October 04, 2005

Anglo Mojo Rising

The following discussion between Captain Mojo and me in comments to Mitch Townsend's previously-linked post at Chicago Boyz seemed interesting enough to me to post separately here.

Captain Mojo comments: I would argue that in the battle between the “unbroken line” and more recent revisionist theories about the origin of Anglo political liberty, of which Lex mentions in his first response, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Certainly, as Mitch mentions, the Althing, which seems common throughout most Germanic culture, is a uniquely egalitarian system of governance in the ancient world. It was effective at organizing small groups of disparate individuals into a cohesive group. However, as most “primitive” (if I can use that term non-pejoratively) political systems go, it had problems with scale, and fell apart easily, leading to constant infighting. As for the large Germanic confederacies (Alemanni, Goths, Lombards, Franks), instability and eventual defeat or assimilation in the existing Roman culture was the rule.

The Anglo-Saxons were culturally closer to the Scandinavians than their cousins on the Rhine and central Europe, and like the Nordic peoples remained both pagan, and outside of the mass-army environment of the post-collapse western empire for centuries. During this time, though, they retained the same weakness at large-scale organization. The gradual reintroduction of Christianity in the 6th through 9th centuries brought greater ties to the continent, but the fractious nature of English politics continued until the Danish invasion of the 9th century nearly wiped out Saxon power. Alfred the Great, in the process of saving England against the Danish scourge, unified English resistance along more continental lines.

The extra time England had away from the main European cultural and political conflicts of the early Middle Ages allowed time for the development of the small scale innovations and institutions which are still so important to us today. However, without the reintroduction of continental (roman derived) political institutions, such as a centralized and powerful monarchy and church, none of the unique attributes of Anglo civilization would have survived the ages of struggle which followed.

The end result of all this was that by the time the Normans invaded, they found a highly productive kingdom running under an economic and cultural system that they saw no reason to drastically change. As much as I hate to defend the Norman invasion, they laid the defense and governance framework that kept England from ever being violently invaded again.

I guess the gist of what I’m trying to say is that without the slow infusion of post-Empire continental despotism to protect without overwhelming, the Anglo traditions of liberty would have died just like those traditions did on the continent.

Even more to the point here is that I believe (and I think I’ve got Edward Gibbon on my side) is that Anglosphere exceptionalism is primarily the result of the slow merging of Germanic individualism with the efficiency of Roman governmental traditions.

I get the impression that among the Anglosphereists we’ve heard from here that the Germanic direct descent line of thought is more popular than my hybrid view. Am I misunderstanding your position?

Posted by: Captain Mojo on October 4, 2005 04:39 PM

Jim Bennett responds: I don't really see an inherent conflict between the direct-line-of-descent argument and the fusion argument, unless one is being a absolutist about the direct-descent model, and I don't think any of the Seedlings are absolutists. Germanic primitive liberty really wasn't directly transferable to the running of an urban society or a national-scale economy of any complexity. Mediterranean imperial rule could hack the administrative tasks, but was subject to bureaucratic gridlock and stasis leading eventually to breakdown. The genius of medieval european constitutionalism was precisely that it lead toward a workable fusion of the two. Pre-Conquest England, because of its relative (emphasize relative) isolation from continental politics and the effiency of the late ANglo-Saxon state, had a particularly workable (and more liberty-leaning) version of this fusion. The Normans kept much of the Anglo-Saxon state and grafted on another version of medieval constitutionalism (less freedom-oriented but still within the medieval consensus) on top of the Anglo-Saxon foundation. The next real big break came with the military revolution of the early Renaissance and the end of medieval constitutionalism on the Continent in favor of bureaucratic centralism. I think a lot of people, looking backward, tend to conflate this bureaucratic centralism with the much looser Norman aristocratic regime.

Useful references on this are James Campbell's The Anglo-Saxon State, Macfarlane (of course)especially his chapters on Ernest Gellner in The Making of the Modern World, W.J.F. Jenner in The Tyranny of History (especially his discussion of bureaucratic gridlock and collapse in China vs. Europe) Downing on the early-Renaissance collapse of medieval constitutionalism. The Macfarlane and Jenner are referenced and discussed in the bibliography to The Anglosphere Challenge.

By the way, another continuous survivor of very early Germanic assemblies is the Manx parliament, the Tynwald. The name is cognate to the Icelandic name Thingvellir, which was the place where the Althing met.

Posted by Jim Bennett at October 4, 2005 07:37 PM

I think, as Lex points out over at CB, that my argument is one of terminology. I do, however, think it important to emphasize what the Normans did bring to England after the conquest: the institution of feudalism.

As the feudal order was a product of the late Western empire and its successor states, it was foreign to English society. Hierarchical relationships between king, earl, and thane certainly existed, but the English political order wasn’t nearly as tightly structured as the post-Carolingian kingdoms on the continent. Again, this was a weakness, and had led to continual instability and small scale foreign invasion since the end the ninth century.

In the case of England after the conquest, the feudal system never got very deep. The old English nobility being wiped out, William established his own military aristocracy in its place, structured along continental lines, but went no further. As we’ve already covered, he left most of the old wealth-producing order intact (William was notoriously money hungry, as domesday illustrates). In fact, in many cases the native institutions were strengthened under the new regime.

England was secure and had competent national government thanks to the feudal Norman war machine (the best in Europe at the time), while retaining most of the important civil institutions that made Anglo-Saxon England unique. It is interesting to ponder if this would have remained the case had the Anglo-Norman kings directed more of their attention at administering England and less on acquiring more French territories.

Posted by: Captain Mojo at October 5, 2005 08:24 PM

That is, I realize on re-reading, me just restating in four paragraphs what you wrote in one (you must forgive my tendency to pontificate. I haven’t written a meaningful word in something like a year...).

Still I think it interesting to question the effects of a less distracted Norman and Plantagenet monarchy on subsequent English civil society. If there hadn't been the constant need for kings to take huge loans and raise large armies, would they have treated other troublesome segments of society like Edward I did the Jews?

Posted by: Captain Mojo at October 5, 2005 08:54 PM

The hybrid notion makes a lot of sense. The Founding Generation often spoke about the "ancient Saxon constitution" but they also were deeply influenced by Cicero and other Romans. I think they were very much aware of the various traditions that resulted in the uniqueness of British political and legal culture. But this is something that has been forgotten since then and that we are rediscovering.

Posted by: phil at October 6, 2005 06:41 PM

Hi all:
James is correct that the genius of Western civ is the fusion between Germanic customs and traditions with Roman laws and civilization. It,s not just England but all over western Europe that was overrun by teh Germanic tribes. One could argue that Spain- thanks to the Pyreenes also preserved that unique fusion much longer than the other European state (and the Reconquista)
Nevertheless, there are some additional questions we need to ask ourselves about the rise of bureaucratic centralism and the demise of medieval constitutionalism.
To me it,s the 30 years war that blew apart medieval constitutionalism. The immense strain for resources, provoked Olivares to find ways to undermine Catalan constitutional autonomyuntil the region rebelled. It was only after submitting to France that the Catalans, realized that they faced an even more overbearing centralism so they went back (minus Rosel.lo- Rousillon)
I'll repeat my view: the Brits have always been lucky that the English channel has always separated them from Europe. Ever since the failed 1588 Armada expedition, Britian never needed to fear invasion anymore (untll Napoleon and Hitler but even then)

Posted by: xavier at October 10, 2005 04:38 PM