This is Part IIIb of our four-and-three-quarters part series (I, II, IIIa) on what we’re calling the Fremen Mirage. Last week, we traced the origins of this idea in the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition. We found that the tropes that make up this concept – the poor, unsophisticated, but morally pure and militarily powerful Fremen and their decadent, civilized adversaries – actually had precious little to do with describing ancient non-state cultures. Instead, the Fremen Mirage emerged in these works mostly through self-definition and criticism: the mirage was never about accurately characterizing the Fremen, but building self-identity or practicing self-criticism among the settled, literate society. Consequently, descriptions of ancient non-state peoples were bent and molded to fit the trope, rather than the other way around, frequently by authors – like Tacitus – who often had little to no direct contact with these cultures.
And then the tradition sleeps. Tacitus’ Germania is effectively lost until 1425 (though at least one monk seems to have used it as a source in the ninth century, Rudolf of Fulda, see Krebs (2012)). Herodotus – and the rest of the Greek language ethnographic tradition (Strabo, Diodorus, Dionysius, etc, etc) – are also less influential for the Middle Ages in Europe (esp. Western Europe) as well; many of these works remained in greater circulation in the Muslim world. But, as we’ll see towards the end of this post, Muslim writers had their own theories about the advantages of non-state peoples and had little need for classical Greek expertise on horse-borne nomads, frequently being descendants of some and opponents of others themselves.
Instead, medieval efforts to mythologize the historical past often focused on placing a people or a ruler within the lens of what Brett Whalen calls ‘sacred’ or ‘providential’ time: understanding them in the context of the broader Christian religious project. The history or myth-making (the line between the two, as we’ll see, can be quite blurry) thus sought to resolve problems like the pre-Christian past of now-Christian kingdoms (which might be resolved, for instance, by the Sainted founder-converter-ruler, or by an assertion of a sort of pre-Christian proto-piety). Alternately, a community might seek to legitimize itself by connecting to Classical antiquity; Snorri Sturluson, for instance, seats the origins of Norse mythology and people in survivors of the Trojan War (why not?). Likewise, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155) has his Britons descent from a mythical Trojan Brutus, grandson of Ascanius (son of Aeneas). Carrie E. Beneš (Urban Legends: Civic Identity and the Classical Past in Northern Italy, 1250-1350 (2011)) notes Italian communes might trying to remember or invent claims either linked to, or of greater antiquity than, those of Rome itself.
Sallust’s model of decline and Caesar’s writings – both remained popular in the Middle Ages as tools for training rulers. They might also help in those projects, but the idea of the Fremen Mirage is not a key part of that. Instead, if anything, medieval literature is in part focused not on the need for ‘hard’ ‘barbarian’ warriors to solve problems, but on the pressing need to Christianize and thus control and civilize such individuals (e.g. the Normans). If anything, medieval Christian authors, rather than looking for some good men to do some violence, seem focused on the (not unreasonable) idea that their society was overrun with violence that needed to be restrained. I am generalizing of course, there are exceptions (Bertran de Born (c. 1140-1215) would like to do some war, for instance), but still, this is hardly fertile ground to revisit ancient pagan warriors with the Mirage (contrast Beowulf’s treatment of its main character’s paganism as sharply tragic, for instance).
Instead, this particular trope picks up again in the early modern period, lurking among the intellectuals of Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, before exploding into the popular consciousness and popular literature in the worst possible form in the 19th century. Let’s look at how that happens, and how it reshapes the classical tradition into a new form.
(Note: there’s a lot of book name-checking here, because – as I note below – classical reception is not my field (narrowly speaking), nor do I specialize in medieval or modern historiography or linguistics! In addition to the books I note here, I want to extend a thanks to my colleagues Daniel W. Morgan and Kathryn O’Neill, who kindly offered to help me make less of a fool of myself; all errors remain, of course, mine.)
The Europe into which Tacitus’ Germania reemerges was very different from the one it had left, and was undergoing rapid changes besides. I should note that the narrative of the reception of the Germania that follows is not mine (Classical reception is its own field, with its own specialists), but borrows heavily from C.B. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book (2012). Tacitus’ work was rediscovered in 1425 – although there are some hints that it had been used (plagiarized, really) by Rudolf of Fulda in c. 865 – and took a while to filter into the broader intellectual consciousness.
Meanwhile, as Benedict Anderson has famously noted in Imagined Communities (1983), the mass communication enabled by expanding literacy and especially the printing press would begin, through the 15th and 16th centuries, to create a nascent sense of nationhood and nationalism in parts of Europe. I do not want to get into the weeds of that process (it is complex, regionally varied, quite contested and tremendous in its import) but it is essential to know that is happening in the background as the modern form of the Fremen Mirage is being forged.
But in Germany, the process of creating that imagined community was particularly difficult. For much of the early modern period, the best intellectual currency in Europe was a connection to the Greek and Roman past – rulers could mobilize Greek and Roman imagery to legitimize themselves and Greek and Roman learning remained the foundation for humanistic study of basically everything. But for German-speakers – it is still far too early to speak of ‘Germans’ more broadly – therein lay a problem. Unlike the Spanish or French or Italians (or even the English) the core German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the place that might be understood as a ‘Germany’ – had never been part of the Roman Empire. The one connection it had with that edifice was through the Catholic Church – and by 1525, Germany such as it was would be violently split over movements to cut that tie as well.
As Krebs so neatly shows, Tacitus and his image of the Germans – simple, uneducated, but tough, morally pure and unmixed (and thus ethnically ‘pure’) – filled the void, providing (part of) the foundation for a narrative that both defined Germanness (especially against Italians – handy when you are having the Protestant reformation) and set forth a positive story for the origin of a ‘German people’ which contrasted them – favorably! – with the Romans. One of the most important assertions was that Tacitus’ Germans had never been conquered (this would have required at least some mental gymnastics for understanding Charlemagne as essentially German, but see below on the Franci), a note we’ll return to it a moment.
It mattered little, of course, that Tacitus had never been to Germany, did not speak any Germanic language, and mostly constructed his account as a morality tale meant for Romans about Roman society; it also mattered little that the connection between Tacitus’ Germani and the German-speakers of the 16th century was, as a matter of ancestry, strained at best. Likewise, early-modern readers of Tacitus were quite gullible when it came to his claims that the Germans were solidly beyond the Roman world; Roman trade goods had penetrated into Germany even by Tacitus’ day. But none of that mattered. Tacitus filled an emotional and intellectual need.
That meant that Tacitus’ Fremen stereotypes of the ‘other’ were steadily adopted as national mythology for an emerging notion of the ‘German’ people, defining them in certain ways and professing a (again, deeply strained) history of the Germans as a pure, unmixed people, delivered supposedly pristine and untouched from their classical Fremen past. But Tacitus’ Germans weren’t the only ones to receive this treatment…
Celts: Here, There and Everywhere
The Fremen turn in France and the British Isles emerges a bit later, but has many of the same contours, because the Romans applied the same descriptive template to many of their non-state ‘barbarian’ neighbors regardless of local institutions (which why Caesar’s Belgae and Helvetii sound so much like Tacitus’ Germans). What follows will be a fairly brief summary, but for a fuller account of both continental and insular claims to ‘Celtic’ identity (and the insurmountable problems in claims to a single pan-European ‘Celtic’ identity), see Simon James’ The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention (1999). As a necessary aside, some of this is going to depend on linguistics. I am not a language specialist (though I read a few languages), much less a Celtic-language specialist (of which I read none). I am giving my best understanding of these relationships based on what I have read.
Also, a terminology clarification! Some of you have noticed that I tend to studiously avoid using the word ‘Celtic’ to describe anything that isn’t a language or language-family. You are about to discover why. But to set out how I generally use the terminology: Celtic refers exclusively to language groups (e.g. Celtic languages, Celtic-language speakers); yes, the term goes back to Greek sources who called some of these folks keltoi (κελτοί; it’s unclear if any of them ever called themselves that), but as we’ll see, it becomes hopelessly muddled in the modern period, except as a linguistic term. Gallic refers to a group of apparently culturally related (but not necessarily genetically related!) people, as understood by the Romans, clustered around the Alps. La Tène material culture refers to a set of archaeologically recognizable signifiers (objects, art-styles, settlement patterns), which are in some cases associated with people who are known to have been Gallic or Celtic-language speaking, and in some cases not. There are certain situations where I might say a site has La Tène material culture, and I may suspect it was inhabited by Gauls, who I may suspect were Celtic-language speakers, but as we’ll see below, those things are not certain in many cases. In other cases – Ireland for instance – we have Celtic-language speakers who are very definitely not Gauls, while in Spain we have Celtic-language speakers who might well be related to Gauls, but lack some notable elements of La Tène material culture, while meanwhile in Anatolia we have a Gallic people with La Tène material culture who, while speaking a Celtic language, write in Greek. History is funny that way and it’s always best to be cautious.
The idea of a pan-Celtic identity had been bouncing around since at least George Buchanan’s work in 1582, but it really caught fire with the linguistic work of Edward Lhuyd in 1707. Much like with the German fascination with the Germania (which, for its flaws, was an authentic ancient source, albeit one that needed to be read far more critically), the ‘Atlantic Celts’ begins with a grain of truth. Lhuyd demonstrated that Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx were all related to each other (with a common ancestor language sometimes called ‘Q-Celtic’ – this had been long suspected) and related more distantly to Cornish and Welsh, but also Breton, the language of Brittany in France (sometimes thought to collectively descend from a common ancestor, ‘P-Celtic’). These languages then seem to have been in the same general language family as the long-dead languages spoken in Gaul, Noricum, and parts of Spain prior to the Roman conquest (after which they were slowly displaced by Latin).
That linguistic link, so far as I am able to tell, is well demonstrated and now considered soundly proved (with alterations, as you might imagine). But the conclusions that were swiftly drawn from it were anything but sound. Lhuyd tentatively imagined that Britain might have been populated by an invasion-wave of prehistoric migration (the medieval histories of both Ireland and Great Britain had recorded their history as a series of invasions, but the archaeological evidence seems to argue against this being the case); he collectively called these fellows Celts rather than Gauls because the term ‘Gallic’ was associated with France, and British pride in 1707 would hardly stand the suggestion that they were, in fact, transplanted Frenchmen (though it is worth noting that it is practically certain no one anywhere in the British Isles would have called themselves Celtic or Gallic prior to the Roman arrival). Though naturally, the sudden vogue for anything ‘Celtic’ would extend to France, where one of the key debates in the salons of the 1700s was if the French should be understood as fundamentally German (descending from the Germanic Franci) or fundamentally Gallic. Montesquieu, for instance, favored the Germanic origin; nationalism would resolve the issue in the French consciousness – as Germany rose as a threat to France, the Gallic identity became paramount, with figures like Vercingetorix transformed into national heroes (note also in this tradition as a symbol of resistance against the Germans, everyone’s favorite French comic: Astérix le Gaulois).
As James notes, the 18th century saw a hunger in many parts of Britain (newly so unified in that same year, 1707) among the non-English, for an ethnic identity with antiquity that could compete with the claims of other such identities – indeed, Lhuyd himself knew what he was doing. He was part of the conversation with figures like Paul-Yves Pezron (1639-1706), who posited a ‘Celtic’ origin for the Spartans and that the ‘Celtae’ descended from Noah (no, really, through Japhet) and were the original Titans of Greek myth. Demonstrating the unified Celtic-language family served as part of a project of discovering – or manufacturing – a suitably ancient and august origin which could stand proud against the English and their Anglo-Saxon heritage. If that seems crazy, I should note that German-speaking intellectuals were trading in similar theories about the Germanic people’s of Tacitus – that Tuisto, Tacitus’ German founder-deity, was in fact a son of Noah, or could be dated relative to the Trojan war, or even established an unbroken line of German kings down to the (then) present!
Note one of the core assumptions here: that a people or culture or race share a family tree with a common ancestor or point of origin – that assumption is largely wrong, by the by (humans intermix and intermarry, a lot), but it is going to inform some concentrated ugliness in just a few paragraphs.
This vision was then compounded by the emerging discipline of archaeology. In 1857, the lowering water level at the Lake of La Tène (a small town in the Swiss Alp) exposed a wealth of Gallic artifacts (from what Caesar tells us, we might expect the Helvetii to have lived here). Pro-Celtic European scholars were quick to connect the material-culture type (that is, the object and art styles – what I refer to as La Tène material culture) with an expanding zone of ‘Celtic’ peoples, brought about by migration and invasion. Nationalist imaginations flourished over the idea of Celtic warlord conquistadors, spreading out over Europe – a Fremen invasion of hardened ‘barbarian’ warriors.
Note that there are two huge assumptions there: first is that the objects (which we can observe) can be taken to clearly indicate a culture (which we can not observe) and that second, the expansion of the culture was assumed to have been the product of the migration of people. That is, the assumption was that a single, genetically ‘Celtic’ stock of people was expanding across Europe. And let me be clear: both of those assumptions are quite bad.
For instance, while continental La Tène material culture made it to southern Britain (and Caesar is clear that some social institutions followed), it’s now quite clear that there was no invasion of Gallic peoples, but simple cultural exchange over an active trade-zone. Part of how we can tell is burial customs – an invading people will naturally bring their own burial customs with them, but the arrival of La Tène material culture doesn’t disrupt the burial customs in S. England (which were different than those on the continent) at all. Instead, we get British burials with continental goods, strongly indicating that the pre-Roman British elites are importing La Tène goods, and maybe even some ideas and institutions, but not large numbers of continental people.
Likewise, La Tène material culture rushes into sites in Thrace that we know from our ancient sources are Thracian-speaking and culturally Thracian – not ‘Celtic’ in any way! Hell, if we went by material culture alone, we might identify some Roman military sites as ‘Celtic,’ since the Romans adopted the Gallic shield, helmet and body armor! The same problems, as a side note, play out in Spain – check out Fernando Quesada-Sanz’ excellent work on military material culture in pre-Roman Spain (e.g. Weapons, Warriors & Battles of Ancient Iberia (2017) – alas, Quesada-Sanz’s most thorough stuff on this is understandably in Spanish, but even if you only read English, you may rest assured that a whole lot of expertise sits behind his conclusions – his El armamento ibérico (1997) is truly impressive!). There’s some La Tène stuff in Spain, but also local variants we don’t see anywhere else (including, maybe, the ancestor of the Roman gladius) and some cross-pollination with local Iberian (non-La Tène) equipment. It really is quite fascinating stuff! But obvious evidence of some grand ‘Celtic’ invasion of most of Europe, it is not. More likely in many cases, pretty things and effective weapons were adopted by whoever lived there, including the Romans (and, by the by, the Greeks, who picked up the Gallic shield (probably from the Galatians), named it the thureos and made quite a bit of use of it).
(Of course, in some cases, we do know about large-scale migrations – the Galatians, a Gallic, Celtic-language speaking, La Tène material culture people migrated into Anatolia, for instance (and promptly Hellenized their culture significantly, so becoming quite culturally distinct in their own right – they start writing in Greek). Likewise, it seems like there is some in-migration of Celtic-language speakers into Spain, but also lots of cultural fusion and exchange. What I want to note here is that even these migrations do not establish that all, most or even basically any of these La Tène material culture peoples had some kind of common ancestry, which, as we’ll see, is a real sticking point. In fact, Caesar’s own description of Gaul implies the opposite: all of the three groups he notes, the Galli, Belgae and Aquitani, have La Tène material culture – yet even Caesar can clearly see they are distinct cultural/ethnic groupings which have adopted a shared material culture and he only considers one of these groups strictly Gallic, though they are likely all Celtic-language-speakers).
I don’t want to get too in the weeds on La Tène material culture archeology or its implications (at least, not right now). Rather, the key point here is that by the start of the 19th century (and especially after 1857), French, Irish, Scottish, Welsh (and even, oddly English – at times when asserting Anglo-Saxon ‘German’ness was inconvenient, the English often fell back on the Arthurian mythos and a Romano-British ‘Celtic’ nationalism) nationalism had been caught up with the idea of the supposedly ‘Celtic’ proto-nation: expanding bands of genetically linked conquering warriors, bringing their culture and objects with them. This view, I want to stress, is not supported by the current evidence.
Consequently, several of the key ‘national myths’ – and here I do mean myths, remember: most of this is rubbish – hinged on an idealized past of heroic, ‘barbaric’ warriors whose lack of sophistication bred moral purity and ruthless military success (remember that the bad assumptions being made by assuming both the ‘Germans’ and and ‘Celts’ are invading and displacing all sorts of people, while maintaining genetic ‘purity,’ meaning lots of very successful genocidal warfare). The Fremen Mirage – which had been a way for ancient authors to analyses or critique their own, typically non-Fremen societies – had reemerged as a tool for national self-identification. In the case of the ‘insular Celts,’ that mostly meant Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Manx rallying around an identity that excluded their English overlords (but see below).
But if – as I keep noting – these theories about expanding warrior peoples displacing their neighbors have been pretty well demolished…why does this idea survive so strongly in the popular culture?
So far, our revived Fremen Mirage has primarily lived among the intelligentsia of Europe, an idea with currency among the sort of people whose nascent nationalism also followed with an interest in classical ethnography, or linguistics. It was a creature of the elite salons and for much of the 18th century played second fiddle to Enlightenment thought, which was more interested in a universal science of government than peculiar local institutions, and saw its roots in classical antiquity rather than the pre-Roman past.
As the 1700s closed, however, the Enlightenment largely gave way to a new intellectual movement: Romanticism. Romanticism focused on individual emotion, rather than the impersonal reason of the Enlightenment, and had a love of the medieval and pre-Roman pasts, which were conceived of as heroic, emotional and anti-rational in contrast to the rationalism of the Classics. The roots of Romanticism seem to lie in Germany, with the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 1700s, but the French Revolution and the perceived failure of its Enlightenment values (with the universalist creeds of the Declaration of the Rights of Man giving way to the emotive nationalism of Napoleon and the Levée en masse) seems to have impelled Romanticism to the fore, while resistance against Napoleon provided the fuel for nationalism in the states that opposed him. And it seems to have re-popularized the Fremen Mirage.
The Mirage fit beautifully with the zeitgeist of Romanticism (incidentally, zeitgeist itself was a term coined in this period). It imagined raw, larger than life heroic ancestors – Arminius, Boudica, Vercingetorix – and a morally pure, independent past, free from either outside influence, or the corrupting role of modernity (fitting with the philosophy of Rousseau that modern society was essentially corrupting of the originally pure man). It fit with a rush to rediscover, record (or in some cases, fabricate) folklore and traditional stories, as a way of recapturing an authentic past. It was an age for national epics – the rediscovery and translation of Beowulf (first printed edition, 1815; English Romantic nationalism would remain, for most of the 19th century, focused on ‘Germanic’ Anglo-Saxon ancestry, until the World Wars turned the brother-German into the Hun, with a consequent renewed focus by the English in sharing with Britain’s Celtic past – ironically, as Simon James notes, a past that had previously been used to marginalize and belittle Britain’s own Celtic-language-speakers), or Wagner’s famous adaption of the German Nibelungenlied as Der Ring des Nibelungen – these were Romantic, nationalist projects.
Krebs associates this in Germany with the work of Friedrich Kohlrausch (no, not that Friedrich Kohlrausch, this Friedrich Kohlrausch (1780-1867)), whose Die deutsche Geschichte für Schule und Haus (The German History for School and Home, 1816) went through more than a dozen editions and set the mold for education in the 19th century in many of the German states, though he far from the only one. An unabashed nationalist, Kohlrausch saw a single German volk, originating with the germani of Tacitus and extending down to his present, with a constant set of virtues as laid out by Tacitus (virtues, it must be stressed, Tacitus is making up, as he never went anywhere near German-speaking lands); indeed he termed Tacitus (Krebs’ translation), “a mirror of honor and pride as well as imitation” and “a temple of honor to the German nation.” That there was no German nation in Tacitus’ day, but many non-state and proto-state polities of German-speakers mattered little. I offer Kohlrausch not as the grand origin point of the movement – he was not – but as representative of its scope and aims.
If that was the whole of the weave of our 19th century version of the Mirage, it would not be uncommonly bad as such national myths go; silly, outdated and uncritical, but little different than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Trojan Britons. Court historians had been telling myths disguised as history to consolidate state power for as long as there had been court historians. But a weave has two parts: Romantic nationalism is the weft; 19th century ‘scientific’ racism (there are not enough sneer-quotes in the whole of the English language for the word ‘scientific’ there) is the warp. And as both Simon James (speaking of both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic myth-making) and Krebs (speaking of Germanic myth-making) make abundantly clear, the weave here was tight – functionally inseparable.
Racism was not new to the 19th century, but the idea that it ought to be approached scientifically, as the product of immutable characteristics was. I will not rehearse the whole nasty history of this world-historically awful idea, but except to note that, at the time it was commonly assumed that there were identifiable ‘races,’ that these shared common, immutable genetic characteristics, and that the mixing of these races must necessarily diminish them (that last bit, in particular, the contribution of Arthur de Gobineau, will be relevant in a moment). Scientific racists imagined a perverse hierarchy of peoples – we (in America) tend to imagine this sort of racism as a white/non-white thing, but there were also assumed gradations between various European groups, with Mediterranean and Eastern Europeans shoved down (and the many non-European peoples in their colonies pushed yet lower still). And just so we’re clear: all of this was 110% non-scientific industrial-grade garbage-thinking.
However, it was the dominant thinking of the time, and fit neatly with the Romantic nationalist vision of the past. If national greatness was found in the genes, it ought to appear not only in the present, but also in the past; thus idea that the Germans had ‘never been conquered’ became an article of proof of German genetic superiority for ‘scientific’ racists. Tacitus’ description (which again, was never really very accurate) became a list of immutable characteristics of the German volk.
Take Kohlrausch. He also fixed on what is a quite minor detail in Tacitus’ telling – that the Germani were “not at all mixed with other peoples through immigration or hospitality” (Tac. Ger. 2.1). This – the people that ‘resembles only itself’ – was, by Tacitus’ day, a well-worn trope of ethnographic writing, a commonplace which might be assigned to any number of ‘exotic’ peoples, but Kohlrausch and his contemporaries took it as uniquely true of the Germans, that they were racially unmixed (again, to be clear, that is nonsense – an exoticizing trope the Greeks and Romans applied to any number of foreigners, with limited accuracy at best). The Fremen Mirage became a trope deployed in the service of demonstrating racial purity and superiority.
(As Simon James notes, the Celtic versions of this idea – both the insular (that is, of the British Isles) and the continental (read: France) versions – emerged in competition to German and Anglo-Saxon claims of racial superiority. Claims to unique Celtic identity in France and the British Isles also turned on questions of racial purity. The debate about the genetic legacy of the British Isles is ongoing and deeply tied into English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish/etc identity; see for instance B. Sykes, Blood of the Isles (2006) where modern genetic testing is employed in an effort to demonstrate the ‘Celtic’ (but not Gallic) ancestry of all of the inhabitants of the isles, including the English. I render no verdict on this debate or research (I’m not qualified to), except that, as an American, I think ‘common ancestry’ ain’t worth squat.)
Of course, as we’ve detailed before, the mirror image of the Fremen Mirage is decadence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on emotion over reason inherent in Romanticism, decadence and moral decline were key points of interest. It is the theme which gives Shelley’s Ozymandias (1818) its great poignancy – the contrast between Ozymandias’ hubris and the complete decline of his works. It is not an accident that the meme with which we began the series pulls most of its background images from Romantic paintings. For instance, Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (1836) is a sequence of five paintings, from raw, beautiful undistributed wildlife, to an idealized state, to The Consummation of Empire showing decadence, and then Destruction and finally Desolation. One can feel the influence of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), with its thesis that Roman collapse was caused by moral decline (and the rise of Christianity):
Likewise, of course, Thomas Couture’s famous Romans During the Decadence (1847):
As Krebs notes, the connection between German Fremeness (and supposed genetic superiority) and Roman decadence is made explicit by Kohlrausch’s friend Ernst Moritz Arndt, who wrote a series of popular pamphlets on the ‘purity’ of the German ‘race’ (gleaned from Tacitus), contrasted with the degeneracy of Rome, which he attributes to intermarriage and racial mixing. Italy, Arndt says (trans. Krebs) – channeling the gendered aspect of decline (which is thought to effeminate its subjects, as we saw with Caesar) “had once been the mistress of the world, a bastardized canaille, cursed and outcast.” Rome, Arndt argued, fell because it intermarried and interbed – an argument, I am quite sad to say, I still see today, often thinly veiled at best (it is raw, unfiltered nonsense, but that’s a series for another day).
But much of the decadence narrative was instead placed on the Near East and the Muslim world, as detailed perhaps most notably by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978; my views on Said’s work, particularly his treatment of the classical past, are complex and I won’t get into them here; on the present point I think he is quite correct). Romantic artwork explodes with depictions of a sexualized, feminized (remember how decadence in Herodotus and Caesar makes the decadent men womanly? Yup, that’s back), exoticized ‘orient’ to contrast with the hard, productive, simply, manly West. Much of this mobilized the tropes of the Fremen Mirage, now filtered through an ideology of racial superiority, to justify colonial exploitation.
Almost all of this sort of artwork, which begins during the Romantic period and continues beyond it for much of the 19th century, it should be noted, was produced by artists who had never been to the East, and most certainly never inside of the palaces and particularly harems they depicted. Anyone even remotely familiar with period dress in the Muslim world recognizes these paintings for the absurdities they are (actually, Lindsay Ellis touches on this quite effectively in a recent video about an orientalisizing character in The Phantom of the Opera which sums it up nicely). Nevertheless, these sorts of paintings became the image of a ‘decadent’ East against which to understand the Fremen ‘West.’
Exporting the Mirage
Now I should be clear – this intellectual tradition of historical cycles of rises, declines and falls is not the only one. The Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven has a similar cyclical implication to it, as a dynasty rises, then loses the backing of divine forces and collapses, leading to the next. Medieval Europe actually had a similar concept, the translatio imperii (“transfer of rule/empire”), which was a way of viewing history as a series of successions from one group or dynasty to the next, typically with divine agency motivating the transfer of rule from less pious rulers to more pious ones. And I’m going to talk about Ibn Khaldun’s ideas around asabiyah and decline in just 94 words.
So why focus on this intellectual tradition? Well, the answer is simply that while adherents to the Fremen Mirage often either think they’re holding those other ideas (especially Ibn Khaldun) or actively hide behind them in bad faith, frequently (but not always) you scratch the surface, what you actually have is that swirl of cyclical history and Romantic nationalism (and the poison of the ‘scientific racism’ it hides). Let me take Ibn Khaldun as an example and discuss his vision in more depth – because it is actually really quite interesting!
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was an Arab writer, born in Tunis, most often known now as the father of sociology. Ibn Khaldun wrote a grand universal history, the Kitab al-Ibar of the world he knew up to his own time. The core concept that creates his cyclical view of history is asabiyah (as with any transliterated Arabic word, you will find multiple similar spellings), which means something like solidarity, cohesion or even clannishness. I like ‘clan cohesion’ as a way to capture the concept as I understand it, though ‘clan’ here is not meant in a genetic/familial sense, but in a social one. Asabiyah is the force that holds a group together, particularly under stress, fear or battle. It is, for Ibn Khaldun, what leads one man to die for another. The reason I don’t simply use cohesion – a concept we’ve met on this blog before – is that Ibn Khaldun only really knows this one kind of cohesion; there are others, which my sense is – from my admittedly limited exposure to him – he does not know about or find relevant.
(Note: for a lot more depth on this topic, there’s actually a really good summary here. I have some serious disagreements with the historical application – for instance, I think the author misunderstands the psychological impact of synchronized discipline on Roman or Han Chinese armies, understanding it as merely force when it is something more (Greer, the author, is a modern strategic writer, and I suspect his training is in political science, which sometimes fails to appreciate the sophistication of ancient social systems) – but as a summary of the ideas, it is quite sound)
Asabiyah has its origins in the clan unit and the kin ties that cause you to defend brother or cousin, but it need not end there. The clan can enlarge itself and, as Ibn Khaldun notes, a group with very strong asabiyah which overtakes another group can often, almost as if by gravity, attract the members of the defeated group into their own number. Note how this necessarily seperates asabiyah from our Romantic Fremen Mirage – asabiyah need not be tied to ancestry or race. Large, very populous, very diverse societies are unlikely to produce those sorts of strong bonds; instead, Ibn Khaldun connects asabiyah with the clan and the tribe – generally smaller, generally more nomadic societies.
This produces a cycle in Ibn Khaldun’s view: a society with very strong asabiyah will be militarily powerful, absorbing less cohesive groups (often larger, state-based societies, which he perceives – correctly in many cases – as relying on violence and force, instead of the soft-power of clan-cohesion). But that expansion inevitably erodes asabiyah in a number of ways. It takes members of the clan out of close contact with each other, so their cohesion withers. It also introduces conquered peoples who must be ruled by force instead of through voluntary cohesion (non-voluntary asabiyah isn’t asabiyah at all). And the acquisition of large amounts of wealth decouples the interests of individuals with the interests of the group. The new empire fragments as its asabiyah weakens, leaving it to be overtaken by the next.
Now, as a theory of history, I think this has some explanatory power for a specific subset of states – that sounds like faint praise, but I think Ibn Khaldun’s achievement here really is remarkable. It appears to Ibn Khaldun as a general theory because, for six centuries prior to his life, those sorts of states – nomadic peoples who built weakly consolidated empires – was the sort of government that most dominated his region of the world, from the Rashidun Caliphate, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and so on.
But it is also very much a product of its moment. Ibn Khaldun offers no way out of the cycle of rising and falling asabiyah; he cannot imagine a nomadic people successfully managing the transition from a stable group based on asabiyah to a stable state based on royal and institutional legitimacy – that is, from one form of power to another form of power, rather than from power to violence, to use Hannah Arendt’s dichotomy again. For Ibn Khaldun, the state always devolves down to the violence of a king. Ibn Khaldun is entirely correct to note the fragility of violence as a tool of rulership; Arendt will make the same point in 1972 and y’all know how much I love referencing it. What he cannot know is that within fifty years of his death, the Ottomans are going to successfully manage that transition in his own backyard, institutionalizing their control in a durable form (yes, durable, the Ottoman Empire lasts from 1300 to 1922! It gets tarred as ‘decadent’ and ‘declining’ because it was so during the Romantic period discussed above and so became the symbol of that, but it is Rome’s only real peer in the European or Mediterranean in terms of imperial success) which does not rely on clan cohesion, but rather transitions to other forms of manufactured cohesion. The Ottomans in squaring Ibn Khaldun’s circle, point to gaps in his theory – but we may hardly hold him accountable for that, given that he wasn’t around to see it happen.
The Ottomans aren’t a lone case either. I’d argue that the Manchu/Qing (1644-1911) certainly pull off this transition, as do the Mughals (1526-1857) in the modern era, and in antiquity, I’d say that the Achaemenids (550-330) despite the sudden impact of Alexander’s superior tactical system, accomplished the same: converting a voluntary tribal asabiyah system into a successful and stable system based on state legitimacy. Of course that leaves out all of the major empires which were never asabiyah clan systems in the first place – Ibn Khaldun doesn’t seem to have a sense that an un-clannish state might succeed militarily (because by his day, it hasn’t happened in his neighborhood in a long time), but of course that’s exactly what we see with Rome (which Khaldun does discuss, I should note), in most Chinese dynasties, or the colonial empires of the modern period, to name just a few.
But why does this feel like a long aside? Unfortunately, because it is. Because, as we’ve sketched the outlines of the Fremen Mirage, you can see it is actually quite different from Ibn Khaldun’s vision. Romantic European thinkers aren’t praising the ancient German-speakers or Celts for their tight bonds of clan identity, but for their strength, heroic simplicity, and moral (and awkwardly, racial) purity. Take a modern example of the trope – say, Conan the Barbarian – and it becomes obvious; he doesn’t possess asabiyah at all (though he does work with others). His effectiveness comes from ruthless cunning, strength and skill (sidenote: the Fremen are unsophisticated in the Mirage, but not stupid – a ruthless trickster’s cunning is often part of the package). And the meme doesn’t read “close-knit men in a tight clan bond make good times, which make loose-knit tribal bonds that lead to decline” – it reads hard times make hard men. And the Fremen of Dune (as I think, looking at the comments, we’re going to need to discuss) don’t owe their fierce prowess to asabiyah, but to the brutal conditions on Arrakis – asabiyah according to Ibn Khaldun is more a product of proximity, association and friendship. It’s social, whereas what the Fremen have is environmental, when it isn’t genetic.
Ibn Khaldun has his own theory of history, with its own strengths and shortcomings, but it is not the Fremen Mirage. I should also note that Ibn Khaldun was hardly the only Muslim writer who was thinking and writing about the problems of settled peoples encountering nomads and the clash of different systems of war and society; also notable are Ata Malik al-Juwayni (1226-1283) and Ali ibn al-Athir (1160-1233).
What I found striking when brushing up again on Ibn Khaldun, is that when his writing does get translated over to the West – in fragments first in 1808, with (as I understand it) the first complete Western translation by William de Slane finished in 1856 – it is translated and contextualized in French through the lens of the self-same assumptions that inform the Romantic iteration of the Mirage: Orientalism, scientific racism, etc (on this, see A. Hannoum, “Translation and the Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldun Orientalist” in History and Theory 42 (2003):61-81). As Hannoum relates, de Slane presents a narrative summary of Ibn Khaldun which primes the reader to understand Ibn Khaldun’s work not on its own terms, but as a contest of domination between two ‘races’ with fixed innate natures (rather than fluctuating asabiyah), which degenerate when intermixed – a set of concepts quite foreign to Ibn Khaldun’s actual writing. In short – Ibn Khaldun wasn’t blinded by the Fremen Mirage, but his 19th century European translator opted to blind his European readers on his behalf.
And that was hardly the only place that these ideas were imported to. As has been mentioned in the comments, the British, particularly after the Indian Mutiny (1857) were essentially guided by the same kind of thinking to divide India into ‘races’ some of which were ‘martial races‘ seen as being genetically ‘fit’ to serve in the British army, while others were not. The categories drew from ‘scientific’ racism, imputing that soldierly qualities were essentially genetic (and yet somehow the roster of supposedly ‘martial races’ did, in fact, change over time, because, of course, the idea of ‘martial races’ of this theory is garbage nonsense). And lest you thought that we were done talking about gender, as Heather Streets shows (in Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture: 1857-1914 (2004)), the British imported the same gender framing between ‘effeminate’ Indians unsuited for military service and the ‘manly’ martial races.
We’ve been a bit all over the place, so now is a good time to take stock.
Last time, we looked at the Classical foundation for the Fremen Mirage – a trope of modern pop-historical thought. We knew from our first two essays in this series that, apart from a few key possible exceptions (which I promise we will get to), this theory of history didn’t really seem to hold up very well. Hard times, it turns out, were a poor substitute for large group sizes, high population density, large resource pools, superior technology and effective professional training.
When we investigated, we found the root of our Mirage, in a partial form, in the Greek and Roman ethnographic tradition, where it functioned as much, if not more so, as a tool for self-definition or self-critique as it did to describe non-state peoples. Since accuracy was never the top concern, this literature needed to be read very critically in order to get anything like actual information on ancient non-state peoples (side note: is there interest in me talking about what we do know about Gallic social organization?).
When that tradition was revived in the early modern period, it was being used in exactly the opposite way the authors originally intended – not as a self-critique of Rome or Greece for Romans or Greeks, but as the basis for forming a national identity out of the legendary past of the non-state people. It was also being read in about the least critical manner concievable, with the outlandish claims of what was, in essence, Roman propaganda being accepted as complete, unvarnished truth. The ambiguity ancient authors expressed about Gauls and Germans (unsophisticated! uneducated! lazy!) were misunderstood or ignored, to create an idealized past of heroic ancestors which would justify the nationalist project.
In the immediate aftermath of the French revolution, this project went popular, suffusing literature, education, and the arts, at exactly the time it fused with a specific strain of European racism informed by half-understood theories of genetics and evolution. Consequently, the ‘hard times’ that produced the ‘hard men’ of these ancient societies – and that sense of deprivation and challenge remained crucial to the myth – was offered as proof of genetic racial superiority, to justify national aggression in Europe and imperial domination abroad. You can see how the natural selection argument would run – that the difficult environments of cold Northern Europe somehow ‘culled the weak’ and produced the superior stock. With the Fremen Mirage coming on the cusp of the New Imperialism, Europeans took their different racially-charged versions of it abroad, using them as a lens through which they would view other cultures.
The German form of this ideology ends up exactly where you think it does, as a core component of Nazi racial ideology, sufficiently dear to the Nazis, as Krebs notes, that in 1943, Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s SS chief, was sending crack SS units into Italy (by this point, a war-zone where Allied troops were advancing) in a last ditch effort to try to retrieve what was essentially a ‘holy’ (or unholy) text: a manuscript of Tacitus’ Germania. Now, I didn’t lead with that because I wanted to attack this idea dispassionately, from a historical angle first – to present that case without first staining the idea by invoking Godwin’s Law. I wanted to show that this theory of history wasn’t sustainable, even on its own terms.
But this answers our question: if this theory of history isn’t terribly accurate or useful (it is, you will note, far less helpful than Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyah, which is at least really handy when talking about certain sorts of societies), why does it still maintain such currency? The answer is that, on top of being in the cultural zeitgeist for a very formative century in world history, this was the sort of historical myth that channeled the vast energies and resources of the new nationalism – and often the even vaster resources of the states which sought to harness it. Academics might be funded to push for the inclusion of old national epics into a new canon of great literature, sometimes genuine (Beowulf, the Song of Roland), sometimes not (the poems of Ossian), into creating huge operas (Der Ring des Nibelungen is fifteen hours long; it was funded by the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II) or all-pervasive textbooks, or the mountain of artwork and architecture to support new nationalist ideologies (seriously, stroll almost any European capital and you will see almost endless examples of Romantic nationalist art and architecture). Part of the challenge of writing this post in the series was keeping it short – there is so much artwork (both of heroic Fremen ancestors and ‘decadent’ Near Easterners), whole fields of scholarship exist because of this intellectual movement (to be clear, that’s not a slight against those fields, many of which are quite aware of that baggage and confront it openly). As the myth at the root of so much modern state-building, the resources plowed into its propagation were tremendous.
Because it is so pervasive, elements of this historical theory (these days, usually with the racist elements at least subdued) lurk in so many unquestioned assumptions and unasked questions. So why go through all this effort? Well…because knowing where the trap is – that’s the first step to evading it.
Now, I’ve seen in the comments some questioning of how much currency the Mirage really maintains, particularly in relation to my metaphor, the Fremen and Dune. Now, I could adduce any number of other examples – Conan the Barbarian (especially his movie form), functionally every depiction of Steppe nomads in American cinema, the Dothraki, the Rohirrim, and on and on. But I think next week, we’re going to divert from our plan slightly, and take a closer look at Dune and how it fits within the framework of this Romantic version of the Fremen Mirage. You’ve marched with me through two weeks of intellectual history, y’all deserve a treat. We’re gonna head to Dune, but brace yourself – God created Arrakis to train the faithful. It may get rough.
In the meantime, well…”The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called “spannungsbogen” – which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.” – Dune (1965), 288.
91 thoughts on “Collections: The Fremen Mirage, Part IIIb: Myths of the Atreides”
I have but one point to throw up, here: The Fremen of Herbert’s Dune have rather more in common with the Apache and Comanche than any of the European examples you use in these essays. I don’t think that Herbert had the Romano-Gallic confrontation in mind, at all, when he wrote. Instead of a successful civilization in full flower confronting a more primitive one, he had in mind more of a Comanche-vs.-Mexican or an Islamic desert culture boiling out into a highly-stressed settled Byzantine Empire, co-opting the institutions and territories.
Rome confronting Gaul, or the Mongols going into Europe after digesting much of Asia are quite different situations, and not good historical parallels to use in constructing this argument. I think you are entirely correct in your reasoning, and I fully agree with it, but… I also think you have mistaken the period and dynamic that Herbert meant to allude to. Herbert’s Empire is not a young and virile civilization such as the Roman one that invaded Gaul, or the American one that eventually put the Apache and Comanche onto reservations. He is, in my opinion, alluding to the plague-stricken and weakened Byzantine and Persian imperial states that went down before the sword of Islam, or the faded epic half-assery of the former Spanish colony of Mexico.
In every respect, the Empire of Herbert is a tired and corrupt thing; had the Fremen moment come when the Empire was young, self-confident, and still on the ascent? Then, I am afraid, the Fremen would have gone down to defeat the same way that the Gauls did.
Oh, I think you’re right that Herbert in part explains things by the Empire being old and degenerate. Duke Leto I complains about the degeneration of the Great Houses himself, at some length.
But that’s all part of the Mirage – especially the idea that civilizations age like humans do, becoming inevitably old and decrepit as a function of time. Take ‘plague-stricken and weakened’ Byzantium. When are we talking? Right around 674, right? But the Empire was going to rush back, beginning in the 700s; by the rule of Basil I in 867, the Empire was on the attack again, prosperous, cohesive and effective, really until 1071 and Manzikert. That triggers fragmentation and crisis, but then from 1081 to 1185, the Empire Strikes Back, regaining much of its lost territory, including bits of Syria and the Balkans it hadn’t held securely for a long time.
Empires only appear ‘old’ and ‘decrepit’ in retrospect, when you know beforehand how the story will end. After all, France under Hugh Capet (987-996) looked exactly like one of these old and decrepit empires, a shadow of its former glory. Hugh was little more than the mayor of Paris. If, in 990, you were handicapping which empires were dying and which would recover, I think you’d easily give better odds to the Byzantines than the French.
The Apache and Comanche have virtually nothing in common except both were nomadic raiders. Even the Plains Apache, who were as the name implies Apaches heavily modified by the Great Plains “cultural complex”, were a very different culture from the Comanche—and Apaches proper were, like their Navajo cousins, a marginal satellite of the Pueblo “complex”, not a part of the Plains one at all. (A major difference between Plains Apache and Comanche is the Plains Apache came to the Plains “complex” from the Pueblo one, while the Comanche came from the Great Basin one. Apaches are an offshoot—originating in a religious schism—of the Navajo, as Comanches are an offshoot of the Shoshone.)
For just one example, while both Comanche and Apache took slaves in their raids, Comanches almost exclusively took female ones, for sexual exploitation; Apaches mainly took males, for labor. Apache raids, even when they involved “marriage by capture”, did not involve the routine gang-rape of female captives; Comanche raids did. Just in general, though the Apache could be quite cruel (particularly when engaged in “taking death from strangers”, as their term for “war” literally translates—”punitive massacre” would be more accurate), they were nothing like as cruel as the Comanche. For one thing, Apaches deliberately avoided killing while raiding (“taking property from strangers”), since it made them more likely to be followed; Comanches did not.
Do you have any recommended readings on the Apache and Comanche?
Another fascinating article! Looking forward to the next in the series.
Not sure if it’s coming in the next article, but I would say another instance of the myth is in the anti-Imperialist struggles of the Twentieth Century. The idea that the British Empire has become weak and degenerate, and is naturally destined to be overthrown by tougher, morally purer people from the periphery, is quite inspirational if you’re fighting for independence.
Coming to this a little late, obviously, but I’m not sure to what extent that WAS a myth accepted by the people fighting for independence? Maybe it was, but again, not sure.
It seems, if anything, to have been quite popular among the pro-colonialist narratives: “We could have kept our empire if we hadn’t been so weak and namby-pamby about it.” I imagine there were a lot of white South Africans and Rhodesians patting themselves on the back about being a ‘sterner breed’ who ‘knew how to deal with’ blacks challenging their supremacy in the 1970s and ’80s, for instance.
Which ties into the general pattern that the Fremen mirage usually doesn’t find its home and propagation among the Fremen themselves, because it’s not about the Fremen. Or at least not about the ‘really’ Fremen societies, the ones with the least city-fied manners, the ones with the least state organization.
It’s about either:
1) Philosophers and historians within a powerful empire decrying moral decay, and then projecting the opposite of that moral decay onto ‘primitive’ societies (see also “noble savage”), or…
2) Philosophers and historians within a society that is wealthy and powerful- possibly not yet an empire- trying to justify or promote their own society. Which they do by portraying it in contrast to a ‘decadent’ imperial ‘Orient,’
While nations seeking independence from European colonizers in the 20th century could arguably fit (2), I don’t think the fit is very good.
Again, highly informative and very engaging.
“… some of his is going to depend …” should be “… some of this …”?
“… people who know to have been Gallic …” should be “… people who were known to have been Gallic …”?
“… made assume bot the ‘Germans’ and ‘Celts’ …” should be “…made assume botH the ‘Germans’ and ‘Celts’ …”?
“… it Rome’s only real peer in the European or Mediterranean in terms of imperial success) …” should be “… it is Rome’s only real peer in the European or Mediterranean in terms of imperial success …”?
“… which make lose-knit tribal bonds …” should be “… which make loose-knit tribal bonds …”?
“… in fragments are first in 1808 …” should be “… in fragments at first in 1808 …”?
“… Khaldun’s work not on its own term …” should be “… Khaldun’s work not on its own terms …”?
“… Coming, as it did, at the cusp of the New Imperialism, took their …” ?????
“… isn’t terrible accurate or useful …” should be “… isn’t terribly accurate or useful …”?
“… being the in cultural zeitgeist for …” should be “… being the in zeitgeist for …”?
““spannungspogen” should be “spannungsbogen”, I think! The vast sweep of European and Middle Eastern History from Classical Greece to the 20th Century? Not so much. Frank Herbert’s Dune? Oh yeah!
Looking forward to my treat in next week’s instalment.
Typo: “As Krebs notes, the connection between German Fremness (and supposed genetic superiority)” Did you mean “Fremeness”?
I think the ‘Fremen Mirage’ is a great question, and I love the effort to connect it to Graeco-Roman history and romanticism.
But in many ways I think the latter observations — may be more interesting: that the Fremen mirage may be much more tightly intertwined with Orientalism and the other element of Romaticism: the tensions and interface between Islam and Western/central Europe as the ‘Mediterranean world’ becomes the Atlantic World. And, indeed, I think it is very much the case that Herbert is thinking more of Arabs than Huns or Mongols.
Kaldun seems a particularly interesting scholar to trace in this regard. And, given the complicated but real global power and influence of the House of Saud, another fascinating question is the way the Saudis themselves view the ebb and flow between heroic asceticism and industrial/extractive decadence. (I found very interesting resonances here in the memoirs of the first Saudi CEO of Saudi Aramco).
I agree, that’s absolutely a direction you could go with this. I have to admit, I envisaged this series mostly as a response to the meme at the beginning (and versions of that idea I’d seen on twitter), which is why it took the form it did. I settled on the Fremen just to avoid having to put ‘barbarian’ in scare-quotes over and over and over again (and to avoid the offensive oversimplification of referring to this or that people as ‘barbarians’).
That said, I do think Herbert – while the Arab conquests are the pattern for his tale (complete with a charismatic religious leader – is mobilizing some of these tropes with roots in classical antiquity. I’ll make my case for that next week, and you can decide if you find it persuasive!
The fact Herbert was thinking of Arabs (who would probably not have won any wars with Byzantium or Persia without experience fighting on both sides of Byzantine-Persian wars), is, if I’m reading him right, why our host chose to call it the “Fremen mirage” and not, say, the Cimmerian Mirage.
If Herbert had been thinking of Mongols, it would not be nearly as much of a mirage, because, as I think our host has mentioned, steppe nomads are the only people the mirage is somewhat true of. (Though even there, the Turks, e.g., had long ceased to be steppe nomads when they made their most significant conquests.)
> And the meme doesn’t read “close-knit men in a tight clan bond make good times, which make loose-knit tribal bonds that lead to decline” – it reads hard times make hard men. And the Fremen of Dune (as I think, looking at the comments, we’re going to need to discuss) don’t owe their fierce prowess to asabiyah, but to the brutal conditions on Arrakis – asabiyah according to Ibn Khaldun is more a product of proximity, association and friendship. It’s social, whereas what the Fremen have is environmental, when it isn’t genetic.
I think this is missing half the story by treating the environment as not causally related to the presence of asabiyah. It’s very possible that high clan cohesion aids survival in harsh environments, but isn’t needed in rich environments. If that obtains, then we’d expect the Fremen to have high asabiyah just to survive on the almost-impossibly-hostile surface of Arrakis, while the Atreides and Harkonnens can get by without it.
Just that would be sufficient to see a cline of asabiyah where there’s a cline of environmental harshness, since a trait that’s not being actively selected for will drift, but we might also postulate that high asabiyah has costs to maintain, in which case the cline will be even more pronounced. I can very easily imagine that asabiyah doesn’t just naturally decay when it’s not needed, but it’s actively discarded once staying close to your troublesome third cousins is no longer life-or-death but still just as much of a pain as it ever was.
So, reducing back to a short(ish) meme, the actually-defensible version of the Fremen-via-Khaldun idea might be ‘1. hard times or hard places lead to close bonds or extinction; 2. close bonds lead to conquering the loosely-bound neighbours and their rich places; 3. conquest of rich places leads to good times (for your clan, anyway); 4. good times lead to loose bonds; 5. the closely-bound neighbours conquer you’. Which, as noted, is quite different to the original Fremen thesis and makes very different predictions and recommendations.
Bret didn’t delve too much into what comprises asabiyah, though. We can safely assume the environment played a major role in cohesion, but it wasn’t the whole ballgame. There may be complexities to this clan cohesion that act as firewalls and failsafes to the breakdown of asabiyah even at a larger scale. Marriage between cousins, for instance, or appointing family members as religious leaders and military commanders, creating a dynastic structure that leads to the Ayyubids, the Abbasids, the Umayyids, etc. Anyway, these are just working comparisons, not a strict model.
Might that be because in the first part, Bret charted the rise of states = non-Fremens in rich climates, and Fremen being pushed out into hostile lands?
I think it also fits with the gendered idea in Western culture of the lone warrior (like Conan, or the American cowboy as myth) which is contrary to actual evidence: Eskimos living in very harsh condition, survive as group.
If we look at the begining of history/ culture, when a tribal society didn’t have prison, the strictest punishment was banishment from the tribe, because a man (person) all alone was not the strongest alone, but soon to be dead (hunger, wild animals, enemy tribes). No active death penalty necessary. (The strictest punishment because before elders would talk with a person acting anti-social, violating the laws/ customs/ norms of the tribes, if we go by ethnological observations today).
So actual tribal societies in harsh climates – Fremen – would likely have close kinship, but the mirage-writers were, as Bret already remarked, from the decadent societies, and therefore looking at single men standing alone.
I found this – as an Irishwoman – confronting.
I recall as a small child at school being taught about the La Tène material culture, just as you say, “rallying around an identity that excluded [our previous] English overlords.” We’re the only independent Celtic nation, except… no such thing as Celts? They’ll be sad at the next Festival Interceltique de Lorient.
I was immediately reminded of the earlier point you made about the non-specialised ‘Fremen’ being romanticised above the specialised non-Fremen, despite their relative weakness. Dammit. That’s us. That’s what we’re proud of. The only country other than the Americans to win freedom from the British Empire. Victory through guerrilla warfare. My friend’s grandmother would reminisce about hiding guns in her schoolbag during the War of Independence. What says non-specialised more than that? A fifteen-year-old girl on a bicycle against the British Empire?
It’s worthy of pride.
Yet much of our cultural conversation for the past few decades has been about our underdog status, and whether we should stop embracing it so eagerly. It’s so attractive, though! Easier to be the Irish football team, happy to be invited, than the Irish rugby team, world-beating. Easy to coast on 750 years of victimhood, topped with the sharp joy of a victory. Kenya, India, Nigeria and other British possessions were given their freedom but we are proud that, like the Americans, we seized ours. And an important few decades it proved to be since we were thus spared involvement in WW2 and Britain didn’t give any of its remaining possessions a choice about joining it in war.
For all I know we’ll be in your promised list next week of Times The Fremen Won. Certainly our default was defeat.
Leaving Ireland for a moment:
“Scientific racists imagined a perverse hierarchy of peoples – we (in America) tend to imagine this sort of racism as a white/non-white thing, but there were also assumed gradations between various European groups, with Mediterranean and Eastern Europeans shoved down (and the many non-European peoples in their colonies pushed yet lower still).”
Were? Past tense? Visit Australia sometime! When I was there, my driving instructor told me about how the only thing that stopped the Aussies and the Wogs (yes, really) from tearing strips out of one another in school was when the Vietnamese showed up in the 1970s and the Wogs joined their former tormentors against the Vietnamese, rather than join the Vietnamese against the Aussies.
Thank you for your comment.
I am not telling anyone not to be proud of their country. What I am saying – to make a point by analogy – is that to talk of ancient ‘Celtic’ peoples is like talking about everyone who speaks a Romance language (Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, etc) as if they were one big common cultural group. Prior to the modern era, it doesn’t seem like any Irish people called themselves ‘Celts.’ It’s actually not clear that *anyone* in antiquity called themselves Celts – there’s a good chance it was just a word made up by the Greeks (much the same way Columbus tagged all of the Native peoples of the Americas as ‘Indians’ despite them having nothing to do with India, and being many different peoples). There were many, many different groups of Celtic-language speakers (Gauls, Belgae, Aquitani, Lusitani, Picti, Rhaeti, Celtiberi – etc. etc.; these are the ancient Greek and Roman names for these groups – often, that’s all we have – some of which they probably called themselves snd others, like Celtiberi and Picti, they probably did not), who – so far as we can tell from our sources – did not see themselves as one big cultural group, but rather as smaller units.
The ancient Irish were one such group – already inhabiting Ireland by the time we have any written evidence for it. But there’s just no evidence they thought of themselves as ‘Celtic’ (or even as one people – much the same way the Greeks didn’t think of themselves as a single nation in Antiquity, but rather as Athenians, Spartans, Thebans, etc., local identity was often paramount; Ptolemy’s Geography, which presents what the Romans knew about Ireland in the second century CE suggests a number of different groups of people with different names for themselves (Vennicni, Magnatae, Autini, Gangani, Vellabori, etc, – a linguistics expert might be able to tell you if these were local names, or just labels the Romans slapped on people, but I don’t have the right expertise to say), all of whom probably spoke an ancient form of Irish). That doesn’t mean there isn’t pride to be had in the long history of the Irish in Ireland, but it does make projecting the term ‘Celtic’ backwards to describe these folks inaccurate, in my mind.
As for the Irish War of Independence – you are correct that insurgencies and wars of national liberation are going to figure heavily in my list of exceptions to the normal trend of Fremen defeat. To spoil my conclusion a bit – most insurgencies (c. 80% by one calculation) fail. Were I Irish (I have bits of most of Europe, including Irish, in my ancestry, but consider myself American), I’d take it as a point of pride that Irish freedom fighters succeeded where so many failed. Wars of national liberation are hard. Winning one is an achievement.
As to anti-Irish racism – I’ve never observed it in person, myself. But I’ve heard stories of it from folks older than me – about slurs and discrimination, as late as the 1960s and 1970s in New York, so I can readily believe it survives in places. All racism is, of course, rubbish-garbage that ought to belong to a bygone era, even if it doesn’t yet.
Would you believe I am still thinking about this? Weeks later?
Now, I started studying Latin when I was thirteen. I even did a wildly unoriginal dissertation at Oxford about Tacitus on the Year of the Four Emperors. Hence me nodding along smugly at your series before this part.
(Less familiar with Dune. I gave it up after 50 pages on the basis of a) how absolutely rubbish I found the writing; b) the sheer illogic of checking to see if a candidate grasps a concept which is only revealed to him after a massive amount of pain. What if he would’ve understood everything but wasn’t into the pain? His mum’s boss said nothing about the test being about the endurance of extreme pain. And now that your series is concluded and I’ve more info on the book I’m glad I was also spared the sexism.)
Back to the past.
>The ancient Irish were one such group – already inhabiting Ireland by the time we have any written evidence for it. But there’s just no evidence they thought of themselves as ‘Celtic’ (or even as one people – much the same way the Greeks didn’t think of themselves as a single nation in Antiquity, but rather as Athenians, Spartans, Thebans, etc….
I wonder at what point a sense of strong links with the Scots developed? Scots Gaelic is so similar to Irish that if it weren’t for the spelling you nearly wouldn’t know the difference. And our patron saint is Welsh. As for identity across the island… hmm. Immediately I’m thinking of the Táin, our national epic – but just like you say, the ancient Greeks thought of themselves as Athenians, say, rather than Greek, regardless of the existence of the oral tradition of the Trojan War! Damn, I wish I still had access to my old university library. There was a book called “Ireland and the Ancient World” which was notable for just how little information they seemed to have on us.
>I’d take it as a point of pride that Irish freedom fighters succeeded where so many failed. Wars of national liberation are hard. Winning one is an achievement.
Ah, thanks. To immediately undercut the achievement, I must point out that we had eight centuries of failure before one success, and that if one were to recommend to a time-traveller the best time to start a war against the British, one really can’t do much better than January 1919. Not for nothing did Daniel O’Connell say “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.”
You see, the Irish obsess CONSTANTLY about our identity. And we certainly link it to the rocky harshness of the place that somehow coexists with the green lushness that has us selling beef and butter all across the world because it’s the best. The long history of emigration and the smiling nearby arrogance of the English also has us focused a lot on identity. Emigration has the twin tropes of those forced from Ireland’s shores by hunger, lamenting the exile always, and those who took to their heels in the twentieth century because of what a hole the place was.
As for the English, they forget they don’t own us anymore. I’m being entirely serious. My husband worked there for a while – for the civil service! – and didn’t get paid for four months because he couldn’t get a National Insurance number. Everyone he spoke to kept telling him that he already had one. No, he didn’t. Anymore than somebody from the DRC or Morocco or New Zealand or Venezuela would have one. And if the long, long Brexit process has taught the world anything, it’s that they genuinely had no notion that a border with Ireland is a ‘real’ border. We are a sovereign country and they just don’t get it. This is the true anti-Irish racism that is the problem for us today.
Any wonder we obsess? We need to re-establish ourselves, again and again and again. We are deeply romantic and cynical about ourselves. Here’s a brief line from a book I’m reading at the moment, published last year. Asterisk in case your blog has a problem with Bad Words.
>He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fuck*ng Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.
Addendum on Australia: the Wogs aren’t the Irish, they’re the Greeks and Italians. My impression from six years there is that the Greek-Australians are the only ethnic grouping that do the American thing of calling themselves ‘Ancestral Demonyms’ rather than ‘Demonyms of Birth’.
“I wonder at what point a sense of strong links with the Scots developed? Scots Gaelic is so similar to Irish that if it weren’t for the spelling you nearly wouldn’t know the difference. And our patron saint is Welsh.”
Because the Scots *were* Irish. A tribe from NE Ulster, the Scotii (in Latinized form) invaded and colonized northwest Britain about the same time the Saxons were moving into the southeast. Their “Kingdom of Dal Riada” – which at one time also included their homeland in Antrim – later absorbed the Pictish kingdoms, the British kingdom of Strathclyde, the northern part of Saxon Northumbria and, eventually, the Norse Lordship of the Isles to form the Kingdom of the Scots.
One can argue that the Irish patron saint is Welsh. (With some discussion about changes in population.)
The Irish should be proud of being Irish, not of being Celts. As Chesterton said, Ireland is a nation that eats things like “Celts” and “Teutons”. You can still be proud of being the only country where a Celtic language has co-official status with English or French throughout the entire nation, rather than in only a part of it.
>throughout the entire nation
Leaving partition aside for the time being, don’t get me started on the self-defeating way in which the beautiful Irish language is simultaneously lauded and alienating in this country… but honestly it’s more a pride in being the only independent nation which is Celtic, or ‘Celtic’. Geography helps, of course.
I recall one time in school, in history class of all things (History was optional in fifth and sixth year so these 16/17-year-olds I was surrounded by – and this a good school! – had no excuse to be so pig-ignorant) a Scot had showed up to talk about devolution or independence or somesuch thing.
It was question time and another student stuck her hand up and asked why Scots would want independence. Understood but unspoken: if you’ve a land border with the English then why would it matter?
I was desperately embarrassed, and tried to pull any scrap of knowledge about Scottish devolution from the back of my mind. Managed to ask “How do you think the death of Donald Dewar will affect Scotland?” knowing almost nothing but the name. He looked grateful and talked about that for a while, so it could have been far worse.
I just love the bummed out blond in the middle of the ‘Decadence of Rome’. I can hear her moaning, “Gaius, I’m bored! Take me home!” “Sure, honey,” says Gaius, “just one more drink.”
A World Trimmed with Fur: Wild Things, Pristine Places, and the Natural Fringes of Qing Rule by Jonathan Schlesinger is interesting. Because the Qing did hold to the Fremen myth and tried to preserve it.
The Qing, or rather the Jürchen who dominated the dynasty, were a primarily sedentary, “civilized” people, though, so they are no more the Fremen than the Gauls.
That’s not how they thought of themselves, though.
Well yeah, the “mirage” doesn’t only exist in Western culture.
The Qing emperors (of the 17th and 18th centuries, in particular) were certainly believers in the Fremen myth, in a version that seems much more like the form discussed in this series than was Ibn Khaldun’s. There was much discussion of a “Manchu way” – often discussed as a form of “manly virtue” or “martial virtue” (just like in Latin/Greek, these were the same idea – “hahai erdemu” in Manchu). This “Manchu way” was tied to the supposed pre-conquest purity of the Manchus, when all were supposedly valiant horsemen (ignoring the fact that pre-conquest Jurchen/Manchus were in fact at least semi-sedentary, and in many cases fully sedentary, agriculturalists, as Tom has suggested). Its decline was tied, rhetorically, to life in China, which was supposedly decadent and corrupting – not “simple” and “pure” (the idea of “purity” – “bolgo” in Manchu – is a big part of Schlesinger’s book). Manchus had taken up drinking and gambling and opera, proclaimed the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, becoming lazy, indolent, and lacking in that martial virtue.
Of course, just as with the Roman writers complaining of their decadence, the Qianlong emperor bemoans the loss of Manchu “Fremeness” even as the empire is at its most successful point in military terms, conquering Xinjiang to achieve its greatest territorial extent. Moreover, the Qing conquest of China was not, in fact, a result of the Qing’s ancestral Fremeness, but in large part of its development of state institutions, some copied from the Ming, some newly invented to deal (quite successfully, I might add) with particular challenges faced by the dynasty. Indeed, the Qing in many ways solve the problem of how to govern steppe peoples that had baffled preceding Chinese dynasties – Peter Perdue describes the Qing conquest of Mongolia, Amdo (Qinghai), and Zungharia (Xinjiang), accompanied by the simultaneous Russian expansion into Central Asia and Siberia as accomplishing the “closing of the steppe.” Moreover, the conquest depended on the Qing’s establishment of a multiethnic army (which became the Eight Banners – never, in fact a solely Manchu army); the contributions of Han artillery experts, for instance, were necessary for early Qing success. So the Qing did not succeed from being Fremen, and their supposed decline from being Fremen did not in fact correlate with a decline in military success. So a very interesting parallel to Rome, I’d say.
Note that the classic book on this topic is probably Mark Elliott’s “The Manchu Way,” though as I’ve read this series of posts, I’ve come to realize that one of the book’s flaws may be that it is a little too credulous to the Fremen myth.
> If anything, medieval Christian authors, rather than looking for some good men to do some violence, seem focused on the (not unreasonable) idea that their society was overrun with violence that needed to be restrained. I am generalizing of course, there are exceptions (Bertran de Born (c. 1140-1215) would like to do some war, for instance), but still, this is hardly fertile ground to revisit ancient pagan warriors with the Mirage (contrast Beowulf’s treatment of its main character’s paganism as sharply tragic, for instance).
I think you’re taking ecclesiastical writings at face value and ignoring secular writings here. At least after the 11th century, most medieval secular works glorified violence and very rarely expressed concerns about it being unrestrained. The difference, to my mind, is that they didn’t see martial prowess as stemming from a Freeman kind of lifestyle, but from a combination of civilisation (“courtesy”, courtly behavior) and piety. While a Muslim character in a romance could be an exceptional warrior and courteous, they were always doomed to loose out to a Christian character who was as courteous but part of the “proper” religion, and so helped by God to overcome his opponent. The same goes for any other sort of pagan in secular (or even ecclesiastical literature): whatever their skills, the skills granted to their opponents by God would be enough to defeat them.
It’s somewhat more complex than that with, for instance, Northern France viewing Southern France as effeminate and less skilled at war in the 12th and 13th centuries in part because of the courtly culture being stronger there, but broadly speaking it’s more correct to say that prowess in battle was linked to “civilised” behavior – which, I need to stress, did not preclude (for secular authors) the sacking of towns, slaughter of peasants, rape of peasant women or wide scale looting – and to God rather than hardy living.
I assume you mean ‘after the end of the 11th century’ since the concern about violence (and the need to restrain it, or at least channel it somewhere else) is actually quite prominent in Crusade literature (e.g. Fulcher generally, Baldric’s account of Clermont, etc.) and the Truce of God movement was mostly an 11th century phenomenon. And it seems relevant to note that, depending on how one periodizes, by the end of the 11th century, the Middle Ages were anywhere from 60 to 75% over, making any statement that is true ‘to the end of the 11th century,’ true of *most* of the Middle Ages (and frankly, I struggle to imagine many statements that would be true of the whole of the Middle Ages).
For a paragraph that has to summarize medieval attitudes in just a few sentences, and already admits significant exceptions, 60 to 75% is not a bad accuracy rate (although it certainly seems to me that concerns about the proper limits of violence also occur in later literature, even if those concerns hardly amount to the Geneva conventions – part of this may be my rooting in the classical tradition, where concerns about the amount of interstate violence are vanishingly rare. Speaking broadly, my impression is that *any* concerns about interstate violence in pre-modern societies tend to be quite rare – for the most part, interstate violence is treated as good, wholesome and appropriate – making medieval reticence really quite striking, even if it doesn’t go as far as we’d like).
Perhaps it helps to say later medieval authors were concerned with violence in their own societies? I don’t know, but it seems one of the fundamental bases for the Crusades was to send warriors out of Christendom to make war elsewhere, to loot and spill blood elsewhere, with not much concern for what they did once they sailed from Italy. A significant exception, of course, is on the Fourth Crusade when Pope Innocent excommunicated the Crusaders who sacked Constantinople. I’m not sure how prominent this attitude was but clearly it wasn’t extinguished.
Speaking broadly, my impression is that *any* concerns about interstate violence in pre-modern societies tend to be quite rare – for the most part, interstate violence is treated as good, wholesome and appropriate – making medieval reticence really quite striking, even if it doesn’t go as far as we’d like
I guess this was because medievals tended to see themselves as part of a unified cultural and religious bloc (Christendom), so there was a sense of shared identity that was absent between most pre-modern societies. In ancient Greece, where you did get a sense of shared Greek identity, there were similar concerns expressed about the Greeks fighting each other instead of ganging up against their natural enemies, the Persians.
Except…it was in the 13th century that Rabban bar Sauma, ambassador from Yuan China to the Holy Roman Empire, marveled at how the wars of his host society didn’t involve sacking of towns, slaughter of peasants, rape of peasant women, or wide scale looting. Do you have specific sources of European secular authors endorsing any of those things? Or an explanation for how, despite this supposed endorsement, they didn’t actually do it very much?
Even in the 14th and 15th centuries, as the professional/mercenary forces that weren’t under the Peace and Truce of God began to replace the feudal levies, warfare was nothing like as brutal as in Antiquity, East Asia, or Early Modern Europe. The Hundred Years War killed three times as many people as Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in 1592…but that invasion ended in six years, the Hundred Years war was eighty-one years of fighting. One-third the death-toll in two twenty-sevenths as long comes to the East Asian war being four and a half times as deadly.
>I assume you mean ‘after the end of the 11th century’ since the concern about violence (and the need to restrain it, or at least channel it somewhere else) is actually quite prominent in Crusade literature (e.g. Fulcher generally, Baldric’s account of Clermont, etc.) and the Truce of God movement was mostly an 11th century phenomenon.
No, I meant precisely what I said. Secular sources from the late 11th century on glorify war and violence, in contrast to ecclesiastical sources. Fulcher and Baldric are ecclesiastical sources and, while I agree that the Peace of God seems to have worked surprisingly well for the duration of the First Crusade, it is unique as a case of a widespread ban on inter-state warfare being observed in the Middle Ages.
The Peace of God, developed over a period of roughly 60 years between the 980s and 1030s, was the result of the serious breakdown of centralised authority during that period and ecclesiastical efforts to rebuild some kind of stability and protection for their property and dependents. The apocalyptic ideals of the turn of the millennium also played a factor, as did a series of disease and famines, and I don’t mean to downplay the genuine religious sentiment that led to the various Peaces. Religious ideals were every bit as important in driving the Peaces as more mundane concerns.
However, the Peace of God and, following it, the Truce of God, were not checks on warfare between states/principalities/feudal polities or however you want to frame the political bodies. They were explicitly for maintaining the Peace within the political body, whether it was a Bishopric or a Duchy, not for preventing or minimising warfare between political bodies. The Truce of God, a secular driven movement that lasted considerably longer was very much concerned with internal peace, with the right to use force on the prohibited days or against prohibited targets reserved for the “prince” (to use the medieval phrasing), rather than the nobles.
Saying that measures for internal stability and a one off mostly observed instance of external peace means that the medieval world had measures to limit, rather than encourage, warfare is like suggesting that because the Empire during the Principate saw minimal conflict between provinces, the Romans were unusually peaceful and deliberately limited their warlike tendencies.
I’m not sure you are really responding directly to my claim here. The claim was never about *actual* levels of violence, or any sort of policy or its impacts, but about literary culture. This entire post is about *discourse* as distinct from reality. The *discourse* – from which, ecclesiastical writers cannot be removed, given how prominent they are – remains concerned about violence and tends to be more focused on how to channel and constrain the folks whose job is to do violence, then it is about the need to ramp up violence. They are not – as a number of late 19th and early 20th century writers very much will – trying to find or create more uninhibited violence machines unencumbered by Christian morality or acceptable limits on violence.
At no point here am I claiming that this discourse actually managed to constrain violence! Discourse, by definition, can exist quite detached from any sort of reality. Nor am I claiming that they are any kind of true pacifists, or anything of the sort. I am claiming that the written discourse was hardly going to idealize the sort of ruthless, amoral ‘barbarian’ violence-doers that the Fremen Mirage focuses on, and was instead far more interested in how to get the Professional Violence Men within society to behave within a Christian set of social bounds (which, being a product of their time, in no way precluded significant interstate violence).
And again *any* concerns about an excess of interstate violence – as you see in Fulcher and Baldric – is remarkable in pre-modern literature, regardless of the clerical nature of the authors. Not unique, mind you, but remarkable and unusual. Cf. say, Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions.
Right, but what I’m getting at is that the discourse itself was almost entirely at an intra-state level rather than an extra-state level as you’re suggesting. Excepting the First Crusade, the discussion remained at the intra-state level.
Re: your point, I agree with it, as I pointed out in my comments regarding secular views on what made a great warrior, I just strongly disagree with the use of the intra-state Peace/Truce of God being used as an inter-state concept.
(As an aside, I forgot about Le Puy, so that puts the Peace of God into the 970s)
E: Strong links with the Scots? The very name of Scoti or Scotti was originally applied to the Irish, but starting in the 5C, especially to the people of Dál Riata, a kingdom that encompassed northeastern Ireland, the Hebrides, and parts of the Scottish mainland. It was they who spread earlier forms of Irish across the Sruth na Maoile into Pictland (Pictish was a relative of Welsh, from what little we know of it). In the 8C the scholar called in Latin Johannes Scotus chose to sign himself “Eriugena” to show that though he was one of the Scoti, he was “born in Ireland”; by the 13C, the scholar Duns Scotus is unambiguously from Scotland.
If it weren’t for the extinction of the Irish dialects of Eastern Ulster (Northern Antrim held out until about 1875), it would be stone obvious that there was a dialect continuum from Irish to Scottish Gaelic and even Manx (which is closer to the Sc. G.. side, somewhat disguised by its English-y orthography). The existence of two separate standard forms hasn’t helped, of course. Indeed, until the 19C, educated Irish-speakers and Hebrideans wrote in Glassical Gaelic, an only slightly modernized form of 12C Irish, in preference to the language(s) they actually spoke, much like European intellectuals who wrote in Latin. The exception was the Sc. G. New Testament of 1767 and Old Testament of 1801, which had to be (as the English 39 Articles put it) in “a tongue understanded of the people”.
First of all: I love your blog, secondly: please do a series about what we do know about Gauls (Being Belgian and all, the bravest of all the Gauls 😉 )
Thirdly: I am wondering how for example the Aiel from ‘the wheel of time’ fit into the Freeman mirage…I guess they fit more into a kind of steppe-warrior mold?
The Aiel, bless them, are a shining example of literary Fremeness fitting the mirage almost to a T. I give it a pass because WOT is after all a fantasy. The huge, enormous difference between Aiel and Steppe warriors is the horse. The Aiel don’t have them, don’t want them and won’t use them. However they luckily have much of the speed and endurance of horses and are as fast and maneuverable as any cavalry. Fantasy, remember.
The Aiel in Wheel of Time are shaped by a hard land, but that’s about all that makes them Fremen. They have a sophisticated political organization with state (clans) and subunits (septs). In addition they have highly organized cross-state political structures in their societies and Wise Ones. Further they are sedentary and seem about on par technologically with their neighbors – though the setting’s magical elements make that somewhat fuzzy.
I have to admit, that sounds like an almost textbook description of a sedentary *non*-state society. Not all political organizations are states!
When assessing if a society has a state, you want to be asking 1) does a single individual or political institution possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a clearly defined territory (typically, in a clan-based society, the answer is ‘no’), 2) is there a literate bureaucracy which keeps records and collects taxes? 3) Is there a process of revenue collection and redistribution, allowing the institution at (1) to organize religious and military institutions and to dominate any other political stakeholders in the polity? And 4) has this system survived at least a couple generational cycles (since there is a tendency for ‘chiefly cycling’ – societies nearly achieving a state, only to have to torn down by clan chiefs wary of a king’s power).
The short-cut to a lot of this is just to ask, “does this society now have a king, or has it ever had a king?” (Note, king as distinct from a tribal chief – kings hold primacy in military, religious and judicial matters, whereas a tribal chief is often one of several key power-centers within a non-state society; it sounds like these Wise Ones would be another power center – the process of state formation would almost certainly destroy or at least tame such an institution). Nearly all states begin through the development of an institution of (more or less) absolute monarchy. Republics, Oligarchies, etc – these are almost always former monarchies which have overthrown their king and redistributed his roles among a set of elected offices.
I realize I haven’t really covered this on the blog. Maybe I’ll go over state formation in a future post.
I think state formation would be an interesting topic to read about. You’ve now really got me wondering whether the Aiel are a state society or not, so I’ll describe based on the questions you raise.
On the terminology, I feel like “clan” brings to mind a small kinship-based organization. The Aiel are not like that. Individuals can immigrate to another clan, and clans (of which there are 13) themselves are probably a couple million people strong each. If the Aiel society is a state society then the states are the clans not the Aiel culture as a whole. Clans have a regional territory and are broken down into septs which control smaller regions, and septs have holds, which are basically cities and towns. It’s unclear exactly how leaders are chosen, but the impression I get is that the public chooses (by election?) sept chiefs and that sept chiefs elect clan chiefs candidates from among themselves. Clan chief candidates must be confirmed by the Wise Ones based on a magical test and their judgment as to whether to permit the initiation of that test. Sept chiefs and clan chiefs can serve for life. Wise Ones must pass a similar test with similar permission needed.
1. Does a clan hold a monopoly on the use of force in a clearly defined territory? Yes, I think so. Clans have a territory. Within that territory septs do not go to war with one another. Clans can and do permit their septs to initiate smaller scale warfare but they can also withdraw that permission. Interpersonal violent (dueling and the like) is common and generally allowed within the bounds of custom. The Aiel also have Red Shields which act as formal police both civil and military.
2. Literate bureaucracy and taxes? This isn’t discussed much. Literacy is very high. There is evidence of thorough record keeping of some sort based on the information characters in leadership posetions have at hand when needed. I don’t recall taxes being mentioned.
3a) organized religion. No not really but maybe kind of. Religion in Wheel of Time is different. Magic is real and everyone knows it. Most people don’t encounter it on a daily basis, but it’s a plain fact of life, and its provenance from a system put in place by a creator-deity is a proven truth. Jordan’s imagination is that in such a reality formal religion never really takes hold because it’s redundant. The Wise Ones are (mostly) magic users who use that source, so they are the closest thing to Aiel religious leaders.
3b) organized military. Yes. A single clan can raise an army at least tens of thousands strong and maybe up to a the low six figures from their territory, and they can supply that army on extended campaigns that last a couple years and travel a thousand miles. Septs can raise bands to raid the septs of neighboring clans.
4) duration. Waaaay more than a couple of generations.
5) kingship. Clan chiefs have military and judicial primacy. Religion not so much. They are also limited in that they do not have absolute power, and “a chief is not a king” is a common refrain in the series.
The Wise Ones are certainly a power structure. They operate largely as advisers and mediators. They can be pretty imperious in attitude, but ultimately they cannot command obedience. I’m sure I’m mangling the concepts, but I think the idea of auctoritas but not potestas fits.
I have not commented here before, but I would definitely like to add my vote to hearing more about what is known regarding Gallic social structures.
I also want to thank you for dealing with Ibn Khaldun. I have been wondering since the beginning of the series how his ideas fit in (having only a passing familiarity with them), and now I understand the contrast much better.
It occurs to me that part of the difference the “Fremen Mirage,” especially in its modern pop-culture form (e.g., the Conan the Barbarian movies) and Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyah is that the former highlights the strength of the individual (which is then extrapolated to the strength of the community), while asabiyah focuses on the strength of the community itself. (On the other hand, the Hollywood version of the Mirage is heavily influenced by the American idea of rugged individualism, so this comparison may be misleading.)
My recollection from reading Dune is that the Fremen are portrayed as more communal than individualistic in their customs, but I agree that they are also portrayed as “hard men” shaped by a hard environment into ruthless fighters. (I just recalled the scene in the original novel in which Paul Atreides is forced to fight a duel to the death with a Fremen, and after he wins, the other Fremen are shocked that Paul, at fifteen, has never taken another man’s life before.)
> is there interest in me talking about what we do know about Gallic social organization?
Yes! As a French who recently visited Bibracte and Autun, and discovered so many bogus things I’ve been taught in school about Gauls 25 years ago, I would love to read such a post. If only to make sure my daughter is not being fed the same tales in a couple years.
This was a very educational article for me. I was wondering whether and when this series would get around to describing the explicitly racist version of the “cycle of imperial decadence” theory: “Superior light-skinned people conquer inferior dark-skinned people and subjugate them, unwisely choose to interbreed with their subjects, lose the virtue that enabled them to conquer and rule, and are in turn conquered by a fresh wave of light-skinned people”. My exposure to that trope was in speeches and writings by early-20th-century Americans defending segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, and I have to admit I assumed it was a uniquely American idea invented for the specific ideological purpose of justifying the US’s racial caste system. I didn’t realize it came from Europe and a whole century earlier.
Parallel evolution- Europeans and Americans were inventing the “warp and weft” of modern racism throughout this time period, and all the same ideas were present in America at the time they were present in Europe. They just took different forms because the white North American colonists had different needs from their ethnonational narrative than did, say, the British, French, and Germans who mythologized the ancient imagined-Celts, imagined-Gauls, and imagined-Germanics, respectively.
In Europe, there was little direct realistic concern of “race-mixing” simply because the ‘racial’ groupings tended to be delineated along territorial lines. In America, there was massive fear of “race-mixing” because the enslaved ‘black’ caste lived commingled with whites everywhere, and there was very little innate socioeconomic divide between free blacks and the poorest whites. Without brutally effective cultural enforcement of anti-‘miscegenation’ customs and laws, it would be inevitable that the line between the blacks and whites would blur, which was simply unacceptable to the powers that be (see also ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’).
Thus, in America, miscegenation-fear was a larger component of the racist narrative emerging at the time. Whereas in Europe, inevitable-fall-of-decadent-Orient was a larger component. Though eventually it all got mingled on both sides of the Atlantic due to cross-pollination, I guess.
Europe did not pick up these ideas from America they are part and parcel of the story of racism and slavery. Europeans brought racially based slavery to the Americas and they kept it in their other holdings after America became a nation.Even when they gave up slavery (and not evenly) they replaced it with other forms of colonialism that were highly problematic.So they had quite a bit of interest as the years rolled on in creating the concept of “whiteness” and thus with that concept anti-miscenegation. Anglo-Indians were not welcomed. And it wasn’t as if that was specific to Britain’s Indian holdings. Sure the French loved Black Americans even as they treated Algerians terribly, a dynamic that continues to this day.
I’d also point out that the anti-mixing laws in the American South were less about poor whites and blacks getting together as slavery becoming inherited through parentage–both of them. That had little to do with whether the whites were poor or rich as wealthier whites had just as much contact, if not more.
The Fremen clearly have an almost mystical idea about the tribe and its water. “A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe.” They clearly have a strong sense of community. It’s just that the tribes in turn are not very unified until the coming of Paul Muad’Dib.
Interesting contrast between Ibn Khaldun’s concept of asabiyah and the ideas of Tacitus. But, one thing that should be mentioned in regards the attitudes towards the latter, is that as I understand it the Roman Empire began to depend upon Germanic peoples for much of its army later on. This probably played into the idea of the barbarians being still hard enough to make war, and the decadent civilized being too soft for it. It is also a repeating pattern that wealthy civilizations try to outsource some of the hard tasks of military service to poorer peoples, who throughout much of history would have been from lower-tech societies.
Seen in this light, the idea of Tacitus that the Germans still retained something that the Romans had lost, was basically that the Romans were outsourcing too much of their own military defense, and would have cause to regret it. Tacitus may have had in mind the Germanic commander Arminius, in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, who had received a Roman education. The trope I see that you refer to as the “Fremen mirage”, is that barbarian peoples are more willing to fight, and civilized peoples lose their willingness to fight, until it is the barbarians who are in charge of the military (e.g. Germanic generals of Roman armies), and then the armies do not have loyalty to the institutions of the civilian government.
This runs afoul of the chronology. Tacitus is writing in 98 AD. The first notable use of Germanic-speakers as foederati is by Julian in 358 AD. 260 years later. That is a *really* long time and it seems hard to imagine that Tacitus is looking forward to those developments in his discussion of the Germani. It was precisely to stress that chronological disconnect that I placed Tacitus within the narrative of the second post in the series.
In Tacitus’ day – as he himself notes (Tac. Ann. 4.5) – the Roman army consisted half of Roman citizen soldiers recruited into the legions, and half of auxiliaries, who were non-citizen residents of the empire. Some of those auxiliaries were recruited from the sorts of people the Romans thought ‘warlike,’ but many were not. Check out Ian Haynes’ Blood of the Provinces on this.
(And to be clear: about half of the Roman army had *always* been non-citizen. Even in the Republic, back when it was the non-Roman Italians filling the role, before they received citizenship. So the auxilia is no new development, nor a mark of declining military virtue among the Romans.)
Well, Arminius had Roman military experience, which is part of why he was able to predict their response to the attack.
But your point about non-Romans being long-standing in the Roman army suggests that the pattern is:
1) a given people are considered outsiders (not from Rome, then not from the Latin league, then not from Italy, then not Mediterranean)
2) that people are willing to serve in the army, which is allowed because the army needs more people
3) they become, after a generation or more, considered part of the core “Roman” identity
4) they become less willing to serve in the military, and (poorer, less technologically advanced) people from further out have to be recruited
But, I’m sure your knowledge of Roman history is much more extensive than mine, so perhaps I am incorrect. Enjoying the series!
> It imagined raw, larger than life heroic ancestors – Arminius, Boudica, Vercingetorix – and a morally pure, independent past, free from either outside influence, or the corrupting role of modernity…
A king who resisted Roman conquest being a national hero to the French fits. A Queen who led an uprising against Roman rule being a national hero to the UK fits. But to whom is Arminius a national hero? Methodists?
To whom is Arminius a hero? Nineteenth century German nationalists. See the giant statue of him (the Hermannsdenkmal) in Detmold.
Yes. See for instance:
I see. I was thinking of a rather different Arminius.
Two things I noted while reading this post, though neither are particularly germane to your main point:
– racism in Europe continues to be less American-style “black and white” and far more, uh, nuanced, for lack of a better/more clearly negative term. As you say, racism against Mediterranean Europeans and Eastern Europeans being the main two that differentiate it from US ideas of racism. (At least for Central Europe – I imagine anti-“Celt” racism might well be a thing in Britain as well.) It feels important to me to emphasize that this sort of racism is still ongoing and not a thing of the past as your phrasing might imply.
– Part of the reason the intellectual elite of Germany was searching for a way of creating a German national identity was that there *was* no Germany at the time. You mention that there was no “Germany” in any united sense during the time of Tacitus’ writing – well, neither was there during the 19th century! It was a bunch of kingdoms both large and small, with a growing number of people wishing to be *one* nation, basing the argument on things such as a common language. (And the main conflict of the latter half of the century was whether Prussia or the Austro-Hungarian empire would emerge as the leaders of this new German nation.) So certainly I think in Germany of the time there’s a very strong reason for people to be interested in finding or creating a common past beyond just general emerging nationalism.
At least for Central Europe – I imagine anti-“Celt” racism might well be a thing in Britain as well.
Definitely. Teutonicists in the British Isles were very fond of contrasting the dreamy and impractical Celt to the Anglo-Saxon. In Germany, OTOH, Nazi propaganda would often describe the Irish and Scottish as being among the superior races, and the English as their oppressors; it was the Slav that was subhuman.
One suspects that proximity has a certain degree of influence.
I note that American racism has also had a history of being more fine-grained. In Working Toward Whiteness, there’s the story of a union organizer reporting that he thinks those trying to organize at a workplace have good chances, and he cites as a reason their chosen leadership — as he put it, a white, a black, a Hungarian, a Slav, and a Polacker.
Australian racism is multi-polar. An Asian with a suitcase at a back door asking “You Poms, soap-dodgers, bog-Irish, Chinks, Wogs, Wops, Dagos got room for the odd slope?”
The KKK spent pretty much the entire period from the end of Reconstruction to the end of the Second World War as a primarily anti-Slav, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jewish organization; they didn’t become mainly anti-black again till the postwar Civil Rights movement. Indeed in Indiana the Klan had a black auxiliary, who wore blue robes: because most black Americans are Protestant, and they both hated Catholics more than they hated each other, till the blacks started speaking out against Jim Crow.
Not only did American racism also include an anti-Slav element, it still does—watch a Hollywood movie and count the non-Jewish Eastern Europeans who aren’t drunken losers, spies, or criminals. I doubt you’re going to be starting a second hand (likely not even a second finger, on the remote offchance you actually get to use the first one).
This series is amazing.
In this post you get around to Ibn Khaldun, but I think you also need to engage with James C. Scott (and maybe some of the ethnographic data in “The Horse, the Wheel, and Language”). Specialists tell me that the cycles he observed show up again and again in India, North China, Southwest Asia, and Africa (so in the places where on the order of half of all humans were living until very recently). There are a lot of Nubian and Libyan and delta dynasties in Egyptian history if you know to look for them.
And maybe D.T. Potts (Nomadism in Iran) on how late pastorial nomads appear in “the highland where states cannot go” (the Assyrians’ Medes are “city lords” not wandering herders, and the Assyrians occupy a large chunk of the Zagros for about a hundred years- and Elam means “high country”, Susa was their summer cottage). I think there is something to the theory that large states often appear where good farmland is mixed up with steppe, so at first the herders keep bullying the farmers and then someone organizes enough farmers and turns the tide.
Good point on Conan the Barbarian being a strong example of this. If you read some of Howard’s other stories it’s portrayed even more explicitly and becomes and even purer example of what you’re talking about than the Fremen.
Howard’s work in general is rife with the “Hard times make hard men, hard men make good times, good times make soft men, soft men make hard times” concept, his pseudohistory of the world is an “inevitable” cycle of civilizations falling to barbarians and barbarians founding civilizations in turn and so on.
I would certainly be interested in a rundown of what we do know about “Gallic” or “Celtic” social structure.
so awesome to read a historical source that is anti-racist and inclusive of non-Western sources.
I’d love to learn about relations in South America or Africa, as I don’t know much about them or even what they’re called (not Eastern or Western?)
Thank you Bret for this amazing series
Just a little nitpick: you mention that Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen was funded by the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II”, and, given the context, imply that this is an example of a ruler funding an artist to push a nationalist ideology. But it is not an example for that at all, it is an example for the original resurgence of the trope you previously noted, rooted in Romanticism and its “love of the medieval and pre-Roman pasts, which were conceived of as heroic, emotional”. That was Ludwig to a T: he was an unabashed romantic (almost cripplingly so) and quite uninterested in military matters or demagoguery.
Agreed; beat me to it. Poor Ludwig, the pretend king of a pretend kingdom, which was a mere province of Bismarck’s Prussian Empire, took no interest in governance, state affairs, policy, or anything else except his fairy-tale world of castles, heroic legends and Wagner’s musical settings of same. Now Richard Wagner himself was a particularly nasty example of this fusion of Romantic nationalism and pseudo-scientific racism you speak of, but that certainly wasn’t on der Marchenkonig’s mind when he forked over a chunk of cash to that shameless scrounger, whose music he was obsessed with.
“Almost all of this sort of artwork, which begins during the Romantic period and continues beyond it for much of the 19th century, it should be noted, was produced by artists who had never been to the East, and most certainly never inside of the palaces and particularly harems they depicted. Anyone even remotely familiar with period dress in the Muslim world recognizes these paintings for the absurdities they are ”
It should, though, be pointed out that most Romantic painters had no interest in nor claimed to be representing ‘reality’- mostly, it was an excuse to paint nekkid wimmenz, while adding a fashionably exotic flavor.
I see I should have left my comment on the previous post for this one! That’s what I get for coming in late and still going through things in order.
As a point of scholarship, I want to point out I disagree with the perception of R.E. Howard put forward through these posts. I don’t credit you as claiming he indulges in the Fremen Myth. Further, using his works, or works derived from his, as examples thereof in the cultural consciousness is more than fair. However, I claim Howard himself was attempting to communicate a much subtler, and potentially truer point, and specifically as a foil for what he saw as the failures of American (and more broadly, Western) civilization: civilization is a work which requires constant maintenance, constant ‘virtue’ if you will, and that contrary to the expectations of those born within it, the default state of humans is ‘barbarism’. Therefore the collapse of any civilization is the product of people stopping the work of civilization and taking it for granted to pursue selfish ends. The barbarians, meanwhile, as the ‘state of nature,’ are always there as a kind of background. Conan is thrust forward not as a noble example (he is by no means noble, but despicable, and Howard felt him to be so), but as a foil to highlight the failings of the civilized.
It rhymes but it isn’t the same lesson, and importantly it makes not claims to being an historical explanation of anything.
(You are of course correct about the existence of racial and gender stereotypes. These are pulp stories, after all.)
I’m not sure there’s any intrinsic reason for pulp adventures to have racial and gender stereotypes, especially the exact same ones that: conform to the existing hierarchy; and also mimic those of contemporaneous middlebrow and even highbrow culture. Howard’s paradigm is straight from Spengler and Stoddard. Lovecraft is incredibly racist and anti-Semitic — like, way beyond “man of his time” levels, but not more so than Wallace Stevens (Black people) or Ernest Hemingway (Jewish people).
In all fairness, we really shouldn’t conflate Howard and Lovecraft. The two men corresponded heavily and were friends, and even sometimes name-dropped references to each other’s fiction into their stories. But that doesn’t mean they shared the same views on all the same things. They were not a hivemind.
I’m coming back to this much later, and I have no reasonable expectation of ever getting a response, but it occurs to me to wonder:
Okay, so the “Fremen mirage” is about how living in hard conditions makes a tougher, sterner breed of men, while living in rich, ‘cityfied’ conditions makes a weaker, decadent breed of men.
And you’re saying that Robert E. Howard is about how living in hard conditions with crudity and strength is the default ‘barbaric’ condition of humanity, and the maintenance of civilization requires active work that men eventually cease to engage in, at which point they become selfish and depraved and their society is overrun by barbarians again.
I’m not sure how significant the differences are here, except insofar as yes, different authors writing in different languages within different religions and cultures in entirely different genres (prose history and ethnography versus pulp fantasy magazine serials) will express the same overarching ideas differently.
This would merit some expansion.
I think the difference is one of morality.
The Fremen Mirage presents barbarism (as Howard defines it) as the ideal, as something good and noble and to live up to. Howard, however, defines it as a default and–see his depiction of the Picts in particular–as an evil to overcome.
Conan is NOT a heroic figure. He’s a powerful figure, and occasionally does heroic things, but ultimately he’s a thief, a murderer, someone who gets his companions killed, and generally just not a good person. At his best Conan is a weapon aimed against things more evil than him; at his worst he’s a purely destructive force. The Picts are more obviously evil. They have no redeeming qualities, and exist more or less as orcs do in “Lord of the Rings” or as demons do in the Doom series. Their purpose is to be slaughtered in large numbers without anyone having to feel bad about the bloodshed.
Howard depicts civilization as potentially evil as well, but it’s worth noting that civilization is not NECESSARILY evil in his stories. It can be, but it can also be noble and uplifting, depending on the ruler.
If anything, Howard seems to hold the belief that a mixture of civilization and barbarism is the ideal. Too much of either is bad–too much civilization makes men (and it’s always men) justify atrocities for selfish aims. Too much barbarism has them gutting one another in the streets for selfish aims.
One thing that must always be remembered about Howard’s works: The Hyborian Age was entire futile. Where Tolkien wrote a mythology for England, Howard wrote a series of stories that, while occurring in a fictional past, were utterly cut off from any other age. Fundamentally–and this theme can be seen running through his stories–it didn’t matter if people were good or evil, noble or base, civilized or savage. They all ended up lost to time and forgotten.
Having just discovered this site a few days ago – *please* write about Gallic social order! I’ve bounced off understanding non-state societies & especially sedentary ones many times.
I may actually do this! But I have to caution you to temper your expectations, a LOT of Gallic social order is ‘we don’t know.’ So be ready for that.
jusr letting you know that you forgot to link to later parts of the series at the top of this post as well as the corresponding IIIa. Not a big deal, but i figured you might like to keep it neat.
Sure about Kohlrausch? I have read into the edition at https://archive.org/details/diedeutschegesc00kohlgoog and got the impression that Krebsʼ representation (as I know it from yours) is as accurate a depiction of Kohlrausch as Taciti Germania of the Germanic tribes.
Kohlrausch calls the Germanic people(s) immigrants from Asia, related to Indians, Persians, Greeks … He speaks about the Germanic people, but also Germanic peoples (in the plural) and tribes, or even one tribe (the Suebi) comprising different people … Yes, he also uses “deutsch” ‘German’ instead of “germanisch” ‘Germanic’ – but as you, the unmitigated pedant, are doing the same in your blog, we can forgive Kohlrausch for that. Even Jacob Grimm uses “deutsch” as a synonym for “germanisch”; and he certainly wasnʼt a proponent of racial superiority.
Speaking of which: I have not found yet anything of the sort that some biological unmixedness is “uniquely true of the Germans” (as you report from Krebs) – and the virtues Tacitus ascribes to the Germanic peoples are in his opinion not a matter of some biological (“racial”) superiority but in ‘the sanctity of marriage’ and deep mutual respect for the spouse!
He refers to a high number of Roman and Greek writers – in a textbook for middle school pupils – and doesnʼt fail to mention the fact that Tacitus has some things ‘presented with too much bias or may have been interpreted them in a one-sided way’.
One should also note, that Krebs (per your report) gives a misrepresentation in so far as Kohlrausch contains pages upon pages of sober, factual information and then intersperses a little blather about love and loyalty and chastity of the Germanic peoples.
And Kohlrauschʼs sympathy is not quite with the fremen as they are according to your description: He deplores that the Germanic peoples were not so sophisticated to have a writing culture, stresses that they were not without some culture and craftsmanship and so on.
Another thing: “But in Germany, the process of creating that imagined community was particularly difficult. For much of the early modern period, the best intellectual currency in Europe was a connection to the Greek and Roman past – rulers could mobilize Greek and Roman imagery to legitimize themselves and Greek and Roman learning remained the foundation for humanistic study of basically everything. But for German-speakers – it is still far too early to speak of ‘Germans’ more broadly – therein lay a problem. Unlike the Spanish or French or Italians (or even the English) the core German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the place that might be understood as a ‘Germany’ – had never been part of the Roman Empire.” But the standard solution to this was not the connection via the Catholic church you mention nor Tacitus but the translatio imperii you mention later on: The Holy Roman Empire simply was declared as the successor of the Roman Empire proper.
Not that this is tremendously important to account, but you completely missed slavic inclinations. Beside obvious 3rd Rome from Russia, in Poland myths of antique ancestors starts as early as XVV century in the form of Sarmatism and it actually predates french and german nation building.
Poles were supposed to be direcent descendants of the pure Sarmats – horse riding, knighlike, superior fighting.
Just another example of the same phenomenon