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August 17th, 2008

Look outside!

Well, after all that rain, the skies cleared enough to see the lunar eclipse just now. Do have a look, if you are on the right side of the world.

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16) A History of the Black Death in Ireland, by Maria Kelly

Prompted by young F's fascination with the subject, I bought this from the remainder pile in the University Bookshop in Belfast the other day. Given the extreme paucity of sources, Kelly has done a very good job - she makes the most of what few records there are, signals clearly where there is disagreement in the secondary literature, and is honest about the extent to which she is arguing evidence of absence from absence of evidence. It builds up into a convincing story: the 1348-50 outbreak of plague was devastating to Leinster and Munster, and much less so to Ulster and Connacht; and in particular it was devastating to the towns and communities of Anglo-Irish settlement, some of which never recovered - she estimates the pre-plague population of New Ross, Co Kilkenny Wexford, at over 12,000; today it is less than 8,000!

The result of this was a depopulated and reduced area of English control in Ireland, retreating into the Pale, and an effective decentralisation of power to the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish chieftains and intensification of warfare between them, all in the context of a devastated economy - merchants and sailors were especially badly hit, so trade effectively vanished, and meanwhile the price of labour soared, and the plague had literally killed off any chance of importing workers from England. The Irish population may not have returned to pre-plague levels until the 18th century. If anything Kelly slightly undersells the huge impact of the plague on Ireland, given the evidence she presents.

Kelly mainly draws on administrative and archaeological evidence, but there are a couple of personalities who stand out. One is Richard FitzRalph, the Archbishop of Armagh, who preached fiery sermons while worrying about church administration (especially staffing levels, for obvious reasons). The other is Friar John Clyn of Kilkenny, who chronicled the advance (and symptoms) of the plague from the Dublin ports across Leinster, seeing it as the end of civilisation and the first step of the apocalypse, before himself falling victim to it; the closing words of his chronicle, written perhaps when he already knew he was ill, are poignant.

Anyway, a good book, though I have a serious complaint about the index which has completely inaccurate page numbers.
17) The Faded Sun Trilogy

Having rather bounced off both Cherryh's Hugo winners, Cyteen and Downbelow Station, I'm glad to report that I found the Faded Sun trilogy much easier to get into. She slightly lost me at the climax of the last book, but apart from that I found them all very readable. It's a story of questing for destiny and of relationships between three different species, humans, the warrior mri, and the regul. Cherryh gives her aliens an effective and convincingly different psychology, particularly by having us follow the human characters who try to get closest to them.

All three books pass the Bechdel test, if we allow it to apply to female aliens: Melein, a mri priestess, is one of the key characters and she confronts other priestesses at several crucial points (notably the climax of the second book).

On the Bechdel test: a couple of people queried whether it is really meaningful or reasonable to apply it in this way. To be honest, I am open-minded as to whether or not I will get much from doing this, but it seems to me a worthwhile and easy experiment. I was inspired by Charlie Stross's applying it to his own work and lefaym's Bechdelian analysis of Doctor Who, and thought that while there is no way I'm going to apply it retrospectively, I can easily enough track the Bechdel score of books I read from now on. I admit that there is an immediate problem of applicability, in that the classic Bechdel test explicitly applies to the cinema rather than the written word; and a slightly more subtle issue to do with background rather than foreground activities (does Proust pass, when his male narrator hears about hot girl-on-girl action offstage? I would say yes). But I'll give it a try for a few weeks and see what I learn from it.

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