The Sound of Her Bells

It’s been a while.


St-Martin à Laon

I’m sitting in a little room in Laon, in France, right now.

Laon is at the top of a plateau, gently curved, that rises, sharply, from the surrounding plane. At one end, by me, is the church of St-Martin.

The cathedral of Laon sits at the other. I can see it from my window, rising over my little garden.

This morning—every morning—I awake to the sound of bells tolling the hour. St-Martin rings first, and the cathedral bells follow.

As I make coffee, turn an omelette into scrambled eggs, browse the news, the bells ring out for Sunday mass.

The bells do not tell time. They freeze it. They claim space and declare it their own.


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Periodization and Its Discontents

enhanced-buzz-32092-1348816008-10To begin: Feudalism is a fiction, the creation of an ahistorical imagination attempting to grapple with contemporary concerns. And its origin lies with the origin of another fiction – the idea that there was a “medieval period”.



The most universal of the “regulative fictions” which historians employ to make some order out of a chaotic past is “periodization,” by which we cut the continuous thread of time into manageable lengths, and then do our best to present such divisions as natural rather than contrived. (Peter Novick, That Noble Dream, 16)

Let me repeat for emphasis: all periodizations are fictions. They are anachronistic creations imposed on the past. Novick, as I understand the quote above, would have us believe that they are simply necessary contrivances which historians create, and which they do not really believe. Novick is an eminent historian; his formulation is probably how most, even most historians, tend to assume periodization works.

They are wrong. Periodizations are not our servants but our masters, and the creation and utilization of periodization is necessarily a political act. In her very difficult but brilliant book Periodization and Sovereignty, Kathleen Davis has recently shown that the idea of a “medieval” age opposed to the “modern”(1) is a product of English juristic disputes over the location and possession of sovereignty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, responding to the problems created by the English Civil War and the decapitation of Charles I. The primary method by which these jurists distinguished between themselves and the past, i.e. between royal and parliamentary authority, was to reify the idea of “feudalism”. But what they (and four hundred years of subsequent scholarship) referred to as “feudalism” is derived from a collection of texts called the Libri feudorum (Books of Fiefs), a private, “eclectic collection of treatises, statutes, and northern Italian legislation regarding fiefs… accumulated in various recensions throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.”(2) Thus, the Libri feudorum did not describe a general system, or even a specific one. But the jurists found the Libri to be useful, as it allowed them to separate authoritarian monarchy as an arbitrary, feudal, “medieval” form of government, as opposed to the parliamentary, pluralistic, “modern” one.

The reification of feudalism and the creation of the medieval in the seventeenth century is not simply a distortion of our view of the past; it created a meme that is deeply embedded in our culture, one which has been put to rather nefarious purposes. As Timothy Mitchell discusses in Rule of Experts,(3) when the British took control of Egypt in 1882, they determined that “under the laws of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Cairo since 1517, all land was considered property of the state.”(4) Such a system was (to the report’s authors) not based in an abstract body of law, but in the personal, tyrannical will of an absolute ruler, and thus patently inimical to the conception of private property, which was seen as the cornerstone of (European) civilization. The ‘modern’ European conception of property directly opposed individual and arbitrary—that is to say ‘medieval’—coercive power, of which the state ownership of land was one facet. Consequently, the imposition of “law based on private rights represented a rupture with the previous world of arbitrary and despotic power.”(5) The British report advanced the argument that the Ottoman Empire’s failure to evolve systems of private property ownership was a clear sign of the backwardness of the Muslim East and a clear indicator of the benefits offered by colonial rule. As Mitchell puts it, to the colonizers, “Law could claim to be universal, and thus nonarbitrary, only by appearing as the expression of civilization.”(6) The expression of modern, western, European civilization, of course—what other sort was there? So the artificial and political creation of the periodization “medieval” and its memetic bond to feudalism was also used for political ends.

But let’s come back to how the creation of “medieval” has distorted our view of the past. To list every consequence would far exceed the word limit here, but let’s look at an easy one: if the medieval ended with modernity, it must have begun. But where? The historiographic discussion over the origins of “medieval Europe” is generally known as “the debate over the year 1000.”

As with so many themes within recent works on medieval topics, the interest in the centrality of the year 1000 originated in the work of Marc Bloch. Bloch and his influence is worth several threads of their own, but the work in question here is his two volume Feudal Society, where he placed the two centuries on either side of the turn of the millennium as pivotal to European history. Ignoring the four centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, Bloch begins Feudal Society by describing the “barbarian” invasions of the ninth century (Norsemen, Saracens, Magyars). But Bloch argued that thisage of invasions was not simply the destruction of the old. It was also was the driving force behind something new, a political revolution that created what he called the first feudal age. Carolingian power, such as it was, fragmented as local populations sought protection from nearby strongmen. These local potentates derived their authority from their strength and wielded it through the monopolistic exercise of violence, dominating the peasants-turned-serfs they were in theory supposed to defend. Bloch, following the example of his predecessors, termed this relationship ‘feudal’.

The onslaught of invasions tapered off in the first decades of the second millennium for a variety of reasons. This marked the beginning of Bloch’s second feudal age, which persisted until approximately 1250. Unlike the first age, this age was not one of sudden and radical transformation, but one of adaptation and evolution. The peasantry and clergy began to seek protection from the arbitrary brutality imposed upon them by raiding parties of local knights and petty lords, first through peace-oaths and then through legal codification and the slow development of the first apparatuses of governmental power. Through shrewd political maneuvering, such power gradually accumulated in the hands of a few, and by the end of the period, the rough outline of the modern state had begun to take form. Bloch’s analysis thus placed the formation of a feudal structure, spurred by outside invasion, as the first step towards European modernity.

Bloch had done his best to present the divisions and structures created by those seventeenth century jurists as “natural rather than contrived.”

Bloch spurred a debate which went back and forth, and I can give you further reading if you wish: the most important names are Duby, Bisson, Geary. Scholars, of course, realized that the model of feudalism expressed by Bloch and then Duby, which by the 1970s was “established and authoritative” for all of Europe within both French and Anglo-American scholarship, had some problems: “the model didn’t work all that well for England where state power was strong from the Anglo-Saxon era through the Plantagenets,” “it did not really apply to Germany where lordship was seen in terms of… the advent of Grundherrshaft in tandem with political rights,” and it “was modified for Italy.”(7) Elizabeth Brown had long since argued that feudalism did not map onto any historical reality, that historians used it much too freely in order to gloss over rather than confront structural questions, and moreover that everyone was aware of these failings and persisted in using the term anyway. Brown’s insightful article had the immediate and long-lasting effects one might expect from such a powerful disciplinary critique; although medieval historians now use “feudalism” no less frequently than before, they almost always place the word within quotation marks.(8)

Although his reconstruction of the past is no longer held to be true, Bloch’s basic periodization had stuck. The “medieval” period proper, defined by the origins of “feudalism,” itself an idea created in the seventeenth century so that contemporaries could define themselves as “modern,” began around 1000, and ended around 1500. What we call “early” medieval, from ca. 500 to 1000, is ignored entirely by Bloch, and later by Bisson. It is made into a long preamble by Duby. This idea of 500–1000 as the origins of the origins of modernity is also a powerful meme in scholarship, giving us book titles like The Long Morning of Medieval Europe. Such distinctions have long been adopted in other fields, and since they do not (so they think) affect them directly, they haven’t bothered to confront the problems posed herein.

So, in the end, we see that feudalism is a lie, but it’s a lie we don’t seem to be able to keep ourselves from telling. It is a lie we tell to make ourselves seem better, and it is a lie we tell to make others seem worse.

(1) The term dates from the fourteenth century, but although it is used as a pejorative, it does not refer to a time in which the user is not living, i.e. a medieval past vs. a modern present.

(2) Davis, Periodization, 27.

(3) This is one of the best books I have ever read. Tolle, lege.

(4) Mitchell, Rule, 55.

(5) Ibid., 56.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Paul Freedman, “Peasants, the Seigneurial Regime, and Serfdom in the Eleventh to Thirteenth Centuries,” inEuropean Transformations: the Long Twelfth Century,Thomas F.X. Noble and John van Engen, eds. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 264–265.

(8) Elizabeth Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” in The American Historical Review 79:4 (1974), 1063–1088. More recently, Susan Reynolds has written extensively on the problems posed by feudalism, most notably in Feifs and Vassals: Medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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The Bike Shed of History

I was once told a story about Richard Feynman. He had just won his Nobel Prize for his solution to Quantum Electrodynamics, and was seated next to some potentate or other at the awards dinner.

He introduced himself.

“Oh,” she said, “you’re one of the winners. In what field?”

“In physics.”

“Oh well, nobody knows anything about that, so we can’t talk about it.”

“On the contrary!” Feynman replied, “It’s because some people do know something about it that we can’t talk. It’s only the things nobody knows anything about that we can discuss.

So, weather? Social problems? Psychology? International finance?”

To this list, I add: History.

(Pseudo-)Feynman was describing “bikeshedding,” also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. When confronted with a problem beyond their perceived abilities, people tend to focus on the smaller, trivial issues they think they can grasp and solve.

We call it bikeshedding because “Parkinson observed that a committee which was to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively trivial but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the non-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself.”

It will not come as a surprise to anyone in academia when I say that the Humanities and much of the Social Sciences have a bikeshedding problem. Not in the sense that those of us in these disciplines engage in it—though we do—but rather that our disciplines are seen as bike sheds.

History seems simple. After all, it’s just the story of what happened in the past, right? And with the web, putting that story together has never been easier! All the information, right at your fingertips. Why bother with someone else’s interpretation? That looks sort of like a bike shed, and I know how to build a bike shed!

There has been much talk of in recent years regarding the relevance of many academic disciplines. Any answer to such questions must be grounded in an education in the complexities involved in those disciplines. The questions they ask take training to solve. It is just as difficult to write a good history as it is to put a rocket into space. And it happens about as often.

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Truth: A Manifesto

Zero: Objective Truth Exists

One: Objective Truth is Unknowable

A properly-executed empirical epistemology cannot make absolute positive assertions about Truth. Any non-empirical epistemology must be grounded in a priori assertions and does not therefore offer a self-contained system for defining Truth.

Note: Criticisms of empiricism based on human physiology are to be disregarded on Pragmatic grounds as being fundamentally unsolvable.

Two: Each Individual Knows Relative Truths

Each individual is the unique product of their experiences and therefore possesses a relativistic understanding of truth(s).

Three: Truth and Reality are not Coequal

Things which are not real or that have never happened can still be true. This is why we write and read fiction.

Four: Contradictory Relative Truths do not Negate Each Other

That something is relativistically true for one person does not prevent its inverse from being relativistically true for another person.

Five: No Relative Truth is More True Than Any Other

There is no method by which relative truths might be compared, and therefore one cannot be considered more true than another.

Note: The equality of relative truths does not prevent one being given precedence over another for any of a variety of reasons. It simply means that there is no objective justification for doing so.

Six: The Totality of Relative Truths Approximates Objective Truth

That is, relative truths are facets of objective Truth.

Thus: By incorporating relative truths into our understanding, we come to a better understanding of objective Truth. This understanding will remain perpetually imperfect, but every time we show it to be so, we improve it.

And so we come to wisdom.

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Just Deserts

Perhaps it’s the unavoidable baggage of a capitalist society, but we, culturally, like to talk a lot about what’s owed to us and what’s not owed to others. Mostly the latter, really.

Lots of words to do with owing have taken on something of a negative valence in recent years. We like to use these to describe things Others feel the should have. Take, for example, “entitlement.”

An entitlement is, generally, a thing people whom the speaker doesn’t like think they have a right to.

A right, by the way, is a thing I think I, or people I like, am owed a priori.

The social safety net—medicare, food stamps, low-income housing–for the poor is an “entitlement”. Even Social Security is an “entitlement,” as if you didn’t pay for it with 50 years of paychecks. The right wing in this country has long known how best to frame an argument.

It’s a new word. A racialized Word. And a weaponized Word. No one used it before 1940. After 1970, everybody started using it.

Do you think it’s an accident that this younger generation, the one at cultural odds with its parents, accidentally picked up the title of “entitled”?

So, most of the time, this language of “owing” is clear. I have a right to marry the person I love, i.e. morally, I am owed the same legal benefits as any other person who enters this subsection of the social contract.

Other times, it’s not so clear. At least, not so clear to me.

What does it mean, for example, that Israel has a “right to exist”? It has the ability to exist, and it has the ability to perpetuate its existence if it so chooses, but is that a “right”? Is Israel somehow “owed” existence? Or is any other nation-state? Does Iran also have a right to exist? Do these United States? Do I?

To me, such questions, and therefore such assertions, make little sense. I exist. I will, so long as it is within my power, defend my existence through such means as I see fit. Israel—and Iran—will do the same.

But that’s hardly the same thing as a right.

Closer to home, on the more concrete level: I was recently told in a conversation that “everyone deserves a safe space.”

This, too, is a puzzling. Is this person asserting the universal right to a careworn blanket and a cup of hot tea?** And how does one assert that right? What is the acceptable way to procure it if denied, to maintain it if threatened?

I want a safe space—more than one, if I can get it. But am I owed one?

**Individual safe spaces may vary. Offer not valid after your civilization has completed the Manhattan Project. Known to cause cancer in the state of California.

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Negative Theology

I rarely admit that I’m an atheist in public. Actually to be technical, I’m an agnostic – epistemology is important – but to the vast majority of people I might talk to, the distinction is meaningless.

My reluctance to do so is not, in point of fact, out of fear that I would be shunned or yelled at or in some way made to suffer for my (lack of) beliefs. If you’re the type of person who would behave badly towards someone because they disagree with you on God, you’re not someone I’m going to like anyway, and I would accept any negative animus from you as a point of pride. A person is to be judged by the quality of their enemies. Hated by the Daily Mail. You get the idea.

No, my reluctance stems from the fact that those who do admit their atheism in public are, almost universally, assholes.

Try to name a single public figure who has professed atheism who hasn’t subsequently been a gaping asshole on the subject of religion. Go on. I’m waiting.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Bill Nye. Richard Dawkins. The otherwise delightful Stephen Fry. The atheism of public intellectuals is aggressive and militant.

Case in point: this week, a young, black, Muslim made a clock and brought it to school. The administrative reaction, as you may have heard, does not reflect well on the state of racial and religious tolerance in these United States.

The breakdown of the popular reaction to this event fell into the expected liberal-conservative dichotomy. The talking heads have their marching orders, after all.

Except several well known public, liberal atheists broke ranks. I’m not going to name them; they don’t deserve the publicity. Google it if you want.

One said: “And this guy, this kid deserves an apology, because he wasn’t one of them… For the last 30 years, it’s been one culture that has been been blowing shit up over and over again.”

When I first read this, I was confused. Did this fellow somehow think a 14-year old was a member of the US armed forces? I thought for a second, and it came to me. And then I was angry. And then I was sad.

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The Medieval and the Modern, Part 3

(Part 1) (Part 2)

The war, as I have said, severed the connection to the medieval past through the brutality it inflicted on the land it touched and on those who participated in it. The stories of Captain Nevill and those like him—and there are many—continuously remind us of this fact. They tell us it is most emphatically not dulce et decorum to pro patria mori. Their irony remains a perpetual critique, and irony has defined the genre of war literature ever since.

After the fire comes new growth. A new approach to medieval history arose from the narrative wasteland of the postwar period. The history of the Middle Ages written after the Great War does not manage to entirely escape the nationalistic and antiquarian impulses of the prewar period, but it is aware and wary of them. The scope of the narrative expands, and for the first time, scholars begin to take a serious interest in those on the margins of their sources: heretics, the poor, women. The 1920s saw the birth of the Annales school and the beginnings of American medieval scholarship (the Medieval Academy of America was founded in 1925). With these changes came a new emphasis on original sources and, thankfully, citation. An example: in 1927, Ernst Kantorowicz published his great biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite certainly reflected the nationalistic fervor that defined Kantorowicz and the late Wiemar milieu that shaped him, but the book was not simply another ‘great man’ history. Kantorowicz sought after what the Annalistes had begun to call ‘mentalité‘—an understanding of Frederick as a person, of how the emperor saw the world, and not a simple listing of great deeds and decisive victories. And Kantorowicz could back up his claims. When critics dismissed his book as a Romantic flight of fancy—a criticism which could have been rightly leveled at almost any work produced twenty years earlier—Kantorowicz responded with a massive Ergänzungsband listing his sources and defending his arguments.

This radical shift in the scholarly approach to the medieval period was a response to the criticism leveled at the Romantic imaginary by the Great War. The old tropes and assumptions could no longer be taken as givens; irony had turned them all on their heads. The practice of history shifted to compensate. The broader and less nationally-oriented approach constituted an acknowledgement that much of what had come before had been myth-making and not fact-finding. But the old impulse behind historical inquiry, the one that sought out the legendary past as a pathway to individual and national identity, had fulfilled a very basic human need. The new history of the postwar period could not satisfy it; it needed another outlet. Unable to place such narratives in a historical reality, we turned to myth, and we called this myth ‘fantasy’ to to emphasize its distance from (historical) truth. This re-positioning is evident in the major works of the two great fantasy authors of the postwar period: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis is straightforward in his allegory. With The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he extracted an old foundation myth—that of Christianity itself—and transported it into the fantasy setting of Narnia. By thus extracting Christianity from the wrapping of reality, Lewis removed it from debates over the historical Jesus and other such attempts at justification, allowing what he saw as the universality of the Christian message to shine through. Lewis’ story never happened, but it is still somehow true. Tolkien, by contrast, professed that he “cordially dislike[d] allegory in all its manifestations, and have always done so since [he] grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. [He] much preferred history, true or feigned.” The Lord of the Rings is indeed a feigned history, Tolkien’s creation myth for the world. The events of The Lord of the Rings never happened; it cannot be history, and, although it is certainly imbued with Tolkien’s ethos and approach to life, it is not allegorical—we have the author’s word on that. Instead, this “feigned history” is Tolkien’s attempt to establish a pleasing origin story, a way of providing the sources of behaviors, ideas, and even words. Linguists have long puzzled over the origins of one of the two known surviving pre-Celtic words, ‘ond’, which means ‘stone’. Tolkien gave ‘ond’ an origin within his world, where we find it in Gondor (Stone-Land). Similarly, the bucolic lifestyle of the hobbits gave a precedent for the kind of English country life Tolkien cherished; the different bloodlines of Men did the same for the wisdom and brutality we now see in human nature. In other words, Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth was the creation of and justification for his identity. Just as the prewar historians used history, so Tolkien used fantasy.

In recent decades, the divide between historical reality and fantastical identity has started to collapse. More and more, we see an emphasis on the historicity of fantasy. The marketing of popular television shows such as Game of Thrones or Vikings emphasizes their realism (a term which is fast developing into a code word for blood and sex) and their historical inspiration. Yet the tension created by the Great War, the expectation of ironic laughter, still remains. We cannot allow history to have unironic heroism, but we simultaneously seek those founding myths, and thus we generate the tensions we have already observed in literature and film. To return to the example of The Kingdom of Heaven, each of the two characters we encounter provides an outlet for one of these necessities: Balin preserves the noble ideal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem renders delicious, expected irony. We leave our encounter with the medieval once again reassured of the nobility of our origins and the perversity of history.

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