Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, III: Happy CelticFest!

Did March 17th take you by surprise this year? It did me, and, not to project too much, a great many other people. Too much fretting over nuclear holocausts to be sure, but also, perhaps, wrong mood. It's not that spring isn't breaking and that the sap isn't rising, it's that it has so far to rise this year. It's that of a Thursday night after work, it's beyond Vancouver this year to drink a pint of Guiness and dance rather than sleep.  Perhaps that's why the Vancouver papers are talking about "CelticFest." Saint Patrick, you're as welcome as ever, and perhaps by Saturday or Sunday we'll even be ready to celebrate.

That's a personal reflection, but also a historical one, because we're reflecting on the end of the Dark Age as we try to pull free of the Great Recession of 2008--11, and it's none too obvious just when exactly one pulls out of the muck.  Have we yet? Everything we write about the sub-Roman Dark Ages in Britain is ultimately derived from a torrent of literature coming to us from perhaps the 680s on. There is considerable similarity between the literatures of Ireland, England, and Wales, a "Carolingian Renaissance" going on in France. Does it matter what Saint Patrick did, or only what was written about him?

St. Patrick, Saint Bridget, Saint Maughold, pray for us.

Now I'll call for spring: Ladies and Gentleman, the Queen of the May

So Saint Patrick comes to Ireland (for the second time), perhaps around 433, in the wake of all sorts of activity that intimate that there's a story here of Ireland moving closer to Rome even as England is moving away from it.  All very well, but it does seem to me that I've heard this story before. (You. Can't. Be. Serious.)

That said, if Saint Patrick is launched into an Irish context. it is with particular interests, even obsessions. He comes directly from an island sanctuary in France, touches on the Skerries and exiles Saint Maughold to the holy isle of Sodor and Man. When Maughold rather mysteriously returns to the story to link Patrick to Bridget, it is by presiding over St. Bridget's entry into the sacred life at the holy mount of Croghan, an island of a very different kind in that it rises out of the Bog of Allen. At Kildare and Armagh, the heirs of Bridget and Patrick are rivals for spiritual dominion over Ireland (at least if I'm reading the notion that the abbey of Kildare had primacy over all the monasteries of Ireland in those days right). Croghan, by contrast, never amounted to much, having no revenue attached to it, unless the treasure diggers prove to be right after all. (Not that treasure diggers who mistake natural features for elf mounds are necessarily any less successful than the kind that actually find some gold.)

I could blither about how Patrick, Brigid, Maughold and Croghan bear testimony that Celtic Christianity appropriated the holiness of pagan Ireland if I weren't conjuring with reified Romanticism at every turn. Instead I will take away this story of Catholicism making a bastion of Christian piety out on the far isles. "Island" is the key here. That and all these evanescent ethnic identities flitting about the story.

For, much as I like to disparage this tendency to project ethnos on the unpromising fabric of the past, it is not in doubt that in Ireland in exactly the same way as in Wales and in Northumbria, we see in the late 600s not only an upsurge of ecclesiastical writing in Latin, but the earliest evidence of "gentile tongues." And while it might seem natural that "gentile" tongues be deployed in this way,  there is no "Old French," "Old Spanish," or "Old German." Heck, there's no "Old Old Norse." It would be naive to think of such texts as the natural product of an upwelling  innate folk language. We have ideological acts here: of creation and of preservation.

So also is the appropriation of an island an ideological act, because an island is a bastion of sacredness, a wilderness in the ocean. That's not the end of it, though. Jesus did not just go into the wilderness :he received a visitor. The island receives. If we are to take the stories seriously, the British Isles began receiving attacks from "Vikings" in 794--7, after which the Vikings took a breather until the 820s, when they showed up off Ireland, before finally popping up in England and France in the 840s. This doesn't make much sense, but when we look at their main Irish target of the 820s, we can stop worrying about the Vikings making sense:

I question Norwegian business sense

There's some chance that this isn't the "Skellig Michael" of the early Irish chronicles, but let that rest.
What we know is that "Viking," like "Celt," is an invention of the Romantic Era, that what we have from contemporary sources are "Dark Foreigners" and "Fair Foreigners" who established themselves at Dublin and Waterford and campaign relentlessly against Kildare and its possessions. In much the same way, we have "Viking kings" at York who come and go, and by and large do the Archbishop's business. This same problematic embraces  Armagh, never mind the coasts. We're told that it is a question of sources, that islands and coasts must have suffered worse than ecclesiastical outposts, but that Church writers do not tell us about this. All well and good: that's how piracy works. But the piracy that I'm familiar with in more recent eras does not make one place richer than the next, because the victims of one day's raiding are the perpetrators of the next. The Icelandic sagas are certainly clear that Vikings Viked each other! And then there's these amphibious invaders carrying out cattle levies. Certainly Iceland's herds had to come from somewhere, and anywhere there's pastoralism, I expect to find rustling, and even stolen animals being carried by ship. But let's get serious here. This is a pretty dubious way of making a profit from piracy! Those still trying to patch up the idea of a "Viking Age" point to the "Viking" ports, even as it gets harder and harder to extract a Viking date out of them. I suspect that if we ever got straight talk about the number of Viking artefacts found in Scandinavia in secure dating contexts versus the British Isles, it would just get worse. There's certainly no reason to think that there was a surplus of Scandinavians outbound.

Here's the bigger question: why does our historical narrative even still require that people go to Ireland, when we know that, genetically, it's not true. (To cite one recent piece of evidence.) We even know that coastal northern Scandinavia was being colonised at this time, at least if the "fur trade paradigm" still holds out. And for all the turmoil of the Viking Age, we know that this is a period of rising states. At the beginning, we have monasteries associated with bishops, and  "battle saints." Then we have evidence of economic quickening: the rise of burghs; the  distribution of marine foods inland in England (implying a market organisation to allocate them); a more intensive, commercially-based agriculture in the Hebrides; trading ports in Ireland; fur trade posts up the "North Way" to the shores of the Barents Sea; the colonisation of the Shetlands, Faeroes, and Iceland, primarily by people of Irish descent. By the 990s at the latest, the kings of Wessex were even raising a property tax. In 991, the Archbishop of Canterbury advised King Aethelred make a payment out of it to the Danes to go away, and in 1012, he made them another payment for because of their killing the said Archbishop. Sometime after that, the tax was formally dubbed the "Danegeld," and blamed on the Danes --who, it was abruptly discovered, were all living up in old "Anglian" England and resisting Wessex authority. Not surprisingly, the first anti-Danish pogrom followed a few years later. Indeed, between cattle tributes in Ireland and silver collections in England, the Danes seem to have been responsible for a great deal of taxation. If I were a cynical man.....

You would think that on a demographic basis alone  that we'd be revising our understanding of the "Viking Age" at this point. The long Eighth Century was a period of increasing commercial activity in the North Sea and Atlantic basins. It led to a Viking Age, in which there was supposedly even more conquest, disruption, and falling states. Yet this was accompanied by more trade, and the first signs of a restored land tax --a restoration that took!

I love this idea of a  "corrupting sea," even if I'm probably not doing it right. What I'm imagining here, though, is one of the sea's most powerful corruptions. It is the temptation that occurs to a ship's captain, to hove to on the seawards side of some great mud flat and paint a new name on the ship's bow, put up a new flag in the mast, and sail into a new port with an entirely new owner vested with the rights to the property in the hold. Who gains, and who suffers from such a manoeuvre? That's a private matter, or a pirate matter. (Normally today, taxes are involved.)

Now, the Vikings were pirates, but they were also men who went out to the sacred islands. In a nationality-obsessed age, the names that matter to us are "Norse" and "English," "British" and "Celt." But it is pretty clear that in our era, it was about religion, and by that I do not mean Christianity versus Pagan, but rather Armagh versus Kildare and Iona; York versus Lindisfarne and Hexham. I've talked before of how I want to understand trust, authority and (social) credit as literally financial credit in an economy without central banks. The great holy places had massive social credit, literally capital, looking for good investments. They found one: the plantation of the Atlantic. Cod, furs, train oil, timber. There was something worth doing out there. And if it was worth investing in, it was worth fighting over. It was an unseemly kind of fighting, to be sure, but when the day was done and the battle won, you could always paint new names on the bows of your ships.

Eh. It's a heuristic. But I am going to stand on the conceit that the recovery of the Long Eighth Century was thanks to the intercession of the patron saint of spring.

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