Tales from the North I – Legendary Realms


It is hard to regard a drive up to the Anglo-Scottish border as a very exotic undertaking. You climb into your car, parked in the drive of your suburban Surrey semi, and try to hit the M25 before the hideous scrum of the rush hour descends upon it. Your route thereafter is one motorway after another, identical but for the signs flashing by overhead when you approach a junction; five hours after departing you’re likely to have reached Newcastle, an hour or two after that and the A1(M) will probably have brought you to Edinburgh. The island we live on feels small, samey, prosaic and unheroic.

It is hard to imagine that this precious stone might have once supported a profusion of states of varying size, power, language and ethnicity, some destined for greatness and longevity while others waxed and waned almost with the life of an individual, to vanish from history; that great kings and warlords ruling scarcely more than the area now covered by a small provincial town had their deeds celebrated for posterity by bards and monks; that generations of figures strode a no man’s land between history and legend that we will almost certainly never have the ability to fully explore and map.


And yet if we look at a map of the north some 1,500 years ago, like the one I have attached here, this is what we see. An array of exotic place names denoting kingdoms or clans that have long ceased to exist or morphed into something quite different, their precise location and often even their existence in some doubt. By the end of the eleventh century there were just the two kingdoms of England and Scotland ruling over this entire area, and yet the linguistic and toponomical clues to the former profusion of kingdoms and tongues abound still, ghosts, like the songs of the medieval bards, of the legendary realms we race across in our cars when doing that tedious drive north.

When the last Roman soldiers left Britain at the start of the fifth century they left, broadly speaking, two groups of people behind. South of the border region defined by Hadrian’s Wall there were the Romanised Britons, those who had long since grown used to being Cives Romani and to enjoying the protection of the legions without ever having to draw a sword in their own defence. Their elites had probably always reflected an older, pre-Roman aristocracy and it is likely that within a generation of the end of Roman Briton members of this elite had begun to emerge as rulers of new petty kingdoms. North of the wall were the ‘barbarians’, those Britons who had never been so Romanised, although those living closest to the border had inevitably been affected in countless ways by having the legions so close by. A third group was soon added to the mix by the emergence of the Anglo-Saxons. As with so much of the history of the British Isles in the Early Medieval period we have no way of establishing any of the details of the process by which the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate part of Britain; tradition gives us the story of the proud British tyrant Vortigern, who, in order to protect his demilitarised people from the raiding of northern barbarians and sea pirates, invited Teutonic warriors under the leadership of the brothers Hengist and Horsa to live among them as mercenaries. Ultimately, seeing how vulnerable their paymasters were, the brothers decided that conquest was to be preferred to employment and soon made large areas of the island their own. While Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa are all most likely figures of legend (Vortigern in particular being more likely a title than a name), the gist of the story would seem to be a plausible one. The newcomers came as hirelings and at some point began to take over the lands of their hirers.

This fragmentation and increasing ethnic and political diversity is evident in the map of the Old North. Here what we broadly see is a group of smaller kingdoms that emerge in the early Post-Roman period and then gradually get squeezed between the big boys of Dal Riata, Pictland and Strathclyde in the north and west and the growing power of English Northumbria in the south and east.

The north of Britain was to become dominated largely by the Pictish confederation (although not too much should be made of the term) in the east around Moray and Perthshire, and their Gaelic neighbours, the Scots of Dal Riata, in the lands around Argyll to the west and throughout the Western Isles, though here again to regard Dal Riata as a monolithic political entity is probably a mistake. It was traditionally thought that the Scots came across from Antrim in Northern Ireland and over the course of an endless series of wars between the fifth and ninth centuries annihilated the Picts to create the nucleus of Medieval Scotland. Like most of the ‘Tribe A annihilated Tribe B and took all their lands’ versions of Early Medieval History once so beloved of the nationalist historians, it seems likely that this is bunkum. Tim Clarkson, in his excellent series of books about Early Historic Scotland, has sought for the evidence for large scale immigration, or even the immigration of an elite, from Ireland to Western Scotland and has found none. The more likely story of the Scots is that they were an indigenous Gaelic-speaking group; separated by the Grampians from their Pictish neighbours to the east, cultural and economic intercourse with Ireland and the islands was always going to be easier, and we should not be surprised that Dal Riata emerged with such a distinct culture to that of Pictavia. And the coming together of the two during the course of the ninth century under the heirs of the Pictish king Cinead Mac Alpin (anglicised as Kenneth MacAlpine) represented the gradual penetration of Gaelic Scottish culture among the Picts along with a dynastic union, rather than a war of conquest.

South of Gaelic Dal Riata, in the area covering modern southern Scotland and Cumbria, was the British territory of Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde, named after its base on the formidable Rock of Dumbarton (see photograph at top of post). This kingdom, known later as Strathclyde, survived for some six centuries, despite the ninth century fall of their stronghold to a Viking siege in about 870, and was only absorbed into the kingdom of Alba (Scotland) towards the end of the eleventh century.

And then we have the Northumbrians. English Northumbria was the combination of two older kingdoms: the northern former British kingdom of Bryneich which seems to have become the English kingdom of Bernicia well before the end of the sixth century, and the kingdom of Deira which corresponds roughly with modern Yorkshire. The story of the late sixth and early seventh century is one of their forced union under a succession of mainly Bernician kings. Like all the kingdoms named so far, they waged endless wars against their neighbours both English and Briton, but their relations with the northerners could also be amicable. When in 616 the exiled Deiran king Edwin slew Aethelfrith, the man who had usurped his throne and subjugated his kingdom under Bernician rule, Aethelfrith’s sons fled for asylum to the north, his eldest son Eanfrith to Pictavia and his other sons Oswald and Oswiu to Dal Riata. When Oswald came south to take his place as ruler of Northumbria in 634 he undoubtedly came with a contingent of Scots at his back; of more consequence still, he had been baptised a Christian at Iona and brought to Northumbria Iona-trained Gaelic clerics to propagate Christianity in his new kingdom. It was a man of Iona, bishop Aidan, who was allowed to found the abbey on the beautiful tidal island of Lindisfarne, which I had the good fortune to visit myself two weeks ago.

So what of the strange names that we see on the map spreading between the lands that separate these kingdoms? Of Rheged, of Elmet, of Gododdin? They were British kingdoms, and as they ceased to exist at an early date their history was celebrated not so much by their conquerors as by their successors in medieval Wales; the Welsh of course shared a Celtic British ethnicity with the three kingdoms mentioned above, and with Strathclyde, the inhabitants of these states coming under the general heading of Gwŷr y Gogledd, the Men of the North. The medieval Welsh had a great deal of trouble trying to retain their independence from their English neighbours, so it is hardly surprising that the bards sing songs that are largely based on the struggles of the heroic northern Britons against the encroaching English, though we can be sure that like all the other kingdoms jostling for supremacy in the region they were as happy to wage war on Briton as on Anglo-Saxon, any idea of ethnic unity being most likely completely alien to them.
Of the three British kingdoms we can only locate one with any degree of certainty. Gododdin covered the area immediately south of the Forth in modern Lothian. In Roman times they were known as the Votadini, a people living to the south and east of the fearsome Maeatae and based, like so many of the northern peoples, around a formidable stronghold, in this case the Fort of Eidyn, Dun Eidyn, which has of course become anglicised as Edinburgh. Rheged has been argued, on apparently very tenuous evidence, as being the area around modern Carlisle, but alternative locations have been given as far north as Dumfriesshire and as far south as Rochdale in Greater Manchester. As for Elmet, we can’t be 100% sure that it was even a kingdom; the Historia Brittonum, a ninth century Celtic riposte to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, refers to it as a kingdom, but Bede, generally regarded as the most trustworthy of the early Anglo-Saxon historians, refers to it as only the site of a wood, the silva Elmete. In any case, it would seem that all three kingdoms succumbed to the men of Northumbria during the course of the seventh century, as they extended their power to become the foremost of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

To the Welsh bards the legend was more important than the reality. The most renowned of them, an almost contemporary bard by the name of Taliesin, was famed for his verses celebrating the life of King Urien of Rheged. Urien seems to have been a historical figure and we even have some genealogies for him, though their value is debatable. Urien appears in Arthurian legend as King Urien of Gore, and his son Owain mab Urien became, in the same legend, Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table. Taliesin describes how Urien, along with three allied British kings, defeated King Ida of the Bernicians and besieged him on the island of Lindisfarne; whether this campaign ever actually took place is open to question, but it has to be said that the sand flats of the Lindisfarne causeway at low tide make for a splendid setting for a Heroic Age showdown. Whatever the outcome of the siege, we learn that the heroic Urien was assassinated on the orders of one King Morcant, jealous of his power and prestige, the assassin being a man known as Llofan Llaw Difro, ‘Llofan of the Exiled Hand’. A heroic death as a martyr is the only one worthy of a legendary war leader of this stature.

Similarly heroic odes tell of the tragedy of Gododdin. Y Gododdin, attributed to the bard Aneirin, is an elegiac poem of disputed age concerning the Battle of Catraeth in about 600 CE. The battle, the precise location of which is inevitably open to doubt but is most often regarded as Catterick, was fought between the warriors of Gododdin, along with allies from all across the Hen Ogledd or British North and the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria, and was a disastrous defeat for the former, and perhaps a fatal one, since the kingdom itself was conquered by the English quite soon afterwards. The poem is a lament for the brave British host and describes the prowess in battle of a number of individuals; certain stanzas remind me irresistibly of W B Yeats’ paean to the contributions of individuals to the cause of Irish Nationalism in another defeat of the Celtic fringe by the English over a millenium later:

In might a man, a youth in years,
Of boisterous valour,
Swift long-maned steeds
Under the thigh of a handsome youth …
Quicker to a field of blood
Than to a wedding
Quicker to the ravens’ feast
Than to a burial…

A terrible beauty is born.

Those who are moved to lament the defeat of Gododdin may be heartened to know that 85 years later a very large Northumbrian army, along with their king Ecgfrith, were slaughtered by the Picts at the Battle of Dun Nechtain some considerable distance to the north of the Forth; and that as a result of the battle, lamented by Bede as a fatal blow to Northumbrian power in the north, the former inhabitants of Gododdin rose in revolt, sacked the English abbey at Abercorn and drove the English clergy out. It was a short lived resurgence but perhaps, for those who loved to celebrate the heroism of the British, a sweet one for all that.


The designs on the beautiful Pictish standing stone at Aberlemno may relate to the Battle of Dun Nechtain, though carved perhaps a century later

The striking thing, for me, is that these deeds, these battles and betrayals and meetings between great kings and ruthless warlords, took place within a stones throw of the motorways, of the ugly service stations where the early birds driving north from Surrey stop to grab a McMuffin and stretch their legs. It is well to remember that there was a heroic age when legend and history danced lightly around each other, when men could regard themselves with pride as Gwŷr y Gogledd, when the lands stretching to either side of the still imposing lines of the Roman Wall bore names that now whisper to us of Romantic legend. That journey north would have been a very different thing in those times.


I blame the Parents


Like many with a historical bent, I am an absolute sucker for boardgames that are based upon periods in history; and like many who are suckers for boardgames that are based upon periods of history, I have a large number of such games that have never been played and which I have, over the years, all but lost hope of playing. This is in large part due to a shortage of like-minded opponents, and in equal part to the pressures of time; these games typically take a good few hours to play through to the end, and most of us who grow up with a love for them lose the ability to put time like that aside for such a purpose once the realities of work and family make themselves felt.

It was therefore with a great deal of pleasure that I sat down recently with three like-minded friends, in a cosy pub near London Bridge, for a rousing game of Imperium Romanum II. It’s a venerable game from the 1980’s, the II denoting its status as successor to another game still more venerable, and it is of course a game about the Roman Empire. It’s quite an ingenious beast. It allows players to recreate a number of scenarios, stretching chronologically from the First Triumvirate to the age of Justinian and including a hypothetical ‘what if’ scenario (Justinian’s generalissimo Belisarius driven by the indignities heaped upon him to rebel against the emperor he served all too loyally).

Covering such a period involves a number of maps to show the status of the various provinces at the date concerned, as well as that of the various towns that rose to prominence or fell into decline during the six centuries or so that the game covers. It is therefore potentially a hugely complex game and yet – admittedly to the grizzled old gaming grognard as I consider myself to be – the mechanics of the game are in fact very straightforward and flow really rather well once the game kicks off. It did admittedly take well over an hour to set up, but sadly this was because the dim light and the rather lightly printed characters on the (quite lovely) game map were too much of a strain for the degraded eyes of the middle-aged geezers who were setting out to play it.

For a historian the breadth of scenarios was something tantalizing in itself, and our choice revolved around the number of players who had committed to the event. When we thought there would be three of us we decided upon the civil war between Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus in the 190’s CE. This seemed to me a game that threatened to be all too true to history. Severus, governor of Pannonia, of course made a deal with the distant Albinus in Britannia to keep him sweet while he turned on Niger’s Syrian legions and destroyed them, leaving him free to finish off Albinus. It seemed unlikely that the game would turn out any differently. One player would take out another then turn on the third with their combined resources; or, two players would hack each other to pieces while the third remained aloof and moved in to mop up later; or, worst of all, all three players would sit on their hands and sup beer all evening waiting for the others to commit – something that would have been not unwelcome to the poor bloody infantry in 193 CE but made for a very dull evening for us.

Fortunately though we got a fourth, and instead of Septimius Severus we fast-forwarded a century and a half or so and played instead the scenario of the three sons of Constantine, with Sassanid Persia as a non-Roman fourth. A more balanced game, although there was really only one set of alliances that made a great deal of sense.
As an exercise in treachery and viciousness the interactions between Constantine’s brats was not so unlike that between Septimius Severus and his rivals. There were three who survived the somewhat homicidal parenting of the Great Constantine. Upon his death in 337 they eliminated a few more distant relatives and divided the empire between them. The eldest, Constantine II, took the western provinces of Gaul, Spain and Britain; the second, Constantius II, was allocated the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Eastern provinces and Egypt. The youngest, Constans, got everything in between – Italy and the western Danubian provinces and most of Roman North Africa west of Egypt. If the arrangement had been designed to produce ongoing civil war it could hardly have been better suited.

In the game Constantine in the west and Constantius in the east combined to pound their little brother Constans, who inevitably allied himself with the Persians in a vain attempt to distract Constantius so he could concentrate his resources for the war against Constantine. We got to play one full turn before we had to pack up and go home, by which time Constans was already starting to look like toast.

In real life Constantine decided he had not been given his full due as eldest son and invaded Italy, only to be rather unexpectedly defeated and killed by the forces of his little brother Constans, who duly took over the whole of the western empire (340 CE). He reigned a further ten years before being deposed and killed by a usurper called Magnentius, who was in turn defeated and killed by the forces of the last remaining brother, Constantius II (353 CE). The empire was thus reunited, after a division lasting 16 years, under Constantius, an emperor who was hateful to historians both Christian (who despised him for being an Arian heretic) and pagan alike, whose bust, with its bashed-in nose and chin, scowls sulkily at us across the centuries like a petulant teenager, and who Edward Gibbon with characteristic asperity described as a ‘feeble prince…destitute of personal merit either in peace or war’.


Constantius II – looking like a winner in both game and real life

What always struck me about late Imperial Rome was the overriding power of a noble bloodline, even one that was of no great vintage. Constantine the Great was crowned Emperor in 306, just one of a number of emperors jostling for supremacy at the time, and might well have fallen victim to one of the innumerable civil wars that were fought out between then and his emergence as sole emperor in 324. Just thirteen years later the legions, if not the populace, would only accept as emperor one who was of the same blood, no matter how unworthy the individual representing that blood. There is little edifying in the persons of the three sons; Constantius II, despite arguably getting a worse press than he deserves as an emperor, was personally unattractive and by all accounts capable of the most deplorable cruelty. And yet as a son of the Great Constantine his right to the throne was seen as unassailable.

It is the idea of a dynasty of course, and in late Roman times dynasties could rest on very shallow roots, a great individual often erecting a foundation that his undistinguished successors could not hope to sustain with their limited talents. One thinks not only, again, of Septimius Severus and his murderously squabbling sons Caracalla and Geta, but later of Arcadius and Honorius, the almost invisible sons of the great Theodosius, content to spend their days in gilded idleness while the security and honour of the empire was sustained by their half-barbarous magistri militum.

The Roman Empire was never formally a hereditary institution, any more than were its successors in Byzantium and Medieval Germany. While an emperor might in practice hand power over to his sons, the position of emperor was seen as ideally a meritocratic one. The zenith of Imperial power and prestige was the age of the so-called ‘Five Good Emperors’ (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus ‘Pius’ and Marcus Aurelius) from 96 to 180 CE. It is no coincidence that from Trajan onwards all of these emperors were associated with the imperial authority by their predecessor for reasons of merit rather than born into it; or that this golden age is seen to have come to an end in 180 with Marcus’ succession by his son, Commodus, the murderous, vindictive, sister-bothering despot of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator movie. Trajan was known as ‘Optimus Princeps’, the best emperor, and the paucity of recorded events during these five reigns is itself regarded as an indication of peace and prosperity – history being in Gibbon’s famous phrase ‘indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind’.

It is not hard to understand why hereditary succession became the norm in Later Imperial times. Once the system of association by merit came to an end the genie was well and truly out of the bottle. To Constantine’s sons and their contemporaries, the Crisis of the Third Century – that half a century between 235 and 284 CE when emperors came and went in violent and dizzyingly rapid succession, with all its attendant carnage and instability – was still something which their parents’ generation could remember having lived through, and which could only have left a long shadow. Peaceful inheritance was the holy grail; Diocletian had tried to meet the challenges posed by the Third Century Crisis by restoring a system of meritocratic inheritance, but his ‘Tetrachy’ was, while brilliantly conceived, an unwieldy system at best, and it is no surprise in retrospect that it lasted for such a short amount of time before breaking down itself amid the confusing series of civil wars that presaged the rise of Constantine. Dynastic succession seemed to promise something that meritocratic association no longer could. And yet dynastic succession was itself no perfect solution; as we have seen the presence of ambitious siblings made each succession event fraught with the threat of instability and violence, a problem for which the Ottoman Sultans in later times found the brutal but effective solution of having all your younger brothers throttled upon your accession to the throne.


The Tetrarchy – if only it was ever this amicable

It seems that perhaps meritocracy is a learned behaviour, that there is perhaps an atavistic deference to bloodline hard-wired into us somewhere. Those of a royalist bent in modern times seem happy to celebrate a monarchy that has sufficient tradition around it, without much apparent consideration of the worth or interest of its current holder and their kin. The adhesion to dynastic succession has been a constant in human history before and since the Romans, and rather strikingly we see it perhaps most explicitly expressed today in the US, purportedly a country dedicated to democratic transitions, in which pedigree is supposed to count for little. In the face of a charismatic individual like JFK democratic forms start to struggle when balanced against the charmed bloodline, and we hear political pundits speak frankly if knowingly of a Kennedy ‘dynasty’ or a Bush ‘dynasty’. Perhaps in modern America as in ancient Rome it’s a matter of better the devil you know.

It is to be hoped that I will get to play some of the other scenarios in IRII (we gamers reduce all game titles to acronyms and expect other historical gamers to know intuitively which game we are referring to), and even if I don’t I expect it’s the sort of game I might be happy to get out of the box and just tinker with from time to time as the whim takes me, vague and disorganised history enthusiast as I am. A more immediate plan is to play a much newer game called A Time of Crisis specifically about the Third Century Crisis, though in a more abstract (and thankfully more clearly printed) way. I may even report upon it in a future posting on the Logothete.

A Ship of Fools


The extent to which human beings are prepared to sacrifice the good of the environment, of the planet, of other human beings across the globe, of all that future generations might hold precious, to their own short-term economic or political ends has never ceased to stagger and depress me. Some might say indeed that it shows us up for what we are: scarcely evolved ground apes no more developed than the South Indian monkeys that, in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, famously allow themselves to be trapped by their own greed and rigidity when they could secure their long-term future merely by giving up their immediate gratification. Far from being images of a divine creator and endowed with a perfect immortal soul, we are in fact primates who have only recently descended from the trees and due to certain evolutionary advantages now get to manage an entire planet, the long term prospects for which are looking less attractive every day.

One can of course see this everywhere, and you don’t have to be a tree-hugging hippy to be aware of and deplore what is happening. We know for a fact, the deniers aside, that economic growth across the planet is having the effect of releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere with profound consequences for global temperatures. We know for a fact that humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with virtually all the ecosystems that surround it is pushing the rate of species extinction far above what it would otherwise be, that it is in fact propelling us even as I write into a major extinction event, the sixth to which the Earth has been subject since the emergence of life here. We know that nuclear tests and nuclear weapon production has resulted in the emission of thousands of tons of radioactive waste that has turned whole areas of the planet effectively into no-go areas; silent cities or lakes foul with invisible poison, where to linger for even an hour is to invite an extended and excruciating death. And for what? A rise in GNP here, a temporary political or military advantage there. As the writer E. O Wilson said, “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”

It was the latter issue, that of our nuclear past, that struck me today when I learned that it was the 59th anniversary of the Kyshtym Disaster, an event seemingly little known in the west and about which I have to confess I knew next to nothing.

The activities of the Soviet Union were in general of course catastrophic for the environment; the Workers’ Paradise showed precious little concern for the health and safety of the workers and their families in their struggle to promote economic growth and military superiority. Because of the culture of secrecy surrounding all aspects of government, it was impossible to get a detailed picture of the damage done to the environment until after the Soviet Union came to an end. A correspondent for the Washington Post who visited the East German town of Bitterfeld (described by Der Spiegel as the dirtiest town in Europe) in 1990 wrote:

Here, rivers flow red from steel mill waste, drinking water contains many times the European Community standards for heavy metals and other pollutants, and the air has killed so many trees — 75 percent in the Bitterfeld area — that even the most ambitious clean-up efforts now being planned would not reverse the damage. East Germany fills the air with sulphur dioxide at almost five times the West German rate and more than twice the Polish rate, according to a recent study. One chemical plant near here dumps 44 pounds of mercury into the Saale river each day — 10 times as much as the West German chemical company BASF pumps into the Rhine each year.

Across East Germany as a whole an estimated 42 percent of rivers and 24 percent of lakes were so polluted that they could not be used to process drinking water, almost half of the country’s lakes were considered dead or dying and unable to sustain fish or other forms of life, and some 44 percent of East German forests were damaged by acid rain. In some areas of East Germany the level of air pollution was between eight and twelve times greater than that found in West Germany, and 40 percent of East Germany’s population lived in conditions that would have justified a smog warning across the border. Only one power station in the whole had been fitted with the necessary equipment to clean sulphur from emissions.

Conditions in Russia were if anything worse still. A study published by the US Library of Congress’s Federal Research Division in 1996 described the country’s air as “among the most polluted in the world” (“According to one estimate, only 15 percent of the urban population breathes air that is not harmful”), and found that “75 percent of Russia’s surface water is now polluted, 50 percent of all water is not potable according to quality standards established in 1992, and an estimated 30 percent of groundwater available for use is highly polluted”. In summary,

In the 1990s, after decades of such practices, the government categorized about 40 percent of Russia’s territory (an area about three-quarters as large as the United States) as under high or moderately high ecological stress. Excluding areas of radiation contamination [my italics], fifty-six areas have been identified as environmentally degraded regions, ranging from full-fledged ecological disaster areas to moderately polluted areas.

Given the Soviet government’s cavalier attitude towards environmental protection, standards of safety in the nuclear industry were never likely to be very encouraging, and in fact the pressure of historical circumstances meant that they were in effect non-existent.

The Soviet nuclear industry got underway in the late 1940’s at a time when the country suddenly found itself in a frantic race against the USA. The Americans had of course wrong-footed their erstwhile Russian allies by detonating nuclear devices at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, starkly demonstrating that, at least in the short-term, the USA was the world’s primary military power with the the ability to wreak terrible destruction upon any enemy. Given the ambitions of the Stalin regime, as well as its instinctive paranoia, this state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, and the government resolved to catch up with its rival in the nuclear arms race as quickly as possible. For this reason, a number of plants were hastily constructed in order to produce the required amounts of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The largest plant was at a place called Mayak, not far from Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals.

The haste with which it was built, and the considerable gaps in the knowledge of the Soviet physicists about what was still a nascent technology whose recent wartime development was shrouded in secrecy, boded ill for the safety of the workers and the local environment. From the start, no consideration was paid to the responsible disposal of the tons of contaminated waste that would be produced. The plant’s six reactors were all on lake Kyzyltash and used what was apparently quite a primitive open cycle cooling system, sucking in thousands of gallons of water from the lake daily to cool the reactor, then discharging the contaminated water straight back into the lake, which rapidly became itself heavily contaminated. Another much smaller lake, Lake Karachay, became a dumping ground for huge quantities of waste of which the lethal levels of radioactivity made it too dangerous to store in the plant’s underground storage vats.


Dumping waste at Lake Karachay, the most contaminated place on Earth

Lake Karachay became the most polluted spot on Earth, surely the most baleful claim to fame that any place can have. The lake over the years accumulated some 4.44 exabecquerels (EBq) of radioactivity across less than 1 square mile of water – for the sake of comparison, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 released some 5-12 EBq of radioactivity over many thousands of square miles. The sediment of the lake bed is estimated to be composed almost entirely of high level radioactive waste deposits to a depth of some 11 feet. Radioactive waste is still dumped in the vicinity, carried there in trucks whose drivers keep a Geiger Counter in the cab and make sure they deposit their load and turn around as quickly as possible to minimise their exposure – as little as half an hour’s exposure here can deliver a lethal dose of radiation. In the 1960’s the lake began to dry up, the radioactive dust being picked up by the wind and spread across a wide area, irradiating possibly hundreds of thousands of people. To prevent the waste in the sediment being released, the authorities began to fill it in with concrete and it would seem that this process has now almost completed. A sealed, lethal, concrete hole that used to be a lake. It would be hard to think of a more grotesque abuse of our natural environment.

The disaster of 1957 occurred because the cooling system for the underground storage tanks that had been installed in 1953 was ineffective and not well maintained. With no cooling to counteract the intense heat generated by radioactive decay, the temperature of the waste in one of the tanks rose to dangerous levels. The result was a massive chemical explosion that was estimated to have a force of 70-100 tons of TNT and was powerful enough to throw the 160-ton concrete lid of the storage tank into the air. The waste from the tank was dispersed across an area of several hundred square kilometres and continued to spread north eastwards, blown by the wind, during the next few days.

The precise number of fatalities resulting from the disaster are unknown and unknowable. Because of the secrecy surrounding the plant, none of the local population were made aware of it, and the evacuation of local towns did not even begin for a week after the explosion. Some communities were not evacuated for more than a year, if at all. Certainly any figures originating from Soviet sources would have been worthless in any case. Because the existence of the plant was such a secret, instances of radiation sickness could not even be reported as such – doctors had to use the expression ‘special disease’. But by the time the Mayak plant’s existence was officially acknowledged, in the 1990’s, it was possible to point to extremely high levels of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, across the whole of the region.

What we do know is that the explosion dumped some 76 million cubic metres of radioactive water into the Techa River system, which provided 24 towns and villages with their major source of water. Up to 65% of the population that lived along the river may have become irradiated as a result. We know also that ultimately the plume of radiation produced a large area of permanently heavy contamination known as the East Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT), which the Soviets euphemistically relabelled the ‘East Ural Nature Reserve’ in 1968 and where many still have to live with the consequences of 1957 even now; and we know that, although western authorities were not fully aware of the event until the 1970’s, the International Atomic Energy Agency subsequently rated it a Level 6 disaster on the International Nuclear Event Scale – only the disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 have been rated higher (both 7).

It is scarcely to be wondered at that the Soviet authorities were prepared to let their own people die hideous deaths rather than let considerations of humanity complicate their pursuance of military power. The humanitarian credentials of the regime had been made abundantly clear during the 1930’s and the Second World War. But lest it be thought that their western rivals were much more scrupulous, one must be aware that the CIA were almost certainly aware of the Kyshtym Disaster from 1959 at the latest, but were happy to keep it a secret in order to avoid embarrassing the US Nuclear industry, which might find itself unduly hampered by public concerns about similar disasters at US plants.

It almost reads like The Lorax, a needless, careless, ugly poisoning of earth, air and water not in this case in order to manufacture the ever-profitable thneed but to maintain great power status, for the ends of an elite political class unable to see anything beyond their own immediate desires. Sometimes one cannot help but think of the words attributed to the Cree Indians, “only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money”. Given our form as a species, it seems unlikely we will realise our errors before we have run out of Renaissance paintings to burn.

When Revolutions Are Glorious

It’s odd that we Britons on the whole know so little about an event that has gone down in our history as The Glorious Revolution. While even the least historically aware of us is likely to know that we had a civil war once, that King Charles got his head cut off and Oliver Cromwell pretty much ruled over us for a while before the monarchy was restored, I suspect not one in ten would be able to tell you what were the effects of the subsequent Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, or even who were the outgoing and incoming kings.


James II and William III, the substitution made by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9

This is curious because it is arguable that the effects of the Glorious Revolution were more marked and more lasting than those of the Civil War that it followed, and in some ways shaped the formation of the modern British state. The fact that it has been dubbed ‘Glorious’ also, to me, says a great deal about our attitude towards political revolutions, and how easily the more conservative among us (with a small ‘c’ of course), who are in most circumstances the last to approve of revolutionary movements, are able to rationalise their support for a revolution as long as it is a socially conservative one that leaves basic economic and social relationships untouched.

It is odd to think that, dramatic as the Civil Wars of the 1640’s and their consequences were, they settled surprisingly little. The Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660 in the person of Charles II, son of the executed Charles I; the king continued, as his father had done, to regard the person of the monarch as the basis of sovereignty, and when Parliament did sit for an extended time it was the famously pliable ‘Cavalier Parliament’ which normally tried to avoid undue conflict with the King. The new king was keen to settle old scores, and the regicides of Charles I who were still alive in 1660 were mostly executed or forced to flee for their lives. Puritanism, which had been such a driving force behind the opposition to Charles I, saw its influence disappear overnight, and Puritans became ‘dissenters’, Protestants who had excluded themselves from the Church of England and as a result became subject to penal laws as stringent as those applying to Catholics.


The Restoration; Charles II lands at Dover, 1660

What made further regime change desirable for some after the Restoration was the fact that Charles II was never able to produce an heir, so after his death the throne was likely to – and in fact did – go to his younger brother James; and James was, what no English monarch had been since Mary more than a century earlier, a Catholic. For this reason there was always a relatively small but vocal group within the country who wanted James excluded from the succession on the grounds that a Catholic monarch was likely to threaten the Anglican establishment as it had been settled in the time of Elizabeth. This group, made up largely but by no means entirely of dissenters, came to be known as Whigs, whereas their opponents, who favoured the Jacobite succession even in the person of a Catholic, became known as Tories.

Not that the Tories were any more enthusiastic than their Whig opponents about Catholicism and the monarchical absolutism it was held to represent; although the famous description of the Church of England as ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ belongs to a later time, we can see the inception of the pairing as early as the seventeenth century. It was just that the Tories were more sanguine about the magnitude of the threat; the Church of England and the institution of Parliament were, they thought, now so firmly entrenched by law and custom that even a Catholic monarch could pose no great threat, especially since he would have to swear a Coronation Oath agreeing to respect those institutions.

There was a further key fact also: James, like his brother, had no male heir; he had two daughters, Mary, who was married to the Calvinist Dutch stadtholder William of Orange, and Anne, both of whom had been raised as Protestants. A temporary Catholic monarchy under James, therefore, was seen as endurable, as it would immediately be followed by a return to Protestantism under whichever of his daughters succeeded him.

So, when Charles II died in 1685, his brother James II succeeded with a remarkable absence of opposition. He took the required oaths and promised to respect and support the Protestant establishment, and that was enough for most. There were declarations of support from all over the country, and the Anglican clergy preached from their pulpits that it was sinful to oppose a King ordained by God. When Charles II’s illegitimate Protestant son James, Duke of Monmouth, rebelled in the summer of 1685 there was very little support beyond the most committed Whigs, and he suffered ignominious defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor (one of the contenders for the last pitched battle on English soil) and subsequent execution for treason. King James II and his Tory ministers were quick to use the rebellion as an excuse to crack down on the Whigs and dissenters, weakening opposition to the crown still further.


The execution of the Duke of Monmouth, 1685

It was not long, however, before James’ measures began to arouse concern and opposition among his subjects. The Sedgemoor Rebellion was used as an excuse to build a large standing army that many, both Whig and Tory, feared would be used to foist Catholic absolutism on the kingdom. James very quickly began replacing office holders with Catholic favourites, and using his dispensing power to allow Catholics to command regiments in his army without taking the oaths required by the Test Act; when the previously supportive (and overwhelmingly Tory) Parliament of 1685 expressed their concerns, he dissolved it, and never called another one during his reign.

In the space of three years James succeeded in completely eroding the huge support he had inherited upon his succession, and by a number of his acts seemed to be behaving in a wilfully provocative manner towards his Protestant subjects. The High Anglican traditions of the University of Oxford were outraged when James forced the fellows of Christ Church and University Colleges to accept Catholic colleagues; The fellows of Magdalen College were ultimately bullied into electing a Catholic as Master of the college in direct violation of their collegiate oaths and of their rights, set out in the college charter, to elect a Master of their own choosing. It was felt that the Anglican monopoly of education was now coming under threat of Popery.

He suffered a public relations disaster in the spring of 1688 after issuing the Declaration of Indulgence, in which he used his dispensing power to negate the effect of the Test Act, and then demanding that all of the Anglican clergy read out the Declaration from their pulpits. The vast majority of them refused to do so. When seven Anglican bishops (among them the Archbishop of Canterbury) submitted a petition most humbly requesting that the king reconsider, he had them arrested and tried for seditious libel. It was a huge error; despite a judiciary purged of perceived opponents, the bishops were very publicly acquitted, to massive popular acclaim. Lawyers working for the prosecution were forced to flee the court in disguise to escape the wrath of the mob, and crowds all over the country lit bonfires and burned the pope in effigy.


The Trial of the Seven Bishops

Ultimately James’ object was repeal of the Test Act that prevented Catholics from holding high political office, and when he prepared to call a Parliament in 1688 packed with pliant Tories who would do his bidding the stage was set for a confrontation. Then came the single event that made a revolution all but inevitable: at the end of 1688 the queen fell pregnant, and in June 1688 gave birth to James’ Catholic son and heir, James Francis Edward (known to history as The Old Pretender). No longer could the reign of a Catholic monarch be stoically endured in the expectation of Protestant successors; now there was the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, and horrified Anglicans began to see Bourbon France, Catholic and despotic, as a road map for where their own monarch was taking them.

Hence what we now call the Glorious Revolution. A group of English nobles invited the intervention of William of Orange to save the Protestant religion. William duly crossed the Channel (he had originally meant to sail up the Eastern coast of England and land in the North-East but a ‘Protestant wind’ instead blew his fleet south west, so that he was able to evade the English fleet and land his army successfully in the west country); James panicked and instead of giving battle with his larger, but largely disaffected, army, he fled the country to take refuge in France with Louis XIV. William’s march on London became a parade as James’ remaining support evaporated.

And yet Williams’ succession was by no means guaranteed. Many still saw James as the lawful king. The English Parliament – itself of dubious legal status since it required a King to call a Parliament – quickly came to the very convenient conclusion that James had abdicated the throne and ‘unkinged’ himself by his flight to France but even so, he had a lawful heir in the little Prince James, whose rights to the throne could not be abrogated by any action of his father. It was therefore necessary also to cast doubt upon his parentage, and the story quickly became accepted that he was an impostor, a baby who had been smuggled into the bed of the barren queen in a warming pan. The legal and moral hoops through which the defenders of the Anglican establishment were prepared to jump in order to put themselves on the side of right were impressive; thus, those who stated fairly unequivocally that James’ authority was absolute in 1685 were able to argue three years later that that absolutism transgressed natural law when certain ‘contracts’ with the subjects had been broken. Distinction began to be made between things that were malum in se, i.e. wrong or evil in themselves, as opposed to malum prohibitum, or wrong only because they were prohibited, with the crucial difference being that a monarch’s dispensing power could be said to apply to the latter but never to the former.

It would be unfair to say that the events of 1688-9 were not revolutionary; as stated above, in many ways they created the British polity in which we now live, to a much greater extent than the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth of the 1640’s and 1650’s. Tim Harris, in his engaging book ‘Revolution; the Great Crisis of the British Monarchy 1688-1720’ poses a fascinating thought experiment: suppose we imagine a man, perhaps of mild Whiggish tendencies, who died in the 1630’s and was somehow resurrected in 1686-7. The situation at his death and at his resurrection would be little different; still a Stuart monarch whose sovereignty was regarded as essentially personal, still a monarch determined to rule without Parliament as far as possible. Any differences in fact serve to emphasize the increased power of the crown. Provocatively using its dispensing power with a confidence unthinkable in the 1630’s, and with the active backing both of a large standing army and a friendly Catholic neighbour across the Channel. It would have been hard for our resurrected man to believe that Parliament had fought a victorious and regicidal war against the king in the interim.

Now imagine a man dying in 1686 and re-awakening in the 1720’s. Gone is the personal sovereignty of the monarch; now the sovereignty is that of the king-in-parliament, and Parliament, by means of the Bill Of Rights of 1689 and the Act Of Settlement of 1701, had both enshrined the limits to monarchical power in law and had also established its power to determine where the succession lay. Gone is the standing army; gone is the prolonged absence of Parliament. By the 1720’s the balance of political power had shifted decisively in favour of Parliament, and the United Kingdom was a constitutional monarchy in a way that would have been unrecognisable to James II. Here, not the military triumph of the New Model Army, was the real victory of parliament over the monarchy.

And of course, it was now the United Kingdom, and this is another hugely important development that was largely a result of the Glorious Revolution. The Scottish Parliament fell into line with its English counterpart in 1689, passing acts deposing James II and recognising William of Orange and Mary II as monarchs, but the union of the two kingdoms was still a personal and not a political one. When William and Mary died without issue and Mary’s sister Anne seemed set to do the same, bringing about the end of the Stuart dynasty, this posed questions about the future relationship between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. In 1701 the English Parliament passed the Act of Settlement which stated that if the main Stuart line came to an end the English crown should go to a granddaughter of James I, the Electress Sophia of Hanover, and her issue. This was not a popular measure with the Scots, who responded with the Act of Security of 1704 claiming their right to dispose of the Scottish crown as they saw fit. In the meantime, on the death of King William in 1702, the new Queen Anne had been prevailed upon to deliberately delay calling a Scottish Parliament so that war could be declared upon France as quickly as possible without possible objection from the Scots.

A union of the two crowns was deemed by an increasing number of influential people to be the best way to stabilise relations between England and Scotland. As early as the 1690’s there had been suggestions of union from both sides of the border; the likelihood of Queen Anne’s death without issue made a settlement imperative, and the Act of Union was duly passed in 1707. The United Kingdom was born in what was arguably an act of immense self-denial by the Scots. With just 45 seats in the new Parliament, which would still sit at Westminster, at a time when their population should have given them more than twice as many, it seemed unlikely that the Scots would find it easy to have their national issues discussed with much urgency; at a stroke the followers of the Old Pretender – the Jacobites as they had come to be called – became the guardians of Scottish National identity, in a way that they remained for generations to come.

So, the events of 1688-9 were definitely revolutionary by any meaningful definition of the term. And yet, glorious. The British on the whole don’t much care for revolutions. Abrupt regime change has always been seen as something rather vulgar and unpleasant that dodgy foreigners in less blessed lands are more likely to indulge in. The French Revolution, even in its initial stages when characterised by a National Assembly seeking to establish a constitutional monarchy very like that of the UK, was looked upon askance by the British establishment. Revolution meant riot and mob rule, the lower orders taking it upon themselves to question an existing order that was ordained by God and entirely satisfactory to the small but powerful and articulate elite at the top. And yet in 1688 we persuaded ourselves that a revolution was glorious. And this was entirely down to the fact that, though dramatic in its political changes, the fundamental economic and social relationships between the classes of England were untouched. Popery and absolute monarchy had been defeated, and there was nothing to rock the boat under the nobility and squirearchy of England. In Ireland, indeed, the effect of the Glorious Revolution was largely to underline and extend the dominance of the Protestant minority over the much larger but now all but disenfranchised and dispossessed Catholics. It was easy to formulate reasons to approve of a revolution that benefitted all the right people. The moral and legal slipperiness of the lawyers and theorists of 1688-9 is no more than the rhetoric that is used by vested interests in any era when seeking a way to justify the status quo.

“These are not men! They are demons!”

As someone who has always been somewhat obsessed with the martial side of history (just ask anyone who knows me), one anniversary that has caught my eye today is the 185th birthday of the French Foreign Legion, founded on March 9th 1831 by King Louis Philippe of France to serve in the growing French colonial possessions in North Africa. Made up from the start of foreigners, the royal ordinance that established it specified that it could only serve outside Metropolitan France, and it was a handy way to usefully dispose of all the foreign regiments of an army that was becoming less Royal and more National. So, in late 1831 the Legion was shipped off to Algiers and a legend was born.


Beau Geste. Those propped up corpses.

Think of the French Foreign Legion now and you think of the old movies; tough, desperate soldiers in their blue coats, white kepi covers and baggy white or red pantalons, marching endlessly under the fierce glare of a desert sun or braving the fury of savage desert nomads. And this is indeed how I always regarded them.

I don’t think I ever read Wren’s classic Beau Geste, and I still couldn’t tell you much about the plot, but I never failed to watch the movies on TV. The part that always resonated was where Fort Zinderneuf and its small garrison was under attack by Tuareg nomads; each attack would leave the garrison more depleted, and the brutal sergeant responded by propping up the dead on the battlements, rifles perched on the top of the parapet to make the Tuaregs think they were still alive.

Even as a boy this struck me as a questionable strategy; the Tuaregs would soon have twigged that these guys were not actually firing their rifles and, given their somewhat relaxed posture, it wouldn’t be long before one of them worked out that this was because they were in fact dead. Still, it struck us as pretty cool anyway; so, as soon as the movie was over we’d get out the Airfix Foreign Legion Fort, Fort Sahara – which I always regarded as one of the more handsome not to mention more functional of the Airfix HO/OO forts – and replay the Tuareg attacks, complete with propped-up corpses on the ramparts. One problem we always had was that as the soldiers all had large square bases it was difficult to make the corpses lean realistically against the battlements; sometimes they would rock back on their bases and end up upright again, and as we could never really remember which soldiers were dead and which still alive, these soldiers would effectively come back to life and continue to defend the fort as gruesome zombie legionnaires.

While French North Africa remained the home of the Legion right up until its independence in the 1960’s, it fought in most if not all of the wars France waged both in Europe and in its far-flung colonies, including The Crimean War and the Italian War of Independence of 1859 (where France was a less than disinterested patron of the nascent Italian state in its struggle with the Habsburgs).

A campaign in which the Legion fought with particular distinction was Napoleon III’s ill-advised intervention in Mexico in the 1860’s, when the French, with some initial support from their European neighbours, sought initially to compel the bankrupt Mexican government to pay its debts to its European creditors, and latterly to create a Mexican Empire under the ill-fated Habsburg prince Maximilian. Maximilian, despite some support from conservative Mexicans, was kept in power against the resistance of the Mexican Republicans largely by French bayonets, which included those of several redoubtable battalions of the Legion.

The most legendary battle in the annals of the Legion occurred in Mexico, at the Hacienda Camaron, on April 30th 1863. Captain Jean Danjou, having been informed of a French supply convoy headed towards the beseiged town of Puebla, decided to accompany it with a company of legionnaires. While still on the way to join the convoy, this tiny force, 3 officers and 62 men, was intercepted by no less than 3,000 Mexican Republican troops and forced to take up defensive positions in an adobe hacienda by the side of the road. When summoned to surrender, Danjou refused, and then, sharing some wine with his men, urged them to take an oath to fight to the death rather than surrender. This was no mere bravado. Danjou hoped by his action to keep the Republican force from locating and capturing the supply convoy.

In the ensuing battle Danjou’s men held off the vastly superior Republican force for several hours. When all their ammunition was exhausted, the five men who were left made a bayonet charge on the beseiging army worthy of the last scene of Butch Cassidy. Impressed by their courage, the Mexicans held their fire, and three of the men survived, along with 16 who had been captured earlier in the retreat to the hacienda. 43 of the 65 died, but they inflicted some 500 casualties on the Mexicans. “These are not men! They are demons!” the Mexican commander is said to have exclaimed. Camaron is a passage of arms famous in French military lore, an episode to rank alongside the last stand of the Old Guard at Waterloo. Danjou himself died early in the action, but his prosthetic left hand was returned to the Legion and became something of a sacred artifact, being prominently housed in the Legion’s Museum of Memory. Today the Legion celebrates April 30th as Camaron Day, and Danjou’s hand is paraded in its protective box; the legionnaire deemed worthy of bearing this precious relic on the day is the recipient of an honour without parallel.


The final bayonet charge at Camaron

And yet as always the romance of the legend is at odds with the brutal reality of life in the Legion. Less stirring than the tale of the fight at Camaron, if equally remarkable in its own way, is the Legion’s involvement in the Second French expedition to Madagascar in the 1890’s, where the French expeditionary force suffered just 25 battle casualties but lost some 5,000 men to malaria, dysentery, typhoid and other tropical diseases – a ratio of 200 men lost to disease for every 1 killed in battle. And when not on campaign the legionnaire, confined to the austere loneliness of the barracks and a life of unremitting tedium, was subject to a suicide rate that was always a matter of concern.

The culture of the Legion, the emphasis upon esprit de corps and a sense of otherness, of loyalty only to itself, combined with the harshness of the training, has often produced soldiers capable not only of astonishing toughness and courage but of appalling ruthlessness and cruelty. European powers in their colonial wars were rarely guilty of restraint, but in the Foreign Legion the French had a weapon that was powerful but indiscriminate. Its members were (and are) expected to be obedient to their mission unto death, unthinking and uncomplaining and this unflinching obedience to orders has involved them in atrocities, such as those carried out in Algeria during the War of Independence there, which have tarnished the name of the French military.

I am minded to quote the historian Max Hastings:

“The world contains more misfits, sadists, masochists, and people who enjoy fighting than we sometimes like to suppose. How else can one explain the fact that the French Foreign Legion is heavily overrecruited?” (The Hard Truth About The Foreign Legion, NY Review of Books, October 14 2010)

Hastings goes on to rather unexpectedly make a point that is seldom if ever heard in these days when there is an almost religious reverence for the military, when service of any kind seems to be enough in the public mind to transform a soldier overnight into a hero whose actions are beyond criticism:

“In some respects, the Legion has less claim to uniqueness than is sometimes supposed. Most men who enlist in their own national armies are no more and no less mercenaries than legionnaires. Few join to serve the flag or their nation’s honour. For the most part, they do so because they cannot find any better way to make a living, and find the rigors of service life less onerous than coping with the daily choices and decisions demanded of a civilian. The wars of all nations with volunteer armies are fought mainly by their underclass. This helps to explain why, on shedding their uniforms, so many veterans lapse back into poverty, psychological problems, or even criminality.”

That there is a certain type that thrives in an organisation like the Legion should not surprise us, but it is not likely to be a type we should admire, let alone aspire to emulate.

Perhaps it is best to leave the last word to another incurable romantic:


On the end of curing.

Standing, on a damp, grey winter morning, aboard a crowded commuter train surrounded by passengers who are coughing, sneezing or otherwise succeeding in spreading their microbe-rich sputum across as wide an area as possible, I am struck by a somewhat unnerving article I read on the BBC web site a couple of weeks ago. The article reported that we may shortly be living in a world where antibiotics have lost their power; where, due to a genetic mutation called MCR-1, bacteria have become able to shrug off even the most powerful of antibiotic drugs, where there are infections that are quite simply untreatable. The academic quoted in the article, Professor Timothy Walsh, expressed the issue in as matter-of-factly a way as academics are wont to do:

“All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MCR-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era. At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do.”

This rather undramatic appraisal was in stark contrast to a less restrained comment made earlier in the article by the writer: “Bacteria becoming completely resistant to treatment – also known as the antibiotic apocalypse – could plunge medicine back into the dark ages.”



Plague in sixth century Constantinople

The reference to the Dark Ages resonates. We can hardly help but shudder when we read such words and reflect on the suffering that disease has wrought upon our species in the past. Or at least, as a lifelong hypochondriac, I cannot help but do so.

As a culture we have something of a fascination for apocalypse, and the microbial apocalypse has something of an honoured status within that genre; from the publication of the novel I Am Legend in 1954 via a host of lurid paperbacks in the 1970’s with graphic depictions of suffering and death (as well as the ubiquitous gratuitous sex scenes) and bearing titles like Rabid and Day Of The Mad Dogs, to more modern works that rework the familiar zombie trope with an epidemiological underpinning, the potentialities of disease horrify and hence enthrall us. It is worth noting that this came about at a time when the existential threat we faced from disease was lower than it had ever been before; with the discovery of antibiotics a whole host of previously life-threatening conditions had been tamed, the polio vaccine had been discovered, smallpox was well on the way to being eradicated and average human life expectancy was lengthening by the year. Apocalyptic disease became an exciting diversion to those who had increasingly less to fear it. I would imagine, though I cannot prove, that the prospect held less fascination for those outside the privileged confines of the developed world where premature death from a treatable infectious disease remained, and remains, a much more likely event.

Europe has of course on more than one occasion seen pandemics that easily justify the adjective ‘apocalyptic’. The most dramatic, probably the most iconic and possibly the most far-reaching in terms of its consequences was the plague, which spread outwards from Asia in three cataclysmic spasms during the millenium and a half between CE 540 and the 1950’s, each outbreak trailing behind it a number of aftershocks, subsequent smaller and more localised eruptions that sufficed to keep the population who had survived the initial outbreak in a permanent state of miserable apprehension; and in some cases to keep local population growth in a state of permanent abeyance for generations.

The first plague pandemic reached Europe via the East Roman Empire in the 540’s and has become known as the Plague of Justinian after the ruler of the time. There used to be a great deal of debate about what pathogen caused the Plague of Justinian, but the accounts that the contemporary writer Procopius have left are very suggestive of a strain of Yersinia Pestis, a virulent bacterium, a form of which was also behind the better known Black Death pandemic eight centuries later and is still causing trouble in many parts of the world to this day. Yersinia Pestis was finally identified beyond all doubt as (at least one) culprit early in the twenty first century after DNA tests on the bodies of sixth-century plague victims in Aschheim in Bavaria.


Yersinia Pestis up close

Procopius says of the symptoms:

“a bubonic swelling developed there in the groin of the body, which is below the abdomen, but also in the armpit, and also behind the ear and at different places on the thighs… Up to this point, then, everything occurred in the same way all who had taken the disease. But from then on very distinct differences developed for there ensued for some a deep coma, with others violent delirium…For those who were under the spell of the coma forgot all who were familiar to them, and seemed to lie, sleeping constantly…And in those cases where neither coma nor delirium came on, the bubonic swelling became worse and the sufferer, no longer able to endure the pain, died…In some cases death came immediately, in others, after many days; and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day, but all succumbed immediately. Vomiting of blood ensued in many, without visible cause, and immediately brought death…”

The disease took a lethal grip on the imperial capital Constantinople, and, again according to Procopius, at its peak was killing 10,000 people a day there. While this figure seems rather high, there are accounts of huge plague pits being dug that proved inadequate to contain the dead, and John of Ephesus tells us that corpses were placed in the towers of the city walls and left inside houses to rot.

The plague ravaged the East Roman Empire, killing an estimated third to a half of its total population, before spreading westwards into the successor states of the old Western Roman Empire. Early Medieval Western Europe, less urbanised and less commercially developed at this time than the Eastern Empire, might well have offered fewer vectors of transmision and hence in all probability suffered rather less, and in fact there is little evidence that it penetrated much beyond the trading cities of the Mediterranean coasts. That said, the ‘Yellow Plague of Rhos’ pops up in the remotenesses of Wales, where it is said that it killed off King Maelgwn of Gwynedd.

To the Eastern Empire the effects of the plague are often thought to have been disastrous and to have signalled the start of a long period of decline that within a century or two reduced it to the status of just one more among the successor states squatting on the ruins of the empire of Augustus and Constantine. Before it arrived Justinian ruled an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Euphrates and was close to victory in his campaign to recover Italy from the Visigoths. The plague, it is said, derailed the Gothic War, which ran on for another decade and produced an Italian peninsula ravaged and exhausted and ill-prepared to resist the next invasion, that of the Lombards, who came over the Alps just three years after Justinian’s death. Worse still, the loss of such a high proportion of the population. and the attendant economic crisis, weakened the empire to the extent that it could not resist the near-fatal simultaneous encroachments of Persians and Avars early in the seventh century, followed almost immediately of course by that of the Muslim Arabs which permanently stripped the empire of all of its Levantine and African provinces.

One notable fact about contemporary accounts of Justinian’s Plague is that we find recorded therein the first division of the disease into three distinct forms that is so common an observation in the more numerous accounts of the later Black Death visitation. The forms the disease takes depends upon which of the body’s system Y. Pestis infects.

The first and most common form is an infection of the lymphatic system, and this produces the condition known as Bubonic Plague, with its iconic and terrifying symptoms of painful buboes (swollen and infected lymph glands) appearing in groin and armpits and on the neck. Yet despite the horror of its symptoms, Bubonic Plague was and is the least dangerous of the three forms. Medieval writers may have depicted the appearance of the buboes as a sure premonition of death, but the fact is that, even untreated, a healthy adult has a fighting chance of surviving the condition. It is alas an unfortunate fact of medieval life that relatively few of the victims would have been healthy adults with wholly uncompromised immune systems, especially when the Black Death visitation arrived in Europe after a generation of near-constant famine. Death from Bubonic Plague was strikingly horrible and the victim would often linger for days after the buboes appeared.

The second form is an infection of the respiratory system and became known as Pneumonic Plague. Whereas Bubobic Plague is carried from host to host by the bites of fleas, Pneumonic Plague is transmitted by inhaling the sputum of an infected person via their coughs and sneezes. Even in modern conditions Pneumonic Plague carries a 90-95% mortality rate, and in medieval times recovery must have been virtually unknown. It works much more quickly that its Bubonic cousin, causing respiratory failure long before any buboes have had the chance to form (as Boccaccio commented, “How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, broke fast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world!”).

The third and final form is an infection of the blood and is called Septicaemic Plague. This is the rarest form of the plague and as deadly as the Pneumonic variety, with a mortality rate if untreated of virtually 100%. Y. Pestis in the blood causes it to fail to clot, leading to bleeding into the skin and internal organs and giving rise to the most visible symptom, spreading red or black rashes across the skin. Other alarming symptoms include vomiting of blood and necrosis – tissue death – leading to gangrene at the body’s extremities.


Necrosis in the hands of a plague patient

Justinian’s Plague hung around like a bad smell for a couple of centuries, Y Pestis becoming endemic across much of Europe and causing occasional human epidemics until fading away sometime in the eighth century. It then seems to have disappeared from the collective consciousness until it returned with a vengeance in the mid-fourteenth century as the Great Plague, or the Black Death as it later became known – the phrase was never used at the time. Contemporary descriptions of symptoms and the three recognisable forms of the disease leave us in no doubt as to its identity, although there are just enough differences from Procopius’ accounts to establish that Y Pestis had evolved and changed since its last visit, morphing into something if anything even more virulent and deadly.

The fourteenth century outbreak was on a cataclysmic scale, killing, at conservative estimates, a third or more of Europe’s entire population over the course of 3-4 years and reducing whole areas to wilderness. Anything that so quickly removes such a large proportion of the population can not fail to have huge consequences, and the social, demographic, economic, political and cultural reverberations of the Black Death were far too sweeping and varied to even be touched upon here. But it is worth mentioning that, just like the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death didn’t just do its dreadful work and then disappear. Once more Y Pestis became endemic; the unfortunate survivors of that first outbreak of 1347-1350 had scarcely congratulated themselves upon their survival and started to rebuild their lives when a second epidemic, almost as severe as the first, descended upon them in 1360-61. Thereafter there were regular outbreaks, the effect of which was to put a long term damper on population increase and add another hideous element to the ceaseless trials of the hapless medieval peasant. The plague again lingered on in Europe for centuries, one of its parting shots being the Great Plague of London in 1665 that killed some 100,000 people, or about a fifth of the population of the city at the time.

While most are familiar with the Black Death due to its prominence in cultural depictions of the medieval period, fewer are aware that there was a third pandemic of plague that emerged in China in 1894 and spread from there to neighbouring countries. The victims of the third pandemic, which claimed some 15,000,000 lives before it was declared over in 1959, were mainly in South-East Asia, but not exclusively so. In 1900 plague came to Australia where the first major outbreak occurred in Sydney, its epicentre at the Darling Harbour wharves, spreading to the rest of the city and causing 100 deaths. There were in fact no less than 12 major outbreaks of plague in Australia from 1900 to 1925 with 1,371 cases and 535 deaths. At about the same time trading ships brought the disease to Glasgow, where 16 people died, and to San Francisco, after which it became endemic among the wild animal population in the US. It was also during this third pandemic that the causative organism was discovered by the French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin, who has consequently been awarded the dubious honour of giving his name to a bacterium that has killed hundreds of millions of humans at least.


Rat-catchers in plague-stricken Sydney

Given the levels of medical sophistication with which the twenty-first century westerner has grown up, it is hard to imagine the feeling of terrified helplessness with which our unfortunate ancestors viewed the plague. It was so capricious and merciless in its effects that it is small wonder that they could explain it in no other terms than the punishment of a God wrathful with the sins of His own creation. Historians deal with cause and effect, with figures and demographics, but it must be remembered that behind every number was a suffering human being, a traumatised family. I am reminded of the account of Agnono di Tura of the Black Death in Siena, particularly the terse but horrifying last sentence:

“The mortality in Siena began in May. It was a cruel and horrible thing. . . . It seemed that almost everyone became stupefied seeing the pain. It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth. Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed. The victims died almost immediately. They would swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. None could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. In many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in those ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. I, Agnolo di Tura . . . buried my five children with my own hands. . . . And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

Y Pestis is still with us, with 1-2,000 cases of plague in humans being reported to the WHO every year and an overall mortality rate of about 8-10%. Apart from a much higher standard of public health and hygiene, the main protector we have against plague that was not available during the three pandemics is of course the range of antibiotics to which most cases of plague respond very well if administered in time. It’s this that kind of worries me when I read about the emergence of antibiotic-resistant genes in bacteria. To have the scenes described by Procopius and Boccaccio re-enacted on the streets of London would be a scenario worthy of a lurid 1970’s apocalypse novel. Although it would presumably mean plenty of vacant seats on empty trains, so I guess to everything there is an upside.

Useful Saints.

For the whole of the Middle Ages, and later still in countries that did not embrace the Reformation, the annual calendar was arranged around a combination of movable feasts (such as Easter), immovable feasts (such as Christmas) and a host of feast days associated with one or more of a veritable army of major and minor saints.


Saints Perpetua and Felicity; demoted in favour of Thomas Aquinas

These feast days were from the first a way of commemorating the martyrdom of an individual and were generally observed on the date of their death where known, or on a chosen date where not. Eventually sainthood was extended to those who had died natural deaths but lived lives that indicated a dedication to Christ – these were called confessors and by tradition the first confessor saint was the fourth century Bishop Martin of Tours.

But the Early Church was nothing if not generous with its canonisations, and as the number of saints, be they martyrs or merely confessors, proliferated during the Late Roman and Early Medieval periods, it wasn’t long before every day of the year was the feast day for at least one saint.

This led to some rearrangements that seem amusing now, as saints’ days were moved around to accommodate others, and some saints were even demoted, their feast days disappearing from the liturgical calendar altogether; how that impacted on their status in Heaven can only be guessed at. As an example, the third century African martyrs Saints Perpetua and Felicity originally had their feast day on March 7th, but this was later appropriated by the much bigger hitter St. Thomas Aquinas. Perpetua and Felicity had to make do with a much less prestigious commemoration until 1908 when Pope Pius X moved their feast day to March 6th. In 1969 Aquinas was moved to January and the two African martyrs were returned to March 7th; the differing traditions that had developed in the meantime meant that both the 6th and 7th of March could be seen as their feast days depending on where you found yourself worshipping.

The idea of sainthood has always bemused me; the idea that an act of a group of men can somehow elevate an individual to an exalted relationship with the supposedly unknowable God. But then there is much to bemuse about the various traditions that have developed around religions.

The bemusement only increases when one examines the sort of people who did become saints. What put me in mind of this was the discovery that November 14th is the feast day of Saint Justinian, who is none other than the sixth century Roman Emperor Justinian I (CE 527-565).

Now Justinian is certainly a major historical figure of Late Antiquity. Eastern Emperor at a time when the Empire was in a transitional state between Classical Rome and Medieval Byzantium (he is believed by some scholars to be the last emperor whose native tongue was Latin as opposed to Greek), he was driven by the desire to achieve the renovatio imperii or Restoration of the Empire by recovering the western territories that had been lost to the various ‘barbarian’ peoples during the previous century. To this end his general Belisarius swiftly conquered the Vandal Kingdom of North Africa, and a much longer and harder, if ultimately successful, struggle was fought against the Ostrogothic rulers of Italy (a struggle that devastated the hitherto largely prosperous Italian peninsula and reduced the City of Rome to a pathetic shadow of its former self, a city of starving refugees sustained mainly by Papal largesse and with a population a fraction of what it had been a few centuries previously). Ultimately the southern part of Visigothic Spain was also brought back under the Imperial remit, and Justinian’s Empire was only missing the old western provinces of Northern Spain, Gaul and Britain.

Yet, though Justinian conquered large swathes of territory and restored the prestige of the name of Rome, a saintly man he wasn’t. This should not surprise us. To be a successful ruler in the Middle Ages involved a degree of ruthlessness and callousness wholly incompatible with any popular idea of sainthood. We may be sceptical about the claims of the contemporary historian Procopius, whose Secret History portrays an emperor both vindictive and incompetent, and in fact suggests that he might be a demon : “And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place. One man said that the Emperor suddenly rose from his throne and walked about, and indeed he was never wont to remain sitting for long, and immediately Justinian’s head vanished, while the rest of his body seemed to ebb and flow; whereat the beholder stood aghast and fearful, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. But presently he perceived the vanished head filling out and joining the body again as strangely as it had left it.”) But we can judge the man by his actions, and Justinian was not a man to worry about scruples when threatened. An early threat to his reign came in CE 532 when the Blue and Green factions of the Circus (the fiercely partisan supporters of the Blue and Green chariot racing teams respectively) combined in the Nika Riots. Justinian was initially minded to flee, but encouraged by his wife, the Empress Theodora (also a saint, and portrayed as a fiendish whore by Procopius), he instead unleashed his troops in a reaction that eventually saw the massacre of some 30,000 rioters and the destruction of the original Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia.

A later tradition draws upon the emperor’s reputation for vindictiveness and tells us that Belisarius, the conqueror of the Vandals, after his fall from favour was blinded by Justinian and forced to live out his days as a beggar on the streets of Rome. This story is generally believed to be apocryphal but has spawned a number of artistic works; as I write I have a print of Jacques-Louis David’s Belisarius Begging For Alms hanging in the downstairs hall.

Despite being, to put it mildly, a bloodthirsty despot, he had the advantage of being a religiously orthodox one who defended the Nicene Creed against the numerous heretical groups who held opposing views of the nature of Christ. And that made him a saint.

There is also the case of a later Byzantine ruler, the Empress Irene (CE 797-802), who, if perhaps not responsible for deaths on the same scale as Justinian, was similarly a deeply unattractive individual. She ultimately had her son, the Emperor Constantine VI, blinded so brutally that he soon died of his wounds, so that she could rule alone. Historians tell us that there was an eclipse of the sun and a darkness lasting 17 days as God expressed his horror at this act of filicide. And yet this same Irene resolved (for a time) the long-lasting Iconoclast controversy that had been raging in the Empire regarding the worship of images. A succession of emperors, perhaps influenced by their Muslim neighbours to the east, had condemned the worship of religious icons as idolatry and sought to remove them from display or destroy them, a course of action that brought them into conflict with the Western Church and the Papacy. Irene was an enemy of the Iconoclasts and restored the icons to their place of reverence, and hence was regarded with more sympathy by Rome. Unsurprisingly she became a saint; presumably God swiftly came to regret his earlier expression of horror at Constantine’s brutal murder, no hard feelings.


The Empress Irene; murderous mother, and saint.

The point in both cases is that sainthood was bestowed not for any personal qualities the individual possessed, but for their usefulness to the Church, and this is why we find the canonisation of so many monarchs otherwise unlikely candidates for sainthood. The establishment of Christianity as the official (and eventually the only permitted) religion of the Roman Empire led to an early association of the Church with the secular ruler that only grew stronger as the Middle Ages progressed; as the guarantor of orthodoxy and the protector of the church, the emperors came to hold a position of sacred as well as secular importance, a position that was readily transferred to the various kings that replaced them. This sacred dimension to kingship can be seen in, for example, the anointing of successive French Kings with holy oil during the Middle Ages and beyond.

We see canonisation as a reward for service to the Church most clearly in the case of the Popes themselves. From the time of St Peter, traditionally regarded as the first Pope, for the first half-millenium of the Papacy all pontiffs except one are regarded as saints by the Catholic Church (the unfortunate exception is Liberius, Pope from 352 to 366, who at least has the consolation of being regarded as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church). A succession of 48 men, by no means all of whom would be regarded as saints today. They include, for example, Pope Damasus I (successor to Liberius; 366-384), who overcame a rival Pope elected on the same day by leading a gang of hired thugs in a lengthy massacre of his opponent’s supporters on the sacred ground of the Julian Basilica. The violence was so extreme that the Western Roman Emperor Gratian had to call on the Prefects of the City to restore order with their troops. Edward Gibbon tells us of his subsequent reign: “The enemies of Damasus styled him Auriscalpius Matronarum, the ladies’ ear-scratcher.” Yet Damasus presided over the period when pagan worship was finally banned in Rome and the Altar of Victory removed from the Senate. Again, this sort of record trumps any personal vices the recipient of sainthood might have had.

There are a number of reasons why a particular person may have been canonised and perhaps we will touch upon some of them in future posts. But secular rulers whose acts have in some way benefitted the church have from very early times been accorded saintly status, and for those who believe in such things the well-documented moral lapses of these individuals must bring the process of canonisation itself into question.