Early Modern Times – we the Norse?

Early Modern Times - we the Norse?

Dear readers,

Congratulations to the Toronto Raptors, the first Canadian team to win the NBA championship to the hoop-las and Raptorous applause of their fans! One wonders if at the End of Time, they might remake itself into a group of those who will be taken up into Basketball Heaven while the rest of us are left to unremitting disaster: in other words, the Toronto Raptures.

The slogan of the Raptors has been, of course, the verbless self-identification of ‘We the North.’ Given the fact that Toronto is south of Maine and the same latitude as the state of Oregon, the slogan only makes sense in referring to Canada as generally north of the USA (though the denizens of Windsor ON like to refer to Detroit as their neighbour to the north). Where did the positive connotation attached to the North come from? In the middle ages, for example, the North was often associated with barbarian invasions, including from the Vikings–who may very well have adopted the slogan ‘We the Norse’.

In the early modern period, we eventually see a shift towards a less perjorative conception of North, though not initially. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant North was often pitted against the Catholic South (in general terms); for the latter, the un-germane Germans threatened the achievements of Catholic Renaissance culture. In the following century, even strident Protestants such as John Milton continued the negative image of the North. In his monster-piece Paradise Lost, the Kingdom of the Devil is located to the north. As the rather pompous and inertial God declares to his Son in Book 5 (i.e., two parts of the Trinity talking to itself), ‘Such a foe / Is rising, who intends to erect his throne / Equal to ours, throughout the spacious north’ (5.724-726). This is a sly reference to King Charles I raising his standard in Nottingham during the British civil wars–i.e., the archenemy Satan is behaving like an earthly king, whereas God is the only legitimate monarch in the cosmos–but Milton also draws upon images of the North as wild, barbaric, frozen, and devoid of divine love. Consequently, the rebel angels are illuminated by false fire and unable to soak up the rays of the divine, celestial light: hence Satan was accompanied by his bastard brother Faketan (patron deity of orange-skinned would-be dictators).

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment challenged the negative North. Montesquieu’s 1748 book The Spirit of the Laws is notorious for its crude climatological theory to explain the differences in political regimes. Based on irrefutable experiments on frozen sheep-tongues, for example, Montesquieu observed that cold weather contracts the fibres on the skin and causes greater retention of heat and energy in the human body. Hence, in northern climates, peoples are more vigorous, courageous, and freer than in the south: republics, therefore, tend to be found in the north. The true North is indeed strong and freeze. But the logic of baby bear’s porridge also applies here: too hot and too cold climates foster immoderation and forms of despotism. The torrid zone is horrid, while the frigid zone is rigid.

Montesquieu’s Scottish contemporary David Hume was critical of the French aristocrat’s reliance on climatology: the Baron’s logic is barren, in his view. Nevertheless, he occasionally quipped in his letters on the vitality of the Scottish Enlightenment compared to what was going on south of the Borders, despite his support of the union with England since 1707. Remarking on the achievements of his fellow Caledonians in Edinburgh and Glasgow–including the significant historiographical and historically-inclined work of William Robertson, best-buddy Adam Smith, and of course himself (especially Hume’s highly regarded History of England)–Hume declared to his publisher William Strahan that ‘I believe this is the historical Age and this the historical Nation’. In contrast, England’s lack of appreciation for his work and tendency towards excess in the late 18th century led him to denounce ‘the barbarians’ not in the North, but rather ‘on the banks of the Thames’. Hume, then, criticized the Vi-kings of England in contrast to those, like himself, who were Scot(&)free.

Although it may be the case that Canada is Scotland’s revenge on England, the northern part of North America was, then as now, often belittled. Voltaire, though an admirer of Hume, did not think much of Canada. In his 1759 novel Candide, the pessimist Martin characterises the Seven Years War between Britain and France in North America as a kind of ‘madness’: ‘the two countries are at war over a few acres of snow on the Canadian border, and they are spending rather more on their lovely war than the whole of Canada is worth’. He clearly gave the British conquest of Quebec a frosty reception.

Edmund Burke, in contrast, championed British moderation against French Revolutionary excess: supposedly in the spirit of freedom, but, he prophesied in 1790, likely to lead to Terror and dictatorship. Thus his ironic reference to the true North in his Reflections on the Revolution in France: ‘I hear that there are considerable emigrations from France; and that many, quitting that voluptuous climate, and that seductive Circean liberty, have taken refuge in the frozen regions, and under the British despotism, of Canada.’ In other words, the French émigrés rejected the Revolution’s intoxicating but false promise of liberty and instead opted for the North, as if uttering, ‘icy the promised land!’

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Raiders of the Lost Arctic Studies Program


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