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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Celtic, Saxon, Viking & Norman




Since I started my new B/X game I noticed a couple of things about the attitudes towards the various ethnic groups in Britain in the 12th century by the players in the game. So then I just asked my wife and kids what they thought; this is an admittedly unscientific poll, but I have noticed that Celts are pretty much universally favorably received when they get mentioned, only slightly less so when they are differentiated into Welsh, Cornish, Irish or Scottish. I didn't mention Manx or Breton, but I am sure they would have received a favorable reaction too. That makes sense in this house, my wife is 1/4 Welsh and I am half Scottish, so we fairly strongly identify with the Celts here; it probably doesn't hurt that we live in one of relatively few ethnically Irish counties in the US* either. What does surprise me though is the over all positive reaction the Celts in general get, even from people with absolutely no Celtic connection other than the odd CD they like to listen to for relaxation.

The Saxons get mostly favorable reactions too, which is odd to me considering their conquest of Celtic Britain, but there you have it; maybe it's the good press they have in Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. Maybe it's their heroic stand against the Vikings under Alfred the Great. Maybe it's just because we all speak English. I don't know. When they don't get a favorable reaction the never get a negative reaction though and that confuses me some, because I was practically raised on Arthurian legend and Prince Valiant comic strips. When the reaction isn't favorable it's more like "Meh, Saxons, whatever".

Vikings are another bunch that get universal love. I am a little confused by this and a little amused by this. I am confused because EGG took the stereotypical Norse Warrior, the Berserker, and made them a monster in D&D; so they are clearly the "bad guys". They might as well be Orcs in Human suits. Hell, 3e 1/2 Orcs pretty much were just amped up, ugly Viking Berserkers with green skin and fangs. When D&D has to choose between the easy myth of a stereotype and the hard reality of educating people about a culture of the past, it almost always chooses easy myth, but even the easy myth of the stereotypical Viking is grounded in reality and truth, so the Viking Adventurer that is so popular among D&D players, myself included, is actually one of the more blood-thirsty and nasty bunches named here, yet, here they are, universally loved. No one is ever horrified at the possible inclusion of the Vikings.

Then we come to the Normans, and it's the prevailing attitude towards the Normans that made me write this, because I really can't think of a more significant group of people in the High Medieval Period than the Normans. The face of western civilization would be different today without their contribution, but they are pretty much loathed as a people and I am at a loss as to why; is it because of their French culture? Or is it because they were the last people to mount a successful invasion of England? The way they re-invented western European feudalism? Their role in making the First Crusade such a resounding success? The fact that they drove the Moors from Sicily and Southern Italy? Or is it just because they are the bad guys in Ivanhoe and Robin Hood? The weirdest part of this, to me anyway, is that they are the literal direct descendants of the Vikings that everyone loves; so what, you throw a little civilization** at them and they aren't cool anymore?

I don't want to have to go into my rant about how Americans in general don't really know anything about the French, our oldest and best allies, without whom we would not have our independence from Great Britain; or how we adopted the English attitudes towards the French in spite of our close, essentially permanent alliance with them***; but the Normans are stone cold bad-asses that managed to conquer shit everywhere, usually while they were outnumbered and in hostile territory, and hold it pretty well too for the most part**** against all comers, kind of like Mongols. The only reasons I didn't import Normans into my Garnia campaign world were that it was getting a little late period for groups to just disappear from Earth without people really noticing and I was afraid that if I did we'd have to deal with a super bad-ass French speaking aristocracy wherever they landed. That said, some of the old maps would seem to indicate that Frodia had maybe been conquered by Normans at some point

*According to US census data Oswego county in NY state has an ethnic majority of Irish. One of our neighboring counties is also majority Irish and I think two downstate counties were, near NYC. There were also some in eastern Massachusetts as I recall, I don't remember if there were any others in other states.

**Before the Sons of Norway or some other proud Scandinavian group takes offense at that statement, I am aware that the Norse had their own distinct civilization, I was speaking in hyperbolic terms for effect, the "civilizing" influences in question here were Christianity and French culture, the Norsemen in Normandy stopped being Norse and joined Western European (Frankish, as it was called at the time) mainstream culture.

***Way off topic for a D&D blog, but our War of 1812 was caused in part because we in the US tried to be neutral during the Napoleonic Wars and the British refused to respect our neutrality with regards to trading even non-war goods to the French, plus they kept impressing our sailors into their navy. We've had a rocky relationship with a lot of countries over the last couple of centuries because we didn't want to enter into any permanent alliances, but the French have always been pretty favorably inclined to us and us to them. Oddly, we have a pretty similar relationship with the British since about sometime after the US Civil War I'd say.

****The County of Edessa was maybe a "Bridge Too Far" into Turkish territory, but even it lasted over 50 years.

18 comments:

  1. *Historically, Ulster and Orange Counties of NY. Italian ancestry now beats out Irish in Orange due to 9/11. Orange Co is as far as city workers are allowed to live out of the city.

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    1. That totally makes sense given the names of the counties, I should have just guessed it.

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  2. I find the disdain for the Normans fascinating.

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  3. I think it pretty much is down to the institution of feudalism. The other societies could be pretty brutal, obviously. But in the popular imagination, the Vikings and Saxons, when they settled in Britain, became farmers. The Normans in Britain, though, were an invading ruling class of mounted, armoured men, living off the labour of formerly 'free' men of a different culture.

    At least in the popular imagination.

    Also, the Normans are closely associated with the existing British ruling class - those old, landed families that can trace their roots back to the Domesday book might be proud of it, but for lots of other people that continuing privilege is a lingering result of the fact that their ancestor wore armour and carried a sword and made your ancestor a serf!
    They might

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    1. I guess I can see the feudalism thing being a problem, although it was already there in Britain in an embryonic state before the Norman conquest just because feudalism is really just a restatement of earlier Germanic cultural structure with a Christian rationalization applied; but it's not like the Anglo-Saxons and the Viking settlers in the Danelaw didn't have serfs, and they were, mostly, descended from the formerly free Romano-British Celts that had inhabited the island before they got there.

      That said, I totally get the association with the snooty current effete ruling class of Britain being a problem for us Americans, even when we can proudly and loudly proclaim our descent from those same royals along different lines; they're the people we love to hate. That's why Star Wars Imperial officers have upper-crust British accents and villains in Hollywood movies are so often British.

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  4. Speaking as a Francophile, I blame all that Sir Walter Scott propaganda.

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    1. My Scottish half feels compelled to point out that Sir Walter Scott really dropped the ball on this one. The title of this post could have been the answer to the Jeopardy question "What is the ethnic make-up of Scotland?", Robert the Bruce and William Wallace were Normano-Scots after all.

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  5. Effete ruling class? Our royal family has members serving in the Armed Forces. I'm more effete than they are. :p

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    1. Sure the Royals do, but how many of the rest of the ruling class do? Just ordinary lords? Most people are knighted these days for being actors or wealthy capitalists or something, right? How many of the ruling class make a career of the military? I don't know, I really am asking. Ruling the country and being a military leader used to be the same thing, that's why they got all the perks, they put themselves in harms way to protect everyone else, that's really the point of feudalism.

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    2. To be fair, Bob Hope spent lot more time in warzones than Prince Harry actually did/will do.

      And for much the same purposes.

      Propaganda and morale, that is, not because they make people laugh.

      Which brings me back to the Normans - if the problem is the popular imagination, rather than the historical facts, then they must be one of the worst examples of 'history being written by the winners'.

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    3. You make a strong point there, they really needed someone that could run their PR department better than they did. Arguably their only real losses were during the Crusades and the only Crusade they were really significantly involved in was the First Crusade, the only really successful one. I think it was their tendency to "go native" that ruined things for them, after a few generations in Italy, they're Italians, in England, English, Scotland, Scottish, Ireland, Irish and so on. The Vikings did this in a couple of places, Russia and Normandy famously, but Scotland and Ireland were places where the Norse populations kind of melted into the surrounding native population too; but they didn't do it as quickly or as completely usually as the Normans did, again, Normandy and Russia being the exceptions.

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  6. Hilarious. Point of fact it has nothing to do with all that blah blah BS you are all touting.

    The Normans had horrible haircuts...

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    1. Ah, the bravado of the Nameless knows no bounds.

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    2. I've seen worse haircuts than the Norman's in my lifetime. "Flock of Seagulls" ring any bells?

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  7. I was born in Dutches county (Beacon) and grew up
    in Orange County (Newburgh)NY there were allot of
    Irish and Italians there. I can't speak for now
    as I left for the army in 1978 and settled here
    in central Texas after I retired in 98. I'm a
    mix of Irish/Welsh and Cherokee on Dad's side and
    Dutch, Irish, and English on mom's. The wife is 100%
    Norwegian from Minnesota....so I'm rather fond of the Normans, and being bald I'm not even worried so much
    by the practical Norman haircut (20 years in a helmet will effect ones out look lol). The bad press is all
    Anglo Saxon, hard wired by Victorian literature. When
    you look at the cosmopolitan culture of Norman Sicily
    it gives the lie to much of the built in prejudice.

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  8. I like the Normans personally, so much that I based the culture of two of my most important countries on them, and use Norman miniatures for fighters from that region.

    Not sure why people do not like them, they were pretty bad ass, and were the reason that England became much of anything.

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    1. I have a love/hate relationship with the Normans, but even I have to admit, it's mostly love. I'd have to say, as western cultures go, they are probably the best adapters of other people's ideas and technologies since the Romans, the Vikings were good, the Normans were better. If the Normans had a fault it was that they blended too well and too quickly with their conquered populations, it lost them the cultural unity they had as a people in the 11th and 12th centuries. Oddly, being as how I am 1/2 Scottish Highlander, I don't much care for the Saxons for historical reasons; but I still included them in my Garnia campaign world.

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  9. Its the name. Norman sounds like the creepy molester dude that lives downstairs. Saxons sound like sex, so that's good. Vikings and Celts sound mean and scary. If the Normans were called something else they'd be more loved...

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