#99 Purported civility within the Pale

Ireland’s English Pale, 1470-1550: The Making of a Tudor Region by Steven G. Ellis

I just finished reading historian Steven G. Ellis’s (2021) wonderful book on the English Pale in Ireland. The Pale was a region in eastern Ireland composing “four obedient shires” stemming from Dublin. The Pale was thought to demarcate English civility and modern civilization when compared to the “wild Irish” west of the Pale border. I couldn’t help thinking about the hubris of English culture, or at least that’s how I think about it. From the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance period, English people must have thought their society, their way of doing things, was God’s gift, so to speak, to the rest of the world. Undoubtedly, English culture has contributed much to human civilization. Off the top of my head, we can thank England for popularizing the parliamentary system; football and many other leisure activities that now make up our modern sports; scientific and technological advancements, particularly related to maritime; the horrors of colonialism and imperialism that made people reflect upon such actions that led to our current, and arguably, improved, Western society (note: we still have much to improve; everything is a work in progress); etc.

As I read about the English Pale in Ireland, I kept thinking about the events that constitute the so-called scientific revolution that occurred a short time after the Pale period. Francis Bacon can be said to have led the charge with his new scientific method, its experimentation, and desired repeatability of results. England also produced Isaac Newton who gave us calculus to predict the movement of astronomical and other objects. I wonder: What was it about English culture at that time that produced Bacon’s scientific method and Newton’s calculus? What were they attempting to perfect or progress upon? Did their methodological discoveries derive from a sense of cultural superiority? Alchemy had been a rich tradition for at least hundreds of years by the 1500s-1600s; alchemy seems to be the forebearer of modern science as we know it today. Perhaps Bacon kicked off what we call the scientific revolution because he wanted to stamp out magical forms of thinking and experimentation from scientists’ minds, instead focusing on a science that could be repeated by different people if the conditions were the same: a practicable science with objective results.

I may be reading too much into this, but if the English rulers within the Pale in Ireland thought their ways of living and existing were culturally superior and therefore more civilized than the local Irish, would this sentiment have been prevalent in other spheres of English culture such as the sciences? While the English of that time may have thought they were superior to other cultures and peoples, they were obviously onto something regarding scientific and technological progress. Something about their culture or mindset advanced human civilization in many new and profound ways and we feel its trickledown effects today.

Where am I going in this stream of consciousness? I don’t know. This thought just popped into my mind: How much of that sense of English culture superiority has been transferred to other English-speaking cultures such as the United States? … And unfortunately, it’s here I stop my exposition. Why, you might ask. Because I just hit a vein, and the rest of what I’m thinking shall go into my upcoming book. Apologies for the cliffhanger.

A short video summing up Ellis’s research on the Pale for those interested: Steven Ellis The English Pale in Tudor Ireland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpbGhX5JKSg

Ellis, S. G. (2021). Ireland’s English Pale, 1470-1550: The Making of a Tudor Region. The Boydell Press.

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