The roots of modern Europe’s links to classical antiquity through the Arabs

By | December 7, 2017

Jairus Banaji has posted a beautiful memoir in Facebook showing the linguistic and practical history of Arab mediation between the ancient Greeks and 13th century Venice with reference to a building allocated to German merchants there (the Fontego dei Todeschi). The task of breaking down the imperialist separation of Europe from its African and Asian neighbours is still an important one; but it is not news. Mozart and many Victorians thought Egypt was the source of world civilization and Niall Ferguson, in The Ascent of Money, traced the history of the main financial instruments (bonds, stocks etc) through an oversimplified line from the Arabs via the Italian Renaissance and 17th century England to the world. The Indian novelist and social anthropologist, Amitav Ghosh, in In an Antique Land, recreated the 12th century trade network linking India to Andalusia with Cairo as its hub. Mansah Musa, a 14th century king of Mali, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, spent so much gold in Egypt as to cause runaway inflation there for 30 years. Deconstruction of European self-regard should also be extended to the Arabs and Indians.

The point of my intervention is to argue that the roots of this historical interdependence go much further back into prehistory as well as much wider more recently. I did most of the work for this in the 1980s; but it was never a professional specialism of mine and, apart from philological exploration of the non-Indo-European origins of English, which is recorded on a thousand small white cards, my empirical sources are even more bitty and would never withstand interrogation by an army of specialist academics. I pine for when this kind of story could be told to a gullible public without any need for attributable evidence. Instead, like Amitav Ghosh and Gore Vidal in Creation, if I publish at all, it will probably have to be as fiction. I have three amateur projects, all aimed at blowing up nationalist history: the “blackness” of the first British; the Norman conquest of England and the Mediterranean; the Burgundians, Habsburgs and the New World. For brevity and because it is the oldest, I will focus here on the first with some comments on the second and nothing on the third.

My main published sources for the English language study are Carl D. Buck A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages and Calvert Watkins’ “Appendix of Indo-European roots” in the American Heritage Dictionary. One must always keep in mind that the traditional method for getting to the top of the philological pile is to learn 40 languages, beat off all-comers and then write the dictionary yourself with considerable poetic licence. This is a game I could never play. I did however once teach courses on “The transition from bronze to iron in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1600-500 BC” and “Expansion into the Western Mediterranean, 1000-500 BC”. It is fun to observe no disciplinary limits, while taking in what I can of X-ray crystallography, blood types, carbon dating, family and place names, megaliths, ecology and books like the reproduction of a two-volume Scottish history of the Black British, published in 1884, that I picked up in a Philadelphia Black book fair.

The notion of an Indo-European group of languages and societies has come under justified attack in recent decades, but for now we have to work through it. The first Indo-European speakers to reach the British Isles were the Celts around 700 BC, but Stonehenge — the largest megalithic monument in a network going back to Malta around 4000 BC and spreading on both sides of the western Mediterranean, then North to the Baltic and South to the Senegal River — was begun 2,000 years before that. By whom? It seems by sea-faring pastoralists via North Africa, precursors of the Phoenicians in the first millennium BC. Copper and tin mined in Cornwall have been found in Egyptian implements around the time of Stonehenge’s origins, so the trade network is unlikely to have stopped at Malta. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his 12th century History of the British Kings which goes back 2,000 years, says that “Stonehenge came from Ireland, but before that it came from Africa”. English is notable for adding registers through time, not synthesizing them. It is highly unlikely that the register of its formation has disappeared. Since no-one studies it, we can only guess where it came from. Mine is that it will be found to be part of the Semitic group.

The megalith-builders by-passed the North Sea and took the Western route to the Baltic, probably because they were blocked militarily or were seeking the climatic benefits of the Gulf Stream. This is why Stonehenge was built in the West and Wessex was for a long time the most advanced of the British kingdoms.

In looking for a pre-Celtic/Roman/Anglo-Saxon/French register of English, I identified possible words initially by looking for sailing and herding preoccupations; then linguistically by no attested links to Celtic, Germanic and Romance languages; known in Old or Middle English; and in time phonemic and morphological regularities. I only identified a word as probable if it could be ticked on these last three, but the range of reference became much wider. Thus there are no words like pig and dog anywhere else and they share a unique suffix -ca in Old English. Most words are monosyllables of the CVC type like these two. The comparatively-speaking rare initial j (dj) is commonplace (jug, job, jaw — jack has the most different meanings in English, 17, and its root is I believe erect penis). Mug meant face, so that a drinking mug had a face on it, to mug was to make frightening faces etc. Sky is usually traced to Old Norse, but then they were part of the same Mediterranean diaspora. Bird has no links elsewhere and in Middle English could refer to any young animal, including people (as it still does to young women in some circles).

I have collected some 2000 words, most of them long ago. The register has its own distinctive sound. Because of invasions from the East and South, the words and probably speech rhythms appear more strongly in regional dialects of the North and West. I have often wondered why so many great comedians come from my home county, Lancashire: George Formby, Gracie Fields, Eric Morecambe. But then the speech of conquered and otherwise marginalized peoples often seems funny to the winners; think of Black comedians in the US from Al Jolson on or the current scandal of English women’s soccer where white coaches used fake Caribbean accents when addressing black players.

Thomas Huxley wrote with a straight face about the two races that make up the British peoples whom he called xanthochroi (fair-skinned) and melanochroi (dark-skinned). Most British enumeration districts have 75% or more A blood type (Northern European farmers) or O (Mediterranean sailors) and these are distributed in the East/South and North/West respectively, with a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel dividing them. A town in North Wales has the same highly specific blood type as a place in the Atlas mountains. DNA analysis makes all of this much more precise. The staples of the Southeast are traditionally pork and wheat/corn, in the Northwest, sheep and oats/barley. This reflects lowland and upland terrains. All these differences have been obscured by nationalism, but were intrinsic to scientific discourse in the 19th century.

To bring all this crank bricolage into more recent history, the English have always traced their own political history to Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror. But what was William up to when he crossed the sea from Normandy to Sussex? First let us remind ourselves about who the Normans were: they were Vikings with ships (of course), but also with state of the art heavy cavalry that they could use the ships to take wherever they liked. They were in Normandy to guard the English Channel, entrance to the North Sea, but the Danes made that route to the Baltic (where they came from) difficult. William attacked Southern England for this reason. Albion (the bigger of the two islands) stood between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, access to the latter still being blocked by the Arab invasion centuries before. He had to go West, young man.

Harold’s English army had to meet Harald Hadrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge in Northeast England before marching South to be beaten at Hastings. This is treated in school history books as typical English bad luck, rather like the national football team being drawn against Germany and Brazil in succession. The idea that Harald and William were coordinating their assaults is hardly considered. Also in 1066 Normans began seizing Calabria, attacking the Byzantine Balkans, driving the emirate out of Sicily and annexing Malta. Of course that is just something for the Italian historians. After shoring up his place men in London (already installed there), William felt safe enough to march immediately to West Wales where he built castles protecting the North-South sea route through the Irish Sea. In the 10th century, Vikings drove to the Black Sea via the Russian rivers and began besieging Constantinople. Jerusalem fell to the first crusade in 1099. Britain was just a staging post in a continent-wide campaign to push not only the Arabs, but the Byzantine empire out of the Mediterranean.

The roots of all this never left the shared memory of the Northern peoples who, in a variety of guises, recaptured in three decades what the Arabs had seized 400 years earlier. As for bit players like the English, who saw the elephant only from their local angle, the whole story passed them by.

So what’s the point? We live in an interconnected world where inequality is often expressed as a claim to be exclusive and superior made by religions, nationalities, ethnicities, races and so on. Either humanity will make a viable world society in this century or there won’t be a 22nd. A major obstacle is an approach to history that puts one group so much into the foreground as to marginalize all the rest. We will never be able to find a way forward if our idea of where we all came from is so limited. This is the message of my two examples, both offering new perspectives on the history of my own country. We were part of the larger world at all points in our history, as we are now, so much so that national history prevents us from understanding the world we live in.

It is no good taking an established commonplace and showing that in one respect it is defective. Somehow – and academic specialization may be an obstacle to this – we have to develop more inclusive narratives that tell history as it is, not as it is supposed to be. Georg Lukacs told a parable that has since been widely cited, but generally without attribution. It concerns “bourgeois scepticism” and takes place in the Atlas Mountains. A sage asserts that the world is suspended on the backs of four elephants. One smart young man (the bourgeois sceptic) asks, “But what are the elephants standing on?” and the sage replies, apparently to the questioner’s satisfaction, “A large turtle”.

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