Tag Archives: History

For the Joy of Reading: Vanished Kingdoms

Norman Davies has produced a book that forces us to think about how we think about history.   It is lived forwards.   We can make guesses about what is going to happen, we can surmise, we can predict, but we do not know.   When we study history, however, we look backwards at things that have already happened and we try to make sense of them.   Our first mistake is to assume that was has happened was inevitable, and this is not the case.   It is possible that William the Conqueror could have lost the Battle of Hastings.   What we know is that he did not.   That is the case with all historical events, and that is the argument that Davies sets out in this book.

It was not inevitable that any of the kingdoms mentioned in this book had to vanish.   The fact is that they did.   All the kingdoms that Davies mentions are European, and many of them are from eastern Europe.   This is because Davies has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of eastern Europe, as is evidenced by his other publications.   It would be perfectly possible to write this kind of book about the pre-Columbian kingdoms of the Americas or the pre-colonial kingdoms of Africa or anywhere else that you care to mention.   Davies wrote this book about the vanished kingdoms of Europe because that is the area where he has detailed knowledge.

The kingdoms that he has chosen are Tolosa, Alt Clud, Burgundia, Aragon, Litva, Byzantion, Borussia, Sabaudia, Galicia, Etruria, Rosenau, Tsernagora, Rusyn, Eire and the CCCP.   Two of these are, in my view, cheating.   Rosenau is the name of a palace and the CCCP was never a kingdom.   If the names, however, are modernised it becomes possible to identify where these places are in modern Europe.   They are Toulouse, Dumbarton, Burgundy, Aragon, Lithuania, Istanbul, Prussia, Savoy, Galicia, Tuscany, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Montevideo, Ruthenia, Ireland and the Soviet Union.

Be honest.   Did you know that there were Welsh speaking kingdoms in Southern Scotland and that Edinburgh is an Anglicised version of the Fortress in the Gorse Bushes (Dineiddyn)?   All you have to do is look at Castle Rock and there are still gorse bushes in abundance.   Did you know that there was a Habsburg Kingdom of Galicia annexed from the lands of Poland-Lithuania by the Empress Maria Theresa and her son, the Emperor Joseph?   Did you know that the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were united under the same dynasty?

Indeed, the whole Habsburg conglomerate of lands came about because of the untimely deaths of members of various royal families, leaving the Emperor Charles V and his brother the Emperor Ferdinand I as heirs to much of Europe.   If Elizabeth I had had children, James VI of Scotland would not have become James I of England.   It was the chance of royal marriages, and royal deaths, that united Spanish Galicia with Leon and Leon with Castile and Castile with Aragon.   It was equal luck that had united Aragon previously with Catalonia, and then with the Balearics.

Tolosa would have survived if the war against Clovis, King of the Franks, had been won.   That is true of many of the kingdoms that Davies discusses.   If they had not lost battles and wars, the history of Europe would have been different.   The point that Davies is making is that all states, all nations are human constructs and that, like humans, they are mortal.   Many civilisations have outlived the states from which they originated.   The Roman empire has gone.   T’ang China is no more.   The Achaemenid Great Kings of Persia have been replaced by the ayatollahs of modern Iran.   There is no Aztec Empire, no Inca Empire, no Spanish Empire.   The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland which came into place in 1801 no longer exists.   It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.   Given what is happening with Brexit, who knows how long that will last?

That is the point.   There is no state, no nation that is immortal.   It is an important argument, a salutary lesson, and it is one that we all need to consider.   This is a very long book, but well worth reading.


For the Joy of Reading: The Stripping of the Altars

It is a long time since the first publication of “The Stripping of the Altars” and in that time it has become a classic account of the spirituality and religious practices of 15th century England.
On re-reading it, there is a nagging doubt in my mind. There is only passing reference to the political background in which this spirituality developed. In the period from 1399 to 1509, there were eight kings of England. Three of them were deposed and murdered (Richard II, Henry VI and Edward V). Two died prematurely creating a succession crisis (Henry V and Edward IV). One of them was killed in battle (Richard III). Henry IV reigned from 1399 to 1413, having usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, and Henry VII reigned from 1485 to 1509 having killed his predecessor, Richard III, in battle. The fate of England was decided at major battles at Shrewsbury, Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury and Bosworth. It was also a period that saw the final defeat of England in the 100 Years War. This was a period of political turmoil and it is hardly surprising that people turned to the consolation of religion. This is barely mentioned.
Two of the more extraordinary cults that developed during this period were those of Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, and of Henry VI. Archbishop Scrope was executed after taking part in a rebellion against Henry IV, and Henry VI was murdered after the Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury. In both cases they became the objects of intercessory prayers, their help being requested to deal with specific problems. In both cases this happened when their political enemies held the monarchy. It may be that the north Yorkshire centre of the cult of Archbishop Scrope was too far away from royal authority, but the cult of Henry VI was centred on his birthplace, Windsor which is still one of the great royal centres of England. It does seem unlikely that Edward IV was unaware of the cult of his deposed and murdered predecessor. Exactly what this tells us about the bravery of the individuals concerned and the limitations on the power of the monarchy, I do not know. It is, however, certainly an interesting indication of the situation in fifteenth century England and, as spirituality develops in part from the situation in which people find themselves living, I expect some comment on this background. It is not there.
Another factor defining the development of spirituality in the fifteenth century was the Black Death. The worst ravages of the disease had taken place in the latter half of the fourteenth century, but it was endemic, and quite clearly a factor in the development of the religious approach to life. There are three mentions of the Black Death in the Index. Now it has to be said that it is probably not possible to quantify the effects of royal instability and the Black Death on the growth of spirituality in fifteenth century England. What Duffy produces is more than ample evidence that the spirituality of the time centred on the Crucifixion, not the Resurrection, on the wounds of Jesus and Mary standing at the foot of the cross, not the rolling away of the stone and the Assumption. It is a religiosity that is centred on pain and sacrifice and death, as the means of obtaining eternal life. It is a culture centred on Purgatory and indulgences as a means of escaping Purgatory. It saw prayer as a means not of approaching God, but of escaping punishment for sin. The question then becomes this: is this a culture that could withstand the onslaught of the proclamation of justification by faith alone?
What Duffy demonstrates is that in the pre-Reformation period there was a vibrant Christian culture in England based firmly around the liturgical year of the Church and the cult of death. Presumably the Black Death had concentrated minds on the latter because thousands upon thousands of people had died unprepared and, more importantly, unconfessed and unshriven. A whole culture developed around the idea that, to put it crudely, God could be bribed to forgive the dead for their sins. Primers and prayer books were published which stated quite clearly that the saying of so many Paternosters or Abe Marias or other suitable prayers would reduce the time of the departed in Purgatory. To be even more mercenary, the Church could be bought to say Masses for the souls of the dead. It was this kind of sordid transaction that earned the fury of Martin Luther and of his predecessors John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia. [There is a well-documented connection between Wycliffe and Hus, possibly brought about through the marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II]. The church authorities in England, under the guidance of Archbishop Arundell of Canterbury, responded be passing the act De Haeretico Comburendo (Of the burning of Heretics) through Parliament. Fortunately, only two or three dozen people met their deaths in this way, and the act went into abeyance until the reign of Queen Mary. This was possibly because the threat from Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, was not that great. In Bohemia the church authorities launched crusades against the Hussites, having burnt Hus to death, despite his safe conduct, at the Council of Constance. These crusades were defeated, and Bohemia became the first Protestant state. Duffy does not discuss this European dimension.
England however, as Duffy rightly points out, remained quietly and confidently Catholic until William Tyndale, copying the Lutheran example, translated the Bible into English. This merits two mentions in the whole book, including one in which it is stated that the Tyndale translation was made illegal. The fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of these bibles were smuggled into the country is glossed over. This was the beginning of the Reformation in England and it took place before the marital troubles (or rather succession difficulties) of Henry VIII came to a head. The essentially conservative king took the Byzantine view of the connection between the monarchy and the church, with the King as the Supreme Head. This, of course, led to the rejection of the role of the Papacy and that in turn led to the King seeking allies amongst those who would support the Royal Supremacy. Henry VIII was essentially cautious about embracing Protestant ideas.
There were two areas in which he definitely did so. First, saints like Thomas Becket who had supported the idea of the Papal supremacy against the power of the King became persona non grata, no longer to be venerated. This caused many churches where he was specially venerated, not least Canterbury Cathedral, some difficulty. Secondly, the King authorised the translation of the Bible into English, insisting, not necessarily successfully, on the introduction of the Myles Coverdale translation of the Bible to churches across the land. This was to be decisive because it introduced the concept of Holy Writ in a language as Cranmer put it in the 1549 Prayer Book “understanded of the people”.
What is significant, and Duffy does not discuss the reasons for this, is that the Catholic uprisings when they came were in remote areas of the country and did not threaten the centres of power. This is not to undermine the importance of the Pilgrimage of Grace, in the reign of Henry VIII, the Cornish uprising in the reign of Edward VI nor the Rising of the North in the reign of Elizabeth I. The latter, indeed, could have had very serious consequences if they had managed to release Mary, Queen of Scots and proclaim her as the rightful Queen of England. They did not. The Wyatt Rebellion in Kent, on the other hand, in the reign of Mary I came close to overthrowing the Queen.
What is interesting as Duffy demonstrates with a large number of examples is that, rather than destroy vestments, missal books etc following the instructions from Edward VI’s regency council, people hid them and when Mary I, an inveterate Catholic became Queen, they were brought out of their hiding places to be used again. Duffy does not make the analogy but it was like a country under occupation. People conformed outwardly to survive, but secretly they preserved what was banned.
Another interesting point is that there were no mass persecutions to death. There were high profile victims such as Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, but it was not until Mary I revived the statute De Haeretico Comburendo that hundreds of people went to the flames for their religious beliefs. This, of course, was recorded in detail in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It is hardly mentioned in Duffy. We hear a great deal about the attempts by Bishop Bonner and Cardinal Pole to reimpose Catholic orthodoxy. It would be interesting for their to have been some discussion of why they thought that the Fires of Smithfield, in Bonner’s own diocese, assisted with this process. Nor is there any discussion about how, when the Protestants returned from exile in Frankfurt and Geneva in the reign of Elizabeth I, that these fires coloured their actions when, in turn, they reimposed Protestant orthodoxy on the Church of England.
Despite all these criticisms, Duffy has written an important book. The Church in the reign of Henry VII was not moribund. The introduction of printing had led to the blossoming of the availability of primers, prayer books, books of hours, lives of the saints and many other religious works. Many of these were printed in English, and some in English and Latin. I do not know enough about the life of Tyndale, but I can only wonder if the availability of prayers in English, based on Biblical texts, set him on the dangerous path of translating the Bible into English. Archbishop Arundell, back at the start of the 15th century, had persuaded Parliament to make this illegal, and to condemn it as heresy.
It seems to me that it was the work of Tyndale and Coverdale in translating the Bible into English that was the key factor in the transformation of the religious life of 16th century England. It was significant that, when the Rising of the North took place in 1569, the leaders ordered the burning of English bibles, as Duffy notes, and that their followers refused to do it. As with the vestments and missal books in the reign of Edward VI, English language bibles were hidden. By then, they had been in use in churches for 30 or more years. They had become part of the religious fabric of England.
Duffy is right. Religious practice cannot be changed by decree. It is embedded in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. If Elizabeth I had died of smallpox and Mary, Queen of Scots, had succeeded to the throne, we do not know what would have happened. Elizabeth’s longevity was an important factor in deciding the religious life of England, but in my view, it was the translation of the Bible into English that was decisive

For the Joy of Reading: Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains

Oliver Tambo is deserving of a biography. He is the man who held the African National Congress (ANC) together throughout all the years of exile, when Nelson Mandela was in prison. He is the man who ensured that there was an organisation in place for Nelson Mandela to lead when he was released from prison. He is the man who nurtured and encouraged the resistance to apartheid both in South Africa and throughout the world from 1962 to 1990. He is the man who encouraged generation upon generation to believe that we could win, when the world told us we were wasting our time.

He is certainly deserving of a biography. This one is not new. It was first published in 2004, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of freedom in South Africa. One of the questions that I have to ask myself therefore is this: Why has it taken me so long to read this book? Part of the reason is that the book was quite difficult to get hold of in this country. But that is an excuse. I worried that I had been too close to the events, and I had only really been on the periphery, and that it would be difficult to make an objective judgement. It is now 25 years since Oliver Tambo died, and I think that I am in a position to make that judgement.

I should explain. I was chair of the London Anti-Apartheid Committee in the 1980s. I met Oliver Tambo on a few occasions. It would be untrue to say that I was acquainted with him, although I spoke to him directly on occasion and I think that he was aware of who I was. I was certainly known to his wife, Adelaide, and to his children, Thembi, Dali and Tselane. I played with his grandchildren, Thembi’s boys, Sasha and Oliver on occasion. I was a volunteer at the ANC Office in 28 Penton Street and at the Department of Information and Publicity Office in Mackenzie Road. This latter was a secret office, and you really had to be trusted to be allowed to work there. I attended the ANC International Solidarity Conferences at Arusha in Tanzania in 1987, and in Johannesburg in 1993. I worked as a volunteer in the ANC Office in Jeppe Street, Johannesburg, during the 1994 election. I cannot claim that I was neutral, and this is why I was worried about reading this book.

Of course, I did not need to worry. Oliver Tambo may have been a self-effacing man and certainly not self-promoting, but he had an acuity of mind that made his judgement good. If Oliver Tambo thought that Luli Callinicos was a suitable person to write his biography that is simply because she was. It is a task that she takes on with sensitivity and understanding, recognising his merits and dealing with the difficulties that arose, of which there were many.

Callinicos begins with his upbringing in the village of Kantolo, district of Bizana, in Pondoland on the far east of the then Cape Province (now the Eastern Cape). Tambo was born into a traditional Mpondo family. His father had a number of wives, and children by all of them. Oliver had his mother and his “other mothers”. The community lived by farming, until the introduction of the Poll Tax which necessitated the men to go away to earn money in order to pay the tax. This was disruptive and some of the men were injured or, in the case of one of Oliver’s uncles, killed because of the unsafe conditions in the mines. Oliver’s father was determined that his son would be educated so that this would not happen to him, and so his son was sent away to missionary schools. By then, he had already learned the tradition of African leadership, of listening to a discussion, of summarising it at the end and of leading people to a decision. This tradition of ubuntu after an indaba was something that he was to practice throughout the whole of his political career.

The other major factor about Tambo’s character was his deep commitment to Christianity and specifically to the Anglican Church. This partly came about through the education that he received at St. Peter’s school, a Community of the Resurrection school, in Johannesburg. It is also partly because of his enduring friendship with Trevor Huddleston, a member of the Community, and a deeply passionate campaigner against apartheid. It was mainly, however, because of his deep spirituality and the strength that he gained from this belief, which helped him to lead the ANC through all the difficult years of exile.

I can only really comment on the accuracy of the description of events that happened in London in the late 1980s when I was a volunteer in the ANC Offices. They do seem accurate to me. I was aware of events simply because I was in the ANC office when things happened. If you see Thabo Mbeki on the stairs, then you know he is in London. If you are asked to make a cup of tea and take it in to Dirk Coetzee, you know he is in the ANC Offices talking to someone. I knew things that I probably should not have known, and I can say that the description of those events is accurate. I therefore assume that the description of events in Africa and elsewhere are also accurate. They are certainly detailed. Undoubtedly, there will be some people who do not agree with the interpretation, or who may have nuances that they want considered.

It is interesting that when Tambo faced difficulties, he did not try to impose his will. He required that ANC to take a decision as an organisation. That is what led to the calling of the Morogoro and Kabwe conferences, and for the extended consultations with the NEC and other relevant bodies. It was his style of leadership. It was not that he did not lead. He involved everyone in the decision-making process. He listened and then advised on what was to be done. Almost inevitably, this meant that the decision went his way. And there were difficulties. Those who wanted to keep other races out of the ANC were faced down at Morogoro, and those who wanted to keep other races off the National Executive Committee were dealt with at Kabwe. The excesses of the ANC security at Quattro in Angola were brought under control. The need to prepare for the future was dealt with by decisions like the appointment of a group to work on a constitution for the new South Africa. And there were the daily difficulties of running the organisation, making diplomatic representations, feeding and clothing people, weeding out infiltrators, training and equipping an army, campaigning for the release of political prisoners, maintaining underground links to the organisation in South Africa, and everything else that was needed.

For this, Tambo sacrificed both his family and his health. His wife, Adelaide, set up home in London with the three children and, although he visited, his schedule simply did not allow him to live there. His base was first Dar-es-Salaam and then Lusaka. Adelaide was the subject of spiteful remarks. It was said that she lived in a big house in Muswell Hill, in north London. This was a matter of perspective. If, like me, you were brought up in north-east London, it was not a big house. If you were brought up in a township or rural area of South Africa, it was enormous. It had one large reception room which was used to host diplomatic events for the ANC, especially when Tambo was in London. It was said that Adelaide sent her children to boarding schools. She did. This was after a man was found in the garden looking up at the room of a 12-year-old Thembi. It was said that he was a “Peeping Tom” but he could have been an apartheid agent. People forgot that the Tambo children were under daily threat of kidnap. I know that these things were said, because they were said to me and got very short shrift. So, with the whole range of issues pressing upon him, Tambo had to deal with difficulties like this as well.

What we have is a remarkable story about a remarkable man. He was patient and kind. He was not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. He never insisted on his own way. He was not irritable or resentful. He did not rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth. He bore all things, he hoped for all things, he endured all things. Oliver Tambo made a significant and indelible contribution to the liberation of his country. He was one of the great leaders of the twentieth century.

For the Joy of Reading: The Silk Roads

The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous.   It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century.   As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.

It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense.   They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea.   The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.

The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred.   Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps.   The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols.   The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane.   Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known.   The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.

But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies.   The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads.   Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China.   Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day.   Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe.   It is a necessary lesson.

This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan.   It is very ambitious.   It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages.   There are times when I wished for a bit more detail.   For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241.   The answer, of course, is that it didn’t.   It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan.   Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad.   It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory.   This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.

No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible.   The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini.   If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.