Feb 132021

No not villeins; villains. History’s “bad guys”.

The English did something bad to the Indians (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_India_Company although there were a lots of Scots in the East India Company), the Scottish did something bad to the English (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Alnwick_(1093) – and yes it’s not normally that way around), the Irish did something bad to the Welsh (https://www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland/I-III-2.php). And of course the French are always villanous (I’m English after all).

But the more you learn of history, the less easy it becomes to simply classify any nationality as the villains. Sure people did bad things, but a whole nationality? That isn’t so certain.

Take the English-Scottish rivalry for example. It is easy to see it as a simple grab for land; particularly if you’ve watched that Braveheart film and thought it was anything more than simple entertainment. But it turns out to be not quite as simple as that.

Where is the border between England and Scotland anyway? Hadrian’s wall? Or the Antonine wall? Because the border hasn’t always been where it currently is; in fact people have been having rowdy discussions on which bit belongs to whom since before either country existed (and not infrequently using the excuse to make off with each other’s livestock).

In 1018, Malcolm II invaded the northern part of Northumbria, and hung onto it unlike later attempts at a land grab which failed. But was he grabbing land on behalf of Scotland, for his own personal enrichment, or to grant lands to his followers to keep them loyal?

The later was particularly likely as Scotland was not a simple unified nation at the time, and Malcolm II was a high king with several sub-kings giving allegiance.

But were those Northumbrians in the region captured by Malcolm English or Scottish? Did they suddenly become Scottish or did they stay English? Or were they Northumbrian? Or did they think of themselves as Bernicians? Or people of the Hen Ogledd? Because they had been all those within the span of a few hundred years.

But rather than concentrating on destroying the notion of nations created by states for their own convenience, let us switch to something else.

When Malcolm II invaded Northumbria, did he give all his soldiers any choice in the matter? Of course he didn’t; some of his nobles could well have had some say, but the ordinary soldier didn’t. And the same applies for pretty much everything the “English” were responsible for.

Blaming the nation for the crimes of the ruling classes is collective guilt; one step on the way to collective punishment (a war crime). Blame those responsible by all means (and there’s plenty to blame), but don’t condemn a whole country for the crimes of a few.

War Memorial Church
Jun 142020

In the wake of the tearing down of many US statues of Confederate generals and in the UK, the removal of a statue to a slave trader in Bristol, there is an ongoing debate about the status of statues in the public space.

And some pretty daft things have been said about it.

One of the daftest is the notion that they represent our history and destroying them is destroying our history; no they don’t and no it isn’t. History is a lot bigger and more diverse than the handful of historical (in some cases) so-called heroes.

The best a statue (almost always of an old white dude) can achieve in that direction is to spark an interest in history. And replacing the Bristol statue of Edward Colston with a statue of Paul Stephenson would have very little effect on this “sparking effect”. From a purely ancient history perspective, I might prefer one to Robert Fitzharding, but given that there is no shortage of statues to old white dudes, someone else can take centre stage.

The Bare Family

In the US, it is rather peculiar to say the least that many US cities have statues to traitorous (not to mention racist) Confederate generals. Even ignoring the political question of why they are there, a fair few of them have little to no aesthetic value – if I were one of those dead Confederate generals, I’d be saying “Look, I may have been pretty ugly but at least I looked human!”.

But it gets on to an interesting point – we don’t so much worship the real people depicted in statues as our idealised version of them. In the case of Confederate generals (and ignoring the conscious and blatant racists), some view these as heroes of states’ rights which is more than a little invented – those making up the Confederacy were quite happy trampling on states’ rights when it came to achieving things they wanted (such as the return of run-away slaves).

In some cases the myth of the man (and woman in some rare cases) is enough to justify their statue despite what they were like in life – for instance Churchill was a racist and an imperialist but he also represents anti-fascism, Britain’s war leadership, and the initiation of the European state project.

There are those who would point to the Bengal famine of 1943 as a reason why he should not be venerated in statue form. He certainly deserves criticism for his handling of that famine and bears some responsibility for it, but he hardly caused the famine and there was plenty of other things going on at the time.

Back to the Confederate generals … I don’t think their myth is sufficient to justify the continued existence of their statues in the light of their very real crimes.

In the case of at least some statues, their origin story can be more interesting than expected – for instance there is a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the British parliament that was put up in the late 19th century. At the time, it was felt that putting up such a statue was rather provocative given the situation with Ireland at the time.

So no public money went to funding the statue; a ‘benefactor’ paid for the statue, but it was put up in the public space anyway – kind of missing the point!

But is the violent removal of such statues justified?

Normally, no. But in some instances, yes.

In the case of the Bristol slave trader, people have been trying to have the statue removed through official channels for over twenty-years! If you do not have a sensible way of handling reasonable objections to questionable statues in a reasonable time frame you can’t get too upset when people resort to direct action.

There must be a sensible, timely, and semi-democratic mechanism by which statues in the public space can be removed – perhaps if 25% of the local electorate vote to remove it, it should go. Whilst this is not properly democratic, if a statue is offensive to a quarter of the local population it seems not unreasonable to remove it.

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.

Jun 292016

Having said give it a rest already, this is where I rant a bit about the dumbest decision England has made since following the direction of the pope and invading Ireland back in the 13th century.

So it turns out that crowd-sourcing decisions can sometimes result in the dumbest possible result. If you think about it a bit, you realise that the decision is effectively not a decision at all. The result (52% for exit, 48% for remain) indicates that half the country wants to leave and half the country wants to remain. We’re effectively undecided.

Parliament could ignore the result and decide to remain within the EU; the referendum is not legally binding. That probably isn’t going to happen, and a second referendum is even less likely – I cannot see the politicians wanting to spend that much money on democracy.

The amusing thing is that there are people out there who voted to leave as a protest vote, and didn’t really want to leave at all. Which strikes me as possibly the dumbest method of protesting you can possibly come up with. Mooning number 10 Downing Street is more sensible than voting for something you do not want.

But what do those of us who want to remain part of the EU do? Probably the most sensible thing is to keep quiet, let things go through their course, and in about 5 years time start campaigning to re-join the EU. Five years is about long enough to demonstrate just how dumb this move was, and will also shift all those under-18 remain fans get old enough to start voting.


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