Thursday, January 14, 2021

Henry Heller - A Marxist History of Capitalism

I have previously reviewed and enthused about Henry Heller's writing on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, so I was excited to read this short book in which Heller explains the history of capitalist from a Marxist viewpoint. The opening chapters focus on the transition from feudalism to Merchant capitalism. These are an extremely accessible short guide to the debates and summarise Heller's longer work elsewhere. He makes some interesting points which are worth noting. For instance, he insists that capitalism was a global system from the start. It didn't simply start in north-western Europe and spread, but was highly dependent on trade and resources with the rest of the globe. He also understands the role of the state and class struggle in pushing forward the development of the capitalist means of production:

It was upper-class demand for more surplus and peasant resistance that created conflict and drove history forward. With the appearance of the capitalist class in the sixteenth century the goal of the upper class changed. The primary goal of this now profit-seeking class was no longer consumption but the accumulation of capital... The revolutionary character of this development has to be underscored. Consumption of wealth became entirely subordinate to its accumulation, the necessity of which was intrinsic to the new mode of production. That is why the debut of the capitalist mode of production in the sixteenth century represented a qualitative historical breakthrough.

In the chapters on the development of capitalism Heller does an excellent job of summarising the problems with political Marxist arguments like those of Robert Brenner. Again these are useful summaries, but Heller's detailed arguments elsewhere repay reading.

However it is in the second half of the book where I felt Heller comes unstuck and his book becomes problematic. While his analysis of the development of capitalism, and in particular the shape of neo-liberalism remains strong, it is hampered by his insistence on actually existing socialism in the Soviet Union and countries like China. For instance he characterises the second half of the twentieth century as seeing a Cold War between "the forces of capitalist imperialism on the one hand and revolutionary socialism and national liberation on the other".

The problem is that the USSR certainly was no longer a socialist society from the late 1920s onward. Neither it, nor countries like China, can claim that mantle given the complete lack of workers' democratic control over the means of production, and the fact that their economies were driven by accumulation in competition with the West, primarily through the arms race. To characterise China  today as "half socialist and half capitalist" is to remove the essence of what Marxists mean by socialism - workers' power - and insist that it simply means nationalised industry.

Heller also argues that Marx said in Capital III that "that capitalism is likely to implode by virtue of its own contradictions". At times Heller's writing implies we are very close to such a transition. He argues, for instance, that the ruling class should have nationalised the banks in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. They didn't, but he says that the fact this was a "real alternative" demonstrates "how close we are to a sudden end of capitalism and the dawn of socialism". But this is only true if we see socialism as just about the nationalisation of sections of the economy. If we see socialism as being based on the power of workers councils etc then we are a lot further from the dawn than Heller contends. 

Given how much I enjoyed Heller's early book I was very disappointed by this short work. At slightly less than 150 pages it is a quick read, but its academic price tag means that it hardly represents value for money or is accessible to working people. Readers should get it from the library, but read it primarily for its excellent historical analysis and less for its problematic discussions about the transition to socialism.

Related Reviews

Heller - The Birth of Capitalism: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective
Harman - Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis & The Relevance of Marx
Allen - Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism
Choonara - Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy
Kimber & Choonara - Arguments for Revolution
Roberts - The Long Depression

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark - The Burning Question

The The Burning Question begins by asking a really important question. Why is it that given awareness of climate change and nearly twenty-five United Nations annual conferences, carbon emissions continue to rise? The authors aim to "get a proper understanding of the core barriers that are holding us back" and to "show how the money bound up in oil, coal and gas reserves has blocked political progress and clouded the analysis". These are excellent questions and in the first section of the book the authors show, in graphic and sometimes alarming detail, why no progress has been made on climate change.

Part of the problem is, of course, the wealth and power of the fossil fuel corporations and the politicians who are linked to them. More worryingly however the authors show how, because of the centrality of fossil fuel to the economy, "efficiency and voluntary carbon cuts do have an essential role to play in bringing about a low-carbon world, it turns out that on closer inspection, they don't in themselves do much, if anything at all, to cut global emissions."

In fact, the figures are quite stark. It's worth quoting Berners-Lee and Clark at length:
A team of academics crunched a huge amount of trade data to work out the total carbon footprint of consumption in each major country, including imports and excluding exports... Between 1990 and 2008, developed countries as a whole cut their carbon emissions by 2 per cent, but their total carbon footprint in the same period actually grew by around 7 per cent. As expected, the rise was higher than average in the US, where climate policies have consistently met with strong political opposition, but even in climate-progressive Europe, the apparent 6 per cent cut in carbons emissions was slashed to become just 1 per cent.
The problem, as the authors hint at, is the nature of capitalism. Here the above quote is empirically useful, but political unhelpful, because it refers to "consumption". The problem is the nature of production. The authors acknowledge this when they write:
To be clear, we are not saying alternative energy sources aren't important. It's obvious that phasing out fossil fuels will only be practically and politically possible in parallel with a monumental effort to scale-up low-carbon energy sources. But  in the absence of a major global effort to constrain fossil fuel use, it's not clear that low-carbon energy in itself is helpful.
Part of the problem is the age old Jevons paradox. In his 1865 book The Coal Question, William Stanley Jevons showed that energy efficiency in steam boilers led to increased coal use. Similarly energy efficiencies or cheaper sources of energy lead to increased usage of energy. Reducing the cost of car travel can lead to more miles driven. Another problem, highlighted by Berners-Lee and Clark, is the fact that capitalism is a system based on growth. Thus the problem lies within the system of production itself, not consumption.

The authors are excellent at highlighting the various reasons for this, and the limitations that there are in, for instance, environmental strategies that are simply about deploying efficiency savings or renewable capacity. These simply get gobbled up by the fossil fuel system. They also appreciate the limitations of international agreements like Kyoto which countries can simply pull out of if they are likely to miss their targets, or ignore if they want. They also know that solving climate change is such a massive threat to fossil fuel multinationals that they are prepared to "lobby against carbon laws and buy political support for their agenda."

Our authors also demolish the myth of technological solutions. We've seen the failure of efficiency savings to reduce carbon emissions. They also point out that (say) Carbon Capture Systems aren't working and, more importantly, won't be used because they hit profits:
Even if it cost nothing to install, no power station operating purely for profit would ever use CCS voluntarily as the carbon capture processes take huge amounts of energy, undermining the commercial viability of the planet.
And that's without discussing where we put all the sequestered carbon.

So what's the solution? Here is where my criticisms of the book come to the fore. The authors understand that the system doesn't work. But end up suggesting more of the same to solve the issue. So to make CCS viable we need laws to "create a market" for the systems. Another option looked at positively are emissions trading schemes: 
A sensibly designed carbon-trade policy could incentivise foreign companies and governments to increase carbon regulation in their target markets and ensure that any carbon tax revenues are collected locally rather than overseas.
But existing schemes like these don't work, and its not because they aren't "sensibly designed" but because we live in a fossil fuel system that runs on the logic of profit. 

Because they understand the power of the multinationals and the damage they cause, the authors are clear that action that challenges these fossil fuel monoliths is essential. This mean laws, boycotts and international agreements to force a transition to a low carbon society. Getting this change means ordinary people must protest, lobby and pressure governments to introduce legislation to reverse things. This is great. Who can disagree with the authors' statement that "if we accept that our green efforts are as much about creating social and political ripples as they are about directly stemming the flow of carbon into the atmosphere, that suggest we may need to think more about maximising those ripples". But what does this actually mean for Berners-Lee and Clark?
If an advertising executive declines a job to promote the Canadian tar sands, although another agency will take it up, the exchange might inspire some soul searching at the oil company and raise eyebrows in the media sector. If a student demands that a university divests from fossil fuels, although someone else will buy the shares, influential academics will be forced to think harder about the moral implications of oil, coal and gas production. Conversations will be triggered".
To think that people call revolutionary socialists utopian! Even in 2013 when the book was first written these were already inadequate arguments. Unfortunately ripples don't change the fundamental dynamics of capitalism. Herein lies the problem. The authors criticism of the behaviour of the fossil fuel companies which arises out of the nature of capitalism, but this criticism does not extend into a critic of the capitalist system itself. Ultimately the alternative posed in this book is a green capitalism which will, it seems, come about because large numbers of people "stand up for the facts". The authors' conclude:
Culture change and campaigning creates political space to change laws, which can build markets, which can scale technologies, which can feed back into culture change, enabling better laws, bigger markets and so on.
Rightly the authors argue we need a cap on carbon emissions. But that can only come about through a challenge to the system itself, and that requires more than appeals for something better. It means defeating and breaking up those massive oil, gas and coal corporations. It means organising society around something other than the drive to make profit.

Unfortunately the last two hundred years of capitalism prove beyond all doubt that the capitalists aren't swayed by morals or truth. They are only interested in profit. The fact that fossil fuels are so central to the system means that the system cannot be reformed, and this book demonstrates just how true that is. The problem is the authors don't take the argument to its logical conclusions. Thankfully the environmental movement of the 2020s is far more radical in its approach: "System Change not Climate Change".

Related Reviews

Keith Roberts - Pavane

This is a remarkable work of alternate-history that is innovative both in terms of its subject and its structure. Set in an alternate future where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated in 1588 and the consequent invasion by the Spanish Armada was successful, England in 1968 remains a Catholic country. The hold of the Catholic Church is immense, holding back technological development, preventing rebellion and the country is trapped in a era powered by coal and driven by steam. The Civil War and English Revolution never happened and capitalism is very much restrained by old feudal relations. King Charles rules England and his North American colonies and local power is developed to feudal lords.

This is the promising backdrop to a series of linked short stories that show the growing discontent with the Church and the established order. The first few stories serve to give detailed backdrop. The first is the story of the driver of the Steam vehicle the Lady Margaret and his unrequited love for a woman. The driver makes a reappearance later when his business has grown massively, to the extent it can offer massive cash loans to the aristocracy. Another story follows the training of a signaller at the semaphore stations that are the only official methods of communication over great differences. The signallers guild is fiercely independent and plays a significant role in the later stories, but here we learn of its inner workings, it's trade secrets and Roberts tantalises us with a glimpse of the more fantastic denizens of this fantasy world.

For 1968 England in Pavane is not just an alternate history. There are other forces and figures, more magical that make their influence known. Perhaps this is why the country is a little more bucolic than its steam-punk mode of production might allow for. There's a clever story of a rebellion led by Brother John, a monk whose radical awakening was triggered by the work of the Church's inquisition. Readers will find plenty of names that reoccur through the different stories and times covered. It's up to them to decide who is the same and who is different.

But it is in the final couple of stories that we learn of the full rebellion as sections of the English ruling class break from Rome. Its a fast paced and exciting story, though the ending is inconclusive and Robert's coda is unsatisfying (not least in its passing reference to events outside the book's timeline). 

But I highly enjoyed the novel, for its detailed background and obsessive delight in the details of everyday life combined with a real sense of historical change and rebellion. I also found the structure of linked short stories enjoyable, giving a nice reading pace, and keeping me going back and forth to work out the links. I understand that Pavane is Keith Roberts best known novel and will look for others.

Related Reviews

Willis - Doomsday Book
Harrison - A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!
Gibson & Sterling - The Difference Engine
Reynolds - Terminal World

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Pamela Horn - Life in the Victorian Country House

The English country houses of the Victorian and Edwardian era are a source of endless fascination. From Brideshead Revisited to Downtown Abbey the potential for conflict and gossip both upstairs and downstairs attracts authors and TV executives. As this book by historian Pamela Horn shows the history of these houses is endlessly fascinating, not least because they represented extremes of wealth and class differentials in the countryside. 

Some of the houses were enormous, but even minor country houses represented wealth and power in the countryside. The wealth came, almost entirely from agriculture on the massive lands owned by the lords in the houses. Later this was sometimes supplemented, particularly during the agricultural depression of the post-Napoleonic war era, by exploitation of other resources such as coal. But in the main the money came from agriculture. The fame of these houses and the families that resided in them, often for hundreds of years, far surpassed their numerical importance. The aristocracy, Horn explains, numbered just three hundred families when they were the richest landowners, growing to 450 by 1885. By 1914 "newly ennobled financiers, industrialists and other businessmen" took the number to over 570. Many of these "were in possession of... at least 1,000 acres considered necessary to support the lifestyle of a mid-Victorian landed gentlemen".

To manage the lavish lifestyles required dozens of servants and a great strength of Horn's book is that she explores the close relations between the two. These must have been suffocating at times, as the family followed strict timetables and the numbers of servants in at least one case, meant that at least one lady was rarely able to see her own children. But what stands out is the stifling restrictions of life for the servants. They were restricted by their station - low paid, constantly at risk of dismissal and working extremely long hours at the whim of often deeply unpleasant masters. 

But the rich too were also sometimes limited by their own station. In particular the women who were often little more than bargaining chips in arranged marriages between great families. Not a few of the reminisces from society ladies in Horn's book bemoan the boredom of life - subject to a strictly regimented timetable and unable to do anything unladylike. One woman who talked of guests at a house part moving the clock forward so they could go to bed at the approved hour of 11 o'clock.

That said the pampered lives of the aristocracy meant that the lived in luxury unknown to the mass of the population. A tiny few, such as Lady Warwick, noticed this and played a small role in trying alleviate poverty and challenge the system. But these were very much the outsiders. The rest were happy to lord it over everyone else - often with such wealth that they didn't know what to do with it. Horn mentions one landowner who was known to have "eight houses but no home".

While I found the book engaging and detailed, I was disappointed to not have more about how the landowners related to the tenant farmers and the wider community. This book is very much focused on life "in" the houses, but this can't really be separated from the wider social and economic relations in the countryside. Nonetheless this is a fun and interesting book, as well as being lavishly illustrated with fascinating photos, adverts and pictures. It did leave me with one question though - why on Earth didn't we cut off the heads of the aristocracy?

Related Reviews

Horn - Joseph Arch
Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760 - 1850
Horn - The Rural World - Social Change in the English Countryside 1780 - 1850

Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Connie Willis - Doomsday Book

Could this be the pandemic novel for the Covid era? This question popped into my head on numerous occasions as I devoured Connie Willis' classic novel. Previously, and ought of series order, I'd thoroughly enjoyed Willis' later time travel story To Say Nothing of the Dog. But it is Doomsday Book that was the first book length exploration of her ideas.

Set in an alternative future were the globe has already experienced several pandemics, Oxford history academics prepare to send Kivrin Engle back in time to the Middle Ages so she can complete her PHd. Time travel in Willis' world is not an exact science. The universe seems to protect history from change by preventing travellers visiting certain moments in history. This leads to "slippage" when travellers are dumped miles, and hours or even days away from their target. Kivrin is expecting to reach 1320 so she can complete some studies of a small medieval village. Instead she arrives in 1348 able to experience the Black Death first hand.

The presence of the Black Death in the novel is enough to make it worth a read during our own pandemic. But while Willis' tells a brilliant story about Kivrin's trails in 1348 as she strives to save lives and cope with the disease, the real meat is what happens back in her original time. Here academic rivalries and cost cutting have led, in part, to Kivrin being misplaced in time. But the real problem is the arrival of a new flu pandemic which takes out many in the university and seems to have originated from the technician who is the only one who can help locate Kivrin.

It is the unfolding of the pandemic in the modern era, and the crisis for retrieving Kivrin that makes the book so contemporary. The NHS struggles to cope, lacking PPE and vaccines, disease deniers protest outside hospitals blaming immigrants and the European Union, and American visitors complain that their freedoms are being encroached upon by lockdown. This latter leads to the narrator commenting that it was such an approach to lockdown that led to millions of Americans losing their lives in the last pandemic.

Perhaps Doomsday Book will be a little too much for some people going through Covid-19 but I found it bother entertaining and pertinent. It reminded me that we experience disease in a similar way to people in 1348 - through out personal lives and relationships.

There are some bits that felt a little contrived, such as the role of the teenage boy who saves the day and the idea that time-travel is solely under the control of academia (and history departments at that )felt very far fetched.

But that aside, this is a classic work, and had I read it outside of a pandemic I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it as much - though perhaps I'd not have had a wry smile on my face quite so often.

Related Reviews

Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Anil Ananthaswamy - Through Two Doors at Once

Young's double slit experiment was perhaps the most fascinating piece of practical work I did when studying physics. As an experiment its perversely straightforward, yet its implications are so utterly profound that scientists have been amazed, inspired, confused and angered by interpretations of its results. There are plenty of excellent videos on the internet that demonstrate the working of the experiment and some of its conclusions - this video from a 2019 Royal Institution Christmas Lecture shows the experiment at its most basic.

The double slit experiment essentially shows that light can behave as both waves and particles. As Anil Ananthaswamy's book shows, the experiment provided evidence for both sides in the debates that were taking place in the 19th century about what light was. But in the 20th century they helped launch the new, and perplexing, science of quantum mechanics.

For those of us fascinated by the experiment and its scientific and philosophical conclusions, Ananthaswamy's book is a good read. He covers the history of the double slit experiment in the early chapters but quickly moves on to a more detailed study of extensions of the experiment. Some of these are theoretical experiments, concocted by scientists to explore the philosophical and scientific ramifications of wave-particle duality, others are incredibly complex experiments that require high precision equipment and years of research work by scientists.

The ramifications are extremely difficult to comprehend. For instance, a team of scientists tested a version of the double slit experiment between the islands of La Palma and Tenerife. The locations were chosen to reduce light and air pollution and allow a long distance between a receiving telescope and the source of light. This version of the "delay-choice quantum eraser experiment" showed that "events at Tenerife, in our usual way of thinking, happen later in time, yet still influence the outcome of measurements at La Palma, even though each measurement a La Palma is done and dusted well before the partner environment photon reaches Tenerife." As Ananthaswamy says, "language fails us at this point. Here and there, past and future don't quite work".

What the double slit experiment does is to give us an easy insight into the perplexing and counter-intuitive world of quantum physics. Most of the book is actually Ananthaswamy exploring different explanations and interpretations of what is taking place. Ever since the early days of quantum science there have been different explanations - some of the world's leading scientists, including in the early 20th century figures like Einstein - found the implications of the science unsettling. Ananthaswamy shows how there has been a tendency among the physics community to follow a particular explanation, the so called "Copenhagen Interpretation". But for more recent scientists this is proving, at best, in adequate. The various alternative explanations that Ananthaswamy explains, usually through interviews with the scientists involved, are breaks with Copenhagen to various extents. Some of these have profound philosophical interpretations - such as the many world's theory. Others simply highlight how little we know. Ananthaswamy doesn't come down on any particular side of the discussion, rather presenting each equally and drawing out links between the theoretical ideas.

Part of the problem that Ananthaswamy, and every other populariser of quantum mechanics has, is that the conclusions of experiments like the double slit defy understanding. As he explains when discussing a thought experiment known as Hardy's Paradox, "the paradox arises, because we are talking and thinking classically of space and time, of particles taking this or that path and reaching this or that detector. Nature has its own inimitable way of doing things." Later, when interviewing theoretical physicist Roger Penrose, Ananthaswamy quotes him as saying "quantum mechanics is a provisional theory".  

I liked this quote because I think part of the problem is that we approach quantum mechanics from an understanding of the world we live in (my first introduction to the double slit experiment involved a teacher discussing buses entering tunnels). This is wholly inadequate when trying to understand events where time and distance are irrelevant, or different. I wonder if we need a complete transformation in scientific approach before we can quite grasp all the implications of quantum physics and wed them to our understanding of the macro world.

For readers who have some physics in their background this book is a good introduction to the debates around quantum mechanics, though in places it is a little hard to follow what is going on as Ananthaswamy has to simplify explanations a great deal and, rightly, he tries to avoid including too much mathematics. I enjoyed the book and was fascinated to see how much quantum mechanics has moved on since I last studied it in the early 1990s. I wouldn't like to pretend I understood everything in the book, but that's a consequence of the material not the author. Readers also benefit because the book is based in large part of interviews with the scientists themselves, though sometimes this obscures rather than clarifies. One sad result of this was to realise how few women are leading figures in this field - only one of the dozens of interviews is with a female scientist Dr. Urbasi Sinha. Hopefully the popularisation of the science in this very readable book might lead others to follow in her footsteps and further uncover the quantum world.

Related Reviews

Greene - The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory
Clegg - Gravity: Why What Goes Up, Must Come Down
Clegg - Infinity: The Quest to think the Unthinkable
Johnson - The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
Cathcart - The Fly in the Cathedral

Monday, December 28, 2020

Jonathan Sumption - Trial by Battle: The Hundred Years War 1

Trial by Battle is the first book in a multi-volume epic history of the Hundred Years War between France and England. It's a detailed historical work, based almost entirely on original sources of which the author is an acknowledged master. At nearly 650 pages long, including end-matter, the book is a hefty read, yet covers only the first part of the war - the feudal conflicts that gave rise to the sustained war and the first years. The reader is taken as far as the Battle of Crecy and the capture of Calais by the English.

Out of necessity, much of the detailed history of the 14th century covers the deeds of great men and a handful of great women. These tended to be the things that were recorded by contemporary chroniclers. So I was pleased to discover that Sumption has not written a history that simply covers palace intrigues, battles and acts of chivalry. Instead, as far as he is able, he draws out deeper historical processes and lesser considered events. For instance, a great theme of the this book is the way that the War was shaped by the difficulties that the two principal kings in the period, Edward III and Philip VI had in raising cash. This is a recurring issue for both, though a real problem for Edward who was trying to fight abroad. It affected everything - from numbers of troops to the alliances that Edward made. 

In part, the problem of ready cash was simply about the economic hardship that followed years of war, and the reticence of the lower-orders to stump up taxes. More deeply it was a problem that had roots in wider economic problems. As Sumption points out for France:

One of the things, however, which almost all of the nobility had in common was that they were encountering mounting financial difficulties from the second half of the thirteenth century onward, difficulties which were mainly attributable to the problems of the French agricultural economy but which the government exacerbated. The pressure on them came from several sources. In almost every case they suffered from a sever and continuous rise in their cost of living.

The problem for the wealthy was profound, but for the "lesser men" it was far worse. The implications of economic difficulties and changes played out across the continent. In Flanders where a nascent capitalist wool and cloth trade was closely linked to English exports and French agriculture, the masses led proto-workers revolts that allowed Edward III to drive a wedge between them and their traditional French lords.

Added to this were complications of geography and history. Today, in an era where international politics is dominated by the nation state, its hard to understand how different things were in the 14th century. England and France were much more nebulous concepts. Bits of the area that is now known as France were considered English and the people there had somewhat ambiguous relations with the government. As Sumption reminds us

Between Brittany and England there were ancient connections which made the dukes uncertain friends of France for all their exalted status in the French peerage. It could scarcely have been otherwise, their geographical situation being what it was.

Sumption doesn't point it out, but this worked in the other direction to. Cornwall, which had close economic, language and cultural ties to Brittany, had loser ties to London - a significant factor in the 1497 rebellion against Henry VII's government. But these links meant that rulers in 'England' could legitimately claim rights to huge chunks of 'France' in ways that seem impossible today - and various local lords might change allegiance depending on how the wind was blowing.

Edward III's relations with the ruling classes in Flanders ebb and flow through the book based on economic and military changes. Philip VI's own fortunes are buffeted by similar issues, though he is less flexible from a military point of view. In part this must be because by mid 1340s Philip is forced to keep an eye on three areas of potential military strife, Gascony, Brittany and the Normandy area where Edward is likely to invade.

But it is also because he has a inaccurate view of how Edward III's fortunes have changed. The early years of the Hundred Years War are dominated by ineptitude on the part of Edward whose financial problems undermine his ability to fight freely. But by 1340s these have been partly overcome, and the English have developed their own military skills. Sumption argues that the English had gone through a "military revolution", in part because of the associated wars with Scotland.

After 1327 the "whole [English] army was paid wages, from the principal earls downwards... They fought together with their friends and neighbours, sometimes year after year in the same retinues... The retainers of the nobility were no doubt less diligent, but it is clear that they contributed a great deal to the progressive militarization of English provincial life during the 1330s. War became another field for the elaborate web of interest and obligation which bound their world together."

The debacle for the French at Crecy has much to do with the skills of the English longbowman, but also the way that an underprepared Philip was forced into fighting by public pressure and found himself engaging with a new type of fighting that the French were not prepared for.

The length of this book, and no doubt the whole series, allows Sumption to draw out how these factors play out. One of the great strengths of the book is that Sumption can paint a very broad picture of the context and then zoom down to details of a particular battle or siege and show how these play out.

I noted that many histories of the Hundred Years War rely on retelling the tales of kings and battles. But Sumption repeatedly notes how ordinary men and women were affected, and on occasion shaped events. I was particular surprised to see that on several occasions during the struggle for succession in Brittany, when rival lords fought to be king, and different sides were backed by the French and English, ordinary people refused to allow their towns to be placed under siege. Either forcing the commanders to parlay, or simply opening the gates up themselves. It meant that there was a tendency for the French to blame the lower orders for their failures in battle - but also demonstrates that there was as "mass politics" that is often neglected in historical accounts of the Middle Ages.

This mass politics were shaped by wider forces. The successes of the English in 1345/6 led to a groundswell of support for the war that made raising cash easier. The opposite happened in France as people refused to pay taxes or demonstrated "indifference" to events. But even before this there was little active hostility to the war, with "muted" resistance to English drive to recruit troops. This would change later, with the war weariness and resentment of taxation playing a role in the Peasant Rebellion of 1381, but by the end of the period covered in this book, Edward III and his ruling class could look confidently towards the future. 

Having said this, I feel I should warn my left-wing readers that Sumption hasn't written a Marxist history of the Hundred Years War, or even "history from below". In fact I am sure he would recoil at any such suggestion. Readers wanting more on this aspect of the history might be interested in David Green's The Hundred Years War: A People's HistoryNonetheless this is a honest and far-ranging history of the period which tries to cover every aspect of the conflict in the years covered. I look forward to reading the following volumes and recommend it to people interested in knowing more about these 14th century wars and the context in which they took place.

Related Reviews

Green - The Hundred Years War: A People's History
Barker - Conquest
Barker - Agincourt