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by Sarah Orne Jewett
Dukes of the Normans
"I looked: aside the dust-cloud rolled, --
The Waster seemed the Builder too;
Upspringing from the ruined Old
I saw the New."
It will be clearly seen that there is great apparent disproportion between certain parts of this sketch of the rise and growth of the Norman people. I have not set aside the truth that Normandy was not reunited to France until 1204, and I do not forget that many years lie between that date and the time when I close my account of the famous duchy. But the story of the growth of the Normans gives one the key to any later part of their history, and I have contented myself with describing the characters of the first seven dukes and Eadward the Confessor, who were men typical of their time and representative of the various types of national character. Of the complex questions in civic and legal history I am not competent to speak, nor does it seem to me that they properly enter into such a book as this. With Mr. Freeman's learned and exhaustive work at hand as a book of reference, the readers of this story of Normandy will find all their puzzles solved.
But I hope that I have made others see the Normans as I have seen them, and grow as interested in their fortunes as I have been. They were the foremost people of their time, being most thoroughly alive and quickest to see where advances might be made in government, in architecture, in social life. They were gifted with sentiment and with good taste, together with fine physical strength and intellectual cleverness. In the first hundred years of the duchy they made perhaps as rapid progress in every way, and had as signal influence among their contemporaries, as any people of any age, -- unless it is ourselves, the people of the young republic of the United States, who might be called the Normans of modern times. For with many of the gifts and many of the weaknesses (and dangers, too) of our viking ancestry, we have repeated the rapid increase of power which was a characteristic of our Norman kindred; we have conquered in many fights with the natural forces of the universe where they fought, humanity against humanity. Much of what marked the Northman and the Norman marks us still.
The secret of Normandy's success was energetic self-development and apprehension of truth; the secret of Normandy's failures was the secret of all failures -- blindness to the inevitable effects of certain causes, and unwillingness to listen to her best and most far-seeing teachers. Carlyle said once to a friend: "There has never been a nation yet that did any thing great that was not deeply religious." The things that are easy and near are chosen, instead of the things that make for righteousness. When luxury becomes not the means, but the end of life, humanity's best weapons grow rusty, and humanity's best intelligence is dulled and threatens to disappear. The church forgets her purpose and invites worshippers of the church instead of worshippers of God. The state is no longer an impersonated administrator of justice and order, but a reservoir from which to plunder and by which to serve private ends.
I am not able to speak of the influence of the Normans upon the later kingdom of France, the France of our day, as I confess the writer of such a book as this should have been, but there is one point which has been of great interest as the southward course of the Northmen has been eagerly followed.
It has been the common impression that there was a marked growth of refinement and courtliness, of dignified bearing and imaginative literature connected with the development of the French men and women of early times, to the gradual widening of which the modern world had been indebted for much of its best social attainment.
I think that a single glance at the France of the ninth and tenth centuries will do away with any belief in its having been the sole inspirer or benefactor. The Franks were products of German development, and were not at that time pre-eminent for social culture. They were a ruder people by far than the Italians or even the people of Spain, less developed spiritually, and wanting in the finer attributes of human instinct or perception. Great as they already were, no one can claim that quickness of tact or special intolerance of ill-breeding came from their direction. Dante speaks, a little later than this, of the "guzzling Germans," and though we must make allowance for considerable race prejudice, there was truth, too, in his phrase. Not from the Franks, therefore, but from among the very rocks and chasms of the viking nature, sprang a growth of delicate refinement that made the yellow-haired jarls and the "sea-kings' daughters" bring a true, poetical, and lovely spirit to Normandy, where they gave a soul to the body of art and letters that awaited them. Each nation had something to give to the other, it is true, but it was the Northern spirit that made the gifts of both available and fruitful to humanity.
It may rightly be suggested that the standard of behavior was low everywhere in the tenth century, according to our present standards, but it is true that there was a re-kindling of light in the North, which may be traced in its continued reflections through Norway to Normandy, and thence to France and England and the world. We have only to remind ourselves of the development of literature in Iceland and the building of governmental and social strength and dignified individuality, to see that the Northmen by no means owed every thing to the influence of French superiority and precedence. We have only to compare the tenth century with the eleventh, to see what an impulse had been given. The saga-lovers and the clear-eyed people of the North were gifted with a spark of grace peculiarly their own.
There is a pretty story told by an English traveller in Norway, who met a young woman leading an old blind beggar through the street of a poor, plain village. She was descended from one of the noble families of ancient times; it was her pleasure and duty to serve the friendless old man. But the traveller insists that never, among the best people he has met, has he found such dignity and grace as this provincial woman wore, who knew nothing of courts or the world's elegance. There was a natural nobility in her speech and manner which the courtliest might envy, and which might adorn the noblest palace and be its most charming decoration. It is easy to write these words with sympathy, and perhaps the traveller's half-forgotten story has been embellished unconsciously with the memory in my mind of kindred experiences in that country of the North. Plainness and poverty make gentle blood seem more gracious still, and the green mountain-sides and fresh air of old Norway have not yet ceased to inspire simple, unperverted souls, from whose life a better and higher generation seems more than possible.
The impulses that make toward social development are intermittent. There is the succession of growing time and brooding time, of summer and winter, in the great ages of the world. If we look at the Normans as creatures of a famous spring where Europe made a bold and profitable advance in every way, I think that we shall not be far from right.
In telling their story in this imperfect way I have not been unmindful of the dark side of their character, but what they were is permanent, while what they were not was temporary. The gaps they left were to be filled up by other means -- by the slow processes by which God in nature and humanity evolves the best that is possible for the present with something that forestalls the future. The stones that make part of a cathedral wall are shaped also with relation to the very dome.
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. In the courts and stately halls of England, in the market-places, and among followers of the sea or of the drum, we have seen the best triumphs and glories of modern humanity, no less than the degradations, the treacheries, and the mistakes. In the great pageant of history we can see a nation rise, and greaten, and dwindle, and disappear like the varying lifetime of a single man, but the force of our mother England is not yet spent, though great changes threaten her, and the process of growth needs winter as well as summer. Her life is not the life of a harborless country, her fortunes are the fortunes of her generosity. 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 -- that 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! There is many a gray old English house standing among its trees and fields, that has sheltered and nurtured many a generation of loyal and tender and brave and gentle souls. We shall find there men and women who, in their cleverness and courtliness, their grace and true pride and beauty, make us understand the old Norman beauty and grace, and seem to make the days of chivalry alive again.
But we may go back farther still, and discover in the lonely mountain valleys and fiord-sides of Norway even a simpler, courtlier, and nobler dignity. In the country of the sagamen and the rough seakings, beside the steep-shored harbors of the viking dragon-ships, linger the constantly repeated types of an earlier ancestry, and the flower of the sagas blooms as fair as ever. Among the red roofs and gray walls of the Norman towns, or the faint, bright colors of its country landscapes, among the green hedgerows and golden wheat-fields of England, the same flowers grow in more luxuriant fashion, but old Norway and Denmark sent out the seed that has flourished in richer soil. 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.
Notes for Chapter 18
"I looked ... I saw the New": from "The Reformer" (1846), collected in John Greenleaf Whittier, Anti-slavery poems. Songs of labor and reform (1888).
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"There has never been a nation … not deeply religious”: Charles Eliot Norton, "Reminiscences of Carlyle," The New Princeton Review 2 ( July-November, 1886): 7.
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Dante ... "guzzling Germans": In his translation of Dante's Inferno, Canto XVII, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes:
As sometimes wherries lie upon the shore,
That part are in the water, part on land;
And as among the guzzling Germans there,... (101)
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College, with assistance from Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.
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