My New Book!

The Perfect Sword: Forging the Dark Ages

On 3 November my new book, The Perfect Sword: Forging the Dark Ages, hits all good bookshops and online retailers.

I co-wrote the book with archaeologist Paul Gething and it tells the story of a very special sword, the Bamburgh Blade, and the men who found, forged and wielded it. We’re particularly delighted that Tom Holland (the historian, not Spider-man) read the book and said this about it:

‘Revelatory and fascinating … the kind of book that Wayland the Smith would have adored.’

This is what it says on the inside cover:

In 2000, archaeologist Paul Gething rediscovered a sword. An unprepossessing length of rusty metal, it had been left in a suitcase for thirty years. But Paul had a suspicion that the sword had more to tell than appeared, so he sent it for specialist tests. When the results came back, he realised that what he had in his possession was possibly the finest, and certainly the most complex, sword ever made, which had been forged in seventh-century Northumberland by an anonymous swordsmith.

This is the story of the Bamburgh Sword – of how and why it was made, who made it and what it meant to the warriors and kings who wielded it over three centuries. It is also the remarkable story of the archaeologists and swordsmiths who found, studied and attempted to recreate the weapon using only the materials and technologies available to the original smith. 

I hope you will enjoy it!

Adventures in Words: Gut by Giulia Enders

Gut by Giulia Enders

Did you know that there is a poo scale? No, neither did I, until I read Enders’ bright and breezy book. ‘Bright and breezy’ might seem odd adjectives for a book about defaecation, about Enders’ fascination with what happens to what goes in at our mouths and out of our bottoms is both charming and enlightening – and renders the whole subject much more palatable (sorry!).

So the poo scale, known as the Bristol Stool Scale and only developed in 1997, divides poo into seven categories, with number 1 being little, hard rabbit pellets and number 7 dirty brown liquid with no solid bits, and all the variations in between. Ideally, we should be producing type 3 (‘sausage-shaped but with cracks on surface’) or type 4 (‘sausage- or snake-like, smooth and soft’) poos. Not only did I learn about types of poo but that the best way of expelling them from one’s bottom is, in fact, to squat. Sitting on a toilet produces a kink in the bowels that the bowel muscles have to push past where squatting smoothes out the bowel interior and enlists gravity. So the squat toilets that are still found in some Asian countries are better for defaecating while also producing a helpful hip flexion.

Apart from poo, the book goes into the extraordinary gut flora that live inside us – we are all, it seems, an ecosystem as much as individuals – and the fundamental ways in which the guts affects our health. These connections are only just being teased out but it appears that all sorts of conditions are made better or worse by our insides. It appears that the old adage that you are what you eat is truer than we ever realised.

An entertaining and informative book – and what more could you ask of a book about poo.

Adventures in Words: In Search of the First Civilizations by Michael Wood

In Search of the First Civilizations by Michael Wood

I’m afraid this is the first book by Michael Wood that I have found disappointing.

Perhaps the main reason is that it doesn’t do what it says on the cover. I thought this would be an examination and exploration of the first civilizations – it does rather say that, doesn’t it? – but it wasn’t. While it begins with the ancient civilizations of the Near East, India, China, Egypt, the Americas, it then assumes that the founding ideas of these civilizations have been transmitted down through the ages and, with somewhat cherrypicked examples, follows these regional civilizations through the ages up to the modern age, attempting to show that each is the heir of its past.

While I have some sympathy with the idea, the brush strokes are too broad and the crucial explosions of new religions, which alone are capable of redefining the ruling myths of a civilization, are glossed over. That there are continuities between the Egypt of the Pharaohs and modern Muslim Egypt I don’t think anyone would disagree with. But the discontinuities are, if anything, even more profound.

So skip this book and read Wood’s brilliant In Search of the Dark Ages instead.

The Siege of Jerusalem in AD70

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez

In Jerusalem, even a pile of rocks is significant. Early in 2016, archaeologists working for the Israel Antiquities Authority found heaped up rocks and stones while investigating part of the Russian Compound in central Jerusalem. But, this being Jerusalem, these were stones that told a story of blood and terror, of the gods and God.

In 70AD, the Roman general, Titus, laid seige to Jerusalem. Under his command were four legions – 60,000 men. Inside the city were about half a million Jews, most of whom were families caught in what had become a death trap. Judea had long been a fractious part of the Roman Empire, the unhappiness of its subjects worsened by a series of inept governors. In the chaos that surrounded the final years of the Emperor Nero’s rule and the fighting following his death, the Jews rose in revolt, declaring an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem and its heart in the great Temple. But when Vespasian took control of the Empire he dispatched his son, Titus, to put down the Jewish revolt.

Despite having four years to prepare for the Roman attack, the new Jewish state had squandered energy and manpower in internal fighting. The gangs of three warlords fought through the streets of Jerusalem, even into the Temple itself. But worship and sacrifice nevertheless continued, with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover in April 70AD. And there they were trapped. Titus invested the city, trapping residents and pilgrims alike.

But the rebels were confident they could withstand the Romans. Jerusalem itself was ringed by walls and watchtowers and, at its centre, the Temple was as much citadel as place of worship. And the rebels had completed the Third Wall, begun by Herod Agrippa in 40, which protected the more vulnerable northern side of the city. We have a witness to what happened next in the appalled and self-exculpatory work of Josephus, one of the leaders of the Jewish revolt who, captured, defected to the Romans and became interpreter to Titus.

Standing beside his master outside Jerusalem, Josephus looked upon a city that held his own parents as well as many friends. It must have looked impregnable. “Many towers, 35 feet high and 35 feet broad, each surmounted with lofty chambers and with great tanks for rain water, guarded the whole circuit of the walls, 90 being in the first wall, 14 in the second, and 60 in the third.”

It was this Third Wall that Titus attacked first. And it’s the debris of this assault that Israeli archaeologists found in the Russian compound, scattered in front of the excavated line of the wall. They found more than 70 ballista stones right in front of the wall. The bombardment was intended to attack the sentries guarding the wall and to provide cover for the Roman forces so they could approach the wall with battering rams and thereby breach the city’s defenses.

They did. But the Jews fought on.

The Romans stormed the second wall, then had to retake it all over again when the Jews counterattacked. Titus invested the city, building a wall around Jerusalem’s walls to seal the inhabitants into their city tomb, and then settled down to let famine do his work. According to Josephus, people walked ‘like shadows, all swollen with famine, and fell down dead…a deep silence and a kind of deadly night seized the city.’  The Romans crucified anyone who attempted to escape, sometimes killing 500 people a day: the Mount of Olives was covered with crosses.

Finally, at the end of July, Titus ordered his legions to make the final attack on the Temple. The defenders fought over every stone, but they were overwhelmed and fire spread in the wake of the blood madness.

The Temple, the seat of God’s presence on earth, burned.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 4: Decline and Fall and Rise Again

Photo by Lubosz

The Mount, set in a tidal bay, did not need defences until the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. During the course of the war, battlements were built around the island, and the abbey itself was fortified.

By 1520, the last great addition to the abbey church, the late-Gothic choir, had been completed. It was just in time. In 1523, King Francis I granted the abbacy in commendam to the nobleman (and later cardinal) Jean le Veneur. This was basically a grant for an absentee abbot to milk the abbey of its income. Le Veneur, and the succeeding abbots in commendam, did so, to such an extent that there were barely any monks left at the outbreak of the French Revolution. The rabidly anti-clerical Revolutionary government closed the monastery and turned it into a prison, mainly for priests and religious. They also renamed it Mont Libre, apparently without any intended irony. To haul provisions to the top of the mount, the prisoners had to tread a huge wheel that pulled a cart up a steep incline: wheel, chain and incline (called ‘poulain’ in French) are all still visible.

The Mount remained a prison until 1863, when a campaign by French men of letters, including Victor Hugo, led to it being declared a historic monument. Some urgent repairs were needed to stabilise and restore the building after the modifications made to hold prisoners. As part of the restoration, the spire atop the central tower was added, with the statue of St Michael crowning it.

In 1966, after a gap of over 150 years, monks returned to the abbey. Appropriately, they were Benedictines, and once again the great work of monks, the daily office of prayer and chant, was heard flowing through the choir. In 2001, the Jerusalem Community, a joint institute of monks and nuns, took over at the abbey. They chant lauds and vespers in the morning and evening, with a midday mass; for those wanting to engage more deeply in the spiritual heritage of Mont St-Michel, the Community have a retreat house on the Mount. These are the best times to visit the abbey: as the chant silences the tourist chatter and the sound, more profound than silence, reaches to heaven.

Michael, looking down from his high vantage point, must be pleased.

Adventures in Words: The First Showman by Karl Shaw

The First Showman by Karl Shaw

It’s a real shame that this book seems to have died on the shelves. It tells the story of Philip Astley, showman extraordinaire, who astonished Georgian England, and indeed Europe, with his stunt riding skills as well as inventing a form of show, with lots of acts within a marked out oval, that was the origin of the modern circus. Astley was physically large and well built but his personality was even larger, while his life story, encompassing humble beginnngs, astonishing turns of fortune, fires, disasters, recoveries, is the stuff of a biographer’s dream.

Indeed, it’s such a vivid recreation of the man’s life and times that I earnestly wish more people would read it. Hearing of some of the stunts Astley and his team performed, one can only marvel at their skill and their courage – somersaults on the back of a galloping horse is merely par for the extraordinary course.

The book also offers a fascinating insight into the life of a Georgian entrepeneur, a man making his way into the expanding world of show business and, by his own energy and imagination, expanding it further. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or in the circus.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 3: A Miracle in Stone

Mont Saint-Michel as it appeared in 1865.

Faced with a lax community of monks, Richard the Fearless (933-996) brought in those great renewers of monastic life: the Benedictines. Richard gave the epicurean monks of the mount an ultimatum: accept a properly rigorous monastic life as a Benedictine or leave. All but one left. This year, 966, marks the start of the Benedictine foundation that would work miracles in rock.

As the power of the Dukes of Normandy grew, so did their reliance on the protection of their great patron, St Michael. In 1020, Richard the Good (ruled 996-1027), son of Richard the Fearless, commissioned Abbot Hildebert to build a new abbey church upon the mount.

Romanesque architecture was in its infancy, but in their ambition to glorify the archangel, Richard and Hildebert asked extraordinary things of their new church. The rock of St Michel was shaped like a sugar loaf, rising 78.6 metres (258 feet) above the mean sea level. The obvious architectural choice would have been to cut the top off the mountain to create a solid and level foundation for the new church. But that would have been to step down from heaven. Instead, Abbot Hildebert took the apex of the rock for the the ground level of his new church, and built out in all directions to provide the foundations.

The apex of the rock is the centre of the church, the crossing point where nave and transept meet and join. On this rock, Hildebert built his church, the central tower rising directly from the apex of the mount, supported by the four piers that still hold the tower up, thrusting the statue of St Michael (a 19th-century addition) into the sky. Abbot Hildebert and his successors built out westward about two hundred feet from the cross of the church.

A great medieval church never being properly finished, they were still building 150 years later, when Abbot Robert de Torigny rebuilt the west front of the church with two towers. That was two towers too many. One fell in 1300. Slowly, slowly the west front gave way, so that in 1776 the whole façade and three spans of the nave had to pulled down. Today, four of the seven original seven spans of the nave survive.

Looking up at the abbey church today, standing serenely above the world, it seems untroubled and stable. This appearance masks the reality of its history. For the abbots built out as enthusiastically eastwards as they did westwards, with the same result. On the east, Abbot Hildebert’s foundations stood until 1421, when they gave way while the mount was beseiged during the Hundred Years’ War. It was rebuilt and completed in 1520 in a last flowering of Gothic architecture. Stand in the western door and you can see the original and terminal styles of medieval architecture, the Romanesque and the Gothic, together, the sober spans of the Romanesque nave framing the flamboyance of the Gothic choir.

Adventures with Words: The Stranger Diaries

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I don’t read much detective fiction but if it were all as good as this then I would certainly read more! What makes this story so enjoyable for a literature nerd like myself is the way that Elly Griffiths weaves the present-day detective story into the narrative of a faux Gothic short story, sitting somewhere between Edgar Allan Poe and The Castle of Otranto, which she reproduces in the course of the novel. Griffiths does a wonderful job of writing the story in the style of the early masters, a bit heightened for the sake of the plot, and then placing it into the story. A more seasoned reader of detective fiction might have guessed the perpetrator but I didn’t – and I was glad of that. For this newbie to detective fiction the story was a delight.

Adventures in Words: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Christopher Booker doesn’t keep the reader in suspense: they’re right there, on the cover: Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf), Rags to Riches (Oliver Twist), The Quest (The Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (The Odyssey), Comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Tragedy (Hamlet) and Rebirth (A Christmas Carol). The stories in brackets are just a very few examples of the stories he quotes: one of the most impressive aspects of the book is that Booker seems to have read everything.

For the purposes of this review, I will take it as read that Booker makes his case: there really are only seven basic plots and all stories fall into these, although some incorporate more than one plot. For instance, The Lord of the Rings encompasses all seven of the plots. Instead, what I would like to consider is the why that Booker advances. Why do the stories that we tell, starting with the earliest stories known to us such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and continuing into the present day revolve around these seven basic plots? According to Booker, it is because they are shaped by the archetypes that, according to Carl Jung, sit deep in our unconscious, archetypes such as the shadow, the anima, the wise old man and so on, with the archetype of the self, the undivided whole adult human, being the gravitational centre around which the other archetypes revolve and to which they all aim to resolve.

According to Booker, the ideal story ends with its elements united and the Self realised, which is most often symbolised in stories by the hero marrying the heroine. This is the point and end of stories and, according to Booker, this is what gives them their unique power when told well.

I have some sympathy with this idea. But as sources of the fundamental meaning of life, Booker is asking purely human psychological constructs to take more weight than they can bear. Meaning, fundamentally, cannot be derived from the structures of our own psyches as, to use a metaphor, it is like blowing up a balloon and then expecting it to act as its own foundations. The sort of universal meaning Booker is talking about in his book cannot be located purely in the psychological structures of the mind, although these can be intimately connected to it, but has to be grounded in something deeper, wider, older and broader. Really, Booker is talking about God but seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that.

So, curiously, the book suffers from something like the flaw that Booker ascribes to modern literature: an obsession with the the surface forms of things, the ego and its gratification at the expense of the deeper Self. The Seven Basic Plots likewise stops short before it reaches its destination, placing too much meaning in psychology while consciously or unconsciously avoiding the source of psychology, its ground and fountain.

However, the book remains a monumental body of work, deserving the highest accolade. I recommend it whole heartedly – and it will leave you wanting to read many more good books!

Adventures in Words: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

In a story of tables being turned, big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford finds that he is the prey and someone else in the hunter. It’s a taut, sharp thriller, a short story rather than a novel but one that’s deservedly remained in print since it was first published almost a hundred years ago.

But it makes me think: humans are pursuit hunters. We can run longer, farther and further than any other animal, having traded fur for the ability to sweat and thus regulate our temperature as we are running. As hunters of the African savannah, the ice plains of northern Europe or the deserts of Australia, that’s what we did: we pursued the prey relentlessly, running after it as it fled and never giving it time to rest so that, in the end, it simply collapsed. That is what we were. But it is also what we most fear: the relentless, implacable pursuer (think the first Terminator). What we fear most is an image of ourselves. And that is the fear that drives the plot of The Most Dangerous Game: man the hunter, hunted.