Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Knight or Barbarian?

The sixties began in 1958.

A controversial claim I'll, admit, with other dates cited being 1960 (very much a minority position), 1961 when Enoch Powell allowed the NHS to prescribe oral contraceptives (yes, he did once do something progressive in his life), 1963 with the release of The Beatles Please Please Me album or even 1967 when the Summer of Love happened.

Kirk Douglas as Einar
But I'm going to go for the earlier date, for this was when Kirk Douglas burst onto the silver screen in the film The Vikings. Although Tony Curtis, as an exiled Saxon prince, was supposedly the star of the show, it is Douglas's Viking warrior Einar who everyone remembers.

These Vikings aren't for the revisionists who make them out to be pioneering traders and explorers. As the Guardian's Alex von Tunzelmann explains, Einar starts the film "making out with a Scandinavian babe atop a heap of pelts, while wenches brew ale in barrels the size of skips, hairy old men hurl axes at their wives, and small children run around wearing reindeer-skin nappies." Well, what else would you rather do on a Saturday night?

Never mind that current research has the Vikings as being clean, well dressed and with women who looked like men, these guys evidently practised the minimum of personal hygiene, wore the most practical of clothes and all their women were babes.

Now where this all fits in culturally is that previously when Hollywood delved into the Middle Ages, whether it was King Arthur or the Crusades, it was your noble knights who were the heroes, and if hairy barbarians ever made an appearance they were the baddies.

Visigoths; old-style Barbarians (Angus McBride)
Even Errol Flynn, who's private life would have made the even most debauched Norseman seem like a pious monk, played Robin Hood as a well mannered gentleman, courteously wooing Maid Marion and playing a straight bat to the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.

So what separates the Knight from the Barbarian - apart from a few hundred years of history?

Knights are noble, they play by the rules and they respect a higher authority, whilst Barbarians do their own thing and bow to nobody. To put it another way, the knight represents the Establishment whilst the Barbarian is the rebel, tearing down the Citadels of Oppression and ushering in a more spontaneous life.

That's why you can see Kirk Douglas's character as not just the ancestor of Conan and his ilk, but every sixties hippy who ever did his own thing, thumbed his nose at The Man and seduced the hippy chicks with a combination of animal magnetism and BO.

Bikers; new-style Barbarians
He is the ancestor of Dennis Hopper and Henry Fonda in Easy Rider, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in MASH and all the rest up to and including Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. 

And just as Captain Jack Sparrow was really Keith Richards on a boat,  the real heirs to Einar are the gods of hard rock. 

But he is also the forerunner of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, Sylvester Stallone's Rambo and plenty of other right wing nut jobs. Pink Floyd's The Wall shows, if it shows anything at all (which it might not) that the line between a rock concert and a fascist rally can be a rather fine one.

Today we all want to be individuals, and that's the marketing line we are sold each and every day by every multinational on the planet.

Re-enactors at Tatton Medieval Fayre
Which leads me to ask; just how progressive a character is the Barbarian?

Or put it another way, what's wrong with the dear old Knight?

First, what actually was a knight?

A mounted warrior, obviously, usually pretty well armoured, who had a role in society that fell somewhere between the Robber Barons and the Yeoman Farmers. The knight may have his own castle, serve another nobleman or be a free wheeling knight errant. He may be found holding court, riding out to battle or doing his own thing fighting duels and romancing women.

Roman Cataphract by the Comitatus Re-enactment Group
Although clad in metal, riding a horse and wielding a long pointy stick, he was never-the-less a different type of thing to the Late Roman Cataphract Cavalry that he apparently resembles. These guys, an early version of the tank, were Legionaries on horseback. They signed up, were issued with their kit and did what they were told.

The idea of the knight came, not from the Romans, but from their arch rivals the Sassanian Persians, who occupied what is now Iran and who fought the Roman Empire in a series of mutually destructive wars for more than seven centuries. The backbone of the Sassanian Army were their own Cataphracts, but unlike the Roman version, these chaps weren't paid grunts but self employed warriors.

Sassanian cataphract at bay (Angus McBride)
Granted land by the Emperor, the Cataphract used his private income to equip himself. This made the logistics of running the army a lot simpler, but also raised a class of men who had a real stake in defending the country in time of war and who were also useful in helping to run it in time of peace.

Eventually it was the Romans who won what has been called 'The Last War of Antiquity', but it was a very Pyrrhic victory. By this time Rome itself had fallen to the Pagan Germans and the Empire was Christian and its capital was Byzantium. In laying low the Sassanians the Romans merely opened the doors to the all-conquering Muslim Arab army that had been coming up behind them. The eastern provinces were lost and Byzantium was soon under regular siege.

Charles Martel takes on the Muslims (Angus McBride)
Heading west across north Africa they crossed into Spain and then into France, where they were stopped by Charles Martel, initially with infantry, but then by his own aristocratic cavalry.

Martel's grandson was the famous Charlemagne, whose court was to write the rules on civilised behaviour for the next 800 years. However it should be noted that Charlemagne himself was illiterate and he imported learned monks from Northumbria, led by Alcuin of York, to do the clever stuff, so really we should say Western Civilisation started in Yorkshire.

The knights code of behaviour, never set in stone and constantly evolving, was influenced by three sources. Firstly, the warrior ethos of the Germanic tribes that had overrun the Western Roman Empire. Secondly, the stories and legends of the time, especially the Arthurian Romances. Thirdly, the Church, which tried to pledge the warrior to the Christian God and to divert his energies into more humane pastimes.

Jousting at Leeds Armouries
The classic image of the knight is the warrior in shining armour, mounted on an armoured horse, as he jousts before brightly coloured pavilions whilst royalty look on. But this is an image from the sixteenth century, by which time the end was nearly nigh for the noble knight.

On the battlefield the infantry had got themselves organised and were now tooled up too, and there was little the mounted warrior could do against a forest of well drilled spears backed by firearms. At home too things were changing, society was now too complicated to be run by thugs on horseback and kings needed efficient middle managers.

Castle Coch
The Victorians idolised knights and knighthood. The idea of chivalry united both those who had become extremely rich from industry and those who dreamed of a return to a less commercial world. And so whilst 3rd Marquess of Bute, who had become possibly the richest man in the world by exporting Welsh coal from Cardiff, was building his great folly Castle Coch, the Bohemian rebels of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were busy painting their 'stunners' as flirty damsels and coy maidens.

They also inspired John Ruskin and William Morris, who were two sides of the same coin. Ruskin, the high Tory, favoured a paternalistic  aristocracy, whilst Morris, the anarchic socialist, looked to the communalism of the peasantry, but both saw Medieval craftsmanship as more humane than industrial wage slavery and looked for a society were the relationship between individuals was based on duties and responsibilities and not money.

The Eglinton Tournament
The Victorians also tried to bring back the spectacle of the joust, with the somewhat soggy Eglinton Tournament of 1839.  One hundred and twenty years later these would be very popular, but the ideals of knighthood had arguably died, along with the Liberal-Bourgeois society that kept them alive, in the mud of the First World War.

So what was a real knight like? Lets use as a case study one of the most famous knights of all, Ulrich von Lichtenstein. Not the nom-de-joust of Heath Ledger's character in A Knights Tale, but the real man, who jousted his way across Europe in the thirteenth century, defeating all comers and doing it all for love.

Tatton Medieval Fayre

The real Ulrich probably didn't have Heath Ledger's good looks. Having been born with a cleft palate he had had Medieval cosmetic surgery to correct it, which is probably not worth thinking about. His lady love was a woman of much higher social standing in whose household he had served as a teenager. Twenty or so years later he jousted his way across Europe whilst sending her romantic poetry.

All very touching, but a few things about Ulrich might cause us to raise an eyebrow or two.

Firstly, Ulrich was married, so it wasn't exactly saving himself for his beloved.

Secondly, his poems were mainly about how many opponents he's unhorsed in his jousts. She must have got a bit bored after a while.

Knights of the Damned
Thirdly his poems weren't the only thing he sent her. After complaining of a finger injury he'd suffered in a  joust she wrote back to call him a wuss. He then chopped off his injured digit and sent it to her. I expect she opened her post a bit more carefully after that.

Fourthly Ulrich decided that as he was inspired in his quest by the Goddess of Love, he would complete his journey dressed as Venus. He not only rode in drag, he jousted in it too. The mythical Germanic sense of humour appears to have been absent as when one opponent decided to enter into the spirit of things by taking him on dressed as a monk, Ulrich refused to tilt against him, arguing that this was just silly.

And again. Note real female knight!
Finally, Ulrich's pursuit of his lady did not stop at the tournament field. He later took to dressing as a leper and hanging round her castle for a glimpse of her, and whilst cowering in the gutter during one such expedition one of her guards relieved himself on Ulrich. The things we do for love.

When we think of the knight we usually imagine King Harry up to his knees in mud and gore at Agincourt, or Richard III riding out "if not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell" at Bosworth Field. But perhaps we should think instead of a middle aged man in drag, hoping to get a bit on the side with some posh totty he remembers from being a kid by sending her the sports results and severed body parts?

I get myself knighted at Alnwick Castle
Which brings me to the final question, what are you? A Barbarian, rebelling against the system and sustained by a gargantuan appetite for wine, women and song?

Or a courtly knight; practical, idealistic and spiritual, playing for fun, secure enough in your sexuality to engage in a bit of cross-dressing, risking all for love - and not afraid of being pissed on in the process?

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Great Trees of Wales #1: The Llangernyw Yew

Wales is old.

You may think it takes an age to get served in a pub wearing an England rugby shirt, but that's nothing compared to the age of the ancient passage tombs and dolmens that dot the countryside.

Modern geology started in Wales, and geological ages still bear the names of the country and its Celtic tribes; The Cambrian, The Silurian and Ordovician Eras.

The place is also home to the oldest tree you are likely to meet.

Although it's a touch difficult to date a tree when the main bit of it is missing, the Llangernyw Yes is generally recognised to be four to five thousand years old. That's older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids, which is pretty amazing.

Only two individual trees are known to be older, both American pinus longaeva - which sounds like Latin boasting but which is actually a type of pine tree - but seeing as how Prometheus's age was only discovered posthumously after it was chopped down in 1964, and the exact location of Methuselah is a secret, the Welsh yew is the only one you can be sure you've met.

And meeting this Bronze Age tree is easy, located as it is in the quite churchyard of St Dygain's Church in Conwy County Borough. We don't know who Dygain, or Digain, was, although the story is that he was a fifth century writer and preacher. The church he allegedly founded is now mostly nineteenth century, but Christian worship on the site started in at least the thirteenth century.

Which you imagine is but yesterday to this tree. It was still more than half its current age when the Romans, perhaps on their way to sack the sacred groves of Anglesey, built the road that runs near to the village.

The yew would have been a venerable old thing when the stones that stand next to the church, with a third lying between them, were erected. They have crude crosses carved on them and they too are a bit of a mystery. An ancient Christian alter, or standing stones hastily claimed by the new religion?

You need a bit of mystery doesn't go amiss in places like this, nor does a good ghost story, and Llangerwyn doesn't disappoint, for we have the story of Angeystor - the 'Recording Angel'.

This innocuously named entity apparently used to appear in the church at Halloween and in late July (Lammas possibly?) to read out the names of the parishioners that weren't going to make it through the winter.

A sort of super-efficient Registrar, the story adds that those who were sceptical of its powers generally found themselves on the list.  The last reported time of this happening was actually 1969!

If the angel made an appearance this year I missed it, as the yew was enjoying a peaceful late summer's afternoon when I called by. Encountering the oldest thing I'm likely to meet made of wood - dead or alive - is a humbling experience.

Standing in the hollow centre of the tree, on the spot where until recently the church oil tank stood, you can imagine the modern history of Wales passing you by, the Christians colonising the pagan places, Roman, Saxon, and Norman, Punk, New Romantics and Rap all coming and going whilst it slumbers on.

It has witnessed the rise of what we term human civilisation and maybe it will even live long enough to see our self-induced fall.