Saturday, May 20, 2017

The metres lost, the metres gained

What is gone, but still remembered, is quite vivid and easy to see. What is yet to come is often only perceived dimly, if at all.

For a reactionary, taking a walk through the Basilique de Saint Denis in Paris is a singular and sobering experience.

Inside the church are the remains of 34 of the 37 Kings of France. This is a glorious history spanning from 481 A.D. to (depending on how you want to mark it) either 1792 or 1848. Just ponder how long that really is, and how many nations and empires rose and fell in that time.

It all was brutally cut down in the French revolution, though it recurred in fits and starts during the general chaos that was France in the 19th century.

But the tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that the glory of the institution is so utterly forgotten as to be almost irrelevant in modern France.

If you turn up in Saint Denis, dear reader, you will probably have the place almost to yourself. As indeed I did when I was there. Just me, Charles Martel, Louis XIV, and Clovis I.

I remember once asking a French friend of mine, "How exactly is the French Revolution portrayed in French schools? Is it an unalloyed good? Mostly good? Mostly bad? A mixture of good and bad? Opinions differ between good and bad?"

"Oh, it's a good thing", he replied. "You know, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - those things hadn't been tried before."

Deciding to elide over his odd narrative of the history of freedom, I instead opted for the more specific:
"But what about the Terror? And the 90-odd years of political instability that followed?"

His reply, "Oh yeah, I guess we don't talk about that stuff so much."

To the French, the only French history worth studying begins with the Revolution. Everything before that seems to just be lazily lumped in under the heading of "tyranny".

As ahistorical and contemptible as this is, the surest sign that nobody gives a damn about learning any of this is that the Church at Saint Denis remains relatively unruffled despite being located in what is now a heavily Muslim area of Paris. The last I heard of it being in the news was back in 2015 when the terrorists in the 2015 attack  on Paris were killed by police in Saint Denis in a massive shootout. But as far as I know, there is little evidence of vandalism of the tombs in modern times (unlike the looting of all the valuables in the French revolution). The simple truth is that even among the Muslims in the area nobody even knows or cares enough to attack it as a symbol. They attack the real symbols of France - theatres, football stadiums, cafes and restaurants.

Charles Martel weeps.

So we have a glorious and storied history of the French monarchy, dating all the way back to Clovis I, assigned to the dustbin.

We can see what is lost alright. I admit that I, unlike my French friend, am far less optimistic about what has been gained.

But somewhere in the back of one's mind while wandering around the Church, an odd niggling question pokes its way to the surface, to disturb one's reverie and melancholy. A question which, indeed, I've wondered about before.

What does it even mean to be the first King of France? Who was this Clovis I fellow? And what on earth happened before that?

Even relatively educated people often have large swathes of gaping ignorance about history, myself included. At the time I was walking around there, I didn't know at all.

The first thing to clarify is that Clovis I wasn't exactly the first King of France. Rather, he was the first King of the Franks. France is an area and a country - that came later. The Franks are a people, or a tribe.

And who were the Franks?

To give you the shortest and pithiest answer, you probably have heard of them and their exploits, but mostly under a different name.

They were the barbarians, destroying and preying on the last vestiges of the Western Roman Empire.

I've been learning about this in Patrick Wyman's excellent podcast series, The Fall of Rome.

They may not have been the Visigoths, sacking Rome under Alaric in 410, or the even more destructive Vandals, sacking it again in 455.

But make no mistake, if you were a supporter of the existing civilisational order at the time, you would have experienced the rise of Clovis I mostly in terms of his turning on and eventually defeating the few remaining serious Roman forces, such as at the Battle of Soissons in 486, and in his consolidating power over the other barbarian tribes.

In other words, Clovis became King of the Franks because he killed all the other Frankish chieftains and leaders, eventually uniting the various barbarian armies and tribes under his rule. That was how you became the first King of the Franks. What this replaced was the prior status of being one warlord of many, among a loose confederation of ethnically related tribes.

As Wyman points out in a number of places, during this period there wasn't actually a sharp distinction between concepts such as
i) 'an invading barbarian army',
ii) 'a barbarian people on the move' (since armies in those days often traveled with soldiers' wives and children, who lived with them), and
iii) 'a Roman army lead by a barbarian general with mixed Roman and barbarian troops' (since barbarians had fought on behalf of Rome, in one form or another, for a long time before this, and many of the leaders of this period were either allied with Rome or nominally Roman subordinates at some point, Clovis included) ,

Moreover, in the general disarray of this period, it's also hard to know how much to view the increasing power of these armies as the cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, or just the symptom of other groups rising to fill the increasing power vacuum left in the wake of the collapsing state. The distinction is not a clear one, and it doesn't much change what it would have been like to be on the receiving end of it.

If you were a Roman, living through the destruction of the society and structures that had ruled for 800 years, it would be extraordinarily difficult to look at savages like the Franks and see the possibility for a glorious future monarchy lasting 1300-odd years.

You would only see chaos, slaughter, and despair.

And for a long time, you would be right. There are not many fun stories out of Europe in the 6th Century, or the 7th or 8th for that matter.

But out of the chaos and carnage eventually rose the 37 Kings of France.

I confess, in my darker moments it is indeed quite difficult to look around at this fallen world of ours and see anything but societal decay, warded off only temporarily by technology.

Perhaps right now, that's all there is. But whether this is true or not, your perceptions are apt to make it likely to seem that way. You would have an easier time guessing who will be seen as the Valentinian III of our era than who might ultimately be seen as our Clovis I.

What is being lost is easy to see.

It takes much more judgment to look at the chaos and see the potential in what is yet to come.

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good post. Memorable.