Saturday, May 23, 2015

Antonia Fraser - The Six Wives of Henry VIII

This meticulous study of Henry VIII's six wives is a fascinating examination of the position and role of ruling class women in Tudor society. Traditionally we see these women as the passive victims of the increasingly irrational and tyrannical behaviour of Henry VIII, victims of his lust and violence. Antonia Fraser however challenges the cardboard caricatures of these women, suggesting that it is false to see them
"as a series of feminine stereotypes, women as tarot cards. Thus Catherine of Aragon becomes The Betrayed Wife, Anne Boleyn is the The Temptress, Jane Seymour The Good Woman; Anna of Cleves is The Ugly Sister, Katherine Howard The Bad Girl; finally Catherine Parr is the Mother Figure."
Instead, she argues, that "on thew contrary, a remarkably high level of strength, and also of intelligence, was displayed by them at a time when their sex traditionally possessed little of either."

Fraser takes us through the lives of these women, of whom we often know a surprising amount of detail from their letters and other documents. Catherine Parr for instance, who survived Henry, was first the resourceful wife of Lord Latimer who managed their estates at the time of the rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. She championed her own religious beliefs , until they clashed with the king's when she was forced to make an abrupt turn.

Here is of course the problem for these women. Fraser brilliantly describes the way that the court revolved around Henry VIII, like planets orbiting the sun. Henry was the centre of court life, and through him extended wealth, privilege and the future of families. Thus the manoeuvres by families to position their daughters to catch the King's gaze were the cynical manipulation of a concrete situation. While Henry himself, in the words of Fraser,"a romantic man... [who] married four of his six wives for love and even managed to fall in love with Anna of Cleve's picture" was also trapped by the reality of his role as king. For him, and countless other kings, having a son to carry on the line was the key requirement of a marriage. Indeed Fraser points out that had Catherine of Aragon had a male child that survived, their divorce might well not have happened and the future history of England would have been radically different.

This is not to let Henry off the hook. He was a violent man prone to revenge and happy to murder and kill to protect his position. That multiple women could be discarded in the search of a male heir is testament to the unique, and somewhat irrational, role of the monarchy.

This is an enormously readable account of Henry VIII's life. At times it is like some sort of Tudor soap opera, though events are painfully real. There are moments of horror, such as Anne Boleyn's execution and the tragedy of Katherine Howard, and the sadness of the life of Anne of Cleves, abandoned by Henry and left to live out her days in what she seemed to think was extreme poverty (though the peasants of England might well have considered her large houses and considerable estates luxury). The life of the vast majority of the people of England is almost entirely absent from this book, but that doesn't make it invalid. Understanding the machinations of Henry and the consequences for wider society are important to both the history of the period and for years afterwards. That some of these changes were linked to Henry's marriages is a reflection of the nature of Tudor society and Henry's personality. By telling the story from the point of view of the women at court, Antonia Fraser gives us a fascinating angle on the period.

Related Reviews

Duffy - The Voices of Morebath
Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Mark Everard - Breathing Space: The Natural and Unnatural History of Air

Mark Everard's new book covers a neglected topic in environmentalism. Given the importance of air to us personally, as well as wider eco-systems, this is a strange omission. Everard argues that
Despite its vast bulk, the fluidity, transboundary nature and lack of ownership of the airspace renders it not only the world's greatest 'common; but also the most commonly overlooked natural resource. An integrated approach to the recognition and wise use of this ecosystem is therefore long overdue, and needs to be instituted on a consistent international basis.
In Breathing Space, Everard sets out to do just this. He begins with a useful discussion of air itself. How scientists understand it, as well as its origins; its role in the world's eco-systems and how humans use air. Everard's approach is one that you might describe as dialectical - understanding the components of a system in terms of their wider impact upon each other. While he doesn't mention their work in his bibliography, Everard's approach has similarities to that of the scientists Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. In particular this is noticeable when Everard discusses the way that living organisms both depend upon, and shape their environment, a topic that Levins and Lewontin devote much space to in their book The Dialectical Biologist. Everard notes that the very existence of the atmosphere as we know it today, capable of supporting life and in turn shaping wider eco-systems, is only possible because of the historic role of early life-forms in transforming the poisonous smog that blanketed Earth millions of years ago.

We continue to alter the atmosphere, most notably through the emission of fossil fuels. Everhard writes
Deposits of fossil carbon, metals, phosphorus and other substances now mined to support modern lifestyles are a product of progressive sequestration from the atmosphere and the wider biosphere over geological timescales. To release these mined substances back into the biosphere is therefore inherently dangerous, as accumulating concentrations in the air reflect earlier, more contaminated biospheric history.
Following this approach the author looks at the way that our air is being damaged, altered and polluted. Tragically there are a myriad of ways that this is happening and Everard devotes time to summarizing these. However the limitations of the book begin to become apparent when Everard discusses the way that contemporary society misuses nature and tries to find solutions.

Everard rightly notes that under capitalism nature is externalised from the economy. He approvingly quotes Nicholas Stern's words that climate change is the "greatest market failure". In other words it hasn't yet been adequately integrated into economic models. It is the sort of approach that has led to market mechanisms such as carbon trading being offered as the solution to global warming. The problem is that this approach is inherently flawed, and Everard falls into the trap of arguing, like Stern, that more such mechanisms are what is needed. He argues that "There is also a role for new economic tools, such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) that integrate formerly overlooked ecosystem services into the economy."

In New Zealand, Everard notes that the Maori have "cultural values" in their approach to land use and ownership, suggesting that the example of Ngati Porou Whanui Forests Ltd, a company which "has been established as a tribal cooperative bringing together Maori landowners and Maori agencies to benefit from market opportunities for ecosystems services" is a positive example of what can be achieved.

In this model, "Some forest areas may also be eligible for funding for carbon sequestration services" Everard notes happily. But this approach is precisely the opposite of what is needed. The further commodification of nature in this way can only serve to put nature further into the hands of those who want to make money. This is most notable when Everard discusses REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). Everard explains that
REDD+ includes a wide range of mechanisms... These in turn could open up market mechanisms through which payments made by industrialised nations for emission offsets would reward developing countries for protecting ecosystems that are of value for many purposes
What Everard doesn't mention is that REDD+ has been roundly condemned by environmental organisations. Friends of the Earth International describe REDD as "a risky and false solution to climate change, both in theory and in practice". While the author does note that "There remain some concerns about 'putting a price tag on nature'" he argues that the Ecosystem Approach that he advocates contains enough internal safeguards to ensure that PES schemes and the like are not abused and "provide benefits to different stakeholder groups".

I am skeptical. The Ecosystem Approach certainly has its benefits over the unfettered way that capitalism degrades nature. It attempts to look at different aspects of nature as part of a wider continuum. Something that can only bring benefits. Approach questions of pollution in this way has enormous benefits. For instance, Everard points out that an approach to reducing pollution from vehicles in urban areas by replacing them with electric vehicles, might well ignore the impact on the environment of manufacturing those vehicles, or poisoning other eco-systems with the chemicals from their batteries. Instead Everard urges us to consider how our cities are designed, how we travel to and from work, and where we work in relation to living and so on. Such an approach, which challenges the inherent anti-environmental aspects to capitalist society can only be supported.

Unfortunately, trying to solve these problems by playing the system at its own game will not bring the sustainable society we need. The vested interests of the corporations and the governments that are in thrall to their wealth need to be challenged. We need a vision of a different society, where nature is integrated into the economy, but in a way that breaks from a world driven by the desire to make profit. This is not to say that changes cannot be made in the here and now. Though all the evidence is that the action needed from governments is not further markets, but investment in public transport, insulation schemes and renewable energy. Such changes, as outlined in the UK trade union One Million Climate Jobs report, can bring both real change and act as a incentive to further challenge capitalism.

Recently Naomi Klein has brilliantly outlined why Capitalism is a barrier to sustainability. Mark Everard's book contains some useful information on air as an important ecosystem and a better approach to questions of environmentalism. But his solutions are ones that cannot succeed in the face of a economic system that starts from the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation.

Related Reviews

Klein - This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate
Böhm and Dabhi (eds) - Upsetting the Offset, The Political Economy of Carbon Markets
Carbon Trade Watch - The Carbon Neutral Myth, Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins

Burkett - Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Eamon Duffy - The Voices of Morebath: Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village

Eamon Duffy's classic book The Voices of Morebath is an extraordinary and unique study of Tudor society undergoing dramatic transformation. For 54 years Christopher Trychay was the priest of the tiny village of Morebath. For all that time he kept detailed records. Most of these deal with the financial dealings of the parish - the income and expenditure of the church, the costs of candles and repairs, the donations from parishioners and the cash given in their wills to help ease their way to heaven. But though most parish records like these are dry, Morebath's priest kept his records in detail - far more than simple columns of numbers. His notes were spoken from the pulpit and his records enable the historian to construct the detail of life in a village going through some of the most traumatic changes of its era.

Duffy's book is excellently written, but his historic analysis is also superb. He has an eye for detail and an ability to see through numbers to tell a wider story. Here is, for instance, his summary of how the church "ales", the periodic sale of drink to raise funds, were part of wider village life.
After the church, the most important building in the parish was the church house, also called the church ale-house. Located on the SE side of the churchyard, in the cluster of ten or eleven dwellings that made up the village centre or ‘Morebath town’ it was the parish’s place of public entertainment, a two storey building furnished with a fireplace and spit, with cups and platters and trenchers of treen [turned wood] and tin and pewter: its trestle tables and tablecloths were sometime loaned to parishioners for events like weddings. Visiting merchants could hire a ‘sete’ or stall there to sell their wares, like William the merchant who had a ‘standing’ in the house in 1535, or the Tiverton ciderman John Walshman, who sold cider there for four weeks in 1538. The ‘pleers’ [players] who paid 12d to the wardens to perform in Morebath at Easter 1533 may well have been hiring the church house. Above all, the fund-raising banquets known as church ales, organised by the churchwardens and by the Young Men of the parish (the ‘grooming ale’), and which between them provided the bulk of the parish’s income were held here. Beer brewed or bought by the wardens and food cooked in the church house itself were sold and served at these ales: in 1527 the menu at the high wardens’ ale included a roast lamb from the church flock, which had accidentally bled to death after being castrated. By Elizabeth’s reign and perhaps before, minstrels and a local man, John Timewell the harper were being paid to entertain the drinkers. Parishioners were expected to attend and spend their money, and official representatives came and supported from surrounding parishes, a favour which had to be returned when the parishes concerned held their own ales.
If Dufy's book only concentrated on village life it would be interesting in an of itself. But at the core of his work is an examination of the impact of the religious changes that began under the regein of Henry VIII, continued under his son Edward, and were reversed by Queen Mary and then further continued and extended under Elizabeth.

Henry's break from Rome had an enormous impact on the whole of English life. Even a village like Morebath, with barely 150 inhabitants had to adapt and change. New bibles and prayerbooks were introduced, icons and statues had to be removed. Funds could no longer be raised to pay for candles under the parish's statue of St Sidwell. Through all of this Trychay's metivulous records note the impacts of the changes and in particular the funding shortfalls as the parish can no longer sell ale, or raise funds in ways that it used to.

The changes provoked anger, frustration and out-cry. In 1549, Duffy shows how Morebath sent five of its young men to join the big Western Uprising that rebelled against the new prayerbooks. Giving money from church funds, the parish's sons left to join the rebel camp near Exeter. Several of them died in the massacre of the rebels. While Trychay may come across as a pompous self-important man at times, he clearly loved his flock and cared deeply for them. As Duffy notes,
He had been the spirit of Morebath, the chronicler of its dramatic and sometimes tragic share in the religious revolutions of that turbulent age, and the custodian of its blunt attitudes and salt speech. He had baptised their children, buried their dead, married every one of them. He had been the guide of their pieties, he had almost certainly encouraged their sons into rebellion, and, when the time came, he had eased them into a slow and settled conformity to a new order of things.
Duffy's book is an excellent study of an English village in a period of transition. It is happy conincidence for us, that Morebath was so close to the historic events of 1549 and that they were detailed by such an obsessive figure as Christopher Trychay. Duffy notes that a "study of the Reformation in an Essex or Suffolk village... where many ordinary men and women welcomed the Protestant gospel... would look very different." Nonetheless, this is an important insight into the impact of that change and the way that ordinary people in one part of England responded. That Duffy puts it all so well into context means that this book is a triumph for both the casual and academic historian.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Gregory Benford & Larry Niven - Shipstar

Some sort of compulsive behaviour drove me to read Shipstar after I had denounced the first part of the two volume story. Its predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, was clunky and painful to read in places. But Shipstar seemed to have been better edited and planned. The first book left two teams of humans stranded on an enormous spacecraft. The spacecraft is a type of zoo, which has collected species from planets around the globe and now heads towards a distant star, also the destination of a space-craft of humans.
this two part novel. I found myself surprised by

The problem is, as this book proceeds apace towards its end, the authors dump good idea after good idea over board. The whole story becomes about find out who built the flying space zoo bowl and why. As the explanation becomes increasingly obvious, readers must be squirming in disbelief. Then gasp audibly as they realise that both authors chose this particular explanation over ones that might be slightly believable. When they've got over that, and they make it to the end, where the authors' postscript offers some sort of scientific justification surly most authors would be wondering what the point was. I'm only grateful that I didn't pay for it. If you like science fiction, please, do not buy this book.

Related Reviews

Niven - Destiny's Road
Niven - Crashlander
Niven - Ringworld's Children
Niven - Ringworld

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Geoffrey Moorhouse - The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7 was one of the most important Tudor rebellions. It is relatively unknown, yet the tens of thousands of rebels that were involved very nearly broke Henry VIII's government and had they marched on London history would almost certainly have been very different. Geoffrey Moorhouse's history of the Pilgrimage, and the Lincolnshire Uprising that took place immediately beforehand is an important account of this neglected event.

Moorhouse explains that the Pilgrimage had many causes. It has often been seen as reactionary in the sense that it was opposed to the changes Henry VIII was making to the English Church, particularly the dissolution of the monasteries. However to simply see it as a backward looking uprising is to miss some of the key dynamics of the period. While the Catholic Church and monasteries were not popular across the whole of England, in the north in particular, they fulfilled an important social function. As Moorhouse explains
The monasteries as a whole might spend no more than five per cent of their income on charity, but in the North they were a great deal more generous, doubtless because the need was greater in an area where poverty was more widespread and very real. There, they still did much to relieve the poor and the sick, they provided shelter for the traveller, and they meant the difference between a full belly and starvation to considerable numbers of tenants, even if they were sometimes imperfect landlords.
Northern monasteries also contributed significantly to the local economy, operating sheep farms, coal mines as well as their religious roles. The northern population of England felt neglected by London and if Archbishop Cranmer's words are anything to go by, they had some justification
a certain barbarous and savage people, who were ignorant of and turned away from farming and the good arts of peace, and who were so utterly unacquainted with knowledge of sacred matters, that they could not bear to hear anything of culture and more gentle civilisation.
It is noteworthy for instance, that one of the demands of the rebels was for a northern parliament, possibly at York, and certainly the apparent concession that this would happen was one of the factors that helped disperse the mass of rebels towards the end of the rebellion.

Other economic factors were to play their roll in stimulating the uprising. Henry's taxes were never popular and added to the woes of an impoverished people. But religious changes were the dominate feature. On several occasions rebellion was sparked by Henry's changes to traditional holidays. When the priest failed to announce the forthcoming saint's day, parishioners protested and mass meetings, and demonstrations followed.

The rebels restored many monks to their monasteries enormously angering the king, and some rebels expressed anger and surprise when they found out that their comrades from other parts of the country had not done the same, suggesting that one of the most important aims of the revolt was putting "religious persons in their houses again".

The rebellion spread through messengers and the ringing of church bells. But this was not simply a peasant rebellion, nor just a revolt of those at the bottom of society. Local landowners and gentry often led different armies, though strangely many of these did so only after being pressed into service. Their lives, or the lives of their families, being spared if they did so. It is striking though, how once in leading roles, the gentry often seem to have taken to their position with gusto. Heading up negotiations, leading military operations and helping spread the uprising. But many of these men also had genuine grievances. The most famous leader, the lawyer, Robert Aske certainly opposed many of Henry VIII's plans. Moorhouse points out though, that most of the gentry began "looking for a way out as soon as a hint of one appeared".

The rebels were enormously successful, with tens of thousands of poorly armed men in the field and no standing army to oppose them, they were able to control much of the north of England capturing key castles and towns.

The banner of the five wounds of Christ a symbol used
by many of the rebels
The majority of the rebellion ended following negotiations with the king's representatives who seemed to give in to many of the rebels' demands. The demands themselves were mainly those of the gentry, reflecting their own class interests, though these were clearly influenced by the tens of thousands of ordinary people in arms through the country. Henry VIII seems to have failed to understand quite how endangered his position was, and even though the rebels had been pardoned, he used the excuse of an outbreak of fighting to renege on his promises. Some leaders, like Robert Aske, were executed as a result.

Had the rebels not disbanded, and marched on London, things would have been very different. In the final chapter, Moorhouse speculates on the differences that might have taken place. Henry VIII has few options, he could have fought (and likely would have been defeated) or fled, both of which would have been disastrous for his rule. He could have negotiated, but that would have meant a weak government that likely would not have survived. Certainly figures like the hated Thomas Cromwell, a man who one rebel leader, Lord Darcy denounced at his trial, would have been killed. The reformation might have been still born, and English history very different indeed. The rebels didn't march on London and Henry VIII emerged stronger than ever, though his paranoia and revenge accounted for the lives of many linked to the Pilgrimage. Moorhouse points out, that the economic and social problems didn't disappear and Henry did nothing to improve matters, which helps why in 1549, barely 15 years after the Pilgrimage of Grace, England erupted in rebellion again as peasant armies rose around the country.

This is an important and useful book. Sadly it feels over-written in places and suffers enormously throughout from a lack of footnotes and source material, a major problem for the reader trying to delve deeper into this important history. Nonetheless this is an important piece of history for the reader learning more about the neglected social history of England.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Foster, Clark & York - Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism, From Antiquity to the Present

Intelligent Design has yet to make a significant impact on politics in the United Kingdom. But it has an acceptance in the United States where the authors of this book are based. The Design movement is an attempt to reassert religious dogma in the face of scientific explanations of evolution and society, and the authors have written this book to help explain and counter-act the proponents of Intelligent Design.

The battle between Creationism and Materialism has been one that has stretched back to ancient times. Indeed, the debates have shaped modern science and society. The authors point out that
Western science itself is a product of a large part of a 2,5000-year critique of intelligent design that was tied to larger social struggles occurring over the same vast period.
Intelligent Design, they write, is a "counterrevolution against science", an attempt, in the modern context to undermine and challenge materialism. Its leading proponents are well aware of this.
Intelligent design seeks not so much to triumph over materialism in public schools and other institutions as to burn iot on the cross. Intelligent design proponents see the argument from design as part of a larger crusade against materialism that traces the problem not to Darwin but to Epicurus in antiquity. Epicurus is regarded as the archetype of materialism and the greatest single enemy of creationism. Hence, the refutation of Darwin is seen as necessary but not as the final or sufficient goal in a much larger inquisition. Indeed intelligent design criticisms embrace the entire materialist tradition extending from Epicurus... to the unholy trinity of Darwin, Marc, and Freud in modern times.
Why is this so important to the reactionaries? In the words of one key figure in the Intelligent Design movement, Benjamin Wiker,
The larger materialist package supports all kinds of things which are mortally repugnant to Christians, not only... Social Darwinism and eugenics, but also sexual libertinism, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, cloning and so on... [quoted by the authors]
Thus the Design movement wishes to challenge materialism as part of a wider reassertion of a Christian viewpoint that is inherently anti-science. The authors explain how the Design movement uses the metaphor of a "wedge", challenging at first particular aspects of science and integrating their ideas and people into wider public discourse, and ultimately "to see design theory enter into the physical sciences, but also 'psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities."

Much of this book then looks at understanding the historic development of materialist science, and the way that design was "from the beginning a response to materialist/atomistic physics". Thus the authors demolish both the failings of Design theory scientifically, but demonstrate why their approach is driven by ideology rather than a real attempt to understand the world. The authors also examine the key ideas and works of the "unholy trinity" of Darwin, Freud and Marx, who the Design movement single out as being the chief enemies. They give useful summaries of the work, particularly, at least for this reader, those of Darwin and Freud whose work is often misunderstood and caricatured by Intelligent Design proponents.

Importantly however, the authors do not simply lay out their critique of Intelligent Design and religion through simply atheism. As Marxists, they have a more nuanced critique of religion, which argues that pure-atheism isn't enough. Indeed such an approach to religion can lead to reactionary positions. For instance, when some leading atheistic thinkers label all followers of Islam as bigoted.

Marx's approach, which understood religion as offering both hope to the oppressed, as well as dulling their senses and holding back, or limiting, their movements for self emancipation, allows revolutionaries to relate to religious individuals and movements, without crudely labeling them as backward. This, as the authors point out, helped shape Marx's approach
As a materialist, Marx opted not to invest in the abstraction of God and religion. At the same time he did not attempt to disprove the supernatural existence of God, since that transcended the real, empirical world and could not be answered, or even addressed, through reason, observation, and scientific inquiry. Instead he forged a practical atheism through his scientific commitment to a historical materialist approach for understanding reality in all of its dimensions. The practical negation of God and the affirmation of humanity and science demanded an active movement for revolutionary social change, the real appropriation of the world to pursue human development - the growth and expansion of human capabilities - and freedom.
While this book is a useful critique of Intelligent Design, its real importance is in reasserting an approach to religion which is more than simply asserting that science is right. Indeed the authors conclude by pointing out that "reason, science and human freedom can only commence" when the "gods have at last been banished from the earth". That won't happen until a new world has been built, based on the interests of the majority of society and removing the real basis of religion - oppression, exploitation and inequality.

Related Reviews

Siegel - The Meek and the Militant

Monday, March 30, 2015

Thomas Keneally - The People's Train

This fictionalised account of the life of Russian Revolutionary Fyodor Sergeyev is one of the best portrayals I have read of the experiences of those taking part in the Russian Revolution. Renamed Artem Samsurov, the novel covers much of his incredible life. Imprisoned for his roll in the 1905 uprising, Artem escapes and travels across Russia in disguise, into China and eventually finds his way to Australia. Australia is viewed by many as a workers' paradise, because workers' parties are in government. But Artem quickly discovers the reality is different. Artem quickly gets to organising the Russian emigre community, building unions and discussing politics. The Australian police quickly try to suppress the socialists, and Artem experiences an Australian prison - his time in Russian prisons serving him well. When the Russian Revolution breaks out in February 1917, Artem returns, quickly being elevated to the ranks of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The final part of the book, dealing with the turbulent times running up to the October insurrection are through the eyes of Artem's friend and comrade Paddy Dykes, an Australian union journalist who reports on what he sees.

Keneally's novel is a detailed and faithful account of events, as well as the politics of the Russian socialist movement. Pitching the novel like this however implies it is some sort of dry historical tome. But the opposite is the case. Keneally's writing is brilliantly clear, his characters beautifully portrayed and their discussion of politics is less about Marxist pedantry, than their attempts to understand, and explain the world. Few novels have got to the heart of what motivated Russian revolutionaries to risk life or imprisonment. When Artem discusses Lenin, he can't imagine him being motivated by romance, rather a dedication to the cause. But all the characters here are actually motivated to fight revolution, because of their intense love for people and their desire for a better world. Indeed, the love stories at the heart of the book are very much an exploration of the way powerful and intense events bring individuals together, for good or bad, and how they must sometimes be put to one side for the sake of a bigger cause. The novel ends with the seizure of the Winter Palace and the muddied confusion of actual revolution. The insurrection itself is not the clean, romantic ideal, but is uneven and on-occasion unpleasant. I do hope that Keneally writes the promised sequel - Artem, or Fyodor's post revolutionary life was shaped by the rise of Stalin and the defeat of internationalism. It will be fascinating to see whether Keneally does this period as much justice as he with his portrayal of Russian revolutionaries and life before 1917.