Dreams of Canon Law

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?

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