Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Bishop's Sea: Valhalla

Samosas --from Lovely's Kitchen

Deep-fried nuggets of joy. The historian of the Columbian Exchange chooses to emphasise the potatoes which often fill a samosa, and the sunflower or peanut oil in which they might be fried. If you go to the linked video, though, it will be the spicing that gets the priority. Because it's Indian cooking, and I thought I should mention what the actual cook thinks is important.  

You know, in the way of a little pause before I resume diving down my own navel.

So the point here is that while my employer likes to throw a christmas lunch in the staffroom every year in way of "feasting," as Saro Wallace or Christopher Loveluck would put it, this year, my first at my current branch, we were also treated, during the holiday season, to a big pot of samosas sent into the store by a former employee, M., who  had worked there through college and who was now gainfully employed as a nurse. I have never met M., but they were nice samosas --and a very memorable appropriation of my employer's own tradition.

In little Port Alice, "public feasts" were potlucks held in the gymn of the community centre, while the hall of our ecumenical church, right next door, probably intended for such things, was a waste space requiring extra heating. The one time I recall the mill throwing an event, though, it was held in the hotel dining room, instead. Meanwhile, after Lunar New Year, and more memorably after birthdays, what we would now call the Chinese-Canadian kids brought shrimp chips to school to share with their white counterparts. Looming over it all were potlaches, thrown with renewed enthusiasm by the leading lights of the Fort Rupert Band, which had gradually assimilated the other status communities of our large region with small population. They were held in Port Hardy and Winter Harbour, and only Indian kids were invited. Which in our specific case meant a prominent Metis family, whose son delighted in telling us about the wonders of these parties to which we were not invited.
It is appropriate to have a picture of Professor Wallace (hatchet job review  here: the Bryn Mawr Classical Review is usually better than this), but not of Dr. Loveluck, here. If I still lived in Port Alice, I probably wouldn't even ask myself "why," but, in Vancouver, we're still negotiating the issue. It might have something to do with the amount of accessible arable land here.

Tradition, as we no longer need to be reminded, is constantly reinvented. In our little town, it could be about performing race, and about the way that the Old World pattern of town equalling parish had failed to take, even though the denominations which did use our church were careful not to make an exclusive claim. As I say, one little town, and one branch of one employer. No-one asserted rules for how this was to be done, so our reinvention was careful, one trial balloon after another.  

So, anyway, a modest proposal: We have completely misunderstood the sub-Roman period.

This is from the 1986 South African mini-series Shaka Zulu, and is probably worth an essay on Apartheid-era cultural politics. My point is only that southern Africa was torn apart and reorganised by endemic violence ending in the rise of a system of tribal polities. The semi-mythical (in spite of being actually historical) Shaka is usually seen as the originator of the "Crushing," and he did so through an existing system of age-cohort militias which will be familiar to anyone who has even read casual classical military history. It really does look as though armies of year-group regiments. under the command of older notables, are a satisfactory, recurrent, socially-controllable way of organising violence for the purposes of profit, state formation and the long distance displacement of ethnic communities. ("Migration.") 

Yet we are told that the violence of the Heroic Age that followed the blank slate (at least in England) of the Volkerwanderung was carried out by the war-band retinues of  princes and heroes, who feasted with them in their halls, and followed them into battle. That is, the social focus of the youth war band is not their age cohort, but their lord.

Shorter: the generation gap didn't exist in 500AD. 

As unravelling contradictions of established narratives go, this absurdly facile dip into comparative anthropology ain't much. This is where Professor Wallace comes in. Ancient Crete: From Successful Collapse to Democracy's Alternatives, Twelfth to Fifth Centuries BC advances the thesis that the Late Bronze Age "crisis" was taken in Crete as an opportunity to, in the strong formulation of her thesis, "carry out a positive collapse," whose legacy was still evident in Crete seven centuries later, in the failure of the "democratic polis" to emerge there. The precise nature of this directed crisis is less important than method, but if you're curious, the basic thesis is that the "positive" aspect of the collapse is that it was directed, hence relatively egalitarian, and its choice of landscapes of resettlement ensured that this relatively egalitarian structure, subject to lineage-clan relations, led to proto-states in which emergent inequality was not so threatening as to lead to the radical levelling of "democracy." Also, something about the relative extent of arable areas on the mainland and on Crete. (The need to possess large areas of downland arable meant that the mainland response to the crisis could not be this kind of directed collapse.) 

So: method.  What makes Professor Wallace's thesis a revelation is that she sets aside the traditional and highly problematic, text-dependent methods of interrogating pots on the languages spoken by their makers, and the old habit of making sweeping generalisations about interment practices, and instead talks about what we can know. Above all, she focusses on settlement plans, showing that detectable activities such as cult and feasting were kept under the control of clans and within communities.

In contrast, on mainland Greece, cult, and to some extent public feasting, moved to extra-settlement areas. These then became the central shrines on which the synoecisms of the larger, federative city states formed. Subsequently, however, and per the "democratising thesis," the collective dining halls, or Prytaneum, so  inexplicable to us and yet so characteristic of the Greek polis in its early stages, becomes readily comprehensible as a means of taking control of public feasting away from elites. (Does Socrates' habit of gracing the dinner parties  of the best sort of people now seem much more sinister? And, of course, when asked to prescribe his own punishment, he stipulates that he should  eat at the Prytaneum for the rest of his life. See? Plato knows the score. )

Speaking of food, Wallace's insistence on the defensibility of the post "positive collapse" settlements may go too far. They obviously are defensible, but the repetition of the pattern in Early Modern Greece (when mountain bandits were at least as important a factor in instability as maritime mpirates) suggests an enduring agronomic logic --as I've argued here before. Middle elevations make good homes in the particular version of the Greek Aegean which is not interested in the largescale export of staples like oil, wine and grain. 

On the other hand, her dashed-off explanation of Sparta is brilliant. The plain of Helos is remote and less fertile than the area around Sparta proper, and so it is natural that the Helots end up as the bond-servants of money-lenders living in Sparta --who, for lack of "money" in the cash nexus, end up relying on controlling access to status through, for example, public feasting. The communal dining halls of the Spartan citizen body are not the cause of Laconian military discipline. Military success is a rationalisation for their existence. (Which explains the amount of try-hard flop sweat surrounding actual Spartan war-making. Spartans insist that they got where they are by fighting, rather than by, say, lending money. Now they have to prove it.) 

The review I bashed above may be right about Wallace's interpretation of dating and cemetery evidence, although the author's deliberate mystification of her thesis doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. The method stands on its own. Feasting is important. Where it happens, and under whose control, can tell us a great deal about a society which cannot otherwise speak.

About that: I think we can all agree, at this late date, that the archaeology of sub-Roman, post-collapse Britain is not going to turn up our dark age, heroic, pagan, Germanic "halls." Brian Hope-Taylor admittedly excavated what he believes to have been a royal hall of the Bernician kings at Yeavering in Glendale, Northumberland, perhaps even the site of several bits of royal theatre described by Bede.

Spectacular, but not exactly domestic. Source. Also, visit scenic Northumberland, etc.
However,Yeavering is the only site anyone can bring up. At this point, we can hardly call it typical. Chris Loveluck moves on quickly to sites which are typical, and which, incidentally, point through their refuse profiles much less ambiguously to pubic (if possibly "elite") feasting. Rubbish, broken glass, prestige imports are found at Portchester Castle, Carlton Colville, Higham Ferrer, and, above all, Cowdery Downs. Loveluck proposes, depending on location, that this behaviour may be associated with an emergent "middle class" (my gloss) of "peasants on horseback" or "peasant milites" (his); or beach-side markets thrown for point-to-point maritime traders by the comparatively free populations of the liminal, littoral marsh country.  

Loveluck isn't interested in discovering the methods by which feasting is appropriated, or the reverse. I am not aware that anyone has pursued this issue. It is striking that increasingly refined archaeological work has shown people clinging to Roman townsites through the end of the 500s. Coming back to Socrates and his supiciously undemocratic lot, his example had helped the the banquet/symposium become more or less the default from of public feasting. Held in aristocatic palaces and the site for the performance of philosophy and Latinity, it epitomised the Imperial embrace of inequality. It was also, by 400, under heavy pressure from emergent Christian practice. 

The received view of sub-Roman eastern England is that both Roman and Christian social practice was supplanted by an imported Germanic, pagan practice. You know, with heroes and halls. Just as the halls have failed to emerge from the archaeological record, so have "Anglo-Saxon pagan cult sites." At one time, Pope Gregory's letter to the Augustinian mission authorising it to reuse pagan temples as Christian churches was thought to make up the deficit. Eventually, altars to Woden, Thor, Freya, Eoster and the rest would be found underneath Anglo-Saxon churches. It is now pretty clear that we will not, and that the letter comes down to us as part of a rhetorical strategy which presents the Anglo-Saxons (Angles, really) as a "Chosen People." 

Again, Professor Wallace suggests an explanation, which begins with a functional framing. Communities need cult places. Control of those cult places shapes, or is shaped by, the kind of community that it is. Communites which are coming into being through ethnogenesis do not yet need cult places. 

If this is a viable interpretation of social process in sub-Roman Britain, we are not going to find "pagan cult" locations. We will find evidence of continuing offering of cult at numinous locations (your usual lot of sacred wells, holy groves, "liminal landscapes," ancient monuments). People need to practice religion somewhere, after all; but villages could only build themselves churches once they'd agreed what a church should look like and be; and, by the time this had happened, the consensus was that they would be, well, churches. 

The best explanation for a lack of pagan temples, once their socially situated context is understood, is that there never were Anglo-Saxon pagans to build them. By the time that an "Anglo-Saxon" identity existed, there was certainly a need for an Anglo-Saxon pagan past; but it was not a real past. This perhaps explains why we can't get a firm grip on the gods and mythology of the Norse past. What we have, from our thirteenth century Icelandic sources, was invented by those sources, for the past they wanted. 

If that sounds too outlandish (and like another driveby smear of Snorri Sturlusson), consider that while it is increasingly unlikely that we will find Dark Age heroic halls, Snorri (and the Beowulf poet, who, it can at least be argued, was writing in the eleventh century*) give us those halls in an era which actually had them.

In my wildest excesses, I imagine Snorri making the whole "Viking" thing up in response to the impact of (thirteenth century) modernity on his comfortable west Icelandic racket. But one thing is for darn sure clear, and that is that Snorri, and conceivably the Beowulf poet, are writing in response to the troubadours. Leave that aside. What is clear is that while we're probably not going to find halls for the feasting of heroes in sixth century Britain, you can't go very far in a tenth or eleventh century landscape without running into a "donjon/castle" structure with a banquet hall. Feasting, or, rather, the approprtiation of feasting, seems tolerably clearly part of the "feudal crisis," or the "crise de l'an 1000," or the "lordship revolution," or whatever one wants to rename the age of chivalry. 

The relevance here, then, is that the late Dark Ages monastery comes into focus not as a location into which cult (and feasting, our new emphasis) is transferred, but rather one in which it begins. This is the "Kingcome" model again --the monastic settlement as the nucleus of a new level of social organisation. Whether we call them walrus ranches or Viking colonies, the trajectory of development remains: Iona>Portmahomack>Brough of Birsay(?)>Iceland(?)>Gardar.

Like so  sacred sites of the era, that imposing island is linked to the main island by an isthmus at low tide. The twelfth century Romanesque church is dedicated to St. Peter, which may or may not be important, and the number and type of structures at least suggests a "Pictish" monastery. It would also be the closest landfall to Iceland, Faroes and Shetlands apart.  

*Seriously: Beowulf begins with a celebration of the heroic founding of the Scyld dynasty. Hey, you know who was a Scyld, and a generous patron of Anglo-Saxon literature? Canute! But, no. Maybe the old Anglo-Saxons took time out from fighting Viking raids to write a nice poem about how wonderful old-timey Vikings were. Or maybe Beowulf was written before the Vikings, and, like, a hundred years before any other Anglo-Saxon literature, and then passed down with laserlike precision so that only one manuscript, was ever made, sometime around 1016. Sure. Why not?

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