Two days this week commemorate anniversaries of events without which our world today would be significantly different: the 950th of the Battle of Hastings, which began the Norman Conquest of England, and the landing of Christopher Columbus on an island in the Western Hemisphere.
Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, the 1987 work by University of Virginia professor emeritus E. D. Hirsch, Jr., espouses the theory that in order to be “culturally literate” one must be familiar with certain names, phrases, dates, and concepts that are part of the Western Civilization canon. Hirsch also was the main editor of A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1989, 2nd ed. 1994), a tome that contains descriptions of those topics.
Many an elementary or secondary student has been alternately bored or frustrated by having to memorize dates when studying for a history test. As an adjunct professor of American history at the community college level, I would tell students that, insofar as dates were concerned, I was interested only that they got the century of occurrence and chronology right. It was necessary to understand that World War II occurred after World War I. Hirsch is sparing with dates—he only includes seven, one of which is the title of a book (1984), and three are the beginning and ending dates of the above mentioned wars and the American Civil War. Those dates, along with 1066 and 1492 are among the ones a culturally literate American must know.
October 12, 1492 was the day on which Christopher Columbus landed on an island he called San Salvador (perhaps because he believed God had saved him from a mutiny by his crew who were beginning to think they were sailing into oblivion). It is now celebrated as a federal holiday on the second Monday in October (this year it’s October 10th). Recently there has been a considerable amount of ink spilled (or if you will, of pixel dust scattered) about Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. Unfortunately, much of is it drivel about a “conquest of paradise” and dispossessing and annihilation of those whose ancestors had immigrated earlier. See, e.g. here Most of the destruction of the then indigenous population was caused by disease for which they had not developed biological immunity—a scientific concept no one would know about for three more centuries. Mass migration and conquest have occurred throughout history and have rarely been pretty. Some denigrate Columbus because he was not the first European to discover the lands of the Western Hemisphere, but the earlier Vikings (and perhaps others whose journeys were not recorded) did not establish a permanent presence. The Columbian voyages and those that followed in the 16th and 17th Century did. Humans have been immeasurably better off since. So Columbus Day should be celebrated, if not for the man, for the significant historical marker it is.
But what about October 14, 1066?
The Battle of Hastings on that date, resulted of the death of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and the defeat of his army. The immediate result was William, Duke of Normandy becoming King of England and the beginning of a royal dynasty that lasts to this day. Though nearly an entire millennium ago, that event began a chain reaction that resulted in Columbus’ 1492 voyage and, later, Hirsch’s third significant singular date, 1776. A complete story of the connections that led to the establishment of the United States of America might be a subject for a later essay. Suffice it to say for now, those connections are there, and really began with the Norman Conquest.
As we know, from the mid 18th to the mid 20th Century, Great Britain, in which England is the lead entity, formed and maintained the most populous, widespread, and significant empire the world has known. There are a number of reasons why a small island came to dominate the world for two centuries, and, culturally, still does. (Beatles recordings today sell well (or are pirated) in China, and nearly everywhere else, except North Korea, where possession would probably get you shot or hanged.)
Prior to the Norman Conquest, England was politically, culturally, and economically oriented toward Scandinavia. After William the Conqueror established himself and his Norman barons as England’s rulers, its orientation was France and continental Europe. Perhaps more significantly, because William remained the Duke of Normandy (which was a sovereign position) and controlled most of what is now northern France, his progeny ruled over a vast cosmopolitan area for centuries.
A second reason is the English language that grew first from a confluence of Anglo-Saxon Old English and Norman French, and then with added influence of other Germanic, Latinate, and many other tongues. English has had a remarkable proclivity to grow and assimilate words and grammar. It thus became a superior means of communication and facilitated the English, and later British, influence on the globe. It is now the lingua franca of the world. Those concerned about another language taking over from English should not worry.
The stability of governance was another result. Economics ultimately determines politics. Because wealth in 11th Century Europe and for many centuries afterwards meant land, William ensured his control by confiscating all of the land of England, and then doled it out as fiefs to his barons who in turn created sub-fiefs down many layers to those who actually worked the land. All of this sub- and sub-sub-tenancy was based on land for services or agricultural produce from the land. Furthermore, the development of the English common law, the rules of decision of which emanated from the mores and customs of the people, rather than being proclaimed by the sovereign, early on subjected the king to certain standards, rather than rule by whim. William’s great-great grandson King John (1199–1216) learned that lesson the hard way. To be sure, there were several succession crises throughout, but all were resolved in a manner that ensured stability for a long time, and an unbroken line of monarchs. The present Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William. Interestingly, her grandson, the namesake of the Conqueror may well be king at the Millennial in 2066.
Note: The Battle of Hastings was actually fought at Senlac Hill, about seven miles northwest of the town of Hastings near a village named, appropriately, Battle. King William established an abbey at the top of the hill which today houses a museum and is the entrance to the battlefield. Most historians believe the terrain there is much the same as it was 950 years ago. The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 230 feet long and 20 inches tall, which depicts graphically the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England, including the battle, is preserved in the town of Bayeux, Normandy, not far from Omaha Beach.
For further reading, see R. Allen Brown, The Norman Conquest of England, (1984); Peter Rex, 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest (2009); Hugh Thomas, The Norman Conquest: England After William the Conqueror, (2009)(focuses on the long-term impact of the Conquest); R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, (1930)(an interesting and somewhat humorous rendition of English history).
|Section of Bayeux Tapestry|