The Future of History

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Fire at the Globe

400 years ago today, the first Globe theatre was destroyed by fire.

But was it an accident?

The afternoon of Tuesday, 29 June 1613, was warm and sunny. Crowds crossed the River Thames to see William Shakespeare's latest play, All is True.  It was a lavish production: expensive costumes had been donated and real cannons were used.  These cannons were discharged at a key moment in the action - just as King Henry VIII was about to meet and fall in love with Anne Boleyn.

A courtier, Sir Henry Wotton, received a report on what happened.  Some "paper, or other stuff" from one of the cannons "did light on the thatch".  At first, it was thought "but an idle smoke".  The audience was too preoccupied with the pageantry on the stage to take much notice.  But the fire "kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds."

There were no casualties - apart from a man whose breeches caught fire; fortunately, he had a bottle of ale to hand with which he doused the flames.  The Globe Theatre, though, was ruined.  Its timbers had in fact been recycled from the earlier Theatre, built in 1576, and so nearly four decades of theatrical tradition had come to a fiery end.

Ten years later, another fire tore through the lodgings occupied by Ben Jonson.  Shakespeare's great literary rival responded to the destruction of his books and manuscripts with a mock-serious poem, which he entitled An Execration Upon Vulcan.

Addressing the lame Roman "Lord of Fire", Jonson recalled the earlier fire at the Globe - or what he chose to call Vulcan's "cruel Stratagem, / (Which, some are pleas'd to stile but thy mad Pranck), / Against the Globe'.  Jonson claimed to have seen "the Glory of the Bank" destroyed, but confided that other accounts of how the fire started had been gossiped about at the time:

Nay, sigh'd, ah Sister 'twas the Nun, Kate Arden
Kindled the Fire!  But, then one did return,
No Fool would his own harvest spoil, or burn!

"If that were so," Jonson continued, "thou rather would'st advance / The Place, that was thy Wives Inheritance."

It's always difficult to know how far Ben Jonson's tongue was in his cheek.  But subtlety was never his strong point.  A "Nun" - Kate Arden - might have "Kindled the Fire", even though in doing so he spoilt his own "harvest" and burnt his wife's "Inheritance".

Officially, there were no nuns in Protestant England.  Jonson was presumably referring to a Bankside whore, although he gave her the name of William Shakespeare's home region and his mother's family - and then promptly changed her sex!  Whoever Jonson was hinting at had a financial interest in the Globe ("thy Wives Inheritance") and was tarred with the brush of "Popery".

So could it be that the fire which destroyed the Globe 400 years ago was started deliberately, as Jonson seems to have been suggesting?  And, if so, why?

Perhaps it had something to do with the play that was being performed that afternoon.  Although All is True - or, as it is better known today, Henry VIII - was credited to William Shakespeare, much of the text had been rewritten by John Fletcher, the son of a former Bishop of London, who had the rare distinction of being "loved" by Ben Jonson.  Fletcher's revisions had turned Shakespeare's play about the beginnings of the English Reformation into a rather crude piece of Protestant propaganda.

It might be no coincidence that the theatre was burned down on the traditional feast day of St Peter, the very first "Bishop of Rome".  Nor that Ben Jonson should have been reminded of this "mad Pranck" when his own library was incinerated just a month before the First Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, over which Jonson had tried to wield editorial control, appeared in print.

The fires of 1613, which destroyed Shakespeare's Globe, and 1623, which ravaged Jonson's study, provide glimpses into an age of sectarian strife.  The accepted account of the fire at the Globe pretends that there was no ideological warfare going on - a false pretence maintained, to this day, by Shakespeare scholars.  But Ben Jonson could not keep a secret.

It was no accident but a "cruel Stratagem" that razed the first Globe Theatre, four hundred years ago.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Rival Poet

I've blogged recently about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's peculiar determination to insist that the so-called Cobbe Portrait is of William Shakespeare when it seems so much more likely to have been Sir Walter Raleigh.

If it is Raleigh, then Stratford really is adding insult to injury.  Not only is the Trust's favourite portrait not of Shakespeare: it's of a man he considered a rival!

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (published in 1609) present us with three shadowy, elusive persons - the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet.  The first of these was almost certainly Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare's youthful and attractive patron in the early 1590s.

The Dark Lady was most likely Jane Davenant, nee Sheppard, with whom both 'W.S.' and 'H.W.' appear to have had a fling at the time (Will would rekindle his affair with the vivacious Jane in about 1605: she gave birth to a son, baptised William, in February 1606).

Which leaves the Rival Poet.  He lurks in the background of Sonnets 78-86, and he certainly made Shakespeare feel uncomfortably jealous.

Sonnet 80 hints at his identity:

O How I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tide speaking of your fame.
But since your worth (wide as the Ocean is)
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy barque (inferior far to his)
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride,
Or (being wracked) I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
     Then If he thrive and I be cast away,
     The worst was this, my love was my decay.

Sir Walter Raleigh had built his reputation on his naval prowess and eagerness to exploit the New World (in 1585, for example, he had organised an expedition to Virginia which resulted in a number of colonists being left - 'cast away' - at Roanoke; I argue in Who Killed William Shakespeare? that young Will himself might have taken part in that epoch-making expedition).  But his position at court had been secured by his willingness to flatter Queen Elizabeth I.  He wrote her fawning poems, in which she was his Cynthia and he was her Ocean (his name sounded like 'Water').

Raleigh fell from grace when he married one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth - 'Bess' - Throckmorton, who was in fact related to Shakespeare by marriage.  Few monarchs were as vain as Queen Elizabeth I, who expected her courtiers only to have eyes for her, and for marrying without her permission, Sir Walter and Bess Raleigh were both imprisoned.

Sir Walter settled on his Sherborne Estate in Dorset, where he set about rebuilding the lodge (making it four storeys high) and gathered around him a group of free-thinking poets and intellectuals - the infamous 'School of Night'.  These are hinted at in Shakespeare's 86th Sonnet:

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of (all too precious) you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write,
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished ...

The maritime imagery gives the game away - as do the references to the Rival Poet's pride (Raleigh was described by his contemporaries as 'damnable proud'), to his 'compeers by night', his 'tall building' and his pseudonym 'Ocean'.

The Rival Poet of the Sonnets was Sir Walter Raleigh.  And now, the custodians of Shakespeare's memory in Stratford-upon-Avon are trying to pass off a portrait of Shakespeare's rival poet as if it were the Bard himself!  He must be turning in his grave (the parts of him which are actually in his grave, that is).

Monday, 17 June 2013

Lives of the Apostates

They call it Zeitgeist - the spirit of the times.  And like any phantom, it's insubstantial, difficult to grasp.  You can sense it, but you can't force it to do anything or to be what you want it to be.  The best you can hope for is to be (dimly) aware of it.  Millions aren't.  They assume that they know what the Zeitgeist is, but it has already passed them by, moved on, and is beginning to express itself in odd places, out on the fringes, far from the mainstream.

I've had a few Zeitgeist moments recently: a radio interview about the Baby Boomer generation, an email from my collaborator in New Mexico, a Facebook status put up by a fellow writer in British Columbia, a book about Native American science, metaphysics and philosophy ... But one of the most stirring and satisfying of these glimpses was reading The Lives of the Apostates by Eric O. Scott.

The Lives of the Apostates is a novella which will be published very shortly - later this month, in fact - by Moon Books (it's already available on Kindle).  It's short enough to be readable in one sustained sitting, but don't let the length fool you: there's plenty of food for thought in those pages.

Set in the American Midwest, the book is a first-person narrative. On the one hand, the narrator - Lou - is a pretty normal college student, sharing accommodation with a scruffy friend, longing for his childhood sweetheart and earning a few spare dollars by keeping a night-time eye on a couple of adult males with special needs.  But Lou is also a second-generation pagan - his parents raised him in the Wicca tradition.  Studying religion and philosophy at college, Lou finds that he is being subtly forced into accepting and reiterating a Christian view of history. 

Lou's room-mate has gravitated towards paganism, even though his mother is a practising Christian and 'Grimalkin', as he prefers to be called, was brought up attending the very church where Lou's college tutor is also the pastor.  And so the stage is set for something of a showdown between different worldviews.

Given that this is a first-person narrative, the author inevitably runs the risk of being wholly one-sided (and I daresay that many Christian fundamentalist or traditionalist readers will claim that the book is just that).  In fact, I felt that Scott was pretty fair.  The narrator's increasing frustration at feeling quietly coerced into participating in the ongoing rewriting of history - the complacent assumption that Christianity, and all that it entails, was and is the only logical development and conclusion of mankind's beliefs; the perennial misrepresentation of what pagan beliefs are, and what pagans actually do - and the subtle persecution of people who can't and don't subscribe to the conformist position, these things are handled with care and sensitivity.  And there is much more to the book than a simple debate about different belief systems.  It is well-observed and written with wit and verve - and courage, too, given its Midwest setting.

Personally, I was much taken with the narrative thread which concerned Lou's determination to write a college paper about the Emperor Julian.  The Christians called him the 'Apostate' or the 'Traitor'.  Why?  Because he was a pagan - the 'Last Pagan', as certain authorities have had the temerity to assert.  Julian is a fascinating historical individual (as even Lou's Christian tutor admits) - his family was slaughtered by a supposedly Christian Emperor, who assumed that Julian would reign as a sort of puppet.  Julian in fact proved to be an effective general and, were it not for one of those accidents of history, he might have altered the direction of European (and World) history.  But it wasn't to be. 

Lou's attempts to write a fair appraisal of Julian bring him into conflict with his tutor, who insists that Lou present Julian in the way that generations of Christian writers have sought to portray him - regardless of historical accuracy.  In that regard, The Lives of the Apostates is not an example of church-bashing so much as an earnest appeal for honesty - about history, about other people's beliefs - which is both long overdue and absolutely what is needed in our fractious, fragmented age.  The frustration at being persistently denied this, at being bombarded, time and again, with one side of the story and told to believe it or else, is a major part of what drives the narrative.

I've been writing about the Emperor Julian (whom the Christians hated) and the Emperor Constantine (whom the Christians adored, to the extent of forging documents about him) in my book about the Grail - also for Moon Books - so there was a pleasant sense of recognition, and of writers in different continents beginning to ask similar questions of the past.  It's that Zeitgeist thing.  Maybe - hopefully - this is where we're at, with an increasing number of people desperate to see the truth about our mutual history told.  The partisan approach to history favours division and social control.  It's a form of brainwashing.  But if we are to achieve tolerance, the values enshrined in the US Constitution, and wise, informed, sensible solutions to the problems we all face we must stop telling lies about the past.  Understanding the truth about today requires a true understanding of the past.  Conversely, lies about history become lies about the present - and our problems simply become more entrenched and intractable, while our capacity to address those problems is handicapped by the falsehoods we have been taught to embrace.

Don't get me wrong - Eric O. Scott's Lives of the Apostates is a thoroughly enjoyable read, deceptively easy to get through.  And that might be the book's greatest achievement.  There are big issues in there, big questions and no easy answers, but they occur to you after you have read the book.  And I can offer no higher recommendation than that.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Oxford Marmalade and Smoky Bacon

"Are you the writer?"

Two gentlemen, a father-and-son combo, had come to finish off a bit of work on our patio (ha! you wanna see it: it's not really a patio).  I'd been asleep when they first came because - as my good lady wife explained to them - I had worked through the night.

I confessed that, yes, I am the writer (other writers are, of course, available).

Sure as night follows day: "What sort of things do you write?"

I told them I've got a book on Shakespeare coming out very soon.  To which the son responded, "I heard it was Francis Bacon who wrote the plays."

Not such an isolated incident, as it happens.  I showed a photo of Shakespeare's skull to a friend who happens to be a martial arts expert.  "What's happened to him?" she asked. "Looks like he's been attacked with a machete!"  Yes, it does.  But then she told me that her father had made a bit of a study of Shakespeare and concluded that somebody else wrote the plays - though she couldn't remember who, exactly.

Stratford-upon-Avon is just ten miles away.  And yet a lot of people in these parts seem to doubt that William Shakespeare really was William Shakespeare.

If the locals aren't even sure that Shakespeare wrote his own plays, how bad must things be farther afield - in America, say, where the determination to "prove" that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays of Shakespeare seems to be particularly rampant (Oxford died in 1604; Shakespeare continued to write topical plays until about 1612 - figure that one out).

In the great scheme of things, the belief that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays ranks with believing that the Earth is flat or that climate change isn't happening.  The astronomer Carl Sagan provided an excellent "Baloney Detection Kit" in The Demon-Haunted World.  Climate sceptics and Shakespeare deniers both practise the arts of Baloney with merry abandon.  But why, oh why, do so many people believe their ludicrous theories?  Why - even right here on Shakespeare's doorstep - do so many people think that Will Shakespeare wasn't the real Shakespeare?

Conspiracy theories flourish where there is a paucity of credible, reliable information.  In the case of climate sceptism, the problem has as much to do with scientific illiteracy (most people don't really understand how science works) as it does with political lobbying and religious extremism.  As for Shakespeare, the problem seems to be that very few people really believe what the experts keep telling us about Shakespeare.

There are perfectly good reasons for this.  The Shakespeare you get in Stratford is marketed at tourists.  It's an image of Shakespeare which has as little to do with the man himself as a picture postcard Cotswold village has to do with real life in the UK.  It's a cosy, processed and packaged, Merrie Englande idea of Shakespeare.  It's not a real person.  It's a reflection of what certain people want England and its Bard to be.

Nurturing and promoting this mythical, fantasy-figure of Shakespeare requires a heavy dose of deception.  Life wasn't like that.  Shakespeare wasn't like that.  England wasn't like that.

And so we get a rather fetching portrait (probably) of Sir Walter Raleigh presented to us as a "new" portrait of Shakespeare.  It's all part of the deception.  Whether we're just flogging this nonsense to the tourists or actively deluding ourselves, the upshot is the same.  "Here's what we want you to think William Shakespeare was - now don't ask any questions."

Is it any wonder, when even Stratford-upon-Avon cannot be relied upon to give us reliable, credible information about Shakespeare, that some people (even here, just 10 miles away) have their doubts?

If they told us the truth about William Shakespeare - his life and times, his family and friends, his hometown, his beliefs, and what an appalling place England was in his days - things might be different.  Then we'd understand who Shakespeare was, and what he was trying to tell us.  And here, I could put in a plug for my forthcoming book (Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means - published this August by The History Press), only I can't be bothered.

But for as long as the Shakespeare scholars continue to promote their self-serving, sanitised idea of Shakespeare, people will go on believing that somebody else wrote the plays.  Because, deep down, most of us have our own Baloney Detection Kits.

The Shakespeare they sell you in Stratford certainly isn't Bacon.  But he is Baloney.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

On the bonny, bonny banks ...

One of the benefits of writing The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion for Moon Books is that I'm going back through so much of my research into Arthur and discovering new things.

Take his battles.  A list of twelve victories won by Arthur in his capacity of dux bellorum - 'duke of battles' - was included in the Historia Brittonum or 'History of the Britons' (see right), compiled in about 829, possibly by a monk called Nennius.

Battles 2, 3, 4 and 5 were fought on a river 'which is called Dubglas ['dark-grey'] and is in the region of Linnuis'.

This 'region of Linnuis', it is usually assumed, relates to Lindum.  The 2nd-century Roman geographer, Claudius Ptolemaeus, identified two places in Britain as Lindum.  One was Lincoln, the other by Loch Lomond, in the Scottish district of Lennox.

Now, I once had a thoroughly ridiculous discussion with an Arthurian 'scholar' about Linnuis.  He insisted that only the Lincoln Lindum could have been known as Linnuis.  I asked him why the Lindum by Loch Lomond could not have been known as Linnuis.  But apparently, only Lincoln could have been the Linnuis where Arthur fought his battles.

I then pointed out that Loch Lomond has got a very big, triple-peaked mountain called Ben Arthur.  And that there are four waters in the Lennox area that are called Douglas (from dub-glas).  And that there are records of four historical battles fought in the region during the lifetime of Artuir mac Aedain, the first 'Arthur' to appear in the records.  And that these battles involved historical figures who accompanied Arthur into the legends (two of these - Lleenog of Lennox and his son, Gwallog the Battle-Horseman - became the 'Lancelot of the Lake' and his son, 'Sir Galahad', of the later romances).

Oh, and I also pointed out that Geoffrey of Monmouth knew that Arthur had fought battles at Dumbarton and around Loch Lomond, since he said as much in his History of the Kings of Britain (c 1137) and the Life of Merlin (c 1150).

So what has Lincoln got that Lennox hasn't, I wondered.

'The right name, for a start', said my pig-headed interlocutor.

Writing about Arthur's battles again, something struck me.  The most dominant geographical feature in Lennox is Loch Lomond - the biggest lake in Britain.  The Welsh word for a 'lake' is llyn.

Hmmnn ... Could llyn actually have been the first part of Linnuis?  If so, what might the rest of Linnuis have meant?  The most obvious answer is that it came from gwys - a 'summons'.

I then consulted W.J. Watson's wonderful book, The Celtic Placenames of Scotland.  Watson himself quoted Nennius:

'De magno lacu Lummonu, qui Anglice vocatur Lochleuen in regione Pictorum.' - 'Of the great lake Lummonu, which is called in English Loch Leven, in the region of the Picts.'

Watson states that 'lake Lummonu' would be Llyn Llumonwy in modern Welsh, from llumon, a 'chimney' or 'beacon'.  He then points to a bit of genuine Arthurian literature, the old tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, in which 'Kai and Bedwyr sat on a beacon cairn on the summit of Plynlymon.'

So - Loch Lomond was, once-upon-a-time, the 'Lake of the Signal-Beacon', with Lomond in fact coming from the Welsh llumon, a 'beacon' (compare lluman - a 'banner' or 'flag').

An alternative form of that name would be Llynwys - the 'Lake of the Summons'.

Llynwys would be Latinised as Linnuis.  Arguably, then, the 'region of Linnuis' was not named after Lindum at all.  It was named after Loch Lomond, the great lake of the Beacon.

So what has Lincoln got that Lennox hasn't?

A totally spurious claim to Arthur, for a start.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

History or Belief?

Cracking on with the Grail book, and gearing up for the release of Who Killed William Shakespeare? - and what should I stumble across but Cicero's rules for historians:

The first law is that the historian shall never dare to set down what is false; the second, that he shall never dare to conceal the truth; the third, that there shall be no suspicion in his work of either favouritism or prejudice.

Sound principles.  But how good are historians at sticking to them?

Well, when it comes to my particular areas of interest - ART(hur) and WILL (Shakespeare) - the answer must be, "Not very good at all."

I blogged recently about the Cobbe Portrait and the determination of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to promote it as a newly-discovered portrait of Shakespeare.  A day or so ago, I received a lovely comment from an illustrator based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who agreed with me.  The Cobbe Portrait looks exactly like Sir Walter Raleigh.  So why is Stratford hell-bent on insisting that it is Shakespeare when there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE to support that claim?

Are they not guilty of breaking Cicero's first law?

Now, interestingly, the driving force behind the (improbable) identification of the portrait as Shakespeare, and the relentless effort to make it the "official" Stratfordian image of the Bard, is also on record as denying point-blank that a plaster of Paris death mask, dated 1616 and held in the Library of Darmstadt Castle in Germany, is Shakespeare's death mask.  Definitely not.  No sirree Bob.  Now, move along, there's nothing to see here ... Move along ...

There is in fact a great deal of compelling evidence that the death mask is Shakespeare's, and a lot of that evidence is explored in my forthcoming book.  But a certain individual - one man - doesn't like the idea that the death mask is Shakespeare's, so we're not allowed to talk about it.

So there goes Cicero's second law.  Basically, a portrait that is almost certainly NOT of Shakespeare is ruthlessly promoted as if it was, while a true-to-life death mask that almost certainly IS Shakespeare's is pointedly ignored (and, when necessary, sniffily denounced).

However did we get into such a position?  Shakespeare is our national poet.  The custodians of his memory, though, appear to care nothing for evidence.  They are actively promoting a false view of Shakespeare and hiding the real man.  Makes you wonder what else they might be telling us that is fundamentally untrue, and what else they have been covering up.

Cicero's third law - there shall be no suspicion in his [the historian's] work of favouritism or prejudice - has not just been broken, here.  It has been smashed and then jumped up and down on.  Prejudice - well, one man doesn't like the death mask, or doesn't like what it shows us, so that's that.  And favouritism - a personal friend of the same individual comes up with a portrait (probably of Raleigh) and we all have to pretend that it's Shakespeare.  In both instances, this is all down to one man's say-so.  His favouritism.  His prejudice.

That is neither democratic nor is it good history.  It is baloney with a capital B.  And this is what we're selling to tourists, students and visitors from around the world.  Frankly, they should be demanding their money back.

In the 21st century it is an outrage that "experts" are allowed to practise such intellectual dishonesty and call it "history".  But this is not confined to Shakespeare studies.  The amount of evidence regarding Arthur that is routinely ignored so that a non-existent Arthur can be promoted is quite staggering.  The reason is much the same as that which motivates the Shakespeare portrait nonsense.  A clique - a cabal - has decided what it wants to believe.  No amount of evidence will dissuade them (they won't even consider it).  And they will move Heaven and Earth (in the sense of burying a great deal of evidence and loudly making claims which can't be substantiated) to ensure that everybody else is forced to believe the same.

That's not history.  That's religion.  It's not science.  It's fundamentalism.

Which is why I've revised the sub-heading for this blog.  "The Future of History".  Whoever controls the past controls the present (and, to some extent, dictates the future).  And for as long as we tolerate experts and scholars who lie to us about our past - who set down what is false, conceal the truth, and base their version of history on their own favouritism and prejudice - then we cannot hope to understand who and where we are today.

We have a moral duty to reclaim history from the hands of reactionaries and revisionists.  Only then can we hope to get a grip on the future.  Those who hide the evidence about Arthur or Shakespeare in order to promote their self-serving myths of the past betray us all.

Enough is enough.  The "Future of History" must be an honest account of what happened in history.  Otherwise, we may not have a future.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Topography of Avalon

... is the title of the fifth chapter of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion, which has just been published on the Moon Books blog:

Please click link, etc., etc.

Meanwhile, in other news, we're just confirming the details of a talk I'll be giving on "ARTHUR & THE GRAIL" at the Pagan Pride Festival this summer.  As soon as the t's are crossed and the i's are dotted, I'll post more details right here.