The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

Rogier van der Weyden by Stephan Kemperdick (2013)

‘The most influential painter of the 15th century’ (p.6)

The Northern Renaissance

When I went around the Renaissance wing at the National Gallery in London I found myself drawn again and again to works by the Netherlands and Flemish masters from the so-called ‘Northern Renaissance’ – in particular, Robert Campin (A man and a woman, 1430), Jan van Eyck (The Arnolfini portrait, 1434) and Rogier van der Weyden (The Magdalen Reading, before 1438). There’s something magical about the 1430s and 1440s…

For in 1400 Netherlandish art still shared the late medieval International Style, but in the first third of that century a new school of art arose, led by van Eyck and van der Weyden, which introduced:

  • light and shade used to give people and objects three-dimensionality
  • individualised modelling of faces
  • realistically depicted interiors
  • extensive landscapes in the background extending into the distance

Campin is a shadowy figure, whose name appears in the documentary record and who, only after a lot of research, has been identified by modern scholars with the master of Flemelle. Van Eyck made the sensible career move of signing all his paintings, thus guaranteeing his identity as their creator.

So for centuries after their deaths Van Eyck was seen as the founding father, and many paintings now attributed to others were credited to him. Only in recent generations have Campin and van der Weyden emerged as credible artists in their own right. For both we are only certain of a relatively small number of core works which can definitely be attributed to them – followed by a larger number of works which may be by them or from their workshops – and then an outer nimbus of works which may be by followers, or not connected at all. All these decisions are liable to potentially endless scholarly debate.

Despite controversy at the edges, the core assertion is secure – that these three artists were responsible for introducing a revolutionary new spirit of realism into northern painting, an approach which went on to flower in the next generation of Netherlandish painters – notably Hans Memling (b.1440) and Hugo van der Goes (b.1440).

Given the longevity of Van Eyck’s authentication and fame it’s no surprise that there are scores of books about him. There don’t appear to be any in print about the shadowy figure of Campin, and only one I could find about van der Weyden.

The book

The book is 140 pages long, printed on glossy paper which brings out the best in the 130 or so glorious full-colour images. There are also ten or so black-and-white reproductions of cartoons and sketches, along with a one-page chronology of Rogier and a handy three-page glossary of terms.

The text goes chronologically through what is known of Rogier’s career, with a final chapter on his reputation and influence. But this narrative is interrupted by 2- or 3-page ‘insets’ on related topics e.g. a useful background on the kingdom of Burgundy, one on how an artist’s workshop of the time functioned, on contemporary manuscript illumination and tapestries, and so on.

It was written and published in German and was translated by Anthea Bell OBE, a prolific translator from French and German who is probably most famous for her translation of the 35 Asterix books.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier was born in 1399 or 1400 in French-speaking Tournai in northern France. From 1427 to 1432 there is documentary evidence that he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of master painter Robert Campin. Having ‘graduated’, Rogier moved to Brussels, where he lived and worked till the end of his life in 1464. There are enough scattered mentions of him in old records to be able to sketch out his life story: the birth of a son in 1437; the purchase of a house in 1444; an Italian writer records seeing the Deposition in Ferrara in 1449; the philosopher Nicolas of Cusa mentions seeing Rogier’s (now lost) Scenes of Justice in Brussels and calls him ‘the greatest of painters; the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio mentions that Rogier travelled to Rome in the Jubilee year of 1450; there’s records of a legal dispute with the Italian painter Zanetto Bugatto in 1461; in 1462 he becomes a member of a religious order in Brussels, and lends money to a local monastery; and we know that he died on 18 June 1464 and is buried in the church of St Gudule.

More biographical information than for many medieval figures, and enough to begin to sketch out a chronology of his works. We know that he was prosperous (from his donations to religious houses), eminent (the dispute with Bugatto was settled by the Dauphin i.e. heir apparent to the throne of France, no less), and famous – a number of Italian historians refer to him, works were commissioned from him by the Medici family, and by the king of Spain.

The Deposition

The earliest work we can definitely identify is also his greatest, his most copied and most influential – the Deposition or Descent from the cross.

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The ten figures are placed in a shallow box as of a niche in a church. The background is covered with gold leaf. It is a masterpiece because of the flow or rhythm of the composition, with the two groups of three one either side of the cross, subtly reflecting each other, for the way the Virgin Mary’s swooning body echoes Christ’s body – and for the stunning detail of their hands, almost touching, hers white and pure, his hideously mutilated. For the sumptuous detail of the clothes, for example the gorgeous pattern of gold brocade on Nicodemus’s fur-lined gown and – my personal favourite, the high, tight belt around the vertically ribbed green dress of Mary Salome (if that’s who she is). It’s hard to see in this reproduction but the tears were important and influential, capturing the real grief of the mourners. The combination of the strange Gothic box setting, the foreshortening of the space and the gorgeousness of detail set it apart from Italian renaissance painting.

Scholarly tone

As you read on, you realise this is quite a scholarly work, which goes into considerable detailed discussion of every aspect of Rogier’s work, including a comprehensive review of the evidence for and against the attribution of each of the 70 or so works it discusses. Since none of these attributions are straightforward, and often involve assessing the reliability of 18th or 19th century copies of archives which were themselves written a century after the events they record and which frequently contain palpable errors of chronology, names and attributions – well, it means the text can get quite heavy-going.

Kemperdick also explains modern scientific methods which are applied to medieval paintings, namely:

  • dendrochronology – since almost all these works were painted on wood (almost always oak wood, generally imported from the Baltic) it is possible to date individual works by counting the number of annual growth rings on the planks – although it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.
  • infrared reflectography – this process pings infrared rays through the work and records the images which bounce back. These black and white images allow scholars (and us, since Kemperdick includes reflectographs of some of the key paintings) to see the underdrawings for each piece, and – if you’re lucky – also to show how the artist changes and adapts the composition during its creation.

The techniques are interesting but the results are of limited interest (e.g. at some point the forefinger of John the Baptist was changed from pointing to heaven to pointing towards the Christ child; there was originally going to be a wall at the back of the Miraflores Tryptich – but it was changed to open landscape in the final version). In fact the results of both these techniques don’t really add anything to our appreciation of the work; they are used mostly to add into the extraordinarily dense web of discussion of the relative styles, attribution, provenance, dating and possible authorship of the rather confusing array of works by Rogier, his workshop, or by other contemporary and generally anonymous artists. As the text progresses this involves increasing numbers of comparisons between details of different pictures. (The angular folds of the Virgin in figure 53 are reminiscent of the so-and-so altarpiece in figure 11, but the change in hand position suggests the influence of the later work shown in figure 85, although recent dendrochronology evidence pushes both of them back before the latest possible date of composition as suggested by the 18th century copy of the original archive record of the commission of the painting from the Monastery of such and such. And so on.)

Stunning pictures

For students and fellow scholars this is important stuff, but as an amateur fan I found myself drifting away from the text to just luxuriate in the wonderful images on display, flicking over the pages to discover another treasure to absorb yourself in. And not necessarily sticking to Rogier, though he is the subject of the book; there are plenty of works by other contemporaries, reproduced here in excellent high quality colour illustrations.

For example, I find the painting of St Veronica displaying the veil on which Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted – nowadays attributed to Robert Campin – frankly astonishing. The characterisation of the face and the gorgeous orange background bring early John Everett Millais to mind (for example, the famous Lorenzo and Isabella of 1849). It is hard to believe it is from the early 15th century, 400 years earlier.

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Van der Weyden’s largest work is the Beaune Altarpiece, which shows a vivid and striking depiction of the Last Judgement.

The Wikipedia article gives a comprehensive account of the altarpiece’s genesis and meaning – and is a good example of the way these artefacts are not just works of art but important exemplars of social history. For me the two most striking elements are the oval-faced archangel St Michael balancing the scales of Justice directly under the Judging Christ.

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

But also the amazing spectacle of the buried dead burrowing themselves up out of the ground like worms. Normally in Day of Judgement scenes we see coffins opening; but here the dead are like moles erupting directly out of the soil. For me medieval and northern art often has this weird, unexpected, half-mad quality – think of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Similarly, the really horrified look of the naked people being dragged (by their hair in one case) down into the burning pits of hell.

Learnings

  • Archivolt -the moulding or band around the inside of an arch. In many of the altarpieces the figures are framed by a Gothic arch and inside the archivolt are depicted scenes from the life of Christ which relate to the scene depicted in the main image.
  • Dendrochronology
  • Infrared reflectology
  • Most of the Netherlands was, at this period, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the Duke of Burgundy who ruled during this period was Duke Philip the Good, who had a long reign from 1419 to 1467. He commissioned altarpieces, portraits and illuminated manuscripts from Rogier and his workshop.
  • Grisaille – a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or another neutral colour, such as brown. Mostly used to duplicate the effect of sculpture e.g. the statues in the bottom two central panels of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (when closed) or this image of St Lawrence, on the reverse side of a full-colour portrait of Jean de Froimont.
  • Halos – towards the end of the book I noticed that all the holy figures in contemporary Italian paintings have big round solid halos, which emphasise the hieratic staginess of the figures e.g. The Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico (c. 1440), whereas there are few if any haloes in the northern paintings and then they are either transparent or bursts of golden rays, for example it’s quite hard to see the golden rays emanating from the head of the Virgin at the centre of the St Columba Altarpiece (c.1455).
  • Medieval painters whose names we don’t know are often named ‘the master of x’ where x is a particular work with a distinctive style. For centuries scholars referred to ‘the master of Flémalle’ after three painted panels, now in Frankfurt, said to have come from a monastery in Flémalle. Controversy has raged for over a century as to whether the master of Flémalle is one and the same as the Robert Campin who we know ran a workshop in Tournai, modern Belgium. Nowadays most scholars think they are one and the same.
  • Tears – there is evidence that Italian nobles, who commissioned works from Rogier, particularly valued the realism of the tears he gave to Christ’s followers:
  • Tryptich (i.e. three-part) altars fold out. The two side wings are hinged so the tryptich can be ‘closed’ or ‘opened’ to reveal the gorgeous colours of the interior. They were usually closed and only opened on special Holy Days. The outside of the closeable doors were also painted – but generally in drabber colours – and often with portraits of the donors who commissioned the work. For example, the relatively drab but beautifully modelled exterior of the Beaune Altarpiece features portraits of Nicolas Rolin, the powerful Chancellor to Philip the Good, and his wife. Roline was in fact portrayed several times by both Rogier and Jan van Eyck. A tough and powerful man, and van Eyck captures that wonderfully.

In later generations Rogier was venerated for the delicacy and artfulness of his compositions, along with the ability to convey the intense emotion and anguish of the characters in the Passion (all those weeping Marys). But I love the beauty, the calmness, the delicacy, and the quiet intimacy of the best of his portraits. Nearly 600 years later his people still live and breathe.

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Related links

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith (1986)

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the series of eight novels he’s written about Moscow-based police detective Arkady Renko, which kicked off with the international best-seller Gorky Park. Having read all eight I was dazzled by Smith’s ability to create memorable characters, to conjure up eerily powerful scenes, and to make the English language dance and shimmy like a sand snake. He is a marvellous, magical writer. Before during and after writing the Renko series, however, he has written over 20 other novels, in a variety of settings.

This one is set in 1945 in New Mexico at the famous Los Alamos facility, which was built to house the hundreds, and then thousands, of scientists and military personnel involved in the creation of the world’s first atom bomb.

It’s a third-person narrative but it’s told very much from the perspective of Sergeant Joe Peña, a ‘huge, attractive’ native American. Joe left his parents’ pueblo, or village, young and headed to the big city where he made a name for himself as a boxer, but also as a mean jazz pianist in the era of swing and stride piano. (There are several extended descriptions of what it feels like to play jazz piano, with technical descriptions of Joe changing tempo, melody, how he syncopates left and right hand, in the styles of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and so on.)

One drunk night he and his band-mates broke into a nearby US Army base with the cack-handed idea of entertaining the troops. But they were caught, arrested, and given the choice of gaol or enlisting. He enlists. After basic training, Joe found himself packed off to the Philippines, shortly before the Japanese invaded (December 1941). Joe is wounded but his squad of Filipinos managed to get him into a rowing boat, which they pushed off from a remote bay, and he was eventually picked up by an American submarine and repatriated to the States.

Here he recovered from his wounds and was on garrison duty when he made the bad mistake of sleeping with the colonel’s wife, who finds out about the affair and has Joe sent to prison on a trumped-up charge. The novel opens with Sergeant Joe Peña locked in solitary confinement at the Military Corrections Complex, Fort Leavenworth, in Texas.

Ten days of solitary confinement have given Joe hallucinations, visions – we later discover – related to his Indian heritage. To his surprise he is visited by Captain Augustino, head of security at the top secret Los Alamos facility. Augustino reminds him that, years before, Peña’s father had worked on the old ranch out at Los Alamos (which is near Joe’s pueblo) and that Peña often helped out. It was a ‘dude ranch’, offering a taste of desert living, horse-riding and so on, to city slickers and their families. Among the many urbanites Peña had taught to ride, to hunt a little, and so on, had been a scrawny, sickly kid from New York named Oppenheimer.

Now that very same J. Robert Oppenheimer is all grown up and head of the top secret ‘Manhattan Project’, leading a team of top physicists (mostly European emigrés) working to build the world’s first atom bomb. Augustino says he can spring Peña from the hole on one condition – that he goes to work for Oppenheimer as his driver and fixer and – spies on him; that he reports back to Augustino everywhere Oppenheimer goes, everyone he meets and every conversation he has.

OK says Joe, and the novel begins.

Plot

A lot happens in this novel and Cruz Smith is an expert at intertwining half a dozen different plot strands in a deliberately demanding, teasing way. The reader struggles to keep up sometimes and Smith likes springing surprises with no warning.

Driver for Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (who everyone calls ‘Oppy’) is delighted to be reintroduced to Joe as his driver, a man who knows the local country intimately, can liaise with the various Indian staff and locals, and can reminisce with Oppy about happier days.

Joe sleeps with Augustino’s wife

At a party for the faculty Joe plays jazz piano and, to his horror, finds Augustino’s bored wife flirting with him. That night he returns to his room to find her already stripped naked in bed waiting for him. They have sex. Bad idea. Augustino is not the forgiving type. In an eerie scene, the next day Augustino takes Joe hunting up into the snow-covered hills and then suddenly turns the gun on Joe. Joe scarpers through the snow just in time to throw himself behind the body of the deer they’ve just shot, pulling out his army Colt .45. But as quickly as he got angry, Augustino relents, puts his gun up and they return to the base; but Joe realises the man really hates him and, when his usefulness is up, won’t be merciful.

Augustino thinks Oppenheimer is a Soviet spy

One of the central threads of the novel is that Augustino is convinced that Oppy is a Soviet spy, taking as evidence the fact that Oppy’s wife, brother and girlfriend are communists, and he has hired lots of dubious Europeans to work on the project. Augustino has taken his suspicions to the ultimate head of the Manhattan project, General Groves, who overruled Augustino – for the time being.

We see and hear a lot from Oppy, who gets progressively more emaciated and tense as the deadline for testing the bomb (in July 1945) approaches. He is, of course, a real historical personage, so it’s fascinating, as it always is, to see a novelist imagining the character and dialogue of someone we know was a real person. Similarly we also introduced to a number of the other key scientists on the project who were real people – the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Englishman Foote, the Hungarian Edward Teller, and so on.

Joe and Indian culture

But Joe’s role in the novel is not only player in the Oppenheimer-spy plot, but as doorway to alternative cultures. He hangs out with some of the common soldiers assigned to guard this and that, and sympathises with their gripes, so that we get the ordinary soldier’s perspective on the grandiose ‘project’.

Most obviously, Joe is part of the local native American culture. He grew up not far from Los Alamos and he returns frequently to the pueblo of Santiago where he still owns the family house. His mother, Dolores, was a stern taskmaster. She never forgave him for setting a macho example to his kid brother, Rudy, who enlisted in the Army and never came back from the Philippines. Dolores always blamed Joe. She was also a leading maker of native-style clay pots, one of the staple products of the local Indians, who make money selling them to tourists.

It is through this connection with neighbours and kin that Joe finds himself getting drawn into a strange sub-plot about two old Indians, Ben Reyes and Roberto (who is blind). This odd couple carry out traditional ceremonies at some of the remoter canyons which surround Los Alamos. Joe is tasked with escorting a new arrival at the facility, the attractive female German émigré mathematician, Anna Weiss and the aloof and arrogant physicist Klaus Fuchs, on a trip into the surrounding countryside, when the latter gets lost. Joe comes across steps to some kind of cave and discovers Fuchs being held at gunpoint by blind Roberto. Fuchs is petrified and Roberto seems inclined to shoot him for intruding on a native ceremony. Slowly, calmly Joe talks Roberto round and extracts Fuchs to safety.

This incident snowballs into a major plotline for it triggers the arrival on the scene of two goons from the Indian Service, who have been tasked with tracking down Roberto and Ben Reyes and arresting them. Joe finds himself forced against his better judgement into helping the fugitives hide and eventually escape to Mexico, which brings him into conflict with both the Indian Service toughs and his ever-vigilant boss, Augustino.

The lightning wands

Along the way Joe discovers that the Indian pair are also indulging in some kind of voodoo. they have carved a set of native wooden lightning ‘wands’ and are getting collaborators inside Los Alamos to scatter them at the sites of mysterious fires in the facility. It’s not quite clear to this reader whether one of them is starting the fires or whether they are just taking advantage of a sudden rash of bolts of lightning which have come with the hot summer weather and seem to be triggering random acts-of-nature fires, and which they drop the wands at to give the impression that they are somehow controlling the weather.

Anyway, they’re doing it because they believe the work going on at Los Alamos is blasphemous and should be stopped. There’s a conversation with Joe where they quote Hopi Indian prophecies about a gourd of ashes being spilt from the sky which will burn the earth – they suspect this is an ancient prophecy predicting the super-weapon being built at the facility, and they’re doing their little bit to discourage it…

The wands are found at the sites of various outbreaks of fire. When Augustino finds a few wands which had been stashed in a hiding place by the conspirators, it gives him the opportunity to plant them on Joe with a view to framing him for arson. He doesn’t necessarily want to get Joe, he just wants to have him completely under his thumb in order to achieve his obsessive goal of getting Oppy arrested.

The real spy is Klaus Fuchs

The irony of Augustino’s spy obsession is that there is a Red spy at Los Alamos (in fact we know from the historical record that there were actually three) but the most important one is arrogant, creepy Klaus Fuchs. Joe stumbles across Fuchs meeting his go-between, Harry Gold, in Santa Fe, sees them swap newspapers (presumably Fuchs is passing secrets to Gold folded in his newspaper) and then latches onto Gold and is about to question him when Oppy and Anna suddenly emerge from a hotel right in front of them. There have to be polite introductions and Joe is powerless to prevent Gold leaving.

Joe and Anna Weiss’s affair

Meanwhile the prim German mathematician, Anna Weiss, who we have seen accompanying the equally severe Fuchs, who Oppy obviously fancies (as is made clear at a party the Oppenheimers host and where his wife, Kitty, gets drunk and indiscreet with Joe) starts to flirt with Joe. Joe is, after all, a big handsome Indian, previously a prize fighter – ‘Big Chief Joe Peña’, as various characters mockingly or affectionately refer to him.

Joe and Anna end up having an affair. Cruz Smith describes them having sex in front of the fire, sex on the bed, sex when they go out skinny dipping under the stars, sex up against the wall – quite a lot of big-dark-Indian-on-white-skinned-German-blonde sex. As always, detailed descriptions of sex in a novel run the risk of making the reader squirm with embarrassment.

Once they are an item, Anna finds out about the help Joe is reluctantly giving to the two old Indians who are on the run. In the end she gets so involved that she offers to drive them hidden in an old pickup truck to the Mexico border, at the novel’s climax.

Joe is offered ownership of a jazz nightclub

Things speed up towards a climax in the last fifty pages or so. An old black guy Joe knows, Pollack, is the owner of the only decent jazz club in all New Mexico, the Casa Mañana. But he’s selling up and moving to the East Coast. Pollack laments, over a drink and a cigarette with Joe, that the buyers are going to knock the club down and turn it into flats. As jazz fans, both are appalled.

In a separate development a local hustler-turned-politician, Hilario, had been needling Joe from time to time about going back in the ring to make some bucks in one last big prize fight. Quite blatantly, Hilario is only interested in the huge winnings he can make by organising the gambling on such an event.

The two plotlines come together when Pollack, on the spur of the moment, offers Joe the freehold of the nightclub for half what he’s selling to the property developers – $50,000 – in order to save it for jazz. Joe doesn’t have that kind of money but realises that, if he accepts Hilario’s offer to do one last fight, the prize money combined with betting everything he possesses on the result, will just about scrape together the required sum. He says, ‘Yes, I’ll buy it,’ to Pollack. He tells Hilario, ‘Yes I’ll fight – but has to be in the next 7 days.’

Joe’s big fight

In the event, the fight is arranged for the very evening of the test of the first atom bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert. And the very night that Anna has volunteered to drive the two raddled old Indian renegades to safety in Mexico.

The fight goes ahead in the car park of a motel in a town to the south of Santa Fe. There is an extended description of the four brutal rounds, which is fought in an impromptu ring, with knuckles bandaged not gloved, and time called erratically by the crooked Hilario, based on stopping at dramatic points to provoke more betting (and maximise his cut). Joe takes a lot of punishment from an angry youth half his age, but the kid fades in the fourth and Joe suddenly finishes him with a fierce attack.

Augustino’s deal

Joe takes his money but Augustino is there – turning up as he always does when least expected – having watched the whole thing. He tells Joe he knows Anna is taking the Indian runaways to the border; he’ll tip off the Indian Service toughs so that Ben and Roberto get arrested and Anna along with them as an accessory, unless Joe does what he tells him i.e. plants decisively incriminating evidence on Oppy, namely Harry Gold’s business card, which Augustino has got hold of. This would link Oppy with Gold who the authorities know is a spy.

This is the crux at the climax of the novel: what should Joe do? Save his lover by incriminating the man he likes and respects? Sacrifice his lover and the Indians (by extension his heritage) and betray his friend?

Joe tells Augustino he’ll do it and drives back to the test site. He had covered his absence for the fight by claiming to be policing the perimeter of the test site for Indians – based on the notion that only he would know where they would hide or break in. After all the local Indians have not been told anything about the bomb (no-one has) and just think it’s another example of the U.S. Army fencing off their ancestral lands. Oppy accepts this excuse but is glad to see him back just before the test explosion.

Climax at ground zero

The climax of the novel comes when Joe returns to Ground Zero, to be in attendance on Oppy as the final hours tick down to the test of the prototype atom bomb.

Throughout the novel we’ve met some of the more technical scientists, the ones responsible for building and assembling the prototypes. Now we watch them assemble an actual live bomb, with much back chat and jokes about ‘Don’t drop it!’ Oppy is a bag of nerves, emaciated as a walking skeleton, convinced – like some of his colleagues – that the wretched thing won’t work.

Joe knows that, if it fails, Augustino will present the failure as proof to General Groves that Oppy is a spy and that the ‘meeting’ between Oppy and Gold in Santa Fe – which Joe was present at and knows was purely accidental – was in fact Gold passing on Soviet instructions to ensure the test fails.

For the first time in months it starts to rain, jeopardising the test. Oppy is devastated. Should they abandon the test? A pessimistic Oppy is persuaded simply to delay it. Joe is tasked with guarding the bomb itself which is located in a kind of shed on top of a hundred foot tall scaffolding tower. He’s in the shed right next to the device when Oppy trips over some ropes where Joe had temporarily hidden the wretched lightning wands which he’s been carrying round trying to find a definitive hiding place.

Oppy recognises them and leaps to the conclusion that Joe is the arsonist who seems to have been sabotaging the base. He accuses Joe, they have a brief scuffle, then Oppy climbs down the ladder to his car and drives off to the security of the bunker seven miles away.

Last fight with Augustino

Out of the darkness appears Captain Augustino, Joe’s nemesis, like the proverbial bad penny. Augustino He asks whether Joe planted the incriminating evidence – Gold’s business card – on Oppy then. But in a melodramatic flash of lightning, Augustino sees the card lying on a desk where Joe had left it. So Joe has rejected the deal. They fight. Augustino pulls a gun and shoots Joe in the chest. Despite this, big strong Joe grips Augustino by the throat and dangles him over the edge of the platform. Augustino gets a few movie-like last words, then Joe lets him drop to the ground a hundred feet below.

The end

Joe climbs painfully down the ladder, bleeding. Augustino’s car is there, he limps over to it but – there are no keys in the ignition! Not under the floormat nor behind the sunscreen, nowhere! He tries to jimmy open the nearby tool-shed to see if there are any tools he could use to jump start the car but it is chained and padlocked shut. In the distance he hears the hooter announcing the start of the countdown, and he starts to run. 25 minutes. Run, run, run with blood dripping from his wound. The prose becomes a kind of dazed prose poetry: Come on, old fighter. Come on, old jazz pianist. Come on, lover of Anna Weiss and lithe Mrs Augustino. Come on, helper of crazed, old Indian men. Come on, the man who saved Oppy from Augustino. Run run run.

Joe hears the countdown reach its climax. He sees a culvert just a few yards ahead. Throws himself towards it and –

From the eye of the new sun, a man diving.
(p.341 – last sentence)

Scenes

So – a fairly convoluted plot with numerous different strands. But it’s not the plot, it’s the characters, the taut and evocative  poetic prose and above all, the weird, eerie, memory-tickling scenes, which you read Cruz Smith for. A day after finishing it I remember:

  • Joe and Anna skinny dipping under the stars
  • the strange native American dance with clowns, put on for the tourists in Santa Fe, in which Joe has to take part to take the place of blind Roberto who the Indian Service toughs have come to arrest
  • the duel between Joe and Augustino in the mountains in the snow which is suddenly interrupted when two local Indians emerge from the trees, walk slowly across the clearing where our two guys are shooting, and just as calmly disappear into the trees on the other side
  • Joe bare knuckle fighting in the parking lot of a backstreet motel
  • the fight with Augustino at the top of the Trinity test scaffold

Conclusion

Like the Renko series, this novel is packed with information and characters. Cruz Smith has clearly set out to provide a panoramic overview of the key players at Los Alamos, as well as a cross-section of the other classes and cultures caught up in this historical moment. Above all, he goes very heavy on Joe’s Indian background and the beliefs, customs, economic plight and so on of his Indian family and friends.

Nonetheless, for some reason it doesn’t have quite the same bite as the Renko books. Maybe this is because we know too much about 1940s America from countless movies – and we also know a lot about the atom bomb project from general knowledge and histories. Therefore it doesn’t have the frisson which all the Renko books have, of introducing us to a completely alien culture (the underworld of Soviet Russia, with its complicated cross-currents of power and corruption.)

And it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise to take us into its setting: it isn’t really a novelisation of life among the physicists – they only really provide a backdrop to Joe’s story – but simultaneously, it isn’t quite enough about Indian life, because Joe left it in his teens and is more a New York jazzman than believer in any of the old magic, which he thinks is horsecrap.


Related links

Reviews of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

Related links

Tim Page’s Nam (1983)

No one was really sane, everyone on the point of a total numb shock, of hysteria, a madness that shrinks have only now begun to diagnose. (p.98)

The times

Page is a legendary figure about whom legends were weaved during the climactic years of a war which itself became the stuff of legends, during the legendary 1960s.

I read Michael Herr’s book of journalism from the war, Despatches, which features Page as a central character, when it came out (1977), and bought this book when it was new in 1983. I saw The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) in cinemas when they were released, and in 1980 went hitch-hiking across the USA, getting a long lift through the mid-West from a Vietnam vet who’d had a leg amputated and was stoned all the time. In Boston I hung out with a would-be rock band which featured ‘Weird Ira’ (on bass) and ‘Angry George’ (on frantic guitar), both very fucked-up Vietnam veterans, who lived in a permanent blur of drugs I’d never heard of.

That whole milieu, its culture of ‘dropping out’, drifting through casual jobs, insubordination to all authority, growing long hair, festooning yourself in beads and bangles, smoking dope, popping mandies or quaaludes or snorting speed – it all seems a long, long time ago. Another world.

The biography

In the early 1960s Page left his boring life in Orpington, a suburb of London, and made his way across Asia to Indochina, where he got aid-related jobs in Laos and taught himself photography by the age of 18. He was lucky enough to be in Laos during a coup and took photos which he was able to sell to news agencies. Then he moved across the border to Vietnam, just as the US army presence was ramping up from 1965 onwards, and as he turned 20.

Page began ‘stringing’, working freelance for whichever agencies would buy his pictures. He had survived a motorbike crash a few years earlier, and considering himself living on ‘free time’, took risks and went to places other photographers refused. He established a base in ‘Frankie’s House’, a bar-cum-hotel-cum brothel, with other western journalists and formed a close friendship with fellow photographer Sean Flynn – son of Hollywood megastar Errol. Their escapades formed the basis of a TV mini-series, Frankie’s House, broadcast in 1992.

Page’s colour and b&w photos from 1965 onwards capture all aspects of the war, military and civilian, with a raw immediacy which got them placed in news magazines especially Time-Life. He was wounded four times – the last time, in April 1969, when a soldier stepping out of a landing helicopter ahead of him trod on a mine, which blew his legs off. Page, right behind him, received a 2-inch piece of hot shrapnel in the head. He was considered dead at the scene but choppered back to the hospital, where they discovered he was alive. He was moved on to a series of hospitals back in the States where they removed part of his brain the size of an orange and stuck his skull back together.

Initially paralysed down his left side, Page slowly regained full movement, but his war days were over. He worked for a while rehabilitating other wounded and PTSD soldiers, before returning to work as a photographer for rock magazines in the 1970s. I remember finding out who Page was from a downbeat BBC ‘Arena’ documentary about him broadcast in 1979. I vividly remember him saying that these days he spent a lot of the time getting stoned and masturbating. Even then it felt like the notion that getting stoned and being ‘shockingly’ candid about sex would change anything (as they seemed to believe in the heady 1960s) was long out of date.

Tim Page’s Nam

It’s a large format book from the art publishers Thames and Hudson. Its 120 pages are divided into seven sections:

  • Chopper blitzkrieg
  • Portraits
  • The mechanics
  • Rock and roll flash
  • CV of carriers
  • Sufferings
  • The Dao of peace

A selection of images from the book is available on Page’s website.

Tim Page Nam photos

Blurbs on the back and online talk about the images’ ability to shock – but do they? It’s fifty years since many of these photos were taken, during which we have had plenty of shocking images – and even more shocking movies – depicting the killing fields of Cambodia, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first Gulf War (with those images of skeletons in tanks on the Highway of Death out of Kuwait), anarchy in Somalia, the massacres in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, 9/11, the American-Afghan war, the war in Iraq, and now the rise of ISIS.

We have drunk deep of horrors on TV and the press, made all the more ghastly by the CGI-enhanced violence of Saving Private RyanBand of Brothers and the hundreds of subsequent movies which have copied their terrifyingly realistic depiction of the effects of modern weapons on the vulnerable human body.

The work

For me the immense cloud of legendariness, and the repeated telling of Page’s wildness and his injuries and the brain surgery and paralysis, tend to show that people find it easier to talk and write about the biography of an artist, than about their work.

The most obvious thing about the work is its copiousness. He took a lot of photos, of everything he saw. And he went to dangerous places where other photographers didn’t venture – out on patrol with the GIs and flying all over in the choppers, as well as trips out to the huge aircraft carriers, and in patrol boats. As well as being alert to everyday scenes, particularly of Vietnamese civilians. So Page’s work demonstrates great copiousness and an impressive variety of subject matter.

Next there’s a variety of styles. Nothing is staged in a studio, but, at a formal level, some of the portraits of soldiers or civilians are carefully posed and framed. At the other extreme, he catches images of people in the street or in crowds, blurred, in action, just as he catches unrepeatable moments of choppers taking off or landing. There is a genre of ‘photos of the injured’ along with ‘photos of the dead’.

These people shots are the ones I think the critics are referring to when they write of ‘shocking’, ‘realistic’ and ‘brutal’ images of war. But it’s important to acknowledge the tremendous beauty of many of his photos, where the composition, framing and colour all combine to produce visual images as composed and complete as any painting. Especially featuring machinery – there’s a sequence of an Australian artillery piece where the contrast between the muscular men’s bodies and shining metal is beautiful. The helicopters played a key role in the war, and all the photos taken from choppers give a serendipitous frame and structure to the images.

I will always think that they make a great camera platform, but a better frame… (p.21)

So if you set aside the fact that it was a somewhat violent conflict, to a photographer the Vietnam War provided an enormous range of human situations, of types of human – soldiers, civilians, peasants, urbanites, the young and fit, the old and fearful, the dead – of intense or incongruous situations, and an enormous variety of ways human interact with beautifully-designed modern machinery – steering, guiding, flying, aiming, shooting – a really broad range of 20th-century Homo sapiens.

Some types of photos

The prose

Each of the sections is introduced by a page or two of prose. They’re made of stream of consciousness sentences, running to numerous clauses, listing equipment, feelings, impressions, studded with military jargon and acronyms.

A Delta day at 105 in the shade, 90 humidity pre-monsoon, when the air can be carved with a machete; extracting up out of 12.7 range, the airconditioned luxury of 1500 feet is truly magic, a whirl towards the PX normalcy, a sense of security after the endless plod humping 20 keys of gear through the bad dream (p.17)

The aim is to create a stoned overload of sense impressions threaded with knowing references to military hardware, and all radiating a strong sense of insiderness.

On the black you could get a hot chopper, a can of Cs or a PBR that fell of the back of a truck on the way to the front. (p.42)

Can you dig it, man? Page’s prose screams out, ‘We were there, nobody explained anything or took any pity on us, and so you readers are just going to have to work out for yourself what I’m talking about.’ The continual deployment of GI jargon maintains the author’s superior cool.

Sitting in the door gunner’s seat in a Huey fragged by PIOs of the 25th Div, getting lost over Charlie’s turf up by the Fish Hook and watching those blue-green tracers of 12.7s hover towards you… (p.21)

Don’t know what a Huey is, or the 25th Div, a PIO or a 12.7? Who Charlie is? Where the Fish Hook is? Come on, newbie, keep up!

There’s no map because you’re expected to know where all these places are, as you’re expected to know so much else. Meanwhile, have a puff of this and enjoy Page’s helter-skelter of quick intense impressions, sketches of:

… field trips, scout tracks, refuelling in the monsoon, more GIs voting for noone, Ranger advisers deep in the Plaines des Joncs on assignment for Match, black machine-gunners stoned and leech-infested south of Saigon, and LURP deer-hunter look-alikes in the Michelin sorting out Victor Charlie for Georgie Patton Junior’s 11th Armoured cav, tank drivers boring at you out of their steel hutches, the black dude from Force recon after a week out there, legs, officers, corpsmen, ARVN, ROKs, the whole lot a kaleidoscope of survivors, dead or alive. (p.32)

What comes over is how much he loved it, the glamour and excitement and fear and stylishness of it all:

So many of the lethal gadgets had a pure and simple sexiness, the romance of power over life, ego-saving, black and white decisive life and death, the ultimate blast, the final wave on the best-equipped board in the surf. I am not sure if most, even in the depth of the soul-searching hawk and dove debates, really weren’t out there mainly for the hell of it, for the kicks, the fun, the brush with all that was most evil, most dear, most profane… the camaraderie, the sheer adventure of it all, were the biggest isms that could ever frag our hearts and minds. (p.51)

This is what so many anti-war campaigners find hard to understand or underestimate – that for some men, war is the most intense experience available, that it feeds and fulfils something deep in their souls. And even the calm, polite, gentlemanly men among us, many even of them from time to time fantasise and imagine themselves into warlike situations to live out those animal needs, urges and drives. Wars happen because men like fighting.

There are disappointingly few references to the actual craft and art of photography. It would be good to have a page explaining which cameras he used for different subjects, and which lenses, and why, and with what results. Nope. Maybe there’s more about this in his autobiography. The prose here isn’t explanatory; it is designed to replicate the immediacy and confusion captured in so many of the photos. Thus the camera doesn’t appear here as the tool of a trade, but as a psychological technique:

The camera became a filter to the madness and horror, a means of portraying it…It was a passport to witness the most insane events man can put together… There was too much to shoot. Too many frames to be made. No time to do it… (p.86)

Conclusion

If you’re happy to swing with the insider argot and submit to the bombardment of sense impressions, Page’s prose is immensely enjoyable, and the pictures – the more you look at them – the more they not only convey with force the place and time and people, but also say something else, about the man’s eye, and technical ability, and range of seeing. From the formally framed to the chaotic, he finds the core. It is the consistency with which he caught ‘frames’ in all kinds of situations, which builds up a tremendous sense of artistry and instinct.

You learn absolutely nothing about the origins, history, key events, strategy, geopolitics and diplomacy, battles or outcome of the war. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

The 1979 Arena documentary

Related links

Dr. Strangelove by Peter George (1963)

‘We trust each other to maintain the balance of terror, to behave rationally and to do nothing which would cause a war by accident or miscalculation or madness. Now this  is a ridiculous trust, because even assuming we both had perfect intentions, we cannot honestly guarantee anything. There are too many fingers on the buttons. There are too many reasons both mechanical and human for the system to fail. What a marvellous thing for the fate of the world to depend on – a state of mind, a mood, a feeling, a moment of anger, an impulse, ten minutes of poor judgement, a sleepless night.’
(U.S. President Murkin Muffley to Soviet Ambassador de Sadeski, Dr Strangelove, page 113)

Background

This novel has a bit of a history to it.

In 1958 British author and former RAF officer Peter Bryan George published a Cold War thriller titled Two Hours to Doom, using the pseudonym Peter Bryant. Short and serious, it was designed to show how easily a nuclear war could be triggered. In America it was renamed Red Alert.

In the late 1950s movie director Stanley Kubrick had been mulling over the idea of some kind of story about nuclear weapons and was recommended to read George’s book. He was impressed, bought the book rights, and began working with George on a screenplay. But as work progressed Kubrick became more aware of the absurdity and black humour latent in the whole subject of nuclear weapons – the doctrine of mutually assured destruction and so on – and the project slowly morphed into a black comedy.

On the back of this realisation, Kubrick brought in comic novelist Terry Southern as a co-writer in late 1962. This eventually led to a falling-out between Kubrick and the original author, Peter George. The film was shot and edited in 1963 and was due to be released on 22 November, when President Kennedy was assassinated on the same day. The film was re-edited to remove some references to the fictional president who features in the movie (the film originally ended with a massive food fight in the Pentagon War Room and when the president is hit by a particularly big custard pie, one of the generals yells, ‘Gentleman, our beloved president has been shot!’ – this entire scene was cut). It was finally released in January 1964.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled George used a working version of the screenplay to write a short novelisation, and that is the text under review.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

It’s a short, fast-moving text, only 140 pages long and broken up into punchy scenes which alternate in quick succession, as in the movie.

The plot is: the American general of a US Air Force base – General Ripper – goes mad and orders his wing of bombers armed with hydrogen bombs to attack their targets in Russia. As per protocol the bombers cut off radio signals from any source and can only be recalled by the secret recall code known only to Ripper. Ripper then orders all the men on his base to secure the perimeter, warning them war with Russia has broken out and they are going to be attacked by commies, in all likelihood masquerading as American soldiers.

Meanwhile, General ‘Buck’ Turgidson is cavorting with a scantily clad ‘personal assistant’ in a Washington hotel, when the phone rings and he is summoned to the War Room of the Pentagon. Here he meets President Murkin Muffley and the joint chiefs of staff assembled beneath an enormous board showing a map of the Soviet Union, with dots indicating the ring of American planes converging towards Russia.

The president demands to know why this attack has been launched without his permission, and Buck Turgidson becomes the main spokesman for the armed forces, explaining why greater autonomy for commanders was thought a good idea, why nobody, not even the president, can recall the bombers, only except General Ripper can because only he has the recall codes, but that the general is holed up in his air force base and is firing on the local army unit which went along to contact him – and that an intense pitched battle has broken out at the base.

It just so happens that inside the base is an upper-class RAF officer on an exchange with the USAF, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. He is summoned to Ripper’s office and becomes a sort of confidante for the rest of the novel to the general’s thoughts. Mandrake learns to his horror that Ripper has ordered a nuclear attack, and then listens in bewilderment to Ripper’s mad explanation about some kind of commie conspiracy to poison our drinking water with fluoride in order to sap ‘our vital bodily fluids’. Mandrake listens, appalled, while Ripper reveals that he first became aware of this conspiracy during the act of love when he was not able to perform as he used to. This, Ripper tells Mandrake, could only be because of the communists sapping his bodily fluids, not because he’s getting on a bit. The fact that the governments of the West are going ahead with adding fluoride to water and even food, shows the extent of the fiendish commie conspiracy to sap the bodily fluids of the Free World. The only solution is for one brave man to take the decisive step and attack the Reds before it’s too late, and that’s why he’s sent his wing of bombers to bomb Russia.

In other words, World War Three breaks out because of one middle-aged man’s sexual dysfunction.

Back in the War Room, the president invites the Russian ambassador, de Sadeski, to come and witness everything for himself and then vouch in a phone call to the Soviet premier Kissof that the whole thing is a big accident. Unfortunately, the Soviet premier is drunk and tearful. President Muffley struggles to make it clear that he’s doing everything he can to recall the planes. It is at this stage that ambassador de Sadeski  reveals that the Soviets have a new Doomsday Bomb, of inconceivable power, designed never to be used but to intimidate any possible attack. One nuclear strike on Russia and it will go off, obliterating all life on earth.

Eventually, the besieging American troops fight their way into the air force base and, although General Ripper disappears to a corridor and then off the base, Mandrake is instrumental in figuring out the recall code, phoning it through to the Pentagon, who are able to recall all the nuclear bombers.

All except one. The plane nicknamed by its crew Leper Colony and captained by Captain ‘King’ Kong, a yee-hah Texan good ole boy, is attacked by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile as it crosses the border into Russia, which doesn’t destroy it, but knocks out its radio. Therefore it never gets the recall message. Therefore it proceeds to drop its nuclear payload on its target in Russia. Therefore the Doomsday Bomb is triggered creating a vast cloud of radiaoctive debris which will slowly encompass the earth wiping out all life on earth.

On the last few pages the hitherto minor character of Dr Strangelove, a German captured from the Nazi rocket programme who has been working for the Americans, outlines a plan to build fallout shelters in America’s deepest mineshafts, complete with food and air and water filter systems, where a select couple of hundred thousand humans can hide out for 100 years or so until it is safe to go back to the surface.

Thoughts

Comedy

Doesn’t sound that funny, does it, but the comedy emerges from the absurdity of each specific situation, and the logic of this absurdity pushes the characters into becoming larger and larger caricatures – General Ripper the deranged air force general, Buck Turgidson casually saying US casualties from the Russian reprisals will probably only be twenty million dead, thirty million tops, Captain Mandrake retaining his absurd British stiff upper lip even as he listens to General Ripper’s demented outpourings, and the redneck simplicity of Captain Kong, determined to go all the way, boys, and whose gung-ho, never-say-die spirit ends up exterminating the human race.

Comparing book and film

This book can’t help being completely overshadowed by the movie. Scenes and dialogue we know from the movie become clunky, less slick and funny, when transferred into George’s prose.

Some interest is given by spotting the differences between this text and the final movie, which were presumably added during production:

  • The army attack on Ripper’s air force base takes place during the night, in the book, but during daylight in the movie – maybe making it easier to see on film.
  • In the movie Mandrake is alerted to the fact that the Russkies have not attacked America (as Ripper claims) by finding a transistor radio which is merrily churning out pop songs – it is when he brings it to General Ripper that the general sinisterly locks the door and reaches for his handgun, effectively taking Mandrake prisoner and forcing him to listen to his demented ramblings – the book isn’t so sinister, with Ripper simply calling Mandrake to his office then, when he goes for a pee, Mandrake takes a phone call in which furious superiors shout down the phone that there is no Russian attack, and what the hell is the general playing at.
  • In the book, after his men have surrendered to the besieging force, General Ripper steps out into the corridor and disappears, Mandrake finding out later that he has flown off in his private airplane; the movie he steps into his office bathroom and blows his brains out, which is both more dramatic, more contained within the ‘set’ and so more claustrophobic, and more bleakly nihilistic.
  • In the book the character of Dr Strangelove only speaks at the end, with a brief discussion of his surreal proposal about saving the human race in mine shafts. In the movie he has dialogue from earlier on – presumably to introduce and build him up. Also in Peter Sellars’ brilliantly manic performance, Strangelove’s inability to control his artificial arm which gives impromptu Nazi salutes, is conveyed earlier, and through visual slapstick in a way the novel can’t do.
  • Finally, the book makes clear that there is going to be a 6 to 12 month delay before the whole world is wiped out, plenty of time to organise the mine shaft scenario – but the movie can’t end on this rather vague, long-term idea, and so the mineshaft discussion is moved to just before the Leper Colony bomb sets off the Doomsday machine, so that the film itself can end with footage of numerous nuclear bombs exploding, visually conveying the sense of complete apocalypse. Again, the movie ending is much tighter and more impactful.

Maybe I’m just more familiar with the movie, but where book and movie differ, the movie always seems to be smarter, funnier and more resonant.

Aliens

What is unique to the book, and may be the best thing about it, is the way it is bookended by an introduction and epilogue by supposed aliens, who, having arrived at a desolated Earth, try to piece together what has happened and have supposedly stumbled across a charred copy of this text. The text is presented as if published by these aliens as part of their series The Dead Worlds of Antiquity.

Logically, it doesn’t stand up – a written account of these events wouldn’t have been created in this format, or included detailed dialogue from a load of characters who all died e.g. the crew of Leper Colony – and you can see why the idea cluttered up the movie and so was dropped from the film version. But in the text it does work to give a brief, poignant and scary vision of a post-human world utterly destroyed by nuclear holocaust due to man’s stupidity and irrationality.

Movie trailer

Credit

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George was published by Bantam Books in 1963. All quotes and references are to the 2000 Prion Books paperback edition.

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The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

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