Return to The Normans

Jewett's Argument in The Story of the Normans

    In The Story of the Normans, Sarah Orne Jewett makes a case that the union of Normans and Saxons, beginning in  the eleventh century, has "made the England of history, the England of great scholars and soldiers and sailors, the England of great men and women, of books and ships and gardens and pictures and songs!" (365).  In her thesis statement, she notes that this England has been a main source of what she believes is best in her own America:
     As we go on with this story of the Normans, you will watch these followers of the sea-kings keeping always some trace of their old habits and customs…. The Northmen were vikings, always restless and on the move, stealing and fighting their way as best they might, daring, adventurous.… [I]n all the ages since one excuse after another has set the same wild blood leaping and made the Northern blue eyes shine…. [O]ne thing I ask you to remember first in all this long story of the Normans: that however much it seems to you a long chapter of bloody wars and miseries and treacheries that get to be almost tiresome in their folly and brutality; … yet everywhere you will catch a gleam of the glorious courage and steadfastness that have won not only the petty principalities and dukedoms of those early days, but the great English and American discoveries and inventions and noble advancement of all the centuries since.  (27-8)
Jewett's thesis is that the transformations of Northmen into Normans and then into the English and Americans is a major thread in the weaving of civilized life in Europe and North America.  She suggests that certain Norman traits have persisted through centuries of development and remain visible from the time when the Northmen were barbaric pirates into Jewett's present, when a Norman spirit infuses leadership in the technologically and politically advanced democracies of England and the United States.  The direction of this development has been progressive. The Northmen were savage and murderous, but also daring and adventurous.  The latter qualities have persisted, and though Norman history may seem tiresome in its recurrent warfare, the end result has been human improvement, the shifting of energies from frequent bloody conflict to making "discoveries and inventions and noble advancement." 

    Another Norman quality has been especially important to progress:
There is something refreshing in the stories of old Norse life; of its simplicity and freedom and childish zest. An old writer says that they had "a hankering after pomp and pageantry," and by means of this they came at last to doing things decently and in order, and to setting the fashions for the rest of Europe. (6)
As she elaborates on this hankering, it becomes the origin of a Norman talent for judging among the ideas and practices they encounter in interacting with other peoples and of an openness to cultural transformation by means of adapting the best of these. In this way, Normans help to carry forward in time not only their own best qualities, but those that they find in the peoples they encounter (361-2).  This centuries-long refinement has led to the vibrancy she finds in contemporary America.

    Jewett organizes her narrative, in part, to show transformations:  of Northmen into Normans and, then, of Normans and Saxons into the modern English and Americans.

Northmen into Normans
    The Northmen of Scandinavia had two qualities that Jewett thought especially significant.  That they were courageously adventurous she attributes to the environment within which they developed their culture, a geography that required them to master seafaring and drew them into raiding and warfare as well as exploring and trading.  Their appreciation of ceremonious order remains mysterious in origin, but she identifies this trait as the foundation for their development of domestic and fine arts and of their drive to find the best ways of doing things.  This characteristic also is behind their early development of a sophisticated literary and historical tradition that gave unity to their culture.  These qualities led to their founding colonies, such as in North America, Normandy and Sicily.  Their military prowess enabled them to take and keep Normandy, and their cultural confidence and flexibility enabled them to merge with the cultures into which they inserted themselves, for example, when over two generations, the Danish-speaking Northmen became French-speaking Normans.  Though the Northmen merge with the French enough to adopt their language, still they bring into Normandy what Jewett believes must have been a superior culture that values and fosters intelligence, learning, energy, and the willingness to govern.

    As Jewett presents these ideas in her opening chapter, she notes that the peoples the Normans came to dominate and transform in France and England were of the same background with the Normans themselves, but that their recent historical experience had made them different:
The countries to the southward were tamed and spiritless, and bound down by church influence and superstition until they had lost the energy and even the intellectual power of their ancestors five centuries back. The Roman Empire had helped to change the Englishmen and many of the Frenchmen of that time into a population of slaves and laborers, with no property in the soil, nothing to fight for but their own lives. (10)
At the time of the Norman conquest of England, the tribal backgrounds of both the English and the Normans were Germanic, and yet, Jewett says,
... the second invasion of Northmen by the roundabout way of Normandy, seems as marked a change as the succession of the Celts to the Britons, or the Saxons to the Danes. The Normans had so distinctly made a great gain in ideas and civilization, that they were as much foreigners as any Europeans could have been to the Anglo-Saxons of that eleventh century, and their coming had a permanent effect, besides a most compelling power. (355)
While Jewett emphasizes the positive qualities that Northmen brought to Normandy, she makes a point of keeping before the reader their darker side.  For example, she speculates that their failure to establish a permanent presence in North America resulted from their preference for raiding and warfare over agriculture (18-9). 

    To become Normans, Northmen needed to settle in a landscape that would allow the development of agriculture, one that provided access to resources beyond subsistence.  Jewett suggests that Viking women may have been responsible in part for the choice to establish a colony in Normandy, that they wanted a more secure and comfortable material life, to reduce the risks of loss of their men in raiding and to improve domestic life (22-3).  In Normandy, the Northmen became Normans:
... they gradually changed into Frenchmen themselves, different from other Frenchmen only in being more spirited, vigorous, and alert. They inspired every new growth of the religion, language, or manners, with their own splendid vitality. They were like plants that have grown in dry, thin soil, transplanted to a richer spot of ground, and sending out fresh shoots in the doubled moisture and sunshine. And presently we shall find the Northman becoming the Norman of history. As the Northman, almost the first thing we admire about him is his character, his glorious energy; as the Norman, we see that energy turned into better channels, and bringing a new element into the progress of civilization. (23-4)
    The first major step in the transformation of Northmen into Normans was moving to Normandy, where geography worked upon them, reducing the pressure to deploy violence to provide necessities and gain comforts and allowing for the growth of domestic arts, learning, technology, and the fine arts.  The next major step in this transformation was adopting Christianity, beginning with the conversion of Rolf the Ganger:
It was all a great step upward, and Rolf's clear eyes saw that. If he were not a Christian he could not be the equal of the lords of France. He was not a mere adventurer any longer, the leader of a band of pirates; other ambitions had come to him since he had been governor of his territory. The pagan fanaticism and superstition of his companions were more than half extinguished already; the old myths of the Northern gods had not flourished in this new soil. At last, after much discussion and bargaining about the land that should be given, Rolf gave his promise once for all, and now we may begin to call him fairly the Duke of Normandy and his people the Normans; the old days of the Northmen in France had come to an end. For a good many years the neighboring provinces called the new dukedom "the pirate's land" and "the Northman's land," but the great Norman race was in actual existence now, and from this beginning under Rolf, the tall Norwegian sea-king, has come one of the greatest forces and powers of the civilized world. (43-4)
Rolf's conversion seems opportunistic in the main, and yet its effect ultimately is transformative.  Once he becomes a Christian ruler, he determines the course of his descendents and his subjects toward an increasingly Christian and, in Jewett's eyes, more civilized future.

    After the Northmen were firmly established in Normandy and had made Christianity their official religion, the gradual merging of Danes and the French could proceed.  She sees in Duke William Longsword a will to merge the two cultures rather than to assert Danish superiority and dominance (63).  This illustrates her view of the Norman "character" as self-confidently flexible.  The Normans exhibited an understanding that asserting Norman historical identity could be achieved by advancing civilized living more than by maintaining a distinct Danish identity.  They could willingly surrender key components of identity, such as religion and language, in exchange for a more peaceful politics and a richer culture.  Jewett also makes clear that Normans easily intermarried with their non-Norman neighbors, showing little interest in maintaining what we would call a separate gene pool.

    Jewett's account of the two centuries of development between Rolf and William the Conqueror repeatedly takes note of failures and weaknesses of the Normans, but she focuses on strengths and successes, on what she sees as their contributions to the progress of civilization.  Both weakness and strength appear in Norman expansion, particularly into Sicily, as recounted in Chapter 7.  On one hand, venturing out of Normandy and establishing new colonies seems a natural development of an energetic and dynamic people.  Jewett sees a similar inevitability in contemporary English colonialism.  Though she clearly admires the Norman and British qualities that drive them to seek the new and to dominate, she also sees that this process is oppressive to those invaded.  Still, though Italians resisted and suffered in the Norman conquest of Sicily, in the long run, they benefited, and by the time of the third Norman duke, Italians and Normans had formed a unity (131-3).  What largely redeems the depredations of the Normans is their gradual refinement as a people.  She says of their merging with the Italians of Sicily: 
The spirit of adventure, of conquest, of government, of chivalry, and personal ambition shines in every page of it, and as time goes on we watch with joy a partial fading out of the worse characteristics of cruelty and avarice and trickery, of vanity and jealous revenge. ...  The south of Italy and the Sicilian kingdom of [Duke] Roger were under a wiser and more tolerant rule than any government of their day, and Greeks, Normans, and Italians lived together in harmony and peace that was elsewhere unknown.  (143-4)
A key to Norman success was "tolerant rule," which enabled differing peoples to live and work side by side.

Normans and Saxons become the English

    Jewett devotes roughly half of her book to the life of William the Conqueror.  Her account closely follows her main sources, but she continues to develop her thesis that the Normans have bequeathed to England and America a spirit that should be embraced.  Her account of William emphasizes both his weaknesses and his strengths.  She finds him far less than perfectly moral: 
That he did not do some bad things must not make us call him good, for a good man is one who does do good things. But his strict fashion of life kept his head clearer and his hands stronger, and made him wide-awake when other men were stupid, and so again and again he was able to seize an advantage and possess himself of the key to success. (151)
William's successes lead eventually to his conquest of England, which Jewett judges as clearly immoral and as devastating for many in the violence and destructiveness of the process (287).  As she tells this story, she gives particular attention to the merging of the Normans with the Saxons, the process that formed the character of the contemporary English and Americans:
There were certain hindrances to civilization, and lacks of a fitting progress and true growth. Let us see what these things were, and how the greater refinement of the Normans, their superior gifts and graces, must come into play a little later. There was some deep meaning in the fusion of the two peoples, and more than one reason why they could form a greater nation together than either Normans or Englishmen could alone.  (185)
Once the conquest is complete, Jewett notes, the Normans as Normans begin to disappear from history:
William was about forty years old when the battle of Hastings was fought and won; Normandy, too, was in her best vigor and full development of strength. The years of decadence must soon begin for both; the time was not far distant when the story of Normandy ends, and it is only in the history of France and of England that the familiar Norman characteristics can be traced. Foremost in vitalizing force and power of centralization and individuality, while so much of Europe was unsettled and misdirected toward petty ends, this duchy of Rolf the Ganger seems, in later years, like a wild-flower that has scattered its seed to every wind, and plants for unceasing harvests, but must die itself in the first frost of outward assailment and inward weakness. (312-3)
William was not especially successful as king of England, and his reign often was brutal and destructive, but still, he did much to prepare the ground for the flowering of England.  She describes this process of merging Saxon and Norman as like refining metal:
Yet, as had often happened before in this growing nation's lifetime, a sure process of amalgamation was going on, and though the fire of discontent was burning hot, the gold that was England's and the gold that was Normandy's were being melted together and growing into a greater treasure than either had been alone. We can best understand the individuality and vital force of the Norman people by seeing the difference their coming to England has made in the English character. We cannot remind ourselves of this too often. The Norman of the Conqueror's day was already a man of the world. The hindering conditions of English life were localism and lack of unity. We can see almost a tribal aspect in the jealousies of the earldoms, the lack of sympathy or brotherhood between the different quarters of the island. William's earls were only set over single shires, and the growth of independence was rendered impossible; and his greatest benefaction to his new domain was a thoroughly organized system of law. As we linger over the accounts of his reign, harsh and cruel and unlovable as he appears, it is rather the cruelty of the surgeon than of a torturer or of a cut-throat. The presence of the Normans among the nations of the earth must have seemed particularly irritating and inflammatory, but we can understand, now that so many centuries have smoothed away the scars they left, that the stimulus of their energy and their hot ambition helped the rest of the world to take many steps forward. (318-9)
When Jewett considers the progress William and his wife gained during their rule, she emphasizes both the gains and the losses of this process:
There is nothing more striking than the traditional slander and prejudice which history preserves from age to age. Seen by clearer light, many reported injustices are explained away. If there was in England then, any thing like the present difficulty of influencing public opinion to quick foresight and new decisions, the Conqueror and Baldwin of Flanders' daughter had any thing but an easy path to tread. Selfish they both may have been, and bigoted and even cruel, but they represented a better degree of social refinement and education and enlightenment. Progress was really what the English of that day bewailed and set their faces against, though they did not know it. William and Matilda had to insist upon the putting aside of worn-out opinions, and on coming to England had made the strange discovery that they must either take a long step backward or force their subjects forward. They were not conscious reformers; they were not infallibly wise missionaries of new truth, who tried actually to give these belated souls a wider outlook upon life, but let us stop to recognize the fact that no task is more thankless than his who is trying to go in advance of his time. ...  Nothing has been so resented and assailed as the thorough survey of England, and the record of its lands and resources in the Domesday Book. Yet nothing was so necessary for any sort of good government and steady oversight of the nation's affairs. We only wonder now that it was not made sooner. The machinery of government was of necessity much ruder then. No doubt William's tyranny swept its course to and fro like some Juggernaut car regardless of its victims, yet for England a unified and concentrated force of government was the one thing to be insisted upon....
   Yet the future right direction and prosperity of England was poor consolation to the aching hearts of the women of that time, or the landless lords who had to stand by and see new masters of the soil take their places.  (327-8)
The merging of Normans and Saxons after the conquest is slow and painful, especially for the Saxons.  While the Norman urges toward effective government and cultural improvement win out in the long run, the process entails much suffering, and depends for its success, in part, upon William's ruthless willingness to use force to gain his ends.

    The modern English qualities that Jewett admires arise from the merging of Norman and Saxon.  This aspect of her book has proven to be controversial in Jewett criticism, as shown in The Reception of The Story of the Normans.  Jewett's critics early formed a consensus that this book reveals her theory of race.  Her theory is said to be based upon the idea that Normans and Saxons are different races, in the sense that 21st century readers understand the term "race."  That is, critics assert that Jewett understands Normans and Saxons to be distinguished not only by nationality and culture, but also by "blood," by what we would call their genetic heritage.  Critics further assert that Jewett sees Normans as racially superior to Saxons and that she advocates for Nordicism, the continuing dominance of Normans in modern Europe and America.  Nordicism actually enters American discourse after Jewett's death; it is a 20th-century form of Nativism that argues for the racial purification of the United States by excluding non-Nordic immigrants.  The purpose of this exclusion is to maintain the political and cultural dominance in America of a Northern European race and, thereby, to insure the continuation of the democratic institutions that only these peoples can foster.  I elaborate in Jewett and Nordicism how this is an anachronistic reading of The Story of the Normans.
    Though Jewett refers to Normans and Saxons as races, it would require a highly selective reading to show that she thinks of them as divided by more than their recent histories.  She says that Anglo-Saxons and Normans became foreigners to each other over a mere 500 years of their history.  She points out that even during that period of separate development, they were in continuous contact, including intermarriage.  She notes that in the Eleventh Century both the British and the Normans were highly mixed peoples, and she reports the strong influence of Danes on both peoples.  While it is true that Jewett finds more to admire in the Normans than in the Saxons at the time of their violent merging in 1066, she insists that the Saxons brought much of value to this union, and, therefore, that "There was some deep meaning in the fusion of the two peoples, and more than one reason why they could form a greater nation together than either Normans or Englishmen could alone" (185).

    As illustrated above, Jewett saw the Normans as culturally superior in some ways to the peoples they conquered and with which they then merged:
   It has also been the fashion to ignore the influence of five hundred years' contact between Roman civilization and the Saxon inhabitants of Great Britain. Surely great influences have been brought to bear upon the Anglo-Saxon race. That the making of England was more significant to the world and more valuable than any manifestation of Norman ability, is in one way true, but let us never forget that much that has been best in English national life has come from the Norman elements of it rather than the Saxon. England the colonizer, England the country of intellectual and social progress, England the fosterer of ideas and chivalrous humanity, is Norman England, and the Saxon influence has oftener held her back in dogged satisfaction and stubbornness than urged her forward to higher levels. The power of holding back is necessary to the stability of a kingdom, but not so necessary as the
   "Glory of going on and still to be -- -- -- -- "  (356-7)
The Normans' historical experience, energy and intelligence enabled them to achieve military superiority.  Their self-confident cultural flexibility enabled them to transform themselves and those they merged with in positive ways.  Jewett also emphasized Norman weaknesses that, to some extent, were remedied as they merged with the French and then the Saxons.  Like the Normans, the Saxons, too, had both strengths and weaknesses.  In her discussion of the period after the death of William, she says of Saxon England:
As a nation, they surely responded readily to the Norman stimulus, but the Normans had never found so good a chance to work out their own ideas of life and achievement as on English soil in the first hundred years after the Conquest. In many respects the Saxon race possesses greater and more reliable qualities than any other race; stability, perseverance, self-government, industry are all theirs. Yet the Normans excelled them in their genius for great enterprises and their love of fitness and elegance in social life and in the arts. Indeed we cannot do better than to repeat here what has been quoted once already. "Without them England would have been mechanical, not artistic; brave, not chivalrous; the home of learning, not of thought." (356) 
Here Jewett elevates Saxons above all other peoples in their time, including the Normans, in the positive traits she names: stability, perseverance, self-government, industry.  This made them an ideal people for responding "readily to the Norman stimulus," presumably because their strengths were at least partial remedies for Norman weaknesses.  In this passage Jewett again emphasizes that England becomes not so much a Norman nation as a merging of two heritages into a new entity that contains these two identities in creative tension.  She commends to her readers a similar merging of attitudes and values, a combination of traits that foster democracy and social order, an energetic openness to change and appreciation of the best, tempered by industry, steadiness and self-restraint. 

    Jewett presents a number of different metaphors to describe the merging process, and these introduce some confusion into how she thinks about this blending.  When she reflects upon the immediate consequences of the Conquest, she describes the Normans as "a tributary stream that came to swell the mighty channel of the English race and history" (245).  This metaphor envisions the unifying process as natural and inevitable, but it implies an idea Jewett opposes later.  This comparison interprets the Conquest as do the professional historians she consulted, notably Palgrave and Freeman, who conclude that the Normans were a decisive influence that altered England for the better without converting its peoples into Normans.   This metaphor resonates with an earlier comparison of Normans to a hare and Saxons to a tortoise.  She says that the hare would win some races against the tortoise, but in the longer run of history, "the tortoise was going to be somehow made over new, and keep a steady course in the right path, and learn speed, and get to be better than the old tortoise" (243-4).

    Not surprisingly, Jewett develops other metaphors that resist her sources and more adequately express her view of Norman importance.  For example, when speaking of the benefits of William's conquest, Jewett says:
Yet, as had often happened before in this growing nation's lifetime, a sure process of amalgamation was going on, and though the fire of discontent was burning hot, the gold that was England's and the gold that was Normandy's were being melted together and growing into a greater treasure than either had been alone. We can best understand the individuality and vital force of the Norman people by seeing the difference their coming to England has made in the English character. (318-9)
In this comparison, the two peoples seem to contribute equally to the formation of a modern English character.  Human technology and labor extract the most valued traits of a new, unified English character from the raw ore of two different, preceding ethnicities.  Near the end, Jewett presents another metaphor that favors the Normans even more.  Speaking of modern England, she says:
But whether the Norman spirit leads her to be self-confident or headstrong and wilful, or the Saxon spirit holds her back into slowness and dulness, and lack of proper perception in emergencies or epochs of necessary change, still she follows the right direction and leads the way. It is the Norman graft upon the sturdy old Saxon tree that has borne best fruit among the nations…. (365)
Saxon virtues become the root stock, crucial and life-giving, but the branches and fruits of the nation are Norman.  The metaphor of the graft emphasizes, more than the metallurgic comparison, the organic merging of the two peoples, but recognizes the role of human art in the grafting process.  Jewett suggests that the fruits of greatness come from the Norman branch on the Saxon root.  But she also implies, again, a national unity, an organic whole.  Both spirits are present, and in this case, she emphasizes the weaknesses each brings to the composite of modern England.  The Norman spirit pushes the nation toward being headstrong, willful, and, presumably, over-confident, while the Saxon spirit restrains, leading to failures to understand when action is necessary and to act decisively.  The strengths that both have contributed to the English character, however, lead England over all in the right direction.

    What is meant by "the right direction" may be problematic.  Jewett's critics have tended to read such passages as an unqualified endorsement of British civilization, not merely of Shakespeare and modern inventions, but also of the abuses and crimes of Britain, such as in Ireland and in colonies such as India.  It would seem clear in the passage above that Jewett recognizes British tendencies to be headstrong, willful, slow, dull, and unwilling to change when doing so is clearly an advantage.  Her endorsement of British behavior is not unqualified.  Whether she endorses any particular policy or action of the Victorian government is not really apparent in The Story of the Normans.  One would have to look elsewhere for relevant evidence.

    Also problematic in Jewett's view of the merging of Normans and Saxons into a new English people is the nature of the Norman presence after 1066.  In the final sentence of the book, Jewett says: "To-day the Northman, the Norman, and the Englishman, and a young nation on this western shore of the Atlantic are all kindred who, possessing a rich inheritance, should own the closest of kindred ties" (366).  What is the nature of that kinship, of the "rich inheritance" these peoples share?  Does Jewett imply that the essence of young America is its genetic descent from Northmen?  Must one literally be of Norman descent in order to be a true American?  Is this statement definitive evidence that Jewett was, if not actually a Nordicist, at least a precursor?  These questions are pointed by the fact that Jewett clearly believes that the Normans as a physically existing people are no more.  While there still are Scandinavians, of course, the people who were the Normans of Normandy, who colonized Sicily and invaded England, no longer have a national existence.  She uses the metaphor of a wild flower that dies itself, but scatters its seeds abroad to describe the fate of the Normans as a people (313).  While she clearly understands that the Normans gradually disappear from history after 1066, their story becoming the history of England and France, she also repeats the idea that Normans maintain some sort of presence even in the 19th Century.  Perhaps this idea is most clearly expressed in her penultimate paragraph, much of which has been quoted above:
Here, at the beginning of the Norman absorption into England, I shall end my story of the founding and growth of the Norman people. The mingling of their brighter, fiercer, more enthusiastic, and visionary nature with the stolid, dogged, prudent, and resolute Anglo-Saxons belongs more properly to the history of England. Indeed, the difficulty would lie in not knowing where to stop, for one may tell the two races apart even now, after centuries of association and affiliation. There are Saxon landholders, and farmers, and statesmen in England yet -- unconquered, unpersuaded, and un-Normanized. But the effect on civilization of the welding of the two great natures cannot be told fairly in this or any other book -- we are too close to it and we ourselves make too intimate a part of it to judge impartially. If we are of English descent we are pretty sure to be members of one party or the other. Saxon yet or Norman yet, and even the confusion of the two forces renders us not more able to judge of either, but less so. We must sometimes look at England as a later Normandy; and yet, none the less, as the great leader and personified power that she is and has been these many hundred years, drawing her strength from the best of the Northern races, and presenting the world with great men and women as typical of these races and as grandly endowed to stand for the representatives of their time in days to come, as the men and women of Greece were typical, and live yet in our literature and song. (364-5)
Here as in several of the other passages quoted above, Jewett speaks of two "races" that have not fully merged by the 19th Century.  However, she also uses terms such as "party" and "force" to describe their persistence into her time, as she has often used "spirit" in previously quoted passages.  In a letter to Fields when she was researching, Jewett speaks of observing contemporary Normans and Saxons among her friends and acquaintances in South Berwick as if they were political parties (Fields, Letter 7).  Here, she recognizes English citizens who are "un-Normanized," who have resisted the Norman inheritance down to the present day.  It would seem clear, therefore, that she understands "Normanism" as a set of transferable attitudes and ideas, such that a Saxon or anyone else can become a Norman in spirit.  These attitudes and ideas constitute the "seed that has flourished in a richer soil," a "rich inheritance," that is shared by everyone, whether they are of Norman descent, or of British descent, or of any descent in England or North America.  The fortunate citizens of these nations, Jewett believes, all are Normans in sharing the gifts Norman culture has bequeathed to the present, and they should embrace these gifts, accept their Norman inheritance.

Jewett's Theory of History

    The Story of the Normans has been for some of her critics a touchstone for understanding her theory of history.  As is apparent in "The Reception of The Story of the Normans," those who draw upon this book to understand her world view tend to conclude that she accepted contemporary Darwinist ideas of progress.  She is said to believe that human history consists of a struggle between races in which the fittest survive and dominate, with the result that humanity improves over time.  For example, Patrick Gleason says: "War, for Jewett, refines the stock and strengthens the most advantageous of racial characteristics."  While it is true that Jewett is optimistic about human progress, the grounds of that optimism are in her liberal Christianity rather than in a "scientific" theory of materialist progress.

    Jewett does describe history as a "natural war of races."  In the opening chapter she summarizes the received, though disputed, late Victorian view of the human prehistory of Europe, characterizing the people displaced by the Celts and Teutons:
There is very little known of these earlier dwellers in the east and north of Europe, except that they were short of stature and dark-skinned, that they were cave dwellers, and, in successive stages of development, used stone and bronze and iron tools and weapons. Many relics of their home-life and of their warfare have been discovered and preserved in museums, and there are evidences of the descent of a small proportion of modern Europeans from that remote ancestry. The Basques of the north of Spain speak a different language and wear a different look from any of the surrounding people, and even in Great Britain there are some survivors of an older race of humanity, which the fairer-haired Celts of Southern Europe and Teutons of Northern Europe have never been able in the great natural war of races to wholly exterminate and supplant. (2-3)
Notable in this passage is her observation that shifts in dominance do not necessarily eventuate in extermination of the dominated.  In noting this idea, she follows one of her main sources, Augustin Thierry, who argues that conquered "races" typically do not disappear, but continue over long periods of time to persist and resist the dominant forces in their culture.  He sees modern European nations as consisting of greater diversity than may appear superficially as a result of the mixture of cultures and peoples they have absorbed in the course of reaching their modern formations (xvii-xxiii). 

    Jewett's concept of a war of races is not Darwinian, however, but Christian.  She says of the Conqueror's reign: "In criticising and resenting such a reign as William the Norman's over England, we must avoid a danger of not seeing the hand of God in it, and the evidences of an overruling Providence, which works in and through the works of men and sees the end of things from the beginning as men cannot" (331).  Repeatedly, Jewett reminds readers of "the slow processes by which God in nature and humanity evolves the best that is possible for the present" (364).  She emphasizes a dual perspective, how events appear to those who experience them and how they appear from centuries later, the latter approximating a divine perspective from "the end of things." Norman aspirations along with their folly and brutality contribute finally to the progress of England toward greatness.  By greatness, she does not mean that either moral or social perfection is achieved in the nineteenth century; "the best that is possible for the present" is not a utopia, but rather what humanity as a whole has been able to manage so far.  To her mind, contemporary England and America are morally better societies than most that have come before, and "this whole world is nearer every year to the highest level any fortunate part of it has ever gained" (256).   Jewett's liberal Christian view of the divinely directed moral progress of all humanity contrasts with turn-of-the-century scientific racists, who present evolution as pointed toward the development of a superior race, with characteristics unattainable by the inferior races.
    Given Jewett's belief in divinely directed historical progress, she would naturally favor agents of positive change such as the Normans over resisters such as the Saxons.  Her belief also makes understandable her seemingly callous view of war, expressed in a passage that has drawn ridicule and scorn from reviewers and critics:
   War is the conflict between ideas that are going to live and ideas that have passed their maturity and are going to die. Men possess themselves of a new truth, a clearer perception of the affairs of humanity; progress itself is made possible with its larger share of freedom for the individual or for nations only by a relentless overthrowing of outgrown opinions. It is only by new combinations of races, new assertions of the old unconquerable forces, that the spiritual kingdom gains or rather shows its power. When men claim that humanity can only move round in a circle, … it is well to take a closer look, to see how by combination, by stimulus of example, and power of spiritual forces and God's great purposes, this whole world is nearer every year to the highest level any fortunate part of it has ever gained. Wars may appear to delay, but in due time they surely raise whole nations of men to higher levels, whether by preparing for new growths or by mixing the new and old…. And no war was ever fought that was not an evidence that one element in it had outgrown the other and was bound to get itself manifested and better understood. The first effect of war is incidental and temporary; the secondary effect makes a link in the grand chain of the spiritual education and development of the world. (255-6)
Jewett spoke with pride of her ideas about war in a letter to Annie Fields, presumably, in part, because she believed she had achieved a Christian historian's perspective ( [1885 or 1886]).  Though some have seen this passage as glorifying war, that would seem far from Jewett's meaning.  As she says a few chapters later, "the future right direction and prosperity of England was poor consolation to the aching hearts of the women of that time, or the landless lords who had to stand by and see new masters of the soil take their places" (328).  A close analysis of the passage is revealing.

     Defining war as a conflict between ideas, she begins by shifting perspective away from the usual definitions involving contests for political power, territory and resources.  She does not deny these motives, but asserts that behind these is another level, a transcendental struggle in which "the spiritual kingdom ... shows its power."  A divine purpose at this level is to achieve clarity, to make possible the full possession of a new truth.  The value of that truth is that it makes possible a "larger share of freedom for the individual or for nations."  Jewett believes that God wants humanity to achieve greater individual and communal freedom and that, through His Providence, He makes use even of war for this purpose.  She sees God as far from desiring to create a pure race, but rather to mix races and their ideas.  She believes that studying history confirms this view rather than the notion that there is no progress, that history is essentially cyclical.  God's purpose is to advance human possibility and to move all of humanity toward the achievements attained by those who, at any one time, seem in advance of the others.  While it is true that in the time of war, it appears that humanity has regressed, this perspective is limited, and what one sees is "incidental and temporary."  From the Divine perspective, which gradually becomes at least partially available to humanity over long stretches of time, even wars make "links in a grand chain." Humanity gradually becomes able to see how God has brought goodness out of the depths of human folly and suffering.

     Jewett believes that God insures that the overall results of human aspiration -- within the context of freedom to choose foolishly, selfishly, arrogantly, etc. -- will be progress toward "the best that is possible."  The war of races may -- in any particular time and place -- express one group's sense of racial superiority and entitlement, and it too often entails brutality and suffering, but what is really important, from God's point of view, is that a better way is determined "to get itself manifested and better understood," and through this painful process humanity struggles to realize God's will.

     A decade after The Story of the Normans, Jewett continued to hold to her confidence in divinely directed progress.  Reflecting on the 1898 war in Cuba, she writes from France to her friend Sara Norton:
  I hope now, more than ever, for some better news of the war.... I think I can see better and better every day that it was a war which could not be hindered, after all. Spain has shown herself perfectly incompetent to maintain any sort of civilization in Cuba, and things are like some sultry summer days, when there is nothing for it but to let a thunder-shower do its best and worst, and drown the new hay, and put everything out of gear while it lasts. The condition is larger than petty politics or mercenary hopes, or naval desires for promotion, or any of those things to which at one time or another I have indignantly "laid it." I feel more than ever that such a war is to be laid at the door of progress, and not at any backward steps toward what we had begun to feel was out of date, the liking for a fight. I think that it is all nonsense to talk about bad feeling here in France, as it is certainly in England; for however people deplore the war in general and pity Spain, they generally end by saying that it was the only way out -- that we had to make war, and then we all say that it must be short! If we could drown a few newspapers from time to time, it would keep up our drooping hearts and make us willing to bear the hearing of foolish details, and even painful details. It seems like a question of surgery, this cure of Cuba -- we must not mind the things that disgust and frighten us, if only the surgery is in good hands. (10 June 1898, letter 86)
What seems inevitable in the present, however foolish it appears and however much suffering results, must, she believes, reveal the hand of God "at the door of progress."  In that sense, returning to the metaphor of the surgeon she applied to William the Conqueror, the operation surely is in good hands.  However, when she says "if only," she more likely refers to her uncertainty that the perpetrators of such apparent folly could constitute "good hands."

     Jewett's understanding of war as providential clarifies what she means by characterizing human history as "the great natural war of races."  Among her sources, Thierry, in particular, shares her view that the mixing and sorting of peoples within emerging nations, though progressive, often is ugly: Progressive recombination of nations, ethnicities, and races may be achieved by armed conflict or by more peaceful interactions, but it always will be costly.  Sir Francis Palgrave shares Jewett's view of the role of Providence in fostering progress:  "All mutations, all developments, all cor[r]elations, all operations of forces, all result from the Creator's enduring ordinances" (The History of Normandy and of England, Volume 2: The three first dukes of Normandy,  London: J. W. Parker, 1857,  775-7. See also 497.  See Jewett's Sources). 

      In The Story of the Normans, Jewett presents an argument that, on the whole, coincides with the contemporary historians who were her sources, though at one point, she dares to disagree with Edward A. Freeman about the relative importance of the Normans to the formation of the modern British character (355).  Wild and savage, but energetic and uniquely flexible Northmen settled in Normandy and were transformed into the French-speaking Normans who developed one of the richest and most vibrant cultures in the western world in the 11th Century.  The Normans conquered England and transformed themselves again, by merging with the Saxons, into the English, leading in the 19th Century to the richest and most vibrant cultures Jewett sees in her western world, including England, North America, and, though she says little of this here, France also.  Jewett varies from some of her sources in her view that the story of the Normans reveals the activity of Divine Providence in drawing humanity toward greater freedom, but these ideas do appear in some of her sources, notably in Thierry and in Sir Francis Palgrave.

Terry Heller, Coe College
January 2015

Return to The Normans