When we hear the annoying phrase “A Clash of Civilizations”, our thoughts are filled with fiery clerics decrying Western culture on a golden pulpit in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. When we think of this phrase, we tend to see two distinct persons: the traditional eastern Muslim man with his white thobe and thick beard and white kufi, and the traditional western man with his black suit, black pants, shaved face, white shirt and red tie.
We might also think that such a ‘Clash’ has never happened before in such proportions. If these thoughts come into our mind we are hopelessly deluded by the present as things I have mentioned fail quite miserably to qualify as a ‘Clash’. History is a continues timeline and the great axiom of humanity is that our nature is fundamentally set in stone. Progress and civilization may tame this nature, but it is never truly gone. Thus history repeats itself. We are destined to fall into the same struggles of hubris that defined the generations before us.
Here I want to segway into the topic at hand – ‘A Clash of Civilizations’ – as I discuss an example of such a clash in history. We might not be acquainted with the history of Scotland and how it came to be, but the history of the British Isles is rich in examples of all that make us human. In the 10th century, Scotland was born after Donald and Constantine – cousins and descendants of Kennath McAlpine (a hero who drove away the Vikings), took back their rightful throne from the oppression of Gerric the traitor. What followed were decades of peace in a region formally Pictland, as Pictish culture and language melded and melted with Gaelic culture to create perhaps the first vision of a united territory known as Scotland.
There were no great ‘clashes’ in this phase, of the old Pictish way morphing into the new ‘Scottish’ way. Rather, this was evolution. There was still a shared sense of being ‘Northern’ , of being a people who were familiar with the Pictish and Gaelic way of life. Thus it went, until Donald passed away and his name was written on the pages of history in 900 AD as the first King of ‘Scotland’. Thus Constantine took the throne through a symbolic coronation at Scone and became King of Scotland but little did he know, a grave threat reared its powerful head in the south – Angle-Land (Yes, England). The Angle King Athelstan had become infused with the dream of ruling all of Britain.
So in dramatic fashion, he marched north to make Scotland and her people his own.
Constantine faced a decision of historical proportions; his army would be extinguished by Athelstan if he should dare to do battle. If he surrendered, Scotland would lose its identity as Anglo Saxon culture was pushed down their throat; reminiscent of the Roman invasions centuries ago [ i i ].
With the identity of an entire kingdom at stake, Constantine created for himself a third choice. He drew Athelstan into Scotland and held his own at the rock fortress of Dunnottar until Athelstan grew tired and decided that an agreement could be made. With victory no where in sight, Constantine was forced to make a difficult decision as he bent the knee to Athelstan. The two kings agreed that Scotland could retain its independence, but Angle-Land would be her overlord.
Imagine the stark humiliation, defeat and pain that Constantine felt at that moment, even though this outcome saved (temporarily) Scotland. But the story does not end here. Constantine returned home with a heavy heart and head held low. His people looked at him in spite for selling them out, but this sour response infused Constantine with a new found courage.
When Athelstan called for the King of Scots to pay his due, Constantine – defiant and proud -refused. What would follow is an encounter that defines the phrase ‘A Clash of Civilizations’. The Angles and the Scots were two different people of two different identities and Constantine’s decision to make this clear set alight the flames of war. Constantine realized the complete stupidity of his refusal to submit and quickly sought for a way out. For the first time in history, Constantine allied himself with his sworn enemies – the Vikings of the north, and marched south and Viking ships followed by sea. Athelstan also marched north, fueled with all the entitlement and lust of a conqueror [ i ].
Then, on a fateful day in 937 AD, the armies met at Brunanburh and what ensued was a battle so great and so bloody that it would be thereafter called “The Great Battle”, a battle even greater than that of Hastings in 1066. Scots hewed Angles and Angles hewed Scots. Everything was on the line for Constantine – his people’s identity, culture, history, religion and way of life, all of it – as the bloodbath proceeded [ iii ].
After the last man had been slain and the last sword had been swung, Athelstan emerged the victor. The Angles had won. But the battle was so great, so many lives were lost on that day from both sides that neither side celebrated their outcomes. Constantine retreated with his battered force and so did Athelstan; the latter realizing that his dream of conquering all of Britain would not come to pass as long as the Scots possessed this iron will displayed in Constantine [ i ].
Constantine’s returned home a hero – the King that dared to stand up for his way of life against the aggressor. He had saved his face, and his people from the destruction of their civilization at the hands of Athelstan. Had the battle been lopsided and had Athelstan’s will not shattered, history would have taken a dramatic turn.
937 defined a moment in history where two different people clashed with fire and steel, where two different civilizations truly ‘fought’ for their world view and the outcome of that day at Brunaburh still ripple through history to our present day.
The point of all this is not to relate some random event in history. Rather, it is to remind us that it had been all done before. Humanity has faced much of the same struggles resulting from much of the same negative characteristics: the insatiable greed of conquerors, the deluded vision of leaders and the blinding nationalism of peoples.
We should never consider ourselves as members of a unique time in humanity’s development. We have grown as a species but the great problems of humanity weave throughout history. They only change forms, mold with time and disguise themselves more discreetly.
The modern ‘Clash’ of Civilization begs laughter when compared to the Battle of Brunaburh. If history has taught us anything, it is that it repeats itself.
Let us hope that such a blood bath does NOT repeat itself, though Iraq was close.
Sources and Further Reading:
i) Michael Livingston, ed., The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (University of Exeter Press, 2011)
ii) A History of Scotland, The Last of the Free by Neil Oliver, BBC