Thursday, 13 April 2017

1066 And All That

Creatures of the Past, For Good or Ill

Myths and legends shape contemporary cultures.  It seems that it is inevitable.  Most countries and ethnic groups seem to have them.  The most enduring myths have to do with triumphs of right over wrong, good over evil, and order over chaos.  Legends are more or less grounded in historical fact.  Whilst they all need to be taken with a grain of salt, they are not worthless.  On the contrary they can be effective platforms for conveying truth and principle.  They can also (less helpfully) be misused to become slogans to rally the troops or justify ideological war.

In his chapter on the Norman Conquest of England, under William the Conqueror, Robert Tombs gives a brief recitation on enduring myths from the Conquest which have influenced England down through the centuries:

The Conquest and its outcomes kept returning over the centuries as a crucial historical theme . . . . The idea of a continuing "Norman yoke"--an oppressive legal, social and political system imposed by the Conquest and suppressing an "ancient constitution" embodying the rights of "freeborn Englishmen"--appealed to some of those resisting the prerogative claims initiated by the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.

The idea also attracted religious radicals during the seventeenth century, among them the leader of the "Diggers," Gerrard Winstanley, who use it to attach the system of land ownership.  It was a strong element in the beliefs of supports of the "Good Old Cause" of the Commonwealth after the Restoration in 1660, and it remained a feature of English and American Whig propaganda in the eighteenth century, famously in the writings of Thomas Paine.  From this perspective, England's political history since 1066 was that of a struggle to regain the "ancient constitution" from the Crown, and even from Parliament, which some saw as the voice of Anglo-Saxon liberties, but others as merely another part of the "Norman yoke".

Late-eighteenth-century radicals claims that the rights lost in 1066 had still not been restored, despite the revolutions of 1642, 1688, and 1776.  In the nineteenth century, the demand for the rights of "freeborn Englishmen" appealed to democrats, Chartists, and romantic Tories such as Benjamin Disraeli, whose "two nations," the rich and the poor, originated as "the conquerors and the conquered."  There are echoes today: it was claimed in 2011 that people with Norman surnames such as Lacy of Glanville are wealthier than people named Smith, Mason or Shepherd.  [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.60.]
It is not at all surprising that there is an abiding desire to seek meaning in the present from the past.  The Scriptures are full of such things.  Redemption is structured around it.  Paul authenticates the Gospel of the Lord Jesus by appealing to and arguing from Israelite history.  When societies do not have authentication from the past derived from the Scripture, they replace it with alternatives, almost always drawn from "perspectives" on their own history.

A classic example is tikanga Māori--culture, custom, ethic, etiquette, fashion, formality, lore, manner, meaning, mechanism, method, protocol, style. Generally taken to mean "the Māori way of doing things", it is derived from the Māori word tika meaning 'right' or 'correct'.  Some Maori are claiming that this "Maori way of doing things" represents the constitution of a sovereign Maori people.  Such claims and appeals are nothing new.  They inevitably fail tests of historicity.  They represent a rickety wooden bridge unable to bear the weight of truth.

But such claims are still significant insofar as they testify to the need for an authentic past to guide the present and the future.  When men do not recognize the Scripture and its history of mankind and the unfolding of universal redemption of the all nations through Christ the King, they invent their own.  But the hunger and need for such myths and legends appears common to all human societies.

One thing stands out in Christian redemptive history: whilst there are heroes and heroines, golden ages and depressions,  the greatest heroes and heroines are also painted with the dark hues of human weakness and sin--from Adam and Eve onwards.  Whilst there is much to teach us from this divinely constructed past, glory resides neither in man nor the state.  Rather, it rests solely in one Man and His Kingdom.  It is this which testifies to its truthfulness and integrity.

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