Monday, October 20, 2014

French Origins

I've joked from time to time, when people who cannot wish to get bogged down in the answer have asked me, "What's your book about?" - and said, "It's about the guy who invented France."  Or, I've said, "If you go back far enough, the French are Germans."

That latter joke was once a theory one had to be careful with.  Nicolas Fréret, an eighteenth century scholar, who presumed to point out that the origin myth of France was false, was placed in the Bastille for his troubles.  Honesty has never been politically popular, after all.  Immortalized in the Liber Historiae Francorum, the tale goes that Trojan princes Priam and Antetor fled their homeland and built the foundations of France, in a city called Sicambria.

Sicambrian, indeed, was for centuries a term for the Franks, and made it even into Gregory of Tours' hagiography of Clovis and Clotilde, featuring in the scene of Clovis' baptism, where Bishop Remigius says to the king, "Bow thy head, o Sicambrian," exhorting him to love his new God.

Linguistically, unfortunately, the age and etymological derivation of "Sicambrian" is not a persuasive clue to Trojan origins.  And, as most of us are aware today, the Franks were clearly a society and tradition born of Germanic strains, the Greek memories being fables adopted to lay claim to classical prestige.

Claims of Trojan origin were common enough during the period, Britain having much the same sort of story to tell.  We sometimes place a kind of fetishistic worship of the classical period later in European history, but Late Antiquity bred these myths with noticeable regularity, and the early desire of a Gallo-Roman and Frankish society to present a noble lineage as they formed a cohesive identity may have been a healthy sign of formative unity - of a Church's growing influence - of the need of the educated noble elite to provide yet more nobility, dating beyond memory of pagan Germanic conquests and the cultural assimilations of a people in transition.

Nicolas Fréret spoke his piece about the history of France at a time when the Ancien Régime was in power, and - though the name came along later - ancien was clearly what they expected to be perceived as being; and far more ancient indeed than a pack of German barbarians.

Goes to show you how longstanding can be the prejudices of the winners in history - an ancient Greco-Roman slur making fun of the sound of northern languages influenced the inheritors of barbarian estates for so many centuries, here a millennium and a half beyond the "Fall of Rome" we're still sneering about the term and, obviously for at least twelve hundred years, outright denying the heritage of those northern peoples.  Nice work, Rome.

It is difficult for many modern westerners to conceive of being thrown in jail for scholarship.  Yet no intellectual discipline has ever been clinically scientific in method, and respected in its own right, not completely.  Many "know" the story of Galileo (itself subject to subversions and simplifications), but few think of history or language as subject to the same censorship and pressure.

Fortunately, those who have endured censure have made room for an atmosphere, today, where being thrown in the Bastille for saying, "You know - if you go back far enough, the French are Germans."  I'm grateful for this much.

Even if my jokes are still really lame.

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