Slavery monument

There was a documentary on TV last night (which I forgot to watch) in which Dr Robert Beckford argued the case for the government to pay reparations for slavery. What I’ve gathered from the web is: he consulted “an economic historian, a compensation lawyer and an expert on loss of earnings” and came up with a figure of £7.5 trillion. The total GDP of the UK is only about £1 trillion, as a comparison, so it seems like a very big figure to me, even allowing for the scale of the slave trade. Anyway, whether or not that figure is sound, Beckford apparently didn’t seriously suggest it was a possibility. And, btw, he visualised reparations being in the form of debt relief to African and Caribbean countries and educational support (scholarships?) for the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK, rather to individuals. He also suggested building a memorial.

I’m all for debt relief, and indeed educational opportunity, but I’m unsure about linking it explicitly to the slave trade.There has to be some kind of statute of limitations on these things, and whatever it should be, I think 172 years is long enough. That is, after all, about seven generations since the UK outlawed slavery.

But I do think we should have a slavery memorial somewhere. Bristol or Liverpool perhaps. Not just a plaque – a bloody great thing like a war memorial, or the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Something institutional, which would make it absolutely clear that those who put it up (i.e. the UK government) recognised the scale of the tragedy represented by slavery and unreservedly recognised the British involvement in it. William Wilberforce has a statue in Westminster Abbey, as he should do, but something specifically remembering slaves seems appropriate.

Culture Other

‘Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson’ by Paula Byrne

I picked up Perdita at the airport on the way to Egypt. It’s the biography of Mary Robinson, who was an actress, the most beautiful and fashionable woman in London, who became famous as the mistress of the Prince of Wales (and later Charles Fox and Colonel Tarleton, among others). Then, after she developed rheumatic fever and largely lost the use of her legs, she re-invented herself as a poet, novelist, playwright and radical feminist. Coleridge thought she had genius and particularly admired her ear for metre, she was chummy with Godwin and Wollstonecraft. And so on. Entertaining stuff.


Woolf on Chaucer (again)

Because it’s been bugging me ever since I read the essay Aruna told me about.

This example, for me, sums up what’s wrong with Woolf’s approach to Chaucer:

“But there is another and more important reason for the surprising brightness, the still effective merriment of the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was a poet; but he never flinched from the life that was being lived at the moment before his eyes. A farmyard, with its straw, its dung, its cocks and its hens, is not (we have come to think) a poetic subject; poets seem either to rule out the farmyard entirely or to require that it shall be a farmyard in Thessaly and its pigs of mythological origin. But Chaucer says outright:

Three large sowes hadde she, and namo,
Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle;

or again,

A yard she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye ditch with-oute.”

Now both of those quotes are from the beginning of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. But the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is not the everyday story of farmyard folk, it’s a sophisticated piece of literary parody. It’s a fable told in the language of a medieval romance. The chickens are described in terms that would be more suited to Lancelot and Guinevere:

“His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,
And batailled, as it were a castel wal.
His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon,
Lyk asure were hise legges and his toon,
His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,
And lyk the burned gold was his colour.
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
And wonder lyk to hym as of colours;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte
Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote.
Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire
And compaignable, and bar hyrself so faire
Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
Of Chauntecleer loken in every lith.”

It’s as inappropriate as a Beatrix Potter story retold as a gumshoe thriller. But that’s the point – it’s a joke. Chaucer describes Chaunticleer as though he were a great knight (comparing him to jet and coral and castle walls), and applies classic courtly love vocabulary to Pertelote (fairest, damsel, courteous, debonaire); but at the same time he reminds us that these are chickens –

“This gentle cock had under his rule seven hens, to provide all his delight, which were his sisters and his concubines”


“Courteous she was, discreet and gracious, and companionable, and bore herself so beautifully since that day she was seven nights old…”

Later on the chickens have arguments about dreams, prophecy and medicine, with reference to, amongst other things, Cato, Cenwulf, Scipio, the Book of Daniel, Croesus, the medieval theories of the bodily humours and astrology. In other words, all the panoply of medieval scholasticism; and again, putting it all into the beaks of chickens is a literary joke.

The bulk of the story is told at the level of the chickens – they are full characters in their own little world, as is normal in fables. But Chaucer frames the whole story with bits of description at the human level, in order to emphasise the joke by effectively pulling the camera out to reveal that these courtly lovers and scholars are indeed just chickens in the coop of an aging peasant woman. The first part of that framing, at the very beginning, is where Woolf gets her quote about the sheep called Malle. There’s another similar passage at the end where the fox has just caught Chanticleer and run off with him:

“This sely wydwe, and eek hir doghtres two,
Herden thise hennes crie, and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And seyn the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away;
And cryden, “Out! Harrow and weylaway!
Ha! ha! The fox!” and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man,
Ran Colle, oure dogge, and Talbot, and Gerland,
And Malkyn with a dystaf in hir hand,
Ran cow and calf, and eek the verray hogges,
So fered they fered for berkyng of the dogges,
And shoutyng of the men and wommen eeke,
They ronne so, hem thoughte hir herte breeke;
They yolleden as feends doon in helle,
The dokes cryden as men wolde hem quelle,
The gees for feere flowen over the trees,
Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees,
So hydous was the noyse, a! benedicitee!
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shille,
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox.
Of bras they broghten bemes and of box,
Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped,
And therwithal they skriked and they howped,
It seemed as that hevene sholde falle!”

The lines quoted by Woolf are, in fact, comic counterpoint to the rest of the Tale. They’re not even representative of the poem they’re in, let alone Chaucer as a whole. In giving the name of the sheep, Chaucer was being deliberately banal for comic effect, because farmyards were no more regarded as a ‘poetic subject’ in the C14th than when Woolf was writing. More typical of the period would be Chaucer’s other great work (other than the Canterbury Tales, that is) – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, a long chivalric poem about love and honour set in the Trojan War.

So how did Woolf misread the NPT so badly? Because, I would suggest, she had a completely narrow view of the Middle Ages. She seems to have completely bought into the Pre-Raphaelite/William Morris/Merrie England view of the period, which was always somewhere between a romanticisation and an outright lie. Because she has this idea that the period was one of simplicity and directness, she only sees half of what’s going on. Chaucer was, often, a very direct writer – but he could also be ironic, indirect, and nuanced. Much like Shakespeare, who sometimes did metaphysical speculation and sometimes did knob jokes.


‘Blood and Roses’, ‘Being in Being’, ‘Don Quixote’

some thoughts on Blood and Roses, Being in Being, and Don Quixote

I recently finished Don Quixote (the new Edith Grossman translation). I read about half of it in my teens, before getting sidetracked, and decided that the 400th anniversary was a good time to have another go at it.

DQ is a great idea for a character, and Sancho Panza has his moments as well, and it stands up pretty well for something written in 1605, but… to be honest, I found it repetitive and a bit tedious. It felt like the same joke over and over again, and the characters didn’t develop as much as they could have. It’s also, considering that it’s famous above all as character-based humour, very literary and very rooted in its period. I’m unfamiliar with the romances that it is parodying, and that distances the whole thing. I also found it odd that, in a book which pokes fun at someone for believing in the literal truth of an earlier literary tradition, there are pastoral episodes about nobles going off into the woods to live as shepherds which seem to be treated unironically. It’s a familiar literary convention, of course, from Shakespeare (As You Like It, I think), but I found it hard to tell whether the pastoral episodes really were unironic or if I was just missing the joke. Perhaps it’s better in Spanish.

Being in Being is one of the volumes of Robert Bringhurst’s translations of Haida oral poetry – in this case the collected works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (The Haida are the native inhabitants of Haida Gwaii – i.e. the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific North-West). I find the poems generally quite intirguing, for their insight into the culture and the oddness (or differentness) of the literary conventions, but quite difficult to grapple with. The narrative logic of them wasn’t apparent to me, and even with Bringhurst’s notes and having read the introductory volume (A Story as Sharp as a Knife) I was aware of how much I was missing. I’m sure all sorts of details were supposed to carry some kind of significance that passed me by. There are all sorts of appealing aspects, though, like the way that the characters (most of whom are spirit beings) put on the skin of a person or animal to become that animal; or the way that, if an object is half blue-green and half reddish-brown, that means it will turn eveything upside down (literally or metaphorically) because those are the colours of the mallard, which up-ends to eat.

The stories are quite messy, structurally, very geographically rooted (many of the characters are the spirits attached to particular places in Haida Gwaii), and it seems, quite flexible according to who’s telling them and the occasion. I imagine that they give some idea of what the Greek myths would have been like when they were originally told, but we get them through the filter of hundreds of years of literacy and a couple of millennia of artistic response. As a result, not only do they tend to have a sheen of white marble about them, but they tend to be very tidy, canonical versions with very clear narrative logic. It may be that the assumption – that one early myth-telling tradition will be much like another – is a false one anyway. Perhaps the hunter-gatherers of the Peloponnese had a quite different way of telling stories.

One thing – after having watched Ray Mears making a birch-bark canoe from scratch on TV the other day, I did at least have a clearer idea of things like splitting cedar and tying things with spruce roots. Now if he could just make a program about fishing for halibut and hunting whales from a dug-out canoe using traditional tools.

Blood and Roses is a book I’m reading about the Paston family from Norfolk. They are famous in medievalist circles because a large selection of their personal correspondence has survived from the C15th. I have a copy of the selcted letters, but never got very far with it. Helen Castor has used them to produce a more conventional bit of history writing, supplying the context and helping you keep track of all the people (including the three different John Pastons). It’s still quite dry and repetitive – they spend most of their time up to their necks in legal disputes about land ownership – but once I got into it I found it quite involving. They were newly wealthy gentry; William P was a miller’s son made good as a successful lawyer, and the book mainly conerns his son and grandsons. So not exactly toilers in the fields, but still ‘ordinary people’ in that they weren’t important historical figures. It was the time of the Wars of the Roses, of course, and very turbulent. You do get a sense of how all of society – including the law – was tied into a system of patronage and influence, and that influence could be erratic, capricious, subject to political expedience, and corrupt. And of course, in a time of civil war, people could gain and lose influence extremely rapidly. And the Pastons were strong characters whose personalities emerge clearly from their letters.


Beowulf as a chiefdom-based society

I’m just reading Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, a book which argues that there is in fact a good theoretical basis (from game-theory) for seeing the development of human societies as directional. I believe the book later goes onto biological systems as well, but I haven’t got to that bit. Anyway, it got me thinking about Beowulf again.

Beowulf, and other A-S poetry, always read as curiously foreign. Obviously, even the date of the manuscript – C11th – *is* a very distant and foreign culture, and if you accept the C8th date for the poem, that pushes it back further. The action of the poem is dateable to around 516 (the death of Hygelac), although assuming much continuity between the events and the writing of the poem, let alone in its surviving copy, seems unwise.

Still, even given the distance between the poem and ourselves, it always seems surprisingly foreign; much more so than Roman literature, and more so, or at least very differently so, than later medieval literature as well. The insight I may or may not have gained from the Wright book is that part of that difference is because of a major shift in the very structure of the society. He traces out a sequence of societal structures, apparently as used by archeologists (from memory): family groups -> Big Man societies (i.e. a village or two loosely organised around a charismatic leader) -> chiefdoms (groups of villages lead by a powerfully authoritarian leader who often claims divine authority) -> states (centralised bureaucracy, well-defined legal structures).

The relevance of all this is that the world of Beowulf seems to fit more into the chiefdoms stage, which was characterised by, for example, one central village growing in authority and size amongst others around it, and tellingly for the Beowulf comparison, the increasingly lavish burial ceremonies surrounding the deaths of chiefs. Wright mentions the megalithic cultures in pre-Roman Britain as an example; obviously, the ship burial and the barrow burial in Beowulf seem like the same thing. Another key feature – both the Big Man cultures and chiefdoms are often characterised by the throwing of great feasts by the leader as a way of both redistributing wealth and establishing their own status, and feasting is obviously a very A-S obsession. The directness of the relationship between the ‘king’ in A-S poetry and his duguth/geoguth, and the gift culture, also feel like part of a rather smaller social unit than what we normally think of as a ‘kingdom’ (although chiefdoms could be quite big – and is it so different from the emphasis on feasting in ME poetry? And the Tudor court?).

It’s not the first time I’ve thought about this. I was struck, some years ago, by something (in Guns, Germs and Steel, maybe?) which said that the first thing Papuan tribesmen do when they encounter someone they don’t know is have a long discussion about who their relatives are – because if they can find a relationship to each other, they probably won’t need to fight. That reminded me forcefully of sequence of rather cagey encounters B has – initially with the watchman, then a courtier, then the king (I think) – when he first arrives at Heorot as a stranger. And reading the Haida poetry recently, the image of the big houses with a central firepit and a poet/storyteller/scop telling stories that could last for hours, was also reminiscent of A-S poetry.

I don’t suppose any of this would come as news to an anthropologist, but then such is academic territoriality, everything I read about Beowulf at uni was written by literary critics – or sometimes historians. And what does it matter anyway? Well, it changes the way I visualise the poem, at least. The vocabulary, of kings and earls and thanes, never quite matched to the action, but it’s so seductive that somehow it’s hard to get away from it. To think of Hrothgar as a tribal chief, and Heorot as something closer to a longhouse than a palace, carries a severe risk of going too far in the other direction – they may have had simpler political units, but they weren’t exactly hunter-gatherers. Still, it’s a useful imaginative antidote to all the baggage carried by the word ‘king’.

All of which assumes that the poem is somehow a true reflection of society in Northern Europe in the 6th? 8th? century. And since it was written down in the C11th by a Christian scribe, probably from a copy of a copy, that may be a mistake. How much of what’s in the poem is more modern stuff that’s been imposed? And it’s quite likely that the late Anglo-Saxons had a romanticised view of their forebears anyway. The Morte D’Arthur tells you more about the C15th century, when it was written, than the pre-Roman society where it was nominally set; or perhaps the C15th’s romantic view of an earlier medieval period.

Anyway. Enough.