“Invaders and settlers”

Les invasions normandes — une catastrophe? is one of a handful of books owing their place on my shelf to the title. To English ears, the Norman Conquest was something the French did to the English, and it seems amusing to think some French author might view that venture as having been on balance harmful to French interests. Another such was on the wedding of Diana and Charles by Josy Argy and Wendy Riches, for the surnames of the authors (remembering that the Falklands War had recently taken place). A third is Schlangen, wie ich sie sah, a fine book for boys whose title could only be translated as “Snakes as I have seen them”.

The Normans may have spoken fluent French by the time they bested King Alfred at the Battle of Hastings, but not long before, they arrived in France as uncouth Germanic barbarians. China and Greece are two examples of civilisations that quickly achieved cultural dominion over their conquerors. Les invasions normandes … is of course about what France suffered (or not) rather than what France did to England. It is representative of a tendency in twentieth-century historiography exemplified in the case of the greatest cataclysm of them all, the fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Brown, a specialist in late antiquity. Perhaps much continued largely unchanged for many in some places, or perhaps most of the contraction had already occurred under the late emperors. At some point, the aqueducts ceased to flow, the baths and theatres were converted to rubbish tips, the corn shipments stopped; on the other hand, the new rulers were or became Christian, and monks still cultivated Latin, carrying much of classical civilisation with them under their unwashed robes. That culture was always the preserve of an elite, and continued to be so.

Like the collapse of homeostasis I posted about recently, the death of a civilisation is full of contingency, so it is difficult to say — related questions — what were its causes, where the loss hurt most (baths, annona or letters?), or to whom it made a difference, let alone when it overarchingly occurred. For that reason, it is more plausible than it might immediately appear to suppose that we are currently passing through such a transition — whoever “we” are — one that may soon become as immediately unpleasant in certain more sheltered parts of the world as it already is in some others. Smartphone, schmartphone.

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