Category Archives: History

The City As A Work of Art

Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.

THE CITY AS LUXURY
1 Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty
THE CITY AS MONUMENT
2 The Monumental Impulse
3 The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative
4 The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914
5 The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse
6 The Process of Urban Embellishment
THE CITY AS HOME
7 The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna
8 Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung
9 Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna
10 Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna
11 Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values
THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND
12 London: Hidden Pleasures
13 Paris: The Garden and the Street
14 Vienna: Display and Self-Representation
THE CITY AS DOCUMENT
15 Architecture as Historical Evidence
16 The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna
17 Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction
18 The City as the Embodiment of History

Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:

The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.

Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)

I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:

Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.

While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)

And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.

City As Monument

The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)

I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:

Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.

What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).

The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):

first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.

And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:

One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)

Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.

The City as Home

The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)

Thus, he argues:

The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)

Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:

The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)

This goes without saying

The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)

But this I hadn’t known:

And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:

And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:

And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.

Social Geography

How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.

This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.

While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)

Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:

The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.

I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:

It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)

This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:

The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.

Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.

There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:

Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.

The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.

And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain

If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)

City as Playground

This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.

Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:

We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)

Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.

Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.

The City as Document

This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,

An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)

The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)

This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).

Architecture as Language

Just a few good quotes;

The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]

1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”

Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]

From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:

Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.

Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:

What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)

Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

More medieval Misogyny, architecture and gardens — Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

I didn’t read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili properly, eyes drooping amidst its turgid misogyny and lengthy OCD descriptions of classical architecture, sculpture and tits…I realised I had many better things to do. But I skimmed along, I liked the pictures (lol). Glasgow University Library has a great blog on it, they liked the pictures too:

Arguably the most beautiful book of the Venetian Renaissance… Published in 1499 by the renowned printer Aldus Manutius, this magnificently crafted volume is illustrated with 172 woodcuts by an unknown artist.

So…beautiful to look at, but some choice quotes of the reactions of others Glasgow University collected:

The overall literary merit of this work is debatable, and some critics have dismissed it as unreadable. Certainly it is written in an odd hybrid of Latin vocabulary imposed upon Italian syntax; this idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.

That’s actually pretty cool, if only the content merited it.

Liane Lefaivre, for instance, suggests that it is in many ways a nondescript example of ‘a highly stylized genre’. Professor Weiss, meanwhile, declared it to be ‘a serious runner up for the title of most boring work in Italian literature’.

IT IS SO BORING. But laid out rather beautifully as they say (on the right is an absurd statue that gets like two pages of absurdly erotic description — the priapic satyr? Yikes):

But I pulled out a few bits that weren’t totally boring, it does have lots to interest the gardener or aficionado of medieval clothing. I’d bought it on a whim from a used bookstore years ago, and thought after reading the Decameron (1353) I’d give it a go in this great time of lockdown.

It totally justifies some of Boccaccio’s ill will towards the Venetians.

Like Boccaccio too, it is obsessed with the ancients in all things, looking backwards always for inspiration. But being of its time, there are some choice passages on the plague, near the very end. The first book is Poliphilo wandering in a strange (yet strangely familiar) land. I liked the tiny second book stuck at the end which actually gives the history of Polia and Poliphilo the best to be honest.

These are the words of Polia, the object of the protagonist’s desire (it’s all in the name to be sure).

Very soon after this there occurred a great carnage affecting people of every age and condition. They were infected through the corrupted air by a contagious and deadly plague, and a great multitude died. Dreadful terror and alarm spread over the sickly earth, and people were struck by mortal fear. Everyone sought safety outside the city and took flight to the suburbs and country regions. Such a dreadful mass of people was exterminated that it was suspected that the fetid south wind had brought the plague from humid Egypt, where at the flooding of the turbid Nile the fields are strewn with a multitude of dead animals that putrefy and stink, and that these had infected the air. …

Ah Europeans, always blaming plagues on the dark continents and the whims of nature rather than commerce. She continues:

Due to my own frail and malignant fate, I found myself afflicted by a tumour in the groin. I besought the highest gods, on the chance that they would grant me recovery, while the spreading infection of the plague in my groin gravely weakened me. Because of this everyone deserted me, and I was left behind, except by my nurse, the kindest and best of women, who stayed to care for me and to witness my last breath and the departure of my spirit. Afflicted by the grave malady, raving and wandering, I uttered incoherent words and many a groan and lamentation. But turning inwards I did the best I could, and sincerely invoked the help of divine Diana, because I had as yet no notion of other gods and no religion but of this goddess. So I uttered many a single minded prayer in my trembling voice, and vowed myself to her cold and sacred chastity, promising in my tormented state that I would be her devotee and ever serve her religiously in her sacred temples, in strict continence, if only she would save me from this deadly contagion and sickness. (378-88)

Seems fair enough that after that she would then reject the advances of Poliphilo — also against him is the fact that he is possibly the most annoying, boring man alive, as his lengthy writing style proves beyond doubt. Sadly, he wrote the book, chose the ending, and this is clearly male wish fulfillment at its finest:

Then the fearless nymph turned to me, with her placid and charming presence showing every sign of kindness, and with a sigh uttered hotly from the bottom of her inflamed heart she spoke thus: ‘Dearest and best beloved Poliphilo, your ardent and excessive desire and your constant and persistent love have altogether stolen me away from the college of chastity, and forced me to extinguish my torch….it has cost me no small fire to keep it hidden and concealed in me, and so long suppressed. … A love so worthy should not be left unrequited and denied equal reciprocation and recompense; and consequently I am all prepared for your inflamed desires.

You may throw up just a little in your mouth here and yet it goes on

Look: I feel the fire of fervent love spreading and tingling throughout my whole being. Here I am, the end of your bitter and frequent sighs. Here I am, dearest Poliphilo, the healing and instant remedy of your grave and vexing pains. Here I am, a ready consort for your amorous and bitter suffering and a sharer in everything. Here I am with my profuse tears to quench your burning heart, and to die for you promptly and most devotedly.

what?

And as proof of it, take this!’ She hugged me close and gave me, mouth to mouth, a luscious biting kiss full of divine sweetness, and also a few pearls in the form of tearlets, wrung by singular sweetness from her starry eyes. Inflamed from head to foot by her charming speech and by the mouth-watering and delicious savour, I dissolved in sweet and amorous tears and lost myself completely. Likewise the sacrificial President and all the others, moved with sudden emotion, could not contain their tears and sweet sighs (216-17).

Tearlets? Vomitous. At least she did try to get rid of him. I quite liked this illustration:

She’s refused him, he collapses, she drags him off to a dark corner of Diana’s Temple where he lies dead for a few days. This could have been an awesome feminist murder mystery, an early example of medieval noir.

But no. She had to change her tune, go back for him, bring him to life (of a kind) with her tears and kisses, and become a sacrificial sex doll of a woman.

That’s what counts for a plot.

There are also numerous monsters, this could have been a great medieval bestiary. I liked these drawings too:

But the skinks are too small, unicorns pull carriages and are consumed for dinner, and there is no mayhem whatsoever.

Instead this is mostly an ‘erotic’ yet somehow still boring tale of architecture, sculpture, gardens — and I love all three of these things and yet, god its boring. The illustrations are far and away the best thing about it. Here is one of the less boring descriptions of columns:

The reason that flutings were used for the temple of a goddess is that they represented the folds of feminine garments, while the capitals placed upon them with their hanging volutes indicated the braided hair of women and their ornaments. The Caryatids, which have a female head for the capital, were made for the temple of a rebellious people after their subjugation, because of their feminine inconstancy, whose perpetual memory was signified by columns thus constructed (49)

Thanks a lot.

I did like the sense of what the greatest possible imaginable luxury was of this time though, as well as menus for fine dining:

All the utensils or instruments at this supreme and splendid table were of fine gold, as was the round table in front of the Queen. Now a cordial confection was presented, which I think I am right in saying was a healthy compound made mostly of powdered unicorn’s horn, the two kinds of sandalwood, ground pearls in brandy set alight so as to dissolve them completely, manna, pine-nuts, rosewater, musk and powdered gold: a very precious mixture, weighed and pressed out in morsels with fine sugar and starch. We were given two servings of this, at a moderate interval and without drinking in between. It is a food for preventing every harmful fever and for dispelling all sorrowful fatigue.

After this, everything was taken away in an instant: the fragrant violets were scattered on the ground and the table was stripped. No sooner was this done than the table was covered once more with a sea-coloured cloth, and all the servants were wearing the same. Then, as before, they covered it with fragrant flowers of citrine, orange and lemon, and then presented in vases of beryl (and the Queen’s table was of the same stone, except for the forks, which were of gold) five cakes or fritters made from saffron-coloured dough with hot rosewater and sugar, cooled and finely sprinkled with the same musk-flavoured water and with powdered sugar. (108)

That is quite a meal, though it’s health-giving benefits seem debatable.

I did love the illustrations of classical ruins:

Indeed, the classical motif runs throughout stretching back to Egypt — there are any number of obelisks in here. That was curious.

These ‘hieroglyphics’ are awesome too, a medieval reimagining of the scripts of earlier time.

I also greatly loved these views into homes — bearing out just how different medieval homes were to ours, how much more bare with their furniture along the walls:

But with massive beds (also, love this perspective, and look at the ducks pulling the carriage! Awesome.):

https://marialynce.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/hypnerp426_3489.jpg?w=474

And CATS. Or is that a dog?

And I did, of course I did, love the illustrations of gardens. It is splendid in illustrating medieval gardens.

Particularly this knotwork patterned garden with a list of what should be planted there: cyclamen, myrtle, mountain hulwort, wild thyme, laurentiana, tarragon, achillea, groundsel, idiosmo, terrambula, hazelwort, wild nard, golden-hair. I would like to make one.

I couldn’t recommend you read it, but a good skim through the pictures — excellent.

Colonna, Francesco (or maybe not) ([1499] 2005) Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, translated by Joscelyn Godwin. London: Thames & Hudson.

Boccaccio’s Tales during plague time

Lockdown is very busy. Work, so much work. I don’t even know how I am getting through it, I am so full of sadness and grief, the losses in my family seem to grow every day. I thought Boccacio deserved a little more attention. I find blogging so soothing somehow.

I’ll start with this awesome paragraph, though it comes at the end. Boccacio at his best.

I suppose it will also be said that some of the tales are too long, to which I can only reply that if you have better things to do, it would be foolish to read these tales, even if they were short. Although much time has elapsed from the day I started to write until this moment, in which I am nearing the end of my labours, it has not escaped by memory that I offered these exertions of mine to ladies with time on their hands, not to any others; and for those who read in order to pass the time, nothing can be too long if it serves the purpose for which it is intended (801).

Take that ladies. I think I’m going to use this as the epigraph to my next novel.

So you are probably aware of the set up, the plague has transformed Florence. Pampinea urges her six lovely companions met by chance in a church to flee Florence, go to an estate in the country she knows where they will be safe. They are discussing amongst themselves how this is to be done when Filomena starts in.

Pampinea’s arguments, ladies, are most convincing, but we should not follow her advice as hastily as you appear to wish. You must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women, when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened; and hence I greatly fear that if we have none but ourselves to guide us, our little band will break up much more swiftly, and with far less credit to ourselves, than would otherwise be the case. We would be well advised to resolve this problem before we depart.’

Then Elissa said:

‘It is certainly true that man is the head of woman, and that without a man to guide us it rarely happens that any enterprise of ours is brought to a worthy conclusion. But where are we to find these men? As we all know, most of our own menfolk are dead, and those few that are still alive are fleeing in scattered little groups from that which we too are intent upon avoiding…’

You can see why I might be somewhat sceptical of claims that Boccaccio is some kind of proto-feminist (made by this translator G.H. McWilliam, with whom I disagree to no small degree, but more of that later).

Luckily three young men join them in the church, and make this country retreat possible. But only with the help of their three man-servants, of course. Three maids. Not everything has broken down you see. Some still while away the time in music, dancing, napping, telling stories while others do the dirty work — if only they had been able to tell a story or two. We only hear from them once, a fight on the 6th day between Licisca and Tidaro, where she argues that women are never virgins at marriage, as it is untrue that ‘young girls are foolish enough to squander their opportunities whilst they are waiting for their fathers and brothers to marry them off…‘ (445). Ladies, virginity is not all its cracked up to be according to Boccaccio, even though your father/husband/brother/man-you-despise-but-who-really-loves-you are all well within their rights to kill you dead for bestowing it where you please. Do not worry about that at all.

I still enjoyed this book. Let that be said.

It almost feels a guilty pleasure, though, but without quite enough pleasure for that. Along with more than a few good stories, Boccaccio provides a string of tales to prove that men’s love for women should always be rewarded, that rape ends happily and can be quite enjoyable, that to the victor belong the spoils. Yet he also celebrates generosity, loyalty (sometimes), wit, intelligence, quick thinking and sexual desire in women. It is what redeems some of this, but does this a proto feminist make? Unlikely methinks.

It is sobering, too, to reflect on what I would have made of a world where the clothes on your back, the wealth in your pocket, the horse beneath you and the food in your stomach were all predicated on pleasing a patron. Most sobering. At some point I would have said f*&^ off and had to go live in a hovel. If I didn’t start and end there that is.

But I shall leave aside such thoughts as they would have applied to men only anyway, as women could be whores or marry well and little in between. Married at 15, you had little chance to shape your life and even in a hovel it seems to me I would have spent much time over the age of 12 fending off attackers. Widows though…widows seemed to have it the best. I think I would have enjoyed being a widow if I’d had a little money scraped together. I think marrying an old rich man close to death seems to be absolutely the best you could possibly do.

Anyway. Ten days, ten stories a day. Most are themed. Each ends with a poem sung to the company — these did not touch me as the stories did, I felt all the great distance of time staring at these little caring for their overdone sentimentality.

There is running throughout a constant anti-clerical theme that can be enjoyed as misogyny cannot:

The story I propose to relate, concerning the manner in which a sanctimonious friar was well and truly hoodwinked by a pretty woman, should prove all the more agreeable to a lay audience inasmuch as the priesthood consists for the most part of extremely stupid men, inscrutable in their ways, who consider themselves in all respects more worthy and knowledgeable than other people, whereas they are decidedly inferior. They resemble pigs, in fact… (205)

hard on clergy really, with so many men having only slightly more options than women in this medieval set up. Had I been a man without the great career of widow to aim for, I should have had to be in the clergy — books, wine, housing, abstinence non-essential.

Of course, Boccaccio also saves much spleen for Venetians:

as a last resort he moved to Venice, where the scum of the earth can always find a welcome. (303)

Though Rome gets a bit of a mention as well:

Not long ago, in the city of Rome — which was once the head and is now the rump of the civilized world… (385)

One of the most infuriating stories is told by Filomena — she’s pretty awful. I’m going to ruin this story but it is well deserved. A man is in love with a woman. She refuses him. Perfectly reasonable. He travels to a remote bit of forest and sees the ghost of a beautiful and naked woman running through the briars, chased by mastiffs nipping at her heels and eventually catching her and ripping her flesh. The naked woman’s sin? Refusing to sleep with this knight who loved her, who chased her, who committed suicide when she refused him and then she gloated. And then she died. And so this is her punishment, to run naked through thorns, to be attacked by dogs, to have her heart cut out by this knight who loved her — loved her? — and then he throws it to his dogs. And then she is resurrected to do it all again. The same time every day. The first man after watching all this and hearing the story brings his own love and a crowd of others to a dinner on the very spot, she sees it all and can refuse him no more.

…from that day forth the ladies of Ravenna became much more tractable to men’s pleasures than they had ever been in the past. (425)

I know I’m not selling this well, but as a window to a world it is brilliant. The 10th story on the 5th day that laughs at a husband and wife falling in love with the same man and the three heading off into the sunset — this is borrowed from a Roman story to be sure, but still, quite a surprise!

There is also this spoken there, from an old woman acting as a go between for the wife and the young handsome thing she hopes to have an affair with:

‘You must help yourself to whatever you can grab in this world, especially if you’re a woman. It’s far more important for women than for men to make the most of their opportunities, because when we’re old, as you can see for yourself, neither our husbands nor any other man can bear the sight of us, and they bundle us off into the kitchen to tell stories to the cat, and count the pots and pans. And what’s worse, they make up rhymes about us, such as “when she’s twenty give her plenty. When she’s a gammer, give her the hammer,” and a lot of other sayings in the same strain (435).

There’s plenty of the belief that our physical appearance, and any delicacy, beauty, intelligence, wit, all come from noble blood (lol). I suppose the belief in a divine order that we are born into as God wills was really a thing.

Fair ladies [says Pampinea], I cannot myself decide whether Nature is more at fault in furnishing a noble spirit with an inferior body, or Fortune in allotting an inferior calling to a body endowed with a noble spirit, as happened in the case of Cisti, our fellow citizen…This Cisti was a man of exceedingly lofty spirit, and yet Fortune made him a baker. (448)

There are sentences you will almost never find in stories of today, but Cisti gets to be a hero. There are a few stories of commoners. I particularly like this sentence:

‘Go now, with my blessing, and come back soon. And if you should happen to meet Lapuccio or Naldino, don’t forget to ask them to bring me those leather thongs for my flails’ (556).

There is a horrible, terrible vengeful story — eighth day, seventh story, Pampinea. It’s hard to keep track of who tells what as you read, but going back over this Pampinea is possibly the most misogynist of the lot. This is certainly the worst story, where a scholar is humiliated by the woman he wants to make his mistress and so tricks her into almost dying atop a tower. According to notes, this is thought by many commentators to be in part a self portrait, and supported by his later work Corbaccio, described here as ‘possibly the most violent anti-feminist diatribe in medieval literature‘ (854). Yowza, I bet that takes some doing. Leaving that aside for a moment, however, there is this amazing quote that I would like to lift completely clear from this context if I may, and just enjoy on its own merit:

Ah, what a poor misguided wretch she must have been, dear ladies, to suppose that she could get the better of a scholar!’ (588)

Lol.

You get the feeling not everyone likes Emilia. Lauretta tells her as she gives her the crown:

‘I know not, madam, whether you will make an agreeable queen, but we shall certainly have a fair one.’ (644)

Lol.

This, this was a bit poignant.

They were all wreathed in fronds of oak, and their hands were full of fragrant herbs or flowers, so that if anyone had encountered them, he would only have been able to say: ‘Either these people will not be vanquished by death, or they will welcome it with joy’. (648)

This can most certainly be read for enjoyment, a little at a time. I did very much love the informative footnotes, with the occasional footnote quite a bit lol. Like this one:

Dioneo’s suggestion of the possible reason for the ladies’ reluctance to discuss the topic he has prescribed, anticipating Freud, reflects B.’s intuitive understanding of the human psyche. (845, note 1)

He’s referring to the topic of tricks women play on their husbands. Honestly, what?

The next one (p 846 note 1) is more interesting, about the Italian fantisima which he translates as werewolf, ‘described by B.’s contemporary, Jacopo Passavanti, as ‘an animal resembling a satyr, or cat monkey (CAT MONKEY!), which goes around at night causing distress to people‘. Sadly, so sadly, there is no real cat monkey (nor even werewolf) in this story.

The last little bit of trivia is that a chamber pot was ‘The distinctive sign for a doctor’s surgery, urine analysis being the most commonly used method of diagnosing ailments‘ (856).

Anyway, well worth a read, even in (or especially in) a time of pandemic.

Boccaccio, Giovanni ([1353] 1995) The Decameron. 2nd edition translated G.H. McWilliam, London: Penguin.

Storytelling in a time of plague: Boccaccio’s Decameron

In the face of its onrush, all the wisdom and ingenuity of man were unavailing…numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail. (4)

Boccaccio describes the Black plague then, the swellings in the groin or armpit, the spread of swelling, the blotches and bruises. From the time of the first sign of swelling you knew you would die.

I can’t imagine it. All that we know now of science and medicine and so this bubble we find ourselves in and the ambulances to take people away and the clean white antiseptic of hospitals and experts and antibiotics and you can still die and it is still terrifying…but not like then.

Against these maladies, it seemed that all the advice of physicians and all the power of medicine were profitless and unavailing (5)

But what made this pestilence even more severe was that wherever those suffering from it mixed with people who were all unaffected, it would rush upon those with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances…

It did not just do so through direct touch, but through clothes and other objects handled by others. Some became more sober and abstemious and god-fearing, others hedonistic, satisfying all cravings. Laws broke down. Servants died or fled, breaking down some of the distinctions between people, women were no longer able to gather and mourn the dead. The bodies were left lying outside of the door of the home for collection to be buried in mass graves.

…it is reliably thought that over a hundred thousand human lives were extinguished within the walls of the city of Florence…Yet before this lethal catastrophe fell upon the city, it is doubtful whether anyone would have guessed it contained so many inhabitants.

Ah, how great a number of splendid palaces, fine houses, and noble dwellings, once filled with retainers, with lords and with ladies, were left bereft of all who had lived there… (13)

Thus the circumstances that lead seven young ladies to gather at a church. Pampinea says:

Here we linger for no other purpose, or so it seems to me, than to count the number of corpses being taken to burial, or to hear whether the friars of the church, very few of whom are left, chant and their offices at the appropriate hours, or to exhibit the quality and quantity of our sorrows, by means of the clothes we are wearing, to all those whom we meet in this place. And if we go outside, we shall see the dead and the sick being carried hither and thither, or we shall see people, once condemned to exile by the courts for their misdeeds, careering wildly about the streets in open defiance of the law, well knowing that those appointed to enforce it are either dead or dying; or else we shall find ourselves at the mercy of the scum of our city who, having scented our blood, call themselves sextons and go prancing and bustling all over the place, singing bawdy songs that add insult to our injuries. Moreover, all we ever hear is “So-and-so’s dead” and “So-and-so’s dying”; and if there were anyone left to mourn, the whole place would be filled with sounds of weeping and wailing.

And if we return to our homes, what happens? I know not whether your own experience is similar to mine, but my house was once full of servants, and now that there is no one left apart from my maid and myself, I am filled with foreboding and feel as if every hair of my head is standing on end. Wherever I go in the house, wherever I pause to rest, I seem to be haunted by the shades of the departed, whose faces no longer appear as I remember them but with strange and horribly twisted expressions that frighten me out of my senses. (13-14)

Our coronavirus is not quite like this. It is strange to know that it is all around us, to watch the numbers of the dead climb, to mourn. To hear accounts of places like New York where a friend of mine describes constant sirens, fear, a life more at risk for Asian features as attacks spread. To see the strange attacks here in the UK on G5 masts, this mad conspiracy theory but yet its components not mad at all in marking out the collusion of government and industry for profit without caring about human cost. I can’t look too hard at what is happening around us to be honest.

We have been in a bubble, my partner and I, still allowed to go outside though as of yesterday lockdown extended three more weeks. It will be more, how could it not be more?

And today my grief sits hot and unbearable in my chest, it is not the covid but the cancer, taking my aunt and there is nothing to do. No way to go. Impossible to travel to be present to say goodbye to grieve with family. I am not the first by any stretch to note the horror of this epidemic is the way it keeps us apart from one another, though if we are lucky we can drive by family homes, speak to them from the drive, press our hands against their windows. But not when they are an ocean away.

To travel such distance, always a privilege. It requires money or credit cards, the right to travel with a legal status and passport that permit exit, entrance, return. This should belong to all of us. The cost of its absence immeasurable.

I take refuge, as my family always does, in some level of dark humour. This is from the introduction to the Decameron:

…the sombre and frightening prelude which medieval rhetoricians regarded as an essential component of the genre of comedy to which the Decameron, like Dante’s great poem, was intended to belong. Both works, in fact, despite their obvious differences in form and subject-matter, respect the definition of comedy formulated for instance by Uguccione da Pisa in his Derivationes: ‘a principio horribilis et fetidus, in fine prosperis desiderablis et gratus’ (foul and horrible at the beginning, in the end felicitous, desirable and pleasing’). (xlii)

You don’t even need a translation for that. I rather love this idea of comedy, always have, but it seems even more necessary now. It makes me think of Stewart Lee, though he rarely gets around to the felicitous, desirable and pleasing. I love him for it.

Buzludzha Monument — to Socialist and nationalist Struggle, and 50s Science Fiction Паметник на Бузлуджа

It is visible for miles, perched precipitous, high on its mountain above fields golden with sunflowers. It is an incredible absurd sciencefictional thing. A flying saucer tethered to a grounding skysoaring shard of concrete.

It sits on earth of great significance, impossible beauty. Site of the last battle of rebel Hadzhi Dimitâr against the Ottomans. He received a fatal wound here, and it was for many years known by his name.

Between 1877 and 1878 a number of battles were fought here for control of Shipka pass, Russian General Gourko facing down the Ottomans, you look down on the monument itself from here.

Then on 2nd of August, 1891 the 1st Bulgarian Socialist Congress was held here under cover of celebrations of the deeds of Hadzhi Dimitâr. There is a monument to Dimitâr Blagoev at the turn off for the monument.

Monument to Dimitâr Blagoev

Some Nazis were killed here as well in 1944, and three partisans lost their lives in the ambush (though Bulgaria’s government under Tsar Boris III officially supported the Nazis until 1944). This massive 1981 installation was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, as Richard F. Morton writes:

He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha.

It was meant to symbolise all of this history as a museum and meeting space, but after decades of varying types and degrees of Stalinist rule, the fact that it was built with not-always-so-voluntary labour and subscriptions…it is not a thing I can love wholeheartedly. After it was abandoned in 1989 looters (rumored to include government officials) stripped what they could like the copper from the ceilings, smashed the red star thinking the glass to be rubies, pulled down concrete letters to leave them scattered across the grass.

All this and also the villain’s lair in Mechanic 2.

What it looks like today:

What it looked like once (this is borrowed from the best site by far about the monument, with an extensive history and many more photos, especially of the inside which you are no longer allowed to risk life and limb to see. Have a look!):

Beneath it sit this amazing sculpture of unity, two hands holding torches.

After arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, I looked at the book I was reading and there they were again.

We had to get a special tour out here as we didn’t have a car, but well worth it and we enjoyed it immensely.

Boyana Church (БОЯНСКАТА ЦЪРКВА) to Boyana Waterfall

We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.

It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:

Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.

boyanachurch

A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:

The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.

The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:

From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.

Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.

The mountain now, and some of its wonders:

boyanawaterfall

boyanachurch

The waterfall

We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.

Rackham’s History of the countryside

I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…

I miss my blog so much.

Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.

First, this delightful thought.

Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.

Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:

Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)

He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.

Modern Differences

Ancient Countryside

Hamlets & small towns

Ancient isolated farms

Hedges mainly mixed, not straight

Roads many, not straight, often sunken

Many public footpaths

Woods many, often small

Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation


Many antiquities of all periods

Historic Differences

Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700

Most hedges ancient

Many though often small woods

Much heathland

Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch

Many ponds

Planned Countryside

Villages

18th & 19th C isolated farms

Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight

Roads few, straight, on surface


Few footpaths

Woods absent or few & large

Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages

Antiquities few, usually prehistoric


Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period

Most hedges modern

Woods absent or few & large

Heaths rare; little bracken or broom

Non-woodland thorns and elders

Few ponds

I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.

He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes

Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)

It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)

He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:

First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)

The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.

He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.

There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.

There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)

All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)

There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:

In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)

Werewolves!

Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.

The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.

There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.

Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):

The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)

God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:

The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.

Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes

‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)

And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:

Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)

Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).

The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.

I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)

We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.

Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)

They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.

This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:

So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:

  • Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
  • These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
  • Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
  • farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
  • Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
  • Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
  • Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents

There is so much there to love.

Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:

Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.

He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.

We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.

Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.

I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.

A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.

Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:

Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)

I quite love that.

Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes

The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)

Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.

A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.

The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.

There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.

There is so much more of course, a splendid book.

History of Croatia in Maps

We are going to Croatia today! Dubrovnik for a week and then Split, and a conference on… I’m not sure.

Gravity assist is a slingshot move, when one object uses the gravity of another to propel itself out of orbit. This concept from space travel, first used with the Mariner 10 probe in 1974, functions as a metaphor for escaping the constraints of the present to create change for the future. The conference, to be held by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Split, Croatia, 14-15 September, 2018, aims to examine strategies for challenging the limitations of the present in order to escape from them.

I’ve been at RGS all this week, I presented a paper on rural homelessness in Wales, I spoke about how austerity is tearing its way through people’s lives and concreting itself into the landscape and service provision. This is why I do not have a paper for Split, which is really Mark’s bag of course, but it would have been fun to think about this. I will enjoy being there and seeing old friends again, but mostly I look forward to exploring a new space and place and have, of course, been reading a great deal. I read a short book on the history as it was all I could find in our library, it was all right. I most loved the maps that trace this much-contested area over time, and they are presented in order here. From Tanner, M. (2001). Croatia : A Nation Forged in War. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Not quite peaceful countryside: Ilford Manor and Farleigh Hungerford Castle

You can get the train to Freshford, I don’t know why we had never done this, for it looks like there are several lovely walks to be done from here. There is also a lovely pub with the best lemon crumble I have ever had in my life. It is, you know, redolent of rich people, but for a day that’s quite all right. And really, this walk was all about the violence hidden in the tranquility of the countryside, made possible by wealth inequality really.

You follow narrow lanes from the station to Ilford Manor — I didn’t think the gardens would be open but they were. A description from the website:

The Grade-1 listed gardens were designed by Harold Peto during his tenure at Iford from 1899-1933, and represent one of the finest examples of steeply terraced hillside gardening in the UK. They are characterised by colonnades, pools and steps, and offer magnificent rural views over the valley.

They are beautiful gardens though a bit small perhaps. I particularly loved the millstones set into the paving stones, the stairs up hillsides with their cascades of daisies, lovely borders, the smell of rosemary, wisteria everywhere. Quite a wonderful sculpture of a dog scratching itself.

Ilford Manor

But behind it you can see the sarcophagus — whose? There is a pond full of waterlilies, wisteria growing in bush form in a great circle around it which is quite beautiful — I haven’t seen it like that. And then suddenly you realise the statue of the old sage is actually holding what looks like a dog and the water pours from the wound in its breast.

Ilford Manor

There is a cloister, and likewise it is full of carvings of hawks and kestrels hunting hares and partridges, that moment of capture and cruel claws seen also in a lion holding a pig, and suddenly this beautiful garden felt quite a cruel place. Not least from the worry over the provenance of these old scraps of carving, columns and statuary collected from around the world…

From there we followed footpaths down the side of the River Frome to reach Farleigh Hungerford Castle. There is not much of it left, it is true, but more than would appear upon first glance. A quite incredible chapel, I am still not entirely sure how it fits within these ruins, approached as you might the center of a snail shell through a walled garden behind which rise the ruins.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

There are burials here too, but at least you are quite sure that they belong here. The old, unexpected colours restored, but this families disappointing obsession with their own ancestry also on view.

Freshford Walk

Underneath a crypt, rather terrifying lead coffins. The kid who came down behind us legged it.

Freshford Walk

This family has only violence to make it stand out, really. It was built in the 1370s but Sir Thomas Hungerford, steward of John of Gaunt — I do appreciate that he was the first recorded speaker of the House of Commons. Yet he destroyed the local village to make way for the park alongside the castle. The family did well in the 100 years war, made a fortune through kidnapping Frenchmen and demanding ransom. The beautiful chapel had been a parish church, but became a private one when the walls were expanded around it. In 1523, Lady Agnes Hungerford was hanged with two of her servants for murdering her first husband, John Cottell. They waited to bring her to trial until her second husband Sir Edward Hungerford died (a natural death it seems, but his desire to marry Agnes was, of course, her motive). Given her first husband was strangled and burned within the walls of the castle itself — well.

The ‘Lady Tower’ here is so called because it was used to imprison Elizabeth Hungerford, wife of Sir Edward’s son, over a period of months. She also accused him of attempting to poison her. Sadly, this is not the reason he was executed. He was executed on charges of treason and ‘unnatural vice’ (almost makes you like him) after his patron Thomas Cromwell fell from grace with Henry VIII.

His grandson would go on to accuse his wife of adultery and an attempt to poison him. He lost the court case, refused to pay her costs and went to jail. The castle was lost to the family by Sir Edward ‘The Spendthrift’, who gambled and frivolised away the fortune under Charles II and was forced to sell it.

I don’t really know why anyone thought aristocracy a good idea. But someone here did own this lovely little thing created to tamp down tobacco in the bowl of a pipe:

Freshford Walk

I do also love ruins, probably because they are ruins and reminders that all tyranny must pass.

Freshford Walk

Though it felt good and fresh and clean to escape into the countryside, down along the other side of the river.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

We also passed the site of an old priory where the lay brothers once lived attached to the Carthusian Priory of Hinton. Little remains but the practice of farming (pigs, bees, lovely vegetable gardens) and some of the old cottages (now with solar panels) and this sign showing what it once resembled:

Freshford Walk

And then back to Freshford. The countryside is so beautiful here, but sprinkled about with absurd mansions being too close to Bath for comfort.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

But the Inn at Freshford, as I say… incredible cakes, ales, full of dogs and beautiful in itself.

Barbara Fields on Class, Race and Racism

A classic and groundbreaking piece from Barbara Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’ is such a brilliant piece of work, a foundation that made so much other work possible on the concrete and changing historical formations of socially constructed ideas of race. A fight that still needs fighting because this is still true:

It is my intention to suggest that Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding. Ideologies, including those of race, can be properly analyzed only at a safe distance from their terrain. To assume, by intention or default, that race is a phenomenon outside history is to take up a position within the terrain of racialist ideology and to become its unknowing-and therefore uncontesting-victim.

The first false move in this direction is the easiest: the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.(144)

Thus the construction of race must be studied in its social and ideological context.

Race is a product of history, not of nature. And as an element of ideology, it is best understood in connection with other elements of ideology and not as a phenomenon sui generis. Only when set next to contemporary ideas having nothing to do with race can ideas about race be placed in the context of the ideological ensemble of which they form a part.(152)

I am still not as familiar with this early period as I should be. Fields looks at Walter Rodney’s study of the Portuguese, and the complex relationships between Europeans and the people along upper Guinea Coast:

They were capable, as are all human beings, of believing things that in strict logic are not compatible. No trader who had to confront and learn to placate the power of an African chief could in practice believe that Africans were docile, childlike, or primitive. The practical circumstances in which Europeans confronted Africans in Africa make nonsense of any attempt to encompass Europeans’ reactions to Africans within the literary stereotypes that scholars have traced through the ages as discrete racial attitudes. (148)

I think this is a key point, and one that bears repeating because I still find it shocks me every time I see anew the extent to which human beings are capable of being perfectly at ease with a common sense view of the world that incorporates completely conflicting views.

The idea one people has of another, even when the difference between them is embodied in the most striking physical characteristics, is always mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact. This remains true even when time-honored tradition provides a vocabulary for thinking and talking about the other people that runs counter to immediate experience. In that case, the vocabulary and the experience simply exist side by side … An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations-not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from outside, passing through it like neutrinos to emerge unchanged at the other end.

The view that race is a biological fact, a physical attribute of
individuals, is no longer tenable. (148-49)

The sarcasm in here is something to relish. She later writes:

Precisely because ideologies consist of contradictory and inconsistent elements, they can undergo fundamental change simply through the reshuffling of those elements into a different hierarchy. (154)

This echoes Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation, and how formations change over time. Similar also, perhaps, to his focus on understanding the work that changing, and highly conflicted constructions of race performs is this:

In the end we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example and counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question “What kind of social reality is reflected-or refracted – in an ideology built on a unity of these particular opposites?” … If ideology is a vocabulary for interpreting social experience, and thus both shapes and is shaped by that experience, it follows that even the “same” ideology must convey different. meanings to people having different social experiences.(155)

But this argues a more complex understanding I think, where very different understandings and experiences of race exist  depending on personal history, experience and positionality — which opens up room in thinking about alliances and where change can happen. I wrestle so much with the relationship between class and race, the pitfalls and possibilities of solidarity along class lines rather than the continuous fracturing along lines of race, and so found her views on their nature and articulation particularly interesting:

Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.15

class is a concept that we can locate both at the level of objective reality and at the level of social appearances. Race is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only. A material reality underlies it all right, as must be true of any ideology; but the underlying reality is not the one that the language of racial ideology addresses. … because class and race are not equivalent concepts, it is erroneous to offer them as alternatives to each other; and because any thorough social analysis must move simultaneously at the level of objective reality and at that of appearances, it is self-defeating to attempt to do so.(151)

This creates a very different view of white supremacy — not in the totality of its effects but in how it is understood and…er…practiced (?) by different groups. She writes:

White supremacy is a slogan, not a belief.29 And it is a slogan that cannot have meant the same to all white people. Those who invoke it as a way of minimizing the importance of class diversity in the South overlook this simple but basic point….

But white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices. It was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents. Prejudices fed into them, naturally; but so far from providing a unifying element, they were as likely as not to accentuate the latent possibilities for discord. (156)

This is actually a rather hopeful understanding of white supremacy perhaps, one that can be levered apart, maybe dismantled little by little. Maybe. Though it’s complicated, right? A holistic view also shows how multiple aspects of life prop up understandings of white supremacy, and even life experience does not necessarily challenge that.

But racial ideology constituted only one element of the whole ideology of each class. And it is the totality of the elements and their relation to each other that gives the whole its form and direction; not the content of one isolated element, which in any case is bound to be contradictory. (158)

Thus:

Racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.37

Pretty depressing. It highlights the necessity of work in the Freirean tradition where action is always followed by reflection. But how better to describe some of those who have brought Trump to power and continue to support him in face of everything:

The racialism of the black-belt elite, after all, carried with it the luster of victory. That of the white common people became ever more tightly bound up with the rancor of hard blows and final defeat, as they watched the basis of their proud independence eroded by economic and social forces with which they were finally unable to cope. Their rancor became pervasive in the cultural atmosphere of the South and lent itself to demagogic manipulation by politicians seeking to turn it to electoral advantage. But it could never be fully assuaged; quite the contrary. Arising from a bleak day-to-day experience to which the slogans and rituals of white supremacy offered no material solution, that rancor only grew larger the more it was fed. (159)

This kind of gives me chills it makes so much sense — especially the extra-chill factor of the bolded bit.

A racialist ideology harnessed to a ruling-class will, intention, and capacity to dominate both blacks and whites may be characterized by a patronizing tolerance, while that of a rednecks’ movement to unseat their white masters may be virulent and homicidal.38 … Historical analysis cannot distinguish these positions as “more” and “less” racist. Rather, they represent the different shape of the space occupied by racialism in different ideological ensembles. To think of them as different quantities of the same ideological substance is fundamentally mistaken. (160)

Academia and the non-profit world are both rife with examples of ‘patronising tolerance’, I find so useful this understanding of the distinction between the two. We have to look to history to understand the shapes of these ‘spaces occupied by racialism’, always a key to US politics from its beginnings with slavery.

Slavery thus became a “racial” question, and spawned an endless variety of “racial” problems. Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. (162)

This is echoed in Roediger, who has done some of the best work in understanding how this space has been shaped. His work also supports Fields’ argument that it just didn’t have to turn out this way, that this was not in fact what most people wanted.

While the freedmen were being hustled into the market economy at the well-intentioned (though not always disinterested) initiative of various groups of Yankees, the white yeomanry was also being drawn into that economy: in their case, through a combination of indebtedness and complex changes in law and social usage that followed in the wake of the Civil War. Both groups, as more and more studies make clear, would have preferred a different outcome.52 Secure tenure of land and peace in which to pursue essentially self-sufficient farming, with only incidental resort to the market, would have suited their desires more than conscription willy-nilly into the world of commercialized agriculture, with its ginners, merchants, storekeepers, moneylenders, and crop liens. There never was much chance that they would get the kind of world they wanted. (166)

Fucking capitalism. Zombie capitalism even. I don’t think she gets the credit for the term, and I am not sure this is dialectical enough for me, but I love this imagery:

It is not that ideas have a life of their own, but rather that they have a boundless facility for usurping the lives of men and women. In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. The history of racialist ideologies provides excellent examples. (153)

I will end where Field ends:

Race is neither the reflex of primordial attitudes nor a tragically
recurring central theme. It became the ideological medium through which Americans confronted questions of sovereignty and power because the enslavement of Africans and their descendants constituted a massive exception to the rules of sovereignty and power that were increasingly taken for granted. And, despite the changes it has undergone along the way, race has remained a predominant ideological medium because the manner of slavery’s unraveling had lasting consequences for the relations of whites to other whites, no less than for those of whites to blacks. There are no tragic flaws or central themes in which to take shelter, however reluctantly. There are only acts and decisions of men and women in a society now past, and a responsibility which, because the outcome remains provisional, we are obliged to share with them. (168-169)

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177)

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