Oct 29

A Song for arbonne and historical discussion


I have not read this book but I loved this episode for just a couple of reasons (forgive my "as usual" half-formed thoughts....I don't re-read and revise these posts and I usually write on this forum after a long workday and a couple gin and tonics).


First, I just want to echo one of the themes of the episode. I think MANY speculative fiction fans can relate to novels and stories sparking "real world" interest. Swamp thing and environmental awareness....Snow Crash and computer programming and social media.....Alistair Reynolds and physics (or politics), or even something more simple and ridiculous, like Conan the Barbarian and weightlifting (maybe thats more from the movie). I'm speaking generally here, not just for myself specifically.


I do have a question though, which feels maybe more appropriate for the AGNUS forum but came up in this episode. It was mentioned that the period of the middle ages which the novel mimics (around 1000 - 1300 CE) formed the foundation of much of what we think of in terms of modern institutions (libraries, hospitals, governmental agencies I suppose). I think it was even posited that the modern age in many ways starts there.


My first thought was, what about the Roman Empire that preceded all of that? I'm no historian, but as a lay person I've always thought of the middle ages as a period of re-discovery rather than innovation. Did the Romans not tackle these same issues of statehood and citizenship and the meaning of a nation? Didn't they go through the same process of redefining how government should function as the had to administer greater and more varied territory? Did the middle ages really form the foundation of the modern world or does may lay-view of that period as a "re-do" have validity?


Interesting thoughts. Anyway, I look forward to reading this book one day based on the review and discussion. Great episode!




Ben, I love these questions and I'm glad you enjoyed this episode! As it happens, I'm teaching this very topic this week, so I'm going to use your questions to help me prepare for class on Thursday -- so I'll take some time to respond to this to coincide with thinking about how I want to talk to students about it.

I appreciate you continuing to be my free and unofficial history professor, sir!

The Romans very definitely had a set of institutions that we would recognize as a "state" by just about any definition, and of course many other ancient civilizations did, too -- so I certainly don't mean to suggest that the very idea of a state is a medieval invention. But the states that we live in now in Europe and the Americas (and Australia and New Zealand) are the new states that were created during the High Middle Ages, mostly in the twelfth century. What's new during this period includes the political boundaries of many states (including internal boundaries) and the names of some of them (e.g. England and France), and especially the institutions. This is most recognizable in the UK, where both the monarchy and Parliament are institutions created during the Middle Ages. So also are the various departments of government (and the idea of having such departments) that manage a specific set of affairs such as the forests or the treasury. For example, Her Majesty's Treasury, which still manages the public funds of the UK, was founded in the twelfth century under Henry I.


But even more important than this type of continuity is simply that the idea that there should be a public institution that exists independently of any one person or group of people and which should be responsible for managing the affairs of the political community (i.e. a state) was something that was invented again during the High Middle Ages because the political philosophy and political organization of the tenth and eleventh centuries simply didn't have these ideas. Indeed, many scholars argue that these ideas disappeared earlier than that, but I'm less convinced by arguments that the Carolingian Empire wasn't a "state." But, in either case, the period following the Carolingian empire saw the disappearance of the very idea of "government," and instead saw simply the exercise of power by a class of wealthy men. The power to use force (both what we would think of as police and military force), the power to create rules, and the power to enforce those rules (the two components of a justice system) were powers that individual people held in their capacity as land-owners rather than because they occupied a position within a public institution. This has famously been described as a period in which public power was in private hands. We can think of cyberpunk dystopias here -- the idea that some public powers are ceded to corporations who in turn exercise state-like power in their own spheres. In the tenth and eleventh centuries these spheres were generally quite small, and within the boundaries of present-day France, for example, there were scores of land-owners who exercised these powers with no oversight even though there was officially still a king. During the later eleventh century and then especially in the twelfth, in places such as France and England and Catalonia, monarchs began to assert that only they should have these powers because they occupied a position as a custodian of a public institution -- but convincing people that this was true and that this was how the world should operate was a long and violent process (one that wasn't completed until early modernity). There are a lot of great books on this, but Joseph Strayer's On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State is the best place to start.


So this is really about the continuity of specific ideas and institutions. And this is something that gets muddled for Americans especially because one of our deliberative legislative bodies is named after a Roman deliberative body and because we're told in school that democracy was invented in ancient Greece and our system of government is a direct descendant of that ancient democracy. That idea is demonstrably untrue, of course -- Congress is a type of parliament, which is a specifically medieval invention, established by people who'd never heard of Pericles or read any Greek political constitutions (which weren't available until the nineteenth century), and which grew out of the process of state-formation of the High Middle Ages (it comes from something we might think of as "The Land-Owners Strike Back"). This is, however, complicated by the fact that in early modernity (which includes the writing of the U.S. Constitution), people had become aware of classical political philosophy (almost all Roman, though) and were influenced by many ideas they found there. Indeed, the American value on a system of checks and balances is taken directly from Polybius's description of the constitution of the Roman Republic, which he believed was able to mix the best elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy while preventing the development of the worst aspects of those forms of government. Hence our executive branch is a monarchy, and our legislative branch has a democratic chamber (the House), and an aristocratic chamber (the Senate -- you'll recall that it was only in the twentieth century that we began to elect Senators, where previously they were chosen by state governments). Of course, this bicameral deliberative body is also modeled on Parliament, where instead of a Senate there is a House of Lords -- and those Lords are the medieval land-owners whose powers the state had to curtail in the High and Late Middle Ages. Indeed, even the very powers of the American Senate that distinguish it from the House are medieval in origin and not Roman. Those powers are to "advise and consent" to treaties signed by the President and to the President's appointment of certain officials. The idea of "advise and consent" is actually an aspect of medieval political philosophy that has found it's way into ours because it was a special prerogative of the land-owning class. As they were losing power to kings, they demanded some concessions, and one of those concessions was to have some input about who would now wield some of the powers they were giving up (e.g., to have a say in who would be the judge in their territory).


The short answer would be to say that of course other societies have had forms of a state and (other institutions), but the institutions that we have now in our own society can trace their origins to European institutions that were founded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This includes our universities, which are modeled on schools founded in Oxford, Paris, Bologna, and Salerno during this time (and those all still exist), and also our hospital system, which grows out of the work of Franciscan friars in the twelfth century. This not to say, though, that there haven't been changes and innovations since the Middle Ages -- simply that there is a direct continuity back the the High Middle Ages for these institutions, but not a direct continuity back to the Roman Republic.

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