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I have been having a lot of conversation, doing a lot of reading, about modern politics and economics. Anarchists and Marxists are among my friends nowadays, and the root causes for a lot of modern oppression is a fun thing to debate about. I like debate! But so much of the conversation is ahistorical. As a student of the early medieval period, I am perhaps more aware than some that class structures are not the same thing as ‘capitalism’, however that is defined. ‘Pre-capitalist’ societies were also predicated on some folk coming under other folk- for all that there is no wealthy middle class in Anglo-Saxon England, or that the pursuit of profit was all-consuming, one still has kings and clerics, abbotts and peasants.
So today, when I came across David Korten’s article “The End of Empire” at Yes! Magazine, I had only one response: Citation Needed.
As the institutions of Empire took root, humans turned from a reverence for the generative power of life to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword. The wisdom of the elder and the priestess gave way to the arbitrary rule of often ruthless kings. Social pathology became the norm and society’s creative energy focused on perfecting the instruments of war and domination. Priority in the use of available resources went to military, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage.
Seriously. ‘Turned from a reverence for the generative power of life’? What? I don’t even know what that means. Is he trying to say that pre-monarchical societies revered life? The human sacrifice of captured enemies practiced by pre-Christian Germanic peoples puts paid to that particular lie. What makes the so-called ‘wisdom’ of a priestess or an ‘elder’ any less arbitrary or ruthless than that of a king or emperor? For that matter, the Roman Republic is one of the clearest examples of the kind of dominating ‘Empire’ that Korten is blithering about, and that wasn’t ruled by anything resembling a King! It was expressely founded to avoid kingship, and yet had no problems at all with dominating neighbouring cultures and civilisations.
I, too, have many issues with the modern world and its emphasis on greed and destruction of the Other to further itself. I readily agree that many of our modern concepts of fair play and ‘freedom’ (.i. freedom for those on top, and fair play for those who rule) were forged in the corrupting and sadistic smithies of ancient empires. Any student of any period of history can see these things play out.
Yet human history covers a period some five thousand years long, and our species has experiemented with many types of governance and systems of rulership- some fairer than others. If one wishes to discuss the historicity of modern imperialism, then get the fucking history right.
Take a university course! Read some books! Understand what the hell you are talking of before you seek to condemn it. Because every time I see a fellow member of the so-called ‘Left’ blithering about history in such ignorance, I cover my face in my hands and start to gently weep.
I am willing to be your ally. I want to stand alongside you against government corruption, against hierarchical hatred, be for the people. While you continue to be wrong, I will not. I cannot, in good academic conscience, be willing to nod my head alongside people who are wrong. When people in the atheist movement get a matter of religion wrong, I call them on it. When feminist activists get scientific matters wrong, Jen McCreight calls them on it. If one can get basic facts simply wrong, or one overextends a generalisation, it calls the entire movement into disrepute.
So. Citation fucking needed. Bring me your evidence, and then I will call you my ally again. But until you know, shut up.
Gosh. How did no-one tell me of HistoryTeachers, the best channel on the whole of the YouTubes? Dozens of tubes, covering topics ranging from prehistoric anthropology through the classical and medieval worlds up to the modern period. The formula might be simple (take pop song, make historical, profit) but damn if this isn’t relevant to my interests.
Okay, so the formula means that a few of the more interesting tidbits get sliced away to cram things into three-to-five minutes. She mispronounces scop (hint: it’s like ‘ship’) in the Beowulf video. The Crusades falls into traps about the Children’s Crusade and old-fashioned claims that it was about land-grabbing economics. These are the sorts of things that annoy me.
On the other hand, they acknowledgin’ the tradin’ inherent to goin’ a-vikin’.
The project is a great way to break folks into history-learnin’, and that is the point. You can open up the discussions about historical nuances and the more obscure facts after you get bored high-schoolers with their facetwitters and tumbooks to actually pay attention. Which these do. They are so much damn FUN, guys. SO MUCH. I wound up singing along to Charlemagne the first time I listened to it.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mrs. B, the star of the videos, is gorgeous.
It has been all over the atheist blagocube, that the pope has declared atheists to have caused the immense tragedies of the 20th century- referring, of course, to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Others have already pointed out that the Nazi regime was, arguably, Christian to the core. Antisemitism had -has- festered deep in the heart of European Christendom since the religion was spread to those reaches by fire and sword and missionaries. PZ Myers posted a list of Nazi quotes- having never read it, it’s quite astonishing to realise just how much of Hitler’s perspective was tainted by Christianity:
“The best characterization is provided by the product of this religious education, the Jew himself. His life is only of this world, and his spirit is inwardly as alien to true Christianity as his nature two thousand years previous was to the great founder of the new doctrine. Of course, the latter made no secret of his attitude toward the Jewish people, and when necessary he even took the whip to drive from the temple of the Lord this adversary of all humanity, who then as always saw in religion nothing but an instrument for his business existence. In return, Christ was nailed to the cross, while our present-day party Christians debase themselves to begging for Jewish votes at elections and later try to arrange political swindles with atheistic Jewish parties– and this against their own nation.”
[Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf", Vol. 1, Chapter 11]
The clinically insane Catholic League president Bill Donohue in the United States goes even further; he appears to personally blame modern non-believers for the atrocities committed in the middle of the previous century:
Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities.
Huh. I’m not sure what modern atheists -who by and large condemn those governments- have to do with the actions of lunatic madmen, but we will set that aside. Why is Billy comparing genocide committed by modern machinery of massacre -gas chambers, rifles- with those committed by torture and fire? Does he honestly think that if the Inquisition had access to lethal gas, they would not have used it? The Church in Spain would not have contented themselves with torture and forcible conversion of the Jewish population, O no, they would have rounded them up and gassed them as surely as Hitler did.
And for the same reason.
Still. I think what is truly unfair about Billy’s accusation is that he compares only the Inquisition to the murders of the 20th century. What about the oft-raised Crusades? The first was more a pilgrimage than a holy war, but there were a lot more than one. What about the Albigensian Crusade? The Crusades into Eastern Europe, specifically raised against the pagan Wends? What about Charlemagne’s brutal massacres of the pagan Saxons? What about the Blood Libel and the persecutions of Jewish communities across the entire medieval period?
This is why I laughed, bitterly, at Andrew Brown’s column in the Guardian. Like nearly all media commentators, he shows an appalling lack of understanding of the middle ages:
The slow civilising of the barbarians after the fall of the Roman empire was, [the pope] believes, accomplished by the church: “Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity, come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.”
Slow civilising of the barbarians? What civilising? The so-called ‘barbarian peoples’ of Europe created great works of art and literature, and not all of it was promoted by the Church. A lot of it was preserved by the Church, but I’ll wager just as much was destroyed by it. The Church of my beloved period was as barbaric and dangerous as the time, as murderous and malevolent as any sword-slinging warlord massacring a stubborn people.
We look back and see a bleak period of history (well, I don’t), torn by constant struggle and war. Life, brutish and short, at times choked into place by the gloved hands of priests and pontifeces, at others driven forward by the twin threats of earthly mutilation and spiritual torment at those same gloved hands. The bleakness of the period was neither caused nor alleviated by the church; the church was simply a part of the same moral Zeitgeist, if you will.
It still is. That is the problem that Billy and Darth Ratzinger and their allies fail to see. The rest of Europe managed to civilise itself. Sometimes with the church pushing forward, and as often with it pulling back. Now that we are approaching something resembling civilisation, despite our flaws, we are capable of seeing the Church as precisely what it is: an empty shell, a fortress defending worthless old men.
The bard of bards, Tim Minchin, has sung everything that needs to be said about this hollow-hearted pontifex:
I wrote a long post here, deliberately prolonged and ready for the posting on September Eleven. I counted the dead in the Twin Towers, and contrasted it with the numbers killed by American and Coalition troops in the wars the United States is waging, and noted how larger numbers have died and those days of remembrance are not pointedly and constantly waved in the face of the world.
I deleted it. I am tired of discussion of this day, tired of the hysteria the Right whips into his mobs, frothy-mouthed about vengeance and bloodshed. Tired of American jingoism. People died. It was nine years ago. America has killed a lot more, since. fin
It is difficult to write on the topic of my thesis. The political history of 7thC northern Britain is complicated, with threads of alliances marking the map in my mind’s-eye like one of those webs spiders spin when on hallucinogens. Whenever I try and explain one piece of the puzzle, I find I must explain some half a dozen other items first- but in order to explain those, I must start with the first.
The human mind evolved to eat gazelle and flee lions, not think about things. Sheesh. This post is therefore awfully rough, and kept briefer than I’d like, stripped of my precious footnoes and the bibliography left to squint in the sunlight without any historiography to give the nuance. Questions would be helpful.
It has been some time since I wrote, so as a reminder: my thesis on the raid sent in 684 by Ecgfrith of Northumbria to Ireland- specifically, his soldiers raided the area called Mag Breg, a túath within the territories of the Southern Úi Néill. The month appears to have been June. The leader of the army/raiding party/gang of violent thugs was a chap called Berht whom I have mentioned previously. This raid is fascinating, not least because it is the first such recorded attack on Hibernia prior to Strongbow, but because we don’t know why. Bede just says that it was unprovoked and the Irish never did nothin’ to nobody.
A few scholars seem to suspect Ecgfrith’s successor and older half-brother Aldfrith. Certainly he had very close ties with Ireland -son of an Irish princess- and one could, as some have, make an argument that he was plotting against Ecgfrith and so the king sent troops into Ireland to take captives for use as hostages. Certainly the swift movement of Aldfrith from Iona to Northumbria to be crowned, after Ecgfrith’s death in (modern) Scotland is supicious.
The problem with this hypothesis lies in Aldfrith’s supposed connection to the area laid waste by the English swords. Mag Bega lay within the overlordship of the Southern Úi Néill, a group of people who claimed descended from Nial of the Nine Hostages. Aldfrith’s mother’s people, on the other hand, were among the Northern Úi Néill. Specifically, theCenél nEógain.
While in exile amongst the Irish, the father of Ecgfrith and Aldfrith, Oswiu (the famous ‘Synod of Whitby’ Oswiu) fathered a son on a daughter of the Northern Úi Néill king, Colmán Rimíd. The specific evidence for this must be considered very carefully, as the genealogies of royal families are suspect to tampering and this is particularly true when the king in question (i.e., Aldfrith) is famous. The specific genealogy in question reads as follows:
Cōic meic Bāetāin meic Muirchertaich .i. Fergus a quo Clann Fergusa, Forannān a quo Hūi Fairennāin, A[i]lill pater Cind-fāelad, Māel-huma in rīgfēinnid. Colmān Rīmid athair Fīna, māthair īside Flaind Fina meic Ossu regis Saxonum.
[Five sons of Báetán son of Muichertach; that is Fergus from whom [comes] Clann Fhergusa; Forannán from whom [comes] the Uí Fhorannáin; Ailill the father of Cenn Fáelad; Máel Umai rígféinnid. Colmán Rimíd the father of Fína, the mother of Flann Fína son of Ossu king of the Saxons.]1
Flann Fína is the Irish name for Aldfrith, and the two are specifically conflated in his obit in the Annals of Tigernach:
Altfrith mac Ossa .i. Fland Fína la Gaedhelu, echnaid, rex Saxonum.
[Aldfrith, son of Oswiu, called Fland Fína by the Gaels, a wise man, king of the Saxons.]2
Ossu is the Irish form of Oswiu, and can be verified by comparing Bede and the Annals of Ulster. Muirchertach can be traced back to the founder of the Cenél nEógain, Eógan, and thus to ancestor of the Uí Néill, Nial Noígiallach.5 While there is uncertainty about which túath Oswiu dwelled amongst while in exile, and therefore the specific political circumstances which led to the fathering of Aldfrith, this discussion is quite complicated enough. We can say with certainty that Aldfrith is descended on his mother’s side from a túath of the Northern Uí Néill, specifically the Cenél nEógain. Aldfrith therefore has close ties with the Northern Uí Néill.
It is tempting to conflate the Northern and Southern Uí Néill, but the two are titles claimed by overlordships. Connacht and Airgalla were also provincial overlordships, and one could not make this attempt to tie Aldfrith to them.
Túatha even within kingdoms were not completely unified, as the Cenél nEógain fought against their own cousins in the Northern Uí Néill during battle of Mag Roth (637). While there were alliances among the Uí Néill and people in (what is now) Scotland, all of these alliances -broken and otherwise- are among túatha of the Northern Uí Néill, not the Southern. Any connection between Aldfrith and the Irish of Scotland and Ireland does not lead us inevitably to Mag Breg.