Irishmen, Aristocrats, and Other White Barbarians

By Shuger, Debora | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Irishmen, Aristocrats, and Other White Barbarians


Shuger, Debora, Renaissance Quarterly


Et virum bonum quom laudabant, ita laudabant, bonum agricolam bonumque colonum.

- Cato, De agri cultura

In 1578 Hubert Languet wrote to his young protegee Philip Sidney concerning the latter's plan to assist the Low Countries in their fight against Spain. Surprisingly, the old republican Calvinist monarchomach vetoed the idea, bluntly informing the impulsive teenager that "you and your fellows, I mean men of noble birth, consider that nothing brings you more honour than wholesale slaughter', and you are generally guilty of the greatest injustice."(1) This hostile assessment of the aristocratic warrior ethos - what Languet derides as "mere love of fame and honour and . . . displaying your courage" - bears witness to a major ideological upheaval of the early modern period: the attack on the aristocratic politics of violence and, to quote another Elizabethan, "glory got by courage of manhood."(2) We tend to forget that the primary objects of social discipline, regimentation, and repression in the sixteenth century were not women; nor were they Jews, Moors, or Anabaptists. Rather, the civilizing process under the Tudors attempted to control white upperclass men - precisely because white upperclass men had what those others did not: namely, guns, swords, retainers, horses, and a habit of using them when aggrieved.(3)

The most trenchant Tudor/Stuart critiques of aristocratic warrior society, however, do not discuss England but two other islands: Utopia and Ireland. Thomas More's low opinion of the armigerous nobility being well-known, I want to consider the socio-political ramifications of the two most important Irish tracts: Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596) and Sir John Davies's A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued (1612).

Recent criticism of Tudor/Stuart Irish discourses (most of which deals with Spenser's View) has focused on their alleged imperialist, racist, and genocidal implications; in consequence, this criticism has generally dismissed their organizing polarity - civility versus barbarism - as an emotive equivalent to the trite and pernicious binarism of "Us" versus "Demonic Other."(4) Since Spenser and Davies propose the eradication of native Irish culture, modern scholarship has an understandable desire to question the legitimacy of their arguments; yet such dismissive moves foreclose the possibility of understanding the rather precise and complex historical paradigm implicit in their contrast between barbarous Irishmen and English civility.

Spenser and Davies, like numerous early modern Englishmen, consistently describe the Irish as barbarians. This label, however, does not conflate the Irish with New World or other non-white peoples but designates them as northern Europeans,(5) which is why Spenser draws extensive parallels between Irish culture and the customs of the Scythians, Gauls, Germans, and Britons.(6) While Davies does not share Spenser's passion for ethnography, his obiter dicta comparisons between the Irish and the ancient "Gauls, Germans . . . [and] the British in the time of Agricola" indicate that his Irish barbarians likewise trace their ancestry to the ancient peoples of northern Europe.(7)

The discursive genealogy of these ethnographic parallels is important. The barbarians to whom Spenser and Davies compare the Irish are not the ad hoc constructs of a burgeoning imperialist discourse. They make their first English appearance in Elizabethan avant-garde historiography, where they are identified with the native peoples of England. Prior to the 1580s, Tudor histories do not include England's barbarian origins, preferring the more respectable national pedigree provided by Brutus's Trojan band and the offspring of Old Testament patriarchs. As late as Holinshed's 1577 Chronicles, the earliest inhabitants of England (and Ireland) could be imagined as the highly civilized grandchildren of Noah, whose northward migrations had been recorded (and invented) by Giovanni Nanni, or the pseudo-Berosus; following Nanni, the Chronicles relate how one grandson, Bartolenus, settled Ireland, while another, the pious and learned Samothes, headed for England, where he built numerous towns and cities, leaving his great-grandson Druiyus to establish a college of Druid sages, who subsequently taught the Greek alphabet to the Athenians. …

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