The White Stag

In medieval legend and folklore, the White Stag appeared to beckon knights to adventure. At times they served as harbingers of change, or perhaps represented an important yet ultimately elusive quest. Perhaps one would not call the appearance of the White Stag an unqualified blessing, but it laid a call upon people they could not ignore.

Ideally, a historian chooses to hunt the White Stag of a grand unified theory of all things. But few choose to do this. Some fail nobly, but helpfully, like Toynbee. Some fail badly and with destructive consequences, like Marx. But–failure seems to be part of the equation of aiming so high. Still, one should make the attempt, for even the failures can serve as signposts along the way.

Should the historian stay shy of the hunt, their next job involves jolting people out of the present and making other times and places strange in some way. Of course a uniformity of human nature exists–history as a discipline could not exist without this. But in making other times “strange” the historian performs the service of helping others realize that our world is not the only one that has ever existed. Our values, mores, and habits may not represent the pinnacle of human achievement. Our beliefs and practices today may actually be “the wrong side of history.” I do not say that the historian should invite skeptical cynicism. Rather–they should help dislodge people from their own societies at least a bit so that they might seek another Kingdom.

I credit Philippe Erlanger for noticing things others miss in his The Age of Courts and Kings: Mannerans and Morals 1558-1715. He sees the distinctions, not just between past and present, but even unusual elements within the societies he examines. He avoids the lazy habits many fall into of using the past merely to confirm our current beliefs.

For example . . .

  • Most moderns who look at 16th century Spain focus on the prevalence of religious persecution there. But he notes that–contemporaneous with the “narrow” religiosity of Philip II–education exploded. Dozens of colleges and universities opened up, forming a golden age of sorts of Spanish culture.

He points out that this educational expansion involved a lot more than people studying theology:

There were some 30 Spanish universities: the one at Salamanca had no less than 7800 pupils; at Alcala 2000 students studied medicine. In the scientific field the results were remarkable. In metallurgy, mining, astronomy, and ophthalmology, Spain was in the vanguard of progress.

  • He puts on full display what we at least would call the ridiculous fopperies of the French aristocracy of the early 17th century. We get plenty of exposure to the sumptuous dress and other extravagances of court life. But he also shows us that many of these dandies (actually called “minions” to denote their service to the king) died young. They possessed great courage. He writes,

And yet the Minions (or Mignons, as they were called), were avid duelists, prodigal with their blood, fighting with a laugh or a leer of contempt. Nearly all of them gave their lives for the King before they were 30, and their heroic end should have spared them the ignominious meaning which history attached to the once common title of His Majesty’s Minions [the word meant ‘servant’–common in use at the time].

Good for Erlanger. Most just notice the obvious things–the crazy dress, the religious persecution–the things that would offend modern sensibilities. Most do not take a second look. I am grateful for Erlanger taking these second looks and discovering the other side of the coin.

What almost shocks me is that, noticing such things, he didn’t stop and ponder their meaning.

For example, everything about our society tells us that religious fundamentalism and an expansion of education-especially scientific education–shouldn’t mix. The 19th-early 20th century American experience with some fundamentalist Christians bears this out. But this example from Spain should make us wonder–maybe our modern experience is the exception to the general rule? The Puritans, for example, could justifiably fall into the “religious dogmatism” category but stressed education enormously, founding Harvard University seven years after coming to the continent. Christians in late antiquity through the high Middle Ages would not necessarily fit the “religiously dogmatic” bill in the same way as 17th century Puritans. Neither did this period display a joyous and progressive exchange of ideas with other faiths. But any student of the medieval era knows that the Church provided the only means of education during this era, and that various advances in science and architecture took place in this time.

And what of the silly aristocrats and their silly dress? Everything about our democratic mind tells us that such people should be wastes of space, with their lives consumed by the trivial. And yet, as Erlanger indicates, many of these same dandies displayed high courage and most spent their lives before the age of 30. Again–an aberration, or so it seems at least.

But maybe . . . ages of intense religious belief are periods of great conviction, and perhaps this conviction gives one confidence to explore various disciplines. We see the confidence of the Athenians in the 5th century B.C. give rise to many advances in science, as one example.

And maybe . . . the grand style of the Mignons simply served as an accompaniment to their grandeur of spirit. Maybe their detachment from normal life led then to great and heroic action. Maybe the stagnation of spirit we feel today mirrors our bland fashion sense.

I say, “maybe” in earnest–these are just suggestions. But Erlanger has to wonder, has to at least spur us on to wonder, and in this he fails, though the book has real virtues.

Among his other observations, two stand out to me:

  • In England in the 17th century, fathers were prohibited from caring for their illegitimate children for too long in their own house. They could provide for them, certainly, but could not keep them at home for too long. And,
  • In various places a prohibition existed against the excess selling of goods–not prohibited goods, mind you, but perfectly legal goods.

Odd laws and practices tangential to the prevalent culture exist everywhere. But in general I think that disparate mores have a common root of belief or perception. We should attempt to tie these items together, despite their strange appearance to the modern mentality.

The words “open” and “closed” will likely produce subtle but important reactions for most of us. We probably have a positive reaction towards “open” and a negative one towards “closed.” In general, modern western societies build on the preference towards openness–open communication, open sourcing, open markets, much more open and fluid sexual practices, more open immigration, and so on. We want to be “open minded,” and not its opposite.*

But “open” and “closed” are descriptive, not moral categories. Surely, for example, we can’t possibly be open to everything–many things would harm or even kill us. We should not be open to every idea or possibility, every food, or every possible person living in our house. We want to be “closed” to bad things, open to good things. How we define good and bad will differ, obviously, and whether we lean towards “open” or “closed.”

Let us filter the observations above through this grid.

With the laws about illegitimacy, we see a more “closed” approach to the family unit. Laws against “excessive” harboring of illegitimates protected the identity of the family centered on marriage and “common blood.” Thus, the extended family could have more weight in such a culture. The idea, for example, that an aristocrat’s body servant would be “part of the family,” is a modern conceit.

We see this same principle at work with the prohibition of selling “excessive” goods.** A preference towards “closed” leads to a desire to limit the general fluidity of things. Flooding the market one week could lead to drying it up the next, perhaps. I suppose also–a society with an aristocracy needs to strongly rely on tradition. Relying on tradition requires stability. One might counter that economic fluidity would not endanger political stability. This rings false–we know very well how economics, politics, and culture interrelate. Seen in this light such seemingly aberrant data points Erlanger notes actually make sense.

Erlanger includes enough nuggets to make us gawk, but we can’t stay there. We have to wonder, and follow the trail where it leads.


*This centuries long preference for “open” resides in our cultural DNA, and this makes turning back the fluid concepts of sexuality and gender prevalent in our culture very difficult. One needs a strongreference point outside of our culture in order to try and swim in the other direction. Appealing to our traditions, the Constitution, and so on will have zero impact.

**Perhaps this is not so strange to us, as we have similar practices with farmers today.

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