Day 619 – Ken here (M)(5-23-2011)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.38 pp.490-500)(pages read: 1550)
A gorgeous sunny day here – but still a little under the weather, AND still getting used to the hamster-wheel, endless Sisyphean labors of reading, digesting, and churning out this daily foamy meringue of historical blathering and fuzzy, logical whatnot.
I suppose I’m blogging it for the whole world to see and not keeping it as my own private vice because doing it publicly helps to force me to ACTUALLY READ FOR AND WRITE IN the blog – rather than just thinking about what a good idea it would be to read Gibbon and muse upon the implications historical etc etc.
Also I kind of get off on the weird way Gibbon’s 1780’s diction and writing style kind of subconsciously blurs and seeps into my own. There are worse things that could happen to you than having an accomplished prose writer like Gibbon influence you.
Anyways… on to today…
Gibbons continues briefly with continental barbarian politics – looking at Spain and the Riviera basically and the German Visigoths (who will hold Spain for 300 years until the Arab Jihad catches up with them in the 700’s). Then, Gibbons warms to a particularily poignant, yet tricky period of English history – the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the slow forced repatriation/migration/conquest (maybe like the Native American nations in the U.S.) of the native celtic Britons – pinning the celts in the far western corners of the island (Wales) and across the ocean (French Bretagne – “Little Britain).
I had no idea Cornwall (the southwestern-most tip of England) was home to craven, lily-livered, yellow-bellied wimps. And the more I looked at it, the less I believed it was ever true. Gibbon has a typically central-England-o-centric take on the population of more distant parts of the island – ie the closer to London you’re from, the better a person you are.
The cowardice part is troublesome to pin down – I’m not exactly sure what Gibbon’s getting at – this seems to be more of a wink-and-nod-after-dinner-raconteur’s take on history, than that of a careful scholar’s.
Gibbons makes an obscure reference to Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur (see here) where a Cornwall knight is supposed to be known as the greatest coward in the land, and to Sir Tristram – which would seem to point to the Tristan and Iseult stories (see here – Tristan being a Cornish knight).
The bravest warriors, who preferred exile to slavery, found a secure refuge in the mountains of Wales: the reluctant submission of Cornwall was delayed for some ages; (135)
and this from the footnote:
Cornwall was finally subdued by Athelstan (A.D. 927-941), who planted an English colony at Exeter, and confined the Britons beyond the river Tamar. See William of Malmesbury, 1. ii. in the Scriptores post Bedam, p. 50. The spirit of the Cornish knights was degraded by servitude: and it should seem, from the romance of Sir Tristram, that their cowardice was almost proverbial.
(DEF ii vol 3. pp. 498, fn. 135)
Gibbon’s doesn’t think much of Gildas, either, obviously.
A monk, who in the profound ignorance of human life has presumed to exercise the office of historian, strangely disfigures the state of Britain at the time of its separation from the Western empire. Gildas describes in florid language…
(DEF ii vol 3. pp. 490)
And Gibbons didn’t much like the Spanish Visigothic Church either, when it came to that. As a close relative of mine (and apparently Gibbon) used to say of the Church “they’re all hypocrites.”
The bishops of Spain respected themselves, and were respected by the public: their indissoluble union disguised their vices, and confirmed their authority; and the regular discipline of the church introduced peace, order, and stability into the government of the state.
(DEF ii vol.3 p.491)
Notice the typical use of the Subtle Gibbonian Inserted Phrase – “and sometimes practised” – Gibbon had quite the quick verbal knife there – I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his wit.
The clergy, who anointed their lawful prince, always recommended, and sometimes practised, the duty of allegiance: and the spiritual censures were denounced on the heads of the impious subjects who should resist his authority, conspire against his life, or violate by an indecent union the chastity even of his widow.
(DEF ii vol.3 p.492)
The great lesson of history – if I can be so bold as to disclose it to non-historians of the world – is that history is pretty much always WRITTEN BY THE CONQUERORS, not the conquered. Written/Oral History teaches over and over again “Resistance is Futile”, because, well, resistance WAS futile, wasn’t it? – I mean, history tells us they lost, didn’t they?
Nationalism – a tricky thing when you come from an island (read: England) repeatedly conquered within historical memory. You have to be able to vehemently defend your conquered aboriginal stock, while at the same time maintaining an equally adamant and opposite enthusiasm for the conquerors. Gibbon grapples with this in these last 10 pages especially and manages an interesting dance around the whole topic.
Its tricky for the British because, well, like the French (be even more so) they are a composite people – There were “original” Celts – Britons – although these people had conquered (800 B.C.E.?) earlier peoples who had conquered (1100 B.C.E.?) earlier ones etc. etc. etc. in wave after wave (see Bronze Age Britain , also Roman provincials, Anglo-Saxon invaders, and finally Norman (French-Norwiegan-Vikings). It’s hard to know who to root for – and actually Gibbon roots for the Home team, no matter who they are, at first right up to the point they are thoroughly conquered (“Resistance is Futile”) and then he roots for the conquerors against the next wave of invaders. Ultimately, any self-respecting 18th century Englishman would have wanted to trace his roots back to solid Norman Invasion (1066) stock, if pressed on the issue.
It must be a habit of conquerors to despise and abhor those they conquer, yet somehow draw a necessary, unique national identity from their conquered nations. English are rabidly pro-Norman, yet refer to themselves as an Anglo-Saxon nation and praise a celtic woman general Boudica. The French are a mixture of German, Celt and Roman and have similar difficulties, Mexico idolizes the aztecs which gives them a portion of their national identity in the Latin New World, yet has strong prejudices against their own citizens who look more “indio” than “castellano” (Spanish).
A tendency to subjugate then romanticize the losers in a fight seems to me to be more than a fluke and maybe is a basic human trait – showing how closely love and hate, violence and favor are in human nature. And Gibbon seems to struggle with the whole thing (well, subconsciously) a great deal – national identity that is.