From Noble to Savage (Part I: Magna Carta)

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It is rare that the genesis of an ideal throughout history could be found to have an event, or even a sequence of events, that not only epitomize the ideal but also propel it into an entire movement of thought that dominates a society. Yet this is what can be seen when tracing the rise of modernism and its relativistic plurality from its roots in medieval absolutism. The concept of truth has a history that is peculiar and event filled. Even though seemingly benign, the history of this singular base concept of “what is truth” has shaped the world as it is today. Three times in the history of humanity since the fall of the Roman Empire, truth’s definition and the meaning men give it have changed. With each change came a catalyst that took the boiling water of philosophy and emotion at the time and allowed it to erupt into an all-encompassing idea that shaped the Western world. From the loss of absolution through Magna Carta came the Renaissance; from the loss of the Renaissance through the rise of capitalism came the Enlightenment; and from the disillusioned Victorians through social justice came the pluralistic society of the twentieth century. These three events are the keys that opened the door to a new age in history.

Magna Carta signified within its script all the discontent with the events that had made it a necessity. Up until the signing of the original 1215 charter, England and much of Europe was still operating under a system of authority that had remained virtually unchanged for nearly a thousand years. In terms of both power and principle, the ideal of absolution in all things was a constant universal in thirteenth century Europe.

Saint ConstantineAbsolution, ideologically, had its roots firmly set on two things: the Christian church and the nostalgia of the Roman Empire. England, and indeed much of Europe at the time, was still bound by the mystique of the enormous empire that had preceded it 700 years before. The centuries of chaos and turmoil that had followed the sacking of Rome by barbarian invaders had left a sour taste in the mouths of nearly all those in the West. It was deemed necessary to have at least some semblance of authority, even if it was not a complete reproduction of the successes of the ancient emperors.

It was into this ideology that the most powerful of European monarchs rose to power: the English Plantagenets. They rose from a background of chaos that had been caused by the Norman invasion of 1066. A line of powerful kings had staked their flag into the British soil and had declared their authority over it. Thus the power vested in the king, even in his feudal capacity as simply the largest landowner in the country, nevertheless was taken by the commoners and most of the nobility to be absolute. It was their God-given right to be the king as well. As absolution ordained by the word of God could not be questioned; the fact that a man was king made it obvious that he had been put there by divine right. This sentiment is echoed by part of the very title he bore: “By the grace of God, king of England…”

In the same way, the church had become the ultimate vestige for the power of absolution. The Pope was seen at the time as equally as powerful as, or even greater than, any mortal king since he was in direct communication with God. The church held a virtual monopoly on power since only the church and its brotherhood of priests could put mortal souls into heaven after death. Given the alternative should any disobey the priesthood, the people saw the church as the great harbinger of justice. Of course, this also meant that the Pope could, if he wanted, have a say in the internal affairs of a country, so long as the affairs in question could in some way be viewed as detrimental to the state of the souls therein.

Saint Thomas AquinasThe church also had bred its own great philosophers. While much of the ancient Greek philosophy had been lost at this time, some of it still remained. Even so, the logical methods that had been put forth by Aristotle, Plato and others had already been denounced by the church as heretical, based mostly on the fact that the writers had been pagans. Regardless, great philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas and Augustine came forward echoing the Greeks while putting a Christian face on the ancient Greek teachings. So even while the Greeks themselves were largely unavailable to the church, the message was still put forward that dictated which logic and reason were the foundations to all Christian teachings. This “reason” allowed absolution the base it needed to exist. Everything had a reason, nothing was in doubt, and doubt was easily fixed.

John of England Into this background came the Plantaganent King John. Son of Henry II and brother to Richard I, he came to power following two mostly stabilizing kings. The country was at peace (as much as peace could be known at the time). Despite this, however, John took it upon himself to upset the applecart. Ever since his father had had Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered, the church in England had been in a state of confusion. Since that time, the choice of the Archbishop was increasingly left to the bishops whereas previously it had been at the direction of the king. John was furious at being left out of this process since the Archbishop was basically his mirror in the church within the country. He decided to send his own nomination to the Pope for approval along with the bishops’ choice. Pope Innocent III rejected both nominations and instead elected an Archbishop of his own choosing. Furious at this, John refused the electate’s entry and exiled the bishops from the country. The result was King John’s instant excommunication by the Pope and also a interdict on the rest of the country. Facing the possibility of rebellion by his people, the king relented and allowed the Pope’s choice to stay, but the impact had been made. The trust in the king by the clergy and the commoners was damaged.

John also was increasingly in hot water with the barons who were directly under him. The barons felt that the king was only a necessity to bring stability to the country and nothing more; some would say he was merely a political puppet. However, while the previous kings since Henry I had recognized the barons’ power as well as their ideology (that absolution rested in them and not the king) and placated the barons while advancing their own agendas, John did not. He felt that divine authority rested on him in the position he occupied and that therefore the barons were bound to him, not the other way around. Thus he began ramping up taxes to fund various military aims within the European continent. The barons could do little to stop him without admitting to rebellion, but they were now his enemies and not his allies.

The final blow for John’s authority, and indeed the very ideals it implied, came as a result of his dealings in France. Being king of England meant that he also had holdings in Normandy; however, due to inheritance, control of Normandy belonged iBattle of Bouvinesn the hands of his nephew Arthur who had also pledged loyalty to King Philip of France. Wanting the land for himself, John gave Philip vast tracts of land in the kingdom of Anjou in exchange for Philip’s consent to hand over Normandy. However, John then made the mistake of stealing away and marrying the fiancée of one of his vassals. This vassal happened to be one of Philip’s allies and as such he made an appeal to Philip to hand control of Normandy back to Arthur. Furious, John had his nephew secretly murdered. In a huge scandal that had not been seen since the time of Becket, John’s power was weakened considerably. To save face, the king invaded Normandy, the result of which culminated in the Battle of Bouvines where he and his allies were roundly defeated. John returned home in disgrace to face a number of barons who up until this point had maintained large holdings in the lost Normandy.

Less than a year after his defeat, John’s undoing would be signed by his own hand. In June of 1215, the barons who had a chip on their shoulder with the king raised an army and took London by force. They coerced him into signing a charter which would, in effect, end the total authority of the English throne. The Magna Carta embodied the barons’ grudges against the king. It was not simply a limiting of the king’s power, but it was also a crack in the armor of absolution which would spread outward at the point of the lance.

John Signs the Magna CartaThe charter itself was revolutionary in that it stated simply that the king was not the ultimate source for earthly rule. The king had to answer to the barons, while the barons had to pledge loyalty to the king. A large clause in the the charter, article 61 (left out in later revisions), allowed the king’s will to be overridden by a council of 23 barons who would take control of all the king’s property if necessary in case the king overstepped his bounds. It also allowed for increased taxation provided, that the barons were allowed a say in the raise and were allowed to veto it if they deemed it inappropriate. The charter also allowed provision for the shires and towns in the country not to be burdened by any kingly demand. For example, a clause in Magna Carta explicitly stated that a town cannot be made to build a bridge over a nearby river simply because it is close to the river. Sections similar to this also allowed for much self-autonomy within the English counties which diminished on the king’s ability to micromanage the country. Finally, the charter moved justice from the barons’ personal courts into the royal courts, meaning it was now possible for a common-law concept to emerge. Laws that had once been variable throughout the country (save for royal decrees) now could be consolidated into a law that bound everyone–even the king.

Within a week after the charter was signed, John reneged on it claiming he had been extorted. His one-time enemy the Pope, seeing the potential hazards such a document could present to the authority of the church, backed up John and decreed that the barons had extorted John into signing the charter. A civil war Erupted in england between those who were with the king and those who were with the barons. The war raged for over a year. In the end, John died in the middle of the war and his son, Henry III, was quickly crowned, bringing the conflict to an end. The charter was reissued with some clauses removed (such as article 61), but the ideals it represented were already beginning to spread.

The crack in the shield of absolute authority brought to the commoners and those in the English learned classes a sense that there were now two sides to power: that which came from God and that which came from man. This meant that there was now a difference between the will of the king and the will of his subjects; between the will of God and the will of man. As a result, the philosophy of the time began to change. This can be seen in the artwork of the time. As the will of absolution fell, painters began to paint with realism. The stoic and often ghostly images of biblical figures and kings began to look more and more realistic. Symbols of power were replaced by flesh and blood humans, noting the idea that a man with power was just a man like anyone else, not a demigod.

The RenaissanceThus, this charter and its revolution in though brought about the Renaissance. The father of this movement was Giotto di Bondone who was born soon after Magna Carta and was heavily influenced by the themes it represented. His work directly influenced such painters as Michalangelo. It took about a hundred years for Giotto’s realism to spread to the other great leaders of the Renaissance, but since the absence of freedom of thought hampered the process it is not surprising that it took as long as it did to catch on. The idea that man and king or that man and God were separate now meant that man could pursue his own desires. Men like Leonardo da Venci took it upon themselves to pursue man’s own interests and needs instead of God’s. Thus science and art began to take root in place of the authority of the Bible as the source for answers to the question man’s existence. Man’s station in relation to authority could now be questioned.

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