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?


The Canal

September 7, 2011

In southwest France, dans le pays Cathar, lies the Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel of the 17th century built by Pierre Paul Riquet.  It was built in only fifteen years (no machines, of course) when Riquet was in his sixties, and despite the backing of Louis XIV and his minister, Colbert, many thought it would never be done.  The motivation was simple:  connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and cut out the part of the sea route that requires sailing around the entire Iberian peninsula when shipping goods.  It starts near Narbonne on the sea, and moves roughly west to Toulouse, where it meets the Garonne Canal that was built earlier.  Once it was complete, it became a tremendously important link in the commercial network that was retired only with the coming of the railroads.

Canals often have to have locks to allow barges to negotiate the drops in elevation that can’t be avoided on route, and in the 1670s, the design of locks had approached what is used today.  What was unusual about the Canal du Midi was the that is followed a course with a pronounced peak along its course (see below) so that water in the channel would be flowing in two directions at once:  to the Mediterranean; and to the Atlantic.  That meant that there had to be a constant source of water at the summit, not an easy thing to supply in a region that is often parched in the summer.  This is why Riquet’s proposal met with such scepticism.

Riquet solved the problem by capturing the flow from the Montagne Noire, where there were several large streams that became torrents in the winter.  He built a large dam and created a huge reservoir at Naurouze that keeps the water flowing nicely all the year ’round.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can learn all the details in From Sea to Sea by L.T. C.  Rolt.

Today the canal is just for leisure:  walking, biking, and exploring on boat and barge trips.  Here’s a picture of where we rented bikes, a picturesque spot in la France profonde (deep France).

There are places where it a stream crossed the route of the canal, so a pont canal, a canal bridge, was created to carry the water road over the water!  The images below show the canal from the level of the tow path, and on the right, from the stream.  If you look closely at the second picture, you can just make out a boat crossing the stream at the midpoint of the bridge.

Here’s a better view of a barge crossing the water bridge over the stream.  This one happens to have been built by Vauban, of fortification renown, after Riquet had died.

There are many lovely structures on the canal, including bridges like this one that, more conventionally, carry roads over the water.  When I was there, kids were doing backflips into the water off of it.

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!