Internet 1, Print Media 2, the winner in the Tenth Medieval Incredulity Contest

I love the Internet, obviously. Quite apart from its social function and its various commercial and academic possibilities (I think learning is a social function, actually), it provides daily doses of how odd human society can get direct to your desktop (or laptop as it may be). But one day recently, the housemates’ daily Guardian not only took the biscuit but went and hid with it behind the sofa leaving only a trail of unlikely crumbs and an over-stretched metaphor.

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

First blow to the Internet, as David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe pointed me to this article on Science Daily, which nearly made me write a page-long rant by itself. Then I thought that I wasn’t being constructive enough; instead, I invite someone to set it to their students for extra credit by the hundred words they can produce on how badly the article is done. Someone somewhere involved remembers a bit of history from school, I guess: that we aren’t fully decided on why the Roman Empire fell, that the Byzantines considered themselves the Roman Empire still, and that climate change has been blamed for societies collapsing… and then it all gets mixed up into this. A pity, and a greater pity that that school doesn’t appear to have instructed them in the history of early Islam (unlike some). But pity most of all that it got any kind of publication without anyone stopping to ask a historian… Somewhere in this, however, is the important observation that mostly climate evidence is taken from the poles and that a bit of balance might change the results rather. Let’s not lose that in the utter mess of the history.

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

But then I got home and the Guardian attacked. This story has actually gone up since then on Archaeology in Europe too but I didn’t find it there so the printed paper wins this one. How often have you wanted, when reading a site report or even doing a dig if you are such a person, to be able to ask an inhabitant how their site got this way? Some archaeologists that the Guardian is telling you about can do just that as they are excavating the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, base for twenty years’ bitter hippy protests against a cruise missile installation that of course the US eventually learnt how to replace with submarines, which are harder to picket. Apparently the diggers are confused by how many milk-bottles a largely Vegan group went through; the article doesn’t actually report what any of the surviving protestors could add by way of explanation, though apparently getting their testimonies will be part of the project. All the same it’s a nice indication that social memory can often be contradicted or gainsaid by other forms of evidence, or that interpretation of archaeological finds is a tricky business, or, well, it clearly means something because it is weird verging on the allegorical.

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

But then I found this story and nearly shouted out loud. And what I would have shouted is something like:

Feudalism In Action (this is what I’m talking about, seriously, OK?)

Church of England enforces archaic rights to fix church roofs

(Yes, I can shout in different heading strengths. Trust me, I can.) I’m having a bit of trouble working out what the actual story is that puts this on The Guardian‘s page 3, because the actual case they’re talking about happened a full year and more ago, and that was after a ‘final verdict’ in the other direction, also reported in The Guardian seven years before. The substance, however, is that since the dissolution of the monasteries that used to own them, the upkeep of some English churches has been partly assigned to certain properties in the church glebe. Such tenures are still legally binding, if they can be proven. You can sometimes find that you’ve bought a house subject to this that no-one had ever thought to charge before, and you can even buy insurance when buying a house against this happening to you, but the costs rarely come to the £200,000 that was involved in the case the Guardian was reporting in 2001. They claim, now, that other churches are looking in to enforcing this, but they have no actual names or evidence, and the only reason this story’s so far up the paper, I think, is because it’s ‘hard times’-flavour.

All the same! What is happening here, allegedly, is a tax that no-one has thought to attempt to exact for years being stumbled over by lords who urgently need to extract more cash from their domains and then being enforced by law that they partly control. (The main case was appealed to the British House of Lords, the upper chamber of our Parliament, for judgement in 2007, but of course the Lords Spiritual, that is, bishops of the Church of England, are part of the House, and I’ll bet they didn’t refrain from voicing their thoughts.) The motives aren’t the same: the Church are hard up just because of owning too much property that no-one uses but which they’re obliged to maintain. The guys I’m thinking of were faced with a fierce competition for status as the area they were in experienced an economic boom at the same time as a political collapse—rather the reverse of our situation!—and lots of new people starting having enough resources to be big fish in a newly-shrunken pond. The strategy adopted by the eleventh-century nobility, for it is of course the “blessed” feudal transformation to which I refer, is however exactly the same: find an old right, grab it and squeeze, even if people complain, until this exaction becomes a ‘bad custom’. I imagine I would be quite annoyed by such a bill if I ever owned a house, and I don’t really approve of our union of Church and State so wouldn’t normally take the side of the Church of England even when it’s a question of preserving historic buildings, but the fact that they’re basically using feudalism to do it has me quite enchanted by the idea, I have to admit… Match that, Internet!

Also, a later reflection that this causes in me is that, if you were an eleventh-century noble whose area was in the grip of so-called feudalization, would you know these were the good times? Would you be aware that general prosperity was growing? Or would you merely be worried that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the de Montforts, that any kind of riff-raff seemed to have a castle nowadays whereas yours went back to your grandfather, already, and your family had always been beloved by Saint Gilles and so on? Concerned that prices were rising, and that there were more and more traders now, whom you couldn’t turn away in case you looked poor? And the money you had to pay these people with was getting poorer and poorer anyway? That there were bands of heretics up at le Mans causing havoc? That the papacy was making these impossible demands about chapel clerks when you’d always had the advowson of your own grandfather’s chapel for Saint Gilles’s sake! and so on. And would you be looking for rights to exact, not because times were good, but because as far as you were concerned they were tougher than ever? In times of boom I guess people know they have it good but the eleventh century can’t really have been a boom, just steady growth. And I wonder if steady growth and disintegrating political power actually look a lot more like ‘anarchy’ than collapse and retrenchment would, when you’re actually living it.

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10 responses to “Internet 1, Print Media 2, the winner in the Tenth Medieval Incredulity Contest

  1. You lost me around the church roof, there…

    Again, what is that stuff you are smoking?

  2. I don’t smoke anything, terrible habit. Just don’t ask what’s in the glass…

    Summary version of the last few paragraphs there: archaic freehold rights still exist in England whereby a homeowner can find themselves liable to contribute to the upkeep of their local church. The Guardian picks up on a recent extreme case of this and says that the Church of England at large is looking to tighten up its exploitation of such rights. At this point your humble correspondent ignores the lack of evidence that this is actually happening and jumps up and down a lot about how this is like the development of seigneurialism, and wonders whether it makes more sense to see lords searching for new or old ways to screw money out of their peasantry as status competitors fearing to lose position, rather than stereotypical exploitative evil landlords. The end.

  3. Correction of a tangential correction:
    Under modern procedure, legal cases which are appealed to the House of Lords are not heard by the full House, but only by a special panel of members who are professional lawyers–which means, essentially, only those judges, active or retired, who have been raised to the peerage or (in very modern usage) made Life Lords.

    Therefore no bishop got to vote on this case–unless somehow there’s a member of the HoL who has managed to be both a bishop and a judge in his professional career.

    This practice is modern and therefore in your own time period the bishops would have been able to vote on the case. But so would all those lay peers who might not have been so keen on having to pay for restoration of their local church roof.

    (Well, actually, not in your in own time period, since in your own time period there was as yet no Parliament to receive legal appeals. But I think you get the idea.)

  4. How do you know if you’re in a boom before there’s a) any financial statistics, b) any mass media to tell you what’s happening outside your small region, and c) any economic theory extending beyond the household? All you can do before the development of these three things is look at what’s happening to you and those around you. And on that level, any general effect of economic growth is likely to be swamped by individual effects: if someone marries a heiress or the crops fail that year or a local lord defeats his rival.

    Even on the occasions when there is something visible, such as the building boom that Glaber describes after 1000, it doesn’t get thought of in economic terms. The white mantle of churches gets attributed to piety rather than prosperity.
    Einhard describes how the Franks became rich as a result of the Avar treasure, not by the development of the monastic vicus into a proto-town.

    The one thing that does almost always hit medieval lords badly is inflation (because so much of their income is fixed payments), but I don’t know whether we have any good sense of rates of inflation before the late Middle Ages.

    So whether lords felt there were boom times or not was probably almost entirely unrelated to whether they actually were. It may, though, have been a bit more obvious to peasants, who could judge whether they now had one pig or two.

    • Kishnevi, I stand tangentially corrected. Magistra, certainly the point about a larger perspective being missing is fair, but I’d have thought the most obvious measure for a lord of his own prosperity is disposable income. Because that income comes from his subjects, he also ought to be vaguely aware of how much they have to give. Otherwise, yes, inflation might shrink that if income is basically fixed payments, but certainly in my area renders where stated are usually proportional, a tascha of one eleventh, unless they’re basically token renders anyway in which case they’re in produce not money. So I think what I’m asking is do these guys notice that they have more money than before, or that they can’t buy as much with it? Or, merely that because lots of other people have money too they’re losing ground…

  5. The committee would like the author to stop jumping up and down *before* he has a clearly articulated argument.

    I think I’m back on track by now.

    Yet I’m still unsure about the whole inflation thingy. If tax (or whatever fiscal-ish obligation) is rendered as a proportion of sbd’s produce – be that in cash money or token stuff – the concept of inflation, as you say Johnatan, will make little sense.

    I think those houseowners in question (of course claiming to follow age old custom) should simply pay for the church repair in geese and barley… that’ll teach’em!

  6. I like that idea! But let’s not stop there, let’s go Apostolic: flatbreads delivered by ravens! With a bit of luck they can disclaim most of it as courier expenses training the ravens…

    Oh yes, clearly articulated argument, good point, I’ll come in again. Sorry, a head cold is not helping me think…

  7. [Bows to Magistra]
    Perhaps I’m betraying my layman status, but I salute you, O Magistra (in this season of O Antiphons), for the first use of the word “vicus” I have ever seen outside Finnegan’s Wake.

  8. I think there are two things you need before you can have any accurate sense of whether you’re doing better or worse financially and that’s an accurate account of your income and standardised commodities, and I don’t think the early Middle Ages has either.

    If you’re Bernard Bachrach you may argue that Charlemagne in his capitulary De Villis sets out the basis for an accurate set of royal estate accounts, but I’m deeply sceptical. Landowners probably have records of ‘what should people pay and have they paid it?’ from early on, but extending this to tallying up all the receipts for the year and adding in all the extra sources of noble income strikes me as requiring more interest and skill in accounting than is visible before the twelfth century. What I suspect nobles went by was did they have ‘enough money’, where enough is that the money chest or the treasury or whatever isn’t bare and you have to start borrowing money from others. (How many people today actually do their accounts, have a careful budget etc, even though we have the tools to? It’s a fiddly, boring thing to do, and given a choice most people will avoid doing it).

    On the outgoings side, if you’re going to have a sense of inflation, you really need standardized commodities to think about it: even today, it’s ‘how much is a loaf of bread’ or ‘a gallon of petrol’? But what kind of standardized commodities do they have in the early Middle Ages? Really, all you have is foodstuffs: a modus of wheat, a dozen eggs etc, and the price of them is going to depend so much on the year’s harvest that any broader inflation aspect will be missed. Later in the Middle Ages you do get a wider range of standardised commodities, such as cloth or labourers’ day rates, but I don’t think in the tenth/eleventh century you do. Instead, a lot of what nobles purchase will be non-standardised luxury goods which they will haggle for, so you can’t easily compare prior prices: the horse you bought this year cost a lot more than the one you bought last year, but then it’s a better horse, so has the price really changed?

    So I don’t think anyone before the twelfth century (or even later) could have known objectively whether they were in a boom. But subjectively, of course, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re in a boom or not. You are richer if your income increases more than your expenditure does, but you only actually feel richer if your income increases more than your desired expenditure does. In other words, if there’s more expensive desirable stuff around you now than before, you don’t generally feel richer even if you are (until some boring grandfather starts on about ‘we didn’t have silk cushions in our day’). Given that an expanding medieval economy means there is lots of new desirable stuff (stone castles, fancy horses etc) and that nobles exist to consume, they’re always going to spend a lot of their time feeling they’re not really rich (and the rest of the time spending as if they were really rich, because otherwise they lose face). A noble can never have enough money, almost by definition.

    BTW, kishnevi, vicus is a Roman term for a village or part of a town, and gets used by medieval archaeologists for small trading settlements. It’s the basis for place names ending in ‘wich’ like Sandwich.

  9. I think I am persuaded. But it’s quite a significant point, if we could start arguing that seigneurial violence is driven by status insecurity and paranoia anyway. But you’re quite right, of course, our sources don’t usually talk about prices. (Though Charlemagne legislates to fix prices of course and that needs in there somewhere: where’s his idea of a fair price coming from?) Instead, mainly they talk about scarcity or the lack of it. Supply is much less steady than demand in this world. Hmm &c.

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