Archive for May, 2010

The 2010 United Kingdom General Election: A Historic Clash of Class
May 17, 2010

In the aftermath of one of the closest elections in British post-war history, the United Kingdom 2010 General Election results saw the Conservative Party gain more seats than the previously-in-power Labour Party, ending their 13 year domination of British politics. This victory for the Conservatives and their necessary coalition with the Liberal Democrats comes with an impassioned outrage from a great many British and Northern Irish subjects.

Figure i: The 2010 United Kingdom General Election Results. Areas in blue voted Conservative, red for Labour, yellow for Liberal Democrat, and other colors for minor parties such as Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein.

A Clash of Class

Much of the antipathy is centered around the idea of an oppressive, privileged, upper-class Conservative Party coming to dominate British politics and ruining what progress the Labour Party may have made. Although Gordon Brown’s popularity waxed and waned, he was certainly an insightful leader, concerned with the well-being of the less fortunate in the UK and beyond. There are fears, legitimate or not, that the Conservatives may cut many of the middle and working class programs created during the 20th century, such as the National Health Service created by Nye Bevan.

David Cameron, the new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, is often at the forefront of the criticisms. Accusations of Cameron are usually of the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing-type; that Cameron is fraudulent in his claims to be concerned with the middle and working classes. His opponents point to his upbringing as well as his policies to show these purported faults, and why his governance would be a disaster for the United Kingdom in the 2010s.

Figure ii: A Conservative Party billboard featuring David Cameron. The billboard is defaced with a common criticism of Cameron--that he attended the very exclusive and upper-class private school, Eton.

These criticisms towards the upper class are not restricted to politics; most societal hang-ups in Britain are centered around class, and have been for quite some time. But from where does Britain’s fascination with class stem? Do these class divisions extend back further than the Thatcher era, World War II, or even the Victorian Age? In actuality, the entrenched divisions between the upper class and middle and working classes are rooted much, much earlier: in Britain’s early medieval past. These inequalities essentially descend from the Norman Invasion of 1066. This installment of MediumHistorica will examine the roots of class conflict, beginning with William and the Normans, and tracing the shifts and changes throughout the course of British history.

Figure iii: An English-dubbed French production on the history of William I. The narrator appears to be of landed class (see: ascot), and makes a point to claim his direct lineage to a Norman noble and earlier Vikings (“the king of France invited ‘us'”). The narrator also takes great liberty with the historical accounts, such as claiming that a younger Harold swore the crown of England to William in Normandy; a theory highly disputed by historians.

William I: Progenitor of Class Inequality in Britain

In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, prepared for war and set sail in order to successfully take the crown of England. From the collapse of Rome and up to that point, England was a loose confederation of earldoms under the tutelage of recently crowned King Harold. While ignoring the complex rota of kings their shifting territories and allegiances prior to William’s arrival, it is important to mention that Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon King in the vast expanse of English and British history.

With the victory of the Normans and crowning of William the Conqueror came an England solidified as one kingdom, stronger than ever before. Soon after gaining sovereignty, William had the entirety of England inspected to every last detail; houses, farms, the number of sheep on each plot of land, and so on, were all meticulously documented in what was called the Domesday Book. William wanted nothing under his newly forged realm unaccounted for.

The problem was that, although England was technically united as one nation, there were two separate demographics now present on the island. The Anglo-Saxon residents who had resided in and defended England for 600 years were now the conquered subjects of a new, powerful, foreign-speaking minority. Norman soldiers  who helped William defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings,were granted titles and huge tracts of land in England; thus initiating Britain’s modern system of heredity and land-holding elites.

Figure iv: Anglo/Norman society as explained in the Domesday Book

Despite the growing divisions between the Anglo-Saxon peasantry and their Norman overlords, there was never a full-scale rebellion from the former against the latter. William was a ruthless leader who never allowed dissidence to grow into open revolt. For instance, when Anglo-Saxons in the north around York showed resistance against his new leadership, William sent his armies and conducted a scorched earth policy, destroying homes and livestock. The cruelty shown in the north was a punishment for disobedience and a warning to the rest of his realm. The Anglo-Saxons willfully endured the Norman yoke, never to reestablish an Anglo-Saxon monarchy. The rule of a king from the same stock as the people died one violent day with Harold Godwinson on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066.

A Phantom Menace

Angevin Empire under Henry II around 1172

William I eventually passed on, but his initial conquest opened the door for generations of kings from Normandy and nearby who would come to rule England. Once the Norman male branch died off, the crown of England simply passed to a related family from a different region of modern-day France; that being Anjou. The Angevins took over from where the Normans left off, and after them the Plantagenets, then Lancastrians, and Yorkists. Those descended from the Anglo-Saxons, however, were restrained to peasantry. When feudalism slowly outgrew itself, the peasants transformed into a lower class.

The connection between the privileges of the nobility and landed classes to the arrival of the Normans was not a popular concept in Medieval England. By the 1500s, a new era of struggle emerged, distracting most away from any class concerns. Whatever feelings of injustice that British commoners could devote to their social standing was occupied with Henry VIII’s shocking religious crusade. The destruction of the Catholic Church in England plagued the island with religious conflict throughout the reigns of Mary I; Elizabeth I; James I; Charles I; to Oliver Cromwell and beyond. Concern over the inequalities of class initiated by foreign Norman invaders waned with the constant warfare in the 1300s and 1400s, as well as the ecclesiastical troubles England had experienced in the 1500-1600s.

However, towards the end of the 1600s a milestone in English history occurred that would placate religious strife on the island and set the stage for class discussion. The arrival and crowing of William of Orange as King of England began a new era Britain.

Another King from Across the Sea

Figure v: William of Orange

The turmoil between Catholics and Protestants, for the most part, ceased with the arrival of King William III in 1689. This new kingship would essentially create the spark for later discourse in regards to who was truly “English”. William was a protestant from Den Haag in the Netherlands who had assumed the crown of England; essentially putting an end to the Stuart restoration and their Catholic sympathies. Despite the Stuarts’ divisive sympathies to Catholicism, they were rulers from Scotland whereas William and his successive house of Orange-Nassau were foreign-born. England was, once again, subject to foreign rule. Although most were happy to have the religious question settled and a Protestant monarch securely on the throne (William banned any future possibility of Catholics obtaining the English crown), there was still the issue of William’s foreign birth.

Thus began an era of racial questioning as to who was English. In 1697, Daniel Defoe, famed author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote “The True-Born Englishman” in defense of William’s heritage. Defoe’s poem satirized those who claimed England was a place solely for Anglo-Saxon descendants. Some of the more notable passages read:

The Romans first with Julius Cæsar came,
Including all the nations of that name,
Gauls, Greeks, and Lombards, and, by computation,
Auxiliaries or slaves of every nation.
With Hengist, Saxons; Danes with Sueno came,
In search of plunder, not in search of fame.

Scots, Picts, and Irish from the Hibernian shore,
And conquering William brought the Normans o’er.
All these their barbarous offspring left behind,
The dregs of armies, they of all mankind;
Blended with Britons, who before were here,
Of whom the Welsh ha’ blessed the character.

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.

‘Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

As the 1700s passed along and the Victorian age neared, England saw the rise of a new concept; albeit one that was perhaps a 600 or 700 year anachronism. This concept was Saxonism — the idea that the rightful inhabitants of the island of Britain were ones of Germanic, Anglo-Saxon heritage. This concept alienated the historic Normans and their descendants as outsiders, deepening the divide between the commoners and landed classes.  A clear example, and one of the most famous, is  Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Published in 1820, Scott’s story involving a Robin Hood of Locksley is centered around a Norman regime set against a heroic Saxon class. These themes of Norman vs. Saxon popularized by Scott remain prevalent in tales of Robin Hood even today.

Saxonism continued well into the nineteenth century and became such a popular philosophy as to invade noteworthy areas of public society. For instance, in British politics, the historic Saxons became the demigods of democracy to Radicals and Chartists. These Members of Parliament were fixated on the racially centered ideas of Saxonism, and attributed all of Britain’s historic advances to a Saxon commitment to freedom. Conversely, the Normans represented the ills and oppression of Britain’s lengthy history. The Normans were tyrannical migrants from France; and France was England’s historic rival and was also linked to Catholicism (another historic rival); Catholicism was linked to Rome; and Rome was a Saxonist’s premier historic oppressor. The actual Saxons were Germanic, and thus never conquered by Rome: evidence to British Victorian Saxonists of their strength and democratic resolve.

Dr. Peter Mandler of Cambridge, expert on early modern and modern English national identity, confirms in a personal email some of the links during this period between the upper classes and the Normans. Mandler replies:

Patrick – Yes, the political valencies [of Saxon and Norman concepts] are strong. It’s partly of course that the landed elite was thought to be ‘French’ (even sometimes by themselves – the Seymour family started to call themselves St. Maur in the mid-19th century!), but also that [Saxonism] was an explicitly democratic ideology.

The progressive Radicals, who fought for political change in Britain, identified with some kind of vaguely allegorical Saxon democracy–which was unrealistic. Those of a more conservative disposition who favored the Monarchy and nobility linked themselves to a Norman heritage. But the Victorian Saxonists were no valiant group, fighting for equality against a privileged Norman elite. They, too, oppressed, and used their theories on race and lineage to marginalize a people beneath them. For the Saxon in Victorian Britain, his enemy was not only the Norman above him, but the lowly Celt beneath him.

Saxonism Dies, Leaves Ugly Legacy

Perhaps better saved for another topic, it is enough to say that the prejudices against immigrants from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands were much more commonplace among Saxonists than any vitriol against the nobility. But regardless, Saxonism became so prominent in Victorian Britain that when science began to flourish, it became a scholarly and serious area of study. The once innocent ideas of Saxonism combined with subjects like phrenology and anthropology to produce racial theories in England quite similar to those of the later Nazi Germany. Furthermore, the English had toyed with abominable social polices, such as eugenics: Saxonists even proposed that neighboring Ireland be cleansed from whomever was “Celtic”–convenient for them when the potato crop failed in the 1840s and removed 25% of the native population.

But as the century faded away, new discoveries were made that proved subjects like phrenology were inaccurate and baseless. The frightening advance of racial science in Nazi Germany would kill the issue in Britain completely. After the realization of the Holocaust and Germany’s Aryan policy, touting a pure, “Germanic” heritage in England was far from OK. As such, most in Britain have either forgotten or rejected the fact that current class divisions are, in fact, stemmed from the Norman invasion. The institutions and oppression introduced by William the Conqueror onto England created an enduring atmosphere of privilege, hierarchy and inequality that is still felt keenly to this day. A simply walk down the streets of Tang Hall in York, followed by a visit to Chatsworth or Carlton Towers in the country, will show that there are still class inequalities that are very real and have come to be a way of British life.


Arizona Senate Bill 1070: America and the Fall of Rome
May 6, 2010

Arizona Senate Bill 1070

In April of 2010, The Arizona State Senate passed a bill that would effectively curb illegal immigration into the state, and also allow for the removal or detainment of illegal aliens already found present. However, the passing of the Arizona Senate bill brought widespread protests due to its purported discrimination and racial precedent. Those protesting the bill claim that Arizona law enforcement can now check immigration status based upon the color of suspects’ skin, the language they use, and any other factor that an officer deems suspicious of unlawful immigration. To opponents of AZ SB1070, the very prospect of such legislation goes against what makes America America: a melting pot of cultures united by values of freedom and equality.

Supporters of the bill raise the concern that Arizona’s unlawful immigrant population is higher than most of the states in the nation and as such, reform must be immediate and uncompromising. Their concerns may be valid, as the population of unlawful immigrants in Arizona is roughly the size of the entire city of Boston. Not limited to merely numbers, those supporting Senate Bill 1070 claim that along with illegal immigration comes a rise in crime. Arizona is a state that borders Mexico, and is subject to a high amount of drug and human trafficking from the neighboring nations to the south. These illegal operations unsurprisingly bring accompanying violence into the state. One incident in particular that fueled the creation of the bill was the drug-related murder of a legal border rancher and his dog.

But the goal of this blog is to not take a firm stance on issues like the Arizona Senate Bill, nor to influence the reader to any specific stance either.  Rather, this blog will attempt to parallel a historical scenario to the issue d’jour and hopefully provide some guidance for the reader to draw their own conclusion. As such, this entry in particular will explore the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and its relevance to America’s immigration debate.

The Roman Empire and the Beginnings of Change

Figure i: The extent of the Roman Empire, 125 AD

Hardly anyone, even the most ignorant to history, can deny that Rome was a powerful and highly influential empire. We can see the remnants of its culture all around us on a daily basis: on our money, our buildings — even the name “Capitol” derives from the Roman “Capitoline Hill”. Their lasting culture is no doubt a testament to their extraordinary expansion, as Rome’s military supremacy was stunning. Rome grew from a mere Italian farming village into a vast Empire  of marble, stretching into the throes of Africa and Asia. But the Roman reign, though not by any means short-lived, was not everlasting. What ultimately began in 753 BC and transformed into a world power in 509 BC, ultimately crumbled in the late 400s AD. Tribes from — the never conquered — Germania migrated at will throughout Europe and undermined Rome’s rule, until the Empire eventually dissolved and no longer had the power to dictate the stretches of land it once could.

Figure ii: The migratory patterns of invading Germanic tribes

There is some debate regarding the manner in which Rome “fell”. The traditional school of thought presents a placid Rome prior to the 400s AD which was violently destroyed by invading Germanic tribes. This scenario can be found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a text written in 731AD which details the conflicts of post-Roman Britain between Romano-Britons, Celts, Picts, Saxons and Angles. One of the more recent scholarly works reinforcing this traditionalist view is that of Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

Perkins is an intriguing scholar in that, aside from being an accomplished historian, he is also an archaeologist. In his work on Rome, Perkins decries the lack of archaeological evidence in other  studies on the Fall of Rome, and therefore undertakes the task himself of collecting such data to support his conclusion. By showing with archaeological finds –such as the degradation of high quality pottery and housing — how the quality of life differed between a pre-Germanic and post-Germanic Roman empire (94-121), Perkins’s case is convincing that the conversion to a new Romano-Germanic era was not a comfortable one, nor one of a gradual transition.

But the modern conclusions are conclusions for a reason. Often they are based on new findings unavailable or overlooked by previous scholars. These theories postulate that the break up of the Roman Empire was not a clear shift from white to black, but rather a slow transition of white to a light gray, light gray to medium gray, medium gray to dark gray, and a dark gray to the blackened, ashen remains of what was once empire. I find this to be the more believable of the schools. For instance, Jill Harries in Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome AD 407-485, sets out to prove that the fall of Rome was not a quiet event to everyone, but rather that Sidonius Apollinaris, Roman aristocrat and Gallic land owner, was well aware of the catastrophe.

While Harries’s thesis is to prove that some held a feeling of catastrophe, I find that the obverse commentary derived from her thesis says a lot more: that the majority of commoners were simply unaware or put up with a gradual social change in Rome. It’s understandable that a high-ranking noble would notice a distinct difference in a shift of power, but the majority of the empire’s denizens simply went about their daily lives. But what does this all have to do with The United States and Arizona’s tough policy on immigration via Senate Bill 1070? Gradual social change.

Rome Did Not Break – It Grew Apart

It’s important to understand the post-Roman world before making any such parallels. In this 5th and 6th century world, there was no England, France, or Germany after the enfeeblement of Rome. These nations did not rise up against the eternal city, design a unifying flag, elect a king for their people, and declare themselves independent states. It was more of a snail’s pace of social change that simply made being subject to Roman authority irrelevant. Once the Germanic tribes settled in, they themselves became more “Roman”, but the way they adopted Roman methods and customs wasn’t quite the same. For instance, Classical Latin slowly evolved into Vulgar Latin, which in turn mixed with other languages to become old French, Occitan, old Castillan, old English, and so on.

One of the key problems that opponents of unlawful immigration cite is the language barrier that those crossing the border into the United States create. In the history of lawful immigration to the US, non-English speaking immigrants were forced to conform by learning English. Learning the language was necessary to gain citizenship. The right to citizenship provided a right to work and make income, and a byproduct of learning English was assimilation into US culture. Without any necessity to acquire legal documentation, immigrants from Mexico and Central America have simply carried on the customs they were familiar with in their former nations, specifically in this case the continuance to speak Spanish.

As it were different tribes, each with their own customs, that settled into various parts of the empire, Roman law shifted and became less unified among the settled areas. Tribes would either attempt to amalgamate, or conquer, but in either scenario if was often a Germanic leader in the new region. This is what essentially broke down Rome and set in place the age of feudalism; of medieval nobles and kings, drawing their lineage from these new, non-Latin rulers. There was no longer a single language to bind these remote areas together, and once the unity of law broke down, Rome’s authority had vanished. Gaul (modern-day France) transformed into a mishmash of separate kingdoms, as did Spain and Britain; and these multitudes of duchies and kingdoms were the product of the earlier migrating tribes.

Figure iii: The late-Medieval geography of France. The multitudes of duchies and kingdoms can be directly traced to specific Germanic tribes which invaded Roman Gaul almost 1,000 years prior.

One can make certain parallels between the influx of undocumented Latin-American immigrants to the United States and migrating Germanic tribes into the Roman Empire. Both host nations acquiesced to the permanence of their new residents, and both underwent drastic-yet-gradual social change. Our packages, telephone and computer services, and billboards now prominently feature Spanish or a Spanish alternative. The de jure minimum wage laws have been altered in such a way that an undocumented worker can claim no right to such benefits, and companies are more than willing to save on overhead by jumping at their employment. There is a movement, briefly supported by President Obama, to reform the immigration laws in order to better accommodate those who defy the current policies. However, in April, Arizona took a direct stand against the influx of undocumented workers. This is directly at odds with the complacency the US has held in the past. But could there be ramifications for trying to turn back an already-changed society? One of Rome’s final Emperors attempted a similar policy.

Figure iv: A map showing the amount of illegal immigrants in the US, broken down by state population. Note the migratory patterns: the geographical convenience of the Southwestern US, Texas, and Florida as they are easily accessible, as well as the economic draw of the affluent and job-rich Northeast.

A Bill Fit for Justinian

While unity in the western part of the now-defunct Roman Empire was a thing of the past, the Eastern Byzantine half remained intact, affluent, and also free of Germanic influence. Ruled by separate Emperors for some time, the East rarely concerned itself with the affairs of the West until the rise of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. During his reign, the Western Roman Empire had long been divided and ruled under several Germanic Kings.

But Justinian saw himself as an anachronistic Emperor; the kind from a Roman past where the East and West were one. Taking it upon himself to reclaim the West, Justinian first set out to conquer the Vandal-ruled North African kingdom. After successfully bringing North Africa under his tutelage, Justinian then went on to conquer Italy from the Ostrogoths, and parts of Spain from the Visigoths. Justinian had successfully reunited Rome and Constantinople into one Empire.

Figure v: Justinian’s initial Byzantine expansion in red, and his later western conquests are shown in orange.

It was a short reunification; for after Justinian’s death, Italy was lost to the Germanic Lombards and Africa and Spain fell to invading Muslims. The measures Justinian took to reshape a land that had slowly evolved for 300 years were impressive but ultimately futile. In fact, Bryan Ward-Perkins claims that the Western Roman Empire and culture would have been reborn under the Ostrogoths, but Justinian had ultimately shattered any rebirth by his military conquests (58). Perkins claims that:

If events had fallen out differently, it is even possible to envisage a resurgent western empire under a successful Germanic dynasty. Theodoric the Ostrogoth ruled Italy and adjacent parts of the Danubian provinces and Balkans from 493; from 511 he also effectively controlled the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and many of the former Visigothic territories in southern Gaul, where he reinstated the tradition Roman office of ‘Praetorian Prefect for the Gauls’ based in Arles. This looks like the beginnings of a revived western empire, under Germanic kings. As things turned out, all of this was brought to an end by Justinian’s invasion of Italy in 535. But, given better luck, later Ostrogothic kings might have been able to expand on this early success; and — who knows? — might have revived the imperial title in the West centuries before Charlemagne in 800.


America is not Rome. But those who have been crossing the border and slowly changing American culture over decades surprisingly resemble migrating Germanic tribes who effected gradual cultural changes in the Roman Empire . Perhaps we should take the route of immigration reform, and allow some kind of medium between latin immigrants’ amalgamation into American culture and the allowance of American culture to change and adapt to its new residents. In time, this could affect the unity of our nation — areas vastly more hispanic would be drastically different from those maintaining an Anglo-European culture, but perhaps not. It is unclear what the effects of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 will be, a measure very Justinian in nature. It may hurt our unity more than embracing new waves of immigration would, and have the opposite result from what was intended. Only time and a good historian will be able to tell.


Harries, Jill. Sidonius Apollinaris and the Fall of Rome, AD 407-485. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Sherley-Price, Leo, trans. Bede: An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Ward-Perkins, Brian. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.