As Lex Was Saying

Regarding Lex’s entry on the roots of English exceptionalism, here is the Roman historian Tacitus on one of the peculiar habits of the Germanic barbarians:

Affairs of smaller moment the chiefs determine: about matters of
higher consequence the whole nation deliberates; yet in such sort,
that whatever depends upon the pleasure and decision of the people, is
examined and discussed by the chiefs. Where no accident or emergency
intervenes, they assemble upon stated days…
From their extensive liberty this evil and default flows, that they
meet not at once, nor as men commanded and afraid to disobey; so that
often the second day, nay often the third, is consumed through the
slowness of the members in assembling. They sit down as they list,
promiscuously, like a crowd, and all armed. It is by the Priests that
silence is enjoined, and with the power of correction the Priests are
then invested. Then the King or Chief is heard, as are others, each
according to his precedence in age, or in nobility, or in warlike
renown, or in eloquence; and the influence of every speaker proceeds
rather from his ability to persuade than from any authority to
command. If the proposition displease, they reject it by an
inarticulate murmur: if it be pleasing, they brandish their javelins.
The most honourable manner of signifying their assent, is to express
their applause by the sound of their arms.

Leaving aside the tone of disdain, is it such a great distance between this ancient tribal council and a New England town meeting? Open discussions are held, motions made, and voice votes taken. We tend not to go armed to Town Meeting, though, unless property tax rates are on the agenda.

10 thoughts on “As Lex Was Saying”

  1. Full marks, Mitch!

    That is the true Ur-text.

    After seeing your post, I revisited Tacitus and the Germanic tribes, looking him up in several books and confirming my recollection. I plan to do a meaty post on the subject of the fluctuating fortunes of this quote and the application of Tacitus’ quote to Anglo-American self-understanding.

    Bottom line from me — Tacitus was describing real phenomena, the ancient Germans really were like that, and the English developed their political liberties in a direct line of development from their Germanic forefathers who brought these kinds of practices into their island after the collapse of Roman power. The freedom we enjoy today in the USA is in a direct, unbroken, documented and documentable line of succession from the practices of those Germanic warrior bands. This was once considered to obvious to disagree with. Then, this view came into disrepute, in the second half of the 20th century. The better view is that the old-timers were right all along. Details to follow, at some point.

  2. Interestingly enough, there is a fairly straight-lline descendant of this practice on the Continent, namely the smaller cantons of Germanophone Switzerland. Some still vote directly in open-air assemblies, where at least until recetnly the voters brought their arms to the meetings. With a little googling you can probably find a photo of such a scene.

    This is quite relevant to the converation that is going on here and over at Albion’s Seedling, because it backs up the point that many Anglosphere practices and attitudes are survivals or further evolutions of customs that used to prevail all over Northwestern Europe. They also survived in Switzerland because it was poor operational terrain for the big Continental armies, and because the Swiss always fought like hell. But mostly they were wiped out by militarization and bureaucracy on the Continent and only survived and flourished offshore in England and her daughter lands.

  3. I suspect further (and much later) confirmation of this link might be in the tradition among nineteenth & early twentieth century intellectuals to finish off their educations in Germany. An interesting example is W. E. B. DuBois, who went to Berlin after Harvard. He seems representative, but I don’t know in what way this is important or statistically how widespread.

  4. Mitch, right on about Iceland, another holdout of medieval constitutionalism.

    Ginny, I think that was an unrelated phenomenon. The Germans in the late 18th and 19th Centuries, and up to the Nazi period, developed an incredibly high quality of higher education and scholarship. This was in large part due to the emancipation of the Jews. Germanophone Jews made a massively disproportionate contribution, e.g. Einstein, to pick probably the most spectacular example. But ethnic Germans were the majority and did extraordinary things in all academic and scientific fields. Look at the early Nobel prize winners, heavily German. This German intellectual preeminence was derived from more recent developments and did not derive from ancient political practices, I am sure.

  5. I would argue that in the battle between the “unbroken line” and more recent revisionist theories about the origin of Anglo political liberty, of which Lex mentions in his first response, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Certainly, as Mitch mentions, the Althing, which seems common throughout most Germanic culture, is a uniquely egalitarian system of governance in the ancient world. It was effective at organizing small groups of disparate individuals into a cohesive group. However, as most “primitive” (if I can use that term non-pejoratively) political systems go, it had problems with scale, and fell apart easily, leading to constant infighting. As for the large Germanic confederacies (Alemanni, Goths, Lombards, Franks), instability and eventual defeat or assimilation in the existing Roman culture was the rule.

    The Anglo-Saxons were culturally closer to the Scandinavians than their cousins on the Rhine and central Europe, and like the Nordic peoples remained both pagan, and outside of the mass-army environment of the post-collapse western empire for centuries. During this time, though, they retained the same weakness at large-scale organization. The gradual reintroduction of Christianity in the 6th through 9th centuries brought greater ties to the continent, but the fractious nature of English politics continued until the Danish invasion of the 9th century nearly wiped out Saxon power. Alfred the Great, in the process of saving England against the Danish scourge, unified English resistance along more continental lines.

    The extra time England had away from the main European cultural and political conflicts of the early Middle Ages allowed time for the development of the small scale innovations and institutions which are still so important to us today. However, without the reintroduction of continental (roman derived) political institutions, such as a centralized and powerful monarchy and church, none of the unique attributes of Anglo civilization would have survived the ages of struggle which followed.

    The end result of all this was that by the time the Normans invaded, they found a highly productive kingdom running under an economic and cultural system that they saw no reason to drastically change. As much as I hate to defend the Norman invasion, they laid the defense and governance framework that kept England from ever being violently invaded again.

    I guess the gist of what I’m trying to say is that without the slow infusion of post-Empire continental despotism to protect without overwhelming, the Anglo traditions of liberty would have died just like those traditions did on the continent.

    Even more to the point here is that I believe (and I think I’ve got Edward Gibbon on my side) is that Anglosphere exceptionalism is primarily the result of the slow merging of Germanic individualism with the efficiency of Roman governmental traditions.

    I get the impression that among the Anglosphereists we’ve heard from here that the Germanic direct descent line of thought is more popular than my hybrid view. Am I misunderstanding your position?

  6. I don’t really see an inherent conflict between the direct-line-of-descent argument and the fusion argument, unless one is being a absolutist about the direct-descent model, and I don’t think any of the Seedlings are absolutists. Germanic primitive liberty really wasn’t directly transferable to the running of an urban society or a national-scale economy of any complexity. Mediterranean imperial rule could hack the administrative tasks, but was subject to bureaucratic gridlock and stasis leading eventually to breakdown. The genius of medieval european constitutionalism was precisely that it lead toward a workable fusion of the two. Pre-Conquest England, because of its relative (emphasize relative) isolation from continental politics and the effiency of the late ANglo-Saxon state, had a particularly workable (and more liberty-leaning) version of this fusion. The Normans kept much of the Anglo-Saxon state and grafted on another version of medieval constitutionalism (less freedom-oriented but still within the medieval consensus) on top of the Anglo-Saxon foundation. The next real big break came with the military revolution of the early Renaissance and the end of medieval constitutionalism on the Continent in favor of bureaucratic centralism. I think a lot of people, looking backward, tend to conflate this bureaucratic centralism with the much looser Norman aristocratic regime.

    Useful references on this are James Campbell’s Anglo-Saxon State, Macfarlane (of course)especially his chapters on Ernest Gellner in making of the Modern World, W.J.F. Jenner in Tyranny of History (especially his discussion of bureaucratic gridlock and collapse in China vs. Europe) Downing on the early-Renaissance collapse of medieval constitutionalism. All of these are referenced and discussed at

  7. Captain, I think there is no real disagreement on substance, though maybe on terminology. The English managed to maintain their local liberties, including e.g. shire courts, etc. because they had a state strong enough to defend the realm, post-Conquest. This Norman state was not, I do not believe, organized along “Roman” lines. The English managed to avoid being subject to “Roman” law during the late middle ages, when this type of law was being reintroduced on the Continent. The survival of Common Law and rejection of Roman Law was a key moment in the development of English liberty.

  8. The Common Law tradition may have had other roots as well. The Irish Brehon Laws were essentially a case law system originally. The decisions of past judges were brought forward and written down, probably before Christianity was introduced. Later, pagan references and practices were purged and canon law was grafted onto it.

    It is not too far-fetched to think that the Anglo-Saxon law system originally throve in England because it was not too different from the native Celtic system. Post-Roman Britain would have been too fragmented for the Roman system to survive.

  9. Mitch, that may be right. And even code systems pay attention to precedent. It is simply not possible to reinvent the wheel every time, life is too short. The English system was critical not because of where it came from, but because it became a way to secure property rights and personal freedom, and because it prevented the incorporation of Roman law which allowed the European states to become despotic. Another critical thing which I only learned about recently — from Macfarlane and from Maitland — was the critical importance of the Equity courts and the law of Trusts. This too was uniquely English, and allowed civil society to flourish by creating a ay for assets to be held over time by organized groups, assets which the Crown was unable to seize. As Maitland put it, it was as if the the Bench, Bar and citizenry of the Kingdom were engaged in a vast conspiracy to avoid paying taxes. And it worked. Good thing, too.

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