Charlemagne, Christian Kingdoms, Holy Roman Empire, Divine Right of Kings, Magna Carta and English Parliament

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 12th, 2012

Politics 101

The Divine Right of Kings gave Kings Absolute Earthly Authority

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire there was chaos.  Anarchy.  It was a free for all when it came to power.  Until, that is, a strong regional king came along.  Who could unite the manors and the nobles.  Usually in the face of a superior enemy.  One of the greatest post-Roman kings was Charlemagne.  King of the Franks (modern day France).  Who united most of Europe.  Then converted to Christianity.  Something that impressed the Pope.  Who did Charlemagne one better.  And anointed him emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire had little to do with the old Roman Empire.  It wasn’t even centered on the Mediterranean.  It was up there in the land of the barbarians.  Northern Europe.  In and around modern day France and Germany.  Where many Christian kings ruled many Christian kingdoms.  But the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was the Pope’s choice to rule them all.

The key here is a religious authority anointing someone to make him king.  Not necessarily a new concept.  For Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel.  With the Pope doing it in post-Roman Europe he was bringing back the concept.  The Pope being God’s representative on earth meant that his appointment was God’s appointment.  And hence the divine right of kings.  Which basically gave the king absolute earthly authority.  Who answers to no one but God.  And, of course, the Pope.

The Magna Carta changed History by curtailing Absolute Monarchial Powers

Well that was all well and good but the kings earthly powers came from the nobility.  The landed aristocracy.  Who owned the manors and produced the food.  That gave rise to the cities that produced the other necessities of a kingdom.  Not to mention all the soldiers the king needed to expand his power.  Or maintain his power.  Which the nobility raised from those towns and manors.  And picked up the bill to arm them as well.  So, yes, the king had absolute authority.  But his power came from the nobles.  And the armies they raised could be turned against him just as easily as on his enemies.

And an English king would learn this lesson.  Around 1215.  King John.  When King John became king the English Kingdom extended through much of France.  John then lost these French lands.  And spent a fortune trying to recapture them.  A fortune which, of course, he took from his nobility.  His barons.  His tenants-in-chief.   Who revolted.  Then came to terms.  When King John placed his seal on a list of their demands.  The Magna Carta.  It didn’t change much at the time.  But the days of absolute monarchy were numbered.  At least in England.

The Magna Carta may not have changed much in 1215.  But it changed history.  Soon there was an English Parliament.  And it began to curtail absolute monarchial powers.  Especially on that very testy issue of taxes.  Soon the power of the purse belonged to Parliament.  Not the king.  Which really put a dent in kingly ambitions.

In the English Parliament Government ruled at the Consent of the Governed

William the Conqueror introduced feudalism to England in 1066.  After the Battle of Hastings.  And the Norman Conquest.  Which changed England forever.  Giving rise to the landed aristocracy.  Among other things.  And a strong central government.  The impetus to absolute monarchy.  Only to have his great-great-grandson, King John, introduce the beginning of the end of absolute monarchy.  Against his will, of course.  Which took us to a novel new idea of government.  Embodied in Parliament.  Where government ruled at the consent of the governed.  Which would cause a lot of turmoil in England.  And influence a lot people to come.

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Manorialism and Serfdom

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 29th, 2011

Politics 101

High Taxes and a Declining Birthrate marked the Beginning of the End of the Roman Empire

Serfdom dates back to European Manorialism.  But it was born in the decline of the Roman Empire.  When the Romans stopped pushing their borders out they lost a key source of revenue for their empire.  The spoils of war.  This coincided with the rise of their welfare state.  An ever larger bureaucracy to manage the breadth of empire.  And a loss of Roman identity and pride.  Taxes were rising.  And they were debasing their coin.  To monetize their debt.  People tried their best to evade taxes.  And had no desire to serve in the mighty Roman Legions securing the empire’s borders.  Which turned out to be quite the problem for the Romans.

The Romans had to hire soldiers to defend their borders.  A very costly endeavor.  Which added greatly to the cost of empire.  Hence the high taxes.  And debasing of their silver coins with lead.  But only the silver coins.  Not their gold.  Because they needed those to have value.  As they used them to pay for their hired soldiers.  And that’s one thing you don’t want to do to a hired army.  Anger them by paying them with worthless lead.  Because they could attack you as easily as protect you.

Soon being a Roman wasn’t fun anymore.  Taxes were so high people were working more for the Roman government than their families.  And inflation was making daily life difficult.  The people’s money was becoming worthless.  Which raised prices.  Soon the Romans were taking tax payments in kind.  Instead of money they took wheat, wine, clothing, etc.  Whatever a person made a large portion of what they made went to the Roman government.  It became so bad people were quitting to do something else.  A lot of them.  So many that it was cutting into what the Romans were collecting.  That and a declining birthrate marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.  Large armies.  A growing bureaucracy.  And a declining tax base.  Not a formula for fiscal stability.  So they said enough.  No more quitting and moving on.  Whatever your father was you’ll be.  You have no choice.  You’ll do as he did until the day you die.

The Lord of the Manor owned Great Tracts of Land that Needed Laborers, Peasants had Labor to Offer but no Land

It was the rural part of this Roman directive that shaped future history.  Especially in Europe.  When the Roman Empire collapsed civilization went backwards.  To a rural, agrarian way of life.  A rural self-sufficiency.  Where people either owned land.  Or worked on land owned by others.  And that Roman idea to prevent people from quitting and moving on?  That became serfdom.  Where people who worked the land were bound to the land.  And not allowed to leave or look for a new job.  And if the lord sold the land the people bound to the land went with the land.  Not the lord.

This is Manorialism.  As the Roman Empire disintegrated power shifted from a central government to manors.  The Lord of the Manor owned great tracts of land that needed laborers.  Peasants had labor to offer but no land.  So they made an agreement.  The Lord of the Manor would permit the peasant to live and work a small piece of his land.  In return the peasant would join other peasants and work the large landholdings of their lord.

A serf was little more than a slave.  But with a home and land to work to provide for his family.  Which was a lot in Medieval Europe and often meant the difference between life and death.  And he had something more.  Protection.  A set of laws to live by among his fellow serfs administrated by his lord and the manorial court.  And protection from outside threats.  Which was also part of the agreement.  The serfs agreed to fight alongside their fellow serfs in defense of their lord’s land.  Which was also their home.  And the source of all provision for their family.  So it was a very beneficial agreement for both lord and serf.

Serfdom was a Life of Subsistence and Prayer

The Lord of the Manor lived in a mansion.  The peasants lived in a little village.  Between the two was often a church.  Also in or near the village was the lord’s mill.  Operated by the serfs for both the lord’s harvest and their own.  Maybe even a bakery.  Surrounding these were the great tracts of land the serfs worked.  And forests where wild game was available to hunt.  And wood to burn.  But the forests were typically for the lord’s sole use.

So after the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome this was what civilization came to.  A life of subsistence.  Back-breaking work in the fields.  Eat what you grow.  Pray.  And try not to starve or freeze to death during the winter.  Not a life we would dream about today.  But one that worked for centuries.  And held Europe together during the Middle Ages.

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