Do we really owe it all to the geography of the Norwegian fjords?

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?

27 thoughts on “Do we really owe it all to the geography of the Norwegian fjords?”

  1. John, thanks. That is one of Peters’ classic articles.

    Peters is one of the few commenters to consistently refer to the critical economic importance of the individualistic / nuclear / “particularist” family structure.

    Marx saw this too. But he incorrectly said Capitalism caused families to take this shape. Wrong. It was the other way around.

    The amazing thing to me is how far back this goes. I had been of the view that England was not significantly different from the Continent in the Dark Ages, and that all of them evolved medieval constitutionalism as a synthesis of Teutonic folkways and Greco-Roman and Christian cultural practices. But these old French sociologists, following Tocqueville’s lead, and trying to go back to the farthest possible source of origin, say something surprising. They say that the Saxons were unusual from the beginning, distinct from the Angles, Danes and Normans. Very interesting if true.

    The web of chance that led to the modern world has roots that go back unbroken over two millenia.

  2. Federalism is found in the Germanic tribes throughout Europe — the Allemani (“all men”) were a particularly powerful Germanic federaton in classical times, so powerful and memorable that their name is still the basis of the French and Spanish words for Germany and Germans (Allemagne, Alemania). The best modern example of retained (rather than reinvented) federalism on the Continent is Switzerland, which particularly demonstrates the military roots of Germanic federalism and “one-sword-one-vote” democracy. Federalism is also found in tribal societies around the world; it’s a fairly natural development of inter-tribal alliances. The Iriquois Federation is a well-known example in North America. It is sometimes claimed as an influence on the American Revolution; I think the references to it were more likely an available rhetorical device convenient to the Founders’ political needs. But the Founders were well-versed in Tacitus and Montesquieu, and I think they were intruiged by the parallels between the Iriquois tribal federalism and the ancient Germanic trinbal federalism.

    American federalism combined, I suspect, primarily the British experience with integrated warmaking powers under the United Kingdom (and decentralization of social questions) combined with the federalism of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The Constitution seems to be a creative synthesis of the two experiences.

    Anglosphere exceptionalism does not consist of having a unique hostory of tribal federalism, but rather, I suspect, in being able to adapt it to modern situations and needs.

  3. “Anglosphere exceptionalism does not consist of having a unique hostory of tribal federalism…”

    First, these writers seem to think that the Saxon manner of rule was unusual, unusually loose in its level of control, leaving local institutions more intact than other rulers did, even rulers who conquered all or part of Britain. This may be so, and if so it is noteworthy given what happened later.

    What is also unique is that the English and their successors retained this approach through the early modern period, when everybody else in Europe developed absolutist government. This is of course, the point made by Downing.

  4. “First, these writers seem to think that the Saxon manner of rule was unusual, unusually loose in its level of control, leaving local institutions more intact than other rulers did,”

    So the interesting question is, did the “particularlist” family structure contribute to this looseness?

    We are agreed in the second point, of course. The retention of these features (and Common Law) when the Continent became centralized was an indispensable link.

  5. The example given by Lex was a federalism of choice by the victor. I wonder if the examples Jim gave are more federalism because of mutual interest between parties that hadn’t/couldn’t defeat the other parties.

  6. Jim: “…did the “particularlist” family structure contribute to this looseness?” Demolins, citing de Tourville, says it did. I need to get my hands on de Tourville, and I will be able to report at greater length.

    CB: Well, the original United Kingdom, and then the British Empire was largely “federalism by choice of the victor.” England chose not to try to impose its own institutions on Scotland, but negotiated a deal that allowed the Scots to keep their church and their law. Similarly, the Empire was a completely incoherent patchwork of local deals struck with local rulers, or with settlers in various locales, with the amount and type of direct rule varying from place to place and time to time. India and Malaya for instance had all kinds of arrangements to accomodate British power and local rule, with no overall pattern being imposed. It was all ad hoc. The goal seems always to be to minimize hassle with the locals, while maximizing the chance to extract economic benefit for the British. I do not say this was a benign process, especially. It often was plain old “divide and conquer”. Ireland in particular experienced a heavy-handed form of oppression by the English. But most imperialists have not been clever enough to adopt this decentralized approach.

  7. Jim, how about one more example of surviving Germanic tribal custom? The continental Germans actually kept elections for centuries, while gradually narrowing the franchise to just seven voters.

    I’m a little doubtful about the whole fjord thing, though. The Saxons came from a pretty flat, often swampy region at the mouth of the Elbe. Also, if this family structure had been derived from Scandinavia, I would have expected to see it stronger in Scotland, where the Norse influence was much greater. I don’t dispute that the Saxons had a more “particular” family structure, but I think it is a mistake to locate its origins in the fjords. You don’t really see an extended family or clan structure (whether Roman gens or Celtic tribes, clans, and septs) in any of the Germanic countries. My guess is that it was in place long before they got to Norway.

  8. I agree the fjord thing is pretty hard to accept, as cool as it is. However, I need to get the book by Tourville and see how he develops it. Also, I’d like to find out what later writers made of it, but I fear the literature is entirely in French.

    Nonetheless, the highly “particularistic” Saxon family structure is much better founded, whatever its remote sources. It is also the case that the Danes, who came later, had remarkable equality between the sexes, and this influenced law and custom in England where the Danish settlement struck the deepest roots. David Hackett Fischer talks about this. And the Danes were (I believe) descended from people who settled there from Norway, displacing less warlike predecessors. So there was a re-infusion of highly particularist family organization onto the Saxons base population.

    Demolins, as I am hacking my throught it, makes a point that is consistent with Macfarlane, Tocqueville and others that the family life of England was quite a bit different from that of the Continent. And this had a major impact on economic development.

  9. Mitch, the continental Europeans only lost their representative institutions gradually and grudgingly over centuries. The electors of the Holy Roman Emperor are one example of vestiges remaining to a late date. The point is that the English did not invent something new with representative government. To the contrary. They had hung on to something old which the people on the Continent had lost over the centuries, finally falling into absolutist rule in most places. As Lord Acton put it, despotism is modern, liberty is medieval. A good overview of this process can be found in A.R. Myers Parliaments and Estates in Europe to 1789.

  10. Abradley, thanks for the link. Good discussion.

    As I say, the fjord business may be, as your commenter claims, bullshit. I lack the expertise to say. I report, you decide.

    I do however disagree as to the value of the observations of Tacitus. I do not think he was making up facts.

  11. This is one of his replys to my quary about Tacitus.
    Same URL as above.
    Sorry I am not used to your tags so am going with raw text!

    PostPosted: Fri Feb 02, 2007 10:06 am Post subject: Reply with quote
    abradley wrote:
    Then Tacitus (Eyewitness?) was wrong:

    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.’
    JDR_Dragoon wrote:
    Allow me to quote myself from my own paper (published here in this forum):

    The Roman written sources we have preserved seems at best more preoccupied with pressing the germans into preconceived notions about how barbarians ought to behave. Here they are perennially described as uncivilized and ferociously warlike brutes. At worst the written sources simple don´t care, and it is apparent that apart from a rather narrow geographical and ethnographical litterary genre, the Roman writers didn´t concern themselves overly much with the conditions of the germanic societies in northern Europe. Even in these particular cases when they actually do care , we still aren´t very well served. The greek writer Strabo for instance dedicates all of a ½ book to Northern Europe in it´s entirety. This out of a total volume of 17 books. Apart from the well known case of Tacitus and his Germania, this seems to also be the case for the rest of our preserved antique geographical and etnographical litterature. The geographical perceptions of what exactly northern Europe looked like and what the different geographical locations were named seems to vary widely depending upon our source. Indeed, most of this information seems to derive from one principal original source, namely the expeditions conducted into Germany around the time of the birth of Christ. Most of them also seems preoccupied with the naming and geographical relation of different tribes to each other, rather than pure cartography, which suggests that the Romans thought of their surrounding worlds as conglomerations of people, rather than lines on a map.

    When Tacitus is sounding “jealous of the independence” of the germanic farmer, it is because he is transferring a notion of what life was originally like under the early phases of the Roman republic. In essence, what Tacitus means, is that the germans (like the early Romans) had supposedly preserved their political freedom by sticking to a “simple” life. As such, it says more about Tacitus evaluation of the Roman empire of his own day (descended into corrupt “monarchy” as it had supposedly done with Augustus), yet tacitus can´t write this openly (well he could, but then he would likely not live to enjoy it). So instead he uses the germanic barbarians as a literary mirror, in which the loss of political freedom by the Romans is highlighted.

    Besides, Tacitus statement is belied by the presence of such large farming communities as Hodde in present day Jutland (Denmark, discovered and excavated in the 1970-80s.), where 27 large farm complexes were present when the village was at it´s biggest.

  12. I would like to add two more books to your reading list.

    The explanation of ideology : family structures and social systems / Emmanuel Todd ; translated by David Garrioch.

    The causes of progress : culture, authority, and change / Emmanuel Todd ; translated by Richard Boulind.

    Todd is also French and relates the political system to family structure. He does it for all the world but starts with the differences within France and then the difference between France and England. He points out that England has the most liberal family structure in the world and the most liberal politics.

  13. Well, I “am” an anglophile and this is intriguing.

    But I’m also quite interested in the study of the evolution of a large French society in North America — Quebec. And that French-Canadian civilization did follow the nuclear-family model quite closely. It was largely agricultural, patriarchal and property was passed on within the immediate family. And like the Scandinavian examples in the post, as the families grew larger, the younger sons would head north to settle new lands and set up household there.

    But despite all that, the French-Canadians have maintained a distinctly pacifistic and communitarian (socialist?) outlook. It could be that they’re simply the exception that tests the rule, but their example bears looking at, I think.

  14. Richard, thanks for these cites. Apparently Todd was a student of Alan Macfarlane, so that is an interesting connection in itself. Todd has apparently written a book about the coming decline of the USA, always something conservatives like me enjoy reading, so we can stay in a constant stay of brooding despair. He was also referred to very favorably on Samizdata. Clearly another one to add to the growing list.

    Abradley, thanks again. I disagree about what Tacitus was doing. I don’t know enough about the excavated Hodde settlement to say what it might mean. But a group of buildings together in one location does not sound like enough to outweigh a lot of countervailing thinking about the folkways of the Germanic peoples. Maitland took Tacitus seriously, based on his understanding of the earliest law in England, he saw continuities. So did Marc Blcch. So did Stubbs. So does Macfarlane. Until I have very good reason to dismiss Tacitus as a purveyor of imaginary tales, I’ll side with the weight of authority which I respect.

  15. Tacitus, like many roman and greek historians, was in love with the east, they had much to see and write there and did not consider worthwhile to look into life and history of the germanic peoples but until the Romans faced serious battles, and even then, they did not care to look much into detail. In general, Greece and Rome always looked to the east. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame the old man for his shortcomings.

  16. Tacitus followed a lot of the Romans in respecting the Germans, if for no better reason than that the Germans had slaughtered three Roman legions under Varus. No other barbarians had managed anything close; that was the sort of thing that got the Romans’ attention. Also, just like Tocqueville later, Tacitus sometimes used the virile but primitive Teuton as a living foil to the over-developed Latin.

  17. “if for no better reason than that the Germans had slaughtered three Roman legions under Varus”

    I guess ever since they kind of developed a certain reputation.

  18. OK, then, the Germans slaughtered the three Roman legions led by Varus. Feel better? Sheesh.

    I can’t remember where I saw the article essentially re-creating that battle and showing how thoroughly Arminius had prepared. The archaeologists actually found where a causeway had been demolished to just below the waterline, leading the Romans to follow a narrow path along the side of the marsh instead going through it to dry ground and safety. The route they took was held on the high side by Germans, who fought from behind breastworks prepared in advance. There was not enough room between the Germans and the swamp for the Romans to get into formation, and the people behind them, unaware of the fighting ahead, pressed into them as they tried to get organized.

    Anyway, GO BEARS! Slaughter the Indianapolis team led by Manning!

  19. I think Mark’s point is that the German furor Teutonicus was not enough to beat three Roman legions — they also needed Roman know-how, which they got from guys like Varus who had learned the trade as Roman mercenaries. There are lessons in there for all kinds of things … .

    Go Bears. I have to go get some last minute snacks … .

  20. abradley wrote:
    “When Tacitus is sounding “jealous of the independence” of the germanic farmer, it is because he is transferring a notion of what life was originally like under the early phases of the Roman republic. In essence, what Tacitus means, is that the germans (like the early Romans) had supposedly preserved their political freedom by sticking to a “simple” life. As such, it says more about Tacitus evaluation of the Roman empire of his own day (descended into corrupt “monarchy” as it had supposedly done with Augustus), yet tacitus can´t write this openly (well he could, but then he would likely not live to enjoy it). So instead he uses the germanic barbarians as a literary mirror, in which the loss of political freedom by the Romans is highlighted.”

    Now this may be a little out of the main topic, so please do excuse me. I think that indeed Tacitus always appears to be a constrained historian, because of Tiberius I guess, and in later times, other Kings and dictators came to find him very subversive for he attempted to unveil real intentions in the words of dictators. They regarded him as a powerful subversive; for he continually finds examples like the independent and free germanic farmers, to subtly pass his republican principles on to the reader. So we must be careful when judging his writings.
    And actually there is a certain way to read Tacitus, and it is precisely called “Tacitism”, and it is said that when you learn to read his writings that way, some or many of the contradictions or incoherencies in his writings suddenly make sense. There are also nations where Tacitus remains contemporary.

    Now when I see a president of the United States trying to push a bill in congress by way of speaking out in public to build support from constituency to push the congressmen who oppose such bill, I know there is no Tacitus there my friends. In Spain, in France, and in most of the third world also, when prime ministers or presidents want a bill passed, public speaking is the last thing the resort to; unless we are talking about a referendum, they usually start secret contacts and negotiations with the opposition, while sometimes denying it in public, so when the bill gets to the house, there is almost no debate, but a quick vote instead, usually unanimous.
    I have seen, I am not sure, that in England they also resort to speaking in public to deal with bills and other political situations, so I reckon Tacitus was not a very influential reading in England either, or at least they were never interested in learning “Tacitism”. I gather from all this that then Tacitus is incompatible with the English culture. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  21. The tactic of praising other nations as a subtle or not-so-subtle way of criticizing your own nation is hardly ended. The spate of books in the US in the 1990s about Japan, and a bit later, the Four Tigers, were all about criticizing America’s slovenly individualism. The little flurry of books about the European Dream (to take the title of the most egregious example, by Jeremy Rifkin) recently. Emmanuel Todd’s book on the coming downfall of the US is slightly different; it is designed to make Europeans feel better about their own situations.

    My first reaction to the Norwegian fjord thesis was, “welll, now we can use DNA evidence and all the other neat tools available to archeology to validate or falsify this theory.” Until such research has been done I’m agnostic on it — but as Lex said it is consistent with some other information.

    Tacitus has his biases, I’m sure, but again, his descriptions of the Germans seems consistent with other evidence.

    Many non-Anglosphere types have wasted huge amounts of time and energy trying to figure out the consiracy that runs America and England. John O’Sullivan relates, in his new book, the story of Brezhnev wasting substantial resources of the USSR trying to figure out “who really runs America”. They just can’t accept that the answer might be “nobody”. If we can’t understand “Tacitism”, outsiders truly can’t understand us, with the rare exception of people like Montestquieu and Tocqueville. If the really understood the truth, they’d be more frightened.

  22. The romantic view that life in the Norwegian fjords created nuclear-family orientated societies is appealing on an emotional level, but I suspect that in practice such linkages cannot be proved.

    For me, a more likely explanation is the old chestnut Britain is an island. The article suggests that Saxons on the continent led atomised lives, except when some external threat forced them to bind together under war-chiefs. This is a very insightful point. On the continent, it is virtually impossible for any state (except perhaps switzerland) to secure its borders without recourse to huge standing armies. This has been true throughout European history. The amount of men and resources required to maintain these armies meant that European powers tended to be strongly centralised as the state needed to call on the resources of the entire nation.

    In contrast, Britain’s island status means it has never needed to maintain a huge standing army. Historically, Britain only tends to maintain small land-forces during peace-time. This situation meant that Britain could remain decentralised and hetreogenuous without seriously imperilling its existence. Any continental power attempting to operate anything approaching the British system would more than likely be overwhelmed by its more well-endowed neighbours (Eg, The Netherlands during the 17th and 18th Century…a country that was far more decentralised and market-driven than the England of the time, it would have certainly been overlwhelmed by the expansionist French were it not for the Glorious Revolution and the assistance of England.)

Comments are closed.