Monday, 2 June 2014

This is SCIENCE, dammit!

Okay, my research leads me to some really random places.

This time it is foetal skeleton tableaux. The squeamish and anyone who might be triggered by this probably wants to stop reading right about now. If you like the macabre and truly bizarre - what, taxidermy? - you're going to love this.

Frederick Ruysch. Interesting chap. He was a scientist. He liked preserving things and actually, if you look at some of the pictures on this site, he was remarkably good at it. But he also made tableaux and memento mori he made with human foetal remains "and other human body parts". think why I love this is that it comes from that time when Western science taking its first independent steps and defining itself as a separate discipline from alchemy, theology, philosophy and, well, art. These pictures are beautiful and disturbing in equal measure and the methods of their construction are... yeah.

Anyway, go and check out this article about the man himself, with its plentiful illustrations, and this photo of an actual foetal tableaux, to which my first response was... this isn't real, right?

Have a macabrely wonderful day!

Friday, 21 March 2014

English Atlantises and Eldritch Dunwich

A grotesque at Greyfriars, Dunwich
H.P. Lovecraft was on to something when he put the heart of horror in a decaying town on the shore of the sea.

East Anglia in winter is bleak and atmospheric. There are mists which rise over the fens and the broads. There are no hills, just flat, rolls of land beneath a sky that is just too big, too empty. The winds that come in off the North Sea will make ice-crystals form in your hair. The sea itself is grey, cruel.

At Dunwich, the beach is a long, shingle shore. It stretches away to the south in a vague curve that will take you to Aldeburgh- where M.R James set A Warning to the Curious. The cliffs are low, yellow stone topped with coarse grass. If you walk up to the village you'll find it trailing away along the road inland, a handful of older cottages, many for sale. A pub, a museum, a red-brick church.

I could write at length about the geography of English villages and its quirks, but Dunwich is more than ordinarily odd. This is the sort of landscape where you can imagine white shapes flitting in the inestimable distance between flat land and sky, the sort of place where the imagination needn't stretch too far to think of, Hollywood style, the inhabitants muttering over their shoulders at interlopers and shutters slamming closed at dusk.

The natural landscape is a thing we tend to take for granted. It gives us a permanence against which we can ground ourselves, a sense that, as we look, we can see what people saw a hundred years ago, a thousand years... Landmarks, after all, are just that - marks upon the land we use to orient ourselves. Man-made, or natural it does not matter. As we walk through the more changeable stuff of human life, earth and stone give a reassuring sense of continuity, of permanence.

For the record, that reassurance is utter bunk.

One of the ... Fumbling for a word here. Not nice. Terrifying?

Okay: One of the interesting things about living on an island** in the middle of some really unwelcoming seas is the way that the transience of the landscape is brought home. I remember very clearly my first visit to Rye, when my father pointed out across the two miles of flat land to the channel and told me that, once, that had all been under water. That once, that had been the sea.

Of course, he then explained, the conditions which had made it so far from the coast had since been reversed.
"So," all innocence and childhood hope, I asked, "Rye will be a seaside town again."
"Yes, it will. Probably in your lifetime."

I realise now this was a dark reference to climate change.

Now I think about it, a lot of my childhood was spent wandering round slightly spooky coastal spots. It may explain my love for East Anglia in winter, its flat fields and cold, grey skies. My father took us to Reculver to see St Mary's towers leaning down over the cliff. In another place, on a day so cold my hands began to feel like something washed up by the sea, foreign to my own touch, he told us about drowned villages, about the churches that had slipped under the waves. About how, on stormy nights (it was said) you could still hear the bells ringing.

I remember, very clearly, wandering the shoreline looking for pebbles and shells, of being terrified of stumbling upon a human skull, a leg bone, some teeth, the debris of some subaqueous graveyard. I remember finding what I'll swear was a stone saint of the kind that sit in niches on church walls. It was wearing a bishop's cope, the faint mark of a crozier clutched to its chest.

Of course, as I got older, I started to question what I had been told. Oh sure, rising sea levels and coastal erosion are damn sight scarier than ghost stories (and my dad tells fantastic ghost stories). But phantom bells? I started to think of such things as bell buoys, or the way that water muffles sound. My main objection, though, had all my characteristic off-beat logic. For the bells to ring, they must still hang, mustn't they? These churches were beneath the waves. Even if the storm that cut the cliffs from under them hadn't done some work on taking down the bell towers, they had been underwater for how long? Surely the ebb and flow of the tide would have managed the job of a demolition crew?

Apparently not.

The cliff edge is just behind those trees.
In Cromer in 1888, a passenger steamer hit an obstruction several hundred yards from the coast and began taking in water. Thanks to the intervention of local fishermen, no lives were lost, and investigation showed what it was that had caused the steamer to run aground.

It was a church spire.

Specifically, it was the spire of Saint Peter's, Shipden, a village that was lost beneath the waves in the 14th Century. The information board on Cromer pier says that, due to the hazard it caused to shipping at low tide, the spire was dynamited shortly afterwards. Local legend says no, it's still there, and, if the tide is very low it can still be seen. Of course, inhabitants will also claim that in stormy weather, the bells will ring. (

I can understand the persistence of these myths. After all, how many were killed by the storms that dragged down buildings, pulled them under the waves? How much land and memory? The reminder of it must come with every storm, niggling somewhere in the back of the mind, with each fall of the cliff, with each shift of sandbank or shingle ridge. In East Anglia, we do not have a lot of hills. The sea wind comes biting in, no matter how far your village from the coast. Erosion is not merely the concern of  a talented storyteller trying to scare his children. Too much rain, a bad storm, and we are threatened with the power of the sea.

Which brings us to Dunwich.

I don't think I'll ever forgive Lovecraft for setting it inland, for making it the home of subterranean, batrachian monstrosities, while the honour of the seaside go-to for eldritch abominations is fictional Innsmouth. Still, perhaps it's for the best. After all, Insmouth is an industrial town. Its horrors are based on a fear of human depravity. Boarded up, run-down, ghostly though it may be, it teems with debased life.

 At Dunwich, the real Dunwich, the sense of the uncanny is a thing of wildernesses, of absence. What happened at Dunwich is far scarier than some bloody peculiar frogs.***

Once, it was in the running for possibly England's third largest settlement.

Still a bit flooded from December's storms
It was an ideal spot for a port. A natural harbour was created by the spit of sand and shingle to the North East of the town, known as Kings Holme. As trade to that harbour increased, it became clear Dunwich had a further asset in the course of the river Blyth, which brought ships from Southwold, Walberswick and Blythburgh.As well as increasing local commerce, these ships were charged harbour dues, which brought more money into the town.

Over time, Dunwich became a centre of trade, of shipbuilding. It had churches, priories, a Templer preceptory. It had a fleet of seventy fishing vessels. It even had a bishop.

And it was destroyed by the sea.

The image one gets, the myth that one draws from its title (The English Atlantis) is that the sea reared up in a huge storm and bit the entire town away. This story has a shock value, has emotional resonance. It also makes the end discreet - it becomes an incident, unprecedented in its ferocity. The people were unwitting, overcome by a thing that must have seemed divine retribution, a sudden and terrible tragedy.

The truth is more unsettling.

The land of the Suffolk coast is eroding at about a metre a year. The sea slowly, gradually undercuts the cliffs, so that when a storms comes (and this is the North Sea, remember) chunks of it will fall. So weakened, they can still do this at any time, at any sudden pressure. It is a slow, wearing destruction, inexorable. It will not be stopped by a mild winter. It is not the fault of a few bad storms.

Note - many fences and cliff-fall warnings
The first storm (1250) flooded the town, causing damage to property and, one suspects, loss of life. It also accelerated the process of long shore drift upon Kings Holme, causing it to block the harbour and shift the course of the river Blyth.The economic impact of this would be catastrophic. Dunwich's inhabitants dug a new harbour, and made a channel to restore the course of the Blyth.

In 1286, that channel was destroyed. Worse, a strip of the town, in places up to 100 meters wide, was dragged into the sea. This included the original Greyfriars priory and a significant residential area. Even today people are killed on coast in that kind of conditions. With no 'severe weather warnings', no radio contact...

Over the next 100 years, Dunwich began to die. Bad weather in 1328 moved Kings Holme south, blocking Dunwich's new harbour. Already, there seems to have been some resignation; before it was destroyed in 1328, the timber, bells and furnishings of the precariously situated St Leonard's church were removed. That said, the town was not a ghost town, left at the mercy of the waves. It was still where people had their livelihood, where people lived. During this period, a new Greyfriars was built, just outside the town's westernmost boundary.

That building now stands upon the clifftop, perhaps thirty metres from the edge.

By the time the final building of medieval Dunwich - All Saint's Church - was being lost in the early 20th Century, Dunwich was as it is today: a village, an atmosphere, a handful of ruins. This is not the story of a vengeful sea rising up and swallowing a city in one, dreadful storm. This is a story of a slow exodus, a long dying, a battle that cannot be won. It is a sign of humankind's futility in the face of ancient and implacable forces.

Maybe Lovecraft had it right all along.

Sources and further reading:

-Abandoned Communities has some great info on Dunwich's destruction, as well as details of the town's relationship with its neighbours and general historical background. Invaluable stuff.
 -For some incredible photographs of the All Saint's falling off a cliff, and information on current archeological exploration of sunken Dunwich:
- There is also Dunwich Museum, who should definitely be visited if you are in the area, and have some useful info online as well.
- Naturally, there is also a Wikipedia page, but this appears to be undergoing an academic dispute at the moment, and is therefore not in the best of states.

* For the record, the inhabitants of Dunwich do not do this. They seem quite lovely. It's an atmosphere thing.
**I am aware I say 'England' in the title and then talk about living on an island.
*** and if just one of you is thinking of Shoggoth's Old Peculier, my work here is done.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

See, I told you.

Norwich was an important place.

After last week's little homage to my home county (which is not, just so you're aware a home county) I thought I'd give a little heads up to my adopted City. I did a Google search for medieval. This was the second result.

The next two were from the visit Norfolk website, so either Norwich is really important in archaeological terms, or Google analytics have just scared me.

Probably the latter, tbh. Still. Go Norwich.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Johanna Ferrour, Kentish Heroine?

Who is Johanna Ferrour?

My sum knowledge of Johanna Ferrour comes from this article which I encountered following a text from my sister that read (something along the lines of) "Here, check this out. Reckon we should get t-shirts, Johanna Ferrour, Kentish Heroine."

I don't make a secret of where I was born, how that defines me. No matter how long I live in East Anglia, I will always be a Kentish. As such, I will insist gavelkind is superior to primogeniture, mutter, "Invicta!" when I see a white horse rampant on a red field, and make the odd, dark reference to 1381.

Yes, 1381.

Kent cannot boast Luddites, smashing machines to defend their livelihoods. Kent does not salute the Levellers, combining religion and pacifism with an attempt to reclaim the commons. Certainly Kent does not have the dignified heroism of Nowich's Robert Kett (of whom more later), protesting enclosure and receiving - many years after his execution - a pardon.

No, in Kent we have the murdered Tyler, the 'mad' John Ball.

And now, it seems, Johanna Ferrour.

There was a cartoon in Terry Deary's Measly Middle Ages - about how the rebels wanted all men to be equal (and that the women could stay home and be oppressed.) Now, I love Martin Brown's cartoons as much as the next facile history geek, but I always worried about this one, especially the way it played into the cultural expectation that rebellion itself was a boy's game, that the peasant's revolt was on a par with football hooliganism: a bunch of dudes storming up to the capital and smashing things. Women have always been a part of civil disobedience: when there is structural, economic inequality, it affects women as much as men - often it affects them more severely. Is it any wonder then, that they too nurse grievances. That when things kick off, that they are involved?

And in this case, they were not only there, but were central. They did not only fight alongside the men, but lead them. To quote the BBC article, Ferrour, "arrested Sudbury and dragged him to the chopping block, ordering that he be beheaded."

No, we shouldn't forget Johanna Ferrour. And, yes. If the rebels were heroes, certainly we should count Ferrour as an equal with Tyler, with Ball.

But what about 1381?

When I was taught this at school, I remember getting angry with the way the story was told. We were presented with a (historically inaccurate) picture of feudalism, a simplified version of the Black Death, land rights, and serfdom. With grievances that were legitimate, but with actions that went too far. Tyler's death was unjust, true, but he showed bad manners in front of the King. He dared to take offence at being called a thief. If you're a peasant, the narrative implied, you can't afford honour - it'll get you slashed with a sword, get you stabbed in the stomach.

Oddly - or perhaps not - much of this reminds me of the commentary on the riots of 2011. There are parallels. Long term disenfranchisement and oppression finding an outlet after a significant event - the poll tax, the murder of Mark Duggan. You wring your hands. You say, "of course this is bad", you say, "but this isn't legitimate protest. You can't hide behind that grievance if you're doing this."  You say, "your actions have justified your enemies prejudice", you tell them their  cause has been hi-jacked by "rebellious evildoers".

But these events are significant, and the dichotomy of 'good protest' and 'bad protest' is inadequate. It is to overlook the fact that, being powerless, one cannot negotiate upon the same terms as a powerful person. I might sound as Kentish as they come when I say Tyler was murdered - but he was killed on a mistaken pretence, without trial. Does the fact that the people who killed him walked away without 'needing' to be forgiven make that a 'lawful killing'? The narratives we tell about history affect the narratives we create today.

 Still, although I could spend all afternoon drawing parallels between 1381 and 2011, it would be as much of a simplification to try and understand both events in entirely the same way. The causes- although following a similar basic 'shape' are historically specific, the motivations of the participants markedly different. What's more, the manifestations of the disorder was not at all similar. In 2011, although personal violence did occur, this was part of the general riot - an incidental consequence. In 1381, interpersonal violence was the focus and aim of the uprising: the rebels identified certain individuals as enemies of the country and had them targeted, apprehended, executed. In 2011 shops and houses were smashed and looted. In 1381 (initially at least) the shops and houses of those figures were smashed - but (again, initially) - those who attempted to steal rather than destroy were arrested and punished by the rioters themselves. The events of 2011 are certainly politically pertinent, politically motivated, but the destruction caused was an expression of that. In 1381, the violence was conducted with explicitly political aims.

Co-opting the image of the rebels: 

This political engagement, of course, is what tempts us to paint Ferrour as a heroine. She was a woman in a time when that was a significant disadvantage, a woman who was able to take the lead in times of danger and trouble. She was an attempted revolutionary who wanted to take justice into her own hands, to unsettle an oppressive government, to make the ruling classes quake in their boots.

Make no mistake, the government was unsettled by Ferrour and her ilk. It's a lesson rulers should always remember - the people they govern outnumber rulers many times over.When the marginalised organise, they are dangerous.

And the cause of the rebels of 1381 is so very tempting. What were they demanding? An end to villeinage. An end to an oppressive government taxing the poorest disproportionately hard. Is it any wonder, then, that they are painted as heroes? As proto-socialists? Even John Ball's chant, (modernised here) "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" sounds so very good from a egalitarian perspective. 

This, certainly, is how they are seen in much of Kent.

Kett's men stormed Norwich more than once and burned down half the city. Yet he, diplomatic, middle class, is seen as the ultimate champion of worker's rights. The Luddites live on not only in people like me (incapable of running a defrag programme on my ailing laptop), but in the artisan creators who reject mass production in favour of local businesses, forgotten skills, small industries. The Levellers have been posthumously tidied from property destroying reprobates into ye-olde-hippies, preaching peace, love and organic gardening.

I wish, with my whole heart, I could call Ferrour a heroine and leave it at that.

History is messy.

On the 14th June 1381 around and near St Martin Vimtry, between 30 and 40 Flemish immigrants were dragged from their churches or places of business and beheaded, their bodies left in the streets. In and amongst the agenda of social disruption and legitimate grievance, the Kentish rebels harboured a strong anti-Flemish sentiment, and acted upon it in what is the bloodiest episode of the peasants revolt. It is recorded in four contemporary sources (The Westminster Chronicle, Anonimalle Chronical, Letter Book H and The Saint Alban's Chronicle) and is unlikely to be a fabrication. Far from unity and equality, we find ourselves faced with plain old xenophobia.

It would be very nice, it would be very nice indeed, to be able to say that figureheads like Ferrour, Tyler, Ball, would not have acted that way, that they were above the crowd. It would also be very easy to say they were all racist murderers, to say that this condemns them despite the legitimacy of their other complaints. To say, see, they were no better than football hooligans all along.

Both of these views are wrong.

Not all of the rebels took part in these actions. There were probably some who would have loved to kill a few foreigners and were in the wrong place to do so. There may well have been others who harboured no anti-Flemish sentiment and would have been appalled by this. Almost certainly, there were still more who did harbour such sentiment and were happy to smash some stuff, but wouldn't take it so far as decapitation. Simply because people, en masse have a tendency to behave despicably does not mean that everyone in a movement is despicable. One of the major problems with mass events is that no one person in the crowd can be answer for the actions of the others, but - seen as part of the crowd - they cannot definitely be excused of those actions either.

Of John Ball, we can say that he wasn't there, that he was a rabble rouser, not an executioner. Of Tyler we can say he was a spokesman, a figurehead. We don't know where either of them were at any specific point of the riot. What of Ferrour? Well, she physically dragged Simon of Sudbury to the block so they could behead him. She ordered the death of Robert Hales, the treasurer. Clearly, she was not uncomfortable with summary execution. Would she take that beyond a hatred for a few wealthy, powerful men?

What were her personal politics? That enviably catchy chant of John Ball's betrays another sentiment on the rebels' part that would be distasteful to modern socialism. Yes, the goal may have been to dismantle the social order than bound them in villeinage, but that is because they bowed to another, greater order. It is a philosophy that was radical enough for the time, radical to some even now - All men, all women, were equal under God. But with that as an ideal, what was their commitment to this goal? Richard II was a bad King - a terrible King, in fact - but their wrath was reserved for his 'evil councillors'. Was  When Tyler met the King, there was no indication that Wat would serve Richard as Ferrour served Sudbury.

Was Ferrour involved in ethnic cleansing? Would Ferrour have risen to regicide?

Speculation, speculation.

We can't say for certain that she was racist, can't be sure she was egalitarian. We don't know if her motivations were financial, personal, political or religious. Who, then, was she? What, then, did she do?

She "was the chief perpetrator and leader of the rebellious evildoers from Kent". She led a group of men in riot at a time when it was believed the root of mulier was mollior, when it was expected that a woman should not be placed in authority over a man. She was a woman with a political complaint who took this grievance to the men she blamed for it and executed them.

 Johanna Ferrour, rebel leader. Johanna Ferrour, not to be forgotten.