Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadors in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadors took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubador poetry for the following reason: troubador poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in stock phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. they occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use stock phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern for the Cistercian monks for spreading what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour. They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1) by John Julius Norwich (1995)

In February 1130 on the banks of the river Pyramus (now the Ceyhan) in Cilicia [the Emir Ghazi, ruler of the Danishmends] destroyed the army of young Bohemund II of Antioch in a total massacre. Bohemund’s head was brought to Ghazi, who had it embalmed and sent it as a gift to the Caliph in Baghdad. (p.72)

Raymond of Poitiers, on 28 June 1149, allowed himself and his army to be surrounded by the forces of the Emire Nur ed-Din. The consequence was a massacre, after which, Raymond’s skull, set in a silver case, was sent by Nur ed-Din as a present to the Caliph in Baghdad. (p.120)

Lots of skulls are cut off and decorated. Lots of imperial pretenders are blinded. Lots of armies are massacred, populations sold into slavery and towns razed to the ground. Yes, it this is the third and final volume in Norwich’s weighty and famous three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, from the founding of Constantinople in 330 to the fall of the same city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The second volume ended soon after the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert of 1071 in which the Byzantine army was massacred by the new power in the Middle East, the Seljuk Turks, who had stormed out of central Asia to seize the territory of the old Persian Empire and replace the Abbasid Caliphate in 1055. This final volume takes the story from soon after that catastrophe on to the final collapse and conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks.

This is the longest of the three volumes (488 pages including index and lists of emperors, popes and sultans) for two reasons:

  1. we have more sources for this period, including some book-length biographies of leading figures, so there’s more material to choose from
  2. this book covers the period of the crusades (1st crusade 1096-99, Second 1147-49, Third 1189-92, Fourth 1202-4 etc through to the ninth crusade 1271-2) and there are lots of sources about them, too

Permanent war

What struck me more than ever about this about this final instalment is the complete and total dominance of war. It is all about war. There is never a year when the Byzantine Empire is not at war with at least one and often three or four major enemies. The book is, in effect, one long litany of wars, packed with details of key battles and sieges. In between actual campaigns, the time is filled with unending diplomatic manoeuvres and jockeying for power. Ceaseless.

Even within Constantinople, in the precincts of the imperial palace, relations between the emperor and empress and their respective families are seen, analysed and described solely in terms of power politics. Relations between husbands and wives and children and dubious uncles and scary guardians are told purely in terms of the endless jockeying for position.

There is next to nothing in these books about Byzantine art or architecture, writing or poetry, let alone analysis of the empire’s economy, trade or technology. The emperors are continually giving away vast tributes to northern barbarians or huge sums of silver and gold to keep the Turks at bay, Alexius Comnenus gives a vast bribe to the Holy Roman Emperor. The first crusaders who were allowed into Constantinople were awed by the wealth and lavish lifestyle of the aristocrats, the beautiful buildings, the bustling markets packed with oriental goods and spices. And yet, after reading all three books, I’ve no real idea where all this wealth really came from.

In the introduction Norwich makes it clear that he is not a scholarly or academic historian. He is a well-educated amateur setting out to write a gripping, exciting and entertaining story, ‘skating over the surface’ of this vast subject.

Fair enough but the endless warfare eventually made me start to question the very definition of ‘a good story’ and why it seemed to involve endless war. I assume that he and most of his readers, including me, think of a good political leader as one who avoids war and promotes the prosperity of their people. So it is oddly askew with modern values and morality, that Norwich again and again praises, as the best Byzantine emperors, the ones who diverted all available state monies to build up the army and navy and led them to ‘great’ victories. Big, tall, and strong, handsome and warlike, clever in diplomacy, resolute in war – this is the paradigm of the good emperor which Norwich holds out before us. And these are almost identical with the medieval values of the time.

Norwich’s definition of the great emperors is the ones who Made Byzantium Great Again. I know it’s anachronistic but… these are pretty much the same values espoused by Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and numerous other ‘strong man’ politicians of our time.

There is something bizarre about the sight of a presumably peace-loving old buffer and devotee of Byzantine art and culture, again and again singing the praises of the most ruthless, strong-minded and militarily successful emperors… And I felt odd, as a reader, being continually exhorted to admire the victor of this or that great battle, to admire the big strong Varangian Guard who fought to the last man, to admire the efficient reorganising of the Empire’s finances to allow massive investment in the navy and army. Isn’t this precisely the kind of thing we criticise modern leaders for?

Timeline 1071 to 1204

The period is so dense with people and events I am only going to cover the first half in this review.

1054 The Great Schism The Latin Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicate each other.
1055 Loss of southern Italy to the Normans.
1071 May – Loss of Bari on the south-east coast of Italy, last Byzantine holdout, to the Normans.
1071 August – Byzantine army led by Romanus Diogenes defeated by the Seljuk Turks under Alp Arslan at the Battle of Manzikert. Permanent loss of most of Asia Minor.
1075 Loss of Syria to Muslims.
1087 Byzantines, under Michael VII, defeated in Thrace.
1095 Alexius Comnenus appeals to Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza for help against the Turks. Sows the seed of the First Crusade which the pope proclaims at the Council of Clermont.
1096 Crusaders arrive at Constantinople before crossing Anatolia and entering the Holy Land. Conflict, tension, and even low-level fighting between Latins and Greeks.
1099 The crusaders take Jerusalem, nominal goal of the expedition and proceed to establish four or so crusaders kingdoms – Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem – which collectively become known as Outremer.

1121 Byzantine reconquest of southwestern Asia Minor.
1144 Fall of Edessa to the Muslim army of Imad ad-Din Zengi, which prompts…
1145-49 The Second Crusade announced by Pope Eugene III, and led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany. The Second Crusade is a farce and a fiasco (‘a disgrace to Christendom’ p.101) in which the German army is massacred in Anatolia (nine-tenths were killed, p.96), and the survivors unite with the French army to besiege Damascus for five days, before giving up and going home, embittered.
1179 Byzantine Army defeated by the Sultanate of Rum at Myriocephalon. Hopes of regaining Asia Minor are lost.
1187 An Outremer army is massacred by Muslim Turks at the Battle of Hattin, after which Saladin reconquers Jerusalem and a swathe of other Crusader towns, leading to…
1189-92 The Third Crusade, which results in a negitiated peace between the crusaders and Saladin.
1190 With the establishment of the kingdoms of Serbia and Hungary, the Balkans are effectively lost to Byzantium.

1202 The Fourth Crusade assembled at Venice.
1204 The Fourth Crusade captures and devastates Constantinople, leading to eighty years of rule by Latin emperors. The capture of Constantinople in 1204 was a blow from which the Byzantines never fully recovered.

Empires, migration and the movements of people

The other big thought this book prompts (apart from the constant warfare) was about the movement of peoples during this period, during the entire period of the empire and, indeed, during the entire period of the ancient and medieval world.

I have read quite a few modern accounts of the British Empire which highlight the ridiculousness of one nation or people ruling another one thousands of miles away, pointing out the absurdity of British soldiers from Scunthorpe and Sauchiehall Street policing the streets of Kuala Lumpur or Kenya or Sri Lanka or Yemen – as if it was always against the natural order of things for soldiers from one land to police the streets of another, as if it’s always been natural that the people who live in a region should always rule themselves within mutually agreed and fixed national border.

But of course this is the wrong way round. A reading of history, especially classical and medieval history, shows you that the whole idea of the nation state is a relatively recent invention, and one which is still fragile and vulnerable in many parts of the world. Classical and medieval history show that the astonishing far-flungness of empires and the extraordinary and often bizarre transposition of peoples from one place to another are more like the historical norm than the exception.

Take the Roman Empire. Visiting Hadrian’s Wall a few years ago, I learned that it was policed by troops from Syria and Egypt. People of Italian stock guarded the border with Persia. People from the Middle East traded all along the north African coast, to Iberia and even up the coast of France to Britain. Saint Paul was able to travel all round the Mediterranean shore unimpeded.

Nearly a millennium earlier settlers from Phoenicia had established colonies all along the north Africa coast, including their greatest colony, Carthage, which grew to run an empire of its own and send armies up through Spain and over the Alps into Italy.

In the classical Greek period, the Athenian empire and other powerful city states conquered and set up Greek colonies all along the coast of Asia Minor and southern Italy. The dazzling ten-year career of Alexander the Great led to ethnic Greeks ruling Persia and Egypt for centuries.

Closer to the period covered by this book, I’ve always found it mind-boggling that it was the Vikings, during their period of sudden violent expansion in the 800s, who formed the nucleus of the kingdom of Rus –

Vikings between the 9th and 11th centuries, ruled the medieval state of Kievan Rus’ and settled many territories of modern Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to the 12th century Kievan Primary Chronicle, a group of Varangians known as the Rus’ settled in Novgorod in 862 under the leadership of Rurik. Rurik’s relative Oleg conquered Kiev in 882 and established the state of Kievan Rus’, which was later ruled by Rurik’s descendants.

and that a select group of Vikings was to form the original membership of the emperor’s legendary Varangian guard. And that a leading member of that Varangian guard was the same Harald Hardrada who, in 1066, led Danish forces in an invasion of northern England, to be defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

But it was news to me that in the 1080s the Varangian Guard was largely made up of Anglo-Saxon warriors who had been forced out of Britain by William the Conqueror. Which adds piquancy to the fact that, in 1081, the Guard was called upon, along with the rest of the emperor’s army, to do battle once again against the Normans – not the exact same Normans who had thrown them out of Britain, but relatives of the Conqueror who had, by now, seized control of Sicily and were being led by Robert Guiscard on an invasion of Illyria, what we now call the coast of Albania.

The Normans in Sicily

Yes, during the period of this book it is an important fact that Frenchmen from northern France (themselves originally descended from Viking invaders from Scandinavia) conquered Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and only 40 miles from Africa.

They started off by fighting as mercenaries for local warlords and capturing scattered territories on the mainland until they had a base for the prolonged struggle to take Sicily from its Muslim overlords. This lasted from the time of the Norman Conquest until the eve of the First Crusade (1061-1091), such that at least one historian refers to it as the other Norman Conquest.

Eventually these Normans from the chilly climate of the English channel would rule not only Sicily but all Italy south of Rome such that Pope Innocent III confirmed the creation of a united Kingdom of Sicily on Christmas Day 1130 under King Roger II.

The Kingdom of Sicily (in green) in 1154, representing the extent of Norman conquest in Italy over several decades of activity by independent adventurers (source: Wikipedia)

But did these devout Christians, blessed by the pope, turn their attention to helping and supporting the Byzantine Empire, permanently threatened as it was by barbarian tribes from the north and the various types of Muslim (Arabs and an array of newly-arrived Turks) from the East?

Robert Guiscard attacks the Byzantine Empire 1081

No. They tried to invade and conquer the empire, sailing the short distance (50 miles) to the western Balkans (what we now call Albania) with the ultimate goal of seizing Constantinople and taking control of the whole Byzantine Empire. The Normans defeated the army of Alexius Comnenus at the siege of Dyrrhachium but then their leader, Robert Guiscard, was forced to delegate leadership and return to Italy because his patron, pope Gregory VII, was being besieged in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome by the army of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Moreover, Alexius had allied with the  Venetian Republic which didn’t need much prompting to realise that, if the Normans held both sides of the narrow strait of Otranto, they would be able to strangle Venice’s maritime trade. And so the Venetians sent a fleet to ally with the Byzantine fleet and attack the Norman one.

The book is like this on every one of its 488 pages, a dense jungle of military campaigns, diplomatic alliances, power politics and geostrategic planning, by a continually shifting cast of states and kings and emperors.

For the rest of the duration of the Kingdom of Sicily, it was just one more threat and enemy which the embattled Emperor of Byzantium had to factor into his diplomatic calculations and periodically fight off.

The Reconquista

Meanwhile, at the far west of the Mediterranean, north European knights were being led into the Iberian Peninsula to engage in the prolonged struggle to liberate Spain from Muslim rule. No historian I’ve read seems to question the right of Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula to set up a kingdom in central Spain, nearly three thousand miles away from their homeland (distance from Mecca to Madrid 2,800 miles) but it is, when you step back to consider it, every bit as bizarre as Syrians in Scotland or – 1,500 years later – Scottish soldiers in Delhi and Malaya.

In fact, wasn’t the Arab conquest of Persia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain every bit as violent, imperial and unjustified as the British conquest of India or Africa? The locals didn’t invite them in, didn’t ask to be forced to convert to an alien religion at sword-point, didn’t ask to be made to wear special clothes marking them out as inferior citizens. For some reason the Muslim invasion and conquest of the Middle East and North Africa is never questioned, and is passively accepted to this day.

Asian immigration

And behind the immense disruption caused by the Muslim invasions of the six and seven hundreds, looms the even bigger Fact of medieval history from the three hundreds through to the 1500s – which was the wave after wave of invasions by violent, illiterate barbarians from the East –

  • Germanic peoples like the Vandals, Huns and Alans, the Goths who split up into the Visigoths and Ostrogoths and conquered Spain and North Africa
  • Slavic peoples like the Bulgars, the Hungarians, the Serbs, the Rus who seized modern Russia and the Balkans
  • and then the Turkish peoples from central Asia, especially the Seljuk Turks who loom large in this story, not least because it was they who won the seismic battle of Manzikert
  • but the Turks, in their eastern base at Baghdad, were themselves to be menaced by the arrival of Genghiz Khan and the Mongol hordes around 1200
  • and then the whole region was to be scarified by the terrifying arrival of Tamburlaine, the Scourge of God, in the late 1300s

Endless war

At countless moments during the thousand-year saga of Norwich’s history, Byzantium feels like a rubber dinghy trying not to capsize in the face of wave after wave after wave of invaders and attackers. Non-stop war. Total war. Endless war, from the city’s birth in 300 until it was finally taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. As Norman Stone says, in his Short History of Turkey, the Turks have a lot of words for fighting, but then so, apparently, did everyone else: at one stage or other the emperor of Byzantium is at war with (from west to east):

  • the Pope – at various points the pope in Rome supported military expedictions against Byzantium
  • the Holy Roman Emperor – saw himself as rightful ruler of the entire Roman Empire so was always predisposed against Byzantium
  • the Sicilian Normans – having conquered all south Italy, the natural extension was to cross the Adriatic and seize imperial territory, which they tried repeatedly to do in to 1000s, 1100s and 1200s
  • the Venetian Republic – rival in maritime commerce in the Eastern Mediterranean ad, eventually, Constantinople’s nemesis
  • the Serbs – seize control of the west Balkans
  • the Hungarians – continual threat from the central Balkans
  • the Pechenegs – a semi-nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia speaking the Pecheneg language and were threatening the empire by the 900s
  • the Danishmends – a Torcomen dynasty whose founder, the Emir Danishmend, appeared in Asia Minor about 1085, ruled in Cappadocia for about a century, and disappeared after their defeat by the Seljuks in 1178
  • the Armenians – after Manzikert the Seljuk Turks invaded Armenia, at the far eastern end of the Black Sea, so many Armenian refugees fled south and created the Armenian Kingdom of Cicilia at the point where the east-west coast of Anatolia turns sharply south into the coastline of Palestine. In this map from Wikipedia, note the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum to the north, the coastal strip of Byzantine territory (and Cyprus) to the west, the crusader County of Edessa to the east, and the crusader principality of Antioch to the south, the rest of the south-east belonging to the Muslim Turks.

The Barony of Cilician Armenia, 1080-1199 (source: Wikipedia)

  • the Seljuk Turks – from their homelands near the Aral Sea, the Seljuks advanced first into Khorasan and then into mainland Persia, before eventually conquering eastern Anatolia. Here the Seljuks won the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and conquered most of Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire, which became one of the reasons for the first crusade (1095-1099). From c. 1150-1250, the Seljuk empire declined, and was invaded by the Mongols around 1260.
  • the Crusaders – as described, presented a threat when they arrived at Constantinople en route to the Holy Land and then spent the next 200 years forming complexes of alliances with, or against, Constantinople, until the so-called Fouth Crusade devastated the city
  • the Fatimid Dynasty – a Shia Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and based in Egypt
  • Saladin trying to establish his new dynasty

Reading this book made me think, ‘You know what would be interesting to read?’ A History of Peace. There must be thousands of books about this, that or the other war, and there are whole series of books about the weapons and uniforms and military tactics of particular armies, throughout history.

What about the idea of peace? Where did it come from? What thinkers have elaborated on it? Which leaders supported it? Where and why has it been most successful? What is the best way to preserve it?

The crusades

Norwich’s account of the crusades is riveting because it goes into such detail. There are broadly two types of history, the superficial and the detailed, and the superficial is always deceiving. It’s almost better not to read any history than to read a superficial account. Only detailed accounts really help you to understand the complexity of human activity so as to make it a) comprehensible b) less easy to judge. Like us, the people of the past were operating in difficult times, with limited knowledge and resources, and no idea how things would pan out.

Most other accounts of the Crusades I’ve read tend to skip over Constantinople’s role in order to get on to describing how the crusaders, having arrived in the Holy Land, set about fighting the Muslims (not, as I learned from Michael Haag, Muslim Arabs, but a changing array of Muslim forces including the Seljuk Turks who had recently arrived from Transoxiana and had taken over the region, as well as occasional forays up from Egypt which was ruled by the Fatimid Dynasty).

In contrast, Norwich’s account describes each successive crusade a) in great detail and b) from the point of view of the Byzantines which was simple: the Greeks really didn’t want hordes of barbarian Franks and Germans traipsing across Thrace, often raiding, sometimes ravaging the land, before arriving at Constantinople in a very threatening mood.

Norwich’s account shows how cannily the great emperor Alexius Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118) handled the First Crusade (1096-99) – using all his diplomatic finesse with the Western kings and princes (who each led a different contingent of crusaders by different routes as far as Constantinople) and, in particular, Alexius’s forethought in organising sufficient food and water to be available to his unwelcome guests.

Alexius wanted them to pass through Byzantine lands with as little disruption, raiding and looting, as possible. What they did when they got to the Holy Land i.e. the area around Jerusalem in the far south of Palestine, was up to them as long as they made obeisance to him and acknowledged his suzerainty of the Holy Land (for over a thousand years a Roman-controlled territory). Inevitably, many of the crusader leaders rejected the emperor’s authority, or acknowledged it while being hosted to lavish dinners in Byzantium, and then completely forgot it once they’d fought their way through Turks to the Holy Land.

One of the most revealing and interesting aspects of Norwich’s account is the way he shows how what are generally described as the First or Second or Third etc Crusades – as if they were well-organised, centralised, homogenous missions – in reality consisted of ill-assorted smaller armies led by very different rulers from very different parts of Catholic Europe, who often violently disagreed with each other.

For example the First Crusade consisted of four distinct forces, each of which led by kings who proceeded to have varyingly difficult relations with the empire.  These separate armies travelled at different times, via different routes (some by land, some by sea), often getting massacred on the long land route across Anatolia, or caught and captured at sea by Muslim pirates. Even if they made it to the Holy Land, they often violently disagreed among themselves, conspiring and sometimes even fighting each other, and peeling off to set up their own independent counties and kingdoms (see map below).

Also, Norwich’s account makes clear that there were often other straggling armies which appeared in between the specific and numbered ‘crusades’ blessed by the pope – in 1101 a further four European armies turned up, which were not part of the ‘official’ crusade but had come for the same general purpose: a Lombard army of 20,000 under archbishop Anselm of Milan; a large group of french knights; a french army led by Count William of Nevers; and an immense Franco-German force under the command of William, Duke of Aquitaine and Welf, Duke of Bavaria. The Lombards joined up with the French knights, under the command of Raymond of Toulouse, marched into Anatolia where they captured Ancyra but soon afterwards were ambushed by Danishment Turks at a place called Mersivan where four-fifths of the army was massacred, and all the women and children (their families) accompanying them, were taken off as slaves (p.45).

Because this wasn’t part of any of the ‘official’ crusades, this kind of event isn’t mentioned in high-level histories – but it’s precisely the type of event which is vital for understanding the chaotic helter-skelter of events, and the conventions of the times – the very high level of massacring both in battles and sieges, and the universal acceptance of slavery – which run throughout the story. A detailed history always shows that human affairs are more chaotic than you expect, and than superficial, moralising histories can handle.

– and there was, in addition, a continuous flux of conflict with enemies who may or may not have been blessed by the pope, for example the Sicilian Normans.

Alexius and all the succeeding Byzantine emperors were correct in their analysis that the Franks (the generic name given to anyone from the Latin-speaking West) didn’t come to bring peace and establish Christian hegemony, but, despite all their lofty rhetoric, behaved just like any other tribe or armed group, adding to the already complex mix of traditional Arabs (divided into the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt), the newly-arrived Seljuk Turks, the Turkish group known as the Danishmeds, the marauding nomadic Bedouin, alongside other warlike peoples such as the Armenians, or violent religious groups like the Druze and Alawites – all contributing to a continually changing matrix of alliances and enmities which have lasted, arguably, right up to the present day.

Norwich shows how the crusaders failed to establish one unified realm in the Holy Land, even after their famous capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Instead they divided the region up into separate kingdoms based on Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa. These promptly started having dynastic quarrels and plotting against each other, exactly as their brothers and cousins were doing in in France, Germany and Italy.

This map (from Wikipedia) shows the Christian states which the crusaders set up, namely: the County of Edessa in the north, the Principality of Antioch (in blue), the slim County of Tripoli and then the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the south.

A political map of the Near East in 1135 CE. Crusader states are marked with a red cross (source: Wikipedia)

You can see how the crusader states were always literally surrounded by Muslim enemies (in shades of green), but also that the Muslims were divided into at least three entities: the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum to the North, which by now owned most of central Anatolia, the Great Seljuk Empire to the East, and the Fatimid Empire to the South.

The crusades just one among countless other migrations and warlike expeditions

The point I’m making is that, if you read Norwich’s history of Byzantium from 300 to 1453, the biggest single impression it makes is of ceaseless conflict across the entire area of the Mediterranean and beyond, in fact across the entire known world – an endless chronicle of empire making and empire breaking, as waves of conquerors wash over all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea in which, every single year, some group or tribe or kingdom or principality or other is continually making war, invading, conquering and annexing other peoples.

In this context, the Franks from Paris or London or Mainz were just one more exotic group among many, many such groups, fighting and conquering their way around the great Inner sea, no more far-flung than the Roman Egyptians who fought in Scotland, or the Muslim Arabs who seized Visigothic Spain three thousand miles from their homeland, or the men from Normandy who ended up conquering Sicily and southern Italy, or the tribes from central Asia who ended up settling in Anatolia thousands of miles from their homes, or the Turks or the Mongols who all poured out of central Asia to conquer the Middle East and beyond.

Extraordinarily adventurous journeys of conquest were absolutely par for the course throughout this entire period. And if the Crusaders came blessed by their pope that wasn’t very different from Saladin declaring his wars of conquest to be a holy jihad in order to gather support from other Muslim dynasties who were (rightfully) suspicious of his motives.

And as to all the other rampaging armies of the time, most of them didn’t need or pretend to any highfalutin’ purposes. They just wanted to conquer, loot, rape and pillage and so, ironically, end up not being judged at all by our modern censorious age which reserves all its righteous ire and heavy moralism for the Christians alone.

The sack of Jerusalem in context

Western historians appear to judge the crusaders harshly, a criticism which focuses on the massacre which took place when the crusaders finally took Jerusalem after a siege in 1199. They are said to have massacred every Muslim and rounded the Jews up into the synagogue which they set on fire.

In his book on the Knights Templars Michael Haag makes the point that medieval chroniclers are not to be trusted when it comes to numbers. On numerous occasions chroniclers will give ludicrously inflated figures. This was because they wanted to make their chronicles exciting and gory. More seriously, most were religious men, monks, and considered history not a forensic examination of the truth, but a series of morality stories and lessons, generally about human folly compared to the wisdom of God. Therefore massacres in which the Christians suffered tended to be exaggerated in order to show the vanity of human wishes, while massacres the forces of God carried out tended to be exaggerated in order to show how the enemies of the Lord were righteously punished. In both cases the numbers are likely to be exaggerated.

But there’s another factor which, for me, tended to downplay the Jerusalem massacre which is that it is just one of many massacres of the period. This book is full of towns besieged and then, once finally stormed, put to the sword in which almost everyone is killed or sold into slavery. This happens scores of times, it appears to have been routine for the age, as well as the number of times a vengeful conqueror razes an entire town or city to the ground.

If you read widely in the history of this era the so-called atrocities carried out by the crusaders at Jerusalem do not stand out but are just one more example of the general mayhem.

  • Devastation of the Balkans In the 1090s Emperor Alexius was criticised because ‘first the Normans and then the Pechenegs had devastated an immense area of the Balkan peninsula, burning down towns and villages, killing thousands of their inhabitants and rendering many more thousands homeless’ (p.50)
  • The Norman sack of Rome In 1084, the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard marched on Rome after receiving a plea for aid from his ally Pope Gregory VII, who was under siege by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Guiscard easily captured the city and rescued the Pope, but his soldiers were greeted as enemies by the Roman citizenry, many of whom had thrown their support behind Henry. When the people rose up against him, Guiscard crushed the revolt and allowed his men to indulge their lust for rape and plunder. Fires broke out across the city, and many of its inhabitants were butchered or sold into slavery. Some historians would later blame Guiscard and his Normans for demolishing many of Rome’s most priceless ancient monuments.
  • Devastation of Cyprus In 1156 Reynald of Chatillon, Prince of Antioch, launched an attack on (Christian, Byzantine) Cyprus. The garrison was swiftly overcome and the Franks and Armenian soldiers carried out a three-week ‘orgy of devastation and desecration, of murder, rape and pillage such as the island had never known before.’ All the ships were filled with as much plunder as they could carry, the leading citizens had to ransom theimselves and, if they couldn’t raise the fund, were carried off to imprisonment in Antioch, several greek priests had their noses cut off and were sent to Constantinople in mockery of the emperor. ‘The island, we are told, never recovered’ (p.121)
  • Massacre at Edessa Imad ad-Din Zengi (1085 – 1146) the Oghuz Turkish atabeg who ruled Mosul, Aleppo and Hama besieged the crusader city of Edessa in 1144. After the Muslims breached the walls ‘Zengi’s troops rushed into the city, killing all those who were unable to flee to the Citadel of Maniaces. Thousands more were suffocated or trampled to death in the panic, including Archbishop Hugh. Zengi ordered his men to stop the massacre, although all the Latin prisoners that he had taken were executed.’ (Wikipedia) Two years later the former crusader ruler of Edessa, Joscelin II, attempted to retake the city, and then to punch a hole in the Muslim forces to allow the Armenian population of the city to escape. This failed and the Muslim ‘troops massacred the fleeing Armenians and forced the survivors into slavery.’
  • The destruction of Brindisi In 1156 the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I had despatched an army to conquer Norman-held southern Italy but the coalition fell apart and the force got stuck besieging Brindisi on the south-east coast. King William of Sicily counter-attacked and relieved Brindisi. The garrison which had held out bravely against the Byzantines was rewarded, but all his subjects who had joined the Byzantines were hanged, blinded or tied with heavy weights and thrown into the sea. The nearby city of Bari had surrendered to the Byzantines without a fight, and so King William gave the inhabitants two days to clear out their belongings and then razed the entire city to the ground, including the cathedral (p.115).
  • The mass arrest of Venetians In early 1171 the large Venetian population in Constantinople attacked and largely destroyed the Genoese quarter in the city, whereupon the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos retaliated by ordering the mass arrest of all Venetians throughout the Empire and the confiscation of their property. There were also mass rapes and the burning of houses. Venice was furious, the authorities levied a forced loan which they used to build and man a fleet of 120 ships which sailed top attack Constantinople in September 1172 led by the Doge Vitale Michiel. However, while docked in Greece en route, the fleet was met by ambassadors from Constantinople who said their master had no wish for war and that a negotiated settlement could be reached. The Doge accepted and sent representatives of his own to the capital, sailing the fleet on to anchor at Chios. Here the crowded insanitary conditions helped foment a deadly plague which spread like wildfire killing thousands and leaving the survivors too weak to fight. Meanwhile his ambassadors returned to say they had been badly treated and spurned by the emperor who obviously had no intention of making a deal. Shattered and humiliated the Doge returned with what remained of his fleet to Venice. Unfortunately, the plague spread from his crews into the city itself. When he presented himself to the Venetian assembly it rose against him while a mob gathered outside baying for his blood. He slipped out a side door and made for the church of Saint Zaccaria but never made it. The mob set upon him and hacked and stabbed him to death. (p.131)
  • The Massacre of the Latins was a large-scale massacre of the Roman Catholic (Latin) inhabitants of Constantinople by the Eastern Orthodox population of the city in April 1182. The Roman Catholics of Constantinople at that time dominated the city’s maritime trade and financial sector, breeding resentment, which came to a head when the emperor Manuel died and power moved to his widow, the Latin princess Maria of Antioch, who acted as regent to her infant son Alexius II Comnenus. Maria’s regency became notorious for the favoritism shown to Latin merchants and the big aristocratic land-owners, and was overthrown in April 1182 by Andronicus I Komnenus, who entered the city in a wave of popular support. Almost immediately, the celebrations spilled over into violence towards the hated Latins, and after entering the city’s Latin quarter a mob began attacking the inhabitants. The ensuing massacre was indiscriminate: neither women nor children were spared, and Latin patients lying in hospital beds were murdered. Houses, churches, and charities were looted. Latin clergymen received special attention, and Cardinal John, the papal legate, was beheaded and his head was dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog. The entire Latin community, estimated at 60,000 at the time by Eustathius of Thessalonica, was wiped out or forced to flee. The Genoese and Pisan communities were also decimated, and some 4,000 survivors were sold as slaves to the (Turkish) Sultanate of Rum.
  • The Sack of Thessalonica In 1185 the Normans of the Kingdom of Sicily landed in Illyria and marched through northern Greece arriving at Thessalonica, the empire’s second city, in August was one of the worst disasters to befall the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century. the city governor failed to make sufficient preparations (food and water) for the siege while relief armies failed to co-ordinate, with the result that the Normans opened a breach in the walls and quickly entered the city, fighting degenerating into a full-scale massacre of the city’s inhabitants, with some 7,000 corpses being found afterwards. Coming on the heels of the massacre of the Latins in Constantinople in 1182, the massacre of the Thessalonians by the Normans deepened the rift between the Latin West and the Greek East. It also directly led to the deposition and execution of the unpopular Andronicus I Comnenus by the Latins and the rise to the throne of Isaac II Angelus. (p.149)

I’m not defending the Crusader sack of Jerusalem in 1099. I’m just saying that if you read this book, the sack of Jerusalem ceases to be a special and unique event, and takes its place as just one more among the horrifying list of massacres, pogroms, burnings, blindings, hangings and destruction of entire cities, which occur on virtually every page.

The one accusation you can make against the crusades in general and the sack of Jerusalem in particular is that they were carried out with the blessing of the pope, under high-minded and lofty claims of Christian superiority etc. But that is a playground accusation. Once again, a really thorough reading of the history of the period shows you that:

  1. Christian values weren’t worth the paper they were written on – this is demonstrated by the repeated times when Christian states attacked other Christians states, when eye witnesses express disbelief that one set of Christians could be so cruel to another set, and ransack and desecrate their churches etc.
  2. The famous crusades, the ones we read about, are not as unique as we’re led to believe. As well as the expeditions to the Holy Land, the pope also blessed ‘crusades’ against the Muslims in Spain, against the Sicilian Normans, and then against heretics, most notoriously the Cathars in the south of France. He also blessed ‘crusades’ against pagans in the Baltic and north-east Europe, such as the Wendish Crusade, and the crusading Teutonic Order which created a Crusader state in Prussia.
  3. The question of the pope’s endorsement of these military adventures is also not unique or straightforward for four obvious reasons:
    • throughout the period the papacy itself was a very troubled institution, with various opponents kidnapping popes or setting up alternative anti-popes who, at various points, excommunicated each other
    • and this was because, although the papacy and its propagandists liked to present itself as unique authority, inspired by God etc, the actual institution was deeply mired in the power politics of the day, with the pope acting just as deviously as all the other kings and emperors of the time, in forging and breaking alliances to suit its own worldly purposes
    • throughout the period the papacy was trying to establish itself as the sole source of Christian authority in the world, but this was never accepted by the entire Eastern church, let alone the splinter groups like the Jacobite church of the Copts who had survived the Muslim invasions.
  4. And the pope – with such authority as he had – often deeply disapproved of crusader strategies and aims, going so far as to excommunicate crusader leaders when they obviously turned to purely worldly goals.

Therefore, to accept the ‘crusades’ as somehow uniquely representations of Christian ideology or culture, as representative of ‘the West’ or Western values, is to ignore their deeply complicated reality, and their always profoundly compromised nature.

To this reader, at any rate, the crusades were just arbitrary, mismanaged and quarrelsome military expeditions blessed by a religious leader who was only one among several sources of Christian authority, who was himself a deeply compromised, worldly, figure, which from the start were based on all kinds of worldly considerations (like the quest for land and wealth), and which – to repeat myself – do not stand out from, but fit seamlessly into, the world of endless wars and continual military expeditions, raids and wars of conquest which were going on every year, all across the Mediterranean, throughout the entire period.

Marriage as a diplomatic tool

One of the most basic ways of forging an alliance, of clinching an agreement between two alien peoples or nations, was through intermarriage. I’ve read feminists who claim that women were used this embodied typical misogyny and sexism, and there’s no doubting that it was a male culture which valorised masculine virtues of warlike aggression and military success, and that daughters and adult women were married off by scheming male leaders of families.

On the other hand, it obviously takes two to make a marriage, and quite a few sons found themselves being married off to complete strangers from foreign lands who didn’t speak the same language, who might not even be Christians. For example, Robert Guiscard pledged his daughter to marry the young son of the Emperor Michael VII, Constantine, so she was packed off to Constantinople where she was renamed Helena and commenced a Greek education. All of which came to nothing when Michael was overthrown by Nicephorus III Botaneiates who was himself swiftly replaced by Alexius Comnenus. Feminists feel sorry for young Helena. Who is there to feel sorry for young Constantine?

I made a note of these marriage alliances.

  • Michael VII wrote, rather desperately, to Robert Guiscard offering the hand of is new-born baby son, Constantine, to any of Robert’s daughters which he chose
  • Alexius Comnenus marries Irene Ducania, granddaughter of the Caesar John Ducas, the uncle of Michael VII

Immersing yourself in the era begins to change your perceptions (which, for me, is part of the point of reading history) and began to make me appreciate the importance of these marriage arrangements and then, of wider family ties.

At some point I had a sort of epiphany and realised that – there was nothing else by which to organise states. There was no framework of international law, there was no United Nations signed up to commonly agreed protocols and standards, there was no one to appeal to.

In this sense medieval rulers lived in a much more existential condition that most of us realise. Abandoned on the planet, surrounded by enemies, with absolutely no international bodies to appeal to… they had only their wits and the resources to hand to defend themselves… and family ties emerge as the most solid, enduring ties which could be understood by all sides. In a sense, family connections were what international treaties and agreements are in our age – an internationally understood language which transcended all boundaries.

Taking this idea further, I realise that, in the complete absence of anything like democracy, in the absence of the complex paraphernalia of the democratic state which has taken us in the West getting on for 200 years to evolve, and which still doesn’t work perfectly – in the complete and utter absence of any other notions of how to validate rule and authority – then the concept of family becomes absolutely central. Authority is best passed down through what anthropologists call ‘kinship ties’, ties of blood or marriage.

And the concept of ‘family’ actually turns out to be very flexible. The relationship of marriage is easy for us to grasp, and similarly the notion of direct, blood family. But it was a feature of pre-modern societies that they also had the strategy of ‘adoption’ in a different sense from ours. Rulers could ‘adopt’ people from completely different bloodlines in order to incorporate them into the line of authority.

This had begun way back with the first Roman emperors. Thus, after Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC his will revealed that he had adopted Gaius Octavius Thurinus as his adopted son and heir. Octavius (who assumed the title Augustus) formally adopted his stepson and son-in-law Tiberius to succeed him.

One thousand years later the basic idea remained the same. Empires were run by families who went to great lengths to establish dynasties by having sons they could pass power on to but, if no sons appeared, by legally ‘adopting’ suitable heirs. Thus the odd sight of the empress of Byzantium, Maria of Alania (1054-1118) who was first married to Emperor Michael VII Ducas and, then to his usurper, Nicephorus III Botaneiates, adopting the promising young general Alexius Comnenus even though he was only five years younger than her. Indeed, when he came to power and installed Maria in the imperial palace, most observers thought he had taken her (his ‘mother’) as his mistress, which caused not only popular discontent, but caused a confrontation with his mother, the powerful Anna Dalassene. She pointed out that Alexius had already made a tactical marriage to Irene Doukaina, granddaughter of the Caesar John Ducas, the uncle of Michael VII, whose support had been vital in Alexius’s coup against Nicephorus III Botaneiates. His relationship with the empress Maria was now alienating the very powerful Ducas clan and so – faced with political reality – Alexius began his (long and successful reign) by backing down, packing Maria off to a convent, installing Irene in the palace and having her formally crowned new empress by the Patriarch. Ducas family honour was restored. Alexius resecured the backing of his supporters.

In our modern Western democracies change is mostly effected via the ballot box at elections (although not always: in recent times both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, when in power, have changed leaders without consulting the broader population (the handover from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, and from David Cameron to Theresa May) and this and a great deal of other political manoeuvring and backroom politicking come down to exactly the same calculations and scheming as we read about in the Roman and Byzantine Empires.)

The massive difference is that modern political scheming is limited by a) the rule of modern law (which prevents assassination, exile, ritual blinding and so on) and b) the rules governing how power is acquired and administered in complex, bureaucratic modern democracies.

To read a book like Norwich’s you have to have a reasonable feel for the rules and conventions of modern society – and then throw them all out. Make the imaginative leap to a world where absolutely none of those rules or conventions applied. The only really limiting factors on the emperor’s power were

  1. the strictures of the church, of the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople who often, as a result, ended up being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, banished and sometimes murdered if he didn’t agree with the ruling emperor
  2. the people – having no formal mechanism to express their opinion (no free press, no votes) discontent had only one way of expressing itself which was in rioting

Anyway, the conclusion is that all the palace politicking, and coups, and overthrows weren’t because people in the East or the Middle Ages were different from us, they weren’t the result of especially notable Machiavellianism and cruelty – they came about because it was the only system they had. It was the only way of managing power (if you had it) and scheming to get power (if you didn’t).

And the real point I’m making is that people in the Middle Ages were no different from us. They just operated in a political, religious and cultural world which was vastly different, which they were acculturated to, which they took for granted. Just like we take our modern world and its values for granted. But none of this is fixed and stable.

The point of studying history is that, really grasping this fact helps us to both understand them and their times, but also sheds new light and depth to understanding our own times and what makes our time so distinctive and special.

And – one of my perennial themes – the study of history underlines again and again that human nature does not change: it is just the rules and conventions under which humans behave which change. And this fundamental datum explains why, when the rule of law collapses, people immediately revert to the most barbaric ‘medieval’ behaviour – in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Syria.

It is because the Middle Ages are always with us, but just suppressed. Long may they stay repressed.

Women in the Byzantine empire

Women played a key role in this power politics but it is too simplistic to say they were victims. The empress Maria was, after the death of her first husband, Michael VII, in 1090, the most powerful figure, especially in adopting young Alexius. But then power shifted to Alexius’s mother, Anna Dalassene, who proceeded to show him what was what, regarding the powerful Ducas clan. Norwich’s narrative is, in fact, liberally dotted, with surprisingly strong and powerful women (surprisingly, if you buy modern feminist propaganda that all women, ever, in all of history, have been helpless victims of the patriarchy).

A selection of the strong, independent women mentioned in the text:

  • Sichelgaita (1040-90) a Lombard princess, daughter of Guaimar IV, Prince of Salerno, and second wife of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia. She frequently accompanied Robert on his conquests and commanded troops in her own right, for example at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1081 where Anna Comnena tells us that Sichelgaita wore full armour and rallied Robert’s troops when they were initially repulsed by the Byzantine army and were in danger of losing cohesion.
  • Alexius’s mother, Anna Dalassene
  • the empress Maria, the one who adopted young Alexius
  • Alexius’s daughter, Anna Comnena (1083-1153), wrote the verse epic praising her father, The Alexiad, which is one of the prime sources of information for the period. She led several conspiracies to have her brother, John, who succeeded from her father, Alexius, as emperor, overthrown in favour of Anna’s husband, Nicephorus Bryennios in 1118. The conspiracy was discovered by John who only sent his sister to a convent.
  • Alice, daughter of King Baldwin of Jerusalem, was married off to Bohemond II, Prince of Antioch. When he died in 1130 fighting against Danishmend Emir Gazi Gümüshtigin during a military campaign against Cilician Armenia (and Gümüshtigin sent Bohemond’s embalmed head to the Abbasid Caliph), Alice should have waited for her father, Baldwin, to appoint a successor. Instead, she appointed herself regent. When she learned that her furious father was marching north to Antioch, Alice sent a message to Imad el-Din Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul, offering him a prize horse and homage in return for being allowed to be princess of Antioch. the messenger was intercepted and executed and Baldwin arrived outside Antioch whose doors Alice refused to open. Eventually, one night, some of Baldwin’s supporters opened the gates and let the army in whereupon Baldwin, forgave Alice and banished her to her country estates.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the legendary queens of the Middle Ages, accompanied her super-religious first husband Louis VII of France on crusade but then decided he was too stiff and pious and so secured a divorce from him and married Henry II of England – ‘one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages’.

How things were done in the twelfth century – cruelly and brutally

How popes were elected

Just as Cardinal Roland of Siena… was being enthroned in St Peter’s as pope Alexander III, his colleague Cardinal Octavian of S. Cecilia suddenly seized the papal mantle and put it on himself. Alexander’s supporters snatched it back; but Octavian had taken the precaution of bringing another, into which he now managed to struggle  – getting it on back to front in the process. He then made a dash for the throne, sat on it, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV. (p.132)

How emperors were overthrown

After Manuel Comnenus died in 1180, his widow Maria of Antioch ruled as regent for their son, but was unpopular because she was from the Latin West. Several coups were attempted and foiled until the emperor’s cousin, Andronicus Comnenus, who was well into his 60s, raised troops and marched on Constantinople being welcomed as saviour in 1182, his arrival at the city sparking celebrations which degenerated into a pogrom against all the Latins the mob could get their hands on.

Andronicus swiftly eliminated all his rivals, having the dowager empress imprisoned and strangled, and then arranging for young Alexius to be ‘accidentally’ shot to death with arrows, and his reign degenerated into a rule of terror, turning the population against him. In summer 1185 King William of the Norman Sicilians invaded Illyria and began marching east on the capital. Characteristically, instead of organising an army to match the Normans Andronicus’s first reaction was to order the execution of all prisoners, exiles, and their families for collusion with the invaders. When his lieutenant moved to arrest Issa Angelus, Angelus resisted arrest, fled to Santa Sophia and rallied a crowd of supporters which set out to overthrow the tyrant.

Andronicus tried to escape with his young wife but was caught by the mob and for three days he was exposed to their fury and resentment, being tied to a post and beaten. His right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair were pulled out, one of his eyes was gouged out, and boiling water was thrown in his face, punishment probably associated with his handsomeness and life of licentiousness. At last he was led to the Hippodrome of Constantinople and hung by his feet between two pillars. Two Latin soldiers competed as to whose sword would penetrate his body more deeply, and he was, finally, torn apart.

Thus ended the Comnenus dynasty.

Latins versus Greeks

Simmering resentment against the commercial success and diplomatic machinations of the Venetian Republic came to a head in 1171, when the emperor Manuel Comnenus passed a decree placing all Venetian citizens under arrest and confiscating all their property.

The real hatred the Venetians now harboured for the Byzantines completely explains the shambles of the so-called Fourth Crusade, when the Venetians were contracted to build a huge fleet to ferry the crusaders to attack the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt. When only a quarter of the promised number turned up the Crusaders refused to pay the amount promised to the Venetians and things might have turned nasty… until the Venetians proposed a compromise: they would write off the crusaders’ debt if the crusaders helped them attack and seize ports on the Adriatic coast opposite Italy, a region still nominally under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Although the pope threatened to excommunicate them if they did so, and many crusader leaders had doubts or pulled out of the expedition, the leaders on the spot agreed and so the crusade turned into a war of conquest of byzantine Dalmatia. It was only a small step from there to persuading the crusaders (with offers of money and arms) to fulfil the Venetians’ dream and attack Constantinople itself. Which is what took place, under the absurd guide of the ‘fourth crusade’.

When you actually read in fine detail what actually happened during the so-called crusades, and study the background of continual warfare all across Europe and the Middle East at the time, the so-called crusades cease to stand out as any kind of special event and merge seamlessly into the unending and fiendishly complicated series of wars and conflicts and battles and shifting alliances which characterised the entire period.


Byzantine emperors (1068 – 1453)

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 –1071)

A highly successful general, Romanus is, however, mostly remembered for leading the Byzantine forces to catastrophic defeat against the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert on 26 August 1071, defeat which left Anatolia – for 700 years the source of Byzantium’s grain and manpower – vulnerable to the Seljuk Turks’ slow but steady annexation. Quite quickly central Anatolia became known as the Sultanate of Rum, referring to Rome, the name the Turks gave all the Greeks. This map from Wikipedia shows how the Sultanate slowly but steadily annexed Anatolia.

Expansion of the Sultanate 1100–1240 (source: Wikipedia)

Romanus and the victor, Alp Arslan, got on well and Alp released Romanus to return to Constantinople. Had he survived something might have been salvaged, but he was overthrown and blinded in a coup.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078)

Michael had been a boy when the usurper Romanus Diogenes made himself senior emperor. Soon after Romanus returned to Constantinople after the shameful defeat of Manzikert, he was blinded by partisans of the powerful Ducas family and power returned, at least in theory, to Michael. Michael was, however, weak and ineffectual, and his policies prompted several attempts at a coup, the successful one being led by…

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 –1081)

Nicephorus had risen to become military ruler of Anatolia. He rebelled against the bad rule and high taxes of Michael VII, leading his army and was welcomed into the capital (Michael wisely abdicated and went off to a monastery). But Nicephorus, born around 1001, was 77 and, having secured power, did not know what to do with it. While military threats mounted in the east and west, the young general Alexius Comnenus emerged as a rising star, a general who never lost a battle. Learning that Nicephorus was about to have him arrested, Alexius rallied his troops and many supporters among the aristocracy and staged a coup. Botaneiates was allowed to retire to a monastery.

Comnenid dynasty (1081–1185)

Alexius I Comnenus (1081 –1118)

Alexius is one of the heroes of the book, a distinguished general who set about restoring military and political stability to the empire. His successes in Anatolia against the Turks had made Botaneiates jealous and so Alexius staged a military coup before he himself was arrested. Pious and hard-working, Alexius had to fight wars against the Normans – who, led by their buccaneering leader Robert Guiscard, invaded from their base in south Italy in 1081 – and against the Seljuk Turks who continued their expansion into Anatolia.

Norwich’s account of the canny way Alexius handled the incursion of the various crusader armies into his territory is fascinating. After fifty years which had seen a dozen or so emperors come and go, Alexius was successful in establishing an enduring and (relatively) stable dynasty.

John II Comnenus (1118 –1143)

Eldest son of Alexius I, John inherited in a smooth transition on his father’s death. His reign was dominated by wars – defending attacks by the Sicilian Normans, fending off a Venetian invasion fleet, dealing with the Hungarians to the North, and then campaigning against the Seljuk Turks and Armenians of Cilicia to the east, with the sometimes reluctant co-operation of the Crusader states of Edessa and Antioch.

Manuel I Comnenos ‘the Great’ (1143 –1180)

The fourth and youngest son of John II, his two eldest brothers died before their father who chose Manuel over the surviving elder brother Isaac. An energetic ruler, he launched campaigns against the Turks, humbled Hungary, achieved supremacy over the Crusader states, and tried unsuccessfully to recover Italy. His extravagance and constant campaigning, however, depleted the Empire’s resources.

Alexius II Comnenos (1180 –1183)

Born on 14 September 1169, the only son of Manuel I. In 1180–1182 i.e. aged 11 and 12 he came under the regency of his mother, Maria of Antioch but, as described above, she was unpopular because a Latin, and was overthrown by Andronicus I Comnenos, who became co-emperor and finally had Alexius II deposed and killed.

Andronicus I Comnenos (1183 –1185)

Born c. 1118, a nephew of John II by his brother Isaac. A general, he was imprisoned for conspiring against John II, but escaped and spent 15 years in exile in various courts in eastern Europe and the Middle East, where he acquired a reputation for his promiscuousness.

In 1182 marched on Constantinople, capitalising on the unpopularity of Maria of Antioch, his arrival coinciding with a city-wide uprising against the hated Venetians, who benefited from trade and legal advantages. Having quelled the riots and established his authority, Andronicus has Mariastrangled in prison, and then overthrew his nephew Alexius II, who he had murdered.

His campaign against the vast landowning aristocracy was justifiable from an economic point of view, but was accompanied by growing paranoia and tyranny, not a day going by without public tortures and executions. The Normans from Sicily took the opportunity to invade Illyria and Andronicus’s abject failure to repel them clinched opposition to him at all levels of society and he was overthrown and lynched in a popular uprising.

The Angelid dynasty (1185–1204)

Of all the families who at one time or another wore the imperial crown of Byzantium, the Angeli were the worst… The three Angelus emperors – Isaac II, Alexius III and Alexius IV – reigned from first to last, a mere nineteen years. But each was in his own way disastrous, and together they were responsible for the greatest catastrophe that Constantinople was ever to suffer until its final fall. (p.156)

Isaac II Angelus (1185 –1195)

Born in September 1156, Isaac came to the throne at the head of a popular revolt against Andronicus I. His reign was marked by revolts and wars in the Balkans, especially against a resurgent Bulgaria. He was deposed, blinded and imprisoned by his elder brother, Alexius III.

Alexius III Angelus (1195 –1203)

Born in 1153, Alexius was the elder brother of Isaac II, who he deposed and blinded. His reign was marked by misgovernment and the increasing autonomy of provincial magnates. He was deposed by the Fourth Crusade and fled Constantinople, roaming Greece and Asia Minor, searching for support to regain his throne. He died in Nicaean captivity in 1211.

Isaac II Angelus (18 July 1203 – 27/28 January 1204)

The armies of the Fourth Crusade arrived at the walls of Constantinople in 1203 and began besieging the city. Alexius III fled with his wife. the city council restored Isaac II who, although blind, was the most legitimate ruler. Actual rule fell to his son Alexius IV but both of them failed to deal adequately with the crusader demands and Isaac was deposed by Alexius V Dukas in January 1204 and died on 28 January 1204, perhaps of poison.

Alexius IV Angelus (1 August 1203 – 27/28 January 1204)

The son of Isaac II, Alexius enlisted the Fourth Crusade to return his father to the throne, and reigned alongside his restored father. Due to their failure to deal with the Crusaders’ demands, he was deposed by Alexius V Ducas in January 1204, and was strangled on 8 February.

The fall of Constantinople

Alexius V Ducas ‘Mourtzouphlos’ (5 February 1204 – 13 April 1204)

In Norwich’s view the only Byzantine ruler of the time who was up to the crisis, Alexius was born in 1140, the son-in-law of Alexius III and a prominent aristocrat. He deposed Isaac II and Alexius IV in a palace coup. He tried to repel the Crusaders, but they captured Constantinople forcing Mourtzouphlos to flee. He joined the exiled Alexius III, but was later blinded by the latter. Captured by the Crusaders, he was executed in December 1205.

Theodore I Laskaris (1205 – 1222)

Born c. 1174, he rose to prominence as a son-in-law of Alexios III. His brother Constantine Laskaris (or Theodore himself, it is uncertain) was elected emperor by the citizens of Constantinople on the day before the city fell to the Crusaders.

Constantine only remained for a few hours before the sack of the City and later fled to Nicaea, where Theodore organized the Greek resistance to the Latins. Proclaimed emperor after Constantine’s death in 1205, Theodore was crowned only in 1208. He managed to stop the Latin advance into Asia Minor and also to repel Seljuk Turk attacks, establishing the Empire of Nicaea as the strongest of the several Greek successor states to Constantinople.

John III Ducas Vatatzes (15 December 1221 – November 1254)

Born around 1192, John became the son-in-law and successor of Theodore I in 1212. A capable ruler and soldier, he expanded his state in Bithynia, Thrace and Macedonia at the expense of the Latin Empire, Bulgaria and the rival Greek state of Epirus.


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The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements by Peter Atkins (1995)

Chemistry is the science of changes in matter. (p.37)

At just under 150 pages long, A Journey Into the Land of the Chemical Elements is intended as a novel and imaginative introduction to the 118 or so chemical elements which are the basic components of chemistry, and which, for the past 100 years or so, have been laid out in the grid arrangement known as the periodic table.

The periodic table explained

Just to refresh your memory, it’s called the periodic table because it is arranged into rows called ‘periods’. These are numbered 1 to 7 down the left-hand side.

What is a period? The ‘period number’ of an element signifies ‘the highest energy level an electron in that element occupies (in the unexcited state)’. To put it another way, the ‘period number’ of an element is its number of atomic orbitals. An orbital is the number of orbital positions an electron can take around the nucleus. Think of it like the orbit of the earth round the sun.

For each element there is a limited number of these ‘orbits’ which electrons can take up. Hydrogen, in row one, can only have one electron because it only has one possible orbital for an electron to take up around its nucleus. All the elements in row 2 have two orbitals for their electrons, and so on.

Sodium, for instance, sits in the third period, which means a sodium atom typically has electrons in the first three energy levels. Moving down the table, periods are longer because it takes more electrons to fill the larger and more complex outer levels.

The columns of the table are arranged into ‘groups’ from 1 to 18 along the top. Elements that occupy the same column or group have the same number of electrons in their outer orbital. These outer electrons are called ‘valence electrons’. The electrons in the outer orbital are the first ones to be involved in chemical bonds with other elements; they are relatively easy to dislodge, the ones in the lower orbitals progressively harder.

Elements with identical ‘valance electron configurations’ tend to behave in a similar fashion chemically. For example, all the elements in group or column 18 are gases which are slow to interact with other chemicals and so are known as the inert gases – helium, neon etc. Atkins describes the amazing achievement of the Scottish chemist William Ramsey in discovering almost all the inert gases in the 1890s.

Although there are 18 columns, the actual number of electrons in the outer orbital only goes up to 8. Take nitrogen in row 2 column 15. Nitrogen has the atomic number seven. The atomic number means there are seven electrons in a neutral atom of nitrogen. How many electrons are in its outer orbital? Although nitrogen is in the fifteenth column, that column is actually labelled ‘5A’. 5 represents the number of electrons in the outer orbital. So all this tells you that nitrogen has seven electrons in two orbitals around the nucleus, two in the first orbital and five in the second (2-5).

 

The Periodic Table. Karl Tate © LiveScience.com

Note that each element has two numbers in its cell. The one at the top is the atomic number. This is the number of protons in the nucleus of the element. Note how the atomic number increases in a regular, linear manner, from 1 for hydrogen at the top left, to 118 for Oganesson at the bottom right. After number 83, bismuth, all the elements are radioactive.

(N.B. When Atkins’s book was published in 1995 the table stopped at number 109, Meitnerium. As I write this, 24 years later, it has been extended to number 118, Oganesson. These later elements have been created in minute quantities in laboratories and some of them only exist for a few moments.)

Beneath the element name is the atomic weight. This is the mass of a given atom, measured on a scale in which the hydrogen atom has the weight of one. Because most of the mass in an atom is in the nucleus, and each proton and neutron has an atomic weight near one, the atomic weight is very nearly equal to the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.

Note the freestanding pair of rows at the bottom, coloured in purple and orange. These are the lanthanides and actinides. We’ll come to them in a moment.

Not only are the elements arranged into periods and groups but they are also categorised into groupings according to their qualities. In this diagram (taken from LiveScience.com) the different groupings are colour-coded. The groupings are, moving from left to right:

Alkali metals The alkali metals make up most of Group 1, the table’s first column. Shiny and soft enough to cut with a knife, these metals start with lithium (Li) and end with francium (Fr), among the rarest elements on earth: Atkins tells us that at any one moment there are only seventeen atoms of francium on the entire planet. The alkali metals are extremely reactive and burst into flame or even explode on contact with water, so chemists store them in oils or inert gases. Hydrogen, with its single electron, also lives in Group 1, but is considered a non-metal.

Alkaline-earth metals The alkaline-earth metals make up Group 2 of the periodic table, from beryllium (Be) through radium (Ra). Each of these elements has two electrons in its outermost energy level, which makes the alkaline earths reactive enough that they’re rarely found in pure form in nature. But they’re not as reactive as the alkali metals. Their chemical reactions typically occur more slowly and produce less heat compared to the alkali metals.

Lanthanides The third group is much too long to fit into the third column, so it is broken out and flipped sideways to become the top row of what Atkins calls ‘the Southern Island’ that floats at the bottom of the table. This is the lanthanides, elements 57 through 71, lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). The elements in this group have a silvery white color and tarnish on contact with air.

Actinides The actinides line forms the bottom row of the Southern Island and comprise elements 89, actinium (Ac) to 103, lawrencium (Lr). Of these elements, only thorium (Th) and uranium (U) occur naturally on earth in substantial amounts. All are radioactive. The actinides and the lanthanides together form a group called the inner transition metals.

Transition metals Returning to the main body of the table, the remainder of Groups 3 through 12 represent the rest of the transition metals. Hard but malleable, shiny, and possessing good conductivity, these elements are what you normally associate with the word metal. This is the location of many of the best known metals, including gold, silver, iron and platinum.

Post-transition metals Ahead of the jump into the non-metal world, shared characteristics aren’t neatly divided along vertical group lines. The post-transition metals are aluminum (Al), gallium (Ga), indium (In), thallium (Tl), tin (Sn), lead (Pb) and bismuth (Bi), and they span Group 13 to Group 17. These elements have some of the classic characteristics of the transition metals, but they tend to be softer and conduct more poorly than other transition metals. Many periodic tables will feature a highlighted ‘staircase’ line below the diagonal connecting boron with astatine. The post-transition metals cluster to the lower left of this line. Atkins points out that all the elements beyond bismuth (row 6, column 15) are radioactive. Here be skull-and-crossbones warning signs.

Metalloids The metalloids are boron (B), silicon (Si), germanium (Ge), arsenic (As), antimony (Sb), tellurium (Te) and polonium (Po). They form the staircase that represents the gradual transition from metals to non-metals. These elements sometimes behave as semiconductors (B, Si, Ge) rather than as conductors. Metalloids are also called ‘semi-metals’ or ‘poor metals’.

Non-metals Everything else to the upper right of the staircase (plus hydrogen (H), stranded way back in Group 1) is a non-metal. These include the crucial elements for life on earth, carbon (C), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), oxygen (O), sulfur (S) and selenium (Se).

Halogens The top four elements of Group 17, from fluorine (F) through astatine (At), represent one of two subsets of the non-metals. The halogens are quite chemically reactive and tend to pair up with alkali metals to produce various types of salt. Common salt is a marriage between the alkali metal sodium and the halogen chlorine.

Noble gases Colorless, odourless and almost completely non-reactive, the inert, or noble gases round out the table in Group 18. The low boiling point of helium makes it a useful refrigerant when exceptionally low temperatures are required; most of them give off a colourful display when electric current is passed through them, hence the generic name of neon lights, invented in 1910 by Georges Claude.

The metaphor of the Periodic Kingdom

In fact the summary I’ve given above isn’t at all how Atkins’s book sounds. It is the way I have had to make notes to myself to understand the table.

Atkins’ book is far from being so clear and straightforward. The Periodic Kingdom is dominated by the central conceit that Atkins treats the periodic table as if it were an actual country. His book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia of biochemistry, mineralogy and industrial chemistry; it is a light-hearted ‘traveller’s guide’ (p.27) to the table which he never refers to as a table, but as a kingdom, complete with its own geography, layout, mountain peaks and ravines, and surrounded by a sea of nothingness.

Hence, from start to finish of the book, Atkins uses metaphors from landscape and exploration to describe the kingdom, talking about ‘the Western desert’, ‘the Southern Shore’ and so on. Here’s a characteristic sentence:

The general disposition of the land is one of metals in the west, giving way, as you travel eastward, to a varied landscape of nonmetals, which terminates in largely inert elements at the eastern shoreline. (p.9)

I guess the idea is to help us memorise the table by describing its characteristics and the changes in atomic weight, physical character, alkalinity, reactivity and so on of the various elements, in terms of geography. Presumably he thinks it’s easier to remember geography than raw information. His approach certainly gives rise to striking analogies:

North of the mainland, situated rather like Iceland off the northwestern edge of Europe, lies a single, isolated region – hydrogen. This simple but gifted element is an essential outpost of the kingdom, for despite its simplicity it is rich in chemical personality. It is also the most abundant element in the universe and the fuel of the stars. (p.9)

Above all the extended metaphor (the periodic table imagined as a country) frees Atkins not to have to lay out the subject in either a technical nor a chronological order but to take a pleasant stroll across the landscape, pointing out interesting features and making a wide variety of linkages, pointing out the secret patterns and subterranean connections between elements in the same ‘regions’ of the table.

There are quite a few of these, for example the way iron can easily form alliances with the metals close to it such as cobalt, nickel and manganese to produce steel. Or the way the march of civilisation progressed from ‘east’ to ‘west’ through the metals, i.e. moving from copper, to iron and steel, each representing a new level of culture and technology.

The kingdom metaphor also allows him to get straight to core facts about each element without getting tangled in pedantic introductions: thus we learn there would be no life without nitrogen which is a key building block of all proteins, not to mention the DNA molecule; or that sodium and potassium (both alkali metals) are vital in the functioning of brain and nervous system cells.

And hence the generally light-hearted, whimsical tone allows him to make fanciful connections: calcium is a key ingredient in the bones of endoskeletons and the shells of exoskeletons, compacted dead shells made chalk, but in another format made the limestone which the Romans and others ground up to make the mortar which held their houses together.

Then there is magnesium. I didn’t think magnesium was particularly special, but learned from Atkins that a single magnesium atom is at the heart of the chlorophyll molecule, and:

Without chlorophyll, the world would be a damp warm rock instead of the softly green haven of life that we know, for chlorophyll holds its magnesium eye to the sun and captures the energy of sunlight, in the first step of photosynthesis. (p.16)

You see how the writing is aspiring to an evocative, poetic quality- a deliberate antidote to the dry and factual way chemistry was taught to us at school. He means to convey the sense of wonder, the strange patterns and secret linkages underlying these wonderful entities. I liked it when he tells us that life is about capturing, storing and deploying energy.

Life is a controlled unwinding of energy.

Or about how phosphorus, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a perfect vector for the deployment of energy, common to all living cells. Hence the importance of phosphates as fertiliser to grow the plants we need to survive. Arsenic is such an effective poison because it is a neighbour of phosphorus, shares some of its qualities, and so inserts itself into chemical reactions usually carried out by phosphorus but blocking them, nulling them, killing the host organism.

All the facts I explained in the first half of this post (mostly cribbed from the LiveScience.com website) are not reached or explained until about page 100 of this 150-page-long book. Personally, I felt I needed them earlier. As soon as I looked at the big diagram of the table he gives right at the end of the book I became intrigued by the layout and the numbers and couldn’t wait for him to get round to explaining them, which is why I went on the internet to find out more, more quickly, and why Istarted my review with a factual summary.

And eventually, the very extended conceit of ‘the kingdom’ gets rather tiresome. Whether intentional or not, the continual references to ‘the kingdom’ begin to sound Biblical and pretentious.

Now the kingdom is virtually fully formed. It rises above the sea of nonbeing and will remain substantially the same almost forever. The kingdom was formed in and among the stars.. (p.75)

The chapter on the scientists who first isolated the elements and began sketching out the table continues the metaphor by referring to them as ‘cartographers’, and the kingdom as made of islands and archipelagos.

As an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Jena, [Johann Döbereiner] noticed that reports of some of the kingdom’s islands – reports brought back by their chemical explorers – suggested a brotherhood of sorts between the regions. (p.79)

For me, the obsessive use of the geographical metaphor teeters on the border between being useful, and becoming irritating. He introduces me to the names of the great pioneers – I was particularly interested in Dalton, Michael Faraday, Humphrey Davy (who isolated a bunch of elements in the early 1800s) and then William Ramsey – but I had to go to Wikipedia to really understand their achievements.

Atkins speculates that some day we might find another bunch or set of elements, which might even form an entire new ‘continent’, though it is unlikely. This use of a metaphor is sort of useful for spatially imagining how this might happen, but I quickly got bored of him calling this possible set of new discoveries ‘Atlantis’, and of the poetic language as a whole.

Is the kingdom eternal, or will it slip beneath the waves? There is a good chance that one day – in a few years, or a few hundred years at most – Atlantis will be found, which will be an intellectual achievement but probably not one of great practical significance…

A likely (but not certain) scenario is that in that distant time, perhaps 10100 years into the future, all matter will have decayed into radiation, it is even possible to imagine the process. Gradually the peaks and dales of the kingdom will slip away and Mount Iron will rise higher, as elements collapse into its lazy, low-energy form. Provided that matter does not decay into radiation first (which is one possibility), the kingdom will become a lonely pinnacle, with iron the only protuberance from the sea of nonbeing… (p.77)

And I felt the tone sometimes bordered on the patronising.

The second chemical squabble is in the far North, and concerns the location of the offshore Northern Island of hydrogen. To those who do not like offshore islands, there is the problem of where to put it on the mainland. This is the war of the Big-Endians versus the Little-Endians. Big-Endians want to tow the island ashore to form a new Northwestern Cape, immediately north of lithium and beryllium and across from the Northeastern Cape of helium… (p.90)

Hard core chemistry

Unfortunately, none of these imaginative metaphors can help when you come to chapter 9, an unexpectedly brutal bombardment of uncompromising hard core information about the quantum mechanics underlying the structure of the elements.

In quick succession this introduces us to a blizzard of ideas: orbitals, energy levels, Pauli’s law of exclusion, and then the three imaginary lobes of orbitals.

As I understood it, the Pauli exclusion principle states that no two electrons can inhabit a particular orbital or ‘layer’ or shell. But what complicates the picture is that these orbitals come in three lobes conceived as lying along imaginary x, y and z axes. This overlapped with the information that there are four types of orbitals – s, p, d and f orbitals. In addition, there are three p-orbitals, five d-orbitals, seven f-orbitals. And the two lobes of a p-orbital are on either side of an imaginary plane cutting through the nucleus, there are two such planes in a d-orbital and three in an f-orbital.

After pages of amiable waffle about kingdoms and Atlantis, this was like being smacked in the face with a wet towel. Even rereading the chapter three times, I still found it impossible to process and understand this information.

I understand Atkins when he says it is the nature of the orbitals, and which lobes they lie along, which dictates an element’s place in the table, but he lost me when he said a number of electrons lie inside the nucleus – which is the opposite of everything I was ever taught – and then when described the way electrons fly across or through the nucleus, something to do with the processes of ‘shielding’ and ‘penetration’.

The conspiracy of shielding and penetration ensure that the 2s-orbital is somewhat lower in energy than the p-orbitals of the same rank. By extension, where other types of orbitals are possible, ns- and np-orbitals both lie lower in energy than nd-orbitals, and nd-orbitals in turn have lower energy than nf-orbitals. An s-orbital has no nodal plane, and electrons can be found at the nucleus. A p-orbital has one plane, and the electron is excluded from the nucleus. A d-orbital has two intersecting planes, and the exclusion of the electron is greater. An f-orbital has three planes, and the exclusion is correspondingly greater still. (p.118)

Note how all the chummy metaphors of kingdoms and deserts and mountains have disappeared. This is the hard-core quantum mechanical basis of the elements, and at least part of the reason it is so difficult to understand is because he has made the weird decision to throw half a dozen complex ideas at the reader at the same time. I read the chapter three times, still didn’t get it, and eventually wanted to cry with frustration.

This online lecture gives you a flavour of the subject, although it doesn’t mention ‘lobes’ or penetration or shielding.

In the next chapter, Atkins, briskly assuming  his readers have processed and understood all of this information, goes on to combine the stuff about lobes and orbitals with a passage from earlier in the book, where he had introduced the concept of ions, cations, and anions:

  • ion an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons
  • cation a positively charged ion
  • anion a negatively charged ion

He had also explained the concept of electron affinity

The electron affinity (Eea) of an atom or molecule is defined as the amount of energy released or spent when an electron is added to a neutral atom or molecule in the gaseous state to form a negative ion.

Isn’t ‘affinity’ a really bad word to describe this? ‘Affinity’ usually means ‘a natural liking for and understanding of someone or something’. If it is the amount of energy released, why don’t they call it something useful like the ‘energy release’? I felt the same about the terms ‘cation’ and ‘anion’ – that they had been deliberately coined to mystify and confuse. I kept having to stop and look up what they meant since the name is absolutely no use whatsoever.

And the electronvolt – ‘An electronvolt (eV) is the amount of kinetic energy gained or lost by a single electron accelerating from rest through an electric potential difference of one volt in vacuum.’

Combining the not-very-easily understandable material about electron volts with the incomprehensible stuff about orbitals means that the final 30 pages or so of The Periodic Kingdom is thirty pages of this sort of thing:

Take sodium: it has a single electron outside a compact, noble-gaslike core (its structure is [Ne]3s¹). The first electron is quite easy to remove (its removal requires an investment of 5.1 eV), but removal of the second, which has come from the core that lies close to the nucleus, requires an enormous energy – nearly ten times as much, in fact (47.3 eV). (p.130)

This reminds me of the comparable moment in John Allen Paulos’s book Innumeracy where I ceased to follow the argument. After rereading the passage where I stumbled and fell I eventually realised it was because Paulos had introduced three or so important facts about probability theory very, very quickly, without fully explaining them or letting them bed in – and then had spun a fancy variation on them…. leaving me standing gaping on the shore.

Same thing happens here. I almost but don’t quite understand what [Ne]3s¹ means, and almost but don’t quite grasp the scale of electronvolts, so when he goes on to say that releasing the second electron requires ten times as much energy, of course I understand the words, but I cannot quite grasp why it should be so because I have not understood the first two premises.

As with Paulos, the author has gone too fast. These are not simple ideas you can whistle through and expect your readers to lap up. These are very, very difficult ideas most readers will be completely unused to.

I felt the sub-atomic structure chapter should almost have been written twice, approached from entirely different points of view. Even the diagrams were no use because I didn’t understand what they were illustrating because I didn’t understand his swift introduction of half a dozen impenetrable concepts in half a page.

Once through, briskly, is simply not enough. The more I tried to reread the chapter, the more the words started to float in front of my eyes and my brain began to hurt. It is packed with sentences like these:

Now imagine a 2 p-electron… (an electron that occupies a 2 p-orbital). Such an electron is banished from the nucleus on account of the existence of the nodal plane. This electron is more completely shielded from the pull of the nucleus, and so it is not gripped as tightly.In other words, because of the interplay of shielding and penetration, a 2 s-orbital has a lower energy (an electron in it is gripped more tightly) than a 2 p-orbital… Thus the third and final electron of lithium enters the 2 s-orbital, and its overall structure is 1s²2s¹. (p.118)

I very nearly understand what some of these words meant, but the cumulative impact of sentences like these was like being punched to the ground and then given a good kicking. And when the last thirty pages went on to add the subtleties of electronvoltages and micro-electric charges into the mix, to produce ever-more complex explanations for the sub-atomic interactivity of different elements, I gave up.

Summary

The first 90 or so pages of The Periodic Kingdom do manage to give you a feel for the size and shape and underlying patterns of the periodic table. Although it eventually becomes irritating, the ruling metaphor of seeing the whole place as a country with different regions and terrains works – up to a point – to explain or suggest the patterns of size, weight, reactivity and so on underlying the elements.

When he introduced ions was when he first lost me, but I stumbled on through the entertaining trivia and titbits surrounding the chemistry pioneers who first isolated and named many of the elements and the first tentative attempts to create a table for another thirty pages or so.

But the chapter about the sub-atomic structure of chemical elements comprehensively lost me. I was already staggering, and this finished me off.

If Atkins’s aim was to explain the basics of chemistry to an educated layman, then the book was, for me, a complete failure. I sort of quarter understood the orbitals, lobes, nodes section but anything less than 100% understanding means you won’t be able to follow him to the next level of complexity.

As with the Paulos book, I don’t think I failed because I am stupid – I think that, on both occasions, the author failed to understand how challenging his subject matter is, and introduced a flurry of concepts far too quickly, at far too advanced a level.

Looking really closely I realise it is on the same page (page 111) that Atkins introduces the concepts of energy levels, orbitals, the fact that there are three two-lobed orbitals, and the vital existence of nodal planes. On the same page! Why the rush?

An interesting and seemingly trivial feature of a p-orbital, but a feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge, is that the electron will never be found on the imaginary plane passing through the nucleus and dividing the two lobes of the orbital. This plane is called a nodal plane. An s-orbital does not have such a nodal plane, and the electron it describes may be found at the nucleus. Every p-orbital has a nodal plane of this kind, and therefore an electron that occupies a p-orbital will never be found at the nucleus. (p.111)

Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, you won’t understand the last 40 or so pages of the book, because this is the ‘feature on which the structure of the kingdom will later be seen to hinge’.

I struggled through the final 40 pages weeping tears of frustration, and flushed with anger at having the thing explained to me so badly. Exactly how I felt during my chemistry lessons at school forty years ago.


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Chemistry

Cosmology

The environment

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  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

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Psychology

Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart (1995)

Stewart is a mathematician and prolific author, having written over 40 books on all aspects of maths, as well as publishing guides to the maths used in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, authoring half a dozen textbooks for students and co-authoring a couple of science fiction novels.

He writes in a marvellously clear style, but more importantly, he is interesting: he sees the world in an interesting way and manages to convey the wonder and strangeness and powerful insights which seeing the world in terms of patterns and shapes, numbers and maths, gives you.

He wants to help us see the world as a mathematician sees it, full of clues and information which can lead us to deeper and deeper appreciation of the patterns and harmonies all around us.

1. The Natural Order

Thus he begins the book by describing just some of nature’s patterns: the regular movements of the stars in the night sky; the sixfold symmetry of snowflakes; the stripes of tigers and zebras; the recurring patterns of sand dunes; rainbows; the spiral of a snail’s shell; why nearly all flowers have petals arranged in one of the following numbers 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89; the regular patterns or ‘rhythms’ made by animals scuttling, walking, flying and swimming.

2. What Mathematics is For

Mathematics is brilliant at helping us to solve puzzles. it is a more or less systematic way of digging out the rules and structures that lie behind some observed pattern or regularity, and then using those rules and structures to explain what’s going on. (p.16)

Kepler discovers the planets move in ellipses. The nature of acceleration, ‘not a fundamental quality, a rate of change’. Newton and Leibniz invent calculus to help us work out rates of change.

Two of the main things that maths are for are 1. providing the tools which let scientists understand what nature is doing 2. providing new theoretical questions for mathematicians to explore further. Applied and pure mathematics.

He mentions one of the oddities, paradoxes or thought-provoking things that comes up in many science books which is the eerie way that good mathematics, whatever its source, eventually turns out to be useful, to be applicable to the real world, to explain some aspect of nature. Many philosophers have wondered why. Is there a deep congruence between the human mind and the structure of the universe? Did God make the universe mathematically and implant an understanding of maths in us? Is the universe made of maths?

Stewart’s answer is simple and elegant: he thinks that nature exploits every pattern that there is, which is why we keep discovering patterns everywhere. We humans express these patterns in numbers, but it isn’t the numbers nature uses – it’s the patterns and shapes and possibilities which the numbers express, or define.

Mendel noticing the numerical relationships with which characteristics of peas are expressed when they are crossbred. The double helix structure of DNA. The computer simulation of the evolution of the eye from an initial mutation providing for skin cells sensitive to light, published by Daniel Nilsson and Susanne Pelger in 1994.

Resonance = the relationship between periodically moving bodies in which their cycles lock together so that they take up the same relative positions at regular intervals. The cycle time is the period of the system. The individual bodies have different periods. The moon’s rotational period is the same as its revolution around the earth, so there is a 1:1 resonance of its orbital and rotational period.

Mathematics doesn’t just analyse, it can predict, predict how all kinds of systems will work, from the aerodynamics which keep planes flying to the amount of fertiliser required to increase crop yield to the complicated calculations which keep communications satellites in orbit round the earth and therefore sustain the internet and mobile phone networks.

Time lags: the gap between a new mathematical idea being developed and its practical implementation can be a century or more: it was 17th century interest in the vibration of a violin string which led, three hundred years later, to the invention of radio, radar and TV.

3. What Mathematics is About

The word ‘number’ does not have any immutable, God-given meaning. (p.42)

Numbers are the most prominent part of mathematics and everyone is taught arithmetic at school, but numbers are just one type of object that mathematics is interested in.

The invention of numbers. Fractions. Some time in the Dark Ages the invention of 0. The invention of negative numbers, then of square roots. Irrational numbers. ‘Real’ numbers.

Whole numbers 1, 2, 3… are known as the natural numbers. If you include negative whole number, the series is known as integers. Positive and negative numbers are known as rational numbers. Then there are real numbers and complex numbers. Five systems in total.

But maths is also about operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And functions, also known as transformations, rules for transforming one mathematical object into another. Many of these processes can be thought of as things which help to create data structures.

Maths is like a landscape with similar proofs and theories clustered together to create peaks and troughs.

4. The Constants of Change

Newton’s basic insight was that changes in nature can be described by mathematical processes. Stewart explains how detailed consideration of what happens to a cannonball fired out of a cannon helps us towards Newton’s fundamental law, that force = mass x acceleration.

Newton invented calculus to help work out solutions to moving bodies. Its two basic operations – integration and differentiation – mean that, given one element – force, mass or acceleration – you can work out the other two. Differentiation is the technique for finding rates of change; integration is the technique for ‘undoing’ the effect of differentiation.

Calculating rates of change is a crucial aspect of maths, engineering, cosmology and many other areas.

5. From Violins to Videos

A fascinating historical recap of how initial investigations into the way a violin string vibrates gave rise to formulae and equations which turned out to be useful in mapping electricity and magnetism, which turned out to be aspects of the same fundamental force, understanding which underpinned the invention of radio, radar, TV etc, taking in contributions from Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz and Giulielmo Marconi.

Stewart makes the point that mathematical theory tends to start with the simple and immediate and grow ever-more complicated. This is because you have to start somewhere.

6. Broken Symmetry

A symmetry of an object or system is any transformation that leaves it invariant. (p.87)

There are many types of symmetry. The most important ones are reflections, rotations and translations.

7. The Rhythm of Life

The nature of oscillation and Hopf bifurcation (if a simplified system wobbles, then so must the complex system it is derived from) leads into a discussion of how animals, specifically animals with legs, move, which is by staggered or syncopated oscillations, oscillations of muscles triggered by neural circuits in the brain.

This is a subject Stewart has written about elsewhere and is something of an expert on. The seven types of quadrupedal gait are: the trot, pace, bound, walk, rotary gallop, transverse gallop, and canter.

8. Do Dice Play God?

Stewart’s take on chaos theory.

Chaotic behaviour obeys deterministic laws, but is so irregular that to the untrained eye it looks pretty much random. Chaos is not complicated, patternless behaviour; it is much more subtle. Chaos is apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that actually has a simple, deterministic explanation. (p.130)

19th century scientists thought that, if you knew the starting conditions, and then the rules governing any system, you could completely predict the outcomes. In the 1970s and 80s it became increasingly unclear that this was wrong. It is impossible because you can never define the starting conditions with complete certainty.

Thus all real world behaviours are subject to ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. From minuscule divergences at the start point, cataclysmic differences may eventually emerge.

He then explains the concept of phase space developed by Henri Poincaré: this is an imaginary mathematical space that represents all possible motions in a given dynamic system. The phase space is the 3-D place in which you plot the behaviour in order to create the phase portrait. Instead of having to define a formula and worrying about identifying every number of the behaviour, the general shape can be determined.

Much use of phase portraits has shown that dynamic systems tend to have set shapes which emerge and which systems move towards. These are called attractors.

9. Drops, Dynamics and Daisies

The book ends by drawing a kind of philosophical conclusion.

Chaos theory has all sorts of implications but the one he closes on is this: the world is not chaotic; if anything, it is boringly predictable. And at the level of basic physics and maths, the laws which seem to underpin it are also schematic and simple. And yet what we are only really beginning to appreciate is how complicated things are in the middle.

It is as if nature can only get from simple laws (like Newton’s incredibly simple law of thermodynamics) to fairly simple outcomes (the orbit of the planets) via almost incomprehensibly complex processes. To end, Stewart gives us three examples of the way apparently ‘simple’ phenomena in nature derive from stupefying complexity:

  • what exactly happens when a drop of water falls off a tap
  • computer modelling of the growth of fox and rabbit populations
  • why petals on flowers are arranged in numbers derived from the Fibonacci sequence

In all three cases the underlying principles seem to be resolvable into laws and functions – and we see water dropping off taps or flowerheads all the time – and yet the intermediate steps are bogglingly complex.

Coda: Morphomatics

He ends the book with an epilogue speculating, hoping and wishing for a new kind of mathematics which incorporates chaos theory and the other elements he’s discussed – a theory and study of form, which takes everything we already know about mathematics and seeks to work out how the almost incomprehensible complexity we are discovering in nature gives rise to all the ‘simple’ patterns which we see around us.


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A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


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  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

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  • Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

Cubism by Philip Cooper (1995)

Browsing through books about Cubism in either a bookshop, library or second-hand shop can be a bit dispiriting because there are just so many of them. Where to begin? Should you read them all? And shouldn’t you know all about the most famous art movement of the twentieth century already?

The Colour Library look and layout

Cubism is a volume in Phaidon’s ‘Colour Library’ series. I came across it in a second-hand bookshop and snapped it up for £3, mainly because the size and format means it includes lots of full-page, full-colour illustrations – something often lacking in longer, more text-based accounts (e.g. the ‘World of Art’ volume, Cubism and Culture).

It’s coffee-table-sized (22.9 x 30.5 cm) but, being a paperback, is light and easy in the hand. It’s divided into two sections:

  1. Pages 5 to 25 give a surprisingly thorough history of the Cubism movement, surprising because I’d forgotten, or never knew, there was quite so much to it, nor that it spread to have quite so many exponents.
  2. Then there are 48 double-page spreads with a full-colour plate on the right-hand page, and commentary, artist biography, sometimes a b&w illustration of a related work, on the left.

Altogether the 48 illustrations show a surprising range of paintings and sculptures by precursors, core cubists and peripheral members of the movement, namely:

  • Cézanne (2 paintings)
  • Picasso (9)
  • Braque (7)
  • Léger (4)
  • Juan Gris (5)
  • Robert Delaunay (3)
  • Chagall (1)
  • Marcel Duchamp (1 – 1912)
  • Gino Severini (1 – 1912)
  • Natalia Gontcharova (1 – 1912)
  • Albert Gleizes (1 – 1912)
  • Jean Metzinger (1 – 1912)
  • Alexander Archipenko (1 – 1913)
  • Francis Picabia (1 – 1913)
  • Piet Mondrian (1 – 1913)
  • Lyonel Feininger (1 – 1913)
  • Franz Marc (1 – 1913)
  • Emil Filla (1 – 1915)
  • Edward Wadsworth (1 – 1915)
  • Max Weber (1 – 1915)
  • Henri Laurens (1 – 1920)
  • Stuart Davis (1 – 1921)
  • Amédée Ozenfant (1 – 1925)
  • Ben Nicholson (1 – 1947)

Cubist forebears

  • The Impressionists tried to capture fleeting impressions of objects in changing light, as they appeared to the artist, not as they objectively were (e.g. as depicted in the increasingly prevalent photographs).
  • Post-Impressionists – specifically van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, used unrealistic colours and vivid brushstrokes or strong black outlines and stark colour schemes to express emotion.
  • The Fauves (1905-8) took the colour idea further to represent real-life scenes or people in garishly bright and deliberately unrealistic colours.
  • The German Expressionists depicted real people or scenes in harsh, primitive woodcuts or angular ugly paintings.

The single greatest source of Cubism was the later painting of Paul Cézanne, who used a variety of techniques to bring out the geometric forms, the planes and rectangles implicit in a subject, to the fore – not least by creating patches of paint which look like facets of a view.

For example, Mont Saint-Victoire (1904) where the notion of realistically depicting the foliage of trees or houses has long since disappeared to be replaced by the idea of blocks or chunks of paint. The effect is to undermine the idea of a painting as ‘a window on the world’, and replace it with the arrangement of units of paint for semi-abstract aesthetic purposes.

In Cézanne’s still lifes he painted, for example, the bowl of fruit, the table it sat on, and the floor or background wall, all at different angles, with different implied perspectives – Still life with plaster cupid (1895).

The invention of Cubism

Cubism takes these trends a decisive step further. Cubism abandoned 450 years of the careful development of Renaissance techniques for creating a sense of perspective in a painting – rejected the notion of one particular vanishing point towards which all lines in the image converge which gives the viewer the illusion they are looking through a ‘window on the world’ – and instead set about representing the same subject from multiple points of view depicting all sides, top and bottom as required solely to create an aesthetic composition. Abandoning realism or naturalism. Conceiving the work as a purely aesthetic creation.

Cézanne had died in 1906, and 1907 saw two major retrospective exhibitions of his work held in Paris. It is a neat coincidence (or maybe no coincidence) that the first, proto-Cubist painting was made the same year, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. In this seismic work the idea of a coherent perspective giving depth and shape to the objects depicted has obviously been ripped up in favour of a stylised depiction of space and objects which is is impossible to relate to in any of the traditional ways of ‘seeing’ art.

In 1907 Braque saw Les Demoiselles in Picasso’s studio. He was also bowled over by the big Cézanne retrospective. By the next year he was painting landscapes at the village of L’Estaque in a kind of exaggerated Cézanne style, converting houses, trees and roads into increasingly stylised geometric forms. – Houses in l’Estaque (1908)

Thus began a period from about 1908 to 1914 when Braque and Picasso worked very closely together, to begin with both living in rented rooms in a rundown building in Montmartre, the bohemian area in northern Paris, named the Bateau Lavoir. Here they spent the days painting and the nights drinking, partying, joking, discussing ideas, and often spending the summers painting in the same or similar locations.

Very quickly they moved towards painting a relatively small selection of objects:

  • common-or-garden objects from their lives – jugs, newspapers, guitars
  • interiors – so few if any landscapes
  • in muted tones of grey and brown

If Matisse and the other ‘Fauves’ (Vlaminck and Derain) were continuing to explore colour in all its garish vibrancy, B and P undertook an almost scientific analysis of what happens if you paint things after abandoning the idea of there being one point of view in either time or space, if you bring in facets from every angle, if you abandon the idea of producing one coherent perspective on an object and instead, use your artistic power to depict whatever elements you want.

In 1910 Braque painted Violin and pitcher, the palette restricted to grey or brown, the entire composition broken up into numerous clashing planes, with only hints of the ostensible subject (actually, the violin is fairly easy to make out). The trompe l’oeil image of a nail hammered into the top of the painting (complete with its own shadow) conveys the ideas that a painting is a two-dimensional artefact.

Analytic cubism

Violin and pitcher is an example of so-called ‘analytical cubism’ i.e. the subject has been taken to pieces and the resulting fragments reassembled so as to seem splayed out, so as to emphasise a multitude of clashing picture planes.

Now objects can be seen from all points of view at once. Or denoted by one or two scattered attributes – a moustache for a man, an eye for a human being, a fragment of text to denote a newspaper, and so on.

The effect was liberating and seismic. It spread right across the art world like wildfire. As early as 1912 Gleize and Metzinger published a book On Cubism. Contemporary critics and artists related it to Einstein’s undermining of the traditional world of Newtonian physics with his new theory of relativity. Others related it to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea that Time isn’t made up of discreet, definable moments measured by clocks and human reason, but is instead an endless flux in which perception of the present moment is flooded with memories of the past and anticipations of the future: all happening at once, as all sides of an object can be depicted simultaneously in a cubist picture.

In 1911 Braque and Picasso went on to break objects down into constituent parts and not even reassemble them, making it almost impossible to see what they are. This further stage is referred to as ‘hermetic’ or ‘high analytical’ cubism. Thus Woman Reading (1911) by Braque – you can make out the curlicues at left and right indicating the wings of the chair, but after that…

It created the notion of the painting as puzzle, with only the title giving the viewer any help in identification.

It’s all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time. (Braque)

the book reinforces how cubism really was a joint venture by the artists, the look of their works converging into the same style. They often didn’t sign works, giving rise to a century of confusion and misattribution.

In 1912 Braque introduced several further techniques:

  • the use of stencilled lettering, which he had learned as an apprentice housepainter, and which further flattens the surface
  • a method of using steel combs to create the effect of wood grain (faux bois)

There were also three major innovations in materials:

  • Collage, i.e. attaching real objects and non-artistic elements onto the canvas. – Still Life with Chair Caning (May 1912) by Picasso.
  • Paper sculptures – Braque pioneered the idea of making sculptures of paper and then drawing or painting on them i.e. paper is no longer a flat surface i.e. the picture itself can be folded and sculpted.
  • papiers collé where collé means pasted. You paste a flattish medium onto paper and then paint or draw on that. Braque pasted imitation wood-grain wallpaper onto white paper and drew on it; Picasso, always the brasher and more experimental of the two, used newspaper pages. –
  • They mixed sand with paint to give the paintwork a real texture.

All these experiments with medium move the work of art away from being a flat, illusionistic window on the world into being a fully autonomous object in its own right, completely divorced from all previous aesthetic theories. It was a volcanic upheaval in art.

Picasso extended these techniques into the sculpture, Guitar, a) made from scrap metal b) with a rough finish c) inverting space (the sound hole should go into the guitar; instead it protrudes out from the surface like a tin can.

All these deliberate rejections of the entire history of Western sculpture were to have seismic repercussions and affect sculpture right down to the present day.

Synthetic cubism

These latter works are examples of what the critics came to call ‘synthetic cubism’. Whereas ‘analytic cubism’ reduced a given object to its constituent elements and then reassembled them according to a new aesthetic, ‘synthetic cubism’ took elements which had nothing to do with each other (newspaper, sand, spare metal) and assembled them into new objects, which were the end result of the process, not the starting point.

1913 saw Braque and Picasso experimenting with introducing more colour into analytical works, and experimenting further with sculpture and synthetic works.

Montmartre cubism and Salon cubism

But these stunning innovations had not gone unnoticed. Juan Gris was living in the same building as B&P, observing their innovations, and decided to give up his career as an illustrator and commit to becoming a painter.

In 1912 Gris painted a cubist portrait of Picasso. Immediately you can see the difference between his approach and that of B&P – how the idea of breaking down an object (here a human being) into facets can be done in completely different ways by different artists with different personal styles. The facets here are bigger and arranged in a much more orderly way – to the line across the top and the lines off at diagonals create a very regular geometric space of a kind never found in Picasso or Braque. (Cooper points out that Gris trained as an engineer and this may explain his love for architectural regularity.)

This is what now happened – at first a trickle and then a flood of other artists began to incorporate one or other aspect of analytical of synthetic cubism into their own practice.

While B&P didn’t exhibit their new works in 1912 or 1913, another group of artists, based around Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, was exhibiting regularly at the various Paris art shows and/or had dealers who promoted them. They quickly soaked up the lessons of cubism and incorporated them into their own works. Other members of Salon cubism at the time loosely include Robert Delaunay, Henri le Fauconnier, Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Roger de la Fresnaye, Louis Marcoussis and Alexander Archipenko.

Salon Cubism is characterised by:

  • size – B&P’s works are often small and intense: Salon Cubist works are often immense, metres across
  • ambitious subject matter
  • less severe, demanding and complex

They also theorised and wrote about their work, something B&P never did. Thus it was Metzinger and Gleizes who co-authored On Cubism, which put the ideas into phrases which are still quoted. They had realised they were working in the same direction when their works were hung more or less by accident near each other in the 1910 Salon des Indépendants.

They recruited like-minded colleagues and then lobbied the hanging committee to get their works deliberately hung together in one room for the next year’s (1911) show. The effect of having a roomful of the new style hung together was to cause scandal (as so often in Paris art history). The poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a long defence of the show and thus came to be seen as a spokesman for the movement.

As to the name, Matisse, who was on the hanging committee of the 1908 Salon which B&P submitted some early works to, is said to have dismissed them as little more than a bunch of ‘cubes’.

The art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who has the distinction of having made the throwaway remark about the paintings of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck looking like the works of wild things – thus naming the art movement of Fauvism) in 1910 referred to the collected works of Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger and Le Fauconnier as ‘ignorant geometers, reducing the human body, the site, to pallid cubes.’

Whatever the precise origin, the book On Cubism cemented the term and promoted it to a wide book-reading public.

La section d’Or

The Salon cubists held another show in October 1912, named the Section d’Or, French for ‘Golden ratio’, a mathematical concept which had fascinated artists for 2,500 years. It contained over 200 works and was designed as a deliberate retrospective, showing the evolution of a number of artists from 1909 to 1912, and also to establish cubism as a much broader range of styles and approaches than the narrow high cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Its strength (its diversity) was also its weakness. By 1913 many of these artists were pursuing their own visions and interpretations, so much so that Apollinaire’s book of 1913 – The Cubist Painters – was forced to divide the movement into four distinct categories.

Robert and Sonia Delaunay named their experiments in colour combination – painting interlocking or overlapping patches or planes of contrasting (or complementary) colours – Simultanism. Apollinaire called it Orphism or Orphic cubism insofar as it was interested in abstract shape and colour, and the play of colours was identified – by Delaunay and Apollinaire (as by Kandinsky, who Delaunay corresponded with) with music.

Meanwhile, a work like Metzinger’s Dancer in a café (1912) uses cubist rhetoric but is obviously much more decorative and accessible than P&B’s more demanding experiments – the lamp at top right is pure Art Nouveau.

Contemporary movements affected by cubism

Futurism The impresario of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, published his loudmouth Futurist manifesto in 1909, then took his gang of painters and poets to Paris to see the latest work. Well organised and polemical, the Futurists adapted many of cubism’s tricks but focused on the modern world of machines and on the challenge of depicting movement. They were soon attacking cubism for being quaint and staid and conservative (ladies with mandolins, newspapers on cafe tables, how dull!).

  • States of mind: the Farewell by Umberto Boccioni (1911) breaks down the subject into facets (and uses a very obvious bit of stencilling) but in order to convey the dynamic and modern subject of a fast steam train gathering steam in a railway station.

Rayonism Russian artists wanted to create a home-grown brand of modern art. In 1911 Mikhail Larionov invented Rayonism, an attempt to depict the rays of light reflected from objects using spiky splintered forms. Kasimir Malevich experimented with this angular look and in 1913 he would invent Suprematism, starting from the radical ground zero of his famous black square. Many other contemporary works are described as Cubo-Futurist, for combining elements of both.

Expressionism Cooper sees the influence of cubism on the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc, whose rather naive paintings of animals from 1910 or so, become steadily more involved and broken up by complex sheets or facets as the cubist vision influenced him.

In fact Cooper attributes this highly colourful use of facets and planes more to Robert Delaunay’s version of cubism, than to the grey and brown style of Picasso or Braque.

Vorticism Established in London by the Canadian writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, named by the American poet Ezra Pound, Vorticism published on edition of its bombastic journal, Blast, trying to outdo the Futurists at their own game, and (inevitably) pouring scorn on cubism for being pale and passive. Nonetheless, in its brief life Vorticism attracted impressive talents including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson and Jacob Epstein.

The Great War

World War One brought modern art to a grinding halt – Vorticism ceased to exist, Futurism’s key artists were enlisted; two of the key artists of German Expressionism (Marc and Macke) were killed.

Many of the French artists were called up (the Spaniard Picasso being lucky in this respect) and ceased working for the duration. Across Europe there was a reaction against the avant-garde in face of an understandable rise in patriotic nationalism. In France this was called the rappel a l’ordre.

The best example I know of this move to order is in the music of Igor Stravinsky, who moved from the barbaric primitivism of the Rite of Spring (1914) to the orderly, post-war, neo-classical ballet Pulcinella of 1920, which is still recognisably Stravinksian, but made orderly and sensible.

Something similar can be seen by comparing any of Picasso’s pre-war cubist works with Three Musicians of 1921. The later painting keeps many of the elements of cubism, but is somehow completely different. Every object now has a solid outline unlike the swirling blurring of facets in the pre-war work. There are brighter colours instead of the earth browns and greys of high cubism. The colours themselves are painted in solid unshaded blocks, unlike the very rough dabs and strokes of paint in pre-war work. All these changes go to make the later work much more readable that the esoteric ‘hermetic cubist’ works of the pre-war.

The use of much more clear and precise forms has given rise to the term crystal cubism to describe this late style.

Braque fought in the war, and survived. On his return he was never again so close to Picasso and continued to plough a traditionalist cubist furrow, earth colours and all, reworking the same still lifes, becoming maybe a bit more decorative. For example, Fruit on a table cloth with a fruit dish (1925). You can see why Picasso’s style would be more popular.

Léger, meanwhile, was perfecting the ‘shiny tube’ style which was to last the rest of his career. – The card players (1917)

These and other post-war ‘cubist’ works are included in the forty-eight colour plates of this impressive little book.

After cubism

By 1919 the poet Blaise Cendrars wrote a piece saying Cubism had been hugely important but was now finished. Artists were looking elsewhere. In Russia socially-committed Constructivism influenced the new post-revolutionary avant-garde. In Germany the airily ‘spiritualist’ Expressionists were succeeded the grotesque social satire of Otto Dix and George Grosz, which came to be called Neue Sachlichkeit.

In Zurich, Berlin and New York, the Dada movement (1915-20) ridiculed everything, all previous art included, in an outburst of nihilism whose most enduring artistic legacy was the invention of photomontage by John Heartfield in Berlin, a sort of spin-off of cubist collage but focusing exclusively on elements found in newspapers and magazines.

And when Dada fizzled out it was replaced by a new anti-rational movement, Surrealism, led by the imperious writer André Breton in Paris, and exploring dreams, automatic writing and drawing, which also criticised Cubism for being tame and passive.

Around 1918 the Purist movement was founded by Edouard Jeanneret (better known as the modern architect Le Corbusier) and Amédée Ozenfant who co-authored a book, After Cubism in which they criticised the fragmentation of the object in cubism and the way in which cubism had become, in their view, decorative by that time.

They proposed a kind of painting in which objects were represented as powerful basic forms stripped of detail. Purism reached a climax in Le Corbusier’s Pavilion of the New Spirit built in 1925 for the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris which contained works by the three principals and the cubists, Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz. Soon afterwards the movement lapsed and the painters went their separate ways. – Still life with jug by Amédée Ozenfant (1925).

But it didn’t really matter what these or any other art movements said about Cubism – its historical important is still vast, as seismic as the French Revolution. It definitively ended a centuries-old way of thinking about art as naively representational, and opened up a whole range of strategies and ideas and opportunities, and the use of new media and materials, which are still playing out to this day.

But that’s the subject of another book (in fact, whole libraries of books). This Phaidon volume combines a fact-filled and intelligent introduction with a generous selection of works to show how cubism influenced an entire generation of artists.


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Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

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

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

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

What I love northern art for is:

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

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

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

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

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

As Harbison puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top artists of the northern renaissance

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

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

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

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

The Germans

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

After the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quentin Matsys

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

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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

Hans Holbein the younger

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

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

Technique

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

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

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

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

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

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

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

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

Related links

Where to see some

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

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

The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1995)

As a recent article by Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books explains:

Ever since Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin published The Sixth Extinction in 1995, we have known that humanity is extirpating species at a rate unmatched since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Hunting, deforestation, the introduction of nonnative organisms and diseases, and now climate change have increased the rate of species loss to the point that scientists fear for the functioning of entire ecosystems…

In this pioneering book, Leakey and Lewin take us by the hand through recent (in 1995) discoveries in ecology, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology and geology, to present a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing the natural world and our place in it.

1. Human evolution is a random accident

This is that we – human beings – are NOT the product of some ineluctable force driving evolution towards higher and more sophisticated species and, ultimately, towards Mind and Consciousness. We are emphatically not the pinnacle of the universe. The reverse: we are a cosmic accident. We now know that the long fossil record of life on earth has been marked by countless disasters, accidents, extinctions, most of which have no intrinsic or logical rationale, and that we are the incredibly fortuitous outcome of these massively random events.

2. There is no balance of nature

Older naturalists held that there was a Balance of Nature whereby the complete global system of life worked together to keep things – oxygen levels, complex ecosystems – in a careful balance which favoured the optimum thriving of life forms. But the closer we look at the record, the more obvious it becomes that there is no balance of nature. The more we learn, the more we realise that nature is in fact given to chaotic  and random fluctuations. It is also much more complex than we ever suspected.

3. Fluctuation and accident are the norm

Taken together, these two ideas suggest that flux and fluctuation are an intrinsic part of the history of life on earth.

Humans long for predictability, in relation to the world of nature around us and, most particularly, in relation to our own existence and our future. But it is obvious that, in the realm of evolutionary biology and ecology, ours is an unpredictable world and our place in it an accident of history; it is a place of many possibilities that are influenced by forces beyond our control and, in some cases at least, beyond our comprehension. (p.231)

4. Extinction events

The most dramatic embodiment of this fluctuation – and of the workings of chance – are ‘extinction events’. In the 540 million years since multicellular life suddenly arose in what scientists call ‘the Cambrian Explosion’, there have been no fewer than 15 ‘extinction events’. These are relatively short periods in which – for some reason – the fossil record shows that between 15% and 40% of all species went out of existence, never to return.

Among these 15 were five really big extinction events, ‘the Big Five’, in each of which over 60% of all species went extinct. And king of the Big Five is one real monster, the extinction event at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, when an estimated 95% of all terrestrial species on earth were wiped out!

The more we learn about the extinction events, the more obvious it becomes that we are the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of a whole series of catastrophes, not through any intrinsic merit in our forebears (who, if you go back far enough, were worms) but from sheer dumb luck.

5. Darwin’s theory of evolution is over-ridden by extinction events

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is undoubtedly the mechanism by which new species come into being and by which all life forms are continually competing with all others. But in Leakey’s view, Darwin’s theory is only relevant in the relatively stable periods between these global catastrophes. These periods have lasted tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years – but the history of life on earth is certainly not the slow, steady evolution of more and more sophisticated life forms, as portrayed in older evolutionary theory.

Instead Darwin’s process has been overshadowed time and again – in terms of impact of the history of life on earth – by extinction, catastrophe and random events. In other words, by the accidents and arbitrariness of History.

6. Humans are the most destructive species on the planet

This new emphasis on the importance of destruction, of the really breath-taking mass extinction of life forms, in the long story of life on earth, dovetails with other, recent discoveries about man’s role in nature. For a variety of sources now suggest that Homo sapiens is and always has been, immensely destructive of the ecosystems around him.

  1. For a long time Europeans have thought that when European explorers and colonisers encountered native peoples in places like America, the Pacific islands, Australia and so on, those peoples were living in a blessed ‘harmony’ with nature. Only in recent decades have scientists realised that the supposedly ‘pristine’ environments of all these places had in fact been severely damaged by the arrival of those peoples. One of the most dramatic examples is Hawaii, which looks like a tropical paradise to tourists, but where we have now discovered evidence that the hunter-gatherers who arrived there 1,500 years ago proceeded to burn down much of the rainforest and wipe out most of the larger species, including a majority of the bright songbirds.
  2. This pattern has been replicated wherever humans appeared, most notably in the Americas, where the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers around 12,000 years ago across the then-existing land-bridge from Asia, and their slow spread southwards, coincides exactly with the extermination of the continent’s megafauna i.e. all its large mammals. There is debate about whether other factors were involved as well but the case of New Zealand presents the case with brutal clarity. The Maori only arrived there 1,000 years ago, and promptly cleared much of the rainforest and hunted all the species of flightless birds and large mammals to extinction. So the native peoples which European explorers encountered in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were far from living in harmony with nature; they were living amid the ecological devastation their ancestors had wreaked wherever they – wherever humans – went.
  3. In the 1990s (this book was published in 1995) everybody knew that tropical rainforests around the world, especially in the vast Amazon basin, were being destroyed at an unprecedented rate (an acre a minute is one calculation), each acre home to millions of species. Since then the news about endangered species or about the rainforests has been overshadowed by the growing sense of crisis about man-made global warming. This has distracted attention away from the story on the ground, which is the alarming rate at which we are continuing to exterminate species throughout the world by the incessant demands of an ever-growing population. When Leakey wrote this book there were 6 billion people in the world. Now that number is 7.5 billion and climbing. The pressure to destroy natural habitat to convert it to farm or grazing land, along with the relentless polluting of the seas, the rivers and the air, can only escalate.

7. Humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction event in global history

Having given a thorough account of modern understanding of the 20 or so extinction events which punctuate the fossil record – and especially of the Big Five in which 60%-plus of species went extinct – Leakey’s last chapters introduce us to the final conclusion of their long survey – the idea that we, Homo sapiens, are now having such a destructive impact on the natural world that many if not most environmentalists think we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on earth.

This is an event so momentous that many geologists and evolutionary scientists think it deserves to be defined as a distinct geological era – the Anthropocene Era – the era in which we human beings are irreversibly destroying the vast majority of life forms on the planet we share with them, on a scale only comparable with the devastation caused by the Big Five extinction events.

We are destroying the world.


Leakey and Lewin

Richard Leakey (b.1944) is a paleoanthropologist and ecologist, born and bred in Kenya, where he made significant discoveries of fossils of early humans, before going on to run the country’s national museums and then become its overall Director of the Wildlife Services.

Roger Lewin (b.1944) is a British prize-winning science writer, a staff member of New Scientist for nine years before going to America to become News Editor for Science. He’s written about 20 books, including three in collaboration with Leakey.

The first two of their collaborations are about Leakey’s work into the origins of the human species, in and around Lake Turkana in the north of Kenya, part of the enormous Rift Valley. Due to the fact that hominids need water, and the mud around rivers and lakes preserves footprints and the bones of dead animals better than the harsh savannah or bare rock, Lake Turkana has been a goldmine for fossil hunters looking for relics of our earliest ancestors. In his early explorations, Leakey’s team discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, believed to be between 1.5 and 1.6 million years old.

In the late 1980s Leakey’s interest shifted away from paleoanthropology towards wildlife conservation and ecology. This book – itself now quite dated – combines his two areas of expertise to give a thorough and quite academic history of the evolution of life on earth and to situate the evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens within it, before going on to present its Big Issue.

Key dates

  • Age of the universe – 13.772 billion years
  • Age of the solar system – 5 billion years
  • Age of planet earth – 4.6 billion years
  • Simplest life forms – prokaryotes, single-celled organisms which lack a nucleus -3.5 billion years ago
  • Eukaryotic organisms, whose cells contain a nucleus – 1.8 billion years ago
  • 530 million year ago – the Cambrian Explosion, when suddenly a huge diversity of multi-celled life forms and body shapes and sizes emerges in the fossil record
  • The Cretaceous Period, the last and longest segment of the Mesozoic Era, lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5 million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago. Period when ‘dinosaurs ruled the earth’.
  • 7 million years ago, approximate parting of the line which led to humans from the lines which led to the great apes
  • 150,000 years ago, evolution of the new species, Homo sapiens
  • 13,000 years ago – end of the last Ice Age triggers the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, which slowly spreads around the globe and with it the arrival of what we like to call human ‘civilisation’

It’s from the Cambrian Explosion – 530 million years ago – that everything most of us think of as life forms – fish and dinosaurs, plants and trees, then later we mammals – derive. Most of the epochs and periods we hear about – Jurassic, Triassic etc – occur during that 530 million period, most fossils of life forms derive from that period.

The sixth extinction

The central premise of the book, which gives it its title, is that, over the half-billion-year history of multi-celled life on earth, there have been a number of ‘moments’ in the geological record when a significant percentage of the flora and fauna of a certain era seem to have died out very suddenly (in geological terms) – known as ‘mass extinction events’. Having explained the background and possible reasons for them, the book then goes on to point out that we are living through a sixth mass extinction event, in which huge numbers of species are being driven to extinction. There is no doubt at all what is causing it: it is us – humans. Human beings are wiping out the earth’s ecosystems and wildlife.

The ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions

The Big Five are defined as extinction events in which at least 65% of species were obliterated. The end-Permian is the biggest, in which an estimated 95% of species on earth were wiped out.

  • at the end of the Ordovician Period – 440 million years ago
  • the Late Devonian 365 million years ago
  • the end-Permian 225 million years ago
  • the end-Triassic 210 million years ago
  • the end-Cretaceous 65 million years ago

There is huge debate about the possible causes of these great ‘dying outs’. Climate change? The conglomeration of all the continents through continental drift into one mega-continent? The most dramatic suggestion, first mooted in the 1970s by a team led by Luis Alvarez, is that it was asteroids. They found thin layers of iridium at the archaeological line marking the end of the Cretaceous period, an element which is extremely rare on earth but is found in asteroids. This discovery has been replicated at other end-Cretaceous sites, and then a candidate for the giant crater caused by a monster asteroid was discovered on the coast of Mexico. The idea is simple: monster asteroid hits earth with the power of a million hydrogen bombs, throws up vast amounts of dirt and dust into the air which blocks out the sun, as well as triggering widespread volcanic activity. Result: mass extinctions of life.

There’s a lot of evidence for it, but archaeologists and biologists are an argumentative lot, as this book amply demonstrates, and other scientists have piled in to claim that asteroids might have put only the finishing touches to what other causes – climate change, sea level rises, environmental or atmospheric fluctuations and so on – had started. Others – David Raup and Jack Sepkoski – have pointed out that there have been over twenty extinction events over that half billion year span, of which the Big Five are only the most notable (p.56), and which occur at roughly 26 million year intervals. Only the recurrent arrival of a shower of asteroids could explain this regularity, although more recently doubt has been cast on the evidence for this neat pattern. But there’s no doubting, now, that externally-prompted mass extinctions have been a recurrent feature of terrestrial evolution.

Which gives rise to an immense debate about the deep meaning of the theory of evolution, which can be summarised in the phrase ‘bad genes or bad luck’. Is there an inevitability in the way life has evolved? If we ran the tape of evolution again, would life forms turn out much as we see them around us? Is there a kind of deep logic to the way things would have evolved, to fit the available niches?

Or has the evolution of life on earth been subject to mind-boggling accidents and contingency? Could things easily have turned out wildly differently? Was it the merest luck which led to the various mass extinctions, to the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the rise of the mammals and then, right at the end of this string of improbable accidents – to us, reading these words?

These and many related questions are tackled – with the help of quite technical diagrams and explanations – in the first half of the book. It takes a few rereadings to get the timelines clear in your head, and then more rereading to understand what the numerous debates are about.

For example, uniformitarianism is the idea that evolution takes place gradually and slowly over vast periods of time. Darwin had to arrive at his theory by battling essentially religious ideas that species were suddenly created by a Creator God, so he and his followers were vehement uniformitarianists. However, from the birth of geology as a science in the early 19th century, geologists recognised sudden abrupt changes in the record – catastrophic changes in the fossil record which the extinction events seem to support. Broadly this view of evolution is called catastrophism. The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed his own version of catastrophism, which he called punctuated equilibrium – long periods of stasis interrupted by abrupt changes in earth’s biota, or life systems. Modern thinking about the importance of mass extinction events has led to what some call ‘neo-catastrophism’ i.e. Darwin’s laws work most of the time, except when some external force steps in to overshadow them – be it drastic climate change, asteroids, volcanic activity, sea level changes or whatever.

Man the destroyer

We are but one of millions of species here on earth, products of half a billion years of life’s flow, lucky survivors of at least twenty biotic crises, including the catastrophic Big Five. (p.71)

But these and various other theories and debates about the detail of historical evolution are really just the background, the introduction to the meat of the book, which is a lament for man’s destruction of the natural world. Leakey uses numerous examples to show how modern science has revealed just how much life there is, all around us.

He reports Danish scientists who investigated one square metre of tropical rainforest and discovered 46,000 earthworms, 12 million roundworms and 46,000 insects. Just one gram of this soil contained more than a million bacteria, 100,000 yeast cells and 50,000 fragments of fungi (p.136).

The rape and destruction of the earth which we are causing is mind-blowing. It is estimated that ‘we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day – or some 50,000 species a year.’ (Scientific American)

But all that’s new is the scale: man has always been a destroyer. Between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago 50 or so large mammal species went extinct in North America. The extinctions coincided with the arrival of the first peoples from Asia (across the land bridge across what is now the Bering Straits) and their slow fanning out across the continent. Although some paleontologists prefer climate change or disease as the cause, many think these first human settlers of the Americas hunted its large mammals to extinction. This theory is called the Overkill hypothesis. The case is even clearer in New Zealand, which Maori colonised about 1,000 years ago and where they hunted the large flightless birds to extinction, while the rats they’d brought from Australia wiped out whole systems of ground-roosting birds and other fauna.

‘The notion of man-the-exterminator is secure in New Zealand.’ (p.186)

Same on Hawaii (pp.188-190).

Numbers

How many species are there on earth? Nobody knows. Leakey quotes an early estimate from the 1960s of 3 million. Terry Irwin, in 1982, estimated there may be 30 million species of insects alone in the rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, Leakey quotes estimates of the total number of species as 50 million, and then references Robert May’s speculation from the 1990s that there may be as many as 100 million species. These appear to be the end points, which is why later articles refer to ‘anywhere between 3 and 100 million’.

More recently, a 2011 estimate using a new methodology gives the total number of species in the world as 8.7 million – 6.45 million on land, 2.2 million in the sea. According to this calculation, 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued. But googling the subject, though, one comes across a bang up-to-date estimate from 2016 which says there might be as many as 1 trillion species on earth!

In other words, despite E.O. Wilson’s calls for governments to invest more in finding out how many species we share the world with – a plea from the 1990s quoted in this book (p.123) – we still haven’t a clue how many there are. What we can be confident about is that we are wiping out most of the species we share the earth with before we ever get to discover, identify, record or analyse any of them.

In fact, we don’t even know precisely how many species have been identified and catalogued. It appears to be about 1.25 million species – roughly 1 million on land and 250,000 in the oceans – but as many as 700,000 more are thought to have been described by local scientists which have yet to reach the central databases and so be included in global counts…

Value in diversity

How do we preserve nature? Well, in our demystified, instrumental, capitalist world, we have to give it a value, the only thing most people understand. Leakey identifies three types of value:

  1. Tangible benefits we can extract from the environment, such as food, raw materials, medicine.
  2. Maintenance of the environment: we need the full web of life to continue its circulation of gases, chemicals and moisture in order to make the world inhabitable by humans.
  3. Psychological health: most people with the money, prefer to live in the country, people like to visit and roam in the country, patients in hospital with a bed by a window in a green space have better recovery rates than patients in a windowless room. The presence of greenery and nature keeps us psychologically healthy – and that greenery doesn’t exist in the abstract – it is made up of incalculably complex webs of organisms. E.O. Wilson has named this sense ‘biophilia’.

Food and drugs are the obvious ones. The world is dangerously dependent on monocultural varieties of a handful of food crops. If a pest devastated the world’s wheat or rice crops, billions would starve. Wild varieties contain genes we haven’t identified or analysed which would provide important genetic variations which could help develop new varieties, if the worst ever happened.

Similarly, important worldwide medicines have been sourced from wholly unexpected wild plants and flora. Aspirin and penicillin are the two obvious examples, which changed the world and saved hundreds of millions of lives. Who knows what cures for cancer or AIDS may be lurking undiscovered in some of the 250,000 species of plants? And in species we are merrily burning to extinction every day?

Theories and ideas

Even twenty years ago when this book was published, all educated people should have known about the destruction of the rainforests and endangered species. That aspect shouldn’t be news to anyone. I think the real revelation of this book is the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of ecological and biological and archaeological science – the range of areas and levels and expertises which are now brought to bear on the natural world, the complexity of computer models and the plethora of rival theories.

Leakey’s book is in many places quite dauntingly technical. Plenty of paragraphs contain numbered points or aspects or theories which we need to learn and bear in mind. For example, we learn about:

  • Allopatric speciation – or geographic speciation is speciation that occurs when biological populations of the same species become vicariant, or isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with genetic interchange.
  • Cambrian Explosion – ‘the relatively short evolutionary event, beginning around 541 million years ago in the Cambrian period, during which most major animal phyla appeared, as indicated by the fossil record’ (Wikipedia)
  • Chaos theory as it applies to ecosystems i.e. modern understanding has undermined the notion of a ‘balance of nature’ to reveal that all systems, even without any external influence, tend to boom and bust and be subject to other ‘internal’ pressures which create fluctuations. I.e. every ecosystem, and nature as a whole, is much more chaotic and unstable than had been appreciated.
  • The ‘protective network‘ of an ecosystem which places an ‘activation barrier‘ around it to prevent new species intruding (p.162-3).
  • The rivet-popper hypothesis and the redundancy hypothesis of how ecosystems are degraded. Rivet-popper = each species in a system is like the rivets in a ship – you can remove one or two without noticing but the more you remove the more you weaken the system until it reaches collapse. Redundancy = most species are passengers on a system held together by a few lynchpin systems: you can remove most with no change; but remove the lynchpins and the system collapses. (pp.140-141)

The relative importance of ‘history’ and evolution

One of the big points Leakey makes is that in his time older ideas like ‘the balance of nature’ and even the primacy of natural selection, have been thrown in doubt. Nature now appears to be much more chaotic than previously suspected. And he explains recent work which suggests that the world we see around us is radically contingent. Archaeologists examined the fossil record of animals off the North Atlantic coast over the past 60 million years, a huge duration during which sea levels rose and fell six times. They discovered that mature ecosystems repopulated the dry land once it was reflooded – but each time it was repopulated by a different combination of species. I.e. the reappearance of life was ‘inevitable’ – but which specific species fill all the niches and grow into a tangled web of an ecosystem – it can be different each time. There is nothing intrinsic or inevitable about the flourishing of particular species or combinations of species in ecosystems. Shake the dice and you get a different set.

As Leakey puts it, History matters. Life there will be, but what forms of life and how they combine, even in the same environment, can vary hugely depending on chance factors. Thus Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection still gives the best account of how species evolve over time – but in seeking an explanation for the natural world as we see it, the theory of evolution is dwarfed by the random events of what we call ‘history’.

Insights into human history

Obviously Leakey’s main concern is with nature and ecology but for someone like me who knows more about history than I do about biology or ecology, the multiple insights a scholarly book like this gives the reader into the natural world can also shed tremendous light on the deeper meaning of human history.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s epic account of the colonisation of America. In it he emphasises that it wasn’t just European humans who arrived in the New World, but that they brought from the Old World , in order of importance – their devastating new diseases, new plants and new livestock. These spread like wildfire across the virgin continent, the diseases wiping out up to 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas, while new plants spread like weeds, and livestock drove American rivals extinct.

Quite apart from its ostensible purpose as a warning and a plea, a book like Leakey’s can immeasurably increase our understanding of human history by giving us a deep sense of the mind-boggling complexity of the natural world which human beings have been blundering around, reshaping and destroying, burning and deforesting and planting and mixing up, for centuries – the process we refer to as ‘history’.

It makes us realise what was at stake back then, as well as now. It makes us realise the depth of the damage we have been doing, and for centuries.

Attitude

Obviously the planet is indifferent to individual human opinions, attitudes and stands. Clicking ‘like’ on facebook to a photo of a polar bear or the rainforest isn’t going to change anything. Only a wholesale and comprehensive change to all of our lifestyles, combined with drastic attempts to control and reduce human population, will have any real, practical impact on the problem.

On a personal level, this knowledge does suggest a truer, more accurate understanding of human nature (destructive) and our place in the natural world (destructive) which should have a chastening effect on everything we think and do. It transforms our understanding and it should transform our behaviour.

From time to time Leakey mentions, or quotes other ecologists criticising, humanity’s ‘narcissism’ or ‘arrogance’, each of us infested with thoughts and feelings and desires which a) are ultimately trivial b) obscure to ourselves our fundamental role as destroyers of the environment.

A correct attitude, the accurate honest attitude to the devastation we cause, would be one of modesty, shame and penance.

In a way, understanding these issues better should lead us to a kind of attitude and – ideally – lifestyle, characterised by simplicity and humility. All of us need to consume less, vastly less, than our arrogance and ignorance and selfishness prompt us to.

A proper understanding of our place in the world should lead to the virtues praised by monks and nuns of all religious orders: shun the world, shun consumption, shun exploitation, work in humility and honesty to supply our bare needs. Only then, maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, might there be a slight possibility of hope that we do not exterminate most life forms on the planet including, of course, many that we depend and rely on for our own existence.

In order to know ourselves as a species and to understand our place in the universe of things, we have to distance ourselves from our own experience, both in space and time. It is not easily done but it is essential if we are truly to see a larger reality. (p.6)


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