March 06, 2009

Bede, Nationalism and Monasticism

The reception of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking Peoples is an important subject. Amongst the greatest and definitely the oldest history of England, Bede's history did several things: he created the 'English' as a category of gens, he identified them with Christianity and he attempted to write a providential history of the coming of Christianity within the Isles of Britain. RHS Davies, one of the more notable historians of that period writing in English in the 20th Century, completed a brief piece in the 1980s on Bede's history and its reception. What he found was both interesting and has some fascinating implications.

The first thing he found was that Bede's history was definitely read after 1066- there seems to have been an upswell in manuscripts of the history found in England and in Normandy after the conquest. Many of them were associated with the Bishopric of Worcester under Wulfstan (bishop 1062-95) and the Abbey of Evesham. Wulfstan had a Northern background- having been involved in the Archbishopric of York in the 1050s, he was appointed by Ealdred of York in 1062 and was the lone Bishop kept on by the Conqueror after he took England in 1066. More importantly though for our purposes was that Wulfstan was interested in the North: and so were many of his clergy. Monks set out from the bishopric of Worcester to attempt to found new monastic houses across Northern England: first at Jarrow, then at Durham and lastly at Lindisfarne itself. The places where they founded such monasteries were the places remembered in Bede's history as sites of monastic settlements in earlier centuries: it should come as no surprise that the men that Wulfstan originally sent to the north ended their lives as monastic guardians of the tomb of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.

In that sense the Bede that they took away was a monastic and religious Bede, not the nationalistic Bede that inspired later. It was the Ecclesiastical History rather than the History of the English People that the monks took north with them. Interestingly Davies argues that the person who understood most the nationalist side of Bede was a Norman author: Orderic Vitalis who sought to write an ecclesiastical history of the Normans. What is fascinating about this is that Davies offers reasons for the neglect of Bede's nationalistic message- he argues that Bede's nationalism was based around Northumbria. It little became the Wessex dominated Anglo-Saxon kingdom that emerged after Alfred, or the Norman dynasty that claimed descent from that Wessex kingdom, to argue that the centre of English history lay in York not Winchester or London. Furthermore this movement in the centre of gravity, Davies argues, was reflected in a reluctance further north to recall the lost and perhaps perpetually lost days of Northumbrian dominance. What the reception of Bede's history teaches us is the way that the concept of England geographically has moved- the heartland indeed the story of England has moved from where its first historian put it in the north of the country, around the house of Oswy and Oswald, to the south. This left for the Norman interpreters of Bede a text which they interpreted primarily as a monastic one.

Davies's work allows two important conclusions: firstly it suggests that the history of how a text has been read can reveal a huge variety of responses. Bede's history became an ecclesiastical history rather than being the national ecclesiastic history. Furthermore and perhaps even more interestingly what the reception of Bede's history represents is an ideological shift in the centre of gravity from Northern to Southern England. In a sense the reception of Bede is part of a process where the nationalist history of England turned into a history of the core of southern England, particularly London with its royal houses, coronations and conquests: this reflected a political change whereby the line of Northumbrian Kings was no longer a central part of the story of the emergance of the ruling dynasty.

March 05, 2009

The narrowness of Judeo Christian civilisation

I am always intrigued when people speculate about the differences between world civilisation. The right in the United States have been over fond for a couple of years of the description of the West as Judeo-Christian- I will not debate that description here, save to note that there is no particular reason I can see beyond the exigencies of the current political moment not to include Islam in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic umbrella. But the biggest problem with the term and with much political and historical analysis coming out of the right at the moment is that it misunderstands the place of religion within the history of the West and the place of other factors- factors that the West shares with much of the Islamic world and other parts of the world as well- the influence of empire and of law.

Walter Ullman, the great Proffessor of Medieval History at Oxford, wrote an important study of the place of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval history in the 1970s. What Ullmann argued has a direct relevance to how we think about our civilisation. He suggested that the medieval world was characterised by a descending theory of political obligation: power descended from God to the ecclesiastical authorities and from them to the political authorities. The Pope, one of the two great powers of the Christian world, stood at the apex of a theocratic structure where the only legal claims were those substantiated in canon law and supported by biblical exegesis. As the 12th and 13th Centuries opened, we have the creation of another kind of law- to support the other great power of the Medieval world- the Emperor- Roman law. Roman law, as used by the jurists at Universities at Bologna, Paris and Oxford, supported the monarch in his pretensions to universal authority- the King was imperator in regno suo (emperor in his own kingdom) and the argument was made that power now descended naturally from the sovereign down to the magistrate. Theocracy was swept away by bureacracy.

That had important consequences for the history of Europe- but it is not the historical consequences to which I want to turn today- but the consequences in terms of our identity. Christianity played a large part in the history of Europe and North America- but Ullmann's argument and others too suggest that it did not play a sole role. You cannot describe what we now have in the West as a Christian civilisation- nor as a Judeo-Christian civilisation- our civilisation owes debts to Rome, to Greece and to older civilisations too- not to mention to the areas it colonised in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The example of the importance of Roman law to the Renaissance merely establishes what I think is a general principle, what we have is the creation of a wide constellation of circumstances which coming together at particular points formed a story- a story that is contingent upon that entire constellation coming together in precisely that way. We share lots of that history with other parts of the world- it was in modern Turkey that Justinian's lawyers wrote the Digest, in modern Turkey that Herodotus wrote his history, in India that mathematics was invented, in China that gunpowder was found.

To describe our civilisation as Judeo-Christian misses a lot about it- it makes the story of what came before us so much more narrow and fools us into identifying what we have merely with a religious tradition. As Ullmann pointed out in the case of Roman law, the formation of our institutions has a long and complicated intellectual history- stretching right back into antiquity and an important pedigree. When thinking about them, we should not be hamstrung by any narrow theological interpretation- though we should not ignore theology- but should realise that they were products of contingency, craft and complexity.

March 02, 2009

Entre les murs

The Class (Entre les murs in French, I have no knowledge of why they chose not to translate the title directly for the English) is an interesting film. I'm not sure that it says anything particular though. It tells the story of one class and their teacher going through an academic year: there are individual story arcs and strong characters- Khoumba a self proclaimed 'insolent' student whose rebellions fuel one part of the film, rebellious Souleyman from Mali sitting at the back of the class with his hood carelessly cast over his head, Wey the class swot who loves the computer, Esmerelda the class representative who is ready to shout back at anyone and anything, we could go on. The characters are all well drawn and distinct- but somehow the class still manages to come together as an entity and seems to have a group identity rather than being a collection of individuals.

As opposed to the students- often in this innercity school rowdy and undisciplined- we have the teachers. We see this group mainly through the lead teacher, M Marin, who has a definite personality and is well played indeed. He has both the humour and charisma of a good teacher- though too at particular points he confronts you with the difficulties of being a teacher. The other teachers too are nicely drawn- they have lives outside the classroom- and gripes which are unrelated to the classroom about their jobs (the rising price of coffee from 40 to 50 centimes in the staff coffee machine) and have their frustrations. They seem to be a good group- but they also have their frustrations with this group of students, fury can convulse the staff room and M. Marin can kick his chair as a student departs without understanding what he is trying to do. They arouse your sympathy- but they also are human and fallible. If the portrait of the children is good, then that of the teachers is absolutely perfect: the filmmakers have made them admirable and fallible- a difficult combination to pull off but one that they have succeeded in performing.

The Class is a good portrait of both sides of the battle between teachers and students. The curious thing about the film is that it reveals rightly the fragility of the situation, the students and teachers cooperate together and it produces good things. The students and teachers fail to cooperate and tempers flare and then disaster strikes. Students can always beleive that the school is run against them: sometimes as in the disciplinary committee here they have some reason. However they can also get it entirely wrong: M Marin is a voice of sympathy to the students and is ridiculed for his harshness, for trying to get a pupil expelled. There is no message here so much as an observation and its an accurate one- and an interesting one. It is worth watching definitely.

March 01, 2009

Three Monkeys

A car drives into the distance, the lights fade on the grass as it meanders away along the road. Then suddenly from ahead in the darkness you hear the tires on the road, the sound of a swerving vehicle and then silence and a hunched figure lying in the middle of the road. Another car draws up, the driver gets out to check the hunched figure is still alive, but they decide the figure is dead, and take the number of the previous car to the police. In the shadows a middle aged man hides- from the consequence of his driving. Three Monkey's begins in suspense and mystery- it begins with an act that we cannot see on a rural road in the middle of the night- it begins in darkness and it ends in the night as well. The issue is further clouded as the movie goes on: Servet the old man persuades his driver, resigned it seems to his fate, Eyup to take the blame for the accident and to accept the prison sentence, in return Servet pays him for his silence. The film concerns the working out of this relationship, as Eyup's son goes steadily off the rails, Eyup's wife is seduced by Servet and becomes a fallen woman (symbolised by an erotic negligee) and Eyup himself returns to chaos. The story is convoluted but its essential point is about the consequences of crime.

My notes on the film from the British Film Institute portray it as a film noir- part of a long and distinguished genre that emerged in the aftermath of World War II in the United States but was taken up by filmmakers from France to Finland because it portrayed life in all its deep and ambiguous greys. Three Monkeys has elements of noir within it- none of the characters are unambiguously 'good' or 'evil'. Servet is perhaps the most villainish- but even he has a base charm. Rather than that the film concentrates on the ambiguity of action: to a greater or lesser extent the film is an attempt to define the human social community not in terms of its economic utility but in terms of its moral utility, it allows us to share, trade and spread guilt. Servet obviously is trading guilt with his driver- exchanging it for a gold coin or two. But there are other exchanges going on here: Sayyid the driver's son refuses to tell his father about his mother's infidelity, truth here emerges painfully later. Eyup himself is tortured by the memory of his own other dead son- an image that is shared by his entire family. Hacer, his wife, trades her guilt with her son for her agreement in his plans to buy a car. Guilt is a commodity- and explanation is the term of the market on which it is traded.

The trade of guilt creates consequences that is what Three Monkeys is really about. It is about the lingering effect of those trades on those that make them- the lingering effect of the explanations upon the explainers. In a sense therefore it is the analysis of a gap- the gap between the moment of explanation and the moment when the truth is revealed. In a sharp way the film does allow the truth to out- or rather the guilt worms its way into the lives of characters, distorts, deforms and eventually destroys their lives. The gap between the moment when the villain (us all) thinks he has got away with it, whatever that may be, and the moment in which he has to atone for it is the gap that the film is interested in. The mechanism of atonement is the film implies, the complicated resentments and relationships that any exchange of guilt produces: ultimately an exchange of guilt involves a confession, a confession that creates its own relationship and its own dynamic. That dynamic is what drives the plot.

That dynamic is a psychological process- this film is filmed in such a way as to make you aware of that process, the camera follows the character. It is the tight to the head and the face of every single person- you can see the beads of sweat rolling off the forehead of Sayyid and through the beard of his father. Sometimes the camera portrays the indistinct: as Sayyid vomits on a train station, the other passengers become shapes rather than facts, the walls of the appartment close in every so often emphasizing the erotic poverty of Hacer's life. The grand vistas- mostly of the sea- are used to emphasize the massive rolling guilt that the characters feel or to minimise their pathetic vista on the world. This is a harsh film- and though it is filmed languidly with every moment seen as a still (sometimes I wondered impudently whether human beings actually cross rooms so slowly, with such deliberation!)- it is a bleak languor, a view of the world that sees the reality of human guilt, both as something that acquires retribution, as something that is universal and something whose transfer lies at the root of our social activity.

Vengeance is ours and we do repay- but all of us are both victims and perpetrators- and that process of repayment is what in one context we call justice, what Three Monkeys implies is that in another context it is what we call life.