The past serves as the most basic raw material for national mythmaking, and appeals to history tend to serve as the bread and butter of arguments made by nationalists in very new states. Some rather hideous examples of this sort of creative writing can be found in the Balkans, an especially egregious example that saw a lot of use in the 1990s by the Serbian intelligentsia was the use of the 1389 defeat of Serb forces by Turks at the battle of Kosovo to justify Serbian brutality towards the majority Albanian population of Kosovo. An even less persuasive appeal to history is made by Israeli settler colonists who claim to be indigenous to Palestinian land based on the spurious inheritance of the Kingdom of Judea from thousands of years ago.
In the preface to Islamic Spain, 1250 to 1500 author Leonard Patrick Harvey points out that when one is to take stock of the Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula in this period, one tends to produce two distinct categories: the Arabic speaking inhabitants of the small but very populous independent Muslim Emirate of Granada, and the populations of Muslims living as minority subjects in the Christian Kingdoms of Castille, Aragon, and Navarre.
All study of history serves to produce ideological and ideal partitions in reality; this is an inevitability of the asymmetry between linguistic models of reality and the gross complexity of existence that these models crudely attempt to explain. The task of a responsible historian, or anyone attempting to reckon with the material of reality, is to aim as much as possible for the crude lumpy bits to produce the ideological thrust of historical argument, rather than the wholesale ontological disenfranchisement of human beings. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 is rightly seen as a pivotal moment in the history of the rest of Europe, but a popular history of Spain all too often sees the introduction of Jews into the history of that land only at the very moment that they cease to inhabit it.
This is not a phenomenon exclusive to our times, nor is it exclusively a problem in academia. “Byzantine” as a name for the Eastern Roman Empire in fact originates as a sort of unflattering euphemism invented by the West. Even after the fall of the Western Roman Empire the Eastern Romans maintained a striking cultural continuity. The Western dark ages—a historiographical meme thankfully extinct in serious history but alive and well in the popular imagination—relies on the Eurocentric ideological disinterest in this fact. This period of a few hundred years, during which the common peoples in western Europe largely forgot about the existence of Rome, was to end only once Charlemagne and his descendants began to organise a new Papal-led vision of Imperial Rome which rejected the hegemony of the surviving Eastern Roman sphere. The great city of Constantinople—Emperor Constantine's eastern Nova Roma—was originally called Byzantium before the 4th century CE, and so the insistence by the West on the Byzantine label served effectively to disinherit the East from this connection with the Roman Imperial legacy and instead saddle it with the ideological baggage of a mythical pagan Anatolia.
When the history of early Europe is told by nationalists and reactionaries, the object is the substitution of record for argument and philosophy for rhetoric. The extent that their persuasive account succeeds often depends on the subtlety of their handling of Christianity. Charting the spread of new gospels is inevitably a study adjacent to that of imperial conquest, but it is important for the new believers that their dignities are not compromised. The dignity of organised religion is curious in that it often depends on an alternating and conflicting emphasis on the strong and the weak, the sober and the sublime. Crucially: the oppressed and the oppressor. One especially interesting illustration of this is that the world-renouncing Buddhist monks of China were forbidden to own property as individuals while their monasteries loaned seeds to peasants and made debt slaves of those who could not pay back the interest. The more obvious example is that of the Catholic church, whose obscene and intentionally visible wealth depends on the veneration of a man born in a stable to penniless refugees.
Some of the most important early Christian leaders of 7th century England include St Theodore of Tarsus: a man from what is now southern Turkey who served as a cleric in Constantinople before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, and St Adrian: a Berber monk who was an abbot near Naples before being sent by by the Pope on a mission to converted the English. The most important poet of 7th century England was Cædmon: A Northumbrian illiterate cowherd who was already middle aged before he composed a single line. The most important historian was Bede: a monk who writes of Cædmon as though he is a semi-mythical figure like Homer, though Cædmon was only a generation his senior. According to Bede, Cædmon slipped away from a night of festivities and fell asleep in a stable amongst the horses. In his dream, a figure who might have been an angel visited him and ordered that he should “sing the beginning of created beings”. Cædmon began to sing. When he woke up, he remembered every word.
Bede’s account, if it is to be persuasive in some way, does not depend and has never depended on its listeners believing it to be a literal account of English history. The truth or falsity of “myth” seems to have been by all accounts irrelevant for ancient and mediaeval audiences and poets. “Fiction” tends to be considered as a genre which is denoted by its invention of scenarios, but people tacitly understand fiction to be a style or form, rather than a condition about the veracity of its content. We can easily imagine a book which is written as if it is a piece of fiction which, in fact, just describes real events. Falsification might appear only in the prose device: in its translation of the uncompressible universal substance of truth into the lossy schema of narrative and the aesthetically novel voice of a spiritually specific artist. This would still be fiction. A painting is still a painting if the artist attempts to record the true appearance of her subject. Like fiction and figurative painting, “myth” is more a formal style than a designation of historical veracity.
I like to use the mythological Greek Hecatoncheires as a way of accounting for modern tastes in fantasy. I was a child when I heard about the Hecatoncheires: a name which literally translates as “hundred handed ones”. Not only did they have one hundred hands each, they also had fifty heads each. I only found this description funny: imagining a person with a hundred hands and fifty heads is a bit like imagining someone wearing a hundred t-shirts—overcrowding would just restrict movement and make these things look like they had a load of banana bunches hanging off their shoulders. The trick to finding these things scary is not to imagine it actually existing and trying to do things, but to simply vibe with the idea that something with one hundred hands and fifty heads might be able to punch you a lot and scream really loudly.
The only way for the petty provincialism of the Anglo-Saxons to survive the confrontation with the vast wealth and culture of the Christian East was to approach them as both a lesser and greater force. Bede’s treatment of Cædmon as a mythical figure, though he was still alive when Bede was born, cannot make sense until we make a qualitative distinction between the past as material for the generation of myth and myth as the material for the generation of a present. Prophecy depends on this phenomenon: prophecy is the attribution of a vision of the future to a figure of the past which concerns some moral or political lesson about the state of the present. Cædmon is necessarily something of a noble savage, but Christian revelation does not admit a sort of traditionalist priority to the Celts over the Romans. Cædmon’s priority has to come from his quality as a figure in the present: an outsider who cannot be compared with any greater poet because he is lesser than them, except for the part of his circumstance which makes him immeasurably greater.
I would like to thank my friend Tanner Wood for helping me to write this piece with encouragement and lots of exposition on the history of early Christianity. The piece is dedicated to him, whether he likes it or not.
Oxymoron: A Philosophy of History in Avant-Garde Jazz
The Historical Peculiarity of the Greek Chorus