Politics, The Force of Arms, And Genteel Language

It was on this day, 28 October, in 1066 – nine and a half centuries ago – that Duke William of Normandy, known as “William the Bastard” due to his illegitimate birth, but later styled William The Conqueror, (Guillaume Le Conquerant) received the submission of the Saxons of Kent and their recognition of him as King of England.

William had landed on the English coast exactly one month before. The Norman forces met in battle with the Saxon troops of English king Harold II on 14 October 1066 at Hastings. There, after a long and pitched battle, King Harold was killed by an arrow through his eye, according to legend, and the Norman army proved victorious. Duke William moved quickly to consolidate his victory and to secure the acceptance of his rule among the vanquished Saxons of England’s rich and fertile south. Though the Norman invasion force was comparatively small, they quickly pacified southern England and William marched to London where he would be crowned William I, starting a period of Norman/French rule over England that forever changed England and her peoples.

Perhaps the greatest impact of this invasion and its aftermath is to be found in our modern English language. In 1066, England spoke Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic dialect very unlike what we speak today. William and his Normans spoke Norman French, and French remained the language of the Royal Court for more than two centuries. In the ensuing 950 years, the two more-or-less merged into what we speak today.

Because of the fact that the nobility spoke French and the peasantry spoke Anglo-Saxon, there is still a sense of refinement and niceness attached to the Frenchified way of saying things. This is perhaps most notable at our mealtimes; one does not eat “cow,” (Anglo-Saxon) rather “beef” (French.) And so it is with many meats: pig/pork, calf/veal, buck/venison, and sheep/mutton. For some reason, the pattern is not followed with birds, and it is not followed in vegetables and grains, most likely due to the fact that the meals of the nobility were preponderantly meat, those of the peasants coarse meal and legumes.

In other areas of our tongue this pattern of nicer French-derived words versus meaner Anglo-Saxon words still applies. For example, “Royal” is far more frequently used than “Kingly” (and “Regal”, derived directly from Latin is fancier still.) A mansion is finer than a house, a cottage nicer than a hut. Chivalry is more polished than mere Knighthood, garmentry more stylish than mere clothing. Larceny has a cleaner ring to it than theft, while courage seems elevated above mere hardihood. To deceive is done with greater refinement than to lie, just as to cry out is more genteel than to yell out. And such a list could run to many thousands of examples. Indeed, language is what people of attainment employ whereas a tongue is what the every-day folk speak.

Of course it is true that the Norman Conquest left us many other legacies in Government, Law, and Culture. But the linguistic heritage we received from this invasion touches us all, even today, hundreds of times each day.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

— Rudyard Kipling

Technological Progress and Romantic Legend

It was on this day, October 24, 1861, that the Western Union Telegraph Company successfully completed the first transcontinental telegraph link between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. This vital communication link was completed in a remarkably short time; only a little more than a year before had Congress offered an annual subsidy of $40,000.00 to any company that could complete the project of linking the Eastern telegraph network, which extended as far west as Saint Joseph, Missouri, and the Western telegraph network, which extended as far East as Virginia City, Nevada.

The completion of the link between East and West was crucial in helping to ensure that California and the West remained in the Union. Prior to the connection of the two telegraph networks, the fastest that information could move across the continent was the speed of a fast rider on a fresh horse, about ten miles an hour. At a stroke, information could travel that great distance in minutes. It took more than a week for the text of Lincoln’s first inaugural address to reach California. It took less than fifteen minutes for the text of his Gettysburg address to be transmitted over the telegraph to San Francisco.

The telegraph link also spelled the end for the legendary Pony Express. The short-lived Pony Express began operation April 3, 1860 about the time that Congress was debating a telegraph subsidy, and ceased operation abruptly upon completion of the telegraph link. In the scant 18 months of its existence, the Pony express embedded itself in the mythology of the Old West with lore and color that the telegraph could never hope to match. Such is progress.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We can communicate an idea around the world in seventy seconds, but it sometimes takes years for an idea to get through a quarter-inch of human skull.

— Charles F. Kettering

The World Turned Upside Down

It so often happens along the inexorable March Of History that great changes and meaningful events are the result of violence – usually massed violence in the forms of wars and battles, occasionally individual violence as murder and assassination – but sometimes potent change comes about in more appealing and productive ways. Many notable historical occurrences that have an impact upon the United States of America took place on 19 October, some violent, some not so much so.

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In 1864, on 19 October, Union General Philip Sheridan rallied his panicked forces to turn the tide of the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ending once and for all the Confederate threat to invade the Union. The victory was decisive, but desperately costly. It did not end the conflict – that was still more than six months away – but from that point forward, the outcome of the war was inevitable: the Union would triumph. An important result of this victory, too, was that it served as a major boost for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for a second term as President.

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And it was on this day in 1781 that British General Lord Cornwallis surrendered his force of nearly 9,000 men to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia. Though the war did not officially end for two years, this surrender marked the effective end of British efforts to retain the Colonies by force. American independence was secured and the new nation could concentrate on rebuilding.

General Cornwallis had initially insisted on surrendering to the French, but General Rochambeau insisted that he was only there to assist Washington, and refused to accept Cornwallis’ proposal.

Washington’s forces at Yorktown included some 5,000 French Army regulars, and Yorktown’s seaward approaches were guarded by French Admiral De Grasse’s heavily armed fleet. Washington told the French General Rochambeau: “This could not have been achieved without your participation. The United States are for ever in your debt.”

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Yet small and peaceful events can have an immense impact upon history as well, so it is apt that I observe that it was on this day, 19 October 1469, that a small and secret wedding took place that produced an impact that resonates even today. It is a story that seems more likely to have been written as a fairy tale than a chronicle of history: a beautiful teenaged princess rejected eligible suitor after eligible suitor, finding no man quite to her liking, until, at long last she stealthily eloped to secretly marry the carefully disguised teenager whom she first intended to marry, he himself a handsome prince; the marriage united their two kingdoms and the royal lovebirds and their two kingdoms prospered and they all lived happily ever after.

Well, the reality is rather more complex and nuanced than that quick spin, yet the basics are found in the historical record. Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon were indeed secretly married on this day in 1469. The secrecy was needed because the political implications of the two largest and most powerful kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula being conjoined in matrimony was immense. For a generation or more prior to this marriage, the whole of Iberia had been rent by war and rebellion and a succession of indifferent or incompetent monarchs among various kingdoms and principalities had resulted in civil unrest and economic decline across the region. A marriage between Castile and Aragon threatened to fundamentally shift the power in Iberia, and so it did. From this small and secret wedding ultimately arose the greatest global superpower history had seen to that time, and Spain dominated European power politics for more than a century.

Though Spain was not a single nation during their lives, under the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, Emperor Charles V, a unified Spanish nation was realized, and Spain’s conquest and plundering of the New World permitted unimagined wealth to flood into the formerly cash-poor lands of Iberia. As heir to the Habsburg domains as well, Emperor Charles V ruled over what was then the most extensive empire in history, stretching across half the globe.

And, of course, as ever schoolchild knows, this empire was the result of Queen Isabella’s investment in a modest adventure proposed by an Italian navigator. In 1492, Queen Isabella sponsored the voyage of Christopher Columbus to develop a western passage to Asia. The fact that Columbus never came close to reaching his intended destination notwithstanding, his arrival in the Caribbean indeed changed everything that followed. The indigenous inhabitants of the New World were extirpated or marginalized, and over the next four centuries Europe rushed in, reshaping the global economy, and permanently altering the course of history. This change most certainly was not accomplished without violence and bloodshed, but the spark that touched off the conflagration of change was indeed just a simple, secret, and very private wedding in the unprepossessing city of Valladolid, in a modest realm of the Iberian Peninsula.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.

— Michael Crighton