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Mar 312018
 

If you read any history at all, you will encounter many incidents of exploitation – the English exploiting the Irish, the Irish exploiting the Scottish (see Dál Riata), the English exploiting the Scottish, the Scottish exploiting the English, everyone exploiting the Welsh, etc.

As an example of how it wasn’t as simple as sometimes claimed, there is a small sliver of Anglo-Irish ancestry in my family history. Undoubtedly they exploited the Irish back in the 18th century and before, but whilst they started as English, in every generation they married into the Irish aristocracy; so in at least one case the exploiters of the Irish were half or more Irish themselves.

And that is just one small corner of the world – it was happening just about everywhere.

Take another example – slavery. Everybody immediately thinks of the Atlantic slave trade, but those who look closer are in for a surprise – firstly that most slaves were made slaves by African slavemasters. And secondly the African slave trade had been going on uninterrupted since the Roman era – chiefly to the east.

At the same time the Atlantic slave trade was going on (16th-19th centuries), the Barbary pirates were also taking slaves – European slaves. It is estimated that 1-1.5 million were taken, although these figures are disputed, it is also the case that the Barbary slave raiding caused many small towns and villages to be deserted along the coastlines of Spain, Italy, and other places with a Mediterranean coastline.

And the early history of Europe is awash with slavery – Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons, and others, all participates in raiding for slaves – for local use, to Rome (in the early days), and to Byzantium (later on).

It is easy to look at one historical incident, and see the English exploiting the Irish, the Europeans exploiting Africans, etc. And there is an element of truth in that.

But it can also be seen not as the members of a nation exploiting the members of another nation, but as a type of person exploiting another type of person. The pure Marxist would claim it is the rich exploiting the poor, and there is an element of truth to that, but it is overly simplistic.

It is really more that the exploiter is the kind of person willing to do almost anything to enrich themselves including exploiting others. There isn’t anything wrong with getting rich or being rich as long as it is done honestly and reasonably.

There is a certain kind of person who does not care what level of suffering they cause to another person. For convenience let us call these people “sociopaths”.

In every example of exploitation in history, no matter what we label those responsible I am sure that the exploiters were sociopaths.

Now this is all very intellectually interesting, but perhaps the real question here is what should we do about the invisible sociopaths in today’s society? Because there are plenty – we might call them bankers, or slum landlords, or Russian oligarchs, or other things, but in the end what they all have in common is that they are sociopaths.

Giving The Sky The Finger

 

Mar 182018
 

I recently scanned a blog entry claiming that Russia’s nerve agent attack on two people in Britain (plus the innocent bystander) wasn’t that big a deal, and that the reaction to it has been excessive. Well, perhaps.

But that blog went on to claim that militarily Russia is a bit of a pushover :-

  1. It’s less than a third the size of the Soviet Red Army. Perhaps but it still has 1 million active personnel and 2.5 million reservists. Not a size you can discount!
  2. It’s weaponry is obsolete. I can’t point to anything other than Russia spending $70 billion a year on defence to say otherwise, but “modernisation” crops up regularly in an discussion of the Russian military. And not in the sense of something that is required, but in the sense of something that is happening.

Lastly there was a reference to something that makes any student of history stare in amazement, and students of military history fall about the floor laughing. That is that Russia’s territory is flat and indefensible – ideal territory for mass tank battles (and indeed previously mass cavalry battles).

The Russian military knows this.

The last successful invasion of Russia whose territory has always been “ripe for invasion” was in the 13th century by the Mongol hordes.

There have been four major invasion attempts that failed to a greater or lesser extent :-

The Swedish military genius Charles XII tried in 1707, and was sounded beaten by the Russians assisted by the Russian winter.

Napoleon gave it a go in 1812, and the Russians inflicted a military disaster on him, again aided by a Russian winter.

Germany fought Russia during WWI, and managed to capture a considerable amount of Russian territory aided by the Russian revolution. But no major Russian cities were lost.

Again Germany tried in WWII, and Russia inflicted a major military defeat on them, with the assistance of the Russian winter.

The notion that anyone will try invading Russia is a bit ridiculous anyway (at least whilst Trump is Putin’s puppet).

So the threat from Russia is supposed “only” from cyberwar; which could be a damp squib or far more exciting than we believed possible. The fact is, we haven’t seen a full scale cyber attack against the UK, and don’t know what the results might be. Given the example of attacks against the Ukraine, we could expect wide-spread power blackouts, but it could be a great deal worse.

To be fair, I think the term “cyberwar” is a bit deceptive; attacking a nation’s connected technology is a tactic in a more widespread scheme of disruption and even war. There again, calling it “cyberwar” is a legitimate means to get funding for defences against such attacks.

The Window

Mar 102018
 

Alfred is a former Anglo-Saxon (actually Saxon) land-owner who has been reduced to serfdom for swearing to support William the Bastard and then breaking his oath in rebellion. Understandably he’s a bit put out by this.

William (no, not the Bastard; another one) is a Norman lord who has taken over Alfred’s estates. He is a bit of a thicko, and his main strength is bashing people with big lumps of optionally sharpened metal; his language skills aren’t especially pronounced which is somewhat ironic as a Norman is really a Viking with a French accent.

Bruce is William’s sword brother and is currently present so William can utter asides to him during the following dialog; he is presently visiting William as a break from his somewhat grimmer estates in Northumbria near the Scottish border, and to drink as much as is humanly possible.

William: “Oy! Alfred. Bring bœuf”

Alfred looks puzzled; he’s heard the word bœuf before but isn’t sure what it means, and isn’t in the mood to be helpful (he rarely is).

William (in Norman French which I have rendered in English because my Norman French is non-existent, and I’m not sure Google Translate is up to this job. It is also in italics to clarify that William is making an aside to Bruce): “These Saxons are a bit thick; can’t even understand the simplest commands.”

William: “Bring ox(masculine ending)”

Alfred: “We don’t have ox(masculine ending), how about ox(feminine ending)?”

William: “Just bring it”

Alfred leaves the hall looking puzzled, and is gone for an unusually long time.

Bruce: Is he trying to breed with the cow so he can bring a bull?

Alfred arrives back leading a cow on a rope; it is obviously still alive. William stands and starts to draw his sword whereas Bruce hurls his nearly empty tankard at Alfred which fortunately bonks his head. This seems to satisfy William who slumps back down in his chair and mutters: See what I have to put up with?

Alfred: “Did you mean ox(ending indicating a roasted dish)?”

William: “Bring food”

Alfred hands the cow’s rope to another serf, heads out of the hall, and comes back a few minutes later with some roast ox.

The Bench

May 312017
 

The title is not meant to be taken seriously except as a poke of fun at the notion that border between England and Scotland is set in stone and has always been there. It is essentially an excuse to counteract some of the anti-English propaganda found in films like Braveheart or TV series such as Outlander.  For example, the Battle of Culloden involved Scottish regiments fighting for the British side, and the Jacobite side had several regiments that suffered severely from desertion, plus a small English contingent; it was actually very little to do with England and Scotland, being rather more about religion and restoring the ousted House of Stuart.

But back to the borders …

The map above does not show Edinburgh, but it is on the northern edge of what is shown as Northumbria. The modern border is of course different; very roughly imagine a diagonal between the “Y” of Strathclyde, and a bit north of Bamburgh. The modern border was pretty much defined by the battle of Carham (or Coldstream) in 1018 when two Scottish kings (technically one was the king of Strathclyde) defeated an Earl of Northumbria. Later significant border changes worked out to be more or less temporary in nature.

This defeat (and loss of territory) was accepted by the kings of England partially because it has been alleged that the defacto border reflected the new border – England would have been quite weak in enforcing the “king’s peace” given it’s struggle to survive (essentially it didn’t being eventually conquered by the Normans which were essentially Danes or Norwegians with a French accent).

It is also the case that Northumbria would have seemed a remote part of the kingdom to both the Anglo-Saxon kings (most of whom were originally based in Wessex in the south), and to the Normans who were also distracted with “issues” in France. A case of not bothering when there were bigger issues at stake.

Which may very well have been a contributing factor to the North being somewhat grumpy and inclined towards rebellion; so much so that when Charles I raised his banner in the north to defeat parliament he was seen as a rebel.

So did those Northumbrians see themselves as Scottish after 1018? Almost certainly not, but they may very well not seen themselves as English or even Northumbrian either. The common people were far more likely to put more importance to their pre-medieval clan allegiances, and their medieval feudal lords. And those classified as clan chiefs or feudal lords would have pled allegiance to any overlord or king who was in a position to assist them.

To make things more complicated, the kings of Scotland often held the Earldom of Northumbria (thus were in theory required to swear allegiance to the English king) or Cumbria. Of course as an alternative to paying homage, the Scottish kings were just as happy to invade England – on at least one occasion reaching as far south as Dover.

And no medieval army behaved well on campaign – rape and pillage were considered standard forms of warfare at the time – so it is worth remembering that the English invasion in 1296 did not come in a vacuum. Yes the English behaved terribly in Scotland, but it was standard behaviour for armies at the time – soldiers expected to make money through plunder.

Trying to determine who invaded whom first is pointless not just because the conflict disappears into murkier periods of history, and because smaller scale “wars” (raids) probably occurred nearly constantly. The Scottish borders were a place of nearly constant raiding back and forth until at least the 17th century – there was even a special legal system in force in the borders (not that it helped much), and “real wars” were often raids on a larger scale.

So yes it is possible to argue that Edinburgh is English (and a great way to start an argument), but more importantly this all illustrates that nations are created and not natural. Someone from Berwick-Upon-Tweed could reasonably claim to be English, Scottish, Northumbrian, or even Bernician. If you look closely at history, you can actually see that nation-building happening with kings re-enforcing the notion of nation in order to protect their centralised power against magnates with ambition to replace them.

Just because nations are artificially created does not mean that they are meaningless, but it doesn’t do any harm to remember that they are artificial and that people on the “wrong” side of the border are different only in that some ruler from the distant past declared that they were different. Most national borders get fuzzier as you look closer at the people living near those borders.

May 082017
 

Many of us know about the story of King Canute (or probably Cnut) and his attempt to hold back the tides. Although we English typically only give one king the suffix “the Great” (Alfred), Cnut himself is also known as “the Great” (perhaps more for his non-English endeavours). So it seems a touch unlikely that such a king would imagine he could control the waves by verbal command; if anything he might want to make fun of his courtiers by trying the impossible to indicate he was human.

It is a popular tale with the Church too – it’s a great example of over-weaning pride which is one of the seven deadly sins. And Cnut as a Dane, probably was not the most popular king with the church, as Danes had only recently given up going viking and pillaging churches and monasteries (in the words of a fictional viking: “they gather all their gold and silver into one building. And then so conveniently mark those buildings with crosses.¨).

But there is a far more prosaic explanation for the tale in which the Church uses a human disaster to laugh at people’s efforts to improve themselves.

Before the raw sewage pollution in the 19th century put an end to it, the South coast was home to a massive oyster fishing industry that existed in the region for at least two thousand years. Indeed, oysters were one of the staple food sources for the poor until the 19th century.

One of the ways that shallow water oyster fisheries can be improved is by building dyke-like structures that allow the high tide in, but keep some of the tide from escaping at low tide. As it happens, a place in West Sussex called Bosham happens to be ideal for this, and there is supposedly much archaeological evidence to show that these “dykes” had been built there repeatedly over the centuries.

As anyone who lives by the sea knows, to build sea structures, you have to over-build and even then, exceptional storms will cause damage, and there is also archaeological evidence to show that the “dykes” at Bosham were washed away in exceptional storms every few hundred years.

As it happens, Bosham was a royal estate in the time of Cnut (one of his daughters is supposedly buried at the pictured church), and it is all too likely that an exceptional storm would have destroyed the oyster beds whilst Cnut was holding Bosham. Thus the Church had an opportunity to use an economic disaster to poke fun at king they were probably not too fond of.

May 072017
 

I have been reading a book on chivalry and knights recently, and every so often wanted to shout at the historian writing it, but as he isn’t listening to me I guess I’ll just have to shout at you instead.

The main irritating claim was that the equipment of knights put entry out of the reach of ordinary ‘soldiers’. It is true that the need to provide a highly trained and specially bred horse or two, did significantly increase the cost of entry into the ranks.  But this is an overly simplistic analysis.

For a start, if we look at the fighting men of the Anglo-Saxon forces facing the Normans in 1066, many (perhaps even most) would have been equipped with just a spear and shield. But a wealthy core would have been much better equipped with costly mail armour, swords, etc. Many within this core would have quite easily afforded the additional cost of a destrier or two.

In addition, many of those ‘core’ soldiers would have been members of the royal household guards, or similar groups for other magnates. And it is likely that some or all of their equipment would have been provided by their lord. For example, look at William Marshall who whilst he was born into a privileged family certainly did not have the resources to pay for his own equipment; whilst his climb to become regent was exceptional and he was undoubtedly both exceptionally talented and exceptionally lucky, he would have almost certainly had to rely on being gifted his first destrier.

Yes this is after the Anglo-Saxon era (although right at the beginning of the chivalric era), although there is no reason to suppose that similar arrangements could not also take place in the Anglo-Saxon period. It is simply common-sense – an earl would want to impress his king with the number of followers he could provide, and a well-equipped follower is better than a poorly equipped one.

Onto chivalry itself: It’s a bit of a myth. Knights were generally expected to behave in a certain way with other knights and others of similar or higher rank, but lower ranks? The ordinary people? They were not so lucky; the standard way of making war consisted of sieges of fortified towns (resistance would usually result in extensive looting, killing, and raping of the inhabitants), open battles, and ravaging the landscape – burning crops, buildings, and generally making a nuisance – this later was intended to have an effect on the wealth of the lords of the territory, but the effect on the common people is predictable – death, rape, and impoverishment.

And impoverishment generally led to famine. As an example, during the Thirty Years War, overall 25-40% of the population of German fell victim to famine.  Whilst other wars and battles may not have caused such widespread famines, there was undoubtedly a huge death toll in payment for the entertainment of kings and knights.

And knights did not always act “knightly” towards their high-born prisoners either. Once a king (or other leader in battle) raised the dragon banner, no prisoners were taken including prisoners who would otherwise be worth a considerable amount in ransom.

So the much vaunted “chivalry” was a conditional code of honour that could be discarded according to circumstances.

On the other hand, the myth of chivalry did have some use – it fed the inclination leading to the laws of war and conventions on warfare such as the Geneva Convention(s). If anything the myth was more real than the reality of chivalry.

Apr 162017
 

I am a racist.

I am prejudiced in favour of the human race.

Of course it is more common to find people who use the word race in reference to sub-divisions of humans, but you usually find that that as you look closer at each sub-division, it has less and less meaning. For instance, “white” in Europe is sub-divided into French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Birtish, English, Irish, Welsh, … And as you look closer at those sub-sub-divisions, they are also divided up. At the lowest level, there is “family” and “not family”.

The imperative to categorise people into “races” comes from a useful trait for problem solving, but if it doesn’t tell you anything useful, why categorise “race”? There are plenty of more useful categories to put people into.

This was kicked off by a sudden surge in the number of YouTube videos on DNA results that show up for me. Which of course showed the entirely predictable result that almost everyone is a mixture of different ancestors. And people are shocked, distressed, or annoyed about the fact that that their perceived racial identity is smaller than expected.

A DNA test for me will show no shocking results – I know with certainty that all my ancestors for well over 10,000 years were human. As a rough guess, 75% of my ancestors were from somewhere in northwest Europe, with 25% from all sorts of surprising places. The proportions may change, and the higher the proportion of surprising places, the more interesting a story some of my ancestors have to tell.

Feb 122017
 

Now this blog posting is not intended to defend the wrongs of colonialism; we all now accept that territorial expansion by conquest (except apparently Russia) is wrong. In fact it could be argued that Britain conquered India for commercial and not colonial reasons – for example no penal transportation to India occurred. Yes, British people went to live in India, but chiefly to do specific jobs – colonial administration, soldiering, or commercial activities.

Not mass migration.

We need to be wary of judging the past with the moral standards of today; it was not until the 20th century that conquest for territorial expansion was universally condemned. And the evils of the British Raj (and earlier) because it successfully conquered India; earlier (and there were many) attempts failed, although some were close. The very presence of islam within the Indian sub-continent is indicative of attempts to conquer.

And as for the notion that only the British Empire acted in evil ways in India, just take a look through the list of massacres in India; many of those listed had nothing to do with the British.

Does that excuse the excesses of British colonial rule? No of course it doesn’t.

But even if Europeans had not become involved with India, the evils of attempted conquest would still have occurred as they did occur before.

Dec 092016
 

B84V1827t1-elderley-man-past-gravestonesGenealogy, and inspired by the TV programme: “Who Do You Think You Are?“.

Sometimes I feel that when we dive into family history, it is possible that we are distracted by the records we come across and ignore the records we do not find. Which is perfectly understandable – those who history does not record disappear.

And related to that is that we sometimes tend to concentrate on the more famous of our ancestors; it is noticeable that the programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” always seems to find an interesting ancestor. Some may be under the impression that it is because that the programme only researches the ancestry of the famous, but if you look back far enough into the ancestry of anyone you will find a famous ancestor and a good story.

Even me.

Yet in some ways the more interesting stories are those of the less famous – how the ordinary rank and file of our families survived day to day, because frankly the past was harsh and unforgiving.

The other thing is that family historian have an unrealistic belief in the historical record. That all marriages were happy, children were born in wedlock, and that there was no “hanky-panky” going on.

I recently scanned through the birth records of one person and was amused to see that of those with the same surname approximately a third had unmarried mothers (it showed the mother’s maiden name). Of course that was just one surname in one year, but there are other signs pointing the same way.

All of those concrete lines in our family tree are no more than the story that each of our families told the authorities which may or may not reflect reality. It is difficult to appreciate today, but there were perfectly reasonable reasons for concealing the true parentage of “illegitimate” children – a surprise legitimate sister is less of an embarrassment than a surprise “illegitimate” daughter.

 

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