The Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons

I found the most interesting part of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina, which I visited recently, to be the section on the Cherokee Nation before European contact. In particular, because the displays divided up this time into various dated periods, it offered a fascinating opportunity to compare Cherokee material culture with that from other cultures elsewhere in the world at the same time. Given my background, that immediately got me juxtaposing the material culture of the Cherokee in the Woodland period (1000 BCE – 900 CE) with that of the Anglo-Saxons. In the late-seventeenth century, the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons invaded the territory of the Cherokee (and eventually destroyed or relocated the vast majority of the Cherokee Nation). But could you have predicted that back around 900 CE, at the time of King Alfred?

bird-effigy-pipe
Museum of the Cherokee Indian exhibit: Stone pipe in the shape of a bird

In some ways, Woodland period Cherokee and Anglo-Saxon material culture seem quite similar. Both societies were of settled agriculturalists, with construction either predominantly or exclusively in wood. Indian culture probably had more effective weapons around 900 CE, reflecting a society where hunting played a more vital role in food provision. The Cherokee had very high-quality bows and arrows, as well as spear-throwers, improving the accuracy and distance of a spear cast. Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Cherokee had skills in pottery and textile-working; unlike them, they also had a particularly developed craft of basket-weaving. Some small stone-carvings of theirs survive. In terms of what we can deduce about their non-material culture from later sources, the Cherokee also show parallels to the Anglo-Saxons in their development of complex religious myths and laws.

So what did the Anglo-Saxons have that the Cherokee didn’t? Some stone buildings, but relatively few. Cherokee pottery incorporated admixtures of additional elements to improve its strength, but it was purely handmade, rather than using a potter’s wheel. And there are some conspicuous absences to an early medievalist’s eye. The Cherokee didn’t have domesticated animals (including horses). There’s no glass and very little metalwork (a few copper objects, I think obtained by trade); there was no mention of coinage. Although they had canoes, they didn’t have ocean-going ships. And, of course, there were no books, inscriptions or any other kind of writing.

Though some of those differences may not have much effect, collectively in the long-run (600-800 years), they allowed Englishmen with guns and horses to appear in North Carolina, rather than the other way round. Even if it was mostly diseases that killed the early modern Cherokee, rather than British weapons, there was still a considerable difference in material culture by that point. Why is that?

As Jared Diamond has pointed out, there weren’t domesticable animals in North America (the only one in South America is the llama/alpaca). And it’s a lot easier to develop ocean-going ships in England, where it’s impossible to be more than 70 miles from the sea, and where it’s actually useful to be able to cross the Channel, than a region where you’re 300 or more miles from the sea and you could just follow the coastline anyway for days to contact other communities. But the other key point is that the Anglo-Saxons were at the tail-end of technological developments that they adopted from other civilizations, in a way that the Cherokee weren’t.

Parts of Anglo-Saxon England were aceramic for a while; in the fifth century; at that stage they were having to recycle metal from Roman remains, because they’d lost the ability to smelt iron. The early Anglo-Saxons also had no writing. Much of the material culture they did have by 900 CE had been adopted from other nearby cultures (or specifically brought to England by outsiders, as with the Roman/Celtic missionaries and writing). Vast amounts of the material culture the English had by 1700 CE had also originated from elsewhere; some innovations, such as paper and gunpowder, had come from as far away as China. In fact, it’s difficult to think of many important technological innovations first developed in England before 1600 CE, although by the seventeenth century, English science and technology were more inventive (we’re getting to the era of Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke).

In other words, the real advantage that the Anglo-Saxons and the English had over the Cherokee was their proximity to other societies with more complex material culture. And their great luck was that they never faced invading forces that were technologically more advanced and wanted to remove them from their land. The Vikings had something of a technological edge in terms of military equipment, but even when they conquered parts of Anglo-Saxon England, there’s not much evidence of complete population replacement. In contrast, despite the fact that the Cherokee were regarded as one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by English settlers and later the US government, that didn’t prevent most of them from being expelled from North Carolina, on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838.

Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel argues that the Spanish defeated the Incas because of geography: Eurasia had more domesticable animals and crops and such innovations could spread more easily east-west than north-south (because of climate change at different latitudes). Europe (and Western Europe in particular) later benefited from a coastline nearer to the Americas than other parts of Eurasia. But there’s always been a counter-claim that Europeans were simply more innovative in some way than Native Americans.

If you compare the Cherokee and the Anglo-Saxons, that claim’s not really convincing. In terms of inventiveness, for example, there’s no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the development of the Cherokee syllabary, within a couple of centuries of contact, even though the Anglo-Saxons and their Continental ancestors must have been aware of Roman writing for centuries. The English technical innovations of the seventeenth century came on the back of a millennium or so of borrowed technology. If English people had had only the Mississippian Culture to borrow from (as the Cherokee did until Europeans came), rather than China, India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, I find it hard to believe they’d have come up with the Golden Hind or the balance spring. The real luck of the Anglo-Saxons, which the Cherokee didn’t share, surely came in the form of their Eurasian neighbours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Evolution, Demography and Inheritance

I have been reading some popular works on anthropology and evolutionary psychology and am getting increasingly fed-up with their frequent assumption that men instinctively want to sleep with as many women as possible so that they can have as many children as possible. Even excluding the modern Western world, in which many men do not want to have children (or at least not be held responsible for them), there doesn’t seem to me much historical evidence that men wanted to father as many children as possible.

Firstly, and most brutally, in many contemporary and historic societies, girls have been undervalued and sometimes even killed or abandoned by their fathers. For the survival of a man’s genes, a female child is valuable; in many patrilineal societies, she’s not valuable because she doesn’t preserve his “name”. But I don’t think the historic evidence is particularly strong even for the weakened hypothesis that men want to sleep with as many women as possible so that they can have as many sons as possible. In societies where elite men have large harems, for example, women are selected for these harems, based on their beauty (Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, pp. 70-71 cites letters about this from King Zimri-Lim of Mari in Syria from the eighteenth century BC). This implies that such successful men are less interested in sleeping with as many fertile women as possible and more concerned with sleeping with women they find sexually attractive.

Tablet_Zimri-Lim_Louvre_AO20161
Clay tablet recording activity of Zimri-Lim (from Wikimedia)

Most men, however, aren’t as prosperous as Zimri-Lim. One of the most basic constraints on how many children you choose to father is how many you can afford to support. This is so even in historical periods without effective contraception or abortion. Abandonment of the mother and/or child, adoption and even infanticide have always been possible options. But in most past societies, a child whose father didn’t support them was either not going to survive into adulthood, or was going to have its chances of marriage and reproduction severely limited. So in evolutionary terms, this is not likely to be a successful strategy.

But there’s also another issue in societies with private property: the question of what the children (especially the sons) inherit when their father dies. Whether it’s land or livestock, at some point there’s likely to be a sharing-out of resources, even if it’s postponed for a generation. And at that point, having too many sons can again be a problem, because it means splitting resources into smaller shares or excluding some sons from any inheritance. There’s been interesting work by Ruth Mace at UCL trying to model how African pastoralists decide whether or not to have more children and how many sons to give wealth to.

This concern to get the “right” number of heirs may also explain various family options which develop.  For example, the institution of concubinage, already visible in the Code of Hammurabi from around 1750 BC, may have developed precisely because concubine’s sons could be conditional heirs, who were normally excluded from inheritance, but could be made heirs if one was needed.

Ruth Mace states in another article (p.447):

It has long been recognized that maximizing reproductive success is not necessarily about maximizing fertility alone, going right back to the pioneering work of ornithologist David Lack [in 1954].

So why, sixty years on, are some authors still writing statements such as:

A man can have a nearly unlimited number of children – in theory he can beget several children every day – while a woman’s capacity is limited to one child per year under optimal conditions, and moreover in many societies many children die before they grow up. From the perspective of human reproduction, one may state that sperm is cheap while eggs are expensive.

(Quote from Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2nd ed, 2001, p. 108)

Sperm may be “cheap”, but raising a child to adulthood is almost always expensive for fathers as well as mothers, if they’re going to ensure their line’s continuation. I’m currently trying to work out what kinds of evolutionary effects it’s worth considering when thinking about patriarchy in western Europe in the common era. The badly flawed evolutionary  accounts of male humans that still turn up frequently, and which ignore so much historical evidence, don’t seem to me a reliable basis for making further hypotheses about male behaviour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patriarchal pieces 1: was Charlemagne the father of the Franks?

(This is the first of a series of short pieces I hope to write for my new project on long-term continuity and change in patriarchal structures. These are intended as initial ways for me to think about the problem rather than as definitive answers and comments or counterexamples are gratefully received).

patriarcha2

Some early modern political thought was patriarchal in the most literal sense: the father’s control over his family and household is the model for all political authority. (This is the view of Robert Filmer, for example). The idea seems at once vaguely familiar and subtly distinctive to a Carolingianist and I’m still trying to work out why.

At the moment I can see two differences. One is that although there’s sometimes an analogy made in political writing between the royal household and the kingdom, it tends to be expressed in terms of a ruler’s duties, rather than a father’s. The ruler must rule himself, so that he can then rule his household, and finally the kingdom. This is all put together with the supposed etymology of “rex” as deriving from “regnans”, which is already in Augustine, and probably even earlier. Being a “pater/genitor” doesn’t have the same resonances.

And where the king as father does appear, the direction of the analogy is the opposite way round from the early modern patriarchal one. The king’s household is supposed to be the exemplar for other households, and the king as father for other fathers. Ordinary fathers are “royalised” by the Carolingians, rather than kings being an outgrowth of original family power. After all, the Carolingians knew how kings arose – God had allowed them to do so.

I also wonder whether the vagueness of the Carolingian idea of the king as a magnified pater familias is because the magnates would have found that unacceptable. After all, the kingdom as a family implicitly places them as the king’s children, called to obedience, and subject to his righteous chastisement. In contrast, the metaphor of the body politic, which id developed by John of Salisbury and later medieval authors, makes the other parts of the body subordinate to the head, but without such a steep gradient. A neck or the shoulders and arms are only a little “below” the head and are essential to the body’s proper functioning. Not should the head want to hurt the other parts of the body, but guard them.

In contrast, the fatherly metaphor for rulers separates king and subject more decisively, and subordinates more firmly. Perhaps it’s only in more autocratic times (Roman and early modern) that this particular complex of patriarchal ideas can find acceptance.

Living in the material world

I’ve been thinking a lot about the material world in the last few months, in an odd combination of places. On a brief visit to Amsterdam, then at the current Merovingian exhibition at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and finally at Snozone Milton Keynes. (I should add that these thoughts came while watching others ski, not attempting to ski myself). And the theme I keep coming back to is my own troubled relationship to materiality and also that of the cultures I live in and study.

snozone

[Skiers at the Snozone]

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Political culture 2: actors and scales

A very belated second post on the conference I went to in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. The first day of the conference revealed to me the wide variety of approaches to looking at political culture, but on the second day I was thinking more about a couple of key questions. Firstly, what did particular forms of political culture allow powerful people to do that they couldn’t easily do otherwise? And secondly, what does studying political culture bring that’s new to political history (which is, after all, one of the oldest historical topics)?

The first paper on the second day was by Charlie Insley under the wonderful title of “Ottonians with pipe rolls? Political culture and performance in late Anglo-Saxon England”. Charlie was bringing Gerd Althoff’s ideas about ritual and symbolism to bear on the Anglo-Saxon world. As Charlie pointed out, he wasn’t the first Anglo-Saxonist to do this, and as I’d already heard Julia Barrow on the topic (and a paper by Levi Roach on the Aethelred charters under discussion), I was familiar with quite a lot of the paper. But it was a handy reminder that we can’t just oppose ritual/performance to literacy/bureaucracy, as Althoff and some English historians have tended to do. And it was also a useful example of what a particular form of political culture could allow you to do: Aethelred was able to make a policy U-turn by drawing on a discourse of penance.

The second paper in the session was by Jonathan Gledhill, talking about work done in association with the People of Medieval Scotland database project. As Jonathan pointed out, while Scotland wasn’t part of the Angevin Empire, it did sometimes experience Angevin power. His theme was also very relevant to the conference: what can you say about political culture when charters are almost the only source you have?

Because of Scotland’s lack of narrative sources and eleventh century charters, historians have tended to lump together the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as one “feudal” period. Jonathan argued that if you look harder you can see differences, between a twelfth-century culture that is starting to formalise and a thirteenth-century one that is formalised. He argued for a very slow process of formalisation and explained what he meant by that. One is that there is a change from “barons” being any political important men who were the king’s friends to men who exercised justice in a particular area (called a “parish”). Secondly, you can see witness lists of charters becoming more hierarchical over time. Jonathan also discussed other changes you could see in charters, for example that later re-grants by a king of a charter might include more specific details, such as the courts that could be held and powers of them.

This paper was an interesting contrast to Charlie’s because it’s starting from a corpus of charters that’s substantially bigger than the late Anglo-Saxon one, but also a lot more standardised. And that affects methodology. Charlie’s essentially looking at charters as special snowflakes, because it’s mostly such big diplomas that survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. Jonathan (and the POMS team generally) have been compiling more bulk data from charters over time and analysing it in new ways (such as by social network analysis) to get a more general overview of Scottish political culture.

In the second session of the day, we went on to ecclesiastical politics and started with Benjamin Pohl talking about a century-long dispute  (c. 1077-1172) between the Abbey of Saint-Étienne de Caen and the bishops of Bayeux. How did a monastery newly founded after 1066 fit into existing diocesan structures? The problems centred on Whitsuntide processions: did such processions in parishes under Saint-Étienne’s control still have to go to the mother church at Bayeux (with every household having to provide a pennyworth of wax as a render)? Both the King of England and the papacy got involved in the dispute at various times and even though some parishes eventually were exempted from the need to process to Bayeux, others still had to make the trip (which could be more than 15 miles each way). As Benjamin pointed out, a clear political message was being sent: despite the prominence of Saint-Étienne, the monks were still politically subordinate to the canons of Bayeux cathedral. Benjamin’s paper neatly pointed out both the political importance of ecclesiastical ritual and that financial and spiritual dues couldn’t easily be separated: the requirement was not just to pay in wax, but to bring it with one.

We stayed in Normandy (and indeed Caen) for the next paper, in which Laura Gathagan talked about Cecelia, eldest daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. The female monastery of Sainte-Trinité in Caen was founded by William and Matilda at the same time as Saint-Étienne and they made Cecilia an oblate there in 1066. Laura reckoned that Holy Trinity was more Matilda’s gift to Cecelia than the other way round and she went on to show the great importance of Cecelia to the monastery, even though she only became abbess in 1113, after more than 40 years there. She was a patron of poets, she regularly travelled to London and she helped negotiate charters for Holy Trinity after the death of her father William the Conqueror. Around 1100, she and the abbess Matilda jointly issues a charter in which Cecelia was referred to as “daughter of the king”. She also carried out several surveys of the monastery’s lands.

What was particularly interesting was her relationship with the abbess Matilda, whom Laura saw as carefully managing her resources, including the most precious resource, Cecelia herself. Indeed Matilda in her old age tried to resign as abbess in Cecelia’s favour, but was forbidden to do so by Anselm of Canterbury. Although Amy Livingstone has warned us to beware of thinking that women holding power were exceptional, Laura thought that Cecelia did look exceptional: her power did not come from any office, but her status as William the Conqueror’s daughter. It was these ties to him and to her brothers that enabled her to win “victories” for the monastery by grants and confirmations that secured their property amid the tumults of post-conquest Normandy.

From the political culture embodied in one woman we moved on to a large number of men.  Stephen Maritt was talking about twelfth-century English archdeacons and their role in political culture. More specifically, he was trying to rehabilitate them from a stereotype of being venal and careerist. Stephen started by pointing out the prominence of archdeacons – we can reconstruct itineraries for most of them and they provided a link between bishops and the king and local societies.

Stephen’s argument was that a lot of the stereotypes about archdeacons came either from reading back Anthony Trollope’s Archdeacon Grantly into the Middle Ages or from overheated rhetoric from the likes of John of Salisbury. In fact most archdeacons didn’t advance beyond that rank: only about 10% made it to bishop (although a comparison with modern academia suggests that poor prospects of success don’t necessarily reduce careerism).Stephen also pointed out that while John of Salisbury might have complained about Archdeacon Walkelin of Suffolk naming his illegitimate children after Pope Hadrian IV, he also wrote friendly letters to Walkelin.

Stephen also gave us some intriguing vignettes of the archdeacon’s role. They might turn up for visitations with vastly excessive retinues (Bridlington priory complained of an archdeacon arriving with 97 horses, 21 hounds and 2 hawks), but some of this excess may have been an effort to enforce their limited authority in county towns (and to help them collect dues, which was not popular). They also had to sort out a lot of nitty-gritty church administration: I enjoyed hearing that Gerald of Wales’ Gemma ecclesiastica includes a discussion of what to do if the priest at communion has used cider instead of wine!

And Stephen’s final point was to stress that archdeacons (who unlike rural deans had to be in major orders) had a sense of their own spiritual identity, often citing Acts 6 on deacons and the example of St Lawrence. Also unlike rural deans, but like bishops and abbots, archdeacons were excepted to have their name as well as their office on their seal.

Archdeacons clearly played an important role and Charlie Insley made an intriguing parallel between the complaints about archdeacons and those by Wulfstan on reeves. These secular and religious officials may have carried out some of the same middleman functions and thus been liable to the same temptations and accusations. Stephen’s wide-ranging and entertaining paper thus showed us some more ways into local politics, a topic that hadn’t really been raised before during the conference.

For the final session, we were back to high politics, starting with Rick Barton on counsel and placita in western France and England, part of a wider project he’s doing on honour and shame in Western France.  Rick was interested in how political culture was formed and changed during assemblies and using narrative sources to explore this. He focused on the text De iniusta vexacione Guillelmi episcopi, which discuss the trial of William of St-Calais, bishop of Durham, by William Rufus in 1088, and its representation of counsel. Concilium is a dominant theme in De iniusta vexacione and Rick was interested in when this happened and also when it didn’t happen. For example, Bishop William was deprived of the counsel of other bishops, but was allowed that of seven knights who came with him from Durham.

All this fed into wider discourses about counsel visible in this and other placita. Some of these are quite general, such as ‘evil counsel’ leading to hostile acts and ‘having taken wiser counsel’ as indicating a change of heart. But there are more specific discourses in De iniusta vexacione: Bishop William could not get the counsel he wanted (from religious, rather than secular men), while he complained that William Rufus had the whole kingdom to counsel him. Bishop William also made a sarcastic gibe at Archbishop Lanfranc: “this old wordsmith knows how to speak too well”. We can see here “counsel” becoming a political weapon, as a way of indirectly claiming an unfair trial. More generally, Rick saw traditions of disputing in De iniusta vexacione that were similar to those in western France, and also noted the primacy of personal relationships in such hearings.

The final paper, by Mark Hagger, remained in the Norman sphere, but focused on ducal Normandy in c. 1000-1135 and the “atmosphere of power” there. Mark started from an interesting quirk of the evidence: there was no ducal chancery before 1135, so all the charters we have were produced by beneficiaries. If you’re careful, Mark argued, you can use these to give us a bottom-up view of ducal power by its users.

These charters show beneficiaries coming a long way (and sometimes travelling to warzones) to gain ducal grants. They don’t say much about the nature of the duke’s rule (although some cheekily have the duke apologising for his previous ill deeds!) Surprisingly, the percentage of charters with petitions drops after 1066, although you might expect more grovelling to kings than dukes. (Mark reckoned that the most elaborate grovel in a charter was by Dudo of St Quentin in 1015).

Anathema clauses were common under dukes Richard and Robert, but died out later. Mark suggested such clauses might imply a lack of trust in dukes and also that whoever pronounced the anathema clause might take the spotlight away from the duke. He cited an act by Duke William for Saint-Ouen in which Archbishop Malger of Rouen pronounces a lengthy and vituperative anathema. Mark saw this as part of a wider pattern of (friendly) competition between beneficiaries, patrons, bishop and the duke himself for credit for the grant, a pattern which may have changed fundamentally after 1066. It’s an intriguing thought for any of us who work on charters for any period or place: do we need to think beyond a simple hierarchical model of giver as acknowledged superior to the recipient?

All the papers I heard over the two days of the conference had their individual points of interest, but I want to finish with three ideas that I think drew them together and might be useful when considering the advantages of studying political culture. One is that the broader definition of political action that cultural history encourages allows for the inclusion of individuals and groups who haven’t traditionally been considered as “political”, such as women and (non-elite) religious.

The other two ideas are more about two contrasting methods for studying political culture. One might be called zooming in. As Martin Aurell pointed out, he’s heard a lot more anthropology over the two days and much less legal history than normal at conferences considering political topics. Sources giving “thick descriptions”, whether they’re charters, liturgical sources or narratives, can provide a lot of important new information. They can get us nearer to the crucial questions about what the political arguments were in a particular situation and why they worked.

But what was also interesting was the contrary approach: zooming out to try and spot overall patterns of action across a group of political actors. At times this was done statistically or using social network analysis (as by Jonathan Gledhill and Mark Hagger). But it could also be combined with thick description, as in Thomas Foerster’s work on gift-giving, Stephen Marritt on archdeacons and my own paper on countesses. It seems to me that it’s this willingness to change scales, combined with a new awareness of who and what counts as “political” that makes the study of political culture an important method of reinvigorating and developing medieval political history.

 

Political propaganda: the zero-sum “fairness” technique

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is well-known for claiming that conservatives use a wider range of moral foundations in political thought than left-wingers. But the more I see of recent rightwing politics, especially in the UK, the more I think that much of their success rests on a distorted version of one moral foundation: “fairness”. A sense of fairness seems to be near universal: it’s been observed in chimpanzees for example. And it’s probably evolutionarily necessary for any social group to avoid too many freeloaders (people who take resources without contributing them). But such basic principles of fairness can be manipulated to create a very cruel society.

The zero-sum fairness argument, as used by right-wing politicians, works like this. We only have a fixed sum of resources (money, housing, jobs etc).  If undeserving group B get these resources there isn’t enough for deserving group A. This is an argument made both in opposition: “you’re not getting help because the government is spending too much money on foreign aid” and in government: “we have to crack down on disability benefit fraud in order to have enough money to help people who are really disabled.” And it’s a very successful argument.

It works, I think, because it rests on several wrong but intuitive beliefs and cognitive biases. Firstly, that the overall level of government spending is unalterable. We’re used to having fixed budgets in our own lives, so it’s easy to forget both that governments can raise money in other ways, and that we ourselves might borrow to obtain something that will be an investment (an education, a house, etc).

The second cognitive error this argument uses is the actor-observer bias. We know our own motives, but we judge other people on their actions. What this means, for example, is that we know that we deserve unemployment benefit, because we really want to work, but that other person down the street is lazy and just wants to sit around doing nothing. We only need help to feed our children because of unforeseen events; that mother deliberately chose to have another child to get welfare.

This bias very easily combines with in-group bias. We know the people in our group and so we know they’re deserving; those other people whom we don’t know aren’t so deserving. The tendency to think that “they” aren’t deserving is made even stronger by the availability bias: we’re very much affected by what comes most easily to mind. So if we read lurid newspaper stories about how a family of immigrants has got thousands of pounds in housing benefits or how millions of pounds has been spent to save a species of butterfly, it’s such rare cases we’re likely to remember rather than the fact that they are rare. Similarly, the one person we know who’s cheating the benefit system is likely to be far more memorable than the hundreds of people we know who aren’t. (In fact, people in most countries tend to be wildly inaccurate about their country’s actual social statistics).

In one way this is nothing new: when it comes to jobs, for example, this is essentially the lump of labour fallacy as used in anti-immigration arguments: the reason there aren’t enough jobs for “good” people is that undeserving immigrants have taken them. And in Britain there’s been a division of the poor into the deserving and undeserving since at least Elizabethan times. But Elizabethan or Victorian divisions of people into the deserving and undeserving were predominantly made by the middle classes in deciding who among the poor ought to be given support.

What seems newer to me politically is right-wing politicians using zero-sum fairness to get the poor and less educated to vote for them, rather than more left-wing candidates. Arlie Hochshild, for example, talks about how many white people in southern states see others as “cutting in line”, getting ahead of them in the wait for prosperity via the unfair preferences of politicians such as Barack Obama. As a result, such people vote for Republicans, even though they are harmed by Republican policies.

It’s easy to see this simply as due to the exploitation of racial divides in the US. But the same arguments have been used in the UK for a number of years, without necessarily any racial angle to it. The archetypal scrounger in the UK, for example, isn’t black, but white (although there may be regional biases, such as making them Scouse).  Notoriously, back in 1992, Peter Lilley claimed that teenage women got pregnant just to get a council house, a stereotype that’s still current today.

So people who are influenced by zero-sum fairness arguments aren’t necessarily doing so because they’re racist. Nor are they necessarily just spiteful, willing to suffer themselves in order to make sure others don’t get help. If you have a disability that means that you can’t work, for example, it may be quite reasonable to think that disability benefits should be a higher priority for government spending than benefits for healthy unemployed people. An employed person without a disability might also agree that those who aren’t healthy enough to work should be given priority in support over those who can work. Setting spending priorities is part of a government’s role.

But once this is put into a zero-sum framework, it becomes a way of pitting the unemployed against people with disabilities. We have to cut your disability benefits because of the money we’re spending on lazy people who don’t want to find jobs. We can’t help you when you’re unemployed because the cost of disability benefits is out of control. It’s someone else’s fault that you’re suffering, not government choices.

The same technique is repeated over and over again, setting one group against another, and it’s very successful. I’ve heard a homeless seller of the Big Issue complaining about how the government shouldn’t be spending money on overseas aid, for example. And the Brexit campaign relied heavily and successfully on this claim that money sent to the EU should instead be used on the NHS. (The fact that this claim was promptly dropped after the referendum, says all you need to know about the sincerity of right-wing politicians).

How can left-wing politicians counter this potent argument? I’m not sure I know good answers, but I think both the zero-sum aspect and the “fairness” side needs to be countered. One way may be to tackle the zero-sum point, for example, by saying that a shortage of housing isn’t due to immigrants, but to the government’s failure to build more houses. But part of the problem is that the deserving/undeserving divide can make voters unwilling to support more spending generally. What’s the point of building more houses if we’re letting in “too many” immigrants: they’ll just take all the new houses?

So I think we also probably need more effective use of (accurate) graphics to display statistics. Claims about the undeserving often rely on headline-grabbing large numbers, which are actually either outliers or small percentages of total budgets. I rather like the anti-Brexit ad by Laurence  Taylor, for example, as a means of debunking this, but I don’t know empirically how effective it is. If anyone knows more effective ways of countering this zero-sum fairness argument, it’d be very useful to hear about them in comments. Because otherwise, conservative tactics of divide and rule are likely to continue to be successful in the UK and elsewhere.

Medieval political culture 1: let a hundred flowers bloom

This is my first report on the conference I went to in Manchester in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. One of the things that struck me during the conference was how wide a range of topics could plausibly come together under that theme. Usefully, Martin Aurell, during the keynote speech, described political culture as being about the ‘atmosphere of power’, not just political structures and institutions, but how politics was performed. Katy Dutton* had already pointed out one small example: how between 1090-1150 in Anjou royal and comital acts moved away from the king or count’s children acting as co-signers or consenters. Katy argued that the ending of this tradition of including children, which he saw as an assurance of continuity, wasn’t just as bureaucratic change, but affected the experience of ruling and being ruled.

Martin’s main focus was on the turbulent events of 1773-1774, when several of Henry II’s sons revolted against him. Could descriptions of these events by chroniclers be seen as propaganda or is that an anachronistic term? Although Jürgen Habermas claims that no political space existed before the emergence of the printing press, Jacques Le Goff argued for ‘informal propaganda’ in the Middle Ages, and Martin showed that the chroniclers’ accounts did look like propaganda.

One point that wasn’t raised in the paper or in questions afterwards is whether propaganda needs to be contemporaneous. Should the chroniclers’ work be seen more as after the fact justifications, a political genre that’s very familiar after the Iraq War? However, there’s surely an argument that chroniclers may be writing down arguments that were already circulating in 1173-74, i.e.  that what we have is fossilized propaganda.

henry_ii_to_henry_iii_f_9r

Matthew Paris’ picture of kings from Henry II to Henry III

Martin’s interest was anthropological, looking not at possible structural reasons for the revolt, such as magnates’ reaction to the reinforcement of royal administration, but at what the chronicles themselves talked about, focusing on a series of images. Some are expected: the revolot of sons against their father as being the insanity of a revolt “against nature”; Eleanor of Aquitaine refusing to submit to her husband as she should. But there were also other narratives possible, such as justifications of Henry the Younger attacking the “avaricious” Henry II, or stories about the harmful effects of previous transgressions by the Angevin family (for example the claim that Eleanor had fornicated with Geoffrey of Anjou, before marrying Geoffrey’s son Henry). In the same way, as well as familiar colonial narratives contrasting civilised English to barbarous and bloodthirsty Scots and Welsh, there are positive depictions of Welsh warriors fighting on the “right” side. And while some chroniclers invoked the effect of the murdered Christian saint Thomas Becket on events, Gerald of Wales quoted Merlin’s pagan prophecies.

These varied perspectives support the idea of chronicles as propaganda, manipulating significant images (often Biblically-inspired) to support a particular side in the conflict. Martin’s final point was about the key role of fidelity as a value in this propaganda. The stress in the sources was on personal bonds of faith and fidelity, not on more abstract ideas of kingship or monarchy. To the twelfth and thirteenth-century chroniclers at least, the political was still personal.

After Martin’s paper we had Stephen Church on another aspect of Henry II’s reign. Stephen was focusing tightly on one small fragment of political culture: Prince John being called “dominus Hiberni” in charters from 1185. Stephen was arguing against Rees Davies, among others, who had seen this title as some distinctive form of dominion. Stephen argued from other examples that in fact it was the normal title of a king who had not yet been formally crowned.

From this very focused case-study, we went to a much broader view, by Thomas Foerster on “Plantagenet and European traditions of gift exchange in the late twelfth century”. Thomas argued for two different traditions, which he saw colliding in 1198, during the Third Crusade, when Richard I and King Tancred of Sicily made peace. On the first day, Tancred gave Richard rich gifts and would accept only the token countergift of a little ring. On the second day, however, Richard gave King Arthur’s sword to Tancred.

Thomas saw Tancred as acting within a Mediterranean/Byzantine tradition of lavish gift-giving, emphasising the incomparable wealth of the ruler. In contrast, English sources of the period have less to say on gift-giving and often regard it negatively as a sign of greed and corruption. (Nevertheless, they show Richard triumphing over Tancred in the gift-giving via a more culturally prestigious gift; the Sicilian sources don’t mention Arthur’s sword).

In questions, some of us raised the chronology of this proposed northern/southern European split (Thomas wondered if it was linked to Tim Reuter’s butter/olive oil line). There’s certainly an Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian tradition of rulers giving lavish gifts. Thomas thought the change came around 1100, when there was new emphasis on the humility of kings in gift-giving in more northern sources, (which he linked to chivalry)and less of an emphasis on the king standing out from all others. If Thomas is right about this pattern, it’s a useful example of how a specifically political culture can be influenced by wider cultural changes, such as the rise of chivalry.

After lunch, we had a session on gender history. I argued that countesses in the tenth century were able to carry out actions that they hadn’t been able to under the Carolingians (developing an argument I first made on this blog a number of years ago). I also in passing coined what became one of the key phrases in the conference, when in discussing the origins of the term “political culture”, when I referred to it as the “squidgy bits” in-between the normal nuts and bolts of political systems.

Amy Livingstone, meanwhile, talked about the twelfth-century Breton countess Ermengarde (wife of Alan IV), arguing that neither she nor twelfth-century Brittany was as marginal as conventionally thought. Amy is writing a biography of Ermengarde, who was noted for her religious patronage. In one sense her research might be seen as part of mainstream political history, but I think there are good reasons for including her research in a study of political culture. Ermengarde’s political role, like those of many “lordly women” has been underestimated by earlier research because of their underlying assumptions about medieval political culture. Part of the deliberate study of political culture should be to shine a spotlight on cultural assumptions made by previous generations of scholars.

The final session of the day looked at crusading culture. Natasha Hodgson talked about clerical masculinity on the First Crusade. There’s been a lot of recent interest in Crusade masculinity, but Natasha saw previous studies as focusing on investigating a single model of the ideal crusader. In contrast, Natasha was arguing for a variety of masculine models and using the example of Arnulf of Chocques, briefly the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Arnulf was a controversial figure, the son of a Flemish priest who rose because of his scholarship and preaching ability, but also his relationship to powerful individuals such as Odo of Bayeux, whose wealth he inherited. Natasha pointed out how often writers contrasted Arnulf with other men, implicitly setting up a variety of standards of masculinity. For example, in a debate in 1099 between Arnulf and Tancred, Arnulf stressed his own role in the success of the crusade and complained about Tancred despoiling the Temple of Solomon. Tancred in response said that as a mere soldier he lacked Arnulf’s eloquence: Arnulf’s strength was in his tongue, like a scorpion.

Natasha’s point about the opportunities for social mobility offered by the crusades was one that hadn’t occurred to me before, but her paper indirectly raised wider questions about the nature of ‘political culture’. Clearly there was politics going on within the Crusade armies themselves and in the Crusader States, but how does that relate to wider European political culture? And how does a model of political culture originally developed in the era of nation states deal with political entities such as the papacy?

The final paper of the day was by Jamie Doherty on “The Holy Land in the charters of the twelfth-century counts of Champagne”. There’s been increasing interest in using charters to look at political culture, because they potentially allow us to get nearer the perspective of individual rulers than narrative sources normally allow. Jamie was interested in how crusading could be used to gain cultural capital, and get a laugh for a reference to “the itinerant boasting campaign of William of Aquitaine after 1101”.

Jamie’s paper focused on two counts of Champagne, Hugh of Troyes and Henry the Liberal, who both led independent crusades (i.e. not connected to the main numbered ones). Despite issues about scribal versus issuer intent, Jamie argued that you can sometimes see the counts “performing crusader status”, e.g. when it’s explicitly mentioned that Hugh is confirming a number of acts before going on crusade, or Henry publicly states that he’ll deal with a dispute in Dijon when he returns from crusade.

This crusade performance may have spread lower down the social scale: twice in Hugh’s witness lists there’s a witness called “Bovo of Holy Sepulchre”. Jamie thought that it was too early for him to be a settler in the East, but that instead Bovo may have sworn himself to the Holy Sepulchre and continued to use that as an identification. In the comments afterwards, Charlie Rozier pointed out the key role of reputation in political culture; it would be interesting to consider if there are parallels or differences between how medieval and modern political figures create such reputations.

As my title suggests, I’m not sure there was a particular common thread connecting all the papers together, even though they all struck me as related to political culture. But as a taster of different ways you might approach medieval political culture, I certainly found it valuable.

* Update (10/9/16): I’ve been reminded that it was Katy Dutton who talked about witnessing by children, not Martin Aurell, so have corrected this.