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.
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.
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.
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.