The formula for what creates a people is complex. To an extent, unfathomable. The ethnic genetic stock, the land on which it lives, the earlier groups which join together, the religion, the requirements for survival…all this and more creates a unique fingerprint. The Anglosphere is no different; its foundation stock is the global diaspora of settlement and migration which set out at various times from the British Isles. Its culture is uniquely individualist and based on personal trust and drive. Its ancestral religion is the ancient Christian faith as it manifested in the furthest outposts of the post-Roman West.
In The WASP Question, Dr. Andrew Fraser presents a history of this Anglo-British ethnoculture from the migration across the English channel all the way to the modern period. This history makes up the first part of the book, with a focus on the religious aspect of this identity. The Anglo-Saxons were formed and birthed as a Christian people from early on in their history in the Isles, and as such their “baptized” Germanic cultural and political forms play a truly foundational role in the later history of the English. The second and third parts of the book examine the decline of the English people and their world, particularly with the rise of the novus ordo seclorum. Due to the depth of detail, parts II and III will be looked at in a second piece. By way of background, Fraser is a Canadian-born academic who currently resides and works in Australia. After studying constitutional law at Harvard and an MA from the University of North Carolina, he went on to teach American constitutional history in Sydney.
Human biodiversity is important in Fraser’s work: the biological stock of the population is just as fundamental a part of ethnoculture as religion, family structure, the land, and so on. As with all systems, the population both influences and is influenced by these other elements. Therefore, the tendencies exhibited by individuals and the early Anglo-Saxon population becomes expressed over time as cultural norms as a people becomes an increasingly coherent nation. Among the traits of the Anglo-Saxons can be counted a strong individualism; a more nuclear family structure rather than an extended clan; a morality based on individual guilt rather than collective shame. The concept of law is central to Fraser’s conception of English civilization:
Medieval Europe created a legal civilization, nowhere more obviously or successfully than its Anglo-Saxon province. The English, like other Christian peoples, [in the words of Walter Ullmann] “were given their religion, their faith, their dogma, in the shape of a law”.
However, this presence of the law existed side by side with a magical-transcendent underpinning of the old Anglo-Saxon culture in which England finds its roots. Here is where Fraser’s thesis starts to unfold:
My thesis is the social psychology of the Anglo-Saxons evolved in three stages, in a process of “punctuated equilibrium”. The primitive, magicoreligious influences on the social character of the early Anglo-Saxons were suppressed, first, by formal institutions (embryonic states and the Church) that fostered the dominant “tradition-directed character type of medieval England; second, by the development of an “inner-directed” character adapted to the early modern bourgeois market economy; and third, by the emergence of the “other-directed” character type among WASPs in the service of the modern corporate welfare state.
The prelude to this process is the migration of Germanic tribes across the channel. On the continent, they existed in much more collective societies. Collective kin structures played a major role in interaction, particularly in the fued system of justice. If a member of a clan was killed, the clan was involved in a feud with the other man’s kin. The comites (to use Tacitus’ phrase for the “great men” who played leading roles) would elevate one of their number as an overlord amongst themselves. However this role was relatively weak, and depended on the integrity of the kinship structures.
Migration changed this, as those who went across the channel were separated from their larger and established kinship networks. Fraser recounts data that the large contribution of the Anglo-Saxons to the modern English ancestry comes from a small source of only 10-200,000 people, whereas the indigenous population numbered around two million. This implies a breeding advantage for the invaders: logically, powerful Anglo-Saxon leaders would have greater access to both Anglo-Saxon and indigenous British women, while British men would be disadvantaged with British women (and have little chance of mating with Anglo-Saxons). Therefore, many may have chosen to migrate away from the Anglo-Saxon centers. This genetic evidence correlates with the institutional growth of the Anglo-Saxon kingship as a power structure. Where the kinship structures shrank in importance, the kingship took over as a source of order in a necessarily smaller and more individualistic population.
This is the founding era in Fraser’s cycle of English history. Kings and aristocrats dominated national government in Anglo-Saxon England, but the system saw extensive decentralization of the country into shires and tithings, and of the church into parishes. This allowed local British elites to find new places in the system and become integrated into the new order of the Anglo-Saxon polities. Still, the power of the lords grew to the extent that the common site of free peasants or towns seen on the continent became a rarity in England. Yet Fraser also recounts the collective and super-individual nature of law. The law was received and pronounced by kings and lords, but it was received by them as part of an inheritance of the kin. Here we already see the structures that later periods would codify into the idea of “the rule of law”.
However, the law existed alongside a sacral and mythic conception of Kingship. Descended from a god and “heilerfüllt” or hallowed, he allowed godly participation in earthly affairs. Therefore he had a special wisdom when interpreting the received law. However, early in their history the Anglo-Saxons received the Christian faith. British and Irish churches had long existed, but it was the missions of Pope Gregory the Great which in particular were intended to convert these peoples. With much of the English ethnogenesis occurring after their conversion, the English were a people conceived in the womb of Christendom. Their spiritual center was at Canterbury, where the disciples of St. Augustine the missionary established themselves. While the idols were smashed, the sacred altars and groves of the land were sanctified and incorporated into the Christian Anglo-Saxon ritual life.
Anglo-Saxon Christendom lived under a baptized sacral Kingship, where the King was filled with the grace of God and carried responsibility for the spiritual state of his people under Heaven. Fraser details the promotion by the Church of an overlord who could unite the gens Anglorum into a political unity which could manifest their spiritual unity. It should be noted that Her Majesty Elizabeth II still carries as her official Canadian title “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Canada” – a phrase shared by her titles across most of her realms. We can see a spiritual unity carried down from the earliest days of the English ethnogenesis. This sacral conception reached its apex in the reign of King Alfred the Great. King Alfred was first to hold the title of King of the Anglo-Saxons and translated the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. While he never ruled all England, in him all Anglo-Saxons finally had a unified sacred royalty.
In addition to this top-level religious and political history, Fraser spends many sections of the book detailing the legal and constitutional norms of the Anglo-Saxon people at this time. For the reader’s interest, we will touch on the interesting practice of oath-taking. In Fraser’s thesis, oath-taking becomes an important sign of the growing individualism of the Anglo-Saxons compared with their kin-based continental forebears. Oaths existed in the Germanic cultures as bond between kinsman and lords, and men without oath-based relationships to such structures were not only rootless but a social threat. In the Anglo-Saxon social order, we have seen that the power of the kin structure decreased and the power of the lords grew. Thus, an individual’s commitment to his lord grew ever more important as the blood-bonds with kin would not protect him as they had his ancestors. Giving an oath was a spiritual act witnessed by priests and performed over relics or sacred objects (witness our own continued use of Bibles). Breaking an oath threatened the immortal soul, and were taken so seriously that the mere swearing of an oat could sometimes be evidence of innocence of a crime. In a world where action and ritual were often one, King Alfred’s requirement of oaths from his men and advisors gave a spiritual basis to the very administration of the Anglo-Saxon state.
The next stage of Fraser’s thesis sees the ritualization and institutionalization of the magical and religious worldview. This occurs both due to the increased kingly requirements of the Overlord, and the tension between throne and altar. Fraser notes at first that the assent of the William the Conqueror did not immediately replace Anglo-Saxon norms with Norman ones. Upon his ascension, the Conqueror took part in the “charismatic” Kingship which he had usurped. Fraser emphasizes that it was not simply enough for a King to uphold past norms or rule in an administrative way. Rather, the King had to prove his God-given power of rule by his deeds, creating new obligations or precedents. This charism could be lost or successfully challenged (the Conqueror himself being one such successful challenger). From the time of the Conqueror onward, this personal authority gave way to an institutional entity of the Crown distinct from the person of the King. This trend occurred for a number of reasons and would reach its culmination in the Tudor centralization.
Starting in 1075, Pope Gregory VII (the Great) introduced sweeping reforms to the Church intended to solidify the accountability of bishops to the Roman See, which held traditional primacy among the Apostolic sees and was the Patriarchal See of the West. However, this was accompanied by a high view of Papal authority, which Pope Gregory saw as extending into the life of the realm beyond matters of faith or morality. A world which before knew little distinction between spirit and daily life began to encounter the tensions of authority which would ultimately become the familiar concepts of “secular” vs “religious” authority. The 12th century martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by rogue knights of King Henry II, saw the King forced to formalize a separate domain of powers for the Church. Conversely, the Kings therefore promoted a Divinely-sanctioned political authority distinct from the Church. Yet, as Fraser points out, this was the first step toward an “eventual disenchantment of political authority”.
In addition to this pressure for a distinct authority and existence from the Church, Kings also faced the problem of the “double majesty” which existed in English political life. On the level of the realm, the Kingship – even if assented to by the nobility – was not held to be founded on them, but ultimately on the grace of God. Likewise, the nobility considered their authority to rest upon their own dignity; this same dignity was what his loyalty to his King rested on. However, this meant that the King’s responsibilities to the realm often relied on the personal loyalties of a nobility which did not often act in unison or full agreement. Fraser explains that the King’s duty to uphold a law received but not made by him, and to rule in unison with the “community of the realm”, was a conception that extended back to the pre-Norman cult of St. Edward the Confessor. These norms formed the tradition which directed the character of Kingship in this second period. Yet, they also guaranteed a Royal incentive to increase centralization in order to effectively rule.
The Tudor monarchy was the major force of centralization during this second period. In establishing himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England, King Henry VIII established a sacral as well as a political supremacy for himself. However, Fraser points out an important distinction between the Tudors and their Anglo-Saxon forebears. As we saw, the Anglo-Saxon Kings depended on a sacral power that was bound up in their persons. The Tudors, on the other hand, normalized the concepts of an “institutional” Crown distinct from the person of the King. Thus, a growing administration could act in the name of the Crown without the King’s personal involvement.
Fraser presents Richard Hooker as the best expounder of the tradition-directed character of England at this time. Hooker understood the realm as an organic body politic, where King and commonwealth worked in unison to preserve the customs and laws handed down. Hooker saw himself as defending the ancient English constitution where law and realm were one entity. And yet, Fraser attacks this idea, pointing out that the conception of an institutional inheritance of custom judicially interpreted by King and people was already a far cry from the magical-religious conception of the grace-filled Anglo-Saxon kings who received and interpreted the law under a charism from God. And indeed, this tension between the inviolability of the received customs of the ancient constitution with the royal will of the Crown would open up for the next era of Fraser’s thesis: the inner-directed era.
The mission of an increasing prerogative for the Royal will brought together two names which are not often associated with each other, and indeed would often be assumed to be opposed to one another. The first is the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the second is the House of Stuart. Hobbes believed that the royal administration must be centralized in order to rationalize its governance, providing it the opportunity to create a great society guided by reason and empirical inquiry. Hobbes rejected the notion that monarchy could have any Divine basis, and saw its legitimacy as stemming from its ability to bring man out of the brutal “state of nature”. He mocked the sacral conception of authority and those who believed “that there walketh (as some think invisibly) another Kingdome, as it were a Kingdom of Fayries, in the dark.” Likewise, the House of Stuart existed at a time when a classically-influenced tendency to speak of an English commonwealth made up of King, lords, and commons was in ascendancy. Fraser recounts that in 1642, shortly before the civil war, King Charles I was convinced to essentially formalize this philosophy in answers to Parliament. This meant that the Crown’s institutional legitimacy would ever more be based on outcomes rather than either personal charism of rule or reception of the ancient tradition. The break with tradition toward an inner-directed administrative will had begun.
Fraser emphasizes a seemingly contradictory fact of this political struggle: both sides could coherently be described as “traditionalist”. Fraser lays out the crisis:
…the clash was a symptom of a schizophrenic split within English society that set “traditionalist modernizers” against “modernizing traditionalists”. Both royalists and common lawyers were, by definition, traditionalists. James I himself appealed to long standing traditions of biblical authority and Christian theology in suport of the divine right of kings; he also readily acknowledged that he was bound to rule in accordance with the fundamental laws of the realm. But he was also committed to transforming the royal prerogative into an effective instrument of both executive and legislative power. On the other side, the parliamentary opposition routinely invoked the hoary traditions of the common law to defend the property interests that were fuelling the anarchic disorder of an early-modern market economy.
However, for Fraser it is the rise of the Puritan ethos which encapsulates the entry of inner-directed thought into daily and religious life. This occurs during and after the civil war. The inner life of the Puritan was bound up in the relationship between God and the conscience. Having rejected “papist” sacramental theology, the Puritan was in no way assured of God’s grace. This demanded of the believer a continual examination of conscience in accordance with Scripture. The pious man was expected to demonstrate this discipline also through a steadfast devotion to work. Otherwise mundane, work became sanctified because the taking up of it made it a vehicle for the Kingdom of God. In addition to providing personal discipline, it became an outward sign of Godly favour. Yet the Puritan conception was even further removed from the magical-religious worldview than the tradition-directed worldview had been. Concepts like sacraments or charisms were scandalous to the Puritan mind, which lionized reason. Fraser quotes, for example, Milton’s rebuke of the erotic elements of marriage as “the prescribed satisfaction of an irrational heat.”
Ultimately, this third stage allows us to see that the story of the English ethnoculture from the days of Anglo-Saxon establishment up to the era of the Reformation was an increasing disenchantment of the world. Fraser traces this process from the Stuarts through the Puritan and Cromwellian era, through the Glorious Revolution. The Crown moved ever more to an inner-directed, results based legitimacy. By the 18th century and the rise of Robert Walpole as the first Prime Minister, the conservation of the ancient constitution was left to those Tories and a number of Whigs associated with the Country Party. This party of Tories and conservative Whigs, led by the one-time Jacobite Viscount Bolingbroke, saw in Walpole’s centralization the rise of party interests which eroded the unifying force of the ancient constitution. In opposition to this, it defended the powers of local gentry against centralizing administrators, and claimed to speak for the whole country – living and ancestral – against the factions of their day.
However, this moment in history saw a turning point in the history of the English: their expansion to the New World. America would become a land where the remnants of the tradition-directed and magical-religious eras were minimal. The inner-directed nature of the Puritan religion and the market economy would become fundamental to Homo Americanus. The second part of Fraser’s work details its growth. It also posits what a restoration of the English ethnoculture may entail. This will be further examined in the second part of this review.
The WASP Question is available for purchase at Arktos.