Dreams of Canon Law

September 5, 2012

In my high school days, happily loosing myself in medieval history, tracing the rise of languages, governments, architectural styles, and nation states themselves, I dreamed of a happy life if I had been born centuries earlier, and found myself cast by fate in the role of a canon lawyer arguing for the supremacy of the pope over bishops and even kings. I dunno…it’s a project!  A mission, something to do…  Spending my days retrieving monastic forgeries and corrupt texts, coming up with novel arguments to dispossess the local feudal barbarian lord or the king of the revenue from some benefice, monastery, town, and so on. 

The papal supremecy issue was whether the pope or the regional bishops were primary – the pope was only the bishop of Rome, according to the anti-papal line, or whether the pope or the local king had control of the vast revenues of the church, the power to appoint bishops, and on and on.  It all seems tedious and pettyfogging, but momentous issues of power and money were at stake.  Sometimes the pope won, sometimes he lost. 

What’s a poor Jew-boy to do but hitch his cart to the papal star?  Not hardly…but I could dream.  I even started to learn Latin, just for the fun of it.

I just finished a book on Jean-Baptiste Colbert, The Information Master, that deals with the other side of the equation, and a later period, i.e., the effort by the secular state, specifically Louis XIV, to gain absolute power over the nobles and the church, and the role of Colbert in that effort.  The book, by Jacob Soll, describes Colbert’s relentless aquisition of documents and libraries in the service of the absolute monarchy.  Knowledge is power says the old saw, and when it came to making a legal case for the king’s right to confiscate, tax, or simiply claim all or a part of local revenue, documents were essential.  The endless battle to aggrandize Louis’ power over France was fought on paper, not on the battlefield – not since The Fronde, when he was a boy, anyway: an experience he did not wish to repeat! – and Colbert was the general.

He created archives, libraries, secret information gathering cadres, and recruited a corps of document writers, to produce an endless stream of propaganda justifying the royal perogatives.  In other words, he actively engaged in what is called today knowledge production, in the manner of think-tanks, institutes, and foundations we have now.  The monks of the medieval period were known to sometimes create deliberate mis-information, e.g. The Donation of Constantine, but Colbert relied on overwhelming his adversaries with real documents.  Often, the nobles  were unprepared:  what did aristocrats care for deeds and charters, and scribbling?  They learned the error of their ways.  Churchmen, with centuries of infighting behind them, were usually better placed to make a counter-claim, but they lost over time.

Colbert also did Louis’ dirty work, including creating the ‘overwhelming’ case against Fouquet, who had mightily pissed-off Louis.  As was typical in such affairs of state, the first arrests included paper as well as people:  whole libraries were carted off to the royal archives to deprive the victim of documentary evidence in his support, and to supply more ammunition for the king.

The book is well written, but falls into breathless comparisons between Colbert and Bill Gates, his archives and Google, that show more about Soll’s lack of understanding of database technology than anything about l’Ancien régime.  There is far too little description of how Colbert’s archives actually worked, rather than Soll’s repreated remarks that he developed many new techniques to manage the storage and retrieval of the vast amount of paper.  Indeed, there is too little discussion, I think, of how effective these efforts were:  We are told that they were crucial to Louis XIV’s absolutist project, but we are given few concrete examples of how they brought it to fruition.  I felt a suspicion that Colbert was perhaps an information-obsessed control freak who seemed more effective than he was. 

In fact, in his conclusion, Soll writes that Colbert ‘misunderstood the nature of  his own project,’ and that his penchant for secrecy undermined his goal of building an efficient state machine.  After Colbert’s death, the system fell apart, Louis perceived it as a threat to his power, and he reverted to a pre-bureacratic mode of kingship that focused on playing minsters and power centers off against one another.  So, who was the master?


Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!


Origins of the Modern Thieving State

June 13, 2011

 

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Putin’s brutal tactics against his billionaire political opponents (he throws them in jail and convicts them of trumped-up charges) rang a bell in my head.  The trial of Nicolas Fouquet, Finance Minister to Louis XIV came to mind.  This got me started on the whole notion of what Krugman called today, Rule by Rentiers, and the tremendous and parasitical hold over our society of the financial élite…and whence it came to be.

Fouquet has interested me for a long time, not least because he built one of Europe’s great architectural gems, the estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  The gardens were designed by André Le Nôtre, who went on to design the overwhelmingly magnificent landscapes at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.  Fouquet also came to my attention early in life because in high school, I read some letters by Madame de Sévigné, including a famous one describing the fate of Vatel, formerly cook to Fouquet.  During a grand banquet for the Prince (the Great) Conde, the fish course was threatened – the fish had not been delivered!  Vatel was so humiliated by this failure, that he threw himself on his sword.  His death was treated as a national tragedy.  But Fouquet and his ilk are the story here.

Fouquet is not mentioned much these days – all attention goes to his destroyer, Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV.  But Fouquet was Louis’ faithful servant during a time when the king was young, and just getting a firm grip on power.  (The childhood of Louis was during the civil war called The Fronde.)  He always served the interests of the king and the French state (no difference between the two!), and along the way, he enriched himself.  Well, so did everyone else, and most didn’t do such a good job as he did.  Nor were they as handsome, intelligent, charming, cultured, and imaginative.  Richelieu, Mazarin, and Colbert are not on any historian’s list of fun people.

The job of Nicolas Fouquet was to ensure that the royal treasury was full so it could pursue its endless war against the Spanish Hapsburg Empire.  The state of national finance at the time was so chaotic and desperate that it makes American budget issues look like textbook examples of perfect accounting practice.  Books were duplicated, or secret.  Huge ‘loans’ to government figures were standard.  It was not illegal to rake off a substantial sum from tax collections or financing from the merchant élite, it was how the system worked!  There was no separation of the personal interest from the state interest at the level on which these high ministers worked.  After all, if they did not have the cash to present a good front, what financier would lend to the state they represented?  Opulent show was all part of the process.

The crime of Fouquet was simply to do his job far better than anyone else, thus exciting the envy and hostility of Colbert, and to be neglectful or unaware, to a shocking degree, of how his activities might be interpreted by the young king.  Three weeks after hosting the king at a vast banquet in his brand new palace, Vaux-le-Vicomte, he was enlightened:  Louis had him arrested on charges of embezzlement and treason.  The charges were totally trumped-up, and Louis probably did not believe them a bit:  he simply wanted to get rid of a too-independent servant.

The trial was a milestone in the history of political show trials, but Fouquet did not play the docile, self-incriminating defendant that students of the USSR might expect.  He was cool, calm, and collected, and even managed to smuggle out some letters that were the basis of quickly printed pamphlets that generated tremendous popular support for him.  Louis XIV did not have the resources of the total terror-state, but he did his best.  He hanged a few people who helped Fouquet communicate with the outside world from prison, but it is a measure of the not-yet-established nature of his absolutist rule that many elements of the trial were not under his control.  He learned, and acted differently in the future.

Convicted, but not sentenced to death, the verdict of eternal banishment did not please the king.  He did not get his wish, and did not feel strong enough to impose execution, but he did change the verdict to life in prison.   Fouquet languished in a fortress in the remote alpine Piedmont region of France.

The details of the trial are recounted in some of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, which are always very readable.  This popular biographical treatment is also quite good:

A side note:  When Fouquet and his wife lost a very young daughter to disease, they were advised by a cleric “to learn to love death.”  What a tremendous gulf this reveals between our world and theirs!  Death was all around, and the death of one, or many children, was a common occurrence.  To accept and love death was the only salvation.  No “youth culture” for them!


Chartres Cathedral – The Real Thing

January 16, 2011

A few months ago, I watched Orson Welles’ strange and fascinating movie, F is for Fake, a real Orson tour de force.  He gives a moving speech about art, monuments, and authorship while regarding the gothic cathedral of Chartres (watch it here).  It’s been a very long time since I stood beneath Chartres’ vaults, but I decided to do a bit of studying again since I can’t just pick up and go there.

I happened upon a wonderful book, Universe of Stone:  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, by Philip Ball.  It’s a popular treatment, but quite thorough, ranging from structural analysis of buildings to Platonic analysis of ideas.  Along the way, he is quite short with historians of architecture who show no interest in or knowledge of how a large building is made to stand up, and he is refreshingly commonsensical discussing knotty intellectual disputes such as just how much are gothic cathedrals reflections of medieval scholastic philosophy, as Erwin Panofsky said they were.

As an art history student with a passionate interest in historical architecture, I was vaguely suspicious of pronouncements on structure and aesthetics that I read – I always wondered if those writers knew whereof they spoke.  Later, after taking a degree in civil engineering, I realized my doubts had been solid.

One of the fascinating points Ball makes, partly by way of debunking the popular myth of the cathedrals as communal achievements erected on the basis of heartfelt contributions by all members of a deeply religious society, is that these amazing buildings were mostly paid for by the Church.  Yes, the kings and nobles gave some money, and local town burghers did too, but not nearly enough to pay the huge costs of building a cathedral.  Chartres, not an especially rich town, did have church institutions that were rich, rich in land.  And almost all wealth of that time was from land.  And so, the churchmen of Chartres built themselves a glorious cathedral to celebrate their faith, and their power we must suppose, and paid for it from rent on their vast holdings of land.  The land that grew the grain to make men’s bread.

Ball points out that baskets of bread are seen in many images throughout the cathedral, in stone and in stained glass.  Insofar as nearly everyone then was laboring on the land, we can say that since the wealth they created was what paid for the monument, it was a product of everyone in the society.

Incidentally, Welles makes much of the fact that Chartres, one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, is unsigned.  It’s true: we don’t know who was its master builder, but for many cathedrals, we do.  The fact that his name has been lost to us may be nothing more than the results of poor records retention.


The Devils – When Church and State are one

December 12, 2010

The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that.  Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it!  The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have.  It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.

Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master.  Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it.  Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace.  Richelieu will have none of that:  he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.

Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like.  Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins.  Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose.  His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead.  The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power.  Church and State – no separation…

The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’.  The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild.  Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths.  (Click to enlarge the images.)

The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion.  The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”

Oliver Reed is great as Grandier.  Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town.  Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example).   These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life.  The expressionistic set design is fabulous.

Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.

She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.

In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair.  She is beautiful, not a cripple.

Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.

Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…

An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross.  She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied.  Religious fervor can go too far.

Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls.  He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them.  Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice.  “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told.  The king is impatient.  He’s having fun taking aim

at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds.  Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king.  A plot is hatched.

An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going.  A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill.  Yes, such things did go on.  And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses:  was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day?  I don’t know.

The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film.  Devils?  Within and without.

Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft.  He understands the situation perfectly.

Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in.  His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn.  The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard!  Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!

With his death, the Cardinal has his way.  The walls come down.  The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary.  Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.


1812

July 20, 2010

Ségur’s account of the first entry of Napoleon’s troops into Moscow, which they find eerily deserted:

They were exalted by that which is second to virtue only, by glory. Then succeeded melancholy; either from the exhaustion consequent on so many sensations, or the effect of the operation produced by such an immeasurable elevation, and of the seclusion in which we were wandering on that height, whence we beheld immensity, infinity, in which our weakness was lost: for the higher we ascend, the more the horizon expands, and the more conscious we become of our own insignificance.

A powerful but tattered army reaches its prize, the capital city of the Russian Empire.  A pause, a passage of silence. They are at the pinnacle, and from there, the only way is down.

Defeat cover


La terre – Earth Day

April 22, 2010

I finished Zola’s La Terre yesterday, and by happenstance, today is Earth Day.

The epic tale of farting, murderous, avaricious, randy, bestial peasants who live by tending the great Mother Earth ends on a positive note. Images of the Earth receiving her seed bookend the similar opening of the novel. Jean, the townsman turned farmer, who was ejected from the local peasant community as a human body will reject an organ transplant, is signing up to fight the Prussians. Meanwhile, far away in Paris, in another novel, Nana lies dead in palatial bedroom, a suppurating mass of flesh killed by smallpox, while outside, the crowds, in a patriotic frenzy, rally and march to the cry of “To Berlin!” The Debacle will tell what comes next, with Jean at the center of it. After the loosing fight, he will return to the earth, not the town.

In our society, awash in sentimental and falsely nostalgic images of the more “green” days of the past, celebrants of Earth Day would do well to read La Terre (The Earth). Living “in tune” with the natural cycles of the the earth is not all daisies and recycling. It is more like being clasped in a crushing embrace by forces beyond your control, barely understood, that are beautiful and mysterious, but terrifying at times as well.  The peasants adore Mother Earth, and have little use for God, the one the priest talks about, but they curse her too when she destroys their crops with hail or fails to bring forth a good harvest.

Today, we hang calendars on our walls with reproductions of paintings by Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners being ever popular. He intended this as a realistic depicition of the poverty and back-breaking labor of women who scour harvested fields for the leavings with which to feed their families, but we find it beautfiul, bucolic, even romantic. According to The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, even his images are a mild presentation of the reality of peasant life.


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