“The Darkness of the Womb”:
Allegory and Early Medieval Historiography in
S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse
©2010, Alicia McKenzie
Though the idea that the early medieval period was a ‘dark age’ has been largely abandoned, the nature of the period is still a matter of active debate among historians. The core of the debate remains centered on the fate of the Roman Empire. Did it fall (with a capital ‘F’!) or did it simply end as an administrative unit in the west? If imperial authority ended, what replaced it, and what impact did this all have on everyday life? Even a relatively small selection of recent scholarship on the period will show you different historiographical schools of thought continuing to modify both the traditional narrative and each other.
We see a similar fascination with this period in popular culture. Some of the same questions we ask as historians are being asked by novelists and filmmakers as well. Part of this is the increased interest from both artist and audience in a sense of historical authenticity, which has led novelists and filmmakers to engage with current historiographical trends. Sometimes this is less sucessful; for instance, the 2004 film King Arthur presents an Arthur modeled at least in part after the historical figure Ambrosius Aurelianus, but also gives its audience a painfully stereotypical view on the Saxon invasions. I’d like to focus today on a literary example that reflects what I would argue is a high degree of engagement with historiographical themes.
S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of novels is set in the United States at the turn of the twentieth–first century, after a mysterious event called the Change that renders all modern technology inactive and leads to the collapse of central authority. In the aftermath, the remnants of American society in Oregon undergo a neomedieval transformation. If the series is read as an allegorical fantasy on early medieval themes — and I think it certainly can be — Stirling’s approach to worldbuilding shares significant common ground with recent historiography on the period.
The series is currently seven books and counting, but for the purposes of this paper I will focus on the original trilogy, which covers the first decade of the post–Change world. The immediate impact of the Change is staggering; society crumbles in a matter of months as governments disintegrate, infrastructure fails, and food supplies are permanently disrupted. Major cities become death zones, and disease and violence devastates the surviving population. There’s even a major outbreak of the bubonic plague! Still, despite the indisputably catastrophic nature of the Change, the narrative’s dominant theme is adaptation. Stirling’s world is a vibrant one, consciously reshaping itself, and the new political structures and cultural forms that emerge are strong and in many cases, highly functional. Like many of the historians who re–envision the early medieval period as worthy of consideration in its own right, he is not obsessed with catastrophe. Instead of writing a grand narrative about the fall of a civilization, he’s writing a history of the successor states that emerge in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Stirling’s approach reflects one of the basic pillars of revisionist thinking on the early Middle Ages — specifically, that you cannot make sweeping generalizations about the post–Roman experience. Regional variation must be acknowledged.
Nor do his characters spend much time mourning the loss of the old world order. The things they miss about pre–Change America tend to be very practical — medical technology, for instance, and the variety of food that was once in easy supply. But there is a strong underlying theme that centralized control is neither desirable nor wise under such conditions. Again, we can discern a historiographical parallel. Peter Brown, for instance, argues that the centralized command economy of the late Empire may have been more damaging to the general population than the so–called barbarian invasions. Stirling explores this sort of center–periphery tension by putting his protagonists in the position of the oppressed provincials. One of his main characters is Juniper Mackenzie, a Wiccan folksinger who founds a farming community with her friends and other refugees. When representatives from the state provisional government show up on her doorstop demanding food and supplies for ‘redistribution’ in the refugee camps, she refuses. In fact, she urges them to move the refugees out onto the land to farm. She and her people have recognized that a non–productive population can no longer be supported. Only by vigorously defending their autonomy can the new settlement survive for long enough to raise their economy above subsistence–level. A textbook low–pressure state, they actually become a new socio–political unit, the Clan Mackenzie. Theirs is not a sophisticated form of political or social organization — they opt for a pseudo–Celtic clan structure — but it doesn’t need to be. The Mackenzies not only survive, but thrive. Stirling invites his readers to judge them based on that, not on their lack of similarity to the “high civilization” of pre–Change American society.
We see this same theme at work in Stirling’s depiction of the other major groups in post–Change Oregon. The other main character of the trilogy is Mike Havel, a former Marine and bush pilot who becomes the leader of a band of refugees trekking westward from Idaho to their chosen destination in the Willamette. They pick up the name the ‘Bearkillers,’ after Mike’s rather mythopoetic encounter with a grizzly, and trade their skills for supplies they can’t find or make themselves on the road. The group is blessed with many skills relevant to post–Change life; one character is an expert horse–breeder and trainer, another is a bowmaker, and another, a female veterinarian, was a serious student of Renaissance swordplay. Taking advantage of this, the Bearkillers organize themselves along military lines. This is not the low–level democracy of the Clan Mackenzie, where Juniper talks her people into her chosen course of action — this is, in essence, a warband. Each new Bearkiller is personally selected by Mike, who demands the highest standards from those who choose to become fighters and learns to use, if not like, his growing reputation as Lord Bear. When they settle in the Willamette, they remain in what can be best described as a very early feudal structure, with each A–lister, or knight, given a grant of land. Not all Bearkillers are A–listers, but everyone who is capable is expected to contribute to mutual defense and all enjoy the right to appeal to Lord Bear to judge any disputes. Mike also remains commander–in–chief — really, king in all but name. A running joke later in the trilogy is Mike constantly promising to start up a House of Commons; he recognizes it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not a priority. The Bearkillers are still mostly concerned with laying a solid foundation for long–term survival. Their choices are a pragmatic response to a difficult situation.
The third major group in the narrative provides a sharp contrast to the other two. The Portland Protective Association is founded by Norman Arminger, a professor of medieval Norman history, with the support of the local Society for Creative Anachronism and an alliance of Portland’s street gangs. The Association is his dream of feudal Europe brought to life — how the Middle Ages should have been, complete with all the stereotypical trappings and a purist’s interpretation of eleventh–century feudalism. Like Juniper and Mike, Arminger recognizes that modern society will no longer work. There’s a telling statement by him early in the first book where he points out to his followers that if they want to survive, they have two options: farming, or living off farmers. Unlike his counterparts, however, he cannot shed his preconceptions. He is so dedicated to his concept of feudal society that he creates a system that forces him to use terror tactics to keep control; for instance, he has a pet Pope who commands a vicious Inquisition. Only by constantly expanding and absorbing new territory can he truly keep his barons happy. The Association’s version of feudalism is an elaborate structure of vassalage, with a shared pseudo–medieval culture that matches it in complexity. But in the end, Arminger’s Association is less just, less functional, and less successful than its more primitive neighbours. Civilization, Stirling seems to be saying, is in the eye of the beholder. If a society is to be judged, it should be judged on how it functioned in its own historical context. In historiographical terms, isn’t this the basic idea behind the mindset that sees the early Middle Ages as a time of transformation, as the ‘long morning’ of medieval Europe, rather than as a grim coda to the Roman world?
The idea that the shape of the Emberverse reflects the influence of historiographical change on the popular imagination becomes an even more compelling argument when you observe Stirling’s approach to the formation of new cultures and identities. Peter Brown, in his book ‘The Rise of Western Christendom’, discusses how the basic institutions of Christianity were flexible enough to travel well, which allowed traditions of local autonomy to combine harmoniously with loyalty to the idea of a greater Christendom. This created an interconnected web of belief and practice, a “cultural empire” based on the exchange of symbolic goods. In the Emberverse, we see this same process happening with the Wiccan religion of the Clan Mackenzie. Before the Change, Juniper and her coven are on the fringes of American religious life; afterwards, they become mainstream, much to their surprise. The ‘Old Religion’, as it comes to be called, helps them bind the people of their new Clan more closely together. As the Clan grows and decentralizes into new farming communities, or duns, new covens are founded. In some cases, leading citizens actually become the clergy, just as aristocrats in the post–Roman West so often became bishops. The Mackenzies do not actively seek to convert non–believers — there are no Wiccan missionaries in the Emberverse — but the faith expands beyond the Clan’s territory through economic and cultural contact. It takes root among the Bearkillers, in cooexistence with a strong Catholic tradition, and even makes secret inroads among the Association’s lower class, where it is an illegal religion vigorously persecuted by Arminger’s Inquisition. Juniper understands why her faith has found such traction; she calls it a hearth–religion, ideally suited to an agrarian society because of its ritual focus on the cycle of the year. Juniper herself remains a central figure, the original High Priestess, but also holds the role of Clan Chief; again, we see strong parallels to late antiquity in the combination of civil and religious responsibilities.
Stirling has a particular interest in ethnogenesis, one which he shares with many early medieval historians. His approach to the concept evokes many different elements of a remarkably vigorous historiographical debate. His older characters, for instance, are constantly having moments of cognitive dissonance when they stop to really look at the post–Change world; this emphasizes to his readers the lack of continuity with American society. This contrasts with some of the more recent work on ethnogenesis, which focuses on continuity with the Roman world. There are other elements of Stirling’s portrayal of ethnogenesis that hearken back to more traditional interpretations; as we’ve discussed, his major communities are primarily shaped by strong leaders and the traditions they initiate. His characters acknowledge this; Ken Larsson, the Bearkillers’ resident engineer and armchair historian, recognizes Traditionskern at work, calling it a “saturated solution forming around a seed–crystal”. Even so, there are contrasting examples. The free town of Corvallis survives because the university there pooled its resources and expertise; it, unlike its neighbors, prides itself on its continuity with its pre–Change tradition, even utilizing the Oregon State University marching song as their national anthem. While crossing Idaho, the Bearkillers encounter a group inhabiting a Nez Perce reservation, a minority of whom actually appear to be Native American. Yet all have embraced the culture and its outwards trappings. This can be interpreted as a fictional representation of situational ethnicity, where a new identity is adopted because it allows for survival and social advancement. In general, Stirling’s approach to ethnogenesis is highly compressed; most of these new identities emerge in the first post–Change year, necessary in a literary context. Despite this, when you take a step back and look at ethnogenesis in Emberverse Oregon as a whole, the diversity that is so successfully conveyed reflects how difficult it is to make generalizations about this process in the historical context.
In the end, what makes Stirling’s work so interesting to a medievalist is the depth and texture of his worldbuilding. He is essentially a social historian of his fictional world. The many parallels that can be drawn between his Emberverse and the post—Roman world suggest that the questions we ask as historians of this period perhaps have more relevance to a broader audience than we realize. It also suggests that the historical debate over the nature of the period has been sustained enough and persuasive enough that it has actually reached beyond the boundaries of academia to change the thinking of non—specialists. Remember, it’s not just that Stirling wrote this; it’s that an increasing number of people read it. These books are New York Times bestsellers, and each seems to do better than the last. I would argue that it’s because they are fundamentally hopeful, and that’s appealing to the reader. The people of post–Change Oregon do not see themselves as living in a dark age; to adapt a quote from Lynn White, originally referring to the tenth century, their darkness is only the darkness of the womb.
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