For the tens of thousands of years of the Würm glaciation, Paleolithic hunting tribes lived at the southern edge of the ice fields in Europe and Asia. About 10,000 years ago, as the last of the glaciers receded, some groups chose to follow the retreating ice northwards. While their cousins in the warmer regions to the south were smelting metal, these hardy tribes were knapping flint. While the southerners were inventing agriculture, slavery, and the ziggurat, the northerners were hunting large game in the chilly grasslands and forests of Central Asia and Northern Europe.
One such group arose in the steppes of Central Asia, shifting to the Neolithic era by taming the horse and other livestock. These folk lived a nomadic existence, migrating in all directions during the last several millennia before the birth of Christ. For want of a better term, they are known as “Indo-Europeans”, in reference to the language group their descendents propagated throughout the western half of Eurasia.
Some of the migrants turned south, invading, conquering, and taking up the ways of the city-states in the Indus Valley, Anatolia, and the Mediterranean basin. Other branches moved westwards and northwards, both in Europe and in Asia, displacing the indigenes and even opening up ice-free territory to humans for the first time.
Two major waves of Indo-Europeans migrated into Western and Northern Europe. Celtic tribes swept through Central Europe to take up residence in what is now Germany, France, the Low Countries, and the British Isles. Later Germanic tribes pressed on after the Celts, supplanting them in many places, moving northwards into Scandinavia and pushing the ancestors of the Lapps and the Finns further up the Baltic and into the Arctic.
The Celtic and Germanic tribes were closely related; some ethnologists consider them to be two branches of the same group. Their cultures were similar; they traded with one another, fought with one another, and presumably intermarried. But all across northern Europe the Germanic tribes nevertheless pushed the Celts further and further west, until their last remaining outposts were the British Isles. The Romans assisted the Germanic conquests by hiring Frankish tribes as mercenaries against the Celts in Gaul.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the now-ascendant Germanic tribes of the Low Countries, Jutland, and northern Germany saw their opportunity. During the 5th and 6th centuries A.D., wave after wave of tiny boats carried these various German tribes across the cold North Sea to Britain. They massacred or drove out the Romanized and Christian Celts, pushing them west and north, and stayed on to till the soil and raise livestock.
Three major groups descended on Britain. The Jutes, originating in Jutland and Holstein, settled in what is now Kent. Meanwhile, the Angles came from northern Germany, particularly Schleswig, and settled in Norfolk and Suffolk. The Saxons migrated from the region between the Elbe and Weser valleys in northwest Germany to occupy south-central England and what eventually became Wessex.
But, of course, this account simplifies a chaotic mélange of related tribes who mixed and feuded with one another as well as with their Celtic neighbors.
As the country was subdued, the settlers established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the region of Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall and east of Offa’s Dyke. The Christian Celts were driven into Wales and Ireland, while the pagan groups speaking more or less mutually intelligible Low German dialects occupied what is now England.
As the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, the kingdoms of England became less chaotic and violent. With stable farming communities, a literate clergy, and a system of inherited kingship, Britain adopted the general model of contemporary European Christian culture.
But to the north and east the Scandinavian tribes still seethed with pagan violence. As their numbers increased, there was little territory into which the surplus population could expand. The available arable or pastoral land was limited, and inland from the fjords were slopes of rocky scree, and then the glaciers.
So the tough and pugnacious younger sons took to the sea in their longboats, and the age of the Viking raiders began.
When the monastery at Lindisfarne in northern England was sacked by the Vikings in 793, it was recorded by the Northumbrian chronicler Alcuin as an event of unspeakable brutality. Yet two and a half centuries earlier it was Alcuin’s ancestors, the heathen Saxons, who had slaughtered and raped their way through the Christian communities of Britain. The Vikings were scarcely different; they were just late to the game.
Over the next two or three centuries the relentless Vikings raided their way across Europe. From Greenland to Algiers, from Labrador to the Volga, the Vikings made their presence felt. From Sweden they crossed the Baltic and rowed up the rivers into Russia. They ported their boats across to the Don and the Dnepr and the Volga, and sailed to the Black Sea and the farthest reaches of southeastern Europe. Rounding Gibraltar, Vikings raided the Mediterranean coasts of Iberia, Italy, and Muslim North Africa. The Vikings even had the rare distinction of taking Arabs as slaves.
But, despite the conquest and slaughter, and unlike the Arabs (who were dedicated slave-traders), the Vikings did not generally take slaves during their raids. Perhaps the necessity of rapid movement by sea and the long passages through the cold northern waters discouraged the practice.
The Vikings were otherwise dedicated traders, establishing fortified mercantile settlements wherever they went. The Norse Vikings, after plundering the many rich monastic targets in Ireland and northwestern Scotland, established trading centers which became Dublin, Limerick, and other major Irish cities. In their wake they left their blond-haired genes to supplement the black hair of the Celts.
What made the Vikings different from the Anglo-Saxons was their failure to impose their culture on the people they conquered. They were content to rule and prosper, adopting the language and customs of the people they defeated. The different branches of Viking invaders — the Rus, the Normans, the Danes in England, the Norse in Scotland and Ireland — became, after two or three generations, indistinguishable from the folk they conquered.
When Danish Vikings invaded and occupied large sections of England, the result was to cement the unity of the Anglo-Saxons against them. The English accepted the Danelaw in northeastern England. They paid the Danegeld; however, over the next century the English gradually incorporated the Danes and merged with them.
Their two cultures and languages were similar; hundreds of Old English words were so close to Old Norse that Danish versions supplanted the English ones. When the heathen Vikings converted to Christianity, there remained little to distinguish them from the English. By the time the Danish king Canute became king of England in 1017, the Danelaw and England had become a single culture.
In 1066, England was conquered by a different group of Northmen, from across the English channel in France.
These Normans were descendents of the Vikings who had raided and plundered in northern France. In the process of settling there, like Vikings all across Europe, they had forgotten their own language and culture and had taken on that of the people they conquered. Consequently, when the Normans abolished the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in England and established their own legal system, they were importing a variant of ancestral Roman law.
Like other Mediterranean cultures, Rome had possessed political and legal structures whose lineage could be traced all the way back to the earliest city-states of Mesopotamia. For thousands of years the polities of the region had been centralized agricultural city-states, with rigid hierarchical structures and elaborately bureaucratized administration.
Conversion to Christianity did not change this ancient underlying worldview. Thus, God granted authority to the sovereign, who in turn dispensed justice and mercy to his subjects. Any rights the common people possessed were passed on to (or withheld from) them by the sovereign. This was the natural order of the world, and had been so for time out of mind.
I call this southern system of governance the “Pharaonic model”. It widely diverged from and was in conflict with the ways of the Normans’ English vassals. Their northern practice was represented by the yeomanry, the society of free-born petty landholders, who governed themselves by time-honored Anglo-Saxon custom.
This is not to say that the Anglo-Saxons had no hierarchy. However, it was a shallower and more fluid system than its Pharaonic counterpart. Anglo-Saxon governance was based on the prowess and virtue of those who were deemed noble, and instead of a Pharaoh there was a Cyning, a King, who represented his folk as their exemplar, rather than as their ruler.
A yeoman’s rights were granted directly to him by God and could not be revoked by his sovereign. The Normans, in order to rule their new lands successfully, were required to recognize the “ancient liberties” of their Anglo-Saxon subjects. When his rebellious barons compelled the Norman King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, they were simply retaking their ancient liberties. The customs of the men of the North thus survived despite the Normans and became the English Common Law.
Over the next four centuries the Common Law was elaborated into the English Constitution, with its Parliament and system of justice. This, then, was the political model that the English settlers carried in their minds when they debarked into the mosquito-ridden swamps of Virginia in 1607.
English governance was transplanted successfully to North America, but the character of the new land was not solely English. The landless younger sons of the gentry, the fugitives and criminals, the religious refugees, and the political outcasts who initially came to America were drawn from the most adventurous and entrepreneurial of the Anglo-Saxon and Danish bloodlines.
These, in turn, were soon supplemented by massive numbers of Celts, first the Scots-Irish, driven by poverty and political maginalization. They pushed beyond the English settlers into the Appalachian highlands. After the Revolution, they in their turn were supplemented by waves of surplus Irish. Near where I live in Virginia, there was a large Welsh community, drawn here by geography: the ample deposits of slate created a demand for their well-known quarrying expertise.
With a tradition of fierce independence and a martial spirit, the Celts were scarcely governable except on their own terms. Combined with the yeoman small-holders from the English tradition, they formed the basis of what is now “redneck” culture, and were the backbone of the American military in all our wars.
And this was not only true in the United States — the Scots and the Irish outnumbered the English throughout the British Empire. Wherever the soldiers, sailors, and merchants of the British Isles went, the Celts were over-represented.
North America received further transfusions of northern European blood throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Dutch and the Germans were already well-represented in the original colonies. In the later 19th century Swedes and Norwegians spread across the northern plains of the United States and Canada, bringing with them an ability to withstand the harsh winters and an additional dose of the spirit of the North. The same folk who settled Greenland and Iceland came centuries later to homestead the frozen lake country of Minnesota and North Dakota.
This, then, is the complex American character, which is the largest facet of what is now known as the Anglosphere. But it is no more English than it is Irish or Scottish or Danish or Welsh. It is the character of the Men of the North, and is best represented by the Minutemen, the freeborn citizens who took up arms in 1776 to retake their ancient liberties.
What was originally a racial characteristic had long become a cultural one. It remains open to anyone who cares to accept the rules and join the game. After all, Thomas Sowell has shown that the descendents of African slaves adopted Southern redneck culture, and not just its positive aspects. Prior to the Multicultural Age the main attraction of our country was that anyone who came here, obeyed the law, and took the oath became an American.
The Pharaonic model was neither understood nor welcomed here. We are the descendents of those Paleolithic hunters, and when the Minutemen rose up in self-defense, they were, in effect, confronting another mastodon with their flint-tipped spears. They were a voluntary and self-organized group, taking collective action by common consent to serve a common purpose.
We are not so many generations removed from the Men of the North; their spirit can still be revived. The welfare state is only a recent graft onto the tree of Liberty. It is as ephemeral as was the Norman yoke on the shoulders of English yeomen.
The Men of the North faced lethal reality with nothing more than their courage, their wits, and a willingness to co-operate with one another. We will need to do the same again.
A new mastodon is looming in the glacial mist. We can only hope that the art of knapping flint is not completely forgotten.
This essay was inspired by a comment from Archonix on one of Dymphna’s posts:
Rather than Europe in general, America more resembles pre-Norman England and Scandinavia — especially… Denmark. Funny, that. The Nordic legal system rested first on the primacy of the individual’s rights and responsibilities and went from there. And even post-Norman England retained most of that individualism, despite the imposition of Frankish bureaucracy — i.e. the Domesday Book. Because those Normans, as you may know, were originally from somewhere around southern Sweden or Norway.
In trying to define Western Civilization, I have often asked the question, “Who are we?” This is part of the answer.
When we Americans look at Denmark — and the response of the Danes to the aggressive provocation of the Mohammed Cartoon Crisis — we are looking in a mirror. We would be well-advised to emulate our Viking cousins when our own turn comes.