Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Changing Image of Witches

As I have previously mentioned, as part of my history AS Level I studied the European Witch Craze (1560-1640). It was one of favourite papers as I found the concept of a 'craze' fascinating. The witch hunts were highly localised, had varied causes and were mostly experienced as individual events, resulting in, on average, under 10 executions; the 'witch craze' was something subsequent historians have determined.

In order to pursue my interest in the European Witch Craze I visited the British Museum to see the 'Witches and Wicked Bodies' exhibition. The exhibition examines the portrayal of witches and witchcraft in art from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century.What interested me most about the exhibition is the changing visual iconography of witches. In the Middle Ages, witches were often portrayed as naked women, riding goats and surrounded by skulls and other symbols of death. Witches were pictured at sabbaths, raising the dead within magic circles, surrounded by demons or performing evil spells. They were often imagined riding on dragons and other beasts.

However by the end of the 19th century hideous old hags with distended breasts and snakes for hair were mostly replaced by sexualised and mysteriously exotic images of feminine evil. And by the 20th century this had developed into images of women with broomsticks, cats and elongated facial features. Modern witches come in all shapes and sizes (often quite beautiful), portrayed in a multitude of ways, however anyone who has watched Harry Potter will be familiar with the idea of cats and pointed hats as representations of witches. Modern imagery surrounding witches is focused more on childish entertainment than spreading fear, propaganda and warnings of witchcraft, which was the purpose of art portraying witches or witchcraft  in the Middle Ages.

The use of art was crucial in helping the European Witch Hunts develop into a Craze, as support from the local populace was needed in order for witchcraft trials to be successfully carried out, and word of mouth and art were the main methods of spreading ideas amongst a mostly illiterate population. Changing representations of witches in art may also have helped contribute to the end of the Witch Craze as images of witches changed from being harrowing and fear-inciting, to sexualised and intriguing.

To anyone who lives in London or can travel to London easily, I would highly recommend visiting the exhibition!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Myths about WWI

As I recently mentioned in my blog on myths about elephants, I find it very interesting how myths retold over time become 'facts'0 simply because they have withstood the test of time, which attaches some authority to them.

I read a very interesting article on myths about WWI recently, and how much we think we know about the conflict is actually wrong. The article was also very thought provoking as it argued that by setting WWI apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of war and are in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day. Here is a summary of the article:

One of the most famous 'myths' about WWI is that it was the bloodiest war in history to that point, the 'war to end all wars'. However that is actually untrue. Fifty years before WW1 broke out, southern China was torn apart by the 14 year Taiping rebellion, where between 20-30 million died, compared to 17 million soldiers and civilians who lost their lives during WWI. It is also important to look at deaths as a percentage of population rather than just a number, as although more Britons died in WW1 than any other conflict, the bloodiest war in our history relative to population size is the Civil War: 4% compared to 2%.

It is also untrue that men lived in the trenches for years on end. Front-line trenches were very unpleasant: cold, wet and exposed to the enemy, meaning soldiers would quickly lose their morale if they spent too much time in the trenches. As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system and, of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. During moments of crisis the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

Another myth that the article debunked is that most soldiers died. In fact, in the UK around six million men were mobilised, and of those just over 700,000 were killed: 11.5%. As a British soldier you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-56) than in WW1.

And although the great majority of casualties in WW1 were from the working class, the upper class did not get off lightly: the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard by WW1. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men. Some 12% of the British army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils - 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded, and an uncle was captured.

The famous saying 'lions led by donkeys' (i.e. that British commanders were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the Army had ever seen) is also inaccurate. Whilst some generals did struggle, many generals were brilliant. During the war more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured. Most visited the front lines every day. In battle they were considerably closer to the action than generals are today. Rarely in history have commanders had to adapt to a more radically different technological environment. British commanders had been trained to fight small colonial wars; now they were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the British army had ever seen. Despite this, within three years the British had effectively invented a method of warfare still recognisable today. By the summer of 1918 the British army was probably at its best ever and it inflicted crushing defeats on the Germans.

Another myth is that tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure. In reality tactics and technology changed radically: it was a time of extraordinary innovation. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells. They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, which in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance. Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy - using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks had gone from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years, also changing war for ever.

Whilst it is odd to talk about winning WWI (swathes of Europe lay wasted, millions were dead or wounded. Survivors lived on with severe mental trauma. The UK was broke), in a narrow military sense, the UK and its allies convincingly won. Germany's battleships had been bottled up by the Royal Navy until their crews mutinied rather than make a suicidal attack against the British fleet. Germany's army collapsed as a series of mighty allied blows scythed through supposedly impregnable defences. By late September 1918 the German emperor and his military mastermind Erich Ludendorff admitted that there was no hope and Germany must beg for peace. The 11 November Armistice was essentially a German surrender. Unlike Hitler in 1945, the German government did not insist on a hopeless, pointless struggle until the allies were in Berlin - a decision that saved countless lives, but was seized upon later to claim Germany never really lost.

A very common misconception is that the Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh. Whilst the Treaty of Versailles confiscated 10% of Germany's territory it left it the largest, richest nation in central Europe. It was largely unoccupied and financial reparations were linked to its ability to pay, which mostly went unenforced anyway. The treaty was notably less harsh than treaties that ended the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and World War Two. The German victors in the former annexed large chunks of two rich French provinces, part of France for between 200 and 300 years, and home to most of French iron ore production, as well as presenting France with a massive bill for immediate payment. After WW2 Germany was occupied, split up, its factory machinery smashed or stolen and millions of prisoners forced to stay with their captors and work as slave labourers. Germany lost all the territory it had gained after WW1 and another giant slice on top of that. Versailles was not harsh but was portrayed as such by Hitler, who sought to create a tidal wave of anti-Versailles sentiment on which he could then ride into power.
Finally, not everyone hated WWI. Whilst some witnessed unimaginable horrors that left them mentally and physically incapacitated for life, other soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time conditions might be better than at home.
For the British there was meat every day - a rare luxury back home - cigarettes, tea and rum, part of a daily diet of more than 4,000 calories. Remarkably, absentee rates due to sickness, an important barometer of a unit's morale, were hardly above those of peacetime. Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than in peacetime Britain.

source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836

Monday, 15 December 2014

When Was The First Total War?

I am very interested in the concept of 'total war', whether such wars can and do exist, and if so, which wars have been 'total', and which, like the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2001) have been limited. The phrase 'total war' is a twentieth century one but the concept itself is much older. I think the French Revolutionary Wars were the first modern total war, but the Peloponnesian War is the first pre-modern total war. Carl von Clausewitz first articulated the concept of total war when he discussed how wars could not be fought within limits or by laws, as the logic of war is 'absolute' and demands that all available resources are deployed, in his book Von Kriege in 1966. Clausewitz said that Napolean had changed the nature of war and that the French Revolutionary Wars mark the point in which wars became the business of the people as opposed to the 'hobby of kings'. Clausewitz also came up with the famous saying "war is a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means".

In a total war there is a full mobilisation of available resources and population to the war effort, there is no real distinction between civilians and combatants, they are prolonged and bloody (because they only end with 'total surrender') and there are no 'rules of war'. These criteria fit, to some extent, the French Revolutionary Wars from 1792 to 1815, where the whole of society was mobilised in that the wars were seem as 'people's wars' and all Frenchmen were in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. Almost 3 million men were enlisted in the army between 1792 and 1815, and almost 1.7 million of them died. The use of 'populidices' was seen by the massacre at Vendee, where 200,000 people were slaughtered. Prior to the French Revolutionary Wars wars were relatively easy to control and restrain: armies were small, major battles infrequent, civilians well treated: they were the wars of kinds, fought by professional armies who respected their opponents as men of honour.

The first pre-modern total war which we have enough evidence for is, I believe, the Peloponnesian War, 431 - 404 BC. Sparta was a society which was organised for war: weak babies were abandoned at birth, young men and women went through a brutal military training as they grew up and all male citizens were enrolled in the army from 20-30 years of age. Likewise Athens focused on their Navy, which had 300 triremes, almost 8 times the size of the next largest naval power and almost the same size as today's US Navy, which supports a population which is 1,500 times larger. In the Peloponnesian War, all citizens were considered targets, seen by senseless massacres of children and no mercy towards prisoners of war. The Peloponnesian War violated the harsh code of previous Greek warfare (previously Greek warfare had been relatively controlled and formalised, where opposing armies would rush at each other and engage in hand to hand battle until one side surrendered). However the Spartans abandoned this strategy, destroying whole cities and butchering entire populations. The war only ended in total surrender, and destroyed the democratic institutions of Athens.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

North Korea on the USA

Something I find very interesting is how events like the fall of the Roman Empire can be reused again and again over time to make current points. This was seen in Gibbon's Decline and Fall (1776), where his book on the Roman Empire served as a warning to contemporary British Empire builders against the 'feminisation' of the Empire. A more recent example from North Korea is a great illustration of how the Roman Empire can be used to make contemporary analogies. North Korea likened the fate of the US to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Here is the article:

In Australia last month, President Barack Obama spoke about the present day’s place in history.

“I often tell young people in America that, even with today’s challenges, this is the best time in history to be alive,” the president said at the University of Queensland. The president’s 15 November speech was followed by one by then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who explained how the US military would need to reform to keep its place in history.

Two weeks later, in a commentary published by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the speeches are described as the “poor shriek of those facing ruin” and a “recognition of the dark reality in the US as it is a reflection of extreme uneasiness and horror-phobia”.

As KCNA puts it, the speeches remind “one of the old Roman empire that was buried in history after facing a ruin for coveting for prosperity through aggression and wars.

“The poor fate of the US reminiscent of the ruin of the Roman empire is a due outcome of its history of aggression and arbitrary practices,” the article repeats.

North Korea is, of course, no stranger to hurling inventive insults towards Americans. In 2009, KCNA reported that a North Korean official had labelled Hillary Clinton a “funny lady” who was “by no means intelligent”.Earlier this year, in light of a UN report on human rights in North Korea, the country released its own human rights report on the US, concluding it was “a living hell”.

The comparison to the Roman empire is slightly unusual, however: North Korean propaganda rarely steps outside its own mythology to think about other histories. Defectors from the country have said they are taught a “general history of the world” in schools, though the emphasis appears to be on 20th-century history.

Comparing the US to the Roman empire is hardly a new concept – it’s been around for decades if not far longer. “Americans have been casting eyes back to ancient Rome since before the revolution,” Cullen Murphy wrote in his 2008 book Are We Rome?

Murphy points out that most of the American allusions to Rome ignore the complexity of history (some historians argue that Rome didn’t really fall), and depending on who is doing the talking, Rome “serves as either a grim cautionary tale or an inspirational call to action”.

In recent years, with America wracked by internal political divisions, economic uncertainty and geopolitical enemies of all sorts around the world, the former option seems to have become more popular – especially among America’s geopolitical rivals. For the ascendant ones, it seems like good news: China’s CCTV state broadcaster commissioned a huge TV series titled The Rise of the Great Powers a few years ago, in effect announcing China’s ascendance and declaring the end of America.

KCNA’s commentary takes a darker angle. “The US is now thrown into confusion as its unipolar domination system called world order is getting out of control,” the unnamed writer notes, later pointing to the problems in Ukraine and the Middle East. “Its military muscle and dollar’s position that have propped Washington’s moves for world domination are now sinking rapidly.”

“The US has now the hardest time in its history,” KCNA reported.

It’s a grim assessment, but it poses the question: if the US is the Roman empire, who is North Korea? The Vandals or some more obscure German tribe? According to James Romm, a professor of classics at Bard College in New York, the hermit kingdom resembles ... the Roman empire.

“In the century or so following Caesar’s assassination, his successors achieved a power so absolute that they were worshipped as gods on Earth, as the Kims are today,” Romm wrote for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “Yet they, again like the Kims, suffered chronic insecurity about their legitimacy, and that fear led to terrible abuses.”

I think this shows very well how different parties can manipulate history in order to suit their present day concerns, 

source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/08/north-korea-us-roman-empire?CMP=twt_gu

Friday, 5 December 2014

Should the Elgin Marbles be Returned to Greece?

Today it was announced that the Elgin Marbles have left London for the first time, on loan by the British Museum to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great to enable Russia to participate in the European Enlightenment. The politics of the move are very interesting (Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum has said that the relationship between the two museums is all the more important considering fears of a new Cold War between the Kremlin and the west). The British Museum has used history to improve cultural links with China, Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. For example, four years ago the Cyrus Cylinder, a small Persian clay tablet often described as the earliest charter of human rights, was loaned to Iran for an exhibition at which it was seen by nearly 500,000 people. 

However there is a controversy over the statues which I wish to talk about today. Whilst visiting the British Museum a few weeks ago I was intrigued by the idea, held by some, that most of the objects in the museum aren't actually owned by the British (they were 'stolen' centuries ago) and therefore ought to be returned.

Greece refuses to recognise the British Museum’s ownership of the Elgin Marbles, which make up about 30% of the surviving decoration from the Parthenon. The classical marbles – officially known as the Parthenon sculptures – were brought from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. They were acquired by parliament in 1816. The museum maintains that the sculptures’ reputation as art rather than decoration was forged in London and that they can best be understood in the context of Western civilisation by remaining in the museum. However for the past 40 years Athens has argued that they belong in Greece alongside the other remaining fragments, in a museum with a view of the Acropolis, where the ruined Parthenon stands. Amal Clooney has argued that "the Elgin Marbles, like fox-hunting, represent an overbearing past", that Britain is growing out of. 

The Greeks claim that even if Lord Elgin, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, had bought the statues legally, at the time Greece was under Turkish occupation, meaning the rulers of the day may have agreed the deal, but the Greek people didn’t. Some people argue that had the sculptures stayed in Athens they might have been ground down to produce lime and used as rubble for building foundations. 

Ultimately, the Greek's argument has much larger connotations, for if the Greeks can prove their argument is right hundreds of other artifacts would have to be removed from museums around the world and sent back to where they originally came from. The Venus de Milo – also removed from Greece during the Ottoman empire – would have to leave the Louvre. The Tipu’s Tiger would have to be returned to Delhi from the V&A. The magnificent Assyrian galleries at the British Museum would be sent back to Baghdad. And there is another problem; countries and borders have changed significantly over time. For example, where would the great altar removed from the temple at Pergamon to Berlin go? Pergamon is in Turkey, but was once part of imperial Greece, imperial Rome, imperial Persia and imperial Byzantium - so who does it belong to? 


Understanding history recognises that things always change and that all actions are the product of their time. Sir John Boardman has warned that the return of Elgin Marbles would 'ruin' museums, in an "appalling precedent". Both David Cameron and the British Museum have firmly opposed calls for their return. “The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history,” a museum spokesman said. And, more importantly in my opinion, the removal of the sculptures to Greece would have a knock-on effect for museums around the world, ultimately causing far more damage than good. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Exciting Richard III News!

Today I read an article that I found very interesting and exciting, especially as a 16th century historian. Despite the absence of a male-line genetic match, DNA results came back with a 99.999% probability that the body found in a Leicester carpark several years ago was that of the Plantagenet king, Richard III. Secondly, the break in the male line is evidence of infidelity in his family tree. This could have profound historical implications, depending on where in the family tree it occurred, as it could cast doubt on the Tudor claim to the English throne or, indeed, on Richard's. Some are even questioning if the findings have an impact on the current Royal Family's legitimacy, but this cannot be commented on as it is still unknown when the break, or breaks, in the lineage occurred.

In 2012, scientists extracted genetic material from the remains discovered on the former site of Greyfriars Abbey, where Richard was buried after his death in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Their analysis shows that DNA passed down on the maternal side matches that of living relatives, but genetic information passed down on the male side does not. Given the amount of additional evidence linking the body to Richard III, scientists have concluded that infidelity is the most likely explanation for this break. For example, the curvature in the skeleton's spine matches contemporary descriptions of  Richard having one shoulder higher than the other. Genes involved in hair and eye colour also suggest that Richard III had blue eyes, matching one of the earliest known paintings of the king. However, the hair colour analysis gave a 77% probability that the individual was blond, which does not match the depiction. But the researchers say the test is most closely correlated with childhood hair, and in some blond children, hair darkens during adolescence."If you put all the data together, the evidence is overwhelming that these are the remains of Richard III," said Dr Turi King from Leicester University, who led the study. She said that the lack of a match on the male side was not unexpected, because her previous research had shown there was a 1-2% rate of "false paternity" per generation. The instance of female infidelity could have occurred anywhere in the generations that separate Richard III from the 5th Duke of Beaufort (1744-1803), whose living descendants provided samples of male-line DNA to be compared against that of the Plantagenet king.

"We may have solved one historical puzzle, but in so doing, we opened up a whole new one” said Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester.

Richard III and Henry Tudor (later Henry VII), were both descendants of King Edward III. The infidelity could, in theory, have occurred either on the branch leading back from Henry to Edward or on the branch leading from Richard to Edward. Henry's ancestor John of Gaunt was plagued by rumours of illegitimacy throughout his life, apparently prompted by the absence of Edward III at his birth. He was reportedly enraged by gossip suggesting he was the son of a Flemish butcher. "Hypothetically speaking, if John of Gaunt wasn't Edward III's son, it would have meant that (his son) Henry IV had no legitimate claim to the throne, nor Henry V, nor Henry VI," said Dr Schurer.

Richard's maternal-line - or mitochondrial - DNA was matched to two living relatives of his eldest sister Anne of York. Michael Ibsen and Wendy Duldig are 14th cousins and both carry the same extremely rare genetic lineage as the body in the car park.

Richard III was defeated in battle by Henry Tudor, marking the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of Tudor rule, which lasted until Queen Elizabeth I died childless in 1603. Richard's battered body was subsequently buried in Greyfriars. 


source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30281333