Wednesday, June 01, 2005

King Arthur

In drawing the sometimes not-so-obvious lines between history, legend, myth, and outright fiction, King Arthur can be a useful example.

Yes, there really was a King Arthur. One of the earliest historians to mention him was Nennius, a Welshman who wrote around 796 A.D., by which time Arthur was already over three hundred years into the past. Nennius tells us that Arthur united the Britains, who missed the unifying if imposed influence of the Romans, against the Saxon invaders. Nennius contrasts Arthur's Christian manners with the savage attacks of the pagan Saxons.

The Romans left in the early 400's, and Arthur seems to have assumed political leadership around 452. There were several decades in which there was no unifying political influence in Britain, each town caring for itself only. Arthur was needed, because a unified defense had to be presented to the various Germanic tribes which kept invading: the Saxons, the Vandals, and Schwaben. Although Arthur worked with heroism, the Saxons ultimately took over the island.

Concerning the legends and tales about knights in shining armor, we can probably conjecture that Arthur didn't wear metal armor, might not have had a horse, or even the formal title of "king", and whatever castles he may have inhabited probably resembled simple, small, crude stone houses. He's not the Arthur of the fairy tales, but he played a more than imporant role in British history.

The Black Death

Imagine what it must be like when huge numbers of people die from a disease: "crazed dogs running wild on deserted streets, nighttime fires winking from the crowded fields and vineyards around the city; dusty, sun-drenched roads filled with sweaty, fearful refugees; sick stragglers wandering off to nearby woods and huts to die."

The plague which swept through Europe in the 1300's was a cultural turning point in many ways. After such devastation, society had to re-build itself, and in so doing, re-designed itself. Approximately 33% of Europe died; that would be 25 million people. In some towns, everyone died; other towns had fewer casualties. Early in the century, earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, heavy rains, and high winds had hit Europe, leaving crops stunted and waterlogged, and bringing thousands to edge of starvation; combined with poor sanitation - waste and filth were everywhere - which made a good home for the rats which carried the sickness, Europe was a ripe target for a plague. It moved quickly across the continent.

The civil response was helpful, but limited. In England, steady leadership sustained order, self-control, and lawfulness. In Florence and Venice, public health systems were established to oversee sanitation and the burial of the dead. But the human and spiritual response was amazing: in the worst years of the mortality, Europeans witnessed horrors comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even when death was everywhere and only a fool would dare to hope, the thin fabric of civilization held - sometimes by the skin of its teeth, but it held. Enough notaries, municipal and church authorities, physicians, and merchants stepped forward to keep governments and courts and churches running. Human power alone can't generate that kind of resiliency: even in the most extreme and horrific of circumstances, people do actually carry on, powered by the external forces of altruism and faith.

Political and economic conditions changed after the plague: there were fewer people, more jobs, and a higher standard of living.

Think Before You Speak - Or Write!

One benefit you can gain from the careful study of texts is the habit of considering carefully the words you will use before you speak or write. You must allow your passion to cool, and allow your reason to work, if you want to make sense. In a moment of passion, we may say or write something which seems obviously correct to ourselves, but which later will be seen as foolish. A recent letter, published in a newspaper, had several paragraphs of heated political opinion, in the midst of which was buried the sentence: "It doesn't matter what you believe in, it matters how you express yourself."

Even a nano-second's worth of reflection reveals the idiocy of that statement, and it undermined any other good argumentation which the writer may have put forth. Whatever your opinions, you have an obligation to state them rationally - if you state them irrationally, you will lose the right to be among educated people.