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Old Lights on Newish History


It’s extraordinary the way things happen: Think of a set of events that occurred in the dark days of ancient history.  Then loose your mind to wander. Likely you will find parallels, not slight similarities, but actual parallels. Hence — Old Lights on Newish History!

It has happened to me a few times. The best example I recall took place when I was writing about the marriage of the unstable King John, a lost soul who never should have been king. In the year 1215 the barons of England rose and foisted Magna Carta on King John to keep him in line.

I was writing Power of a Woman, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine dictates her memoirs; she sets down a trenchant set of tales. The long-lived queen, first of France, then England, was a woman who rejected both kings and turned herself around to serve herself and her sons, basing her actions on her own judgment.

One among several great misfortunes in Eleanor’s final decade was that she had to witness the incompetence, narcissism and treachery of her youngest, and only surviving, son, King John.

Power of a Woman

Isabelle d’Angoulême and King John, in 1200. The lady seems older than twelve. Montage: ABC, Australia.

What caught my attention was the fact that John seized another man’s intended bride, taking the twelve-year-old Isabella of Angoulême as his second wife. (He had annulled his prior marriage to Isabelle, Countess of Gloucester.)

A wiser head might have prevailed if John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had been healthy at the time, but the aged lady was confined to her sick-bed; furthermore, Eleanor had her own charge-sheet of reasons to spite the man whose bride John stole, (Hugh IX le Brun, the Count of Lusignan.)

As I wrote this episode—in Eleanor’s voice—it seemed that I was mirroring the Iliad, replacing the names of Greek and Trojan characters but preserving their roles. What emerged as Chapter 44 of Power of a Woman carries the title, ‘Isabella plays Helen, the Angevins play Troy’. Here, Eleanor dictates: the following events took place in the year 1200 :

44. Isabella plays Helen, the Angevins play Troy

Eleanor in old age -- the age at which she dictated her memoirs. Commissioned for 'Power of a Woman', by forensic artist David Major.

Eleanor in old age — the age at which she dictated her memoirs. Commissioned for ‘Power of a Woman’, by forensic artist David Major.

¶  ‘Never was a man so besotted of a woman. Of that I am convinced’ — Eleanor dictates to her secretary — ‘These past three years have given me too much time to repent at leisure for my tacit complicity in our disasters. I should have risen from my sick-bed to fight John’s prick-fired lust. I should at least have fought for strength to think his actions through. But, how sweet it was to strike a blow against the Lusignans. Vengeance for me. Vengeance for Patrick of Salisbury. Vengeance for William Marshal and all the others robbed and maimed and murdered on those roads.

‘I confess, John’s marriage was the first such test in my life which I failed. I let my thirst for vengeance bewitch my grip on reason. It is a curse of old age to let a soft mind impose upon critical thought.

‘The whole unfolding saga of that time resembles a story told by bards in ancient Greece. O yes, its resemblance to our present coil has harped on my night-thoughts through these several months and years.

‘I speak of the Iliad, a great poem that tells the story of a beautiful woman whom many suitors hoped to marry. The woman, Helen, chose to marry Menelaus, king of Sparta. (In this tale, listeners must accept the curiosity that in olden days a woman of noble birth was free to choose her spouse.) But the matter didn’t end there. A prince from the city of Troy, whose name was Paris, desired Helen, too. Paris came to Sparta, where Menelaus, knowing nothing of his lust, greeted him well and entertained him.

‘Paris had the support of the goddess Aphrodite, who contrived to send Menelaus away on a false pretext. Whereupon Paris seized Helen and carried her off to an island, Kranai. The following day they sailed for Troy.

‘The resulting warfare lasted ten years and led to the downfall of Troy.

‘Foolish, foolish, foolish thoughts. In years past I would not have let them lodging in my brain. But an idle body breeds anxiety. Never be old, and you’ll never be anxious.

‘I see it so clearly. Helen is Isabella of Angoulême; Menelaus is Hughes le Brun; Sparta with its warrior clan is Lusignan; and Paris, prince of Troy, is my foolish John. Paris! What a nemesis hangs upon that name.

‘Nor is that all. Hughes le Brun fed and entertained his betrayer, as did Menelaus. Hughes was sent on distant business, as was Menelaus. Chinon, where John harboured his stolen bride, stands for the Iliad’s island of Kranai. Timeless Aphrodite, who aided and abetted Paris, conceals herself in my ancient being. And Troy—God help me—Troy is everything my life’s work built to be possessed and ruled by men now dead.’

‘Everything my life’s work built’

‘Everything my life’s work built’ was Henry II’s and Eleanor’s Angevin Empire, which stretched from the Pyrenees to the Scottish border. John’s seizure of Isabelle caused King Philip of France to attack, seizing Angevin lands on the continent. (Philip’s forces mirror the Greeks’ war on Troy.) By the time Eleanor died at the end of March, 1204, the rest of her empire was at risk, as well. It would soon fall.

King John’s strategic miscalculation—his unintended replay of the ‘Trojan War’—lasted just two years, not ten. Graham Allison, discussing  ‘Thucydides Trap’ in The Atlantic this month, reasons ‘that business as usual—not just an unexpected, extraordinary event—can trigger large-scale conflict.’

When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes that involved parties would not have chosen’.

Allison’s article picks up a comment made by President of China Xi Jinping in Seattle this week (Sept 22, 2015): ‘There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world,’ said President Xi. ‘But should major countries time and again make the miOld Lights on Newish History: eternity on a Möbius curvestakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.’ It may be that events repeat, almost exactly, in every period of human history —Old Lights on Newish History—as if we move forwards in thrall on an era-bestriding Möbius curve.

© RSPF / ‘Old Lights on Newish History’ ~ and Power of a Woman, ch. 44 ~ 03.10.2015