The Family Cliff: Moderns, Read More Sagas!

I’m going to Iceland next week and staying there until the end of the month. To prepare, I read 38 sagas, histories, and assorted tales, all in translation into modern English.1 Some of these are very long (Njal); some are very, very short (The Story-Wise Icelander). A great many more still need to be read, including, especially, the saints’ sagas, some of which are very odd.

But none until last night’s subway reading, none until King Gautrek, featured a suicide cliff:

There’s a precipice called Gillings Bluff near the farm, and we call its peak Family Cliff. The fall is so steep, no creature on earth could ever survive it. It’s called Family Cliff because we use it to cut down the size of our family whenever something extraordinary happens. In this way our elders are allowed to die without delay, and suffer no illness, and go straight to Odin, while their children are spared all the trouble and expense of having to take care of them. Every member of our family is free to use this facility offered by this cliff, so there’s no need for any of us to live in famine or poverty, or put up with any other misfortunes that might befall us. (King Gautrek 141, from Seven Viking Romances, translated Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards)

I’ve already said what I need to about sagas and scarcity, here, though you might supplement that with Adam Roberts talking about frustration and violence here. But you might also think again about how often ignorant moderns disparagingly call something “medieval.”

Let them continue to do so, but let them have something more concrete in mind: not some vague sense of religious tyranny, not some sense that wealth concentration is particularly “feudal,” but rather let them picture this FAMILY CLIFF, which, why not, may be the perfect image of NEOLIBERALISM.

Or, it would be, if it were privatized and offered to the family as a LOW-COST FREE CHOICE.

But then we wouldn’t be in the Middle Ages, would we?

(for more on bad medieval metaphors, David Perry here and me here and here)


1 They are:

  1. Laxdaela Saga
  2. King Harald’s Saga
  3. Orkneyinga Saga
  4. Hen-Thorir
  5. The Vapnfjord Men
  6. Thridrandi whom the Goddesses Slew
  7. Hrolf Kraki
  8. The Prose Edda (selections: Gylfaginning and selections from Skáldskaparmál)
  9. great chunks of the Elder Edda
  10. Saga of the Sworn Brothers
  11. Olkofri’s Saga
  12. The Saga of the Confederates
  13. Gisli Sursson’s Saga
  14. Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent’s Tongue
  15. The Saga of Havard of Isafjord
  16. The Saga of Ref the Sly
  17. Hreidar’s Tale
  18. The Tale of Thorleif, the Earl’s Poet
  19. The Tale of Thorstein Shiver
  20. Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck
  21. The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
  22. The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords
  23. The Tale of the Story-Wise Icelander
  24. The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
  25. The Saga of Grettir the Strong
  26. Eyrbyggja Saga
  27. The Saga of the Volsungs
  28. Egil’s Saga
  29. Njal’s Saga
  30. Saga of the Greenlanders
  31. Erik the Red’s Saga
  32. Arrow Odd
  33. Thorstein Mansion-Might
  34. Helgi Thorisson
  35. Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
  36. Saga of the People of Laxardal
  37. Bolli Bollason’s Tale
  38. Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi

Religious Freedom as an Enlightenment Problem

It’s usual to besmirch the Middle Ages as a time of superstition and intolerance. That charge has some merit, so long as we remember that the witch-burning craze and a host of other nasty phenomena–the Spanish Inquisition, New World slavery, the full development of a concept of race based on blood/genealogy/genetics rather than climate–all begin or at least find their feet in the Early Modern Period, which, depending on what we’re measuring, generally is thought to begin in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.

Religious war, likewise, can be called “medieval,” so long as we remember that, despite the crusades, religion was far from a primary cause of war in the Middle Ages. That, again, is an early modern phenomenon. Here’s Dr Cleveland, with a summary:

The 16th and 17th centuries were periods of ferocious religious warfare, complete with terrorism, persecution, assassination, torture, inquisitions, and massacres of civilians. I use none of those terms figuratively. Kings were stabbed to death by religious fanatics. Religious leaders were burned alive in the public square. Conspirators plotted to blow up government buildings, to overthrow regimes. Women and children were beaten to death by mobs of their own neighbors. All of this was done by Christians to other Christians, and no denomination’s hands were clean. If you look back at this history hoping to find that your own church behaved like the good guys, you will be sorely disappointed. Every existing Christian group played both the villain and the victim, more than once.

The hundred years or so before the Constitutional Convention saw the European religious conflicts modulate somewhat, so that religion became one volatile and dangerous wild card in larger games of international conflict and domestic factionalism. But religious intolerance and aggression did not go away. The settlement of the Thirteen Colonies was partly driven by the need to escape various forms of sectarian prosecution. And while the wars of religion were no longer the main show, they were certainly not gone. The last armed revolt aimed at putting a Roman Catholic on the English throne was in 1745. Benjamin Franklin was 39 years old at the time.

Of course, we might blame this widescale war on the increase in Europe’s wealth during its great period of growth as a colonial power; but we also might blame the same keen early modern thought that led to the flourishing of experimental science and, eventually, atheism. This thought, too, applied itself to religious matters, and, in so doing, would have found new, independent truths. Being religious truths, they were worth killing for. As Dr Cleveland writes, “The greatest danger to Christians’ religious freedom is always other Christians.”

With that in mind, a secular state’s specific protection of religion above other kinds of belief is a response not to a medieval but to a specifically modern problem of war between the sects. There’s war like this prior to the moderns: I think of Gregory of Tours‘ sixth-century enthusiasm for war against Arian Christians. Still, by comparison to Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, medieval war of this sort is very rare.

The American constitution’s protection of religious beliefs above other beliefs therefore strikes me as an Enlightenment problem, designed not to deal with the “medieval” problem of belief, but rather the Enlightenment problem of the independent search for truth. The problem of religious protection and religious conflict between nonprofessionals (i.e., not theologians) in a secular or at least nominally religiously pluralistic nation is internal to the Enlightenment, not, by any means, a problem that can be blamed on its “medieval” outside.

So can it with the self-satisfied “medieval” smear. My period has plenty of things wrong with it, but this Hobby Lobby problem: that’s on you moderns.

For more on the problems of modernity and religion, see my review of James Simpson’s Burning to Read. Kathleen Davis and Kathy Biddick are key critics of the use of the label “medieval.”

And for all this, I’m sure I’m not the first one to say it; nor am I a medieval historian. Throw me some cites, and I’ll update the blog post accordingly, with appropriate credit.

Got called out. A response.

Here’s the tweet in question:

And here’s the fb post that set me off: Screenshot from 2014-06-27 09:40:15My hasty, late night responses resulted in a FdB writing a blog post that called me a tenured (! really? that was easy), hipster coward or some such and called for people to write me and tell me off. Ok. My basic problem, apart from reading poorly and tweeting in annoyance late at night, is that I took FdB’s fb and blog posts personally.

EDIT – and you might want to read this response by FdB first, as I think it better represents where he’s coming from than his last couple posts. I really don’t want this to turn into some miniature version of the Jacobin wars, the Daily Kos piewars, or whatever intraleft fight scarred you most severely. Okay? If we want to continue talking, let’s do it less personally. I’ll apologize publicly for my bad reading of FdB. I still stand by what I’m writing below, but my initial tweet definitely mischaracterized his blogpost. I regret that.

I like to think of myself as a leftist (I’m on the exec board of the local chapter on my union, etc), and I live, and work, in Brooklyn. I’m from a working class background, and I’ve largely escaped it, though my father’s death late last year — and the labor of being the executor of an estate some hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt — has reminded me, again, of how inherited property perpetuates white dominance, and how I just don’t have it; and how, nonetheless, I do, even without any inherited family wealth but the 5K I got when my mom died1 (which saved me from having to temp one grad school summer) and, then, a troll doll, a pillow, and some photos (seriously). I teach at a public college, and I suspect my students are on average far poorer and less white than the average for American MA-granting institutions. They’re great to teach and they face problems I never did, partially because working class America is a hell of a lot worse off now than it was when I was an undergrad, and partially or perhaps mainly because they don’t have the white privilege that accrues even to the poorest among the whites.

Those are my bona fides and that’s why my first thought was hey, he’s talking about me. Here, by the way, is my very next tweet:

I remember high school: being picked up for trespassing in a graveyard, losing my license for reckless driving, being pulled over in a car that was probably filled with pot smoke. And the cops never took me in, never beat me or charged me with something more severe, and, so far as I know, didn’t kill me. This wasn’t because I lived in some small town where everyone knew everyone. Tacoma was a large (for Washington), racially diverse blue-collar city, and this was roughly 1986-1989,  during the crack epidemic, during a time when the cops must have been especially fucking with every black person they could get their hands on; I have to know for a fact that the cops treated me well primarily because of my whiteness. And, by extension, it’s because of my whiteness that I parlayed my anti-authoritarian fuckupery into the job I have now, where being oppositional is a bonus.

But, again, that’s just demographic me, and that’s just the me that talks about white poverty with his friends often, at least so long as they come from the same background as mine, and so long as I’m sure they’re not going to cop to being something they’re not. Still, the problem is that I took FdB’s piece as being about me. It’s not. It’s about, well, “left-wing publishing,” or “left-wing thought,” or “Marxist and socialist journals,” or “a particular social and cultural group,” or the “young left/[ies],” or “white lefties,” or the “we” of the “we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words,” whoever “we” is. It’s about one or all of these groups, some of which overlap with the others, and only some of which I belong to. And, I suppose, he primarily means well-off white or whitish leftists with inherited cultural capital and all the connections that go with that, which isn’t me by any stretch.

As for the argument itself, the implicit charge of racism against his targets strikes me as unfair and unnecessarily inflammatory (“Though they [=those young leftists who “grew up in economic security or affluence and went to elite colleges”?] direct apathy at best towards the white poor and concern for poor people of color, ultimately they belittle both, in that their lack of concern for white poverty implies that they think white people deserve it while black and Hispanic people can’t be expected to do better. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations for people of color and high expectations for white people”). This next point is just incorrect unless we (whoever we are) interpret “we” very narrowly: “we’ve tried to fight racism by being nice about race, by not saying bad words.” And I’ll leave it to others to conduct a search of their copies of Jacobin or The Nation or whatever to see if a specifically white poverty isn’t being talked about. Maybe it’s not, on average.

For what it’s worth, I don’t speak much publicly about white poverty because I find it narcissistic, because I know, anecdotally, that being a poor white is a disadvantage that can be surpassed, and because, for example, of this:

Less inherited wealth results in low homeownership rates and high deficits among African Americans: While a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000, a college-educated black American has a net worth of less than $17,500.

I’m also convinced that the struggle for racial justice in America is the struggle for class justice. Could be wrong though.

(edit 25 minutes on, for a good piece, implicitly, on white poverty, see the Times today in two pieces (here, here) on Clay County Kentucky (94% white), “which by several measures is the hardest place in America to live,” and which puts my union-job childhood in some perspective.)

It’s possible that my own success and the success of a few–but by no means not all–members of my family means that I don’t take white poverty seriously. Guilty, I guess, though for different reasons than those driving FdB’s post. But even if I hadn’t been lucky enough to land a fancy PhD and a TT job in a city I love, I’d like to think I’d still be doing more to get outside my own experience.

And here’s the beginning of a series of tweets that FdB might engage with more productively:

If you’re still reading, you might find this old post useful:

and this too:


1 You want to talk about gender and class? My father didn’t steal that 5K from my brother and me. He did, so far as we can tell, steal it from my sister.