Thursday, January 28, 2010

History written in sand

While I was wittering on about learning Russian, Belle posted a link to this most beguiling piece of performance art. The things this woman does with sand are amazing, and her tracing of recent Ukrainian history is entrancing and chilling at the same time.

(Click here if you can't play the embedded version below.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Seven things...

Having been given the hard word by Good (Enough) Woman, and with no further ado, here are seven things you wouldn’t know about me from reading my blog...

1. I’m a bit of a science nerd, and have two-thirds of a BSc degree in Exercise Science. A few years ago, I considered a career change to the sports science field, but after doing some personal training I discovered I had no patience for lazy whiners the clients.

2. Though I’m currently owned by two cats, I’ve also had dogs in the past. I always snort disdainfully at those clueless dog-owners on television programmes like It’s Me or the Dog, and say things like “I would never have allowed my dogs to behave like that!” But the truth is that one of them, in particular, was a right little scallywag despite his many obedience club certificates. My son once had to go to school and tell the teacher that yes, the dog really had eaten his homework.

3. I used to be a kickass belly dancer. I still think that my regular dancing gigs at private functions and at the local Turkish restaurant were the easiest dosh I ever made (and always in cold, hard cash).

4. I’m anxious about climate change but at the same time, I can’t shake my penchant for classic American muscle cars. I’ve owned various cars over the years (mostly squeaky Japanese sports cars) but the darling of them all was a royal blue 1965 Ford Mustang.

5. Like GEW, I’m a headbanger from way back. The first record I ever bought with my own money (yes, it was all vinyl back then kiddies!) was AC/DC’s Back in Black (and it’s still on my iPod today). Generally, I preferred the dirty and vaguely menacing products of Britain’s industrial wastelands (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) to the shiny LA hair bands. Van Halen excepted.

6. The first time I went to university (straight out of school), I majored in Anthropology and Religious Studies. I had no clue what I wanted to do with a degree and picked these subjects mainly because they sounded interesting and my friends were doing them.

7. I’m a dreadful hoarder of books and papers, and also very lazy about tidying. This lethal combination means that my study is now so stuffed with crap, I can barely get in the door. However, instead of clearing it out and organising it, I’ve simply moved all my work-in-progress piles to the dining room table.

ETA: Oh wait. You might have guessed about number 5 from reading this post.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I'm cheating on my first love with Russian

I’ve been learning French for several years, and I adore the language. I’ve grown to really like my classmates and a number of us have now been through four or five terms together. We’ve fallen into a happy routine of taking turns to bring the wine each week and laughing over it as we confess our latest vocabulary faux pas. It’s possible I may even have developed a leetle, tiny girl-crush on my teacher, a beautiful and charming lass of French Indochine heritage and strange musical tastes. She once played us the Jacques Brel song Ne me quitte pas and was perplexed that we thought it a cheesy old load of nonsense with weird stalkerish undertones.

But this term, I’m cheating on my first love because I’ve finally found a night class in Russian. I’ve had a strange yearning to learn Russian for years. Recently, it became almost overwhelming as a result of watching this fascina
ting BBC series, in which Jonathan Dimbleby spends 18 weeks travelling from Murmansk to Vladivostok. I know very little about Russia, apart from the corners of its history I traversed in the course of an undergraduate paper on the Napoleonic Wars. Also, some odds and ends about Catherine the Great, although I never fell for the story that she was crushed to death while trying to have sex with a stallion (this is one of those scurrilous myths that often get attached to powerful women, and despite all evidence to the contrary, never seem to die).

I imagine all Russians to be like Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, all smouldering gangland staunchness and chewy Russian consonants. Either that, or like the icily elegant socialites Dimbleby meets in St Petersburg, who dismiss Western democracy and American consumer culture with a disdainful wrinkling of their White Russian noses. I’ve never been to Russia but a visit to the Hermitage Museum is definitely on my list of things to do before I die. That, and swilling French champag
ne in the Baroque dining room of some decaying St Petersburg hotel that’s seen better days.

Oy. I just had a look at the Hermitage website. The Cyrillic script is utterly mystifying. At least with French, you’re on somewhat familiar territory, even if the particular letter combinations and the accents create different spoken sounds from English. It’s just occurred to me how much of a challenge it’s going to be to learn this entirely new alphabet - like learning to read all over again!

Image: The almost impossibly fairytal
e-like Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg (eat your heart out, Walt Disney). Apparently, it got this rather gruesome moniker care of being the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination.

Monday, January 18, 2010

If clothes maketh the man, can hair maketh the virgin?

Or more specifically, could an image of a queen with her hair worn down but simply plaited be interpreted as a marker of virginity? I ask because in the course of my research on Richard II, I’ve found myself pondering the possible meanings of a suggestive image from his charter to Shrewsbury in 1389. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of the manuscript illumination, but it features Richard II sitting all kingly on his throne, while Queen Anne kneels beside (and slightly below) him, depicting her classic intercessory role as mediator between the king and his subjects. Anne is crowned but otherwise her hair is uncovered and it is shown hanging down her back in a long plait.

I know that ‘unbound’ hair was used as a symbol of virginity, for example in the coronation rituals for new queens and for nuns taking final vows. The picture to the left is from the Liber Regalis, a 14th century coronation ordo, and you can just see the queen’s hair falling down her back. But does the concept ‘unbound’ always mean fully loose, as it is shown here, or could it include plaited but not otherwise pinned up or covered?

I’m aware that image does not necessarily (or even frequently) reflect reality. This portrayal of Anne on her knees, pleading with her husband/king for the liberties of the town, should most obviously be read as a representation of her symbolic role as queenly intercessor - mirroring the Virgin Mary’s intercession with Christ on behalf of humanity. But at the same time, I wonder if there is a more subtle message being conveyed. If plaited hair can carry the same connotations as fully unbound hair, could it also be read as an allusion to the possibility that Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage? This is something that has been suggested by a few historians as an explanation for their failure to have children. (By 1389, they had been married for seven years and Anne was 21 - getting on a bit in the child-bearing stakes by late medieval royal/aristocratic standards.) It’s curious, too, that despite Richard’s deposition and the opportunities opened up by subsequent noble rebellions and rumours of his imminent return, no ‘pretender’ ever emerged who claimed to be his son (legitimate or otherwise) and heir.

The possibility that Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage is one of those ‘arguments from absence’ that can be so difficult to sustain (and indeed, the articles I’ve read so far that discuss the possibility stretch the available evidence rather thin). Richard certainly portrayed himself as a model of orthodox piety and ‘hammer of heretics’ - it was even reported that he processed barefoot with the monks of Westminster. By the late Middle Ages, chaste marriage had emerged as an attractive model for pious laypeople who, for whatever reason (including an arranged marriage), had been unable to take up a formal religious occupation. Perhaps the most notorious example was that of the married mystic Margery Kempe, who basically bought off her husband by agreeing to cover his (considerable) financial debts if he would discharge her ‘marriage debt’ and agree to stop having sex with her.

Richard and Anne’s childlessness contributed to the instability of Richard’s reign as the lack of an heir of the body arguably made it that much easier for Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) to establish his claim to the throne. Strangely, though, none of the chronicle sources make much of this apparent failure at one of the fundamental obligations of kingship. If Richard and Anne’s marriage was indeed chaste, one would expect more rumour and gossip, as they weren’t just any couple but the king and queen of England. On Anne’s death, one would also have expected more criticism of Richard’s decision to take as his second wife a girl of six years old, meaning even the potential for an heir would be postponed by canon law for at least six years. Whether Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage or there was some other reason they didn’t reproduce, consideration of the apparent ‘failure’ of this royal marriage (and of Richard as a man) from a political perspective also marks an odd lacuna in many modern interpretations of Richard’s reign.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sod the resolutions

For many reasons, I am not a great fan of the New Year holiday. Not the least of these reasons is the many New Year's days I've spent nursing wicked hangovers and vowing never to drink again. I managed to avoid that particular trap this year, and I also managed to avoid making any New Year's resolutions, which I know from past experience that I'd probably break within a month.

Another reason I don't like New Year is the accompanying deluge of advertising from Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, and just about every gym in town, trying to convince us to part with our cash in pursuit of some mythical 'ideal self' that we could finally attain this year if only we'd just try that little bit harder. Now, I'm not against fitness or healthy eating per se (in fact, I've been known to indulge in these things myself from time to time). What bugs me is the blatant targeting of all this 'New year new you!' self-improvement crap at women, and the insidious ways women's perfectly normal human imperfections are used as the ammunition to generate guilt, fear and ultimately - of course - product sales.

I could write a very long and humourless rant on this topic, but I think this hilarious clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look really says it all.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vikings to Brits: "Charlemagne made me do it!"

From Medieval News comes this item on a new book by Robert Ferguson, in which he claims the Vikings were not truly the aggressors in the bouts of pillaging and raiding that made them so famous. In fact, it was all Charlemagne’s fault. According to Medieval News,
"A new theory about what drove the Vikings to raid Western Europe in the late eight and ninth centuries has been published. It suggests that the Vikings in Denmark were reacting to a threat from the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne, who was seeking to destroy their society and impose Christianity on them."
Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read this book, nor am I familiar with Robert Ferguson’s scholarship or credentials. But whenever someone comes along who turns cherished master narratives on their heads - or at least makes us think again about long-held assumptions - my interest is always piqued. On the face of it, though, this seems like a pretty radical reinterpretation of the Viking invasions. (I’m sorely tempted to make a glib comparison between Ferguson's depiction of Viking aggression-as-defence and reactionary men’s rights activists who claim dysfunctional and violent men are simply the sad victims of expansionary feminism.)

The Medieval News article continues -
‘With the accession of Charlemagne in 771, the Carolingians began to implement a new program of converting their pagan and neighbors and promoting Christianity. Charlemagne launched numerous invasions of the Saxon peoples led by Widukind.

In a podcast interview [available through the BBC History Magazine website], Ferguson adds the goals of Charlemagne were to force the Saxons "to abandon their culture, political system, beliefs and everything, and make them part Christians ['part Christians'? I think this is a typo, unless Charlemagne was happy with superficial expressions of faith versus full and genuine conversion] and part of his empire."

Ferguson notes an episode of "ethnic-cleansing:" when, in 782, Charlemagne's armies forcibly baptised and then executed 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden, a town close to Denmark. The Danes would have been well aware of what was happening with the Saxons anyways, as Widukind was married to sister of the Danish king, Sigfrid, and often took refuge in Denmark to escape the Carolingians.

Considering the situation, Ferguson writes, "Should the Vikings simply wait for Charlemagne's armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture?"

But the Norse could not fight the Carolingian military directly - instead they went after soft targets, such as monasteries, which were symbols of the growing Christian encroachment. Ferguson says, "everything points to a hatred that goes beyond just robbers who just wanted money."’
I’m no expert on the earlier Middle Ages/Charlemagne/pre-Conquest England, but I know some of you reading this are. Out of curiosity, I’d love to know what you make of Ferguson’s assertions. Has his theory been canvassed before? Is it crazy-talk? Can the Vikings really be rehabilitated as victims of Charlemagne’s attempts at ‘ethnic cleansing’ and forced Christianisation?