Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Political stability vs. representation

My oldest son is writing an autobiography for a school English assignment.  One of the requirements is to include a brief family history, so a couple of weeks ago he and my husband spent an evening discussing my son's paternal ancestry.  My son then turned to me. 

"Where's your family from, Mom?"


It was not the answer he wanted.

Later, my son was looking through my familysearch web page and announced, "Somebody has researched the Harper line all the way back to Adam!"  I said, "Somebody's wrong."  Again, not the answer he wanted.

I think it's typical for people to want their family history to contain famous people and exotic places.  Medieval kings' genealogies commonly trace the royal family to Troy or Jerusalem.  Often these genealogies listed legendary heroes or gods among the ancestors. 

James Campbell wrote that royal genealogies began appearing in England during the 8th century (see The Anglo-Saxons, p. 116).  He argued that the dynastic politics of this time period required kings to prove royal descent.  In short, during the 8th century, Anglo-Saxon nobility invented the idea of inherited rule to reduce the frequent fighting between the countries' dynastic factions.

What I found fascinating about this development was the idea that a stable monarchy could be more desirable than an unstable republic.  Granted, even at its most democratic, the Anglo-Saxon "constitutional kingship" was only remotely similar to modern representative nation-states.  But citizens today frequently assume that greater representation in government is always desirable.  People who lived during the Middle Ages may not have had this assumption. 

Questioning the "greater representation is better government" assumption lead to questioning some of my other assumptions about political philosophy and international relations.  I do not want to discuss this too much here, as I want this blog to focus on historical, not present-day political systems.  However, I will point out that the current ideas about what is best for many countries may change if the assumptions about what makes better government also changed.  What if a country in the Middle East set up a constitution that valued a stable theocracy over a potentially unstable democracy?  What if a former Soviet republic set up a system of government that was totalitarian but had little chance of overthrow?  James Campbell has given me something to think about.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I need to buy more books

I read a lot about early medieval history.  I read articles from academic journals I find on; I read primary sources (often in translation); and I follow my favorite medievalist blogs.  I haven't read a lot of textbooks, as my budget and my bookshelf space are limited.  Recently, however, I found a copy of The Anglo-Saxons edited by James Campbell at my local library.  I have started reading it and I wish I had picked it up sooner.

The book is generally described as an introductory survey to the Anglo-Saxons, and, honestly, I think the word "introductory" turned me off.  Though not a professional historian, I have studied early English history for about 5 years, making a point to read articles and lectures published by academics.  I assumed that an "introductory" textbook would contain information I already knew.

I was somewhat right.  Quite a bit of the book has been a review of things I knew.  On the other hand, I'm embarrassed to admit how much of this basic information I didn't know. 

I found this book particularly helpful in two main ways.  First, Campbell and his co-authors were familiar with much more detail about this time period than I am.  For example, p.22 mentioned Byzantine historian Procopius' confusion as to the location of Britain, leading historians to understand there must have been two different routes of exporting information out of the island depending on whether the source of the information was Saxon or Celtic.  Second, as a survey of Anglo-Saxon history, the book brought out broad trends and patterns that I would never have noticed by reading a narrowly-focused article or lecture.  For example, I understood the ecclesiastical and political influences on Whitby after I read that section of the book, whereas before I had only sensed that there was more going on at Whitby than arguing over the date of Easter.

I've learned my lesson.  I'm going to begin paying more attention to books, especially textbooks.  I'm not going to dismiss resources simply because they are secondary, or labelled introductory.  I have always liked to think that the most important things I obtained while studying for my university degrees was learning how to learn; what I just learned from Campbell was that even introductory surveys can teach me something.