Back and Forth
I have been seriously sidetracked over the last couple of weeks by the Byzantine empire. I’m not a historian but Lars Brownworth’s podCasts have led me to John Julius Norwich’s book A Short History of Byzantium which, at 431 pages may be considered “short” for historical texts but weighs in as “long” in my normal world. Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings has long been one of my favourites.
The two Byzantine sources have juxtaposed history about which I knew and history about which I didn’t and the extra context is fascinating. All schoolchildren taught in England know of Harald Hardrada as the general who led his Norse soldiers to defeat at the battle of Stamford Bridge, near York. To an English schoolchild Harald appears out of nowhere and gets killed to set Harold (with an ‘o’) Godwinson up for his march south to meet William the Conqueror (another leader who appears from nowhere) at Hastings. Norwich’s book puts both Harald and William into context. In 1038, Harald was returning from pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was sidetracked into successfully leading a contingent of Varangians against the Saracens. In parallel, the Normans were also trampling across southern Europe. The amount of travel these people managed is astonishing—although of course they didn’t have to deal with the Air Canada check-in procedure—consider the logistics required to bring an army of 30’000 people 2’000 km over hostile territory.
So a whole context has been created for me and the English history has changed.
Let me start just one more track and then try to bring them together. Another podCast onto which I have stumbled is an excellent reading of Plato’s Republic. I can find no information about this—the reader is excellent, bringing the dialogues to life but I can find neither information about the translation nor his identity. Very strange.
Again, context is everything. While knowing the truism that all philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, I really believe that philosophy began in the second half of the 19th century with Frege, Husserl and friends. Once, a long time ago, when I was younger and foolisher (and a lot more romantic!), a girl and I sat in a graveyard to read some of the dialogues but I have long forgotten both the name of the girl and what Socrates taught us.
All contexts obviously spread endlessly both temporally and spacially—to understand what happened at Stamford Bridge I need to know about the Varangians and what drove Harald to Jerusalem. That can only be put into context by an in-depth knowledge of the rise of Islam which itself depends on the interaction between the Arab and Indian civilisations (not to mention the Mongols)…
So, where does this leave progress? I’m afraid, nowhere. In barbarism we have our equals in the Byzantines. In 1014, following the battle of Cimbalongus, Basil captured 15’000 Bulgar soldiers. He had 99 out of each 100 blinded in both eyes but left the hundredth captive with one eye so that he could lead his 99 colleagues back to Prespa. In sex, which Larkin claimed was invented in 1963 (which was rather late for him), we also seem to be somewhat behind; Theodora, the wife of Justinian, had a hobby of stripping naked, lying on her back and having slaves sprinkle her body with corn before allowing geese to peck it off. In philosophy we are apparently still writing footnotes to someone who lived 1000 years before the Byzantine empire reached its height.
One of the questions that has long puzzled me about the 100 Years War between France and England was why the French never learned about the longbow. Over a period of 80 years, culminating with Agincourt, they never learned that you cannot fight rapid fire archers by charging them on horses. But then, the US military has not learned in 40 years that you cannot defeat a popular insurgency by deploying aircraft.
As I read the Alisoun poem again last night, I realised that, while our spelling may have changed, our sensitivities have not in the last 700 years. No, I must ask to opt out of thoughts of progress.