Friday, April 17, 2009

The Household and War Bands in the Book of Mormon

Reading the end of Ether 13, I found several instances of war bands and an emphasis on the household.

15 And it came to pass that in that same year in which [Ether] was cast out from among the people there began to be a great war among the people, for there were many who rose up, who were mighty men, and sought to destroy Coriantumr by their secret plans of wickedness, of which hath been spoken...
20 And in the second year the word of the Lord came to Ether, that he should go and prophesy unto Coriantumr that, if he would repent, and all his household, the Lord would give unto him his kingdom and spare the people—
21 Otherwise they should be destroyed, and all his household save it were himself...
22 And it came to pass that Coriantumr repented not, neither his household, neither the people; and the wars ceased not...
25 Now there began to be a war upon all the face of the land, every man with his band fighting for that which he desired.

Verse 22 in particular points to the a difference between the leader, his "household", and the people. Using historical examples and other examples from the Book of Mormon, we can speculate what these war bands and households consisted of. In Anglo Norman Warfare ed. by Matthew Strickland, we learn that Housecarls (from the Old Norse meaning house man or house servant) served as "a unique, closely knit organisation of professional warriors who served the Kings of England...and became the spearhead of the English army" (pg. 2). For an example of this in literature think of Beowulf's personal band of followers that went to fight the dragon with him; and Wagliff's speech condemning those warriors that ran away after they had been generously supplied with weapons and armor from Beowulf.

In Asian society we read that local elites often attracted peasants. Since their power sharing agreements with the Emperor often allowed them a great amount of local autonomy they could provide a tax free place for peasants to live. Also, towards the end of a disintegrating dynasty the local elites were the only forces that could protect the peasants. (The often distant central government being unable or unwilling to provide security against internal and external threats) Thus the local magnates became very powerful, and could increasingly field their own armies, finally leading to conflict with the Emperor and regional warlordism. Also, many bandit forces quickly grew in size due to smaller leaders pledging their loyalty to seemingly stronger bandits. (See David Graff "Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900" and Peter Lorge "War Politics and Society in Early Modern China 900-1795")

In Richard Gabriel's "A Military History of Israel" we learn that King David also had a band of followers personally loyal to him. During part of his career he served as a mercenary for the Phillistine leaders and his band of followers depended on him for their economic wealth, and formed his elite bodyguard after his accenscion to the throne.

Thus we see that economics, personal relations and politics intersect in the formation of Households and War Bands. The salient features include: 1. The use of personal retainers as bodyguards and elite force. 2. The loss of central control over military force and the rise of centrifugal military power and leaders 3. The increasing focus on plunder as opposed to faithful government service. 4. The warriors also follow a strong and charismatic leader founded upon tribal or personal loyalty.

We find much of the above in the Book of Mormon. Due to the delphic nature of the text we cannot say for certain. But I have already shown that Kings had a personal retinue of bodyguards.(1) Verse 15 from Ether 13 describes how many "combinations" opposed the King. These could be mercenaries that abandoned the King for more promising leaders. They also suggest the rise of strong leaders that are not loyal to the King. (2) While the King held onto many of his followers through a chance to plunder the "households" or "war bands" of the enemy. (3) I have also shown that the rise of Gadianton robbers in Nephite Society could also follow from out of work soldiers who see more booty in the service of "combinations" than serving the King or the Nephite government. They could also find more attractive service in the company of rich landowners ("King Men") than they could serving in distant outposts under a government that opposed the single minded focus on acquiring wealth.(See "Military Causes for the Problems in the Book of Helaman" on this blog) And the most important evidence is the "bands of men" that fought the King all across Jaredite lands, and the many separate mentions of household in the Book of Ether; suggesting a group of people tied to a ruler based on bonds of loyalty, that would likely serve as warriors.(4)

Thus the Book of Mormon, sparse as it is in describing military matters, accurately describes the salient features of ancient societies concerning households and war bands. I am done moving, but not with my two jobs. I look forward to hearing from you and hope to continue my research.


In The Doghouse said...

It sounds a little like a "gang" or "Mafia" type of warfare too, don't you think?

Morgan Deane said...

In some cases I think that comparison works very well. Many bandit groups in Chinese history and the mafia operated outside of the law, were based on personal loyalty and had economic motives for their exsistence. They operated outsidd the law as they do today, and they often clash with the instruments of government power as they do today. In some areas they would also serve to protect the local population and even provide local government (like in some areas of Iraq and Somalia).

Although there are some significant differences as well. Houesecarls and warrior bands were led by men who had both civil and military power. (The King, nobles, or regional warlords) It was also considered normal and acceptable to have an armed following. In modern times however, the mafia often operates with a "face", where they operate as a leading citizen during the day (or at least pretend to), but run their "business" and armed followers at night and in secret. The state also had a police force that serves to protect the public and operated in opposition to the mafia. The households soldiers often served as the instrument of the kings power, and served as a private loyal force to check the power of other nobles and quell bandit forces. Some noble's household warriors also served to protect the local population because their was no police force.

There is also a masters thesis done by a BYU student that compares the Gadianton robbers to the Mafia. I will take a look at is sometime and see what he has to say about it too.

Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your time in thinking and engaging with my ideas.

Mormon Heretic said...

Morgan, we desperately need your expertise! See this comment.