Pearls of every kind

From The Meadows of Gold
by Al-Masʿūdī,
translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone.
Penguin Great Journeys No 2,
Penguin Classics 2007 (947)

The author of this book compares himself to a man who, having found pearls of every kind and every shade scattered here and there, gathers them into a necklace and makes them a precious piece of jewellery…

’80. The author addresses his readers’

Born in Baghdad at the tail end of the ninth century CE, Masʿūdī or Al-Masʿūdī was intensely curious about the world around him, becoming an indefatigable traveller, researching and interviewing informants before authoring several original works.

Though only a couple of these books have survived the intervening millennium enough remains for Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone to have chosen and translated several chapters from a multi-volume work entitled The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, plus a few from The Book of Admonition and Revision. Taken as a whole their selection gives a good general impression of Al-Masʿūdī’s approach and the scope of his vision.

From this we can gather that he seems to have travelled extensively in the Middle East, perhaps in the role of a merchant trader, along the coast of the Indian subcontinent and very possibly through the East Indies, past Indochina and up to Guangzhou or Canton (here called Khānfū). What comes through are the very well-established trade and cultural connections right across the Old World, from Europe to Korea, connections which later writers such as Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville were also to take full advantage of.

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A moralising purpose

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

Jane Austen and the Clergy
by Irene Collins.
The Hambledon Press 2002 (1994).

There’s a neat correspondence between a study examining Jane Austen’s models for fictional clergy, notably the snobby Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that such a study was undertaken by a scholar by the name of Collins. But this work is more than just a discussion of Mr Collins, Mr Tilney, Mr Elton, Dr Grant, Mr Bennet and others: it underlines how important Jane’s own clerical background was in forming the bedrock of not only her fiction but also her life.

Originally published in 1994, Jane Austen and the Clergy appeared just in time for the reignition of Austen mania brought about by the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for television in 1995, making the late Irene Collins (she died in 2015) a bit of a celebrity for Austen fans. Ever since I began reading Austen for myself I’ve been delving into this volume bit by bit till I now feel able to make some assessment of its undoubted worth.

In fact this study feels like a labour of love for the author. At times it’s unclear whom it’s aimed at: is it other literary scholars, the general public, Austen fans, or church historians? But, approached with care and attention by the reasonably intelligent reader it is undoubtedly enlightening on all fronts and an excellent commentary for those embarking on a reread of Jane’s published oeuvres.

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The original Elizabeth Bennet?

Elizabeth Benet

A repost from 5th May 2013 for Austen in August.

Visiting Bath Abbey in April this year [2013] I chanced on this curious memorial on the east wall of the south transept.

Close inspection revealed the name of one Elizabeth Benet (sic), widow of William Bathurst Pye Benet (died May 4th 1806), who herself died at the age of 80 in 1826. Could Jane Austen, who lived in Bath between 1801 and 1805 (not to mention visits there in the 1790s), have met this real-life Elizabeth Bennet, clearly a grande dame in Bath society?

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Inquisitive journeys

The Prospect of Glasenbury Abby

Stukeley Illustrated:
William Stukeley’s Rediscovery of Britain’s Ancient Sites
.
Compiled by Neil Mortimer.
Green Magic 2003

Doctor, antiquarian, archaeological fieldworker, interpretative artist, Fellow of the Royal Society and inspirer of modern druidry — William Stukeley (1687-1765) was all these things, almost a personification of the Age of Enlightenment. Neil Mortimer reminds us that his “multifarious interests” included antiquities, astronomy, architecture, natural history, botany, geography, music, history and theology, leading him to make extensive tours around Britain over some fifteen years, resulting in the publication of the first illustrated edition of his Itinerarium Curiosum, or ‘An Inquisitive Journey’.

The author here gives us rather more than a mere potted history of this long-lived scholar. Though in later years he was regarded as somewhat dotty, a fellow antiquarian was to pen this appreciation of him:

“There was in him such a mixture of simplicity, drollery, absurdity, ingenuity, superstition and antiquarianism, that he afforded me that kind of well-seasoned repast, which the French call an Ambigu, I suppose from a compound of things never meant to meet together.”

William Warburton

But Mortimer’s intention in this volume was not to offer us a detailed biography but instead to provide a selection of examples of Stukeley’s draughtsmanship, from general prospects to ground plans, from bird’s eye views to imaginative reconstructions, from meticulous illustrations recording small finds to bust portraits of friends, vandals … and himself. The more than a hundred engravings presented give a good overview of Stukeley’s accomplishments and represent a fine tribute to the man.

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Patrons and politicos

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern. Pimlico 2005

Despite their name (medico means physician in Italian) the Tuscan de’ Medici family rose to prominence as bankers in the 14th century beginning with Cosimo the Elder. With money comes power, and by 1531 the family became hereditary Dukes of the powerful city state of Florence, then Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Two centuries later, however, the Grand Duchy became bankrupt and then sputtered out with the death of the last Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, in 1737. Over some four hundred years the family had held sway in Tuscany as monarchs in all but name.

Paul Strathern’s chronicle of the rise and fall of the Medici family charts the characters who made it as merchants, dukes, popes, queens, scientists, patrons and villains from Medieval to Enlightenment Italy.

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A dead man’s chest

Bartholomew Roberts, known as Barti Ddu or Black Bart

Welsh Pirates and Privateers
by Terry Breverton.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2018.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…

Who does not thrill to very mention of pirates? I do, for sure, and for all the usual reasons — the smell of open sea, the ship in full sail, the thrill of the chase, the bustle of action as other ships are sighted. I’m less enamoured of the usual clichés though — the pirate talk, the romantic notion of the sea thief with a heart of gold beneath their bluff exterior, the stereotyped clothing — though I blame that on an early addiction to documented history.

So you can imagine my delight in spotting this pocket-sized volume: over fifty named Welsh pirates, a profusely illustrated text on quality paper, a discussion on how Welsh seamen were a key element in the history of piracy and privateering, all by a writer who had already authored seven books on the subject, with this volume a revised and updated version of his 2003 title The Book of Welsh Pirates and Buccaneers.

But I was to discover there were two sides to my reaction to this acquisition: genuine delight mixed with some frustration.

The good bits first.

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A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.

After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.

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The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering:
The Virgin and the Grail;
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

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A remarkable narrator

gwenllian

Andrew Breeze:
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009

Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.

The premise of this book is easily told.

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Passant on a green and white field

winged
Wyvern (“the Western Squat Dragon”) by Edward Topsell

Welsh
Flag of Wales (credit: wallpapertree.com)

Carl Lofmark (G A Wells, editor):
A History of the Red Dragon
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (No 4 Welsh Heritage Series)

In 1959 the Queen sanctioned the flying of the now familiar Welsh flag on Government buildings in Wales and in London, whenever “appropriate”, officially recognising a national symbol that has had a long but mixed history. In this booklet by the late Carl Lofmark the convoluted story of its origins, use and development is traced to the point where the dragon and the colour red is ubiquitous on March 1st, the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales. Why a dragon? And why is it red?

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Whistling in the dark

sunset
Sunset in the west

Geoffrey Ashe in association with Debrett’s Peerage:
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage 1985

Humans make history, and histories about individual humans are particularly fascinating if not always fashionable among scholars. Occasionally popular and scholarly tastes overlap, as we have seen in the case of the discovery of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester. But if anybody’s hoping in similar fashion to discover the body of King Arthur they might just be whistling in the dark.

Why? Well, frankly the historical documentation for Arthur is, to put it mildly, very sparse, some might say non-existent.

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Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

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Skimble-skamble stuff

Wyvern rampant: a red wyvern is attributed to Owain Glyndŵr as the crest to his coat of arms

Today celebrates Owen Glendower, or rather Owain Glyndŵr in Welsh. September 16 marks the anniversary of when, in 1400, he was proclaimed Prince of Wales in Ruthin, in opposition to the English crown’s domination of the principality. After fifteen years of warfare he disappeared to history, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales.

Paula Bardell-Hedley’s blog Book Jotter was the stimulus for this post with her reminder of Owain Glyndŵr Day here. Just now I want to give a little bit of background, some of which may be, as Shakespeare put it, skimble-skamble stuff.

The device adopted by Owain Glyndŵr for his banner and shield

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Literary influences

As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.

But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:

Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.

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