Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Romanian shed menace

"The Register" unearths a mother lode of unintentional humour in a terrifying piece from the "Daily Fail". If you're not yet quivering with fear and spluttering with incoherent outrage, Dan and Dan have a few more "Daily Mail" headlines for you - set to music. Shocking.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Unreal gates and hen's feet

"The Great Gate of Kiev" is the best-known piece from Mussorgsky's famous piano suite "Pictures from an Exhibition". I'd always assumed that the piece's title referred to to a painting of a real landmark in Kiev, but I recently discovered, after listening to a radio programme on the subject, that the gate existed only as an architectural design by the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann (see above).

Other things I didn't know were that the full title of the suite is " Pictures from an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann" and that the full title of the movement about the gate at Kiev is "The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev)". The titles of the individual pieces allude to works by Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky, who died at the early age of 39. "Pictures from an Exhibition" was written soon after Hartmann's death as Mussorgsky's tribute to his late friend. Some of Hartmann's drawings and watercolours have been lost, but his design for the Bogatyr Gates is one of the surviving pictures.

The Bogatyr Gates were themselves intended to be a memorial. In 1866, the revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov tried to assasinate Tsar Alexander II. After the attempt failed, Viktor Hartmann sketched a design for a monumental gate to commemorate Alexander having survived the attempted assassination. I can't say I'm a huge fan of Hartmann's design - it's a strange compound of self-conscious gingerbread cottage ornateness and Imperial grandeur. It's the sort of royal kitsch that puts me in mind of the Prince Regent's plaything, the Royal Pavillion at Brighton.

Unlike the Royal Pavilion, The Bogatyr Gates, never got beyond a sketch on paper. It's always a possibility that some post-soviet oligarch might decide to spend a few million on making Hartmann's design a reality, but I rather hope not. In any case, the gates were a rather premature monument as, after three more failed assassination attempts, Tsar Alexander II was finally dispatched by a group of bomb-throwing revolutionaries in 1881.

Perhaps the next most famous of Mussorgsky's musical "pictures" is "Baba-Yagá (The Hut on Hen's Legs)". Baba-Yagá is a witch-like character from Russian folklore, who flies around on a broomstick or mortar, kidnapping children and living in a hut on hen's legs. The Hartmann painting that inspired this piece is of a clock made in the style of Baba-Yagá's hut - imagine a cuckoo clock resting on chicken's feet and you get the picture. The surprising thing about The Hut on Hen's Legs is that unlike The Bogatyr Gates, which never existed as more than a sketch, the fowl-footed hut is probably based on a real structure. According to Wikipedia, the fairytale description of Baba-Yagá's hut:

may be an interpretation [citation needed] of an ordinary construction popular among hunter-nomadic peoples of Siberia of Uralic (Finno-Ugric) and Tungusic families, invented to preserve supplies against animals during long periods of absence. A doorless and windowless log cabin is built upon supports made from the stumps of two or three closely grown trees cut at the height of eight to ten feet. The stumps, with their spreading roots, would give an impression of "chicken legs".

To give you an idea of how a hut built on tree trunks could look like a hut on hen's legs, check out this extraordinary picture of a Sami storehouse in Sweden. It really does look like something straight out a fairytale or any fantasy novel from "The Hobbit" onwards:

Photo by M Prinke on Flikr.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

This could explain a lot...

People in power make better liars, study shows

This may well be true, although I don't necessarily believe it on the basis of this study (devised by academics at a business school, as opposed to proper scientists).

I suspect that, if true, it may be the other way round. A talent for effective lying could be one of the ways people gain power in the first place. From the first well-judged untruth on a CV, to the tangled webs of deceit and manipulation woven by the ambitious schemer heading for the top, a talent for misleading may smooth the path to power. Once you are on top, though, controlling information and answerable to very few others, I guess you can tell huge porkies with more confidence and less risk than a subordinate who, subject to more oversight, runs a greater risk of being caught, and who has less power for self-defence if caught.

It's all about you

I love the title of this blog post at Obsolete:

Intensely relaxed about getting filthy rich comes full circle.

A person could write paragraphs about the "Lobbygate - Reloaded" affair, about pots calling kettles black, about how it's not just a few bad apples [insert your own favourite cliché here]... The writer could highlight the erosion of the public service ethos, the starry-eyed worship of power and money, the corrupting lust for fame - but compressing the essence of all that into the title of your blog post is sheer bloody poetry.

It's hard to top that as a summary of all that's been most disappointing about New Labour™, but the people at Nescafé almost did it, when they came up with a short, superbly vague, vacuous, aspirational, me-generation phrase to flog instant coffee. I'm almost surprised that the spin doctors didn't borrow the slogan for the forthcoming election campaign:

New Labour™ - it's all about you

Well - we had fair warning warning that these people were living in a gilded bubble of self-obsession. Cast your mind back to 2001:

It was said that I was facing political oblivion, my career in tatters, apparently never to be part of the political living again. Well, they underestimated Hartlepool and they underestimated me, because I'M A FIGHTER, NOT A QUITTER!

My political opponents can have their pound of flesh - and they do - but they will never eat into the core of my beliefs; what I stand for, what I have done in politics and what remains to do and that is the inner steel in me.

That speech told you everything you needed to know about the passions that really move wannabe X-Factor contestants the most ambitious, narcissistic New Labour™ career politicians. It's all about me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me.....

And don't get me started about the teeny-tiny people in the little blue house next door...

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Energy crisis

This is stating what ought to be obvious, but is all too often overlooked:

You might say that energy is only one of several necessary traits that a leader needs. Perhaps Churchill's lack of sleep had more to do with his workload than his energy level. Maybe the candidate who has the most energy can shake hands and kiss babies for more hours each day, and it's the campaigning that makes the difference. But I give you Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and any other bat shit crazy leader with an IQ of 90, scary hair, and nothing much else going for him but lots of insane energy. Energy attracts followers, even when it isn't backed up by anything else.

So says Scott Adams in his blog. It's a simple point, but one that sadly needs making in today's marketing-led, image-crazy, PR-driven world. All the drive, energy, determination and charisma in the world counts for nothing, if what you're trying to do is wrong.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

You're all paedophiles too!

This comment piece from Andrew Brown in the Guardian is a few days old now, but I'm still in awe of its sheer badness - possibly one of the flimsiest attempts at damage-limitation I've ever seen:

The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find come from the John Jay Institute's report drawn up for the American Catholic bishops' conference. From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable but its pattern is. Although there are no figures for the number of abusers in the wider population, there are figure for the number of victims. These vary wildly: the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had "a history of childhood sexual abuse"; while the the most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men. Obviously a great deal depends here on the definition of abuse; also on the definition of "childhood". In some of these surveys it runs up to 18, which is a couple of years above the age of consent in Britain.

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4% But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different. Four out of five of their victims were male. Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.

In this piece, Brown has set himself the tricky task of defending the indefensible and proceeds to fail in epic style. Most people will work out for themselves what's wrong with Brown's sorry excuse for an argument, but some of the comments on this article dissect his errors succinctly and with some style. The biggie, of course, is that Brown isn't comparing like with like. We don't necessarily have the figures for every "other profession", just an overall figure for the whole American population. And who are the biggest perpetrators of abuse?

Offenders are most often acquaintances (approximately 50%) followed by family members (approximately 25% to 33%) and strangers (7% to 25%) (Douglas & Finklehor, 2005).

With a few exceptions, we don't know about the profiles of particular professions in this respect, but we do know that the majority of abusers are known to the abused child - friends of the family or somebody who had befriended the child (a category which could include people like your friendly parish priest), followed by members of the child's own family. This comment from AllyF hits that particular nail right on the head, (with the proviso that he should have mentioned acquaintances, followed by family members, rather than just family members):

Hard to know where to begin with this utterly shameful, ignorant, offensive screed.

Just on the statistics, the estimates of prevalence of child abuse include abuse by immediate and extended family members, which account for the overwhelming majority of child sex abuse cases.

If you were to remove family members from the equation and only look at children who were sexually abused by non-family trusted professionals, I suspect you'd find that the prevalence of abuse by catholic priests is wildly disproportionate to the amount of contact they have with children.

Indeedy - if you're going to deploy the "you too" version of tu quoque, it kind of helps to get your stats right.

Other comments falling into the "better than the original article" category, include:

The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18.

As the vatican have been making huge efforts to protect paedophile priests it's a bit naive to accept their estimates. I personally know two people who have been abused physically and sexually by priests.

This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious.

Oddly enough though we haven't anywhere near the number of people coming forward to complain about sexual abuse from other professions like medicine to back that up. Bearing in mind the position of absolute trust that a priest has amongst Catholics, it's safe to say that most cases of abuse are probably never reported.


Many Catholic priests and religious have abused children in their care. But is the church's record worse than the world's?

Oh dear.

What a dreadfully wrong question to be asking. You probably should be asking whether the Catholic church's record is worse for the society in which it operates, and the answer would be 'yes'. The you should ask whether it is worse for that Catholic church because they operate from a position of trust, and the answer would be 'yes'.

One of your daftest articles, Andrew. Which means it's ahead of some pretty stiff competition.

(Lord Summersisle)

The other point that makes the Catholic abuse is that it is nowadays very widely reported. It may be the best reported crime in the world: that, too tends to skew perceptions.

This is manipulation of the word "reported". There's a difference between coverage in the press, and reporting of individual incidents of abuse. You may be right that the phenomenon is more widely reported but it does not follow that individual cases are more often notified. As with all crimes of this type, it is very hard for victims to report them.


The second important aspect to note is the unmediated access to children priests have and the trust they command from both parents, the wider community, and the boys themselves. Simply, if a member of holy orders (until very recently in our history at least) was accused of child rape/abuse, the church would often cover the thing up and deal with it internally. Often, priests who were accused of such crimes were not withdrawn from duty but simply relocated to another parish, often where they could reoffend.

It also must be taken into account that children are often told from a young age that members of the church are not only people they can trust, but also people who demand respect from them. If a child is abused by an authority figure - especially one whom others regard highly - how is this infant able to know that what is taking place is wrong? Is it really likely that they will be able to articulate their experiences in the same way they could if a less-respected member of society abused them?


Oh, for goodness' sake.Hey, our church is okay, because we only child molest at the same rate as the general population. Forget the aspirations to the moral high ground, gloss over the cover-ups and hush-money,ignore the abuse of power and trust, and the institutional blind-eye, and omit to mention the sheer affrontery [sic] of Denis Brennan asking parishioners to pay the Church's guilt money, and generally miss the whole bloody point.

(alisdair cameron)

Many Catholic priests and religious have abused children in their care. But is the church's record worse than the world's?

Read the above statement again except this time replace child abuse with Bank Robbery, Fraud, Mugging or virtually any other crime.

Many Catholic priests and religious have Robbed Banks. But is the church's record worse than the world's?

See how daft it sounds?


I know proportion, like perspective, is a difficult concept for some people to grasp. It looks as if Andrew Brown's in need of a Father Ted figure to do some explaining....

Friday, 12 March 2010

Property ladder

Here's a real issue for the politicians to start debating in the run-up to the general election:

In a different world, this incredibly insightful piece of research by the housing and homelessness charity Shelter would be front page news.

Referring to 1971 as a starting date, Shelter discovered that if food and other essential items had gone up as fast as the average property price, a box of washing powder would now cost £28-53, a jar of coffee over £20 and a pint of milk £2-43.

Would you put up with that? Well, we certainly did with house prices.

Maybe this startling piece of research never got on to the political agenda because it would make estate agents, demutualised building societies and mortgage brokers sad. And when one of them cries, children, a little fairy dies. Seriously though, I don't know why any politician ever thought that MP's expenses, Lord Ashcroft, Gordon Brown's temper, or whatever happens to be today's piece of political gossip was more important than an uncontrolled housing bubble that's caused misery for millions on and off the housing ladder over decades (although I expect that for all the talk of "not being afraid to make tough choices", this issue's a lot bigger and more difficult than covering your own back and making a big issue of every banana skin your political opponents slip up on).

I didn't see anything like a constructive policy raising its head during the years of insane price rises and I can't see much discussion happening about how the nation controls the insatiable money pit of house price speculation in future. It's not going to help in a material sense, but maybe we just could tar and feather Sarah Beeny while we're waiting for a better idea to come along?

Thanks to Hagley Road to Ladywood for highlighting the Shelter report.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Thunderbirds are gone!

As a small child, I was enthralled by the mighty machines from the puppet TV series Thunderbirds. Of course, it was just TV sci-fi for kids. Nobody would ever really build such awesome, vehicles in real life. Well, somebody did build something to rival Gerry Anderson's creations. Admittedly, it only flew a few metres above the water and it now doesn't fly at all, being left to decay on a dockside somewhere in the former Soviet Union. But it existed, it flew, it was huge, it looked awesome and somebody called Igor has the photos to prove it.

Via x planes (with links to Wikipedia articles about the mighty ekranoplan) .


In my last post I asked "What have the Normans ever done for us?" I didn't say much about architecture, because I was most interested on the impact on ordinary people when one set of rulers was replaced by another. The Norman have certainly left us more impressive buildings than the Anglo-Saxons, but the buildings that impress us are of two types - castles and places of worship. There was a revolution in the size and ambition of buildings intended to enforce and cement the authority of a more centralized state and the semi-autonomous church that stood alongside the state, providing literate administrators.

The places where ordinary folk lived didn't, I think, change much with the conquest. What I've read suggests that peasants, farmers and most other people lived in timber-framed houses with wattle and daub walls and an earth floor, pre and post-1066. Further up the social scale, there may have been some improvements - an Anglo-Saxon lord's great hall was a scaled-up version of the wattle-and-daub house, whereas some of the manors where the Norman nobs and their retinue lived were made of stone or flint.

There's one architectural advance the Normans seem to have brought along which eventually changed more lives, although it took a few centuries to make a real impact. Several years ago, I went on a guided walk around St. Albans. There were a few interesting little snippets of local history, but one piece of information stuck in my head because it seemed so surprising at the time. About a decade after the Norman Conquest, work started on The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban. The tour guide told us that much of the building material for the Abbey Church (now Cathedral) at St Albans was recycled from the ruins of the old Roman town of Verulamium, just down the hill. Those building materials included bricks, which, the tour guide said, the English no longer knew how to make. The Romans had made and used bricks, but throughout the Dark Ages, apparently, brick making was a lost art in England (and, presumably, the rest of the British Isles).

Never mind losing heated baths, straight, paved roads, sewage disposal, public libraries, firemen, police and the rest - during the Dark Ages, we even lost the ability to make the humble brick. For over six and a half centuries. It's an almost shocking indication of how far the level of civilization in these islands fell after the Romans went. The Romans may have been militaristic, authoritarian oppressors, but they also brought practical technological and cultural advances from all overs their vast, cosmopolitan empire. The Romans may not have originated many important inventions themselves, but who cares where a good idea comes from, so long as a lot of people benefit from it?

Elsewhere in Europe, the brick maker's art survived. Bricks were still being manufactured in Italy and the information I've been able to uncover suggests that the Normans, and their allies in the religious orders, were instrumental in introducing brick making back into England. Although the Normans preferred to use materials like white Caen limestone for their grand fortifications and ecclesiastical buildings, they would also use whatever came to hand, whether old Roman bricks in St Albans Abbey or flint cobbles in Canterbury Cathedral.

Traditionally, the story of the English brick renaissance seems to start at Coggeshall in Essex. In 1140, Savigniac monks founded Coggeshall Abbey. By 1147, the Saviginiac Order, in the grip of terminal financial and administrative difficulties, was merged with the Cistercians. Now the Cistercians were a clever and enterprising bunch, responsible for the development and diffusion of a wide range of technical skills and they were particuarly good at architecture, project management and the various building trades. In particular, they have been credited with introducing bricks to England. Brickwork at Coggeshall Abbey, dated at between 1190-1220 was generally considered the earliest post-Roman brickwork in England.

It's a story which seems to hang together neatly, although in 1996 British Archaeology reported that even earlier brickwork had been identified at the nearby church of Bradwell-juxta-Coggeshall, the bricks having apparently been made by local builders, rather than the Cistercians. It's an interesting discovery, although I still suspect that the re-introduction of bricks had something to do with the diffusion of technology from the continent, via the Normans and the religious orders they patronised. It seems unlikely than a group of Essex locals suddenly getting the idea to make bricks out of nowhere after the art had been forgotten for nearly seven centuries. Even if it was the Essex builders, not the Cistercian monks who brought back the brick, they started out by making floor and roof tiles, a continental import, so the original impetus for re-discovery probably still came from the Normans, who created the conditions that allowed specialised trades to reappear and and the continental religious orders, busily propagating the diffusion of skills and technologies.

Brick architecture took a long time to develop and spread in this country, but we've probably got the Normans and their allies to thank for the rediscovery. Eventually, bricks would have made a comeback anyway, either through trade, migration or invasion by somebody else, but it was the Normans and the monks who probably put an end to the dark, brickless centuries.

Friday, 5 March 2010

What have the Normans ever done for us?

The local history blog Wolverton Past has an interesting take on 1066 and all that:

One of the great "what if" questions of English history relates to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The outcome of Harold's engagement with William hung by little more than a Bayeux tapestry thread and could have gone either way. In the end William was the lucky one and with Harold dead the English lacked the leadership to withstand William's eventual triumph. Would English history have turned out differently. I suspect it would and this is apparent in the microcosm of the Wolverton Manor.

At the time of the conquest it was in the hands of three thegns Godwin, Tori and Alvric. After the conquest the whole manor was under the control of one man. And this was repeated across the country. It is estimated that in the last days of Anglo Saxon England there were about 4000 thegns. William replaced all these with fewer than 200 lords of his own.

Anglo Saxon England was in many ways a more equal society. I don't want to use the word democratic because it does not apply in any modern sense but people then did have more of a voice in community affairs. The council, witan, was a feature at all levels of society, and, as can be seen in this Wolverton example, the presence of three thegns within the manor meant that no one of them could become too powerful. The Norman centralization of power was the significant revolution of 1066 and has had its long term impact to this day. The Normans largely married amongst themselves and held themselves a class apart from the natives they had subjugated. In my view this is the origin of our English obsession with upper and lower classes - not a feature of Anglo Saxon society.

I'm not convinced by revisionist histories with their rosy view of Dark Age Britain as a wonderful fairyland, full of sturdy, creative, free-spirited folk, free of the Roman yoke and not yet crushed by the Normans. It was a land in the grip of a centuries-long recession:

Indeed, the common Roman man in Britain had a higher standard of living than the Anglo-Saxon Kings did two centuries later. The Fall of Rome destroyed the Mediterranean economy of scale. Specialists disappeared – everyone returned to a “do-it-yourself” economy autarky. Without comparative advantage, production drastically declined, impoverishing everyone.

There's written evidence that the Anglo-Saxons knew just far society had fallen since Romano-British days. Check out the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin. Allowing for the vagueness of memory in a society with patchy literacy and crude historical records, it's a powerful indication that they knew something important had been lost. The decline was not all about the loss of magnificent buildings, though - it probably hit the poorest hardest:

The story told by the archeological evidence in all these areas is basically the same: from a sophisticated, widespread industrialised economy that could offer high-quality goods to even the lower strata of society, Europe descended into a fragmented, moneyless economy at a level of sophistication and production well below that of pre-Roman times, and that the ones to suffer this decline most were the 'common people'.
The transition to rule by Saxon warlords probably involved as much violence as the coming of the Norman overlords six centuries later:

Much further work is needed to clarify the picture, but what we may have here, particularly in the shape of the ditches and the buckles, is genuine hard evidence of the catastrophic fragmentation of Roman Britain - the Bosnian option. We may be looking at a process, in which a mixture of old rivalries and new ones carved up British society, destroying trade and communication between separate entities, weakening British society and opening the way for a take over by a new Germanic elite.

The fact that the Anglo-Saxon language adopted very few of the Celtic words used by the conquered Britons suggests that the Anglo-Saxon Conquest was in some ways more crushing than the later Norman one.

There's also written evidence of that violence in Anglo-Saxon literature. The best-known surviving poems from the period, Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, belong to a tradition of heroic epics, in praise of warlords. Sometimes warlords are venerated for being winners, powerful enough to protect their people in battle, as in opening lines of Beowulf:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

Sometimes, like Byrhtnoth in The Battle of Maldon, warlike leaders are seen as heroes for going down fighting. But whatever the outcome, it seems clear that the authors see battle as a Good Thing. Even in poems that aren't ostensibly about fighting, the assumptions of a warlike society come through. When the author of The Ruin contemplates the decaying buildings of Roman Britain, what does he imagine?

...The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.

The Dream of the Rood is all about Jesus on the cross, but this is no turn-the-other-cheek gentle Jesus meek and mild. He mounts the cross like a hero preparing for battle:

The young hero stripped himself--he, God Almighty--
strong and stout-minded. He mounted high gallows

The description of Christ's burial sounds more like the funeral of a warrior-king, fallen in battle:

They laid there the limb-weary one, stood at his body's head;
beheld they there heaven's Lord, and he himself rested there,
worn from that great strife. Then they worked him an earth-house,
men in the slayer's sight carved it from bright stone,
set in it the Wielder of Victories. Then they sang him a sorrow-song,
sad in the eventide, when they would go again
with grief from that great Lord. He rested there, with small company.
But we there lamenting a good while
stood in our places after the warrior's cry

So, things seemingly weren't that great under the Anglo-Saxons - it was a feudal, factional society, defined by loyalty to strongmen with weapons and bands of loyal followers. In that sense, the land was bit like Afghanistan now, although Anglo-Saxon women probably didn't have such a hideous time as their modern Afghan sisters.

Were the Normans any better? In a lot of ways, probably not. Norman knights were mainly illiterate barbarians, too. Medieval chivalric romances were as much in awe of powerful warriors as the heroic poems of the Dark Ages. Literacy was still rare and mostly monopolised by the Latin-speaking church.

The brutish nature of the new order was highlighted thirty years after the Battle of Hastings, when the first wave of zealous Norman knights joined the warrior elites of Latin Christendom, clanking eastwards on crusade, fuelled by a toxic mixture of greed, religious fanaticism and a belief in their own martial prowess. Once they reached the Middle East, the barbarians from Western Europe must have seemed like boorish, brawling ignoramuses to the sophisticated Byzantine Greeks and like mere savages to their Seljuk adversaries, then at the heart of what was an immensely more advanced and civilized Islamic world.

The Anglo-Norman Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester provides a good illustration of the ruthlessness of the Norman ruling class in action. De Montfort was captain-general of the French forces at the start of the Albigensian Crusades against Cathar "heretics" in the South of France. He was present during the notorious siege and massacre at Bezier:

The Crusaders laid siege to Bezier on July 22nd, 1209. The city was pillaged and burned. When the Papal Legate, Arnaud, was asked how they were to tell the Roman Catholics from the Cathars, he told the Crusaders "Kill them all. God will recognize his own!" They did. Nearly 20,000 men, women and children. Bezier was reduced to ashes. Bezier had a long history before the Cathars (there was a Roman colony on this site) and a long history after the Cathars. A lot of it brutal and hard (history has so much brutality and hardship!) but nothing that matches the part it played in the Albigensian Crusade.

After Bezier, de Montfort continued to play an enthusiastic role in the imposition of order and orthodoxy:

He became notorious and feared for his extreme cruelty, massacring whole towns, and for his "treachery, harshness, and bad faith." In 1210 he burned 140 Cathars in the village of Minerve who refused to give up their faith. In another widely reported incident, prior to the sack of the village of Lastours, he brought prisoners from the nearby village of Bram and had their eyes gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off. One prisoner, left with a single good eye, led them into the village as a warning.

It seems to me that the major difference between the Normans and their Anglo-Saxon predecessors was how efficiently the Normans centralized power. William the Conqueror was swift in consolidating his victory, replacing the ruling class and decisively crushing resistance in Mercia and Northumbria. After the Harrying of the North, the local leaders were replaced by loyal Normans and regional autonomy was greatly reduced. With the warrior aristocracy providing the brawn and the literate clerk-administrators of the church providing the brains, a smaller group of people could rule greater areas and numbers of subjects. The Norman castles dominating the landscape were a direct symbol of Norman power, the Domesday Book was a symbol of the administrative underpinnings of that power. It wasn't quite a centralized modern state, but the combination of armed temporal power with the "civil service" of the church formed an entity closer to the sort of state we'd recognise than the more loosely organised and devolved power of the Anglo-Saxon world.

Power, as Lord Acton observed, tends to corrupt; absolute power even more so. In so far as the Normans were more powerful than the Anglo-Saxons, they had greater opportunities to be oppressive and unjust to more people. Because they were efficient centralizers, a smaller elite was able to impose its will on a larger number of people - society was probably more unequal and the tiny clique of rulers now, literally, spoke a different language from the people they ruled (the first royal proclamation issued in English came nearly two centuries after the Norman Conquest, while the nobility didn't start to educate their children in English until about 1300).

But maybe there were some advantages to the centralization of power. There were still conflicts and bloody battles in England, Wales and the Scottish borders after the Norman Conquest - perhaps, though, the centralization of power made life for the ordinary person a little safer than it had been under the weaker, more devolved Anglo-Saxon rulers. Certainly, the country wasn't subject to large-scale, successful foreign attacks and occupation such as the Vikings had mounted in pre-conquest days. Also, under centralized power, perhaps some of the economies of scale, the specialization and the prosperity of Roman Britain began to return. Some population figures suggest an increase in general prosperity after the new order had become firmly established - in 1200, the population of England was estimated at around 2.8 million people, by 1300, it had risen to 5 million (close to one estimate of the population of Roman Britain a millennium before). This expansion was to halt in the Fourteenth Century, but it's safe to put this down to poor harvests and famine at the beginning of the century, followed by the devastating impact of the Black Death, which was to kill 20-50% of the population after it arrived in the country in 1348.

My take on all of this is that Norman rule was a very mixed blessing. In some ways it reminds me of the later enclosure of common land by rich landowners.

The enclosure movement caused great suffering, including forced eviction, the destruction of whole villages, the creation of a disadvantaged landless class, poverty and widespread inequality. This suffering is justified, in the view of some, by being the lesser of two evils. The Tragedy of the Commons theory proposes that, had land been kept in common, everyone would have suffered. For example, it is in the interest every individual herder sharing a parcel of common land to graze as many of cattle on that shared land as possible. Each herder would receive all the benefits from each additional cow, whilst sharing any damage caused to the land by overgrazing with all the other herders. Eventually the carrying capacity of the land will be exceeded by an expanding population all seeking to maximise their personal return from the common land. Ergo, if a few people seize the land and farm it sustainably, liberty may be curtailed and inequality increased, but it's better than the alternative of an expanding population depleting a finite resource which eventually collapses leaving everybody hungry.

Likewise, it may be that the centralization of power under the Norman yoke, although unjust and oppressive, gave the nation enough security and economies of scale to grow and prosper. History not being an experimental science, we can't re-run the experiment and be sure what would have happened if Harold had defeated the invaders at Senlac Hill. Maybe, England would have been a less powerful, more divided nation, prey to internal violence and open to foreign attack, but also a more equal society with less of a gulf between ruler and ruled. For good or ill, we're still a relatively unequal nation and for all the talk of democracy and meritocracy, we still retain something like a ruling class. Tug those forelocks to your new overlords, peasants!

Thanks to Tom Freeman for the gratuitous poster of Dave the Conqueror and chums at the end of this post.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


Oops - I managed to mis-spell Edwin Currie as "Edwina Curry" in a recent post (now corrected). Feel free to insert your own "hot stuff" joke. Take it away, Donna.

Anyway, that's enough about a minor political scandal from twenty years ago - check out about this shocking headline, hot off the press:

Hague: I was kept in dark by Ashcroft

Run away from the nasty man, little William! And whatever you do, don't take any sweets from him...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

How's the weather on your planet? 2

Nothing to do with bankers this time, bored with them. Just a link to a short film about the Fermi Paradox.

It's an intensely interesting subject, although I'm afraid that so many important variables are unknown at this stage that we're in the realm of speculation and guesswork. For example, in asking where everybody else in the galaxy was, Fermi assumed that there was no insurmountable problem preventing interstellar space flight in the long term. He may well have been right, but until the human race has either done it or found evidence that somebody/something else has done it, we can't be 100% sure. And I'd challenge this confident assertion from the film:

Doing some simple arithmetic from the Drake Equation gives one one star out of every 100,000,000 should have a thriving civilization.

Really? Some of the numbers we can slot into the Drake Equation are still close to being mere guesswork. To recap:

N = R* x fp x ne x fx fi x fc x L


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
f = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space
In this version of the equation, the size of N depends on seven figures. Astronomers have some data about the first two figures - the rate of star formation and the fraction of stars that have planets. They also have some information about the third figure - they know about sort of stars that probably can't support life-friendly planets and within the next few years they'll probably be able to detect a few potentially habitable planets and be able to estimate how many there might be in the galaxy, so filling in another blank.

The fraction of potentially life-bearing planets that actually go on to develop life, however, is a guess at this point. Geology suggests that our planet developed simple life almost as soon as it was cool enough for life to exist. That makes it sound as if there could be lots of life out there, but we're currently extrapolating from a sample size of one. If there's life out there, however, humans are closer to discovering it than ever before - if unicellular bugs or fossil traces of such bugs exist on Mars, Europa or Enceladus, such a discovery might be made within two or three generations. Chemical analysis of the atmospheres of extra-solar planets might confirm the presence of some form of life light years away long before humanity has the capability to carry out a detailed hunt for life in the outer Solar System.

The next number is close to being a complete guess. There's been life on earth for 3.8 billion years. Simple, single-celled microorganisms. Until about 2 billion years ago, that's all there was. Then, more complex eukaryotic cells came along. The first primitive multicellular organisms arrived 900 million years ago, evolving and diversifying ever since. If by intelligent life, we mean something at least as smart as humans, that's only just happened in geological terms - we and our cousins the chimps didn't split from our common ancestor until 6 million years ago. So far as we know, the emergence of intelligent life has only happened once on earth. This could be a one-off fluke event in our galaxy. Perhaps we're even rarer than that - after all, most of the history of life consists of single-celled bugs. Maybe multi-cellular life itself is a vanishingly rare chance event. Alternatively, intelligence might be something that's happened several times on planets which have supported evolving life for long enough. As an interested outsider, it seem to me that we're a long way from being able to say anything useful about whether our level of civilization is unique or just very rare - unless, of course an alien civilization makes itself known.

At a generous estimate, humans have been producing detectable signals of our existence for about a hundred years, a period so short as to be meaningless on a geological timescale. How long we'll continue to do it, nobody knows, how long our civilization will last nobody knows. Extrapolating from this level of ignorance to predicting one civilization per 100,000,000 stars seems pretty questionable to me. Still, it's one of the most interesting questions there is and it's fun to speculate.