Thierry on Conquest, Class, and the Theory of History

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Source: Augustin Thierry, History of the Conquest of England by the Normans; Its Causes, and its Consequences, in England, Scotland, Ireland, & on the Continent, translated from the seventh Paris edition, by William Hazlitt (London: H.G. Bohn, 1856). In 2 volumes. Vol. 1. Chapter: INTRODUCTION.

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The principal states of modern Europe have at present attained a high degree of territorial unity, and the habit of living under one same government and in the bosom of one same civilization, seems to have introduced among the population of each state an entire community of manners, language, and patriotism. Yet there is perhaps not one of them which does not still present to the inquirer living traces of the diversity of the races of men which, in the progress of time, have combined to form that population. This variety of races is displayed under different aspects. Here a complete separation of idioms, local traditions, political sentiments, and a sort of instinctive hostility, distinguish from the great national mass the population of particular districts, of limited extent; there a simple difference of idiom, or even of accent, marks, though more faintly, the limit of the settlements formed by peoples of diverse origin, and long separated by deep-seated animosities. The further we go back from the time in which we live, the more distinct do these varieties become; we clearly perceive the existence of several peoples in the geographical circumscription which bears the name of one alone: instead of varying provincial dialects, we find complete and regular languages; and that which in the light of the present seems merely defective civilization and protracted resistance to progress, assumes, in the past, the aspect of original manners and patriotic adherence to ancient institutions. In this way, facts themselves of no social importance, retain great historical value. It is a falsification of history to introduce into it a philosophical contempt for all that does not enter into the uniformity of existing civilization, or to regard as alone worthy of honourable mention the peoples with whose name the chances of events have connected the idea and the destiny of that civilization.

The populations of the European continent and its islands have come at various periods into juxtaposition, usurping the one from the other, territories already occupied, and arrested only in their progress, at the point where natural obstacles, or resistance more powerful than their attack, the result of some extraordinary combination of the conquered, absolutely compelled them to stop. Thus the conquered of various epochs have become, so to speak, ranged in layers of populations, in the different directions taken by the great migration of peoples. In this movement of successive invasions, the most ancient races, reduced to a few families, have deserted the plains and flown to the mountains, where they have maintained a poor but independent existence; while the invaders, invaded in their turn, have become serfs of the soil in the plains they occupied, from want of a vacant asylum in the impregnable recesses already possessed by those whom themselves had driven there.1

The conquest of England by William duke of Normandy, in the year 1066, is the last territorial conquest that has been operated in the western portion of Europe. The conquests effected there since that period have been political conquests, quite different from those of the barbarians, who transferred themselves and their families to the conquered territory, and apportioned it out among themselves, leaving to the conquered merely life, and this on condition of their doing all the work and keeping quiet. This invasion having taken place at a period nearer to our own than those of the populations which, in the fifth century, dismembered the Roman empire, we possess numerous documents elucidating well nigh every fact connected with its history, and which are even complete enough to give us a just idea of what a conquest in the middle ages was, how it was executed, and how maintained, what description of spoliations and sufferings it inflicted on the vanquished, and what means were employed by the latter to react against their invaders. Such a picture carefully traced in all its details, and set off in fitting colours, has an historical interest more general than might at first seem to belong to the limits of time and place within which itself is circumscribed, for almost every people in Europe has, in its actual existence, something derived from the conquests of the middle ages. It is to these conquests that the majority of them owe their geographical limits, the name they bear, and, in great measure, their internal constitution, that is to say, their distribution into orders and classes.

The higher and lower classes who, at the present day, keep so distrustful an eye upon one another, or actually struggle for systems of ideas and of government, are in many countries the lineal representatives of the peoples conquering and the peoples conquered of an anterior epoch. Thus the sword of the conquest, in renewing the face of Europe and the distribution of its inhabitants, has left its ancient impress upon each nation created by the admixture of various races. The race of the invaders, when it ceased to be a separate nation, remained a privileged class. It formed a military nobility, which, to avoid gradual extinction, recruiting its numbers from time to time from the more ambitious, adventurous, and turbulent of the inferior ranks, domineered over the laborious and peaceful masses below them, so long as the military government derived from the conquest endured. The invaded race, despoiled of property in the soil, of command, and of liberty, not living by the sword but by the compulsory labour of their hands, dwelling not in castles but in towns, formed a separate society beside the military association of the conquerors. Whether it retained, within the walls of its towns, the remains of Roman civilization, or whether, aided by only a slight vestige of that civilization, it had commenced a new civilization of its own, this class raised its head in proportion as the feudal organization of the nobles by descent or political affiliation, declined.

Hitherto the historians of the modern peoples, in relating these great events, have transported the ideas, the manners, and the political position of their own time to past ages. The chroniclers of the feudal period placed the barons and peerage of Philip-Augustus in the court of Charlemagne, and confounded the savage government and brute force of the conquest with the more regular rule and more fixed usages of the feudal establishment. The historians of the monarchical era, who have constituted themselves exclusively the historians of the prince, have proceeded on even narrower and more singular ideas; they modelled the Germanic royalty of the first conquerors of the Roman empire, and the feudal royalty of the 12th century, upon the vast and powerful royalties of the 17th. In the history of France, the various invasions of Gaul, the numerous populations, different in origin and manners, settled upon its territory, the division of the soil into several countries, because there were several peoples, and lastly, the union, which it required six hundred years to effect, of all these countries under one sceptre; these are facts wholly neglected by the writers in question. The historians formed by the 18th century are, in like manner, absorbed in the philosophy of their period. Witnesses of the progress of the middle classes, and organs of their wants as against the legislation and the opinions of the middle ages, they have not calmly viewed or correctly described the old times in which the classes they championed scarce enjoyed civil existence. Full of a disdain inspired by abstract right and reason, they treated facts as nought: a process which may be very well with the view of operating a revolution in men’s minds and in the state, but by no means proper in the composition of history. Yet we must not be surprised at all this; whatever superiority of mind a man may possess, he cannot overpass the horizon of his century; each new epoch gives to history new points of view and a special form.

In the present day, however, it is no longer permissible to write history for the profit of one single idea; our age will not sanction it; it requires to be told everything, to have portrayed and explained to it the existence of nations at various epochs; and that each past century shall have assigned to it its true place, its colour, and its signification. This is what I have endeavoured to do with the great event of which I have undertaken to write the history. I have consulted none but original texts and documents, either for the details of the various circumstances narrated, or for the characters of the persons and populations that figure in them. I have drawn so largely upon these texts, that, I flatter myself, little is left in them for other writers. The national traditions of the less known populations and old popular ballads, have supplied me with infinite indications of the mode of existence, the feelings, and the ideas of men at the period and in the places whither I transport the reader.

As to the narrative, I have adhered as closely as possible to the language of the ancient historians, contemporaries of the facts related, or but little removed from them in point of time. When I have been obliged to supply their inadequacy by general considerations, I have sought to give authority to these by citing the original passages on which I had relied in my deductions. Lastly, I have throughout preserved the narrative form, so that the reader might not abruptly pass from an old tradition to a modern commentary, or my work present the incongruous aspect of fragments of chronicles intermingled with dissertations. I thought, besides, that if I applied myself rather to relate than to lecture, even in the exposition of general facts and results, I might communicate a sort of historical life to the masses of men as well as to the individual personages, and that thus the political career of nations might offer somewhat of that human interest which is aroused by an unaffected account of the mutations of fortune and adventures of an individual.

I propose, then, to exhibit, in the fullest detail, the national struggle which followed the conquest of England by the Normans established in Gaul; to reproduce every particular afforded by history of the hostile relations of two peoples violently placed together upon the same soil; to follow them throughout their long wars and their obstinate segregation, up to the period when, by the intermixture of their races, manners, wants, languages, there was formed one sole nation, one common language, one uniform legislation. The scene of this great drama is England, Scotland. Ireland, and also France, by reason of the numerous relations which the successors of the Conqueror had, since the invasion, with that portion of the European continent. On the French side of the Channel, as well as on the other, their enterprises have modified the political and social existence of many populations whose history is almost completely unknown. The obscurity in which these populations have become involved does not arise from any unworthiness on their part to have had historians, equally with other populations; most of them, on the contrary, are remarkable for an originality of character which distinguishes them in the most marked manner from the great nations into which they have been absorbed, and in resistance to a fusion with which they have displayed a political activity, the moving cause of many great events that have hitherto been erroneously attributed to the ambition of particular individuals, or to other accidental causes. The research into the history of these populations may contribute to solve the problem, hitherto undecided, of the varieties of the human race in Europe, and of the great primitive races whence these varieties derive.

Under this philosophical point of view, and independent of the picturesque interest which I have endeavoured to create, I hoped to aid the progress of science by constructing, if I may use the expression, the history of the Welsh, of the Irish of pure race, of the Scots, both those of the primitive and those of the mixed race, of the continental Bretons and Normans, and more especially of the numerous population then, as now, inhabiting Southern Gaul, between the Loire, the Rhone, and the two seas. Without assigning to the great facts of history less importance than they merit, I have applied myself with peculiar interest to the local events relating to these hitherto neglected populations, and while necessarily relating their revolutions in a summary manner, I have done this with that sort of sympathy, with that sentiment of pleasure, which one experiences in repairing an injustice. The establishment of the great modern states has been mainly the work of force; the new societies have been formed out of the wrecks of the old societies violently destroyed, and in this labour of recomposition, large masses of men have lost, amid heavy sufferings, their liberty, and even their name as a people, replaced by a foreign name. Such a movement of destruction was, I am aware, inevitable. However violent and illegitimate it may have been in its origin, its result has been the civilization of Europe. But while we render to this civilization its due homage, while we view with glowing admiration the noble destiny it is preparing for the human race, we may regard with a certain tender regret the downfal of other civilizations that might one day have also grown and fructified for the world, had fortune favoured them.

This brief explanation was necessary to prevent that feeling of surprise which the reader might otherwise have felt upon finding in this work, the history not merely of one, but of several conquests, written in a method the very reverse of that hitherto employed by modern historians. All of these, following what seemed to them the natural path, go from the conquerors to the conquered; they take their stand in the camp where there is triumph, rather than in that where there is defeat, and exhibit the conquest as accomplished the moment that the victor has proclaimed himself master, taking no more heed than he to the ulterior resistance which his policy has afterwards defeated. Thus, for all those who, until recently, have written the history of England, there are no Saxons after the battle of Hastings and the coronation of William the Bastard; a romance writer, a man of genius, was the first to teach the modern English that their ancestors of the eleventh century were not all utterly defeated and crushed in one single day.

A great people is not so promptly subjugated as the official acts of those who govern it by the law of the strongest would appear to indicate. The resuscitation of the Greek nation proves how great a misconception it is to take the history of kings, or even that of conquering peoples, for that of the whole country over which they rule. Patriotic regret lives on in the depth of a nation’s heart, long after the desire to raise its fallen condition has become hopeless. This sentiment of patriotism, when it is no longer adequate to the creation of armies, still creates bands of guerillas, of political highwaymen in the forest or on the mountain, and venerates as martyrs those who die in the field or on the gibbet, in its cause. Such is what recent investigations have taught us with reference to the Greek nation,1 and what I have myself discovered with respect to the Anglo-Saxon race, in tracing out its history where no one previously had sought it, in the popular legends, traditions, and ballads. The resemblance between the state of the Greeks under the Turks and that of the English of Saxon race under the Normans, not only in the material features of the subjugation, but in the peculiar form assumed by the national spirit amidst the sufferings of its oppression, in the moral instincts and superstitious opinions arising out of it, in the manner of hating those whom it would fain, but could not, conquer, and of loving those who still struggled on while the mass of their countrymen had bent the neck—all this is well worthy of remark. It is a resemblance in the investigation of which much light may be thrown upon the moral study of man.

To keep in view the distinction of races in England after the conquest, does not merely communicate importance to facts before unperceived or neglected: it gives an entirely new aspect and signification to events celebrated in themselves, but hitherto incorrectly elucidated. The protracted quarrel between Henry II. and archbishop Becket is one of these events; a version of that affair, entirely differing from the account previously most accredited, will be found in the present work. If, in relating the struggle between these famous personages, the philosophic historians have taken part against the weaker and more unfortunate of the two, it is from not having viewed the struggle under its true aspect, from not having been thoroughly acquainted with all the elements of which the mutual hate of the antagonists was composed. They have wholly laid aside, in reference to a man assassinated with the most odious circumstances, all those principles of justice and philanthropy which they so energetically profess. Six hundred years after his murder, they have assailed his memory with the fiercest malignity; and yet there is nothing in common between the cause of the enemies of Thomas Becket, in the twelfth century, and that of philosophy in the eighteenth. Henry II. was no citizen king, no champion of religious independence, no systematic antagonist of papal domination; there was nothing of the sort, as will be seen, in his inveterate hostility to a man against whom he was the first to solicit the assistance of the pope.

If the grave circumstances which marked the dispute of the fifth king of Norman race with the first archbishop of English race since the conquest, are to be attributed, more than to any other cause, to the still living animosity between conqueror and conquered, another fact, equally important, the great civil war under John and Henry III. was also a quarrel of races rather than of government. Its real motive was the fear, well or ill founded, which the barons of Norman origin entertained, of experiencing a conquest, in their turn, on the part of other foreigners called into England by the kings, and of being despoiled of their territories and of the ruling power by Poitevins, Aquitans, and Provençals, as, a century and a half before, they themselves had dispossessed the Saxons. It was this material, personal interest, and no lofty desire to found political institutions, that made the barons and knights of England rise up against their kings. If this great aristocratic movement was sustained by popular favour, it was because the alarm of a second conquest, and the indignation against those who sought to bring it about, were common to the poor and to the rich, to the Saxon and to the Norman.

A close examination of all the political phenomena that accompanied the conquests of the middle ages, and of the part taken in them by religion, have led me to a new manner of considering the progress of papal power and of catholic unity. Hitherto historians have represented this power as extending itself solely by metaphysical influence, as conquering by persuasion, whereas it is certain that its conquests, like all other conquests, have been effected by the ordinary means, by material means. The popes may not have headed military expeditions in person, but they have been partners in almost all the great invasions and in the fortune of the conquerors, even in that of conquerors still pagans. It was the destruction of the independent churches effected throughout Christian Europe concurrently with that of the free nations, which gave reality to the title of universal, assumed by the Roman church long before there was anything to warrant the assumption. From the fifth century up to the thirteenth, there was not a single conquest which did not profit the court of Rome quite as much as it profited those who effected it with sword and lance. A consideration of the history of the middle ages under this hitherto unnoticed aspect has given me, for the various national churches which the Roman church stigmatized as heretical or schismatic, the same sort of interest and sympathy which I expressed just now for the nations themselves. Like the nations, the national churches have succumbed to powers that had no sort of right over them; the independence they claimed for their doctrines and their government was a part of the moral liberty consecrated by Christianity.

Ere I conclude, I would say a few words as to the plan and composition of this work. Pursuant to its title, it will be found to contain a complete narrative of all the details relating to the Norman conquest, placed between two other briefer narratives—one, of the facts preceding and preparing that conquest; the other, of those which flowed from it as necessary consequences. Before introducing the personages who figure in the great drama of the conquest, I was desirous of making the reader acquainted with the ground on which its various scenes were to take place. For this purpose, I have carried him with me from England to the Continent, from the Continent to England. I have explained the origin, the internal and external situation, the first relations of the population of England with that of Normandy, and by what chances these relations became so complicated as necessarily to involve hostility and invasion. The success of the Norman invasion crowned by the battle of Hastings, produced a conquest, the progress, settlement and direct results of which form several distinctly marked epochs.

The first epoch is that of territorial usurpation: it commences with the battle of Hastings, on the 14th of October, 1066, and embracing the successive progress of the conquerors from east to west and from south to north, terminates in 1070, when every centre of resistance had been broken up, and every powerful native who survived had submitted or abandoned the country. The second epoch, that of political usurpation, begins where the first ends; it comprehends the series of efforts made by the Conqueror to disorganize and denationalize the conquered population. It terminates in 1076 with the execution of the last chief of Saxon race, and the decree degrading the last bishop of that race. During the third epoch, the Conqueror is engaged in subjecting to regular order the violent results of the conquest, and in converting the forcible possession of lands by his soldiers into legal if not legitimate property; this epoch terminates in 1086, by a comprehensive review of all the conquerors in possession of estates, who, renewing to the king in a body the oath of fealty, figure for the first time as an established nation, and no longer as merely an army in the field. The fourth epoch is occupied with the intestine quarrels of the conquering nation, and with its civil wars, whether for the possession of the conquered territory or for the right of rule there. This period, more extended than the preceding, terminates in 1152, with the extinction of all the pretenders to the throne of England, except one, Henry, son of Geoffroy, earl of Anjou, and of the empress Matilda, niece of the Conqueror. Lastly, in the fifth epoch, the Normans of England and of the continent, having no intestine dissensions wherein to expend their activity and their strength, either go forth from their two centres of action to conquer and colonize abroad, or extend their supremacy without themselves moving. Henry II. and his successor Richard I. are the representatives of this epoch, filled with wars upon the continent, and with new territorial or political conquests. It terminates, in the earlier part of the thirteenth century, by a reaction against the Anglo-Norman power, a reaction so violent that Normandy itself, the native land of the kings, lords, and chivalry of England, is severed for ever from the country to which it had given its conquerors.

With these various epochs correspond successive changes in the lot of the Anglo-Saxon nation; it first loses the property in the soil; next, its ancient political and religious organization; then, favoured by the divisions of its masters, and siding with the kings against their revolted vassals, it obtains concessions which give it a momentary hope of once more becoming a people, and it even essays a vain attempt to enfranchise itself by force. Lastly, overwhelmed by the extinction of parties in the Norman population, it ceases to play any political part, loses its national character in public acts and in history, and falls altogether into the condition of an inferior class. Its subsequent revolts, extremely rare of occurrence, are simply referred to by the contemporary writers as quarrels between the poor and the rich; and it is the account of an outbreak of this nature, which took place at London in 1196, under the conduct of a person evidently or Saxon race, that concludes the circumstantial narrative of the facts relating to the conquest.

Having brought the history of the Norman conquest up to this point, I have carried on, in a more summary form, that of the populations of various race which figure in the main body of the work. The resistance they opposed to the more powerful nations, their defeat, the establishment of the conquerors among them, the revolutions they essayed and accomplished, the events, political or military, over which they exercised an influence, the fusion of people, languages, and manners, and the exact period of this fusion, all this I have endeavoured clearly to exhibit and to demonstrate. This last portion of the work, where a special article is devoted to each race of men, begins with the continental populations which have since become French. Next come those, now called English, each in its rank; the Welsh, whose spirit of nationality is so tenacious that it has survived a territorial conquest; the Scots, who have never undergone any such conquest, and who have struggled with such vast energy against a political conquest; the Irish, who had better have become serfs, like the Anglo-Saxons, than have preserved a precarious liberty at the expense of peace, of individual and family happiness, and of the civilization of their country; lastly, the population of England herself, of Norman or Saxon origin, where these national differences become a distinction of classes, less and less marked, as time progressed.

I have only now to mention one other historical innovation, of no less importance than the rest; the retaining the orthography of the Saxon, Norman, and other names, so as to keep constantly marked out the distinction of races, and to secure that local colouring, which is one of the conditions, not merely of historic interest, but of historic truth. I have, in like manner, taken care not to apply to one period the language, forms, or titles of another. In a word, I have essayed thoroughly to reintegrate political facts, details of manners, official forms, languages, and names; so as, by restoring to each period comprised in my narrative its external aspect, its original features, its reality, to communicate to this portion of history the certitude and fixity which are the distinguishing characteristics of the positive sciences.

[1 ] The principal movements of population in the western continent, previous to our era, are related in detail, and, as I think, with rare sagacity by my brother, Amédée Thierry in his Histoire des Gaulois.

[1 ] See M. Fauriel’s excellent historical dissertations, in his collection of Chants Populaires de la Grèce Modèrne.