Category Archives: Opinion

A little post on e-books vs books

I’m not going to tackle the rather daunting debate on book vs e-books in any detail here, but I thought I’d just share a couple of recent posts I’ve seen that set out some stats on the issue quite nicely. This infographic presents a nicely balanced view on the merits of both. I particularly like what it says in regard to children’s books, if there is a point where I myself would put my foot down on the use of e-books it would be there. I’m sure picture books are available in e-book form, but there is nothing in this wide world to compare with cuddling up and reading a physical book with my son.

via the CILIP Multimedia Information Technology Group Blog

And from a nearby academic library, a couple of informative posts on their own internal survey of student opinion on e-book usage. It presents more evidence of a balanced view of e-book usage amongst those who use books (of both kinds) intensively. Though in the context of this academic library, it is clear that print is still winning out:

Education Faculty Library, Cambridge

Education Faculty Library, Cambridge

Photo by grandgrrl @ Flickr

Photo by grandgrrl @ Flickr


Southampton City Walls

The Sea Lapping at Southampton City Walls

I have a bit of a thing about Southampton’s medieval walls, so I was looking forward to Dr Andy Russel talking about the decline of the walls in the Stuart period, at last weekends ‘Stuart Southampton’ study day. The talk was excellent and it reminded me again of what an incredible asset the walls are to Southampton and what an incredible shame it is that they are still not showcased as well as they could be. I thought I’d cover the talk here and add in my own thoughts on the city walls today.

Southampton’s first stretch of defensive walling was constructed in the thirteenth century, and covered the north and easterly sides of the city, but not the coastline on the west and south. I imagine the water of the Solent itself was considered protection enough. This early phase included the building of the original Bargate, which was the principal entrance to the city and means of extracting tolls and taxes from those importing and exporting goods via the port and markets. Bits of the original still survive within today’s much altered Bargate.

The Towne Wall is in manie places decayed & broken

The Towne Wall is in manie places decayed & broken

Despite the presence of a castle on the coastal (western) side of the City, and further extensions of the walls, the defences proved to be inadequate, as Southampton was invaded by the French in 1338. King Edward III immediately ordered that a stone wall was to be built on the seaward side of the City and therefore completed its enclosure.

The full extent of Southampton's City Walls after 1338.

The mid-Fourteenth Century was a time of excellence in the construction of stone masonry according to Dr Russel, so Southampton was lucky that its walls were built at this time. While the wall has been altered, restored, rescued many times in the intervening years it still has its medieval core. The westerly walls were an impressive undertaking, measuring from 25 to 30 feet in height, and what remains (which is a lot) are still quite a sight. Check out the video at the end of the post to see the north-west corner as it stands today.

The Fourteenth Century seaward walls looking South

Dr Russel’s talk focused on a spike in complaints about the state of this section of the walls at the City’s Leet court in the mid Seventeenth Century. The Leet court of Southampton continues to meet to this day. Then, as it does now, the Leet court met annually and was an opportunity for local people to raise their fears or complaints, the legitimacy of the complaint then being decided by the presiding judge.  The section that seemed to be causing most worry was between the Arundel tower in the north-west corner of the city to the Watergate in the south. Dr Russel presented some data on the pattern of complaints through the century, here’s a rough summary:

1590 – 5
1600 – 30
1610 – 35
1620 – 50
1630 – 30
1640 – 15
1650 – 25
1660 – 15(ish)

Clearly the first half of the Seventeenth century was a time when locals were worried about the state of the walls, culminating in a peak in complaints in the 1620s. Looking at both the archaeology of the walls and the details of the complaints it seems that the walls were undergoing a period of neglect. The main form of maintenance that the walls and towers required was continued upkeep of the piles and stones that protected the foundations. Large timbers were driven into the seabed (the piles) and then stones were deposited between the piles and the walls to stop erosion. To be effective these had to be regularly replenished and it was a requirement of all the ‘lightermen’ who operated the cargo barges to hold stones as ballast on their return journey to Southampton and to deposit them at the walls. The records show that this did not always happen, Dr Russel pointed out the Hythe boatmen who were initially fined for not meeting this part of their license and then in desperation offered beer as payment.

It seems that there was ongoing conflict between the desire to retain the defences and the desire to make money. The town rented out the towers along the wall as dwellings, which led to complaints that they were inhabited by ‘lewd persons’ who threw their ‘water’ into the streets. Other complaints included those against James Courtney in 1623 who built houses along and on top of the walls and William Ryman in 1635, who knocked a hole in the wall for a window. Part of the walls even fell down under the care of Peter Knowler, and as it evident from the archaeology, were not rebuilt.

More of the surviving Westerly walls

The walls went through periods of neglect and repair a number of times in its lifetime and Dr Russel was interested in analysing why it seemed to cause such concern at this time and why by the end of the century did people not seem to care as much. Some of the complaints refer to ‘dangerous times’ and it is interesting that the complaints coincide with the period of the Thirty Years war which was devastating the continent. The French invasion seems to have loomed large in the psyche of the citizens of Southampton so the news of the horrific sack of cities overseas would doubtless have contributed to fears. Dr Russel also points out that the 1630s continued to be uncertain political times domestically, however I’m unsure whether there is any real evidence of a fear of armed insurrection at home prior to the Civil War breaking out. Domestic fears surely would have had little impact on the peak in the 1620s? However, Dr Russel made a compelling point about the horrors of war on the continent coupled with the genuine neglect of the wall being the likely cause of concern.

So why did the complaints drop off? Concerns are clearly still strong on the 1630s, but suddenly drop off in the 1640s. Surely the onset of Civil War would have increased concerns about the City’s ability to defend itself? Southampton was held through the duration of the Civil War by the Parliamentarians. This was in part because the townsfolk were considered to be closet royalists by Parliament and as a strategic port it was watched closely. To keep the populace on side Colonel Norton along with five hundred horsemen and foot-soldiers was sent there and billeted by the City. Dr Russel pointed out historical and archaeological evidence that Colonel Norton spent a considerable amount on shoring up the cities defences and re-digging the defensive ditch around the walls. The walls themselves were certainly part of the plan, this can be seen from large holes chiselled into the arrow slits to enable musket fire from the towers along the wall.

Musket holes chiselled into the arrow slots in the Arundel Tower

Perhaps the work undertaken by Norton’s troops and indeed the presence of the army itself was enough to allay people’s fears about the state of the walls. Or possibly the Civil War showed the people of Southampton that the type of defence provided by these wall was not effective in a modern conflict. Maybe people were not so concerned about the City’s defence while it was being held by Parliament? Despite another rise in the uncertain years of the 1650s the number of complaints remains very low for the rest of the century, despite other turbulent political times, including the threat of Dutch attack. I would tend to agree with Dr Russel’s idea that by then the people had realised the ineffectiveness of the walls and that some of the derelict parts were beyond repair.

It was an excellent talk by Dr Russel, covering a period in the walls history that was certainly a blank for me. The best surviving part of the wall ironically includes much of the bits that the Seventeenth Century folk of Southampton were worried about, from the north-west corner down the western side of the City. The north and eastern walls have survived to us only in small patches, and not usually much above ground level. That which has survived has done so despite considerable changes to the City (including land reclamation from the sea), horrific damage from German air raids in the Second World War and horrible town planning after the war. There has been effort in the last thirty years to promote the walls, including work that has enabled people to walk all the surviving bits. The Bargate itself is on the City’s slightly odd logo (you can’t sail a yacht through it by the way).

Southampton City Council Logo

One of the problems that the wall has is that for most of its life it marked the extent of the coast, and the sea lapped scenically against its foundations. The image at the very top of the post shows exactly how the walls would have originally been viewed. However, the reclamation of enormous tracts of land and the way in which the city has built up means that the best run of the walls is essentially below ground level for the main shopping areas. The walls are tucked away behind a hotel, a busy road and a waste, ground that gets used for the Southampton boat show once a year. You have to go out of your way to view the walls. Aside from a few key locations the presentation of the walls themselves is either a little dated or quite frankly neglectful, the start of the wall walk being a nasty public toilet. The situation has improved thanks to the newly reopened Tudor House Museum, which possibly gives an additional reason for people to walk the walls, but this angle doesn’t seem to be very highly promoted. Here is a little video looking at the north-west corner of the walls that gives an idea of the problems:



Southampton could do a lot more to promote this medieval heritage, but sadly much of it is still buried away behind old folks homes and bad town planning. It doesn’t stop me enjoying them but properly integrating them into Southampton’s tourist infrastructure might improve the reputation of the town, a reputation that is not particularly high when it comes to anything other than shopping and cruises.

Ancient History is cool

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there


Hosting the most recent Carnivalesque made me think about the enduring interest of ancient history. You’ll know from looking around this blog that I have gravitated toward early modern history in the last few years, but this is a relatively recent return to that subject area. For much of my Bachelor and Masters degree I specialised in Jewish history, and in particular ancient Jewish history. I wrote my first dissertation on the Pharisees (c.50 CE) and my second dissertation on Jewish communities in the Persian period (c.300 BCE), so I was getting further back in time as I went.

Aside from academic study, ancient history has always been one of my interests and I think that this common to many, many people who like history either as a hobby or casual interest; ancient history is cool. Ancient history has Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Celts temples, pyramids, invasions, inventions and the founding of modern philosophy and religion. I would happily place a bet that the first four on that list alone are what drew most of us to history as children, it was certainly true with me. One of my first memories of school is of drawing a Celtic warrior, along with his Golden Labrador (the teacher was kind enough not to point out the slight historical license). You could almost argue that children have an instinctive interest in the long distant past.

Romans are cool

But what draws us so instinctively to ancient times? The above quote from L.P Hartley only partly touches on it, the ‘past is a foreign country’. Curiosity about foreigners, about exotic countries with strange and unique traditions is universal, even if it is often driven by fear and suspicion. This instinct to observe, and in some to understand, foreign things is part of what draws us to the ‘foreign land’ of history. These ancients, with their strange abodes, myths, imaginative violence and curious customs are aliens to our modern eyes. Because of that we want to investigate and marvel at them.

But, that in itself is not enough, observing something that’s different in of itself doesn’t go to explain the enduring popularity of looking at our far past. Instead I would argue that it is observing the similarities amongst the differences that  draws us there, and the further back we get in time the more fascinated we are in the things we recognise. We love hearing about domestic gossip and curses discovered in graffiti or inscriptions, we love to hear about bravery and folly of soldiers and generals, we love to discover that amongst the sword and scandals were people surviving the same problems that we do today. Coming back to our metaphor, toilets in foreign countries are a constant source of fascination to English people; continental toilet seats, Japanese heated toilets that heat up and talk to you and 100 other thing, my goodness how many different ways to deal with the same bodily function. This is true of our experience of the ancient past, they often came up with solutions to, or explanations of, the same issues that we have today  that seem unusual now. The further we go back the more we are curious and delighted when we see the parallels.

Roman Toilets for the English readers

I never intended to specialise in ancient history, let alone ancient Jewish history, at university but the lure of both proved too much to resist. The Parkes centre at Southampton university is a world class research in the study of Jewish history and culture so that helped. I’ll talk about Jewish history in another post, but one aspect of ancient history that I was drawn to was biblical history, or more accurately the history of the people contemporaneous with biblical history. The actual, historical context in which the mythical, semi-mythical, and occasionally historical tales of the bible are set. Why? Well, ideas people had and the decisions that they made, two thousand years ago, still reverberate around our culture today. Like it or loathe it, if you have any significant contact with Europe or America then Christianity, that mix of greek philosophy and Jewish millenarianism, impacts on your life in a thousand little ways. I’m sure that this is not just true of Christianity but also of other ideas, religions and mythologies. My experience just happens to be in that area. So, this is another aspect of the popularity of ancient history, it’s enduring relevance to modern life. Understanding what happened then is useful, it sheds light on what is happening now.

The popularity of ancient history isn’t just about mummies, gladiators and wars, it is also about the delight in finding empathy with ancestors in a ‘foreign land’ and it is about understanding the origins of our modern cultures and beliefs. That said, romans are just cool, and the ancient Chinese buried servants alive, and I totally forgot to mention the vikings! How can the poor old early modern period compete?

A broader recovery and rebalancing of the economy – speake not of iron and glasse.


David Cameron was talking about building up the British manufacturing industry recently, speaking at the Toyota factory in Derby he said “I hope this recovery can be part of a broader recovery and rebalancing of the economy.” While I can only agree with the sentiment, the challenge is finding those things that we can build more efficiently or expertly than elsewhere. There’s not much point in attempting to go head to head with other countries where they can build a product cheaper, a problem recognised by this fellow back in the late Sixteenth Century:


Oh how manie trades and handicrafts are now in England, whereof the common wealth hath no need? how manie needfull commodities have we which are perfected with great cost, &c: and yet may with farre more ease and lesse cost be provided from other countries if we could use the meanes. I will not speake of iron, glasse, and such like, which spoile much wood, and yet are brought from other countries better cheepe than we can make them here at home, I could exemplifie also in manie other.


And Mr Cameron would no doubt agree with our early modern commentator, the success of English manufacturing is at its highest when we focus on quality and expertise:


I have to saie of our husbandmen and artificers, that they were never so excellent in their trades as at this present. But as the workemanship of the later sort was never more fine and curious to the eie, so was it never lesse strong and substantiall for continuance and benefit of the buyers. Neither is there anie thing that hurteth the common sort of our artificers more than hast, and a barbarous or slavish desire to turne the penie, and by ridding their worke to make speedie utterance of their wares: which inforceth them to bungle up and dispatch manie things they care not how so they be out of their hands, whereby the buyer is often sore defrauded, and findeth to his cost, that hast maketh wast…


Perhaps we’ve found the Prime Minister a new script writer?



Quotes taken from ‘The Description and Historie of England’, (1587),  by Raphael Holinshed

Confessions of a Gamer

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and outspoken critic of tabloid journalism, the Labour MP Tom Watson had a high-profile, last week. Obviously, I was amused by his baiting of James Murdoch, and while he managed to lay a finger on Murdoch’s reputation, sadly he came nowhere nearer to exposing the truth. Yet, while all this high drama was being played out one thing that Tom Watson tweeted on the morning of the Murdoch Committee session caught my attention: Continue reading

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

"Betraye Your Country"


On 5 November, we British like nothing more than to gather round a roaring bonfire and watch in delight as an effigy, embodying the seditious, malignant Catholics, is consumed by the righteous flames of protestant justice. Well protestant justice and a combination of broken pallets and petrol. Then we set off fireworks and eat toffee apples.

Of course Bonfire Night isn’t about displaying our national distaste for Catholics anymore, we save that for Papal visits. Aside from certain specific issues, condemnation of child abuse scandals and the churches attitude toward condoms, I would suggest that the Catholic church barely registers in most people’s minds, certainly not as an object of distrust or open hostility. If you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, Catholicism is a broad church, and I’m not sure that I could pin down a stereotypical modern Catholic. I’ve met lots of Catholics and most of them aren’t particularly defined by their faith, certainly no more than any Anglican, Jew, Muslim, druid or atheist*. Continue reading

Yeah I’ll put Collaboration Before Christ Thanks.

Boris Johnson: Save the Denarii!


I try not to bring politics into this blog. Of course this isn’t always possible, the teaching of history in schools and university, the funding of museums and heritage, are all as vulnerable to the whims of politicians as mush as everything else in this world. Yet, I wake up to a minor newspaper storm, about an apparent edict from the BBC management to its staff requesting that they prefer the use of Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE) to the traditional Anno Domini (AD) and Before Christ  (BC), and I struggle to bite my tongue. I say ‘newspaper storm’, it is in fact confined to the right-wing leaning papers, the Daily Mail and Telegraph. To begin with it turns out that the BBC management has made no such overarching pronouncement on the subject, the guidance being issued within the BBC, but not BBC-wide (the media blog). Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, has waded into the debate, ever keen on preserving little Britain against the tide of Political Correctness gone mad. Cue much talk of thin-end-of-the-wedge and erosion of the Christian Foundations of our once great nation nonsense. Continue reading