Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery – Episode 28: Towton

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Personal letters are extraordinary things.  Even just a few lines written from one person to another centuries ago can immerse you in his or her immediate needs, hopes, aspirations and, sometimes, terrors.  This is the 28th episode of my peripatetic exploration of the life, times and works of Sir Thomas Malory.  Episode 1 can be found here.

In my last post I discussed the dramatic event that concluded 1460:  the death of Richard, Duke of York, at the battle of Wakefield and his eldest son’s victory over Welsh Lancastrian forces early the following year whilst King Henry was held under virtual house arrest at the Palace of Westminster by the Earl of Warwick.  One letter in the Paston collection makes life in London and Norfolk at the time particularly visceral.  It was sent to John Paston, a 40 year-old Cambridge educated lawyer with property in Norfolk from his younger brother Clement, a 19 year-old law student then at the Inns of Court in London.  He writes with the news of three men lost or killed at Wakefield and then advises his brother to muster both footmen and horsemen because he has heard that the “further” lords, that is Queen Margaret’s army, will arrive in London sooner than people expect.  He then adds,

In this cwntre every man is well wyllyng to goo with my Lords here, and I hope God xall helpe hem, for the pepill in the northe robbe and styll, and ben apoyntyd to pill all thys cwntre, and gyffe a way menys goods and lufflods in all the sowthe cwntre, and that wyll ask a myscheffe.

No wonder everyone in the capital was willing to go north with the lords in London, particularly the Earl of Warwick.  In a few short weeks concerns over rights of royal inheritance had been supplanted with more immediate and physical concerns for the safety of person and property.  Clement finishes by saying that all this was “wrytyn … in haste, wan I was not well at hesse.”  No doubt Sir Thomas Malory had heard the same news and must have felt the same concern for his family and home in Warwickshire.

Early in February, Warwick left London, taking the king with him to march north to confront Queen Margaret’s forces.   There is no explicit evidence telling us whether Malory accompanied Warwick but in light of Malory’s lifelong loyalty to the earls of Warwick, his implicit personal danger and his willingness to take action at difficult times, I consider it most probable that he did.  The two armies met at St. Albans.  Warwick was outflanked and unable to properly marshal his forces for battle; he abandoned the field leaving the frail and confused king sitting beneath a tree where he was found by the Queen’s forces.

The abbot of the Benedictine monastery wrote that St. Albans, which fell to the pillage and rape of the northern army, had been invaded by rabid animals.

It’s no surprise then that the commons of London took matters into their own hands, barred the gates and refused the Queen’s forces entrance, fearing the same fate.  Negotiations failed and, as she had neither the equipment nor discipline for a siege she returned north, leaving only her army’s devastation behind.  Meanwhile, Edward, the Earl of March and what remained of Warwick’s forces reunited in the Cotswolds then marched on to London, where Edward was received as a savior.  “Let us walk in a new wineyard, and let us a gay garden in the month of March with this fair white rose and herb, the Earl of March,” went one song written for the occasion.  At Baynard’s castle Edward took counsel with his lords and decided to press his claim to the crown.  In the Court of Chancery he was sworn before the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chancellor and the assembled lords that he should truly and justly keep the realm and the laws thereof maintain as a true and a just king.  But he wasn’t crowned.  First, he would prove himself on the field of battle.

During March both Edward, the Earl of March, and Queen Margaret sent out royal commissions of array to increase their forces.   According to Yorkist paymasters several years later he may have raised as many as 48,000.  Margaret’s army may have had as many as 60,000.  Contemporary logistical capability meant that neither could maintain a force of that scale in the field for very long.  Conflict was imminent.

The first encounter took place on Saturday, March 28, at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire.   Forward units of Edward’s army under the Duke of Suffolk and Lord Fitzwalter were attempting to rebuild a broken bridge across the Aire when they were set upon by a detachment of horsemen under “Bloody” Lord Clifford.  Edward reinforced, the Lancanstrians fell back but were trapped:  in the meantime Edward had sent a second detachment of mounted archers under Lord Fauconberg to cross the river three miles upstream.  In the early evening they hunted Clifford and his men down and slaughtered them all.  Clifford himself, was killed by an arrow through the throat.  In light of Malory’s debt to Fauconberg and his demonstrated ability for quick action it’s more than possible that he took part in the action.

The great battle took place the next day at Towton.  The ferocity, cruelty, desperation and losses remind me of the worst battles of the American civil war, such as Shiloh and Antietam.  Both armies ordered that no quarter was to be given.  Lancaster had the great benefit of holding the heights and superior numbers.  Further, not all of the forces of the Earl of March had arrived:  the Duke of Norfolk was missing.

But York had the most important advantage:  the weather.  Lord Fauconberg initiated the battle with an archery exchange.  The strong winds from the south carried the Yorkist arrows into the Lancastrian ranks while Lancaster’s arrows and artillery fell short.  The battle lasted all day long and the outcome remained in doubt until Norfolk finally arrived.  Then the Lancastrian army collapsed.  28,000 men died in the fighting and the ensuing rout.  In some cases those fleeing the battle last had the best chance of survival as they were able to cross the rivers on the corpses of those who had died trying to cross before.  The rivers ran red for days.  It must have seemed like Armageddon.  It was Palm Sunday and so near the full moon.

This worst battle ever fought on English soil is echoed in Malory’s telling of the final conflict between Arthur and Mordred.  In all of Malory’s sources, save one, Arthur’s and Mordred’s forces fight on horseback.  In Le Morte d’Arthur they fight on foot as at Towton.  The night after the battle the bodies are despoiled.  Recent archaeological research at Towton confirms the theft and mutilation of the corpses at Towton.

We don’t know that Malory was there.  We do know he was physically capable as he participated in the sieges at Alnwick and Bamburgh shortly after.  Further, he was granted a new (and second) pardon for all previous offenses by the new king Edward IV in October of 1462, quite possibly as a result of service that terrible and apocalyptic day.

Episode 29 can be found here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Agincourt, Information Architecture and the Apache

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Today is the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt and, somewhat to my surprise, I find my feelings and thoughts surprisingly complex.  It’s not the facts of the event themselves, or the facts of the literary and cultural consquences,

 “…Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-…”

Nor is it a desire to pass some kind of superfluous judgment.  Rather, it’s a desire to see all of it, and correctly understand the connections.  At its root is the basic human will to reason out how the world, how the universe, works.

Some days ago I found myself standing on a small remote promontory in the Southwest overlooking a quiet pastoral valley, almost a glen that was subtly, autumnally beautiful.  It was also, not so long ago, the site of a massacre, in which two dozen men and women and fifty children were ruthlessly killed early one evening.  It’s an event I know very little about.  Yet, I found myself deeply emotionally affected.  It was as if there was something now in the place itself.

I still don’t know what to make of my reaction.  I’d had such experiences a very few times before, at Omaha Beach and at the Dachau Concentration Camp for example, but on each of those occasions I was more than conversant with the history.

Near the end of a fireside conversation in Chaco Canyon a week or so before, Philip Tuwaletstiwa recommended I search out a book by the cultural and linguistic anthropologist, Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits In Places.  Steve Lekson, who was sitting with us, strongly concurred.  Though my “to read” list is particularly full at the moment, (mostly with Arthuriana), I made a note to do so.  Their combined and strong recommendation was something I couldn’t resist.

Basso’s book begins as a narrative of an innocuous project to develop a map of Apache place-names in the area around Cibecue, Arizona during late summer months when he traveled with three occasionally recalcitrant and ironic but always witty Apache guides.  It soon becomes apparent that both they and he are after much more elusive and dangerous game than a sheet of paper with a large scatter of phonetically accurate aboriginal labels.  He is studying and they are trying to teach him how different kinds of narrative, including history are developed, recorded and used in Apache culture.  Not surprisingly, it is very different from the traditional western post-Enlightenment traditions.  What is surprising, to me, is how pragmatic, efficient and rational it is.

As I read Basso, I couldn’t help but think about his ideas in an entirely different context:  computer science.  Here is a trivial, inaccurate but sufficient model of a modern computer for my sequel:  a computer is large sequentially numbered set of mailboxes (memory locations) and a robot (the CPU) who can retrieve information from those mailboxes and do a limited set of things with the contents, such as move it to another mailbox or perform an arithmetic operation on it.  Of course, almost none of the information we use in life fits that structure, therefore so much of the work of any computer program (the recipe which the robot follows to continue the metaphor) is mapping, structuring and manipulating data.  These days, after decades of research and experimentation, people generally follow a set of reasonably good practices, however, there was a time when the world was a bit wilder, when deep, philosophical questions, such as the difference between a thing and the symbol which stands for it found concrete expression in the way a computer program worked.  Sometimes the most pragmatic of computer programs could also be seen, quite reasonably, as a philosophical experiment.  More often than not, the core issue was “referencing:”  when should one block of information point to another.  At one extreme, one might try to avoid referencing all together: imagine putting everything there is to know about a place or a subject into its name.  At the opposite end the information could be so fragmented that the information becomes apparently invisible:  all you see are pointers, or pointers to other pointers even pointers to other recipes to construct the information you need.

One narrow, but useful way to look at Apache narrative, history and place-naming is through the formalism of information architecture.  Almost immediately, it’s apparent how well-designed it is, how naturally it suits the culture’s needs.

Most interesting is how the information is structured to make culturally productive use of the imaginations of its individual members.  Obviously, I find myself wondering how the western historical tradition can and should be informed by its model.

Which brings me back to that sodden Friday in 1415 and its manifold references and pointers.  We know so much.  We remember so much.  We have the words of the greatest dramatist in the language to help us see his vision of it.  But I’m not sure our rich, unruly set of pointers, and the implicit values therein make best use of our understanding and imaginations.

“…We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 27: A Queen in Wild Seas

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Back from Chaco Canyon, I find myself musing about dramatic cultural change.  At Chaco, it may be expressed in the architecture itself, for example in the existence of cardinal and solstitial alignments in Pueblo Bonito.

Returning to Sir Thomas Malory (half a world away and 400 years later) I wonder if the political changes of the summer of 1460 didn’t presage a cultural change which would reach its culmination on January 30, 1649.  This is episode 27 in my exploration of Malory’s life; episode 1 can be found here.

At the Battle of Northampton, King Henry VI was taken prisoner by the Yorkist lords.  They discovered him in his tent, abandoned by his Lancaster army.

Nevertheless their first action was to kneel to him:  he was the anointed king.

Henry was then conveyed back to London and isolation and house arrest in the Palace of Westminster.  Two months later, on October 10, 1460, when Richard, the Duke of York, entered the Great Hall, ostensibly to claim the throne, he was met with silence from the attending lords and peers.  Yet, what happened next is even more interesting, (and particularly English.)

For two weeks the lords and commons negotiated and debated.  Some of the issues, were fundamental, such as who even had a right to decide who should be rightful king.  Yet, at the end of those two weeks, a solution emerged, a compromise:  “the Great Accord:”  Henry should rule in peace for the remainder of his life but the crown would then pass to York and his heirs.  I expect many argued that it was the best solution possible, that it was even the most just:  if, for example, one believed in the illegitimacy of King Henry’s son and/or that York’s genealogical claim was superior to Lancaster.

In a previous post, I wondered generally to what extent Malory was witness to these events since he was free and almost certainly in London at the time.  I’ve personally found no specific evidence in Le Morte d’Arthur, nor in the academic literature.  However, Malory’s most famous personal editorial addition to his book is pertinent:

Lo, ye all Englysshemen, se ye nat what a mychyff here was?  For he that was the moste kinge and nobelyst knight of the worlde, and moste loved the felyshyp of noble knyghtes; and by hym they all were upholdyn, and yet myght nat thes Englysemen holde them contente with hym.  Lo thus was the olde custom and usayges of thys londe, and men say that we of thys londe have nat yet loste that custom.  Alas! Thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.

The passion of this despairing and notably timeless declamation about the end of Arthur’s reign and Mordred’s campaign against him suggests it was inspired by personal experience.   Malory is also commenting on the history he lived through, possibly including events he personally witnessed that summer.   However, so much was yet to come that it’s unreasonable to deduce he was speaking of 1460 alone.  And what we can deduce of his role in those events argues that this was written later.  Did Malory have a contemporary counterpart for Arthur in mind?  That’s a question best addressed in a later post.

“The Great Accord” failed.  The Queen and her son, Edward of Winchester, who had been disinherited by the compromise, were encamped at Harlech Castle on the west coast of Wales with her brother-in-law Jasper Twdyr.  In her son’s name she wrote an open letter to the city of London denouncing the Duke of York as a “horrible and falsely forsworn traitor… with an “untrue pretensed claim.”  She demanded the citizens aid to free the king.  But she knew her situation was desperate, so much so that in November she and her son took their chances against the winter gales of the Irish Sea and took ship for Scotland.  There, with the aid of Mary of Guelders, the widow of the recently deceased King James II, she organized and collected the opposition, most notably the earls of Somerset and Northumberland.  They were summoned to gather at Hull on the Humber Estuary in the northeast of England.  Her accomplishment of gathering an army of almost 20.000 in the middle of winter when roads were muddy and impassible argues not just formidable will but tremendous organizational skill as well.

In London, York was caught off guard  by the Queen’s uprising.  However, he soon organized, divided and dispatched his forces to face the threat.  His eldest son, Edward Earl of March, marched northwest toward the Welsh Marches to face Jasper Twdyr whilst York and the Earl of Salisbury marched north.  Warwick and Norfolk remained to hold London.  I concur with Christina Hardyment that Malory probably remained in London as well, though there is no direct evidence.

On December 30th the Queen’s army of northerners and Scottish mercenaries famously confronted York at Sandal Castle at the Battle of Wakefield.  It is the subject of some of Shakespeare’s finest imagined drama in the “Henry VI” trilogy of plays and controversial as well.  York’s motive and strategy in accepting battle with a force 2 ½ times the size of his own is still debated.  The outcome is not.  York, his 17 year-old 2nd son, Edmund, Earl of Rutland and Salisbury were killed and their heads were placed on spikes above the gates of York.  It was a catastrophe for the Yorkist cause.

When Edward, Earl of March, learned of his father’s death and defeat he turned his army of 11,000 around to march for London.  But he soon learned he was being pursued by Jasper Twdyr and a force of 8,000.  He turned again and on February 2nd defeated Jasper at Ludford Bridge before continuing to London.

So very much had happened in seven months.  You can appreciate what I mean when say one has the sense that history was accelerating.  But what about Malory?  What did he think and do when he heard the news?  Again, we have no direct evidence.  But the Paston letters, particularly one from Clement, a 19 year old student in London, gives us a good sense of the mood and situation in the capital.  And we can draw some reasonable conclusions about Malory’s probable feelings and decisions, which are supported by another small, but important emendation in Le Mort d’Arthur all of which I will discuss in my next post in the series.
The photo is Lynn on the walls of Harlech Castle. 

Episode 28 can be found here.

Friday, October 9, 2015

On Visiting the Ancient Puebloans with some Remarkable Folks part 3

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Part 1 can be found here.

In the evening we decamped to a hotel in Farmington, New Mexico.  A shower after three days of hiking and camping was more than good fun.  We then gathered on a patio for drinks and to listen to Philip Tuwaletstiwa speak and read his paper, “Chaco Pathways.”  I enjoyed the paper a lot, not least because he began with his visit to Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands, a Neolithic site Lynn and I recall fondly.

I would call it a personal essay, a venerable literary form of which I’m particularly fond, not least because of the way in which truly good ones deeply engage readers or listeners, which his certainly did that evening.

Though he began with the common properties of certain fundamental structures in very diverse cultures (such as Maes Howe), his primary concern was identifying the set of shared characteristics of human consciousness across cultures.  He listed ten probable ones and it occurred to me that such a set might not only explain the human will to spiritual observance but also the human will to scientific definition and exploration as well, which is wicked cool, when you think about it for a bit.

As if in recognition of that point, he then turned to the particular concern of Chaco roads and argued persuasively with statistical analysis and cultural context that they are most probably spiritual pathways.  I particularly liked the way he illustrated how spiritual pathways can hide in plain sight and his observation of people’s behavior at the entrance of an evangelical church.

One of the “shared characteristics of human consciousness” he mentioned was “an ongoing struggle to bring order out of chaos.”  In that context he quoted a DinĂ© song,

With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me may I walk.
With beauty behind me may I walk.
With beauty above me may I walk.
With beauty all around me may I walk.

It was both precisely pertinent but also quietly brave.  And it led perfectly to the next shared characteristic, art.  My synopsis of his paper doesn’t do adequate service to its subject and I’ll refrain from quoting the insight of his conclusion which deserves to be read in the context of the paper as a whole.

I will say that I will be severely grumpy with him if he doesn’t publish it.  Soon.


The next day we set off for Aztec and then Chimney Rock.  One of the startling things about Aztec is its contemporary geographic context:  a great and amazing Chacoan site resides in the middle of the north suburb sprawl of Farmington, New Mexico.   You pass through the Park Service entrance in the shade of cottonwood trees and in a few steps you’re immersed in the Chacoan world and one of its most exquisitely beautiful sites.  Lekson argues this was Chacoan culture at its peak and optimally efficient and capable.  The western great house was the largest edifice they ever constructed and it was done so quickly, probably in about a decade (versus 300 years for Pueblo Bonito), though still following the same empirical-architectural paradigm.


Two things engaged me particularly this visit, the Hubbard Tri-wall structure, a stone footprint consisting of concentric circles linked with radial segments, and the great kiva.  The rooms of the Hubbard Tri-wall structure would have been much too small for practical storage or habitation; I couldn’t help but wonder if the Chacoans were buttressing to facilitate height for tower construction, just as European medieval architects had used flying buttresses in cathedral construction.  Then there was the great kiva, excavated and restored by Earl Morris.  I’ve always felt that Aztec Ruins is probably the best place for someone to begin learning about Chacoan culture.  The restored kiva is a catalyst for the imagination and experiencing it is one of the best ways to school your ability to visualize what a Chacoan ruin looked like when they were first complete and occupied.  Lekson once again brought the practice of archaeology to life, recounting Earl Morris’ excavation in the 1920s and his return to it in 1934 when he carefully restored it as part of a WPA project for the National Park Service:  there is nothing in the reconstruction, including the unique pattern of the roof structure, that wasn’t suggested by what he found during the original excavation.  So Earl Morris is now one of my new heroes.

We finished at Chimney Rock that afternoon.  Much of the discussion concerned astronomical alignments and Philp gave a nice recap of the work of Anna Sofaer and the Solstice Project before we walked up to the great house, which is adjacent to the two great stone pillars.  The views from there are excellent, of course,  and it is nothing if not a statement of imperial Chaco culture given the labor required to build and maintain such a structure on a peak.  (I’m sure I was one of the water carriers in a former short life.) The remains of the formal fire pit at the north end of the point and the view of Huerfano Peak which served as the intermediate signal station between Chaco and the Chimney Rock community is one of the most dramatic examples of the Chacoan communication system.  It was first identified by Tom Windes, who argued it may have had more importance than the road system to the function of the extended culture as a whole.


I’ve always felt that astronomical alignments are difficult because they constitute a spectrum:  from those of clear practical use, such as soltitial markers which are useful, even essential, for agriculture to those with ritual importance to those which may have occurred by chance.  So interpreting them is difficult and obviously many are ambiguous.   An impartial, multi-cultural classification system would be a very useful thing.  Each class should have a set of clear, objective defining criteria, such as practicality for agriculture and/or ethnographic references etc..  Devising such a system would be non-trivial to be sure and devising it or collecting the right set of people to do so would require intellectual depth in multiple sciences and cultures.  The great benefit would be the collective data analysis and discoveries it might facilitate, not to mention moving many conversations about them to a more productive place.  With all do deference, I’d suggest Phillip Tuwaletstiwa is uniquely qualified to lead such an undertaking.

Our little expedition concluded appropriately with dinner and farewells at a good restaurant in Durango.  Though I haven’t mentioned them in the preceding I must thank David Boyle and Peggy Zemach, the other members of the Crow Canyon team for their diligence as well.  They managed sometimes complicated logistics and inevitable surprises with remarkable efficiency and aplomb.  Most importantly, I owe thanks to the group as a whole for so many engaging and inspiring conversations, from an improbably cheerful before coffee conversation with Charlie Leffingwell about mummy sleeping bag techniques to avoid boa constrictor dreams, to a conversation with Phillip and Steve about the literality of Hopi and Navajo ethnography and oral tradition.  Then there was the afternoon when Susan Markley shared her amazing photos of Eric Clapton in concert.  All were great fun.


A few closing comments on the trip.  I ‘ve lived in the Southwest U.S. much of my life.  It has a much more remarkable history and prehistory than most people know and both are particularly pertinent to the challenges our society and multiple cultures now face.  I feel have a right to know my home’s history and prehistory and an obligation as well.

If, by chance, you’re just beginning a journey in Southwest prehistory and archaeology, I highly recommend the new revision of The Chaco Meridian as an entrance.  It’s way too much fun for the amount of hard and clear scholarship it delivers.  Stephen Lekson’s writing is effortlessly engaging but his observations and assertions were forged by years of field work and excavations,  careful critical analysis and peer review.   Perhaps most importantly, without apparent effort and editorializing it conveys the great significance of the subject and work.

And when you’ve finished that you can move on to A History of the Ancient Southwest, his bicameral comprehensive history of the ancient southwest and the history of the people, international politics, academic fashions and cultural changes and conflicts which shaped the archaeology from which he assembled and deduced his history of the pre-history.  At the “Big MACC” Conference this spring I observed that his fundamental premises, that “everyone knew everything,” that “there were no coincidences,” that “distances can be dealt with” now informs and shapes much new work and I expect it to continue to do so for a long time to come.



(The concluding Pueblo Bonito sunset photos are from a previous trip.  Now back to Malory and other concerns.)