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02. History -- The Normans, The BBC, The Papacy, and The Teaching of History

02. History -- The Normans, The BBC, The Papacy, and The Teaching of History

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Published by Seamus Breathnach
As one who watched both Professor Robert Bartlett's 'Normans' and Dan Snow's 'Norman Walks', let me say how much I enjoy the BBC's sense of history and these two items in particular. Can we see the wood for the trees?
As one who watched both Professor Robert Bartlett's 'Normans' and Dan Snow's 'Norman Walks', let me say how much I enjoy the BBC's sense of history and these two items in particular. Can we see the wood for the trees?

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Seamus Breathnach on Aug 23, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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As one who watched both Professor Robert Bartlett's 'Normans' andDan Snow's 'Norman Walks', let me say how much I enjoy theBBC's sense of history and these two items in particular.Hitherto I have admired the BBC’ ‘sense of history’. But on recentreflection I find that I must reconsider this view. Indeed, I have toadmit of a general problem that now pervades my entire viewing of these wonderfully formal historical offerings, one’s prejudicesdrawing one decisively if reluctantly towards
Pillars of Wisdom,
 where, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, even in a pitiable medievalgutter some spirits see the stars.The problem revolves entirely around our notion of the Papacy aswell as our notion of the ‘Nation State’. By my reckoning, theNormans not only beat the crap out of everyone for not beingNormans and good Christians, but they made French the languageof the people for at least 400 years after their conquest. Inadministration, law, architecture -- practically everything -- anynotion we have even of Saxon England is reviewable backwards.Moreover, what does that say of our idea of ‘England’, ‘Ireland’ , ‘Scotland’, ‘Germany’, ‘Italy’, and the European Nation State?One cannot be blamed for thinking that during the Dark Ages andthe Early Middle Ages, there was little or nothing known of theNation States or how -- if at all -- they were conceived. And whilethe middle ages was ubiquitously violent and volatile -- and canoften be likened to a game of chess, played out for real by endlesspetty kings (mostly relatives) and neighbouring city states(especially in Italy) -- the real governor of the European land mass,never to be found on a Chess Board, was the Pope.It was a time when everyone was running off to Rome to pay one’srespects to the sole overlording religion in Italy. The story of Jesushad been doing the rounds and, as Wycliffe had pointed out, thecorruption of mother Church was so horrific, that the Pope’s nextmove was to swamp Europe with young men called Benedictines,Franciscans, Dominicans, etc., etc.. The church became the biggest
employer in Europe for hordes of unwanted young men and womenwho could not afford a horse, a sword, a helmet, a suit of mail, akite shield, a long bow and a romping great horse! In a way, thecrusades was a means of enlisting holy men into the church’ smilitary knighthood: and this is an insight that ought not to bediscounted today, when the RC Church recruits all over the worldfor people who are prepared to embark upon an individuallyinspiring career, but who in reality are co-opted into a terriblearmy.In any event, the emergence of the institution of the Papacy,should be kept in mind, not just as a means of understanding thecoincidence and agenda of the Normans, but also with the partplayed by the Papacy with respect to the military exploits of thosewho came before the Normans as well as those who came after --the Papal manipulation of the Byzantines, for example, theLombards, the Franks, and only then, when needs must, with theViking-cum-Normans.The ‘Normans’ are neither the beginning nor the end of history; norare they an item -- however interesting -- to be considered solelyin their own environment. If -- as we are tired of reiterating -- ‘Allhistory begins now, with our consciousness and knowledge of thepast, and of what the past means for us now’, then the Normansare most instructive by reference to their relationship with the moreenduring Papacy. While the genius of the bloody Normans waspartly to be seen in their assimilability, the messianic designs of thePapacy are infinitely more significant to our understanding of Western and World history as a whole.With the present enthusiasm for Norman history and the MiddleAges at an unprecedented ‘high’, there is the very strong possibilitythat we (and the gurus at the BBC) may not see the wood for thetrees, thereby missing one of the great opportunities (and to mymind ‘duties’) of public broadcasting, namely, to educate the public,thereby making the much more aware of the daily contemporaryforces at play in our time.Although it might be reserved for another programme, it isunfortunate that this rather central aspect of the middle ages isnever really captured by the historians. It is as if there is someprotocol that precludes the influence and management of these
military affairs by the Papacy from being recounted in the samebreadth as the 'secular powers'. It is as if the ‘Normans’ wereentirely autonomous in their military agenda and the ragingantagonisms between Papacy and Emperor, between the ‘spiritualsword’ and the ‘temporal sword’ was never an ubiquitous militaryreality.And this is my problem, mostly with Professor Bartlett's otherwiseexcellent account. Catholicism’s (and Christianity’s) need forconstant crusades is not just an incident of the twelfth century, butwhenever the thinking public have reason to discard the Christianmyth-makers, a new antagonism specifying the fears betweenCommunism-and-Fascism or Jewry-and-Catholicism or Catholicism-and-Islam is made to appear on the world scene. This ‘historical’ division and its orchestrated amplification has its uses today asmuch as yesterday, and if we do not learn to recognise it for what itis, then we are doomed yet again to repeat it, and allow ourselvesto be defeated by those powers who best use these religiousdivision.And while Professor Bartlett is absolutely correct to point out thatthe Norman conjuncture has a significance for us all today, I wouldsuggest that the most important aspect of this conjuncture is not somuch a description of Norman triumphs (however important) butthe continual alliances made by the Papacy with the most militarilygifted (and brutal) contemporaries available, whether they beLombard, Frank, Norman, Spanish, Austrian, Italian, German orCroatian, or whether, like the Americans, they possess and areprepared to use the Atomic bomb.Which brings me to my second -- and connected -- problem!If, instead of following up the Invasion of Britain with the Normanexploits in Southern Italy, the story as told is reversed -- that is,to demonstrate the exploits of the Normans in Southern Italy first,and the ensuing clash and shared agreement between Papal andNorman forces, then one might all the easier see the enduring dealwhich the Papacy struck with the Normans -- reference being madeperhaps to a similar deal being struck with Constantine as far backas the fourth century, and respectively with the Lombards, and withthe Franks, etc..

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