Chapter 9

Now we are onto the Germans, who Gibbon likes much more than the Persians.

The most civilised nations of modern Europe issued from the woods of Germany, and in the rude institutions of those barbarians we may still distinguish the original principles of our present laws and manners.

Sadly his vies on the Germans are rather cliched – noble freedom-loving barbarians. I found much more interesting his guesses about climate change:

Some ingenious writers have suspected that Europe was much colder formerly than it is at present; and the most ancient descriptions of the climate of Germany tend exceedingly to confirm their theory. The general complaints of intense frost, and eternal winter, are perhaps little to be regarded, since we have no method of reducing to the accurate standard of the thermometer the feelings or the expressions of an orator, born in the happier regions of Greece or Asia. But I shall select two remarkable circumstances of a less equivocal nature. 1/. The great rivers which covered the Roman provinces, the Rhine and the Danube, were frequently frozen over, and capable of supporting the most enormous weights. The barbarians, who often chose that severe season for their inroads, transported, without apprehension or danger, their numerous armies, their cavalry, and their heavy wagons, over a vast and solid bridge of ice. Modern ages have not presented an instance of a like phenomenon. 2/. The reindeer, that useful animal, from whom the savage of the North derives the best comforts of his dreary life, is of a constitution that supports, and even requires, the most intense cold. He is found on the rock of Spitzberg, within ten degrees of the Pole; he seems to delight in the snows of Lapland and Siberia; but at present he cannot subsist, much less multiply, in any country to the south of the Baltic. In the time of Caesar, the reindeer, as well as the elk and the wild bull, was a native of the Hercynian forest, which then overshadowed a great part of Germany and Poland. The modern improvements sufficiently explain the causes of the diminution of the cold. These immense woods have been gradually cleared, which intercepted from the earth the rays of the sun. The morasses have been drained, and, in proportion as the soil has been cultivated, the air has become more temperate. Canada, at this day, is an exact picture of ancient Germany. Although situated in the same parallel with the finest provinces of France and England, that country experiences the most rigorous cold. The reindeer are very numerous, the ground is covered with deep and lasting snow, and the great river of St. Laurence is regularly frozen, in a season when the waters of the Seine and the Thames are usually free from ice.

It’s difficult to be very sure of any clinatological data; what little I could find suggested that Gibbon’s end of the 18th century was rather warm by (then) historical standards. He gets the relationship between fauna and forest cover backwards, but is probably right in the basic point that climate change is anthropogenic even at this stage of history.

He seems very taken with the manliness and general excellence of the Germans, and then suddenly takes a swipe at the long-forgotten Swedish scholar, Olaus Rudbeck. And it turns out that the ancient Germans weren’t so great either, because they were illiterate,

…and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular.

And it turns out that the Germans had no cities, no metal, no desire to work hard, and too much fondness for liquor (that is Gibbon’s word). But then we are back into fantasy territory, as their tradition of freedom through popular choice of rulers and judges is recited. Also they were more sexually controlled due to not being corrupted by civilisation.

This is one of the sillier chapters so far.

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1 Response to Chapter 9

  1. chilperic says:

    Avoid Gavin Menzies on 1434; appalling rubbish! I have just given my copy away.

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