Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Christopher Dyer - Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

The common perception of Medieval society is of an unchanging, backward economy, dominated by a peasantry who had little influence or desire for change and an aristocracy who were the reserve of intellect and political decisions. Christopher Dyer's important book challenges these myths at every stage, arguing that we shouldn't "belittle the achievements of the past and to assume in a patronizing way that medieval people were primitive and ignorant."

He continues,
Formal descriptions of medieval society imply the subordination of the masses. Yet even serfs had some use of property, and had some choice in the management of their holding of land, though they were of course restrained in many ways. One of the dynamic forces in medieval society... was not dictatorial decisions, but the opposite - the competition and frictions between different groups, not just between lords and peasants or merchants and artisans, but also between laymen and clergy, higher aristocrats and gentry, and subjects and the state, and individuals within those various groups. A society that appears to be governed by rigid laws and customs, in reality allowed people to take initiatives.
Much of this informative book looks in detail at the lives, and economic situation of different groups of medieval society as they change through the period. If at times the topics seem dry this is because of the immense amount of detail. This is not a popular history, though it is certainly accessible to the non-specialist.

The great theme of Dyer's book is that medieval society was constantly changing. Even during the later period which is traditionally seen as one of economic stagnation, there were innovations in how people lived, worked the land and organised themselves. There were also changes to social relations between different groups and classes.

In addition to the changes through time, there was also enormous geographical variation. Take agriculture,
The managers of some manors, such as South Walsham on the earl of Norfolk's estate, had by the 1260s given up fallowing entirely, and cultivated all their arable every year. Such intensive methods were adopted in north-east Norfolk, not just because the soil was naturally fertile, but also because the high population density allowed labour to be concentrated on the land, with repeated ploughing, weeding and spreading of manure and marl.
Medieval peasants and lords were extremely concerned with maximising the return from the labour on the land, and Dyer explains in detail the way this meant at different times and places thinking through the best way to use land. "The demesnes' main contribution to technology lay in the management of resources rather than in new inventions or mechanical devices... they could maintain and improve yields by finding ways to combine arable and pasture... through changes in rotation or combinations of crops".

Though we shouldn't dismiss medieval technology, which has been shown to have existed on a large scale - total English mills by 1300 perhaps surpassing 10,000 in number.

But of greatest interest here is the examination of the changing social relations. In particular the way that serfs and peasants gradually began to relate to their superior classes not through obligated labour, but through monetary relations, the paying of rent in kind. In turn we see how landowners moved away from a feudal relationship, encouraging peasants to give a proportion of their crops, and concentrated on maximising income from rents. Over many years this had a tremendous impact upon the population of the countryside, There were many reasons for this, but I was struck by the evidence that must have been apparent to every lord in the country, that those labouring for others tend to be less productive and efficient.
An average day's labour service produced one-third of a carload of hay, while a wage earner doing the same task yielded a half-cartload.... This helped them [the demesne managers] to decide that in some circumstances it was more profitable to let the tenants pay their commutation money - to 'sell' their works.... and to use wage earners instead. This decision was made in the light of the knowledge that the commutation money... did not cover the full cost of the hired workers.
But this was not a one-sided story. Dyer notes that the "aristocracy" were increasingly restricted. On the one hand the sate was limiting their ability to impose discipline through manorial courts and from below the tenants constantly attempted to strengthen their hand, to fight for their customary rights and to reduce their exploitation. This forced lords to find other ways to make money, such as building mills, which further changed social relations in the country. We must also be careful not to judge the aristocracy through the eyes of modern capitalism. They were "not just money-grabbers", status and reputation were also important. They was constant friction between them and their contemporaries, as well as other groups in society, and it was this that helped provide "one of the dynamic forces in medieval society".

External changes however had enormous impacts. In the mid-14th century England went through two enormous social crises, first major famine and then the Black Death. It is well known that this helped undermine medieval society further, by encouraging the movement of the population, driving wages upwards and leading to more lords asking rents, rather than feudal obligations. But Dyer emphasises the role of the lower orders in this change as well, writing that
the Black Death liberated the lower ranks of society; the elite were stimulated into a reaction, which soured relations and provoked rebellion. The revolts established a new balance, in which the authorities adjusted to the reality that the peasants, artisans and wage earners had improved their bargaining power. The fall in population created the environment in which these changes took place, but reduction in rent and the freeing of serfs did not happen 'naturally', The entrenched institutions would crack only if the lower orders developed ideas which contradicted those of their rulers, and asserted themselves in a coherent and organised way.
Dyer suggests that this process was much more complex that we have been lead to believe. Wages not rising as dramatically as we previously understood, but more importantly, the higher wages and reduced population changing demands for goods, which actually stimulated the economy. But the major change was not the increase in wages, or the change to labour services, but the "leasing of lrds' demesnes".
Lords gave up their role as direct producers, and the peasants cautiously accumulated larger holdings. As the masses, including those depending mainly on wages, spent their new wealth, the urban and commercial economy regained some of the lost ground and grew once more.
The crises of the mid-14th century opened up a new era for the countryside and the town that would lead to the beginnings of the rise of capitalist production in the 17th century. This is not to suggest that some areas of the economy did not go backwards, and Dyer describes the abandonment of villages and the shrinkage of the cultivated land in this period. But in countering the idea that England simply entered an total economic plateau in the later medieval period he is highlighting the importance of the changing economic and social circumstances. Dyer is concerned with not trying to find a "grand narrative" to explain all the historic changes. Noting there was not a gradual "upward march", and highlighting the way that population did not increase as dramatically as one might have expected after the decimation of the Black Death. Ultimately though, for Dyer, the key question is the "creation of an enduring framework for production and exchange in the two centuries after 850, and the urbanization of period 880-1300." He continues
The dynamic tension within the feudal regime in the in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with its element of competition among the aristocracy and the lack of strict controls which enabled peasant initiatives, must be accorded great importance. The relaxation of demographic pressure int he fourteenth century and the opportunities that were given to the upper ranks of the peasantry enabled some growth in a period apparent adversity.... the problems for producers int he next two centuries again allowed a level of consumer demand which kept industry and trade in a healthy state especially around 1400 and again after about 1470.
It this this emphasis on the internal dynamics and the role of production in the economy that helps make this such an important book. It is not without its weaknesses (the lack of footnotes being a major complaint), though it is full of detailed information and the occasional fascinating anecdote. Ultimately through, Dyer never forgets that it is ordinary people who are at the heart of the processes that changed their world.

Related Reviews

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Gimpel - The Medieval Machine
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150 - 1500

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I.M.W. Harvey - Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450

There have been few contemporary works that have dealt in detail with the Jack Cade rebellion of 1450, which makes I.M.W. Harvey's book enormously important. Cades' revolt was similar in some ways to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The rebels assembled on Blackheath and at Mile End, perhaps deliberately mimicking Wat Tyler's men seventy years earlier. Though a smaller, and less disciplined force, they too stormed London and attacked prosperous homes and shops. They even broke open the Marshalsea prison like their predecessors.

But despite the fear this caused in the ruling class, the revolt had some important differences. In 1381 the rebels were at the high point of a movement that was challenging serfdom as a social structure. This is why the destruction of manorial records, the documents that put the exploitative relations between lord and peasant in writing, were so often destroyed. In Harvey's book she only mentions one occasion when this took place in 1450. While the demands of 1450 are often social, for instance rejecting the Statute of Labourers, they were also inherently about reform. Indeed Harvey points out that the main demands in 1450 were actually those of the Kentish middle classes. That the rebellion mobilised a mass of the lowest orders to march on London reflects that there were real concerns from everyone that needed to be addressed. But there is little, if any, sense of a rebellion against the established order from the contemporary accounts. This is why Cade's rebellion included gentlemen such as Robert Poynings who was his sword carrier during the revolt. But the mass of the rebellion were peasants and small scale land owners.

Why did they revolt? Strangely the question of France was high on the list. While the rebellion involved areas outside of the south-east of England, it was dominated by Kent and, to a lesser extent, Essex. These were the areas most affected by the armies that went to Normandy to defend England's possessions. But they were areas also frequently raided by the French during the Hundred Years War. But this isn't enough to explain events. As 1450 approached it was clear that England was heading towards defeat and for many in England this was a disaster. Henry VI was widely seen as an ineffectual king, but anger was directed at the ministers around him. Many of these, in particular the duke of Suffolk, were also extremely oppressive land owners in the south-east. They exploited the people and the land, and distorted the criminal justice system in the interests of lining their pockets.

This then is the backdrop to Cade's march on London and the murder of several leading figures in the Royal household. That the king could not rely on his soldiers and fled to Kenilworth demonstrates the scale of the crisis. But possibly because the rebellion only focused on minor reforms rather than significant changes, the majority of rebels were bought off by promises and a royal pardon. Cade wasn't. He was hunted down and killed. But Henry VI's rule never regained real stability and the king was dragged further into civil war and national crisis.

Harvey's finishes by looking at the years that followed 1450. Few histories of the period have noticed the rebellion that continued in Kent until at least 1453. This was not a whole county in turmoil, but significant numbers were still prepared to rally behind the calls of new "Captain's of Kent", and increasingly they raised slogans that demanded radical change.

Harvey's book is a work of brilliant scholarly research. She has an excellent command of the source material, including the many contradictions (such as the debate over where Cade was killed). It is no surprise that almost every book dealing with the period since has relied heavily on this important study. For anyone trying to understand the backdrop the Wars of the Roses, and history that doesn't just concentrate on kings and queens, this is an important, if difficult to find book.

Related Reviews

Hilton - Bond Men Made Free
Barker - England Arise!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Rebecca Solnit - A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster

A Paradise Built in Hell ought to be read widely. All the latest climate change science suggests that the world is going to experience increased extreme weather, from floods and heatwaves, to hurricanes and rising sea levels. Solnit's book is important for two reasons. The first is that the "extraordinary communities" that arise in disasters are going to occur more often. The second is that the response from those at the top of society is often the worst way to respond to disasters and reflects the way those at the top view the majority of people.

We think of disasters in a particular way. It is a view shaped by common sense, by the media and by disaster movies. We believe, or at least we are told to believe, that when crisis hits, as society around us breaks down and when the state ceases to function we will return to some primitive nature dominated by selfishness and greed. We also think that any survivors will be damaged irreparably by their experience. Of course some people do respond to floods and earthquakes with violence and looting, and some people are utterly damaged by what they have seen.

But what Solnit's survey of disasters shows is that the opposite is actually true. Frequently, and more often than not, ordinary people respond to disaster with self-sacrifice, humanity, kindness and basic solidarity. As shown by her overview, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to 9/11 in New York and New Orleans in 2008, as well as many other examples.

Old boundaries are broken down, old prejudices changed, motives turned on their head and new ways of thinking abound. Here's an example from San Francisco when three thousand people had died and many more had lost their homes,
Charles Reddy, the manager of Miller and Luz, one of the big slaughterhouses on the city's southeast shore, also tells of the openhandedness that sprang up in the hours and days of the disaster. Reddy says that the proprietor's 'first thought that morning was that homeless people would soon be wanting meat, and my straight orders were to give every applicant all he needed and take money from nobody. Black, white, and yellow were to be treated just the same; and they were treated just the same, even if we had all Chinatown camped down quite near us.
Others in San Francisco, and this mirrors experiences in other disasters, began not just to fend for themselves, but to organise those around them. Makeshift hospitals, soup-kitchens, shelters and camps. Long before official assistance arrived people's lives had been saved in their thousands by volunteer firefighters, nurses, cooks and drivers. In Halifax in 1917, when a munitions ship exploded destroying the town in seconds,
A young businessman named Joe Glube slept through the explosion... he realised how horrific the disaster had been and how great the need and [took] his secondhand Ford to the grocery warehouses. They had been opened and volunteers were busy distributing their contents to the public. He began setting out with supplies and hauling the injured in to where they could be aided... Such improvisation - new roles, new alliances, new rules - are typical of disaster.
Most often these were ordinary people, but sometimes not. There's a wonderful anecdote in here of the woman who remarked that she had never met more people without introduction that during her disaster. Solnit points out that frequently people look back on their experiences as the best time of their lives, and while not everyone's memory of the Blitz is positive, the experiences of many was. Charles Sedgewick wrote of 1906
'The strong helped the weak with their burdens and when pause was made for refreshment, food was voluntarily divided; milk was given to the children, and any little delicacies that could be found were pressed upon the aged and the ailing.' And then he says, 'Would that it could always be so!' And here you get to the remarkable fact that people wish some aspects of disasters would last. He continues, "No one richer, none poorer than his fellow; no coveting the other's goods; no envy; no greedy grasping for more than one's fair share of that given for all... What a difference those few days when there was no money, or when money had no value!
Of course the return of the state means attempts to return things to normal. In 1906 this meant the arrival of the army with orders to shoot to kill, their vision of the city was it would have descended in to an anarchy of rape, murder and looting. Though as Solnit points out, looting is actually rare in disasters, people breaking into shops to find food and shelter isn't (and it shouldn't be seen as wrong in that context). One historian estimates that the forces who arrived in San Francisco after the quake killed 500 people. Certainly those organising the mass feeding stations preferred to organise themselves, rather than hand over to the authorities. Solidarity, not charity.

Two of the more modern crises bring these arguments into sharp relief. Both are difficult to read. The accounts of 9/11 and New Orleans are filled with unimaginable suffering, both at the hands of terrorists or the hurricane, but also at the incompetence of the authorities. In both cases the authorities expected chaos and the degeneration of people into animal behaviour, and in both cases ordinary people organised to save lives when the system broke down. From the men and women who got 300,000 people across the river off Manhattan Island in the aftermath of 9/11 to those who travelled to New Orleans to organise soup kitchens and medical aid. Indeed Solnit makes the point that for all the power of the US military and the hours that they had to act on 9/11, the only people who actually stopped any terrorism on that terrible day, where those on the final plane who organised to stop the hijackers.

Solnit emphasises the "elite panic" that grips the authorities at times of crisis, contrasting this with the attitudes of the majority.
Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that change means chaos and destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster - and real political and social change can result from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges... the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don't hold radical ideas, don't believe in revolution, don't consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it,
As she comments later, "disasters without redemptive moments raise the question of redemptive moments without disaster", and many readers of this review who have experience of other situations might recognise some of Solnit's themes. Revolutionaries often talk about how people are transformed through struggle, strikes, protest movements, or revolutions. Participants experience the world differently, learn new skills, see others through different eyes, overcome inhibitions and grow in confidence. At the high points of class struggle, mass strikes and revolutions, the world seems turned upsidedown and the potential for new ways of organising shine through.

Solnit sees this, describing her experience of campaigning against war, and interviewing those involved with Cindy Sheenan in her anti-war protests at George W. Bush. The stories reflect those of people involved in disasters, and many went on to play key roles from outside at New Orleans. She makes that point that disaster isn't necessary for people to help, volunteer or make sacrifices for others. But within disasters there is a concentration of need and urgency, as well as a lack of alternatives that forces people to act, and act they do, with willingness far removed from the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

The stories of solidarity and self-sacrifice in this book are inspiring. But surprisingly what we also learn is that ordinary people really do have the potential to run society.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

David Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History

If one theme dominates David Green's history of the Hundred Years War above all others, it is change. Changes to the lives of those who fought the battles, or ploughed their fields; changes to religious institutions and battlefield tactics, changes to the perception of women in society, or concepts of chivalry. This isn't surprising, after all this was a conflict that lasted generations and involved a succession of monarchs on both sides of the Channel. It was also an enormously brutal war, marked by massacre on both sides and savage tactics.

Today we mostly remember the battles of Agincourt or Crechy. But the war began with a series of raids by English armies, designed to deprive the enemy of resources, human and material, and demoralise the population. In these chevauchée
the chivalry of England... attacked those least able to defend themselves in order to undermine the legitimacy of the French monarchy economically and symbolically. And yet this was considered chivalrous behaviour. At its heart chivalry was a military code concerned with war... So, in 1346, in a display of often pitiless chivalry, the English laid waste to Cherbourg, Harfleur and much of the Normandy coast. Caen fell, and there, in proper chivalric fashion, a number of eminent (and valuable) French noblemen were taken captive and held for ransom...
David Green reminds us of the human factor.
The Black Prince, therefore, built himself a chivalric reputation on the ashes of peasant houses; he gained renown by burning the property of those least able to defend themselves and by taking valuable prisoners.
But as the war progressed, the very basis of this chivalry was undermined. The longbow put the masses in a position of domination on the battle field, and the introduction of artillery eventually meant that the lucrative trade in prisoner's ransoms became less worthwhile. Anonymous death from the skies had arrived, much to the disgust of those who saw the role of the knight as matching some near religious ideal. By the time the war ended, Green notes, that "chivalric individuality had been transformed... into an ideal of collective service in defence of the nation".

Indeed the war did a great deal to stimulate the rise of national identify in France. By its end, "Frenchmen and Englishmen, collectively, thought of themselves differently, and as very different from each other". Part of the reason for this was that the ruling classes on both sides had to develop justifications for the ongoing conflict. For instance, the English had to demonstrate that they had a right to rule France. This in turn meant they had to shed some of their historic identification with France - English became the language of court, rather than French.

More importantly, at the bottom of society there was an identification with the aims of the conflict and the military investment in it. The 1450 rebellion of Jack Cade had many of its roots in the unwillingness and inability of Henry VI to defend his territory in Normandy. That a major rebellion could take place, in part, over the failure of a government to prosecute a war successfully seems a shock to us today, especially when contrasted to the events in 1381 when revolt was about the very nature of medieval society. But Green argues that this contradiction has its roots, not in the domination of reactionary ideas among the masses, but in a growing identification of ordinary people with the national interest.

That is not to say that the peasantry enjoyed the war. The people of Kent were constantly struggling as a result of the armies that marched through their lands or were quartered in their villages. The "dreadful time" for the peasantry was particularly true for those in France who suffered battle, famine and the horrors of becoming a refugee as various armies ravaged their lands.

As a contemporary account complained
no one could get any ploughing or sowing done anywhere... Then most of the labourers stopped working in despair, abandoned their wives and children, and said to each other: What shall we do? Let it all go to the devil, what do we care what becomes of us? We may as well do the worst we can instead of the best. We'd be better off working for Saracens than for Christians, so let's do all the damage we can... It's our rulers who are the traitors, it's because of them we must ... escape to the woods like strayed animals.
Green also notes that the war also saw a positive change in the fortunes for some of those at the bottom of society. Alongside the war, famine, plague and agricultural crisis had thinned the population and the peasantry's "scarcity in a new world made them valuable." While such changes might have been hard to see from the position of the peasant, the world historic impact was enormous as wage labour came to dominate over feudal obligations.

But a great strength of David Green's book is that while he highlights the importance of these outward changes, he doesn't ignore the more subtle, and often more fundamental, changes taking place within the fabric of society. One aspect of this is the way that recruitment for armies became more professional. The old feudal role of the lord bringing his armed retinue with him to war, was diminishing to be replaced by a system of indenture - "soldiering had become a job of work for the common man, not simply a feudal obligation".

The role of women during the Hundred Years War challenged perceptions of the times. The most obvious of these is the way that Joan of Arc took on a leading military role. But Green documents the less well know women who took leading roles, such as the mistresses of kings who played the game of politics and often paid with their lives, or reputation. Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III, being described by Thomas Walsingham as a "shameless, impudent harlot, and of low birth".

Other women were encouraged to play their part in the war effort. Edward III wrote to three aristocratic women in 1335, urging them to "gather trusted advisers together in London to 'treat and ordain on the safe custody and secure defence of our realm and people, and on resisting and driving out the [French] foreigners' who Edward believed were massing troops and ships for an invasion."

More actively, Jeanne, wife of Jean, future duke of Brittany led the defense of her town,
riding through the streets urging the townsfolk to take up arms, encouraging women to 'cut short their kirtles [gowns]' and carry 'stones and pots full of chalk to the walls', so that they might be thrown down on their enemies. The countess then rode out armed at the head of 300 horsemen to charge the French camp before setting it on fire and returning to Hennebont to defend it from another assault.
But there were other, less positive aspectr, reflecting the violence at the heart of the conflict. Rape was a weapon of the Hundred Years War and "assaults on the body politic of ones enemy might easily become equated with an assault on their physical bodies." An English Statute of 1275 even "downgraded" rape from a felony to a trespass.
no longer to be punished with loss of life or limb but by a fine or imprisonment. The crime also became closely associated with abduction, and in legal terms the concern shifted away from the women affected directly and focused on the implications of rape for families - chiefly aristocratic families.... Consequently in England in the later Middle Ages rape became a crime as much against a a man (husband, father, and so on) as it was against a woman. Within the context of the Hundred Years War English authorities might, tacitly, have viewed rape as an attack on property".
David Green's book is a comprehensive study of the impacts of the Hundred Years War. It is, however, not an introduction, despite the populist title. Those looking for a narrative history of the conflict will be disappointed by the summary of the war which is inadequate for a thorough appreciation of the remainder of this excellent book. Nonetheless this is an excellent read which will interest and stimulate readers who want to learn more about this important period.

Related Reviews

Barker - Conquest
Royle - The Wars of the Roses
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy: 1150 - 1500
Bloch - Feudal Society

Saturday, January 24, 2015

John Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham is perhaps best known for his book The Day of the Triffids. But equally popular when first published in 1953 was another disaster story, The Kraken Wakes. I would venture to suggest that it is a far superior novel, and indeed, when re-reading in the context of climate change, the story takes on new meanings and resonances in the 21st century.

Told through the eyes of two journalists with the English Broadcasting Corporation, ("No, the EBC, not the BBC") Mike and Phyllis Watson, this is the story of a growing crisis that follows the arrival of aliens which descend to the depths of the oceans. Clearly preferring the high-pressure environment of the deepest parts of the sea, we can speculate that the aliens originate from Jupiter or Saturn. What is less clear is why they choose to attack the humans living far above them. Nonetheless, the story centers on the growing problems as sea-going transport becomes difficult, then dangerous and finally impossible, and more worryingly, as sea-levels rapidly rise.

Because the narrators were chanced to witness the initial arrival of the aliens, they rapidly become experts, and along with outspoken and doom-laden Professor Bocker, they manage to either have knowledge or experience of much of the major incidents as civilisation slowly collapses.

But what is far more important than the actual story is the background to events. This is a firmly 1950s world, where the Soviet Union vies with the West in an often irrational anti-capitalist tug of war. American's dropping nukes on aliens at the bottom of the ocean is of course interpreted as imperialist aggression, and the USSR's own shipping losses are carefully hidden from world-view. I don't know much about John Wyndham, I suspect his politics were liberal, but he places his tongue firmly in cheek when discussing the insanity of cold war politics faced with an existential crisis, not least because there is an equally dangerous arms race taking place with unknown forces at the bottom of the sea.

More interesting are those at the bottom of society, who react in various ways to the growing crisis. As the water's rise, Londoners travel to the Embankment to watch the sandbags being laid, then gawp in horror as the water breaks through. But it seems all unreal. The EBC and BBC compete for the best material, remaining in London as water levels rise, and occupying the top floor of rented skyscrapers, from which the journalists watch each other through binoculars. A hint of a more commercial media future is mentioned as Mike Watson points out that even though civilisation barely exists anymore, the EBC gets low rent on its building in return for the occasional mention of the owner, when reporting from abandoned London.

As ships become to dangerous to use, unemployed dockers and sailors protest, strike and riot. The airline workers, now in boom time, come out in solidarity and the collapse of civilisation is accompanied by open revolt. But others react differently. The workers building the EBC's "fortress" shrug their shoulders and the improbability of the end of the world, and enjoy the over-time pay. Several characters complain that the government wants them to fight off attacks from the sea, but won't distribute arms. One publican pointing out that it was exactly the same with the Home Guard in the last war.

Eventually those fleeing the coastlines are shot at and turned away from communities that have erected fences and barbed wire to protect their food and property. The analogy with climate refugees fleeing New Orleans or Bangladesh is unintentional but it leaves the reader uncomfortable.

The struggle of a few scientists and journalists to alert the world to an apparent threat, one that is initially dismissed with laughter, then scepticism, and finally concern over the cost of action, also seems all to real. Its as if John Wyndham had a time machine and could look forward a future when politicians ignore scientific advice, or prioritise the interests of big business. The British Marxist, Chris Harman, once argued that climate change would exacerbate existing fissures in capitalism. Wyndham's novel shows very much what that might mean in reality as a sea-levels rise far rapidly than they are at the moment.

Wyndham would have had no idea about the threat from a warming world. Indeed in the 1950s, a far bigger fear was of a cooling world leading to an new ice-age, which is probably why icebergs loom large in the story. I found the ending over-optimistic, not least because it placed a faith in science and technology largely missing from the rest of the novel.

But because the alien threat leads to rapidly rising water levels, in a world dominated by imperialist conflict and class tension, the 21st century reader finds themselves with a book that aptly describes their own world.

Related Reviews

Wyndham - Web

Friday, January 16, 2015

David A. Corbin - Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars

The struggle of workers to be in unions, or to have the right to form unions, has never been an easy one. Employers through the ages have fought tooth and nail to prevent the trade union movement getting a foothold. While unionisation means safer workplaces, higher pay and better conditions for workers, it also means lower profits for the shareholders.

But in few places could the struggle to unionise be quite so violent as in West Virginia in the early 20th century. Here the coal companies could make enormous profits, and as late comers to the table, they didn't have the same agreements with the mine workers.
Due to the favorable conditions of West Virginia as a coal-producing state, the proximity to the Great lakes coal markets, unusually thick veins, and the hilly topography that made the mining easier , and its rapid growth in production, West Virginia was a threat to the organised fields of the neighboring states. It was characterized as a 'pistol pointed at the heart of the industrialised government in the coal industry.' The operators, realizing that unionization meant not only parting with their absolute power as employers but also having their natural competitive advantages pared off in favor of the older fields, vehemently resisted.
What this meant in practice, was violent repression of any attempt to unionise and the establishment of company towns which severely restricted the lives of miners. Here people lived in homes owned by the mine companies, ate food at prices set by the companies, sent letters via company post-officers, drank in company bars and were observed and policed by detective agencies paid by the company.

Inevitably the struggle to build the union involved violence. Guns were a mainstay of life, and shootouts were not uncommon. The Matewan massacre took place when detectives shot down the Matewan mayor who was trying to maintain a semblance of legal order. Seven detectives died as miners shot back at them, while the miners lost two men as well. The sequel too this was equally horrific, as Sid Hatfield the police chief sympathetic to the miners, was due to speak in court. He was assassinated with his deputy on the stairs of the court, in front of their wives. Their deaths detailed in extraordinary detail in the accounts in this book. But alongside their deaths was a growing political and economic movement.

At the heart of the Mine Wars was the Battle of Blair Mountain when up to 10,000 coal-miners marched to protest the conditions and fight for the right to unionise. The army was sent in, but not before the coal-owners had bombed the miners from four aircraft. The troops were sent to maintain order and separate the two sides, but in reality the state intervention served the interests of the mine-owners more than the miners. Indeed, the union itself undermined the miners' own organisation, telling them to return home.

The story of the Mine Wars is shocking. This book is mostly documentary evidence of the period. It includes newspaper stories, interviews and accounts of events, particularly those leading up to the Battle of Blair Mountain. There are some famous figures - the elderly, and extremely inspiring Mother Jones, who refused to die until the mines had been unionised, and was imprisoned and kicked out of towns for standing up and speaking. There are also painful accounts of the poverty and life in company towns, as well as the transcripts of the congressional hearings called to examine claims of violence and massacre.

Unfortunately, while all this material is fascinating, it is difficult to follow for readers like me who do not have prior knowledge of the period. The book could really have done with a longer, framing essay to give the history and a better time-line of events. Despite these limitations I found the book fascinating. In particular it is always inspiring to hear the words of ordinary people, even if they are describing the violence of company thugs. The book also points the finger of blame, and we can read the confessions of the company spies, union traitors and gunmen who took money to help defeat their fellow workers - their names shall live on in infamy. This book will be invaluable as a supplement to those who already know something about the period, but it also has much for those who like oral and social history.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Juliet Barker - Conquest: The English Kingdom of France

I once heard the veteran British Marxist Chris Harman point out, that despite Bourgeois rhetoric, nation-states were flexible things. The example he used was that for large parts of the 15th century quite significant sections of what we now call France was considered to be part of England. Conquest gives the history of this extraordinary period of English expansion and a detailed account of why it collapsed.

The English Kingdom of France began with the military invasion of France by Henry V. The battle of Agincourt is possibly the most well known part of this history, at least to the English. It led to a period of English military supremacy that culminated in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Under this treaty, Henry V married the daughter of Charles VI of France and it was agreed that Henry's heirs would become joint kings of France and England. The dauphin, Charles VII, was disinherited and it was he who, following the unexpected deaths of Henry V and Charles VI, led the French campaign to reclaim the lands ceded to the English.

Henry V's heir, Henry VI was only nine-months and his uncles ruled England and France in his name until he was old enough to rule as king. Juliet Barker is scathing about Henry VI's ability to rule, and indeed, his rule was marked by ineptitude and inexperience, bother from the king and from those around him. As Barker points out the 1431 "coronation of Henry VI should have been a triumphant moment in the history of the English kingdom of France... Yet the whole episode was somehow shabby, rushed and unsatisfactory. At almost every stage of the proceedings the English manage to cause offence to their French subjects."

Juliet Barker is damning on Henry VI's failings
Henry lacked any real political ability.... he never acquired the independence, judgement and decisiveness of thought that medieval kingship demanded. He had little understanding of the deviousness of others, his naivety frequently leading him to accept what he was told at face value, to the detriment of himself and his country. Her was easily influenced, susceptible to flattery, profligate with his gits and overly lenient in the administration of justice.... Henry showed no aptitude for, or even interest in, military affairs: despite the desperate plight of his French kingdom, he was said to have been the first English king who never commanded an army against a foreign enemy.
It is very clear that Henry VI's failures of military and political leadership contributed to the collapse of his French kingdom. Even before Henry's coronation, the French were making gains. Joan of Arc (who plays a relatively minor part in this particular history) was part of this, but Barker argues that her role was a calculated, but minor part of the Dauphin's campaign to regain his territory. The chapters on Joan of Arc are some of the most interesting. Barker demonstrates how her talents were clearly able to motivate and inspire the French population, but the ruling class was much more cynical about using her and actually sidelined her at times when her desire to press forward was actually mistaken militarily. Joan of Arc's later canonisation has more to do with more modern French nationalism, rather than her importance in the Hundred Years War.

Despite popular culture's portrayal of medieval military engagements, historians often tell us how rare sieges were of castles. This is particularly true of castles of the British Isles. But Barker's history is packed full of sieges, pitched battles and the capture and destruction of various strong points. Notably, betrayal frequently played a role in these defeats. Often defenders were happy to let the enemy in, sometimes out of nationalism, others because of gold. But massive military sieges were a significant and central part of the war.

The war involved enormous armies and cost an absolute fortune. The equivalent of millions of pounds of contemporary money was spent on armies and payments to those who ran the English occupation. Ordinary soldiers however frequently went without pay, and mutiny and desertion were common. It didn't help that Henry VI was extremely poor at money management, preferring to spend lavishly on his friends. At one point Henry VI's "annual income of £5000 (£2.63m) fell far short of what he spent: his household alone cost him £24,000 (£12.6m) a year".

The eventual English defeat in France was not just Henry's fault. Though he had a central responsibility in allowing it to happen. There were other guilty parties at the top of English society, who preferred to line their own pockets, than defend the wider kingdom. Interestingly, Juliet Barker finishes by linking the defeat in France and Henry VI's wider political failings (including popular dislike of his wife) to wider social discontent. The rebellion of Jack Cade that broke out in 1450 was a significant manifestation of this.

Like Juliet Barker's other books, this is a sometimes overly detailed work of history. But it is readable, entertaining and an excellent introduction to a forgotten period of English history.

Related Reviews

Barker - England Arise! The People, the King and the Great Revolt of 1381
Royle - The Wars of the Roses