Monday, 16 February 2015

Understanding Bede: Correcting 2 Common Errors and a Jest in Paragraph 1, Chapter 1

The thing I love about Latin is the precision and richness of the language, which is why I find bad translation so irritating.  Word order is not so important because case and tense and other indicators of grammar confirm the intended meaning clearly.  Yet bad translations are often the received stuff of English history because too many English historians, like historians everywhere if we're honest, prefer inaccurate, romantic, patriotic whimsy to accurate but uncomfortable historical truths.

Below is the Venerable Bede's first paragraph of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Brittania Oceani insula, cui quondam Albion nomen fuit, inter septentrionem et occidentem locata est, Germaniae, Galliae, Hispaniae, maximis Europae partibus, multo interuallo aduersa. Quae per miliapassuum DCCC in Boream longa, latitudinis habet milia CC, exceptis dumtaxat prolixioribus diuersorum promontoriorum tractibus, quibus efficitur, ut circuitus eius quadragies octies LXXV milia conpleat. Habet a meridie Galliam Belgicam, cuius proximum litus transmeantibus aperit ciuitas, quae dicitur Rutubi portus, a gente Anglorum nunc corrupte Reptacaestir uocata, interposito mari a Gessoriaco Morynorum gentis litore proximo, traiectu milium L, siue, ut quidam scripsere, stadiorum CCCCL. A tergo autem, unde Oceano infinito patet, Orcadas insulas habet.
It is commonly translated as appears below, from The Medieval Sourcebook:
BRITAIN, an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion, is situated between the north and west, facing, though at a considerable distance, the coasts of Germany, France, and Spain, which form the greatest part of Europe. It extends 800 miles in length towards the north, and is 200 miles in breadth, except where several promontories extend further in breadth, by which its compass is made to be 3675 miles. To the south, as you pass along the nearest shore of the Belgic Gaul, the first place in Britain which opens to the eye is the city of Rutubi Portus, by the English corrupted into Reptacestir. The distance from hence across the sea to Gessoriacum, the nearest shore of the Morini, is fifty miles, or as some writers say, 450 furlongs. On the back of the island, where it opens upon the boundless ocean, it has the islands called Orcades.
The first common error in the translation is to suggest Galliam Belgicam is opposite Britain, which is not at all what the sentence plainly says.  Habet means 'it has/holds/manages/possesses', and 'it' is Britain.  This means that whatever follows is in the south part of Britain itself, not offshore somewhere.

A or ab as a preposition takes the ablative case, hence a meridie means in the south.  If the place being held or possessed was across the Channel, the place of reference would also be in the ablative case: Gallia Belgica.  Galliam Beligcam is in the accusative case, and therefore Belgian-Gaul is instead the object of the verb being held or possessed in the south of the island of Britain.  Also, if Bede meant the statement as orientation he would have included it above where he gives orientation of the island to Germany, Gaul and Spain, distinguished as geographic rather than political entities.  None of this says 'as you pass along' which is just a nonsense translation not represented in the Latin original. 

In short, there was a part of Britain that was quite simply a Belgian Gallic canton in Bede’s day - the civitas Bede references later in the same line.  The bit about cuius proximum litus transmeantibus aperit ciuitas is more accurately translated as "whose nearest shore opens/reveals the colony on the Channel crossing."  Aperit does not mean 'opens to the eye', it means opens or discloses and the noun is the nearest shore.  Deep fluvial ports along the Channel coast from Richborough to Pevensey made the Belgian-Gallic colony open and accessible to Gallic and Frankish tribes opposite on the continent, kinsmen of the Gauls and Franks living in coastal areas of Britain.  Transmeantibus is the ablative case of the verb participle of cross, and therefore can only mean 'on the Channel crossing'.  If you think of the Channel as a watery commons surrounded by Gallic and Frankish tribes who traded and inter-married with each other all around its coasts you would have the right idea.

What Bede was saying was that in his day (672 to 735) there was a Belgian-Gallic canton in the south of Britain, held by Gallic tribes that had settled both sides of the English Channel and controlled all trade and emigration across the Channel for nearly a thousand years.  Bede distinguishes ethnography very carefully throughout his writings, and he makes clear distinctions between Galliorum (Gauls) and Franci (Franks).  He pairs the Franks with the Saxons as recent interlopers who gain ascendance in the lands that were previously held by Britons and Gauls under Roman protection.  Anti-Viking, Anti-German and Anti-French sentiment, 800 years of war with France, and separation from the Roman Catholic Church mean that most English would rather not recognise that long before the Norman Conquest, in their very earliest history, they were colonised and taxed by Gallic tribes.

The second common error is to take Bede's reference to the gente Anglorum here and in other places in his writing as a reference to Bede's own ethnicity or allegiance.  Bede may be regarded as the father of English history in retrospect, but he would have been gravely insulted to have been called English to his face during his life.  Bede was emphatically not 'English', nor was he one of the other indigenous tribes he describes as Britons, Gewisse, Picts and Scots.  He also was not from the invading tribes he called Angles, Jutes or Saxons.  When Bede was writing, the Kingdom of Northumbria was not yet part of England, nor did it want to be.  Even if Northumbria had been remotely considered English, Bede was raised in a coastal ecclesiastical community that saw itself as separate and apart from the native inland populace.  Bede's allegiance was with Belgic-Gaul and Rome more than Britain.

Raised and writing at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, Bede was likely a wealthy Northumbrian Gaul or Frank.  When his colleague Cuthbert, an Angle going by his name, described Bede's death, he recorded a song commended by Bede on his deathbed in Anglo-Saxon vernacular.  His comment that Bede "was learned in our song" confirms that Bede was an outsider to the Anglo-Saxons.  Bede was writing about the Anglo-Saxon church as an outsider on the northern coast looking inland.

Bede was probably from a wealthy Gallic or Frankish family of clerics (they could marry back then, as Bede himself was married), merchants or trademen.  The very elegance and clarity of his Latin support him being Gallic, as the coastal Gauls considered themselves the inheritors of Roman privilege and spoke Latin - or Romanz as they called it - in preference to any local tribal languages.  Romanz was like Swahili to the coastal mariners, the language of trade for the continent of Europe as well as the language of the Christian faith.  Bede was likely descended from the Belgian-Gallic colonists Rome had installed at York, Colchester, Rochester, London, Hastingas and Canterbury to control and tax trade and markets in Britain, or the skilled Gallic emigrants who came to Roman ports, ecclesiastical settlements and market towns to bring their superior industry and sell their goods to the backwards British.  That Bede was a Gaul himself is supported by his being sent to Monwearmouth to be monk at the tender age of 7, the age at which Gallic families typically sent their children away to be trained to a profession or trade that would expand the family’s influence.  In confirmation of his Gallic and Frankish connections, more than half of the manuscripts of Bede's works that survive were found in religious orders on the continent.

Finally, people miss the jest about Ritupi portus being corrupted to Reptacastir by the English.  A more medieval name would be Reeve City or Rape City (N.B. rape did not usually have a sexual connotation back then, but meant taking by force or superior authority).  Bede probably thought this was a knee-slappingly funny way to begin his history, as his Roman, Gallic and clerical readers would get the jest. The Ritupi Port canton, the capital of the Belgian-Gallic colony in the south of Britain, was where the Belgian-Gallic tax-farmers of the Roman Empire had been stationed since Caesar's conquest of Britain in 54 BC.  After Caesar took Britain he gave control of cross-Channel trade and taxation of its inland tribes to a Belgian-Gallic client king named Commius under a publicani contract with the Roman state to tax the inland tribes of Britannia.  Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic Wars mentions plainly that he was using tax-farmers under Commius' direction to collect taxes in Gaul, and he extended the system to Britainnia after defeating the Morini in 55BC and invading with 8,000 Roman troops in 54BC.  Coins of Commius and his sons are found on both sides of the Channel indicating common control and common trade.  Caesar also used the same system of Gallic tribes in trading cantons along the Rhine to tax trade with Germanic tribes, situating them in defended cities along the river that are now the capital cities of the region.  In exchange for tax collection on behalf of the empire, the colonists in the cantons were given Roman citizenship, excused military service away from their homes, exempt inheritance tax and immune from poll taxes (tributa) - privileges these urban polities would strive to maintain into the medieval era.  These privileges proved very persistent over the centuries, well into the Merovingian era, as attested by Gregory of Tours.

Think of Ritupi Portus as a Roman-era New York, Hong Kong or Singapore, all of which are modern instances of using the Roman canton-taxation-trade model of a walled, enisled and defensible self-governing political unit at the margin of a large, uncivilised and dangerous hinterland.  Port cantons had a special political status from the early Roman Republic as self-governing colonies, exempt from royal and feudal imposts and exempt from military service away from the locality to be able to defend the port at all times.  Traffic into ports was closely controlled, both for security of the port and the hinterland.  Port exemptions and privileges were jealously guarded and preserved by the Gauls into the Carolingian and Merovingian eras, one reason Charles the Simple didn't mind giving the troublesome Neustria to the Normans some centuries later.

Caesar’s canton-based taxation method was so successful that Strabo observed within a century Rome was collecting more in tribute from Britain than if it invaded and occupied the island.  The restoration to the impoverished Roman Republic (where the portorium tax at Italian ports had been temporarily repealed) of huge tributes of gold and silver, steel, grain and wool, from Gaul and Britannia largely explains Caesar's popularity and rise to power in Rome.  Claudius invaded and occupied Britain a century later anyway, of course, but the Gallic colonists settled in Britain's ports and cantons continued to run the ports, control cross-Channel shipping, and collect the taxes from the natives.  The Roman Catholic Church kept the model, demanding a free port for a Roman-affiliated abbey from every king as the price of Christian conversion and legitimacy before the king could be consecrated and the realm added to the scope of the Church's protection.  By sharing a little pun about Ritupi/Reptacastir at the English people's expense with his readers in his opening paragraph, Bede is pretty clearly signalling that his allegiance is with the Belgian-Gallic tax-collectors and with Rome, not with the diverse tribes of Britain.

The good merchants of Hong Kong 200 years ago did not describe themselves as Chinese, nor did the merchants of Singapore describe themselves as Malaysian, nor did the early burghers of New Amsterdam describe themselves as American, nor did medieval Londoners describe themselves as English.  Bede certainly did not identify himself as English when he wrote about the neighbouring territory from his remote coastal religious order.  It is the modern historians making the error in describing Bede as English.

Cantons are usually mixed race, but have a powerful and cohesive political identity distinct from the hinterland that comes from shared profit and collective security.  They identify with the source of their imperial authority, not the hinterland beyond their walls.  In Roman and early medieval times the cantons on both sides of the Channel were dominated by privileged coastal tribes that we later came to think of as Frankish (after Gregory of Tours), though Belgian-Gallic would be more accurate.  We don't have a good word for this concept of cantonal identity, and the Belgian-Gallic tribes never became a nation as others did, so their unique sense of identity was eroded over time.

Makes you wonder what else has been badly mangled by translators and historians after the first paragraph, doesn't it?

UPDATE 05/06/2015:  I've been schooled yet again by Bede.  Going over ethnic identities in his work I find that he carefully distinguishes between Galliorum (Gauls) and Franciorum (Franks).  I've amended the text above to clarify Bede's allegiances accordingly.

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