Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Who rules the waves?

There were frequent references to King Canute during the recent flooding, but how many journalists properly understood the moral of the story?

The story of Canute, or Cnut, and the waves was first recorded by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon a hundred years or so after Canute's reign.

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide 'You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no-one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.'

But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king's feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried 'Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea bey eternal laws.'

Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown, but placed it on the image of the Crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. 

Canute was a king of England, but he was not an English king. He was Danish, already king of Denmark when he succeeded to the English throne. He became king of England after the disastrous reign of Ethelred Unraed and the untimely death of Ethelred's son Edmund Ironside, a proven warrior who might have been an effective ruler.

Edmund's brother and sons were young, and Canute was in England with an army and a fleet. He was able to impose his rule on England with the support of people in the east of the country who were of Danish origin, descendants of the Danes who had been settling there since the second half of the ninth century. The Danish influence is still very evident in the place names and dialect of the region.

Canute reigned until 1035, bringing some much needed stability to the government of England.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Climate change?

The weather has eased for now, although it will be weeks and months before all the water is back where it's supposed to be and repairs to homes and businesses have been carried out.

We have had storms and floods before, of course. The most serious in living memory were those of 1953. The most destructive was probably the Great Storm of 1703, when, in addition to loss of life and damage to property on land, the Royal Navy lost thirteen ships and almost two thousand officers and men.

The Somerset Levels, the Fens,  Romney Marsh,  the Thames side lands of Kent and Essex, are all on land which has been reclaimed, either by natural processes or the efforts of man. As such they have always been susceptible to flooding. In the thirteenth century repeated storms broke through the sea defences in Romney Marsh and swept away the town of Winchelsea. The present town was founded on  a new site by Edward I about 1290.

 A Great Breach was opened on the Thames shore near Woolwich in 1531. This was not repaired until the seventeenth century.

Even in normal years low lying land might be under water for much of the winter, resulting in rich pasture  in spring.

Landlords had to spend heavily on flood defences. In 1293-94 the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, landlords in Romney Marsh, spent over £100 on repairing and improving defences.

The most sustained period of bad weather in English history was probably that which began in 1314-15 and continued for about ten years. Following a poor harvest in 1314, a very wet winter and spring prevented ploughing and sowing in 1315. Such crops as were planted rotted in the fields due to continuing wet weather. The same happened in 1316. In some places grain prices were four or five times what they normally were - at a time when a very high proportion of labouring families' incomes was spent on bread. Alternate floods and drought caused bad harvests up to 1327, while cattle disease wiped out large numbers of cattle, including the oxen needed for ploughing.

These conditions affected the whole of western Europe. It is estimated that ten to fifteen per cent of the population may have died of hunger, with the impact being greater in some areas than others.

The 1310s are identified as the beginning of the Little Ice Age, which by some reckonings continued to the late nineteenth century.  Perhaps now, seven hundred years later, we are seeing the start of another.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

First World War Centenary

I'm sure I'll be posting more about the Great War as we approach all the major anniversaries, but for now a couple of resources for writers and historians:

The British Library has just launched a major new website on the First World War, with articles by present day historians and collections of resources from the time. The War is addressed from a European, not just a British, perspective, and the resources are drawn from various countries and are in various languages.

The BBC also has a First World War site where there are articles by present day authorities on various aspects of the war and links to and transcripts of radio and television programmes on the subject. (People outside the UK may not be able to access the television programmes.)

In addition, First World is an established site that's well worth a visit, especially for its collections of contemporary source material.

The late and greatly missed military historian Professor Richard Holmes made two television series of War Walks, which are available on YouTube. The first series included episodes on the battles of Mons and the Somme.

Friday, 7 February 2014

"Dead! And never called me Mother!"

The line is from East Lynne, a hugely popular play based on Mrs Henry Wood's novel of the same name, published in 1861. It does not appear in the novel.

But what did children call their parents at different periods in history? Mother and Father?  Mama and Papa? Mum and Dad? Mater and Pater? Madam and Sir? Ma and Pa? Mummy and Daddy?

The best known - and most tear-jerking - fictional use of  'Daddy' is probably the one at the end of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. And that line does appear in the book. It has a greater impact because Bobbie, Peter and Phylllis had mostly referred to their parents as 'Mother' and 'Father' to that point.

So when did Mummy and Daddy become commonly used by children?

A search of the records of the  Old Bailey reveals the use of Mammy and Daddy from about 1730:

"Thomas Greneway, of St Giles's Cripplegate, was indicted for feloniously stealing a silver Tankard, the Property of Thomas Fletcher, the 26th of August last [1729].
Mr Fletcher depos'd, That the Tankard being missing was search'd for, but not being found, his Wife and self went into the Children's Room, who were in Bed, a Child in Bed, about 7 Years of Age, cry'd out, Mammy, don't 'fright your self,  I can tell you of your Tankard, I saw Greneway put it under his Coat."

"Thomas Robinson was indicted for stealing 33 pounds weight of bacon, value 20s, the property of John English Feb 17 [1768]
John English: I keep a chandler's shop in Wapping; last Wednesday was  week, between seven and eight at night, I was gone into the back kitchen, my little girl that is about eight years old screamed out; I came into the shop; she said O daddy, daddy, the bacon is gone; I went to the hatch, and a boy told me he saw a  man go with something from the window; I pursued as he directed; I saw a man under a lamp with something bulky; when I came under it, he, by looking back, had a full view of me; he made a sort of a run, I ran and catched hold of him; he dropped the bacon; I collared him; there were other people came; I left him to them, and took up my hat and wig, and bacon from the dirt."

The Oxford English Dictionary has an even earlier usage. From a poem by John Skelton, dated to 1523:

To Mistress Isabell Pennell

By Saint Mary, my lady,
Your mammy and your dady
Brought forth a goodly baby

So a writer may have a child character saying Mammy or Daddy at any date from the early sixteenth century.