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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.

Aug 082015

It is approximately 70 years since the first nuclear fission bomb to be dropped was delivered to Hiroshima.

Which is obviously a terrible thing to have occurred. The death toll (approximately 80,000) from a single weapon was astronomical, but when you compare it with other incidents where civilians were killed in war (such as the Nanjing Massacre when between 40,000-300,000 Chinese were killed) it becomes a little less "special".

Yet those other massacres seem to be less well remembered despite many having a death toll comparable to Hiroshima (or Nagasaki). There is a series of conventions on the conduct of war (the Geneva Conventions) that includes provisions for prohibiting attacks on civilians.

However these provisions seem to be optional and widely ignored by military leaders and their political masters whenever it becomes inconvenient.

Radiation poisoning is one aspect that would seem to make Hiroshima "special" but there are other incidents where civilians continued to die after the initial attack :-

  • Civilian victims of gas attacks during WWI which continued well after the war (in the region of 200,000).
  • Victims of delayed action munitions such as minefields and cluster bombs. 

Even the notion that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were so terrible that it should never be repeated does not make these incidents unique – gas attacks during WWI inspired the complete prohbition of chemical warfare (which worked out so well).

But Hiroshima is special; it is special to the victims, the victims' families, and the survivors. But that sort of special also applies to all of the other massacres of civilians; they are all special to those personally involved in them. And to be frank they should be special to everyone who believes that civilians should not be targets in warfare.

It is special in another way – it is probably unique in the effect on the Japanese governments past, present, and hopefully future in the sense that the government is opposed to warfare.  

Apr 222014

In short: No.

The word nation refers to the people within the country (and technically outside too – at least those who share their identity), so the religion of a nation is the sum total of the religions of all the people within that nation.

According to the last census, approximately 60% of Britains put themselves down as “Christian”, which means that on the surface 40% are not Christian (and nearly 25% of the total are “not religious”).

But there is quite a good chance that a significant proportion of that 60% are not fully Christian in the sense that it may be easiest just to say “Christian” when asked without really meaning it. Particularly in smaller communities (and there’s still a fair number left), a lot of community social life is associated with the church.

And a lot of older people will remember a time when choosing “Church of England” was the closest you could get to choosing “No religion”.

But even if 60% of the population is Christian, then we still cannot say that Britain is a Christian nation – too many people belong to other religions or none at all and claiming that we are a Christian nation excludes those others.

But is Britain a Christian state?

Well yes, and no.

The Church of England is an established church; whereas the Church in Wales, and the Church of Scotland are not. Meaning that if you live in England there is an official state religion but in other parts of Britain there is not. To add to the confusion, the Church in Wales is a daughter church of the Church of England.

But whilst the Church of England is an established church, most of the rights and privileges of an established church have been stripped away over the years. The remaining rump of rights is rather negligible with one exception – the head of state is also the head of the Church of England.

But the monarch has rather less power in reality than in practice. The current queen could in theory dissolve parliament at any time she chose; in practice parliament is most likely to ignore her wishes. Similarly if the queen were to start interfering with the Church of England, the Archbishop is likely to politely but firmly ignore her.

Similarly being a member of the Church of England does not in practice give you any special advantages; nor does a non-member suffer any significant disadvantages. The only disadvantage I can think of is that if I were somehow to become a candidate to become the next king, I would be excluded from the succession because I’m not a Christian; but there are other far more significant obstacles.

But is our culture influenced by Christian values? That is an impossible question to answer unless you specify which values and allow me to point out that many so-called Christian values are in fact values shared by anyone without regard to religion.

We do have a Christian past. And a pagan past. And many other influences from the past. All of which influence the values of Britons today.

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