Medieval Week at the Royal Society of Edinburgh: a feast of lectures and discussions over a huge range of topics. I chose last night’s pair: ‘The past as propaganda’, looking at the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), and at the Mongol story in a Persian world history by Rashid al Din (about 1310).
The Declaration of Arbroath (in case you’ve missed it) was a letter to Pope John XXII upholding Scotland’s status as an independent realm and justifying its defence if attacked. Last night, Alexander Broadie argued with limpid ease that underlying it is an argument that the state is only legitimate if it has the consent of the people. Outside city republics, that was a bit ‘modern’ in the Middle Ages.
At the other end of the scale, the Mongols went for despotic violence, according to Robert Hillenbrand’s gorgeously illustrated argument. In Persia, they displayed in public places enormous images of their violence to terrify any doubters into submission. Cavalry attacks, seiges, torture and execution, the lot.
Of course, both are propaganda. I imagine that Scotland was a bit less democratic than the the fourteenth-century Scots made out, and if the Mongol rulers had to persuade their subjects to obey, they can’t have ruled exclusively by force. Propaganda pushes something to the limits to make a point.
And what subtle, or not-so-subtle propaganda are we being swayed by at the moment?