Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by History, the Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding from every directions
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although he misinterprets everything around him, it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired. And pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming. The tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. the entire character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has ‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those tow-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43) No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagogogues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is beilwdered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment, in which he invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe, how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife]), and swoops from the troubadors of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote.

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage of Kundera which I found boring and pointless. Having discussed the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really having clarified it very much, he reverts to the relationship between Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He does this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, and entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sexsational of the escapades, but, for some reason, often the most plain with the most plain partners. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. The memories are tangled because he met his wife when she was just 17, a marriage which was to spin out of control and end after just two years, he still doesn’t understand why. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no (as, in my experience, many many women just say no and mean no, and that’s all there is to it). He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says No to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that Avenarius took Paul up on his offer that tragic night, and hired him as his lawyer in the rape case, and Paul got Avenarius acquitted. It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. He tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to in them all down – and it combined this with a charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: three quick shags then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but see them at three-week periods. (Putting it like this makes you realise how…. crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas meets Tereza who is a waitress in a restaurant in a provincial town he’s been sent to by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smell the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to be extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary extends over several sections and includes: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels more deep, more deeply felt, simply by virtue of the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters in a reasonably chronological narrative

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. She gets hit on by various customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What is she as somehow filmed or recorded. And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom thy lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to posses the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight he realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so he tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while another decision (to be compliant at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do?

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial. In a great hurry Kundera progresses through the anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habit, then Kundera picks up this idea of shit and runs with it through references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, forcing a binary choice on us that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

He then hurries on to rope in sentimentality, defining it was the awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder some million people, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

He tries to redeem it by piling in ‘tragic’ material about  his characters, for example we learn about ‘Simon’, the son Tomas abandoned, who discovers his father is now working as a farm labourer as he, Simon is, having left an academic career and married a devout wife and become a Christian. He and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, he hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind their deaths being reported at one remove, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown up body parts of a press photographer breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, a merely machines; compared with Nietzsche who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin), as well as more or less every event in the characters’ lives being packed with philosophising about human nature.

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all the lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas is forced to put him out of his misery.

This prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury him. is pretty nakedly designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sad reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then one day he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented sothe reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others. the sex or the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is acceptable behaviour and speech about women. It feels like the tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. Two months before the action starts he played a gig at a health spa in the country, he and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa for his health (Bartleff), and Klima ended up shagging one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up to let him know. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him, and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is proferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be friendly and loving to her, but she has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, Klima and tells him to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps harassing her! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, she and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who’ve decided to round up all the waifs and strays which are pooing and peeing all over the spa. The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling him he’ll report him to the authorities. They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also a highly battle of two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – knows it (p.78). Moving on from this eccentricity they discuss Klima’s predicament, and then conversation turns to fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dud in jeans walks in, then a few more. They’re a film crew, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay an extra day. The bulldog he saved from the dog squad, and which Skreta told him belongs to a couple out in a village, he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? Yes! How did he know. So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. they both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse, then she screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, he hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. He is horrified.

In the nook at the outside pub the three film crew being chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally on purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels divine, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big confident man he sits down with the crew – who make the resentment at this intrusion obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, he begins to get up to go and talk to them but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and exit the hall.

Klima had noticed them coming in but now notices Ruzena’s chair is empty and begins to flag. Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, watching him like a hawk. But he just seems tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then out towards his temporary flat… but where the devil is Ruzena? Franta knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices he dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving he standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, folds double and falls the floor, dead.

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not a persecuted hero, the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, who was a friend of his, to prison, in fact he thought he was sending him to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns. Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, which Jakub disagrees with and then they’re both in full flood when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths.

Crucially, they don’t tell him nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, then Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had experience a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing he would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, he hesitantly asks if Bartless can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks ha ha ha. Only we know that this is because Skreta inseminated Mrs Bartleff with his sperm. The baby really is his son. But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


Related links

Related reviews, mainly about Mexico

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward (1978)

There is full many a man that crieth “Werre! Werre!”
That wot full litel what werre amounteth.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, captured in France on campaign with Edward III in 1359 and ransomed – with a contribution of £16 from the king)

The hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years

The Hundred Years War did not last a hundred years, it was really a sucession of conflicts between successive kings of France and England which are generally agreed to have started in 1337 and trundled on until a final peace treaty in 1453 (same year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks).

It see-sawed between prolonged periods of war, and long periods of truce

The ‘war’ was periodic, blowing hot and cold, with long periods of peace or truce – for example, there was peace between the Treaty of Brétigny of October 1360 and a new outbreak of hostilities in June 1369, and an even longer lull between 1389 – when Richard II signed a peace treaty with Charles VI of France – and the renewal of hostilities by Henry V and continued by his successors from 1415 until the final collapse of English possessions in 1453. Modern accounts divide the war into three distinct periods of conflict:

  1. Edwardian phase (named for English King Edward III) 1337-1360
  2. Caroline phase (named for French King Charles V) 1369-89
  3. Lancastrian phase (named for the House of Lancaster which came to the throne with Henry IV, and renewed the war at the wish of his son Henry V) 1415-53

What gives the long sequence of battles and campaigns a conceptual unity is that between 1337 and 1453 the King of England made a formal, legal claim to the crown of France. For much of that period successive English kings styled themselves King of England and of France. 

Historical origins of the war

The deep background to the war is of course the fact that William of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, and his successors ruled not only England but Normandy and an ever-changing constellation of states, duchies and princedoms scattered round northern France.

It was Henry II who, by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, expanded the northern realm by bringing this huge area of south-west France under ‘English’ rule, thus expanding the so-called Plantagenet Empire to its fullest extent. In this map everything in pink was controlled by the Plantagenet king and amounted to just over half the nominal territory of France.

Plantagenet possessions in France in 1154 (source: Wikipedia)

Alas, Henry’s second son, King John, managed to throw away almost all this territory, through mismanagement, bad alliances and military defeats, and his successors – notably Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), and Edward II (1307-27) – lived in the shadow of the loss of the empire’s once-huge extent in France, and made spasmodic attempts to revive it.

Edward III’s claim to the throne of France

It was King Edward III, who ascended the throne as a boy in 1327 but then seized power from his guardians in 1330, who took the bull by the horns.

When the French king Charles IV died in 1328 without a son and heir the nobles of France had to decide who to succeed him. Edward’s claim was that he was the son of Isabella, sister to Charles IV. However, the French nobles, understandably, did not want to hand the crown to the English and chose to emphasise that the French crown could not be handed down through the female line – so they chose instead Philip VI, a cousin of the recently dead Charles IV.

Philip’s father had been a younger brother of a previous king, Philip IV, and had had the title Charles of Valois. Thus the throne of France passed to the House of Valois (having previously been the House of Capet).

Edward, only 16 when all this happened, was under the complete control of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who were allies with the French crown, who had indeed needed the support of the French king to overthrow Edward’s ill-fated father, Edward II, and so who made no protest and didn’t promote boy Edward’s claim.

It was only once he had himself overthrown Mortimer and banished his mother, and securely taken the reins of power, only in the 1330s, that Edward III got his lawyers to brush up his claim to the French throne and make a formal appeal for it. But it was, of course, too late by then.

Relations between the two kings deteriorated, and the road to war was marked by numerous provocations, not least when Edward happily greeted the French noble Robert of Artois who had, at one point been a trusted adviser of Philip VI, but then was involved in forgeries to secure the duchy of Artois, and forced to flee for his life.

This offensive gesture led King Philip to declare that Guyenne (another name for Aquitaine, which the English had held on and off ever since Henry II married Eleanor) was now forfeit to Edward i.e. no longer his. This triggered a formal letter from Edward III objecting to the forfeiture of Guyenne, and in which Edward  formally lay claim to the throne of France.

A maze of powers and alliances

Almost any summary of the war is likely to be too simplistic for two reasons. One, it went on for a very long time with hundreds of battles, sieges, campaigns, on land and sea, each of which deserves a detailed account.

But – two – I was also struck by how many kingdoms, dukes and princes and whatnot got involved. Just in the early stages in the 1330s and 1340s, you need to know that Edward sought alliances with the Count of Flanders up in the north-east of France, and also tried to ally with the dukes of Burgundy on the eastern border. He also tried to get on his side the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope. Early on (1341) there was a civil war in Brittany between two claims to the title of Duke of Brittany, one backed by Edward, one by the French, and this degenerated into a civil war which went on for decades. Normandy – once the base of the Plantagenet empire – was, and then was not, allied with Edward.

In other words, France was far more fragmented an entity than the England of the day, and this made for a very complex kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. It’s broadly correct to speak of the king of England trying to secure the crown of France but that doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of the situation.

And that’s without Scotland. The king of England was always worried about what the Scots were doing behind his back which was, basically, to invade the north of England whenever the king of England was busy in France. It didn’t take much brains for the French to renew a sequence of pacts and alliances with Scotland to provide men and munitions to encourage their repeated invasions, renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’ which had first been made during the time of the aggressive ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward I, in 1295.

The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Wales and Ireland, which periodically rebelled against English rule, and which required armed expeditions, for example the large army which Richard II led in person to put down Irish rebellion and force Irish chieftains to submit to English overlordship in 1394.

And Spain. Spain also was divided into warring kingdoms and these, too, got drawn into the complex alliances north of the Pyrenees, which explains why, at various moments, the kingdoms of Castile or Navarre became involved in the fighting. Castile, in particular, allied with the French king and provided ships to the French fleets which repeatedly harried and raided ports on the south coast and attacked English merchant shipping going back and forth from Flanders (wool) or Guyenne (wine).

Famous highpoints

For the English the high points are the early, Edwardian phase of the war, featuring the two great battles of Crécy (26 August 1346) and Poitiers (19 September 1356) where we heartily defeated the French, plus the sea battle of Sluys (24 June 1340) where we destroyed an invasion fleet anchored off modern-day Holland, and the Battle of Winchelsea (29 August 1350) where a British fleet just about defeated a Castilian fleet commanded by Charles de La Cerda.

The Caroline phase 1369-89 marked the slow disintegration of the English position in France, latterly under the unpopular King Richard who, in 1389, signed a long-term peace.

Then, after a very long lull, Englishmen like to remember the Battle of Agincourt in 25 October 1415, fought as part of a prolonged raid of northern France undertaken by King Henry V, but this was just part of Henry V’s sustained campaign to conquer France, which was continued after his early death in 1422 by his brother John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and others, until England had complete control of all Normandy and even Paris.

But this is, of course, is to forget the various achievements of successive French kings during this period, and to underestimate the importance of the fact that France descended into civil war (the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War) from 1407 to 1435, partly because it was ruled by a completely ineffectual king, Charles VI, also known as ‘the Mad’ (1388-1422). It was only because France was completely divided and that we allied with the powerful Burgundians, that we managed to seize and control so much of northern France.

As soon as Philip of Burgundy defected from the English cause by signing the Treaty of Arras with Charles VII and recognising him (and not the English Henry VI) as king of France, the rot set in and the period from 1435 to 1450 marks to steady decline of English landholdings and influence in France, ‘a protracted rearguard action by the English in France’ (p.235).

Famous characters

The protagonists of the Hundred Years War are among the most colourful in European history: King Edward III who inaugurated the Order of the Garter, his son the swashbuckling Black Prince, and Henry V, who was later immortalized in the play by Shakespeare. In the later, Lancastrian phase, I was impressed by Henry V’s brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, who took over control of the war and acted as regent to the baby Henry VI, and to the great commander of the day, Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, known as ‘Old Talbot’, ‘the English Achilles’ and ‘the Terror of the French’.

On the French side there were the splendid but inept King John II who was taken prisoner at Poitiers and died a prisoner in London; Charles V, who very nearly overcame England; Charles VI who went spectacularly mad; and the enigmatic Charles VII, who at last drove the English out – not to mention Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who died aged just 19 but whose legend was to grow enormous.

The war also features walk-on parts from King David II of Scotland, who was captured when the Scots army was defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on 17 October 1346, and spent the next 11 years in captivity in England. And Peter the Cruel, king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369 who lived up to his nickname, and whose daughter married Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, who thus became heir to the crown of Castile.

And Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, who proved a thorn in the side of the French crown because of ancestral lands he owned near Paris. The deeper you read, the more complex the web of personalities and players becomes.

Seward’s account

Seward’s book is a good, popular account, which includes family trees explaining the complex genealogical aspects of the war and is dotted with black and white reproductions of paintings, tomb effigies and brass rubbings of the main protagonists.

He describes all the military campaigns and diplomatic manoeuvrings behind them. The book includes interesting sections about the arms and ammunition of the day (English longbows versus French crossbows) and brings out the uniqueness of the English tactics which lay behind our early victories, namely the tactic of having mounted archers who were able to ride into position, dismount, and then release volleys of arrows at such a rate (ten per minute!) that the sky turned dark and the attacking French was slaughtered.

But I just happen to have read Dan Jones’s account of the Plantagenet kings and, although Jones’s book is also popular in intent, I felt it gave me a much clearer sense of the machinations going on in English politics at the time. Take the reign of Richard II (1377-99). Once you start looking into this 22 year period, it reveals a wealth of issues which lay behind the two big political crises of 1386–88 and 1397–99. Only by reading the 40 or so pages that Jones devotes to it did I develop a feel not only for why Richard was against war with France and signed the peace treaty of 1389 and married his child bride (Isabella of Valois, aged just seven when she married Richard), but why there continued to be a powerful War Party among the top aristocracy, which continued to promote raids and attacks on France.

Seward conveys some of this, but his account of Richard’s period of the war lacks the depth and detail of Jones’s account – he skims over the first crisis in Richard’s rule without even mentioning the so-called ‘Merciless Parliament’, which seized control from the king and oversaw the systematic arraignment for treason and execution of most of his council.

This, I suppose, is reasonable enough if we grant that Seward’s account is focused on the war and deliberately gives no more about the domestic situation of the English (or French) kings than is strictly necessary. But comparison with the Jones brought out the way that it is not a full or adequate account of the period as a whole, and begs the question: how much of the domestic political, economic and social situations in England, France (and the numerous other countries involved, from Scotland and Burgundy to Castile) do you need to understand, to fully understand the Hundred Years War?

What is a full understanding of a historical event or era? Is such a thing even possible?

From what I can see, the fullest possible account of not only the war but all the domestic politics behind it in both England and France and further afield, is Jonathan Sumption’s epic, multi-volume account:

The chevauchée – death and destruction

Instead the main thing that came over for me was the scale of the destruction involved in the war.

Obviously war is destructive but I hadn’t quite grasped the extent to which the English pursued a deliberate scorched earth policy, a conscious policy of systematically devastating all the land they passed through, as their main military strategy, sustained for over one hundred years.

Some campaigns the English launched had little or no strategic value, their purpose was solely to destroy as many French towns and villages as possible, to loots and burn, to rape and pillage, to steal everything worth stealing and to murder all the inhabitants over really significant areas of France – from Gascony and Aquitaine in the south-west, up through the Loire valley, in Brittany, in Normandy and right up to the walls of Paris itself.

What makes the 1339 campaign of particular interest is the misery inflicted on French non-combatants. It was the custom of medieval warfare to wreak as much damage as possible on both towns and country in order to weaken the enemy government. The English had acquired nasty habits in their Scottish wars and during this campaign Edward wrote to the young Prince of Wales how his men had burnt and plundered ‘so that the country is quite laid waste of cattle and of any other goods.’ Every little hamlet went up in flames, each house being looted and then put to the torch. Neither abbeys and churches nor hospitals were spared. Hundreds of civilians – men, women and children, priests, bourgeois and peasants – were killed while thousands fled to fortified towns. The English king saw the effectiveness of ‘total war’ in such a rich and thickly populated land; henceforth the chevauchée, a raid which systematically devastated enemy territory, was used as much as possible in the hope of making the French sick of war… (p.38)

Thus:

  • in autumn 1339 English ships raided Boulogne burning thirty French ships, hanging their captains and leaving the lower town in flames
  • in September 1339 Edward invaded into France from the Low Countries, ‘he advanced slowly into Picardy, deliberately destroying the entire countryside of the Thiérache and besieging Cambrai’
  • in 1339 the pope was so appalled by the ruin the English were inflicting that he sent money to Paris for the relief of the poor, and the envoy who distributed it wrote back a report describing the 8,000 utterly destitute peasants forced to flee their land, and of 174 parishes which had been utterly laid waste, including their parish churches
  • in 1340 Philip’s army invaded Aquitaine and ‘laid waste the vineyard country of Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion’

In 1346 Edward landed with a huge force in Normandy and proceeded to rampage through the countryside.

The following day the king launched a chevauchée through the Cotentin, deliberately devastating the rich countryside, his men burning mills and barns, orchards. haystacks and cornricks, smashing wine vats, tearing down and setting fire to the thatched cottages of the villagers, whose throats they cut together with those of their livestock. One may presume that the usual atrocities were perpetrated on the peasants – the men were tortured to reveal hidden valuables, the women suffering multiple rape and sexual mutilation, those who were pregnant being disembowelled. Terror was an indispensable accompaniment to every chevauchée and Edward obviously intended to wreak the maximum ‘dampnum‘ –  the medieval term for that total war which struck at an enemy king through his subjects. (p.58)

On this campaign the English burnt Cherbourg and Montebourg and Caen. In Caen, after the garrison surrendered, the English started to plunder, rape and kill. The desperate townsfolk retaliated by taking to the rooves throwing down bricks and tiles onto the English soldiers, killing several hundred at which Edward went into a rage and ordered the massacre of the entire population, men, women and children. Later persuaded to rescind the order, but the sack lasted three days and some 3,000 townsfolk were murdered. Nuns were raped, religious houses looted, the priory of Gerin was burned to the ground, and so on.

This chevauchée took the army right to the walls of Paris where they burnt the suburbs of Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain before retreating northwards and burning the town of Mareuil, along with its fortress and priory.

After the famous victory at Crécy, the English went on to besiege the port of Calais for over a year, which involved the systematic destruction of the entire countryside for thirty miles around.

In 1355 the Black Prince rode out of Bordeaux with a force of 2,600 and carried out a 600-mile chevauchée across Languedoc to Montpelier and almost to the Mediterranean burning as many villages and hemlet as they could, burning mills, chateaux and churches. His forces took by storm and then burned to the ground Narbonne, Carcassone, Castlenaudry, Limousin and many other settlements large and small.

When war broke out in 1369 John of Gaunt led a chevauchée through Normandy, employing mercenaries and criminals. In 1370 the mercenary leader Sir Robert Knolly led a chevauchée through the Ile de Paris, burning and looting villages and towns right up to the walls of Paris, so that the king of France could look out over the burning and devastated landscape surrounding the capital.

In 1373 John of Gaunt led 11,000 men out of Calais on a chevauchée through Picardy, Champagne, Burguny, the Bourbonnais, the Auvergne and the Limousin, ‘cutting a hideous swathe of fire and destruction down central France’ (p.114).

During such a chevauchée the English killed every human being they could catch (p.85)

It is shocking to read that even the ‘great’ Henry V pursued exactly the same policy. The Agincourt campaign was in fact an attempt to take the walled city of Harfleur and then march up to the Seine to capture Paris. This completely failed because Harfleur held out for over a month during which a third of Henry’s expensively assembled army died of disease. Once the town was finally taken he decided to retreat north towards Calais, burning and laying waste to everything in sight, in the by-now traditional English way. Henry is quoted as saying that was without fire was like sausages without mustard.

Indeed Seward is at pains to deconstruct the image of the Shakespearian hero. Seward emphasises the ruthlessness of the young king – a man of ‘ruthless authority and cold cruelty’ (p.154) – and compares him, somewhat shockingly, to Napoleon and Hitler, in his single-minded self-belief, religious fanatacism and obsession with war and conquest. The account of his short reign is quite harrowing, involving the massacre of the entire population of Caen after it fell to an English siege in 1417, and the deliberate starving of the besieged population of Rouen later that year. All his sieges are marked by brutal treatment of the losers.

As late as 1435, when the English began to slowly lose control of their territory, an experienced soldier like Sir John Fastolf suggested that two small forces of 750 men be created who, twice a year, in June and November, would invade a different part of France and burn and destroy all the land they passed through, burning down all houses, corn fields, vineyards, all fruit and all livestock. The aim? To create famine. To starve the French unto submission.

Loot

Throughout this period the main motivation for ordinary soldiers to go and fight was loot. Everything of value in enemy territory was stolen. The English confiscated all the food and drink from every farm they despoiled and then burnt.

In the towns they stole gold, silver, jewels, fur coats. The king took possession of the best spoils and from each chevauchée sent convoys of carts bearing clothes, jewels, gold and silver plate and cutlery and much else lumbering back to the coast and to ships which bore it all back to England.

The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder (p.81)

In the countryside they took all the livestock and stole all the grain then burned everything else. Many areas took decades to recover. Seward quotes contemporary chroniclers describing mile upon mile of devastated landscape, every building, cottage, manor house and church gutted and burnt to the ground, with no survivors to prune the vines or plough and sow the land, the sheep and cattle all killed and eaten by the English, the roads empty in every direction.

No wonder the English came to be hated like the Devil, like the Nazis were 600 years later.

Mercenaries

A crucial aspect of the war was the employment of mercenaries. Warriors for hire had, of course, existed through the ages. In post-Conquest England they flourished during the Anarchy i.e. the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda from 1135-1153. Later, King John used mercenaries in his wars against the barons in the early 1200s, leading to the hiring of foreign mercenaries being specifically banned by Magna Carta.

But not abroad. The reappearance and flourishing of mercenaries was particularly associated with the Hundred Years War. By the 1340s the English king was finding it difficult to pay his own or foreign troops and license was given to soldiers to ‘live off the land’.

This opened the road to hell, for soldiers, English and foreign, quickly took advantage of the new liberty to a) take all the food and drink from every farm or village they passed b) terrorise and torture the natives to hand over not just foodstuffs but anything of value c) to create protection rackets: pay us a regular fee or the boys will come round and burn everything to the ground. This became known as the pâtis, or ‘ransoms of the country’.

For example, in 1346 the Earl of Lancaster captured Lusignan, a fortress near Poitier. When he moved on he left a garrison under the command of Bertrand de Montferrand. Many of his troops were criminals and misfits. Despite a truce between 1346-1350, the garrison laid waste to over fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou. One story among thousands.

It is easy, reading the countless examples of blackmail, threat, looting, ravaging, burning, stealing and extorting, to see the entire era as one in which the English and their mercenaries mercilessly terrorised, attacked and looted the French people for over a hundred years. The Hundred Years Extortion.

After the Treaty of Brétigny, signed between England and France in October 1360, which brought the first phase of the war to an end, thousands of mercenaries and low-born vassals, serfs and miscellaneous crooks from  a number of nations, were left jobless. They didn’t want to go back to slaving on the land, so they set up their own mercenary groups.

In French these groups became known as routes and so the mercenaries acquired the general name of routiers (pronounced by the barbarian English ‘rutters’).

But in English they came to be referred to as the Free Companies, ‘free’ because they owed allegiance to no king. The Free Companies included all nationalities including Spaniards, Germans, Flemings, Gascons, Bretons and so on, but collectively the French chroniclers refer to them as ‘English’ because of the terrors the English chevauchées caused throughout the period (p.135).

Many of the routier groups were well organised, with administrative staff, quartermasters, and army discipline. They continued to be available for hire to the highest bidder. One scholar has identified 166 captains of mercenary groups during the period. The largest bands became notorious along with their leaders, such as the notorious Bandes Blanches of the Archpriest Arnaud de Cervole. Some routier groups even defeated the national armies sent to suppress them.

Many of the leaders became very rich. In an intensely hierarchical society, one of the chief motivations for fighting, for joining up with an army, was the incentive to make money. Really successful mercs were extremely useful to the sovereigns who paid them, and quite a few were given knighthoods and ‘respectability’, allowing them to retire back to England where they built mansions and castles, many of which survive to this day.

For example, plain Edward Dalyngrigge enlisted in the Free Company of Sir Robert Knolles in 1367 and over the next ten years accumulated a fortune in loot and plunder, returning to Sussex in 1377, marrying an heiress and building the splendid Bodiam Castle in Sussex, which is today a peaceful National Trust property. Built with money looted and extorted abroad by a mercenary soldier. Possibly a fitting symbol of this nation, certainly a classic example of the money, power and rise in social status which was possible during the Hundred Years War.

Other examples include Ampthill Castle built by Sir John Cornwall with loot from Agincourt, and Bolton and Cooling castles, as well as Rye House near Ware, built with French money by the Danish mercenary Anders Pedersen, who rose through the ranks of the English army and found respectability as Sir Andrew Ogard MP.

This helps explain the unpopularity of Richard II’s policy of peace with France.

[The English] had been fighting France for over half a century; almost every summer ships filled with eager young soldiers had sailed from Sandwich to Calais or from Southampton to Bordeaux. War was still the nobility’s ideal profession; the English aristocracy saw a command in France much as their successors regarded an embassy or a seat in the cabinet. Moreover, men of all classes from [the Duke of] Gloucester to the humblest bondman, regarded service in France as a potential source of income; if the war had cost the English monarchy ruinous sums, it had made a great deal of money for the English people… (p.141)

Why are there wars? At the top level, because of the strategic and territorial greed or nationalistic fervour, or simple mistakes, of dim leaders. But if you ask, why do men fight wars, this sociological explanation must be taken into account. It’s because wars are a way of escaping from poverty and being trapped in the lower levels of society and offer the opportunity of escape, foreign travel, adventure, testing yourself as a man, and 1. raising your social status and 2. making money – in the case of the Free Companies of the Hundred Years War, lots of money.

The war was long remembered as a time to rise in the world. The fifteenth-century herald, Nicholas Upton, wrote that ‘in those days we saw many poor men serving in the wars in France ennobled.’ (p.119)

Conclusion

Looking beyond the boys’ adventure aspects of the great military victories, and the supposedly dashing figures of the Black Prince or Henry V, the distraction of the girl saint Joan of Arc (who was burned to death by the English aged just 19), mad King Charles who thought he was made of glass, or the long rearguard action by John Duke of Bedford – it is, I think, difficult for a modern reader not to feel oppressed by the sheer scale of the deliberate wanton destruction the English visited across huge areas of rural France and the ultimate futility of all those lives wasted, all that treasure expended, all that land and buildings and carefully built farms, manors, churches, priories and so on burnt to the ground. Human folly.

By 1453 all the English had to show for over a century of oppressive taxation, countless deaths and the expenditure of vast fortunes paying for weapons and mercenaries, was to end up pathetically clinging on to tiny little Calais. Meanwhile, France had become unified as a nation and emerged as the strongest state in Europe. And a long legacy of mutual mistrust which, arguably, lasts right up to the present day, as Seward points out in the very last sentences of his book.

France suffered horribly when England escaped unharmed – every local historian in northern and western France will show the tourist a château or a church which was sacked by the English. There is a strong case for maintaining that the origin of the uneasy relationship between the two peoples can be found in the battles, sieges and the chevauchées, the ransoming and the looting, the pâtis, the burning and the killing by the English in France during the Hundred Years War. (p.265)


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Other medieval reviews

The Plantagenets (2) by Dan Jones (2012)

Part two of my summary of Dan Jones’s rip-roaring, boys-own-adventure, 600-page-long account of the history of the Plantagenet kings and queens (1154-1400).

Episodes

It becomes clearer in the second half of the book that each of the book’s short chapters (average length 9 pages) begins with a dramatic moment or colourful scene which grabs our attention. And then Jones goes back a bit to explain how it came about, what led up to it and what it meant.

This helps explain why the book feels so popular and gripping, because, on one level, it supplies a steady sequence of 85 (there are 85 chapters) dramatic, exciting or colourful moments. This became particularly obvious in a sequence of chapters about the early reign of Edward III:

When Parliament met in March 1337, a hum of excitement and agitation settled over Westminster… (New Earls, New Enemies)

On 26 January 1340, Edward III entered the Flemish city of Ghent, with his entire household accompanying him, including his heavily pregnant queen, who was carrying the couple’s sixth child in ten years… (The Hundred Years War Begins)

As dusk approached on the evening of 24 June 1340, six months after he had declared himself king of the best part of western Europe, Edward stood aboard his flagship, the cog Thomas… and watched the sea offshore from Sluys, in Flanders, churn with the blood of tens of thousands of Frenchmen… (Edward at Sea)

Violent seas threw the king’s boat about for three days as it stuttered from the coast of Flanders to the mouth of the Thames. It was the very end of November 1340, and with winter approaching it was more dangerous than usual to venture a Channel crossing… (The Crisis of 1341)

In the heat of July 1346 the English army marched through a broken, hell-bright landscape of coastal Normandy. All around them fields were lit up in ghastly orange by marauding bands of arsonists… (Dominance)

The English summer of 1348 was wet, but in defiance of the weather the country fairly blazed with glory. The king had returned to England in October the previous month in triumph… (The Death of a Princess)

You get the idea. The way the chapters don’t have numbers but snappy or sensational titles also helps give you the impression that what you’re reading is less like a traditional history and more like a poolside thriller.

Henry III and Prince Edward

We left our heroes in the last days of the weak and malleable king, Henry III – years which saw the rise of his tough, warrior son, Prince Edward (b.1239).

Prince Edward led the Royalist army at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, the first set piece battle on English soil in a century. The rebels won, capturing the King, Lord Edward, and Richard of Cornwall, Henry’s brother and the titular King of Germany. This led to the Great Parliament of 1265 (also known as Montfort’s Parliament). For the first time representatives were invited from all the counties and selected boroughs of England. Voting rights were discussed. All this was the seeds of modern democracy, more accurately part of the ongoing detailed process whereby successive Plantagenet kings found themselves forced to consult, first with the barons and nobles and then, by the reign of Richard II (1377-99) with the ‘commons’, the knights and justices of the shires.

But Prince Edward managed to escape from captivity and rallied royalist nobles as well as Welsh rebels and this led to a pitched battle with de Montfort’s forces at Evesham, which was a decisive royalist victory. Jones describes how a 12-man hit squad was commissioned to roam the battlefield, ignoring everything, with the sole task of finding and killing de Montfort. They succeeded. His body was mutilated, his testicles, hands and feet cut off. To later generations he became a sort of patron saint of representative government. Today De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him.

Henry III was once again titular king but he was a broken, dithering old man. The real power in the land was his forceful and energetic son, Edward (named after Henry’s icon, Edward the Confessor) who turned out to be a very different character from the saintly Saxon.

Edward I (1272-1307) ‘a great and terrible king’

Edward’s career divides into roughly four parts:

1. Growth to maturity under his father Henry (1239-1272). This involved him in the complex problems caused by his father’s weakness and the malign influence of his mother’s foreign relations, the de Lusignan family, all of which climaxed in the Barons Wars, in which rebels against royal authority were led by Simon de Montfort. These forces won the battle of Lewes in 1264 and de Montfort was for a few years effectively ruler of England, but were then comprehensively crushed and de Montfort killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. The civil war dragged on for a few more years, with individual rebels being picked off or offered concessions and peace.

2. Crusade (1270-74). Edward mulcted the country to raise the money to go on the Ninth Crusade and, unlike his immediate forebears, actually managed to leave, but the crusade proved to be a fiasco in several ways. For a start the leader, French King Louis IX of France allowed himself to be persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, who had made himself King of Sicily, to sail not to Palestine but to attack his enemies in the coast of Tunisia, who were harrying Sicily. By the time Edward arrived Louis had signed a peace with the emir leaving Edward and his army with nothing to do. Undeterred they sailed for the Holy Land.

Here the situation was poor. Jerusalem had fallen 50 years earlier leaving Acre the centre of the diminished Crusader state and this was menaced by the overwhelming force of Baibars, leader of the Mamluks. After a few feeble sorties Edward had to stand by while Hugh III king of Jerusalem made a treaty with the Mamluks, who were themselves menaced by the encroaching Mongols in the north. The only notable event of Edward’s crusade is when an assassin was allowed into his private chambers and stabbed him. Edward managed to kill the attacker but was seriously wounded and took months to recover.

With the signing of the peace treaty there was little more to do, so he reluctantly packed up and headed back to England. En route he learned that his father had died but instead of rushing back took nearly a year to return, attending to business in his province of Gascony, then having an audience with the French king at which he renewed his vows of fealty i.e. that he held Gascony as a servant of the French King.

Wales Edward is famous for his wars of conquest in Wales and Scotland. Wales came first. It was ruled by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd who had benefited from the Barons Wars and slowly intimidated his way to rule over more and more of the other Welsh princes from his base in the northern province of Gwynned. Eventually, Llywelyn’s aggressive policies triggered a response from Edward who invaded with an overwhelming force in a carefully calculated campaign. In less than a year he had forced Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to retreat. Edward built enormous castles to act as permanent English powerbases as he and his army progressed through north Wales. After Llywelyn sued for peace he was made to perform fealty to Edward, hand over hostages, pay fines, and then travel to Westminster to perform submission, again.

In 1284 Edward issued the Statute of Rhuddlan that annexed Wales and made it a province of England. The title Prince of Wales was handed to Edward’s eldest son, Prince Edward (later Edward II) – a tradition that continues to this day.

Scotland Edward was so relentless in his attacks against the Scots that after his death he became known as ‘Scottorum malleus’ – the Hammer of the Scots. In 1287 Alexander III, King of Scots, died suddenly after falling from his horse. The succession crisis that followed presented Edward with a golden opportunity to expand on his conquest of Wales. In the absence of an obvious heir, the Scottish crown looked set to pass to Alexander’s infant grand-daughter, Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway, hence the folk name she acquired, the ‘Maid of Norway’. But all elaborate plans centring on her collapsed when she died en route to Scotland.

With rival claimants vying for the crown Edward was invited by the senior nobles of Scotland to judge the claims and make the choice. This was a golden opportunity and Edward exploited it insisting that he be recognised as feudal overlord of the Scots before a new Scots king be appointed. The two strongest claimants were Robert Bruce and John Balliol. After much machination Balliol was appointed king, but on the understanding that he did so as vassal to Edward.

Edward rode Scotland hard, demanding high taxes and soldiers for his wars in Wales and Gascony. In 1295 the Scots signed a mutual aid treaty with France, an alliance which was to last centuries and come to be known as ‘the Auld Alliance’.

Edward launched a brutal attack, taking Berwick, which the Scots had occupied, slaughtering the inhabitants before pushing on into Scotland and decisively defeating the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar 1296. Balliol was captured, stripped of his ceremonial trappings, and sent to prison in England, while Edward’s army returned south laden with loot including the legendary stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, which was placed under the throne in Westminster Abbey.

However the Scots, like the Welsh, refused to accept defeat, and rebellions broke out in the highlands and lowlands, the latter led by William Wallace who managed to defeat the army Edward sent against him at the Battle of Stirling Bridge 11 September 1297. At which point Edward marched north with another army and defeated Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk. Wallace was later captured and sent south to London where he was brutally tortured and executed.

However Robert Bruce, who lost the contest for the crown in 1295, won support among the Scots nobles and had himself crowned King of Scotland in 1306. As he hadn’t asked permission of Edward, the English king once again marched north, defeated the Scots in a series of battles and forced Robert to flee. However, the Bruce refused to admit defeat, gathered his forces, and made renewed attacks on isolated English garrisons in 1307. Not even the capture and execution of key Bruce supporters (including members of Bruce’s own family) could reverse the tide.

Yet again Edward marched north but on 7 July 1307, within sight of Scotland in sight, the 68-year-old king died at Burgh-on-Sands. The campaign for the conquest of Scotland passed on to his son, Edward II who was, to the Scots’ relief, and shadow of his brutal and implacable father. In 1314 Bruce was to rout a larger English force at Bannockburn. Recognition of Scotland’s sovereignty came at the start of the reign of Edward’s grandson, Edward III, in 1328.

The Jews Usury i.e. lending money out at interest, was banned to Christians, but kings and merchants needed funds so money-lending tended to be a specialist activity of England’s small Jewish community of maybe 2,000. This activity and their status as outsiders to the laws of the land made them vulnerable to victimisation. In 1275 Edward issued the Statute of Jewry that imposed severe taxation on the Jewish population of England. The Statute proved both lucrative and popular, so Edward extended the policy and in 1290 expelled the entire Jewish community from England – minus their money and property. The money raised went directly into his expensive campaigns in Scotland and Wales.

Edward II (1307-27)

The revelation for me was how unpopular Edward II was even before he became king. Edward I fathered no fewer than 14 children but with the deaths of most of the older ones, young prince Edward of Carnarfon emerged as the heir and favourite. But even by the time he was a teenager he was already proving a disappointment. There are records of numerous violent arguments between father and son, not least as Edward fell under the hypnotic spell of the charismatic Piers Gaveston.

It is difficult to establish at a distance of eight hundred years just what their relationship really amounted to but Jones points out that the accusations of homosexuality which later gathered round the relationship only really appear in the chronicles after Edward’s death in 1327. From Edward’s recorded words and writings during his reign, it seems that he regarded Gaveston more as a beloved adopted brother, who he blindly hero worshipped. Gaveston joined Edward’s household in 1300 and was tried and executed in 1312 and during this time caused havoc. He was dilettantish and rapacious, greedy for titles.

Gaveston stage-managed Edward II’s coronation, shocking the assembled nobility of England by rudely sidelining Edward’s queen, Isabella, daughter of the powerful King Philip IV of France. His behaviour alienated numerous groups and noble families who first protested and forced the king to send him into exile, then, when Gaveston returned, and then rose against the king. Edward II’s reign comes to its first climax with the seizure and execution of Gaveston by a kangaroo court led by the Earl of Lancaster, in 1312. The polarisation of the aristocracy led to several years of confrontation between the armed camps and it was during this period that the Scots won their great victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

The sense of ill omen about Edward’s reign was compounded by the Great Famine of 1315-17. For three years in a row there was unusual amounts of rainfall in the spring and summer which ruined crops. There was widespread famine and reports of cannibalism. It is thought that population had been rising since the time of the Norman Conquest but now it came to a dead halt and declined. The famine undermined belief in the church and the efficacy of prayer, and also in the secular authorities who proved hopeless at alleviating starvation.

But having eliminated Gaveston did not change Edward II’s dependence and he switched his allegiance to the Despenser family, in particular Hugh Despenser the Younger with whom he became close friends. The same problems arose again, which is that the king gave disproportionate amounts of land and favours and honours to the Despensers and their extended family, perpetuating the party opposed to Edward.

In 1321, once again led by the Earl of Lancaster, the rebellious barons seized the Despensers’ lands and forced the king to exile them. Edward led a short military campaign, capturing and executing Lancaster and restoring Despensers grip on power. The cabal set about executing their enemies and confiscating their estates, particularly of the Mortimer family who had become one of the leading opponents and now fled to France.

The French king took advantage of the turmoil in England to make attacks on Plantagenet territory in France, particularly Aquitaine. Lacking the money or support from his nobles to launch any kind of military campaign, in 1325 Edward sent his queen, Isabella, to negotiate a peace treaty but by now she had had quite enough of a king who did nothing but snub her and load his favourites with wealth and honour. Isabella not only refused to return but quickly fell into league with the exiled noble Roger Mortimer and scandalised opinion by taking him as her lover.

In 1326 they landed with a small army in East Anglia and, as they marched across the country, more and more local nobles rallied to the cause. As his regime collapsed around him, Edward was forced to flee to Wales where he was captured in November. The king was forced to relinquish his crown in January 1327 in favour of his 14-year-old son, Edward III, and he died in Berkeley Castle on 21 September, probably murdered on the orders of the new regime.

Edward III (1327-77)

In Jones’s account Edward’s reign falls into roughly three periods. For the first three years, as a boy, he was under the guardianship of his mother Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, who proved every bit as rapacious as the former king had been. As soon as he was old enough, in 1330 Edward launched a coup against them. Isabella was exiled to a provincial castle but Mortimer was formally tried for arrogating royal power, found guilty and hanged at Tyburn.

Part two of his life is the central period from 1330 to 1360, during which Edward emerged as possibly the greatest of all the Plantaganet kings. He:

  1. conducted successful campaigns to restore or establish English control of Wales, Scotland and key territories in mainland France, namely Aquitaine
  2. fathered a huge brood of children (ten), with three or four of the sons growing up to become powerful and successful soldiers, political figures and leaders in their own right, namely Edward the Black Prince b.1330
  3. realising the English aristocracy had been depleted by deaths in battle and also what had been in effect the civil war of Edward II’s reign, Edward cannily set about creating new earls and awarding them land around the kingdom, along with a new order of ‘dukes’, this creating a special bond between himself and the nobles of England
  4. Edward was fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and spent a fortune commissioning a room to hold a Round Table at Windsor, as well as instituting the noble Order of the Garter, as another way of binding together the English aristocracy

Edward was determined to seize back the territories in continental France which had been held by Henry II at the peak of the Plantagenet Empire. Over the next thirty years he launched a series of campaigns which led to the two ‘famous’ victories over French armies, at Crecy on 26 August 1346 and Poitiers on 19 September 1356. The latter battle was so decisive the English captured the French King John II and took him, and numerous other nobles, back to England to be ransomed.

Jones explains how Edward set about carefully allotting each of his adult sons a territory within his ’empire’ to manage, with the Black Prince being awarded Aquitaine, the duchy belonging to his great grandfather Richard the Lionheart. However, the Prince’s rule was troubled by three factors. He chose to get dragged into the affairs of Spain, taking the side of Don Pedro of Castile against his half-brother Henry of Trastámara. The Prince defeated Henry only to discover that Pedro was completely broke and couldn’t pay anything towards the huge loans the Prince had taken out to pay his mercenaries. This led directly to the second bad decision which was that the Prince was forced to impose onerous taxes on the nobles and people of Aquitaine, managing to alienate all of them. When the king of France came probing around the border of Aquitaine, towns opened their gates to him without a fight.

The third piece of bad luck was that during the campaign against Henry of Trastámara, the Prince picked up a recurrent fever, maybe malaria, which undermined the physical energy which had made him such a legend at Crecy and Poitiers. Increasingly enfeebled – having to be carried around in a sedan chair – he reacted savagely to his mounting problems. After the town of Limoges capitulated to the French king without a struggle, but was then retaken by English forces, the Prince ordered an indiscriminate slaughter of the civilian population in 1370. The Black Prince returned to England in 1371 and the next year resigned the principality of Aquitaine and Gascony. He lingered on, increasingly infirm, for five more years and died in 1376, the year before his father.

As the 1360s progressed, King Edward himself grew more infirm. Many of the close knit circle of contemporaries passed away. In 1364 King John II of France passed away and was succeeded by the vigorous and aggressive Charles V. Edward sent his son John of Gaunt with an army against Charles but the campaign was a failure. With the Treaty of Bruges in 1375, the once-great English possessions in France were reduced to the coastal towns of Calais, Bordeaux, and Bayonne.

Edward’s beloved wife Philippa of Hainault died in 1369. Grief-stricken, Edward took comfort in a long-running affair with a mistress, Alice Perrers. Discontent at home led to the convocation of the so-called Good Parliament in 1376, which was the longest parliament up to that time. As so often it was called to raise taxes for the crown, but was an opportunity for critics to vent their grievances and in particular gave voice to the so-called commons more than any previous meeting.

But the real power in the land at the end of Edward’s reign was his son John of Gaunt.

The Black Death

Plague came to England in 1348, arriving at Weymouth in Dorset, from Gascony in June 1348. By autumn, the plague had reached London, and by summer 1349 it covered the entire country, before dying down by December. The best current estimate is that, depending on region, between 40 and 60 percent of the population perished. Not so well known is that the plague returned in 1361–62 this time causing the death of around 20 percent of the population.

Leaving aside the horror and the despair the surprising thing, in Jones’s account at any rate, is how little impact this astonishing holocaust had on the economic, political, military or social structures of the day. The best known is that is resulted in a shortage of labour which lasted generations and, in effect, led to the end of feudal servitude.

Because he is interested in political history and, more precisely, in the stories of the kings conceived as Hollywood blockbusters, the plague makes remarkably little difference to Jones’s narrative. In 1356 England and France are back at war as if nothing had happened.

Richard II (1377-1399)

Richard was the second ill-fated king of the 14th century, destined, like Edward II, to be overthrown and, oddly, after nearly the same length of reign, 20 years for Edward II, 22 years for Richard II.

Richard was the son of Edward III’s oldest surviving son, Edward the Black Prince and so heir to the throne even though his father died before his grandfather. Having been born in 1367 he was only ten when he came to the throne and Jones gives a vivid description of his coronation and the surrounding festivities which – he speculates – deeply marked the boy, convincing him of his divine right to rule.

The common people, and the nobles, all hoped the arrival of a new young king would mark a turnaround from the sombre final years of Edward III’s reign. They also crowned him in a hurry because many feared that the mature and forceful John of Gaunt was himself scheming to seize the throne.

Early on he was controlled by a series of Regency Councils dominated by his uncles, John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock, though their influence was contested. The ruling classes imposed a series of three poll taxes to raise money for continuing the war with France, and this was one of the spurs which led to a sudden outbreak of violence among serfs in Essex and Kent which quickly escalated into the Peasants’ Revolt. The revolt was a really serious violent revolution. The rebels took London, burning and looting, seized the Tower of London and murdered many leading notables including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was also Lord Chancellor, and the king’s Lord High Treasurer, Robert Hales.

Richard played an astonishingly central role in quelling the revolt, personally intervening to meet the rebel leaders and organise an ambush whereby the main leader Wat Tyler was pulled from his horse and stabbed. When the mob surged forward Richard rode among them and shouted ‘I am your leader, follow me’, and they did follow him away from the scene of the murder and Richard’s militia was then able to disperse them.

Richard married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, on 20 January 1382, the empire being seen as potential allies against France in the ongoing Hundred Years’ War, but the marriage was unpopular, the alliance didn’t lead to a single military victory, and the marriage was childless. Anne died from plague in 1394, greatly mourned by her husband.

Richard’s reign was marked by two political crises, in 1386-88 and the final one in 1397-9.

First crisis 1386-88

Favourites Very like Edward II, Richard appointed a handful of devoted favourites who he lavished with honours and lands and positions. The fact that they came from merchant families without true aristocratic forebears, created great resentment among the rest of the nobility. There were Michael de la Pole, created chancellor in 1383 and Earl of Suffolk two years later. Worse was Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who Richard raised to the new title of Duke of Ireland in 1386. Their relationship was so close that later chroniclers speculated it was homosexual.

Failure in France and Scotland An expedition to France to protect English possessions was a failure. Richard decided to lead an expedition against Scotland but this also was a miserable failure as the Scots evaded a set-piece battle. Rumblings against the king was led by the Duke of Gloucester and Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel.

The Wonderful Parliament (November 1386) Parliament was called in November 1386 and the unpopular chancellor, Michael de la Pole, asked for an unprecedented level for taxation to cover these military expeditions. The parliament blamed Richard for the military failures and said it couldn’t consider the issue till de la Pole was removed. The king dismissed their threat but was in the end forced to sack de la Pole. Parliament appointed a ‘continual council’ to supervise the king’s rule, a direct and humiliating attack on Richard’s royal prerogative.

As soon as the parliament had closed, Richard denounced all its actions and in the new year went on a prolonged tour of the country to drum up support and appointed de Vere Justice of Chester to build up a powerbase in Cheshire. Here he put great pressure on seven senior judges to annul the decisions of Parliament and denounce its leaders as traitors.

Radcot bridge 19 December 1387 On his return to London, the king was confronted by the Duke of Gloucester, Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick, who brought an appeal of treason against de la Pole, de Vere, Tresilian, and two other loyalists, the mayor of London, Nicholas Brembre, and Alexander Neville, the Archbishop of York. Richard played for time and ordered de la Pole to bring loyalist forces from Chester.

Jones opens the relevant chapter with a wonderfully atmospheric account of the loyalist forces advancing under cover of fog towards the Thames but being confronted at Radcot Bridge by overwhelming rebel forces and being forced to swim his horse out into the Thames and escape downstream, ultimately fleeing to France.

The Merciless Parliament (February to June 1388) Parallel to his efforts to raise loyalist forces and seize back London, Richard had been involved in lengthy negotiations with the king of France whereby he would relinquish all England’s territory in France except for Aquitaine, for which he would proclaim himself the French king’s vassal. Rumours of these negotiations leaked out and led to fears that Richard might be prepared to countenance a French invasion of England, so long as he was returned to the throne.

Richard’s original opponents were now joined by John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham and the group became known as the Lords Appellant because, with de Vere out of the way, they now made legal demands (or appeals) designed to dismantle the apparatus of Richard’s rule. Having dispersed the loyalist army at Radcot, the rebels now marched back to London where they found the king barricaded in the Tower of London which, however, they entered and confronted the king in person with accusations of treason. Apparently the Lords debated executing the king there and then – it came that close, executing their liege king to whom they were all related and who they were negotiating with – but decided against it and called another parliament.

The parliament convened in February 1388 and became known as the Merciless Parliament because the Lords revealed Richard’s treacherous plans with France, won over the Houses of Lords and the Commons and pushed ahead with legal actions to have almost all of Richard’s advisers convicted of treason. Two key figures in the administration, Brembre and Tresilian, were condemned and executed, while de Vere and de la Pole – who had both fled the country – were tried for treason and sentenced to death, then the Appellants went on to arraign, try and execute most of the rest of Richard’s inner circle.

It reads like something from the Terror of the French Revolution. Not only the leading nobles but retainers, clerks, chaplains, and secretaries to Richard were summarily condemned and executed. The seven judges who had been terrorised into denouncing the Lords Appellent, the year before in Chester, were all arrested, tried and executed. Richard’s chamber knights were tried and executed. Richard’s intermediaries who had been negotiating with France, were discovered and executed. No wonder it ended up being called the Merciless Parliament.

Restoration Amazingly, given that their power had been so absolute and the terror so thorough and Richard’s humiliation so complete, Richard returned to personal rule in 1389 and ruled more or less successfully for the next eight years. He was helped by the fact that, once the Lords Appellant had liquidated so many of their enemies, as a group they fell apart, reverting to their individual interests. One of the things which united them had been opposition to Richard’s peace policy with France but when they requested another round of taxation to further their war policy, Parliament baulked and the tide of opinion turned against them.

France and Ireland Richard therefore spent the next few years trying to finalise a peace treaty with France. Meanwhile the Anglo-Irish lords were begging for help against the insurgent Irish and in the autumn of 1394, Richard left for Ireland, where he remained until May 1395. His army of more than 8,000 men was the largest force brought to the island during the late Middle Age, the invasion was a success, and a number of Irish chieftains submitted to English overlordship.

Second crisis 1397-99

The last few years of Richard’s rule are referred to as the ‘tyranny’. The king had Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick arrested in July 1397. After years or reasonably peaceful rule, and bolstered by success in Ireland, Richard felt strong enough to safely retaliate against these three men for their role in events of 1386–88 and eliminate them as threats to his power. Arundel’s brother Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was exiled for life. Richard then set about persecuting his enemies around the regions of England. All the allies of the former Lords Apellant were arrested, tried and released only on payment of enormous fines.

The policy was made possible by the support of old John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and a suite of powerful magnates who Richard awarded with new titles and lands including the former Appellants Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, who was made Duke of Hereford, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, who was created Duke of Norfolk, John and Thomas Holland, the king’s half-brother and nephew, who were promoted from earls of Huntingdon and Kent to dukes of Exeter and Surrey respectively, the King’s cousin Edward, Earl of Rutland, who received Gloucester’s French title of Duke of Aumale, Gaunt’s son John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who was made Marquess of Somerset and Marquess of Dorset and so on.

The Shrewsbury parliament In 1398 Richard summoned a packed Parliament to Shrewsbury – known as the Parliament of Shrewsbury – which declared all the acts of the Merciless Parliament to be null and void, and announced that no restraint could legally be put on the king. It delegated all parliamentary power to a committee of twelve lords and six commoners chosen from the king’s friends, making Richard an absolute ruler unbound by the necessity of gathering a Parliament again.

The house of Lancaster John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, brother of Richard’s father the Black Prince, and so Richard’s uncle, had cast a long shadow over Richard’s reign. In the 1390s he had gone to Spain to pursue claims, through his wife, Constance of Castile, to the titles of King of Castile and León, but had returned in 1397. Next to the king he was the largest, richest landowner in the country and had a virile, aggressive son, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford.

Bolingbroke versus Mowbray In December 1397 a bitter quarrel broke out at the core of the courtly circle when Bolingbroke accused Thomas Mowbray of saying that, as former Lords Appellant, they were next in line for royal retribution. Mowbray denied the claim and it was decided the quarrel should be settled the old fashioned way through a joust. Jones vividly paints the scene as the setting for a mounted joust was assembled and the two warriors arrived on horseback in full knightly array.

Bolingbroke exiled However, just as they were gearing themselves to ride at each other Richard intervened and cancelled the joust, deciding that Mowbray should be exiled for life, Bolingbroke for ten years. Aristocratic and public opinion was dismayed, John of Gaunt complained but was by now very ill. When Gaunt died in February 1399 Bolingbroke should have succeeded to his father’s vast lands and wealth. However, Richard extended his exile to life and proceeded to sequester the Lancaster estate, parcelling it out to loyal followers.

Bolingbroke’s return Amazingly, Richard chose this moment to lead an army back to Ireland in May 1399. Bolingbroke saw his opportunity and landed with a small force at Ravenspur in Yorkshire at the end of June 1399. What follows reads almost as a fairy story as men of all ranks rallied to Bolingbroke’s flag, because they thought he had been treated badly, because they were sick of the king’s erratic and tyrannical behaviour, because they thought it was time for a change.

Also Richard had taken most of his household knights and the loyal members of his nobility with him to Ireland so there was no-one to organise opposition. Bolingbroke met with the powerful Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland, and persuaded him that he didn’t seek the crown, merely the rightful return of his patrimony and Percy decided to support him.

By the time Richard returned from Ireland, landing in Wales on 24 July, it was all over. Bolingbroke had conquered England without a battle. He was astounded to realise that all the leading men of the realm had gone over to Bolingbroke without a struggle. On 19 August Richard II surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life were spared. Richard was taken back to London and  imprisoned in the Tower of London on 1 September.

Deposing Richard Henry had by now realised he could become the next king, but exactly how to manage it presented problems. Henry wasn’t even the next in line to the throne: the most direct heir was Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, great-grandson of Edward III’s second surviving son, Lionel. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, had been Edward’s third son to survive to adulthood. The problem was solved by emphasising Henry’s descent in a direct male line, whereas March’s descent was through his grandmother, Philippa.

Psychodrama These final chapters of Jones’s history overshadow all the preceding adventures because what happened to Richard is so weird that the modern reader can’t help envisioning it as a play or movie. Henry and Richard were related. They had a common history having, for example, both survived the Peasants revolt back in 1381, and the rights and wrongs of the king’s policies vis-a-vis the House of Lancaster were both intimately personal and of national political importance. And then, how did Henry square the age’s religious-ideological belief in the divinity of the king, with the reality of leading a broken, tearful young man (Richard was just 32) to the Tower and locking him up while powerful barons decided just how to get rid of him and whether or not to execute him.

Parliament decides In the end, tellingly, Henry worked through parliament. The Archbishop of Canterbury read out to an assembly of lords and commons at Westminster Hall on Tuesday 30 September that Richard willingly renounced his crown.  A few days later parliament met to discuss Richard’s fate and the Bishop of St Asaph read thirty-three articles of deposition that were unanimously accepted by lords and commons. On 1 October 1399, Richard II was formally deposed and on 13 October, the feast day of Edward the Confessor, Henry Bolingbroke was crowned king.

Starved to death Richard was imprisoned but, as you would expect, his continued existence proved the focal point of various plots to release and restore him to the throne. Bolingbroke realise he had to be liquidated and – although no definitive account survives – it is thought he was starved to death in Pontefract castle and was dead by Valentine’s day 1400. In order to dispel rumours that he was still alive, Henry had Richard’s emaciated body carried on open display from Pontefract and put on show in the old St Paul’s Cathedral on 17 February before burial in King’s Langley Priory on 6 March.

The Plantagenet Legacy

Jones has a ten-page epilogue where he trots through the legacies of the Plantagenet kings who reigned from 1154 to 1400, in the arts, economy, culture, in military terms especially vis-a-vis the endless wars with France, and in terms of the steady growth of parliamentary democracy. These are fine but a bit throwaway, analysis not being his thing, dramatic scenes, conflict, battles and the endless scheming of medieval politics being his strong point.

What came over to me from this 600-page book was the extraordinary violence of it all. Almost none of the 250 or so years in the book are not marked by conflict at home or abroad or both. England, like just about every ‘nation’ in Europe, seems to be involved in more or less non-stop conflict. War was a way of life for kings and princes, wars of conquest to expand their empires, or to maintain them, or to retrieve lost land, make up the dominant theme of this book.

And the extreme fragility of the political realm. This is a vast subject, covered by thousands of historians but it all tends to remind me of Karl Popper’s great insight into the nature of ‘democracy’. Popper said democracy is not about voting for this or that politician or political party on the basis of their manifesto (well, it is, a bit) – far more importantly, democracy exists so we can throw out politicians we are fed up with. It is mechanism to prevent tyranny by regularly getting rid of rulers.

That seems to me the nub of so many of the issues described in this big gripping book. The nobles couldn’t get rid of the king and the king couldn’t get rid of the nobles – at least not without commencing the machinations, the arraignments for treason and beheadings etc which tended to kick off cycles of violence which soon escalated out of control.

Now we have mechanisms to vote for our equivalent of local ‘nobles’ – MPs – and for our ruler – the Prime Minister – on a fairly regular basis, and all parties concerned can appeal to this validation or mandate for their behaviour which, if it is queried seriously enough, will prompt another election.

God knows modern ‘democratic’ societies still experience extremes of social tension and conflict – having lived through Mrs Thatcher’s premiership and its polarising Miners Strike and then the Poll Tax riots – but there are mechanisms for just about managing them by changing rulers and ruling parties: it was the widespread unpopularity of the poll tax which led to the overthrow of Mrs Thatcher and the election of her anodyne successor John Major.

So all this just makes me imagine what it must have been like living in a world where this kind of peaceful changeover of ruler, and of ruling class (which, in a sense, modern MPs are) is impossible. Both the king and his barons find themselves trapped for all eternity with each other. Their conflicts have nowhere to go. The king cannot resign after a military failure. The barons cannot quit public life in disgust, as modern politicians can.

Both were trapped in their positions, forced by notions of nobility and duty to act out roles which time and again led to armed conflict, to the collapse of dialogue and civil wars. One of the surprising aspects of Jones’s book is the number of occasions on which the nobility took up arms against their kings, not just overthrowing Edward II and Richard II, but taking up arms against King John and, repeatedly against Henry III, and even against tough King Edward I.

Jones’s book is a gripping, hugely readable account of this big chunk of English history, but it also prompts all kinds of thoughts about the nature of power and politics, about the nature of what is possible in politics has changed and evolved, which shed light on the political struggles which are going on right now.

The Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych is thought to have been a portable altarpiece made for the private devotion of King Richard II by an artist now unknown. On the left Richard is kneeling in the foreground and being presented by three saints to the Virgin and Child and a company of eleven angels on the right. Nearest to Richard is his patron saint John the Baptist, to the left are Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Edmund, earlier English kings who had come, by Richard’s time, to be venerated as saints.

The Wilton Diptych, artist unknown, so-called because it was discovered in Wilton House

This wonderful work can be seen FOR FREE in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London.


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.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to many Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


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The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperiled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and also threatens Christians and Jews unless they obey their Muslim overlords) which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus:

far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


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I Was There: Room of Voices @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I reviewed the biggest and most conventional of the four exhibitions – Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs – yesterday. Next door to it is a ‘room of voices’ which does exactly what it says on the tin.

I Was There: Room of Voices

Quite obviously the sudden end of four gruelling years of sacrifice, austerity and loss was a major moment for the nation (the exhibition focuses solely on British voices). But people experienced and reacted to it in many different ways.

In this immersive sound installation, 32 people who fought and lived through the First World War share their personal stories of the Armistice. Their voices were recorded by IWM between 1973 and 2013, and form part of the larger IWM archive, which contains a staggering 33,000 recordings relating to the conflict.

The ‘immersive sound installation’ amounts, in practice, to a darkened ‘room’ dominated visually by space age, vertical, fluorescent white tubes embedded in the black walls, a little like a set from Star Wars. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you realise there are also several big black metal columns containing loud speakers, and it is from these that the disembodied voices emanate.

A school trip of 10 and 11 year old girls was in the room when I visited, notebooks scattered across the floor as they listened to these voices from a distant age.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

The selection of 32 voices tries to present a cross-section of society, featuring personal testimonies from people who in 1918 were soldiers, civilians or children, who all had different reactions to the end of the First World War, from the solemn to the celebratory.

There are benches so you can sit and close your eyes and really pay attention to the voices. Listening to the variations in recording quality, in the confidence and education of the voices, made me think less about the specific event and more about the yawning inequalities in 1918 Britain, and the way people accepted conventions of class and deference which we have long since abandoned.

Beyond the dark room, is another, more conventionally lit, space whose wall is dominated by a grid of photos and squares of card. Some of these are photos from the era, but some of them are blank cards inviting you to fill them in with any family memories you might have of the war. A surprising number had been written on by people recalling their grandparent or great-grandparents’ experiences.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

There’s also information about a website which has been set up so that people can contribute their own stories – via photos, texts or audio recordings – to ‘the First World War digital memorial’.

Reflections

I couldn’t help reflecting that, from all that I’ve read, many soldiers in both the first and second world wars returned home and never spoke of their experiences. They came from cultures which respected reticence and restraint. The thing that gave their lives meaning was not to be publicly shared.

And then reflecting on the enormous contrast with our own times, in which absolutely everyone is encouraged to speak out and speak up and have their voices heard and share their experiences, to like on Facebook, to tweet their opinions, to call out, to name and shame, to take a video of it, take selfies in front of it, instagram it, pinterest it, to text and sext it and leave no stone of our passing thoughts unshared and unpublished.

That’s what these voices from the past made me think about – about the events they were describing, of course – but also about the immensely different mindset, culture, conventions and values with which they conceptualised and processed these events.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

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