john the something

1215_cover1215 was kind of a big year in Europe. Being something less than a scholar of European history, I’d assumed the signing of the Magna Carta was capitulation, like a final act of surrender following a rebellion. But that wasn’t actually the case: at the time John signed it, political unrest was brewing and rebellion almost certain to happen, but no actual hostilities had taken place. It was precursor, not resolution.

Although (attempted) coups were not particularly rare at the time, this one was a historical oddity. John had no living siblings and only two young children, so there was no clear heir to rally behind (nor, conversely, a clear heir who desired the throne). The lack of a figurehead prevented the “rebel alliance” from forming a coherent and unified political front. With an obvious replacement for John or a leader to rally behind, John might have been toppled in much more routine fashion, without the Magna Carta ever being necessary.

There were many, many reasons to get rid of the king. He’d performed what should be called “the John special”, an astonishing mix of self-inflicted doom built on one part repeated military failings (usually instigated by John himself, too short-tempered to keep himself from talking shit to people he shouldn’t have) and one part soaring tax rates. Also a side of secret sauce. Those formed a sort of feedback loop, as taxes were increased to pay/off settle terms with whomever John had a picked a fight with (and inevitably lost to). Among them was scutage, the shield tax, ostensibly an as-needed tax directing revenue to the military, but instead repeatedly raised to onerous, rebellion-inciting levels.

Given his many other lesser qualities, John’s lack of foresight shouldn’t be shocking. He failed to see any potential threat until he’d put himself in a politically and militarily weak position, with little defense against a suddenly inevitable insurrection. And so he signed the Magna Carta before any physical hostilities had even happened, and it was a strategic maneuver, not an abject surrender. He was stalling—buying time to rally his own defenses and waiting, fingers crossed, for the support of the church (a matter of great political exigency).

And so while the Magna Carta was meant to address his failings, John didn’t care much what it said. He’d either lose, in which case the terms hardly mattered because he’d be executed, or he’d win and could ignore it. Because of that, the document holds a number of clauses that probably would not have been agreed to, even by a defeated king. Clause 12, for example, dealt with maintaining a reasonable scutage level by way of a council—forming the basis of what later became parliament. Another issue was that of all the ways for the king and feudal leaders to empty the pockets of their lessers, there was no way for selfsame lessers to act against these abuses. Several clauses deal with the redress of claims in a manner not completely different from modern courts.

Inasmuch as the Magna Carta contains parts of the foundation of the modern legal system, it’s interesting to keep in mind that it was essentially a wish list. And even while many of its clauses addressed broad social issues, several were extremely specific to personal and local grievances. They give the impression of the kind of singleminded devotion/mania that comes from being wronged by an abuse of power, stewing on it for several years, then finally getting public revenge. “Sign this paper that says you are a total jag. SIGN IT!” Sweet, sweet justice. John was portrayed, punchably, and one assumes accurately, by Paul Giamatti in a recent movie:


Other interesting things about life in 1215:

Forest had a political meaning in the Middle Ages; Sherwood wasn’t just a lot of trees. Forest was land set aside by the king for his own use, sort of like an 800-year-old eminent domain. They were usually the habitat for the preferred game of true sportsmen: deer and boar (and, presumably MAN, the most dangerous game), and frequently served as a private hunting ground. When land was “afforested”, people who lived on or used the land had their use restricted or were forced to vacate altogether as control of the land and its resources was turned over to the king. Forest justices roamed the land, taking people to forest court for violating forest law (not joking, those are all real). Clever kings eventually realized that they could make extra money on the side by being paid to disafforest land, which of course gave them an incentive to afforest it in the first place. Free money! Foresting pissed a lot of people off, and a particularly important clause of the Magna Carta returned all previously “afforested” lands to their previous states. It’s always sad when the gloriously wealthy have to give up their private hunting grounds.

• Kings and other royalty usually had a large permanent, live-in staff. Because the staff was predominantly male, prostitutes were a frequent “nuisance”. This was mostly solved by hiring a secondary staff of “demoiselles”, which, more or less, were royally-appointed concubines meant to drive out the lower-class sex workers. CLASS WARFARE.

• After a squabble with the church, Pope Innocent III put English clergy on strike. For five years. In that time, mass was not celebrated, and the dead could not be buried in consecrated ground. I’m sure people could pretty easily get over the mass thing—who doesn’t like to sleep in on Sundays—but dead bodies were frequently placed in coffins and hung in trees, in preparation for a time when they could be buried in sacred ground. Presumably they stayed there for years.

• Besides commoners, kings also had tenants/barons (in the book, they call them tenants, everywhere else I read calls them barons). Tenants were generally the elite, who were in thrall to the king and expected to provide him political and financial support. The king levied an inheritance tax on them (DEATH TAX! Score one for Frank Luntz); if the heir was not of age they became the ward of the king, who then controlled whom they could/would marry. Should there not be an heir, the king would control both the widow and the wealth. John was notorious for trying to step in with the wives of his tenants even before they were dead, which, as one can imagine, was not well received and helped foment the discontent that led to his downfall. Still, funny that the elite were essentially controlled by politicians rather than, well, you know.

• By the 1190s, Oxford was gaining a reputation as a town of academics, where people (called ‘clerks’) would go to study and learn from masters. However, it was not yet a university, because those didn’t exist. In 1209 an Oxford clerk killed a woman and fled the scene. Authorities arrested three clerks who were the accused’s roommates, and the three were subsequently imprisoned and hanged. The remaining clerks and instructors—perhaps as many as 3000—left the town en masse at this injustice. The debate raged for years, and the clerks, in order to bargain collectively, formed a legal entity that would become known as a university, before in 1214 extracting reparations from the town on the condition of their return (the town wanted them back because they paid taxes). Cambridge University was actually formed by a band of refugees from Oxford who escaped to Cambridge and decided not to return.

• Benedictine monks, despite their vows of poverty and chastity, were actually renowned as rather gluttonous (the peculiar burlesque show of religion in this era is described in greater detail in Tuchman’s The Distant Mirror). One report from a monastery visitor described a 16-course lunch. Other calculations suggest that their daily rations were up to two pounds of meat, one of grain, and a gallon of ale (wine was only served on feast days, of which there were more than 100 in the year. But those other five days of the week were HELL). Classically, the meat of quadrupeds was disallowed in the refectory. Like most religious rules, the initially strict interpretation of this religious law was gradually slackened, as people sought any way possible to be pious without actually changing their behavior. “Meat” came to mean fresh meat cut from the joint. Offal and other cured meats were considered “meatish” (actual word used) and therefore OK—because god loves bacon as much as the monks. Strict reading of the rule suggested that meat-eating was only disallowed in the refectory itself, so special eating rooms were built outside the refectory. PIETY.


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