Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Civilisation Judas - Port of the Gauls

*** An audio version of this book is available on YouTube.

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Civilisation Judas - Chapter 5 - Port of the Gauls

So, after the detour of the last chapter I can return to the current task at hand. Namely the economic shift from the Middle East to Europe. We may start by noting how everything in history, and I mean everything, seems to have its starting point in the Middle East. The three major Abrahamic religions have their origins there. Even civilisation itself is said to have begun there. First with the advent of farming in the fertile crescent, or the Neolithic Revolution as it's called, and then with the subsequent rise of ancient Mesopotamia. Likewise the earliest literature, the birth of which is synonymous with the beginnings of civilisation, is found there in the form of ancient Sumerian texts. It's even often stated that the wheel was invented there. It seems everything that we deem a hallmark of civilisation gets traced backwards to the Middle East in a similar progression.

It's a well known timeline - we got our civilisation from the Greeks, who in turn were preceded by the Egyptians, who likewise followed on from ancient Sumeria. In fact, even the Garden of Eden, the very origin point of all Abrahamic tradition is often said to have had its "real" location in Mesopotamia.

In the west we seem to have this in-built desire to find our origins in this "middle" area of the world landmass. It has a similar outpouring in new age obsessions over ancient Egypt and its various mysteries. In alternative circles it's popularly stated that Freemasonry and other secret societies can trace their lineage back to Egypt. Though even in the case of the lofty Freemasonry the official and recorded history dates back no further than a few centuries. As in the previous chapter, we like things to be old, and whatever tradition we ourselves believe in we like to know it's as ancient as possible. For people consciously or unconsciously thinking within the constraints of our western paradigm "a long, long time ago in the Middle East" is the furthest back any tradition can go. So it's the obvious place for people to root their myths. Be they religious, academic or otherwise.

To anyone free from this way of thinking this focus on the Middle East can seem a little odd, especially with regard to the religious mania focused on the region. Three major religions all fighting to place their flag in what otherwise looks like a barren desert can seem a little deranged at times. Particularly when so little of modern civilisation can be found there. What makes this region, so unattractive in many practical and aesthetic ways, so valuable to people of a religious persuasion? Of course, people will state that the value is found in the fact that these religions began there. However, this then begets the question why were these three huge religions started there? Why was this region so busy with new religious ideas and philosophies in comparison to everywhere else, and what led to these ideas spreading to the rest of the world in such a dominant way. Again, I guess some would give the answer "because God willed it", but again, the reply would come back "but why would God will it there in particular?". There must be some rational reason.

Personally, I believe there is a rational reason, though as per the ideas discussed in the last chapter it may require some un-belief in the accepted version of history. I believe that rational reason can be found in economics.

First you have to imagine a world before the advent of major oceanic sailing. A world preceding the Age of Exploration, which saw European sailors venture out onto the "world ocean" and into dark areas of the map labelled simply "unknown". An era which saw two major discoveries in particular. The most notable being the discovery of the American continent by the Spanish. The other, and perhaps more important in regard the argument I'm about to make, being the successful navigation around the southern tip of Africa by the Portuguese in the 15th century.

(By sailing around the tip of Africa the
Portuguese managed to circumvent the inland trading routes)

Now when the Portuguese succeeded in making this trip around the tip of Africa (and then into the Indian Ocean) it meant that there was now, for the first time in history, a way to trade with the east via a single oceanic voyage. A feat that we unthinkingly take for granted today, but which must have seemed something of a world changing revelation at the time. Just envision the world economy before this possibility was opened up. All major international trade would have been via land journey and/or much shorter seagoing journeys. Therefore, the centre of world trade will have been the centre of the world landmass - i.e. the Middle East.

All major trade between east and west will have came through this crucial region. The items coming back and forth along these trade routes coming via numerous hands and being taxed at numerous points along the way. Making the people in control of these trade hubs very wealthy and powerful. So when the Portuguese started to bypass this they managed to undercut the whole operation. You can imagine how unhappy their eastern trading rivals were. A virtual monopoly on trade brought crashing down by a single voyage of discovery. [1]

So let us imagine this world before the Portuguese brought it all tumbling down. Vast journeys to far flung places via the world ocean are not an option. Let alone a trading option. As a result, the impetus for trade has an inward focus. Most the people just trade locally, and any trade of a larger scale has to look inwards to the land, not so much outwards to the sea. Consequently, the central areas and the inner seas of the world map become the areas of real action. The melting pot in the middle where everything meets. Where the most exotic goods can be found, and where wealth can be most easily made and accumulated.

This is why the three major Abrahamic religions have their seat in the Middle East. Not because of divine selection, nor historical accident, but because this is where the focus of the world economy was at that time. Just as how now the wealthy capitals of our modern world economy, such as New York, Tokyo and London, tend also to be the places where cultural trends are set and political ideas put in action.

A good example of how economic opportunity leads to the spread of religion is the USA itself. The USA is primarily a Christian country, and countless European Christians arrived in the Americas with the dream of starting a new life there. However, the primary reason why Christians arrived en masse in what is now the USA was not Christianity itself, but the economic circumstances. The newly discovered Americas provided a huge opportunity for any Europeans willing or desperate enough to make the journey. This was what provided the main impetus for people choosing to go. They left mainly for economic reasons, and when they left they took their Christianity with them. Without this economic opportunity things wouldn't have turned out quite how they did.

Of course, their religious and political beliefs may have had some bearing on their decision to leave or not to leave, and it's worth noting as a counterbalance that at times a few hardy souls may make a difficult pilgrimage to some ungodly place for purely spiritual reasons. However, the prospect of poverty is generally quite unappealing to the average person, no matter how spiritually inclined they may be. Plus without at least some kind of economic success it's unlikely any religious message or purpose will endure anyway. Nor would it be possible to raise a family and ensure the success and happiness of successive generations if people ignored the basic economic necessities. So the economic factors always tend to be the most overriding ones for people. They dictate human migration patterns, and likewise the flow of ideas and cultures.

It's similar now with the modern immigration of Muslim people into western countries. They're making these journeys primarily for economic reasons. This is easy to understand and obvious to see from our point of view witnessing it. It also makes perfect sense given the difference in living standards between the countries they're leaving and the countries they're arriving in. It's a perfectly logical thing to do, and it has little to do with religion in actuality. So it would be silly for us to try to explain today's mass migrations, and likewise the spread of religion in our era, by ignoring these everyday factors and practicalities. However, we tend to ignore these things when we look back at history. We try to explain the development of religion in purely religious terms. As if all the various figures involved didn't have to pay bills and make ends meet like we do. Fortunately with the American example, the history is so recent that we don't have to guess at how and when Europeans arrived in North America. The basic circumstances are all on record. So it's easy for us to understand how and why so many white European Christians ended up living so far from Europe.

Imagine this wasn't the case though, and our recorded history only stretched back a century or so. Imagine the countless wacky and bizarre theories that people would put forth to explain why white Christian communities could be found on both sides of the Atlantic. It's worth picturing the potential scenario. Without documented evidence how would anyone know when Europeans arrived in the Americas. Or even if they arrived at all. Perhaps people would speculate that Europeans had always been there, or even that the Europeans in Europe had originally came from the Americas. Of course, there would be nothing wrong with such speculation given the lack of sufficient historical evidence. It would even be difficult for people in possession of the correct answer to prove and know that they were right with categoric certainty. Sometimes we just have to accept that we simply don't know, and that all we can do is offer a "best guess". However, with such an absence of evidence it's always better to assume that whatever happened in the past happened due to the same forces that drive human behaviour today. Rather than to ignore the daily necessities of life, and invoke more fanciful reasons. [2]

Returning to my original purpose, which was to simply highlight the role trade played in making the Middle East the religious centre of gravity. I guess I could simplify the whole argument by stating the general rule;

Where you have economic opportunity you get concentrations of people. Where you get concentrations of people you get the blossoming of culture.

Think of a situation where a hill or mountain is discovered to contain gold. First you have prospectors turning up, then you get miners. Then you get taverns opening up to service the miners. Then you get musicians and showmen playing in the taverns. Then you get inns for such visitors to stay at. An entire town or village can spring up around this single discovery. Perhaps this town or village will then go on to have a huge influence on the wider world, perhaps even producing great men of history, who influence the wider world in some important way or other. These figures, their ideas and endeavours may become much more famous than the original discovery of "gold in dem hills". However, none of this impressive wellspring of civilisation would be present were it not for this original economic pull.

It's much the same with the Middle East prior to the Age of Discovery, only to a much, much greater degree. The Middle East, the Mediterranean, Anatolia and the Indian Ocean were all swimming with economic activity at this time. They were the busy high streets of the world economy. The market place of the world, and consequently also a market place for ideas and information. Not to mention the very centres of wealth and power.

So I would wager that all the migrations we witness in history as coming from the Middle East to Europe are in effect echoes, or garbled traditions relating to this economic shift that occurred following the explorative exploits of the Portuguese, and then later other sailors. Things we think of as occurring deep in antiquity in all probability happened much more recently, in the centuries preceding the Age of Exploration. I would include in that everything in regard "biblical" history, and also even perhaps the flow of civilisation from places such as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In effect, we've mistaken an economic shift in human history for the human story as a whole.

Or to summarise it;

  • The world economy was originally focused on the Middle East - the centre of the world landmass.
  • The discoveries of European sailors then shifted this focus away from the Middle East and to areas facing outwards, towards the "world ocean" - i.e. areas on the edge of the world landmass. Especially so Europe.
  • Consequently the focus of civilisation and culture shifted from the Middle East to Europe.

Then furthermore;

  • The historical evidence of this shift - i.e. the evidence of extensive civilisation in the Middle East, preceding the more recent extensive civilisation found in Europe - became misconstrued as evidence that civilisation gradually developed. Beginning in the Middle East deep in history and then slowly reaching Europe and elsewhere over the course of many centuries.
  • When in actual fact that evidence was just the effect of a vast economic shift. Precipitated by these new oceanic discoveries.

To take an overview it seems all we really have is a fairly well recorded European history, preceded by a much more murky Middle Eastern or Mediterranean history. Before which we have very little at all. Everything lost beyond some dark historic event horizon, as per the last chapter. Much like how our vision is limited the further into the distance we look.

This grand economic shift may also in part explain the flow, or perceived flow of Jewish peoples from the Middle East in history. As we mentioned in previous chapters Jews could be viewed as being a product of city-based living. A class of people naturally emerging from wider society as towns and cities grow and proceed to trade with each other. Presumably, given that the Middle East was once the centre of world trade, such a class of people would be in abundance there. Once the shift occurred though, and the focus of world economics moved to Europe it naturally follows that Europe would now become the natural centre for such a class. No doubt some traders will have migrated from the Middle East to follow this shift in trade and opportunity. Perhaps even in large numbers. It may also be possible that the change in economic fortune of the regions now being undercut by European traders led to various social and political upheavals in these areas. Forcing people to leave en masse.

From our vantage point looking back it would be easy to underestimate how world changing the discoveries of European explorers were. The knowledge and opportunity these discoveries yielded led to a shift in power hard to comprehend. When the Portuguese began their endeavours to explore the world ocean in the 15th century, largely thanks to the patronage of the famed prince Henry the Navigator, their view of the world was quite different to the view we have now. Their knowledge was so limited that many sailors believed that as they sailed closer to the equator the ocean would begin to boil, and that it was simply impossible for humans to pass beyond this fiery terminus. The revelation of what was found beyond these limitations therefore represented a huge leap in understanding and possibility.

The Portuguese kingdom was found at the very end of the European landmass, and this breakaway kingdom, by exerting its independence and spirit of adventure started a revolution not only political and economic, but also in thought and understanding. Looking at the very name Portugal it's also interesting in regard the idea that "ancient" and medieval history are much more merged and entwined than is generally allowed for. Some have speculated that the name simply means "port of the Gauls". If we took this literally we could therefore view Portugal as the entrepôt for the entire body of people in north-western Europe. The Gauls of course being the numerous Celtic and Gallic tribes the ancient Romans encountered to the north. So perhaps we once again see echoes of the now obscured clashes of civilisation that happened prior to and in consequence of Europeans trying to break out from Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dominance.

Again, it's difficult to know exactly what happened so deep in history, but nevertheless we once again see similar and overlapping themes when we look back at both the ancient and medieval narratives. Very much running counter to the idea that centuries of dark age barbarianism separated these periods of complex civilisation.


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Notes/references

[1] Fretting over the danger these Portuguese discoveries posed to the Venetian economy the nobleman Girolamo Priuli wrote;

"..all the people from across the mountains who once came to Venice to buy their spices with their money will now turn to Lisbon.."

He noted the situation in regard goods coming through Venice as follows "..with all the duties, customs, and excises between the country of the Sultan and the city of Venice I might say that a thing that cost one ducat multiplies to sixty and perhaps to a hundred".

Illustrating just how much cost could be shaved off goods by the newly found Portuguese trade routes.

This can be found in the aforecited book, A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton, pp 188-189. Who in turn referenced the work Ambassador from Venice: Pietro Pasqualigo in Lisbon, 1501. Donald Weinstein (ed.),  (Minneapolis, 1960), pp. 29-30.

[2] In the notes and references to Chapter Four I mentioned the book The History of Britain Revealed. In that work a similar though more succinct sentiment is expressed - "What is is what was - unless you've got bone-chilling evidence to the contrary." I won't try to explain it for fear of bastardising it, but it essentially states that it's best to assume that the situation in the past was the same as it is today, unless there's good evidence suggesting otherwise.


Further chapters can be found here.

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