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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.


Oct 272016

I have recently been ‘entertaining’ myself with watching some videos on the vim editor which to the uninitiated is an extremely powerful if somewhat ‘unusual’ editor that is popular amongst Linux power users. One of the surprising things that came up was that apparently there are experienced vim users who are not aware of why the ex mode exists.

Or probably why the ex command exists.

In the dim and distant past (and in fact even longer than I’ve used Unix!), one of the possible ways of interacting with computers was with a printing terminal :-

On such a terminal, using a visual editor like vim (or it’s predecessor vi) would have been painful. Redrawing the screen would take a couple of minutes or more; imaging moving the cursor across from the beginning of the line to the end!

So it was common to use an alternative kind of editor – the line editor. The process of creating a file is somewhat clumsy :-

$ ex ~/Foo
"~/Foo" 1L, 4C
Entering Ex mode.  Type "visual" to go to Normal mode.

Now for a quick explanation (although this is no tutorial on line editors!): The ex ~/Foo is the command given to start editing a pre-existing file called Foo in the ex editor. After the editor starts up, I enter the “p” command to print the current line. I then use the “a” command to append text after the first line, and enter a “.” on it’s own to finish adding lines. Again I use “p” to print the current line, and then “1” to print the first line.

Which is more than you’ll ever want to know about how to use ex, so why does it still exist?

The first reason is simply because it’s possible. It’s almost certainly fairly easy to support the ex mode with vim; after all the ex-mode is effectively the commands you get when you enter “:” within vim.

The next reason is that line editors were sometimes used within shell scripts to batch edit files, and somewhere out there is a shell script from hell that relies on ex to keep running.

Sep 212016

In England and Wales, there is no such thing as Common-Law Marriage, except when there is.

Which basically comes down to the fact that courts accept informal marriages where there was no other choice – the example on the Wikipedia page is of prisoners held by the Japanese who could not marry according to the formal process.

So where did the notion of common-law marriage come from? That Wikipedia page claims that it was some sort of group-think mistake made in the 1970s … well perhaps.

In fact, Scotland (until 2006) had something that would in England be called ‘common-law marriage’, and England in all likelihood had something equivalent even if the lawyers claim there was no such thing as “common-law marriage”.  They are right to a certain extent, but the history of marriage law in England is byzantine and twisted.

Details of what happened in England regarding marriage before the christian church came to dominance is shrouded in mystery, but in all likelihood marriage was a legally binding contract initiated by oath (it should be noted that an old form of the marriage vow includes the phrase “I plight my troth” and the word “plight” is the Old English word for oath). For those who are suspicious of a simple sworn oath being the basis for a marriage should note that in Anglo-Saxon times, the sworn oath was a fundamental building block of society, and nobody was lower than an oath-breaker.

One indicator of this are the marriage vows; a pompous religious or civil official may pronounce “You are now married” or even “I declare you married”, but the important part of the ceremony are the vows that the two people swear to each other.

In the early medieval era, the state had no time for laws regarding marriage – it was still effectively a private contract between individuals. The church on the other hand took in interest in dealing with abuses – bigamy, fornication, prevented forced marriage (probably not entirely successfully), etc. But the church could not and did not perform marriages; marriages would often be “blessed” within the church, but marriages themselves took place outside.

One of the important principles established was that an illegal marriage was still a marriage.

The church took control of marriage after the Council of Trent, and declared that no marriage was legal unless it took place within a church and the ceremony was performed by a priest. Yet in all likelihood ‘irregular marriages’ still took place especially when extra-parochial areas, or remote under-served parishes were considered (some remote areas in the North could see a priest as little as once a decade or longer).

And of course getting married required money – the priest would insist on his cut as payment for his services. So the poor probably carried on doing what their ancestors had done, and simply declared they were married and got on with it.

The state took over marriage law in 1753, in an attempt to combat “clandestine marriages” (it didn’t entirely succeed; those in need of such marriages merely eloped to Scotland where the law on marriage was more relaxed), and it is often said that this act abolished common-law marriage.

It didn’t. There was no such thing.

A 15th century marriage was legally nothing more than a contract as in an agreement to supply certain goods in exchange for land. It looked like common-law marriage, and it would not be too surprising if rumours of how marriage used to be persists down to the present day. Especially when you consider that a significant number of non-conformists who avoided CoE churches would have been ‘married by consent’ rather than ‘married in law’.

So what does this matter? Well apart from being historically interesting, it is important to note that unless you are officially married then you do not have the legal rights of marriage. So those who believe in ‘common-law marriage’ are welcome to continue to do so, but should bear in mind that it has no legal status.




Jul 012016

It’s the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme this morning, and there are those commemorating the event by claiming they all died for our freedom. Well that may have been what they thought they were fighting for, but that’s arguably not what the war was about. At least for the British, there were no real risk of invasion at the beginning of the war.

There is still arguments to be had over the causes of World War 1, but a very high level view indicates military adventurism by the Austria-Hungary empire in the powder-keg of Europe (the Balkans), combined with interlocking defence treaties that amounted to the mutually-assured destruction of the 19th century. To a great extent, Britain was fighting because France was fighting, and they were fighting because Russia was fighting who were fighting because Austria-Hungary were invading their allies in the Balkans – Serbia. Germany was pulled into the mess because of it’s alliance with Austria-Hungary.

If that sounds like a confusing mess, you don’t know the half of it. Not least because I have not mentioned Belgium.

Why does this matter? Particularly since I am implying that the sacrifice of the WW1 casualties was not for a particularly noble cause.

The first reason for remembering, is that those who thought they were fighting for a noble cause deserve to be remembered.

Secondly we need to remember just how stupid war is, and particularly that people are still arguing over exactly how and why it started. There may be justifiable wars – even wars that are not strictly defensive. But if you are not entirely sure why the war is being fought, it is definitely a war you should not be in.


Jun 272016

I have been entertaining myself by watching a few videos on off-grid living – living without many of the amenities of modern living, or rather making alternative arrangements for toilets, washing, heat and light. And it has reminded me that the past was hard. The more extreme off-grid fans are effectively re-creating subsistence farming which is the way almost all of our ancestors lived and worked.

This is not supposed to be a criticism of off-grid living, or even a discouragement – off-grid living is not a full re-creation of subsistence farming; at the very core there is still a safety net provided by society. And providing the basic services of living is a great deal easier than it was in the past; solar power, composting toilets, and modern materials to build warm homes.

People do tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses and concentrate on the simplicities – none of the hassles of modern life. Well the hassles of modern life were missing, but there were other hassles …

Occupation and Education

Go back far enough, and women were pretty much limited to various forms of housekeeping or prostitution as a living. Men in theory had a much wider choice of occupation, but in practice men were limited to the occupation of their close relatives; which was almost always subsistence farming. A truly exceptional boy might be lucky enough to escape through some means or another, but most people were stuck with very little choice.

Education was perhaps even more limited, which whilst it was not intended as a limitation on freedom had that effect. Education was actually limited because it was too expensive. Any education that normal people might get was limited to the basics – reading and writing. Or if you were lucky enough to get into a craft guild (which was expensive at a time when peasants may well not have seen much in terms of money), would have been limited to education relating to that craft.


What healthcare? Well there was some healthcare, but it would have been limited to herbal remedies and words of advice from the local wise-woman (if the locals had not been dumb enough to burn her at the stake). Or in other words, you would have someone to hold your hand whilst you died.

Yes died. An awful lot of things could have been fatal – down to and including minor cuts. Take a look at your siblings and imagine that three-quarters of them succumbing to something or other before they grew to adulthood.


Everyone has heard of the Great Potato Famine because it was the last great European famine (excluding those caused by war), but there were plenty of other widespread famines throughout Europe before that one. And many of them were more lethal than the Great Potato Famine, including an earlier one in Ireland. And these are just the big famines; a little famine that nobody has ever heard of can be just as fatal.

In other words everyone was at risk of starving to death any year the harvest failed.

Living Conditions

It was not uncommon to share houses with domesticated animals (cows not cats) for a variety of reasons, but probably the most significant was the lack of central heating. Of course they had wood fires for both heating and cooking, but fires are not necessarily very good at heating a whole house. Plus there is the problem of gathering fuel, and it is surprising just how much wood you need even for an occasional evening fire. And combined with the fact that all your neighbours are also looking for fuel wood, harvesting enough fuel was a lot of work.

Fancy an evening bath? That takes wood fuel to heat the water, so you’re likely to skip rather more baths than you’re happy with.

Oh! And don’t forget that the house you are likely to be living in would be more like a wooden garden shed than a modern well insulated house.

So winter in the past would have been cold; you would have most likely have felt cold from autumn to spring without break.

Perhaps I’ve made the past sound totally miserable which is a bit misleading – we would find the past totally miserable but our ancestors would be more accepting of the problems and would have tried to enjoy their life.B84V1827t1-elderley-man-past-gravestones


Jun 022016

One of the things that winds me up about the Brexit fans is that they keep going on about leaving Europe. Which is blatantly absurd; we can leave the EU if we’re dumb enough to choose that option (you may be able to guess what side I’m on), but there is no way we can leave Europe itself.

Britain is an integral part of Europe – geographically, historically, politically, and economically. If anything this is an argument in favour of staying within the EU so we have a greater say on what happens within Europe as a whole.

Historically we have had strong trade links to the rest of Europe since well before the Roman invasion (from Europe!). The Angles and the Saxons were European migrants; many of the Celtic aristocracy from that time made their home in Brittany (Europe again).

And we had Danish raiders from Europe (sometimes called Vikings) which demonstrated that a navy would be a good idea. And Danish migrants setting up home in Yorkshire, and other places. Followed by the Normans who arrived from Europe and helped transform Old English into a new language.

Wars with the French, wars with the Spanish, wars with the Dutch, and more recently wars with the Germans. And I’ve probably skipped over a few minor wars.

Dig through the ancestry of an English person and you’ll find a European migrant.

Trying to “leave Europe” and leave Europe to do it’s own thing just won’t work. Whatever the EU does will have an effect on us whether we’re part of the EU or not; and being part of the EU allows us a voice in what happens.

May 122016

i am watching a documentary about the Battle of Agincourt right now whose main proposition was that the French were clinging to the medieval standards of chivalry whereas the English were about professionalism in fighting war. Now I am certainly not going to criticise that proposition – I’m in no way qualified – except in one small area.

The notion of medieval chivalry.

Now I’m sure that medieval knights were polite to the noble ladies (at least usually), were faithful to their lords and masters (well, most of the time), and treated their defeated foes well (at least if they were worth ransoming).

But there are plenty of examples of knights acting slightly less then chivalrous in war. For example, the French sacked Portsmouth in 1338 when they arrived flying the English flag, burned the town and raped and killed many of the inhabitants (I mention the French being nasty to the English because it’s sometimes forgotten that it did happen; and I’m sure the English were just as bad or worse in France). And in fact the commander of that raid was also involved in the Battle of Armemuiden when English prisoners were killed out of hand (and this was well before the Battle of Agincourt where Henry V was so heavy criticised for doing the same to the French).

Another area where knights were not quite so knightly was in the area of faithfulness (in the old sense where people kept to their vows including oaths of allegiance). Knights were supposed to swear undying loyalty to their lord, but there are plenty of examples where someone betrayed those oaths. Some of the examples include :-

  1. The 6th Earl of Westmorland.
  2. The 1st Vicount Lovell.
  3. The 5th Baron Bardolf.
  4. Sir Thomas Grey.
  5. The 1st Baron Giffard.

And that is just a tiny proportion of those who betrayed their monarch; never mind lesser lords.

Of course it is unrealistic to expect people to live up to such high standards; chivalry was an ideal to aim for, but often real life got in the way.


Feb 202016

2012-05-19-sheep standing guard.small

The whole Welsh carnally like sheep thing is pretty funny? Plenty of opportunities for jokes in there. But do you know where it comes from?

Unfortunately I don’t have a source for this (I’m a bad historian!), but I do remember reading it from a respectable history book.

In medieval times, there were two crimes you were likely to be charged with if you were caught in possession of sheep you didn’t own back then. One charge (sheep stealing) was dealt with by the King’s courts and dealt harshly with any property crime – sheep rustlers could and frequently were hung for stealing sheep.

The other charge (unlawful carnal knowledge of a sheep) was dealt with by the Church courts who were somewhat more lenient, and the punishment was more likely to be a fine or a short imprisonment.

Anyone with half a brain would opt for the Church courts, and it seems from the records that the Welsh picked up on this legal loophole very rapidly. After all being known as a sheep-shagger is somewhat preferable to being hung.

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