Monday, 4 July 2016

EU solidarity letter

One of the many aspects of Brexit which distresses me is the sense that many of our European counterparts may feel betrayed or judge Britain as a whole because of the result.

Together with colleagues, I have therefore written open letter to our European friends - it has been submitted to major European newspapers (and so far, has appeared here), to remind our European friends, colleagues and neighbours, that many of us continue to feel emphatically European and to believe that the EU project, however flawed, is idealistically worthwhile.

If you agree with the sentiments, please do sign the letter at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/eu-solidarity-letter
It is translated into German, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovakian, Latvian and Romanian.

It would be great if you could mention in the comment section on the petition whether you were entitled to vote - we want everyone to have a voice, but we would also like to preempt any criticism and to be entirely open.

What is left to do at the moment? - to continue hopeful, to maintain solidarity, and to live our values of openness, tolerance and enthusiasm for the richness of cultures and dialogue.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

MISERY


source: wikipedia


The beginning of last week was, for me, comically awful.  I returned from a weekend in Germany to find that my bank card had been blocked for no apparent reason, my phone had over-heated and died, our boiler had leaked, destroyed the kitchen ceiling and flooded the kitchen, and a hedgehog had made its way into our sitting room, nested under the arm-chair and messed in every available corner including all over my son's toys.  The house stank of mould, hedgehog poo and tears of rage.

source: wikipedia


By mid-week, I had a nasty and painful allergic reaction on my face, which made the areas around my eyes swollen and burning.  By the time I made it to the out-of-hours doctor at the weekend, when it had become almost unbearable, the doctor opened the consultation by saying 'I suppose you want me to make you look beautiful' - how's that for stupid and sexist?

But on Friday, the comedy took a tragic turn with the results of the referendum.  I can't find anything to laugh about this.  I don't even know where to start in expressing my distress - what a future for us and our children...  The rise of racism and xenophobia; the exploitation of voters through misinformation; the social, generational and geographical divisions revealed in our own country; the sense of betrayal felt by so many of our European counterparts; the hand-rubbing of the European far-right; the diplomatic implications for European harmony.  I'm not even thinking about the economic consequences any longer - the catastrophe stretches beyond the economic as a set of ideals are fundamentally threatened.  But of course, the economic implications will be suffered most painfully by those who have already been cruelly done-down.  It all hurts so much.

I, and many many friends and colleagues, are sending a letter to major European newspapers tomorrow, expressing our deep distress and sadness; our continued hope; and our ongoing belief in the idea of Europe, whatever the outcome. We have built our lives around an idea and an ideal of Europe.  We will continue to allow this idea to shape our lives and our interactions.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Fashion

I don't think I could be called fashionable by any stretch of the imagination, but having new clothes is always a nice feeling - unless you let yourself think about suffering and exploitation which goes into so much clothing production and 'fast fashion' nowadays.  There are some lovely ethical brands (eg. http://www.peopletree.co.uk/), but it's amazing that, on the whole, we are all so complacent about this issue.  Indifference and fashion go hand in hand - in many ways, apathy seems to be the prerequisite of fashion.

Dress by People Tree - http://www.peopletree.co.uk/women/new-in/rhonda-dress-in-green


Tragedies in clothing production occur on a fairly regular basis (eg. the Rana Plaza disaster), quite apart from the daily misery of conditions in many factories - but fast fashion only needs to nod vaguely towards their responsibilities and most people seem to be satisfied.

I'm reading a lot of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sermons at the moment (this is for my project on nostalgia in the fourteenth century).  It isn't a huge surprise to find the preachers  fulminating against contemporary fashions, revealing necklines, fancy jewellery and so on (usually with a good dose of misogyny thrown in) - in their view, the growing obsession with finery and fashion seemed to embody pride and avarice.  But I was a little more surprised to find their critique also turning to the implications of the production of this clothing.

The early fifteenth-century preacher, San Bernardino of Siena passionately told the crowd, 'were you to take one of these gowns and press it and wring it out, you would see, gushing out of it, a human being's blood.'

Most of San Bernardino's fiery rhetoric would do us little good today - quite the opposite - but on this issue, his combining of anger and compassion might stir us in the right direction.

Monday, 18 April 2016


Prudence inquired, "Have I done too much?" and enthusiasm or compassion, "Might I not, perhaps, have done more?

I'm reading the autobiography of Iris Origo at the moment.  She was a fascinating woman, born in 1902 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish mother, and a father from the mind-bogglingly wealthy New York Cutting family.  After the death of her father from tuberculosis, she was brought up by her mother in the Florentine Villa Fiesole.  She married an Italian aristocrat, Antonio Origo, and they bought a vast estate near Siena, called La Foce, which they restored with gardens designed by Cecil Pinsent.

Iris Origo: source https://www.librarything.com/author/origoiris


During World War II, Iris and her family sheltered refugees on their estate, and she established a model farm, model school and hospital at La Foce for the tenant farmers.

La Foce: source, http://www.montepulciano.net/la_foce_iris_origo.htm#.VxVejfkrLIU


Iris Origo was also a rather interesting historian.  She wrote several biographies and works of history, and I came across her first because of an article in Speculum 1955 entitled 'The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries'.  It's a very stimulating article, amassing a good deal of archival material about late medieval slavery, and showing how owners both exploited, and were terribly afraid of, their slaves.  She is perhaps most famous for her book, The Merchant of Prato, about Francesco Datini, a fourteenth-century merchant who left the most extraordinary archive of around 153 000 documents.



I'm enjoying getting to know the woman, as far as one can, through her autobiography - and learning about her extraordinarily privileged, and rich (in every sense) life.  Some of her comments are very much of her time, some of them appal me slightly, and some resonate in such a way that I would just love to have met her.

In her personal diary, she wrote that the challenge of life:

'arose from a continual necessity to weigh in the balance not courage and cowardice, or right and wrong, but conflicting duties and responsibilities equally urgent.... At the end of each day prudence inquired, "Have I done too much?" and enthusiasm or compassion, "Might I not, perhaps, have done more?"'

Thursday, 31 December 2015

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

This is the depiction of the giving of New Year gifts, for the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It's a jolly image, but one which seems to me fraught with tension and competition.  The manuscript was famously illuminated by the Limbourg brothers.  In 1411, the brothers presented the Duke with a New Year gift themselves: 'un livre contrefait d'une pièce de bois en semblance d'un livre, où il n'a nuls feuillets ne rien escript' ('a piece of wood made to look like a book, with no pages, and nothing written in it').  It was lavishly decorated and made to look quite splendid. I wish you all the jokiness of the Limbourgs, and none of the tension of the Dukes.


source: wikipedia

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

CHRISTMAS WISHES

I'm sorry that I'm a bit late wishing a very happy Christmas to anyone who is nice enough to read my blog!

We're in Germany for Christmas.  My son has had a wonderful time learning to skate on a rink outside the Cathedral in Wetzlar.





I took him inside the Cathedral to have a look at the nativity scene. I assumed that it would be reassuringly cute.  It wasn't.  Bits of rubbish were strewn around it, some filthy baby clothes, and a dirty nappy.  The dirty nappy really was taking it a bit far - it was properly disgusting.  There was no explanation, but I guess it was supposed to resemble a refugee camp (there was also barbed wire, and a Red Cross sign).  On reflection, I still think it was unnecessarily revolting, but it did at least give us a jolt.

It was in stark contrast with the smooth Christmassy-ness of David Cameron's Christmas message. He nodded to our Christmas duty to remember the poor with his comment that 'Throughout the United Kingdom, some will spend the festive period ill, homeless or alone,' and he thanked those who try to help these vulnerable groups.  It was a comment dangerously close, I thought, to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century attitudes to the poor and homeless.  Miracle collections and devotional texts of the period make it clear that the poor are to be pitied, and valued - not on their own terms, but for two quite other reasons: they provide a reminder of Christ's suffering, and they provide an opportunity for Christian charity.  In other words, they're useful because they make everyone else slightly better Christians - there's no need to try to improve their condition, because they fulfil a crucial function.  The welfare state gives us now a radically different vision from this - but there's always a lingering sense that inequality doesn't matter too much, so long as we all remember the less fortunate at appropriate moments and get a nice glow of self-righteous virtue as a result.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on Cameron and his vision of 'Christian Britain' - his goverment hasn't entirely destroyed the welfare state after all.  But I think his comments about the less privileged are just too comfortable: it's not enough to say that we should all thank those who work for charities, and assume that we'll say the same every year for the next century.  Christmas is a time for warmth and celebrations, but it would be good to think that it could also be a time to shock us into something more.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

MEDIEVAL MONSTERS

An animal rather popular in medieval bestiaries, which repelled its enemies by farting fiery fumes of excrement.  This image is from Douai, Bibliotheque municipale, ms. 711, fol 8r, source here: http://discardingimages.tumblr.com/


The day before yesterday, David Cameron resorted to some strong rhetoric to get his point across:

'These women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters, they are hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their warped ends.'

Whether or not Cameron's plan amounts to a 'bomb now, ask questions later' approach, his point in this particular statement is incontrovertible.  The horror of Isis’ actions reaches beyond words.

But, perhaps predictably, I take issue with the 'medieval monsters' bit.  On one level, this is because attitudes to violence were so much more complex than this in the Middle Ages.  But that isn't my main objection - after all, when people use the term 'medieval' in this way, they're not trying to be academically accurate, but polemically effective, and that's fair enough.

What I object to is the way that the word 'medieval' recasts a chronological framework in spatial terms.  In other words, Cameron (and so many others who use the word to demonise their enemies), is re-plotting the chronological progress of the past 1000 years on a geographical map.  We in the west are apparently modern and civilised - and those who haven't followed our particular trajectory aren't.  And deploying the 'medieval' card surely only plays into the hands of Isis propagandists intent on describing the 'crusaders' of the west.  Acknowledging that even Isis is a part of our complex, messy, often horrific and deeply problematic modernity is surely critical to any honest or lasting solution