The Cradle of Empire
22 September 2009
Since I wrote yesterday about the Graveyard of Empires, it seems appropriate to write today about the cradle of empires, but I’m not going to write about the Fertile Crescent or Persia or the Mediterranean or the other obvious points of origin for ancient empires. These are the cradles of the empires of the south. I would like to consider that unlikely cradle of empire in the north: England.
From a comment in passing in the book to which I am currently listening — A Needle in the Right Hand of God: the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry by R. Howard Bloch — I was given a fresh perspective on the role of England in northern European history. Here are the three sentences that made an impression on me:
“The meeting of Normans and Anglo-Saxons at Hastings was the most decisive battle of the Middle Ages and one of the determining days in the making of the West. Hastings changed Britain, which had been dominated since the end of the Roman rule by invading tribes from the Continent and the North — Angles, Saxons, and Vikings. This day more than any other turned Britain away from its Scandinavian past and toward Europe.”
A Needle in the Right Hand of God: the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry, R. Howard Bloch, p. 7
The novel perspective that I was given by this passage was that of England as a battleground between two distinct civilizations — an early clash of civilizations, if you will.
England has its own proud history that I will not consider here. Instead I will consider England only as a battleground between northern civilization and continental civilization. When William the Conqueror crossed the channel in 1066, projecting Norman power into England, the Normans brought with them the civilization of continental Europe. Prior to that, England had been in the orbit of Scandinavian civilization, and more particularly Viking Civilization. Thereafter, England was in the orbit of Christendom.
The Roman Empire was not a land empire but an empire based on the sea, specifically on the Mediterranean Sea (a map of the extent of the Roman Empire shows the Mediterranean at its center), and seaborne commerce was central to the life of Roman Empire. The powers that rose in western Europe after Rome, by contrast, were land empires. They were based upon feudal structures rooted in manorial estates, and seaborne commerce was peripheral to them. Viking civilization, while not an empire, like Rome and unlike continental Europe, was a sea power, and seaborne commerce was central to its existence, really its conditio sine qua non.
Instead of the Mediterranean, Viking power was based in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and the Norwegian Sea, and the Vikings reversed the order of the seaborne engagement practiced by the Romans: the Romans began with trade and eventually became a belligerent and ultimately a conquering power; the Vikings began as belligerents and ultimately turned to trade.
The kind of civilization represented by European Christendom could scarcely have been more different from the kind of civilization represented by the Vikings. In this early clash of civilizations, the feudal-agrarian order, structure, and stability of the land empires of western Europe won, and won decisively. It takes a large and wild world for nomads to thrive. For our early paleolithic ancestors, up until the neolithic agricultural revolution, the world entire was large and utterly wild. Human beings could only travel as fast and as far as their feet or a canoe could take them. When agricultural civilization appeared, it spread like a weed upon the face of the earth, crowding out those forms of life like nomadism that require great wild spaces.
Because of the difficulty of life in the far north of Europe, a different kind of civilization emerged and briefly flourished, isolated from, and therefore innocent of, the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent. We take our contemporary meaning of the word civilization primarily from the latter, but it is possible to formulate a more catholic conception of civilization that is not based on mere triumphalism and the lack of imagination to entertain alternatives.
Once William the Conqueror brought the British Isles within the orbit of Christendom, the institutions of Mediterranean civilization — slowly, gradually, and by a long, circuitous path — made their way to the north of Europe. A unique tradition was displaced as this invasive species of civilization crowded out native species of civilization. And as an invasive species, it had all the vigor forged in more competitive climates, where life routinely crowds out life and natural selection acts most rapidly and decisively. In this respect, the life of the mind — and thus, by extension, the civilization of the mind — is no different than the life of the body, subject, as it is, to competition and natural selection.
At the same time as the transition of England in the Mediterranean fold constituted an enormous geographical barrier to Scandinavian expansion, this new outpost of continental Europe constituted a new cradle of empire, and in the fullness of time empire did in fact emerge and mature.
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I have not myself seen the Bayeux Tapestry, and I feel the lack of it. Of the great surviving medieval tapestries, I have seen only the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum in Paris. Lately I find that I have become quite interested in medieval tapestries, and if time and money were not issues I would formulate an itinerary for myself that would take in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Tapestry of the Creation in Girona (Spain), and the Apocalypse Trapestries in Anger (like Bayeux, also in France). As things are, I will add this to my extensive list of itineraries, prioritize it, and hope that I live long enough to accomplish this someday.
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