Author Archives: Joel

When Knights Avoided Battle

From A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris (Pegasus, 2015), Kindle p. 60:

Siege and counter-siege, raid and counter-raid: such was the normal method of medieval warfare. Skilled commanders moved their troops like pieces on a chessboard, taking individual castles and knights as part of a developing strategy. Attrition and retaliation were the name of the game; direct confrontation was to be avoided at all costs. No matter how daring a general might be, he would almost never commit to battle because of the enormous risk involved. In the noise and confusion of a battle everything could be lost in a few short hours. As a consequence, they were rare events: in the spring of 1264, there had been no battle in England for almost half a century.

Montfort, a renowned warrior well into his mid-fifties, had never fought in one. And yet it was battle that Montfort now sought. In recent weeks his range of options had diminished rapidly. After his retreat to London they had never seemed so limited or so bleak. Dover Castle, his only other significant asset, was now threatened by the arrival in the south of the royal army; once it fell, Montfort would be trapped. In strategic terms it was almost checkmate, but the earl was not a man readily to concede defeat. On 6 May, like a cornered animal, he came out fighting, marching his forces out of London in search of his enemies.

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Welsh Differences in 13th Century

From A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris (Pegasus, 2015), Kindle pp. 26-28:

Geographically, of course, there were similarities between Wales and Scotland that a first-time visitor would have readily appreciated, and this meant that economically, too, they had certain similarities – Wales, like Scotland, was poor in comparison with England. Culturally, however, Wales was very different from both its near neighbours. Perhaps most obviously, the Welsh spoke Welsh, even at the highest social levels. This was a source of pride to the Welsh themselves, but to the French-speaking kings and nobles of England and Scotland it sounded like so much incomprehensible babble.

More perplexing still for English and Scottish onlookers, and far more problematic, were Welsh social attitudes, which stood in sharp opposition to their own. Take, for instance, the rules governing inheritance. In England and Scotland, and indeed almost everywhere else in western Europe, the rule was primogeniture: firstborn sons inherited estates in their entirety. This was hard on any younger brothers or sisters, but had the great advantage of keeping a family’s lands intact from one generation to the next. In Wales, by contrast, the rule was ‘partibility’: every male member of the family – not just sons and brothers, but uncles and nephews too – expected his portion of the spoils, and rules of precedence were only loosely defined. This meant that the death of a Welsh landowner was almost always followed by a violent, sometimes fratricidal struggle, as each male kinsman strove to claim the lion’s share.

The result of this idiosyncratic approach to inheritance was that Welsh politics were wont to be tumultuous. The fact that partibility applied at the highest levels was one of the main reasons why there was no single political authority in Wales as there was in England and Scotland. Welsh poets spoke of their country as if it were neatly divided into three kingdoms, but this was a broad simplification; the reality was a complex patchwork of petty lordships. Occasionally one ruler might, through force of arms, diplomacy or sheer good luck, contrive to establish something greater. But such constructs were always temporary. When a successful Welsh ruler died, his work was swiftly undone by the general carve-up that inevitably followed.

Such cultural and political differences meant that the English found it difficult to do business with the Welsh as they did with the Scots. Inherent instability meant that amicable relations were hard to sustain. The king of England could marry his daughter to the king of Scots, safe in the knowledge that her rights would be guaranteed; but he would not give her away to a Welsh ruler, no matter how great, for who knew how long his greatness might last?

And yet, if the English found the practice of partibility baffling, they were far more troubled when the Welsh showed any signs of abandoning it. From the start of the thirteenth century, up until the time of Edward’s birth, there had been a worrying (from the English point of view) movement in the direction of pan-Welsh political unity. Gwynedd, the most remote and traditional of Wales’s three ancient ‘kingdoms’, had extended its power from the mountains of Snowdonia to cover much of the rest of the country. When, therefore, the architect of this expansion, Llywelyn the Great, had died in 1240, Henry III had been quick to intervene and undo his work. In the years that followed, Gwynedd was torn down to size, and its pretensions to leadership were crushed. Llywelyn’s descendants were forcibly persuaded to follow traditional Welsh practice and share power among themselves. Lesser Welsh rulers who had formerly acknowledged Llywelyn’s mastery were disabused, and obliged to recognise that their proper overlord was, in actual fact, the king of England. Most contentiously, Henry confiscated and kept for himself a large and comparatively prosperous area of north Wales. Known as Perfeddwlad (middle country) to the Welsh, and as the Four Cantrefs to the English, this region between the rivers Dee and Conwy had been contested by both sides for hundreds of years, but Henry was determined that from that point on the English would retain it for good. The Four Cantrefs, he declared, were an inseparable part of the Crown of England, and to give force to this assertion he built two new royal castles there, one at Dyserth, the other at Deganwy. At the same time, lordship in the region was made more exacting. From their base at Chester, royal officials introduced English customs and practices, including more punitive financial demands. By 1254, when the Four Cantrefs (or ‘the king’s new conquest in Wales’, as they were now also being termed) were handed over to Edward as part of his endowment, the castles were complete, and the process of anglicisation well advanced. At the time of Edward’s visit two years later, his officials there were in a supremely confident mood. According to chronicle reports, his chief steward boasted openly before the king and queen that he had the Welsh in the palm of his hand.

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Norman King Picks Saxon Name, 1239

From A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, by Marc Morris (Pegasus, 2015), Kindle pp. 3-4:

Henry, although king of England, was ancestrally and culturally French. He and his family were direct descendants of William the Conqueror, the Norman duke who had snatched England’s throne some 170 years earlier. Similarly, his leading subjects were all directly descended from the Conqueror’s Norman companions. When they talked to each other they spoke French (or at least a slightly anglicised, Norman version of it), and, when they came to christen their children, they gave them French names. William (Guillaume), for example, was still a popular name, for obvious reasons. So too was Richard (Ricard), because it evoked the memory of Henry’s famous uncle, Richard the Lionheart. And Henry (Henri) itself was perfectly respectable and commonplace. Henry III might have been rather limited in his abilities, but his two namesake predecessors had both been fearsome and successful warrior kings, worthy of commemoration and emulation.

All these options, however, Henry rejected. He had no desire to father conquerors, or for that matter crusaders. Thanks to his own father, the notorious King John, he had grown up surrounded by uncertainty and conflict. John had died in the midst of a self-inflicted civil war, bequeathing to his son a kingdom scarred and divided. What Henry craved above all for himself and his subjects was peace, harmony and stability. And it was a reflection of this ambition that he decided to call his son Edward.

Edward was a deeply unfashionable name in 1239 – no king or nobleman had been lumbered with it since the Norman Conquest, because it belonged to the side that had lost. Edward was an Old English name, and it sounded as odd and outlandish to Norman ears after 1066 as other Old English names – Egbert, Æthelred, Egfrith – still sound to us today. To call a boy such a name after the Conquest was to invite ridicule; he was bound to be mocked by the Williams, Richards and Henrys who were his peers.

But Henry III had good reason for foisting this unfashionable name on his firstborn son. After his father’s death, his mother had abandoned him – Isabella of Angouleme left England for her homeland in France, remarried and never returned. Effectively orphaned from the age of nine, the young king had found substitute father figures among the elderly men who had helped him govern his kingdom. But these men too, Henry ultimately decided, had failed him, and by 1234 he found himself alone once more. It was at this point, though, that the king discovered a new mentor, a man who would never, ever let him down – largely because he had already been dead for the best part of two centuries.

Henry’s new patron was Edward the Confessor, the penultimate king of Anglo-Saxon England. Like Henry himself, Edward had not been a very successful ruler: his death in January 1066 had sparked the succession crisis that led to the Norman Conquest nine months later. Posthumously, however, Edward had acquired a reputation as a man of great goodness – so much so that, a century after his death, he had been officially recognised as a saint. Thereafter his reign had acquired the retrospective glow of a golden age: men spoke with great reverence about his good and just laws (even though, in reality, he never made any). Of course, the fact that Edward was not a great warrior had made him an unlikely exemplar for the conquering dynasty of kings who came after him. But to a man like Henry III, who was entirely lacking in military skill, the Confessor seemed the perfect role model.

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Explorer and Sheikh Finally Part

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 302-303:

The packet [Heinrich Barth] gave al-Bakkay to send from Timbuktu included letters for the Foreign Office, the Royal Geographical Society, and many friends. It didn’t reach Europe until 1857, having spent more than two years in Ghadames.

The lull before parting was bittersweet. Barth and his friends from Timbuktu had grown fond of each other. In the mornings, as he took the air outside his tent, they gathered around him for conversation. One morning they asked him to read aloud from his European books, for the sound of the languages. He read the Bible in Greek and some passages in English, and recited a poem in German—the latter a big hit because “the full heavy words of that language” reminded them of their own. Another day they asked him to put on his European clothing, so he dug out his black suit. They admired the fine cloth and the trousers but found the frock coat comical. In Central Africa, wrote Barth, they were right.

As their time left together grew short, he and the sheikh continued their genial wide-ranging talks. They had been almost constant companions for nine-and-a-half months. Finally the day arrived when Barth was to cross the river and continue his journey home. His entry for July 9:

This was the day when I had to separate from the person whom, among all the people with whom I had come in contact in the course of my long journey, I esteemed the most highly, and whom, in all but his dilatory habits and phlegmatic indifference, I had found a most excellent and trustworthy man. I had lived with him for so long a time in daily intercourse, and in the most turbulent circumstances, sharing all his perplexities and anxieties, that I could not but feel the parting very severely.

Barth esteemed al-Bakkay, but couldn’t resist pointing out his flaws. The explorer sometimes judged the sheikh a timid procrastinator, but that seems unfair, considering the violent forces he had to balance. He risked his life by defying Ahmadu Ahmadu. He outmaneuvered not only the emir, but enemies in Timbuktu, including scheming members of his own family, while also dealing with constant threats from bellicose Tuaregs. He was also kind, generous, loyal, open-minded, and invigorating company. Because of him, Barth survived Timbuktu.

When he reached the opposite bank of the Niger, Barth fired two shots in farewell, as al-Bakkay had requested. Then he turned and began jotting notes about the sandy downs of this new shore, and the paths that led away from the river toward the east.

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Quinine’s Role in Exploring Africa

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 310-311:

On October 29 [Heinrich Barth] heard that a British expedition had steamed up the Benue River. He had urged this mission on the government two years earlier but hadn’t heard a word about it since. He traced the rumor to a man in Kano who had seen the steamer on the Benue. Barth questioned him closely and was convinced that the rumor was true.

Barth wouldn’t know the details for many months. The mission had left Britain in early June 1854. When its commander died soon after the boat reached the island of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, Dr. William Balfour Baikie assumed command. Baikie, who later became Barth’s friend and supporter, took the 100-foot steamer Pleiad up the Niger for 700 miles. In early August the Pleiad entered the Benue and ascended it for 250 miles. At the end of September Baikie turned around, reaching the Niger on October 20, while Barth was in Kano. By February 1855 the Pleiad was home.

Every previous excursion on the Niger had proven deadly to Europeans, mostly because of fever. But the Pleiad’s entire crew—twelve Europeans and fifty-four Africans—survived because of an experimental therapy—prophylactic doses of quinine. This success altered the course of African exploration. The voyage also proved Barth’s conviction that the heart of Africa could be opened to commerce through navigation of the Niger’s watershed.

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Explorer Barth and Reader Cooley

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 211-213:

[Heinrich Barth] … began replies to his recent correspondents. One of them was William Desborough Cooley, the British historian and geographer. His book of 1841, The Negroland of the Arabs Examined and Explained; or, An Inquiry into the Early History and Geography of Central Africa, attempted to re-create the history and geography of the western Sudan through rigorous engagement with old travelers’ accounts and Arabic sources such as Al-Idrisi and Al-Bakri. Cooley sifted these sources for verifiable facts and cross-checked them against modern European travel accounts. Comparing all these sources, he believed, would yield a strong facsimile of truth about Central Africa’s past as well as the location of historical places and landmarks.

He was able to demonstrate that the half-legendary empires of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai had been real, and he roughly positioned them geographically for the first time. From old and new sources he extracted a detailed, complex history of black Africa that contradicted hazy European assumptions about the continent’s savagery. Cooley also avoided most of the era’s racial and cultural biases. He reminded readers that bloody executions by African leaders weren’t so different from English laws that burned women at the stake for counterfeiting money or that hanged hundreds of people for minor crimes such as pilfering.

Cooley’s book was immediately influential among Europe’s Africanists, but met its greatest resistance in Britain. Barth admired it so much that he carried it to Africa and often consulted it. On April 1851, a few days after he first arrived in Kukawa, he wrote Cooley an introductory letter that began, “Sir, It is from a warm love of science that I quite a stranger to you take the liberty of addressing you the following lines.” He expressed his esteem for The Negroland of the Arabs, “sincere as it is without the least prejudice and going on with a firm step from point to point”—a perspective and method like Barth’s own. Rereading the book in Africa, he told Cooley, increased his appreciation. He thought Cooley would like to know that on-the-ground observations were confirming the accuracy of the old Arab historians and many of Cooley’s speculations. “I am able to put truth in the place of conjectures,” wrote Barth, “and to give life to vague accounts of former times.”

Cooley’s response, written in January 1852, reached Bagirmi with the packet of letters in July. His tiny handwriting in pale ink contrasted strongly with Barth’s bold dark penmanship. The letter was a peculiar mixture of praise, advice, querulousness, bruised egotism, and condescension. Cooley regretted not meeting Barth in London and welcomed Barth’s compliments about his book, “as it has been received here with discouraging coldness,” despite “the revolution effected by me in the comparative Geography of Africa.”

He swatted away several of Barth’s suggested corrections to his speculations. Barth was right, but Cooley’s reaction was typical of him. He ridiculed any new information by explorers that contradicted his armchair conjectures. For instance, he mocked all the eyewitness reports of snow on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro because they clashed with his theory about possible temperatures at the equator. This habit eventually undermined his influence and earned him the nickname “the stormy petrel.”

Cooley praised Barth for sending back “a larger amount of valuable information, then [sic] has been as yet appended to the narrative of any African traveller, Burckhardt alone perhaps excepted; and doubtless you now possess much the loss of which would be deplorable.”

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Bornu Slave Raid on Mandara, 1851

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 175-177:

THE OFFICIAL REASON FOR THE MILITARY EXPEDITION WAS TO PUNISH the vassal state of Mandara for disobedience. The real reason was that the “coffers and slave-rooms of the great men” of Bornu were empty. The lawless Welad Sliman and the legitimate government of Bornu were both motivated by greed, but the mercenary Arabs didn’t bother to disguise or rationalize their conduct.

A Bornu military campaign moved with ponderous, gaudy pomp. The boom of a great drum signaled the break of camp. Twenty thousand men set off to the drum’s deep cadence, along with 10,000 horses and 10,000 beasts of burden. Barth described the scene:

. . . the heavy cavalry, clad in thick wadded clothing, others in their coats of mail, with their tin helmets glittering in the sun, and mounted on heavy chargers . . . the light Shuwa horsemen, clad only in a loose shirt and mounted upon their weak, unseemly nags; the self-conceited slaves, decked out gaudily in red bernuses or silken dresses of various colors; the Kanembu spearmen, almost naked, with their large wooden shields, their half-torn aprons round their loins, their barbarous head-dresses, and their bundles of spears; then, in the distance behind, the continuous train of camels and pack-oxen. . . .

The pack animals were burdened with “tents, furniture, and provisions and mounted by the wives and concubines of the different chiefs, well dressed and veiled.” The vizier and the sheikh each brought “a moderate number” of concubines—eight for Haj Beshir, twelve for Umar, all dressed in white burnooses. Four fan-bearers in multicolored attire followed the sheikh, as did shrill musicians. Everyone, wrote Barth, was “full of spirits, and in the expectation of rich booty, pressing onward to the unknown regions toward the southeast.”

The army moved over the countryside like locusts. The courtiers brought their own provisions, but the soldiers were expected to supply themselves and their horses from the fields and livestock they passed. “To the ruin of the country,” noted Barth. Cornfields were stripped, livestock seized.

He and Overweg had neither provisions nor money to buy any, but the sheikh and the vizier kept them well fed, at first: rice boiled with milk, bread and honey, sheep and sorghum. The Germans spent most evenings in intellectual tête-à-tête with the vizier, whose curiosity matched theirs. Haj Beshir’s travels to Egypt and Mecca had enlarged his perspective and excited his interest in foreign matters. “Our conversation at some of these African soirées with the vizier,” wrote Barth, “became sometimes so learned that even Ptolemy with his ‘Mandros oros’ was quoted.” On another evening, “a disputation arose of so scientific a character that it might have silenced all those who scoff at the uncivilized state of the population of these regions.”

They often discussed slavery. Barth urged Haj Beshir to abolish it in favor of agriculture, industry, and trade. The vizier agreed that slave-hunting was a sordid business, but no other commodity paid as well, and Bornu needed the money for European firearms to protect itself against enemies—firearms that were also used, noted Barth, to hunt down and enslave or massacre yet more people. The high profits from slavery also led to a taste for luxuries that could only be sustained by capturing and selling more slaves. “Such is the history of civilization!” wrote Barth acerbically. He concluded that European nations were hypocritical for condemning the slave trade while profiting from the gun trade that fueled it. The vizier offered to end slave-trading in Bornu—though not domestic slavery—if the British government would send Bornu 1,000 muskets and four cannons.

Haj Beshir was one of the two great friends Barth made on his journey (the other was Sidi Ahmed al-Bakkay, the sheikh of Timbuktu). “I repeat that, altogether, he was a most excellent, kind, liberal, and just man,” wrote Barth of Haj Beshir, “and might have done much good to the country if he had been less selfish and more active.”

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