The War of the Roses, Part I

I’m on the Crimson side, by kin and by loyalty.

While it’s a tad frightening to see how many of my various 18th and 19th century ancestors in the Taylor clan are descendants of some de Braos or another, there’s way more information on some of our later, more famous ancestors:  the Plantagenets.

One of the reasons I find genealogy so interesting is that, as a modern person, I know that it’s partly fortune that determines whether boys or girls will be born.  Now, I know that there’s been some recent research indicating that several variables are involved in whether people have boys or girls.  I want to mention some of the proposed variables.

Men who have a disproportionate amount of brothers are more likely to have sons.  This would be passed along the male line if it is genetic as opposed to environmental or epigenetic.

Bolder, more assertive women are more likely to have sons.  Now this one seems like a long shot to me, but the theory would be that women’s bodies are more likely to host and keep a masculine pregnancy if they’re already rather more testosteronized.  Lots of assumptions there – and yet…well, who could have been bolder than Eleanor of Aquitane, maternal founder of the Plantagenets?  At the same time, she gave her first husband, Louis VII, King of France, only daughters.  Louis’s siblings were almost 50/50 in terms of sex ratio, but with each of his wives he had mostly girls.  Which is interesting.  But, if this one is true, then was Eva Marshall, wife of Black Will de Braos a timid woman?  Would love to know.  Anyway, she had only girls.

Older couples are more likely to have daughters.  Statistical fact, apparently, no one knows why.  Less support for Y-sperm from the man’s body?  I don’t know.

Men with high functioning “male brains” have more sons; women with high functioning “female brains” have more daughters.  This was reprinted from a set of studies in Psychology Today.  What they’re talking about is a broader hypothesis that in order for certain traits to take hold in a population, they must be passed on, so successful men must pass on traits that make men successful to boys, and the same for women.  Okay, makes sense.  But is it true?  In my family, it seems to me that lots of “successful” males and females were born, but only the men were given much opportunity to avail themselves of wealth, power or thrones.

Were you waiting for me to mention culture?  Because, in the end, that’s what I’m interested in.  What kind of system takes high functioning women like Eleanor of Aquitane and locks them up for 15 years for no other reason than that their husband wants to?  I realize he was a king and back then, kings attempted to get their way in all things and Henry II was definitely no pushover.  But it isn’t just Eleanor.  It’s so many women of that period – and onward – whose lives are hedged in, fenced in, boxed in, so that there’s virtually no room for them to breathe, much less be educated.  They’re having so many children, for one thing.

Religion is the linch pin of this system.   Not only does the church dictate male primacy, it also dictates legitimacy.  A man can only have one legitimate wife.  Until the Reformation, that wife had to be the one that the man married in the One Holy Apostolic Catholic Church – of Rome, if you were European.  Illegitimate children abound in my lineage (I’m one, myself, of course).  A very big deal was made of illegitimacy all the way down through the ages, in my family.  Is there some kind of gene for conventionality?  If so, some of my family members had it – and others delighted in flouting it.  Mostly, of course, it was the men who flouted convention by taking concubines regularly.  One can understand this in kings like Llewellyn Fawr and Henry II, whose marriages had to bring political alliances, regardless of what their hearts or loins told them.

So, anyway, Henry II was very powerful.  He managed to run off with the King of France’s wife, and she had to leave behind her two small daughters, princesses Marie and Alys.  Marie’s lineage would eventually join with her mother’s descendants – some 8 generations later, when one of her great-grand-daughters married another descendant of Eleanor, but through Henry II, not Francis VII – a Plantagenet, but a Yorkist.   Both Marie and Alys are maternal ancestors of U.S. Presidents, contemporary British royalty, Churchill and Lady Diana.  Alys is a maternal ancestor of Louis XVII, even though for centuries, her descendants held no thrones.  They still kept in the game, so to speak.

So Eleanor, Queen of France and Duchess/Queen of Aquitane runs off with Henry II, who is about to become King of England after one of those big succession crises.

Henry II is not the son of a King.  He is the son of a daughter of a King.  When Henry I died, his eldest son had already died in the tragic, Titanic-of-its-Day, the wreck of the White Ship.  At least three of Henry Beauclerc I’s children were on that ship, which was supposed to be the best and fastest ship in the world, when it capsized off the coast of Normandy.

Henry Beauclerc (which means “fine scholar”) was an amazing man who outlived many of his children.  And he did have many children.  He was married in the Church twice, but he had an extraordinary number of illegitimate children.  I am descended both from his legitimate heir (Empress Maud), except that even though he named his eldest legitimate daughter as his heir, his contemporaries weren’t buying that.  No woman could reign in her own right.   Anyway, poor Empress Maud was driven out of her own country by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who claimed to be the most direct male heir (I am also descended from him, but he blew it and lost the throne – he is perhaps the only English king whose father was not king and whose descendants did not rule).

Anyway, Empress Maud married roguish, handsome, virile and militaristic Geoffrey Plantagenet.  Her father arranged this marriage for her, perhaps thinking that Geoffrey was ambitious enough to make sure his wife retained the throne of England.  But Geoffrey was far more concerned about preserving his own paternal heritage, back in Normandy, where he was Count of Anjou (love their pears) and Maine.  He later achieved his own ambition of becoming Duke of Normandy.  He also didn’t like Maud very much.  Geoffrey’s nickname was “the Fair” and he was apparently very handsome and quite the womanizer.  He liked wearing personal adornment and the nickname “Plantagenet” refers to a sprig of yellow flowers that he wore in his hat.  Maud was rather serious, perhaps a bit mopey and imperious.  Before being married off to Geoffrey, Maud had already been married off at a very young age to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, who was basically the King of Germany.  He was 21 years older than herself.  When she was called back from Germany to marry the Norman count, Maud spoke German and had to leave her children from that marriage behind.  Perhaps she was not a happy camper.

But one thing is clear, she fought hard to get that throne away from her childhood playmate and cousin, Stephen of Blois.  A big war ensued.  Maud gave birth to 4 sons from Geoffrey, one of whom died in infancy.  Henry II was her eldest son, a precocious boy who loved both his parents, despite their antipathy towards each other.

Maud raised Henry to be King.  In order to become King, he had to perform a military conquest of England, which he attempted for the first time at the age of 14.  Henry Curtmantle II of England was well-connected.  His father was the Duke of Normandy (Stephen of Blois claimed that title but was unable to defend it).  His great-uncle was King David of Scotland, who became an ally against King Stephen.

Henry did not lack for confidence and he and Eleanor, for a long time, were good partners and together, they had four sons who survived to adulthood and two that did not.  The fact that Maud had been birthing all those boys, that Henry had only brothers, and that Eleanor had sons with Henry and only daughters with Louis VII is interesting.  Eleanor also had daughters with Henry, though.  Altogether, Eleanor produced 12 children, 10 with Henry, 6 of them boys.  Richard the Lion-Heart is perhaps the most famous, and King John the most infamous.

For a long time, Plantagenets ruled in England.  King John begat Henry III Plantagenet, King of England, along with many other children who have surviving descendants today.  Henry III was the father of Edward I Plantagenet, King of England, a great warrior and energetic King.

It is with Edward I that more dynastic troubles begin.   Like a true Plantagenet (or a true descendant of Eleanor of Aquitane), Edward managers to produce four sons who survive past infancy (six total).   Unfortunately, three of the four predecease him and the fourth, as one chronicler has said, “was never worthy to be born.”  Poor Edward II.  He was a boy, a younger brother, and so became king even when he had some sisters (like Joan of Acre) who would have been fine rulers.  But his inability to rule was based largely on sex and gender.  Just as England was not ready for Queen Maud and believed a man, even though more distant from succession, should rule in her place, in the 13th century, England was not ready for a gay King.

King Edward II upset everyone by openly taking a lover (the charming Piers Gaveston).  The story has a tragic ending and I want to say more about it later.  But for now, just remember that Edward’s father, King Edward I Longshanks arranged a marriage for him, with the sister of the King of France, Isabelle – the “She-Wolf of France.”  She got that name because she got to England, was increasingly unhappy with her marital arrangements, and managed to take much more of an interest in actual government than her husband.  I think she also got that name because she insisted on reproducing with her somewhat reluctant husband, with whom she had at least two children before taking up with a lover (so the paternity of some of those royal Plantagenet kids was in doubt; indeed, perhaps all of them should be doubtful – who knows?)

Isabella’s eldest son, Edward III, did resemble his father physically, but his mother made sure he was raised apart from his father, and when the time was right, placed her son in open rebellion against his father.  By then, Edward II had taken a different lover, also handsome and brave. Hugh Despencer.  Isabella had taken herself back to France, where her brother put diplomatic pressure on Edward II to come to France to pay homage for the territory of Gascony.  Edward II sent his young son, instead, which was a huge mistake.  Isabella now had all she needed to essentially launch an invasion.  One of the groups who was opposing Edward II and in favor of putting Edward III on the throne was arranged around the Earl of Lancaster (who was a wicked and terrible man, in my view – but that will have to go in a different chapter if we are ever to get to the War of the Roses).

Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England and captured Edward II.  With her husband in prison, and public opinion strongly against him, Isabella became the de facto ruler of England, taking the Great Seal into her own hands.  No one was willing to actually kill a King, but life in prison for being gay seemed just to these people.  King Edward II’s trial made no mention of his sexuality, though, only claiming that he had listened to wrong advice, that he was incompetent as a king, and that he had “pursued occupations unbecoming to a monarch.”  This is pretty revolutionary stuff:  that a king could be deposed in this way.  Deposed he was, and his son, Edward III Plantagenet took the throne at the age of 15.

Only two of Edward II’s progency with Isabella ever had children.

Edward III’s rule was complex, but one thing he did was to punish the Earl of Lancaster who had gone against his father by removing the title from him and giving it to one of his sons, John of Gaunt, and elevating the title to Duke.

Had Edward III’s heir, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales, not died young, the war between his brothers would not have taken place.

So we have the ever-lurking main principle:  death, especially infant death and early death, stalking these people’s attempts to keep the rules intact and a direct male heir on the throne.

In order to examine what happened more closely (because it’s a situation that comes up now and again, but is still unusual) we can think about what is supposed to happen with succession today.  In a future world, after King Charles dies, should Prince William die without an heir, then Prince Harry becomes the heir apparent.  Clear, right?

But what if Kate were pregnant or had a small infant?   Now that girls can sit on the throne, I suppose England would wait with baited breath to see if the infant was born alive (which it very likely would be, given modern medical care) and then name Baby as heir apparent instead of Harry.  If this all happened today, the succession would obviously still be Charles first, but if William were gone, then William’s baby.

And so it was with the Black Prince’s son, Richard II.

Richard II would seem an unlikely person to be King of England for 22 years, but he was.  He was the son of the Prince of Wales, the heir apparent, who died before taking the throne.  He had an older brother who was of course the heir apparent, but Prince Edward of Angouleme died when Richard was just four years old, making him heir to the Prince of Wales.

When Richard’s father died, he was 9 and so he became the heir apparent.  The old King Edward III died about a year later, and so Richard was crowned King Richard II (Lion-Heart was the first).

He was only ten.

Now age begins to play a role.  Richard II of course had to have regents.  John of Gaunt, the first Duke of Lancaster, became that regent.  By all accounts, John of Gaunt was a very intelligent, well-trained and able man.  Portraits of him show a dark, handsome man who strongly resembles his father, Edward III (son of the She-Wolf).

Now, this was the time of the Hundred Years War, which everyone has heard about.  It was started by Edward III and lasted slight more than a hundred years.  This conflict between England and France was over hereditary disputes dating back to William the Conqueror.  Both sides developed standing armies, and this was the first time since the Roman era that standing armies were kept.  

The war started largely because Isabella the She-Wolf’s brothers all died without male heirs.  Remember that whole thing about Louis VII having mostly girls?  Well, that particular problem did not befall Philip IV, King of France and Isabella’s father – he had three sons.   But only two of them managed to produce children, and all the children were girls.  In a reversal of fate and fortunate, Isabella the She-Wolf had, of course, managed to produce boys – and her boy was the King of England, Edward III, who therefore promptly made a claim on the throne of France when his grandfather and uncles were all dead.  This did not sit well with the French, who did not want a King of England on their throne.

In the end, the French won the war (surprised?  don’t forget – they had Joan of Arc on their side and she’s credited with that win, by me) but not before Edward III himself was long dead.  Richard II had tried to stop the war, but was unsuccessful.

Richard II wanted to stop the war for some very good personal reasons.  He wasn’t a warlike person, he preferred a courtly life.  He believed he had duties as a king, and he did not keep a tremendously lavish lifestyle, but he certainly didn’t want to be mucking about going to war.  The French were threatening to invade throughout his reign and he really wanted to negotiate peace and go on about his life.  Since the French were massing for an invasion, English Parliament wanted to raise taxes and Richard’s Chancellor, de la Pole (descendant of Normans) was at the forefront of pushing for an unprecedented levy of taxes not to lavish upon the King but to fill a giant war chest.  Since Richard II’s own father had gained the throne through the deposition of Richard’s grandfather, deposition was a buzzword.  Parliament threatened to depose Richard II (and they were serious) so Richard II fired de la Pole and was furious about being pushed around by Parliament.

Richard went on a royal circuit around England, appointing a new Chancellor who would attempt to raise a military loyal to the King, so that deposition wouldn’t be such a threat.  Richard did in fact manage to gain quite a bit of support, but at the same time, the anti-taxation, anti-de la Pole forces wanted to push their point by trying de la Pole for treason.  At some point, the young cousin of the King, Henry, Earl of Derby, joined the Opposition.  Henry was the son of Richard’s former regent and uncle, John of Gaunt.

Richard’s side did not win.  Some were executed, de la Pole fled the country (and was condemned to death in absentia).  Even some of Richard’s chamber knights were executed by a conglomeration of forces that now included his cousin.

Richard sought to mollify France (John of Gaunt helped him with that) and restore peace.  France once again demanded that the English King pay homage to France, which if he had done so, would have riled the English population that he had just succeeded in settling down a little.

Instead the King of France and the King of England arranged a 20 year truce based on marriage.

Richard was to marry the daughter of the King of France, a six year old child named Isabella of Valois.  Now, Richard was already married, to Anne of Bohemia.  For whatever reason (one always wonders), Anne had no children.  The marriage was somehow put aside (the wealthy are usually able to get divorces when they are keen on them, Henry VIII wasn’t the first with this problem).  So Richard marries the 6 year old, and everyone understands that this is a real roadblock to him producing an heir any time soon.

Richard was able to go back to his main interests with the truce underway.  He developed a court of art and culture, and banished militaristic, frat boy behavior to the margins of his world.   He was 31, his new wife was 6.  She was in the care of her own ladies within his court.

Somewhat stung by claims that he was too peaceful to be a King (people were apparently calling him a wuss) and with the English still very focused on being irritated with France, Richard chose to head off to Ireland to quell rebellions there.  Now, as everyone knows, the Irish can be rebellious, but they are a smaller island than Britain and the English Crown at that time now had a standing army (prepared for France, but chomping at the bit to be paid in spoils and also, either needing to be disbanded or put into use).  So Richard takes this massive army, geared and kitted up to deal with France over to Ireland, for one of Medieval history’s most infamous and unequal wars.  You might say that Richard only wanted to go to war when he knew he could win.

Needless to say, this was a great military success.  The Irish were still organized along the lines of tribal chiefdoms, fierce and combative, but no match for 8,000 Englishmen with cavalry.

Also, needless to say, as soon as Richard went home to enjoy his glory, the Irish were resistant again.

Riding on his feelings of military triumph, Richard went home and had large parts of his former opposition arrested and placed in prison.  Some were tried fairly quickly and executed.  But Richard couldn’t really put Uncle John of Gaunt nor cousin Henry, Earl of Derby in prison and they had allied themselves with the Opposition.   I probably do have to say that throughout English history (and the history of many peoples), leaders acting like tyrants upsets people even if they previously liked the leader.  That’s another reason I’m very interested in all of this.

John of Gaunt apparently abandoned all allegiance to his former comrades and stuck by the King, even as the King began to levy fines against the lesser members of the opposition and enrich the Crown.  Richard was getting the hang of being a ruler.  He took money away from his enemies and elevated men closer to himself, like the de Hollands, who were his half-brother and nephew, whose only certainty of rank involved allegiance and kinship to Richard.  A series of my male ancestors were in this little gaggle of King-followers, whose children intermarried amongst themselves while the party was still going strong.

Nevertheless, John of Gaunt was the richest man in England.  And Richard had no children.  Who would reign after him?

If Prince William were to be Prince of Wales, but Kate never had children, then Harry would reign after him – right?  So, if Richard has no children – and no brothers – doesn’t his uncle get to rule?

The King’s gaggle of loyalists saw the threat.  What if the King died and an opposition member (either John of Gaunt or his son) became King?  That wouldn’t be good for them and their newly found wealth and power.  One of the loyalists managed to get into a quarrel with young Henry (also known as Bolingbroke) and a parliamentary committee at first wanted the two to to settle their differences by battle.  The King intervened, banishing Henry for 10 years, the other man for life.

Not long after, John of Gaunt died, I think, of a broken heart.  Or stress.  The banishment of his son, his son’s managing to get into conflict with the King’s men, after all John had done to be diplomatic and keep things peaceful, was too much for him.

Richard was quick to react (although in retrospect, it was a stupid move).  Fearing that Henry would come back as his father’s heir and manage to wield all that wealth, he extended the banishment to life and disinherited Henry (he could have confiscated John of Gaunt’s lands, but he did not).

Henry went on living in Paris, with funds from his family.  Richard went back to fight in Ireland some more.






Will: The Will of William the Conqueror

I hesitated about whether to refer to William, 4th Duke of Normandy as “William ‘the Conqueror'” or as “William ‘the Bastard'”.  The term “Bastard” would probably make this blog slightly more popular.  But, since my focus is on the Will to Power, no one person’s epithet says “Will to Power” quite as clearly as the one attached to the name “William ‘the Conqueror’.”

William was a descendant of Rollo and Poppa, just like Black Will de Braose.   Let’s first establish that William was willful, was strong-willed.

In January, 1066, the King of England (Edward the Confessor) died without an heir.  We can view his childlessness as people did in that time, dereliction of duty.  As a King, one of his primary duties was to produce an heir.  Did he not want to/did not will it?  Or did he will it but find it impossible to do?

The traditional view on Edward is that his will directed him toward one object:  The Divine.  He had little interest in the material world, he was focused intensely on the Ideal and the Divine.  He took a vow of celibacy before he married and before he was required to become King.  Let’s also remember that it took another person (a wife) to produce this heir, so it was complicated.  Maybe she didn’t want to, and he wasn’t willful enough to, um, press the issue.  (Good for him)  At any rate, the story is that Edward took a vow of celibacy early on in life and that was the reason he failed to produce an heir.

His own father, Aethelred the Unready (better translated as ‘Unread’ or ‘Uncounseled’ or ‘Ill-Advised’) was interested in material power in the traditional sense:  he organized murders, wars and raids.  He produced several boys, several of whom were the warlike Kingly types expected of him.  He  was married to the sister of the powerful Duke of Normandy.  He hadn’t intended for Edward the Confessor to be King, he had older boys.  Edward’s older brother, Edmund Ironsides, had served briefly as King of England, too busy valiantly leading war crews against the encroaching Danes to find time to marry and produce an heir.   Another son, older than Edward, had been banished (to Hungry) from the Kingdom of England, as he was considered too big a threat to his father’s and brother’s power.   It’s possible that Aethelred actually felt he had enough warlike sons that Edward could follow his own volition and the religious life, which is what Edward did.

Aethelred the Uncounseled

Perhaps Edward realized at some point that William would make a good king and he didn’t need to try and make a king himself.  Bringing a boy up to be a King was tricky business.  Edward’s own father had not succeeded in imparting the warlike, dangerous mien thought needed to exercise a King’s will to all of his own sons.  The “vow of chastity” business is problematic.  It was a form of asceticism, of course, but if a man doesn’t have a very strong sex drive (or doesn’t prefer women), it isn’t much of a sacrifice.  We can’t read King Edward’s mind from this distance, but one wonders.  It’s also possible that Edward knew the English tradition (like the Saxon tradition) of electing Kings out of a possible group of barons and noble contenders would prevail whether or not he broke his vow.

Aethelred, in fact, had had a hard enough time ruling over England and needed help – from the very powerful, willful King of Denmark.  He needed the King of Denmark to calm or at least try to temper the constant raids from Scandinavian Vikings.  The English were not thrilled about being ruled by a puppet of Denmark, but such was the case by the time of Aethelred and Edward.  England needed whatever help it could get  if it wanted to stay out of the clutches of the Viking rulers.  One could say that the English had no will to be completely plundered by raiders, which was a constant possibility and reality.  Like most people, they wanted to hold on to their own stuff – and it took a good leader, with an army, to do that.  Edmund Ironsides was such a leader, but he died (perhaps of battle related injures) soon into his reign.

It’s unclear whether Edward the Confessor named William, the Bastard (he really was known by that name during his time) his successor as King of England.  That was what the Normans said he had done.  In that case, all should have gone well, except that Harold Godwinson, Edward’s brother-in-law (his wife’s brother) decided to usurp the throne.

Edward never liked the Godwins and some people say that’s why he refused to have sex with Edith Godwin, his wife.  She was 20 when they married in 1045, he was 42.  He eventually had a huge falling out with her family, most of her brothers fled England and he sent her to a nunnery in 1051.  Some historians say the excuse was that she had failed to produce an heir, but if he had taken a vow of celibacy, it’s hard to buy both viewpoints at the same time – unless Edward actually had the will to believe contradictory things about his own lack of fertility and found it easy to blame a woman in a sexless marriage for not having children.  People can believe all kinds of things, but if Edward were really so split in his view on things, no wonder he was not a strong King.  It’s more likely he just didn’t want her family around, as it seems clear he really didn’t like the Godwins.

Edith’s brother, Harold, was born on English soil, son of the Saxon Earl of Wessex, while William was of course Norman-French.  Up until that time, the English had followed no strict rules of succession, like Salic law, instead convening a kind of counsel to choose the next King.  The current King’s sons were always in the running and strong contenders, as it simplified things to use heredity.  But, the counsel could choose someone else (as it had done in the past) if it chose.  So, if Edward threw his weight (perhaps meagre) behind William, that would not necessarily have been enough to win over all of his subjects to the view that William should reign.  This business of being born on English soil was very important to them.

Harold and William had a history together.  Harold had been knighted by William during Harold’s sojourn in Brittany and Normandy in 1063.  It is not clear what Harold was doing in Brittany or Normandy, one legend has it that he was supposed to be telling William that Edward wanted him to be King.  At any rate, during the knighting ceremony, the Bayeux tapestry shows Harold pledging fealty to William in all his endeavors, which would of course include a claim to being King of England.

My own view is that is likely that Edward the Confessor didn’t have the power to actually name William the new King, probably knew that, and didn’t make much effort to solve the problem before he died.  He could have done much more.  He could have written a proclamation.  He could have had William crowned King of England while he lived, he could have done lots of things to make William King of England, but he did not.  If he wanted to obtain the power to name his heir, he exhibited little will in exerting himself toward that goal.

So, when Edward died, the crown was up for grabs.  The King of Denmark was eyeing it, Harold happened to be nearer and arranged his own coronation, probably at Westminster (where Edward had just been buried).  The fact that Harold was present at the funeral and could arrange a ceremony of coronation shows how social structure and will come together:  it’s one thing to want a crown, it’s another to actually have physical access to a particular crown and the usual crowning place.  No one really knew whom Edward had chosen (if anyone) as his successor.  Neither Harold nor William waited for any council to convene.  Events took on their own moment, spurred on by the wills of these two men:  Harold and William.

Harold had the home court advantage and William instantly began organizing a vast army.

King Harold as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Organizing vast armies took a lot of time and energy.  William’s degree of energy is phenomenal, and I am taking it to be a sign of an incredibly strong will to conquer England.  He had to personally plan and devise a way to move men and material across the English channel from Normandy.  It’s true of course that Normandy is a perfect place to launch an attack into England, so geography assisted William’s desires.  Would he have been so insistent on being King of England if he had been in Milan?  I doubt it.  William saw the great opportunity in front of him, though and acted very swiftly.  He hired virtually every carpenter on the entire continental Atlantic coast, mostly Flemings, and began constructing as many ships as possible.  He also paid for and directed the construction of portable forts to take to England.

He sent scouts to scout possible landing places and seek out the position of Harold’s gradually accumulating forces.  He forestalled most of Harold’s efforts to figure out what he was up to, while constantly spying on Harold.  He acquired hundreds of horses (if not thousands), many of them from amongst the best horse stock on the continent – from the Grentmesnil family, who specialized in warhorses and other horse specialties.  Harold had no access to Grentmesnil horses – and the Grentmesnils themselves joined William’s expedition.

Practically everyone of note in Normandy joined William’s expedition, convinced he would succeed and that they would be rewarded with large tracts of land in England (they were right).  It’s not clear that everyone knew there would be no turning back once they landed in England; William would build earthwork walls, walling in the ships, to make sure no one deserted the expedition.  He kept less than the number of ships needed to evacuate all the troops, sending the other ships back to Normandy to bring more men and supplies.  Even if he had not done the earthworks, which was a brilliant idea, most of the men had had quite enough of the sea after rocking about – with their horses and their armor and whatever else they wished to take with them beside them in these fairly small wooden boats – for the time it took to cross the channel.

This is a good example of communal will.  Those men had to want to come down to the beach, live in tents, practice warcraft, and wait for the ships to be built and the winds to be right.  More and more men came.  William had quite a bit of money, he borrowed more, but many of the men were not paid – they were there because they wanted a chance at grabbing English land and believed William was the right person to get them what they wanted.  The Earl of Meulan supplied in money what the Grentmesnils supplied in horses.  Other nobles did the same.  William of course also hired plenty of mercenaries.

But minor nobility from all over the Atlantic seaboard decided, on their own, to join their will to his.  The Scots ancestors of the de Braose family were among these people.  Good estimates of the size of William’s army place it at 3000 men – a huge number to transport at sea in small, rocking boats.  Thanks to the efforts of William’s wife, Mathilda, who may well be one of Europe’s earliest cartoonists, we have a visual record of these efforts.  It looks like two or three horses could ride per boat, and if no horses, then several men.  It’s very probable that Matilda watched the preparations and that her pictures are fairly accurate – no one knows for sure.  One historians estimates around 700 boats (one writer who saw the event counted 697) and William may have sent the boats with the carpenters and the wooden forts ahead, along with war materials such as lances and armor.

Men and horses in rocking boats

When William gave the command, some 3000 men boarded those boats and set sail under his command.  The people they were fighting against had stone castles, local serfs, local food and war materials.  William had only what he brought with him.

It was September  – only 9 months after Edward’s death – when William set sail.  Under the circumstances, just sending messages to the various places from which mercenaries were gathered would have taken incredible speed and effort.  Everyone riding by horseback to Bayeux must have taken much effort.  Training everyone to work in consort, stacking provisions, giving orders to load boats, dealing with the various languages spoken by his men:  all of that had to come from William’s command.

William was, personally, a very imposing man.  His inner mental strength was ably symbolized or embodied by his actual physical presence.  He is described by one of his own contemporaries as a large man, and so muscular and strong that he was the only person who could draw his bow.  No one was surprised by the fact that only he could draw that bow:  he was strong and he looked strong.  Would men have followed a weaker man into battle in the same way?

He had a receding hairline (lots of testosterone?), a big belly (which disturbed his regal handsomeness, apparently), and was never sick except for his last illness.  He was able to bend and shoot his bow while his horse was at full gallop.  When Mathilda depicted him in her tapestries, incidentally, she does not show the big belly.

It is sometimes said that the entire fleet was assembled in a month (doubtful) and that it was only the lack of proper winds that kept the fleet from sailing earlier (doubtful).  But, while Harold fumed and worried and waited, a psychological war of attrition was already taking place.  More and more men and material came to William, until he was ready, while Harold had immediately fortified the coast and taken all his ships to London (leaving the Channel unguarded).  Harold was afraid of a sea battle, and he was afraid of Norman piracy against individual ships.

While William had vast supplies still streaming in from Normandy, Brittany and Maine, Harold had to keep taxing his vassals to maintain his fortifications along the coast and soon Harold was running out of supplies.  William knew of this demoralization.  Harold apparently decided William wasn’t coming to England, and since he didn’t have spies in Normandy (and William did have people going back and forth), Harold concluded (wrongly) that William had given up.  It was only 8 months after Edward’s death, but Harold gave up and disbanded most of his army on September 8, as most of them were villeins (farmers who had to be soldiers as part of their vassalage) so that his army could go home to conduct the harvest.

William had spent his money hiring full time soldiers and accumulating noble, not vassal, knights.  He tried to sail on September 12, which is when the winds did actually thwart him.  On September 27, William’s fleet finally landed in England – probably not at Pevensey, as usually claimed, but at a marshy cove nearby, which was entirely unguarded, and which gave William secrecy – and a place to dam up the cove so that his own men could not turn back, even if they wanted to.

William had one of his port-a-forts erected on the isthmus of Hastings, which was mostly marshlands, to protect his flank from any sudden incursion from Harold’s ships (he needn’t have worried).  He wasn’t taking chances, he was thinking ahead, he was very focused on winning.  If the port-a-forts were not sent ahead, but arrived with the rest of the fleet, that must have been an incredible undertaking at the time of landing:  carpenters and fort materials pulled into play, horses to be fed and saddled and convoyed  (it’s said they had to be led rather than ridden through the cliffs and marshes near Hastings, they would have sunk into the mud had they been ridden), men to feed and tactics to implement.

Harold had had the bad luck of falling into a clash of wills with his own brother, Tostig, whom he had been fighting in the north of England.  It doesn’t seem as if this was a deliberate ploy by Tostig to aid William.  Harold had to rush his army from the north of England to Hastings upon world of the Norman landing.  It took him only 5 days – very fast.

William is credited with being the first general to assemble “combined forces,” meaning he had a variety of troops:  archers, lancers on horseback, foot soldiers.  The English army was almost entirely foot soldiers.  They had never seen an army like the one William brought to them.

Harold’s army was exhausted while William’s army was still ecstatic over their successful crossing and their own organization.  They could see that they could readily plunder the local countryside for supplies if need be.  William had given some thought about how to ramp his men’s spirits up even further – he had an entertainer launch the first salvo in the war, his jongleur, Taillefer – a jester.  Taillefer came prepared to entertain.  On the morning of the Battle of Hastings, he rode out to the ridge chosen as the point of command, and while juggling a sword, sang the Song of Roland.  He then attacked and killed an English soldier with the sword, and was instantly killed himself.  The troops roared into action.

At first, the battle didn’t go as William planned.  The English formed “shield walls,” in which the sturdiest and tallest of the vassals held up shields, while the archers shot arrows from inside the shield wall.  It was hard for the Normans to cut through the shield walls or aim down into the area where the English archers were hidden.  Even the well-trained horses shied away from the shield walls, the shield-bearers also possessing pointy lances and swords.

In the fierce fighting, William had three horses killed underneath him.  Naturally, he did not retreat or give up.  At one point, his troops saw him go down and thought he had been killed and they started a retreat – which actually provided the break that William needed to win.  When the English thought the Normans were at least retreating, they broke their shield wall formation and took pursuit.  William then led a cavalry charge into the midst of them, and now it was the English who ran away – but without their protective formation, the foot soldiers were easy prey for William’s horse mounted knights, and as William originally planned, it was his battle from then on.

Harold’s household knights were the last to give up.  William let the lesser foot soldiers flee the field without much pursuit, focusing on bringing down the King.  All the household knights were killed, and so was Harold.

The Norman invasion of England was essentially accomplished, after about 9 months of preparation, in one day.  There was little other serious fighting in this invasion (perhaps I’ll get a chance to talk about how some of the English defenders ambushed some of William’s men later that day or about how the English barons refused to come and swear fealty to William, so that William did have to eventually march on London), but essentially, the King was dead – and William was the new King, as he had claimed to be, all along.

William had sent some ships back to Normandy for reinforcements and more supplies, he was not at all underplanning this event.  Londoners made a half-hearted attempt to crown another King born on English soil – Edgar the Atheling was elected by the traditional counsel.  Only 15, he didn’t last long in the face of William’s army, and Londoners agreed to renounce him as King and to do homage to William in order to spare London further death and plunder.

King Harold became the last English king to die on a battlefield until Richard III, and the Norman conquest marked the last time England was conquered by a power from off the Isle.

William was crowned King of England, on Christmas Day, 1066, at Westminster.  I like to think that, to William, one calendar year was about enough time to conquer England – an amazing act of bravado, derring-do – and incredible planning.  He never wavered in his goal of conquering England, not once, in that entire span of time.  He was ready when the opportunity afforded by Edward’s death occurred, he speedily amassed people who would submit to his will, and he rewarded them as planned.  One of his first acts as King was to bring his Queen, Mathilda, over to England, where she would give birth to the first of William’s sons to be born on English soil – so that Henry I, William’s son, would fit the notion of being English-born – and would eventually rule after William.

It looks like William left nothing out of his plan, enacted by himself, with a bounty of structural components on his side, but after his own desire as the root of the plan.  He changed history.  And that, I believe, is what Nietzsche meant by possessing the “Will to Power.”

Will: The Force, not the Person (Part 1)

I’m thinking about the role of Will in history.  Who isn’t, you might ask?  We’ve all read Nietzsche, right?

Actually most people have not read Nietzsche, nor does reading Nietzsche assist everyone in understanding Will, specifically the Will to Power.  I grew up in a small town, where education even today is not what it is in places like Evanston or Westwood or Palo Alto or any other university town.  I went to university with a lot of kids who grew up in places where education was more thorough.  People from El Paso or Sherman Oaks or the Bronx had had routine experience with computers and programming.  They had studied a bit of logic.  All of that was foreign to me.

I had heard of philosophy.  I learned that it existed when I was 13 and first opened a university catalogue.  I was planning to go to university, not just college (I had figured out the difference).  As I thumbed through the catalogues borrowed from a middle school teacher, three fields of study stood out to me as possible majors:  English, anthropology and philosophy.  I had never heard of either anthropology or philosophy until then.  I used the college catalogues to plan my trips to our local library.  I could see the names listed as great writers or thinkers in the introductory courses in English and philosophy.  It was in this way that I encountered Socrates and Plato.  Had it not been for those university catalogues (which I continued to pore over all through high school), I would doubtless have gone off to University as clueless about Plato and Aristotle as I was about Karl Marx.

When in the first few weeks of university, a teacher kept mentioning Marx, I knew only of the Marx brothers, and I was pretty sure that the teacher wasn’t referring to the entertainer; within a week after the first mention I was in the library, searching for Marx – it took awhile for me to connect Marx up to the Communist Manifesto, I encountered his piece on German Ideology first, but within 10 days of hearing his name for the first time, I had a glimmer of who he was – I considered him a philosopher at that time.  Similarly, when I first heard of Lenin, I thought that teacher was speaking of John Lennon – that took longer to figure out (spelling through me off).  There were no “For Dummies” books back then, and our university bookstore wasn’t the kind of place where Cliff Notes were prominently displayed, but they did have a great section for public consumption and my self-education in philosophy began in earnest.

Nietzsche, however, eluded me.  I tried to read him.  I couldn’t get through enough philosophy courses to get formal instruction in Nietzsche.  Our introduction to philosophy teacher, John Mothershead, was an expert in aesthetics and Kant.  He did not cover Nietzsche, but he did introduce us to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and we ended the course with Hegel.  

When I ultimately became an anthropology major, it was natural for my professors to assign some Engels and Marx (both had views on primitive society, primitive socialism and of course, class), and mention was often made of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, but we were not assigned to read those two.    Clearly every educated person knew something about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, so I attempted to read them.

I knew the concept of Will was important to Nietzsche, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly was meant by the word.  I had heard all manner of arguments about Free Will, of course (that, at least had been introduced to me in the protestant church discussions of my youth, and elaborated on in by Prof. Mothershead).  Power I could understand to some degree.  But Will, in and of itself, eluded me as a concept.  Years later, I would meet and get to know an actual philosopher very well, and he explained it to me.  It turned out it was quite simple.  Things always seem simpler when you have a good teacher.

Will is the desire or conception within the human mind to get something done, to make something happen.  It is motivation, it is the force of mind.  It is stronger when it is conscious, but unconscious aspects of will must be considered in a proper exploration of will.

Nietzsche clearly thinks that this force of the human mind is important to history, and it surely is.

Many questions arose in my mind once I realized that will is akin to motivation, power of belief, and, well, stubbornness or even arrogance:  strong intentions to accomplish one’s own…will.

First, I tried to find out more about the psychology of motivation and learned that psychologists, around the years 2005-6, were just then coming to terms with how to study motivation, an elusive pattern or process within the human mind.  Psychologists deal with both unmotivated and motivated human beings in clinical settings, and everyone knows that unless a person is motivated (has the will) to change, they aren’t going to change much.  Even if they are apparently motivated, they might not be able to accomplish a change.  Addiction studies, rehab, etc., all deal with such issues daily; in ordinary therapeutic transactions, will is at issue.  Experimental psychology still has a long way to go in figuring out how to study motivation.  Functional MRI’s and other measurements of brain activity are only somewhat promising in trying to figure out what sorts of energy patterns occur in the brain when a person really wants to do something.  Chess players, for example, who are trying very hard (willing themselves) to win a game, exhibit high activity in their finger motor cortex, and in the frontal lobes related to spatial reasoning and general reasoning, but little else distinguishes them from a person watching television (a person who must have the will to watch television?)  How could a brain state, like will, be distinguishable physiologically from any other brain state?  Isn’t will always present?

Apparently not.  For example, many people show up in clinical settings with the complaint that unwanted feelings or thoughts are in their heads.  They wish to will those thoughts and feelings (often depression) away, but the thoughts and feelings keep coming back.  This is usually regarded as a jointly biochemical and cognitive problem, and most psychiatrists and psychologists believe that the biochemical issue (often serotonin levels) should be addressed early on, and that cognitive-behavioral therapy as an adjunct will help eliminate the unwanted thoughts.  This does work in many people.

But people will themselves to commit suicide, to kill one another, and to do many other problematic behaviors just as surely as they will themselves to take care of their children, to feed the dog and to water the houseplants.

It can easily be said that some people’s wills are stronger than others (they will themselves to do more difficult or unusual tasks) and it is at this point that,  as an anthropologist, I want to pull in a structural (social structural) analysis.

Some people are in a position, in society, to be able to more easily accomplish their will.  And some actions are much more easily accomplished within a given society, because society provides the means to do so.  The rules, structures and mechanisms of social control within a society all play a role in the ease of accomplishing one’s will.  So, if in today’s Great Britain, one wills that another person be dead and decides to act upon that will by murder, they will have a harder time getting a gun to do so than a person living in the United States.  A person in Arizona, where people are allowed to openly carry handguns in public, will have an easier time shooting their congresswoman than an Ilongot in the highlands of the Phillipines (where guns are virtually non-existent, but the technical means of head-hunting are available).

So, isolating sheer will remains difficult on the anthropological and psychological fronts.  A person might have a strong will to do something, but lack the means to do so.  Often, as it turns out, a collective will to do something is important, and understanding collective will is a bit trickier.  Certainly

If we look at the Occupy movement, it appears to be predicated on collective will, and specifically avoids having A Leader to round it up.  The problem with having A Leader is that it rapidly becomes difficult to distinguish between the collective will and the leader’s will.  If people agree to assign some of their individual will over to another person, which is what happens in the leadership structure, it is hard to know when (and how) to get one’s individual will back.  In formal military structures, soldiers agree and vow to ignore their own will in favor of the next highest leader’s will, until the will of the person at the top of a chain of command is accomplished.  Naturally, most people analyze history in terms of who the real leaders are (whose will gets accomplished) in these hierarchical military settings.  Soldiers can and do mutiny, individually or collectively, or exercise will in ways that are counter to The Leader’s will, but they have frequently agreed not to do so.

If, on the other hand, a collective chooses A Leader who embodies their collective will more or less perfectly, then it may be possible to use the efficiency of a hierarchical structure to accomplish the collective will.  This is how many revolutions start out, and unfortunately, the same system that transfers individual will to A Leader still holds:  it is still difficult for the individual to know when to opt out of the movement, and The Leader may still have power to do as he or she pleases, even if many of the individuals opt out of the movement.

The leaderless front of the Occupy Movement, therefore, is attempting to keep this situation from arising.  In that way, it is an historic, conscious movement that attempts to preserve individual will.   This leads to a different structure of power.  Criticisms leveled at the Occupy Movement have included that fact that not all members share the same stated ideas about what should happen; they do, however, share the will to Occupy.  The fact that the movement is so centered upon this shared will is crucial to understanding it.  They may not agree entirely on what they want, but they know they strongly want something.  As the movement as progressed, two central sets of demands are emerging:  Tax the 1% who control the vast majority of wealth and resources at a higher rate, and Save Education.  These are perfectly reasonable goals, and there are probably very few Occupy members who individually will otherwise.

In my next post, I am going to look at a radically different sort of situation, historical situations in which one person became the embodiment of the will of a people or, alternatively, one person imposed their individual will on a group of people (it’s very hard to discern the difference, even in contemporary movements).  These are the kinds of situations Nietzsche had in mind, and so, in a sense, I’m doing a kind of Nietzschean anthropology of the past.

The Montagues and the Capulets

Clearly, urban people have been having feuds and “gang problems” since at least the time of Shakespeare.  Or, at least, Shakespeare thought his audience would find it believable that Italians would have violent street battles and terrible, terrifying rivalries among Houses.

As it turns out, I’m a Montague.  I’ve figured out who several of my ancestors were during Shakespeare’s day. They were Montagues, Kingsmills, Malthouses, Tyndales, Taylors, Thurstons, Stubbs and others.  The Montagues were the ones with the best connections – just a few generations away from being nobility.  The name isn’t Italian, but it must have sounded exotic to Shakespeare.  The moral of Shakespeare’s play seems to be that such enmity is the source of great personal tragedy.  The families forgive each other only after the two beautiful young people die.  That’s probably what it takes to settle a feud of that kind.

Today’s gangs are not exactly families or Houses in the same sense, and their feuds don’t die when beautiful young people die.

Elena, the woman whose family member stole from her (see May 13th: Mayan Changes), would like to have a feud with that woman. She’d like, at least, to beat her up (so would I, but I’m not good at beating people up).  The desire to have revenge when we are wronged is strong, especially if the wrong is criminal and especially when civilization has declined to the point where our little petty wrongs have to be huge in order to be investigated.

In Elena’s case, there is now a family feud brewing.  Details have to be worked out.  Family gatherings still have to take place, but are now a breeding ground for further angry action.  One side has already armed itself and shown its gun to the other side.  The other side is thinking of getting a gun.  The family is divided, the actions of one person accomplished this.   We are lucky, our Bad Neighbors are merely that.  They are not family.  Our House remains undivided.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main antagonists are young.  In the situations I’m describing, the players are getting a bit old for such nonsense .  The older Montagues urged some degree of decorum, although they certainly did not see their way clear to resolving the enmity between the Houses.

In my own neighborhood theft case, the main culprit is the oldest man on the block and his family (even older).   Is this new?   He’s not a Baby Boomer – but his wife is.  Is this what we have to look forward to?  Elderly criminals?

Crime is almost always depicted as being mainly the purview of the young.  I know now that this Old White Man has been shady for a long time.  Probably since fourth grade or something.  Perhaps his Stealthy Wife turned him on to a more active life of crime.  He seems never to have had a real job, but boy does he have The Lifestyle.  Her own malfeasance at her job (public sector) has made the newspapers, and just this week, the court ruled against her side.  Discovery will proceed.  We’ll see if she accepted bribes or not.  She’s going to have to go to court.

Meanwhile, they’ve fled the state.  Several people who know the whole story thought that was their intent all along (they bought a $100,000 RV after she retired from her $60,000 a year job).  Even one of the policemen said it would be interesting to see if they’d flee when the court ruling was about to come down.

All of this has made me think about how we recognize our enemies.  If I am a Montague, then the Capulets are my sworn enemies.  This clearcut notion of family alliances makes life easier to understand.  You’re for me or against me.

The way I was brought up, everyone in your neighborhood was categorized as Friend.  Few people violated that trust.  Neighbors looked out for each other.  To some extent, territorial youth gangs still follow this dynamic of trying to trust their own peeps, while hating the next hood over.  Some boys down the street stole my brand new scooter the day after Christmas when I was 6, but other than that, the neighbors I knew growing up were either honest, committed purely domestic crimes – or crimes against strangers.  There were certainly Con Men in that small town I grew up in, and my parents warned me about them, but they lived in apartments after getting kicked out of their family homes  – or were in jail.

And Elena couldn’t have used any quick and nifty division of people into friends and enemies, because her enemy turned up inside her own family.  This seems to happen a lot.  Well, if not a lot – certainly more than I would have thought.  If you’ve ever been a Total Farker ( ), you’ve heard the stories.

I think it’s nothing new, but that we should be warned about it a bit more.  Maybe warned isn’t the right word:  taught about how it happens and who is likely to do it.  Actually – I just think we should be less afraid to talk about it.  It’s not easy to admit what’s going on.

Because, we certainly don’t want to go around suspecting everyone of criminality.  The world I want to live in is trusting and happy.  Since these problems are not actually new, I’ve learned some solutions from my recent historical studies, I’ll be sharing them in upcoming days.

Right now, more about our current feud.

The Old White Man, whom I’ll call Mr. Klaus, is both an actual neighbor and an archetype.  He isn’t just any Old White Man, he’s adopted the demeanor, hairstyle and beard, clothing and implements, of the Aging Well-but-not-Super Classy Old White Man.  I’m sure you’ve seen this guy, he’s on commercials.  They choose this type to appeal to a certain demographic.  This demographic is socially above redneck, but certainly not urbane.  It’s your “next door neighbor archetype”:  sure, everyone knows he drinks a bit, but he’s friendly in a loud, ho-ho-ho kind of way, and he has a white beard.

His voice is not strongly masculine, nothing about him is strongly masculine, even his beard.  He’s gone completely snow white, like Santa Claus.  His beard is not as big as Santa Claus’s, that would be gauche, from his own point of view.  It’s neatly trimmed, like some of those guys you see on TV. There’s a PBS travel program announcer who looks exactly like our neighbor.  There are, in fact, hundreds of people in SoCal who look exactly like our neighbor.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t look much like anyone else – much less, exactly like anyone.  None of my friends looks like a SoCal archetype, either – but if you drive through L.A., you see them all the time.  Oh – there’s a Kim Kardashian wannabe.   Oh – that guy thinks he’s Keith Urban.  Years ago, everyone tried to be Harrison Ford.  Now, there are a lot of Jesse James imitators (or maybe Jesse is imitating the average white man of Southern California, hard to say).

Protective coloration, the police told me (when I was teaching at the police academy, which I did for several years – learned a lot), is often adopted by criminals.  People with giant purple mohawks, they said, almost never receive police attention when a crime has occurred.  If the criminal had a mohawk, someone would have noticed – hard to disguise it.  People with tattoos in places that are always visible don’t commit crimes where they have to be invisible (unless they are stupid).  People actually try to look a lot like everyone else, before they commit their crimes.  We’ve had all manner of bank robberies in town and the bandits have 21st century names.  No “Pretty Boy Floyds,” nope, they’re the “grandpa bandit” or the “dodger cap bandit” or the “sports watch bandit,” because their identiying features are…normal.  These people aren’t stupid, they’re pretty smart, as thieves go.

So Mr. Klaus has adopted an entire persona of Hail Fellow, Well Met, the oversized t-shirts of today’s youth and middle-aged men (but hardly any Very Old Men wear them – so he manages to look 10 years younger than his fourscore and fifteen).  He has the submissive white guy voice down to a T.

Elena’s family member committed her crimes mostly at family gatherings – or maybe entirely at family gatherings.  Mr Klaus and Stealthy Wife (The Ninja) have the same pattern, except their family isn’t speaking to them , so they try to have a “social life.”   Elena’s family member also has a track record of her own family members avoiding her.   So, I now have a clue:  When your own kids won’t speak to you, that’s a big red flag – especially if it’s all of the kids.

Being completely happy without going to parties or gatherings, myself, I’ve always wondered why the neighbors like to entertain so much (or used to – I think maybe they’ve run out of friends to prey upon). Elena’s family member likes to socialize too (of course she does, she’s always looking for an opportunity to go through someone’s purse).  The same thing (stealing from purses) happened at party where Mr. Klaus and The Ninja were hosting.

But was this type of behavior going on in the Renaissance?  We all know that if a Capulet showed up at a Montague party, one could expect trouble.  They’d have to disguise themselves, of course.  But if the party was truly all-Montagues, did they steal from each other?   I’ll bet they did – some of them.  I’m basing this bet on some things I learned from history, and you’ll just have to stay in suspense until I get around to writing about why I think it’s not so different now.  Did the Montagues mistakenly blame Capulets when it happened?  Probably.  If the real thief was known, did they get punished – I’m certain of it.  Indeed, one of my ancestors had an eye gouged out with a hot stiletto by his brother, after a terrible misunderstanding in which younger brother was accused of trying to take land belonging to the older one.   This was way before the Renaissance though – that was medieval.

I was led to believe there had been progress since medieval times- it was drilled into me, in my youth, even at university (although frankly, there were some brilliant professors at Stanford who taught that progress might be a myth, gave us a lot of new ways of thinking about history).  Surely some things have changed since the Middle Ages.  Surely, the Renaissance was kinder and nicer, and then the Enlightenment came along and things were still better – right?

That’s my mission – to solve the mystery of what has and hasn’t changed, as well as answer the question how the hell I ended up remaining so naive at my age.  I can learn, though, right?

One of the most brilliant of my professors, Renato Rosaldo, said:  “You can always study deviance; people think studying ‘normal’ makes for good anthropology, but when you study deviance, you uncover a whole lot about the culture and its ethos that you’d never see if you tried to see it directly.” Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.  Anyway, he was right.  He also pioneered an anthropology where we don’t refuse to see what’s right in front of us.  I’m trying to learn.

At any rate, my work with the police, my fieldwork at mental hospitals and jails, and now, my experience in my own neighborhood has given me data on deviance.  But, it seems to me, feuds aren’t deviant at all.  It’s very human.  We certainly should not pretend that we’d all like to buy the world a Coke or ask whether we can all get along.  We can’t.  Some people are just plain mean and nasty – and they are opportunistic as well.

Note to self:  Deal with it (and try not to resort to human sacrifice or stilettos).

The Mayan Changes

People ask me all the time whether I believe the Mayan Long Count calendar predicts catastrophe at the end of 2012.   The answer is no, it doesn’t predict catastrophe, it simply speaks of great changes happening in our time.

I think I know what these changes are, we can already sense and feel them.  It’s one reason I’m traveling. I want to see a lot before the changes – and hopefully, see the world again afterwards.  For some places, these changes are going to be a good thing, for other places, not so much.

The primary change will be a change in ethos, in the manner of seeing the world.  One big part of the change is just about complete:  the world is linked together by a common worldview, by pictures and stories that unite nearly everyone.  Two Taliban suicide bombers in Pakistan today know that their story will be heard nearly everywhere.  Now, I’d like to know how much coverage the story got in Sierra Leone or Pingalap, and that’s part of my quest.  To do anthropology on a worldwide scale, one needs to know a lot about information flow.  I’m not exactly weak on information retrieval skills, so I’ll be posting what I find out.

The change in ethos, though, is it real?  Or is it just my imagination?  I’m enlisting the help of virtually everyone I know, and I’m studying history to find out.  Traditional history is virtually worthless, in helping an anthropologist to figure out culture changes.  Historians focus on whatever the documents tell them to focus on.  A few of them, and only recently, have decided to use a bit of archaeology.  But let’s face it, they do that only when forced to, as when they want to know what happened in the region they’re studying right before writing began.  There are some real exceptions to these comments about historians – hopefully, I’ll make it up to historians later, because I do admire and love history – it’s just not enough to help answer my questions.

Historians don’t typically use nearly enough material, physical data to inform their stories.  Economic historians have led the way in analyzing the transfer of goods, which often tells a different story than the historians do.  An anthropologist has to bring all of this together.  We have to make artifacts, goods and ideas speak to worldview and ethos.   Anthropologists are experts in social structure and language, as well – there are only so many ways things can be transferred from place to place, and only so many independent inventions.  Studying how language changes is another important source of information.

So is the world getting better or worse or staying the same?

One issue that’s been on my checklist regarding this question has to do with community.  I grew up in a small town, people did not lock their doors until the 1980’s.  The town had reached a population of about 20,000 by then, as opposed to the 8,000 people of my childhood.  Were there lots of break-ins?  No, and there still aren’t that many.  Violent crime peaked in the United States in the 1970’s, and my small town absorbed that news a decade later.  Since then, crime has decreased, especially during the 90’s.

Property crime, though, is on the increase where I live right now.  Is this a sign of impeding apocalypse?   We were victims of theft.  It was a small theft, as thefts go.  A woman down the street had $38,000 stolen from her savings account through identity theft.  Identity theft is the fastest rising type of crime where I live.  Usually, the person who commits identity theft is an acquaintance, a family member or someone else who has access to your home.  Bank employees and other people in positions of financial trust account for something like 12-15% of identity theft.  In our case, it was a neighbor we thought was trustworthy (more on that later).  She also had ties to banking.

But this week, a good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Elena, revealed that her entire world was turned upside down by a recent theft.  The thief was a family member.  Every semester, two or three students say they can’t turn in their work because a relative has stolen their laptop.  In one class, a quick survey showed that 1/3 of the class knew victims of theft by family members.  The age of the thieves was not surprising – usually between 18 and 30.  This semester, textbooks have been stolen.  At first I was skeptical and thought it was the old “dog ate my homework ruse.”  But some of these students I know quite well, and I realized why the books were stolen.  They were stolen the same week the bookstore put those “textbook buy-back/cash for books” signs up everywhere.  This is the first semester those signs have been up, by the way.  The result was that several people had their textbooks stolen just before finals.

In Elena’s case, the person was female, and the family is making excuses for her, even as one by one, people admit they have been robbed by this same person – sometimes more than once.  She steals jewelry.  She leaves behind the sterling, she steals only gold.

That’s because all these “we’ll buy your gold” stores have sprung up.  The items stolen from Elena were mostly sentimental:  christening bracelets and naming bracelets for herself and her children.  Her wedding and engagement rings.

The police are doing nothing, as they did nothing in our case.

In our case they said (given the facts of the theft):  It has to be a neighbor.  We agreed.  But, due to the small amount stolen, the police said they couldn’t put any time into investigating.  We did our own investigation and it didn’t take long to figure out who it was.

We called the police again.  Fingerprinting would not be done, it turned out, since these people had been in our home – invited – and it would be difficult to determine whether any prints left were from normal visits or thieving visits.  We know they didn’t steal while we knew we were in the house, we were watching them the whole time.  Did we ever really trust them?  That too is a question for the future.

The question today is, did people ever really trust each other?  In the United States, there’s this illusion that once upon a time, we were all honest and straightforward.  I think the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were predicated on a certain type of person being a citizen.  I think Plato’s Republic was similarly based on the idea that good citizens would be abundant – that only a rare person would be a bad egg.  Were the Founding Fathers and Plato simply idealists, whose ideas were so hopeful that we should be quietly laughing at them?

Or has something changed?  Is it possible to have a community of honest, straightforward people who don’t steal from family, neighbors and everyone else?  Is it possible to have pension fund managers that don’t take bribes to put money in banks overseas?  Is it possible to get bank employees that don’t practice identity theft?  Where are all those ATM card readers that are stealing information being made?  Are these underground ministries of crime a human universal – at least in big cities? Durkheim seems to have thought so.  Was he right?

We’re going to Paris.  Yes, there are pickpockets in Paris, as there are everywhere – but other than that, the time we’ve spent there has been extraordinarily peaceful and without worry about street crime.  So far, the suburb where I live is not ridden with street crime either – just identity theft and stealing from family and neighbors.  We used our credit cards wantonly all over Europe over the past few years – and not a single digit was stolen, not a single person grabbed that data and misused it.  I read the daily Paris paper as well.  They have their crimes of passion, but it doesn’t seem as if they that much financial malfeasance.

Here in California, well, that’s a different story.

The amount of emotional time and energy it takes to deal with a thief is not often talked about. Victims, like Elena and I, commiserate.  My boss, the operational CEO of the place where I work, had her identity stolen this semester too.  Like me, she felt like a bit of a fool.  Unlike me, she doesn’t think it’s someone she knows personally – but I think it is probably someone who had access to her office at work or to her trash at home.  If she’s like Elena and me, she and her husband have spent hours and hours pondering how it happened, blaming themselves, and simply feeling violated.  For Elena and I, the fact that we know the people – but can do nothing about it – really stings.  I do consider investing in identity theft insurance, like Howard Stern is constantly advertising.  But something is making me dig in my heels.

The police, it turns out, don’t have time to investigate such small crimes.  They really like to stay out of family squabbles and neighborhood feuds.  “Put up a bigger fence,” is what they said.

So is it a sign of the times when the police speak poetry to you, instead of investigating wrongdoing?

Good fences
make good ne

~ Robert Frost