Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

Continue reading “Regency murders”

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A not too unwieldy ready reference

rackham
Richard White
King Arthur in Legend and History
Routledge 1998

In the 1930s a scholar such as E K Chambers could bring out a study of Arthurian matters and, while inter alia translating or paraphrasing key passages in his discussion, would quote the original medieval texts in Latin on the supposition that his readers would be able to read and understand them. Nearly a century on a knowledge of Latin is not, if you pardon the irony, a sine qua non of the average reader, so we must all be grateful to Richard White for including not just a translation of most of Chambers’ extracts but of a large number of other key Arthurian texts, not all of them in Latin. Continue reading “A not too unwieldy ready reference”

Aspirations and anxieties

landscape
Alan Lupack
The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
Oxford University Press 2007

In the late sixties studying the significance of the Arthurian legends become surprisingly mainstream both in academic circles and in popular culture, spawning a library fit for a modern-day Tower of Babel. Alan Lupack’s Guide is the kind of vademecum that many students like me yearned for in those early days.

This massive survey (nearly 500 pages in the 2007 paperback edition) aims to introduce the general reader to a study of the Arthurian legends. Continue reading “Aspirations and anxieties”

Contextualising the evidence

Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy
Rex Arturus: detail of 12th-century mosaic, Otranto Cathedral, Italy

Thomas Green Concepts of Arthur The History Press Ltd 2008

Tom Green’s excellent study follows a growing scholarly trend to treat the hypothesis of an historical Arthur seriously, even if it means ultimately demolishing the case for a genuine hero of the same name. Nick Higham’s King Arthur: myth-making and history, for example, showed how the 9th-century Historia Brittonum (attributed to Nennius) was put together with a contemporary political agenda in mind, meaning it must not be relied on to accurately reconstruct post-Roman British history.

Unlike Higham, who accepted that there might possibly have been some Arthur-type warlord at the core of the Nennian construct, Green, I think persuasively, argues from the available documentary evidence that there never was such a prototype historical figure. Instead, the earliest sources (some contemporary with and others predating Nennius) make it clear that, first, Arthur was a mythological figure, defender of Britain from giants, monsters, witches and the like; and, secondly, that it is Nennius (or rather his anonymous source) who first historicizes Arthur. Nennius does this by pitting him against human adversaries (namely, the Angles and the Saxons) and attributing to him a selection of both mythological and genuinely historical battles. Those critics who instinctively felt that Arthur was more an archetypal hero than a flesh-and-blood warrior may now feel more vindicated; those who believe that there was a real king called Arthur will vehemently disagree. Continue reading “Contextualising the evidence”

An unappetising mishmash

wingedWyvern, or biped dragon

Richard Freeman Explore Dragons Heart of Albion Press 2006

There is a universal fascination for dragons that is hard to quantify: they seem to appeal to folklorists, fantasy fans and fossil hunters alike. C S Lewis famously wrote a short piece of alliterative verse which neatly encapsulates the kind of reaction that discussion of dragons can give rise to:

We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I | In a Berkshire bar. The big workman | Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe | All the evening, from his empty mug | With gleaming eye glanced towards us: | “I seen ’em myself!” he said fiercely.

Whether you’ve seen ’em or not, you will no doubt have something to say about them, whether they exist, let alone existed, what size or colour they were, whether they breathed fire or merely had a poisonous bite, if they had wings. And any book about dragons therefore raises expectations in all of us; will Explore Dragons fulfil those expectations for anyone? Continue reading “An unappetising mishmash”