The thousandth anniversary of the Norman Conquest of England, in 1066 AD, is still a few decades away and most people know the related story of food and the cultural differences. Our modern English words for domestic animals tend to be the names used by the lowly Saxon farmer-folk who raised them, while once the beasts are slaughtered and cooked we assume the lexicon of the Norman nobleman’s table (pig versus pork/porc, cow versus beef/boeuf, etcetera).
Were Americans once the new Saxons and are they still? One does not mean only to contrast the American elites, with their fancy pasta dishes and complex coffee-drinks that would confound a medieval alchemist, versus the simpler fare of the poorer and the old-fangled. I mean something much more.
Rudyard Kipling took the matter further, in a poem in which a hypothetical Norman nobleman tells his son how best to govern the surly, sullen Saxons. The ever-nationalistic Kipling wrote it in 1911 in a period between perceived failures in the Boer War and war-clouds gathering over Europe; when Chesterton, too, wrote his most nationalistic poetry. So Kipling’s poetic vision, here, could be tub-thumping and wishful thinking, but possibly not.
Modern geneticists show that much of rural England is still largely populated by Saxon stock, and if anecdote and voting habits are anything to go by, their old attitudes toward property and fair-play run deep, as do less conventionally admirable traits. They can be as ornery as badgers.
Moreover, the modern culture may be said to have acquired over time a Saxon-like streak that still pervades much of England, rural or urban, regardless of parentage or ethnicity. In that way, which Dr. Russell Kirk describes so well, Americans of any region or faith or colour have inherited pan-British values inherited from Saxons, who invaded England from Northern Europe and the Low Countries five centuries before the Normans arrived.
I will leave it for you to judge, and yield the stage to Mister Kipling:
Norman and Saxon (AD 1100)
“My son,” said the Norman Baron, “I am dying, and you will be heir
To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for share
When he conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is.
But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this:–
“The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow – with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, ‘This isn’t fair dealing,’ my son, leave the Saxon alone.
“You can horsewhip your Gascony archers, or torture your Picardy spears;
But don’t try that game on the Saxon; you’ll have the whole brood round your ears.
From the richest old Thane in the county to the poorest chained serf in the field,
They’ll be at you and on you like hornets, and, if you are wise, you will yield.
“But first you must master their language, their dialect, proverbs and songs.
Don’t trust any clerk to interpret when they come with the tale of their wrongs.
Let them know that you know what they’re saying; let them feel that you know what to say.
Yes, even when you want to go hunting, hear ’em out if it takes you all day.
They’ll drink every hour of the daylight and poach every hour of the dark.
It’s the sport not the rabbits they’re after (we’ve plenty of game in the park).
Don’t hang them or cut off their fingers. That’s wasteful as well as unkind,
For a hard-bitten, South-country poacher makes the best man-at-arms you can find.
“Appear with your wife and the children at their weddings and funerals and feasts.
Be polite but not friendly to Bishops; be good to all poor parish priests.
Say ‘we,’ ‘us’ and ‘ours’ when you’re talking, instead of ‘you fellows’ and ‘I.’
Don’t ride over seeds; keep your temper; and never you tell ’em a lie!”
Kid yourself not, that democratic America has had no aristocracy nor that it lacks one nowadays. It merely changed from the landed to the moneyed to the creatures of media and governance, for whom being remote and aloof is easier than ever before. Yet neither forget that Kipling’s Saxons are how Americans have seen themselves throughout time, and how many see themselves yet.
The archetypal American is insistent upon fair-play, protective of property, and strongly resents condescension, whether a model Yankee, Southerner or Western rancher, at least on paper. When it comes to public support for torture and extra-judicial assassination one may entertain questions.
So, is the old mythic truth still current? Fair play remains strong perhaps, property less so, but what of the orneriness and implied threat feared by the Norman lord? Do American leaders fear neo-Saxon wrath?
Maybe America’s Saxon future dissolved with her extended families and small neighborhoods. Or, even recalling gun-owners and Tea Partiers and a few muscular Christians, perchance it is now but a matter of electoral demographics, as Mister Romney recently implied. But perhaps, my masters, an East wind bloweth and hardship will beget a recrudescence of things forgotten deep down in the marrows of post-Saxon Man. Crisis can do that.
In the latter instance, what Chesterton predicted around the same time in which Kipling wrote his poem about a century ago, may come to pass in either land or both.
They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes.
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
And the load of their loveless pity is worse than the ancient wrongs,
Their doors are shut in the evening; and they know no songs.
We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
…Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget,
For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet.
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