Saturday, March 01, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian

Map: Ottoman Empire, 1683.

I have just finished reading Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian.

It took me a little while to get into the book, but then I became completely absorbed, lost in the world she created. I can see why it is an international best seller.

For those who do not know the book, it is the story of three, parallel linked searches for Dracula. Part horror, part historical mystery, part family story, the book sprawls across space and time. At one moment the reader is in soviet era Hungary, then thrust back to Europe at the time of the fall of Constantinople, counterpointed to modern France.

This may sound complicated and it can be, but the writer holds it all together, creating a composite world so that the reader comes to see it all as a whole.

I probably know more history than most, so I knew the broad outline of the events in question. Beyond this, I was strongly reminded just how little I know of the history of Eastern Europe, Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire.

Much of the history I have studied or read for personal enjoyment has had a British or Western European focus. This affects both topics and perceptions.

Take the history of the Roman Empire as an example.

In 324 the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Nicomedia (Rome itself had not been capital since the reign of Diocletian 248-305) to Byzantium which he renamed Constantinople.

From then until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a period of over a thousand years, the Eastern Roman Empire thought of itself simply as the Roman Empire. The invading Turks called the people of the Empire the Romans. Today, the name survives in Roumania.

Throughout this period, the Eastern Empire maintained an unbroken imperial succession linked back to the glory days of the Empire as a whole. The Empire changed during the period. Greek replaced Latin, Christianity the old Roman gods, yet the Empire was clearly the lineal historical descendant of the world of Rome in a way that Western Europe was not.

In Harry Tutledove's Videssos series, books that I have always enjoyed, Videssos the city and its Empire is based on Byzantium.

Despite all this, the history of the Eastern Empire itself was often ignored in the study and teaching of European history. The reasons for this lie in the combination of history, religion and politics.

To many of the people of what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and Western Europe, the decline of Rome was an unparalleled disaster.

This was a period of mass invasions and people movements. Those like me who studied European or British history at school had to come to grips with Huns, Goths, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings. Later came the Muslim invasions.

It was not until 1529 when the onset of winter forced the withdrawal of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent from the siege of Vienna, that the western spread of Muslim power stopped. By then, the Ottoman Empire rivalled any of the older empires in size and power. The map at the top of the page shows its territory in 1683.

All history is centric. To those writing from the perspective of Western Europe, the historical story is one of their survival and ultimate growth. The Eastern Roman and indeed the successor Ottoman Empire were both seen through a frame set by their relations with Western Europe. However, there were internal political dynamics as well that led to the relative historical neglect of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Headquartered in Rome, the Western Catholic Church claimed to be the catholic universal church. This position was not recognised by the Eastern Church, so that there came to be a religious Christian divide that directly mirrored the west-east division in the Roman Empire.

Both the western and eastern churches had political as well as spiritual power. In the western case, the Church claimed that rulers gained their power from God, ie the Church. This might not always be accepted, but rulers too looked back to the past.

Charlemagne was King of the Franks (French). In 800 he invaded Rome and forced Pope Leo III to proclaim him Imperator Augustus on 25 December 800 in an attempted revival of the Roman Empire in the West.

This link between Emperor and Pope is critical to an understanding of the history of Western Europe. Between them, church and state created a framework that linked back to past glories in what had become a much diminished enclave, a shadow of its past.

This framework survives to the present day even in modern Australia. We can in fact see it in the topic selection for the NSW ancient history syllabus!

Much later

Ninglun (Neil) has just put up a rather interesting post linked in part to the work of Norman Davies. Davies argues against the Western Eurocentric view. However, this reminded me of the need to make a correction to this post.

I wrote:

To many of the people of what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and Western Europe, the decline of Rome was an unparalleled disaster.

The inclusion of Ireland was a mistake in that the decline of Rome was not, I now think, a disaster for Ireland. I will explain why in a later post.

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