Friday, June 22, 2012

The eternal British ruling class and their left cover

I have spent quite a lot of my reading time over the past few months perusing books about palaeoanthropology and archaeology, particularly centred on the island of Britain books (for instance Francis Pryor’s Britain AD, Chris Stringer’s Homo Britannicus). I have immensely enjoyed some aspects of these books, not least their consistent materialism set in a full scientific framework explained in easily accessible language. But I’m spotting a trend in some of these works and this is finding an even more vulgar echo in some sections of the media.

That trend is the projection backwards in time of the British ruling class. Today, the BBC carried an article called ‘Stonehenge was built to unite Britain.’ This sort of shoddy journalism can only exist because some experts in the field perpetuate the view that there is something inherently British about such sites as Stonehenge – essentially that the people of Wiltshire today are more closely connected with those sites than people in County Kerry or Provence or Kiev or even Ecuador. This is simply not true and its annoying me a lot.

The idea is that our island population has been essentially static: that for the last 11,000 years there have been a community of people on the island of Britain that have developed uniquely. Now, rightwingers and reactionaries like to claim that we developed independently over the last 1500 years and you can easily dismiss the drivel they come out with. The problem I have is with faux radical writers taking up a nuance of this argument.

Pryor is a case in point. His Britain AD is supposed to be a radical revisionist history of Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire. The argument he puts forward is aimed at the conservative view that the Romano-Celtic (although Pryor rejects the idea of ‘Celts’ and therefore calls them Romano-British, more on that another day) population of the island was decimated in the south and east, being pushed into enclaves in the north and west. Now, there is a massive amount of evidence that undermines this ‘Mass Invasion’ view of cultural change in Britain and Pryor rightly takes aim at this essentially racist English origin myth. He marshals material and archaeological evidence to show there were no massive conflicts, social breakdown or massacres at the time. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, he then goes on to suggest that population movements in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire were negligible. This literally leaves him arguing that the entire population of the south and east of Britain rejected the cosmopolitan mixture of Romano-Celtic languages and culture that existed at the time and decided to develop a Germanic language and introduce Frisian legends and styles of dress. They did all this within one century, shedding Iron Age traditions that had existed for a millennium.

A much more probable scenario involves the settling in Britain of a new ruling class drawn from tribes that existed on the periphery of the Roman Empire. A similar process happened in Lombardy, Visigothic Spain, Vandal Africa and Frankish Gaul. Over time, cultural interaction meant the rise of new composite cultures within these territories that gave us the beginnings of Medieval states. The balance between Roman and non-Roman elements in the new composite cultures differed in each territory – non-Roman influence is almost non-existent in Italy and Spain, was wiped out by the Arab expansion in North Africa but did leave a greater legacy in France. England is simply another example of this process, with Northern European settlers leaving a much greater legacy to the composite English culture.

Pryor would have us believe something different – that alone amongst Western European territories, England saw no significant population changes and developed its own ‘English’ local culture. England’s experience is the exception, a special case.

From this follows an almost logical position that there has been a continuity to the British (read English) experience from that time. Pryor himself projects this further back by talking (rightly) about continuity with Bronze Age and Iron Age traditions. The BBC article today simply extends this back into the Neolithic.

This argument is nothing more than a faux radicalism that serves to serves to create a British identity that is eternal. The fact that this rubbish is being perpetuated by otherwise leftwing writers (as Pryor undoubtedly is) simply gives it more credence. Their rationalisation of this process means that the BBC can you use the 2012 national splurge to help popularise this idea.

We shouldn’t be soft on these inconsistencies are they are important. We need to argue for a correct view of history that recognises the importance of events on a species wide basis – not one that promotes the development of your own ruling class as somehow special and eternal.
Apologies for the incoherence of this Friday afternoon rant.

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