The Toys of Peace by Saki (1919)

Beryl, Mrs. Gaspilton, had always looked indulgently on the country as a place where people of irreproachable income and hospitable instincts cultivated tennis-lawns and rose-gardens and Jacobean pleasaunces, wherein selected gatherings of interested week-end guests might disport themselves.
(For the Duration of the War)

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’
(The Guests)

Biographical sketch

Saki, or to give him his proper name, Hector Hugh Munro, volunteered for the army as soon as the Great War broke out in August 1914. Born in December 1870, he was 43 at the time and so, officially, over-age to enlist. It took a lot of effort and pulling strings before he managed to secure a place in the Second King Edward’s Horse. Finding a cavalry regiment too demanding for his age, Hector later transferred to an infantry regiment, the the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and finally made his way to the Western Front in 1916.

The most striking fact about Saki’s war service was that although, because of his class and education, he was repeatedly offered the chance of a commission or a cushy job at the rear, he turned all these offers down and preferred serving as a common private, and then lance sergeant, among the men he grew to love. He was shot through the head at Beaumont-Hamel on the morning of 14 November 1916.

All this and more is detailed in a biographical note by Rothay Reynolds which stands at the head of this collection of 31 of Saki’s short stories which was published posthumously in 1919. And it adds considerable bite to the first story in the set, which gives its name to the entire volume and is about the pointlessness of denying men and boys’ natural instinct for war.


The stories

For each of the stories I give the briefest possible summary and sometimes add a quote which exemplifies Saki’s dry and macabre humour, often, especially when casually dealing with exotic animals, bordering on the surreal.

The Toys of Peace

The title is quite literal. Eleanor Bope complains to her brother, Harvey, that her sons (‘Eric, not eleven yet, and Bertie, only nine-and-a-half’) only ever play at war, with soldier toys. Next time he visits can he please bring some toys which emphasise the virtues of peace? So, in a comic scene, on his next visit, Harvey unveils to the two boys such delights as models of the Manchester branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, of a school of art and a public library, and little figures of John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes (the founder of Sunday schools), a sanitary inspector, a district councillor and an official of the Local Government Board. He leaves the boys with their perplexing toys of peace, to take a break in the library. Half an hour later Harvey returns to find the boys have converted the models into forts and castles, repainted the figures as soldiers with lashings of red paint for blood, and are acting out gruesome battle scenes.

Louise (Clovis)

Jane Thropplestance is the most forgetful woman in the world. When she returns from a shopping expedition her sister, the elderly Dowager Lady Beanford, asks her what she has done with her niece, Louise. ‘Good gracious,’ Miss Thropplestance replies, ‘I must have mislaid her!’ and then proceeds to review all the shops and social calls she made during the afternoon, where she might, possibly, have mislaid, poor inoffensive Louise.

It’s an inadvertently hilarious list, bringing out Jane’s flaky superficiality, with plenty of humorous phrases where mislaying a niece is placed on the same level as losing your keys.

The comic punchline comes when the butler informs the two ladies that Louise, in fact, never went out with Miss Thropplestance in the first place and has spent the afternoon reading an improving book to a sick servant upstairs. Silly billies.

Tea

James Cushat-Prinkly is a dim 34-year-old and his extended family of females think it really is time he settled down and proposed to someone. His female family and friends settle on Joan Sebastable as being the perfect match. So one afternoon he sets off to walk across Hyde Park to the Mayfair residence of Miss Sebastaple to propose.

But when he glances at his watch he notices it is 4.30 which means the dreaded hour of afternoon tea is approaching. James hates afternoon tea with its rituals of tinkling tea glasses and endless stupid questions about whether you’d prefer milk or cream and how many lumps and so on. In order to avoid confronting his beloved crouching behind the wretched tea things, he drops in on an acquaintance who happens to live en route, ‘Rhoda Ellam, a sort of remote cousin, who made a living by creating hats out of costly materials.’ Rhoda is serving up tea (this is England, after all) but is much more relaxed about the whole thing, asking James to grab a mug if he can see one and quickly knocking up some bread and butter.

Result: James strolls home and informs his astonished womenfolk that the proposal went well and now he is engaged to be married to…Rhoda Ellam! In fact that isn’t the end of the story. The very end comes when, after getting married and going on honeymoon etc, the couple return to London and at their first tiffin, James discovers to his dismay, that Rhoda has arranged best quality tea things in exactly the way all other women do, has become completely conventional. You can’t beat tiffin!

The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh

Two English chaps, a Journalist and a Wine Merchant, are in a train heading from Hohenzollern into Hapsburg territory i.e. from Germany into Hungary. News of a picture being stolen from the Louvre leads the Wine Merchant to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of his fearsome aunt, Mrs Crispina Umberleigh, ‘born to legislate, codify, administrate, censor, license, ban, execute, and sit in judgement generally.’

‘As a nephew on a footing of only occasional visits she affected me merely as an epidemic, disagreeable while it lasted, but without any permanent effect.’

Her unexplained disappearance leaves a large hole in family life. After a while a ransom demand appears stating that the aunt has been kidnapped and is being held in Norway and will be returned unless a ransom payment of £2,000 is made, this, of course, being a comic inversion of the usual definition of a ransom which is where you pay to have someone returned. The uncle coughs up and this goes on for eight years.

Then one day the aunt reappears. Turns out she had never been kidnapped at all but suffered a complete loss of memory, wandered for a while and ended up working in domestic service in Birmingham. Then one day, eight years later, her memory returned and she came storming back into the lives of her astonished husband and family.

And the ransom demands? Had been made by an enterprising servant of the family :).

The Wolves of Cernogratz

All the starved, cold misery of a frozen world, all the relentless hunger-fury of the wild, blended with other forlorn and haunting melodies to which one could give no name, seemed concentrated in that wailing cry.

A quietly moving and/or vitriolic story. Nouveau riche Baroness Gruebel and her husband have bought and live in the ancient castle somewhere in central Europe. She is telling her brother Conrad, a banker from Hamburg, about some of the romantic old stories attached to the castle, for example how the local wolves are supposed to start howling when anyone dies in the castle, when she is unexpectedly interrupted by the governess, Fraulein Schmidt, who reveals the real legend is that the wolves howl only when a member of the Cernogratz family is dying.

She then astonishes everyone by revealing that she is herself a member of the Cernogratz family. The family fell on hard times, was forced to sell the castle, she went into domestic service and ended up with the Gruebel family. It is a cruel irony which has brought her back here to the home of her ancestors.

That night, while the Baroness’s over-dressed, flashy rich guests are enjoying dinner, they are disturbed by the howling of wolves. They go to the governess’s bedroom and find the window flung open even though it is the depths of winter. The governess knows she is dying but wants to hear ‘the death-music of my family’.

Despite its society satire surface this is a strangely powerful story, like a fairytale. It is clearly linked to The Interlopers (see below) by being a) set in Eastern Europe b) featuring wolves c) being about authenticity and identity, contrasting the shallowness of human concerns with something deeper and more primeval.

Louis

Lena Strudwarden refuses to go abroad on holiday with her husband this year, insisting they go (yet again) to Brighton or Worthing. Her real reason is that their circle of acquaintances in Brighton and Worthing, though boring, show an admirable instinct to fawn on Mrs Strudwarden. In these sorts of arguments Lena always relies on excuses concerning her little dog, Louis, ‘the diminutive brown Pomeranian that lay, snug and irresponsive, beneath a shawl on her lap’, Louis couldn’t possibly go abroad, he couldn’t possibly be quarantined, he couldn’t survive without me, etc etc.

When Strudwarden complains to his sister, she, with unladylike brutality, suggests they just kill Louis. (The text acknowledges this fact: ‘“Novels have been written about women like you,” said Strudwarden; “you have a perfectly criminal mind.”)

So the next time Lena is out of the house, Strudwarden and her brother place the dog in a box and fix the only hole in it over the gas bracket. In other words, they set out to gas the dog to death. But in doing so they make an ironic discovery: Louis isn’t a real dog at all, he is a mechanical toy. All this time Lena has been using the little toy as an emotional lever to get her way with her husband.

The Guests

Annabel thinks the view from the room she’s sharing with her sister, Matilda, is English and pastoral but rather boring. Matilda has recently returned from India and tells her sister she loves boring, it’s a great relief from extravagant adventures abroad. Take the time when she was living in remote India and the Bishop of Bequar paid a surprise visit just as the river Gwadlipichee overflowed its banks, forcing the servants and all the livestock into the main house. It was chaos and socially embarrassing.

‘I’m afraid there is nowhere for you to sit,’ I said coldly; ‘the verandah is full of goats.’

The Penance

Octavian Ruttle thinks his neighbours’ cat is stealing his chickens, so he nerves himself to do away with it. Unfortunately, the neighbours’ three young children, lined up along the wall, witness the act, and in unison call him ‘Beast!’ They send, via servants, a sheet with BEAST childishly scrawled on it. This pricks Octavian’s already guilty conscience and he sets out to appease them by buying luxury chocolates, sends them next door, but later in the day finds them scornfully thrown back over the wall.

One day when Octavian is meant to be minding his two-year-old daughter, Olivia, the three children kidnap her. He sees them trundling her pushcart at top speed across a meadow and gives chase. He catches up just as they deposit the toddler into the muck of a massive pigsty and she starts sinking. Octavian can’t make it over to her in time and so begs the children to save her, he’ll do anything.

So they order him to do penance: to stand by the grave of their dead cat dressed only in a white sheet  holding a candle and repeating: ‘I’m a miserable Beast’. Only when he actually does this, do the three children pin another piece of paper up with the message ‘Un-Beast.’

The Phantom Luncheon

Member of Parliament Sir James Drakmanton informs his wife that she must take for lunch the rather beastly Smithly-Dubbs whose family come in handy at election times. Exasperated at this tedious chore, Lady Drakmanton decides to pull a practical joke. She contacts the three Smithly-Dubbs ladies to invite them for lunch,  then does her hair in an unusual style and dresses in not her usual manner before going to meet them in their hotel foyer and whisking them off to the Carlton where she encourages them to choose all the most expensive dishes on the menu.

Then she drops a bombshell by claiming not to be Lady Drakmanton at all, but another woman altogether who keeps having fits of memory loss, then it comes to her: she is in fact Ellen Niggle, of the Ladies’ Brasspolishing Guild.

At that precise moment (as she had arranged) another woman enters the Carlton dining room who looks and is dressed exactly like Lady Drakmanton, who she points out to the three appalled young women as the real Lady Drakmanton, thus confirming her story.

And before they can recover their composure, Lady D thanks them for a lovely meal and sweeps out, leaving the discombobulated Smithly-Dubbs to pay the (very large) bill.

A Bread and Butter Miss

A story about horse-racing. The guests at a country-house party are eagerly discussing the upcoming Derby when it is discovered that one of them, young Lola, has dreams which come true and last night dreamed of a horse race and dreamed that the crowd cheered when ‘Bread and Butter’ wins.

There is no horse named Bread and Butter in this year’s Derby so a furious debate ensues about which actual horse she could be referring to. They desperately want her to fall asleep and dream a bit of clarification but, it turns out, with comic frustration, when she’s not dreaming dreams which come true, Lola has bad insomnia and, sure enough, despite the comical welter of suggestions to help her get off to sleep, she passes a sleepless night and morning.

Next day, as the race is underway, she lets slip one more vital detail in her dream which helps the guests guess correctly the name of the winning horse which does, indeed, win, but by then it is too late for any of them to place a bet.

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in the household of Luke Steffink, Esq. complete with posh guests. When a couple frivolously recall the Eastern tradition that on Christmas Eve, animals in their stalls can talk, the guests all troop down to the cow house to see if it’s true.

However, Luke’s disgruntled nephew (‘Bertie Steffink had early in life adopted the profession of ne’er-do-well’) is angry at everyone because the family has decided it is going to pack him off to Africa in an effort to find him gainful employment. So, out of spite, Bertie locks them all in the cow house, and invites some passing revellers into Luke’s house to drink all his champagne and raucously sing out of tune Christmas carols. It’s a kind of sketch or scene rather than an actual story.

For someone interested in social history, the most interesting part comes at the beginning where Bertie’s loser status is established by describing the family’s attempts to set him up with jobs in various colonies, a passage which vividly conveys the way the Commonwealth and Empire were conceived as a sort of dumping ground for the useless upper-middle-classes.

At the age of eighteen Bertie had commenced that round of visits to our Colonial possessions, so seemly and desirable in the case of a Prince of the Blood, so suggestive of insincerity in a young man of the middle-class. He had gone to grow tea in Ceylon and fruit in British Columbia, and to help sheep to grow wool in Australia. At the age of twenty he had just returned from some similar errand in Canada, from which it may be gathered that the trial he gave to these various experiments was of the summary drum-head nature. Luke Steffink, who fulfilled the troubled role of guardian and deputy-parent to Bertie, deplored the persistent manifestation of the homing instinct on his nephew’s part, and his solemn thanks earlier in the day for the blessing of reporting a united family had no reference to Bertie’s return. Arrangements had been promptly made for packing the youth off to a distant corner of Rhodesia, whence return would be a difficult matter…

Forewarned

Alethia Debchance has spent her entire 28 years at the remote rural house of her aunt near Webblehinton. She is as naive and unworldly as it is possible to be. Thus when she goes to visit a distant relation, Robert Bludward, who is standing for election, she is astonished at the extreme criticism directed at him by two gentlemen she overhears in a train and by an article she reads in the paper. She makes up her mind to tell his opponent, Sir John Chobham. But as she sets out to do so, she hears the same kinds of comments made, and reads an equally damning article, about him, too.

Bewildered and appalled at the terrible men abroad in the world, she retreats back to her aunt’s rural hideaway and immerses herself in the breathless women’s novels that she consumes like smarties.

It is both a satire on a certain kind of unworldly English spinster, but also on the casually vituperative discourse surrounding English politics, a subject Saki was an expert on after years of being a parliamentary correspondent for the newspapers.

The Interlopers

Somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Karpathians, a patch of forest land has been disputed between three successive generations of two families of neighbouring landowners. The current rivals are Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym.

One day they both happen to be out with parties of their own men, wander away from them, and encounter each other in the depths of the forest. As they go to raise their rifles to shoot each other there is a loud crack and half a beech tree plummets down, pinning them both helplessly to the ground.

Over the next hour or so, as they come to acknowledge their plight, both injured and cold and pinned by the fallen tree to the ground with various broken bones, they slowly come to reassess the stupid rivalry which has dominated their lives. Eventually Ulrich offers his wine flask to Znaeym which the other grudgingly accepts and they decide to put the feud behind them and become friends. They agree to shout for help from their respective men, but the calling only attracts… a pack of wolves!

A gruesome parable about…what? The stupid pettiness of human concerns, petty rivalries and feuds which don’t, placed in the larger perspective of the human condition, matter a damn. Or the vanity of human presumption, showing that both men’s claims to ‘own’ the woods are ridiculous. The true owners of the forest are the wolves; both humans are merely the ‘interlopers’ of the title.

Quail Seed

Mr Scarrick rents out the rooms over his suburban grocery store to an artist and his sister. He complains that business has fallen off woefully because shoppers are attracted by the sales gimmicks of big stores in town, which include music played on gramophones and tickertape news about sports.

So the artist comes up with the idea of staging what would nowadays be called performance art, namely he, his sister and a local boy they hire will play the parts of strange and exotic figures, mysterious strangers who seem to be leaving codes messages for each other, about grand plans and feverish rivalries. Intrigue and gossip. Maybe spies!

It works a treat. Word spreads and soon Mr Scarrick’s shop is full of local housewives waiting to witness the next bizarre episode in the fictional drama.

Canossa

A nonsensical satire on the trivial silliness of political life, indicated by the initial setup which is that Demosthenes Platterbaff, the eminent Unrest Inducer, is on trial for blowing up the Albert Hall on the eve of the great Liberal Federation Tango Tea, the occasion on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was expected to propound his new theory: ‘Do partridges spread infectious diseases?’

The point is that there is a by-election set for the constituency of Nemesis-on-Hand the day after the jury are scheduled to deliver their verdict and the view is that a guilty verdict will lead to the government losing the seat in a protest vote by working men supporters of Platterbaff. Therefore the story is about the contortions the government ties itself up in, in order to find him guilty but not let him go to gaol.

More precisely, he is allowed to go to gaol for precisely one night after the guilty verdict is brought in but then (the Prime Minister and Home Secretary feverishly decide) will be released early enough the next morning for his release to be telegraphed to the by-election constituency and broadcast to his supporters who will then, hopefully, support the government.

This already ridiculous story turns into farce when Platterbaff announces that he will not physically leave the prison unless there’s a brass band to play him out. He always has a brass band.

We are then witness to the comic panic of the Prime Minister and senior cabinet members as they try to arrange this at very short notice, hampered by the fact that there is a musicians’ strike on (strikes were a surprisingly ubiquitous element of Edwardian life which Saki is here satirising).

In the farcical climax of the story, the Prime Minister and colleagues are forced to borrow knackered old instruments from the prison recreation room and themselves batter out an out-of-tune rendering of the pop hit of the moment ‘I didn’t want to do it’ (which, incidentally, dates this story to the second half of 1913).

And the comic punchline of the entire story? The government loses the by-election anyway, because the trade unions ordered their members to vote against the cabinet for acting as strike-breakers (for playing musical instruments during a musicians’ strike).

So it is a satire on the extreme contortions to which modern politicians are forced to go in the name of democracy, of bending over backwards to accommodate even terrorists in order to win their supporters’ votes, but how even the most humiliating obeisance won’t be enough to satisfy the sky-high demands of the new militant working class electorate.

As to the title, Canossa is the site where the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance in 1077, standing three days bare-headed in the snow, in order to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII. It’s the kind of factual element which would benefit from a note of explanation.

The Threat

One of Saki’s anti-suffragette satires. Sir Lulworth Quayne (a recurring character in these stories), sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, describes to his nephew, recently returned from abroad, an evermore absurd list of (fictional) strategies adopted by the suffragettes (for example, enlivening the state opening of Parliament by releasing thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women’).

The joke in the story is that the leading suffragettes come up with a plan which outdoes all the others, converting their hitherto negative strategies into a positive one. They threaten to erect exact replicas of the Victoria Memorial at key locations all around the capital. ‘No, no, anything but that!’ The government gives in to their demands.

Excepting Mrs. Pentherby

Reggie Bruttle has inherited a big but not particularly practical mansion named ‘The Limes’. He has the brainwave of converting it into the venue for a kind of continuous, rolling country-house party. However, Major Dagworth points out that the womenfolk will give trouble, within days they’ll be bitching and arguing.

On the whole, the major is proven wrong, except for Mrs Pentherby. Within days all the other women have come to loathe her casual condescension and come to Reggie with their complaints.

Reggie listened with the attenuated regret that one bestows on an earthquake disaster in Bolivia or a crop failure in Eastern Turkestan.

But then the comic reveal: It turns out Reggie has invited Mrs Pentherby precisely to be the official quarreler, to act as a lightning rod, attracting to herself all the bitching energy of the other women, in order to unify the others in their dislike and make them pleasant to everyone else. Cue feminist outrage.

Mark

Augustus Mellowkent is an up-and-coming novelist. His agent suggests he changes his name to ‘Mark’ which sounds more manly.

But the story itself concerns the visit, one morning in December, of a tiresome encyclopedia salesman, one Caiaphas Dwelf. At first Mark puts up with Dwelf’s tiresome sales pitch, but then has a brainwave. He takes down one of his own novels and starts reading an excerpt to the salesman, telling him what an excellent resource a Mark Mellowkent novel is if one is trapped at a boring country-house party. The salesman replies with a dithyramb on the useful geographical knowledge contained in his encyclopedia. Mark replies with the opening of his classic work, The Cageless Linnet and so it goes on, a duel of bores.

Eventually the salesman is forced to abandon his spiel, closes his sample volume and leaves Mark’s house, and ‘a look of respectful hatred flickered in the cold grey eyes.’

The Hedgehog

Every year a mixed doubles tennis match is held at the rectory garden party hosted by Mrs Norbury and every year a quartet of old ladies sit in judgement on the players, not least the bitchy Mrs. Dole and Mrs. Hatch-Mallard. They argue and contradict each other about everything.

When it is announced that a young lady, Ada Bleek, who happens to be a clairvoyante, is coming down to the house party, they even argue about whose ghost she will see, Mrs Dole insisting she will see the ghost of Lady Cullompton, murdered by one of her ancestors, Mrs Hatch-Mallard insisting she will see the ghost of her uncle, who committed suicide in the house in the most tragical of circumstances.

In the event Miss Bleek does see a ghost but not one belonging to either of the rivals, instead a giant white hedgehog which slithers across her bedroom floor! Social satire gives way to the genuinely weird.

The Mappined Life

The Mappin Terraces at London Zoo were opened in 1914, so they were very recent when Saki made them the subject of a story. Mrs. James Gurtleberry and her niece start off by discussing whether the animals penned in this slightly larger caged area have any illusory sense of freedom. But the story evolves into an impassioned and deeply depressing diatribe from the niece about how we are, all of us, trapped in the Mappin Terraces of our own narrow, blinkered and utterly unfree little lives.

Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty…

Surprisingly serious and surprisingly pessimistic.

Fate (Clovis Sangrail)

Rex Dillot is nearly twenty-four and almost continually penniless. He scrapes a living by betting shrewdly on the little sporting competitions at the country-house parties he frequents, but he is ambitious to make one really big killing wager.

His opportunity comes when cadaverous old Major Latton is scheduled to spend an evening playing billiards against cocky young Mr. Strinnit. Dillot bets more than he actually has on the major to win but the game goes against expectations and Strinnit is advancing his score in leaps and bounds.

Too distraught to watch the climax of the game and his own ruination, Dillon wanders off upstairs to the guest bedrooms. Here he overhears the snores of Mrs Thundleford who had retired to her room in a huff when all the other houseguests declared themselves more interested in watching two men knock about ivory balls than listen to her simply fascinating slideshow and lecture about the architecture of Venice.

Dillot opens her bedroom door. Sure enough Mrs. Thundleford has nodded off sitting very close to the reading lamp. If only a kind fate had had her nudge or knock it over, thus starting a fire, thus causing an outcry, thus interrupting the game, thus saving Dillon from ruinous losses. Well… sometimes one has to make one’s own fate…

And thus it is that a few moments later Dillot comes thundering into the games room carrying a startled Mrs. Thundleford whose dress is (slightly) on fire, dumps her on the billiard table and announces the house is on fire, leading to screams and shouts and the dousing of the flames with soda water and rugs and cushions. And the game? Oh called off, of course. Oh dear, what a shame!

But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

The Bull

Tom Yorkfield is a small farmer with a small herd of cows serviced by his pride and joy, a bull named Clover Fairy. The bull is probably worth £80 though Tom tells himself he’d hold out for at least £100.

Tom has never gotten on with his half-brother, Laurence. When the latter pays a visit he is tactless enough to be a) underwhelmed when Tom takes him to see his pride and joy, b) and then to boast about a painting of a bull which he recently sold for £400. And, he assures his angry brother, will continue to climb in value while Clover Fairy slowly loses all value till she’s sold for the price of his pelt and hooves.

Tom snaps, loses his temper, makes to hit Laurence who backs then runs away, and all this commotion excites the bull who promptly tosses Laurence then goes to trample him. Luckily Tom pulls him off and spends the next few weeks tending him back to health among many apologies.

A recovered Laurence duly returns to work as an artist and grows in popularity of a painter of animals ‘but his subjects are always kittens or fawns or lambkins—never bulls’.

Morlvera

Two impoverished cockney kids, Emmeline, aged ten, and Bert, aged seven, stop in front of a posh toy emporium and are attracted by an overdressed doll (an ’embodiment of overdressed depravity’) which they immediately start attributing all kinds of bloodthirsty crimes to. The children’s malevolent imaginations and cockney accents are very enjoyable.

Then along comes a chauffeur-driven car out of which emerge spoiled little Victor in his sailor suit and his commanding mother. Our two backstreet kids overhear their conversation. The mother is nagging Victor that they need to buy something for his friend, Bertha, as she bought him a beautiful box of soldiers on his birthday.

Once inside the shop, with infinite reluctance Victor allows himself to be persuaded by the sales assistant into selecting the malevolent-looking doll Emmeline and Bert had been surveying. The cockney kids watch as Victor emerges clutching the thing, gets into his car with his mother, and very carefully throws the doll out the back window just as the vehicle is reversing. The car’s back wheel gently crushes the doll to smithereens. Emmeline and Bert are thrilled and delighted.

A delicious story about children’s utter lack of innocence, their wild violent imaginations, but which also captures the class divisions of Saki’s day.

Shock Tactics (Clovis Sangrail)

‘People yield more consideration to a mutilated mealtime or a broken night’s rest, than ever they would to a broken heart.’

A Clovis story. The mother of Clovis’s friend Bertie, 19 years old, insists on opening all his letters and reading them, much to his chagrin. Clovis conceives a hilarious prank. He gets delivered to Bertie’s house a series of letters in which he poses as an utterly fictitious young lady named Clotilde and hints that she and Bertie are involved in unspeakable goings-on which involve the suicide of a serving girl and some jewels.

Astounded and enraged, Bertie’s mother rushes upstairs, banging on Bertie’s (locked) bedroom door and insisting he explain each of the successively more scandalous revelations until… a final letter arrives from Clovis explaining that, since Bertie told him that someone nosy in the household was opening his letters, Clovis has conceived the idea of sending deliberately fake letters in order to sniff the shameful culprit out.

Bertie’s mother is mortified and humiliated and from that moment onwards never opens another of Bertie’s letter.

The Seven Cream Jugs

Anything that was smaller and more portable than a sideboard, and above the value of ninepence, had an irresistible attraction for him, provided that it fulfilled the necessary condition of belonging to someone else.

Mr and Mrs Peter Pigeoncote are paid a visit by their relative Wilfred. Wilfred is a common name in their extended family and so they imagine this Wilfred is the one known widely in the family as ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ because he is a kleptomaniac.

This stresses the couple because it just so happens to be the date of their silver wedding anniversary and friends and family far and near have bombarded them with silver gifts. Reluctantly, they show ‘Wilfred the Snatcher’ their gifts, including no fewer than seven silver cream jugs.

Wilfred is polite and complimentary, then it is time for bed. After he’s gone upstairs, Mrs and Mrs count up all the silver presents and become convinced that one of the cream jugs is missing and convinced that Wilfred must have stolen it. Next morning when he’s in the bathroom, they sneak into his bedroom and rifle through his suitcase and find… the missing silver cream jug! They take it back but decide to say nothing about it.

Half an hour later, when he comes down for breakfast, Wilfred immediately announces that one of the servants must be a thief because someone has stolen the silver cream jug from his suitcase. He goes on to explain that he and his mother had carefully selected the silver jug as a silver wedding anniversary for the pair but he forgot to give it earlier in the evening and when the couple showed him the presents they’d received to date and laughed at the fact that they’d already received seven cream jugs, he felt too embarrassed to proceed.

During this explanation several facts tumbled out which made the horrified couple realise that this Wilfred Pigeoncote is not the famous Wilfred the Snatcher but a much more remote relative, a Wilfred who is very high up in the Foreign Office! My God! They’ve made a disastrous mistake! Mrs Pigeoncote feels faint and dispatches husband Peter to fetch her smelling salts.

The situation is retrieved when, while her husband is out of the room, Mrs P confides in a low tone that the culprit is none other than her husband! ‘My God,’ says Wilfred the Foreign Office; ‘What, you mean like Wilfred the Snatcher!? My God, it must run in the family.’ ‘Yes,’ says the wife, ‘It is most tragic,’ handing him back the stolen cream jug, ‘and we’d be most grateful if you could keep it to yourself!’

The Occasional Garden

Elinor Rapsley is moaning that her back garden is too big to be ignored but not big enough to make a statement and she’s stressed because Gwenda Pottingdon has invited herself to lunch, and is ‘only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden.’

The Baroness (a recurring character we’ve met in previous stories) advises her to subscribe to the OOSA, the Occasional-Oasis Supply Association. If you’re having a social event and have a scrappy back space, the OOSA will supply the garden of your dreams for the day, and tailor it to your guests, as well. Or you can pay extra and get the EON or Envy of the Neighbourhood service.

So Elinor pays for a de luxe garden to be installed ahead of Gwenda Pottingdon’s lunch visit and the latter is suitably overawed and silenced. Unfortunately, a few days later, when the OOSA has been back to remove the temporarily hired garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pays a surprise visit, barges her way into the living room and is immediately startled to see the previously luxurious garden completely absent. What happened?

‘Suffragettes,’ is Elinor’s brilliant, one-word reply, the one-word explanation for any kind of vandalism and hooliganism.

The Sheep

The Sheep is in fact the nickname of a very bad bridge player: ‘Being awfully and uselessly sorry formed a large part of his occupation in life.’ His bridge partner and prospective brother-in-law, Richard, thinks of him as one of the world’s many sheep, bumbling foolishly through life while all the time imagining himself a big, brave fellah. What makes it so galling is that, having lost his son, Robbie, fighting in India, Richard has no heir so, when the Sheep marries his sister, Kathleen, it’ll be only a matter of time before the inept bumbler inherits the family home and raises more ‘sheep’.

When the Sheep and Richard are on the way back from a day’s shooting during which he has pitifully failed to bag anything, the Sheep is suddenly confronted by a large bird lifting off the ground and flying slowly towards them and hits it with both barrels. Unfortunately, it is a very rare honey-buzzard which Richard’s family have been going to great lengths to protect for the last four years.

The local MP has died and Richard throws himself into a round of canvassing for votes which leads up to a packed meeting to be addressed by their candidate the night before the vote. Richard is due to give thanks to the Chairman but has a sore throat and (foolishly) asks the Sheep to do it. He makes the required customary sentence or two but then decides to give the meeting the benefit of his own opinions which turn out to be wildly destructive and unpopular. His remarks travel all round the constituency and lose the election.

Then Richard and Kathleen and the Sheep go for a winter holiday in the Alps. The Sheep insists on going too near to the thin ice on the lake which all the skaters have been amply warned against. No surprise when there’s a cry and he disappears into an ice hole. Richard immediately skates to the land where he’d seen a ladder which can be used to reach across the dodgy ice to save him. But as he reaches for it a huge guard dog leaps on him and keeps him pinned down during the vital moments when the Sheep might have been rescued, but in fact drowns.

As a result, Richard buys the guard dog and it becomes his loyal and much-loved companion :).

The Oversight (Clovis Sangrail)

Lady Prowche goes to enormous lengths to ensure that the guests to her prospective country-house party cannot possibly disagree about anything (after a run of parties which each ended in appalling rows). With her friend Lena Luddleford she goes carefully through a list of the many issues which divided Edwardian society, eliminating anyone who would be liable to fall out about any of them, and eventually whittles her list down to the only two possible men she can invite.

But first she tasks Lena with the all-important job of ascertaining the two men’s views align on the hot topic of the day, vivisection. A day or two later back comes the signal that they do agree on this issue and so Lady Prowche goes ahead and invites them.

With lamentable consequences. Despite all her efforts the two men do, in fact, fall out, and the party ends in a big row. Why? Because they support opposite sides in the recent Balkan Wars: ‘One of them was Pro-Greek and the other Pro-Bulgar.’ Damn! So close!

Hyacinth

Hyacinth is the name of an intelligently malicious boy. He is the son of Matilda who insists on taking him along for the election campaign of her husband who is up against the newly appointed Colonial Secretary (who has also brought his three little children along for the campaign) much against the advice of her good friend Mrs. Panstreppon who knows just what Hyacinth is like.

After the polls have closed, Hyacinth phones his mother to explain that he has kidnapped the three charming little children and locked them in a local pigsty with a very angry huge sow locked outside. If their father wins the poll, he will unlock the door and the big angry sow will devour the children. If his (Hyacinth’s) father wins, he’ll let the children go.

This results in the kids’ father, Jutterly the Colonial Secretary, rushing round to the town hall begging them to query and invalidate as many of his votes as possible in order to save his children’s lives. It works. He manages to lose, his defeat is communicated to Hyacinth, who lets down a ladder into the stye which allows the three terrified toddlers to climb to safety.

‘Told you so’, says Mrs. Panstreppon. Hyacinth wouldn’t be out of place in a modern Mexican election, she points out drolly; but maybe leave him at home for the next domestic one.

This story contains both animals and children, vectors of Saki’s satire on the absurd pretensions of the adult world, continual revealers of the spite and violence at the heart of nature.

The Purple of the Balkan Kings

The first of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Luitpold Wolkenstein, financier and diplomat on a small, obtrusive, self-important scale, sat in his favoured cafe in the world-wise Habsburg capital, confronted with the Neue Freie Presse and the cup of cream-topped coffee and attendant glass of water that a sleek-headed piccolo had just brought him.

Austrian cafe expert, podgy inexperienced and smug, Wolkenstein is horrified at news of the Balkan War which heralds the rise of new nations on his border, new nations who’ll want to teach the old Great Powers a thing or two! The Ottoman Empire has lost almost all its possessions in Europe, while a significantly enlarged Serbia has begun agitating for a union of all the Slavs in south-east Europe.

As you can see, this is more of a character profile heavy with political interpretation i.e. condemnation of Austria’s smug bourgeoisie, than a ‘story’.

The Cupboard of the Yesterdays

The second of two ‘stories’ about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 is a dialogue between the abstract figures of the Wanderer and the Merchant.

The Merchant holds the conventional liberal view that the Balkan Wars are a tragedy, all that death and waste etc. Whereas the Wanderer holds a completely different view: he thinks the tragedy is that, with the expulsion of the Ottomans from Europe and the establishment of modern nation-states with clearly defined borders, a lot of the old glamour and mystique of the murky Balkans will disappear.

‘The old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.’

He uses words like magic and charm:

  • ‘It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination…’
  • ‘There is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide…’

But now that many of these nations have gained nationhood, in fifteen years the whole region will be about as glamorous as Bexhill! As the Wanderer himself admits, his version of the Balkans exists primarily to ‘to thrill and enliven’ our humdrum existences, to fire our slothful imaginations.

So it’s not really a story at all, it’s more the exposition of a worldview, the late-Victorian worldview which found glamour and excitement in tales of derring-do in far-off, exotic places. In this respect, it’s not unlike the opening passage of Bertie’s Christmas which gave the impression that the entire British Empire and Commonwealth existed solely for the entertainment and gainful employment of the English upper middle-classes. Maybe it did.

For the Duration of the War

The Reverend Wilfrid Gaspilton finds himself removed from the fashionable parish of St. Luke’s Kensingate to the immoderately rural parish of St. Chuddocks, somewhere in Yondershire. His wife finds it dire and buries herself in translating an obscure French novel.

Wilfrid also finds it unbearably boring until he has an idea: to concoct a literary hoax. He makes up:

Ghurab, a hunter, or, according to other accounts, warden of the royal fishponds, who lived, in some unspecified century, in the neighbourhood of Karmanshah

and attributes to him fragments of poetry allegedly discovered by the Reverend’s own son, currently serving in Mesopotamia.

The reverend then sends these fictional fragments of Persian poetry to the Bi-Monthly Review in London which publishes them and they quickly become popular, taken up and quoted, and a Ghurab-of-Karmanshah Club is founded whose members refer to each other as Brother Ghurabians.

War brings many unintended consequences.


Themes

The role of animals in Saki’s short stories

The previous collection of short stories, Beasts and Super-Beasts, was aptly titled, since rogue animals play a key role in many of them, the more bizarre or encountered in bizarre circumstances, the more savage and violent, the better.

Like the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest or the hyena which eats a gypsy child in Esmé or the polecat which kills Conradin’s aunt in Sredni Vishtar. Violent, beast-related and gruesome, it’s no accident that those three stories are among Saki’s most celebrated.

In this collection, there are some exotic beasts, but not so many:

  • The Wolves of Cernogratz
  • Louis centres on a mechanical lapdog
  • The Guests describes an overflow of goats and a leopard! during a flood in India
  • The Penance involves a domestic cat and a big pig
  • The Mappined Life contrasts the lives of zoo animals with humans
  • Bertie’s Christmas Eve involves farmyard cows
  • The Interlopers features the forest wolves at the end
  • The Hedgehog in which a young woman has a vision of a giant white hedgehog
  • The Bull is about a prize bull which tosses and tramples the artist
  • Hyacinth which features a potentially murderous sow

It is no accident that the two most haunting stories in the set, The Interlopers and The Wolves of Cernogratz, both feature animals at their most intense and symbolic, symbolic counterpoints to the superficialities of human wealth and culture.

The other stories mostly feature domestic or pretty plain farm animals (cat, cows, pig) in relatively humdrum settings but nonetheless, The Animal plays a role in Saki’s fiction as a kind of wild card, thrown into otherwise banal social settings to create an element which punctures the polite pretensions of human society and its timid conventions (satirised in the story about afternoon tea).

The role of ‘abroad’

Another thing about the two wolf stories is that they are not set in England.

It is a critical platitude about Saki that his stories mock the Edwardian English upper classes and, indeed, many of them are set in London drawing rooms or at country-house parties. But it’s arguable that the best of them (obviously the two wolf stories, but also the two at the end ‘about’ the Balkan wars, or the three animal stories from earlier collections) do not.

There is a consistent strand of Saki stories which are not set in England at all, and he has a penchant for Eastern Europe or Russia where he himself spent some years as a correspondent. The appeal of these, at the time, fairly remote destinations is made explicit in The Cupboards of Yesterday: they are remote and untamed, full of casual violence and risk which thrills the bourgeois imagination in a way life in Bexhill emphatically can’t.

The notion that animals speak on Christmas Eve in Bertie’s Christmas Eve derives from Russia, precisely the kind of peasant superstition you’d expect from what the Edwardian readers thought of as a charmingly backward peasant society.

The tension between the two – tame England and exotic abroad – comes out a little in the story Louis, where Mr Strudwarden wants to holiday in (exotic) Vienna while his wife insists on going, yet again, to Brighton, precisely because that is where she will find the dull, unimaginative people who find her interesting.

In this respect ‘abroad’ provides another dichotomy or pole against which to set ‘the normal’ existence of the Edwardian middle classes, to bring it into more vivid focus and to critique it, just as ‘animals’ do, and…

Children

…just as children do. In Saki’s world children are emphatically not the innocent angels of conventional thinking. For me the funniest story is Morlvera with its brilliantly funny depiction of the two backstreet London kids, their heads full of lurid, bloodthirsty imagining, but there are also:

  • the two boys in Toys of Peace who can turn even the blandest present into a vehicle for violence and blood
  • the three children in Penance who are prepared to let Octavian Ruttle’s 2-year-old daughter drown in pig poo
  • the ghastly Hyacinth, prepared to let other children be eaten alive

So animals, abroad, and children, are all perspectives or devices which Saki uses to highlight and mock the shallow, silly world of his contemporary society.

Not limited to Edwardian upper classes but told in an upper class tone of voice

Saki’s stories are not really set among the upper classes. I’ve just read Bull, which is about a farmer and his struggling artist brother. Not set in London and very much not among aristocrats. Or take Quail Seed, which concerns a shopkeeper and an impecunious artist he’s rented rooms to in some suburb or small town.

Maybe I’m making the simple point that Saki’s stories are more varied, in setting, class, character and subject matter, than is ordinarily accepted.

At which point, I realised a fairly obvious truth. The characters, settings and subject matter of the stories may not be narrowly upper class – but the tone is. The tone of the narrator, and the character it implies in pretty much all of the stories, is that of the exaggeratedly playful, carelessly privileged, upper class idler, a tone of calculated indifference, sophisticated insouciance, a lofty, mocking detachment from anything serious.

This tone is embodied from time to time in the recurring figure of the useless son or nephew who is failing to get a job or a career or a focus in life, such as Bertie Steffink (Bertie’s Last Christmas) or the useless young Bertie Heasant in Shock Tactics.

And from time to time crystallises in the character of the youthful, playful, witty prankster and bon mot artist, Clovis Sangrail (although Clovis appears in only four of these 31 stories). Clovis has the same playfully amoral wittiness of Oscar Wilde’s protagonists, and many of the snappy one-liners to match:

  • Susan Lady Beanford was a vigorous old woman who had coquetted with imaginary ill-health for the greater part of a lifetime; Clovis Sangrail irreverently declared that she had caught a chill at the Coronation of Queen Victoria and had never let it go again.
  • ‘When you wear a look of tragic gloom in a swimming-bath,’ said Clovis, ‘it’s especially noticeable from the fact that you’re wearing very little else.’
  • But then, as Clovis remarked, when one is rushing about with a blazing woman in one’s arms one can’t stop to think out exactly where one is going to put her.

So it’s not Clovis himself who predominates, it’s his tone, the tone of amused, ironic malice which pervades the stories at every level, no matter where their setting or what their subject matter:

As long as the garden produced asparagus and carnations at pleasingly frequent intervals Mrs. Gaspilton was content to approve of its expense and otherwise ignore its existence. She would fold herself up, so to speak, in an elegant, indolent little world of her own, enjoying the minor recreations of being gently rude to the doctor’s wife and continuing the leisurely production of her one literary effort, The Forbidden Horsepond.

‘Being gently rude to the doctor’s wife’. An understated tone which glosses over ironical comparisons and unexpected juxtapositions which are always amusing and sometimes very funny.

The Rev. Wilfrid found himself as bored and ill at ease in his new surroundings as Charles II would have been at a modern Wesleyan Conference… With the inhabitants of his parish he was no better off; to know them was merely to know their ailments, and the ailments were almost invariably rheumatism. Some, of course, had other bodily infirmities, but they always had rheumatism as well. The Rector had not yet grasped the fact that in rural cottage life, not to have rheumatism is as glaring an omission as not to have been presented at Court would be in more ambitious circles.

Political stories

The Edwardian period was one of surprising political stresses and crises and a number of the stories  directly invoke the world of politics. Except that, true to form, what interests Saki is not the issues themselves but the  way the issues, and the political process itself, can be mocked and ridiculed. To my daughter the feminist, the suffragettes are the subject of burning zeal. To Saki, they are the punchline of a joke.

It may be worth listing the stories which contain at least some politics:

  • The Disappearance: in the world of politics Edward Umberleigh is considered a strong man
  • The Phantom Lunch: MP Sir James Drakmanton insists that his wife lunches with the ghastly Smithly-Dubbs women because they and their uncle help him at election time
  • Forewarned is entirely about how the standard level of abuse and vitriol thrown about in a local election strikes an utterly innocent outsider
  • Canossa is a satire on Parliamentary politics
  • The Threat is an anti-suffragette satire pitched at the highest level where upper class suffragettes hobnob with the Prime Minister, leading up to the passage of an Act of Parliament
  • Hyacinth is another satire on the ridiculousness of local elections
  • The Sheep the final part of which is about the nuts and bolts of canvassing for a local election
  • Hyacinth is about a local Parliamentary election

The political stories confirm the impression derived from reading his polemical, alarmist novel, When William Came, that after 15 years as a political correspondent Saki was heartily sickened and disillusioned by British politics. Who isn’t? His disillusion comes from a solidly patrician, right-wing perspective. But his withering satire on the business of politics is just as destructive.

Suffragettes

Saki was clearly against the suffragettes who he associates with unreasonable demands and violent, vandalistic behaviour. Sometimes he mounts a direct attack, as in The Threat, which features a suffragette who comes up with a cunning new strategy. Other times it is a throwaway remark which, in its own way, is more revealing of the way the suffragettes were regarded by some in Edwardian England.

Thus when, in the comic story, The Occasional Garden, Gwenda Pottingdon pops in unexpectedly on her ‘friend’ Elinor Rapsley and is startled to discover that the sumptuous back garden she had displayed just four days earlier has vanished, Elinor has the presence of mind to explain with one word: Suffragettes, which says enough, and the way it says enough speaks volumes about its place in the respectable, middle-class discourse of the day.

In Louis the brother and sister conspiring to kill Lena’s insufferable dog for a moment consider making up a story that suffragettes had invaded the house and killed it by throwing a brick at it. No act of wanton violence was too outrageous not to be assigned to the violent suffragettes.

And in The Oversight one example of many guests who’ve got into frightful rows is Laura Henniseed, by implication one of the votes for women women. As remarks: ‘Of course the Suffragette question is a burning one, and lets loose the most dreadful ill-feeling.’ Maybe it was as divisive as Brexit has been in our own day.

Real alienation

The least humorous of the stories is the most bitter and may be, in some sense, the most psychologically ‘true’. In The Mappined Life, after they’ve visited London Zoo’s pathetic attempt to give its caged, constricted animals the illusion of wildness and freedom by building a pathetic little concrete area named the Mappin Gardens, her niece reduces Aunt Gurtleberry to tears by saying that they, too, are cabin’d, cribb’d and confined into narrow little lives of utter predictability and emptiness.

Its tone borders on suicidal despair and (this is pure speculation) makes you wonder whether, after fifteen years of chronicling the political scene and upper class life in Edwardian England, Saki, like so many others, welcomed the Great War as a chance to cleanse and redeem themselves from the sordid littleness and petty compromises of English life.

An annotated Saki

Probably the expense would never be justified, but it would be lovely to have an annotated edition of Saki’s stories because some of them contain a veritable blizzard of what are obviously references to contemporary events which it would be entertaining and informative to have properly explained.

For example, The Oversight is a story all about the subjects people find to argue about at country-house parties: religion (Church of England or non-conformist), politics (for or against Lloyd George), votes for women (for or against), vivisection, the Derby decision (‘the Stewards’ decision about Craganour’), the Falconer Report (into the Marconi scandal), and taking sides during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

I was able to look up Mappin Terraces at London Zoo, which were brand new when Saki wrote his story about them, but there are many more fleeting references to contemporary people or events which flash by with the mention of just a name or fleeting reference which you know is important but cannot identify. When, in The Disappearance of Crispina Umberleigh, he casually refers to ‘the feminine cycling craze’ it would be nice to learn more.

And it is a minor but interesting note that the troubled situation in Mexico (then experiencing the start of its long drawn-out revolution) is referred to in no fewer than three stories (The Threat, The Mappined Life and Hyacinth) so was obviously having an impact on educated opinion, but what impact, exactly?

Ignoring this steady stream of contemporary issues has the net effect of making Saki’s stories seem more timeless and ahistorical than they actually are. It’s true that half or more of the stories are set in the timeless world of upper-middle-class twits which to some extent anticipates P.G. Wodehouse’s. But even these sometimes contain sharp references to very recent, headline-making political and social events, which indicate the depth of Saki’s engagement and commitment.

Comic similes

He brought her a large yellow dahlia, which she grasped tightly in one hand and regarded with a stare of benevolent boredom, such as one might bestow on amateur classical dancing performed in aid of a deserving charity.

[The Salvation Army] used to go about then unkempt and dishevelled, in a sort of smiling rage with the world, and now they’re spruce and jaunty and flamboyantly decorative, like a geranium bed with religious convictions.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books: ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history, the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates anything and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy

I.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy

I.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

Ethnogenesis

The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.

Britain and Ireland

A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite

Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records

It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage

It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse

And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia

But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax

Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat

It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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