Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic: Lindisfarne to Benjamin West

Sometime between 790 and 796, the most reverend Alcuin wrote from King Charles' court to the Abbot-Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne as follows:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. . . .The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets
Per two extant versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle compiled long after from various records and sources including perhaps Northumbrian chronicles carried north of the border during the troubles after the Conquest (but quite probably including Alcuin's letter) that on 8 January, 793, heathens committed a grievous disorder at Lindisfarne, killing some monks. Writing many years later, Simeon of Durham redacted the date to 8 July. Given that typoes happened even in the old days, it's not an implausible correction.

Just a little less than a millennium thereafter, in 1771, Pennsylvania-born painter Benjamin West exhibited a sequel, more-or less, to his sensation of 1770 Death of Wolfe canvas: William Penn's Treaty With the Indians. Commissioned by Thomas Penn, Proprietor of Pennsylvania and son of the founder, the canvas found such favour that West was made Royal Painter next year.
Which way is west?

Who is on "the bride's side?"

Are the two related? See, there's thing called "deconstruction." It gets a bad rap these days because too-smart-for-their-pants French intellectuals put lots of big words around them. But the core of the idea is very, very simple. We shouldn't take things at face value, and they may not be reaching us only at face value, either. We've even had a recent intellectual movement devoted to reviving the idea of "esoteric readings," whereby you read some text at one level if you're one person, and at another if you're another person.

It ain't rocket science, when you get right down to it. Guys are always doing things for two reasons (the other reason: to impress girls), and that would include writing. I assume that girls do that sort of thing, too, but, woosh, over my head. Anyway, question is: can we deconstruct Alcuin, Symeon, and Benjamin West (and for that matter Thomas Penn)?

This would be an awfully short post if I didn't think that I could.

I've opened up a big subject here, in perhaps not the best way. I'd throw "Vikings" into the title instead of the tagline. If I were only sure that they existed. What, you may ask? Isn't that a little crazy, even for you? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The Hodges book that I link to is a cop-out, by the way. It's here that I unexpectedly got a double of 110 proof  skepticism. (That's Bamburgh Castle on the cover of his book, by the way; seat of Ida and the citadel from which Tom Forster set out to raise the North for the Pretender in 1715.)

So. About that. Who is Alcuin? A most holy man, probably born to a most distinguished family in the far south of the old Kingdom of Northumbria, in Deira, the more subordinate (according to the Venerable Bede) of the two old kingdoms that made up the bipartite state, compared with Bernicia, with its capital at Bamburgh. Alcuin attended the cathedral school of York, travelled to the continent, made the acquaintance of King Charles, ran a school at the Carolingian palace of Aachen for many years, returned briefly to York in 790, and then back to the royal court in time to be Charles' theological hatchetman against the Adoptionist heresy that broke out in the Spanish marchlands, perhaps in 794.

There's nothing surprising in all of this. York was by this time an archepiscopal see with a huge cathedral chapter due to having only two or so suffragen bishops across its vast province to divert the flow of cash. Or there wouldn't be anything surprising about this if it weren't for the fact that all of the other Church intellectuals in the north that we hear about come from a broad axis that starts in Ireland, cuts across the narrow waist of Scotland, and then reaches down the Northumberland coast to the monastery of Lindisfarne, palace at Bamburgh, and the twin monasteries of Monkwearsmouth and Jarrow at the mouth of the Tyne. As I've already noted, that's a strangely peripheral part of Britain to be so unduly important to its early history, unless you happen to be a horsetrader. And if you are a horsedealer, you look at that border that cuts through the plain along the river Tweed, and you scratch your head as you try to understand how any canny businessman would let that happen. You also cock a suspicious eye south at York. Regional rivalries. Aren't they the oldest thing?

So Alcuin sends his letter, sometime after he gets back to Charlemagne's court. And we know that he's a very holy man, which is a relief, because the full text of that letter begins with the suggestion that Bishop Higbald brought the outrage on himself by allowing deviant practices at Lindisfarne. Now, as exciting as that sounds, it probably means that robes were made out of the wrong kind of materials and perhaps bad haircuts. And that's not because the monks of Lindisfarne weren't perhaps being very bad boys indeed. It's because contemporaries believed, or affected to believe, that the stuff that robes were made out of counted for more in the scheme of things than hijinks with parishioners.

I throw that out there for two reasons: first, when Alcuin says "heathens," he's talking his language, not ours. Second, and not unrelated, I've twice emphasised Alcuin's holiness because if this letter came from, say, a mafioso, we'd read it very differently. More along the lines of "nice monastery you have here. Shame if something were to happen to it." And since I'm too cynical for my own good, that's exactly how I read this letter.

See, here's the problem with that typo with the date. Vikings don't raid in January. In spite of their reputation for being bug-nuts crazy, they were perfectly capable of remembering what the North Sea does to small boats in January. So when Symeon of Durham corrects the date, he's making it possible for Lindisfarne to have been sacked by Vikings in the first place. Which, given that that's his theory, makes the correction sort of circular logic. As to why that's Symeon's theory, more deconstruction later.

For us, for now, two facts: first, this is what the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne looks like from the sea.

This is Lindisfarne Castle, built in Tudor times and subsequently much refurbished. There's the ruins of an abbey on the flat land nearby, but it was a late Medieval structure built at a time when there was already a much-decayed royal castle on the rock. We know that Lindisfarne was fortified in Anglo-Saxon times. Per the Historia Brittonum, Urien King of Rheged besieged Ida and his Angles there for three days before he was assassinated by a traitor in his camp. The image here is of the Helm's Deep of the Angles, and knowing Professor Tolkien, I doubt that the similarities are coincidental. 

So where was Higbald's monastery? Up in the old fortifications on that rock, or I would be very surprised. And who were his monks? "Battle saints." This isn't the image that we get. (Starting at 3:20 if you're getting tired of Old Barbarian Workshop, by the way.) But then again: 8 January. And Alcuin chose to call the raiders "heathen." He didn't call them Vikings because, well, there were as yet no Vikings. There were outrages in 793 and 794 that have been attributed to the Vikings, and there is a random sighting from vaguely this time period also noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but these episodes apart, there is no Viking activity reported before the 820s in Ireland and the 840s in France and England. And bear in mind that the word "Viking" is probably a modern invention, and the heuristic that lumps Danes and Norwegians, the inhabitants of Normandy and various other presumably Teutonic-speaking settlers of the North Sea and Atlantic littorals together as Scandinavian-origin seafarers called "Vikings" is even more modern. Indeed, the very idea that they are essentially Teutons is very troubling. Why do we have so much difficulty imagining Gaelic or Polish "Vikings?" Why couldn't such have existed?

Okay, heuristic aside, what was going on at home in 793 that might have got someone excited? In 757AD, Offa had become King of Mercia. According to the heuristic (yes, I do love that word) first spun for us by Bede, he became the hegemon in his time of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, the Bretwalda, as Bede designated such men. Bretwaldas ruled as overlords rather than as kings, and their power was unstable. Offa's client king in Northumbria was a man of the line of Ida (hence, King of Bernicia to begin with) named Ethelbert, a saint that Offa arranged to make a martyr, having him beheaded at Hereford on 20 May 794, a cathedral town in the far southwest of his kingdom, at the opposite end of the island of Britain from sea-girt Bamburgh. (Before the reclamation of the inland marshes, that is.)  Similarly he quarreled with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and arranged to have a third archepiscopal see erected in England, at Lichfield in Mercia. (York, pleasantly enough, had to give up no territory to this new creation.) Archbishop Hygeberht assumed his throne in 779, and acceded without complaint to the demotion of his see to a mere bishopric in 803.

By this time, Offa was dead. He died in 796, and was succeeded by his son. Less than 5 months later, the son was killed in a coup launched by a distant relative. The violence quickly spread to Northumbria, where the man who was probably Offa's client king (he was certainly married to Offa's daughter) was also killed. The role of the Bishop and abbey of Lindisfarne in all of this turmoil is less than clear, but the "outrage" of 793 was hardly unique. Lindisfarne was politically engaged, and kings (and probably rival abbots) were not afraid to deploy a little naked force within the sacred precincts in the course of their quarrels. 

Who? Well, the answer, as David Rollason points out, is obvious enough: the archbishop of York. This is the third most important man in England. Let's grant him the credit of being an agent, an actor, and see where that takes us. Certainly away from the "Viking Kingdom of York," for one thing. More than that, it is time to consider economic recovery.

The nature of the Roman debacle as I laid it out, is this: the Roman treasury has begun to profit from deflation. At the end of every year, the coins paid back in tax are worth a little more than the ones paid out for the army's need in the summer. Sensible magnates move out of money, paying their obligations in kind instead. The Roman state will only accept that if the need is exigent; fortunately for the magnates, the need for horses for cavalry and army trains is always exigent. They still have to escape the surveillance of the state, and they do so by barbarising. But credit is socially entangled. New identities break circuits of exchange. Long range trade, which instantiates social hierarchies and even skill exchanges, must be reconfigured. 

We are now in the era of that reconfiguration. Monasteries and barbarian kings are about that reconfiguration. They are also freed from the lines of command and control that once led back to the Mediterranean. Now they can reorganise trade and production, exchange and diplomacy, around what seems on the map like a more natural world-system: the system that runs out of the Baltic into the North Sea and then up along the North Way to the mouths of the Russian rivers, or west into the Atlantic, or down into the English Channel. It's a maritime/littoral system, calling for the same kinds of point-to-point cabotage as the old Mediterranean system, albeit in new kinds of boats.

But those who wish to practice such exchange are also going to have to intervene on the littoral. The North Sea is a very different body of water from the Mediterranean. The fact that Northumbria was so important then, and so marginal today, has its roots in that difference in geography. 

We're going to need shovels and gumboots for this one, and maybe some herring, for lunch.


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