Tuesday, January 18, 2011

1215: The Year of Magna Carta (2)

This the second part of my review of Danny Danziger and medieval historian John Gillingham’s 1215: The Year of Magna Carta, a delightfully accessible “time travelogue” of England for the year of Magna Carta. The first part was in my previous post.

The medieval Church supported itself with tithes, which were unpopular and widely evaded. One priest made the point of the importance of following Church rules by confiscating one tenth of the grain in farmers’ barns and then burning it in public. The custom of giving gifts for services such as baptism, marriage and burial was also hard to avoid. England had about 9,000 parishes, with the salary of priests being set at 3 pounds a year (three pence a day when an oxen cost about 80 pence). No new bishoprics were added between Carlisle in 1133 and the Reformation, but monasteries proliferated – seven Cistercian abbeys in 1118 had become well over 500 by 1200. About 5% of the population were clerks, but very few became priests. Most were in minor orders, so were permitted to marry, and worked in various administrative roles (Pp202ff).

The Cistercians insisted on a minimum age of 16 for entry, and a year’s novitiate. Their example was followed by other orders, eventually leading even the Benedictines to abandon their tradition of parents donating children to the Order. This was also the period of the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders of travelling friars. Of all the new orders only one, the Gilbertines, was founded in England, which was very much part of a single Latin Christendom. (Monastic discipline could also be quite harsh.)

The medievals were well aware that the Earth was round – as the authors note:
We live in our own age of faith, the faith that ‘we’ are superior, more rational, than the superstitious people of the past (p.237).
The medievals also correctly called what we call ‘Arabic numerals’ ‘Indian numerals’. The tale of the gross errors of calculation later made by Columbus make amusing reading (Pp236-7).

Adelard of Bath’s enthusiasm for knowledge, and the promotion thereof, led him to dedicate a treatise on astronomy to the young Henry II. Whether astronomical events had any predictive value was much debated at the time, with learned opinion on both sides: the authors quote the monk Richard of Devizes against astronomical events having predictive significance (Pp240-1).
This was the age where the Eastern Roman defeat at Myriokephalon and Saladin’s unification of Egypt and Syria made the states of Outremer more vulnerable, leading to the crushing loss at the Hattin and a King of England, Richard I, to famously go crusading. This gave him enormous prestige: his brother John refrained from revolt until Richard was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria on the way back. It also led to considerable interest in Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūbi (i.e. Saladin) himself (Pp243ff).

On of the signs of the greater integration of trade, travel and Church governance was the increasing use of common (typically saint’s) names across Europe and of Churches being named after common saints across Latin Christendom, rather than the local saints which had been the custom (p.254).

The rationale of rebellion
All the English kings since William the Bastard had faced rebellions, but rebellions in the name of either alternative royal dynasties or other members of the royal family. Lacking such a royal focus, the rebels of 1215 against John developed a new one: a program of reform. Henry I’s Coronation Charter of 1100 had never had much force, but its example remained and provided a framework for the rebels to build on. They built something new while looking to a justifying past (not to be confused with what had actually happened). They took an oath to “stand fast together for the liberty of the church and realm”. John responded by ordering loyal castellans to prepare their castles for war, by appealing to the Pope and “taking the cross” (i.e. promising to go on crusade). Pope Innocent III responded by supporting the authority of this loyal son of the church.

Those closer to the action, with more direct experience of John, thought his taking the cross a cynical manoeuvre. John had so little credibility with his subjects that, days after he had granted the city of London a new charter which allowed them to elect their own Mayor, the city opened its gates to the rebels: his past taxation of the city weighed against him. The baronial opposition won landslide support: John was reduced to a few loyal magnates and the realisation that major concessions were required. After much negotiation, the Great Charter was signed at Runnymede in June 1215, with (most of) the rebels renewing their previously renounced fealty to John. Peace was declared (Pp255ff).

Despite the partial precedents of Henry I’s Coronation Charter and Charters issued by Stephen in 1135 and 1136, Magna Carter was something new:
As the product of rebellion it was conceived and drawn up in an atmosphere of crisis. John and his enemies were bidding against each other for political and military support. In these circumstances the barons could not afford to be identified with a programme that suited only their sectional interests. They ended up demanding a charter of liberties that was long, detailed and contained something for everyone (p.260).
It was, in fact “a thoroughgoing commentary on a whole system of government”, creating “the first written constitution in European history” (Pp260-1).

In its immediate purpose of being a peace treaty, the Great Charter was a complete failure. Civil war broke out within three months because the Great Charter had overreached. Clauses 52 and 61 set up a committee of 25 barons to judge property grievances: a committee of John’s enemies given power over every act of government. This was something no king was going to accept:
The barons had created a political monstrosity, a constitution that could not possibly survive. The Magna Carta of 1215 was the cause of its own undoing (p.262).
John pretended to comply while working to improve his own position. In September 1215, Innocent III denounced the Charter: this had little or no effect on the barons but did undermine those Churchmen seeking to bridge the differences.

John, encouraged by the Pope’s words and his improved military forces, marched on London. The rebel barons offered the crown to Prince Louis of France. War broke out across the kingdom: the structure of government broke down and John found himself increasingly short of funds. John displayed his normal pattern of alternating between displaying resolution and foresight with displaying neither and the war increasingly turned against him: Louis controlling London and more and more of the countryside. John then did the only thing he could to save the Plantagenet dynasty: on the night of 18-19 October 1215, he died.

His heir, Henry III, was a nine-year old boy. The magnates of England steadily decided that the regency for a child-king was much preferable to rule by a French prince, particularly after the young king’s ministers reissued the Great Charter. Louis was told his services were no longer required. He lingered until 1217, relying more and more on French officers and troops as English support ebbed away, increasing his unpopularity. He finally accepted the inevitable and sailed back to France, to the consolation prize of becoming King of France in 1223, a much larger and more prosperous kingdom than England (if also a much less centrally controlled one) (Pp264ff).

He did, however, negotiate for decent treatment to his supporters: something he was able to achieve for lay folk but not the clerics (since they were in defiance of King and Pope). A prominent clerical supporter of the Great Charter, Elias of Dereham, was forced into exile. He seems to have been greatly respected as a man of principle, as several clerics and others appointed him executors to their will including William the Marshal, who had been a loyal king’s man, and he later worked for Henry III (Pp273ff).

A living document
The Magna Carta had failed as a peace treaty, but it kept being re-issued, with modifications that marked as a living document. The version issued in 1225 remained on the statue books until the Law Reform Act of 1863. In 1265, Simon de Montfort decreed that the Charter should be proclaimed twice a year and nailed on church doors. Edward I re-issued it in 1297 and, from then on, it had pride of place in books of English statutes. It became a Good Thing, with mythic status, echoing down English history. It was made so much of in the C17th that it was still resonant when the American colonies were being settled, and when the Founding Fathers were creating the US Constitution (Pp278ff).

In the end, as the author’s state in the end of the final chapter and before the appendix with the English text of the Charter:
Although there is not a word in it about the right to protest, there is a sense in which Magna Carta in its entirety represents protest. It was in origin the product of direct political action, of negotiation after rebellion. As a symbol of the struggle against tyranny it will always retain its value (p.284).
Quite so.

The last line of the Introduction of this splendid book is “for all mistakes the authors blame each other” (p.13) which expresses beautifully the good-natured fun of this book, an excellent “timelogue” of the world of medieval England in the early C13th and the role of Magna Carta in Anglosphere history.

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