What are the deepest roots of Anglosphere exceptionalism? Some of the most commonly attributed sources are wrong: Protestantism, for example. England was exceptional long before Protestantism. Alan Macfarlane, from an anthropological perspective, has taken the story back into the Middle Ages. His predecessor F.W. Maitland, from a legal perspective, took it back a little farther. The Victorians and Edwardians (Stubbs, Maitland, Acton) agreed that the English retained from their Saxon ancestors something of the “liberty loving” ways of their Teutonic forebears, as depicted by Tacitus almost two thousand years ago. This type of thinking fell into disfavor in the 20th Century. But I think the Victorians were on the money.
And as I and a few others have been digging in on this subject, we have found various interesting facts that support the basic story, coming out of all kinds of unexpected quarters. The other day on Jim Bennett’s blog there was an extremely interesting comment, which read in pertinent part:
I will try to write in English, you already noted that it is difficult for me.
Initially, let me to introduce myself, I am called Pascal, 37 year old Frenchman. I read with great interest, the book of James C Bennett, the Anglosphere challenge, I also read Claudio Véliz, David Hackett Fischer, Francis Fukuyama, Alan Macfarlane, Samuel Huntington… I know well Canada, England and the United States.
For 10 years, I have tried to understand why the French civilization is not any more on the same level as Anglo-Saxon civilization whereas in the 18 ° century these two great civilizations invented the world.
I do not know if J.C.Bennett read the work of the great French sociologist of the 19° century, Frédéric Le Play, and its disciples Henri de Tourville, Edmond Demolins. Their work is very important. Le Play and his disciples based the analysis of the social facts according to the study of the family structures in all Europe. Henri de Tourville wrote a “history of the particularistic formation” since the fall of the Roman Empire. This history is in fact the history of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Edmond Demolins wrote in 1897, “A quoi tient la supériorité des anglo-saxons ”. This book is remarkable, by the way, there is an English translation.
… the Anglo-Saxon nuclear family (the opposite of the extended family) was born, according to Henri de Tourville, in the Norwegian fjords between the birth and the fall of the Roman Empire. In my opinion, the nuclear family is thus one of the bases of Anglo-Saxon civilization. The Anglo-Saxon legal system is thus quite simply an emanation in the manner of living impelled by the nuclear family and the social organization made from the 5 century after JC in Great Britain.
Here is a whole corpus of writing about which I knew nothing. I have in the meantime obtained a copy of the translation of the Demolins book, Anglo-Saxon Superiority, To What is it Due? (1907). The beginning of it is a summary of the writing of M. de Tourville, which discusses how the Saxons came to dominate all the other invaders, Angles, Danes, Normans, because of their cultural practices, particularly nuclear families, which Tourville calls “particularist” social structure. The Saxons generated a unique type of state apparatus as a result, operating large states on a federal-type basis. For example, note this passage:
We know how, under Egbert, the Heptarchy fell under the domination of the Saxons. But the latter did not give the Angles a Saxon government, nor did they foist Saxon officials on them, for the good reason that their political development was most limited, their strength lying more in private than in public life. They never dreamt of administering conquered peoples in the fashion adopted by the Romans, and later by the Spaniards and the French. Their idea was rather — and has remained — a Federation. Thus were started by the Saxons that former United States of England. So little did they aim at constituting the model of a large empire, that their king continued to call himself simply ‘King of the Saxons of the West’. Yet he was sovereign over the whole island.
Remarkable if true. We see the Saxons at the earliest possible date showing the genius for distributed power and federal arrangements that we in the Anglosphere still have today. Unfortunately, the Demolins book, which I am halfway through, is more focused on reform in France a century ago, with the English case only as a background.
I subsequently found that there is an English translation of the de Tourville book, “The Growth of Modern Nations, a History of the Particularist Form of Society”. I have not yet obtained this one. But I shall.
However, I found a summary of Tourville’s assertion that the Saxon’s power arose from what we would now call nuclear families:
… the fascinating theory of Henri de Tourville, who gives the name of ‘particularist’ to these Nordic peoples, because they were people of the small or particularist families of husband, wife, and children as opposed to the large joint families of fathers, their sons and grandsons and their wives and children. Henri de Tourville, in his Histoire de la Formation Particulariste, believes this small family came into being in the following way: some Teutonic or Nordic people reached the plains of Sweden and in their search for undisturbed homes, passed on over the mountains and settled along the fiords of Norway.
Anyone who has voyaged up these fiords must have been struck by the patches of bright green cultivation that are set between the precipitous mountains and the sea water of the fiords. They are like unequally spaced gems of emerald. He will also have been struck by the smallness of the greater number of them. Nevertheless, what is grown on them and the fish of the fiords still form the food of isolated families.
These families were small or particularist owing to the sheer limitation of vegetable food. When the families of a fiord grew too large, the younger members gathered together, stocked a few ships and voyaged southwards, seeking land for themselves in fiords farther south, in the projecting thumb of Denmark, in the northwestern river-lands of Germany, and finally in the island of Britain. In the new settlements, the love of independence led to the persistence of the small family system.
However this system actually arose, it has been of great significance in the world’s history. It is the oddity as opposed to the customary large or joint family; it is independent individuality as opposed to dependence on joint opinion; and a very strong oddity it has proved to be. However rude and rough these early Angles may have been, there are few Englishmen now who will not be thrilled, when they read how Tacitus, coming from the great city-world of Rome, was struck by the jealous independence of each farmer and his family in their settlements. ‘They live apart,’ he wrote, ‘each by himself, as woodside, plain or fresh spring attracts him.’
They could not, however, be quite independent. Dangers from other peoples sometimes threatened them and they then joined together, chose a chief and took to arms. They were fierce fighters and, when they arrived in Britain under their captains, they drove the Britons westwards or slew them, and took their land, until once more they were independent farmers at peace. They were the forerunners of similar settlers in America, Australia and New Zealand.
These French writers of a century ago seem not to be Whig triumphalists, or to be writing about genetics but about culture. They are not necessarily Anglophiles. (Nor am I, for that matter). Rather, they want to know why the English have become so powerful, where France has fallen into decline. They appear to be onto something that Macfarlane is not focused on, which is a way to push the exceptionalism argument back past the Saxon written records, filling in the gaps between Tacitus and the first written dooms of the Kentishmen. As Maitland said:
Along one path or another we can trace back the footprints, which have their starting-place in some settlement of wild Germans who are invading the soil of Roman provinces, and coming in contact with the civilisation of the old world. Here the trail stops, the dim twilight becomes darkness; we pass from an age in which men seldom write their laws to one in which they cannot write at all. Beyond lies the realm of guesswork.
But we may be able to go back farther, at least to some degree and do better than guesswork. The tools of cultural anthropology may allow reliable conclusions to be drawn even about pre-literate ancient communities.
Also, if a key part of the English exceptionalism is “early adoption” of the nuclear family, which would be consistent with Macfarlane, that is an important fact to know about. Nuclear families are powerful units for economic growth, much more so than more extended relations. They are correlated with “market-like” behavior, which many observers have noted, though these observers typically get the causality turned around. And nuclear families engaged in agriculture, particularly frontier-type agriculture, engage in willing “self-exploitation”, in the language used by Avner Offer, wherein people work much, much harder for themselves and their families than they ever would for anyone else, more than they could even be paid to do. Offer’s example is the Canadian and Australian farm families of the late 19th Century — but the Saxon’s settling in England, and pushing aside the less powerful locals, were not different in kind.
I really have to read Macfarlane’s book Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction, 1300-1840, even though it covers a much later period.
This is all very un-PC. It is noteworthy that Hayek, in his book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism takes leftists to task for opposing evolved moral systems, which contain a lot of embedded wisdom. But he repeatedly steers away from making the connection to the foundations of civilization in family arrangements and sexual morality. An odd omission. In any case, the Hayekian insight is fully relevant to this question.
This family structure business is yet one more strand in a web of causation.
Though, I must say, this strand seems to be near the first in time and near the most fundamental in importance, perhaps the bedrock foundation of our civilization. Perhaps it should not be lightly messed with?