14th Century Games

I came across this quote the other day:

“In village games, players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws.”

(originally from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century).

Back in the days when you had to make your own entertainment!

The Northmen’s Fury by Philip Parker

This is probably the first Viking history I’ve read since Horrible Histories, when I was a kid. I’m certainly wasn’t disappointed – Parker gives a narrative history of the Vikings through their early raids in Ireland, France and England, to the high points of the great Heathen Armies and the Danelaw, and finally the settlement into various Christian kingdoms. Alongside this he covers the sagas and writings that have preserved this Norse culture so we can read it today.

This book ties in with a few other things I’ve read recently – Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris and The Empire Stops Here. There is a little bit on mythology here, but by and large Parker is focused on fact (or at least the more possible sorts of legend). The myths of Loki, Odin and Thor are mentioned, but only to explain how the fit into the Viking world. Actually, Christianity plays as big a part in this history, and much of our story is on the conversion and settlement of the pagan raiders. By avoiding telling these myths for their own sake, Parker actually gives the book a greater sense of purpose. It allows an almost unbroken focus on the raiding and colonization of the Norsemen; one can get a sense of the connections and development throughout Scandinavian societies.

In comparison to The Empire Stops Here, I preferred Parker’s style here. Although he clearly has a solid take on the dry details, Parker’s writing is at his best when he has a colourful story to tell. The Viking world isn’t short of those! Harald Hardrada in particular stands out, for me, as a highlight. He was a man who seemed to collect good stories, even when they were blatantly stolen from elsewhere!

The chapters on Iceland, Greenland and (what we know of) Vinland are also good. They give a good picture of how the societies in these lands were built, and what may have went wrong (in the case of the latter two). Parker deals with the problem of evidence well; in many situations we just don’t have historical evidence to fill in a complete picture.

Parker keeps a pace and a vividness that makes the Viking age just as interesting to read about as the stories one reads a a child. Maybe a bit more factual, but also more varied – the Viking influence spanned such a geographical area (from North America to the Middle East) and time (Norn was being spoken in the Scottish islands as late as the 19th century!). It’s just a luxury to encounter them from such a distance.

Alfred The Great by David Horspool

The quote on the front of the book says “If you only have time to read one book on the great man, you should make it this one”.  I wouldn’t entirely agree with that.  David Horspool’s book is largely a critical review of the myths and legends about King Alfred.  It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of Alfred’s life; there’s none of the the colour and myths and grandeur with which he often appears – but it is none the worse for it.

Book CoverThe real historical evidence and the growth of the legend are covered, and with some wit.  There’s a memorable phrase where Horspool describes the Victorian ideal of Alfred as a “Anglo Saxon head boy king”.  There is great detail on contemporary sources like Bishop Asser; on Matthew Parker, the Tudor archbishop who used the myth to boost the newly independent Church of England; and on later romantic portrayals in painting and theatre, all the way up to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom and the 1969 epic film starring David Hemmings, Michael York and Ian McKellan.

Continue reading Alfred The Great by David Horspool

Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

Continue reading Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.

Continue reading Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

As with most Islamic scholarship, the roots of the subject came from ancient Greece. Even the terms Chemisty and Alchemy are derived from ancient greek terms. At this early stage of Chemistry, there is still a huge mixture between what would correspond to real science (Chemistry) and what would correspond to utter nonsense (Alchemy) – similar to Astronomy and Astrology but possibly harder to discern. Despite the subject not yet being fully refined, there was still the beginnings of skepticism and a more structured scientific method. In practical terms there were great developments in equipment and results – particularly in the field of medicine.  To include the huge amount of discoveries, I would basically have to write a list of names and dates.  Therefore for the sake of readability I’m going to focus on just a few of the big names.

Geber and Pseudo-Geber

The source of much of this is Jabir Ibn Hayyan, otherwise known as Geber, a scholar from Persia in the 8th century. His name was so bound up with the subject of chemistry that there is even a so-called “Pseudo-Geber” who put out his own work under the name of the earlier scholar as “translations”. This, and the usual mysteriousness associated with the profession of Alchemy, can make it difficult to pin down the genuine works of Geber. Regardless of this, both Geber and Psuedo-Geber did much for the science.

Continue reading Post 56: Science & Islam: Chemistry

Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium

Book CoverAs you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.

Continue reading Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium

Post 50: Web comics, podcast news and other things.

This is my fiftieth post on this blog. I’d wondered if I should do anything special here, but in the end have decided to just note a couple of small things. Firstly, the History of England podcast is going on to a (hopefully brief) hiatus. It has been one of my favourite podcasts for a few years now with its mix of amateur dramatic, sheds and the ladybird book of Kings and Queens. However, David Crowther has been doing it more or less non-stop for four years and has decided to break until early next year to help keep things fresh. Here is the relevant post from his facebook group.

Continue reading Post 50: Web comics, podcast news and other things.

Post 42: Science & Islam

I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).

The Rise of Islam

When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.

Continue reading Post 42: Science & Islam

Post 41: The Search For King Alfred

Dr Tucker and AlfredI recently went to a talk by Katie Tucker in a pub in Southsea/Portsmouth*. She’s the leader of a group from the University of Winchester that has potentially found the bones of King Alfred the Great. As she’s an archaeologist specializing in bones the talk was a bit short on biographical detail, but nonetheless provided a fascinating description of the investigation into and the story behind his remains and final resting place. In the aftermath of Richard III’s re-appearance this search was splashed all over tabloid front pages with lurid headlines and dubious mis-quotes. The results may not be quite as complete as that of the University of Leicester but Dr Tucker’s investigation was quite a different one with a brilliant conclusion in its own way.

When Alfred died in 899 AD, he was originally buried in the old Minster at Winchester but within a few years he had be shifted to the New Minster next door, built by his son as a dynastic church for the family. So far so good*, but the difficulties start when the Normans arrived and decided to build a new cathedral on the site. Alfred’s remains, and those of some close relatives and companions, were packed up and taken to a new abbey at Hyde on a new site. They were reburied here, although the exact position is disputed. Then in 1538 the abbey was dissolved and demolished, and in 1788 the site had a prison built on top. This is where the location of the bodies starts to get messed up – contemporary reports suggested that the bones were scattered by the building work.

Continue reading Post 41: The Search For King Alfred