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

American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which dealswith some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)

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Every room in the Guildhall Art Gallery

The Guildhall Art Gallery is a newish building, opened in 1999 to exhibit selections of the 4,500 or so art works owned by the Corporation of London. It replaced the original Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.

At any one time the gallery has room to exhibit about 250 artworks in its five or so spaces (the main, balcony, ground floor, corridor and undercroft galleries), as well as special exhibitions in the exhibition rooms. But the overwhelming reason to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery is to see its fabulous collection of Victorian paintings.

The gallery is FREE and there are chatty and engaging tours of the pictures every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 12.15, 1.15, 2.15 and 3.15.

Victorian painting

Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) saw the fruition of the Industrial Revolution and the growth and consolidation of the British Empire, but neither of these subjects is much in evidence in the paintings here. Instead the wall labels emphasise the way Victorian artists widened the scope of painting from traditional Grand History paintings or mythological subjects or portraits of the rich, to include a new and wider variety of subjects, especially of domestic or common life treated with a new dignity or compassion, and with a growing interest, as the century progressed, in depictions of beauty for its own sake, in the work of the later pre-Raphaelites and then the Aesthetic Movement.

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Rose-Coloured Gown (1896) oil on canvas by Charles H.M. Kerr (1858-1907) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Main gallery

Go through the main entrance and there is a wide staircase leading up to the Main Gallery, a big, relaxing open space lined with sumptuous Victorian paintings. They’ve been hung in true Victorian style, clustered one above the other and against a dark green background. It looks like this:

Although the paintings have labels displaying names and dates, they have no description or explanation text whatsoever, which is a change and a relief. Instead, the paintings are arranged in themes each of which is introduced by a few paragraphs setting the Victorian context.

Work

Love

  • Listed (1885) by William Henry Gore. My favourite painting here.
  • The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere. The tour guide pointed out the irony of the title which is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes and his trousers rolled up. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers and, if you look closely, the tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches.

Leisure

History

The main gallery on the first floor has an opening allowing you to look down into the gallery space below and hanging on the end wall and two stories high is the vast Defeat of the floating batteries at Gibraltar, 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. Grand history painting like this is about the genre of art furthest from contemporary taste and culture, but there’s lots to admire apart from the sheer scale. Rather like opera, you have to accept that the genre demands stylised and stereotyped gestures of heroism and despair, before you can really enter the spirit.

Faith

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away (1868) oil on canvas by Frank Holl (1845-1888) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Beauty

As the century progressed an interest grew in Beauty for its own sake: one strand of this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of voluptuous, red-haired ‘stunners’ as he called them. Strands like this fed into the movement which became known as Art for Art’s sake or Aestheticism, which sought a kind of transcendent harmony of composition and colour.

  • The violinist (1886) by George Adolphus Storey
  • La Ghirlandata (1873) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • On a fine day (1873) by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes. Although the detail is patchy, from a distance this is staggeringly effective at conveying that very English effect of sunshine on hills while the foreground is clouded over.
  • The blessed damozel (1895) by John Byam Liston Shaw
  • The rose-coloured gown (Miss Giles) (1896) by Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr. The face is a little unflattering but the rose-coloured gown is wonderfully done, lighter and airier than this reproduction suggests. There are several histories of ‘the nude’; someone ought to do a history of ‘the dress’, describing and explaining the way different fabrics have been depicted in art over the centuries.
  • A girl with fruit (1882) by John Gilbert. Crude orientalism.
  • spring, summer, autumn and winter (1876) by Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victor Stevens

The Guildhall

Home

During the 19th century home and work became increasingly separated and distinct. Home became a place to be decorated, shown off, furnished in the latest fashions purveyed by a growing number of decoration books and magazines. There is a massive move from the bare interiors often described in Dickens’s novels of the 1840s and 50s, to the fully furnished interiors and incipient consumer revolution of 1900.

  • Sweethearts (1892) by Walter Dendy Sadler. Late for such an anecdotal painting.
  • The music lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton. Characteristically smooth and sumptuous.
  • A sonata of Beethoven (1912) by Alfred Edward Emslie. Is that the great man himself, blurrily depicted in the window seat?
  • Sun and moon flowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie. Note the fashionable blue and white china vases.

Imagination

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra (1882) oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

A staggering, monumental work, down to the tricklets of blood leaking from the axe over the stone step.

The ground floor gallery

This actually consists of two tiny rooms next to the lifts, to the left of the main stairs, showing nine City of London-related works.

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Ninth of November (1888) oil on canvas by William Logsdail (1859-1944) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The tour guide pointed out the face of the boy about to pinch an orange from the basket at the far left of the crowd; the black and white minstrel complete with banjo, next to him; and to the right of the white-faced soldier at the foot of the main streetlamp, is a man in brown bowler hat, a portrait of fellow artist John William Waterhouse, of Lady of Shalott fame.

The undercroft galleries

As the name suggests these are downstairs from the ground floor entrance lobby. You walk along the ‘long gallery’ (see below), through a modern glass door on the right and down some steel and glass steps into a set of small very underground-feeling rooms. The paintings are again grouped in ‘themes’, although now applying across a broader chronological range than just the Victorians, stretching back to the eighteenth century and coming right up to date with a Peter Blake work from 2015.

London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

The Thames During the Great Frost of 1739 (1739) oil on canvas by Jan Griffier the Younger (1688-1750) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Seems clear to me that the paintings from the 1700s are of documentary interest only. Maybe there are elements of composition and technique to analyse, but they aren’t doing anything as mature, challenging and psychological as paintings like ClytemnestraOn a fine day or Listed.

War

The corridor gallery

Matthew Smith (1879-1959) was born into a family of Yorkshire industrialists. Like a lot of rich men’s sons he decided he wanted to be an artist and went to study with post-impressionist French painters in Pont Aven in 1908, then under Matisse in Paris. He served in the Great War, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The City of London Corporation was gifted a collection of some 1,000 of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sketches in 1974.

The short corridor between the steps down from the lobby and the door into the undercroft displays some dozen of his works. Because they all have similar titles it’s almost impossible to track them down online.

These works struggle to compete with the masterpieces in the main gallery. In Matthews’ work, after the modern art revolution, the paint is laid on thick and draws attention to itself and to the canvas, to the surface and solidity, to the process of painting itself. They are about the interplay of oils, the composition of tones and colours in regard to each other, as juxtapositions of colours and shapes, of bands and shapes and lines and swirls. One result of this is that, having abandoned the realistic depiction of the outside world – using it now merely as inspiration for exercises in colour – there is an absence of the light effects which make so many of the Victorian paintings upstairs so powerful and feel so liberating.

Conclusions

Victorian painting is a game of two halves: as a general rule everything before about 1870 (except for the PRBs) was badly executed or village idiot kitsch; after the 1870s almost all the paintings have a new maturity of execution and subject matter. The change is comparable to the growth of the novel which, up to the 1860s was mostly a comic vehicle with only episodic attempts at seriousness; after around 1860 an increasingly mature, deep and moving medium for the exploration of human consciousness.

Seeing this many oil paintings together makes you realise the ability to oil to brilliantly capture the effect of sunlight – to dramatise a mythic subject and pose as in Clytemnestra – or to evoke a sense of shadow and light which is so characteristic of the English countryside, as in On a fine day – and then, in later Victorian experiments, to convey the hushed, muted shades of light at dawn and dusk – as in my favourite painting from the collection, Listed.

Oil painting can do this better than photography, in which it is very difficult to capture the difference between light and shade without glare or over-exposure. I hadn’t quite appreciated the wonderful ability of oil painting to convey the impression of sunlight in all its different effects.


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Inventing Impressionism @ The National Gallery

Popular

This is the biggest exhibition of Impressionist art in London for 20 years. It was packed. There was a long queue well before it opened at 10am and by 11am it was difficult to see the paintings without people in the way.

The commentary, booklet, audioguide and wall panels all emphasised how revolutionary Impressionism was and what a complete break it represented with official French Salon art (all true enough – there was some dull pre-Impressionist art here to compare it with). But nothing really addressed the more obvious point: why is Impressionist art so incredibly popular today? Why are paintings, once ridiculed as the inept daubs of idiots and incompetents, now sold for tens of millions and plastered over countless chocolate box lids, calendars, posters etc?

Is it because: Impressionist art is colourful and naive, it doesn’t require a knowledge of classical myth or history, it doesn’t depict the intimidatingly rich and powerful, and it is mostly set in a generalised rural idyll – sunshine on fields of poppies and ponds full of lilies? Because it is an escape from anything solid, defined, intellectual or demanding?

Pierre-Auguste Renoir Two Sisters (On the Terrace), 1881 Oil on canvas 100.4 x 80.9 cm The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection 1933.455 © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.455 © The Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Durand-Ruel

The show isn’t actually about Impressionism the art movement: it is about one man – the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. A pretty convincing case is made for him being the inventor or gofather of Impressionism, the man who bought up the early works of all the major Impressionists, as well as organising one-man shows for the artists, opening galleries in Paris and later, America, to showcase their works, paying the poorer ones salaries to allow them to work, whose efforts pretty much single-handedly enabled many of the painters to survive and flourish, who helped to create the narrative that Impressionism is the founding movement of Modern Art and who, along the way, invented many of the methods which underpin the modern art market. A really impressive achievement.

Thus the first room features large wall-size photos of Durand-Ruel’s living room in Paris, liberally hung with the great paintings he owned, and the curators have tried to reunite as many of them as possible to recreate the scene. Similarly, the last room contains photos of the key 1905 Grafton exhibition in London and, again, the curators have tried to hang a lot of paintings from that exhibition in the same space.

This exhibition is not a history of the theory or practice of Impressionism. It is about how one man more than any other spotted it, identified it, funded and sustained it, marketed and promoted it, defined and made it what we think it is today.

Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market

To quote the guide, when Durand-Ruel took over his father’s art dealership in 1865 he immediately began applying the techniques of high finance: he found backers and partners for his purchases, sought exclusivity deals, worked to push up prices at auction and brought his product before the public at carefully staged group and one-man shows.

For example, when he was introduced to Manet in his studio, he bought all the available paintings on the spot – 23 paintings in one day – for 35,000 francs (nearly 40 times the pay of the average French worker). By cornering the market (in admittedly unpopular artists) he realised he could leak them onto the market at inflated prices.

I didn’t like any of the Manets on display here – Moonlight at the Port of Bolougne or The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama. The audio commentary itself pointed out there is something wrong with the perspective and details of the still life The SalmonMusic in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) looks, to me, cramped and badly composed, excessively black and, when you look closely, really badly painted.

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917 © The National Gallery, London

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) The National Gallery, London, Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917 © The National Gallery, London

The one-man show

In 1883 Durand-Ruel pioneered the idea of the one-man art show, staging a series of month-long, solo exhibitions by Boudin, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley. He ensured they were retrospectives ie showed the progression or evolution in the artist’s style, and accompanied the shows with advertising campaigns, provided images for the Press to print and publicise, and hosted lavish private views to encourage wealthy buyers.

Selling the ‘series’

This led naturally to collaboration with Monet on his ‘series’ paintings ie when Monet set about painting series of versions of the same subject. One of the first was the Poplar Series, 24 canvases of a set of poplar trees on the bend in the Epte river. In February 1892 Durand-Ruel displayed 15 of them in his gallery, facilitating their critical reception and their sale. Five of Monet’s poplar paintings are brought together here, in one of those recreations beloved of curators.

30 years ago I hitch-hiked to Rouen just to see the facade of the cathedral which Monet had painted in a series of paintings which I worshipped as a schoolboy. The paintings magically capture the imposing architecture in the differing light of different times of day. But now, all the poplar tree paintings in this exhibition left me cold. Either I’ve changed or this poplar series is just not as good. The reproduction below makes the source painting seem much smoother and more finished than it is in real life. In the flesh all the poplar paintings seemed to me lumpy and bumpy and unconvincing.

Claude Monet, Poplars in the Sun (1891) The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo P.1959-0152 © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Claude Monet, Poplars in the Sun (1891) The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Apart from all the other factors – could the enduring popularity of the Impressionists have something to do with the fact that the reproductions – in posters, calendars, chocolate boxes, biscuit tin lids etc – render small and smooth and seamless images which, when seen in the flesh, and much much larger, are surprisingly pock-marked and blodgy?

Bad paintings

In fact, the show contains an unusually large number of bad paintings. I certainly learned a lot about Durand-Ruel and the birth of art marketing, but an unintended outcome of the show was to make me feel quite a lot of sympathy for the early critics of Impressionism. Quotes from these poor benighted souls are printed large on the walls and included in the wall panels for our derision: what philistines! How could they not recognise the shimmering wonders of Monet’s water lilies?

Well, because a lot of the recognised masterpieces of Impressionism weren’t created for another 10, 20 or 30 years. All the critics could do was react to the paintings put in front of them in 1872, 1874, 1876 – and as this exhibition conclusively proves, a lot of these were genuinely poor, in terms of composition and technique.

Even the audioguide admitted that at first glance Green Park, London by Claude Monet looks so bad it might have been painted by a child. Hanging Out The Laundry To Dry (1875) by Berthe Morisot: is this not an amaterush ‘daub’? I thought I was an unquestioning fan of Dégas – the show features the fabulous Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando and a number of so-so ballet studies – but this show revealed how many bad and awkward paintings he made, as well: Horses before the stands may be famous but I find it gawky and unappealing; and surely Peasant Girls Bathing In The Sea At Dusk is just really bad.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75) Private Collection, Ireland © Photo courtesy of the owner

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (1869-75) Private Collection, Ireland © Photo courtesy of the owner

The final room is dominated by a full length portrait of Eva Gonzalès, herself an artist, by Manet (1870). I’ve been spoilt by recently visiting exhibitions of portraits by John Singer Sargent and beautiful late-Victorian female portraiture at the Leighton House Museum – in comparison with those artists, I thought this was a poor painting – look at the face, the heart of any portrait, look at those bug eyes.

Nonetheless, Eva Gonzalès starred in a ground-breaking exhibition Durand-Ruel organised at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905. It was curated with his usual entrepreneurial flair, arranged to tell the story of how the movement evolved from tentative early steps, then burst into maturity with masterpieces by Dégas, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir et al.

The 1905 show had far-reaching influence in this country, helping to popularise the loose sunlit approach to subject matter and style, and establishing Impressionism as the forebear of all Modern Art. I know people who not only loathe Impressionism but hate the way its continuing dominance overshadows far more interesting developments which took place in other European countries, specifically Germany and Scandinavia.

Good paintings

I found a lot of the Impressionist works on display here surprisingly poor. Many of them really did look like the unfinished daubs contemporary critics castigated. But with around 80 paintings on show, there were, of course, plenty of others which are a joy to see.

I think Renoir emerged as the most consistent artist here: he crystallised his vision early on and thereafter poured forth an apparently limitless number of chocolate box people in sunny settings. His Parisians socialising in the open air, his portraits of smiling women and children, his dancing couples, all have an indisputably lovely life and colour to them.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Picture Fund © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Impressionism was about taking the train out of Paris to the still-unspoilt suburbs with newly-available tubes of ready-mixed oil paints, and painting in the open air, and so there are a lot of depictions of Paris’s suburbs, maybe touched with slight signs of industrialism, with railway bridges or distant factory chimneys. Not too much, though.

This work by Sisley. Daub or not? Does the light airy sunlit feel compensate for the lack of finish and draughtsmanship? Does the blue sky compensate for the bridge looking wonky? I like clear lines and solid draughtsmanship so, for me, No. For other people, who respond to the overall feel and warm impression an image evokes in them, well, Yes.

Sisley, Alfred, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr., 1964 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne (1872) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr., 1964 © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And there were plenty of blurry landscapes by Pissarro or Monet, including several old favourites which are part of the National Gallery’s regular collection, a number depicting London during the artists’ exiles here to escape the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Easy-going nostalgic reminders of what London looked like in the halcyon fantasy-land these artists created and which so many of us harken back to.

Camille Pissarro, The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) The National Gallery, London, Bought, 1984 © The National Gallery, London

Camille Pissarro, The Avenue, Sydenham (1871) The National Gallery, London, Bought, 1984 © The National Gallery, London

What I liked

Ezra Pound said that, at the end of the day, all a critic can do is point at something and say ‘I like that’ and then attempt to explain why. I was surprised how many of the paintings on display here I actively disliked. It was a genuine revelation how poor some of the paintings by all these famous names turn out to be.

More or less the only work I really liked – that I could imagine having in my house and seeing every day – was St Paul’s from the Surrey Side by Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), a predecessor of the Impressionists. Not a blue-skied escapist landscape but the big bad city under no illusions. Below is a dark and rather misleading reproduction of it; in the flesh it felt deeper and more evocative. It looks forward to Whistler‘s later impressions of London.

Though blurry, though painted en plein air, it still has an underlying accuracy of draughtsmanship and confidence of line which is what I enjoy in art and found missing in so many of the other paintings on show here.

Charles-François Daubigny St Paul's from the Surrey Side (1871-3) Oil on canvasThe National Gallery, London Presented by friends of Mr. J.C.J. Drucker, 1912 © The National Gallery, London

Charles-François Daubigny St Paul’s from the Surrey Side (1871-3) The National Gallery, London Presented by friends of Mr. J.C.J. Drucker, 1912 © The National Gallery, London

Could the success of the Impressionists not only be down to the fact that their paintings reproduce very well across the range of products and channels the twentieth century invented – but that their rivals and predecessors, the official Salon artists’ works, reproduce very badly, often looking as dark and dingy as the misleading reproduction above?

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The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris (2012)

Young historian and TV presenter Marc Morris has written a racy pacy account of the ‘most important event in English history’, a  350-page overview which starts 50 years before the big event, continues for a generation afterwards, and effortlessly integrates scholarly weighing of the various sources and their reliability with common-sense interpretation and stylish factual asides.

For example, the population of 11th century England was some 1.5 million of whom over 10% were slaves. Most of the population above them were smallholding churls, with around 5,000 significant landowners in the whole country, of whom only an estimated 90 held enough land to be rich enough to attend the king, and only 4 earls at a time ruled the four main regions of Wessex, Mercia, Northumberland and East Anglia.

There are some fascinating sections on the rise of Norman church architecture, later named the ‘Romanesque’, whose soaring new designs eclipsed the clunky windowless churches of the Saxons.  And a chapter dedicated to the origin and implementation of the amazing Domesday Book.

However, no matter how brightly and enthusiastically it starts, like every account of this era, Morris’s book soon bogs down in the tangled web of family trees and promises – ie who promised who the throne of which country when, who invaded who, who made solemn oaths of friendship and then declared war etc – webs which ensnare not just the throne of England but those of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and France as well as the dukedoms and earldoms of Anjou and Flanders and Normandy, to name just the main ones.

As one way through this complex web I set out to record simply why each king of England – from Æthelred the Unready onwards – actually became king. Not their acts and achievements. Just why they became king.

***

Æthelred the Unready (978–1013 and 1014–1016) son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth, Æthelred was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. King Edgar had an older son by another wife, Edward, who duly became king in 975 but was not the choice of many powerful nobles and was murdered just three years later in 978. It’s at this point that the Witan or council of powerful landowners elected the ten-year-old Æthelred king. Over the following 40 years Æthelred failed to bind together the factions which had made his election so bloody, and his long reign was characterised by backstabbing weakness at the centre and betrayal at the periphery. All made worse for coinciding with a resumption of the Danish/Viking raiding which everyone thought had been staunched in the mid-900s. Thus in 1002 Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, landed and began harrying whole swathes of England in sustained campaigns until, in 1013, Æthelred was forced to flee abroad (to the court of Normandy, home of his wife Emma) whereupon Sweyn declared himself king.

Sweyn Forkbeard (1013-14) Sweyn had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1013. He reigned for 5 weeks, dying on 3 February 1014. He had one son, Cnut, aged about 20, who had been an active helper in his wars. But the English ealdormen rejected Cnut and invited Æthelred back to be their king. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England was elective.

Æthelred the Unready part 2 (1014–1016) Æthelred accepted the invitation, returned from Normandy and organised an army which defeated the Danes in Lincolnshire, the one and only military victory of his reign. However, old divisions among his senior advisers once again opened up and soon his eldest son, Edmund, was in open opposition to him. In September 1015 the Danes led by Cnut re-invaded and Edmund led the armies against them while Æthelred fell into his final illness and his court squabbled as usual. In April 1016 Æthelred died.

Edmund Ironside (April – November 1016) third of the six sons of Æthelred by his first marriage to Ælfgifu, Edmund gathered loyalist forces around him to fight the Danes, first Sweyn and then his son Cnut. Edmund was king of England from April 1016, when his father died. He led fierce resistance to the invading Danes, fighting five major battles against them before defeat at the battle of Battle of Assandun led him to agree to a division of the country, Edmund keeping Wessex, the old English heartland of Alfred the Great, and Cnut taking the rest. These arrangements were rendered moot when Edmund himself died 0n 30 November, probably from wounds sustained in the battle.

—At  this point Æthelred’s children by his second wife, Emma of Normandy – Alfred, the future Edward the Confessor and their sister, Godgifu – fled abroad to Normandy.—

Cnut the Great (1016-1035) Cnut and his Danish army successfully regained the throne claimed by his father Sweyn. He was to rule as king of England for nearly 20 years, at the same time being king of Denmark and of as much of Norway as he could conquer.

[Edmund’s heirs – Edmund had two children by Ealdgyth – Edward and Edmund. Cnut sent them to the king of Sweden to be murdered, but the Swedish king forwarded them to Hungary where Edmund died but Edward prospered. Edward ‘the Exile’, as he became known, returned to England in 1057 only to die within a few days of his arrival...]

Cnut had sons by two wives:

  • Ælfgifu of Northampton, who he was betrothed to by his father Sweyn upon the conquest in 1013, gave him Svein and Harold, called ‘Harefoot’. Svein was to die on campaign in Norway in 1035.
  • Upon taking the throne Cnut invited Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to marry him; she did and bore him Harthacnut.

Hiatus (1035-37) When Cnut died after nearly 20 years on the English throne he left the conditions for a bloody struggle between the two sets of sons. The great men of the kingdom held a meeting at Oxford on the river Thames, the border between Wessex and the south where Emma based herself and which supported Harthacnut, and the more Scandinavian north which supported Harold. They agreed to partition the country (once again) but in fact Harthacnut found it impossible to leave Denmark where he was threatened by invasion by the kings of both Norway and Sweden, for some years. And so, the record suggests, Harold little by little made himself actual ruler of the whole country.

Harold I ‘Harefoot’ (1035-40) son of Cnut by his second wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, some historians speculate that his mother was the real power behind the throne. After the conflicts surrounding his election not much is recorded of his reign. He died in on 7 March 1040 at the relatively young age of 24, just as his half-brother Harthacnut had finally got round to organising a fleet to invade England.

Harthacnut (1040-42) son of Cnut and his second wife, Emma the widow of Æthelred. He arrived with a fleet of 62 ships at Sandwich on 17 June 1040.  Most of the army were mercenaries and one of Harthacnut’s first acts was to levy an enormous tax to pay for them. Unpopular across the country, two tax collectors in Worcester were killed by the mob which led Harthacnut to send forces to kill everyone in the city and raze it to the ground. His popularity never recovered and he levied the same punitive tax the next year. After two brief years, on 8 June 1042 Harthacnut dropped dead at a wedding feast in Lambeth.

But, according to Morris, one of the few good things Harthacnut did in his reign was, in the second year, unexpectedly, to invite Edward, son of Æthelred and Emma, to come and join him in a joint rule (p.42). Maybe he realised how unpopular he was and needed an English intermediary. Whatever the motivation it paved the way for Edward’s swift acclamation.

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) was a son of Æthelred by his second marriage to Emma of Normandy. Æthelred already had no fewer than six sons by his first marriage to Ælfgifu and so it must have seemed unlikely that Edward would ever inherit the crown. However, the most powerful son, Edmund Ironside, was killed resisting Cnut as, it seems, were four of the others, and the survivor, Eawdwig, was executed by Cnut along with any other members of the English nobility who seemed a threat soon after his victory in 1016. So now, in 1042, the son of Emma and Cnut – Harthacnut – was dead – and so were the sons of Cnut and Ælfgifu – Svein and Harold – and so were all the sons of Æthelred and Ælfgifu – leaving Edward on the spot and eligible. He was elected king by the Witan and crowned on Easter Day 1043.

Harold II Godwinson (1066) Edward reigned for a long time and a lot happened. A central thread is the presence of the great earl Godwine, who had risen under Cnut from relative obscurity to become, through his fighting prowess, earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful earls in the country by about 1020. A theme of Edward’s reign was the difficulty he had managing Godwine, problems which reached a climax in 1051 when Edward ordered Godwin to punish the population of Dover for a drunken brawl with visiting Frenchmen. Godwin refused, it became a battle of wills and Edward rallied the other earls and leaders and managed to get Godwin and his sons exiled and seized all his land. However, in 1052, the Godwins returned with a large armed force and won enough support to compel Edward to restore him. In 1053 he died and his son Harold inherited the earldom of Wessex, every bit as strong and imperious as his father.

The fatal promise

The crux of the Norman Conquest is whether Edward the Confessor promised the English throne to Duke William of Normandy, as is depicted in the Bayeaux tapestry and in all Norman accounts. When Cnut ruled England the entire Saxon royal family sought refuse in Normandy, where Edward was raised. As it became clear he was going to have no male issue, he allegedly, in 1051, sent a promise to Duke William that he would inherit the English throne. Over the years he infiltrated various Normans into high positions, including Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edward was well aware that earl Godwin’s headstrong son, Harold, considered himself a legitimate heir and so in 1064 Edward ordered him to go to Normandy to confirm Edward’s election of Duke William as his successor. This Harold did with very bad grace and William forced him to make the oath of allegiance over holy relics, effectively making Harold William’s vassal. But in his heart Harold didn’t accept it.

For Harold and the Saxons the crown was passed on by the decision of the Witan or council or by brute force; one king couldn’t choose to pass it to another. For William, Edward’s promise and Harold’s confirmation of it on holy relics, was a solemn and binding legal agreement.

And so when Edward died and Harold, ignoring his forced promise, and acclaimed by the other nobles of the country, took the throne, Duke William felt cheated and was able to persuade not only his own people but even Pope Alexander II that his cause was Just, to raise a massive armada, and to get the Pope’s blessing for his invasion. Harold counter-claimed that Edward gifted him the throne on his deathbed.

Who was telling the truth? Did such a gift supersede – if it was made – the solemn promises Edward had made earlier to William? Did those solemn promises have meaning in English custom and law?

Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 6 1066. In September he had to march north to deal with the invasion of the Norwegian warrior, Harold Hardrada.

Harald Sigurdsson (called ‘Hardrada’) Half-brother to King Olaf the Saint of Norway. Following Olaf’s defeat and death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald saw action in Russia and then as a member of the Byzantine emperor’s famous Varangian Guard in warfare around the Mediterranean. In 1046 he returned to Scandinavia and to conflict with his nephew Magnus I who had become king of Denmark and Norway. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald became king of Norway but hankered after Denmark as well and raided the country every year for nearly 20 years. Moreover, he contemplated invading England more than once, to restore the Empire of Cnut the Great. The Confessor was well aware of this and sent numerous emissaries to pacify Harald, but who also gave him the impression he would get the throne of England when Edward died.

In 1066 Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, former earl of Northumbria, was driven out of England and into exile. He came to Norway and persuaded Harald to try and invade the north of England, the part of the country with strong Scandinavian ties due to the prolonged settlement there of Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. The landings were initially successful and Harald and his forces won the battle of Fulford outside York. However, King Harold II Godwinson arrived with a large force and, catching the Norwegians by surprise, massacred them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

William the Bastard (1066-87) In 1036 Duke Robert of Normandy died on pilgrimage to the Holy Land leaving a 7-year-old son by a working woman to whom he was not married and who he named William. William’s childhood and teens were spent in a court in crisis and beset by war, an environment he mastered, making himself the most successful military leader in northern Europe. He was convinced Edward the Confessor had promised him the crown of England and was outraged when Harold ‘usurped’ it. He assembled a huge invasion fleet and an army well-stocked with mercenary fighters, before waiting impatiently for the weather in the English Channel to become favourable. Landing in Pevensey Bay on 28 September 1066, he marched his army to Hastings and then inland to the ridge at Senlac where, on 14 October, the Battle of Hastings was fought, King Harold Godwinson killed, and the Saxon forces decimated.

William then marched his men from the coast through Sussex and Surrey, across the Thames and then north-east along the Chilterns to Berkhamsted, ravaging and burning as he went. All resistance was crushed and eventually the English nobles in London realised they had to capitulate. William had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. For the Normans coronation put God’s seal on power. He also had the Pope’s imprimatur. William claimed the throne:

  • by right of the Confessor’s solemn promises
  • by right of conquest
  • by right of the Pope and Mother Church
  • by the (eventual) acclamation of the leading English nobles

Edward the Aetheling Remember Edward the Exile, the son of Edmund Ironside? Who came back to England in 1057 only to drop dead? Well, he had a son known to history as Edgar the Ætheling (b.1051?). After Harold II was killed at Battle, Edward was briefly proclaimed king of England and based himself in anti-Norman London, at least for the few months that William ravaged his way through the Home Counties. It was Edward who led the deputation from London which went to submit to the Conqueror at Berkhamsted. He was allowed to live but plagued William by putting himself at the head of a number of rebellions against William’s rule between 1067 and 1075. With the end of English opposition in that year he went and fought alongside the Conqueror’s son Robert of Normandy in campaigns in Sicily (1085-1087) and accompanied Robert on the First Crusade (1099-1103) before dying of old age in England in 1126.

The failure of monarchy

The fundamental reason there was a Norman Conquest is because Edward the Confessor failed to have a son, indeed any children. His widow, Edith, later commissioned a Life of Edward which claimed he was so devout and holy the couple never had sex. More likely it was just a common-or-garden case of infertility, in which case two of the most seismic events in English history – the Norman Conquest and the Reformation – can be attributed to malfunctioning sex organs.

Related links

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle

Killing Holmes

Tired of making up clever puzzles for Sherlock Holmes to disentangle, at the end of the second dozen stories for the Strand magazine Conan Doyle introduced the completely new character of Professor  Moriarty. Hitherto unmentioned anywhere in the oeuvre, Moriarty was conjured out of thin air to provide Holmes with a worthy nemesis, with a fitting opponent who would drag him to his death over the Reichenbach Falls (in the The Adventure of the Final Problem, published December 1893). Moriarty is a pretext, a fictional function of fatigue.

Killing Holmes freed Conan Doyle to continue writing the wide range of other fiction he wanted to pursue, lots of other macabre, humorous, exotic short stories as well as a stream of short novels. For example, a lot of 1894 was taken up writing the stories of medical life which were collected in Round the Red Lamp (October 1894).

Enter the Brigadier

But one of Conan Doyle’s most enduring interests was history. He had already written novels set during the Monmouth rebellion of 1685 and the Hundred Years War. Now he set about fulfilling an ambition to write about the French Army during the time of Napoleon and the result was a series of stories about a completely different character from the supersober, hyper-rational Holmes – a bombastic old French soldier, a veteran of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, who we meet boozing in a Parisian café and who proceeds to tell a stream of farfetched yarns in which he is always the dashing hero.

Altogether Gerard appears in 17 short stories and one novel (Uncle Bernac).

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896)

The stories appeared monthly from December 1894 in Conan Doyle’s favourite and most profitable outlet, the Strand magazine, continuing throughout 1895 and were collected in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard in 1896.

  • How Brigadier Gerard Won his Medal (December 1894) Napoleon gives BG and a fellow officer a letter and instructions to ride through enemy lines. BG is too stupid to realise the intention is that they get captured and give the false info to the enemy. Instead he fights his way through with a series of hair-raising adventures. ‘You will see,’ said he, turning to the Duke of Tarentum, ‘that Brigadier Gerard has the special medal of honour, for I believe that if he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.’
  • How the Brigadier Held the King (April 1895) Gerard is wounded and recovers in a little Spanish village. He tries to rejoin his troop but his companion in a carriage turns out to be a Spanish brigand who betrays him to bandits. Their leader composes poetry between torturing prisoners – genuinely gruesome tortures worthy of Goya’s Disasters of War. He’s about to be split in two when some English troopers ride up and rescue him, after a brief fight. Later, one on one with the the English captain, Gerard suggests they play cards for his freedom, and they’re in mid-game when the Duke of Wellington comes upon them and reprimands the English officer.
  • How the King Held the Brigadier (May 1895) Gerard escapes from Dartmoor prison but not before knocking out one of his comrades who was peaching on him. Steals a cloak from a delayed coach, to the disgust of the lady in it. Blunders about the moor ending up where he began. Is run into by a boxer in training who promptly knocks him out. Overhears the boxer and trainer’s conversation before bursting out of the cottage only to run straight into the governor and soldiers. And, to cap it all, discovers he has had in the pocket of the stolen cloak all along a letter authorising his release!
  • How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio (June 1895) Napoleon himself requests a meeting and asks the Brigadier to accompany him the following night to a tree stump in the woods, but on no account speak to him or say anything. Gerard does as he’s told, rendezvous with the Emperor, and when they approach the stump is confronted with two evil-looking men. Quickly one makes a lunge and stabs the emperor before Gerard can strike him down; he chases the other and kills him, too. Returning to the Emperor, distraught, he finds the real Emperor! A servant impersonated him to meet two members of an old Corsican secret society to whom he owed allegiance. Ie the same ‘secret society tracks down former member’ which CD used liberally in his Holmes stories.
  • How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom (July 1895) At an inn in Poland Gerard meets dashing young Sub-Lieutenant Duroc who asks him to accompany him to the Castle of Gloom, home of Baron Straubenthal who was a revolutionary sansculotte responsible for the murder of Duroc’s father. As the revolution collapsed Straubenthal ravished a noblewoman and offered her her life if she agreed to marry him and give him her name. So here he is hidden in darkest Poland. Duroc and Gerard break into the castle where they are trapped into a locked room, but find a way out into the powder chamber where they set off a small explosion, win free and engage in a fierce sword fight with Straubenthal, before rescuing his pretty stepdaughter and fleeing the castle just as it blows up!
  • How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshal Millefleurs (August 1895) Spain. Gerard is selected to lead half a cavalry squadron (50 men) against a freelance (English) brigand who has taken over a nearby Abbey. En route he falls in with a squadron of English hussars who have been tasked with the same mission and almost come to blows until he realises it is the same English captain who saved him from torture by bandits in How the Brigadier held the King. They agree the English squadron will pretend to be deserters, enter the castle, then open to doors to the French. Gerard catches some sleep at the inn but wakens to find the Abbot and innkeeper who told him all this are no other than the leader of the bandits, and have tied him up. One of his men, entering, frees him and they just about secure the fierce English bandit before taking him before the castle and threatening to hang him. The bandits release the English troops but refuse to surrender the Abbey and Gerard leaves, a failure.
  • How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil (September 1895) Near the end of Napoleon’s reign, in 1814, Gerard is called along with two other notables and tested by being asked to help turn the Emperor over to his enemies. He is indignant and so passes. Napoleon appears from behind curtains and wants the three of them to rendezvous with a lady in a carriage who is carrying the legal documents proving the right of his son, the King of Rome, to inherit. The three set off for the rendezvous but are appalled when the lady reveals she has already given them to three earlier soldiers! A cunning plan! They ride off in pursuit, the two others are killed by the two other soldiers, Gerard kills his man and recovers the letters, before the Emperor trots up and they bury the documents in a dovehouse in the forest and there they remain to this day!
  • How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom (December 1895) Another ‘secret society’ story! After the retreat from Moscow Gerard is given some leave and trots through the Polish/German forest, wondering why the letter T is carved into so many trees, until startled by a dying French soldier who confides him a letter given by the Emperor to be delivered to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, at his Castle of Hof. En route Gerard stops at an inn where a pretty girl kisses him and steals the letter! He rides on to the castle where he discovers a) the pretty girl is none other than the Princess of Saxe-Felstein b) she is leader of the Tugendbund, a secret society pledged to overthrow the French! Gerard pleads  his cause but fails to persuade the Prince to support Napoleon. Gerard had said Napoleon was like a star which they could all see through the window. But as he rides away disconsolate, he reflects on the waning of France’s power and the rise of Germany’s.

 But amid all the thoughts there came back to me always the proud, beautiful face of the German woman, and the voice of the soldier-poet as he sang from the chair. And I understood then that there was something terrible in this strong, patient Germany—this mother root of nations— and I saw that such a land, so old and so beloved, never could be conquered. And as I rode I saw that the dawn was breaking, and that the great star at which I had pointed through the palace window was dim and pale in the western sky.

Brigadier Gerard and his English rescuer discovered playing cards by the Duke of Wellington, by William B. Wollen

Brigadier Gerard and his English rescuer discovered playing cards by the Duke of Wellington, by William B. Wollen

The Adventure of Gerard (1903)

There was a hiatus (as with Holmes) while Conan Doyle pursued other fictions (and went to the Boer War), and then a further suite of stories in 1902-3 which were collected in The Adventures of Gerard.

  • The Crime of the Brigadier (January 1900) [aka titled How the Brigadier Slew the Fox] Commissioned to go study the layout of Wellington’s defences, BG’s horse is wounded and died, and he hides in a hayloft. Turns out to be the headquarters of a general, and he sneaks down and steals the best horse, only to discover there is an imported fox hunt starting. His horse is wild to get involved so her dies to the front of the chase and then horrifies the English by chopping the fox in half with his sword, before riding back the French lines chased by outraged Englishmen the whole way.
  • How Brigadier Gerard Lost his Ear (August 1902) Doyle gives a persuasive account of how hated the French were in Venice, particularly after they stole the four horse statues above St Mark’s. A secret tribunal of Venetians kidnaps, tries and executes French soldiers, among them Gerard. He is charged with loving a local noblewoman who is herself sentenced to have half her ear removed for fraternising. In the dark of the cell BG wraps in her cloak and the ruffians cut off the top of his ear. Moments later the French soldiers burst in, arresting the tribunal.
  • How the Brigadier saved the Army (November 1902) BG is the third officer chosen to ride through country infested with Portuguese guerrillas to light a beacon atop a mountain which will alert the other French army in the region to retreat alongside them. BG is captured by the bandits but, luckily on of them is disaffected and helps replace BG’s body with one of the other murdered French officers atop the pyre, while he and a handful of bandits escape the murderous ‘Smiler’.
  • How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk (December 1902) On the retreat from Moscow Marshal Ney orders BG to take a squadron to seize corn at Minsk. He stops at a village, captures a Russian officer, is taken in by a scrawny priest and pretty daughter who translates the officer’s meesage as Minks is undefended. On his men and BG ride only to be ambushed and slaughtered in Minsk. Because he was kind to the Russ officer, the pretty girl helps BG escape.
  • Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo: The Adventure of the Forest Inn (January 1903) On he fateful day of Waterloo Gerard is ordered to ride across the battlefield to the army of Grouchy which is seen coming over a distant hill. He is almost passing an inn, when the keeper grabs him and tells him it’s not French reinforcements, it’s the Prussians. BG hides in the hayloft and overhears the Prussian General telling a squadron of the fastest cavalrymen to ignore the battle and capture the fleeing Napoleon. Now he must warn the Emperor!
  • Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo: The Adventure of the Nine Prussian Horseman (February 1903) Gerard rides like the wind to find the Emperor, guarded by a handful of valets and servants just as the Prussian squadron arrive and, on impulse, grabs Napoleon’s hat and coat and makes off on Violette, hunched down like the squat Bonaparte. The nine chase him. It is a genuinely thrilling ride across country, across a river, through a maze of farm buildings and finally, as is horse is dropping from exhaustion, into the village square where his very own regiment is recuperating and, so, to safety!
  • The Brigadier in England (March 1903) [aka How the Brigadier Triumphed in England] During his enforced stay in England BG is the guest of a noble family and a) is ludicrously bad at all sports, thinking cricket is about throwing the ball at the batsman, that boxing includes kicking and biting b) gets caught up because of his ludicrous French gallantry in a dispute between his host’s and his brother-in-law who has behaved like a cad to his sister, and is involved in an impromptu duel.
  • How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans (April 1903) He is transferred from Berlin where the war has stopped to Spain where it is still hot, specifically to the siege of Saragossa. At the first officers’ mess he is led on to tell vainglorious stories about himself until they ridicule him and his anger BG insists on a duel. At which point the colonel enters and asks a volunteer for a dangerous mission: it is to smuggle into Saragossa, rendezvous with a spy who should have blown up the defences. BG disguises himself as a monk, volunteers, climbs up over the wall, discovers the spy has been exposed and nailed to the wall (!) but inveigles himself into the convent/city wall where he blows up the gunpowder so distracting the guard that the French win the siege. Congratulated by the general he insists on absenting himself from the victory breakfast to keep his appointment for the duel where – all the Hussars of Conflans salute him. He has been accepted.
  • How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master (May 1903) A very satisfying conclusion to the series which has hopped about in time and space but concludes with Gerard joining a ship of French old-timers which abandons its voyage to Africa, and heads to St Helena to rescue Napoleon. Gerard is smuggled ashore in a rowing boat and creeps up to the window of the little house only to see – Napoleon dead and laid out on his bed. He salutes and returns to the rowing boat but it has been wrecked in a storm, indeed the ship he came in never reappears, and he surrenders himself to the British who (of course) treat him with every courtesy.
Illustration from the Crime of the Brigadier by Sidney Paget

Illustration from the Crime of the Brigadier by Sidney Paget

  • The Marriage of the Brigadier (September 1910) [Uncollected story] BG is a star-struck 20 year old garrisoned in sleepy Normandy where he falls in love with the local beauty Marie, but her parents are keen for him to clarify the situation. One night he takes a short cut across the field to Marie’s house where the English bull is. It looks at him moodily from a distance but doesn’t approach. At Marie’s house her father despatches her to her room and insists that on his next visit Gerard must either propose or end the relationship. Pondering this Gerard sets off across the field back to town – and comes face to face with the bull! Slowly he turns and tiptoes away but the bull charges so Gerard runs full tilt back to the house and just as he reaches it the bull tosses him clean through the upstairs window into Marie’s bedroom. There is only one thing a gentleman can do and so Gerard proposes and Marie tearfully accepts, admiring the way he is panting with passion and only true love could have made him make such a leap!

And the point is….

Funny The Gerard stories are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. It is not literature but it’s a good read, every story has at least one genuinely funny moment. But they also include the kind of macabre and grim scenes which we’re familiar with from the Holmes stories – especially in Spain where the Spanish guerillas’ torture and the crucifixion of the French spy are gruesome. And there are some vivid descriptions of times and places like the snows of Russia or the watery canals of Venice. And there are no end of thrilling chases, whether the comic chase after the fox or the genuinely thrilling escape from the nine Prussian hussars.

Boo to France But a core function of the stories is to satirise the bombast and braggadochio of the French; time after time ‘gallant’ and ‘debonair’ are cover words for chatting up every woman in sight, for a waggishly amoral playing with ladies’ affections which wouldn’t be permissible in a British hero. Another central plank of the satire is Gerard’s repeated failure to understand games or sport – in his English sojourn he gets cricket, fox hunting, shooting and boxing all completely wrong.

Hooray for Britain and, time and again, Doyle puts into Gerard’s  mouth grudging compliments about the British. Gerard is made to credit the British with all the right virtues. A the climax at Waterloo, the French may have the gallantry, the spirit and the romance – but the British are as solid as old beef!

‘So high was the spirit of France at that time that every other spirit would have quailed before it; but these people, these English, had neither spirit nor soul, but only solid, immovable beef, against which we broke ourselves in vain. That was it, my friends! On the one side, poetry, gallantry, self-sacrifice—all that is beautiful and heroic. On the other side, beef. Our hopes, our ideals, our dreams— all were shattered on that terrible beef of Old England.’

The success of the stories, in fact their sheer existence, demonstrate just how much barefaced flattery an English reader in the 1890s could take – and then happily have a few trowels more thrown on top!

Brigadier Gerard on film

To my surprise there are some dramatisations of Gerard.

1. A black and white TV version, as stagey and cheesy as the original story.

2. A 1970 colour movie starring Peter McEnery and Claudia Cardinale (!)

Daumier @ the Royal Academy

Robert Daumier is known as a cartoonist, satirist and chronicler of Parisian life in the mid-19th century. This exhibition – Daumier 1808-1879 Visions of Paris – at the Royal Academy brings together 130 works to argue for a re-evaluation of his achievement ie to raise him from political cartoonist to ‘artist’. The exhibition covers the full range of media he worked in – newspaper caricatures, witty lithographs, small satirical sculptures, drawings, watercolours and paintings – and arranges it chronologically, but certain obvious themes run throughout.

Politics

Daumier fought on the barricades of the July 1830 which overthrew the Bourbons and brought the constitutional King Louis Philippe to power. There was to follow the 1848 revolution, the coup of Napoleon III (1851), the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870). Through the ups and downs of French 19th century history and the repeated defeats of the republican cause by reactionary royalists or turncoat liberals, he remained a republican atheist, refusing to go to church even for funerals, and drawn to the sufferings of ordinary people. Aged 60 he was drafted onto the Commune as art delegate.

Thus his lifelong employment on Charivari, the French equivalent of Punch or Private Eye, turning out reams of satirical cartoons satirising kings, emperors, presidents and politicians, as well as the upper classes and the pretentions of the bourgeoisie.

In Gargantua, an early example, money is being collected for the poor, hauled up into the mouth of king Louis Philippe who craps it out as peerages, awards and jobs for the upper classes. Stylistically, it is unusual, but the attitude of bitter satire is characteristic. This cartoon earned the 22 year old Daumier a 6 month prison sentence and fine.

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

A section is devoted to caricatures of artists, their fans, collectors and connoisseurs, and satire on the yawning gap between the idealised world of art, especially neo-classical sculpture, and the more sordid realities of 19th century life.

Critics by Daumier

Critics by Daumier

Big oil paintings

At the other end of the scale, Daumier tried repeatedly but struggled to create the large oil paintings which would have qualified him as a proper ‘artist’. Though he received some commissions he seems never to have finished them. He was certainly never interested in the established genres of landscape, still life, history and mythological paintings, or serious portraits, the kinds of work which got you noticed and big money commissions. The handful of big oil paintings on display are a mixed bunch.

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo (1849) is his largest work and highlights his limitations – at the top is the striking gesture of the accuser and the rather haunting silhouette of Christ, but other areas are unfinished or of uneven composition.

The exhibition devoted a little section to Daumier’s depiction of life on the newish railway trains, focusing on another large painting, The Third Class Railway Carriage (1865). The version here is unfinished, displaying the grid of squares used to create it. It is an example of Daumier’s lifelong concern for and feel for the life of the labouring poor. Like a lot of his work, it is a striking image but not a great painting.

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

By far the best of the big oil paintings is the wonderful Man on a Rope (1860).

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

It plays to Daumier’s strengths – striking composition or arrangement of the human body, compassion for the human condition – without exposing his biggest shortcoming, realistic depiction of the human face. The most wonderful thing is its unfinished condition: you can plainly see the canvas and the paint is scored and scratched. It is a strikingly modern approach to painting, anticipating the similar rough unfinishedness characteristic of much 20th century art, and a standout piece.

Small oil paintings

Daumier is more at home with small paintings, a couple of foot long at the most. In a very uneven exhibition, probably more successes are in this group than any other. He is not very good at the face, at features or expression. His best compositions are of human figures which, often because of the blurred or unclear faces, have a haunting evanescent quality.

I liked the early painting of The Bathers (1846). Note the completely blank faces. The exhibition notes introduced me to the technique of contre-jour ie having daylight at the back heightened by a foreground in shade. Like many Daumier images this is better the smaller, the more compact and powerful, it becomes.

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Amateur, a much later small painting from the series about art and collectors is more finished but shows the same fundamental qualities, the key is the stance of the human subject whose face is obscured.

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

It is also a very low key composition. It isn’t, like so much Victorian painting, capturing a moment of high drama, or historical crisis or mythological intensity. It is a quiet candid depiction of a man  looking through prints in a shop. This seems to me a rare quality in art, just to capture the ordinary human being going about some quite nondescript activity. For me a standout example is Man reading in a Garden (1868). This watercolour epitomises Daumier’s ability to capture simple human moments. What could be simpler and yet, in its way, more profound?

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Compassion for the poor

Talking of ordinary people and ordinary scenes brings us to Daumier’s lifelong concern for the poor. In lithographs, cartoons, sketches, paintings Daumier returned again and again to the trials and tribulations of the ordinary labouring poor.

It’s worth noting that he didn’t work from life but from memory, and that he reworked the same compositions again and again. There are half a dozen sketches of man on a rope, numerous versions of the travellers in the train carriage. An example of both practices is a series of sketches and paintings he did of the laundresses who worked at the Seine near his house.

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The effort of carrying the laundry bag under your left arm and reaching down to help your toddler up that crucial final step to the pavement are wonderfully captured. But note the absence of facial detail or expression. The image is about the body, about effort, about work.

The exhibition includes some contemporary photographs, street scenes from the 1850s taken by pioneer-artist-turned-photographer Charles Nègre chosen so we can compare Daumier’s treatment of street entertainers with Nègre’s photos of the same. There’s a photo of a barrel organist next to Daumier’s painting of one.

A particular category of street scene fascinates him, circus entertainers, the saltimbanques. The commentary makes the smart point that these entertainers often drummed up trade to go into the Big Top, to see the Main Attraction and therefore Daumier’s interest might be a bitter comment on his own status as lowly cartoonist and sketcher who drummed up interest in ‘real artists’ with their 50 foot wide historical canvases etc.

Maybe. Or maybe he was just aware of the irony of so many street performers who made a living cheering people up while often being themselves very poor. In Daumier’s characteristic way, the same scenes and characters are repeated and reworked in different settings or poses. This section reminded me of the wandering entertainers Nell and her grandfather fall in with in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote

Daumier had a lifelong fascination with Don Quixote and generated numerous images of the knight throughout his life. The commentary makes much of the dichotomy between the skinny visionary and the plump pragmatist Sancho Panza and claims that Daumier saw the same dichotomy in his own character, between the artist drawn to visionary paintings and the blunt down-to-earth satirist. Almost the final piece in the exhibition is a strange and surprisingly modern painting of the pair, radically unfinished, which Francis Bacon apparently claimed as one of his favourite paintings – the Don is turning into C-3PO and his squire into a Henry Moore sculpture. Very strange.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

A little more characteristic is this haunting image – it is better in the flesh – of Don Quixote and the Mule, a haunting image of abandonment and desolation.

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

Related links

The Debacle by Emile Zola (1892)

9 December 2012

Published in 1892, this is a long, harsh, gruelling novel, full of stomach-churning scenes of bloodshed and horror.

The Debacle’ (in French; in English) is the 19th in Zola’s sequence of 20 novels – the Rougon-Macquart sequence – about life in France’s Second Empire (the period between the coup which brought Louis-Napoleon to power in 1852 and his fall from power after the disastrous French defeat at the battle of Sedan in September 1870). It’s only roughly a sequence ie individual novels such as ‘Germinal’ or ‘Nana’ or ‘L’Assommoir’ pick up on characters established in earlier novels (eg Nana appears at the end of  L’Assommoir) so the books can still be read in order, out of order or singly.

‘The Debacle’ is long at 500 pages in the Penguin edition. It is in three parts. Part One plunges you right into the lives of a squadron of soldiers in the 106th foot of the 7th Army Corps as they arrive near the German border. Chaos and confusion reign. Already tired, with food and equipment not properly supplied, they are abruptly shunted back towards Rheims, then are sent back towards the enemy again, before being sent north towards Sedan on the Belgian border. The novel grimly portrays the confusion, the chaos and mismanagement of the French army, lack of food, fuel, ammunition or training, lack of direction or leadership, all the elements which conspire to create a terrible atmosphere of defeatism.

these early pages also introduce the two male leads, Jean Macquart, a sturdy sensible uneducated peasant and Maurice Levasseur, slight, metropolitan, well-educated but guiltily given to manic alternations between frenzied enthusiasm and hysterical collapse.  Each have friends or relations living in the east of France who they come across or discuss in their marches, a lawyer and his wife, an old miser and his son’s fiancee, a factory owner and his family. In between soldier episodes we get to know all these other characters better and slowly a web of characters is created in north-east France whose lives will be terribly shattered by the war.

Part Two concentrates in great detail on the 24 hours of the battle of Sedan, detailing how the French army is surrounded and crushed on the hills and woods to the north of the town, leading to panic stricken retreat into the overcrowded streets. The descriptions of specific engagements in hills and valleys leave no holds barred and there are as many bodies eviscerated, cut in two, with eyes, mouths, arms, fingers, tongues blown off as in any Great War memoir.

Part Three describes the aftermath of the battle in and around Sedan, once the French army has been forced to surrender, and describes in gut-wrenching detail the indignities and humiliations the defeated soldiers are subject to before being marched off to Germany.  For a nightmare week over 100,000 men are trapped in a spit of land formed by a bend in the river Meuse with no food or water. Again Zola’s realism depicts everything unsparingly, the starving men eating grass or bark or rotten meat and drinking water from a river clogged with rotting corpses.

Only in the last 50 pages does the scene switch to Paris, for the bloody, fiery nemesis which is the Commune. Zola engineers the plot so that Jean and Maurice, who have come through so many scrapes together, find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades – solid sensible peasant Jean symbolising the values of France, fighting for the Versailles army – febrile Maurice caught up in the hysteria which seizes Paris, symbolising the futile infatuation of all France’s failed revolutions, fighting from barricade to barricade for the Commune.

Realism Zola started life as a journalist and his research for this book was impeccable. He retraced the steps of the opposing armies, enabling him to describe every dip, slope and vista his characters pass over. He interviewed eyewitnesses, allowing him to fill the book with the kind of surreal or gruesome details and events which modern warfare so often throws up. All the different ways a human body can be damaged and violated by modern technology.

A cast of thousands Although Jean and Maurice emerge as the leading characters of the novel, the narrative often abandons them to follow the stories of the other characters:

  • Maurice’s sister, Henriette, is married to the factory overseer Weiss
  • Weiss is swept up in the Prussian advance and dies defending his house in the street fighting which engulfs his village of Bazeilles
  • later Henriette cares for Jean in an outhouse at old Uncle Fouchard’s farm as he recovers from a bullet wound
  • Old Fouchard is a miserly traveling butcher who is brother to Henriette and Maurice’s mother
  • Silvine the maid-of-all-work at Fouchard’s undertakes a nightmareish odyssey across the battlefield to find the corpse of her dashing fiance, Honore, an artillery sergeant
  • the kindly Delaherche, owner of one of the biggest cloth factories in Sedan, turns his factory into a massive open air hospital for the thousands of wounded
  • while his skittish young wife Gilberte carries on an affair with a handsome doomed soldier
  • and his aged mother cares for a mortally wounded colonel in a curtained room
  • the surgeon, major Bouroche, bases himself at the factory and for a week operates up to his elbows in blood and guts, trying to heal the horrifically shattered bodies of the French soldiers. Eventually amputated body parts – arms, legs, hands, fingers, tongues, jaws – clog every inch of the grounds.

The overall effect of this network of characters is to diminish the power or importance of any one individual so that the events themselves feel like the protagonists. History, or whatever we call the concatenation of incidents which sweeps all of us along, is the lead character, and all the other personae become like corks bobbing, swept, rushed along by the relentless cascade of mistakes and misfortunes. If Zola’s aim is to show how ‘laws’ of history, how heredity and environment, act on different individuals in challenging circumstances, ‘The Debacle’ does it in spades.

Translation I think this is the worst translation I’ve ever read. I supervise my son’s French schoolwork and his teachers advise a simple two-step technique: first, make a literal translation of the original French; second, come back reread those words in the cold light of day, and put them into colloquial or appropriate English. Unfortunately Leonard Tancock, in this 1972 translation, doesn’t appear to have done the latter, with the result that the prose is full of gallicisms, French turns of phrase, French word orders and, most tell-tale, the awkward squeezing in of all those little French filler phrases which have no comfortable equivalent in English – en effet, quand meme, enfin, deja.

The book is full of not-quite-English sentences. After the first page you have the unnerving sense of reading a new, familiar but disconcertingly undermined language. For example, French uses ‘y’ to mean ‘there’, much more liberally than English, which tends to be more precise about locations. Upstairs, in the fields, in the other room, on the other side of the river or valley – all of these are easily said in English but tend to be covered by the blanket ‘y’ in French, a habit Tancock slavishly translates so that the text is sprinkled with the maddeningly vague word ‘there’. This quote exemplifies some of these issues:

“Henriette hurried back home to the rue des Voyards. She was certain she would find her husband back, and she even thought that if he didn’t find her at home he would be very worried, and that made her quicken her step still more. As she approached the house she looked up, thinking she could see him up there leaning out of  the window, watching for her return. But the window was still wide open and empty. When she got up there and had glanced around the three rooms she was sick at heart at finding nothing but the icy fog and the continual rumbling of cannon. The firing out there never stopped. She went back to the window for a moment. Now that she knew what was happening, even though the wall of morning mist was still impenetrable, she could follow out the battle going on at Bazeilles, with the crackling of machine-guns and shattering volleys of the French batteries replying to the distant volleys of the German ones. One had the impression that the detonations were getting closer together and that the battle was getting fiercer every minute.”  (Page 221, Part Two, Chapter 3)

Swearing The novel is about soldiers in war. They swear all the time. What makes Frederick Manning’s novel about the Great War, Her Privates We, so fabulous is its unashamed and accurate portrayal of the continual swearing of the soldiers. Manning served as a private and, unlike all the other English Great War writers – public schoolboys to a man – he was in a position to describe the real life and speech of the infantry, miles from the censored, prim speech of the jolly public school officers. And the privates, English working men, swore all the time. And similarly, the soldiers in Zola’s novel swear all the time.

Translating the swearing of one culture and language into the swearing of another culture and language may be the hardest challenge for any translator. It has to take into account not only the literal meaning, but the class context in which it occurs (especially in class-ridden English), the historical moment (as swearwords gained or lost potency) and dialect and regional variations. Sadly, Tancock fails this demanding test. On the one hand he is bold enough to use piss and fuck and, occasionally, cunt in what sound like the appropriate settings. But, public schoolboy that he is himself, he mixes them alongside the  much tamer phraseology from boys own adventure stories. You get the impression the original French is a no-holds-barred swearfest, designed to convey the sweaty, filthy, terrified atmosphere of war and rough men in extremis, but this effect is ruined by Tancock’s uneven tone:

“Some whispering behind their backs just then made them look around. It was Choubert and Loubet, who had got away from Iges that morning at the same time as themselves, and whom they had so far avoided. Now these two gentry were treading on their heels. Chouteau must have overheard Maurice’s words, with his plan to escape through the wood, for he took it up himself and murmured in their ears:

“‘Look here, we’re in on this. It’s a grand idea to fuck off. Some of the blokes have got away already, and we’re certainly not going to let ourselves be dragged like a lot of dogs to the country of those bastards… So what about it for the four of us – O.K. to go for a stroll and take some air?’

“Maurice was getting excited again, and Jean had to turn around and say to the tempter:

“‘If you’re in a hurry, run along… What hopes do you think you’ve got?’

“Chouteau was a bit put out by the straight look Jean gave him. He let out the real reason for his insistence.

“‘Well, if there were four of us it would be easier… Then one or two would be sure to get away.”

One minute Reservoir Dogs, the next Five Go Mad In Dorset – “It’s a grand idea to fuck off“. Prissy turns of phrase – “whom they had so far avoided”; of all the words in English why on earth choose “gentry” – presumably this is some sarcasm about the two soldiers in question who we’ve seen to be complete brutes; but “gentry”? Add in the continual uncertainty created by sentences with French word order, or a French cluttering of subordinate clauses, and you have a real mare’s nest of a style which becomes very hard going over a long, detailed 500 pages. I’m planning to read Germinal, L’Assommoir and Nana by Zola. I will go out of my way to avoid Tancock’s translations of any of them.

Horror Horses are blown to pieces, men have their guts torn out, eyes, faces, fingers are blown off, this is an astonishingly graphic book. Many chapters describe nothing but the bodily mutilation of war – as when Jean and Maurice’s company are pinned down by enemy fire on an exposed hilltop and watch comrades being mown down by rifle fire and an entire artillery company wiped out, blown to pieces; or create an atmosphere of horrified awe as when Silvine and the peasant Prosper roam over the abandoned battlefield the day after the battle searching for her fiance Honore, an infernoesque pilgrimage across the nightmare ground strewn with dismembered corpses and dying horses. Throw in scenes like the three coarsest squaddies in Jean’s unit chasing down and murdering one of their own comrades for the sake of the bread he’s hoarded; or the franc-tireur guerillas ambushing, tying up, and then deliberately bleeding to death the Prussian spy Goliath – this novel compares with Quentin Tarantino at his most sadistic, with the horrible proviso that so much of it is true, based on eyewitness accounts. Quelle horreur!

And of course, much of the educated class must have read it and registered its atmosphere of degradation, defeat, misery, mutilation and despair – and yet 20 years later thronged the streets and thrown their hats in the air as their brave boys marched off for another, earth-shatteringly catastrophic encounter with the same enemy. Zola, who died in 1902, was spared the sight.

The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

23 November 2012

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune (1870-71) by Alistair Horne makes a perfect companion to Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War (see my review of the latter). Both were published in the early 1960s and so are themselves historical artefacts, belonging to an old-fashioned school of history, more interested in good storytelling, drama and character than their modern, more professional equivalents.

And Alistair takes over where Michael left off: Michael goes into great and enlightening detail about every military encounter of the war with useful maps of every battle – and ends with the signing of peace; Alistair recaps the same military events, but from the point of view of the embattled government in Paris, going into much greater detail of the Prussian siege with numerous eyewitness accounts, and continuing the story into the blood-curdling details of the Commune and civil war.

The background Alistair sets the scene with a luxurious description of the Great Exhibition Paris hosted in 1867, taken as the high point of the reign of the Emperor Louis-Napoleon. But the Emperor’s regime is crumbling, faced with radical criticism from inside and the failure of foreign adventures abroad. The Emperor is increasingly unwell and under the influence of his unbending Spanish wife.

The pretext Thus, when an opportunity presents itself – the ‘insulting’ episode of the Hohenzollern candidature and the Ems telegram – which appeared out of the blue in July 1870, Napoleon seized it to declare war on Prussia. Europe was incredulous: over a matter of trivial protocol one of the most shambolic regimes in Europe went marching to war against one of the most efficient and well-organised nations the world had ever seen.

The Siege of Paris After crushing one of France’s two armies at Sedan (and capturing the sick and depressed Emperor) and bottling the other one up in the fortress city of Metz, the Prussian armies encircled Paris and began the siege on 19 September 1870. 130 days punishing later, after all hope had been lost, all the food eaten, and all the French armies raised in the provinces to help Paris had been comprehensively defeated, the city authorities finally capitulated on January 28 1871. On February 26 a preliminary peace treaty was signed. The Prussian army was allowed to march through the defeated and humiliated city between 1st and 3rd of March. Then they left – or more accurately, withdrew their forces to the east of Paris while beginning the deployment of troops back to the Fatherland. And now the real trouble began…

The Third Republic Louis-Napoleon’s regime had collapsed as soon as news of his defeat and capture at Sedan had reached Paris, back in early September. The Empress and Court had fled abroad; the Second Empire was over. Within days a new republican regime declared itself – France’s Third Republic – and nominated a new President, General Louis Trochu. This pessimistic man – Alistair calls him the Hamlet of the siege – organised several futile attempts to break out before resigning himself to the inevitable defeat.

Once the peace was signed and the siege ended, Trochu resigned and elections led to the formation of a new republican government, led by veteran statesman Adolphe Thiers. But before the 1 March Prussian march-through, on February 26th, some of the mutinous National Guards seized cannons from around the city and wheeled them to the working class stronghold of Montmartre, an act of military disobedience and political rebellion.

The National Guard The peace treaty had left Paris with just one division of the regular French army. But during the siege the authorities, in their unwisdom, had created a National Guard, arming an estimated 400,000 men. These untrained, poorly led, frequently drunk working men had shown consistent cowardice in the handful of sorties against the Prussians they had attempted during the siege. If they didn’t like an order, they disobeyed it. If they didn’t like a commander, they voted in a new one. If they really didn’t like a commander, they shot him. Now they were to show themselves masters of shooting other Frenchmen…

Thiers, realising he couldn’t afford to let radicals in possession of so much artillery, sent detachments of regular Army troops to seize the canon, but the attempt broke down, regular army units went over to the Reds, two generals were seized by the mob and executed. An inflamed mob marched on the Hotel de Ville and Thiers and his cabinet were forced to flee out the back door and high tail it to Versailles. In their absence, out of the power conflicts between various red groups and leaders, a Commune of Paris was constituted.

Interpreting It’s at this point that interpretations vary widely. For those on the political left – including Karl Marx who supported the Commune, sent agents of his Communist International  to help it and wrote a definitive pamphlet about it – the Commune represented the first genuine effort in human history to establish a communist proletarian regime – and was a good thing. To conservatives the Communards were drunken terrorists. For a historian like Richard Cobb (who writes the preface to the Penguin edition of this book) the Commune was yet another example of Paris’s arrogant and dictatorial attitude to the rest of France.

Alistair relates the events in a clear and compelling fashion but if he has a line or interpretation, it’s that the  uprising and the chaotic administration had more to do with hysterical frustration resulting from the siege and humiliating defeat. Most of those National Guardsmen never got the opportunity to fight the Prussians but were armed to the teeth. And so they took out their pent-up aggression on their own political masters. On his interpretation, the entire sorry sequence of events with all its political rhetoric, is simply a psychotic episode, an example of the madness of crowds. And he has compelling eyewitness accounts of how the blood lust was created and spread out of control of any political leader or faction.

Gotterdammerung While the newly formed Commune found its feet, issued reams of irrelevant proclamations and argued among itself about what to do next, Thiers mustered all the forces of the regular French Army and commenced a second siege of Paris. (The poor inhabitants who had to endure two sieges in less than 6 months!) Just like the Prussians, Thiers eventually resorted to bombarding the capital, doing more damage than the Prussians ever did and with equally as little effect. Finally – on May 21 – the Versailles forces broke through one of the gates in the Paris wall and there began two weeks of house to house fighting more reminiscent of Stalingrad than the home of the Folies Bergeres.

The killing The Commune began in a chaotic fashion to execute some of the hostages it held, causing justifiable outrage – but this quickly paled into insignificance next to the horrific reprisals carried out by the conquering Versailles forces. Like the army of some African dictatorship the French Army – convincingly whipped by the Prussians – turned out to have a real flare for lining hundreds, then thousands of their own men, women and children up against the nearest wall and executing them. Eye witnesses testify to a policy of bloodthirsty massacring.  During what became known as the semaine sanglante some 25,000 Parisians were killed! – in one week! – an order of magnitude more than the 2,500 or so executed during the 15 months of the notorious Terror of the Great Revolution of 1794. As the avenging Army swept east into the working class bastions of Belleville the massacring reached Pol Pot or Nazi heights.

The burning And the fires. The fires started by the attackers’ artillery were soon eclipsed by a deliberate scorched earth policy espoused by some of the Commune’s leaders. Women were seen everywhere throwing packets of petroleum into houses to burn them – and acquired the name of petrolleuses. Lunatic Commune leaders deliberately set fire to the Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries Palace and innumerable other buildings. A huge pyre was built inside Notre Dame which was only saved at the last minute because hundreds of Commune injured were sheltering in a hospital next door. The Louvre was only saved by a change of prevailing wind. All Paris seemed in flames…

The bitter end Eventually, even the most reactionary newspapers and commentators called for an end to the bloodshed. Eventually the last barricades in the working class Belleville neighbourhood were stormed and the last resisters shot on the spot. Although criminal trials were to continue for years, the fighting ended on the evening of May 28, and a sudden rainstorm, after weeks of drought, did more to douse the flames than the characteristically shambolic Paris fire brigade ever could.

Repercussions

  • France ceased to be top dog: from the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to Napoleon – for some 150 years – France’s army had been feared – and had regularly wreaked havoc – throughout Europe. Now the nations of Europe looked nervously to the newly unified Germany as the emerging European superpower.
  • And yet the conflict between the old superpower and the new one hadn’t really been settled. Although the peace held for 43 years (not bad, really), contemporaries felt the tension; things hadn’t been resolved; France’s injured pride smouldered; German High Command lived in permanent fear of an attack and made plans for a pre-emptive strike, plans they were to put into effect in August 1914…
  • Within France the tensions unleashed during the Commune dogged national politics for at least a century. Communist and Socialist forces remained strong throughout the Second Republic, and were to play a key role in dividing and emasculating France in the lead up to WWII. Even in les evenements of 1968 looked back to the Commune for inspiration (and were equally as unsuccessful).
  • And Russia. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was born a few months before the Franco-Prussian War began. He wrote and thought extensively about the Commune – the largest-scale attempt by proletarian Red forces to overthrow a government and create a new society which had occurred in world history. And he drew two key conclusions: the Commune failed due to lack of a unified leadership – and its failure to act immediately and with overwhelming force to quell its enemies. These were mistakes he and Trotsky were not to make 46 years later.

The biggest legacy of the Commune was to inspire the strategy of the Bolsheviks who – in the context of another Franco-Prussian War (the “Great” War) – carried through the first successful communist revolution anywhere and who, after the cataclysm of the third Franco-Prussian War (the Hitler one) went on to apply the tactics of ruthlessly unified overwhelming force to conquer eastern Europe which was held in the grip of their tyranny for 45 terrible years.

Paris Commune: Burning Houses, Rue De Rivoli

The Franco-Prussian War by Sir Michael Howard (1961)

Distinguished military historian Sir Michael Eliot Howard, OM, CH, CBE, MC, FBA published his definitive history of the Franco-Prussian War in 1961. In the foreword he apologises for adding to the enormous literature on the subject. This is ironic since nowadays it’s quite hard to find books about this conflict, compared with, say, the endless flood of books about the two world wars. While many of the other texts he refers to seem to have disappeared, his has emerged as the best one-volume history, even fifty years after publication.

Howard sets the tone on page 57:

Thus by a tragic combination of ill-luck, stupidity and ignorance France blundered into war with the greatest military power that Europe had yet seen, in a bad cause, with her army unready and without allies.

Background Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, engineered wars with Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866) in order to unify as many German statelets as possible under Prussian leadership. Tension had been growing for some time between Prussia and France and Bismarck, convinced war was inevitable anyway, seized the opportunity provided by a squabble about the vacant crown of Spain to trick France into becoming the aggressor. The Spanish government had invited a German prince to become king of Spain; this was the so-called ‘Hohenzollern candidature‘. The French government of Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the famous French general and emperor Napoleon I) protested. Bismarck made the German prince back down, but then engineered a situation where France felt so insulted at the way she had been treated that Napoleon III – his regime shaky and counting on the boost a quick victory would bring him – declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870.

Bad idea. The Prussians had been busy harnessing their rapid mid-century industrial development to an efficient military machine; they were ready. They had a strategic plan to use their railways to carry troops to the border, they had better-designed artillery, they had been grooming an élite General Staff capable of providing everything necessary for big campaigns – food, uniforms, ammunition – their mobilisation plans were in place.

French military organisation was the opposite in every respect: chaotic, lacking guns and ammunition and uniforms, with no defined central authority, topped off with a lamentably poor standard of generalship.

The War – Part One Having declared war the French mobilised and  invaded Prussian territory at Saarbrucken.  After an initial victory they were halted, repelled and from that point never stopped retreating. Outside the fortress of Metz the Prussians divided the French armies: General Bazaine’s army was bottled up inside Metz for what turned into a two-month long siege, while General MacMahon’s army found itself pushed back towards the Belgium border until it was comprehensively defeated in the hills north of the town of Sedan. The Emperor Napoleon III was himself taken prisoner. In France the name ‘Sedan’ became synonymous with national humiliation for a generation.

Napoleon III went into exile in England, settling in Camden Place, Chislehurst (which can still be visited today) where he died in 1873. His last words were about Sedan.

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The War – Part Two The Prussians expected the war to end with these military victories. But although the Imperial administration of Napoleon collapsed when he ran away, a new administration arose in Paris, declared itself the Third Republic, and pledged to continue the fight. The Prussians had to invade a lot more of northern France, surround and besiege Paris, and fight big battles around Orleans and to the east in the Vosges to secure their victory. December was a month of catastrophes for both armies which continued attacking and retreating through deep snow. The suffering was immense.

The End One of the most interesting parts of the book is how long it took to end the war. Howard sheds fascinating light on how difficult it was for the various conflicting elements on both sides to line up to any kind of agreement, with extremists in both countries calling for a continuation of guerre a l’outrance or to ‘the bitter end’. In fact, there had to be a succession of temporary agreements starting with negotiations in January and passing through various vicissitudes until the final Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 10 May 1871.

Consequences

  • All Europe observed France’s fall from top military force in Europe, replaced by Prussia.
  • The remaining southern German statelets now joined the North German Confederation which Bismarck had set up, creating for the first time a unified German state, under the rule of Kaiser William. Bismarck arranged for it to be called not just a country, but the German Empire or Reich and for a reluctant King William to be crowned emperor – or Kaiser – Wilhelm, on January 18, in the conquered Palace of Versailles.
  • Germany annexed from France the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, thus creating an enduring cause of resentment among the French.
  • France was left humiliated and demoralised. The psychological impact lasted a generation.
  • Howard identifies the biggest consequence as the widespread realisation that small professional armies were a thing of the past; the future belonged to states which could mobilise entire nations for war, harnessing their industrial strength, educated classes, the practical intelligence required for planning and logistics. All the nations of Europe saw and learned this lesson. The Treaty of Frankfurt led to 43 years of peace in Europe, but it was an uneasy peace haunted by the new ways of warfare, and kept in uneasy balance only by the clever diplomacy of Bismarck. After the next Kaiser, Wilhelm II, sacked the ageing Bismarck in 1890, he inaugurated a more reckless and aggressive German foreign policy which was to lead to disaster 24 years later (the First World War).

The book At 450 pages in my old, library, hardback copy, this is a long, meaty, thorough and detailed account. Howard gives very good descriptions of individual battles, and the hundred and fifty pages which describe the French army’s fighting retreat from Metz until it is annihilated at Sedan have a nightmareish quality, a continual chase which erupted into messy and bloody battles at a score of locations across eastern France before the final debacle.

He adds to these detailed accounts a sparing selection of judicious and interesting reflections. For me the most striking learning was the way the technology of primitive machine guns and breech loading rifles had changed the nature of battle from everything which preceded it. Cavalry was rendered obsolete; every use of cavalry in the war was a pointless bloodbath. The power of the new guns meant that neat advancing lines of infantry were mown down in massacres. Clever generals (ie the Germans) realised they had to delegate authority down to unit officers to advance in ragged sections, using initiative and cover. It seems barely conceivable that these lessons were forgotten by the time the Great War broke out 24 years later, and had to be heartbreakingly relearned at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

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