History


Last week I finally finished reading the excellent Neanderthal Parallax trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer: Hominids, Humans and Hybrids.  Finally because there’s a bit of a saga behind this, but first for a quick review.

I’m a sucker for all things ancient and all things futuristic – anything that happened more than 1000 years ago or that might happen 1000 years into the future.  I think it’s to do with the way it puts our own present into perspective – when you look at ancient cave paintings or consider the fact that there are literally billions of stars out there which may or may not have habitable planets orbiting them, it just makes you feel absolutely tiny and insignificant but also completely awed and inspired.

So the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy was perfect for me because it combines so many different elements of the ancient and the futuristic.  Imagine a parallel universe in which Homo Sapiens had become extinct and Homo Neanderthalensis had evolved to become a comparably technologically advanced and highly cultured society.  Now imagine a Neanderthal physicist in this universe conducting a quantum computer experiment which goes wrong and opens a portal hurtling him into our universe.  Modern Homo Sapiens and Modern Homo Neanderthalensis meet for the first time.

Now there’s an excellent premise for a story!  The trilogy tells of the events and repercussions of this meeting of the two universes and explores all sorts of fascinating and unexpected ideas.  Like the best science-fiction, it is very well researched and all the ideas are based on real scientific and palaeoanthropological hypotheses.  A lot of ground is covered, from religion, violence and war, justice and punishment, art and culture, to genetics, archaeology, technology and geology.  We follow the developing relationship between a Homo Sapiens geneticist, Mary, and the Neanderthal physicist, Ponter Boddit, and discover the good and the bad in both systems of society.

I could go into a lot more detail about the plot and some of the specific ideas that interested me, but then I would never stop, so ask if you want to know!  Suffice to say I think there’s something in there for everyone and I very very highly recommend it.

There’s just one problem.  It was inordinately difficult for me to get hold of it.  I’d heard of it because I came across an article by the author on the BBC news here which got me curious.  So I popped in to my lovely local Waterstones only to discover they didn’t have it in stock.  They told me they could order it but I was just about to go away on holiday so I left it until I got back.  I then managed to find the first one, Hominids, in the Picadilly Waterstones and devoured it.  When I came to try and order the other two from Waterstones, however, they firstly told me that it was only published in an American edition so would cost more to ship over.  Fine, I could live with that.  Then it transpired that the second book, Humans – and only the second book! – was out of print, so they couldn’t get it for me after all.  Hmmm.  Surely it’s extremely odd for only the 2nd book in a trilogy to be out of print?????  So finally, I turned to Amazon.  Third book in the trilogy, Hybrids, was no problem.  I ordered it on a Saturday afternoon, they had it in stock in the UK and it arrived on Monday morning.  Humans, however, I had to cough up £30 for, for a SECOND HAND copy (which was in excellent condition, to be fair) from a seller in America on Amazon Marketplace.  And it was worth it, and I don’t regret paying that much, but it is a little ridiculous, don’t you think?

My aunt very cleverly suggested the Blackwells Espresso Book Machine as a solution when I was complaining about this.  This is a new print-on-demand machine Blackwells are launching in their flagship store in Charing Cross to make millions of out-of-print titles available for whoever wants them.  She’s right, it would have been perfect, though I don’t know how much it costs per book.  Unfortunately I think the focus initially will be on out-of-copyright books – negotiations with publishers for out-of-print but in-copyright books  is ongoing, I believe.  And the catalogue is not yet live for the general public to use and order.  But I’m definitely keen to go take a look when it’s up and running properly!

Last week I had to hand in a 500 word proposal detailing what my final year dissertation will be on.  In this dissertation I am combining all my interests by looking at the nature of ‘publishing’ in Anglo-Saxon England and analysing whether it is in fact possible to see any such thing.  So here is a slightly extended version of my proposal (the quote in the title is from King Alfred’s Preface Letter to his Old English Translation of the Pastoral Care, a good translation of which is to be found in this book by Keynes and Lapidge):

These Books Most Necessary for all Men to Know:

An Analysis of the Nature of the ‘Publishing Industry’ in Three Case Studies from Anglo-Saxon England

The modern publishing industry is dedicated to recording ideas, reproducing them – whether in print or other media – and selling the reproductions. It is run for profit, and operates within the constraints of the contemporary economic and legal framework. To describe book production and dissemination in Anglo-Saxon England as a ‘publishing industry’ is therefore anachronistic: there were few of the processes seen in the modern industry as most of these processes developed only after the invention of printing.

It is nevertheless possible to evaluate Anglo-Saxon book production with the concept of a ‘publishing industry’ in mind. My essay will be divided into three thematic sections: The Commissioning, Authorship and Editing of Texts and Manuscripts; The Design and Production of Manuscripts; The Dissemination and Use of Texts and Manuscripts. Each process will be carefully defined. I will distinguish between a text – the written words – and a manuscript – the physical object or book. ‘Editing’ encompasses both the creative role of an ‘editor’ in helping the author formulate ideas into written words (although in our case studies author and editor often overlap) and the corrective role of a ‘copy-editor’ or ‘proof-reader’. ‘Production’ refers to the physical creation of a manuscript, but also describes the overall process from the inception of the idea to the completion of the physical manuscript. ‘Dissemination’ covers both the physical distribution of manuscripts and the cultural spread of ideas.

Within each of these thematic sections I will analyse the nuances of these processes and how they can be defined by an examination of three case studies. My first case study is Bede at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the mid-eighth century, an example of an ‘in-house author’. His works were popular – as evidenced by the requests for copies from the missionary bishops Boniface and Lul. It has been argued that the demand for Bede’s works was a driving factor in the development of Phase II Insular Minuscule script. Here we can see the processes of authorship, production – in the possibly conscious script development – and dissemination – in the number of Bedan manuscripts with continental provenance.

The second case study is the translation and editing of the Old English Pastoral Care by King Alfred and his scholars at the end of the ninth century, and the production of later manuscripts of this text. The Preface Letter to this translation indicates Alfred’s purpose: commissioning a text for a specific purpose and a specific audience. He intended for all young men in the country to be taught to read English, and wished to provide the most ‘necessary books’ translated from Latin into English for them to learn from. Textual and palaeographical research on the surviving manuscripts of the Old English Pastoral Care has led to debate about the manner in which this translation was formulated and written down, and about its later dissemination and use. The precise role of the scribe has been questioned – ‘mindless amanuensis, copy-editor or editor in chief’?

Thirdly I will examine Bishop Leofric of Exeter’s scriptorium in the mid-eleventh century. The donations lists and ownership inscriptions which allow an unusually high number of manuscripts to be associated with Leofric’s library also suggest that Exeter had an unusually active scriptorium at this time. Drage’s analysis of the scripts of all the manuscripts associated with Leofric has allowed her to identify at least 11 scribes working in Leofric’s scriptorium, and about 13 manuscripts which were a product of this scriptorium. These manuscripts were not newly authored texts, but new manuscript copies of texts necessary for the everyday duties of a bishop and his household. It has been argued, however, that the high number of Old English manuscripts surviving from Leofric’s scriptorium suggest a more than usual concern for the provision of practical and suitable texts for his bishopric. Here, therefore, again, we can see the influence of one man ‘commissioning’ specific texts for a specific purpose and audience.

I hope then to draw together all of my case studies and themes in order to come to some conclusions about the nature of ‘publishing’ in each of the case studies. Although the terminology of modern publishing will be useful by analogy to describe the processes of book production in Anglo-Saxon England, it is not my main purpose to compare the Anglo-Saxon era to the modern day, but rather to consider and analyse the processes, functions and nature of Anglo-Saxon book production and ‘publication’ in their own right.

I just finished the Man Booker-Shortlisted and British Book Design and Production Award-Shortlisted novel Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh. Wow.  The skill with which this author writes is just breath-taking.  The story is set in 19th Century India and on the high seas, centering on a group of incredibly diverse characters drawn together one way or another on board a ship called The Ibis.  The opium trade is at the heart of the plot and it is one of those fantastic historical novels which manages to teach you something at the same time – I had never before realised, for some reason, that a lot of the British Empire’s Opium was grown and manufactured in India and then exported to China, having somehow assumed it was an exclusively Chinese trade.  I also learnt something about the transportation of indentured migrant workers from India to Mauritius – although I knew that Mauritius had a strongly Indian background, I had never really thought about why.

Rather like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, (which is probably the longest single book I’ve ever read, but is riveting nevertheless), Ghosh’s technique of switching between different characters and his skill in fleshing out their personalities so that you have a fully living, breathing, amimated cast of characters rather than only one or two fully developed main characters, ensures that we get a sweeping insight into 19th century Indian and Colonial life.  The characters come from all works of life: a mulatto freed-man from Baltimore working as a sailor, a Raj toppled by an unscrupulous English businessman, a poor poppy farmer escaping the clutches of her brother-in-law after the death of her opium addict husband, an enterprising young French-woman who has grown up with India as her motherland, and many more.

One of the ways Ghosh manages to make his cast so vivid is through his imaginative use of language.  Each of the characters has a distinctive voice, shot through with personal idiosyncracies and Indo-English slang.  The misunderstandings that arise from the mutual incomprehension of the different characters makes for a great deal of humour alongside the darker themes arising from the historical setting.  To give a couple of examples:

” ‘Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: there isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?’

‘Why, Madame…’

Paulette was a little surprised to see Mrs Burnham making such a to-do about a matter she usually touched upon so lightly – but she was glad, too, to have the conversation turned in this new direction, since it presented a good opportunity for escape.  Hugging her stomach, she made a moaning sound: ‘Madame, you are perfectly right: I am indeed a little foireuse today.’

‘Oh dear, dear Puggly!’ The BeeBee dabbed her streaming eyes and gave Paulette a pitying hug.  ‘Of course you’re furious! Those budzat sailors! With all their udlee-budlee, you’d think they’d leave the larkins alone!’ ”

“He paused to give Zachary a broad wink. ‘From what I hear, the Rascal’s going to be in for a samjaoing soon enough.  The kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out.’

Zachary could no longer sustain the pretence of omniscience.  Knitting his eyebrows, he said: ‘Cu – cuzzanah? Now there you go again, Mr Doughty: that’s another word I don’t know the meaning of.’ ”

Ghosh spends a lot of the book – and it’s not a short book – setting the scene, introducing the characters and slowly weaving them all together.  The second half of the book therefore felt much faster-paced, and ended quite abruptly: I have to admit, after the time spent building everything up, I felt the culmination of the action was almost too rushed.  However, I just found out that it is in fact the first of a planned trilogy, so I just have to wait for the second one to come out!  Ghosh has invested so much in the characters that you are definitely left wanting to know what happens to them next!

On Thursday night I went to the first of my ‘social’ Society of Young Publisher’s events, a pub crawl they put on in Borough to provide an opportunity for members to meet and mingle. It was a fun evening and I met several lovely people who were all willing to talk about what they do and to give me advice. It also makes me feel more confident about going to other SYP events, as there should be at least a couple of familiar faces!

One of the best aspects of the evening, which I wasn’t expecting, was that some of the committee members who work in editorial and marketing had brought along a few early proof copies of new books they’re working on to give away – so somehow I ended up with 3 free books! Well, I couldn’t just leave them lying on the table when we left the first pub now, could I?

These early proof copies are the ones handed out to reviewers before or soon after the book is published, so, of course, I will review them! Already eaten my way through one: A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott, which is actually already out.

A Small Part of History is set in 1845, Pioneering America. Rebecca has just married a widower twenty years her senior and is struggling to make friends with his fifteen-year-old daughter Sarah when he announces that the whole family is going to emigrate westwards to the newly opened territory of Oregon. The cramped, stressful and often dangerous conditions of the wagon trail force Sarah to grow up and come to terms with her step-mother, just as it forces Rebecca to assume more responsibility and strength of mind than she could ever have imagined.

The novel is about the role women played in this fascinating period of American history, and the author based her research on real diaries of women who made the journey. In keeping with this, the narrative switches between the first-person accounts of Sarah, Rebecca’s journal entries, entries from the ‘notebook’ of fellow traveller Margaret, and a third-person narrative voice. This creates pace and variety, as well as allowing us to see all the women’s experiences. Elliott writes with conviction and emotion, but it is not a highly literary novel – it tells a story effectively but without high elegance or poetry. The story is very tragic in places, which I’m sure is an accurate reflection of the real dangers encountered on the Oregon Trail, but in some ways the tragedy comes so often and is dealt with so rapidly (for the book is not long) that I became slightly numbed to it. Nevertheless, the real enjoyment and interest for me was in the detail of daily life on the trail, and the women’s concerns to keep up some pretence of domesticity in the midst of a hostile environment.

A Small Part of History is described in its blurb as ‘a perfect reading group book’, which I think is right. It is a relatively quick read, but there is lots of interest to discuss on it, from women’s role in history in general, to the specifics of ninteenth-century American society and the excitement and dangers of the American pioneer trails.

So it’s been a while; I blame two things.  Firstly, a tiny matter called e-x-a-m-s and secondly, the complete and utter death of my computer a week before said exams happened.  Computer is being fixed tomorrow hopefully; meanwhile I am happily installed on a friend’s laptop, enjoying exam freedom by listening to the new Coldplay album Viva la Vida, which i cycled through torrential rain to buy at 9am this morning!  I’m pretty impressed so far!

Revision did interrupt my reading a little, and as I predicted I haven’t got as far through my bookshelf of books as I’d hoped, though I did buy several new books from the Oxfam Book shop in Cambridge which I’ve managed to eat through – more on those in the coming days!

One book I have been reading all term is Stephen Oppenheimer’s Out Of Eden.  It’s taking me a while because it’s non-fiction and pretty dense in facts and figures in places.  Stephen Oppenheimer is a geneticist, and his work basically sets out to synthesise genetic evidence for pre-historic human migrations out of Africa with archaeological, climatic, geological and anthropological evidence.  Out of Eden argues that everyone on the planet today is descended from a single group of early Homo Sapiens who left Africa about 85,000 years ago.  He then traces the progress of this group as different splinter branches colonised different parts of the world.

I am just under half-way through and will hopefully soldier on and finish it at some point, but it will be a long term project.  I was slightly put off, however, by a discussion I had with by Director of Studies about Stephen Oppenheimer.  My Director of Studies is a Celticist specialising in Medieval Welsh and Celtic Philology, amongst other things, and I mentioned to him that I was reading a Stephen Oppenheimer book because the other Oppenheimer book I have on my shelf to read, The Origins of The British, discusses the relative Celtic versus English ancestry of Britain, and argues that this divide goes much further back into pre-history than we might imagine, and I thought this might be something he was interested in.  As soon as I mentioned Stephen Oppenheimer’s name, however, my Director of Studies immediately exclaimed ‘Don’t talk to me about that man! He’s a terrible academic, his arguments about the origins of the British are nonsense!’.  I quickly reassured him I had not yet read the British book, and he conceeded that Out of Eden was not as bad, then proceeded to explain why he has such a violent dislike of this man’s book.

My Director of Studies was asked to write a review of The Origins of the British, but quickly became irritated with Oppenheimer’s less than rigorous approach to academic articles.  For example, he apparently quotes the non-committal conclusion about whether the Belgae tribe spoke a Celtic language out of context and uses it as positive evidence for his argument that they must therefore have been speaking a Germanic language;  enough inscriptional evidence has now been found to prove that the Belgae were Celtic-speaking peoples.  Oppenheimer postulates two branches of pre-historic migration into Britain, a Celtic branch coming up from the south-west via Spain, and a Germanic branch coming through eastern Europe.  He then argues that this eastern branch must have been speaking a Germanic language long before the traditional date of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the fifth century AD. 

Now, I have not read this book yet, but I would definitely have been sceptical of this.  The problem is that Oppenheimer is making linguistic arguments for a period for which we have absolutely no linguistic evidence.  Celtic and Germanic languages are both ultimately part of the Indo-European language group and it is very hard to pin-point exactly when in the pre-historic period the different branches of this group split off.  By arguing that just because one group came from the east they must have been speaking a Germanic language, Oppenheimer is also contradicting himself.  He has spent a long time in Out of Eden explaining how the inate human ability to learn language is genetically pre-programmed, but exactly which language we speak is conditioned by environmental factors – where we are born and what languages we are exposed to when we are very young.  This is why it is possible for humans to learn more than one language, although this becomes more difficult as we get older because the syntax and grammar for our mother-tongue is hard-wired into our brain at that young age. 

It therefore seems a little silly and contradictory for Oppenheimer to be arguing that a group of people in a particular place must have been speaking a particluar language solely because they were in that particular place in a period long before there is evidence for that language.  What is more, Classical authors such as Tacitus who encountered and wrote about both Celts and Germanic-speaking peoples in the first few centuries AD must surely have been able to tell the difference between the languages they spoke, and would very probably have commented had he encountered any Germanic tribes in Britain.

The problem stems ultimately from the fact that Oppenheimer is a geneticist, not a linguist, an historian or an archaeologist; he is therefore bound to make errors when trying to interpret linguistic, historical or archaeological evidence.  Whilst it is always important to analyse and consider as many different types of evidence as possible when trying to understand an historical or pre-historical period or event, it is also important to recognise that each piece of evidence must be considered on its own terms, and that such different types of evidence which require such different methods of interpretation can very rarely be shoe-horned together in an accurate way.  My Director of Studies directed me towards this article entitled Genetics, Linguistics and Prehistory: thinking big and thinking straight by Celtic scholar Patrick Sims-Williams which addresses exactly these issues with such interdisciplinary work.

I do still intend to read The Origins of the British, but I will be doing so with a healthy pinch of scepticism and my Director of Studies’ invective ringing in my ears!

Today I took a day trip down to Winchester with a couple of friends from my Uni course to see the exhibition at the Discovery Centre entitled Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom. Winchester is an absolutely beautiful town, and I’m now hankering after the gorgeous Georgian houses there!

The exhibition was pretty small but well laid out with useful and well presented information, as well as a few fun hands-on activities for children (which we of course tried out too!). The highlights were the so-called aestel jewels, the Fuller Brooch, and the earliest surviving manuscript of Alfred’s translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. All these objects are normally scattered across the country in various museums, so it was fantastic to be able to see them all together.

The Pastoral Care is the first book fully written in English, and though it is a translation it also contains one of the earliest pieces of sophisticated English prose: Alfred’s Preface, in which he sets out his vision and plan to restore the state of learning in England by teaching every young man in England who is not otherwise employed to read English, and by translating some of the books ‘most necessary for men to know’ into English to give them something to read. It is an incredible insight into a medieval mind, and should demolish for once and for all the stubborn stereotype that everything that happened before 1066 was the ‘Dark Ages’. In the Preface, and in the works he had translated, in particular the Pastoral Care, we can see a man who was deeply concerned not only with faith, but also with how to conduct himself as a good ruler, and how to enrich and improve his kingdom intellectually as well as materially.

The jewels, which are thought to be the heads of pointers used for reading, are absolutely stunning when you see them close up. They vary in size and design quite a lot, and as more of them have been found, it is becoming more and more clear that we don’t really have any idea what they were used for, but they do seem to be of a related type: variously shaped gold heads, some with glass enamelling, with sockets which give the suggestion they were once attached to something.

The Alfred Jewel is the most famous one; it it larger than the others and depicts a man; it has an inscription round the edge reading ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ (Alfred had me made). In the Preface, Alfred states that he is sending a copy of the Pastoral Care to each of his Bishops, accompanied by an ‘aestel’ worth fifty mancuses – a lot of money. The Alfred Jewel is thought to be one of these aestels, and it would certainly fit in beautifully with the image of the intellectual warrior king Alfred seems to have been.

I also absolutely loved the Fuller Brooch, which, with its sophisticated depiction of the Five Senses and the Four Elements, also gives us a sense of the vibrant intellectual and artistic culture of the late ninth century. It is also just a beautiful object of highly skilled craftsmanship!

I watched a really lovely programme on BBC 4 last night, presented by the wonderful Stephen Fry.  It was the first on a series of programmes in the BBC’s Medieval Season, which promises to be very interesting.  Stephen Fry was exploring the history of Johannes Gutenberg’s famous invention.   Printing using presses and moveable type was not new in the fifteenth century: in Eastern Asia, woodblock printing had been around for a while, but as you can imagine with Chinese characters it was quite a time consuming method.  In Europe at the start of the fifteenth century the race was on to find a way to produce the carved letter types quickly and efficiently.  This was Gutenberg’s breakthrough: he invented a special type of matrix mould which allowed hundreds of copies of a particular letter to be made very quickly –  although it still took half a day to file the metal templates used to create the mould.

Moveable type and new printing presses completely revolutionised our society and culture.  Suddenly far more people were able to access – and to create – written material.  Writing was no longer the monopoly of monastic scribes but for the first time books could be mass-produced – and each copy would be identical.  The Church was one of the first institutions to take advantage of the new technology, seeing the potential of being able to print standardised versions of the Bible and hundreds of Indulgences.  But it also allowed other men to have their say for the first time, and the modern world would not be the same without the Gutenberg Printing Press.

Stephen Fry’s programme was a very watchable exploration of the history of the Printing Press, as he went to Mainz and Strasbourg to discover more about Gutenberg’s life and work.  He also reconstructed (with the help of expert printers and carpenters) an original press, and printed an exact replica of one of the pages of the Gutenberg Bible using paper and type made in the authentic, old-fashioned, fifteenth-century method.  I always love seeing history brought to life in this way, and Fry’s excitement and awe as they printed the page was palpable.  A lot of people probably take mass-produced printed books for granted nowadays, so it was fascinating to go back to the beginning and be reminded just how revolutionary Gutenberg’s Press was.

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