Sunday, July 10, 2005

My Western History Odyssey, Part Two. 50bc - 1500ad

(You probably missed Part One because I only published it today, yet it shows up in March, when I originally drafted it. Where does the time go?)

In Part One I explained why I was going on a Western History odyssey: because I didn't have a coherent picture of my own roots as a pakeha (New Zealander of European origins).

Sure, I'd heard about some key dates like 1066 and all that, but never really understood it as a totality. And it matters to understand. At least I think it matters. You've got to know where you've come from to know where you're going.

50bc - 1500 ad
My trip began in about 50 BC with Winston Churchill's book, History of the English Speaking People, describing Roman designs on the savage islands of Britain. For the first 1500 years it was really just me and Winston, and what a pace he set. Romans and Saxons and Vikings, oh my!

Every so often I'd stop and realise I learnt this stuff at school. But I hadn't taken it in, nor had I realised how interesting it was at the time. Why? History is a story of adults doing grownup things, and schoolkids don't really know that world, although they imagine they do. When you can't imagine yourself in a situation, understanding the issues and the conflicts, you can't really grasp the story.

And it is all about story. Modern historians have robbed us by teaching us in themes at the expense of chronology. Sure, themes are important, but life doesn't happen in themes. Life happens, one event at a time.

What was most interesting was how the Anglo-Saxon culture - essentially the basis of British, American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand society, with strong structural influences throughout Asia, Africa and the South Pacific - was made up of many different cultures coming together, sometimes violently.

I sometimes wonder why the British culture has been so dominant around the world. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the adaptability it learned over generations of assimilating other cultures. Even our language reflects this - that's why English is one of the hardest languages to learn, because it's inconsistent. It's inconsistent because its roots go in all directions, from different linguistic traditions, and even more confusing it adapts to its locale with frightening speed.

I heard a great quote once, that English doesn't just borrow words from other languages, it follows them down dark alleys and mugs them for new words.

And then there's that indefinable "Western" culture, much maligned these days. The ironic thing is that, though it's maligned now for being the driving force behind colonialism and imperialism, the culture itself is a product of collaboration and compromise.

Think about it: British culture is the compromise between conqueror and conquered. The Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans invaded Britain, only to be eventually reverse-colonised by the land they now inhabited.

It's like a couple of lines in a favourite Goon Show of mine:

Moriaritus: I see that ten years in Britain have not changed your imperial Roman outlook, Caesar.
Caesar: True, Moriaritus, always a Roman eye.
Moriaritus: Will you take wine?
Caesar: No, thanks I think I'll take a half of mild and a packet of crisps.

So at the heart of the English-speaking Westerner, whether they're from the United States, New Zealand or even from old Blighty itself, is a willingness to adopt the new and throw out the old when it's not working.

On the other side of that same coin is a fundamental ambiguity about identity, perhaps most so with the English, who bore the brunt of the invasions while their Celtic neighbours retained a stronger sense of heritage and identity.

There is of course much more to say about this huge stretch, but this time round it was just providing background to my more in-depth journey into the Reformation, Renaissance, and (so-called) Enlightenment.

More on all that in Part Three!


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