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?

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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!


Putin’s Neo-Stalinism? Absolutism?

May 24, 2011

 

Today’s column by Joe Nocera on Russian justice got me thinking about Putin, the current leader, in fact, if not nominally, of Russia.  His grandfather was a cook in Stalin’s household, and he himself was brought up through the communist security organs.  He presides over Russia with something like Louis’ attitude of L’etat, c’est moi.  No Versailles, no lavish costumes, but he holds near absolute power, and he wields it as the champion of the Russian state against the Russians themselves.

Nocera’s column is about the tycoons who grew rich looting the crumbling USSR – nobody says they were good guys! – and who have now run afoul of Putin’s blueprint for the greatness of Russia.  Independent billionaires represent a power center not under state control, and a potential threat to it, and so must be brought to heel.  Some of these oligarchs, as they are called, have gained some perspective on the nature of a functioning good society as they have lived their lives of luxury.  And they have, or had, the means to do something about it, such as supporting opposition political figures and parties, or founding them!  The most prominent of them have been brought to trial on trumped-up or highly dubious charges, and are invariably found guilty.  The state confiscates their property.

Not exactly the Great Purge of Uncle Joe, but times have changed.  The great show trials directed by Stalin do come to mind:  after all, Putin obviously feels the need to present the appearance of legality.  Putin is plowing the field cultivated by Louis XIV who orchestrated his own great show trial against his former minister Fouquet, a valuable servant who acquired too much wealth not to excite the jealousy and fear of Louis, and all of which he lost to the Sun King.


Atheism on the sly

March 31, 2010

It’s 1715, and Louis XIV, The Sun King is near to setting.  The Duke de Saint-Simon is concerned about the state of the realm after the great king, whom he detests, has passed from the scene.  The Dauphin (the direct heir to the throne) is dead, and the most appropriate successor is only three years old:  There must be a regency while he grows up to his majority.

The Regent will, of course, be the Duke D’Orleans, the son of Louis’ brother, Philipe d’Orleans, who was simply known as Monsieur.  (He was, I believe, a homosexual, something that was tolerated in the Court for a variety of nefarious reasons. )   The Regent, an intelligent man with many good qualities, is also a bit of wag, and takes pleasure at thumbing his nose at convention.  During a long church service with much music, he was seen to be assiduously following along in a prayer book.  When congratulated afterwards by an old family retainer, he responded with a laugh, “You are a great ninny!  I was reading Rabelais – and he showed the book’s cover.”  Saint-Simon comments that this was all for show since he was quite happy to attend the mass, Rabelais or no,  being a great lover of good music.

D’Orleans was a freethinker, however, and this could cause difficulties.  Here Saint-Simon counsels the future Regent on how to discreetly maintain his atheism, if atheist he must be:

Most damaging of all, I continued, would be to proclaim his godlessness or anything approaching atheism:  for it would make enemies of all religious bodies and at the same time antagonize every decent person who cared for morality, sobriety, and religion.  He would then find turning against himself that licentious maxim which he was so fond of quoting – namely that religion is a bogy which clever men have invented in order to govern and which is therefore necessary for Kings and republics.  If for that reason only, he might think it in his best interests to respect the Church and not bring it into disrepute.  I dwelt long on this important subject, adding that he need not be a hypocrite, only avoid plain speaking, observe the conventions (which was not hard if one confined oneself to appearances), refuse to countenance improper jests or remarks, and generally live like an honest gentleman who respects his country’s faith and conceals the fact that he, personally, sets no store by it.


Newlyweds

January 6, 2010

 

Life in the 17th century royal courts was a highly regimented affair.  The ruling class had a lot of rules to play by!  No, not a free and easy existence.

Here’s a snippet from the memoirs of Saint-Simon about the marriage night of Phillip V of Spain, Louis XIV’s grandson.  He left France to take the Spanish throne, precipitating the lengthy Wars of the Spanish Succession – Blenheim being a glorious victory for Louis’ opponents, led by Winston Churchill’s ancestor – and searched about for a bride.  He was about 18 – he found a suitable Savoyard duchess.  She was 13.  I have added some italics.

After a long and disagreeable supper, the King and Queen withdrew. Then feelings which had been kept in during supper overflowed. The Queen wept for her Piedmontese women. Like a child, as she was, she thought herself lost in the hands of ladies so insolent; and when it was time to go to bed, she said flatly that she would not go, and that she wished to return home. Everything was done to console her; but the astonishment and embarrassment were great indeed when it was found that all was of no avail. The King had undressed, and was awaiting her. Madame des Ursins was at length obliged to go and tell him the resolution the Queen had taken. He was piqued and annoyed. He had until that time lived with the completest regularity; which had contributed to make him find the Princess more to his taste than he might otherwise have done. He was therefore affected by her ‘fantaisie’, and by the same reason easily persuaded that she would not keep to it beyond the first night. They did not see each other therefore until the morrow, and after they were dressed. It was lucky that by the Spanish custom no one was permitted to be present when the newly-married pair went to bed; or this affair, which went no further than the young couple, Madame des Ursins, and one or two domestics, might have made a very unpleasant noise.  [Unlike the French custom, which was to have witnesses present in the room as the newlyweds ‘enjoyed’ their first sexual intimacy, and the consummation of their marriage.  After all, the father of the heir must not be in doubt!]

Madame des Ursins consulted with two of the courtiers, as to the best measures to be adopted with a child who showed so much force and resolution. The night was passed in exhortations and in promises upon what had occurred at the supper; and the Queen consented at last to remain Queen. The Duke of Medina-Sidonia and Count San Estevan were consulted on the morrow. They were of opinion that in his turn the King, in order to mortify her and reduce her to terms, should not visit the Queen on the following night. This opinion was acted upon. The King and Queen did not see each other in private that day. In the evening the Queen was very sorry. Her pride and her little vanity were wounded; perhaps also she had found the King to her taste.

The ladies and the grand seigneurs who had attended at the supper were lectured for what had occurred there. Excuses, promises, demands for pardon, followed; all was put right; the third day was tranquil, and the third night still more agreeable to the young people. On the fourth day they went to Barcelona, where only fetes and pleasures awaited them. Soon after they set out for Madrid.


The Little Ice Age – View from Versailles

December 17, 2009

Baby, it’s cold out there!!

From the memoirs of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, a blast from the past reporting on the Little Ice Age and the horrible effects of global cooling!  An excerpt from Chapter XLIV:

One of the reasons Madame de Maintenon had brought forward, which much assisted her in opposing the siege of Lille, was the excessive cold of this winter [1708-09]. The winter was, in fact, terrible; the memory of man could find no parallel to it. The frost came suddenly on Twelfth Night, and lasted nearly two months, beyond all recollection. In four days the Seine and all the other rivers were frozen, and,—what had never been seen before,—the sea froze all along the coasts, so as to bear carts, even heavily laden, upon it. Curious observers pretended that this cold surpassed what had ever been felt in Sweden and Denmark. The tribunals were closed a considerable time. The worst thing was, that it completely thawed for seven or eight days, and then froze again as rudely as before. This caused the complete destruction of all kinds of vegetation—even fruit-trees; and others of the most hardy kind, were destroyed. The violence of the cold was such, that the strongest elixirs and the most spirituous liquors broke their bottles in cupboards of rooms with fires in them, and surrounded by chimneys, in several parts of the chateau of Versailles. As I myself was one evening supping with the Duc de Villeroy, in his little bedroom, I saw bottles that had come from a well- heated kitchen, and that had been put on the chimney-piece of this bed- room (which was close to the kitchen), so frozen, that pieces of ice fell into our glasses as we poured out from them. The second frost ruined everything. There were no walnut-trees, no olive-trees, no apple-trees, no vines left, none worth speaking of, at least. The other trees died in great numbers; the gardens perished, and all the grain in the earth. It is impossible to imagine the desolation of this general ruin. Everybody held tight his old grain. The price of bread increased in proportion to the despair for the next harvest. The most knowing resowed barley where there had been wheat, and were imitated by the majority. They were the most successful, and saved all; but the police bethought themselves of prohibiting this, and repented too late! Divers edicts were published respecting grain, researches were made and granaries filled; commissioners were appointed to scour the provinces, and all these steps contributed to increase the general dearness and poverty, and that, too, at a time when, as was afterwards proved, there was enough corn in the country to feed all France for two years, without a fresh ear being reaped.