In searching the Internet for the source of some apparently derisive remarks by Disraeli about the Anglo-Saxons, I came across this piece from 2002, which proves to be informative. It touches on the questions addressed on this blog, and on the issue of race and nation, which is very much a hot topic these days.
Granted, the piece is from the Guardian, so it can be taken with the usual generous helping of salt, but nonetheless it has some interest.
I’ve wondered at times about the source of the now-standard disparaging of the Normans and the elevation of the Saxons in the popular imagination. It seems that the Romantic era in Europe brought a new fascination with primitive tribes and national/racial origins.
“In the late 18th century, Britain joined every other European country in a Romantic quest to uncover its racial heritage. The Enlightenment belief in the universal rationalism of man was replaced by histories of primitive tribes, national languages and racial genealogies. As the French rediscovered the Gauls, the Victorian public became bewitched by Britain’s Saxon heritage. Archaeological societies mushroomed, Beowulf was translated, and mewling Aelfreds and Aelfrics were dragged to church fonts. The Saxon spirit of manly independence, gruff manners, and no-nonsense militarism quietly merged into what were taken to be uniquely British characteristics. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, the northern factory owner Mr Thornton proudly declares his Saxon roots. “I belong to Teutonic blood; it is little mingled in this part of England to what it is in others; we retain much of their language; we retain more of their spirit.
As the Saxons rose in historical favour, so the Normans necessarily fell. The early Victorians regarded William the Conqueror and his henchmen as little better than illegal usurpers who had attempted to crush the free Saxon spirit. Under Norman rule, the Saxons had been stripped of their land, hounded from office, and ground under the boot of military occupation. The Norman temperament was one of arbitrary rule, tyrannical Catholicism, and underhand continental ways. But luckily, according to a popular history book of the 1820s, “as the Saxons continued in the country after the Conquest, and were much more numerous than the Norman settlers, we are still almost all of us of chiefly Saxon descent; and our language, and many of our habits and customs, sufficiently declare our origin.”
Sir Walter Scott absorbed these ideas and his work Ivanhoe reflected these popular stereotypes. I noticed this some years ago: the Normans in Ivanhoe were, especially in the Hollywood movie treatment of that work, sort of like a medieval biker gang, although with more suave manners. The Hollywood movie Normans went around clad all in black, looking rather modern, from what I recall, and were very much the villains. Conversely the Jewish characters received more sympathetic treatment.
“The free-willed Saxon is hounded by the vicious Norman in a country lost without the consensual hand of Richard the Lionheart. Only the brave Ivanhoe can unite these warring classes. Scott envisioned the Saxons and Normans as two distinct races: “the vanquished distinguished by their plain, homely, blunt manners, and the free spirit infused by their ancient spirit and laws; the victors, by the high spirit of military fame, personal adventure, and whatever could distinguish them as the flower of chivalry.” Font-de-Boeuf and de Bracy fitted the historical icon of the rapacious Norman, while Rowena and Ivanhoe played the parts of virtuous Saxons with equal appropriateness.”
These contrasts could be seen as prefiguring the now-popular idea that the original English settlers of North America represented ‘two distinct races,’ the stern, rigid Puritan New England colonists and the more urbane Cavaliers of the Jamestown colony.
Then, throw in (per David Hackett Fischer) other groups like Quakers (many of Irish as well as English blood) and the rough-and-ready, ”born fighting” Celts, the Scots-Irish to further complicate matters.
There is some validity to the idea that the Normans were a distinct people from the Saxons, though it is also true that both groups are of Germanic/Nordic origin and that they are close kin genetically; this fact is denied by being ignored.
To return to Benjamin Disraeli, he apparently took these ideas of ‘two nations’ to heart.
In his work Coningsby, apparently the story of Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the character Sidonia, (said to represent Disraeli himself), says “All is race; there is no other truth.”
“The future Conservative prime minister’s personal preoccupation with race was often reflected in his fiction. His own Jewish heritage and interest in the racial divisions of the Orient were tortuously explored in Tancred, or the New Crusade.
Sybil, too, is a tale of race. It’s a story of how the 19th-century descendants of an arrogant Norman aristocracy continued to live off the plundered wealth of dispossessed Saxons. The Normans are the rich and the miserable Saxons now reduced to the state of factory hands in grimy cities the poor. Egremont is a Norman and Gerard is a Saxon; they are “formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food”. The divisions of the two nations are historic and racial.”
All this has a depressingly familiar sound to it; the dispossessed and downtrodden minorities, wronged by an interloper race who conquered and dominated them. It mirrors the current belief system about the colonization of the Americas and much of the Third World by Whites. The more successful and stronger race is condemned as immoral and oppressive, and the conquered peoples held up as blameless victims. It set the pattern for the current paradigm that has Whites being condemned for ‘hegemony’ and ‘White privilege.’ All this could be said to be the heritage of the Romantic worldview of the Victorian era and earlier.
The role of Disraeli, a Sephardi Jew who became Prime Minister of Britain, is an interesting feature in this story. His own biases and preconceptions, as a member of an ‘oppressed and victimized group’, colored the views he succeeded in promoting amongst Western peoples, and we are living with the legacy of that.
As of now, the stereotypes created as part of this warped mindset are crippling to us, plagued as many of us are with guilt over the fact that our ancestors were just too successful and competent. How long will we have to expiate that guilt, and what will be the cost, before we recover from this guilt-binge?