Babylon and Anglo-Saxon England

By Scheil, Andrew P. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Babylon and Anglo-Saxon England

Scheil, Andrew P., Studies in the Literary Imagination

   The instinct of the mind, the purpose of nature, betrays itself in
   use we make of the signal narrations of history. Time dissipates to
   shining ether the solid angularity of facts. No anchor, no cable, no
   fences avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon, Troy, Tyre, Palestine,
   even early Rome are passing already into fiction. The Garden of Eden,
   the sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry thenceforward to all
   nations. Who cares what the fact was, when we have made a
   of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign?

   -- Emerson, "History" 116

In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) pauses to introduce the history of Persia and the great, ancient realms of the East:

   In the more early ages of the world, whilst the forest that covered
   Europe afforded a retreat to a few wandering savages, the inhabitants
   of Asia were already collected into populous cities, and
   reduced under extensive empires, the seat of the arts, of luxury, and
   of despotism. The Assyrians reigned over the East, till the sceptre
   Ninus and Semiramis dropt from the hands of their enervated
   The Medes and the Babylonians divided their power, and
   were themselves swallowed up in the monarchy of the Persians,
   whose arms could not be confined within the narrow limits of Asia.
   (I: 216--17)

Gibbon's passage serves as a precis of the complex image Babylon has held in the West. It is a mixture of fear and awe: note the citation of extreme antiquity--Babylon had reached her apogee while the West was still struggling with flint and tinder; the locus classicus of imperial power and tyranny; the advanced state of culture--all, however, eventually sliding into decay and destruction as the weakened, enervated successors of Babylon fall to history.

Taken as a whole, as a web of narratives and images, Babylon incorporates a number of subsidiary allusions places: the Tower of Babel, the plain of Shinar, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; peoples (often blurred together indiscriminately): the Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Mesopotamians; characters: Nimrod, Ninus, Semiramis, Nebuchadnezzar, the Whore of Babylon; events: the founding of empires, waves of strife (including the Assyrian, Persian, and Macedonian conquests of the region), the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, and so forth. Though surely part of the incipient cultural atmosphere of the entire Middle Ages in Western Europe, and hence both everywhere and nowhere as a definable subject of inquiry, it is possible to isolate how Babylon operated in a more specifically bounded textual community, a particular time and place--Anglo-Saxon England. In the centuries preceding the Norman Conquest, how were the gardens and the gates, the temples and towers, of long-lost Babylon reassembled and superimposed upon the more modest reaches of York, of Canterbury, of London and Bath? As this preliminary study sketches out a picture of Babylon in the memory of Anglo-Saxon England and the early Middle Ages, we will survey some tropes that are familiar, others perhaps less so. (1)

The equation of Babylon with the Tower of Babel was a commonplace; the source of the connection was a false etymology in the Bible itself. Genesis tells us that "the beginning of [Nimrod's] kingdom was Babylon ... in the land of Sennaar" (10.8-10). (2) On this slim evidence Nimrod quickly assumes a place in tradition as the founder of the Babylonian empire (therefore the first tyrant) and the prodigious builder of the Tower of Babel; thus, by the seventh century, we find Isidore of Seville in his encyclopedic Etymologiae citing the importance of Babylon as the primal city: "Primus post diluvium Nembroth gigans Babylonem urbem Mesopotamiae fundavit" ("First after the flood Nimrod the giant built the city Babylon of Mesopotamia"; bk. 15, ch. 1, sc. 4). (3) A city and a tower rise in the very next chapter of Genesis, but the Lord decides to confound this hubristic enterprise, and the narrator connects Babel and Babylon: "And so the Lord scattered them from that place into all lands, and they ceased to build the city. …

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