Wednesday, March 30, 2011

History of England Part Four

Before moving on in English history, another side trip.  And, yes, it has not escaped my attention that all my side trips seem to involve rocks.

Since you might visit Westminster Abbey, a brief note on what is not there anymore.

Edward I, the ol’ Hammer of the Scots, conquered Scotland as much as it is possible to actually do so.  As part of the process he went to the monastery of Scone where there was a hunk of rock called the Stone of Destiny.  Supposedly this had been hauled over from Ireland (remember, the folks who came over from there to Scotland in Roman times were the Scoti), and ever since had been used in the coronation of Scottish kings.  So, Edward swipes the Stone in order to lessen the legitimacy of any future Scottish rulers.

And, to add insult to injury, has it built into the bottom half of his throne.  This throne, the Coronation Chair, appears in the recent Academy Award winner, The King’s Speech, where Lionel is lounging rather insolently in it.

Anyway, the polite version is that Edward did this to demonstrate how he was ruling “over” the Scots.  But, domestic plumbing not varying much from age to age, the resemblance to a commode was not accidental, and Edward himself sometimes referred to the Stone of Scone as “the turd”.  See why I suggest not mentioning him around Scots?

The Coronation Chair has been used in the crowning of British Monarchs ever since.

Now, as to the Stone.

Some say the monks swapped a fake in before it was confiscated.  Then hid the original too well, as later Scottish rulers never found it.  Back in the 1950s it was stolen by some Scottish university students who managed to evade the authorities for quite a while.  Some again claim a copy was made and the original hidden.

But for sure the Stone is now in Scotland somewhere, a few years back it was officially returned there in recognition of the partial autonomy of Scotland.  They have now you see their own Parliament where they can gab on at tedious length on local issues among people who care about such and who can actually understand what they are saying.

OK, glad we have that all taken care of.

When we last visited England Edward III had just died.  This was also kind of the end of medieval England.  The constant drain of war in France and then the major crisis of The
Black Death was just too much.  For the Feudal system to work everyone had to know their place and to stay in it.  Well, the plague carried off the swell and the humble alike, so you had manors with no peasants and peasants with no manors.  Or manners either, likely.

Old estates went fallow, the surviving workers wandered off to who knows where.  In a world suddenly short of labor of all sorts there was a great deal of upward mobility and individuals were, shockingly, able to demand more for their labors.  The whole unitary world view where the church and nobility working together kept all right with the world looked increasingly like a crock when at times it looked as if the world was actually coming to an end.

In any case, the world circa 1400 was a very different place.

By this time the Norman monarchy, now known as the Plantagenets, had pretty well run out of gas. 

Politically I can sum up roughly the next century in very short order.

Edward III had a lot of kids.  None of them seemed to hold a candle to him as a monarch, but they in turn also had a lot of kids.  This generated a very large cadre of political schemers who eventually split up into two factions, the Lancasters and the Yorks.

Each of these factions had a badge or symbol, featuring a rose.  One was white the other red.  The all out warfare that eventually ensued between these two factions was The Wars of the Roses.  It is one of those events that even history junkies, of which I consider myself one, find impenetrable.

Eventually a guy named Henry Tudor, who was a shirt tail relative of the existing royal line, was victorious.  He being a Lancaster decided that it would be a good idea to make peace by marrying a daughter of one of the defeated Yorkist party.  Thus in 1485 Henry Tudor became Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty.

So adios to the Norman/Plantagenet line of kings, they had a pretty good run.  Within a decade the entire European world view would be changing.  The Age of Discovery was already underway, and Columbus was waiting in the wings.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mudlarking the Thames

London is my favorite big city.  You can find anything you want there, including lots and lots of history.  So I have taken all three of my kids there on father-son trips.  On such expeditions it is useful to have a little help with organizing things, and one such option are London Walks.  This is a very well organized group that puts on walking tours about town oriented towards any conceivable interest.

When over with a 12 year old I noticed a walk called Mud Larking.  Hmmmm.  What this turns out to be is a low tide scavenger hunt along the banks of the Thames picking up artifacts from Neolithic times to yesterday.

We went, found some interesting items-clay pipes, broken pottery and so forth-and it definitely gave me a taste for more.  One advantage to doing this sort of thing through London Walks was that they supplied a very learned archeologist to identify things for us.

And you would be surprised how wide ranging the finds are.  I picked up something that was clearly a rock but “didn’t look quite right”.  It was fossilized coral that came up the Thames as ballast in a ship from the West Indies!  Another person in our group spotted a one foot square chunk of a Roman mosaic floor, but just an undecorated section.

Last year when my brother and I were over on a more wide ranging archeology trip we took a few hours to do some independent Mud Larking.  Note: you do need to get a permit from the London Port Authority, and there are restrictions as to where you can do this, how deep you can dig down, and a requirement that any finds of historical significance be recorded with the proper authorities.

Armed with tide charts, boots, and a rather inadequate map of an obscure corner of London we set out.  It took us a while, as the nearest Underground station was out of service and this is an area of extensive urban renewal since the Blitz.  You would not imagine it to be so difficult to find a river.

But find it we did, and went over the embankment on a rusty old ladder.

At low tide there is junk everywhere.  Bits of brick and roof tiles.  Broken bottles and pottery.  Clay pipes ranging from weathered chips to nearly intact.  Odd metal in all sizes and shapes. 

I can’t say we found anything great.  This was not a low enough tide to expose the more hidden treasures.  But we came away with a bag of clay pipes for a guy who collects them, an old lock, and for my brother, a brick marked London.  Bricks I should mention are not a collecting category that lends itself to air travel.

A couple of pictures:

This is a weathered, smooth bit of what seems to be either rock or industrial slag.  The generic Brit archeology term for this kind of the thing is “mudstone willy”.  Which would be a pretty good name for a Blues musician.

This object came up just downstream from Execution Dock, where the Royal Navy used to hang pirates.  I would like to imagine it was the hook hand of some salty character-note my best pirate face-but it was probably just a boat hook.

Mudlarking is actually a fairly big time activity in London.  There is an organized group that pursues this and enforces the rules.  They have a website that is all too often down for repairs, but a good flavor of things can be found in a show on the UK History Channel.  One of the ""Mud Men" of the title is a fellow who goes by the nick name of Mud God.  From having a few dealings with this archeology demigod I can assure you he is one of those inspired mad men who feature so prominently in the sort of odd pursuits on the fringes of the conventional world.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

History of England Part Three

It’s really hard to like the Normans.  They were very efficient people, sure, but in many ways they were not the kind of management you would want in charge.

At the beginning there were only about 8000 of them, but after 1066 they were able to march about putting down assorted malcontents until there was nothing left of the old Saxon ruling class.  Then this small crew of French speaking guys just took the whole country, with about a million citizens, and divided it up.

This was the feudal system.  For good service under William the Conqueror a knight would get a patch of land.  Complete with peasants, oh how convenient!  The peasants “owed” the knight a certain amount of their labor and crops, and have essentially no rights, not even the right to go elsewhere.  In theory the knight in return protects them from bandits, wild critters and other knights.  The knight owes military service to the next guy up, usually a baron or duke, who in turn owes his allegiance to the king.

When it worked the system was sort of like how the Mafia divided up New York City.  When it didn’t work it was like Mafia gang wars, except that warring knights usually took it out on the other guy’s peasants.  Peasants are easy targets, and you were destroying the economic base of the guy you were unhappy with.

This lead to the creation of the classic castles of England, places to hide out until troubles passed you by.  The Tower of London is one of the better preserved Norman castles, with many later additions of course.

To more efficiently extract wealth from their new conquests the Normans did the first real census of England, the so called Domesday Book.  It lists the farms, villages, mills, etc of all of England.  Wouldn’t want to let anybody skimp on their taxes after all.

Even back in Saxon times the country had been divided up for administrative purposes.  Roughly equal sized chunks were called Shares, or as we now call them, Shires.  Yorkshire, Berkshire etc.  The official in charge of each was a Shire Reeve, since shortened to Sheriff.

The Normans fought among themselves a great deal.  This and the fact that they still held large areas of land back in France had unfortunate effects.  Various sons of the kings were always scheming, the King of France was always trying to stir things up, and eventually England got sucked into four hundred years of fighting in France.  For which in the end they got nothing.

The Norman kings also had a difficult relationship with the church.  At first they were all for it, and in fact established most of the great cathedrals and monasteries of England.  Later the church and crown were at odds over the usual stuff, how much money and power the church should have.  Among other things this lead to the famous murder of Thomas Beckett by King Henry II.  He had to do some serious penance after that little misunderstanding.

It was actually the Norman kings who shaped England into a real nation.

They established centralized taxation, which is still called the Exchequer after the large checkerboard like table on which they counted the money.

They established the current boundaries of the UK by conquering Wales, Northern Ireland and, sorta, Scotland.

They built the great cathedrals and castles for which the country is famous.

Since literacy was now relatively common we get a much clearer picture of the Norman kings.  They were energetic, impetuous, mostly bad managers of money.  One of them, King John, annoyed his leading barons so greatly that they made him accept a list of demands called the Great Charter, or Magna Carta.

Rather than some stirring statement of universal rights this was mostly a list of obligations of the king to his most powerful supporting nobility.  Brief mention was also made of some minimal obligations of major nobility to lesser gentry.  Peasants got no mention at all.  Your average Norman knight might consider that a peasant had the right to request that he be lashed on one side of the back versus the other, but not much more.  Later generations extrapolated the Magna Carta to be a bit more inclusive.

Norman kings are a little like Star Trek movies, roughly alternating good and bad.  Consider Edwards One through Three.

Edward I was a heck of a king.  An efficient administrator he fought simultaneously in France and up in Scotland.  He was called the Hammer of the Scots, and I would even now not mention him around Scotsmen.  He also conquered the Welch and in honor of this had his son named Prince of Wales, a title still reserved for the heir to the throne.

Said heir was Edward II.  Things did not turn out well for him.  He was supposed to marry the Maid of Norway but her ship sank on the way over.  He instead got a French dame named Isabella.  Edward II was certainly a bad administrator and probably gay in an era that did not accept this.  He was always bestowing public favors on young French dudes, and in private….

Isabella of France.   She seems like a nice young lady....
Oh, and did I mention that Isabella is known to history as The She Wolf of France?  Not somebody you wanted to cross.  She and her ex pat boyfriend had Eddie II kidnapped, imprisoned in Berkeley Castle and dispatched in the most gruesome royal murder in English history.  Don’t look it up.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My call from the Baseball Hall of Fame

Sometimes in life odd things happen.  A few years back I had an idea for a magazine article that got a little out of hand and turned into a book.  I had accidentally become the world's sole, and thereby leading, authority on a highly obscure topic.  Specifically, the history of baseball as played by prisoners of war.

I did a bit of research, talked with a number of old timers and put together a rough outline.  Anybody who has struggled with a blizzard of rejection slips should now avert their gaze.  I sent an email to McFarland, a small press that does a lot of baseball and history stuff.  They said, sure, we'd love to have it.  Finish it up and send it along.  And so I did.

Small press publishing, where you actually get paid, is a couple of notches up in status from self publishing, but really not a big deal given the actual size of the checks that I still get a couple of times a year.

I figured that, being the World's Authority and all, I might as well have a little fun with this and so I offered to give a talk at the annual Society for Baseball Research meeting (SABR) in Milwaukee.  This was a fun and erudite crowd. 

After that my phone started ringing.  I would be at the office and my receptionist would say things like "Sports Illustrated on line one", or "It's ESPN again".  I guess the world of baseball scholarship has some back channels.  The SI possibility did not pan out.  I suppose my asking about the swimsuit models might not have helped but actually they seemed to have considered, then declined an issue on sports in time of war.  Recall this was shortly after 9/11/2001 when emotions were running high.

ESPN was another experience.  They would call from time to time, chat about this and that and nothing much happened.  Then one day they just said it was a go, and that they would be coming to Minneapolis for filming, and did I know a good place for us to do this?

I said, well, how about Fort Snelling?  I figured it had a military feel to it, and looked a bit harsh and foreboding.  They had all the arrangments made in a couple of days.

I spent an hour of filming with them, subsequently edited down to about five minutes of really good stuff.  It became part of a special they did on sports in World War Two for a program called Outside the Lines.  It is really interesting working with a large media outfit when they feel like doing something.  I suggested a guy in Canada they might like to talk to and sure enough, off they go to interview him.

I don't even remember when the call from Cooperstown came.  But they wanted me to come for a special Memorial Day weekend honoring veterans.  There would be panel discussions by Hall of Famers who fought in WWII, and other activities.  My small role fit in as part of their Author's series, basically the chance to give a talk in their auditorium.

And so I did.  It was a less enthusiastic audience than the SABR mavens, but I give a good talk and without notes or Powerpoint.

I was invited to a reception that evening where all the big names would be on hand, but declined, feeling a bit out of place.  I should have gone, what the heck, modesty is over-rated.

I did meet Bob Feller in the elevator.  I shook the hand that supposedly threw the fastest pitch in major league history.  He rubbed the towheaded noggin of our youngest son who was with me.

Since then I have given a few talks on the subject, but when people ask me if I am going to write another book I waffle a bit.  The publishing industry is not what it was a decade ago, and it would be hard to imagine another small press undertaking that would morph into so many interesting opportunities.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

History of England Part Two

History of England part two.

First off, sorry about leaving out Stonehenge.  I guess you will be seeing it so a few comments are in order.

It was built prior to all the stuff I mentioned last time.  So there are no written records.  Best guess is that it was made as a sort of gigantic sundial and was used to mark various astrological events.  As such it was primarily a ceremonial decoration.  Several questions have puzzled everyone since.

  1. Why make it out of stone that had to be hauled a long ways?
  2. Why make it so big?

I mean, you can just imagine someone pointing out that you could do the entire project at perhaps 5% of the bother by just pounding some tree trunks into the ground.  In fact, just such a structure-sometimes called Timberhenge-has been found in trace form nearby.

But I have a theory that has so far eluded the savants.  The guys who ordered it were kind of rock star Druid celebs, but they were illiterate after all.  They probably ordered the measurements in cubits when they meant hand spans.

The story was later retold in “This is Spinal Tap”.

So, on to the Dark Ages.

The inhabitants of the Roman province of Britannia had a pretty good thing going.  Law and order, roads, central heating, imported wine.  In the idle hours they would sit around the public baths-sort of a combination spa/club/beauty parlor-and debate the issues of the day.  Sure things got a little seedy in the late 300s, and it was rather regrettable that the local police force was made up of Germans (Saxons), who would be the ancient equivalent of really uncouth louts from a lawless trailer park in another state.  But heck, they were the only applicants what with the regular troops being away and money being tight.

One day circa 410 AD, the citizens discovered that the Trailer Park boys were in charge.  Folks who objected were killed.  Others ran off to the hills.  Those who stuck it out had to get along without running water and heat.  Nobody learned how to read.  Beyond jewelry and swords nothing got made.  You worked on a farm for the Trailer Parkers who were OK when sober which was not often.

But life goes on.  Your daughters start making eyes at Hengist and Horsa those hunky, if bad smelling, barbarian brothers and you realize that at least your grandchildren will own the farm you once owned.  Heck, your grandparents always called you barbarians anyway.

But in this case it was literally true.  Roman Britain just vanished.

Pretty much all the above is contained in the brief accounts of Gildas the Wise, who used most of his time and ink for the less useful task of telling the Britons how sinful they all must be.  Otherwise all this bad stuff would not have happened to them.

One measure of how complete the submersion was is the near obliteration of all Roman place names.  It’s what thuggish conquerors always do even today.  Go visit Ho Chi Minh City if you don’t believe me.  Only two modern cities retain something like their Roman names.  Londinium becomes London.  And Lindum Colonia gets shortened to Lincoln and eventually gives name to Old Abe.

You can trace the march of the Saxons across Britain by the place names.  Up in
Wales, which was not quite conquered, the names are Celtic, which is to say even pre-Roman.  Wales by the way comes from the Saxon word for slave, which is not exactly right—it’s the guys who refused to become slaves that ran off there.  Common Saxon words like “ham” for village, and “ton or don” for enclosed place turn up often.  You will for instance be visiting
Hampton Court
, presumably the site of a fortified Saxon village. Birmingham, Swindon, etc are other examples.  Anything ending in –wich is also a Saxon site.

The Saxons were pretty good warriors, but did have a few setbacks.  Supposedly a local chieftain named Arthur beat them at a series of battles circa 500 AD.  All the rest of the Arthurian stuff is bunk made up by later romance writers.  You might as well watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail, it’s probably more accurate.

The Saxons happily clobbered each other for a couple of centuries, eventually coalescing into a few distinct kingdoms.  Some regions of England preserve these names.  You will be in Sussex, home of the South Saxons.  There is also Essex for the East Saxons.  The West Saxons were in Wessex, which turned out to be the most powerful of the bunch.

By the late 700s things had settled down a bit.  Christianity had been reintroduced from Rome and roundabout through Ireland courtesy of St.Patrick.  There was some art, trade, learning going on.

Then the Viking showed up in the 790s.  If the Saxons were kind of sleazy low life types the Vikings were something entirely alien. They killed for fun and looted for profit. Saxons were like a playground bully who would steal your lunch money.  Vikings were like Klingons who would take your lunch money then burn down the school, carry off your sister and convert your IRA into beer.  Monasteries were a favorite target, as religious institutions throughout English history had a distressing tendency to get fat and rich.  Expect to hear that a few more times.

Anyway, there were pitched battles all the way up and down England.  The Vikings, also called Northmen, ranged pretty much anywhere there was coastline.  The even made it to modern day Canada and into the Mediterranean.  One branch of Northmen settled in coastal France and became the Normans, of whom more presently.

A series of vigorous West Saxon kings starting with Alfred very energetically resisted the Viking invasions.  One gets the sense that both parties were really into all this smiting and slaying stuff.  Eventually things settled down, as did the Vikings who ended up in a region of east central England that became known as the Dane law.  (Vikings were a mixture of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes).

Modern day Swedes and Norskies are almost maddeningly quiet and passive, but the original versions were otherwise.  You had to lay the occasional smite on them or they got moody and thought you did not care about them enough.

In the year 1000 the king of England was a certain Ethelred the Unready, probably the worst leader England ever had.  His smitings were tentative and happened to bump off the sister of a particularly intemperate Viking.  Repeated pillaging and destruction of, well, almost everything was the result.  Occasionally the Vikings would agree to a temporary time out in exchange for several tons of silver.  This cycle of wimpy military action followed by Viking terror then forking over several years worth of the national GNP pretty much wrecked England, and there was actually a Viking king for a short while.  These payments were called Dane geld, and the term is still used for ill considered efforts to buy your way out of trouble.

Ethered scampered off to France, married a Norman noble lady in hopes of restoring his fiscal and military fortunes.  The actual results were less happy.

Much complicated politics, and not a little bit of smiting later, one of Ethelred’s sons was on the throne.  Edward the Confessor has a good reputation.  It seems that being really generous to the church often does that.  It’s always useful to your legacy to reward the only people who write anything down.

Eddie the C. built the first part of Westminster Abby.  He is described as being a devout, chubby albino whose marriage was strictly a formality as he was really not into that sort of thing, if you know what I mean.

Childless, he apparently promised the throne to a certain Harold and also to William, one of his Norman relations via Ethelred’s dalliance a generation before.

Well, that won’t end well.  Harold’s army after stamping out the last of the Viking unrest had to march fast to Hastings in southern England when Edward the Confessor died.  There he met the invading army of William and his Normans, who came over the Channel in the last successful invasion going in that direction.  Harold got hit in the eye by a stray arrow, proving what mothers before and since have always said—“you’ll put an eye out with that thing”.  William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard if you prefer, becomes king of England in 1066.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

History of England Part One

A word of explanation.  My spouse and her sister are going to visit England later this year.  It is a trip put on by the extention service of a university, so there was a recommended reading list.  I heard some gripes about the dry nature of the brief history of England they were supposed to read.  Opining that I could make it more brief and less dry, I had to actually deliver on the promise...... 

History of England part one.

Well, it’s been there a rather long time, but it was part of Europe until fairly recently.  Then the water levels rose and the puzzled locals couldn’t herd the sheep over to France and back.  Not that they knew it was France in any case.

Rather little being written down in that era, there were just a few crumbs of information that came to the Greeks and were considered worth writing down.  It was a good place to mine tin, out in the Cornwall end where you will be visiting.  Greek traders came there to buy it and ship it back home.  A really ambitious guy name Pythius sailed all the way around England and might have glimpsed Iceland, but we only have later writers quoting him and they probably left out the interesting parts.

Fast forward to the Romans.  Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, as France was known long before some guys called Franks took it over.  It was a little frustrating, because the Gauls did not always stand and fight, sometimes they just sailed over to England, as it was later called when some guys named Angles took it over, and visited their relatives.

Being a rather industrious fellow Caesar decided to teach the Britons a lesson.  So twice he sailed over, marched around a while defeating the local tribesmen and after declaring victory went home and left them alone for several generations.

After Caesar was bumped off the Roman Empire was formed with Augustus being its first and probably best emperor.  He said the borders of the Empire were big enough, thanks, and that they should not be expanded.

Claudius, same guy as in the BBC series “I Claudius”, decided to make an exception.  He invaded Britain in the first century AD, and what with the locals being disorganized and the Romans pretty good at this sort of thing, it was not too much of a chore to take over the southern two thirds of the Island.  Maybe the elephants he brought along were just too much for them.

Oh, sure there was that little unpleasantness when local Roman officials disrespected Queen Boadiccia and took liberties with her daughters.  Yes, and if you want to be negative about the whole thing she did raise an army and burn London and Colchester to the ground, killing pretty much everyone that did not go on the lam and quick. 

But the Romans were pretty experienced at putting down rebellions too, so before too long they owned the lower two thirds again and would periodically march all the way up into Scotland and teach a stern lesson to the guys up there who supposedly painted their bodies blue but given the climate might just have been really cold.

After a while, Hadrian, probably the second best emperor “evah” decided to build a wall across the narrowest part of England about at the 2/3 mark.  This was in 82 AD, and did a fairly good job keeping the blue painted n’er do wells on their side of things. 

The Romans had about 300 years then to build roads, some of them still in use, cities, great country villas and so forth.  Sure, as a part of the Empire it was still Hicksville, and anyone who lived there got teased about the blue painted locals, but overall it was pretty sweet.

But all good things come to an end.  The Romans never did figure out a good way to pick the next emperor….too often the sons of the emperor turned out to be spoiled brats, or psychos, or ninnies.  And the alternative was usually to round up the local garrison, bump off the emperor and put an army officer in charge.  Trouble was there were too many ambitious army officers.

Various guys from the province of Britannia got to be emperor, but over time the process tended to wreck the economy and drain the local garrisons off to fight on the continent.

Eventually the barbarians north of the wall, by this time they were Picts and Scoti charged south.  Btw, the Scoti came from Ireland but stayed on and became the Scots.  The Picts were so called because of the whole blue body paint thing.

Joining them were seaborne raiders from present day Germany, Saxons, Angles and Jutes.  The Angles must have had the best press agent; otherwise you would be going to visit Jutland or Saxony, which are both real places but probably less fun.

The barbarians took over.  Everyone stopped taking baths.  There were no more deliveries of coins so the economy descended to a goat based format.  One of the last recorded pleas to Rome was to the emperor Honorius, a total dimwit who spent most of his time tending pigeons.  He said, in effect, adios guys; you are on your own.

And the Dark Ages began.