Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Oxford Medieval Mysteries by Ann Swinfen

September 2, 2020

I only discovered the Oxford Medieval Mysteries by Ann Swinfen sometime last year. There are six books and I devoured the series. I found the mystery tales centered around a Medieval book seller wonderfully evocative. Of course what they evoke is only a picture of what it might have been like after the Black Death. The six books comprising the Oxford Medieval Mysteries, are set in the fourteenth century and recount the tales of bookseller (and book producer) Nicholas Elyot in the days before printing. He is a young widower with two small children, and is faced by murder and dastardly deeds in the troubled world around Oxford University traumatized by the Black Death. I found the detailed picture of everyday life very well researched and remarkably convincing. Ann Swinfen was a mathematician, a historian and an author. Perhaps it was that combination which makes her tales so believable.

I was eagerly looking forward  to there being a seventh in the series but have just found out that Ann Swinfen died 2 years ago. 

A strange sense of disappointment and of great loss.

Dr. Ann Swinfen (b. 1937 – d. 2018) 

Ann Swinfen spent her childhood partly in England and partly on the east coast of America. She was educated at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Classics and Mathematics and married a fellow undergraduate, the historian David Swinfen. While bringing up their five children and studying for a postgraduate MSc in Mathematics and a BA and PhD in English Literature, she had a variety of jobs, including university lecturer, translator, freelance journalist and software designer. She served for nine years on the governing council of the Open University and for five years worked as a manager and editor in the technical author division of an international computer company, but gave up her full-time job to concentrate on her writing, while continuing part-time university teaching in English Literature. In 1995 she founded Dundee Book Events, a voluntary organisation promoting books and authors to the general public, which ran for fifteen years. ….. 

Her blog now seems to have been discontinued but from the parts that I have seen, her research into medieval life seems meticulous. This is an extract from a post she wrote just a month before she died.

Medieval Books

Until Nicholas Elyot, bookseller in fourteenth century Oxford, walked into my life, I had no more than a hazy knowledge of medieval books. The general impression I had gained, like most other people (I would guess), was that medieval books were limited in number, restricted as to contents, and confined to religious institutions and a very few royal and aristocratic houses.

Part of the problem lies in the terminology. ‘Medieval’ is a loosely defined term at the best of times, equivalent to ‘pertaining to the Middle Ages’, which can be extended to cover all the centuries from the end of the Roman Empire to the dawn of early modern Europe, another imprecise date. However, for our purposes, let us take it as beginning in England with the Norman Conquest and petering out in the Tudor period. As the new technology of printing was introduced toward the end of this period, in the late fifteenth century, I am interested in looking at medieval books before printing, the kind of books Nicholas sold and, increasingly, produced. 

It is clear from the sheer numbers of exquisite medieval books which still survive in libraries, museums, and private collections that this is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg. If we take into account the destruction wreaked by time, mice, damp, insects, and the savage attacks by zealots like Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in England and Savonarola in Italy, the original number of medieval books must have been much, much greater than those which survive. The number was not so limited after all. Accustomed as we are to modern printing, it is difficult for us to grasp that every one of these books was handwritten, but a monastic scribe or a secular scrivener, working day after day, could produce a remarkable amount of work. 

The content of medieval books covered a very wide range. In the first place, we can easily divide them into two main groups – those intended as practical and business records and those intended for scholarly or leisure reading. The former group includes all those manorial records which are full of fascinating details about the buying and selling of land, rents, the employment of servants, crops, game, household expenses (three yards of silk for a christening gown, twenty hogsheads of canary wine…) and the like. It also includes the chartularies of the monastic houses which may cover similar details but more particularly the gifts of benefactors and the rights and privileges of the institution. The surviving records of government run to thousands and thousands. As time passed and the merchant class expanded and grew rich, their businesses required detailed record keeping as well. Many of these are not ‘books’ as we would recognise them, for they were more conveniently kept as scrolls, so that additional pieces could be sewn on as required. …….. 

I am trying to retrieve more of her posts but that will have to wait for another day.


 

Mark Pillai

August 11, 2020

He would have been 109 today.

He was the first Allied officer (the first of only five) to escape from being a Japanese prisoner-of-war and successfully return to India. He left Singapore on 7th May 1942 and managed to reach India on 26th August 1942.

Mark Pillai 11.08.1911 – 07.06.1988

 

First Allied officer to escape from Japanese POW camp after fall of Singapore in 1942

I wrote this 3 years ago.

https://ktwop.com/2017/08/12/remembering-an-escape-from-singapore-75-years-on/


 

75 years since the bombs ended the war with Japan

August 9, 2020

It is 75 years since the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war with Japan ended in 1945.

There are many among the politically correct and the sanctimonious who are busy trying to revise history and like to fantasize that Japan may have surrendered without the bombs being used. Emperor Hirohito was totally opposed to surrender before the bombs and was reluctant after the first bomb. He was persuaded only after the second. Even that was opposed by the military who tried, but failed, in an attempted coup to avoid surrendering. Without the use of the bombs the earliest Japanese surrender would have been in spring 1947, and that too only after the destruction of their 1946 rice harvest. Without a rice famine in 1946 the Japanese “fight to the last” attitude could have prolonged the war till 1948.

The politically incorrect reality is that the use of the bombs did bring the war to an end. The expression of superior force is still the only effective way of ending armed conflicts.


 

Time lines are relative

April 6, 2019

History is pre-me and is the diffuse period before I was born.

Ancient history is the misty past before my father was born.

The good old days lasted all the time I was dependent upon someone else.

Modern times covers my working life.

And the devolution of mankind started when I “retired” and the world has been going downhill ever since.


 

In praise of walls

February 9, 2019

There is much rhetoric about walls these days. Usually about walls at the boundaries of nations.

But the concept of walls (along with fire and the wheel and all that they enabled) was one of the critical developments which enabled humans to differentiate themselves from all other species and enabled human civilisation to develop. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that without walls –  first around shelters and then around dwellings, settlements, places of work, and eventually around whole cities and at nation boundaries – civilisation itself would not have been possible. Human civilisation would have been still-born without the ability to create safe, protected enclosures within which to live (and work) defying the elements and any external threats. In fact, walls are integral and necessary to our lives today. We could not live without walls.

Humans control the environment they live and work in. This ability is what allows us to live anywhere in the world irrespective of the prevailing environment. From blistering deserts to the frigid reaches of Antarctica, it is walls which enable roofs and which together allow us to create volumes of controlled environments for ourselves. We not only live within walls, we travel in walled containers which provide enclosed volumes of controlled environments. Our carts, our cars our trains and boats and planes all rely on walls to create our enclosures. The walls in my home are what give me my controlled environment and my security and my sense of security.

It was always thought that cave dwelling probably preceded the building of huts and dwellings. But modern humans appeared first in areas where caves were not so numerous and primitive walls probably appeared to protect small groups spending the night on open ground. There is some suggestion that some kind of walled shelters were used by homo erectus – perhaps 500,000 years ago. (Homo erectus had the controlled use of fire as early as 1.5 million years ago). It is not implausible that the earliest walls were fences built to protect an area around a camp-fire.

BBC: Japanese archaeologists have uncovered the remains of what is believed to be the world’s oldest artificial structure, on a hillside at Chichibu, north of Tokyo. 
The shelter would have been built by an ancient ancestor of humans, Homo erectus, who is known to have used stone tools. The site has been dated to half a million years ago, according to a report in New Scientist. It consists of what appear to be 10 post holes, forming two irregular pentagons which may be the remains of two huts. Thirty stone tools were also found scattered around the site. …… Before the discovery, the oldest remains of a structure were those at Terra Amata in France, from around 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. ……. 

John Rick, an anthropologist at Stanford University, says that if the find is confirmed it will be interesting because it shows that hominids could conceive of using technology to organise things. “They had the idea of actually making a structure, a place where you might sleep. It represents a conceptual division between inside and outside.” 

There is little doubt that while city walls are at most 15-20,000 years old, even hunter gatherers from 100,000 years ago were no strangers to walls. Even those who used caves in temperate zones probably only used caves as winter quarters. In summers they would have used lightweight, temporary walls.

Aerial view of part of the Great Wall

The idea of a safe, protected, enclosure lies deep in the human psyche. Walls are existential. What would we be without our houses, buildings, dams, sea-walls, siege walls, curtain walls, walls around fields, walled enclosures, prisons or walls at nation boundaries? Walls between nations are at least 5,000 years old and probably predate even the definition of nation sates.

The EU has built 1,000km of border walls since fall of Berlin Wall

European Union states have built over 1,000km of border walls since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a new study into Fortress Europe has found.  ……  the EU has gone from just two walls in the 1990s to 15 by 2017. ……. Despite celebrations this year that the Berlin Wall had now been down for longer than it was ever up, Europe has now completed the equivalent length of six Berlin walls during the same period. 

  1. Walls work.
  2. Humans need walls.

 

Imaginary realities (or why all history is imaginary)

July 12, 2018

History is causal.

Actual events in the past resulted in the present. What we think, now, about those events in the past or what stories we tell, now, about the past are of no consequence to the present (no matter how fascinating or revisionist those stories may be).

The consequences of past events reverberate into the future until their influence has reduced so as to be submerged into the background noise. Say it actually was an asteroid impact 65 million years ago which led to the mass extinction of large dinosaurs (even if some survive as birds today). The reverberations of that asteroid impact can no longer be definitively detected. It can still be inferred by other events but all direct consequences are now part of the background noise. We can imagine other alternative histories. It might have been a super-volcano eruption – the detectable impacts of which would now also be lost in the noise – which caused the decline of the dinosaurs. Large dinosaurs may have disappeared catastrophically over a very short period or dwindled gradually over a few million years. We can imagine any story we like as long as its effects are now lost within the background. The super-volcano eruption and the asteroid impact are equally real (or equally imaginary).

Is reality confined to the present?

A real event that occurred yesterday is not real now. If everything not-real is imaginary then everything in history is imaginary now. Events that did occur are imaginary in the now. But events that did not occur are also imaginary. For events from as close as yesterday there may be collateral evidence to support one particular imaginary reality that was. For recent events some imaginary reality may be more real than another. But for events from the more distant past all the supporting evidence may be buried within the background rumble from the past. Then all imaginary realities are equal on the reality scale of imaginary realities. But the “real” reality must be causally connected to the present and so must also be the realities of the future.

Clearly time has an impact on reality. Perhaps it is wrong to thing of reality by itself and we need to think instead of the space within which reality can exist and the reality time-line. The reality space is the space of causality.

Reality space

Perhaps reality has to have a time axis. From the now, past or future realities (which are imaginary in the now) are time-lines which can only exist in the reality space. The reality time-line then must be capable of being causally connected within the reality space and must pass through the now. The imaginary space is then that where events cannot be causally connected to the present.

That dinosaurs have become chickens lies within the reality space that we can discern now and is an imagined reality. That dinosaurs became tigers lies in the imaginary space but cannot be causally linked and, therefore, is not even an imaginary reality.


 

 

History is always a few documented events connected by speculation

June 1, 2018

History is  a narrative of the past, a story. It must be a story consistent with the present and with the available evidence of past events. The further back into the past we go the less is the surviving evidence. Evidence of a past event may be direct in the form of surviving documents or artefacts but it may also be indirect as calculations and estimates in the now about the past. The credibility of the narrative is enhanced by the weight of evidence that can be marshalled but – of necessity – the available evidence for past events , even in the immediate past,  is always spotty and incomplete. Where evidence is not available the historian is free to speculate as long as his narrative includes those events for which evidence does exist and the entire narrative is credible.

Most events in our lives are not recorded and leave no evidence. Even where evidence of actions remain, the prevailing emotions are rarely recorded. The actions of minor players, even if they were crucial, are rarely recorded. Much of what I did yesterday can be remembered but cannot be “proven”. And much of what I did yesterday is already forgotten. For periods without evidence (or memory) any credible narrative is valid.

Histories are never as objective and dispassionate and free of bias as their authors suppose. They are always written and rewritten to suit the present.  Inevitably they carry the current prejudices and biases of the historian. They are often written with a political agenda to justify current actions or to influence the actions of the future. Many histories, for example of Rome, which survive are themselves “rewritten histories” with political bias inbuilt. Yet when they are used as “documentation” for subsequent histories, the speculation of their authors are elevated to be “documented events”.

The actual happenings of the past can never be changed. But the story of those happenings is always changeable as long as the narrative remains credible. The credibility lies primarily in not making statements which are contradicted by the available evidence. From the recent past (such as WW 2) there is an abundance of records of varying accuracy available. Some of the records are intended disinformation where the intention has been lost. Other records are inconsistent or even contradictory. From the distant past there is a paucity of evidence which necessitates a great deal of interpretation and reinterpretation.  Socialist historians bring their prejudices to bear and “free market” historians have their own interpretations.. Liberal historians in the US are rewriting the history of the age of slavery based on their values today. Nationalist historians in India are reinterpreting colonial times based on their current values. A false history written today may a thousand years hence, if it survives, become “documentary evidence” of events which never took place. Histories are written in the present for the present and as long they are credible, what actually happened is irrelevant.

History scholars like to pretend that they can be objective. Scholarly histories and historical fiction are essentially the same genre of literature. A scholarly history has a high density of documented events and a minimum of speculation. But any scholarly work cannot avoid speculation and cannot avoid being political. Historical fiction on the other hand has some story to tell which is hung on a few historical events as the backdrop for the story. The difference lies only in how much of the content is speculation and how much is a reporting of documented events. Whereas historical fiction can tolerate content being contradicted by evidence, scholarly histories cannot.


 

 

Without Hitler, Israel would probably not exist

April 8, 2018

History is causal.

Above all, it is existential.

“What would have been if …..?” can never be more than a thought experiment. Wishing away horrific events in the past is not just pointless, it is a form of denial of “what is”.  Being proud of past generations or apologising for their actions are both equally inane.

  • Without prophets, gods would not exist
  • Without the rise of the Roman Empire, we wouldn’t have highways
  • Without the fall of the Roman Empire, we wouldn’t have Ferraris today
  • Without the European colonisation of the Americas, native Americans would still be primitive hunter gatherers
  • Without the European colonisation of the Americas, Asian cuisine (horror of horrors) would not include chillies
  • Without the colonisation of Australia, the aborigines would be either extinct or speaking Chinese,
  • Without British colonisation, the Indian sub-continent would be a mishmash of little warring kingdoms,
  • Without Hitler, Israel would probably not exist today.

Apologising for what previous generations or your ancestors may have done makes no sense.

If you must apologise, apologise for what your children and your descendants may do.


 

History is always just a story

August 17, 2017

History is nothing but a story, a current story giving current judgments about past events shrouded by diminishing knowledge about the events themselves and of the motivations and causes of past behaviour.

The past is immutable but history is an ever-changing narrative about the past and is always subject to  a current agenda. Even current reporting of past histories has an agenda. The narrative is political – current politics and not the actual politics of the past. The only constraints that the stories of history have is that they not violate evidence that still remains. As we go back into time the hard evidence available diminishes rapidly and the scope for the historian to make up a narrative to suit his agenda increases.

How and why does history get rewritten?

If you read a history book written in the United States from the 1950s, on the origins of the Cold War, you’d get a definitive answer on which country was to blame, backed up with extensive evidence to justify its points. The book would say it was the fault of Soviet Russia, under the leadership of Stalin, …. If you picked up a US history book from the late 1960s, the chances are, you’d get a very different view. You’d read of America’s desire to take over economic control of Europe and tie the countries there to the dollar. …. By the 1980s and 1990s, the story would be retold again. Historians would point out that the Cold War was inevitable, given the ideological differences that existed between East and West, and it is futile to try to blame one person or even one country in particular. 

The point is, that our retelling of what happened in the past changes constantly, and this is true with just about every major event in history. The causes of the Second World War used to be straightforward. Hitler was to blame. But then along came the British historian AJP Taylor, and iconoclastically revised our view by suggesting that Hitler was only doing what he was allowed to do, …… 

Some historians claim to be objective. But they are fooling themselves. Any person who even recites his own history ascribes behaviour and motives to himself and to others to suit the needs of the present. The only constraint is that events for which evidence survives cannot be contradicted. Motivations are always malleable. There are events from my childhood for which there is evidence that the events occurred, but there is infinite scope available in the ascribing of motives which led to the behaviour of that time.

History is not bunk, but it is not about truth. It is always a story about the past to suit the politics of the present.


 

Remembering an escape from Singapore — 75 years on

August 12, 2017

Capt. Mark Pillai c. 1950

My father would have been 106 years old yesterday.

Seventy five years ago he was the first Allied officer (the first of only five) to escape from being a Japanese prisoner-of-war and successfully return to India. He left Singapore on 7th May 1942 and managed to reach India on 26th August 1942.

First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942

He was the first Allied prisoner of war to escape from Changi and return to India. He used to tell us that he had travelled a thousand miles on foot, a thousand miles by boat and a thousand miles by train to make his journey of 3000 miles to freedom. In 1968 he tried to get a copy of his official debriefing report from the War Office in London to cross-check his manuscript written from memory long after the event. But he found that the report had been classified to be held secret for 50 years.

In 1942, the Allies were desperate for “good news” and the story of the escape was widely distributed – though labelled top secret – and only within Allied military circles. Recognition was rushed through as “Most Urgent” and he was awarded the Military Cross. However, the official documents remained secret for 50 years and were not released till 1992. Apparently the 50 year secret classification was because his debriefing included not only the names of people who had helped him along the way but also the names of people he felt were Japanese collaborators.

The documents below are the Royal Approval for that award initialed by King George VI on 11th September just two weeks after his return. He received the award from Field Marshal Wavell.

“3000 Miles to Freedom” by Brig. M. M Pillai M.C.

 


 


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