April 22, 2009

What does skin colour say?

Observable differences are always tempting. It is tempting to say that men behave in a typically manly fashion or women in a typically womanly fashion simply because we observe the difference between the two genders- and subtly alter our behaviours because of our sexual preferences towards them. The same is true to a limited extent of race: we all know what a black man, a white man and an Asian man look like: we can establish that difference quickly and easily- like we can tell the difference between a cat with dark fur and a tabby- but unlike we can discern other important differences whether environmental (wealth or education) or genetic (a particular disease- say Huntingdon's or Cystic Fibrosis). Modern science has taught us over the last couple of generations to distrust our perceptions- things as common sense as the solidity of a table or the emptiness of air and space have become illusions, whereas a probabilistic universe and the counter intuitive notion that the earth is a suburb not a centre within the universe have gained almost universal assent. Most of us would agree that race is one of those things that we can agree to discard: to treat a white woman, black woman and asian woman differently because of their ethnicity is unjust. But a myth still surrounds race- propagated by people like Charles Murray- that the common sense difference between people of different skin colours masks an actual difference.

The genetic record does not bear out those assertions. When you begin to look at other characteristics in human beings you perceive odd and perplexing maps of genetic familiarity. Fingerprints link for example Europeans, black Africans and East Asians where the characteristic pattern is a loop, aboriginies and Mongolians have whorls in their prints whereas the Khoisan of South Africa share with Central Europeans the fact that their finger prints betray patterns built of arches. Earwax divides Europeans and Africans from East Asians- as Stanley Garn puts it the difference between wet and dry earwax is the difference between West and East. Bodily hair unites Europeans, the Ainu of Japan and Aboriginies- not to mention semitic peoples as opposed to Americans and Africans. Blonde hair brings together aboriginies, the Berbers of North Africa and Europeans. Europeans, Inuit and Ainu share curly hair as opposed to Asians, native Amerindians who have straight hair and sub Saharan Africans, Arabs, Indians, Malaysians and Phillipinos who have curled hair. The lactase enzyme is present in northern Europe, Arabia and northern India and Africa but not in southern Europe, eastern Asia, Amerindian peoples or Aboriginies. In blood groups high incidence of A blood group and some B group are found in England, Iceland, Lapland, Melanesia, Polynesia and the Shosone of Southern Africa whereas high A and high B groups are found in Wales, Italy, Thailand, Finland, Egypt and China. We could go on but this seems to validate Stephen Jones's conclusion that what goes on on the skin of a human being has little to do with what goes on underneath it.

What this reinforces is a notion that the world is complicated- that a Charles Murray in his simplistic and intellectually naive graphs of black and white intelligence could never gather. Of course there are commonalities between groups of human beings that live near by each other and have interbred for generations- but equally there are important differences within population groups. Given the spread of human beings and their migration (a fact of history of longer provenance than the nation state) it is unsurprising to find that genes are spread widely in the world and that no simplistic equivalence to geography will give you the genetic sub groups that split humanity. Furthermore genetic distinctions do not neccessarily overlap- a Swede's dentistry may have a lot in common with the dentistry of other Swedes in that he has shovel shaped incisor teeth- but those teeth are not shared with other Europeans but with East Asians. Kenneth Kidd, the biologist, has demonstrated that genetic difference within populations is neither predictable nor discontinuous. Variation in truth is fairly random and though successful variations cluster, they cluster on a micro level and even then the boundaries between different groups are permeable. Even though small groups may share characteristics- larger groups generally do not share a set of characteristics which would identify them as a group apart from other human beings.

The heart of this is an argument that scientifically the concept of large races- based on geographical units and imagined cultural communities- make about as much sense as the sun circling the earth does, and it is based on the same kind of data- not scientific proof or experiment but the supposition that an apparant distinction (skin colour in this case) is a real one. What goes on above the skin, as Stephen Jones argues, doesn't tell you much about what goes on below.

April 21, 2009

Nails and Temples

Rome, in 363, was suffering from the plague. We have already seen that Livy ascribes the origins of theatre to this point in time. However whatever the theatre's importance for later Roman history, it failed to stop the plague.

And so when Gnaeus Genucius and Lucius Aemilius Mamercus (for the second time) were consuls, and the people's minds were more affected by their search for a means of appeasement than their bodies were by disease, the older men remembered (so it is said) that at one time an outbreak of the plague had been reduced by the dictator's hammering in a nail. Their anxiety prompted the Senate to appoint a dictator for the express purpose of hammering the nail: Lucius Manlius Imperosius was chosen... There is an ancient law, recorded in archaiac script and language that on the Ides of September the chief magistrate shall hammer in a nail: the tablet was fixed on the right side of the temple of Jupiter the Best and Highest, where the sanctuary of Minerva stands. This nail, it was said, served to mark the number of years at a time when there was little knowledge of letters, and the law was assigned to Minerva's shrine because number was her invention. Similar nails to mark the passage of time can be seen at Volsinii, hammered into the shrine of Nortia, an Etruscan goddess, so Cincus declares, and he is a scrupulous authority for records of this kind. (Livy VII 3)

This is one of the most puzzling passages in Livy. Much ink has been spilt over its importance for Roman magistracy in the early Republic (what precisely does the concept of a 'chief magistrate mean in a society ruled by consuls?) and some thoughts are sketched out here. I do not pretend to have the expertise to elucidate that: but what I do think is interesting about the passage and worthy of note is the way that it reveals Livy's historical method and his view of history.

Take for a start that the passage is clearly derivative: Livy tells us about two sets of sources, the first is a set of ancient writings, the second is the work of Cincus. I do not think that it is much of a leap to argue that it was Cincus not Livy who decyphered the ancient writings and that what Livy's history here is doing is relying on Cincus. There are several features that might suggest this- firstly the story is arranged out of sync with the rest of Livy's history, he mentions earlier events that might have fitted with an earlier year, one gets the feel of Livy sitting (as historians do) with a source he knows he needs beside him and writing down his thoughts. Secondly he writes in an anthropological vein- note the comparison of the custom in Rome to the Etruscan custom in Volsinii- again that is unusual for a historian who prefers political chronicle to anthropological chronicle. Lastly there is the fact that Livy, unusually, tells us the name of his source and praises his ability with the sources: one does not do that unless one seeks to rely upon the work of the person that you praise. More frequently Livy extolls piety and its worth noting that here he explains the piety of later ages rather than using it as an exemplar.

Livy's account of the nails opens up a Rome that the historian very seldom unfolds to us. Rome in Livy's account is masculine and warlike, rational and statesmanlike and calm. That is the Rome that he praises throughout the history- counterposing it to slaves, women, plebeians, those who feel but do not think and ultimately do not fight. This story though hints at a more interesting and complex history of Rome in which religion and irrationality play a part: in which a dictator is appointed merely in order to knock a nail into the wall. But it also makes explicit two things that we already partly know- that religious authority is linked to political authority and that religious authority mattered in ancient Rome. Both of those statements receive support from Livy's argument- but furthermore we can see in a sense that the point Livy is making embeds religion even more into the life of the city and into his own history. For effectively he is arguing that time itself was measured in religious forms within Rome: we are used of course to this idea what with the bells of the church and the AD suffix for years, but it is important to realise how important religion was to time in the ancient world as well. Whether Livy and Cincus were right about this particular custom, the fact that they thought they were right is important- it links time, religion and politics together and links all three to the city itself.

Livy's anthropological turn therefore does more than just providing an interesting anecdote, it also furthers the main point of his patriotic history: to establish Rome as the religio-politico centre of the Meditereanean world through emphasizing its aristocratic piety and favour from the Gods. This story demonstrates that the very vocabulary of the story of the history- the years themselves- are the swell in the tide of religion that swept through ancient Rome.

April 19, 2009

Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy

Robert Curthose is not someone that naturally evokes Medieval England. The eldest son of William the Conqueror, he was elbowed aside by his brothers William II and Henry I in the quest for the English crown and eventually lost even the Dukedom of Normandy bequeathed to him by his father. Despite being historically forgotten (even in some part to historians- there have been two biographies of Curthose since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles), Curthose was an important figure within his own times- he carried the banner of Christendom in the crusades and became Duke of Normandy for a substantial time, from his father's death (1087) to his own deposal in 1106. He eventually died after twenty years of captivity, possibly in his eighties, in 1134.

David Crouch provides in his review of William Aid's new biography (the second of the two since Versailles) an important account of why Aid's work is necessary and yet not sufficient. Curthose was an important figure- this is partly because his father and brothers were important. The date 1066 should be etched in every English historian's mind and interpretations of what happened then had a significance right up until the seventeenth, eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries. William I and II and Henry I all were important administrative kings, undertaking great and important reforms to the structure of the English monarchy and bedding in an Anglo-Norman polity which shortly after their reigns was to turn itself into a great empire. Curthose was often their opponent- he fought his father in the early 1080s, his brother William in the late 1080s and of course his brother Henry in the early 1100s. Furthermore Robert's loss of Normandy to Henry brought the duchy to the English crown as a base and sources of rivalry with the French crown which lasted all the way through the reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard- such a base became a central feature of the Angevin Empire- one of the most powerful states of the mid-middle ages.

Curthose's career should remind us of some important facts as well. Firstly there is the fact that the Conqueror split his lands- bequeathing the kingdom of England to William Rufus and the duchy of Normandy to his eldest son Robert. Robert's career throughout Europe and his candidacy for the throne in the Kingdom of Jerusalem reminds us that domestic politics, dynastic politics and international politics were often the same thing in medieval Europe. It also reminds us of the importance of Normandy on that diplomatic chessboard- we should never hold to the idea that because England evolved into a great state and Normandy did not, that England was the prize worth having and Normandy a mere chattel in comparison. The Duchy was an important and vital part of French politics and English politics for centuries- Robert definitely used its resources to advance his own political ambitions on both sides of the channel and though he was ultimately unsuccessful, that may have more to do with the ubiquities of chance and the uncertainties of character and warfare than with the inherent weakness of his own Duchy. Robert's career also prompts us to recognise the instability of the new Anglo-Norman state- a division between Normandy and England, divided the aristocracy, many of whose families owned estates on both sides of the channel. Furthermore the presence of an heir often provided barons unhappy with extortionate taxes- such as the scheming Ranulf Flambard- with the opportunity to instigate revolt.

Crouch is right to state that Dr Aid is possibly being over charitable to Duke Robert in his interpretation of the sources- what is perhaps more important than this and what Crouch's review reveals is how little we can know about Robert. All the sources that we have were written by historians under the patronage of men with a direct stake in the outcome of the various political activities that Robert carried out. Like the historians of the Norman Conquest who wrote from within the patronage of the new regime, these historians had no incentive to slander the winner and laud the defeated. Robert's historical reputation is made more precarious by the fact that he signed few charters- traditionally medieval historians rely on charters to place a medieval king or isolate a patronage method- with Robert that is impossible. This veil of ignorance is a constant feature of medieval history- it is what makes it fascinating and frustrating- often there isn't an answer to a good question because there simply isn't the evidence. Curthose's reign for all I know may be one of those periods for which we lack the evidence to say anything- which may form part of the reason that historians have hitherto neglected it. Crouch's review definitely implies that is the case.

Crouch's review of Aid's biography of Curthose flings into relief some important features of the world of medieval Europe- it demonstrates the way that medieval Europe is difficult to study (every statement includes a proviso) and it demonstrates some important features of its landscape. Leaving Curthose out of an account of medieval England leaves out the contingency of her history- he could have won, he could have been King of England had battles gone in a different direction- furthermore it leaves out an important continental dimension, if one of Duke of Normandy could conquer England, why not another? It makes us forget that the state created by the Conqueror was new and precarious. Robert Curthose is one of those figures in English history that doesn't quite fit, because of a lack of evidence and the concerns mentioned above, into the grand narrative of English history: for that reason he is a warning to us about our over confidence both in understanding the past and assuming it follows a direct line to the present.