Sunday, March 29, 2015

15th Century Social Network Analysis?


At the end of Act I, Scene iii of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” Catesby summons the court to dying King Edward’s bedside, leaving Richard alone on stage.  Two unnamed murderers then enter to receive direction and a warrant from Richard for the extra-judicial murder of Clarence, whom Richard has decided to kill simply because Clarence precedes him in the order of succession.  Richard’s casual bonhomie with the murderers whilst arranging the details of his brother’s death makes the scene chilling.  Such small, extra-judicial conspiracies, often with homicidal aims, are a common dramatic element for Shakespeare, particularly in the histories and tragedies.   As a dramatic structure, they hardly seem worthy of special consideration.  Some aren’t original to Shakespeare, rather coming from his sources, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles or the Brut Chronicle.

However, they may be more interesting structurally than their humble dramatic role suggests.  In the abstract, they signal a decision or action taken outside the usual frame and process of political decision making, by exceptional participants, sometimes for someone’s personal gain.  And, perhaps, they suggest a strategy for applying heterogeneous large data set analysis to historical questions.  It would be a kind of historical social network analysis and it usefulness would hinge, of course, on the kinds, specificity and quality of formal network connections that could be identified within and between the elements of large data sets.   My particular interest derives from studying the life of Sir Thomas Malory and the 15th century social and historical context within which he lived.  So much of the evidence surrounding his life is provocatively circumstantial and open to multiple interpretations.  Is it possible additional important specific knowledge could be derived from the combined global mathematical analysis of say the databases of Parliamentary acts, recorded judicial actions, affinity structures,  and the financial records of the Exchequer?  Is it possible, for example, that a judicial decision made entirely for partisan reasons might have a characteristic social network signature or be identifiable through a particular kind of cluster analysis?

A few weeks ago, we attended a conference on current work in Southwest Archaeology.  One of the presentations, “An Examinination of Spatial Relationships Using GIS Data from the Basketmaker Communities Project,” by Tanachy Bruhns, showed how the use of cluster analysis applied to correlating diverse and heterogeneous types of information, from cost/distance analysis to local solar radiation might be used to predict the location of archaeological sites and derive additional knowledge about existing ones.  Can social networking information, implicit in large databases of historical societies be studied analogously?  It’s an appealing idea.

But challenging.  I decided to examine  a couple of possible test cases:  the decision to execute Mary Queen of Scots and Richard III’s assumption of the throne.  In both cases, a leader reluctantly assented to a major decision in her or his interest.  However, we generally credit that Queen Elizabeth really was reluctant to order the execution of her cousin queen whilst Richard’s acceptance of the petition by the citizens and nobles of London may have been an act of clever political theatre engineered by his supporters and himself.  In both cases, the number of linked events, the complexity of the affinity diagrams are daunting, not to mention categorization and characterization of linkages in any social networking diagram.  Then there’s the problem of nuance:  the process of abstraction might exclude precisely the information necessary for differentiation between such situations.

Can additional information or even significant conclusions about historical events be derived by mathematical analysis of large data sets?  It seems like an important and natural area of research for groups and institutions conducting “Digital Humanities” research.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 8: the Witch in the Tower


This is episode 8 in a series of posts researching the mystery of the dramatic life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

The city is under occupation; the occupiers are quartered in the castle north of the city. Their discipline and morale isn’t what it was, a common problem of occupying armies whose job is to hold and police rather than conquer.  On a spring evening in May, a group of men-at-arms, nearly all esquires but fully equipped with white plate armor, tend their weapons and harness.  Many are younger sons or brothers of those who fought in the great campaigns of the late king which enriched and sometimes ennobled their fathers or brothers.  This is different.  This is strange.

There’s a witch under guard in one of the towers.  Sometimes they talk about her, sometimes they don’t.  It’s a very good thing that she was finally captured and is now being examined.  It’s known she has satanic powers but also that she is a virgin who prays to saints and orders even her gaolers to stop swearing.  There’s a laugh:  tell an Englishman to leave off swearing.  Even their enemies nickname them “goddams” for their rugged speech.

Tonight they’re not talking about the witch.  It’s Sunday evening and they’re telling bawdy stories when the great Earl of Warwick, Richard Beauchamp, enters the room.  The rain on his ermine tipped cloak glitters like stars in the candle light.  Two other senior commanders are with him, the younger, imperious Sir Humphrey Stafford and Count Jean de Luxemburg-Ligny, as well as two sallow faced Burgundian bishops.  Warwick says he needs two men and looks around.  The second one he gives the nod is one of the senior ones.  He fought in the late king’s campaigns and sometimes tells good stories about them.    His name is Thomas and he’s also from Warwickshire and devoted to the Earl who trusts him in return.  The Earl instructs them not to bother putting on armor but to bring weapons and a cloak.

The party crosses the courtyard to the prison tower where the witch is held.  The rain is soaking.  A guard opens a narrow door to let them in and they climb the close winding stairs to the second level where a gaoler admits them to the witch’s cell.  She stands very straight against the far wall.  She wears a plain dress of gray homespun and holds a rotting blanket about her shoulders.  The cell, like most cells, smells a little of shit and urine and rushes that need to be changed.  The witch is very white, her hair is ragged and she is shivering though it’s not so cold.  Thomas is shivering, too.  He wonders why the Earl wanted two additional men-at-arms to attend him.  Is it something about the witch?

“They say you’re sick,” the Earl of Warwick declares in French.

“Is it a surprise?” the witch answers.

Count Jean explodes at her, telling her it is no one’s fault but her own that she finds herself come to such a dolorous condition.  She should beware:  she is wasting the time of many great lords which will lead to her great sorrow.  The deep lines at the corners of his mouth betray his anger and stress.
The witch, just a girl, is not intimidated.  “I am abused by these English.  They are not knightly.  A knight should protect a maid, not threaten her, spit in her food, threaten her with violation.”  She turns to glare at Sir Humphrey.

“You surly bitch, I’ll kill you myself.”  Sir Humphrey lunges at her, drawing his dagger.  The others move to stop him, but it is Thomas who catches Humphrey’s arm before he can strike.  Humphrey shrugs him off but Thomas only releases Humphrey’s arm when Warwick nods.

“How dare you lay hands on me?” Sir Humphrey says.

Warwick addresses the witch.  “You are to come to trial, Joan of Domremy, and you are not to be harmed before.”  Warwick makes a point of looking at both Sir Humphrey and Count Jean.  When he glances at Thomas, Thomas realizes this why he was brought, not for fear of the witch but for her safety.

“Your guards will be changed,” Warwick tells her.  “Your sickness will be tended.”

Thomas follows the others out.  He is conflicted and sick at heart.  She probably is a witch but she spoke the truth.  Perhaps there was more chivalry in that unarmed maid than any other in that dolorous cell.

Of course, it may not have happened that way at all.  We do know that Joan of Arc received such a visit on May 13, 1331 and that she was verbally abused by Count Jean and that Sir Humphrey Stafford began to draw his dagger to stab her.  Thomas Malory may or may not have been one of the men-at-arms in the party.  However, Sir Humphrey Stafford, later Earl then Duke of Buckingham was to prove Malory’s nemesis in years to come and it may have developed as a consequence of Malory’s loyalty to the Beauchamp family and particularly Richard Beauchamp whom he served under.

The first criminal accusation against Sir Thomas Malory was 12 years later in October, 1443.  He and his brother-in-law Eustace Burneby were accused of swearing at, wounding and imprisoning one Thomas Smith of Spratton, a small town 24 miles east south-east of Newbold Revel.  They were also accused of taking £40.  (Why is it always £40 in such accusations?)  The sheriff sent two men to fetch them but they were not tried.  As Christina Hardyment, who recounts the story, suggests, perhaps some settlement was made out of court.  No more is known.

However, as it’s the first recorded accusation against Malory, the context merits careful examination.   Richard Beauchamp, the Earl of Warwick, exercised unusual hegemony over Warwickshire.  Usually, the county lived under a balance of power between the Dukes of Lancaster and the Earl of Warwick.  But Henry VI who was Duke of Lancaster as well as King at that time was a less than forceful presence in the county which allowed Warwick to dominate.  Warwick died in 1339 and was succeeded by his son Henry who at 14 was still in his minority which created a power vacuum into which stepped Sir Humphrey Stafford, the Earl of Buckingham.   According to Christine Carpenter, Locality and Polity:  A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society 1401-1499, Stafford already exercised considerable control in the south of Warwickshire and aspired to control in the north.  If Malory was a faithful retainer of the Beauchamps it is easy to imagine that the changing political environment would have brought him into conflict with those seeking to rise with Stafford’s ambitions.  Further, a common strategy for establishing control was placement of one’s supporters in judicial positions, as the Paston letters prove.  This Stafford did.  Malory’s conflict with Thomas Smith may have been an example of Stafford testing his strength against a loyal Beauchamp supporter and the decision not to prosecute reflected that his strength was not yet ripe.  That time would come later.

Perhaps Sir Malory was bewitched in that cell in 1430 as my small fiction suggests.

The Elizabethans were great believers in analogy.  The state was like the human body:  the monarch was the head,  the shoulders and arms were the nobility,  the ears the judges, the “inferior parts” the lower orders responsible for sustaining the rest.  Here’s another kind of analogy:  Warwickshire in the middle of the 1400s serves as a kind of microcosm for England itself and the consequences of the death of the Earl of Warwick were analogous to those of the death of Henry V for England as a whole.

(To my knowledge Hardyment is the first to note the possibility of Malory’s presence in that cell in the castle of Rouen on May 13, 1331.)
Episode 9 is here.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lions in Tower, Wolves in the Hall


From time to time, experience dishes up a small, delicious irony.  I’m currently experiencing one.  Every few days I’m startled awake in the middle of the night.  I lay perfectly still, listening.  I’ve always wondered if it’s possible that destiny exists, but only in subtle things.  As I think about it, that’s not inconsistent with Quantum Mechanics.  But I digress.

Is it illness?  Fears about money, a friend, a lover, mortality?  We all have those sometime or other.

Fortunately not.  Here are the first two lines of my historical novel As a Black Prince on Bloody Fields:  “There were lions in the tower that summer and fall.  Their hollow roars woke me every morning before the sun came through the lancet window into my room.”  I hadn’t had that experience when I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again those sentences.

I have now. 

We have the curious fortune to live just above a zoo and recently they acquired two new adolescent lions.  Every few days I’m wakened suddenly by their “hollow” roars; the adjective, by the way, is exactly right.  What to make of it?  It’s obvious.  The thing to do is enjoy it.  It’s a startling pleasure to be wakened by lions.

A different kind of startling pleasure is the BBC mini-series of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall which we’ve been watching.   There is so much to praise about it.  The acting is phenomenal:  each performance is revelatory, from Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell, to Anton Lesser’ Thomas Moore to Claire Foy’s Anne Boleyn to pick just three.  The drama Rylance creates by what he hides and what he shows of Cromwell’s character is totally absorbing.  Claire Foy’s Anne  is seminal, which is amazing when you consider the great actresses who’ve played the role in so many contexts.  She discovers an imperious vulnerability coupled with a ferocious ambition that is convincing not just in the context of the drama but the history itself.  Lesser’s Sir Thomas Moore is an effete, cruel, intellectually vain narcissist.  Nevertheless, Lesser’s performance and a very finely wrought script lead me through an arc to a point of  compassion, sorrow and understanding at his death.  (And I’m not an easy sell, by the way:  I’m familiar with Moore not only through Utopia and Robert Bolt’s famous play but the biography of his son-in-law William Roper as well.)  Indeed, that’s one of the great beauties of the series.  You feel you know these people as you know people in real life.

Perhaps, the most surprising subtle beauty of the production is the way it captures the spatial and temporal texture of Tudor life.  It conveys a unique sense of the passage of time, of lives lived in closer proximity to the natural world than ours, at the same time it develops political drama that is as frightening and compelling as any I’ve ever seen.  I’ve read that one of the appeals of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” is the danger:  anything can happen to anyone at any time.  No one is safe in “Wolf Hall,” either, but, for me, it’s more frightening and compelling.  It’s dangers often arise from the common place, what’s partly known or guessed at which is so much a part of the human social condition.

On the spur of the moment, Lynn and I ran down to the zoo early this morning to take a couple of photos of the culprits and one of them is above.  Later, over huevos rancheros at the Oasis CafĂ© we were discussing “Wolf Hall” and she offered a provocative thesis:  if Henry hadn’t married Anne we (meaning we North Americans) would be speaking Spanish.  Her reasoning being that if it hadn’t been for the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries and abbeys that came as a consequence of the Boleyn marriage, England might not have had the capital to develop into the maritime power that was essential for colonization.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 7: Special Forces


This is episode 7 in a series of posts researching the mystery of the dramatic life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Mort d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.
Mark Bowden’s 1999 important and tragic history Black Hawk Down snapshots the US military at a critical period of transition.  He implicitly captures the rise of the small, modern special forces unit, the practical necessity such units meet, and  the stress they placed on larger, conventionally organized parts of the military and their culture at the time.  Within such units, rank and chain of command were less important and relevant than the flexible, varying organization and strategy such units adopted internally to accomplish their difficult missions.  Outwardly, their sometime disregard for military rules of dress and grooming was a source of stress for officers working to maintain traditional standards.

The 15th century was also a period of military transition.  At Agincourt in 1415, Henry V’s army consisted of 5,000 archers and 900 men-at-arms of which as many as 10% were knights.   Later, in 1439, the Earl of Huntingdon’s expedition to recover Gascony, which Sir Thomas Malory could have participated in, consisted of 2,009 archers, 300 men-at-arms of which 2 were knight bannerets and 6 were knights, roughly 3%.  Since Crecy the percentages of knights and men-at-arms generally in English armies was declining.  There were multiple reasons.  Knights were required to maintain at least £40 per year of property income and to be equivalently compensated for military service whereas an esquire was compensated at £18 for performing the same tactical role.  And there may have been a cultural issue as well.  Beverly Kennedy in Knighthood in the Morte Darthur contrasts two views of late medieval knighthood.  In Libro del orden de caballeria, Ramon Lull sees knighthood as a divinely ordained office as old as human society itself with independent social  obligations for rule and judgment as well as the military obligations.  In contrast, Christine de Pizan provides very practical advice in Livre des fais d’armes et de la chevalerie for participating as a member of a contemporary medieval force and filling a functional military role.  Knights were complicated with ambiguous, changing moral and ethical responsibilities.  Knights may have had unique value as officers but esquires were probably more adaptable and easier to command.

This is important context for Sir Thomas Malory.  His father had acquired a distraint of knighthood to relieve himself of the obligation.  In contrast, Sir Thomas’ pursuit of knighthood, which he finally achieved sometime around the age of 39, was not a social obligation, nor was it implicit for someone in his social situation but it was an apparent life goal.  There are many possible motivations, including the pursuit of status, but, for what it’s worth, status alone is rarely the motivation for knighthood in Le Mort d’Arthur:  more often it is a platform for service and accomplishment, which Lull would have fully understood.  This is clear, but circumstantial evidence of Malory possessing a personal sense of noblesse oblige.

William Caxton, who published Le Mort d’Arthur also published Ramon Lull and Christine de Pizan, chivalric luminaries.  He was very careful to publish authors of whose audience he was confident.  Caxton’s choice to include Malory in his select company may also be circumstantial evidence alluding to his character.
Previously, I’ve mentioned Eric Jager’s The Last Duel, the story of the last judicial combat to the death in France.  Interestingly, it was between a knight and man-at-arms and the issue under such terrible arbitration was the rape of a woman.  The coincidences and social parallels and contrasts with the accusations against Malory deserve more time and I’ll come back to it in future posts.

Episode 8 is here