Archive for category History

From Noble to Savage (Part III: Social Justice)

< <--Read Part I < --Read Part II

For 200 years the mentality of Capialism dominated the Western world. Money and knowledge became bargaining chips, values once held to be sacred began to lose meaning, and the public at large was split into a brutal class system. Yet at the end of the Victorian era, a single force would arise that would shake Western thought and Western political systems to their core, a force that was not even Western: India.

Queen VictoriaThe Victorian era was the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment. An entire empire, the British Empire, had sprung up to colonize more of the world than any state had ever done before. This drive was spurred on by a desire, a fierce tenacity, towards spreading the good will of the British people to all corners of the globe. In their eyes, they were the brilliant jewel that would bring light to even the most barbaric places and peoples. The enlightened would teach the disillusioned and in doing so would usher in a new era of knowledge, philosophy, and general well-being throughout the empire. While born at the end of the era and writing nostalgic pieces about it, Rudyard Kipling would embody this sentiment in most of what he wrote. The empire, its good works, and its bright light would echo in such poems of his as If–. Many of the contemporary writers of the time would echo the virtues of the enlightened Victorians over the savages of dullards, the lazy, and the natives of the colonies.

At least that was the intention. The reality was much starker. As a result of the rounding success of capitalism and its close compatriot, laissez-faire, the economy of the British Isles was booming like none before had done. The materialist craze swept the country as businessmen found huge buyers in all parts of the world and set up large factories to keep the demanded products going out and the money rolling in. As a result, a new aristocracy formed within the ranks of the British classes. The bourgeoisie, as they became known, were the well-to-do company owners, bankers, and investors who were making money hand over fist as the government had no policies, nor any intention of making policies,to put limits or restrictions on businesses’ practices. Thus, the Industrial Revolution, powered by the British invention of the steam engine, grew unabated throughout the country and the Western world. Progress and money being at the forefront of every owner’s thoughts, factories and machines were put up almost as fast as the smoke that rose from their chimneys.

19th Century LondonOn the other side of the story however, was the under-class. While there may have been some semblance of a middle-class at the time, the reality was that the majority of the population were either rich or poor. The poor in Britain were some of the most destitute the Western world had ever seen first-hand–men and women working 18 hours a day in the squaller of a factory near huge, open-geared machinery and returning home to literally a hole in the wall with barely enough money to keep the family from starving. Children were being sent to the factories as early as possible to keep the trickle of money flowing into the home, or sometimes were outright abandoned by their mothers to orphanages and churches in the hope they might survive to the age of 10. Charles Dickens, among others, brought this horrible truth to light in his novels. It would take his social commentaries such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times to bring the situation to the attention of the upper-class. Even though the rat nests the poor lived in were in the same city as Buckingham Palace, the upper crust of society had turned a blind eye to the working backs on which they had ridden to success.

This social injustice, argued Dickens, had to be addressed. It was unclear at the time how this could be accomplished. Churches and orphanages were at the breaking point financially and were turning away some of the poor. The most they could do was produce literature and commentary on the conditions to help soften the hearts of some of the deeper pockets in London. However, this alone would not be enough. Something had to be done in England, and so those seeking social justice turned their attention eastward.

East India CompanyThe Indian subcontinent had been in the possession of the British, both officially and unofficially, since the mid 1700s. It was no surprise that the country was first contacted and then subdued by a capitalistic organization: the East India Company. The company’s aim originally had been to trade with the Indians for their hand-woven textiles and other Eastern wares that were in extremely high demand among the British upper-class. However, the company soon began making deals with the local Rajs, and within a few decades the entire country was either owned or controlled via political puppet by the company. It was at this point in the 1830s that the Enlightenment came to the sun-drenched land.

At first, the English who had come to India were were only there to oversee the company’s affairs and to help administrate with the local Rajs. However, with the company’s merger with the English government and the transfer of the political responsibility from the board of trustees to the Crown, the British aim in India changed completely. The idea was a noble one from the outset: turn the seemingly backward country and its people into the prime example of what the enlightenment meant, converting the native from savage to citizen. Utilitarianism would give way, through education and self-betterment, to an autonomous country of citizens who would show the world the true might of the Victorian idea. And so with this goal in mind, writers such as Trevelyan began to gear the public sentiment towards moving the Indians to a better future. Politicians moved to build schools and set up administration reforms in India to start the process of Westernizing the locals. And businessmen, enthused with their own sense of charity, sent machinery and managers to the country to help the Indians jump-start a new branch of economy.

Yet despite this effort, the policy in India was still one of staunch laissez-faire. The British were only there to help guide the locals to self-betterment. They were not, however, there to act as a dole for the impoverished who would not try to stand on their own feet. Thus, even though there were great strides made in setting up a new class within the existing caste system of learned natives and loyalists to the British crown, the poor within the castes were famine-ridden and dying. The economy began to collapse under the new production systems. The poor could not afford to buy the goods produced and most of the products were exported elsewhere, often back to Britain where the shareholders were. As a result the money only cycled through India and never stopped there long enough to help those who needed it.

Indian Rebellion of 1857In 1857 the local resistance to the British rule ran out of patience. With the grain stores the British controlled not being opened to the poor and the economy on the brink of total disaster, the lower castes rose up. Rebellions in Delhi, Sitapur, Benares, Calcutta, Lucknow and other locales all occurred within a period of two years. The standing army in India, even with its 250,000 troops, could not quell the rebellions in time for the political firestorm to reach London. News of massacres of men, women and children flooded the British press and shook the Victorian dream of an enlightened child country. The government downplayed the significance of the rebellion as merely the work of the savage nature of the locals and the antithesis of what they, as English, stood for. They used the event as a political soapbox to advance the agenda in India as one now of necessity rather than of simple good-natured charity. The politicians saw an opportunity in the situation. They took the stance that the situation in India mirrored the one in the back streets of their very own city. Using the faraway country of India as a proxy, the contemporaries spoke out against the enlightened classes with no compassion for the poor the same as if they were finger-waving at their own class system.

William GladstoneThe chief political figures in this debate were Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Throughout the 1860s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, these two larger-than-life prime ministers would use the British handling of the situation in India to shape political policies at home: Gladstone for the Victorian side and Disraeli for the side of the new idea of social justice through government. Gladstone argued fervently for the laissez-faire approach to hold fast its course in India. The people, he said, should be able to spend their money as they see fit. The businessmen should be able to control their own factories, and the consumer should be able to choose the products he wishes. Without government regulations, he argued, the economy in India would slowly but surely get back on its feet. Gladstone also supported the ideals of personal betterment. It was only through the bettering of the savage that the true citizen could be born. Simply mandating from the throne or from parliament that a people suddenly become something other than what they were would never work. The people would have to want to become a better breed and then strive towards becoming a new, enlightened people (an idea self-contradictory since the natives were already the so-called “noble savage”). The rebellions that had been perpetrated only served to undermine the gift that Britain was bestowing upon its colony. With peace, he said, trade will come. Thus, the army should put down any inkling of rebellion before it got out of hand, for the natives’ own good.

Benjamin DisraeliDisraeli, on the other hand, came to the table with a new philosophy, one born of almost Marxist sympathies. Disraeli believed in what was known as a Tory Democracy: a social order that kept the classes separate, rich from poor, but kept them at peace. Thus, there should be a ruling and administrative class to oversee, and a lower class to run the machinery of a country. However, the ruling class must work to keep the working class well, fit, and comfortable while, the working class should strive to work their way into the upper class. To achieve this, Disraeli suggested the use of social giving. The churches and other institutions of traditional charity were too strained to keep up with the needs of the poor and so the need was to find a way of caring for the poor that did not rely simply on the generosity of a few individuals. Toward that end, he felt the government should lend out its ample surpluses to the poor and needy so that everyone, not just the well-off, could bask in the warmth of the empire’s glow. This also meant fixing social ills such as schools for the poor, social programs, and other governmental reforms that would strengthen the almost silent voice of the underclass.

The two political philosophies traded places several times over the course of the thirty-year span of their swapping ministries. In the end, however, the public saw that the Disraeli plan was, in effect, their ticket to ending the misery of their impoverished existence. And so the plan was implemented both in India and in Britain itself to help bring unity and peace between the classes and to share the bounties of empire with all subjects.

However, the effect of this new social justice was disastrous to the empire. With the new plan in place, India began to rely more and more on the English. Politicians such as John Morley saw the increasing dependance of the Indian people on the British dole as a bane to the people. He argued that India was now becoming nothing more than a child who always needed its mother. Thus, in 1909 the British gave up its holdings on the subcontinent’s government. The move was shocking to the Victorians who had believed that their way would show the Indians the true way to live. The disillusioned British sank back in disbelief that their generosity and help had been so thoroughly rejected by its recipients.

In the same way, the British people began to reevaluate the ideals behind the new philosophy and turn it into something it was never meant to be. With the social programs and the advent of redistribution of wealth came the realization that the poor, given the right representation in parliament, could now vote themselves money. Taxes began to rise, and the dole began to hemorrhage. The politicians took no notice of this at the time, however. They saw the poor merely as a huge voting block. All that was needed was to promise more funds and more relief and the votes would pour in. They seemed oblivious to the costs that were mounting, since they came to feel that the rich did not deserve the money they had to begin with. In their minds the bounty of empire should be shared with everyone. And so, with this dependance on government as well as the ability to manipulate government, the lowest common denominator in society now suddenly became one of the most powerful.

The path from absolution was now complete. With true democracy rising from the ashes of the empire of good intentions, the morals and values no longer depended on the authority of a God or a king, nor did they come from someone who had become a self-improved man through his own efforts, nor from an authority or learned person who was qualified to answer through his credentials. Now, with the beginning of modernism, the common man became a god in his own right. The uneducated could now rule over the scholar, the pauper over the prince, the heathen over the priest. Philosophies of men like Nietzsche and Freud echoed this sentiment by turning their attention to man as a beast, lorded over by his base animalistic tendencies, lost to all sense of nobility. To deny these facts was now to deny what man truly was: a savage.

< <--Read Part I < --Read Part II

No Comments

From Noble to Savage (Part II: Capitalism)

< -- Read Part I Read Part III –>

For nearly 400 years the Renaissance and its progeny dominated Western thought. The movement had influenced nearly all of society by the time the rumblings of its own demise were first felt. The downfall for the culture came from the most unlikely of sources: the Scottish highland. These Scots, with their minds bent on getting back at the Britain who had stolen away their means of living, would ultimately subvert and change the entirety of Western culture.

Charles IIn the 50 years before 1688, unrest had taken hold of Britain. In 1641 the king, Charles I, was engaged in civil war against those who had sided with what he deemed an unfit parliament. To help pay for his war, Charles began to tax the country heavily. Scotland would end up taking the brunt of this taxation but for the most part it remained England’s ally. This was–at least, until Charles decided to unify all the churches throughout the kingdom. In doing so he alienated his chief tax source and forced them into the hands of the parliament sympathizers. Now Scotland too was thrust into its own set of civil wars between royalists and parliamentists. The wars dragged on until Charles’ execution in 1649, which placated both sides of the fight.

After Charles I’s death (and Oliver Cromwell’s pseudo-kingship), Charles I’s son, James II, took the throne in 1660. His reign would further lead the country into turmoil. James was a Catholic, and being part of the Roman faith in England at the time could spell disaster for a political career. Because of this, rumors abounded throughout his reign that he would turn the country back into a Catholic state. Rebellions broke out Beginning in 1685 that would bring about his quick spiral out of power. He decided that to combat the rising tensions and rumors, the best thing to do would be to raise a standing army. He did this, but he also gave the higher positions in the army to Catholics. The same happened within the governmental offices: they were filled mostly with Catholics. Parliament, taking the lessons learned from James’ father to heart, quickly conspired to hand over the country to a distant heir to the throne, William of Orange. In 1688 William arrived in London, and James fled fearing his own execution at the hands of Parliamentists. In the transition, though, no one was killed, earning it the title of the Bloodless Revolution.

John LockeMeanwhile, Scotland was still in chaos. What had once been a land rich with traditions and kinship ties was quickly turning into a den of money lenders. The old scotland was fast disappearing in the years after the Scottish Civil Wars. Family bonds and blood were no longer sufficient for the young men who wanted what they saw in the lands south of their border. The money in London would easily get them out of the family stone hut and into the swank city life. They began to take to heart the writings of John Locke, the father of capitalism. He proclaimed the ideas of private property, free trade, and common law (even to an extent that mortal law should supersede God). Even though Magna Carta had guaranteed the last in theory, Locke helped put it into practice. To this end many of the Scots began profiteering off of the English during the years leading up to 1688, and then off of other countries soon thereafter. No matter what they tried, however, they could not escape the enormous debt that Scotland had accumulated by not paying their taxes to England during the same period.

In the late 1690s, Scotland went from debt to dying. For several summers the sun refused to come out and the rain almost never stopped. In what became known only as the “ill years,” soil turned into an untenable slurry, crops failed, livestock got foot-rot, and the country was plunged into a famine. Over 5% of Scotland’s population died during this time. Its debt rising and its population falling, the Scots fell hook, line and sinker into becoming the catalyst for Locke’s vision of the power of money.

The Bay of DariénConfronted with the dwindling state of the economy, the Bank of Scotland was formed in 1695 to try and stabilize the fragile state of affairs. Soon thereafter the Company of Scotland was established to search for ways of rebuilding the capital the Scots had lost over the previous century. The solution that was devised in the end was to establish a colony in the New World in the name of the Scottish people. A hasty plan was put forth to send an expedition to the Isthmus of Panama in order to seed a new colony in the Bay of Darien. The idea was simple: A colony on the isthmus would be able to ferry goods overland from the Atlantic to the Pacific–a seventeenth century version of an overland Panama Canal. Within a few weeks of the plan’s development the Company of Scotland had over £400,000 of Scottish liquid capital at their disposal. And so, in July 1698, the first expedition set out to build for Scotland the financial strength it so desperately needed.

At first the expedition seemed to be going swimmingly. The five ships and their cargo of 1,200 settlers, along with crates full of combs, mirrors, and other trinkets to trade with the natives, made it to their destination within only five months. They landed at the preselected spot and christened it “New Caledonia.” However, it became evident before they ever set foot on land that their new home was not the golden paradise that had been promised in the sales pitch. Instead, they found themselves in a mosquito-infested swamp with infertile soil and apathetic natives. A fort went up nevertheless, but within months the death rate was reaching catastrophic levels. Ten people per day were dying by the time the settlement was officially abandoned in July of 1699 and left to be overrun by the jungle once more. Of the original 1,200 settlers only 300 remained alive.

The 1706 Act of UnionThe Darien disaster was more than just a bad business move, it devastated the Scottish economy beyond repair. A huge section of their capital was now gone, and their country was starving to death. It was, on the other hand, a great opportunity for England. After William’s death in 1702, his successor, Queen Anne, was losing control over the country. Rebel factions were beginning to make noise again. Her hold on the throne was dubious from the start, but without her ability to produce any heir (5 infant deaths, 13 miscarriages, and her only son dead at the age of 11), her grip was fast failing her. Faced with the total undoing of 1688, Anne decided to do the impossible: unify the kingdoms of England and Scotland. Seeing the disastrous effects of the Darien venture for the Scottish economy, Anne approached the Scottish aristocracy in private and asked them to consider consolidating their power with England. Not only would the Scots profit from the wonderful English economy, but additionally, England would reconcile Scotland’s debt of £400,000. In exchange, Scotland would need only to dissolve its parliament and swear loyalty to the throne. The Scots accepted the proposal. In 1706 the Act of Union solidified the Scottish and English countries into a single entity. The power of money had saved both countries.

The ideological impact of Lockean success in economic matters was enormous. The power of money and back-room deals was not lost on the philosophers at the time. Whereas before there was a royal will and a common will (or God’s will and man’s will), there now seemed to be something else that could undermine both. The will of man during the Renaissance was centered more upon the betterment of the state of a man’s mind or soul through self-works. While the methods often differed, be it math or art or something entirely different, the aim was the same: a noble pursuit of divinity without the direct intervention of the divine. However, now there was an extra variable added to the mix: capital. With money, or any other selfish influence, it was possible to undermine the will even of the royalty. A commoner with enough money or influence could sway the will of the king. This was a substantial break with the old view.

While the idea was not new (royalty often were paid off during the Renaissance), the concept had not yet seen a public use so blatant as the one used by Queen Anne. She had bought off a whole country. Its royalty, its banks, and its parliament had all bent under the weight of capital. While similar things had happened for centuries amongst monarchs, never had a private-sector company and a royal throne bent the whole political fabric so drastically. Now everyone was an equal in the eyes of the philosophers. All one had to have to be successful was money or something else of value to hold sway over the masses. After 1706 banks rose to great power, and trading companies sprang up all over Europe with the aim of making their investors very rich and very powerful. This idea was not limited to money. Ideas were capital in their own right. The great scientists of the time were idolized for their ground-breaking ideas and were given the same attention and respect normally reserved only for royalty. Philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau and Hume also had great capital in their vast experiences which led them to be revered even more than royalty (or the church for that matter) by the public.

Jean-Jacque RousseauIt was because of the the great triumph of capital over principle that brought about the Age of Enlightenment: The rejection of authority for authority’s sake and the replacement of authority with credentials. The philosopher Rousseau (often credited as being the father of the movement) would be heavily influenced by the new world of capitalism and greed and declare that man should now become a noble savage. He relegated man to being driven by his baser instincts and no longer bound by a fear of authority because he now had the means to defy it and return to a primitive innocence. He ascribed this drive of wanting to return to the true state of man, one of unfettered devotion to nature’s roots, to wanting to desiring perfection as natural, since nature seemed to want to move also in that direction. (Flowers, for example, were perfect and not corrupted by selfish desire). Thus he declared that man was only going through a stage of corruption to return to nature wherein he would be directed by his inner goodness that had been imparted to him by nature.

Another philosopher, David Hume, took this concept of rejection of authority a step further. Since he postulated that authority was now credential-based, the question arose as to what gives those with authority their credentials? To Hume, the answer was simple: experience. No longer would truth be vested in individuals because of any common belief system or decree, but instead truth only would originate from the experience of the authority figure. This meant that everything had to be questioned for its validity, beginning with asking why man exists to why God exists. Simple cause and effect were no longer sufficient for truth to be established. And thus by their way of thinking, everyone with enough reason and intelligence could become an authority on anything. With the Age of Enlightenment whole countries shifted focus. The American colonies, for example, no longer decided that the Crown was the authority on legal matters for their affairs. They had more respect for the authority of figures like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and even the League of the Iroquois (the kind of noble savages Rousseau wrote of) than they did for the throne of England, and the result tore the colonies away from their homeland.

< -- Read Part I Read Part III –>

No Comments

From Noble to Savage (Part I: Magna Carta)

Read Part II –> Read Part III –>>

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.

Read Part II –> Read Part III –>>

No Comments