By Steven G. Ellis
Imaging frontiers, contesting identities, edited by Steven G. Ellis and Lud’a Klusáková (Pisa University Press, 2007)
Abstract: The theory of human development from barbarism to civilization was a commonplace of political discourse in premodern times. It also supplied a useful ideological weapon of state formation and so enjoyed a wide currency among centralizing monarchs in the high middle ages and beyond. It could be deployed defensively as a method of stabilizing an existing frontier, as part of a rhetoric of difference. It could also be used more aggressively to undermine the claims to autonomy of a neighbouring people on whom the monarchy had designs. Traditionally, Latin Christian authors had used the word ‘barbarian’ as a synonym for ‘pagan’. From the 12th to the 17th centuries, however, the English monarchy adapted and exploited the theory in its dealings with the neighbouring Christian peoples of the British Isles, denigrating the Irish, Scots, and Welsh as primitive savages and barbarians. In this manner, the course of English history came to be represented as the triumph of civilization over savagery. Particularly in 16th-century Ireland, moreover, it also sought to translate ideology into a practical strategy of conquest, albeit with little success.
Introduction: One of the most effective means of clarifying the limits to a ruler’s authority was to foster antagonism towards neighbouring peoples living on the other side of a territorial frontier. This was frequently done through the creation, revival, and maintenance of ideologies, with their accompanying myths and symbols, which emphasized the uniqueness of the in-group and promoted a negative picture of the out-group. Very often these ideologies would emphasize religious or cultural differences between the two peoples, but where religious or cultural distinctions were less apparent, rhetorics of difference might be developed to overcome the similarities. A typical one was the practice of labelling neighbouring peoples as savages and barbarians. The theory of human development from barbarism to civilization was a commonplace of political discourse in medieval and early modern times. It was consciously used and misused in the case of almost all the European peripheries. In the context of state formation, the theory was also a useful ideological weapon in the hands of centralizing monarchy, enjoying a wide application in the high middle ages and beyond. In the political discourse of the early modern period, for instance, the periphery was to be discovered and explored, culturally civilized, and in general ‘Europeanized’. It could be exploited both negatively, as a method of stabilizing an existing frontier, by emphasizing the ‘otherness’ of peoples ‘beyond the Pale’. It could also be used more aggressively, as a means of undermining the claims to autonomy of a neighbouring people on whom the monarchy had designs. The present chapter, which aims to illustrate the particular application of the theory by the English monarchy of the Renaissance period, offers examples of both types of usage. A further extension of the aggressive strategy, which seems to have been peculiar to the English monarchy, sought to translate ideology into a practical strategy of conquest, but this strategy enjoyed little success.