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It’s Sunday, and on Sunday I have a ritual–actually, it’s less a ritual than a desperate attempt not to let myself burn out. 

My instinct seems to be, for some reason or the other, to overwork.  What’s more, I don’t just overwork at writing, I overwork at everything.  This has a tendency, if it isn’t broken up at regular intervals, to make me feel as if my head were about to explode.

Anyway, on Sundays, unless I have an urgent deadline urgently looming, I take the day off.  On the seventh day He rested, the verse says, and then the Christians changed that to make it the first. 

Or something.  I’m not really entirely sure how they worked that out.

What I do to take a day off is to put music on and read whatever book I’m reading, in reasonable peace when not interrupted by offspring who think they have emergencies.

With my two, emergencies often come down to “can we eat in the family room tonight and watch Die Hard for dinner?”

Since the answer to this is, on a Sunday, almost always no–exceptions are made for times when I have a bad flu–the relaxation thing can give way to a lot of tedious disputation.  Both of my sons seem to have inherited what their father called “lawyer blood.”

There were no such disputations this morning.  My calm was unbroken, and I put on two Anonymous 4 CDs–first Origins of Fire and then 11,000 Virgins–to provide the back up music for my book, which is the John Guy biography of Thomas Becket.

Anonymous 4 is a group of four women who sing Medieval music both secular and religious a capella.  The two CDs mentioned above are religious music written by–wait for it–Hildegarde von Bingen.

And maybe I should say used to sing, since the group broke up some years ago.

Still, the fit was near perfect, and it would all have been more perfect still if I’d had a copy of The Lion in Winter to watch this afternoon.  But that is one of the movies we’ve yet to replace on DVD, and it isn’t up on Netflix at the moment either.

I’ll think of something.

For what it’s worth, The Lion in Winter is one of only two reasonably accurate depictions of the Middle Ages I’ve ever seen on film, the other one being the movie of The Name of the Rose, and in both cases the reason for accuracy is the refusal to sentimentalize the period. 

The real Middle Ages bear little or no resemblance to what goes on in fantasy novels–even in Tolkein.  And one of my frustrations with Tolkein is that, unlike most of his many imitators, he knew better.

Right now, though, I want to put all that aside.  Yes, I know–there were no antibiotics, no modern medicine.  Women died more often from childbirth than from any other cause, and I myself would definitely have ended up dead at my first attempt.  There was no central heating, and even the largest fireplace failed to keep the nobility warm in what was a little ice age.  Children were born with birth defects that could not be ameliorated and then hounded and abused because of them.  Almost everybody, including the nobility, was illiterate.

So, as I said, I don’t want to sentimentalize the Middle Ages.

It did occur to me, though, this morning, reading the Becket biography, that if I consider the issues that bother me most in today’s society and today’s government–

If I think first about the administrative state and the way in which it attempts to regulate every aspect of private life, no matter how minor–

Then the people of the Middle Ages, at least in England, were better off than I am now.

In both the h istory of events and the  history of ideas, we tend to concentrate on the Big Questions–freedom of speech, for instance, and freedom of conscience.

And in Medieval England, you could certainly get into a lot of trouble for those things. 

Contrary to the mythology, there really wasn’t much in the way of witch hunting in England in that period.  Still, religious dissidents could get into trouble with both the ecclessiastical authorities and the civil ones, and religious minorities (like Jews) could have their property confiscated or even be banished from the kingdom.

And I’m me.  I can’t shut up and I tend to be a contrarian, which means I probably would have been in trouble from off.

Even so, the areas of private life and private action that were untouched and unscrutinized by any authority are truly breathtaking to contemplate.

You raised your children as you saw fit to raise them, educated them (or not) as  you saw fit to educate them, had them trained for a trade or not as you saw fit to train them.  What went on inside the privacy of your own home was your business.  A man’s home is his castle, the English said, and by that they meant something far more absolute than anything we can contemplate now.

Some people will respond to this by saying that some of the things that went on in those castles were violent and unjust, that child abuse was rampant, that domestic violence was the rule rather than the exception.

I’d say that a large part of our perception of this period on issues such as these comes from the fact that we have changed our definitions of these things, and continue to change them. 

But it’s the change in approach that bothers me, and not just as it relates strictly to private conduct in private homes.

Our child abuse legislation, for instance, assumes that children belong to the state and that the state may exercise “oversight” of their uprbringing, with “professional judgment” substituted for parental and allowed to override it on virtually any pretext.

And it’s not just the relationship between parents and children that are assumed to be properly subjected to this oversight.  Relationships between grown children and parents and between spouses also come under scrutiny.

“Domestic violence” is what the state says it is, regardless of the wishes of any of the parties involved–and in no case are the parties to be allowed to settle such issues among themselves.

People are arrested and jailed for things that were not crimes and not considered crimes at all only 20 years ago.

Spit on somebody?  That’s assault!  Have a fight with another kid on the playground?  Either or both of you is a bully!  You need therapy! Have a fight with another kid in the neighborhood?  That’s assault!  Kiss your girlfriend when the security cameras are on?  That’s sexual assault, and  you’re on the sex offender registry until you’re forty.

This approach to handling everyday life has become so ubiquitous, we forget that it wasn’t always that way.  When men got liquored up and went at each other in barroom parking lots, they mostly weren’t arrested.  If the cops came, they broke up the fight and sent the participants on their way.  Then everybody rolled their eyes and told the two of them they were idiots.

Certainly I don’t want to go back to the days when a woman could be brutally beaten by her husband over and over again while the cops refused to do anything about it even when she wanted him arrested.

Nor do I want to go back to a time when children were the property of their parents to the point that the parents could kill them if that’s what they wanted to do.

But both those things were minority cases, and I do think we’ve given up far too much in the way of personal liberty to insure that any member of that minority does not slip through the cracks.

Hell, we haven’t even managed to insure that.  There is no evidence whatsoever that social policing has reduced the number of severe abuse and neglect cases by even a single child or a single battered adult.

There are other areas of personal liberty we’ve lost as well–the right to decide who will or will not be served in the restaurant you own, and under what conditions; the right to make our own decisions about our own bodies in myriad ways.

In Medieval England, if you could afford to buy the alcohol you could drink it–and if you could make it on your own it was your business and nobody else’s.  If you owned a little house in town you could turn it into a boarding house on any terms you wanted, and you could pick and choose who to rent the rooms to if that was what you wanted.

I can hear the chorus of objection all the way from here–people got food poisoning! people were discriminated against because of prejudice!

Yada yada yada.

The real question, for me, is whether the things we’ve gained are worth the liberty we’ve lost.

And, I’ll admit it, I don’t think they are in most cases.



Written by janeh

November 11th, 2012 at 11:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Free'

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  1. If I had grown or nearly grown children with dinner requests, I’d let them cook, clean and serve me dinner wherever they wanted. ;) They’re asking, basically, to spend time with you. They won’t ask that much longer.

    As to liberties we’ve lost vs. liberties gained…I suspect I treasure the freedom to criticize my supreme leader over being free to commit felony child-raising without consequence. That said, the nanny state is edging right over the cliff. I think if we could pull the state back to enforcing actual laws, not regulations dreamed up by nosy-parker bum-sniffers, we’d be closer to a balance we can tolerate.

    And Mayor Bloomberg and his War on Good-tasting Food can just go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. With extra sprinkles.


    11 Nov 12 at 1:05 pm

  2. I was living in the US during the 60s civil rights campaigns. If my memory serves, I did have some doubts about forcing restaurant owners to serve Black people. If the owner wants to loose money by not serving them, why should the government interfere?

    That is now a settled issue. But I note that we have gone from forcing restaurants to serve Blacks and gas stations to have free rest rooms to forcing doctors to provide abortions and forcing people not to smoke, And are talking about forcing people to have healthy diets. It looks like a slippery slope!


    11 Nov 12 at 6:02 pm

  3. Ah, the liberties of the middle ages! You know, an Oxford philologist did something of that in a novel a few years back. Outsiders came to his pseudo-medieval community, suborned locals and “modernized” it, to include ruler with personal title (“the Chief”) gatherers and sharers, spies everywhere government demolition of private homes and a long list of rules which among other things limited private charity. After a while, the locals had had enough.

    The story is called “The Scouring of the Shire.” It’s the next to last chapter of THE RETURN OF THE KING. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

    I shall now rant completely off the main point.

    The annual or semi-annual sniping at Tolkien is tiresome. You’re entitled to dislike his style, just as I am entitled to dislike the execrable Dickens–except that I actually finished GREAT EXPECTATIONS. But your periodic flat statements that he has somehow falsified the Middle Ages are never supported: they just hang there as something no rational person could dispute. I could point out that Tolkien was writing a fantasy–an extended metaphor on power, addiction, he nature of evil and the role of choice and fate, not a supplemental volume to CWC Oman. But that would actually be the second line of defense. First, you’re going to have to address me like an adult and explain what aspect of the Middle Ages PERTINENT TO HIS STORY Tolkien has omitted or falsified.

    It’s perfectly true that THE IDYLS OF THE KING has no description of sub-infeudation and you’ll learn nothing of field sanitation by reading THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, but this is not generally regarded as a fault in either case.

    The Rant is ended. You can go about your business.


    11 Nov 12 at 6:29 pm

  4. Even as an ignorant teenager first reading Tolkien, I NEVER thought anything he wrote was applicable to or derived from the actual European Middle Ages.

    For one thing, nowhere in his books is there any evidence of the overwhelming presence of a Church, or a Christian or pseudo-Christian faith that would have been required to remind me of the Middle Ages. That alone puts it onto another world separate from our own.

    And just because Tolkien “knew better” by which one assumes you mean his area of scholarship, why on Middle Earth would you insist that he must write accurately about a time and place that has nothing to do with the *fiction* he was actually writing? If he’d wanted to write something true to the Middle Ages, I’m sure he could have. He didn’t, but that doesn’t mean what he wrote is somehow inferior or missed the mark. Or that he intended it to be taken for serious scholarship or an accurate depiction.

    If people, reading such fantasies, take them for “you are there” documentaries of the Middle Ages, that’s more a failure of their education than it is of the fiction. I remember “Nasty, brutish, and short.” and A Distant Mirror. And being glad I live now, not Then.


    11 Nov 12 at 7:11 pm

  5. I have a paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings.
    The foreward to volume 1 (The Fellowship of the Rings) says:

    As for any inner meaning or “message”, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical or topical.

    The last paragraph of the foreword is worth reading. I can’t forget the sentence “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”.

    I agree with Robert and Lymaree, the books have nothing to do with the Middle Ages.

    If one wants a fictional treatment of the Middle Ages (complete with disease, starvation and bandits), I recommend the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. There is an excellent series of DVDs based on them.


    11 Nov 12 at 8:10 pm

  6. Ahem, returning to the main point:
    The analysis of the present situation is spot on, but it’s worth remembering that medieval liberties were more often the product of weak government than of ideology, and so had conspicuous exceptions. There was conscription, for instance, In much of the High Middle Ages in England, my ONLY lawful recreation on Sunday would be archery practice. I think you had to be 55 or 60 to stay indoors and play chess. Or consider state monopolies, and the practice of placing minors or the feeble-minded in the “care” of some courtier, who promptly looted the estate. Or guilds. Brew your own ale? Don’t let the Brewers’ Guild catch you at it. And yes, the civil courts did back them up. Set prices and wages sometimes, too.

    There’s a reason Magna Carta was important. It began putting in place legally the view that there were things the King wasn’t allowed to do–limits on his authority even when he was a lawful king in council. This is something we do not owe to Greece and Rome. It’s predominantly northern. It’s worth keeping in mind that if “democracy” is a word with Greek roots, “freedom” has German ones.

    Not everything derives from classical philosophy or the Church Fathers.


    12 Nov 12 at 9:53 am

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