the characters and the setting feel subtle and realistic.  It’s gentle, enjoyable, engrossing, confusing, shocking and challenging at the same time.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Battling The Gods by Tim Whitmarsh

4fec67c0-c5cf-4e87-838c-7c330bae3192img400The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods.  As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“.  Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.

In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction.  For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer.  Inevitably the gods win.  It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.

Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief.  In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.

Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!).  Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians.  The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.

This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself.  Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized.  It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.

The Dreyfus Affair / The Land of Desire podcast

A while back I downloaded some episodes of a podcast that I had seen a few good reviews of: The Land of Desire.  It basically acts as a miscellany for different aspects of France and French culture.  After flicking through a few episodes, I landed on the six episode mini series on the Dreyfus Affair (from late 2016, I’m not exactly up to date here).

71avifompzlUntil recently my knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair began and ended with a vague memory of seeing a print of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse newspaper headline in a history classroom.  Then I read Robert HarrisAn Officer And A Spy – and found it gripping.  Told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart, a counter intelligence officer who uncovered the conspiracy, it is easy to be shocked by the forged evidence and military cover up.  It really is a good book.  But after the opening act of the (real life) scandal Picquart spends much of his time in exile or prison, so it is hard to see the real comings and goings.  In addition, unlike Dreyfus, Picquart was not Jewish so it hard to really get into the rise of anti-semitism.

image001That’s where this podcast comes in – The Land of Desire is able to explore the full story of the scandal, in which a Jewish army officer was clumsily framed for selling military secrets to the Germans, even as the story unravelled and the real culprit became obvious.  The need for a scapegoat coincided with the rise of anti-semitic feeling in France, and with a cultural divide between conservatives and progressives.  The podcast is at its best when covering this battle, even if it has to remain brief to avoid spamming the listener with names and sidetracks.

The problem with the podcast is that Diana, the Californian writer/presenter/producer, is so polished that her delivery comes across as blandly earnest and upbeat, no matter the material.  Part of this is the writing: she clearly can handle the big issues and complexities – as she does when describing the cultural divide in France or the continuing antisemitism – but at some points she oversimplifies (in an attempt to be accessible, I think).

I think the other part comes from a desire for professionalism, she is clearly very passionate about the material in this podcast (and rightly so) but that rarely shines through as she keeps her delivery level.  When it does come through: the anger, the frustration, the sheer exasperation at the farcical conspiracy is actually very engaging – it’s a sense of personality that I’d like to see elsewhere.  On the plus side, this upbeat delivery is great at dealing with the more comical parts of the story – the bizarre Major du Paty de Clam, the ridiculous handwriting expert Bertillon, the blocking of military judges.

I’m still in the early stages of the podcast, and there is a tendency for shows to improve over time, so I’m happy to continue listening and hope things even out.  Back on topic, the mini-series does end on a sad note.  Although Dreyfus and his supporters were ultimately pardoned, it would only be a few short decades before the Jews of France were decimated in World War Two – often with the support of parts of the local population.  And anti-semitism remains a problem to this day – many of the arguments throughout the show felt oddly familiar, even down to the less direct things like the Socialists arguing that having to deal with a case like Dreyfus would be a distraction from the main battle against capitalism.

January in Podcasts

This month I have mostly confined my listening to some old favourites.

Hardcore History

Seemingly Dan Carlin has been looking for a way to up his output from two shows a year.  With Hardcore History shows now verging on six hours in length, it’s easy to see why it takes so long to prepare.  Carlin however wants to communicate with fans more regularly – I guess there’s only so many times you can respond “I’m working on it” on twitter.  Therefore we now have Hardcore History Addendum, in which he plans to carry out interviews or discuss short digressions that don’t find into the long digression that is the main show.

The first two of these are up: the first a comparison of the German armies within World War One and World War Two; the second an interview with Mike Duncan of History of Rome/Revolutions and the author of The Storm Before The Storm.  The first of these is a typically speculative HH topic, initially it sounded like it might get a bit military history focused for my taste but it curved back and largely centred on political influence.  The second is interesting.  Both podcasters are interested in Roman history and American politics and, despite any other differences they may have they, both remain dubious about comparing the US to the late Roman Republic.

History of Byzantium

I was actually a little behind here, as I wasn’t commuting into work for a few months so my listening habits fell away.  Robin Pierson has stopped at the end of Basil II’s reign, so that gave me time to catch up.  It’s a nice part to take as a block – Basil grew up under a series of regent generals, seeing his mother remarried then exiled, and experiences shocking palace coups.  As a young man he re-took the throne, then re-gained his powers and spent the later parts of his life crushing the Bulgarians (or so the propaganda would say).

Pierson is helped on the topic by historian Anthony Kaldellis – with a lengthy interview on his new book Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood and many small segments broken up throughout the narrative.  The interview was very interesting and the book have made it onto my ‘to buy’ list (along with his Byzantine Republic from a previous interview).  Pierson is as level and patient as ever with some exciting but often confused material.

Revolutions

Mike Duncan continues his trek through the world of Revolutions, tackling the challenging world of 1848.  He’s switching between the many areas of interest: the revolution in France, German unity, the fragmented Austrian empire, and Italian independence.  This does mean that I enjoy some episodes more than others (I’m liking the budding class war of France). but Duncan excels at explaining how these are connected and how they are not.

The news from France sparks everything off, but Duncan stresses the difference between the Liberal “political question” of constitutions and who can or cannot vote and the “social question” of inequality and early socialism.  Meanwhile nationalism is raising its head and complicating matters.  I have read books and listening to podcasts on 1848 before – but they only ever focused on parts of it.  Despite the regional differences, the wide overview that Duncan provides really makes the whole thing come together.