A post in two halves

This post, like a football match, comes in two halves.

A week today, we leave the European Union for a period of transition out. As readers of this blog know, I think this is a foolish and sad decision, but I may be wrong. But even if Brexit is successful, there will doubtless be several problems and difficulties along the way; and the temptation for Remainers and Europhiles like me will be to say repeatedly, “What did we tell you?” and “What did you expect?”

Probably this temptation should be resisted.

Anyway, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that there should be commemorative coins or stamps: it’s a major event in our country’s history. The appalling suggestion that church bells should be rung “as on VE Day” (appalling because it would politicise churches; it would explicitly equate the EU with Nazi Germany; and it would implicitly make EU nationals into the “enemy”) was I hope just a wind-up.

I was contemplating using 31st Jan instead as a kind of celebration of all things European, as we leave. I have more control of my day than most people, and I sought advice on how to do this.

The first step was to do something that, as an inveterate list-maker and learner, I’ve meant to do for ages: learn the 28 countries in the EU, soon to be 27. I’ve done that.

I can pray for them.

I was taken aback by realising how little French, German etc literature I have in the house, even in translation. Tintin, Asterix and Dante is about it. I shall follow my former vicar’s excellent suggestion, and read a Tintin book. (One with a European setting, obviously; “The Calculus Affair” or “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, perhaps.)

I can play some music: spoilt for choice classically with Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, Mozart, Verdi… if not classical it might have to be Eurovision.

I shall need to find some foreign food to eat (and I’m handicapped in the drinks area by not liking alcohol.) German or Italian sausage? Lasagne or pizza? Sauerkraut or bortsch?

Art… I couldn’t find foreign literature (in English) in the local library, but the arts section had several books on famous artists, so I’ve been feasting my eyes on one or two of the past European masters.

The first was Pieter Brueghel (or Bruegel) the Elder (“Peasant Bruegel) and this is where the second part of the post starts.

Bruegel lived in the middle of Europe from 1525 to 1569, and died a few years after the infamous invasion of his homeland by the Spanish Duke of Alva. This was designed to put down Protestantism with extreme force. (It led to the division of the Low Countries into largely Catholic Belgium and the largely Protestant Netherlands.) Unlike many painters of his time, he didn’t paint portraits, but is renowned for his pictures of peasant life, sometimes with a Biblical theme, sometimes not.

Many of his pictures show medieval crowds, and are very useful to historians. For example, his “Census at Bethlehem” shows Mary and Joseph almost hard to identify in the busy scene of rather 16th-century looking people registering and doing lots of other things round about an inn. His “Massacre of the Innocents”, nominally about the actions of King Herod, shows the Duke of Alba’s symbol on the soldiers’ banner. (This painting was later altered by someone else, presumably for political reasons, so that the dead babies became items of food or other inanimate plunder.)

I found all this very interesting. I couldn’t before have told you much about Bruegel, but like most people I’ve seen some of the pictures over the course of my life.

It occurred to me a few days ago that they sank deeper into my subconscious than I realised at the time, and that when I came to write the Tales from Ragaris, I found his images there.

Of course, this may have been a bad move. Bruegel’s technology, building techniques and costumes are, or ought to be, about 300 years further on from the days of King Arrion or Queen Rommi.

Looking at the paintings again, Dorac’s jacket is in my mind more loose-fitting than one of Bruegel’s peasant’s, as he (Dorac) didn’t have buttons, and I think longer. Ragaris would have had many women like Gemara and Fillim in hose rather than gowns, and most of the hats would have been less complex.

But it may well be that Bruegel is the reason why people in Ragaris do tend to wear hats (outside Ricossa.)

I now think that if you want to picture Ragaris… you should look at Bruegel.

Below are links to two of his most famous: Hunters in the Snow, and The Peasant Wedding.



Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Stephen Sheridan

    25th January 2020 at 8:36 am Reply

    A good post Penelope. Apologies for not commenting for some time, but I have been having a manic period. I have only just started The Servant’s Voice for the same reason and you have excelled yourself again, although I am so glad I am not one of your protagonists – you certainly give them extreme challenges! The way you convey a lot of information about culture and background in a very few descriptive phrases is very pleasing.

    I shall go back and comment on a couple of previous posts shortly, but I really liked this one. As a Leaver, I do hope that those on the Remain side will do as you are and channel their support of the EU into a broader interest of continental European history and culture. As the son of a multi-lingual continental immigrant and a Cornish woman who with no meaningful secondary education managed to learn German in the Thirties (driven by her love of German classical music, I hasten to add), I have lots of recommendations.

    1) Do not waste time on Tintin. Fun though the books can be, King Ottakar’s Sceptre and the Calculus Affair are pastiches of how Western Europe views the Balkans and Eastern Europe without understanding the complexity of those regions’ histories. Don’t forget that the writer of Tintin, Herge, was not exactly open-minded when it came to other cultures (see the characterisation of Africans in Tintin in the Congo and the Red Sea Sharks) and having worked for a pro-Nazi newspaper in Belgium during the war he admitted to backing the New Order at the time, although he declared he had been mistaken, when he was investigated for collaboration after the war.

    2) When it comes to music, try Chopin as well. I find his music sublime and you get musical coverage of two European countries at the same time, one from the West and one from the East (France and Poland).

    3) Read more about continental history. British education is general woeful in its coverage of the subject, typically having an imperial and anglophone bias.

    In particular, to understand Germany, one has to understand the Thirty Years War and the trauma that caused. I can recommend the following:


    That and the exploitation of German states by Napoleon help to explain why Germany has only ever existed as a unified nation state (as opposed to a divided country or an empire) since 1990.

    For Eastern Europe and Napoleonic period history, Adam Zamoyski has done some great stuff and some of it very succinct.

    To bring it all together for Europe as a whole I recommend Norman Davies

    I have all of these, so I would be happy to post them to you if any sound of interest.

    4) Finally I recommend learning a language or at least some aspects of it. It is the only way to understand a culture – language explains so many cultural aspects and reinforces them. As an example of some of the rewards:
    a) If you learn German you can realise the irony that if Marx had been writing in Russian he would have found it much harder to express his concepts, which is probably the same reason why Germany has had many philosophical writers and theorists, but Russia’s philosophical insights are buried in the practical experience of people in its literature.
    b) If you learn Rumanian you will be amazed at how Latin managed to hang on in this border province of the Eastern Roman Empire (which used Greek as its main language).
    c) If you learn Hungarian (apart from deserving a medal!) you will be experiencing one of only 4 indigenous non-Indo-European languages on the continent.
    d) For some real linguistic fun try the mystery of why Portuguese often sounds like a Slavic language…

    Anyway I hope that’s useful.
    Love Stephen

    PS As a Leaver my suggestion as a commemoration would be something that showed continuing friendship – although it is quite hard to express that symbolically on a coin without it appearing imperial in some way. Much better would be a British cultural and linguistic educational outreach to get more knowledge into our schools and reverse the decline in learning European languages over recent years.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    26th January 2020 at 11:22 am Reply

    Brueghel’s paintings are certainly very interesting and the presence of the two men playing bagpipes at the wedding emphasises the cultural links to the UK as I assume the Scots and Irish of the time and possibly some Irish would also have used the bagpipes at such events. The pictures of the peasants in winter emphasises why wearing hats would have been so important. The winters in the 16th century would have been bitterly cold and going out without a hat would have been very foolish. Even the people indoors were wearing hats and again one assumes this was to help keep warm. There is no obvious fire in the hall. It may not have been as cold as this in Makkera during the winter but in the grape growing regions of the south it would have presumably been useful to wear hats because of the strong sun in summer. Even in Makkera the winters may have been cold enough to want hats.

  • Stephen Hall

    28th January 2020 at 4:43 pm Reply

    Great idea to read some Tintin books (in the original French I assume) to celebrate our Europeanity.

    The Calculus Affair and King Ottakar’s Sceptre are of course both largely set in Syldavia and Borduria. Syldavia has been a model EU member since joining in 2004 thanks to its respect for the rule of law and generally liberal attitudes. King Ottakar III has been content to retire into a purely constitutional role, can regularly be seen cycling round Klow, and recently bestowed the Order of the Black Pelican on Greta Thunberg. Borduria’s entry into the EU has been more troubled: the authoritarian attitudes of President Kurvi-Tasch being somewhat at odds with “European values”. But yes, on January 31st let’s all tuck in to a savoury szlalzhak, raise a glass of sproj and call out “Amäih” to our European friends.

    • Penelope Wallace

      28th January 2020 at 5:33 pm Reply

      I do like the update…

  • Stephen Hall

    28th January 2020 at 4:49 pm Reply

    If you’re interested in Brueghel, I would recommend Michael Frayne’s excellent novel “Headlong”. It’s a fun read about the possible discovery of a missing work by the Flemish genius in a barn or some such, but also includes a lot of very interesting appreciation of his work. In fact I’ll give you a copy for your birthday.

    • Penelope Wallace

      28th January 2020 at 5:30 pm Reply

      Thank you!

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