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A Small Medium at Large – Galen Chadwick Sept 20, 2018

Cartoon sketch of the Queen advising the King, looking down at angry mob:

 “Oh, you don’t have to fight them- You just need to convince the pitchfork people the torch people want to take away their pitchforks.” 

The law in interesting times- part six- The Feudal Origins of Law

During feudal times, the peasants came with the land.  They had it made.  Here in the Ozarks we see lots of landless peasants who, lured out of suburbia by Mother Earth News and clutching dicey diplomas, can be spotted looking for a patch of ground to eke out a living.  Tragically, most don’t have the kind of eke it takes to be a real peasant; they last maybe a year, those that are not lost to ticks.  

In Europe, peasants were divided into three classes according to their personal status: slave, serf and free tenant.  Serfs were bound to the land.  They were almost like slaves except they could not be bought or sold separately; in any case nobody could leave the land without permission.  Open boarders, as we cherish them today, would remain a dream for centuries.  Peasants could no more vote for the important stuff anymore than we can, but we’re free to not vote.  

The well-connected had a tradition of inheriting the farmers along with the farms.  Every peasant had to pay taxes to their lord or noble; they also paid taxes to dukes and counts higher up, who gave as little as possible to the king.  This separation of powers remains unchanged except the king is wholly diversified, the elites’ “Plan B” lies in New Zealand, and Missouri’s Astonishingly Affordable $enators will say and do anything to keep the banks bailed out with other people’s money.  Every four years, this deal goes to the peasants for a vote, who automatically divide into teams and fight bitterly over two identical versions. 

This year Americans will work from January 1st to April 19th, a total of 109 days, in order to pay their tax burden, not counting driving time, shopping for financial advisors, and filing extensions.  Sure, we put in more hours than peasants, but look at all the poorly made plastic crap we get to keep, higher speed limits, UFO’s, divorce courts, much better beer, cartoons- and next- “medical” marijuana!

Since most people never left the farm back in the Dark Ages, radically new ideas spread throughout Europe through the local priest and wandering musicians- a slow process, but still measurably faster than on CNN or Fox.  During medieval times the Church was all powerful.  The only way to get to heaven was to follow the Bible, which before Gutenberg’s diabolical printing press, was classified as Top Secret.  Only celibates with impeccable moral credentials got to set the storyline. 

Little has changed.  People couldn’t read or write worth a darn and cover-ups worked every time.  Peasants stared at clouds and entrails for omens just as our children gaze at iPhones and Justin Bieber for clues, but there the difference ends.  The Like/Dislike system, based upon fleeting impulses of desire or aversion, remains the basic go-to source for how to behave, who to obey, even who to marry.  Local clergy, who must struggle to advertise God in a crowded field, still dole out bits of Top Secrets on a pay-as-you go schedule.   

Then, as now, peasants were no more likely to think for themselves as to spread their arms and fly away by flapping.  But institutional transformation is inevitable:  The meme of olden days was that humans- at least men- were living beings birthed and nurtured by a living Earth in a living universe that belongs to a supreme Creator.  Moneyed elites existed solely to help the peasants survive and thrive, the better to learn to live as responsible contributing members of Earth’s community of life.

Laughable as this idea sounds to the modern ear, the elegance of the single bottom line got out and we peasants figured out how to organize into money-seeking robots on our own, the better to inhabit a dead Earth in a dead Universe.  Pity the dim and uncomprehending eyes of our clod-hopper, tree-hugging ancestors!  Who could’ve imagined this kind of progress, much less foresee that one day men would stand on the cheese-less Moon, the better to use as a launching pad to strip-mine Mars?  Modern elites, which have private rockets that burn pure money and can escape the taxes on gravity altogether, are eager to colonize Mars with more robots. 

Peasant #1:  “Well, how did you become King, then?

King Arthur:  “The Lady of the Lake . . . her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.  That is why I am your King!”

Peasant #2:  “Listen.  Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.  Supreme executive power derives from the masses, not from farcical aquatic ceremony.”  (From Scene 3, Repression is Nine Tenths of the Law, from the comedic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Why one person should be put in charge of all the rest of us remains murky.  The Deep State holds that people and businesses should be prevented from buying politicians and laws- if anyone is going to be bought it should be them.  Under Divine Right to Rule, the king was answerable only to God and did anything he felt like; everybody else was technically his slave and had to stuff it.  But usually only the poor got the slave jobs and the entire man could be sold as a commodity. 

Now, of course, we know that slavery is unjust because it takes something political, a person’s inalienable rights, and absorbs them into a process of buying and selling.  Today, we only allow a remnant of the human being- his labor power- to be stamped with the character of a commodity.  After selling his life by the hour, and paying for the overhead slave owners once had to shoulder, he is free to use his pittance to buy stuff.  All of which is still owned by the king.  All in all, the ruling elites want nothing to do with clingy peasants finding them “deplorable” and “revolting.”

They certainly are.  A major uprising happened in large parts of England in 1381 when a wide spectrum of rural society rose up in protest and headed straight for the law books, court records and the old boy’s lounge in London’s Temple, burning it all to the ground and killing anyone associated with the royal government.  This was called the Peasant’s Revolt, but the underlying causes for their disaffection remains a mystery despite several blue ribbon commissions that investigated the matter until all the litigants were safely dead.  

One noble complained that peasant eye-witnesses were disappearing faster than they could be tortured and interviewed, an investigative obstacle that remains problematic to this day.  Finally, the history of law and peasantry would be remiss without mentioning the medieval topics of mortgage, chattel property and the often unsuspected peculiarities of the town crier.  

Having mentioned them, let’s delve into the mysteries of the Church and usury,   and the excitement of profiting financially from its pioneering work in the new field of crony capitalism.  Usury originally meant interest of any kind.  All usury is banned by Christian doctrine, as it is by Muslim doctrine.  But how to stop superstitious believers from believing usury is sin, a total drag on the bottom line?  

Luke 6:34-36 was not helpful:  “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.  But love your enemies, do good, and you will be sons of the Most High.  For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.  Therefore, be merciful just as your Father is also merciful.” And he went on and on, calling loans “gifts!”

The urge to fatten the Royal Exchequer in the face of this crappy doctrine was resolved by allowing Jews to act as bankers.  The Vatican executed an early version of the Cirque du Soleil in order to divert attention from its capitalist institutions based upon the blatant employ of usury.  From then on, Jews became viewed as pariahs much like bacon eaters are to modern vegans.

But the dropping of Platonist’s objections to conventionalism for a perfectly watertight example of posited law had an unfortunate downside:  The creation of modern anti-Semitism.  The Jews, under this arrangement, accrued vast amounts of wealth and thereby brought down the envy and loathing of Christians.  Check out Shylock, the principal antagonist in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

“How like a fawning publican he looks!  I hate him for he is a Christian, but more for that in low simplicity he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice . . .on me, my bargains and my well-won thrift, which he calls “interest.” Cursed be my tribe if I forgive him.”  (1.3.41-53)

 Next week: More uses for usury