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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Laws, customs, and the Saxons

   Thomas Jefferson, perhaps freedom's greatest advocate during the founding years of the United States, was also an Anglo-Saxonist; that is, he admired the culture of pre-Norman England.  He even wrote that because America was never conquered by William the Norman, the system of ownership here was rightfully allodial.  (Source here.)  Sadly, we nonetheless ended up with a British-style, feudal-derived 'fee simple' system, where you own property only so long as the government lets you.  But he understood there dwelt something in the old Saxon culture that was curiously unamenable to arbitrary rule, and he believed this quality would be transferred to America.
   The West Germanic tribes had their own words for law; æ or æw in Old English, ēwa in Old High German (surviving in modern German as Ehe, meaning marriage), and ēo in Old Saxon.  These words were cognates, deriving either from a root meaning 'custom' or one meaning 'eternity', the sense there being 'eternally existing law'. (Source here.)  In both English and German, as feudalism crushed older customs and power coalesced toward the creation of modern nation-states, they were supplanted by words - law and Gesetz, respectively - meaning instead 'what is laid/set down'.  Interesting change.
   The lines were once blurred between custom and law.   But can I equate this with a kind of natural law, as I do in The Last of the Freemen?   By my own interpretation, it seems Thomas Jefferson did nearly the same.  The modern concept of natural law - the rational deduction of universal values - is of course not the same as custom.   But for those partaking in any culture, the old customs and unwritten rules will certainly feel natural.
   Beyond this I would add: unless we see ourselves as existing somehow apart from nature (an odd concept, really, since I don't believe we came on space ships from somewhere else), then any time-tested custom that has arisen organically in a group - through cohesion rather than coercion - and that has enabled that group's survival, would have to be considered 'natural'.
  Finally, customary and natural law share this in common: frequent conflicts with posited law, that which is set down by tyrants and governments for their own benefit.
    I avoid using the term 'common' law in this context because it is subject, especially in our age, to judicial activism; that is, precedent-setting intended to gain political leverage or to effect social change.  In a former time, when certain men could pass judgment largely because they were held in esteem - rather than because they excelled at a credentials game - this would have been unlikely: arbitrary judgments would have discredited and so disempowered them.
   I don't know all that was encompassed by the older law; but if it permeated Saxon culture to the point of inciting conflicts with agents of arbitrary rule, as it seems to have done in early England and on the Continent, then clearly it shaped the nature of freedom across northern Europe.  Oh, and in America, too.