The Riddle of the Labyrinth — Margalit Fox

Cover of The Riddle of the Labyrinth

The Riddle of the Labyrinth
Margalit Fox
363 pages, including notes & index
published in 2013

Linear B is one of those ‘mysteries from history” I’d read about in the local library in the early eighties as a child, browsing through the stacks of occult, ancient astronaut and weird history books, listed along with better known examples like Schliemann’s quest for Troy. It’s one of those pieces of history I sort of, kind of knew about, of how tablets in an unknown language were found on Crete, providing evidence for the existence of a literate, “advanced” Bronze Age civilisation hundreds of years before the rise of the Classical Greek civilisations. But I never read much more about it because other subjects like Schliemann’s discovery of Troy looked much more interesting.

in The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox sets out to prove me wrong by telling the real story of the decyphering of Linear B and Alice Kober, the largely forgotten woman at the heart of it, as well as of the archaeologist who found the tablets, Arthur J. Evans and the amateur linguist who finally decrypted them, Michael Ventris. In many ways this is a sad story: both Alice Kober and Michael Ventris died young, one dead of cancer, the other in a car accident, with Kober’s role in the decypherment for a long time remaining obscure because of her untimely death, while Ventris’ accident came at a time he was feeling depressed about what to do with the rest of his life… It’s also a detective story, as Fox tells the story of how the three of them each in turn helped the process of decyphering along.

Unlike the story of e.g. Rosalind Franklin — the uncredited woman behind the discovery of DNA, however — what this isn’t is yet another story about how a woman got swindled out of the credit for a major scientific discovery. It’s purely her illness and subsequent death that robbed her of her chance to decypher Linear B herself. Had those not interfered she might have done so years before Ventris had gotten the chance, the latter being careful to acknowledge his debt to her.

Fox starts her story with the discovery by Evans of the strange symbols on a Cretan sealstone given to him by a friend, symbols that he recognised as writing and his determined search to find more of it. Ultimately it led him, through the discovery of more such sealstones in Greek antiquaty shops to Knossos, which had been discovered in 1878 and where in 1900 Evans found his treasure trove of documents, fired clay tablets, part of the palace’s bookkeeping. More of the same would be found later at other Myceanean palaces.

The problem with Evans though was that he firmly believed Linear B was the alphabet for a hithero unknown Myceanean language, rather than Greek. He spent much of the rest of his life attempting to write the definitive treatment of the Minoean languages found on Crete, hoarding access to the existing Linear B tables to safeguard his project. It was this attitude as much as anything that delayed decyphering the language.

It’s at this point that Alice Kober enters the story, getting gripped by the Linear B bug in the 1930ties. Somewhat of a language geek, she spent her free time studying the language systematically as much as she could, ignoring the wild theorising that had sprung up about it in favour of an analytic approach. Her work was both helped and hindered when she gained the acquaintance of one of Evans disciplines and agreed to help him proofread Evan’s masterwork in return for access to his stack of Linear B tablets. What she discovered was that Linear B represented an inflected language being written in a syllabic script, something that had helped mislead earlier investigators.

Sadly though she died of cancer before she could’ve done more than lay the foundations for a sustained assault on the language and it was left to the architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris to complete her work. Ventris had gotten intrigued by the language when he’d met Evans as a child and was told it was still undecyphered. that’s when Linear B got in his blood and what kept him working on it throughout his life, not helped by his somewhat diffident personality. At times he completely withdraw from the research, sinking into depression. In fact, Fox speculates that perhaps, once the initial euphoria about finally cracking the language had left him, his inner melancholy overwhelmed him and the car accident he died in might not have been entirely accidental…

Remains the language itself, interesting, but apparantly only used to hold inventories and help the palace bureaucracy; no stories had been written in it, no national epics discovered in it. A bit of a anticlimax perhaps, but the story as told by Fox is intriguing nonetheless.

A History of Future Cities — Daniel Brook

Cover of A History of Future Cities

A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
457 pages including index
published in 2013

I took the title more literally than it was intended when I took it out of the library, thinking this was some sort of futuristic look at how cities were likely to evolve in the twentyfirst century and beyond. Instead it turned out to be a cultural history and comparison between four cities explicitly founded and developed to provide a vision of the future for their respective countries: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai. This looked just as interesting so I kept reading despite the initial disappointment.

The problems with any comparative history book like this is that it’s easy to get lost in the historical narrative of each city and to a certain extent this happened here, as Brook tells the story of each of these four cities in a chronological order, with most chapters focusing on a single city. There is however a certain theme to these stories, one that tells of how modernity is introduced by authoritarian regimes of one stripe or another with the intention to limit its reach to those sectors of society it thinks needs modernising, only to have the city’s influence reach beyond it, for which it is punished, only to ultimately triumph. It’s a very western, neoliberal view of the world, as culminating in the slightly sycophantic look at Dubai.

So, to recap: St. Petersburg was born out of the desire of czar Peter to make Russia into a modern, European military power, deliberately emulating the city of Amsterdam, populated with imported crafts people from Holland and other western European countries. With them and the ideas they brought also came unwelcome imports about things like how serfdom isn’t cool and czarism a drag, which were harshly surpressed but never quite disappeared. As czarist Russia became the stalinist USSR, now Leningrad was downgraded because the totalitarian rulers could never quite trust it.

Meanwhile, Bombay/Mumbai and later Shanghai were cities created out of a coloniser’s need for trade ports, with the British ruling India directly while Shanghai was created into an international free city open to all Europeans but not so much Chinese. In both cases, the cities evolved into a modern, mixed population metropolis of great economic importance, but their respective roles during their countries’ colonial eras meant that those too were shackled by India and China’s new rulers, their values incompatible with those in favour in the rest of the country.

Dubai meanwhile is the post-modern equivalent of these cities, an attempt to emulate them and provide its country with a modern financial and business capital that can maintain its value long after Dubai’s relatively modest oil wealth would run out. The youngest of the four, it’s also the city Brook pays the least attention to.

Brook sees all four cities as sort of precursors for the modern, cosmopolitan, globalised twentyfirst century world, which he largely sees as positive. And to be honest, there is much to be admired in those cities, even a city like Shanghai, which I’d always seen as the quintessential example of western arrogance with regards to China, had its good side. It would actually make for a great model to nick for a space opera setting. A breezy read, as long as you don’t take everything Brook tells you as gospel, this is interesting enough to take a punt on.

The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe — Adriaan Verhulst

The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe

The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe
Adriaan Verhulst
172 pages including bibliography and index
published in 1999

Sometimes I’m unsure myself why I persist in reading a book I’m not getting any enjoyment from nor learn much from, but apparantly my boredom threshold is much higher for non-fiction books. The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe is one of those deceptively slim volumes of history that promise more than they deliver, looked much more interesting on the library shelves than it turned out to be. But is that the fault of the writer or the reader, coming to the subject cold and wanting a more pop historical approach?

Nevertheless, there is the question of the title. It’s a bit overbroad for what turns out to be a historical and archaeological survey of the origins of cities in the region between the rivers Somme and Meuse, not entirely what I’d call “North-West Europe” myself. To be honest however, this is the most urbanised area of North-West Europe in the period Verhulst examines here, from the late Roman period up to the twelfth century. And Verhulst is careful not to draw wider conclusions from the fifteen cities he studied in detail here.

The impulse to write this book, according to the introduction was because the subject hadn’t had a proper treatment in half a century and new research had made much of it outdated. The explanations offered for why this region in particular had such a rapid and early urbanisation when comparable regions elsewhere in Europe were no longer seen as sufficient. This book then is an attempt to tell the history of this urbanisation better. Whereas previously it was thought that long distance trade between the Southern Netherlands and the Mediterranean regions was the impulse that drove these cities to expand, Verhulst argues that instead the reasons should be found in the region’s own particular circumstances.

One of which is of course the location of this region, criss crossed with excellent waterways, though some of which only became navigable in the period discussed, excellently positioned for trade with e.g. England or Northern France. At first this trade flowed through socalled emporia, trading places under protection of a king or located near large abbeys and royal residences. When these disappeared, trade switched to towns and cities, as the merchants no longer were bound to the manors of the church or their lord. The weakness of the manorial economy in this region, also enabled artisans to move out from the manors to the towns.

The South-Western Netherlands had from the end of the great migrations of Germanic peoples been more densely populated than was the norm in Europe, with agriculture being more advanced, again enabling the growth of larger and more cities than could be supported elsewhere. Combine that with a more splintered political environment, with no strong king to curb the independence of the cities and you have a recipe for growth.

The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe was an interesting, if tough read. One of those books that’s not entirely meant as a general history, but more as a synthetic overview, more of use to an actual historian. One of those books you can’t quite recommend, through no fault of its own.

A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen

Cover of A History of the Vandals

A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012

Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.

This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.

My knowledge of the Vandals had been limited to what I’ve read about them in the context of more generalist works about Late Antiquity. I knew them as one of the Germanic tribes that managed to cross over into the Roman Empire in the wake of the Gothic invasions of the late fourth century CE, that like many other tribes pressure from more aggressive neighbours like the Hunas had forced them to move. From there, continueous pressure from neighbouring tribes and Romans alike kept them on the move until they settled in Spain, where they were threatened by Visigoth aggression and allied themselves with the Alans. In a brilliant move their great leader, Genseric, found the perfect solution to their problems: invade Roman North Africa and found an empire there. A desperate gamble, but it paid off.

A History of the Vandals doesn’t change this general outline but it does fill in the details of the Vandals’story. Jacobsen starts with the best guesses of where the Vandals actually came from and what they looked like before they invaded the Empire, which is of course the most speculative part of their story, as there are no written sources for it, theirs being a pre-literate society. Like the other Germanic tribes, their entry in written history starts when they first come into contact with the Romans and of course the sources we have from then on are mostly written from a Roman point of view. What we know of Vandal existence before that, has to come through archeaology and there the main difficulty is in matching the cultural remains found with what we know or think we know of the Vandals through later sources. It’s one of the reasons why many modern historians consider invading peoples like the Vandals to have only been created by their entry into the Roman Empire, rather than have existed as a coherent nation before. Certainly the idea of the invading Germanic peoples as readily distinct tribes has long been abandoned.

For the Vandals perhaps the moment they became a distinct nation could be said to be just before the leap to North Africa, when the Visigoths threatened to overrun them. Such an undertaking is difficult to imagine being done without having at least a coherent shared identity as well as a strong leader. Genseric was that leader ad he got the Vandals not only safe in North Africa, but established as the dominant power in the western Roman Empire by the time of his death. The Vandals not only took over the richest provinces in North Africa, provinces which until then had been spared most of the damage done by the ‘barbarian” invasions, but also Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics. His successors would have trouble holding onto the full extent of his conquest, but until the end the Vandal kingdom was considered the strongest post-Roman state in the western Meditterraean.

When the conquest of North Africa changed the Vandals from an insignificant also ran tribe into a major power, it also changed Vandal history. Under Genseric it transformed itself from a typical Germanic tribe where the king was just one of the nobles into a centrally led kingdom where the nobility no longer had the power to challenge the king. No longer would kings be elected, but rather the kingdom would be inherited by the oldest living male relative of the current king. That latest wrinkle would ensure that Genseric’s succesors would become king at a late age, as well as lead to frequent conflict as candidates fought out who would be king and reigning kings made sure their preferred heir would be the only living candidate…

Jacobsen describes how Vandal society in North Africa was reconstituted as that of a small elite atop a largely Roman population, with most functions of government still done by Romans, save for the army. The Vandals distinguished themselves mainly through their religion Arian Christianity as opposed to orthodox Catholicism and religious conflicts would be frequent to the very end of Vandal rule. North Africa has always been staunchly Catholic, with a great many theologians coming from its provinces. It’s no wonder therefore that the imposition of Arianism on it would lead to conflict and would be used as one of the justifications for the Byzantine reconquest of North Africa.

Said reconquest happened a lot quicker than anybody expected; several earlier attempts had been soundly defeated and the Vandal kingdom was supposed to be the dominant power in the west. However, its strength had been undermined through internal conflicts as well as border skirmishes with the Moors, who had taken over parts of the kingdom. Combined with a much less aggressive foreign policy after the death of Genseric, this meant the Vandal army was much less strong than assumed. Furthermore, the relatively small size of the Vandal elite meant that any serious defeat would probably mean the collapse of Vandal rule. As it turned out, the failure of the Vandal fleet to prevent the landing of the Byzantines meant the Vandals had to come into pitched battle and to their credit, they did. Jacobsen shows that their strategy was right and their fighting spirit was always high, but in the end the Byzantine armies were too strong.

As with a lot of histories of ‘barbarian’ tribes, A History of the Vandals is coloured by its reliance on Roman sources; histories written from a Vandal point of view are, almost non-existent. This means that by definition this isn’t the definitive history of the Vandals, as reflected in the title. Nevertheless, this is a good introduction and overview of their history, readable for anybody interested in Late Antiquity, highlighting one of the era’s lesser known but important powers.

The Normans — Marjorie Chibnall

Cover of The Normans

The Normans
Marjorie Chibnall
191 pages including index
published in 2000

So the Normans eh? Bunch of Vikings who plundered the English and French coasts for a while, before the king of France made an offer they couldn’t refuse and they settled in what became Normandy, named after them, to defend France against, well, other Vikings. Traditionally this is supposed to have happened in 911 CE. unlike other Scandinavian invaders attempting to set up stock in the countries they raided, these Vikings not only survived but thrived, creating essential a new people, the Normans and a new country, Normandy, in the process. Not only did Normandy become a powerful duchy, more or less indepdent from the kingdom of France, from there on William the Conqueror went on to take over England and Wales and invade Ireland, while other Normans went on to the Mediterranean and found kingdoms in Sicily and Antioch.

What the Normans managed to do looks a whole lot like what earlier “barbarian” invaders like the Goths did to the Roman empire, grabbing a piece of it and settle there in return for protection against other “barbarians”. But, as Marjorie Chibnall explains in her book, the Normans were “a product, not of blood, but of history”, not so much a people on the move as in the “classic” — and quite likely never to have happened in that form — people movements of Late Antiquity. Instead, it was a tightly knit group of warriors loyal to a specific ruler which took over and created Normandy, mixing with and ruling over the original populations. It was similar ties between ruler and noblemen that would later enable William the Conqueror to win the English kingdom.

A slight digression. I’ve been attempting to play a computer game called Crusader Kings II, which starts at roughly the conquest of England. At first glance this looks a standard grand strategy game, where you take control of a medieval country or duchy and attempt to conquer Europe from it, but which instead turns out all to be about building up your family and feudal ties and making your family the most prominent and powerful in Europe. It was hard to get into the mindset, but The Normans helped me a lot with this.

Because as said, if you trace the history of the Norman conquests after they’d been established in Normandy, it’s not a people or even a country going out to conquest, but instead smaller and larger groups of noblemen and knights, often younger sons left out of an inheritance, looking for adventure and spoils outside Normandy. The invasion of England was a highly organised state run enterprise; the establishments of Norman kingdoms in southern Italy/Sicily and Antioch were almost accidents, opportunities grabbed by clever, strong leaders.

Especially in their later conquests the Norman rulers were never more than a tiny minority, ruling over often already fairly mixed populations. For the most part they turned out to be tolerant of their subjects and their faiths, though not hesitant to sponsor and promote their own brand of Catholicism, including providing new monastries for their favourite orders.But because the Normans were always a minority at best, always intermixing with the populations of the countries they conquered, it’s hard to point to specifics about Norman culture and the chapters dealing with this are the weakest.

Overall though The Normans is a good, concise overview of Norman history, a good foundation to explore the Norman world from.