Monday, March 14, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, II: Flatness Ending. A Technological Account?

Civil engineers create and conserve the state, but reify its injustices as a natural order in the process. So you can see where the whole  "smash the state" thing comes from. Sometimes, it is not hard to feel a niggle of agreement. Other times, you watch this, as, just after 2:08, the tsunami wave hits the Tōhoku Expressway.

 Here, by way of contrast, is the Mackenzie Delta. Notice the lack of expressways. Once, much of the world's coastline looked like this.

No state here. Paradise! (Northwest Territories Water Board)
Now, ask the people sheltering on that expressway and behind it think about smashing the state.

If I'm right about how the state reappeared (if it had to reappear) in sub-Roman times, it's a story of this contrast.

This thing called sub-Roman Britain might have emerged with an apocalyptic withdrawal of Roman armed forces in 410AD, with a once-in-all barbarian invasion sometime after 440, as a rather gradual collapse of the Roman order, or even as a relatively smooth transition as our account (as distinct from the thing in itself) of sub-provincial administrative units turns into an account of "barbarian kingdoms."

Overall, I prefer to see a story of ever-present resistance, finally triumphant. For this to work, evidence often interpreted as demonstrating external security threats (walled cities, Hadrian's Wall, coin hoards) instead demonstrates continuing Roman efforts to make the province work. Why was Britain worth the effort? Horses.Campaigning cavalry in a European climate requires a large animal-drawn train for foraging, in the first instance doubling down on its reliance on horses. An animal turnover as high as 90% annually is indicated for Mediterranean campaigning. Those horses have to come from somewhere. Within the empire, we have only the North European coastal plain, Cappadocia, Pannonia --and northern England.

Now, the view from orbit suggests that in each region, late Roman activities had perverse results, of which I am going to single out ethnogenesis as the most important. Classically explained as the result of a demographically-significant invasion, this process has never accounted for the loss of Christianity, literacy, and Latinity without auxiliary theses about how barbarians disdain the ways of effete civilised folk. The demography is not persuasive (particularly in the case of Isauria or Wales). An alternate explanation proposes ethnogenesis as a symptom of resistance. That people would conscious divest themselves of a Roman identity that they have come to see as a yoke of oppression is only surprising to those who hold that ethnos is inherited, oral languages as policed and grammatically fixed, and places such as Sutton Hoo welling out of the Germanic soul rather than as potentially exploitative  theatre of invention. Is culture in our genotype? I live in Vancouver. I'd say not.  Consider that if the greatest of monuments to Anglo-Saxon 'Germanic' paganism is Raedwald's work, our only extant literary source explicitly authorises our thinking of it as a conscious response to the Augustinian mission in nearby Kent.

Of course, "construction" versus "given" is a weapon that turns back in our hands. The eighth century saint may have had pure.  pastoral and intellectual motivations, but he is more likely a saintly politician attempting sustain the Bernician state. (The book that put me on this track. Thanks, Brett!) Admit a regional competition between York and the north, allied with Canterbury, and we can see why Bede was compulsory reading at least through the 1460s. Indeed, we might not be able to salvage a history of Scotland much prior to Robert the Bruce without Bede's framing, and I don't know that we can write a non-transgressive history of early America if we deconstruct "Scotch-Irish!" The Bernician constellation of holiness that is St. Cuthbert, Lindisfarne, and the monastic complex at Tynemouth will have its own salience later because although history records that it was destroyed by Vikings, it strikes me (crazed revisionist that I am) as more likely that that record is the work of destruction in itself; the Cuthbertine church of Durham defeated enemies that could not be named. So it did it in editorial revision.

But I am not looking forward here, but back. Bede's account has two beginnings: Ida and his retinue taking Bamburgh in 547, and the arrival of St. Augustine's mission to Kent  in 597AD. The superficial story of St. Augustine's mission is that he was sent by the Pope to Christianise the English. But it's a funny, funny story. St. Augustine promptly fell into conflict with two local saint's cults and the local bishops! The latter are to be understood as the "British" bishops known and allowed by the tradition police from Welsh-language sources. Except for the Archbishop of St. David's, who didn't exist because shut up. We are to understand that St. Ninian, "apostle to the Picts," was Irish because also shut up, and that the Irish Christian mission in Anglo-Saxon England was  less extensive and later, as well as more isolated and different from Roman than others have suggested. We are to take the misfiring of Augustine's original assignment to establish archepiscopal seats at the former Roman bishoprics of London and York as a crazy thing that happened. And we are not to worry about the timing. Bede writes looking back on the "dark ages" of Britain from nearly the same interval of distance as the historical span of the Roman province itself (730AD-410AD=320 years' 410-43=367 years), while it is only between 140 and 180 years from the final collapse of Roman Britain and St. Augustine's arrival, presumably inaugurating the end of Dennis' utopian era of autonomous collectives.

If Bede was interested in making up a more internally consistent story, he was radically constrained by the fact that one of his actors was beyond his control: Pope Gregory the Great. Whitby might have tried to take possession of the man, but his letters survive, and theory and final narrative must fit those inconvenient facts. Archaeology has made it worse. Persistent evidentiary contexts have some excavators making ever bolder claims about the persistence of urban life. I've already several times pronounced my paradox that the fact that the see of York never made up a claim of Roman origins is the best argument that there is a longstanding ideological investment in denying that urban bishoprics may have survived in " England" as well as in "Britain."

So what is the work that this investment is doing? The North Sea littoral of England looks east, and arguably always has. North Sea subsistence reaches out onto the water, and Dutch, Frisian, Scotch, and English boats fish side-by-side.  No wonder there is linguistic exchange out there today. Why couldn't interchange have created it in the first place? Indeed, why can't we claim that the Fen-men on their stilts watching Caesar ride by on dry land were already speaking a language alike to that spoken over in Holland? Because geography means more than propinquity. Those marshes again.

But marshes go away, and the deconstruction of the Roman state gave way to the erection of Anglo-Saxon ones. The Romans were already starting to chip away at the Fens,  and the process had made huge strides by the high Middle Ages already. That's a technological fact. Seeing this, it was proposed long ago that the incoming Anglo-Saxons were as much a wave of innovation as of language, that they brought proper iron-tipped ploughs with mould-boards with them, making the new three-field agricultural system possible on the heavy soils of the river valleys of the English lowlands. The story fit the pattern of abandonment of cultivation of more exposed, lighter soils.

We know now that this can't be right. It is archaeologically mistaken and in any case gets things as wrong about technological change as it can.  Exogenous, supply-driven narratives of economic and technological change all yoked in the same old triumphalist story, just do not account for where the demand comes from that stimulates investment. (Thus Mokyr's insistence that innovation comes from outside economic history.) Higher prices for food are quite satisfactorily predicted by a rising population and explain increasingly intensive ploughing --in the High Middle Ages. What's going on now? In the 300s/400s/500s? Land is being drained to support a stud industry. That can only happen if the water can get to the sea. Sewers have to be cut through the chaos to deep water.

 And, down them, fishers and monks can float to the sea.

Now an ethnogenesis that creates fictive kinship links across the North Sea --to the other great heartland of the western Roman stud-- makes sense. The question is: what does the corrupting sea send back?

No comments:

Post a Comment