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Marie: A Village for the Queen.

Marie Antoinette is a key figure in French history. She has served as an over laboured source of satire for decades, propping up the careers of middling comedians and historians alike. Her apparent disconnect from the suffering and profound poverty of the people of France has made her an easy target. But is her reputation deserved?

Spoiler Alert: Yes it totally is.

Hameau de la Reine

Tucked away in a corner garden on the grounds of Versailles stands the village of Hameau de la Reine. An idyllic little settlement that ws created entirely for the Queen. It contained ten houses, a tower, a watermill and a working farm.

Its purpose was to allow the Queen and her friends to dress up as milkmaids or peasant girls and experience the hardship that was life for the third estate by tugging on a cows udders for ten minutes.

Side note: given how much the Queen and her possie likely knew about animal husbandry I wonder if this is where the song “I once saw a maid milk a bull” came from. Also I bet when the Queen asked the King for a secluded village where she and a few female friends could dress up as maids and frolic he thought all his christmases had come at once.

The village required a full host of servants to keep it in perfect condition should the Queen fancy a bit of cosplay at any moment. The Queen only consumed the produce of the village during her visits. The rest of the time much of the produce appears to have been wasted.

The other side of the story

Marie was the daughter of an Austrian Duke. Raised in a palace and rarely exposed to the world outside the lavish furnishings and top tier servants of her home. At the age of fourteen she was married to the French Prince and lived in equal splendour in Versailles. The difference between France and Austria at the time was that French Royalty were living in opulence the country couldn’t afford entirely at the expense of the third estate (everyone who wasn’t either Royalty or Clergy). The young princess had no idea of the contrast in quality of life that was punctuated by the walls of the palace. When offered a village of her own to play in she almost certainly thought it would give her some perspective on the life of the working classes. She had no way of knowing this was a heavily romanticised and entirely fictional perspective. Whilst it is widely accepted that she didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake” the fact the story persists comes from contemporary perceptions of the Queen. Her naivety, rightly or wrongly made her the perfect lens for the anger and fear of a starving population.

Unfortunately her life was littered with demonstrations of her absolute lack of social and political insight. There was an incident regarding the most expensive diamond necklace ever made that she had absolutely nothing to do with, her signature was forged on a note. None the less the scandal only served to bolster public hatred for her.

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Witches: By the pricking of my thumbs.

Halloween may be over for another year however I thought I would wrap up my spooky and folklore themed posts with some witch related information that I found interesting.

Matthew Hopkins

During a period referred to as the “English Civil War” one man was driving the search for, and execution of witches in England. During two years he was personally responsible for the execution of more “witches” than had been executed in the previous hundred years. He claimed to be England’s Witchfinder General a title he gave himself as it was not a role that existed before or after him and it was not approved or ratified by any authority. It should be noted that half of England was incredibly puritanical at the time, this was one of the factors in the civil war. Hopkins capitalised on the increase in religious fervour and fear masterfully.

Side Note: I struggle with the term “The English Civil War” as England had divided itself in conflict several times prior to this. The Anarchy that saw King Stephen and Empress Maud contending for the English throne not only divided the country but also households. Although arguably there was some foreign influence in that war. The Wars of the Roses also split the country.

Side Note: Hopkins actually just gave himself the title of Witchfinder General and managed to draw pay from the government. I would love to know how that conversation went and how it ended so successfully for him.

Hopkins ended up writing a book The Discovery of Witches in which he outlined tricks and tips for identifying and protecting yourself from Malefactors such as witches. Signs included women dancing, singing, drinking and eating too much. Which sounds an awful lot like Cardiff after an England – Wales game at the Millennium Stadium. Once suspected Hopkins would work on extracting a confession. Torture was technically unlawful in England at the time. However the line between torture and interrogation appears to be extremely subjective as Hopkins routinely used sleep deprivation, needles and what is now called “water boarding” to extract confessions from his prisoners.

Eventually the people of East Anglia got bored of Hopkins pageantry and he was called to answer for his methods at the Norfolk Assizes, however before the end of the enquiry Hopkins decided to retire so no further action was taken. He died some years later, still wealthy from his witch hunting.

Christian Caldwell / John Dickson

Shortly after Hopkins attempt to depopulate East Anglia a promising young Witch Pricker emerged in Scotland. Witch Pricking was a highly lucrative endeavour in Scotland. A village would provide housing and six shillings per day in exchange for the Pricker finding witches in the village.

Side Note: Just for comparison, a very good Master Thatcher in a wealthy town would earn about four shillings per day and our of that he would have to pay a thatchers mate and any apprentice or journeymen thatchers.

Witch Pricking was only an occupation for men at the time but Christian really wanted to prick some witches. So she donned the garb of a chap and adopted the name John Dickson.

Side Note: No one seemed to require references or a DBS check in late medieval Scotland. I choose to imaging she got the job with the effective use of a particularly aggressive looking codpiece.

Witch Prickers performed their task by taking a suspected witch, shaving her head to toe and sticking pins in her. The idea being witches are reputed to have areas of skin that can feel no pain. If the woman was found to have such an area she was condemned to die.

Side Note: I am all for a good kink but I draw the line at ending the night with an execution.

To be fair Cauldwell did condemn men for witchcraft as well. Which it turns out was her undoing. She ended up accusing an influential court employee who had just happened to piss her off the day before. He demanded her arrest and whilst under interrogation for torture, eliciting false confession and causing the death of innocent people, her gender was identified. In true judicial fashion of “this is going to be more trouble than its worth”, Cauldwell was banished to Barbados.

Granny Boswell

Ann Boswell lived in Cornwall from about 1820 having moved from Ireland with her husband Ephraim. Both Ann and Ephraim were from a Romani culture and Ephraim was known as the “King of the Gypsies”. Given attitudes towards to traveller communities in Cornwall at the time I do not know if this was intended as an slur, a compliment or simply a fact.

Ann made a living by providing very basic first aid, ranging from ointments for aches and pains, to support as an informal midwife to pregnant women. In particular she was believed to have an almost miraculous ability to cure sick cows and sheep of almost any ailment. Later after the death of her husband and the imprisonment of at least one of her sons, Granny Boswell became a hawker. I had to look this up –

Deinition: A hawker is someone who sells goods informally in the street.

At the time you needed a license from any particular parish to Hawk in their area. Granny was picked up by the police a huge amount between 1880 and 1890 for being drunk and disorderly and hawking with a license for another parish. Ultimately she went to a workhouse due to unpaid debts and had a request for a new pair of boots declined at the age of 92. She died a pauper at the age of 94 having saved lives and incomes through her support and advice.

Side Note: This really reminds me of a character described in Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. It may even have been one of his inspirations. An old lady who was just a bit weird was described with a inferences that she had either mental health or cognitive problems and as a result was branded a witch and shunned by her society. I think she may even have been killed by her community. This will not be the last time I recommend a book by Sir Terry.

Conclusion

Its little to draw much else from these stories beyond – if you are a witch hunter you are likely to die rich. If you try to help people you are likely to die young and at a gallows or old and penniless.

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Connla: A night on the pull.

This is without a doubt one of the most vanilla folk tales I have read and I am told it is far more stirring as an opera. Given it is Celtic with origins dated to at least 3 AD I am confident operatic variations are a modern innovation.

Connla of the Firey Hair was the son of King Conn of One Hundred Fights. One day as they stood overlooking the plains before their stronghold, Connla saw a beautiful maiden on a horse speeding towards them. He shouted “Lady, where do you come from in such a hurry?”. She replied “I come from the plains of the ever living, where there is no strife, our lives are unending joy and pleasure, we make our homes in the green hills so we are called the hill people”.

Side Note: These guys have the best Epithets ever. I’m not sure heckling pretty girls is good form for a prince though.

Conn was extremely confused and asked his son to whom he was speaking. The lady replied “He speaks to a young, fair maid for whom death and old age do not await. I love Connla and now call him away to Moy Mell, the plain of pleasure where there is no sorrow and Boadag is king. Come with me Connla and you shall be a prince and enjoy youth and beauty until the day of judgement”.

Analysis: The reference to “day of judgement” feels a bit Christian to me. Whilst almost every mythology and religion has its “end time” the concept of a judgey end of days is particularly Christian. Also most of the troubles of my adolescence were the result of the pursuit of pretty girls and pleasure.

Conn became scared and angry by the idea this invisible woman might take off his only son. He called his druid Coran of the Many Spells to deal with this ephemeral hussy. Conran bellowed a mighty spell and the maiden was gone.

Side Note: Not every epithet can be pure gold. I wanted to make a joke about her lacking substance because shes invisible but it felt redundant given shes a being who lives only for pleasure.

Side Note: The story doesn’t specify the spell but this is how I choose to believe it happened – The gathering crowd separates to reveal Conran, a heavy set man, bald but with a large beard, wearing drab brown robes and a gnarled staff. He concentrates, sparks fly loose of his bushy beard. The air falls thick with magic, like the windless pressure before a great storm. He raises his hands in the direction of the maiden and in a deep, intense voice bellows “FUCK OFF!”.

As she popped out of existence the maiden tossed an apple to Connla. Life in the stronghold returned to normal fairly quickly but Connla found himself pining, unable to sleep or eat except from the apple. The apple was always fresh and crisp and became whole again after being bitten.

After a month of this, Connla and Conn stood once again overlooking the plain and Connla again saw the Maiden riding toward him. She greeted him “O Connla, great are you among these short-lived mortals. Come to Moy Mell, the plaint of pleasure and be great forever amongst the undying.”. When Conn heard the maidens voice he roared “Bring me my Druid”. The maiden spoke softly “Mighty Conn, the spells and wards of your druid are little to the undying, when the law comes his kind will be dismissed as whisperers of black lies.”

Analysis: Again this feels like a commentary on the conflict between Christianity and Paganism. As the story progresses I genuinely don’t know if it is intended to show Christianity in a favourable or negative light.

Conn was thoughtful, and looked at his son who had been forlorn since the maiden left over a month previously. Connla was now looking at the maiden intently, bright eyed and keen. Conn asked “what are you thinking my son?”. Connla replied that it was difficult because he loved his people but the maiden was really hot. At hearing this the maiden said “come then Connla, get in my canoe and we will journey to a land of infinite joy”. With a truly epic disregard for the bro-code, Connla of the Firey Hair rushed from them and joined the maiden in her canoe, they left and were never seen again.

Side Note: This whole paragraph feels like an exercise in double and I love it!. Where the fuck does a canoe come into it, they were on the plains. Massively anticlimactic though.

When reading these legends through a modern lens there is a natural subversion that occurs. We anticipate a certain rhythm to our stories and usually a happy …. or explosively tragic ending. These older legends tend to follow a straight line and end just as you would expect. I do however feel there may be a commentary here on the spread of Christianity to Pagan lands and how the “new law” will take our sons, one by one. If this is the narrative they were trying to establish it couldn’t have been more prophetic. I do find comforting consistency in the fact that, no matter what the era men will enthusiastically follow their libido to their own destruction.

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Jean Baptiste Denys: The blood of the calf.

I am the first to recognise that a great deal of scientific advancement has developed from accidents, mistakes or radical misconceptions. I also believe that in science even a negative result is a good thing. Advancement in any direction is still advancement. However rarely in history when a scientist starts with a profound misunderstanding about how the human body works, develops a theory that I am confident today would be considered “conspiracy to commit murder” and executes a plan based on that theory that we hail it as a epoch shattering success purely because nobody actually died.

Jean Baptiste Denys was a doctor. By modern standards he was a doctor in very much the same way I am the Duchess of Cornwall but this is seventeenth century France we are talking about so I will allow the term doctor. He, through a process of highly advanced science noted that the stuff in our bodies is red, and the stuff in the bodies of animals is also red, so it must be the same. Further more it must be interchangeable.

Side Note: I apologise if this is getting a bit advanced, I appreciate not all of my readers will have an MSc in Biochemistry.

On the fifteenth of June 1667 he injected (I refuse to use the word transfused in this case) twelve ounces of sheep blood into a fifteen year old boy who had been bleed with leaches twenty times in order to treat a fever.

I think its worth exploring this a little bit. Our boy Jean, using the rigorous and time honoured ethical standard of “its just a kid, who the fuck cares” applied his theory of all red things must be the same. But first he exsanguinated the boy.

Now I have found about a dozen different types of ounce none of which convert into anything less than 340 ml. I am a nurse and whilst I haven’t been clinical for a while I know one unit of tranfusable blood is usually about 250ml. With only 250ml its not uncommon for transfusion reactions to occur and for patients to become critically unwell and sometimes die. There are strict measures in place to monitor the patient and reverse the reaction if it starts. This can happen with human to human transfusions of the same blood type. There is no way 340ml was pumped into this kids veins and he walks away from it. My best guess here is that he injected it all subcutaneously. I would not be amazed if the child died of infection some days or weeks later. Unfortunately Denys did not record the boys name for me to check.

Side Note: I am not joking, check out my maths here

Following the resounding success of this first human trial Denys moved on to perform a number of other red-liquid exchanges. The next appears to have been on a labourer who under went two of these procedures and survived. However the third and final was on a man called Antoine Mauroy. Not much is known about Mauroy except that he was a “madman” (thankfully his doctor was completely sane) and he was to undergo a number of these procedures until his insanity was fixed. He underwent two successfully however as they were exchanging the third round of calfs blood Mauroy became unwell and died.

Mauroy’s wife, quite reasonably felt that Denys was responsible for her husbands death and took him to court. However Denys successfully convinced the judge that all red things are the same and that Mauroy probably died of arsenic poisoning almost certainly administered by the wife. In the face of such bulletproof logic the judge had no choice but to let Denys go and charge the wife.

Thankfully after this Denys never attempted “transfusions again” and retired from medicine entirely. I would argue this probably indicates a certain amount of guilt or remorse.

Analysis

I have been gloriously irreverent of Jean Baptiste Denys efforts to understand the human body here. I have compared his lack of ethics to the rigid ethics applied to the world in which I work. Whilst his original notes are freely available, I lack the ability to read early-modern French so I have relied on a translated letter he sent in which he outlines his logic and motives. I have also read a number of articles written by medical historians, all of whom write about this chap glowingly. Most notably “Blood Transfusion and the Body in Early Modern France” written by B. Chin-Yee and I. Chin-Yee and published in Bulletin canadien d’hisoire de la medecine in March 2016. Its actually a really interesting read for anyone interested in medical history.

I genuinely don’t know how so many procedures were performed before anyone died. He seemed to favour drawing blood from an artery in the leg and inserting it into a vein the neck however given I have no idea how bovine cardio-vascular systems work I don’t know if that is relevant.

This work was never really expanded on as other doctors were working on similar processes at the same time. Mostly more successfully, and certainly more ethically. Denys lacked a number of discoveries, including knowledge of the four human blood groups which wouldn’t arrive until 1900.

I recognise that he was trying to find his way out of the dark ages of medicine where interventions like blood letting were common place however I am struck by how much religious zeal his notes contain. Including his choice of the doner animal. According to the bible the blood of the calf is pure of sin.

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Ankow: Don’t fear the reaper

One of the oldest surviving legends from the Brythonic world tells of a being called the Ankow. This is its Cornish name, the Normans and Bretons(Brittany) know it as Ankou. A skeletal figure that collects and guides the souls of the dead. It is often depicted wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a scythe. His dark cloak is often described as ragged and in Cornwall he pulls a large handcart whereas in Britany the Ankou rides a black coach pulled by black horses.

Its important to stress that this is nor a personification of death itself but a servant of death who is given the job of collecting and guiding the souls of the dead to whatever afterlife awaits them. The difference being that the Ankow has much more personality and can even be malicious.

One legend reports that three men were staggering home drunk in Helston and found a dishevelled old man pulling an old handcart near a bridge, lacking for better entertainment they started throwing rocks at the old man, one rock hitting the cart and breaking the axel. The three men moved on laughing however one man felt bad and returned to the stranger, he used a branch to replace the broken axel. The stranger never spoke to him and kept his head bowed, his face obscured by his wide brimmed hat on the dark night. The next morning the two men who left were found dead in their beds and the third, who turned back to help the stranger, found his jet black hair turned white over night.

Ankow can be found in grave yards, protecting the bodies of the newly dead from grave robbers. When on their rounds people can hear their cart rattling down the road in the still of night, he will occasionally knock on a door to summon a spirit from the house, a knock that sometimes the living can hear. Occasionally they will screech to summon the spirit which bares some similarity to the Irish Banshee, but that is the only similarity.

Both Cornish and Breton versions of this figure report that he is a sprit who was last to die in a year and takes up the duty of Ankow for the next year to ensure that all spirits from that parish make their way to the afterlife and don’t remain as ghosts. Once their term is over they are released and pass the mantle to a new spirit. A key difference is that in Cornish folklore the Ankow is almost always described as a male where as in Brittany its almost always a woman.

Side Note: Given these beings are described as gendered skeletons or heavily shrouded I would guess that only professional anatomists had seen the Ankow and survived.

Beings that lead spirits to the afterlife are known internationally as Psychopomp’s. They exist in the earliest written records of most cultures, and almost certainly predate writing considerably.

The Ankow is likely to be the origin of the Reaper image of the personification of Death which has emerged much more recently. Upon reflection a ghostly servant of death (as a concept) is a less of a stretch than an actual anthropomorphic personification of the concept of death itself.

Side Note: Whilst a number of academics have explored historical beliefs around death, none have explored Death (the personification) more than Terry Pratchett. Whilst its not frank academic analysis, if you don’t mind exploring themes and concepts in the abstract I highly recommend his book The Hogfather.

Interestingly the figure of the Ankow remained largely unchanged in the wake of Christianity. Given the Ankow isn’t a deity itself (unlike most psychopomps) its existence would not strictly be considered blasphemous. There are even churches in Cornwall, Wales and Brittany today where you can find small engravings or paintings depicting the Ankow. Whilst I have no problem seeing how this mythological figure has survived since at least 300 AD, I am surprised that like most Brythonic legends this one didn’t ever establish itself in England. You are more likely to find an Ankow in a graveyard in Toronto, Cape Town or Canberra than in London due to the great spread of Cornish miners to these places and away from Britain.

GO69, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Side Note: Its absolutely bizarre seeing an image like this on a Baptismal Font.

I spent hours sifting through the web for stories and legends about Ankou and most of what I found was stories that were effectively angsty teenage goth fan-fiction. A number of historians have published books on death spirits that include at most a paragraph on the Ankou. The only legends appear almost entirely preserved in oral tradition. Codifying the old legends and stories before they are lost feels like a worthy project for someone.

In summary, don’t fear the Reaper, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to piss one off either.

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War on Nature

Humans are driven towards conflict. We as a species are like Mick, the drunk Glaswegian staggering around the streets on a friday night, picking fights with lamp posts. However there are times we get bored fighting other humans as we declare open war on the animal kingdom with mixed success.

Side Note: Mick, you know who you are. I hope the hand gets better soon.

Mao – War on Sparrows

In 1958 as preparation for Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” China announced state mandated culling of four animals. Rodents, mosquitoes and flies which were believed to be responsible for the spread of pestilence. The fourth animal was the sparrow which were believed to be eating grain from the fields.

In May 1959 China mobilised her immense army equipped with guns and soft soled shoes. Men, women and children too to the streets to bring death undo the sparrow. Substantial rewards were offered for people handing dead sparrows in to guard stations. Some reports say that over three million non-military personnel participated in this culling. National newspapers under the instruction of Mao himself reported “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won,”. One report I read suggested that sparrows flocked to extraterritorial locations, like the various embassies where they found refuge. This genuinely almost led to some “diplomatic incidents” when the Polish embassy wouldn’t let the Chinese army in to remove the resident sparrows.

Side Note: Ecological science was totally a thing by the 1950s. Mao wanted to replicate the massive leaps Russia took under Stalin and for that he needed food for the people, Food that he was sure was being eaten by the sparrows. The guy was not alright.

Its difficult to get a proper feel for what actually happened and how seriously the Chinese people took this given that the only sources I can find are in English, mostly American and they had invested in a less than positive attitude towards communist China. Mao had already controlled the national media to a point that the people in China were just as unlikely to know what was really going on as any foreign nations.

Famously Mao enthusiastically read the works of Charles Darwin in his youth and so you have to presume he had at least some awareness of how ecological balances work. The near total eradication of sparrows resulted in what I can justifiably refer to as an ecological disaster. Whilst the sparrows only ate a small amount of grain they did eat a huge amount of locusts. Without their natural predator the locust population exploded and stripped the grain and paddyfields of crop resulting in what we now call The Great China Famine.

Nature: 1
Humans: 0

Edgar’s War on Wolves

Edgar the Peaceable was a Saxon King of England who ruled from 953 AD to 979 AD. Despite what you might think he did not get the epithet The Peaceable because he was a passive, retiring sort of chap. He was a mad, murdering bastard, and by far my favourite ruler in world history. During his rule crime was at an all time low, mainly because his punishments for the first offence entirely eliminated the possibility for a second. He went for a quiet walk with men who had pissed him off and they both encountered fatal accidents. He also had a bit of a thing for nuns. There was no rebellion or insurrection during his reign because everyone was too scared of him. There were no foreign threats to the country because everyone was too scared of him (are you sensing a theme?).

About halfway through his reign people were complaining that wolves were becoming a bit of an issue. Historically wolves in Britain have been quite famous for their industrious breeding rates and the fact they don’t experience island dwarfism. However Edgar decided to ease up on his approach to crime and punishment, he determined that certain crimes could be cleared if the perpetrator were to provide his officials an appropriate number of wolves heads. So for murder, you could choose either execution or provide three wolves heads to the kings representative. Frankly the odds are you would get killed by the wolves anyway. In addition to this if villages were unable to keep up their taxes, rather than his predecessors approach of burning the village to the ground he would ask for wolves heads to cover the difference.

Wolves were native to Britain until the fifteenth century when they were eventually driven to extinction however they weren’t really a problem for people after the reign of Edgar the Peaceable.

Nature: 1
Humans: 1

Australia – The Great Emu War

In 1932, fed up with the devastation growing emu populations were reeking on crops, the people of Campion in Western Australia requested support from the department of defence.

In October 1932 Major Meredith of the Royal Australia Artillery, led Sargeant McMurray and Gunner O’Halloran with two Lewis Guns into the area.

Analysis: A Lewis Gun was an early 1900s machine gun. Now Emus are notoriously fast but very large. I will let you decide if a couple of fuck off machine guns were the right tools for this kind of work. Given these chaps were from the Royal Artillery I guess we should be grateful they weren’t using mortars. I am just glad this was a time before nuclear weapons.

On the Second of November they “Engaged the Enemy” (I swear to God that’s what the report says). Between fifty and seventy-five Emu were sighted. With the help of farmers the birds were herded into an “Ambush”. The feathery body count varies depending on which source you read, the newspaper triumphantly proclaims more than half of the sighted birds were killed. Statements from the farmers who were there said they only managed to kill about ten Emu.

A couple of days later the men had set up a highly elaborate “ambush” which several hundred Emu were heading towards, they waited until the birds were close before opening fire ….. and the gun jammed. Only ten birds were killed. It was at this point that the soldiers reported a psychological analysis of their enemy stating that every pack had a leader. A large male who kept watch and warned the rest of the approach of a threat. They decided to move to another area where the birds were reportedly “more docile”.

Meredith ordered that one of the lewis guns should be mounted on a truck. Their strategy now was to drive straight at the birds, shooting wildly. One thing that everyone knows about Emu is that they are fast, very fast. On the rough terrain the truck was unable to catch them and thankfully Gunner O’Halloran, not being a complete fucking moron realised how stupid and dangerous opening fire on a bouncing truck going full whack over rough terrain was. So far during this “campaign” (yes that is what they reported it as) we are looking at about 3000 rounds of ammunition spent over ten days, with three senior, trained and experienced military men, the estimated body count was forty. At this point Major Meredith’s report stated that his “men have suffered no injuries”. Due to overwhelmingly negative press coverage and the fact the entire nation found this absolutely hilarious, the national government withdrew Major Meredith and his men on 8th November 1932.

Side Note: I think its fair to say this situation marred the reputation of the Australian Military. The Australian Military had an outstanding reputation prior to this with demonstrations of significant naval prowess throughout World War One and the noted and incredible heroic action of Australian forces at Galipoli. Its understandable the Australian government didn’t want to be seen losing a military action against birds.

Shortly after the military withdrew, farms in Campion reported being over run by Emu. This had such a devastating impact on the crop and projected yields that the Prime Minister ordered Major Meredith and his men back to deal with the situation. This is where they experienced their first success of the campaign, given there were so many Emu it was just a case of aiming in the right direction and blindly firing. By December when the team were recalled they claimed about 100 Emu killed per week. Averaging ten rounds of ammunition per confirmed kill.

In the face of this costly and frankly humiliating exercise the Department of Defence referred the case to the Department of Agriculture who found a 100% effective strategy – they put fences up around the farms. Despite the ediculous and unnecessary body count I am chalking this one up to nature as the army withdrew without success and the Emu succeeded in making Humans look profoundly incompetent. This two month engagement with two machine guns, experienced personel and over ten thousand rounds of ammunition barely put a dent in the Emu population in the area.

Nature: 2
Humans: 1

Analysis

There are hundreds of cases like this. I chose these three because they are examples of nations legislating against nature. Trying to extract morals or learning from these examples beyond the jokes, I would say “don’t fuck with nature” is a good moral. Also “states shouldn’t legislate for pest control without consulting someone with at least a GCSE level understanding of basic ecology”. I am not even going to explore the fact that in Australia plan A is a machine gun, plan B is a fence.

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Korrigan: White Deer

Humans have always tried to explain away what they do not know with a supernatural answer. We are a species that are tied to each other and to the land through our oral tradition. Exploring our myths and legends can tell us a lot about a culture and sometime offer us a connection through them that transcends millennia. Its critical not to dismiss the myths and legends as “just stories”, these were stories that one generations would use to teach the next. They serve as the core to a culture from which it can grow.

The peoples of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland share a connection with Brittany in mainland europe. They are peoples with a shared origin and even well after the Norman invasion which did a pretty solid job of homogenising the majority of Britain, the people of Cornwall had more in common culturally with Brittany than with the English. This is strongly reflected in the myths, legends and folklore of these peoples. I have heard many versions of this story over the years, including the one my very cornish grandmother used to teach me when I was a small child. The details of these legends often change with every retelling but the central moral remains. I will go through the version from Brittany. As far as I can tell this is the earliest written down however Cornwall and Wales have their own distinct take on this myth.

Seigneur of Nann and the White Deer

Robert was the lord of a small village in Brittany, A year after this marriage to Sabine, his true love, she bore him two children. A boy and a girl, both healthy which was a blessing for the time. Robert was overjoyed, as he sat at Sabine’s bedside, weeping tears of joy he asked if there was anything she desired. All she had to do was say and he would make it so.

Sabine asked him for some venison from the deer in the forest near the town of her birth. Robert immediately promised her this and within the hour he was riding out the gates of his town. The journey to the forest was uneventful and by dawn the next day he had spotted the most magnificent deer of pure shimmering white. He set for it and it disappeared into the forest. Robert gave chase but eventually lost sight of the Deer. Tired and thirsty he found himself near a clear pool and noticed a fair lady with skin of alabaster white sat on a rock there brushing her hair. He asked to take a drink from the pool however did not wait for a response. As he dipped his hands into the water the maid screeched, he looked up to find he at not noticed the beautiful maid had eyes of blood red.

Side Note: He didn’t notice something as remarkable as blood red eyes? what part of her was he looking at to determine how pretty she was? Also in some variations of this story she was naked. Women particularly Fae Women in these legends tend to be unimaginably powerful but naked. frankly I have no idea what to make of that. I also think death should be the consequence of more social faux pas.

She hissed at him that he had defiled her pool and that a death curse lay upon him. She would only lift the curse if he would marry her this very night. Shocked he said that he would not as he already had a wife and the very day before she had given birth to his two children, even if that were not so, he said he knew what she was and he would not marry a Korrigan. He ran for his horse and rode home.

As he approached the gates of his town he was greeted by his mother whom he told of the meeting with the Korrigan and that in three nights he would be in his grave. He bade her to tell his wife nothing of this.

Three days later Sabine heard the bells of the town ringing and asked her mother in law what it meant. She said that Sabine should not worry herself, a minor tradesman of the town had died in the night and the bells rang out his funeral. She asked after her husband and the lady told her that Robert had gone to a neighbouring town trading and would return to her soon. Sabine accepted this and asked what colour dress she should wear as she wanted to go to church to offer thanks for the birth of her children. The lady advised her today, was a day to wear black.

Side Note: The ringing of bells appears a lot in Brythonic folklore and very rarely indicates anything good.

As they made their way to the church Sabine saw the door to her husbands crypt open and turned to her mother in law asking what was happening. The lady informed her that Robert had fallen foul of a Korrigan and died. Sabine was so grief stricken before the sun set on that day she too was dead and lay in the tomb.

Side Note: I would fucking love to see Disney spin this one into a song and dance number. Tim Burton could probably pull it off though. Also if my mother is that cool after I die please check her alibi.

The last line of the legend goes –  “And the peasant folk say that from that tomb arose two saplings, the branches of which intertwined more closely as they grew.” This feels like an overt allegory for eternal love and frankly whilst it feels there is probably something deeper there I have utterly failed to draw much meaning from this line.

In most of the legends I know the Korrigan are usually fairly mischievous, sometimes ill tempered but rarely this intensely malicious. I am taking it as read that “defiling her pool” wasn’t an euphemism, although that would explain why she insisted on marriage and got so pissed when he left. If he did shag the fairy it would totally destroy the attempt at symbolism we are left with in the entwining trees. The pools and fountains of the Korrigan are always referred to as sacred so perhaps the waters mean more to her than we can appreciated.

My grandmother used to tell me a similar tale about a white hare dancing in the forest which turned into a beautiful woman and stole the soul of young men who cast their eyes upon her. Seth Lakeman sings a song about this legend with a great video, I recommend checking it out. Folksong is genuinely the most reliable source for many of these stories as it stems from the original oral tradition. In regards to the white hare I am unsure if they are variations of the same legend or part of a broader theme. Perhaps this will become clearer as I work through more Brythonic myths and legends.

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Alexander The Great: A night on the town

I was going through some files a couple of weeks ago and found an essay I wrote for A-Level Classical Civilisations. I half-arsed the living crap out of this thing. It was about Alexander the Great and what factors I felt led to his success in expanding an empire. Honestly I think I wrote it the night before the deadline, using whatever resources I had immediately to hand as a sixteen year old in 2002. I am surprised I even bothered to hand it in, I am amazed I bothered to keep it and I am utterly speechless about the fact I got a really decent mark for it. In my first revision I found I had written in the corner “?Alexander drank himself to death”. Now I don’t remember reading that anywhere and it certainly seemed like new information to me, however it was written in the margin in my own handwriting. So I did some googling and then some reading, and had some conversations with friends who took their classics education far more seriously than I had. The outcome of all this work is – It is possible but extremely unlikely that Alexanders death had anything to do with alcohol. Which is extremely anticlimactic, however this was not reading done in vain my friends because Alex the Great did a lot of stuff whilst drunk that is going to keep me in writing material for months.

In 331 BCE Alexander on his unstoppable imperial march took the Persian Capital of Persepolis. Throughout history empire expansion has always been a messy business however for the most part the Macedonian expansion did a lot to preserve the culture and infrastructure of the captured towns. This is pretty sound practice, Alexander was very good at expanding the borders and had no intention of stopping. If he left a lot of pissed off dispossessed people behind him his army would have to deal with that rather than taking a stroll east with him. Alexander was also reported to be a great lover of art, science and culture so wasn’t massively into torching great works.

However after a long day forcing the occupation of a hostile city he decided to unwind in the local pub. Where he and his crew got to the task of drinking, hard. I suspect Alexander experienced a “hold my beer and watch this” moment because what is reported to have happened next was our boy Alex burning Persepolis to the ground whilst being egged on by an absolutely hammered prostitute.

Side Note: I can imagine the scene. Alexander, bronze skin and godlike physique flat in the dirt, his golden breastplate shimmering against the dull mud. He groans and slowly lifts a hand to his temple, he opens and closes his mouth a couple of times just to see if it still works. The intense smell of smoke, and the sound of crackling embers draws him closer to consciousness. With great effort and a further groan he forces one eye open. Seeing nothing but embers and ash, First confusion, and then panic. “What the fuck did I do last night?”.

As fun as the narrative in my head is, the sources recording the night drinking were written decades or centuries after the fall of Persepolis and reportedly based on contemporary sources “now lost to us” which I always find deeply suspicious, especially given the histories were later written by less than sympathetic Roman “historians”. What is more likely is that Alexander and his army after years of war, took the capital of their sworn adversary, the people who had fought and persecuted Macedon for generations. With all the adrenaline and testosterone of battle flying through their veins they experienced a sudden massive loss of discipline and a growing desire to put to fire the wrongs of the past.

Side Note: Who hasn’t from time to time considered venting some frustration or stress with a near apocalyptic case of arson? Also when my boss asks for a general status update at work I often reply “well nothings on fire”, the lack of fire is my bare minimum criteria for success in most situations (but not all).

This isn’t based on any records of the event however it is an extremely common theme throughout the history of our species. Rivalry, Warfare and Revenge are the core aspects of the human psyche that we don’t like to recognise very often. A millenia and a half later the same would be true of the great Catholic-Protestant conflicts of Europe. Whilst the spark was religious ideology, what drove the slaughter was rivalry, warfare and revenge.

Side Note: My favourite author, David Gemmell wrote a character in two books who obtained the epithet “The Damned” for leading a massacre following the fall of a city called Perapolis. I have had to restrain myself from writing posts exploring the characters and the world he created in his Drenai saga, however this was his most on-the-nose parallel with reality which warranted a mention.

I should stress that I have referred to the “Persian Empire” here purely because when I give it its proper name of The Achaemenid Empire people tend to glaze over when I am talking to them. Persia was only a small part of a massive empire but modern popular culture has made it wrongly synonymous with Achaemenid.

Most versions of these events appear to have been written by the Romans. Particularly the drunk prostitute egging an even more drunk Alexander on version. This was written by Quintus Curtius Rufus, who was VERY Roman. I still don’t have a clear idea of what the Romans had against their Hellenistic predecessors. If you read the more famous works of Virgil and Dante they are little mor than Anti-Greek propaganda. The most plausible explanation I have heard is they didn’t go in for the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” concept. They wanted people to think they were all there is and all there had ever been.

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Pwyll of Dyved: Legend One

I’m slowly working my way back through the Mabinogion, because who doesn’t love medieval Welsh literature? I actually found myself chuckling at this light hearted tale of sexual exploitation, violent extortion and the total deception of two nations.

Pwyll was the Prince of Dyved, one day he decided to go for a hunt so he rode out of his palace at Narbeth for his favourite hunting grounds in Glyn Cuch. When he gets there he immediately loses all of his friends and hears some hounds that are not his own nearby. He goes to take a look and finds several dogs with shimmering white coats and blood red ears attacking a stag. He wanted the stag for himself and shouted the terrifying ghost dogs off before setting his own hounds on the already half dead stag.

Analysis: Who in their right mind, whilst lost and alone would piss off some clearly supernatural beasts in order to get access to a bit of venison? Is Pwyll really brave, suicidally stupid or insane?

Enter the owner of the terrifying ghost dogs, a tall, well dressed stranger who was more than a little pissed off that his quarry had been effectively stolen by Pwyll. They exchange words during which Pwyll is nothing but contrite, conciliatory and frankly quite slimy. The stranger, who claims to know who Pwyll is, talks with absolute contempt. Pwyll says he would do anything to make it up to the stranger who he suspects from the attitude to be very important. The stranger says he is Arawn one of the Kings of Annwyvn.

Analysis: It turns out Annwyvn is a sort of well known magical realm. Pwyll has pissed off a fairy king. This does not feel like a longevity enhancing move.

Arawn says that if Pwyll disguises himself as Anawn for a year and fights a duel in his place everything will be cool between them. To help him with this Arawn will place a spell on Pwyll so that no one from Annwyvn will know it is not him. He will also give Pwyll free reign over his wife for the year. He guarantees that Pwyll has never seen anyone more attractive than his wife. The condition is that he must try to beat his opponent without striking him twice, as the rival king would instantly recover if struck by a second blow. Arawn said he would give Pwyll some fairy magic to ensure that only one strike was needed.

Analysis: I’m pretty sure this would have been fairly rapey even at the time of writing. Bare in mind the crime is stealing Arawn’s hunt. Anawn is powerful enough to 100% convincingly disguise Pwyll so effectively that even his wife doesn’t notice the difference, and also give him the magic to win a duel. Why cant he just fight the duel himself? it would be far less hassle.

Pwyll is very much up for this and they head off for Annwyvn. When at the edge of the domain Anawn places the glamour over Pwyll and says that he will intuitively understand the customs of his court. They agree to meet there again in a years time. At which point Arawn strolls off whistling. Pwyll is taken aback by the majesty of the buildings and when he enters the throne room servants change him into robes of silk and gold and hand him a golden, jewelled goblet of fine wine. Pwyll looks up and the Queen, who is the most breathtakingly beautiful woman he has ever seen greets him very warmly.

Side Note: The version I read didn’t explicitly state Pwyll and the Queen did anything particularly intimate however it does spend a long time describing how lovely she is. The whole vibe is extremely rapey …. and she doesn’t even know! I have read a version of this story that was made child friendly in which it was explicitly stated Pwyll did not take “lay with the Queen” during this year but that was a twentieth century revision of the tale.

So Pwyll disguised as Arawn spent a year eating, drinking, hunting and generally having a laugh with the Queen and all his new courtly friends, until the day of the duel. Pwyll approached the agreed site for the duel with his knights and met with King Havgan who gives a lovely speech about how this is a matter between kings and the knights should step away, which they duly do. Pwyll steps forward, slashing his sword which instantly breaks Havgan’s shield and armour in two, leaving him on the floor bloodied and beaten. Havgan urges the victorious Pwyll to finish him off, to which Pwyll replies “nah”. Havgan’s domain is signed over to Pwyll and the kingdom of Annwyvn is united.

Analysis: If Arawn had the god-mode cheat for this fight why didn’t he just use it himself?!? I would say its totally unfair but then so is Havgan’s total-healing trick. Also I am ashamed to admit when reading Havgan was beaten and begging to be killed I did say allowed “Finish Him!” which led to a very complicated conversation with my four year old son.

The next morning, one year to the day after they first met, Pwyll and Arawn stand, talking in a wood. Arawn is overjoyed that Pwyll, in his name, has united his kingdom. He says that Pwyll will be equally happy because in the year that he has been gone, Arawn disguised as Pwyll has caused his land to prosper beyond imagining.

Side Note: Originally I thought I had missed something so I reread this tale a few times, and then checked in another edition. Its possible this is just a fault in the two versions I have now read but at no point prior to this did it state that Anawn was going to disguise himself as Pwyll. Don’t worry Pwyll wasn’t married.

Pwyll gets back to his court and asks his courtiers how the last year has been. They say he has been the wisest, kindest, most amazing king they have ever known in the last year. Pwyll says that he should not get the credit for that and explains the events of the last year to them.

That’s where this particular story ends and honestly I have some very complicated feelings about it. The character of Pwyll could use a really good therapist, in order to gain the friendship of someone he has just met he agrees to drop his life for a year and fight a duel without any hesitation. I have to admit however I love the almost total lack of exposition in this story, it just gets straight to it. Unfortunately “it” appears to be rape by deception, fraud, alcoholism and debauchery on a borderline industrial level and grievous bodily harm.

The concept of using magic to hook up with another mans wife whilst disguised as their husband isn’t without precedent. The names change a lot but several of the legends about the birth of King Arthur involve his father doing this. Arguably its a way of preserving the fair ladys virtue. Eleventh century Britain had some very specific feelings about adultery with various gruesome punishments (usually only for the woman). Perhaps the use of illusion was a way of making the infidelity more palatable.

I also noted in both editions of the story I read, whilst every possible unpronounceable name was provided for the places and men, the only woman in the story was merely given as “The Queen”. The whole thing screams of misogyny but honestly that wasn’t particularly uncommon in twelfth century Britain.

Another interesting mechanic is the trait of Havgan who appears to heal entirely when fatally wounded. I am sure I have heard a mechanic like this before however I cant readily find a reference. Its possible this is thematic in Brythonic mythology or may reflect a societal integration with Christianity as there are some similar concepts in the bible.

As a final note Pwyll appears to have no issues revealing the truth to his courtiers when he returns to Narbeth but there is no suggestion that Arawn tells anyone he hasn’t been around for a year. I’m not sure if I am just looking at this through a modern moral lens or if these are indicators that Arawn was a far more sinister character when he was originally written eight hundred years ago. Its also impossible to know how well established Arawn was in oral tradition and folklore prior to the codification of the Mabinogion.

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Boudica: Sing O Goddess…

Looking at the last few posts and the realisations I have come to through the research I had undertaken to write them, it has become increasingly clear that even in a free western society we are taught to look at our national past through a very specific and forgiving lens. Even when approaching cases like Saragarhi or Boudica with as open a mind as possible reviewing the subjects I was taught at school from a new unbiased perspective can be shocking.

Boudica is one of the most recognisable names in the history of Britain. She enters history around 60 AD as the wife of the chief of the Iceni tribe. Her husband was the most mediocre man in Celtic Britain. The Romans rocked up and Prasutagus just wanted to keep his head down and get on with being chief. Britain at the time was a collection of tribes who maintained a chaotic peace out of necessity, they required each other for trade but you’d be hard pressed to get them to agree that water was wet. Historian Doctor Emma Southon stated that They (The Celtic Tribes) “hated each other a lot, they hated each other in a way that only people who have a lot in common can hate each other”. When the Romans came along with their organised armies and an empires worth of resources Prasutagus knew trouble when he saw it riding towards him on the back of an elephant.

Side Note: Can you imagine living on an island where the largest animal anyone has ever seen is a horse and suddenly an army is marching in your direction with elephants. Its unclear to me how effective elephants actually were in battle with the obvious exception being the Battle of Pelennor Fields. However given successful use of shock and awe is half the battle I would imagine they were incredibly effective at demoralising even the stoutest of fighting forces. Not dissimilar to the use of rockets by the British in the early Napoleonic Wars; you couldn’t hit a bard if you set one off inside it but they scared the living hell out of anyone in their general path.

The Iceni under Prasutagus become supplicant to Rome, they swear fealty, offer tribute and the Romans leave them alone. Its believed that Prasutagus was placed as chief by the Romans as his predecessor was less compliant. Prasutagus dies, its not obvious that it’s anything other than natural. However the inheritance which should go to his daughters is claimed by the Romans, when the Iceni resist Boudica (their queen) is stripped and beaten, and her daughters are raped. I have spent years working with victims of rape and almost universally the intent hasn’t been about sexual drive but about power and domination. I can only presume that is the case here, the Romans publicly rape the princesses and humiliate the queen showing their dominance over the Iceni and the peoples of Britain in general.

The narrative for what happens next that is taught by the British school system is that Boudica picks herself up and decides to liberate Britain from these foreign oppressors. The narrative that I have come to believe is that she had been beaten, stripped of her dignity and forced to watch her daughters raped. She lost her fucking shit. I am far more inclined to believe that these events changed her and she was not going to stop until Britain was washed red with the blood of every Roman she could find, freedom and sovereign rights are unlikely to have had much to do with it. This is just speculation but I will try and defend it, this is not meant to in any way diminish her accomplishments but speaking as a father I totally support her motives here.

The Iceni, like all Celtic Tribes were required by the Romans to disarm. Boudica’s first act was to arm her warriors. She then rallies local tribes known for their anti-roman sentiment and arms them. Under her leadership they march on Colchester.

Side Note: Initially I was surprised that in 60 AD a woman held the standing to lead, however the majority of historians seem to agree that gender inequality wasn’t really a thing in Celtic Britain. Particularly for the smaller tribes.

Colchester was THE Roman city in Britain. It was mostly occupied by a romanised celtic tribe called the Trinobartes. When word reached them that a large celtic army was on the march in their direction they requested support from the regional Roman Governor. Given he considered it impossible for this mass of celts to want a fight (as far as he was aware they had no weapons and would be insane to want to mess with Rome), he sent 200 unarmed men to police Colchester. This was a mistake on a laughable scale. Boudica was armed to the tits and looking for blood. The torching of Colchester was so extensive that you can find evidence of it by digging almost anywhere in the city today.

This was a massive militaristic victory but much more importantly it got the message out to the tribes. The Romans are mortal and we can make them bleed. Despite my belief in Boudica’s motives the burning of Colchester was the clarion call that had the tribes fighting for freedom from Roman occupation. Next stop, London.

It doesn’t take long for Giaus Seutonius Paulinus to hear about the burning of Colchester. As the Governor of Britannia its his job to deal with this. He is also a highly experienced career military tactician. Unfortunately he was off in Wales with two legions beating up some druids when all this is kicking off. He starts the march to England’s South East to deal with the rebels. By the time he gets to London its already been torched.

Its about now that Boudica and her army bump into the Ninth Legion… hard. The Celts fuck the legion up in a way that hadn’t been done since Brennus took on Romes earliest legions over three centuries earlier. The legions and in particular the Ninth had cultivated a well deserved reputation for frank immortality. The destruction of a legion sent ripples through the empire that were even felt in Rome. Realistically its likely the Ninth fell as much to their own hubris as to celtic iron. They hadn’t taken the threat Boudica’s army posed seriously and saw them as a band of savages led by a woman. Regardless the destruction of this legion would inspire insurrection across the empire for the remainder of Romes existence.

Side Note: The Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) aren’t just known for their crushing defeat at the battle of Camulodunum. They have inspired legend and folklore across the British Isle for famously “disappearing”. They were reformed after the defeat at the hands of the Celts and maintained extensive records of their work across Britain until 120 AD, when the Romans started their long withdraw from Britain the Ninth Legion just disappear from record. They don’t appear to have been defeated or disbanded. In the city of York their ghosts are said to be seen marching south on midwinter nights. Others believe that they naturalised with the native Celts using their training and knowledge to defend Britain against the Saxons, giving eventual rise to the legend of King Arthur. Its unlikely we will ever know what happened to them however it is odd the records just stop. The reason many historians love studying Rome is because they wrote everything down.

Seutonius however was a skilled military leader, he identified the route the Celts were taking, following the roman road of Wattling Street and picked a spot for a battle. He chose a narrow valley that would bottle neck the oncoming force whilst preventing them encircling his army. Ultimately the destruction of Boudica and her army was due to the same hubris that destroyed the Ninth Legion, she assembled a crowd of spectators who blocked her retreat. And thus the great Iceni uprising that almost cast the Romans from Britannia fizzled out.

My Analysis

I recognise that this may read fairly critically of Boudica. However I am not critical of her, she achieved things believed to be impossible. However I do take issue with how she has been mythologised. Books have been written about how shes a great feminist icon. Feminism is a movement seeking gender equality, the celts had gender equality. Anyone who thinks she is a great feminist icon just because she was a woman doesn’t have a clue what feminism is.

I also have a bit of an issue with the sources. Firstly the Celts didn’t really write stuff down and so the two sources we have to rely on are –

Tacitus: Having been forced to read pretty much everything Tacitus wrote whilst I was at college will almost certainly be something I describe in detail to a therapist at some point. However as a source for the Boudican uprising it should be noted that he was writing fifty years after the fact. He also hated women like no one else I have ever read. He was utterly outraged that a woman was leading men and doing manly things like speaking in public. The guy had issues and whilst I think in his own way he was being sympathetic towards Boudica his account has definitely been coloured by his prejudice.

Cassius Dio: A Greek “Historian” who wrote a history of the Roman Empire almost three centuries after the events described here. In his account he gets a lot wrong, for example – Britain’s Location, Britain’s Size, Britain’s Climate, The Fact Britain is an Island. So its important to take his accounts with a pinch of salt. Still he is a far more entertaining read than Tacitus.

My feeling is that Boudica was a strong and proud woman who experience unimaginable trauma and tried to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for revenge in roman blood.

I quote the Iliad in the title of this post. “Sing O Goddess, the anger of Achilles” is the complete statement. It may seem like an odd link but the story of Boudica always reminds me of the description of Achilles after the death of Protroclus as an “Avatar of Slaughter”. He becomes incensed with grief at the death of his friend and lover, what happens next is not the result of conscious thought but pure, soul rending fury. A rage so intense that it will never be spent. The kind of rage that drives you to your own destruction. That is how I see Boudica and that’s not a critical view of her. Overly mythologising these figures stops us exploring the human story in any depth. Rage, Despair, Humiliation, Pride these are all very human traits that are represented in this story nothing supernatural or superhuman needs to be added for a meaningful reflection.

Finally I am also struck by one of the universal themes here that transcend time and culture. There are few parents throughout history who wouldn’t have had a similar reaction to the rape of their children. Those parents who would have reacted more indifferently are outliers and often stand out in history for that very reason.

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