The Saxon Freemen

In the year 772 Charlemagne invaded the lands of the Saxons. It would take him more than thirty years to complete the subjugation, years that included forced conversions to Christianity - the alternative being execution - and the slaughter of 4,500 Saxon prisoners at Verden; and yet, come the year 841, the Saxons rose up one last time in an attempt to restore their old ways. Though quickly put down, it is remarkable that rebellion still dwelt in their hearts, and that old traditions had abided - underground - in the interim. A powerful love of something was passed along in their households. But what?

Certainly, these forgotten people are no less deserving of respect than the many indigenous cultures that now claim preservation as a human right. The Last of the Freemen is a tale of their descendants, living in the United States in the not-too-distant future. This allows me to explore the beliefs and qualities that made them so difficult to conquer, and to do so in a manner relevant to the modern world. In articles that follow, I will explore some themes of the novel - and more broadly, consider the cultural drivers of freedom - for anyone who finds these things of interest.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Freedom and the fighting spirit

   What is freedom?  Most would agree it means the absence of bondage, although we might not reach consensus on what exactly constitutes 'bondage'; some are content to give up, say, forty percent of their income as a kind of civic duty, and believe everyone else should be forced to do the same.  Others consider this a form of enslavement.  Of course these differences won’t ever be settled.  They’ll play out in the ebb and flow of opinion, and in the rise and fall of nation-states; what's more, the more cultural discord that exists, the less likely we are to find anything close to agreement on this.  But where a sufficient number demand their freedom, however they conceive of it, it is likely to occur.
   In discussions of freedom we encounter the same recurring guideposts; John Locke is often mentioned, as is John Stuart Mill.  It's almost as if the concept of freedom didn't exist before these men wrote about it.  Except that we also hear of the Magna Carta, that supposedly wonderful gift to posterity from the English (Anglo-Norman) aristocracy. (For an excellent perspective on this overhyped work, see one of my favorite blogs here.)
   The word 'freedom' dates from Old English - which died as an official language in 1066.  This is well before the Magna Carta was written (1215), and many centuries before John Locke came along (b.1632).  Likewise for the related 'Freiheit' in German.  These words were spoken, given life and meaning, by individuals who thought for themselves, and who likely had no schooling in the Classics.  They didn't need Aristotle to tell them about freedom.  They knew.
   So then, what of all these historic guideposts?  The charters, the bills of rights, the treatises?  I see them as byproducts of societies already preoccupied with freedom; such preoccupation arising from a tension between those who have internalized some cultural notion of it - and would rather fight than be abused - and those who wish to abuse them.
   I don’t suppose that 8th century Saxons had a perfect society; there is no such thing, after all.  Some kept slaves.  They had something of a caste system.   They didn't shy away from fighting; indeed, it seems to have been what we would today call a 'macho' culture.  But that is perhaps the crux of it; freedom in the West - where kings and governments have often been forced to acknowledge rights they truly despise - is the offspring of a fighting culture.  Not a warrior caste, though; these men were both farmers and fighters, thus thwarting the neat feudal divisions of social function - and land ownership - that facilitated bondage.
   Only when a substantial number of men feel an obligation to combat their assailants, might those assailants be held in check.  This is not to advocate violence, or to say it’s the only alternative in the face of rising statism.  But the readiness to fight must never be banished from our natures, nor should it be shamed from the realm of public discourse.  It is there, as part of our heritage and our societal dialogue, that defiance can serve as counterbalance, warning, and inoculant.  Our intractability is indispensable to the cause of freedom.