A mountain to climb

John Keay The Great Arc:
the dramatic tale of how India was mapped
and Everest was named

HarperCollins 2001 (2000)

At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — the legend appears plausible until one considers the likelihood that the present building was only constructed between 1797 and 1803. Be that as it may, there is a neatness about George Everest’s possible connections with the Black Mountains and the mountain named after him in 1865, with the added irony that he never actually set eyes on the world’s highest summit.

Lieutenant, later Colonel, George Everest — the name should be pronounced Eve-rest, by the way, not as three-syllabic Ever-est — succeeded William Lambton as principal surveyor of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, which in time became the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The Arc closely followed the meridian 78° east of Greenwich, spreading its triangulated tentacles east and west in its effort to accurately map the whole of British India, from Cape Comorin in the south to the Himalayan foothills in the north and beyond. The rate of attrition for the army of surveyors, their assistants and support was equivalent to the decimation of an army over its half-century of existence; malaria, fevers, animal attacks and sheer exhaustion exacted a heavy price for the inch-perfect survey.

The epic story of Lambton, Everest, their assistants and successors as told by John Keay is one of slow but steady success despite Continue reading “A mountain to climb”

A Vitruvian guide to England

Old College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth http://wp.me/s36La9-turrets
Old College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales (http://wp.me/s36La9-turrets) showing this Victorian Gothic Revival building’s Neo-Gothic features

Philip Wilkinson
The Pocket Guide to English Architecture
Remember When / Pen & Sword Books 2009

This is one of those books the title of which says it all: a guide that you can carry around with you when visiting towns, cities or country houses to view the buildings of England. (And it really does mean only England, not the other currently constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though much of the information here is transferable to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.)

Explicitly excluded from the notion of custom-designed architecture — except for a brief mention of building materials — are all those examples of fine vernacular structures, whether thatched cottages, terraced houses or tithe barns, though I suspect the last-mentioned cathedral-like storehouses may well have been planned by the same individuals who directed the building of the associated abbeys.

The book is simply structured, starting with a timeline taking in twenty-two broad stylistic categories — from Saxon and Norman to Modernism and Art Deco — and covering the period 600 to 1939. This is then followed, after a short introduction, by chapters summarising the principal features of all those styles, with occasional ‘interludes’ to discuss changing tastes or available materials. Before the final index there are useful appendices illustrating diagnostic details to aid identification of periods: pillars, windows, doors, arches, vaults and towers.

According to his blog the author has written “The English Buildings Book, England’s Abbeys, Restoration, the book of Adam Hart-Davis’s series What the Romans Did For Us, other books about architecture and buildings, and various books on other subjects, including Dorling Kindersley’s handbooks on Mythology (written with Neil Philip) and Religions.” So he definitely knows whereof he speaks.

An added attraction of this unpretentious and accessible guide is the inclusion of vintage illustrations, from the line drawings of Colen Campbell’s 1715 Vitruvius Britannicus and Victorian reference books to historic postcard photographs. The picture research was done by Fiona Shoop who had access to the postcard collection of the Estate of Stanley Shoop, and they add greatly to the character of this 136-page guide.

Repost of review first published in April 2014

Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail

Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors)
A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008

We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien. Continue reading “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail”

Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age

Greencroft Books 2008

Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.

Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.

One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”

Uncover his face (part 2)

Droeshout engraving

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Having established, as thoroughly as she could, their documented provenance Hammerschmidt-Hummel arranged for the four primary candidates for Shakespeare’s genuine likeness — the Chandos and Flower portraits, the Davenant bust and the Darmstadt death mask — to undergo various scientific and technological investigations. These included computer montage, photogrammetry, trick image differentiation technique; the idea was to compare the four likenesses to see if there were enough correlations to establish that they were all of the same person. This proved to be the case in terms of proportion of features, head contours and so on.

What also emerged from these comparisons — of Shakespeare from his early 30s (the Chandos portrait), aged 45 (the Flower portrait), around the age of 50 (the Davenant bust) and soon after his death, aged 52 (the Darmstadt death mask) — was clear evidence of
Continue reading “Uncover his face (part 2)”

Uncover his face (part 1)

eyes

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life

Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006

Here is my kind of book: a true life tale of literary detection that outshines fictional mysteries, however well written they may be. Sadly, it is also a piece of research that exposes at least two more mysteries: what has happened to two very probable Shakespeare likenesses in very recent times, centuries after the playwright’s death? But there is also pleasure and satisfaction that any lingering doubts expressed by anti-Stratfordians (“Did Shakespeare actually write Shakespeare’s plays?”) have finally been put to sleep … one hopes.

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel is a determined Shakespearean academic who, in this closely argued study, examines two portraits, two sculptured busts and a death mask in great forensic and documentary detail. She gives the cultural context for the 16th- and 17th-century creation of accurate, true-to-life, warts-and-all representations of illustrious people before then going on to describe her selected images. Then she describes the various scientific tests she applied to those images (with the help of experts in several disciplines) using procedures available in the 1990s, and then summarises the results. Finally she puts those results back into historical and biographical context.

What were those images?

Continue reading “Uncover his face (part 1)”

Mapping the world

 

World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia 1482 (public domain image)
World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia 1482 (public domain image)

Ashley and Miles Baynton-Williams
New Worlds: Maps from the Age of Discovery
Quercus 2008

It’s a rare being who is not fascinated by maps. Tourists and visitors, walkers, fans of epic fantasy, students and readers of self-help books with mind-maps all appreciate a bit of good cartography, and the modern virtual world is awash with them as the options on any search engine will demonstrate. Their function is to be informative of course, but they can also be works of art in their own right and items of interest to antiquarians, collectors, lawyers, historians and a whole host of other specialists. Not forgetting any old Tom, Dick or Harriet now profiting from this general availability online — just as in the Renaissance period a rich middle class were profiting from more easily acquired maps due to the invention of printing.

Continue reading “Mapping the world”

Unreliable evidence

Berkeley Castle from an old print
The courtyard of Berkeley Castle from a lithotint of the 1840s (public domain)

Paul Doherty
Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II
Robinson 2004 (2003)

On the one and only time I visited Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, way back in the sixties, the chamber where Edward II was reputedly murdered was billed as a highlight of the tour. Later, as a student at Southampton University in 1969, I remember Ian McKellen playing Edward II in Marlowe’s play of the same name, raising shocked intakes of breath as he entered planting a kiss on the lips of the King’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.

The notorious manner of the king’s death — “by a red hot poker being thrust up into his bowels” according to the contemporary Swynbroke chronicle — often overshadows the complicated life and reign of Edward. Paul Doherty’s study promised a new look not only at Edward but also at Isabella, the wife he was betrothed to when both were still young.

Continue reading “Unreliable evidence”

How to speak improper

A plate of oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) Oyster: "a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man"
A Plate of Oysters by Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/cartoon/plate-oysters.html
Oyster: “a gob of thick phlegm, spit by a consumptive man”

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Foreword by Max Harris
Senate / Studio Editions 1994 (1811)

No, that’s not good enough. The title page of the original (a facsimile is included in this edition) is much more informative as well as entertaining, and is worth reproducing, after a fashion.

Lexicon Balatronicum
=========

A
DICTIONARY
OF
Buckish Slang, University Wit,
AND
PICKPOCKET ELOQUENCE.

==========
Compiled originally by Captain Grose.

AND NOW CONSIDERABLY ALTERED AND ENLARGED,
WITH
THE MODERN CHANGES AND IMPROVEMENTS,
BY A
MEMBER OF THE WHIP CLUB.
ASSISTED BY
Hell-Fire Dick, and James Gordon, Esqrs. of Cambridge; and William
Soames, Esq. of the Hon. Society of Newman’s Hotel.

So just what is this Lexicon Balatonicum and what was its purpose? To answer the last first: it was a spoof dictionary, a compilation of obscure and not so obscure words and phrases put together for a laugh. The clue is in its first title: Continue reading “How to speak improper”

No Zeroes here

Willem P Gerritsen, Anthony G van Melle editors
Tanis Guest translator
A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes
Boydell Press 2000

Anglophone Arthurians should from time to time contemplate a different European perspective on the Matter of Britain and its contemporary analogues, and this Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (with the snappy subtitle Characters in Medieval Narrative Traditions and their Afterlife in Literature, Theatre and the Visual Arts) by two Dutch academics gives just such an opportunity. Here we are introduced to such figures as Aiol, Berte aux Grands Pieds, Heimbrecht, Parthonopeus of Blois and Ruodlieb, heroes and heroines certainly previously unfamiliar to this reader but popular with a significant proportion of medieval European readership, featuring in tales that certainly stand comparison with accounts of Arthur, Galahad, Gawain, Merlin or Perceval.

This is a very user-friendly edition for English-speakers: Continue reading “No Zeroes here”

An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins

Howard Reid Arthur, The Dragon King:
the Barbaric Roots Of Britain’s Greatest Legend

Headline 2001

Howard Reid apparently has all the right academic credentials – an unpublished PhD thesis in anthropology based on research among hunter-gatherers in Brazil – and, as well as practical experience from living with Tuaregs in North Africa, he has made documentaries about ancient civilisations for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA. So you would expect him not only to declaim knowledgeably with his Indiana Jones hat on but also to discuss with scholarly rigour wearing his mortar board.

Not a bit of it. Continue reading “An idiosyncratic reading of Arthurian origins”

Throwing cold water on a legend

Arthur-and-Guinevere

N J Higham King Arthur: myth-making and history Routledge 2002

King Arthur. How this short phrase stimulates a knee-jerk reaction: from amateur historians who want to convince the public that their vision of the fabled monarch is true, and from hard-bitten historians who deny not only his existence but irascibly inveigh in print against what they regard as the lunatic fringe. Now this is not one of those academic books that castigates and berates that fringe while simultaneously feeding from the hand it bites, but it nevertheless very definitely takes a minimalist view of the existence of Arthur, king or otherwise. Nick Higham is well-placed to authoritatively examine the historical contexts in which the Arthurian legend grew, and does so in very great detail; a short review can only highlight one or two of the original contributions this study makes to the literature.

Continue reading “Throwing cold water on a legend”

A magisterial and elegant summary

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion
http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png

Juliette Wood Eternal Chalice:
the Enduring Legend of the Holy Grail

I B Tauris Publishers 2008

As a journalistic metaphor for the ultimate or the unattainable, the Holy Grail is, well, the holy grail of metaphors. For the general public there may be a sense of it being the object of a quest, usually the cup of the Last Supper, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. For New Agers and pseudohistorians, it is a ineffable object with mystical powers, for academics a keyword for research into literature, art and cultural history, for scientists maybe an acronym for investigating the moon’s gravity. In other words, it is all things to all people, and therefore any attempt to pin it down could well be doomed to failure. But that hasn’t stopped the plethora of titles being published year on year. Continue reading “A magisterial and elegant summary”

Two Grail studies

The Ace of Cups from an early printed Tarot pack

Despite some inevitable overlap, these two studies take rather different routes through the Sargasso Sea of grail research. At journey’s end each study certainly conveys a sense of great navigation and exploration, but, perhaps in keeping with the nature of their subject, there is no triumphant flag-planting ceremony on dry newfound land. Instead, we can be allowed a little satisfaction that some sea-mists have been dispelled and fog-bound sand-banks have been avoided. Continue reading “Two Grail studies”

A fascinating study of a fantastical building

Edward III's tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey
Edward III’s tomb effigy, Westminster Abbey (Wikipedia Commons)

Julian Munby, Richard Barber, Richard Brown
Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor:
the House of the Round Table and
the Windsor Festival of 1344

Boydell Press 2007

Historical re-enactments have always been popular, especially in the late 20th century, from the Society for Creative Anachronism in America, through English Civil War society The Sealed Knot and Dark Age re-enactment group Britannia in more recent years, to the 500th anniversary of the last great tournament in Wales (which was celebrated at Carew Castle in West Wales in May 2007). Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a supporter of Henry Tudor before he became king, marked his admission to the Order of the Garter with what became known as the Great Carew Tournament of 1507, and appropriately enough his family’s poet, Rhys Nanmor, compared Carew Castle to King Arthur’s palace.

But the enthusiasm for historical re-enactment goes back much further back than this, Continue reading “A fascinating study of a fantastical building”