Thursday, 27 October 2016

King Charles VII of France

Charles VII (1403-61) was the French king who could have saved Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake but refused to do so.

Charles VII of France

The story of Joan of Arc is a well-known one.  She was a young peasant girl who became convinced that she could turn the tide of the war against the English to ensure that Charles would be crowned king. She claimed to have had visions that made it clear that God was on the side of France and would ensure that the English would be expelled.

Charles took some convincing, but Joan’s insistence gave him the courage that he lacked. He lent her an army of 3,500 men and sent her to lift the siege of Orleans, which she did. She then proceeded to win a series of victories that opened the way to Rheims, which was the traditional coronation site for French kings.

Charles was duly crowned in Rheims Cathedral on 17th July 1429, with Joan standing at his side.

One might have thought that Charles would have done everything he could to show his gratitude to Joan, but this did not turn out to be the case. When the Duke of Burgundy, who was Charles’s arch-enemy and an ally of the English, offered a truce, Charles accepted it as an alternative to continuing the fight that Joan had started. If Joan had visions of sweeping the English out of France, Charles appeared to have stopped believing in those same visions.

Not long afterwards the Burgundians captured Joan and demanded a ransom for her release. Charles made no moves to raise the necessary funds, so Joan was handed over the English who proceeded to put her on trial for witchcraft and heresy, then condemn her to death by burning.

Charles’s weakness in this matter did his reputation no good at all, either at the time or in retrospect. Having used Joan to get what he wanted, namely a crown on his head, she was expendable. It did not look good for a king to be indebted to a peasant girl – at least, that appears to have been his thinking. Charles did, 25 years later, support an appeal to the pope to reconsider the case against Joan and nullify the verdict, but that was far too late for the girl who, at the age of 19, had been reduced to ashes that were then sent floating down the River Seine.

© John Welford

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott

During the 19th century large areas of what is now the Irish Republic were owned by English landlords, many of whom did not live there but employed land agents to administer their estates on their behalf and ensure that tenants paid their rents on time. One such landlord was Lord Erne, who held 12,000 acres in County Mayo and whose agent was Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott.

The system of land tenure was such that tenants only held their land on one-year leases and could be evicted even if they paid their rents on time. An eviction might be made because a landowner wanted to amalgamate two or more small farms into one, or if he wished to offer a tenancy to somebody he believed would be able to pay a higher rent.

The Irish Land League had been formed in 1879 to campaign for a fairer system, and ultimately for Irish ownership of the land. In the short term its members demanded lower rents and fixed tenure.

One weapon they had available to them was outlined in a speech by Charles Stuart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Land League. This was designed to apply to a tenant farmer who took over the farm of someone who had been evicted. The action was to shun that person “by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old”. However, the technique was to prove very useful in a somewhat different circumstance.

When harvests were poor it became extremely difficult for tenants to pay their rents, and they were likely to appeal to their landlords for rent reductions. In September 1880 Lord Erne agreed to a 10 per cent reduction for his tenants but this did not satisfy those who were seeking a 25 per cent reduction. When a number of tenants refused to pay unless this concession was made, Lord Erne issued eviction notices, which were served by Captain Boycott.

The action suggested by Parnell then came into play. All Captain Boycott’s estate staff left, so that he had to do all the work himself. Nobody would dig the potato harvest. The shunning became personal in that nobody would talk to him, serve him in the local shops or sit near him in church. In order not to starve he had to have provisions sent directly to him from England.

When news spread about Captain Boycott’s fate there was indignation in England and in the nearby province of Ulster. Fifty men marched to the estate to dig the potatoes and they had to be guarded by 900 soldiers. The Land League was delighted with this action as it showed just how effective their tactic had been if nearly 1,000 men were going to be needed to harvest a crop from a single farm.

Captain Boycott stuck with the task for as long as he could, but eventually he left the country to seek a quieter life in England. Somewhat surprisingly he did not harbour any personal grudges against his former Irish tenants and frequently returned to Ireland to take holiday breaks in later years.

However, his name has lived on in that whenever comparable action is taken against a person or organisation they are always said to have been “boycotted”.

© John Welford

Friday, 21 October 2016

Bishop Foxe's hot dinners

As Bishop of Durham from 1494 to 1501 Richard Foxe held a very important position. For one thing, Durham was a very important and wealthy diocese, and anyone who became Bishop could expect to add considerably to his personal fortune. For another, the medieval Bishops of Durham were “Prince Bishops” who ruled the northern counties of England virtually as monarchs, on condition that they kept the Scots at bay.

However, Bishop Foxe had a problem when it came to formal banquets in the Great Hall of Durham Castle, which was the home of the Prince Bishops. This was that he always got cold dinners.

As Bishop, Foxe had the privilege of being served first. However, as Bishop, he also had the duty of blessing the food before anyone was allowed to start eating it. If the Hall was full, with more than 100 diners to be served, it could take quite some time before everyone had their plate filled and the food could be blessed. The result? Bishop Foxe’s food was cold before he could start eating it!

The solution? Not plate-warmers or anything technical in that sense, but a logical loophole in that the Bishop reckoned that if the food had already been blessed before it reached his plate, he had no need to wait. He therefore had the blessing written above the door through which all the food had to pass on the short journey from the kitchen to the Great Hall.

Merely being passed beneath the blessing was enough, in Bishop Foxe’s opinion, for the food to be sanctified, so as soon as he was served he could tuck in with a clear conscience!

© John Welford

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Anton van Leeuwenhoek: the father of microbiology

Anton van Leeuwenhoek is often credited as being the inventor of the microscope, but that is not actually the case. It would also be unfair to remember him for that and that alone, because his contributions to microbiology were far more extensive and important.

He was born on 24th October 1632 in Delft, Holland, and had an adequate, although by no means advanced, education. He started in business as a linen draper, and was clearly a success at his trade. He was a contemporary of the painter Vermeer, and may well have been a friend of his. His interests clearly extended well beyond the linen trade, because he learned how to grind glass magnifying lenses, and was exceptionally good at so doing, helped by his acute eyesight. Many of his lenses were extremely small, and were made from glass strings that then formed spherical globules as they cooled.

He made more than 500 simple microscopes in his lifetime, although these used single lenses, as opposed to the double-lens compound microscopes that were already in use at the time. However, what distinguished his instruments was the quality of the lenses, which gave up to 200 times magnification, which was considerably better than that of the compound microscopes then available. It has also been suggested that some of his instruments achieved far better magnifications, possibly as much as 500 times. He also experimented with many different designs of microscope, although only a handful have survived to the present day.

Leeuwenhoek’s real contributions to microbiology came not just from his microscopes but, even more, from the uses to which he put them. He made observations of anything that took his interest, had drawings made of what he saw, and sent details of his observations to the Royal Society in London. His letters, which had to be translated from Dutch into English before the London scientists could understand them, spanned 50 years, from 1673 until his death in 1723 at the remarkable age, for his time, of 90.

He had little understanding of what he was seeing, having had no scientific training, but that was part of his value to science, because his descriptions were made entirely free of assumptions. For example, he observed “an unbelievably great company of living animalcules” in tooth plaque, without appreciating that these were bacteria. Of course, nobody else knew their significance in causing disease either, as he was the first person to observe and describe them.

His other discoveries included algae, blood cells, sperm cells, foraminifera, nematodes and rotifers. He observed blood flow in capillaries and the pattern of muscle fibres. Aside from microbiology, he also examined mineral crystals and fossils.

His discoveries helped to dispel many myths that were then current as explanations of natural phenomena, such as that grain weevils were spontaneously created, and that mussels and other shellfish were produced by sand.

Many of his early discoveries were doubted by the people who read his papers, and a delegation was sent to Delft by the Royal Society to see how van Leeuwenhoek was producing all this material. However, once he was able to demonstrate his methods at first hand, his subsequent work was eagerly awaited, and he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1680, although he never attended a meeting. His lasting contribution to microbiology was therefore the conviction that observation, rather than guesswork and theory, must lie at the heart of science in this field.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

King Alfred and the cakes

Every schoolchild knows the story about how King Alfred burned the cakes he was supposed to be minding and got a severe telling off from a peasant woman who did not know who he was. At least, every British schoolchild used to know this, as it was one of the stories that was ingrained in the British psyche almost from birth, along with King Harold getting an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings and Nelson being kissed by Hardy.

However, as with many “everyone knows” stories, there is every possibility that the truth has been greatly enhanced over the centuries and the actual facts might not be as related.

What cannot be doubted is that England during the late 9th century was a very dangerous place for English leaders in the face of constant raids by Danish invaders. Not only did they appear on the coasts of England every year to take whatever they wanted and destroy what they did not, but they had started to settle in northern and eastern England and established a colony of their own (known to history as the Danelaw). By the year 878 all the English kingdoms, with one exception, had fallen to Danish armies.

The exception was Wessex, the land of the West Saxons in south and west England. However, their king, Alfred, was on the run and under severe pressure. He had been forced, together with a small band of followers, to seek refuge in the area known today as the Somerset Levels, which in those days was a land of bogs and marshes with the occasional piece of higher land protruding as an island.

The cakes story is that Alfred had sought refuge in the home of a peasant woman who set him the task of looking after the baking bread (the loaves became cakes in later retelling) while she got on with other things. However, Alfred was so wrapped up in his worries about how he was to defeat the Danes that he forgot the loaves and they were duly burned. When she gave the king a piece of her mind he could only apologise and be more attentive with the next batch.

The problem with the story is that it only appeared in writing more than a century after it apparently took place, and must be regarded as an illustration of Alfred’s character rather than an actual event. After all, only two people would have known about it at the time – the peasant woman would have had no idea of its significance, as she did not know who her guest was, and Alfred who, had he told the story himself, would have guaranteed that it was written down immediately rather than be handed down by word of mouth for another hundred years.

At all events, Alfred’s retreat to Somerset did seem to give him fresh resolve. In May 878 he led an army that defeated the Danish King Guthrum and forced him to withdraw to the Danelaw.

Alfred then reorganised his kingdom in order to make it less susceptible to future Danish incursions. He established fortified towns known as “burhs” that became “boroughs” in later centuries. He also encouraged the building of a fleet of boats that were similar to the Danish longships, thus laying the foundation of the Royal Navy, and organised his army so that, at any one time, half the men were on active service while the other half were at home on their farms. He also encouraged the growth of education because he hated the thought that his people were wallowing in ignorance.

It is not for nothing that King Alfred has always been known as Alfred the Great, the only British monarch to the given this honour.

© John Welford

Monday, 3 October 2016

Alain Resnais: film director

Alain Resnais was one of the more notable “Left Bank” directors of the French “New Wave” that emerged in the 1950s. He outlived most of his contemporaries and was still producing films in the second decade of the 21st century, having had his first artistic success (the Oscar-winning short film “Van Gogh”) as far back as 1948.

Alain Resnais was born in Vannes, Brittany, on 3rd June 1922, the son of a pharmacist. He was given an 8mm cine camera at the age of ten and began making short films for his own amusement, also being fascinated by the ideas of surrealism.

He wanted to be an actor, but soon joined IDHEC, the Paris-based film school, to learn the basics of film editing. He left without completing a course and started making short films that recorded visits to artists’ studios. This interest developed into biopics, such as the film about Van Gogh mentioned above, and documentaries including “Night and Fog” (1955) which examined the horrors of Nazi concentration camps by incorporating monochrome footage taken when they were in use,  intercut with scenes in colour of the camps as they were in the mid 1950s.

Resnais’ first feature film was “Hiroshima mon amour” that appeared in 1959. He differed from other New Wave filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard by beginning with a detailed and literate script rather than relying on spontaneity and improvisation. Although most of his films were not adaptations of novels, he did employ novelists to write his scripts, and “Hiroshima mon amour” was such an example, the script being by the French novelist Marguerite Dumas.  In the film, a French woman and a Japanese man meet and become lovers, but each is haunted by past horrors that create an emotional gulf between them.

The interplay of past, present and future was a consistent theme in Resnais’ work. This is seen very clearly in “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) in which time and space are intermingled in ways that leave the viewer with more questions than answers. Everything one sees is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations.  Even the main characters are only known as letters of the alphabet: X, A and M.

The theme continued in “Muriel” (1963), in which the romantically attached characters are forced to deal with past truths and lies, both romantic and political.  This was his first film shot entirely in colour, although he would return to using monochrome in later films.

“Providence” (1977) was his first film in English, using English actors including John Gielgud in one of his best film acting roles. A dying novelist is haunted by his memories, dreams, and the characters in the novel he is writing.

One of Resnais’s most remarkable creations was “Smoking / No Smoking” (1993), based on a series of plays by Alan Ayckbourn. They are two separate but complementary films that present twelve possible outcomes, these depending on which of the films ones chooses to see first, there being no “right” or “wrong” choice. There are nine characters in the films, but no more than two are ever seen on the screen at the same time. All the male characters are played by the same actor (Pierre Arditi), likewise all the female characters (Sabine Azema). The narrative branches out and doubles back on itself as alternative consequences of possible actions are presented. Along with the complexity is a great deal of humour.

As mentioned above, Resnais produced films throughout his long life, although sometimes with gaps of three or more years between them. His final film (“Life of Riley”, another film based on a play by Alan Ayckbourn) was premiered only three weeks before he died on 1st March 2014.

Alain Resnais’ films are not easy viewing, as they demand a considerable degree of concentration and a willingness to question one’s own preconceptions.  They are tightly structured and formally perfect, and can strike one as cold and intellectual, with philosophy getting in the way of drama. His attempts to portray romance and warm feelings do not always succeed and sometimes lapse into banality.  That said, the viewer is always aware of a fierce intelligence at work behind the camera that is challenging him or her to examine their perceptions.

There can be little doubt that Alain Resnais was one the world’s greatest filmmakers.

© John Welford