Friday, February 05, 2010

Wyrd And Providence - Part IV

The Book of Nature. If I get to it after clearing up some other stuff.
Ah well. This is where my claim falls to the ground.
Monty Python, Stake Your Claim
karrde's comment on part III, and my own response to it, sets me to thinking. I shouldn't put everyone through the back and forth of whether my original theory is now in ribbons - people read essays of folks who have worked that out before writing, not this will he/nill he of an internal debate. But perhaps it will entertain.

I connected Calvinist Providence to Germanic/Norse wyrd across 6 centuries on the basis of geographic restriction and cultural persistence, though admitting it might be a stretch. But there is an enormous intervening fact in those centuries that looks a more plausible explanation. The Black Death, which wiped out 1/3 of Europe in the 14th C, was particularly destructive in the areas I identified on the east coast of England, claiming upwards of 40% of the population. Each one buries one. For instilling a sense of doom and fatalism, it would be hard to top that as a cause. It doesn't rely on possible cultural transmission over 600 years, but awareness of catastrophe over 200. As abandoned villages would still be on the landscape, reminders to all who passed, a 200-year memory doesn't seem improbable. It's a more compact explanation to point to the Black Death's fury as a cause of Calvinist belief in destiny, providence, election.

Two lines remain which might give my theory some breathing room. A) Both could be true, with the events of 1348-9 powerfully reinforcing an already existing sense of doom. B) Other areas with heavy losses did not adopt this philosophy, suggesting that there was indeed something different in East Anglia and surrounding areas. It would be hard to argue that areas that lost "only" 25% of their population were significantly less traumatised.

I leave it there for now. On to the 17th & 18th C American Puritans and their reading from the Book of Nature. However the culture developed to get them to that habit of mind, we know that they did get to that habit of mind. Nature could be observed, decoded, interpreted, read, originally to understand God's judgments and messages, but over time, to understand God's nature. Natural history (itself a revealing phrase) and natural philosophy, what we would now call observational science grew explosively in the 18th C. Moreover, it was an enormously North American pursuit, the first disciplines where the mere colonists and upstarts became world leaders. Even now, the list of natural history museums shows an overwhelmingly greater frequency in the US and Canada, with the rest of the Anglosphere holding the next rank of concentration.

From understanding God's nature to understanding the nature of the universe may be a great change philosophically, but only a short step in practice. One performs the same acts with a different attitude or perspective.

This is all on one level unsurprising and unremarkable. Farmers and sea-traders watch the plants, the skies, and the waters anxiously. Understanding nature, with or without the God part, and then harnessing nature are a matter of economic survival. Plunk down colonists in unfamiliar territory and they are going to observe their surrounding feverishly, making many guesses as to what is up.

Yet why a book of nature? Why that image, that analogy that embedded itself in New England culture, giving eventual rise to deism, Unitarianism, and the modern save-the-whales church in general? Given what we now know about colonists behavior toward the natives - originally quite different in New England than in other regions, though it ended much the same - how did the Puritan admiration/contempt attitude toward Indians get accommodated into this book?

Well, I think the printing press is going to be involved, and the germ theory of disease, and what we would now call cultural confidence. But I don't think they ever did find a place for the natives in their understanding, neither the Puritans, the Unitarians, nor the transcendentalists. Theories developed in Europe, but fell apart in the reality of the colonies. Stay tuned.


karrde said...

I think you've got a the very least, the old idea of wyrd can't be ruled out as a proximate cause.

Of course, neither can the Plague be ignored.

The rest of your thoughts are interesting...I am reminded of the writing style used by William Bradford in his Of Plimouth Plantation.

Every event that happened to the colony is introduced by the phrase "And it pleased the Lord to....".

That phrase, and the ideas behind it, agree with the notion that you're trying to spell out.

Retriever said...

Never underestimate the influence of climate and landscape. My parents lived awhile in Ely, near Cambridge. Like Holland, the landscape is dreary, wet, tho rich soil for growing crops. Grey skies and depressing dank cold tho green country. Prone to flooding. Cromwell's house is in Ely. During the British Civil War he stabled the horses of his Roundhead army in Ely Cathedral and the Puritans smashed those images of saints and Mary still in the Lady Chapel. Hard, aesthetically cruel and determined people. I have Puritan ancestors so I can say it. Also there is always the theory that there was a high preponderance of mood disoderscand social misfits who could not fit in and get along in England. In manic, expansive mode founding new churches and colonies. In depressive mode brooding over eternal damnation. I do not mean to sound flippant--dozing, stranded by closed home airport, on Red Cross cot at OHare. But climate enormously affects temperament. Perhaps theology also?