Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The "mindset" issue, from a slightly different point of view

I was going to post about that Anglo-Saxon hoard that was found a couple of weeks ago, and wasn't able to get around to it.  I was also going to say a little something -- since I follow paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology, though mainly with reference to Neandertals -- about the complete description of the ancestral Ardepithecus ramidus,  now know affectionately as "Ardi".  That kind of escaped me too, and besides, I don't have much to say about it, other than the description of this find, though the fossil's existence has been known for years -- was pretty awesome, in my opinion.


However, something happened last week which sent me off on a different angle, although it does relate, tangentially to the Anglo-Saxon hoard.  There is a woman I know, who has very strong opinions about just about everything.  She reads a lot, sometimes rather odd things, at least for her. We were conversing, and she happened to mention the discovery of Nero's revolving palace which he never used, apparently, because he got killed before he ever used it.  And no other Roman emperors used it, either, apparently.  I had seen media reports of it, but didn't react much, one way or another.  Greco-Roman stuff just doesn't appeal to me all that much.  However, I mentioned that I'd also read and heard about this Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold things and enameled-looking things.  I also mentioned that I thought they were quite beautiful and well-crafted. 


"Yeah, it's pretty militaristic, isn't it?" she replied.  Here I must mention two things:  First, this lady knows nothing about medieval times, particularly not the Anglo-Saxon period of England.  And the hoard did   contain a lot of sword hilts.  But my first thought was "militaristic?"  Huh?  I wouldn't have described it this way.   To be fair, this woman not only is very vocal in her opinions about things, she has a rather narrow concept of what she considers acceptable -- in modern terms.  And this brings me to the whole problem of mindsets, once again.   For this woman is projecting her own ideas about acceptable norms, in modern times, onto (a) a society she knows absolutely nothing about and (b) onto people who probably had absolutely no concept at all of "militarism".  And it is in modern projections like these, that the "mindset" problem arises.   When you're writing or dealing artistically with some past society, even if what you're writing isn't strict "historical novel" material, you have to accept  that people in this past, whatever it is, often accepted things that people today tend to find unacceptable.  This is true, even when we speak of the recent past.


I can give two examples here:  I grew up at a time when it was widely accepted by a great many people, that certain "minorities" didn't, for example, have the right to live in, or even visit, certain areas.  When I was a child, you rarely, if ever, saw people of African descent visiting the local zoo.  In that community, it just wasn't done.  And this was in "liberal" Seattle.  But a lot of people accepted this as  natural or normal.  Many people, both male and female, accepted the idea that women "shouldn't work"; they should just stay home, be housewives, and have a bunch of kids.  There are still people who believe this, but they are, nowadays, a distinct, though sometimes vocal, minority.  And times have changed, at least to some degree, for the better; women work in all kinds of jobs that would have been inconceivable for them in the 1950's and early 1960's.  Most of us, in the Western world, are glad these things have changed for the people who were the objects of such thinking.  But the point is, these two examples suggest a fairly common mindset at the time(though there were others, as well). 


Similarly, in Anglo-Saxon times, I am pretty sure that an "anti-militarist" mindset, even among churchmen and women, would have been quite inconceivable.  It was not so much that their militaries wanted to fight; just as today, it was better to avoid wars if you could. Besides, a local king or lord had to have fighting men, partly to protect him, and partly to keep whatever enemies he might have, away from the population.  This was necessary for two reasons:  in most parts of the medieval world, at least until fairly late, government pretty much consisted of whatever the king or local lord could manage to enforce.  If he was weak, people would tend to go their own way.  And strength often demanded armies or fighting men willing to stand behind the king or local lord -- and willing to fight. 


Certainly what any local population got out of this might be said to be debatable.  If some war did break out, clashing forces might burn everything in their path, but the path might well be local and narrow.  Some populations might even have felt protected, knowing the king or local lord had a competent fighting force at his command. 


Which just goes to show:  yes, various mindsets do differ from era to era, but they change.  And in any given period, there is not just one "mindset", there are a lot of them. Still, this doesn't give me, the writer, a license to project modern views about war and fighting onto people living in Anglo-Saxon(or any other) times.  Fortunately, the woman I began my essay with, doesn't write anything but reports about her specialty, and it's not medieval history or paleoanthropology. And perhaps equally fortunately, I know something about these times, and know that people thought somewhat differently about things, than we do today. But then, I'm writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece, and she's not.  Fortunately.

Anne G


Doug said...

Has much changed? Most people don't want war, but until absolutely everybody thinks that way, you have to have something to defend you against the attacker.

Anne Gilbert said...


It's not so much that there are times when people have to "defend themselves" gtom domr rnrmy, but that the concept of "miliatarism" is new. And while there have been societies in the past that have "glorified" the "warrior", I don't think even early Anglo-Saxon society was one of them.

Jen Black said...

Does Beowulf not give you the impression that the heroic warrior society was just a tad given to fighting and killing and things that today might be called military? The poem was certainly loved by the A-S society and since parts of it show Christian ideas, it could be argued that it was created in that A-S era.
Just a thought....

Anne Gilbert said...


Oh sure. I'm not suggesting that the "warrior" wasn't a "heroic" figure. But that, by itself, doesn't really make for a "militaristic" society. The AS society didn't revolve around "always preparing for war and fighting, and that's the difference. Contrast that to, say, ancient Sparta, and you'll see what I mean -- though the need to have "warriors" to fight, in both cases, was always there, for obvious reasons. But what I was getting at ws something else: that is, a tendency for moderns to pruject backwards into time, and impose "moderni" ideas about these things, onto a past society. I thought I made it clear that people in AS times, , Beowulf notwithstanding to the contrary, didn't even have a concept of "militarism" as we understand it today, much less a truly "militaristic" society.
Anne G