Month: February 2017

Like Father, like Son – The Fishermen of Rowhedge

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Like Father, like Son In 1850, Rowhedge was, as it had been for generations, a fishing village.  The tiny village, built on the waterfront, was a hive of activity with boats moored up being prepared for work and fisherman leaving for sea. The river was the lifeblood of a community built around one specific trade.… Read more »

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Trump the Merovingian

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Satire is a potent tool in the face of the arrogance of power. Laughter punctures pride more fatally than any righteous anger. And it has not gone unnoticed that one of the winners of the election of the latest US President has been humour itself — laughing at him, not with him. Print media have, for instance, noticed the twitter phenomenon that is Donaeld the Unready, recasting the new incumbent of the Oval Office as an Anglo-Saxon bretwalda. My own favourite is this one:

However, I want to suggest to you today that if the President is a reincarnation, his former self was not content to live in the alter orbis which was the British Isles; he was surely a denizen of mainland Europe. How can I know this? By invoking the noble art of palaeography.

trump-signatureThere are some things, of course, which are beyond satire – and that includes Donald Trump’s signature. Graphologists have had a field day with this, though I am not convinced by some of the claims, like the suggestion that it shows him to be protective of the family. I cannot see that and, instead, find it hard to avoid concluding that there is something psychotic in his willingness to overwrite not just the typed words but his own letters — look at that final p which is turned into ascender crossing over the bowl of the letter. It looks assertive but it also is self-destructive. This President unwrites himself.

That jagged motion of final p creating a pointed hat worthy of the Ku-Klux Klan serves no necessary purpose beyond ostentation: it is what palaeographers would call an otiose stroke. Such features were often produced with a turn of the nib to create a thinner or even hair-line stroke. In Trump’s handwriting, though, there is no differentiation between thick and thin, just as the straight lines are rarely combined with any curved movements of the pen. For instance, a letter like n is formed with a diagonal joining the two minims (rather than the linking it the top). There is little variation and no subtlety here.

Let us, though, consider President Trump’s approach to mise-en-page when placing that signature on an Executive Order.trump-signing-executive-order

Note how his script insists on taking up space, being equivalent to five or six lines of typed text. This is by no means unprecedented. It reminds me, for instance, of cases of Henry VII of England adding his name in large thin gothic letters below the beautiful italic of his secretary, Pietro Carmeliano (whom I have discussed on this site recently). In such instances, the royal writing looks ungainly in comparison to the script above but that serves only to enhance the impression that the monarch is emphasising his taking ownership of the page, even as he compromises its calligraphy. Its purpose is to show that the king does not need to master penmanship for he is the master of those who have done so.

Yet, that is not the only historical parallel one can draw. Over the long tradition of script, the balance between the minims (eg m and n) and the ascenders of tall letters (eg d and l) has shifted: in the bookhand promoted in the Carolingian empire, when there was an expectation of clarity of writing, a minim would be about half the size of an ascender; in late medieval culture, the gothic aesthetic which saw beauty in the uniform aspect of a page, ascenders were reduced to being often little more than residual. President Trump has decided to reject both of those practices: it seems that he feels his hands must make ascenders, and bigly. They dwarf the minims by a ratio of about 3:1. Once again, though, such a contrast is not original to him. It was a frequent habit in medieval charters, particularly on the top line. It is seen, for instances, in specimens of Merovingian chancery script, though when I mentioned this in conversation with an eminent palaeographer, she accused me of making a comparison that was slanderous to Merovingian civilization.

I would certainly not want to give the impression that this sense of proportion was confined in time or location. It was not only a habit of chanceries drawing up official documents but was also seen in certain bookhands. The example below is in many ways more elegant than anything achieved by a pen wielded in the 45th President’s hand — it knows the value of combining curves with straight strokes — but it shares an affection for extended ascenders.

luxeuil

Paris: BnF, MS. lat. 9427, fol. 19v

It is a famous manuscript, a lectionary from the Abbey of Luxeuil in southern Burgundy. We have several witnesses to this script which was developed in that cloister. We also have an end-date for their production: in 732, the abbey was burnt to the ground and its monks massacred by a daring raid by Muslim Moors. Do not tell that to President Trump.

 

 

Tagged: Donald Trump, Henry VII, Luxeuil minuscule, Merovingian chancery script, palaeography

The tailoresses of Rowhedge

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  Rowhedge Rowhedge was, and still is, a small village on the banks of the River Colne in Essex. It is a place where for generations the men worked as fishermen, while the women stayed at home, holding together a family, a home, and in many cases also working. That it became a focus for… Read more »

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C is for Crossing Sweeper

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Crossing Sweeper   Continuing with the series on street life in Victorian London, the crossing sweeper was as much a part of this world as the costermongers, flower girls, mush-fakers, pure finders and the numerous other members of the London underclass.  Roads and pathways were filthy, covered in mud, rotting vegetable matter and the ever… Read more »

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F is for Flower Seller

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Flower Sellers When we think of flower sellers, we often think of Eliza Doolittle, the flower seller in Covent Garden who went from rags to riches thanks to the attentions of Professor Higgins. Hers was of course just a story, but her trade was common, although her rise out of poverty was hardly in any… Read more »

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F is for Flower Seller

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Flower Sellers When we think of flower sellers, we often think of Eliza Doolittle, the flower seller in Covent Garden who went from rags to riches thanks to the attentions of Professor Higgins. Hers was of course just a story, but her trade was common, although her rise out of poverty was hardly in any… Read more »

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M is for Mush-Faker

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Following on from a previous post on umbrella makers, this post, the first on a series of articles examining the street sellers common in all towns and cities, will look into another worker in the umbrella trade – the forgotten Mush-Faker.  Mush-fakers were common on the streets, and were considered, by many, to be a… Read more »

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Complicity, complacency and the bonfires that burn books

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If it is the mark of a stimulating book that a reviewer finds it impossible to confine their response within the word limit available, then I have recently read one. The volume is On the Burning of Books. How flames fail to destroy the written word; it is the latest product from the pen of Kenneth Baker, who, in another life, was a cabinet minister. That biographical detail is not merely incidental, as I suggest in the review which appears today (behind a paywall: sorry) in the Times Literary Supplement. I do not want to reiterate all that I say there but I will mention that a topical event saw the opening of the piece change at the last minute. Before that happened, my preferred version began:

A preposition can be the wrong thing to start a title with. The ‘On’ on the dust-jacket of Kenneth Baker’s latest book is off the mark: it hints at the promise of a disquisition on book-burning, but the author is having nothing of that. There are, he says, already books on the subject by scholars and librarians, for scholars and librarians. He offers instead a ‘personal anthology’, one that stands as testimony to his fascination with the subject and his wide reading, on topics ranging from the foundation of imperial China to the Hutton Report. This, in other words, is a treatment of its topic with the thinking taken out.

As that paragraph might suggest, my reaction to the book was ambivalent: it is engaging and well-written (even if it has a few too many lapsus calami) but also, on some level, deeply troubling.

The title sums up what argument there is in Baker’s book: he rails against ‘fanatics’ and ‘bigots’ whose reaction to books they find odious is to set them alight. He positions himself as their enemy, standing up to them wherever they may be. He finds them in Europe’s past – even in the quadrangles of England’s ancient universities – and in the wider world’s present. In his epilogue, he cautions us: ‘Don’t think it will get better in the future’. There will continue to be those who want to destroy knowledge, he says. There is no reason to be complacent. Why, then, do I find a worrying complacency underlying what he says?

When Baker was a front-line politician, frequently appearing with slicked-back hair and a fixed grin, some wit commented: ‘He’s seen the future and it smirks’. Given this latest book, we might have to change that and say ‘and it smokes – albeit ineffectually’. Baker wants us to realise our values are under attack, but that we will overcome. He reminds us repeatedly out how the burning of books fails to suppress texts. This is a common assumption, which I myself have made: however many copies are destroyed, more can appear. That is true in most cases, though not all, but it does beg a question: if a regime is so repressive and so controlling that it feels the need to destroy writings it finds subversive, why would it resort to a technique which has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective?

The public burning of books is, at best (from the regime’s viewpoint), symbolic – it is not a successful act of repression but an expression of intent. Baker recognises that but does not follow through its implications. Why make use of this particular symbol? Why do we fixate on the bonfire, rather than any of the other methods of destruction? Perhaps we feel that this is an unnecessary question – onto our cultural memory is seared the image of the book-burnings associated with Kristallnacht and, with that, we know that what was a fear in Heinrich Heine’s mind became a reality: ‘where they burn books they will also burn people’. Heine wrote his words, of course, over a century before the Nazis rose to power, and we do not do them justice if we take them simply as a bitterly realised prophecy. They surely encourage us to think about what is happening when the flames are kindled. Fire has an elemental power, frightening for its destructiveness but also warming, bright and cleansing. We stand back from it but we also want to stoke it. Is there something of the pyromaniac in us all? Certainly, in images of Hitler Youth at the fireside or of the comic burnings in the post-War States, you can see the faces of happy children, excited by their own potential to make the flames blow higher, if they feed it. This, surely, is at the heart of the allure of book-burning: it is a carnival which encourages complicity. Look, it is paper, only paper, so insignificant that it turns to dust in a second…

comic-burning_est-dec1948

Comic Burning in Binghamton, New York, 1948

With the creation of complicity, a spiral can begin. But must there be a fireside for complicity to be born? If we were to be Foucauldian about this, we might see the bonfire as akin to a public execution, a technique which becomes unnecessary when the apparatus of the state constructs more complete control: the panopticon has no need for eye-catching spectacle. If this is the case, it might imply that an absence of book-burning is not necessarily a victory for liberal values, but may be a witness to the increased insidious power of the authorities. You do not need to burn books if you can find other ways – more effective ways – to make them unavailable. This is to say that presenting oneself as an opponent of burning books means little if you do not also oppose the apparatus of censorship.

This is where I find Baker’s work most disturbing. He himself attempts to draw his readers into a sort of complicity: note how I talked above about ‘our values’ which ‘we’ must protect. It implies a sense of our superiority to the fanatics we are confident exist; it thus impels us to a need to defend what we have — and so to quell our liberal instinct to question and to require more. We may not burn books but does that permit us complacency?

In one of Lord Baker’s most recent Parliamentary interventions, following last summer’s referendum, he, himself a Remain voter, declared: ‘we are all Brexiteers now’. He was expressing a noble acceptance of ‘the voice of the people’, though whatever that voice ‘said’ was nowhere near a plan of action and was much more a cacophonous babble. What happened during the campaign and afterwards suggests that Mr Cameron’s clever ruse to end the European debate has uncovered and unleashed a ferment of loathing, whether it be directed towards ‘foreigners’ or judges. Are we comfortable that in our society the parameters of free speech are safe from threat? If we are all Brexiteers now, God help us.

Tagged: book-burning, Heinrich Heine, Kenneth Baker

U is for Umbrella Maker

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Umbrellas and parasols were a mainstay of a Victorian lady’s wardrobe – in a time when it was unfashionable for a woman to have a sun tan, the parasol was an essential part of a lady’s outfit, and when raining, umbrellas were, as now, considered necessary, however, umbrellas in the modern sense were more a… Read more »

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What is an ‘occupation’?

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One of the most common questions asked both in state, business and personal interactions is ‘what do you do?’ or ‘what is your job?’ and for the former ‘what is your occupation?’   This may seem like a simple question to answer – but in historical terms it becomes more problematic. The concept of ‘an… Read more »

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