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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Christmas reminds me of so many things.  Isn’t it a marvel that we are able to be reminded of things?  I mean, why on earth should stardust take the shape of a thing? a thing that lives and breathes ; a thing that does all the things that stardust cannot do ; a thing that remembers what it has done.  Remembers.  Remembers !  Why in heaven should stardust want to remember things?

But, if we are really made of stardust, then remembering things is what stardust does, for we certainly remember things.  I remember reading a most interesting article on the economics of farming.  It was many years ago, but the general scheme of the article still remains fresh.

If you look closely at a map of England (especially England) you’ll find that the towns and villages of any size are almost all medieval.  You know this (if you have Google Earth) because you will usually find the betowered stone church and its graveyard ; generally the hallmarks of the Middle Ages.

And the towns are spaced about fifteen miles apart.  Those who claim to know about these things tell us that this spacing is no accident ; the spacing means that a farmer needed to travel no more than about seven-and-a-half miles to his nearest market ; and that distance has been calculated as the longest that a farmer can travel economically in a day.  Any greater distance would take more time to travel, and he would face increased costs in feeding his oxen that towed the cart ; and the space that would hold the ox’s fodder could not be used to carry produce, so his sales turnover would be reduced.  Also he might have to pay for an overnight stay in town.  At least, those are two of the reasons given to explain that figure of fifteen miles.

Well, we are free to believe these kinds of explanations, or not, as our inclinations take us.  But they are useful, if only because they give us a little window that throws light on our human nature.

We might ask, “Why on earth should anyone be interested in why our medieval towns happen to be fifteen miles apart?”  Of what use is such information?  We might as well ask, “Why on earth should anyone be interested in how big the universe is?  or how old it is?  or how it began?”  Who cares?

But care we do ; and how shall we answer ourselves?  I think it’s because we have an insatiable appetite simply to know things ; even things that have no practical use at all.  In particular, we desire to know the truth of things.  We are not satisfied with just any answer that comes to mind.  We dig deeper, we think, we imagine, we debate, we argue, we even come to blows with those who disagree with us.  We seem to be driven by some demon into finding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Well, let’s ask another question.  “If we are so keen and so well-equipped to seek and find the truth, why don’t we always find it?”  Name any subject – the right kind of food to eat : the way to grow cabbages : the tastiest whisky : the best way to treat back-ache : the causes of depression : the quickest way to build a road : the most comfortable car : the fastest aeroplane : the best time of the year to fly to Mars : the biggest known galaxy : the smallest particle : the way our memories work : the meaning of life -…. the list of subjects over which we argue about the truth is quite endless.  Even questions which ought to have been answered centuries ago remain unresolved.  And fought over.

And we must not be fooled by what we read.  It may well be the case that the theory of Professor Knuttekase, regarding the age of the universe, is published everywhere as the incontovertible truth which every respectable astronomer believes and every student is taught.  But we may be quite sure that there are dissenting voices ; soft voices which are never read about, because it would be professional suicide to publish them – even if a scientifically respectable publisher could be found.  It reminds us that what is politely known as peer review (peer approval) is in fact a kind of tyranny ; it ensures that there is little publishing, debate, or even thinking, outside the box of convention.  Peer review has an obvious purpose :  to preserve the reputation of Professor Knuttekase and the material wellbeing of his generously funded department.

So, when we return to the question of why the medieval towns of our country are fifteen miles apart, we might find the answer is much less complicated than modern minds make it to be.  Perhaps they are fifteen miles apart simply because King Knut decreed it (but forgot to make a note of his reasons).

It is apposite that we should think of things like this at Christmas.

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It must have been in about 1971 that I was in Ireland, visiting my wife’s parents.  We used to go there once or twice a year in those days, and I got to know the locals quite well.  One evening in winter we were with old Michael and Katie (of the MacCoilidh family) in their marvellously warm living room in their little cottage by the main road.  Someone (not me) suggested that we ought to be singing so as to bring cheer to the bleak frosty night outside.  That was a cheap trick because none of those three would be the first to sing a single note ; and so I was obliged to go through my entire repertoire – all borrowed from the Dubliners –  and all of which I faithfully murdered, in both tune and word.  But nobody cared for the musical niceties ; the point was that we had a wail of a time.

After a while, old Michael rose from the fireside.  He was a short man with jet-black hair and blue eyes ; he was wiry and as strong as a typical farmer of those parts.  He said little, but always his words were kind ; and always he had a ready smile.  And always he was rather shy.  So now, having risen from his chair he stood, slightly bow-legged in the way of farmers, by the door to the scullery and back garden.  As if he was not sure of what to say next, he tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me to follow him.  Into the pitch-black of the garden we went, Michael leading and me not having a clue of where we were or where we were going.  Utter darkness.

“I expect ye’ll want to pay a visit,” he whispered when we were out of earshot of the ladies inside.  “Come, follow me.”

After a few more yards, took my arm so as to point me in a particular direction.  “There, now, this is the place, d’ye see?”

Actually, I couldn’t see anything.  But, by following the sounds of my host, I probably managed to do the decent thing ; but I shall never be sure, because Michael was far, far too much of a gentleman ever to remark on another gentleman’s bad aim in circumstances such as these.

All this came to mind a month or two back, when I was reading the adventures of a Victorian parson who was the incumbent of a remote country parish.  In those days, ordinary country people had no inside toilets ; indeed, they had no proper toilets at all.  It was the task of the man of the house to dig the pit that the entire family would use for their convenience.  The procedure was quite simple : when the stench of the pit became obnoxious, he would dig another and use the rubble to fill the old one.  And, if he failed to maintain these arrangements, he would soon have the parson on his doorstep to read the Riot Act to him.  Wives knew how to make good use of parsons in those days.

And all this came to mind again yesterday, when I read of the doughty Indian bride who refused to live with her husband until he provided a toilet fit for a lady to use.  Of course, he protested.  He couldn’t see why his new wife shouldn’t just use the ground in some corner somewhere – just as he did.

Well, she wasn’t having that!  “I want a proper toilet,” she demanded ; and vowed to stay at home with her parents until the man of her dreams came up with the goods.  I couldn’t help wondering how different her life would be if she had a good, old-fashioned Victorian parson to turn to.  He would soon have had that idle young man busy digging a proper pit ; he would probably have boxed his ears as well.

Now, I don’t know what life is like in a poor village in India ; I can only guess.  But, thanks to the country parson, I do have an idea of what poor country people are like.  He describes the poor people as being very poor indeed.  But they were so often very far from being pleasant.  They (both men and women) tended easily to violence and drunkenness ; and, of course, idleness.  Their children were often disastrously neglected and abused.  What the poor people needed, almost more than anything else, was leadership ; for they were incapable of improving themselves.  And it was generally the parson who provided that leadership, assisted by whomever he could recruit.

Also, with people such as these, a deal of bossiness was needed, for the poorest of people lack the discipline needed to lead useful lives.  They lacked both discipline and knowledge.  One has to admire the country parsons ; after all, nobody forced them to devote their lives to the poorest.

I imagine that parts of rural India are not much different from rural Britain in ages past.  But, that example of the bride and her lavatory remind me of the great differences between Oriental thought and Western thought.  Of course, we are not supposed to make unfavourable comparisons, are we?  We are supposed to be all relativistic and multi-cultural.  But the old complaint, that the East is fatalistic, has truth in it I think.  Does this explain the poverty in an ancient civilisation (like India’s) where almost fantastic degrees of wealth have been enjoyed by the elite for so long?  How do we explain an ancient country very rich in minerals, in agricultural land, in abundant fisheries, having such abject poverty in its midst?

Can it only be a lack of leadership?  Or is it more to do with aims?  After all, to be a leader, one must not only be bossy ; one must have a clear idea of where to go ; and an idea of how to get there.

And what about Katie and Michael?  For all I shall ever know about that dark night, they might have had the most resplendent toilet facilities in all Ireland – perhaps it was just that the light bulb had blown.

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In search of the Light

You steadfast sentinels who guard the heart
Of England fair, stand ready yet, amid
The fallen of your number ; ne’er to part
From sacred duty.  Loyalty unhid.
And yet, what life have you, our standing stones,
That turn their faces to the new-born sun?
As if to capture clouds of glory, tones
Of Heaven’s colour, counting all well-won.
Does blood run freely in the veins of rock?
In hearts of stone, does deity choose to dwell?
Is spirit content in granite to lock
The forces that all ills may sure dispel?
You played your part as vanguard of the quest
That found the light and kindled us, the West.

Jamie MacNab 2011

Standing guard

Guardians

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In a sense, everything is history.  For example, when I look at an object such as my computer screen, I am aware that I see it not as it is but as it was a fraction of a second ago ; this is because it takes a definite length of time for it to be neurologically processed and to be presented to conscious awareness.  When we move away from that kind of example towards more everyday awarenesses, to thinking about what to have for breakfast for example, things get even more historical ; if I decide on cornflakes, then where does my liking of them come from if not from pleasant memories of breakfasts past?

In a sense, then, while the arrow of time is always pointing forward, our sense perceptions of the world are always pointing backward.  It is as if Nature made us to feel more comfortable to look at the past rather than the future.

And in a sense, everything is spiritual.  For, even though I can persuade myself that I am looking at a material thing as I gaze at the computer screen, the moment I start to think about it, it becomes entirely a phenomenon of consciousness ; i.e., not material at all but spiritual.

These thoughts and others like them were crossing my mind as I enjoyed reading the history of the events following the Norman conquest, from the time of King William himself to King John.  I was conscious of enjoying that period of history as a purely spiritual pleasure ; for there is no way I could possibly enjoy it as a sensory one.  I might have imagined what it is like to be clad in heavy chain mail on the Sussex Downs ; I might have imagined what the weight of a swinging sword or mace might feel like ; I might have imagined the pain of taking an arrow-hit in the eye.  But there is no way that I can experience these things that are long in the past and beyond hope (or fear) of repetition.

“How wonderful life must be for the historian, I thought, living one’s subject entirely through one’s imagination!”

And imagination is but one short step back from its alluring cousin, fantasy.  “How comforting it would be,” I thought, “If the nobler Anglo-Saxons had never allowed themselves to become embroiled with those ghastly Normans and French!”

But then, history is history, as they say, and the events cannot be realistically imagined as being different from what they actually were.  All ‘what if’ scenarios are mere fantasy.  Perhaps that is why so many students of history see their subject as elaborate lists of dates, names and deeds ; nice and safe lists with little margin for error.  But surely this is not history at all ; it is  little more than chronology.

So, perhaps that is why they also like to have each item in the list tagged with the opinion of their teacher ; in the belief that this somehow adds veracity to the content of the list.  But such opinions are so often conditioned by the political opinions of the teacher, which always contaminate history with modern ideas alien to the age being studied.

Of course, history is bound to contain large amounts of historians’ opinion, but I do not think that this is what it is really about.  For, surely, no subject is worthy of study unless the student is in some way in love with the subject being studied.  And what is being studied in ‘History’?  it has to be simply people.  So the first requirement of an historian is to love people and, from that, to desire to know what they did and why they did it.  The ‘what’ is easy enough ; that is the bare menu.  But the ‘why’ is where the recipe is ; it leads to the kitchen where the tale of entire nations and civilisations is cooked up.

History is a tale with many story-lines, therefore with as many aims ; but apparently without an over-arching plot.  In 1066 nobody in England had the faintest suspicion of a Hanoverian monarch.  History has many chronologists but not an all-knowing author.

And yet there are patterns in history, which suggests something about human nature.  And the patterns do not lead to mere repetition of events, which suggests that human nature is changing.  For example, in general, the farther back we go, the more violent are the methods of government ; and this suggests that we are moving in a direction where force as a method is giving way to persuasion.  And violence, of course, is the outcome of ways of seeing the world and of ways of thinking.
Therefore, it seems to me that history is the tale of the evolution of human consciousness.  It is a spiritual tale.

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If there is one human habit you can rely on it is the habit of taking matters to extremes.  Once people have discovered a Good Thing, their impulse is to work it to death – or something like death.  There are numerous examples, from the trivial to the grand, and these examples span all of history.  Warcraft has often been seen as a Good Thing, if only to provide defences for civilised people ; but war can be glorified and lead to the downfall of martial states ; Persia, Greece and Rome come to mind.   In modern times, we have our own Good Things.  We ensure that we have an abundant food supply because food is a Good Thing ; and we enjoy so much of its goodness that many people now are so overweight that they will surely die early and painfully.  On the other hand, modern folk have a superstition that it is good to live for as long as possible and with as few bodily inconveniences as possible.  So people pay unconscionable amounts of money to medical gurus to try to keep them alive for ever, even selling all that they own to pay for it ; with the rather unsurprising result that dying has never been a more miserable affair.

Amid all this confusion, there is no doubt at all that these banes (and others) that afflict people began as good things ; but were carried to extremes.  I do not doubt that Aristotle was right when he said, “Moderation in all things,” words that were also used by Jesus of Nazareth and by many of the wise, both before and since.

These thoughts were going through my mind a wedding I attended recently – which goes to show what wonderful thing the human mind is – for what on earth has a wedding to do with such matters as war and food and medicine, etc?  But the mind is a potentially wild thing ; in its knowledge or memory, it finds connections everywhere.  Psychologists have a model for memory (one of several) which they call the spreading activation model. In brief, it says that, whatever your recall alights on in memory, other related memories are stimulated to present their knowledge to you.  So, if you think of breakfast, immediately the memory of coffee might arise, then the memory of toast, then marmalade – and so on.  And each of these subordinate memories can lead you on to recall things which apparently have nothing at all to do with breakfast!

So it is hardly surprising that my ‘wedding-mind’ wandered to the question of having too much of a good thing.  After all, it might have strayed anywhere!  It might have meandered to any extreme.  I wonder it didn’t wander to the idea that, since a wedding feast is a Good Thing, we’d all be better off if we ate nothing but wedding feasts.  More Boeuf  Bourguignon, vicar?

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Somewhere in the book written by Ecclesiastes there are the words, Knowledge is a curse – or something similar.  Perhaps he is near the mark.  We can think of knowledge as the contents of our memory, both individual and collective.  Most creatures have a memory of some kind, but what distinguishes us is that we can become conscious of our past experiences by means of recall.  And we have other highly-developed abilities, too : we can think, and we can imagine the future.  So, by recalling the past and comparing it with the present – by thinking about what was and what is – we can detect a kind of process at work.  From there, we can imagine what the future might hold for us, and also how that future might be amended.  And all this tempts some of us to imagine that we might become masters of our own destiny.

But why should knowledge be a curse?  Because it is never complete ; and because it is never precisely known.  Thus all our plans for the future are flawed right from the start.  From this mere weakness, many strong evils emerge.

 

 

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Who doesn’t feel a certain connection with the stones of Stonehenge?  Is it true that Merlin himself bore them there from Ireland in the sunny past, when every day was Summer?  Or are they the relics of giants who themselves marched from olden Wales ; perhaps to form a secret circle or committee that would decide the destiny of Britain?

At any rate, they are no ordinary rocks ; no common Saxon stanes ; no wild henges.  For they are ancient, they are British and they are there for a reason.

Archaeologists may concoct their wild theories to the contentment of their barren hearts, but those with souls know that Stonehenge is not merely old ; it is timeless.  For there is a touch of the eternal about it.  When all the world has perished and all the seas gang dry, those stones will still be there to rage about it.

Eternal the Henge might be, but it is yet a relic ; for its power over men has diminished.  No longer does it rule their souls but it does warm them, for it is a reminder, a jogger of memories.  It is a reproach, if you like, for our once losing our way on the chalky Downs ; for mistaking one sign for another.

The second thing to strike me about those stanes (after their size and weight) is that somebody must have planned the construction.  If not Merlin then man.  And what form did that plan take?  Did the builders simply go out and stake the ground, knowing that it might take centuries to complete their task?  Or did they make a drawing of what they wanted?  Did they draft it on boards of black Oak using a piece of Wiltshire chalk?

What name did they give to their cathedral of the Sun?  Indeed, what was the sound of their tongue?  And, when it was built, who was qualified to enter its various parts?  What were those qualifications?  Who conducted the examinations?

It would seem that people came from all over Europe to partake of the magic embodied here.  Some are buried here.

And now, folk come from all over the world.  But they come only to stand and stare.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

The lightness of stones

The stones that called the sleeping sun
From out of weepy winter skies
Themselves now slumber on the Down
Forlorn and lost.

Who now remembers when they lived,
All charged with life that was their own
That gave them power over men
O’er whom they ruled?

Their voices, heard no more, they mute
The long lost glory of their day ;
Their eyes now blind and staring blank
At skies they fear.

Rough-hewn they were from Mother Earth
By hands that knew not what they did,
By minds that thought they mastered all
They touched.  Not so.

‘Twas Fate ordained that they be born
From out of distant granite grey,
And be conveyed to Wiltshire clay.
Better for to reign.

And Man was but their instrument ;
Though, foolish, thought he otherwise.
And soon they had him overawed,
Enthralled and slaved.

So thus the age rolled slowly by,
While stone gave way to polished bronze,
And souls grew brighter and declined
To be so used.

Now other ages came to pass,
The Stones were left forgotten now
By all except a stalwart few.
Most force was spent.

By ones and twos they fell unheard ;
Unmourned and unlamented they.
The Sun, he came and went at will,
As ever free.

And Man enjoyed his liberty
From those old tyrants’ baneful thrall ;
They withered in the wild East winds
And ice and snow.

For all the ages their doom was fixed,
By powers greater than any known
To man or beast in nameless days.
The Titans died.

How else it could be none can tell,
For gracious answer there is none.
The World was come into her own ;
The grand design.

An Eastern Light appeared, to stun
The mind of Man who had forgot
The early lessons of his youth.
Rebellion faltered.

Jamie MacNab
2010

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