Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Western Civilization, Love It or Hate It

Since perhaps the middle of the twentieth century, Western Civilization has been controversial. Since long before that, the term has been somewhat ambiguous: 'western' is a geographical denotation, but also a relative one. Given that Dakar, and all of Senegal, is west of Portugal, it is not clear that Western Civilization is in the west. Given that Jerusalem, Babylon, and all of Mesopotamia is east of Europe, it is not clear how these cradles of Western Civilization are in any sense in the West.

It is equally problematic to refer to this heritage as 'European culture' or the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' - it is certainly not limited to Europe, as it is found in North and South America and in Australia; it does not find its origin in Europe, as neither Hammurabi nor Moses, neither Jesus nor Cyrus ever set foot in Europe. While this heritage finds its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is also the case that many deists, agnostics, and atheists have embraced the values of this heritage, as have adherents to belief systems like scientology and other lesser-known sects and religions.

However ambiguous its name may be, there is no ambiguity about the hatred directed toward it. It has become not only fashionable, but in some situations required, to speak dismissively of the West: students are encouraged to study literature by ignoring Shakespeare and Chaucer and praising Frantz Fanon. Michelangelo and Mozart, Bach and Dürer are ignored precisely because they were traditionally studied. Although the allegedly academic authorities who encourage this repudiation of the West are often ignorant of the cultures of Asia and Africa, they embrace the a priori assumption that such cultures are superior to the West simply because they are not the West.

Whether we label it irony, or label it merely self-contradiction, those whose hatred of the West is most vocal are also usually those who most loudly proclaim their adherence to the values which are peculiar to the western heritage. Wherever they are found in the world, movements such as the abolition of slavery or the legal equality of women trace their roots to the West.

When Moses revised Hammurabi's standards and proclaimed that it is equally wrong for a husband or a wife to commit adultery, and when he expressed the notion that slaves were humans with rights and that slavery should eventually come to an end, seeds were sown that grew in 1215 A.D., when the Magna Carta endorsed women's rights to self-determination, and in 1869, when women began voting in Wyoming, long before the nineteenth amendment was superfluously ratified. These seeds also grew when the abolitionist movement grew so strong in the mid-1700's in North America that the emancipation of slaves became inevitable.

The West is the unique source of individual liberty and personal freedom; that is its nature. That other cultures offer a critique of the West is the result of their having embraced the West's gift of critical thought. That academics in the West critique the West is the result of their embracing the West's gift of intellectual freedom. Much of this was expressed by the French thinker Jacques Ellul in his book The Betrayal of the West. He writes:

Let me repeat: I am not criticizing or rejecting other civilizations and societies; I have deep admiration for the institutions of the Bantu and other peoples (the Chinese among them) and for the inventions and poetry and architecture of the Arabs. I do not claim at all that the West is superior. In fact, I think it absurd to lay claim to superiority of any kind in these matters. What criterion would you apply? What scale of values would you use? I would add that the greatest fault of the West since the seventeenth century has been precisely its belief in its own unqualified superiority in all areas.

The adversaries of the West allege that the West is guilty of a sense of superiority vis-a-vis other cultures. While there certainly have been a few chauvinists among the thinkers of the West, in general the West has demonstrated a friendly curiosity about the rest of the world.

By contrast, the most deeply-seated sense of superiority is to be found precisely among those who denounce the West; they confidently proclaim it inferior to any other world culture, despite their ignorance of other cultures. It was during the allegedly xenophobic heyday of Western Civilization that university students in large numbers eagerly studied Sanskrit, Nubian, and Ge'ez (the ancient language of Ethiopia). Now that multi-culturalism, a misnomer because it omits the serious study of any culture and embraces simply the denunciation of one culture, has influenced the university, one is hard-pressed to find any opportunity to study such languages.

The West's unique ability to examine itself critically has led to reform movements and revolutions of various kinds. But this same ability, carried to an irrational extreme, yields merely a bizarre form of cultural self-hatred.

The thing, then, that I am protesting against is the silly attitude of western intellectuals in hating their own world and then illogically exalting all other civilizations. Ask yourself this question: If the Chinese have done away with binding the feet of women, and if the Moroccans, Turks, and Algerians have begun to liberate their women, whence did the impulse to these moves come from? From the West, and nowhere else! Who invented the "rights of man"? The same holds for the elimination of exploitation. Where did the move to socialism originate? In Europe, and in Europe alone. The Chinese, like the Algerians, are inspired by western thinking as they move toward socialism. Marx was not Chinese, nor was Robespierre an Arab. How easily the intellectuals forget this! The whole of the modern world, for better or for worse, is following a western model; no one imposed it on others, they have adopted it themselves, and enthusiastically.

When areas of the world were colonies of the West, and desired to throw off the yoke of colonization, that desire was seen as just only through the lens of western values, and the impetus to anti-colonial revolution came exclusively from western thinkers. People suffered for long centuries under non-western despots, with no explicit way to formulate their desire for freedom, and with no way to organize that desire. Once exposed to western thought, they were able to articulate and act upon a value system which included liberty. Paradoxically, they obtained that value system from the very colonists whom they overthrew.

The West is not perfect; the West committed its share of crimes and sins against humanity. But the West has bestowed unique gifts, not only upon its own, but upon the entire planet.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Change in Dynasties

One of the turning-points in world history is the emergence of the Carolingian Dynasty among the Franks in Gaul. This event would lead, in turn, to the establishment of Charlemagne's empire, which would be reinvented as the empire of Otto the Great, and finally as the Holy Roman Empire. All of these would play a crucial role in defending Europe, which would be under period attack for centuries.

Einhard, the biographer who recorded Charlemagne's life, gives us an account of the emergence of the Carolingian Dynasty. Orthography deserves attention in this matter, for two reasons: first, because these events took place in a bilingual environment; chronicles were discussed and recorded in both Frankish and Latin. Second, because the notion of fixed orthography had not yet emerged; spelling was understood to be fluid, and most words had more than one acceptable spelling.

Einhard himself is also recorded as Eginhard and Einhart. Charlemagne is also known Charles the Great and Carolus Magnus; during his life, he was known as Karl.

But the narrative begins much earlier. Long before Charlemagne was born, the Carolingian Dynasty earned respect in the person of Charles "the Hammer" Martel, who defended Gaul, and most of Europe, from an invasion force of thousands of Islamic soldiers. The Muslims had invaded and occupied Spain in 711 A.D., and had periodically conducted raids over the Pyrenees into Gaul. At this time, Gaul was beginning to become known as France, because the Germanic tribe known as the Franks had been stabilizing the area for over two centuries; the area had been a power vacuum in the decades after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., and the Franks helped to restore civil order after a period of chaos.

Having secured their occupation of Spain, the Muslims wanted France. After a few year of raiding over the Pyrenees mountain range, they attempted a full-scale invasion. Historian Eleanor Shipley Duckett writes:

Ever since their arrival in Spain from Africa in 711, the Muslims had raided Frankish territory, threatening Gaul and on one occasion (725) reaching Burgundy and sacking Autun. In 732 Abd ar-Rahman, the governor of Cordoba, marched into Bordeaux and defeated Eudes. The Muslims then proceeded north across Aquitaine to the city of Poitiers. Eudes appealed to Charles for assistance, and Charles’s cavalry managed to turn back the Muslim onslaught at the Battle of Tours. The battle itself may have been only a series of small engagements, but after it there were no more great Muslim invasions of Frankish territory.

The forces of Charles "the Hammer" were outnumbered by the attacking Muslims, making his victory a tactical masterpiece, and making him an instant hero in Europe. After the victory, Charles Martel pointed out that the Merovingian Dynasty, in the person of Hilderich III, had done little or nothing to contribute to the defense of France, despite the fact that the Merovingians were the reigning monarchs of Gaul. Accusing the Merovingians of negligence, Charles Martel claimed the throne for himself and his family. The pope issued an opinion supporting Charles the Hammer. Einhard himself wrote:

The Merovingian Dynasty, from whom the Franks used to choose their kings, ruled according to the general opinion, up until the time of Hilderich. Hilderich was deposed by order of the Roman pope Stephan, shorn, and sent into a cloister. Although the dynasty, by all appearances, died out with him, it had already long since lost its significance and had henceforth only the empty royal title.

Clovis (Chlodowech or Chlodwig) was the first Frankish, and first Merovingian, king of Gaul, ruling until his death 511. Hilderich III was the last, having ruled from 742 to 751. Pope Zacharias, in office from 741 to 752, had already prior to his death in early 752 ordered the deposing of Hilderich. Pope Stephan, in office from 752 to 757, was chosen in March 752 as successor, and traveled in person to Gaul in order to anoint Pippin. Pippin the Short was the son of Charles Martel and the father of Charlemagne. As long as the Merovingians, having lost any real authority or power, remained on the throne as nomical rulers, the real activity of ruling fell to the major domo, the chief of staff, who happened to be Charles Martel. Einhard continues:

The major domo had real power and authority in the kingdom, the so-called chief of staff, who stood at the top of the government. Nothing was left to the king except to content himself with the title and to sit on the throne flowing hair on his head and an uncut beard and to play the ruler. He was allowed to hear ambassadors, who came from everywhere, and to dismiss them with words which seemed to be his own, but which one had in reality written for him and often had forced upon him.

So when Hilderich was deposed, he in reality had no power to lose anyway. His long hair and beard were symbols of royal power, but they had become empty symbols. When Carolingians ascended to the throne, they ruled in reality, having already long ruled behind the scenes.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Notes Toward a Philosophy of History

Thoughts about the Philosophy of History do not belong to the study of History, but rather to Meta-Historical thought, or perhaps even to Meta-Meta-History. Conducted with more rigor than will here be shown, they would belong to Philosophy. (The Philosophy of History should not be confused with the History of Philosophy!)

One possible point of departure for a Philosophy of History is human nature. Among the many traits belonging to humans are a set of needs and wants, a set of flaws and imperfections, and a set of strengths and virtues.

Human needs and wants include food, clothing, water, and shelter; humans also want someone to care for them and care about them; they have a desire to know and be known, a desire for a sense of meaning in their lives, and a desire for some form of happiness and joy.

Sadly but realistically, human nature is inherently flawed. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in the state of nature, meaning if humans lived out their innate qualities, their lives would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." As evidence, one might mention that nobody needs to be taught how to lie, how to be selfish, or how to be overly aggressive in a moment of anger. It comes quite naturally.

By contrast, there are also some constructive elements in human nature. Humans naturally love - nobody needs to be taught to feel affection for someone else. Humans are creative and inventive. Humans are sometimes even noble.

Human nature is, in short, a mixed picture. The result of this is, however, that human flaws prevent people from getting those things which they need or want.

To this end, society attempts, sometimes successfully, to develop correctives for the imperfections found in human nature. There are many such ventured remedies, but most of them may be grouped under three headings: art, philosophy, and religion. (G.W.F. Hegel wrote something vaguely related about those three.)

In art, society attempts to bring the individual into contact with beauty. (In this context, many writers will capitalize the word Beauty.) True beauty can inspire humans and can bring joy to them. If a society can successfully connect the individual with art, it might be a partial corrective to the intrinsic flaws in human nature. But a society's attempts can also fail in this regard, either by failing to bring the individual into contact, or by bringing him into contact with something which is not true beauty.

Philosophy attempts to bring the individual into contact with truth. (Again, many will capitalize the 'T' here.) Using the powers of human thought and reasoning, philosophy attempts to find realities which are in some sense foundational or deep. Because there are many different schools of philosophy, some of which would reject the use of the words 'foundational' or 'truth', it is a complex and murky enterprise. If successful, however, philosophy can give the individual some grasp of reality and his position in it. But philosophy can also fail, yielding nothing fruitful, and perhaps something harmful.

Religion attempts to bring the individual into contact with God, who cares for and about the individual, and who offers a sense of meaning and joy to the individual - all this despite the realities of living in a flawed world. Successful religion, which allows the individual to receive a sense of unconditional positive regard writ on a cosmically large scale, can indeed be a corrective to the innate corruptions found in human nature. But unsuccessful religion can bring harm rather than benefit, instilling in the individual a sense of needing to somehow accumulate enough merit to earn God's favor. Successful religion yields peace which instills qualities like helpfulness, cooperativeness, and contribution into the individual. Unsuccessful religion instills selfishness and aggressiveness, and yields war.

History, then, is the concrete playing out of the above. History is the specific unfolding of the better parts and the worse parts of human nature - the imago dei and the original sin - in particular times, places, and people. History would end, or rather would go on infinitely, in a cosmic stalemate between good and evil thus described, were it not for an intervention. History contains one more, one new, element.

Society's efforts - by means of art, philosophy, and religion - , however noble, remain limited because they are, finally, human products, and subject to the flaws and limits of their human creators. History reveals intervention by a force beyond, or above, humans. Art, philosophy, and religion attempt to bring humans into contact with something better. But as human products, art, philosophy, and religion are as flawed as the humans who created them. The intervention occurs when beauty, truth, and God bring themselves into contact with humans.

As the old proverb says, "If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill." Francis Bacon, who probably coined this phrase, was indicating that it is important to identify the agency in an action - who's actually doing something? The proverb is often quoted as "If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain."

History records an intervention - ab alio - which finally tips the scale in the grand stalemate. In this intervention, agency is not with the humans. It is for this reason that History is temporally finite. The correctives, ultimately powered and empowered ab alio, change the course of History. When truth, beauty, and God are agents - and not objects of study - the course of History takes a decisive turn toward its eventual end. Which then gives meaning to the phrases "the end of History" and "after History" - phrases on which philosophers have long meditated.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Medieval Travelers: Finding Safe Routes

Just as many people anticipated with dread the year 2000, wondering if a world-wide computer crash would devastate human civilization - or speculated even more wildly about the end of the world - so also the round number of the year 1000 caused concern among the superstitious. Although almost of Europe had been exposed to Christianity by that year, enough pre-Christian influence remained to fuel irrational superstitions. While we may laugh at the idea that a mere round number like 1000 would cause the end of the world, similar fears arose a millennium later, among people with the technology of the modern world.

Such fears were not only irrational and superstitious, but even contradicted by the obvious empirical evidence available to the eyes of most Europeans. Not only was the world not going to end in the year 1000, but things were actually getting better for Europe in that year. After approximately three hundred years of attacks, the aggressors were beginning to back off. It had started in the year 711, when Muslim armies had invaded Spain. They would kept the Spanish under their occupational forces for several centuries. Having solidified its hold on Spain, Islam turned its armies toward France. Muslim armies made not one but numerous attempts, marching over the Pyrenees to invade Gaul, as France was then called. Each time, the Franks, the Germanic tribe which protected France, made heroic defenses. In the year 732, Charles "the Hammer" Martel made the most famous such defense, defending not only France, but all Europe, at the battles of Tours and Poitiers. Finding no success with a land invasion, Islam attempted a sea route, sending raiding parties and small invasion groups along the southern coast of France. There they established occasional footholds, occupying seaside towns and the surrounding farmlands, sometimes for years at a stretch. The inhabitants of southern Gaul lived in terror of the Muslims, who could appear at any time, burning towns and fields to the ground, slaughtering some inhabitants, and taking others as slaves.

The town of Fraxinetum was a base for Islamic pirates and raiders. Around 889 A.D., Muslims invaded the area and established an occupational headquarters. From this base, Islamic soldiers were able to move inland northward, terrorizing villages and confiscating supplies. They also moved east and west along the coast, raiding ports to commandeer supplies from the locals. Muslim pirates based from Fraxinetum kept the waters of the northwest Mediterranean insecure for nearly a century. Finally, the Franks reclaimed their land and pushed the invaders out, and in 973 A.D., reclaimed Fraxinetum. No longer inhibited by the occupational forces, the passes between Italy and France were open and safe again, and travel and commerce could resume.

But by the year 1000, this danger was fading. Southern France was becoming more secure, and Islamic attacks less frequent. Southern Italy, which had likewise been occupied by Muslim armies, was liberated, and its inhabitants once more safe. Muslims no longer had occupational forces on Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily, and their attacks on those islands became less frequent. Historian Marjorie Rowling writes:

AD 1000 was a date much dreaded in Christian Europe as the year of doom. Yet by then the savage attacks of Moslem, Norse and Magyar upon her were beginning to lessen, though only the Magyars - by the German victory at Lechfeld (955) - had been finally staved. Byzantine sea-power had also revived and Fraxinetum, the Moslem pirate stronghold in Provence, had been destroyed in (975). The Moslems had lost ground also in Spain and on the Mediterranean, while the sea-power and trade of Venice, Naples and Amalfi had increased.

Feeling more secure, Europeans began attempts to reconnect with the broader world. Having been on the defensive for three centuries, connections to India and other parts of the East had been weakened or lost entirely. Europe looked for ways to reconnect with the East, but land routes were not safe: they led through Islamic territories. The Spanish and Portuguese would begin looking to the sea. The first voyages to the Canaries and southward along Africa's west coast were promising. There were no Muslim pirates in these waters. They discovered new trading partners, and new routes to old trading partners. Although it would take another century or two before the great voyages of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, the age of exploration had begun.

The land route between Europe and India was not safe. But Europe sought to renew its trading relationship with India, and discovered the sea routes around Africa's southern tip - the Cape of Good Hope - to make that connection.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Mary Magdalene: Legend and Myth

Over the centuries and millennia, the individual known to us as Mary from Magdala has attracted attention and speculation. Who was she? What did she do? In response to these questions, myths and legends arose. Myths are narratives designed to explain. Legends are semi-historical or partially verifiable narratives which have existed long enough to be perceived as part of cultural heritage. About this Mary Magdalene we have lots of myth and legend.

But who and what was she really? Some historians regard the quest for fact - the search for what is really or actually the case - as simplistic and naive. But such tired skepticism about historical knowledge is receding, and researchers are once more willing to ask about what happened.

The intense interest in Mary of Magdala arises in part exactly because of the lack of certain details about her life. The ambiguities make her fascinating. This is nowhere more evident than in popular culture. From medieval passion plays to popular stage musicals of the twentieth century - like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell - she has been the focus speculative narrative. Darrell Bock writes:

Mary Magdalene has always possessed a certain mystique. In the 1960s she was often the key figure in musicals about Jesus. Interest in her has not waned and reflects a curiosity that has belonged to her almost from the beginning. Part of the reason for such interest is that there are actually so little data about her. One element of a story like Mary's is that where there is very little information, there is a desire to round out the picture. Proving or disproving what is speculated about her is hard to do.

Naturally, readers are interested in the more flamboyant questions about her life: was she married? was she a prostitute? had she been possessed by demons for some segment of time? But sober historians begin with the mundane, knowing that the mundane, when carefully examined, can sometimes become rather exotic or interesting.

Magdala, where she lived, identified her. So Mary Magdalene was Mary from Magdala. Magdala is probably modern-day Migdal, located near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Jesus' main ministry took place in the Sea of Galilee area.

Mary's named is derived from either her place of birth or place of residence - or both - which simply happens to be in the region in which Jesus did some of His major work. So an accident of geography places her on the stage of world history. Had she been born in Egypt or Syria - or in India or America - we would probably have never heard of her. As to the allegation that she was a prostitute,

none of the texts we have surveyed referred to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. The idea is popular in some sections of the church and in the culture at large. So where did this tradition come from?

The first mention of Mary as a prostitute comes from a homily (or sermon) delivered by Pope Gregory the Great in A.D. 591. In all likelihood, this notion resulted from confusion concerning passages in the gospels of Luke and John.

The notion that Mary Magdalene may have been a prostitute appears over 500 years after her death, and over 500 years of the first written texts describing her. The late date of the allegation alone makes it unlikely to be true, and the fact that the allegation seems to have arisen from a conflation of unrelated texts greatly increases the probability that the charge is not true.

At the other end of the spectrum of speculation is the notion that somehow Mary Magdalene and Jesus were secretly married, and even had children together. This legend appears only centuries after the events, and appears to be a conflation of medieval courtly love and the post-modern embrace of pure narrative in place of historical data-driven narrative. Professor Paul Maier, of Harvard University and Switzerland's Basel University, writes:

In sober fact, Jesus never wed anyone, but for years sensationalizing scholars and their novelistic popularizers have played the role of doting mothers trying to marry of an eligible son. Now, if there were even one spark of evidence from antiquity that Jesus even may have gotten married, then as a historian, I would have to weigh this evidence against the total absence of such information either in Scripture or the early church traditions. But there is no such spark - not a scintilla of evidence - anywhere in historical sources. Even where one might expect to find such claims in the bizarre, second-century, apocryphal gospels - which the Jesus Seminar and other radical voices are trying so desperately to rehabilitate - there is no reference that Jesus ever got married.

Evidence from across the spectrum - from the most orthodox and canonical texts to the iconoclastic and unchristian texts - contains zero evidence that Mary Magdalene ever married anyone. The desire to see her in a romantic relationship has overridden reason in the case of those who manufacture such narratives. It is a tribute to the power of human imagination, and to the mystique surrounding Mary of Magdala, that otherwise rational scholars have been tempted to generate utterly unfounded speculation, and generate speculation which actually contradictions the little solid data and evidence we have about this Mary, in order to satisfy the psychological desire to see her in a satisfying romantic relationship. It is a warning to future historians about the need to calm logic and strict reasoning.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Coffee and Jihad

Both in cliche and in reality, a visit to Berlin or to Vienna includes pleasant afternoons in a cafe or in a Konditorei - a cafe which also serves excellent pastries and cakes. An entire subculture and set of rites is organized around the consumption of coffee.

How did it come to be that we associate coffee with - and that coffee is such an integral part of - life in these European capital cities?

The answer lies in events which are almost four centuries removed from the present. Berlin was at that time the capital city, not of Germany, but of the kingdom of Brandenburg. Germany as a unified nation-state would not be formed until 1871, when a number of such kingdoms merged to form it. Brandenburg was ruled from 1640 to 1688 by Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. He was called 'elector' because he was one of the kings who together chose the Holy Roman Emperor. As the leader of that group of kings, he was called the 'Great Elector' and was known as Friedrich Wilhelm. The Holy Roman Empire, as the old joke tells us, was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was a Central European Defensive Coalition. The Emperor had no autocratic power, but rather had the task of forging a consensus between the kings. These kingdoms in the Empire usually behaved independently of each other, uniting usually only for the purposes of mutual defense. That came to pass in the 1680's, for example, when the Islamic armies attempted to conquer Hungary and Austria, with the goal of establishing a caliphate - a Muslim military dictatorship - and imposing Islam on Eastern Europe.

The Holy Roman Emperor himself lived in Vienna - or Wien as the city is more commonly known - and summoned to his aid the armies of the empire when the Muslims surrounded the city. Historian Uwe Oster writes:

Berlin was not yet the capital of Germany but only the residence of the electors of Brandenburg. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire resided in Vienna. The city on the Danube River was in great danger. Once again, the Turks were standing before her gates. But after the Battle of Kahlenberg in 1683, the had to break off their siege, and the West remained Christian. During the hasty retreat of the Turks, they left behind not only weapons, expensive carpets, and silverware, but also sacks and sacks of coffee beans. So if more coffee is drunk today in Germany and Austria than anywhere else in the world, then we have to thank the hasty retreat of their one-time Turkish enemies for this delicious treat.

And so it was that not only were the Christians of Europe saved from mass murder and from the forcible imposition of Islam, but coffee - previously a rarity - became common and cherished beverage in Eastern Europe. The consumption of coffee is nearly universal in Europe, and cafe culture of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany is a pastime unto itself.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Charlemagne vs. Widukind

History has left at least four names for Europe's greatest ruler: Charlemagne, Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus, and the name by which he was known in his own native language, Karl der Große. Born in 742 A.D., he and his brother shared the throne which came to them in 768 A.D. when their father, Pepin the Short, died. The two brothers co-reigned until the brother's death in 771 A.D., leaving Karl to rule along until his own death in 814 A.D.

Initially inheriting the Frankish territory which would include parts of modern-day Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland, Karl gradually expanded his realm by marriage, by purchase, by diplomacy, and sometimes by war. As the territory grew, he was often on the move, moving from area to area, consulting with the "counts" and other local official whom he left to govern during his absences. Historian Manuel Komroff notes that

While Charles was traveling through his realm that winter of 774-775, he received distressing news concerning the Saxons. Those barbarian people to the north whom he had subdued before leaving on his conquest of Lombardy were again raiding his borders and burning churches.

Having already dealt with Saxons, as far back as 772 A.D., Karl knew what to expect. Fiercely pagan, they held to their ancient traditions of human sacrifice, blood-feuds, and the buying and selling of slaves and wives. They resisted the Christian faith which would pull them away from these practices. In vain had various missionaries entered Saxon territories to introduce the more humane ways of the Christianity. Such missionaries often paid with their lives. By the time Karl inherited the throne, much of Europe had either adopted the Christian faith, or at least given up human sacrifice and slavery under Christian influence. But northeastern Europe and the Germanic tribes which occupied it, still adhered to the polytheism of Norse mythology. By contrast, the Germanic tribes of western and southern Europe, like the Franks and the Goths, had embraced some form Christian civilization. Karl the Great - Charlemagne - was a Frank. He felt that it was his duty to protect southern and western Europe from the Saxons, and to be an advocate for his faith, a faith which treated human life as valuable and worthy of respect.

The Saxons saw the faith of the Franks and the Goths as a threat. They would fight rather than adopted the civilized lifestyle they saw on their western and southern borders. Churches and monasteries were easy targets - unarmed, staffed by priests, monks, and nuns, many of whom had taken vows of pacifism: they would not take up swords to fight, not even in self-defense. They were also tempting targets: monasteries contained books, which were extremely expensive at that time, and which could be sold back to the Franks by the Saxons.

Charles was angered by their behavior. Determined that he, as the King of the Franks, should serve as the champion of Christianity, he decided to wage a war against the pagan Saxons until the very last of them was converted to Christianity - converted or annihilated.

Karl decided that if the Church and its clergy would not fight, then he would. As noted above, he had already encountered the Saxons in battle. He understood the military tactics as well as their internal politics. Widukind, also known as Wittekind or Waldkind, was one of their leaders. Little is known about his life; the Saxons were barely literate, and left only a few written records.

Charles had a further reason for wanting to engage in an all-out war against the Saxons. These barbaric people had always lived in separate tribes choosing a national leader only in times of war, but now they were beginning to consolidate. A man named Widukind, one of their richest chiefs, a Westphalian related through marriage to the King of Denmark, was agitating for unity and winning great support among the common people.

Although the details of Widukind's life are lost to history, he had an inspirational effect on the Saxons, seeming able to organize and unify them against the Franks. Karl understood that it would require similar unity and organization on the part of the Franks to oppose Widukind. The Franks had several large gatherings each year: the "Field of March" or champ de mars was a national assembly of the Frank, held each year in March. A similar assembly was held in May. It was a sort of political and military convention, and gave Charlemagne a chance to present his plans to the assembly of those whom he had appointed to lead his territories and armies. In that year, the Field of March was held in Düren, near Karl's royal capital city of Aachen. Aachen was also known as Aix-la-Chapelle. The location was good because it was near the Rhein or Rhine River.

So at the Field of March, which was held in July that year at Duren, not far from Aachen and only twenty miles from the Rhine, Charles presented his plan for an all-out war.

The Saxons built their fortresses primarily from logs, not stones, in the form of stockades. Historians have identified the location of these, for example, the site of Sigiburg is now a historical landmark.

Winning the immediate support of the general assembly, Charles quickly gathered together his army and began his invasion. He crossed the Rhine so swiftly that the Saxons were again taken by surprise and unable to organize any defense. Within the first days the fortress of Sigiburg, a great Saxon stockade, fell after offering but little resistance.

The location of the fortress of Eresburg is now known to be the modern German town of Obermarsberg. Karl's tactic was to capture the fortresses one by one, leaving a portion of his army to hold each one as the main body of his army marched deeper into Saxon territory.

Leaving a garrison at Sigiburg, Charles and his army now swept eastward through the beautiful open farmlands to the fortress of Eresburg, which he had captured in his previous campaign and which the Saxons had recaptured and burned to the ground during his absence. Rebuilding this stockade and leaving it in control of a garrison, Charles plunged deep into Saxony, cutting a wide ribbon of devastation, trampling down the grain, burning settlements and slaughtering cattle.

The Weser River formed a significant boundary; the further east Charlemagne marched, the further he was from civilized Frankish lands, and the deeper he was in a very pagan and savage area. These regions were filled with barbarian mysteries. The inhabitants still wrote in runic alphabets.

He met no resistance until he had gone a hundred miles and reached the banks of the Weser River. There he was confronted by a small force of Saxons under a chief called Hessi; their lands lay to the east of the river.

Hessi's capitulation was crucial. Charlemagne was eager to find a group of Saxons who would swear to abandon the practice of human sacrifice. He calculated that once one group of Saxons had given up the practice, it would be more probable that other Saxon groups would do the same.

Charles quickly overcame this show of resistance. Hessi and his people submitted, giving hostages and promising to embrace Christianity. Seeing this, their neighbors to the west surrendered without battle. They also vowed allegiance to Charles and agreed to accept baptism.

While Hessi and Charlemagne were celebrating their newfound camaraderie, Widukind was preparing an insurgent resistance movement against Charlemagne's troops stationed at the various stockades. He would ensure that Charlemagne did not find peace too easily.

Charles was delighted with the goodwill shown by these people and ordered that the baptisms begin at once. Great wood tubs were brought forth and filled with water. Each Saxon in turn stripped and knelt in the tub and answered certain questions of a baptismal service which had been drawn up specially for the Saxons.

Hessi's Saxons took these special oaths, foreswearing human sacrifice and other pagan practices. But before all of Hessi's people could be baptized, messages arrived that Widukind's men were attacking one or more of the various stockades manned by Charlemagne's soldiers to west, behind the Weser line at which Charlemagne had met Hessi.

Widukind would hold out long after most of the Saxons had joined the Franks. In 777 A.D., Widukind joined the king of Denmark, returning in 778 A.D. to Saxony to renew his attacks on the Franks. Finally, in 785 A.D., Widukind surrendered Charlemagne. Despite the long years of battle, Charlemagne did not have Widukind executed.

Again the written records fail to give much detail about the rest of Widukind's life. He probably lived another ten or fifteen years, peacefully, perhaps in a monastery. He is probably buried in or near one of several German churches which are alleged to be his final resting place.

Despite the lack of detail in the historical record of his life, Widukind has remained popular in folklore, a symbol of resistance, defying Charlemagne longer than others and longer than anyone thought possible. He also was the last gasp of the pre-Christian Saxon culture: barbaric, pagan, mystical. After the time of Widukind, paganism retreated to the north, into the woods of Scandinavia, and to the east, into Slavic lands. In those places, polytheistic heathen would continue to practice human sacrifice for perhaps another century. But central Europe had finally been freed from the darkness of Norse paganism.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Darius Starts His Reign

Darius I, or Darius the Great, was one of the great monarchs of Persian history. He lived from 550 B.C. to 487 B.C., and is not to be confused with Darius II (born 423 B.C.), Darius III (born 380 B.C.), or Darius the Mede. Professor John Lee writes:

Many people know of Darius (r. 522-486 B.C.) from events at the end of his reign - he’s the king who sent troops to fight the Greeks at Marathon in 490 B.C. - but fewer know how he rose to power. How Darius became king is one of the most fascinating mysteries of Persian history.

Before Darius took the Persian throne in 522 B.C., Cambyses had ruled. The grandfather of Cambyses was Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great. Confusingly, the father of Cyrus the Great was also named Cambyses - Cyrus named his son after his father. To further the confusion, the grandfather of Cyrus II was Cyrus I. We have then, in order, the rulers of Persia as Cyrus, Cambyses, Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius.

The reign of Darius I was a crucial moment in Persian history. The territories conquered by Cyrus and Cambyses were not yet integrated in a single whole; many of them had leaders who might want to reclaim their independence. Darius showed that he was capable of meeting this challenge and establishing an imperial ideology that would endure for almost 200 years.

There is a complex and ambiguous series of events which fill the time between the death of the younger Cambyses and the coronation of Darius. Cambyses seems to have died underway from Egypt to Persia, and one or more interlopers may have pretended to the throne during the interregnum.

According to Herodotus, the reason Cambyses left Egypt in early 522 to return to Ecbatana was that a pretender using the name Bardiya (also the name of Cambyses’s younger brother) had taken the Persian throne. Cambyses died on his way to deal with the pretender, and Bardiya ruled for seven months before he was exposed and killed by a group of nobles. In the wake of Bardiya’s death, Darius won the throne.

But Herodotus has one version of the story. There are competing narratives. How did Cambyses die? Was it an accident? Who was Bardiya? In Greek, Bardiya was known as Smerdis. What happened to the younger brother of Cambyses?

To get the real story behind Darius’s ascension, we need to turn to the man himself. Darius was related to Cyrus and Cambyses but not closely. His father, Hystaspes, led troops in eastern Iran for Cambyses, and Darius served with Cambyses in Egypt. In 522 B.C., Darius was about 30 years old. All the Greek accounts of his rise to power derive at least partly from an inscription he carved on the cliff face at Bisitun.

On the western edge of modern-day Iran is an impressively large carving on the face of a cliff. It includes an image and a text. Known as the Bisitun Inscription or as the Behistun Inscription, it is considered a blasphemy by Muslims because it contains an image, but for European and American scholars, it is an important historical clue.

In ancient times, the main road from Babylon to Ecbatana climbed northeast into the Zagros Mountains, curving around Mount Bisitun. On the southeast slopes of Bisitun, on a cliff face 300 feet above the road, Darius carved an inscription in 521 B.C., the year after he took power.

Although the dictates of Islam would have it destroyed, international efforts have so far protected it. The concern is that the Bisitun Inscription might suffer the same fate as the Buddhas of Bamiyan and other historic structures which have been dynamited by Islamic leaders.

The inscription’s centerpiece is a 10-foot-high by 18-foot-wide relief that shows Darius, attended by an archer and a spearman, crushing a rebel underfoot. Before Darius stand eight more rebels roped together, and above them hovers a figure in a winged disk, the divine symbol of the god Ahuramazda.

The text on the inscription is linguistically significant, because it is repeated in three different languages. This provides linguists with important reference points for the process of translation. Not only are there three distinct languages, but they come from three different groups: the Babylonian language is a representative of Semitic group; the Old Persian is a representative of the Indo-European group; Elamite is a mysterious language from neither group. Old Persian (and later forms of Persian) is a linguistic cousin to modern Indo-European languages like English, German, and Russian. Babylonian would be related to Hebrew and Arabic.

Beside and below the reliefs is an inscription repeated in three languages: Elamite, Babylonian, and Old Persian. The inscription presents Darius as a restorer, inspired by the god Ahuramazda to kill Gaumata (the impersonator who had taken the throne) and seize the kingship.

One of the mysteries is what happened to Bardiya, the brother of Cambyses. Did he, or someone else using his name, establish a brief interregnum government?

Both Greek and Persian sources confirm that Cambyses died of natural causes or an accident on his way home from Egypt. He may have killed his brother Bardiya, or Bardiya may have rebelled against Cambyses and set himself up as king. Documents from Babylonia show that a king named Bardiya did rule from April to September 522.

The mystery surrounding Bardiya is multiplied when another name appears: Gaumata. Was this Bardiya under another name? Or is this a separate individual, perhaps one who stole Bardiya’s throne? Or one who murdered Bardiya?

If Cambyses killed Bardiya, it would have been possible for an impersonator (Gaumata) to seize the throne, but most scholars today believe that Gaumata never existed. It’s likely that Darius invented Gaumata and claimed that Cambyses killed Bardiya in order to hide the real murderer: Darius himself.

Some historians believe that Darius may have obtained the throne by means of assassination. This is plausible; assassination, even assassination of family members by other family members, was common in the Ancient Near East, and is a temptation in hereditary monarchies at all times and places. While plausible, it is not proven.

If Darius was lying, that means that Bardiya legitimately came to power after the death of Cambyses. Bardiya was murdered by Darius, who invented the figure of Gaumata to divert attention from his guilt.

Bardiya disappeared, that much is certain. The lack of information about his death hints at a cover-up. An accident, a sickness, or a death in battle would be reported as such. While it is not certain that Darius killed him, it is probable that someone did. If not Darius, who?

If Darius was telling the truth, Cambyses had Bardiya killed, and Gaumata seized power and claimed to be Bardiya. Darius overthrew him, restoring the legitimate line of Cyrus. Given the evidence we have, a complete solution is impossible.

In either case, Darius took the throne, and eventually took his place as one of the most influential Persian monarchs, reigning during one of Persia’s greatest eras. During Darius’s reign, and during the reign of his son Xerxes, Persia experienced its last years of the greatness which Cyrus had started.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Emergency! Schooling and the Politics of Fear!

In recent years, the same fears which political candidates foster and exploit in order to be elected to state and federal offices has been used also to gerrymander school curricula and policy.

A culture of fear creates an impression of danger surrounding the object of a potential policy change. Whether the danger is real or imagined is irrelevant; the fear is as powerful in either case. Once the fear is set in motion regarding its object (global warming or school bullying), the fear can be leveraged into other questions which are essentially unrelated to the original object. Fear, being irrational, is capable of being exploited in this way, despite the lack of any logical relation between the original fear and additional policy questions which are linked to it once the policy-making behavior becomes fear-based.

We have seen, for example, the enactment of taxes and regulations, with vague references to global warming offered as justifications. Yet taken on their own terms, many of these have nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions at all, but were moved through the legislative process in a general atmosphere of panic. Political fear grows best in an atmosphere of ambiguity, making specific references elusive: hence, when data didn't support "global warming," the phrase became "global climate change," and when the evidence for such was found wanting, the wording changed to "climactic instability," and most recently "climate disruption."

Fear, as an emotion, is essentially illogical, and avoids direct engagement with empirical or rational study. Hence, even the scientists called forth as "expert witnesses" are coached to give, not quantifiable and observable evidence, but rather anecdotes and dark forebodings.

The political manipulation of fear is troublesome in a democracy, especially when one considers that the foundation of American democracy is education and the capability for ration engagement. A culture of fear undermines the historic social and political purposes of schools. Who benefits as the culture of fear takes root in schools? We can answer that question by asking who promotes fear in schools?

After creating an ill-defined sense of panic, speeches include phrases like "we've got to do something" - to which only the most rational listeners will respond, "no, we don't." A deliberate calmness is the best antidote to urgency; on average, government taking no action is better than government taking action. That's why the United States Constitution is deliberately designed keep governmental decision-making a cumbersome procedure. It's a good thing to have an inefficient government.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Not Too Much Enthusiasm

Tracing the history of Central Europe through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is common to note the harmful effects of extreme nationalism, which turned a healthy and benign patriotism into a toxic, vicious and aggressive sentiment. While there is no doubt that nationalism - valuing allegiance to one's country too much - played a role in causing both world wars, historian Herbert Schnädelbach notes that an additional cause was a lukewarm attitude toward one's own nation: a lack of enthusiasm which extended to not bothering to rescue it from the clutches of dangerous extremists.

The German Empire - a monarchy which politically united modern Germany for the first time in 1871, and which lasted until 1918 - had been a compromise: between those who wanted to unite all of German-speaking Europe and those who merely wanted an expansion of Prussia. It was also a compromise in terms of its structure, failure to be a pure monarchy or a constitutional republic. Being a compromise, most people were ready to live with it, but were not enthusiastic about it. Despite the expressions of affection for Chancellor Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm, the grief felt in 1918 was not caused by the loss of the monarchy. Of the many political parties which populated ballots in the early 1920's, the few tiny monarchist parties got an insignificant number of votes. Not many voters were trying to restore the monarchy or the empire.

While German affection for the empire proved to be ephemeral, their fondness for the ensuing Weimar Republic was event less potent. A confusing and inefficient system, its processes seemed to be more of an annoyance than a unifying force, and its collapse seemed almost inevitable. The number of parties, and their inevitable compromises as they formed the needed coalitions, ensured that most voters were discontent with whatever composition constituted the cabinet of the day. Schnädelbach writes:

Both constitutionally and in relation to the national question, the German Empire of 1871 represented a compromise between opposing forces, which began to crumble as a result of the defeat in the World War of 1914-18. The grievances associated with that defeat - the traumatic Versailles thesis of war-guilt, the prohibition on union with the Austrian Germans, the separation of Alsace and Lorraine and the ineffectiveness of the political system of the Weimar Republic in comparison with that of the Empire - weakened any real will to defend the new state against anti-democratic activities. All this was made worse by the economic consequences of the inflation and the world economic crisis, which many attributed to the former enemies and to the political system.

Most Germans didn't like Hitler and his Nazis - he never won a fair election; the most he got was 37% - they were also resigned to some type of structural collapse of the Weimar system, and when Hitler managed to exploit the devices of coalition-formation and non-elected appointments to gain power, it seemed inevitable. Even with the Nazis in power to rig the elections, Hitler still on got approximately 43.9% Although the electorate didn't like Hitler, they also didn't know the extent of the evil and suffering he would inflict on Europe. In 1933, he seemed like a tolerably mediocre choice.

Extreme nationalists are dangerous for reasons which were made all too clear by Hitler and his Nazis. But the opposite extreme - an apathy about one's government, in which one is resigned to expecting mediocre leadership and even the collapse of the system, a collapse to which one is indifferent - is also dangerous, inasmuch as Hitler was able to exploit the disengagement and psychological distance which kept that segment of the voters from caring much or acting to prevent his takeover.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century

One can best understand the complex interplay between Germany’s cultural history and its political history by recalling that Germany first became a modern united nation-state in 1871. For almost a thousand years, German territory had not been a single governmental unit: it was a collection of small kingdoms and independent cities, each with its own ruler and laws. The whole area did share a common governmental structure inasmuch as it was all, at least at certain times, part of the Holy Roman Empire; but that provided no meaningful political unity, first because the Empire was weak in terms of the control it could exert on the local territories (the emperor more often pleaded for cooperation from the local aristocrats rather than dictating terms to them), and second because the Empire included other territories which were neither culturally German nor in any other way German. The Empire ended at the hands of Napoleon in 1806.

Lacking political or governmental unity, the area shared cultural unity. Indeed, the cultural unity was perhaps stronger and more valued precisely because of the absence of a common nation-state. Culture was one of the common bonds uniting the territory, and so Germany was then, and is now, noted for the great value which it placed and places upon cultural matters.

In the wake of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna sought to create a political structure for all of Europe, a structure which would lead to greater stability and better chances of peace. While the Congress of Vienna did indeed create a century of peace - interrupted only by two small wars, one of which would last only a few weeks (between Prussia and Austria in 1866), and the other (the Franco-Prussia War of 1871) lasted approximately six months - it failed to create a united German nation-state. Metternich, the Austrian diplomat who organized the Congress of Vienna, was a royalist, and suspicious of nationalism. Metternich thought that subjects owed allegiance to the monarch, not to the nation; nationalism’s emphasis on cultural identity seemed too close to democracy.

Germans - we may speak of ‘Germans’ and ‘Germany’ prior to 1871, remembering that it was a cultural and not a political identification - were in fact used to some degree of democracy, but only at local levels: primarily town councils. The Burschenschaften - fraternities at universities - were sources of nationalist sentiment, as were many poets. The seeds of the desire for national unity had been planted when the various Germanic states worked together to throw off the yoke of Napoleonic oppression. Historian Herbert Schädelbach writes:

In 1831, Germany consisted of thirty-nine separate states (including four free cities), which since 1815 had been united in the 'German Confederation' (Deutscher Bund): it existed as a nation only in the cultural sense. Constitutionally, the German Confederation was a very loose federal structure; its political character was determined by the double hegemony of Prussia and Austria, in which, however, Austria was dominant. The policy of Restoration followed in those years is still linked, even today, with the name of Prince Metternich, who in external policy too sought to make it the basis of the first European peace-system through the ‘Holy Alliance’ of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and later most of the European monarchies. Prussia had not yet become a constitutional monarchy: it was a military and bureaucratic state, centrally ruled by the royal cabinet, and without political participation by the bourgeoisie, except at the communal level. The character of internal politics was determined by the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819, through which the states of the Confederation attempted to repress all democratic and national aspirations by such measures as banning the Burschenschaften (student associations), persecuting 'demagogues’, censoring the press, and so on. Numerous intellectuals were persecuted (for example, the ‘Göttingen Seven’) and driven into exile (Georg Büchner, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Börne, Karl Marx, and others). ‘Democracy’ and 'nation' were the political themes of a politically immature bourgeoisie, which had been mobilized to resist Napoleon in the so-called Wars of Liberation essentially by the promise of national unification and democratic reforms.

The political and cultural nature of nationalism changed over the decades. Prior to 1815, its goal was to overthrow Napoleon and free the territories occupied by his armies. From then until the middle of the century, it took on a ‘liberal' or ‘leftist' tone - recalling, however, how greatly those two words have changed their meaning in the last century or two - inasmuch as they were linked to democracy, the desire for a written constitution, and limitations on the power of the monarchy. By the end of the century, nationalism became - if not ‘conservative' or ‘rightist' - a reactionary movement, a defense of the governmental status quo.

In 1848 there occurred a bourgeoisie revolution, which in Germany resulted in the defeat of the national and democratic forces. In 1849, the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, declined the German Imperial crown which was offered to him by the first German Parliament, meeting in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt: to him it seemed ‘tainted with the carrion-stench of the Revolution’. The most important political cause of the ‘defeat of the bourgeoisie Estate' was the incompatibility of the goal of national unity with the real configuration of power in Europe, which was in turn determined essentially by the political weakness of the German bourgeoisie: it was not emancipated or united enough to be able to realize the democratic demands on a national scale.

In play here are slightly differing concepts of nationalism, and the changing definitions of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ - so it was that the notion of a German Empire was proposed in 1849 as a liberal nationalist concept, and rejected by the royalists; by the end of the century, the monarchy would be heartily endorsing nationalism, and the liberals rejecting it.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Benefits of Feudalism

It is not unusual to hear the word 'feudal' used pejoratively or derisively - used to evoke the specter of a system which represses, enslaves, and disenfranchises. One can be thankful that thoughtful historians know better - these old platitudes have long been discredited among those who understand the ways in which the feudal system offered benefits not only to people at the top of the social ladder, but also to those at the bottom.

Feudalism was above all a system of flexibility. Power and decision-making were localized, not left in the hands of a distant monarch and his bureaucracy. A lord had a unique relationship, codified in a unique oath, with each of his vassals. This was a cultural step forward inasmuch as recognized the individuality of each vassal; this reflects Western Civilization's concern with the individual, and European culture's respect for the individual. The variables of the lord's life, and of the vassal's life, were taken into account when such an oath of fealty was formulated - the size and nature of the land involved, the number and ages of children, the age of the lord and of the vassal, spouses, etc.

Even more, feudalism created an obligation for the powerful to help the weak - feudal obligations were bilateral. The vassal owed service to his lord, but the lord owed certain things to the vassal. This was in sharp contrast to, e.g., the Roman emperors, to whom much was owed, but who owed nothing to their subjects.

In a book titled A History of Private Life, in volume two of that book, Revelations of the Medieval World, edited by Georges Duby and translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Georges Duby writes:

Nevertheless, feudalization should also - and, I think, primarily - be seen as a fragmentation of public power. In Lemarignier's words: "Public authority was dismembered and at times reduced to little more than crumbs." This crumbling of authority ultimately resulted in a broad dissemination of the prerogatives of government; each great household became a sovereign state unto itself, where the power exercised by the master, though limited in scope, nevertheless preserved its original nature, which was public. So we might equally well say that in feudal society everything became public. What happened in reality was that aspects of power perceived to be public diminished in importance up to the beginning of the twelfth century; then, as states began to reconstitute themselves, the extent of public authority again began to increase. At no time, however, not even at the nadir of public authority - around 1100 - did people lose sight of the idea that there is a specifically public way to rule. They continued to believe in the existence of public rights such as the regalia, to which the emperor laid claim in Italy in the twelfth century. (His claim was based on Roman law, newly rediscovered in this period of renaissance, of return to classical juridical forms that had been swept away by the great feudal wave.) Study of the political vocabulary has shown that the private-public distinction survived.

As royal and imperial power fragmented, its pieces fell to lower and lower levels of society. A large-scale decentralization of power meant society's pyramid was shorter and broader. More people held small pieces of power, instead of fewer people holding large pieces of power. Among those who held power, the amount of power each held was small, but there were more power-holders. Among those who held little or no power, their chances of knowing, interacting with, and influencing a power-holder were greater.

In the decades preceding A.D. 1000 the pace of change accelerated. The chain of authority broke in numerous places, leaving isolated pockets of power. In the past, kings in their incessant peregrinations had visited innumerable scattered palaces, which between royal visits were occupied by counts; these now became autonomous. For some time the counts in France had considered the public power delegated to their ancestors by the king a part of their own patrimony. The roots of dynasties were planted in cemeteries, and the kin of the counters were organized in lineages, just like those of the king. Claiming the emblems and virtues of royalty for themselves, the counts little by little ceased to make regular calls upon the sovereign; their withdrawal, along with that of the bishops, dimmed what memories remained in the royal court of the days when power was a public good. By 1050-1060 the Capetian monarch's only remaining allies were his close relatives, a few hunting companions and comrades-in-arms, and the heads of his household departments. The powers of peace and justice were exercised locally by independent princes, who from time to time met where their respective territories touched, on neutral ground, to declare their friendship. At these meetings each prince comported himself as a monarch, treating the portion of the kingdom subject to his power as an annex of his household.

This localization of power had a freeing effect on society. The mention of France reminds the reader that feudalism was an outgrowth of a Frankish and therefore Germanic tribal-familial structure. As memory of Rome's centralized imperial power receded, a more comfortable relationship between ruler and ruled, between vassal and lord, arose. This political loosening and flexibility would yield intellectual fruit: feudalism can be seen as empowering the rise of the universities, Gothic architecture, polyphonic music, and mathematic and scientific advancements.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Varieties of Marriage

When speaking of marriage at different points in human history, one must ever be aware of sampling errors. Considering the time span from the fall of the western Roman Empire to the invention of the printing press, one could easily gain the false impression that a huge number of marriages were arranged for political and economic reasons. Biographies from that era give examples of such unions.

But the misleading nature of both the evidence and the conclusion it suggests arises from sampling error. While the vast majority of people - in the entire world - at the point in time were peasants, serfs, or farmers, written biographies concentrate almost exclusively on aristocrats, clergy, and literate people. Narrowing the focus to Europe, one notes that the majority of people did not even have last names or family names as we now think of them. The only written records of their existence - at most - would have been single entries in the church's book: baptism, marriage, funeral. Even the rite of confirmation was often not recorded.

Given the skew in the evidence, we must re-think the concept of marriage during those years. Among landed gentry, marriages were indeed sometimes arranged for business reasons. Among aristocracy, matches were sometimes made for political reasons. The royals sometimes married for diplomacy or for the sake of alliances. But these would have been a small fraction of the marriages. The vast majority, one can state with certainty, were among the lowest classes of people, who would have married for none of those reasons.

It seems that the poorest people were free to marry for love. Leaving aside the exact definition of "love" - that question belongs more properly to the philosopher, to the theologian, or to the psychologist - those whose lives were deemed insignificant by the power structures of their day were free to choose a mate based on compatibility or on mutual attraction. They enjoyed very few other freedoms. They were not allowed to relocate: the feudal bonds often kept them living in the small village into which they were born. They had little choice in vocation: they were born to work the land. There was no participation in politics for them.

Georges Duby has edited, and Arthur Goldhammer has translated into English, a book titled A History of Private Life. Volume II of that book is subtitled Revelations of the Medieval World. The restrictions which limited marriages among upper classes did not affect the peasants:

The aristocracy, the ruling minority, behaved in characteristic ways designed to quell internal rivalry and ensure continued domination over the rest of society. For a fairly long period the noble kinship group was more affected by history than was the peasant family, as can be seen in the way the aristocratic kinship system responded to two major changes in forms of power and exchange. The first change occurred around 1000 and resulted in the unleashing of wars of unprecedented violence in the various regional societies that survived the breakup of the Carolingian Empire. The construction of a host of fortresses and fortified mounds was at once a cause and a symptom of this new kind of warfare. The "encastlement" of the aristocracy was accompanied by what can only be called its "enlineagement." Kinship became so important within the nobility that it resulted in the crystallization of highly structured groups known as patrilineages. These stood out against an undifferentiated background of cognatic kinship and for a time threatened to destroy the conjugal family. Politically, decentralized power proved more advantageous than centralized power and lineal kinship acquired, or reacquired, major social functions. For a brief time the nobility rose to the surface, like an archaic society erected on top of a more modern one, before it disappeared forever.

While it is true that feudalism allowed medieval culture and society to be a high point in civilization's long history, the aristocracy paid a price for feudalism's liberation of the human spirit: aristocrats were not free to choose their mates based on affection or compatibility.

Outside of Europe, women were bought and sold like cattle in parts of Asia and Africa; in other parts of those continents, marriages were arranged by parents, and spouses often met for the first time at their weddings. In some arranged marriages, the spouses did know each other, sometimes for years prior to the marriage, yet their lack of choice was the same. But in medieval Europe, marriages based on love - that ambiguous concept - were enjoyed more by the lowest classes than the highest.

Western Civilization, in the European tradition, manifests its value of the individual, and its value of personal freedom, in its concept of marriage. Ironically, these great cultural values - individual liberty and the dignity of each individual - emerged more potently among the serfs than among the nobles.

Although the unpleasant reality for upper-class individuals was that family and economic considerations were often decisive in choosing a spouse, the notion of marriage as a mutually supportive, respectful, and affectionate union became clearer during the Middle Ages. Crystalizing the concept

were scholastic meditations on marriage, which gradually accredited the notion that wedlock is achieved by mutual consent, hence that the personal commitment of both husband and wife takes precedence over the collective decision of families.

Ultimately, Europe would distinguish itself by formulating a notion of marriage: spouses who freely choose each other, care for each other, are faithful to each other, encourage each other, and help each other. Naturally, the reality often fell far short of the ideal: spouses were not always freely chosen, especially among the upper classes. Certainly, they were not always faithful to each other; adultery is a sad constant in human society. Tenderness and affection were not always the reigning tone in domestic relationships - abuse and violence existed then as they have at all times.

Nonetheless, it was a breakthrough to create, even if only in the abstract, such a formulation of marriage. Other parts of the globe still treated women as property, and ignored the concept of individual choice among both men and women.

Thus Western Civilization, in the European tradition, brought to the world a precious gift in the concept of a man and woman sharing an affectionate domestic existence. To be sure, we see this notion presented earlier in human history, among some of the nomadic Semitic cultures of the Ancient Near East. Europe cannot, therefore, claim exclusive credit for having invented this schema. Europe did however, succeed in formulating it, and setting it as a norm toward which all parts of society were to strive.