Posts Tagged ‘Peasant’s Revolt’

John Wycliff’s Arguments for Pacifism

February 18, 2018

Last Sunday I put up a piece about the Lollard sermon, The Perversion of the Works of Mercy. The Lollards were the late fourteenth-early fifteenth century followers of the English theologian and reformer, John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was a kind of proto-Protestant, who denounced the corruption of the church, rejected the papacy and maintained that the Bible should be the sole authority for Christian doctrine. The Perversion of the Works of Mercy attacks the way people have turned away from performing their Christian obligations to feed, clothe, give drink to the poor, visit and care for the sick and prisoners, and instead do this all for the rich and powerful. It’s a powerful message for today, when the Tories’ official policy is to increase the tax burden of the poor, in order to give massive tax cuts to the rich. The Tories are also cutting benefits to the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled as part of this programme of making the rich even richer, while at the same time claiming that the destruction of the welfare state is all for the benefit of the poor themselves. It’s saving them from ‘welfare dependency’, and is encouraging them, in the notorious words of Norman Tebbit, to get on their bikes and look for work. It’s all part of the Tory and Thatcherite embrace of the Victorian attitude of ‘less eligibility’, which stated that conditions of state aid should be as harsh as possible in order to deter people from taking it up, and encourage them to take any job, no matter how low paid or exploitative.

Wycliffe was also a pacifist. I also blogged a month or so ago about a book I found on his pacifism in the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue. Wycliffe’s pacifism is also discussed by Basil Cottle in his The Triumph of English 1350-1400 (London: Blandford Press 1969). Here’s the passage where he discusses Wycliffe’s rejection of war, quoting the medieval theologian himself:

In each particular, Wyclif’s views are revolutionary, and his treatment of of war is typical of this: those who go to war cannot with justice say the Lord’s Prayer. ‘And before the seven axingis that Crist techith in the Pater Noster meneth … algatis to axe in charite, and thefore men that liven in werre ben unable to have their axinge; but thei axen ther owne dampnynge in the fifte peticioun, for ther thei axen that God for3yve hem ther dettis that thei owen to Hym, ri3t as thei for3yven men that ben dettours unto hem.’ [And for this reason the seven askings that Christ teaches in the Lord’s Prayer mean… at all events to ask in charity, and therefore men that live in war are unable to have what they ask; but they ask for their own damnation in the fifth petition, because there they ask that God may forgive them their debts that they owe to Him, even as the forgive men that are debtors to them.] But what was the situation in which the divided Church now found herself?-the Pope offering indulgences t6o those who would fight against the antipope (a subject extensively treated in a sermon on Martyrs) , and Bishop Despenser of Norwich leading his beastly and futile ‘crusade’ of 1383 against Flanders: ‘now men seyen that thei shulden, bi lore of ther feith, werre upon Cristen men, and turnen hem to the Pope, and slee ther persones, ther wyves, and ther children, and reve hem ther goodis, and thus chastise hem. But certis this came nevere of chastyment of Crist, sith Crist seith He cam not to lese lyves bu save hem. And hefore this is chastyment of the fiend, and never chastyment of Crist, that uside pacience and myraclis.’ [Now men say that they should, by the teaching of their faith, war upon Christian men, and win them over to the Pope, and kill their persons, their wivs, and their children, and rob them of their goods, and thus punish them. But certainly this kinid of punishment never came from Christ, since Christ says He came not to destroy llives to save them. And for this reason this is a punishment from the dreadful fiend, and never a punishment from Christ, who used patience and miracles.] Yet ‘blynde heretikes wanten witt as ydiotis, whan thei seien that Petre synnede not in smytynge of Malcus ere, but 3af ensaumple to preestis to fi3t’ [blind heretics lack understanding, like idiots, when they say that Peter did not sin in striking off Maclhus’s ear, but set an example for priests to fight]-though Christ prevented him from fighting further. ‘Lord, where this Pope Urbane hadde Goddis charite dwelling in him, whan he stired men to fi3te and slee many thousaund men, to venge him on the tother People and of men that holden with him?’ [Lord, did this Pope Urban have ~God’s charity dwelling in him, when he incited men to fight and kill many thousand men, to avenge himself on the other Pope and on men who belong to his side?] The friars, says Wyclif, preach to a bellicose text- that the English must get in first with their attacks on their enemies in other countries, for fear they do the same and sin be increased on both sides; a hideous doctrine of sinning so as to good.)

Cottle goes on to observe that ‘This new pacifism may have distasteful to readers who still enjoyed the memory of Crecy and Poitiers and to the old soldiers who must have figure among the 1381 malcontents’ (the Peasant’s Revolt). (pp. 235-6).

This hatred of war was shared by Sir John Clanvowe, soldier, diplomat, courtier, poet, crusader, and the author of the Boke of Cupide. This was so similar to Chaucer’s works, that for a time it was accepted as that great poet’s own composition. Clanvowe himself died in a village near Constantinople. Clanvowe wrote

‘The world holt hem worshipful that been greet werryours and fi3teres, and that distroyen and wynnen manye londis, and waasten and 3even muche good to hem that haan ynou3, and that dispenden oultrageously in mete, in drynke, in clothing, in building, and in lyuyng in eese, slouthe, and many oothere synnes.’ [The world considers them honourable who are great warriors and fighters and destroy and conquer many lands, and waste and give much property to them that have plenty, and spend outrageously on food, drink, clothing, building, and living in ease, sloth, and many other sins.] (Cottle, op. cit., p. 253).

Cottle himself says of this passage that ‘the attack here is almost on rank, and Clanvowe is disgusted that it is of these proud and vengeful people that ‘men maken books and soonges, and reeden and singen of hem for to hoolde the mynde of here deedes the lengere here vpon erth’. [Men make books and songs, and recite and sing of them so as to keep the memor of their deeds the longer here on earth.] (p. 254).

As I said with my earlier post about the Perversion of the Works of Mercy, I’m not putting this up to attack Roman Catholicism. I despise religious intolerance and don’t want to provoke any more sectarian religious hatred. I’m also deeply impressed with the various Roman Catholic organisations, clergy and lay people that genuinely work for the poor and those in the needy, and radical groups like Doris Day’s Catholic Workers. My point here is to show merely that religious radicals, like Wycliffe and Clanvowe, despised the way the poor were ignored and treated by the rich, and condemned war as fundamentally unchristian.

This is an attitude that attacks and refutes the vicious opinions of the religious right, with their prosperity gospel – that Christ wants everyone to be rich, and if you’re poor, it’s your fault – and is solidly behind the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. These wars aren’t being fought to protect America, Israel or anyone else. They’re fought purely for the profit of immensely rich multinational corporations, who hope to profit from the theft of these nations’ state industries and oil reserves. As the above texts show, they would have been thoroughly condemned by Wycliffe and Clanvowe.

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John Wycliffe’s Pacifist Theology

December 17, 2017

I’m sick of writing about the Christian right in this country and America – their hatred of the poor, their Zionism and their insanely dangerous millennialism, in which they look forward to the last, apocalyptic war between good and evil, personified as a conflict between the Christian West and Israel on the side of good, and Communism and Islam as the armies of Satan. Here’s a bit of more inspiring theology, at least for those on the Left, from one of the seminal influences on the Reformation.

John Wycliffe has been described as ‘the Morning Star of the Reformation’. He was a late 14th-century English vicar from Yorkshire, who proposed radical reforms to combat what he saw as the corruption of the Church in his day. He was against pluralities, in which clergy held many benefices, often in widely separated parts of the country, noting that this did nothing for the Christian cure of souls. It was set up, however, partly as a way of giving the lower clergy a reasonable income because of the poverty of parts of the church at that time. He argued that the Bible should be the only source of Christian truth, and that salvation was by faith alone, not works. He demanded an end to clerical celibacy, which he said acted ‘to the great prejudice of women’ and promoted homosexuality amongst the clergy. So, not a fan of gay priests then. He also went further in his criticism of the moral right of rulers to govern us when they themselves were guilty of sin. No-one had this right, and those rulers sinning had to step down or be removed. This has been widely criticised since, as it would have made government just about impossible. But it is a severe corrective to the moral double standards of the upper classes, who saw themselves as having an absolute right to rule, often committing heinous sins and crimes themselves, while claiming their right as Christian rulers to punish and uphold moral standards to those lower down the social ladder. This attitude continued into the 17th century, when the monarchists of the British Civil War defended the monarchy on the grounds that the king, as God’s representative on Earth, was above the law, but had the duty to expound it, and so could not be tried for its breach.

He also translated the Bible into English, radical act forbidden by law in England, though perfectly acceptable elsewhere on the continent, such as France. He was not a member of the Lollards, the early radical Protestant movement that grew up around his doctrines, though he was a powerful influence on them. It was the Lollards who produced the song attacking contemporary serfdom, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’ In the 16th century, this was taken up and inspired the German peasants in their revolt against feudal overlordship: ‘Als Adam grub und Evan spann, wer war dann der Edelmann?’ Which is an exact translation.

I got the latest Oxbow books Bargain Catalogue through the post a few weeks ago. Among the books on medieval history and culture were two of Wycliffe’s. One was on the inspiration of scripture, the other was on his pacifist theology.

The book is John Wycliffe on War and Peace by Rory Cox. The blurb for the book in the Bargain Catalogue runs:

From the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo to the fifth century, Christian justifications of war had revolved around three key criteria: just cause, proper authority and correct intention. Using Wyclif’s extensive Latin corpus, the author shows how he dismantled these three pillars of medieval “just war” doctrine, demonstrating that he created a coherent doctrine of pacifism and non-resistance which was at that time unparalleled.

200 pages, Boydell and Brewer Ltd, 2014, 97080861933259, Hardback, was £50, bargain price £12.95.

I’m not a pacifist myself, as I believe that sometimes true evil can only be combated through violence. But I’m sick of the co-option of morality to justify the terrible greed and inhuman violence of colonialism and imperialism, especially in the latest attacks on the Middle East.

I realise that many of the readers of this blog have very different attitudes to my own on religion. I’m not trying to insult anyone else’s religious views here, particularly not Roman Catholics or the atheists, who read this blog. I am simply mentioning it as many Christians of radically different denominations and confessions have over the centuries come to pacifism in disgust at the horrors of war as organised violence. I fully recognise and endorse the contemporary Roman Catholic peace movement, which I’ve blogged about before.

I’ve posted it up the news of this book, as I thought it would interest and inspire the Christian readers of this blog, who share my opinions on war. And would also act as corrective to the militant bilge coming out of the American and British religious right and their aggressive, omnicidal militarism.

From 2013: Private Eye on the Cruelty, Stress and Anxiety of the Fitness-to-Work Tests

April 8, 2014

atoskillsgraf

Atos may be pulling out of the Fitness-to-Work tests, but they’re still in charge of the Personal Independence Payments and the tests themselves will still be administered, as the Void has pointed out on his post about it today. I found this article from Private Eye’s ‘In the Back’ section attacking the tests for the harmful stress inflicted on the sick and disabled in the issue for 8th – 21st March 2013.

Fitness to Work Tests

Sick Joke

More stories are emerging of the extreme distress and hardship caused to sick and disabled people wrongly found fit to work by Atos, the French private contractor, and consequently denied benefits by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Last week the Eye was alerted by lawyers to the case of a woman with fragments of bullet and shards of her skull permanently lodged into her brain, who was deemed by Atos to have no care needs or mobility problems – despite a change in her mental state leading to extended periods of unconsciousness.

The Commons public accounts committee last month blamed ministers for the “misery and hardship” suffered by claimants, saying that while Atos (which has earned more than £100m a year over the past four years for its “work capability” contract) was getting assessments disastrously wrong, the government was doing nothing to check or improve reliability.

Nor was there any sign of improvement, with Cizizens Advice reporting an 83 percent increase in the past year in the number of people asking for support on appeals against decisions. Charities and legal advisers also complain that people with long-term, incurable or terminal conditions often face repeated assessments to prove how unwell they are, despite supplying doctors’ and consultants’ evidence that their health or condition will never improve.

Those most in need of help, meanwhile, are about to get another kicking from the government as, from next month, legal aid is withdrawn in the vast majority of benefit cases. The government is reneging on a promise from former lord chancellor Kenneth Clarke to allow free legal support in “point of law” cases at the first-tier tribunal level – the state of the tribunal process where most cases remain.

Clarke had said he was concerned about the impact on disabled people making their initial appeal against a decision by the DWP on their benefit entitlement But not so Chris Grayling, his successor, who wants to save £350m a year in legal aid by 2015 by axing free advice for most cases involving child custody, divorce, medical negligence, immigration, employment, housing debts and benefits. According to Grayling’s own figures, an estimated 623,000 people will lose out. A number of legal advice centres have already closed as the proposed cuts are already taking effect on law firms and centres, which can only claim legal aid after dealing with the case.

As one lawyer told the Eye: “What this means, in reality, is that some very ill and distressed people will simply not have the capacity to challenge appalling decisions.” Benefits tribunals will meanwhile get clogged up with badly prepared or even meritless appeals – and the only beneficiary will be Atos.

A few weeks ago Bristol’s lawyers joined a one-day strike protesting against the cuts to legal aid. It should be unacceptable that over half a million people – 623,000 – should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford it. It goes against the clause in Magna Carta, in which the king promises that he will not ‘deny, delay or sell justice’. Even earlier, English kings like Henry I sought to present themselves as a ‘lion of justice’. One of the ancient legal courts was set up by Richard II – the same Richard against whom the peasants revolted and who was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, Henry IV – to provide better access to justice for his subjects. This shows just how much contempt and respect the Tories have for the concept of impartial justice, which doesn’t distinguish between people on grounds of their class or economic background. And the stoppage of legal aid after Kenneth Clarke’s promise to the contrary is just another example of a broken Tory promise.

As for Atos earning £100m a year over four years, during which time as many as 55,000 people a year may have died after being assessed as fit for work, and denied benefits – this is also monumentally unjust and iniquitous. Clearly, Grayling is afraid that widespread access to legal help by some of the victims of the assessment just might stop or severely hinder the policy. Hence the government’s decision to stop free legal advice.

As for Atos stating it’s getting out of assessments, I wonder if they also share Grayling’s fear, and are getting out while the going’s good. It looks like they’re afraid that if they continue administering the assessments, one unfairly assessed claimant or group of claimants may win and the company be faced with fines, damages and compensation payments. And that might seriously hurt their profits, not to mention whatever they believe passes as their business reputation.

Radical Voices from History to Today

December 18, 2013

People Speak

The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) is a collection of radical and anti-authoritarian texts from British history from 1066 to the present, collected and edited by the actor, Colin Firth, and Anthony Arnove. It was partly inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Arnove had worked with Zinn translating the book into a series of stage readings of American radical and democratic texts, which toured the US. Realising that Firth was one of the book’s fans, Arnove approached him to do a British version. Firth, Arnove, and a number of their friends and other performers they admired did indeed stage a reading of some of the texts collected in The People Speak in 2010. This was filmed and broadcast by the History Channel. The two authors state that they hope a DVD of this reading will eventually be released to accompany the film of the same name made the year previously (2010) by Zinn and Arnove, with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Chris Moore. Firth and Arnove rejected any claim that this was the ‘actorly activism’ attacked by critics such as Marina Hyde. Rather, they were simply doing what actors are paid to do – to act, and interpret other’s voices.

Firth states that the book is not an attack on history teachers or the history curriculum, noting that his own father is a history teacher. It comes from his feeling, dating from when he was studying history at school, that the kind of history we are taught is incomplete. It concentrates on kings and queens and politicians to the exclusion of everyone else, who are presented as a faceless, homogenous mass. This is his and Arnove’s attempt to put back into history the voice of the excluded, the Socialists, Anarchists, agitators, Chartists, suffragists, Lollards, Levellers, in short, the trouble-makers, like Zinn himself. Firth makes the point that democracy works from the bottom up, and that it’s protagonists are real trouble-makers. He also makes the point that the rights we now take for granted and accept as civilised and decent were at one point considered treason. The people, who fought for and won them were those without political power, and were hanged, transported, tortured and imprisoned, until their ideas were eventually adopted and adapted. Their continued existence is, however, precarious, and we need to defend them. ‘These freedoms are now in our care. And unless we act on them and continue to fight for them, they will be lost more easily that they were won.’

Firth and Arnove freely acknowledge that in covering two millennia, they have let much important material out. They hope, however, that their readers will feel rightly indignant about that, and be compelled to point it out, or, even better, write another the book, which will be the first of many. Firth hopes most of all it will inspire their readers to speak out, and make their voice heard on the issues they feel is important, ‘As Howard reminds us, democracy is not a spectator sport, and history is not something on a library shelf, but something in which each of us has a potentially critical role’.

Chronologically, the book has divided into five chapters, ‘1066-1450: Commoners and Kings’, ‘1642-1789: Representing the People’, ‘1790-1860: One Man, One Vote’, 1890-1945: Equal Rights’, and ‘1945-2012: Battling the State’ collecting some of the radical texts from these periods. Between these are other chapters covering particular political, constitutional, religious, national and economic issues and struggles. These include:

‘Disunited Kingdoms: ‘Our English Enemies’,
‘Freedom of Worship: ‘Touching our Faith’,
‘Land and Liberty: ‘The Earth is a Common Treasury’,
‘Empire and Race: All Slaves Want to Be Free’,,
‘Money and Class: ‘The Rank is But the Guinea’s Stamp’,
‘Workers United: Labour’s “No” into Action’,
‘War and Peace: ‘What People Have Your Battles Slain?’,
‘Gender and Sexual Equality: ‘A Human Being, Regardless of the Distinction of Sex’.

The chapter on the 400 or so years from 1066 to 1450 contains the following texts:

Ordericus Vitalis on the Norman Conquest of 1066,
The Liber Eliensis on Hereward the Wake,
Extracts from the Magna Carta,
Extracts from the Song of Lewes; written by a Franciscan monk in 1264, this sets out some early examples of the doctrine of resistance and popular rights.
It also contains a section devoted to the voice of the Peasant’s Revolt, including
Wat Tyler’s address to Richard II,
John Ball, ‘Until Everything Shall Be in Common’ (1381),
and William Grindcobbe, ‘I shall die in the Cause of Gaining our Liberty’.

The chapter on ‘Disunited Kingdoms – Our English Enemies’, includes the following pieces:
The declaration of Scottish independence at Arbroath, 6th April 1320,
Owain Glyn Dwr’s letter to another Welsh noble, Henry Don,
The Complaynt of Scotland of 1549,
Jonathan Swift’s bitterly satirical ‘A Modest Proposal’ of 1729,
The Speech from the Dock of the Irish Nationalist leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone,
The Speech from the Dock of Tone’s successor in the United Irishmen, Robert Emmet,
Rev. John Blackwell’s Eisteddfod Address in Beaumaris in 1832, stressing the importance of literature in Welsh,
Letters from the Rebecca Riots’,
The Letter from Nicholas M. Cummins to the Times attacking the English for refusing to supply the Irish with food during the Potato Famine,
The Speech from the Dock of the Irish American Fenian Leader, Captain John McClure, of 1867,
Padraig Pearse’s Eulogy for the Fenian Leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of 1915,
An extract from the Scots writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song of 1932,
Bernadette Devlin’s Speech in Draperstown when she stood as the candidate for the Nationalist Independent Unity Party in Northern Ireland,
Silvester Gordon Boswell’s Address to Travellers on Appleby Hill of 1967, and Boswell’s The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy of 1970,
The Dubliners’ Luke Kelly’s lyric, ‘For What died the Sons of Roisin?’ of 1970,
Pauline M.’s description of the events of Bloody Sunday,
An editorial on the Tax-Dodgers on the Isle of Man by the Manx Marxist group, Fo Halloo,
Bobby Sands’ prison diary for 1-2 March 1981,
and an extract from Gwyn Alf Williams’ history of the Welsh, ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues’ from 1985.

The section on Freedom of Worship, begins with a section on the Pilgrimage of Grace, which includes
The examination of Nicholas Leche of 1536,
The Pontefract Articles of 2-4 December 1536,
The Examination of Robert Aske, 1537,
John Foxe, ‘The Mart6yrdom and Suffering of Cicelie Ormes, Burnt at Norwich the Testimonie and Witnes of Christes Gospell’ of 1557,
Matthew Hamont’s Trial for Heresy,
John Mush, the Life of Margaret Clitherow, 1586,
Daniel Defoe’s satirical ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters:, Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church of 1702,
Ignatius Samcho’s Letter on the Gordon Riots of 1780,
William Blake’s ‘America’ of 1793, his Preface to Milton of (1804) and Preface to Book Two of ‘Jerusalem’ of the same year.
Grace Aguilar’s History of the Jews in England of 1847,
George Jacob Holyoake, Exchange with his Caplain on Atheism (1850),
An anonymous account of the Basingstoke Riots against the Salvation Army of 1881,
and Victoria Brittain’s ‘The Meaning of Waiting’, using the words of eight Muslim women married to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The section on the period 1642-1749 contains
Elizabeth Lilburne’s Appeal against the arrest of her husband, the leveller leader John Lilburne,
Richard Overton’s An Arrow Against All Tyrants of 1646,
The Putney Debates of 1647,
John Lilburne’s Appeal to Cromwellian Soldiers of 1649,
The last speech of Richard Rumbold at the Market Cross in Edinburgh,
Reports of torture in prison from 1721,
The frontispiece to the anonymous pamphlet ‘Idol Worship, Or, the Way to Preferment, showing that the way to political power to was kiss your superiors’ rear ends,
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, 1776,
The American Declaration of Independence,
Paine’s Rights of Man, 1791,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Destruction of the Bastille’,
An Advertisement for Commemoration of the French Revolution by Dissenters in Birmingham in 1791,
and An Anonymous Birmingham handbill to Commemorate the French Revolution, 1791.

The section ‘Land and Liberty’ contains
Robert Kett, ‘Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion’, 1549, against the Enclosures in Kent,
Gerard Winstanley, ‘A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England’, 1649,
The 1650 Declaration of the Wellingborough Diggers,
The ballad ‘Bonny Portmore’ of 1690, lamenting the destruction of the forest around Lough Beg,
Thomas Spence’s ‘Spence’s Plan for Parochial Partnerships in the Land of 1816), an early Utopian Socialist precursor,
John Clare, ‘The mores’, c. 1821-4,
W.G. Ward’s ‘The Battle, the Struggle and the Victory’ of 1873, on a battle between the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and the employers and landowners, who refused to employ their members,
Richard Barlow-Kennett’s ‘Address to the Working Classes’ on Vivisection of 1883,
Henry S. Salts’ Animal Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892),
Ernest a Baker, The Forbidden Land of 1924 on the landowners’ denial of the right of access to land around the Peak District and the Yorkshire moors due to grouse shooting,
Benny Rothman on the Kinder Trespass in 1932 by ramblers,
and Voices from the Kingsnorth 6 Greenpeace protesters of 2007.

The section on Empire and Race has the above extracts,
William Cecil’s Speech in Parliament of 1588, against a bill against Strangers and Aliens Selling Wares by Retail, 1588,
William Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, Act II, Scene 4, c. 1593,
Anna Barbauld, Sins of Government, Sins of of the Nation; Or, A Discourse for the Fast, of 1793, against imperialism and war with revolutionary France,
Robert Wedderbu5rn’s The Axe Laid to the Root or A Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica, 1817,
Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, 1831,
Louis Asa-Asa, ‘How Cruelly We Are Used’, 1831,
Joseph Sturge, Speech at the Baptist Missionary Society of Birmingham, 1836,
An Anonymous Member of the Walthamstow Free Produce or Anti-Slavery Association, Conscience Versus Cotton: Or, the Preference of Free Labour Produce, 1851,
Ernest Jones’, ‘The Indian Struggle’, 1857, supporting Indian independence during the Mutiny,
Richard Cobden’s Letter to John Bright on Indian independence, 1857,
Celestine Edwards, a Black Methodist preacher from Dominica, The British Empire, attacking imperialism,
‘A Voice from the Aliens about the Anti-Alien Resolution of the Cardiff Trades Union Congress of 1893, by Jewish worker protesting at a motion by William Inskip and Charles Freak to ban immigrant workers from joining trades unions,
Henry Woodd Nevinson, ‘The Slave Trade of Today’, 1906, against the cultivation of cocoa by Angolan slaves,
The Indian nationalist Ghadar Movement’s ‘An Open letter to the People of India’, 1913,
The satirical, ‘In Praise of the Empire’ by the Irish nationalist and founder of the Independent Labour Party of Ireland, James Connolly,
B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘India on the Eve of the Crown Government’, 1915,
John Archer’s Presidential Address to the Inaugural Meeting of the African Progress Union, 1918,
Manifesto of Bhagwati Charan Vohra, a Punjabi revolutionary Indian nationalist, 1928,
Gandhi’s Quit India Speech of 1942,
C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, on cricket and his experiences growing up in Trinidad, 1963,
Peter Hain, Defence in Trial from Picketing Apartheid South African Cricket and Rugby, 1972,
Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Inglan Is a Bitch’, 1980,
Sinead O’Connor, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’, 1990,
The account of his own incarceration by an anonymous Tanzanian Asylum Seeker, 2000,
Benjuamin Zephaniah, ‘What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us’, 2001,
Roger Huddle and Lee Billingham’s Reflections on Rock against Racism and Love Music Hate Racism, 2004,
The People’s Navy Protest on the eviction of the indigenous islanders from the islands, 2008,
and Mark Steel’s ‘The Poles Might be Leaving but the Prejudice Remains’, 2009.

The section on the period 1790-1860 has the following extracts and pieces
An Account of the Seizure of Citizen Thomas Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, 1794,
‘Rules and Resolutions of the Political Protestants’, 1818. Political Protestants was the name adopted by a number of northern working class radical organisations demanding universal suffrage.
There is a subsection devoted to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which the local militia and then a detachment of Hussars attacked and broke up a peaceful meeting in Manchester of protesters campaigning for an extension of the franchise. This section has
The Letter from Mr W.R. Hay to Lord Sidmouth regarding Peterloo, 1819,
extracts from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy
and William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built.

The chapter also has following pieces
William Davidson, Speech to the Court in the Cato Street Conspiracy Trial, 1820,
and Mr Crawshay Recounts the Merthyr Uprising, 1831.
This is followed by a section on Chartism, including
Henry Vincent, Chartists in Wales, 1839,
Edward Hamer, ‘The Chartist Outbreak in Llanidloes, 1839,
and Chartist Protests in Newcastle, 1839.
Charles Dickens,’The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version’, 1841, bitterly attack Tory feudalism and massacres of radicals,
and the Bilston, South Staffordshire Chartist Rally.

The section on money and class has a piece on the rebellion of William Fitz-Osbert against the way the Anglo-Normans barons shifted their tax burden onto the poor,
George Manley’s speech from the gallows at Wicklow, where he was hanged for murder, against the murder and plunder of the rich and general such as Marlborough,
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in Country Churchyard,
Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man for A’ That,
and John Grimswaw’s ‘The Handloom Weaver’s Lament’.
This is followed by a section on Luddism, which contains
John Sykes’ account of machine-breaking at Linthwaite, Yorkshire, 1812,
An Anonymous ‘Address to Cotton Weavers and Others’, 1812,
The poem ‘Hunting a Loaf’,
The poet Byron’s speech on the Frame-Work Bill in the House of Lords, and his ‘Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill’,
The ballad, ‘The Tradesman’s Complaint’,
An extract from Carlisle’s Past and Present in which he questioned the benefits of unrestrained economic growth,
Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England,
An extract from Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto,
Henry Mayhew’s ‘Labour and the Poor’,
‘The Last Sark’ by the radical working class poet, Ellen Johnston,
Thomas Hardy’s ‘To An Unborn Pauper Child’,
The Invasion of the Ritz Hotel in 1938, by Jack Dash, a Member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Union,
George Orwell’s ‘England, Your England’,
John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’,
Jimmy Reid’s Inaugural Speech as Rector of Glasgow University in 1972,
and Dick Gaughan’s ‘Call It Freedom’.

The section ‘Workers United’ contains the following

An Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland by the Glasgow Weavers, 1820,
Richard Oastler’s Letter to the Leeds Mercury on Slavery, denouncing the harsh conditions endured by children working in the factories and mines,
George Loveless, the Tolpuddle Martyr,
Patience Kerr’s Testimony before the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842,
Thomas Kerr’s ‘Aw’s Glad the Strike’s Duin’, 1880,
William Morris’ The Depression of Trade and Socialism: Ends and Means, 1886,
Annie Besant on White Slavery in London,
Samuel Webber’s Memories of the Matchgirl’s Strike,
Ben Tillett on the Dock Strike, 1911,
The Speech, ‘I am here as the Accuser’ by John Maclean, a Revolutionary Glaswegian Socialist tried for sedition for trying to dissuade soldiers from fighting in the First World War,
An account of the General Strike of 1926 by an Ashton Sheet Metal Worker,
Hamish Henderson’s ‘The John Maclean March’,
Frank Higgins’ ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’,
An account of the Miners’ Strike by Bobby Girvan and Christine Mahoney,
And Mark Serwotka’s ‘Imagine Not Only Marching Together, but Striking Together’, of 2011 against the Coalition.

The section on Equal Rights has an extract from Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism,
Emmeline Pankhursts’ Kill Me or Give Me My Freedom,
George Orwell’s ‘A Hanging’,
and a section for the voices of those involved in the Battle of Cable Street against Mosely’s Blackshirts.
This section includes the testimony of William J. Fishman, a Stepney Labour activist, the then secretary of the Communist Party, Phil Piratin, Joe Jacobs, another member of the Communist Party, also from Stepney, Julie Gershon, a Stepney resident, Mr Ginsburg, from Cable Street, and Mrs Beresford, of Lascombe’s fish and chip shop.
These are followed by an extract from Aneurin Bevan’s ‘In Place of Fear’.

The section and war and piece begins with Thomas Hoccleve’s An Appeal for Peace with France of 1412,
a Handbill from the Weavers of Royton, 1808,
John Bright’s Speech against the Crimean War,
Bertrand Russell’s Letter to the Nation, 1914,
Siegfried Sassoon’s Declaration against War, 1917,
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Disabled’,
The section answering the question, ‘How Should War be Prevented?’ from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas,
James Maxton’s Speech Against War,
Charlie Chaplin’s Final Speech from The Great Dictator,
Phil Piratin on the Invasion of the Savoy Hotel, 1940,
Denis Knight, The Aldermaston Anti-Nuclear March, 1958,
Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, dedicated to Scots anti-Nuclear marchers,
and Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’, 1964.

There is also a section of voices from the women involved in the Greenham Common Peace Protest, containing testimony and memories from Kim Besly, Sarah Hipperson,Ann Pettitt, and Thalia Campbell.
This is followed by Mary Compton’s speech at the Stop the War Coalition, and Robin Cook’s resignation speech to parliament against the invasion of Iraq.

The section and gender and sexual equality begins with an anonymous sixteenth century Song on the Labour of Women,
The Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women, 1649, against the imprisonment of four of the Levellers,
An anonymous article from the Saint James Chronicle from 1790, recording the ‘Extraordinary Female Affection’ between the ‘Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby,
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792,
Anna Wheeler and William Thompson’s ‘Address to Women’, an extract from their pamphlet, Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, 1825,
A letter by an anonymous prostitute from the Times, 1858,
Josephine Butler’s An Appeal to the People of England, on the Recognition and Superintendence of Prostitution by Governments,
Edmund Kell, ‘Effects of the Acts Upon the ‘Subjected’ Women, against the humiliation endured by women through the examinations under the Contagious Diseases Act,
Oscar Wilde’s Second Trial for ‘Gross Indecency’,
Helen Gordon Liddle’s The Prisoner, an account of the force-feeding of the Suffragettes under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act,
Two passages from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own,
Against the Law, by Peter Wildeblood, a journalist and TV producer arrested for conspiracy to incite acts of gross indecency,
The memories of Vicky and Janice of Lesbian Life in Brighton in the 1950s and ’60s,
Selma James and the Women’s Liberation Workshop, ‘Women against the Industrial Relations Act’, 1971,
Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad to be Gay’,
Quentin Crisp’s How to Become a Virgin,
and Ian McKellen’s Keynote Speech at the 2008 Stonewall Equality Dinner.

The section, ‘Battling the State’, has pieces and extracts from
Tariq Ali’s ‘The Street is Our Medium’, from Black Dwarf, the newspaper of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, with a copy of Mick Jagger’s handwritten lyrics to Street Fighting Man.
Paul Foot’s Speech on the Murder of Blair Peach, 1979,
The Clash, ‘Know Your Rights’, 1982,
Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’, against the Falkland’s War,
Pensioner Nellie discussing the Poll Tax revolt,
Jeremy Hardy, ‘How to Be Truly Free’, 1993,
‘Catching Buses’ by the Bristolian disabled rights activist, Liz Crow,
Harold Pinter’s ‘Art, Truth and Politics’, 2005,
Mark Thomas’ ‘Put People First G20 Protest of 2009,
Euan Booth’s ‘Subversively Move Tony Blair’s Memoirs to the Crime Section in Bookshops’,
The Speech on Student Protests by the fifteen-year old schoolboy, Barnaby Raine, to the Coalition of Resistance Conference.
The book ends with Zadie Smith’s piece attacking library closures in 2011.

As well as notes and a normal index, the book also has a chronological index, placing the pieces in order according to the dates they were written.

The book is indeed encyclopaedic and comprehensive in the range of its selected texts through two millennia of history. Firth is quite right when he says that much has been necessarily left out. Whole can and have been written about some of the subjects he has touched on, such as popular protest in history, the Enclosures, Chartism, the development of British Socialism, Irish, Scots and Welsh history and nationalism, Socialism in Britain, opposition to the workhouse, to name but a few. There are a number of works on gay, gender and women’s history. E.P. Thompson himself wrote a history of the English working class, which remains one of the standard texts on the subject. Labour history-writing goes further back than Thompson, however. The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote two books on the country and town labourers respectively. A number of the first Labour MPs to be voted into parliament have also left their autobiographies, describing their rise from manual labourer to Member of Parliament.

The book does an important service by showing just how old some of the issues and techniques raised and used by today’s protesters actually are. Hoccleve’s appeal for peace with France shows that peace protests go right back to the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the Tenth Century the Church led a peace movement to establish God’s Truce. This was the ban on fighting by the knights and the aristocracy on certain days of the week, so that the peasants, their crops and livestock were harmed as little as possible. And some of the 19th century popular protests are surprisingly modern in flavour. I was struck in the 1980s by how similar Cobden and Bright’s peace meetings demanding an end to the Crimean War were to contemporary anti-Nuclear peace marches and protests. An earlier generation would doubtless be struck by the similarity to the anti-Vietnam protests. The various articles, pamphlets, books and letters written attacking British imperialism are a reminder that, even during the intensely patriotic Victorian age imperialism and colonial expansion were the subjects of criticism. One of Gladstone’s ministers was privately strongly anti-imperial, and wrote articles for the Liberal press denouncing imperialism. ‘A love of empire’, he wrote, ‘is the love of war’. It’s as true now as it was then.

The Anti-Saccherist League is another example of a startlingly modern Victorian protest. It was an early example of ethical consumption. It aimed to attack slavery by destroying the profits from sugar produced by slaves. Instead of buying sugar from the Caribbean, it instead promoted Indian sugar, which it believed was produced by free people. The book doesn’t mention it, but there were also feminist campaigns to end slavery. One of the petitions against slavery compiled by anti-Slavery activists, was by women, attacking the brutality experienced by enslaved women, and addressed to the Queen herself, Victoria. It was felt that she, as a woman, would have more sympathy to the sufferings of the other members of her gender in slavery than men. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is justly famous, and has been published in Penguin Classics. It, and the 19th century pamphlet similarly protesting women’s subordination and exploitation are a reminder that feminism did not begin with the suffragettes or was a product of ’60s radicalism.

Some of the older, more ancient texts from the book could easily be reprinted today as an indictment of modern conditions and attitudes under the Coalition. The descriptions of the government and employers’ opposition to the dock and matchgirls’ strikes sound very modern indeed, and Annie Besant’s denunciation of white slavery in London – the gruelling work performed in factories by poorly paid and exploited workers, sounds exactly like the world Cameron, Clegg and the rest of the whole foul crew would like to drag us back to.

I do, however, have problems with some of the material included in the book. It’s true that the United Kingdom was largely created through military expansion and conquest, as the Anglo-Norman barons first took Wales, and then established the English pale and suzerainty over the Gaelic clans in Ireland. They tried to conquer Scotland, but England and Scotland were only politically united after the failure of the Darien colony in the early 18th century. The history of the British control of Ireland is one of repeated misgovernment and oppression, as well as missed opportunities for reform and improvement. If some of George III’s ministers had succeeded in enfranchising Roman Catholics, so that they had at least some of the same rights as Protestants, or Gladstone, himself very much a member of the Anglican Church, had succeeded in granting ‘Home Rule all round’ to the ‘Celtic Fringe’, then some of the sectarian and political violence could possibly have been avoided. Discrimination against Roman Catholics was widespread and resulted in the Civil Rights demonstrations by Ulster Catholics in the 1960s. It also produced the Nationalist terrorist groups, who, like the Loyalist terrorists, which opposed them, have been responsible for some truly horrific atrocities, including the mass murder of civilians. I do have strong reservations of parts of the Irish folk scene, because of the way folk songs describing and denouncing historic atrocities by the British, were used by Nationalist paramilitaries to drum up hatred and support for their murderous campaigns. I am certainly not accusing any of the modern folk groups included in the book, whose lyrics denounce what they see as the continuing oppression of the Irish people, of supporting terrorism. Firth and Arnove appear to have deliberately avoided choosing the contemporary folk songs that do glamorise terrorism. Nevertheless, there is a problem in that some of the Irish folk songs about the suffering of their country and its people can be so abused. I am also definitely not impressed with Protestant, Loyalist sectarianism and its vilification of and celebration of violence against Roman Catholics.

It’s also the case that historically at least, many Protestants did support the aspirations of their Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen for freedom and emancipation. A few years ago Mapping the Town, BBC Radio 4’s urban history programme, broadcast an edition from Belfast. This noted that one of the first Roman Catholic churches built in the town in the late 18th or early 19th century was half funded by the town’s Protestants. Although there denominations were recognised and permitted by the Anglican establishment, unlike Roman Catholicism, which was rigorously prohibited, they also suffered serious legal disabilities and were prevented from holding political office. They shared the resentment their Roman Catholic friends and fellow Irishmen felt, and so sometimes, as here, made common cause with them. The book does include some of the speeches from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen, the 18th century militant Nationalist organisation that included both Roman Catholics and Protestants. This makes the point that the struggle for an independent Ireland has historically included Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, possibly some further Irish Protestant texts supporting independence or Roman Catholic emancipation would have been useful, to show such issues can and did transcend the religious divide.

Another problem with the section on Ireland is that in Northern Ireland the majority of the inhabitants were Protestants, who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the province was created through an uprising against the possibility that it would become part of Eire. While the oppression of Roman Catholics in Ulster is definitely undemocratic, it also has to be recognised that Ulster has remained part of the UK through the wishes of a majority of its people. This has been implemented through democratic politics, which is something that needs to be recognised. Unfortunately, the exclusive focus on Irish nationalism in the book obscures the fact that the province’s inclusion in the UK does have a popular democratic mandate.

A further issue is the exclusion of a modern, working class Ulster Protestant voice. Nearly a decade ago now the Independent reviewed a play by a working class Ulster Protestant playwright about the Troubles. The play was about a family reacting to the rioting occurring outside. I’ve unfortunately forgotten, who the playwright was. What I do remember was his comment that working class Protestants in Ulster were disenfranchised, as there were no organisations representing them. It’s a controversial claim, but there’s more than a little truth in it. Many of the working class political parties in Northern Ireland, such as the SDLP, are more or less Nationalist. The Unionist party, on the other hand, was formed from the merger of the Conservative and right-wing parts of the Liberal party. There has therefore been little in the way of working-class Protestant political parties, although some of the militant Protestant paramilitaries did adopt a radical Socialist agenda in the 1970s. Again, it would have been good to have a text or so examining this aspect of Northern Irish politics, though one which would not support the Protestant paramilitaries and their violence.

Equally problematic is the inclusion in the book of the voices of the womenfolk of the men imprisoned in Guatanamo Bay, collected by Victoria Brittain. Now Gitmo is indeed a human rights abuse. The prisoners there are held without trial or sentencing. The reasoning behind this is that, while they are guilty of terrorism offences, wartime conditions and the pressures of battle mean that it has been impossible to obtain the level of evidence required to secure a conviction under civilian law. If they were tried, they would be acquitted, and disappear to continue their terrorist campaigns against the US. Hence, for national security they must be detained outside the law. It’s a dangerous argument, as it sets up a precedent for the kind of ‘Nacht und Nebel’ disappearances and incarceration without trial of domestic opponents that was ruthlessly used by the Nazis on their political opponents in Germany.

This does not mean that the men held without trial in Gitmo are democrats. Far from it. Those that fought for the Taliban supported a vehemently anti-democratic regime. It was a violently repressive theocracy, which rejected ‘man-made law’ in favour of the Sharia. Under the Taliban, no forms of religious belief or unbelief were tolerated apart from Islam. Women were prevented from going out in public except when clad in the chador. As they were supposed to be silent and not draw attention to themselves when in public, they were beaten if they made a sound. This included the noises made by the artificial limbs of women, who had been mutilated by the mines and ordnance used in the fighting. There was also an active campaign against female education. This situation has been challenged by the presence of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Jeremy Hardy in the News Quiz derided this as ‘collateral feminism’. He has a point. The war was not fought to liberate or improve the conditions of Afghan women. This is very much a side effect. However, if the Western occupation of Afghanistan does raise their status and give them more freedom, then it will have done some good.

As for the occupation of Afghanistan itself, I’ve read material that has argued that the real reason the Western forces are there is to secure access to and appropriate the country’s oil pipelines. There’s possibly something in that. However, the immediate reason for the invasion was al-Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9/11. The destruction of the Twin Towers and parallel attacks on the Pentagon and the White House were acts of war. There is simply no two ways about this, and the West’s counter-attack and invasion of Afghanistan was an entirely appropriate response. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous to include the piece of on the suffering of the wives of the men imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, when the men themselves were the militant, murderous supporters of an oppressive regime that itself had absolute contempt for democracy and Western notions of human rights.

If many of the texts in this volume seem surprisingly modern, the extracts on the Ladies of Llangollen can be somewhat misleading in that historically British society has recognised a number of intense same-sex relationships, that were not at the time regarded as homosexual, or which included a homosexual element that was nevertheless seen in context as part of a wider relationship. There has been a book published within the last year or so on the homosocial relationship between medieval knights, which examined the all-male camaraderie and loyalty between them. The chivalrous concept of campiognage, which was the extreme friendship and loyalty between two knights, could be described in homosexual terms, even when one knight was helping his comrade in arms to escape with his lady love. In the 19th century there was the ‘romantic friendship’. This was a devoted friendship between two members of the same sex. These now can strike us as definitely gay, but at the time these were not seen as being necessarily homosexual or particularly extraordinary. Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried next to another priest, with whom he shared a profound friendship, was almost certainly such a Victorian romantic friendship, rather than a straightforward gay relationship. Although the ladies of Llangollen described themselves as having eloped, they always maintained that they devoted themselves to artistic and intellectual pursuits. They were celebrated at the time for their devotion to each other, and visitors to their home included many of the 19th century’s great and good, including the Duke of Wellington. It seems to me therefore that there relationship was seen as another romantic friendship, rather than a lesbian relationship.

It is also the case that the Victorians were aware of the existence of lesbianism. The story that when they were formulating the laws against homosexuality, Queen Victoria and her ministers did not outlaw female homosexuality because they didn’t believe it existed is a myth. They knew that it did. They just didn’t see it as a particular threat. The historian Martin Pugh makes this point in his book, British Fascism between the Wars. He argues that lesbianism was only perceived as a threat to British society after the First World War, when there was a ‘crisis of masculinity’. It was widely believed that the cream of British manhood had all been carried off by the War, and that only inferior men had been left behind. This created the atmosphere of sexual panic in which arose Pemberton Billing and his notorious black book. Billing was an extreme Right-wing Tory MP, who believed that the Germans were blackmailing British homosexuals into betraying their country. He claimed to have a little book containing the names of 50,000 ‘devotees of Sodom and Lesbia’, and regularly attacked other public figures with accusations that they were gay. At least one of his victims sued for libel, but the trial was called off when Billing accused the presiding judge of being another gay, whose name was in his book. I’m no legal expert, but it has struck me that the judge would have grounds for jailing him for contempt. Moral fears and legislation against gay women arguably date from this period, rather than the Victorian age.

These reservations aside, this is a powerful, inspiring book, that should encourage and empower anyone with an interest in radical history and who is determined to defend freedom and dignity today from the increasing attacks on it by the Coalition, the most reactionary regime this country has endured since the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979.

The Medieval Christian Origins of Western Democracy: Part 2

July 19, 2008

In the first part of this essay discussing the medieval Christian contribution to the rise of democracy, I discussed how the medieval idea that political authority lay in the whole of the community, and that monarchs, as well as their subjects, were bound by the law, led to the establishment of constitutional checks on the power of the monarch. Some states went further, and established systems of government in which power was effectively exercised by an assembly, rather than the reigning monarch, such as medieval Novgorod, or attempted to abolish feudalism altogether and establish a republic ruled by the citizens in opposition to the aristocracy. European monarchs had ruled with the advice of assemblies of their lords since the early Middle Ages. In the thirteenth centuries these assemblies, particularly those in England and Spain, began to establish themselves as parliaments. Similar assemblies of the aristocracy, knights and representatives of the municipal elite from the towns were also held in France, Germany, Italy and the papal states as part of the system of government. Such assemblies received powerful philosophical and theological support from Thomas Aquinas and other political theorists, who considered that humans were equal in their essence, stated that laws should be directed towards the common good rather than the personal benefit of the individual ruler, and maintained that the people had the right to depose an unjust monarch.

In the second part of the essay, I will discuss how Aquinas considered that the people were also the source of law as they had produced the customs that governed European society. This view was part of Aquinas’ wider view that laws held their authority through the consent of the people. Although he considered monarchy to be the best form of government, Aquinas also considered that the best constitution was one that included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and thus gave philosophical and theological support to the parliamentary assemblies that advised monarchs.

The political theories that resulted in the establishment of secular governmental assemblies also led to similar developments in ecclesiastical government with the emergence of the Conciliarist movement that attempted to establish a general, ecumenical council as the governing authority in the Church, with authority even over the pope. The authority of both political and ecclesiastical governmental assemblies were partly based on the notion of mandated authority, which had been developed by Canon lawyers to establish the legal and constitutional basis for the ability of one section of the church to make decisions on behalf of the wider community. This idea of delegated authority also supported the constitutional position of the feudal councils that advised monarchs, so that they gradually developed into parliamentary assemblies that had powers to check the king on behalf of the subjects.

Furthermore, Canon lawyers stressed that law was rational, and that Natural Law and Roman Law affected the whole of humanity and transcended national boundaries, thus producing a system of international law that allowed disputes between nations to be settled peacefully. The insistence that law must be fundamentally rational resulted in the British constitutional attitude that viewed any law that did not possess a basis in reason was invalid.

I will also discuss how, during the Peasants’ Revolt in England, the serfs argued against their social status partly on religious grounds. Finally, although the medieval states that were governed through parliamentary assemblies were certainly not democratic, as they reserved active political participation only to those members who were considered to be the best qualified, I will nevertheless discuss how they provided the basis for later constitutional developments that made these early governmental assemblies more democratic and allowed them to develop greater power to check the monarch and act as institutions of popular government.

Recognition in Medieval Law of People as Source of Popular, Customary Law

While Aquinas himself did not state whether either the people or their ruler was the source of law, he did recognise that people, rather than the authorities, were the source of the customary law operating during the Middle Ages. Customary law, however, was nevertheless rational in that human actions, like their speech, were the result of reason. Princes had the right to alter laws, but this had to correspond to the common good. Following the Roman legal theorist, Ulpian, Aquinas considered that new laws should possess evident utility. Aquinas argued that the law should correspond to custom as much as possible, as law lost its force when custom was removed. Medieval Canon law viewed customary law as ‘unconstituted postive law’, in contrast to the ‘constituted positive law’ promulgated by an authority such as a pope or monarcy. Unconstituted positive laws were the customs of a particular community, which were considered to derive their power from the implicit consent of the communities, which practised them. Other legal theorists, such as the Canon lawyer, Rufinus, considered that custom only had legal authority if it was recognised and permitted by the authorities, who had the power to alter it. 44 Thus law was considered to derive its power to a certain extent from the consent of the people who lived by it and who, in their day-to-day activities, produced new customs and legal procedures. In the 18th century conservative political theorists, such as Edmund Burke, emphasised the role of tradition in maintaining a nation’s culture and stability against the political turmoil and violence of radical constitutional change produced by the French revolution. In the 20th century libertarian economic theorists, such as Von Hayek, also stressed the immense importance of traditional political institutions in promoting social and economic stability.

Aquinas’ View that Best Constitution Included Elements of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy, and that this Existed in Ancient Israel

Like Aristotle, Aquinas also considered in his Treatise on the Law that the best regime was a ‘well-combined constitution’, which included features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. 45 Such a regime combined unity, rare virtue, and popular consent. 46 Aquinas considered that this mixed constitution was found in ancient, noting that Moses governed Israel, according to Deuteronomy 1:15 through the chiefs of Israel’s tribes and wise men, and, according to Exodus 18:21, able men who had been chosen from all the people. Thus Aquinas believed that there should be limits on royal power, and advocated a form of constitutional monarchy. 47 Aquinas was almost certainly influenced by the feudal councils of great lords in his view of the aristocratic element in such a mixed constitution. There were, however, no contemporary political institutions that may have influenced Aquinas’ view of the democratic element, and historians have therefore considered that he was either considering the representatives of the towns that were sent to the assemblies of southern Italy, Germany and the Papal States, or simply accepted Aristotle’s view on the subject without reference to any contemporary institution. 48

Thus, while Aquinas certainly was not a democrat, and favoured monarchy as the best form of government, he also recommended constitutional limits on the power of the monarch, viewed sovereignty as ultimately deriving from the people and recommended that the best constitution included a democratic element, as well as monarchy and aristocracy. This ideal constitution, for Aquinas, had existed in ancient Israel. His ideas were further developed to support the deposition of tyrannical kings, and the development of more democratic forms of government. In the 20th century the Roman Catholic political theorists Yves R. Simon and Jacques Maritain based their support of democracy on Aquinas’ political theories.

The Conciliarist Movement and its Attempt to Establishment an Ecumenical Council as Governing Authority in Western Church

The medieval view that sovereignty lay ultimately with the people found radical expression within ecclesiastical as well as secular politics in the Conciliarist movement of the early 15th century. This was an attempt to repair the Schism that had occurred in the late 14th century with the election in September 1378 of Clement VII as a rival pope in Avignon to Urban VI. This Schism, which divided the Church between rival popes in Avignon and Rome, continued for thirty years, so that by the fifteenth century there were three popes claiming leadership of the western Church, John XXIII, Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. The Conciliarist movement was an attempt to end this Schism and restore the unity of Christendom under a single pope by developing the constitutional institutions through which unsuitable popes and rival claimants to the papacy could be deposed.

Initial suggestions for repairing the Schism included arbitration and negotiation between the rival popes and a mutual agreement to abdicate. The University of Paris, however, rejected these suggestions. Jean Gerson, the university’s chancellor, argued that the sovereignty and power to decide ecclesiastical issues, its plenitudo potestatis, lay in the body of the Church as a whole. This sovereignty was duly expressed and exercised through a general ecumenical council. The Conciliarists partly based their ideas on the way the Church held diocesan and provincial synods to solve disputes at the local level, and so recommended that this process should be extended to the Church as a whole to solve the debate that was scandalously dividing the western Church. Thus, Henry of Langenstein argued for such a council, stating that

‘New and dangerous emergencies, which arise in any diocese are dealt with in a council of that particular diocese or a provincial synod, and therefore it follows that new and arduous problems which concern the whole world ought to be discussed by a General Council. For what concerns all ought to be discussed by all, or by the representatives of all.’ 49

Origin of Idea of Delegated Authority of Governing Group from Broader Community in Canon Law to Provide Constitutional Basis for Decisions of Church Councils

In fact meetings of small numbers of clergy, such as cathedral canons and college of cardinals, to decide issues affecting the wider church, such as the whole of the clergy within a particular diocese, or the entire western Christian church, had long been the subject of discussion and debate amongst canon lawyers to investigate by what right the decisions of these individual clergymen could be considered to be binding on their  communities. The canon lawyers solved the problem through the adoption of the idea of mandated authority from Roman commercial law. Late antique Roman law recognised the existence of individuals, termed procurators, the origin of the English word ‘proctor’, who had been granted authority by another to act in their name to conduct business that would otherwise have been inconvenient or impossible for that person. Canon law extended this principle to argue that small groups of individuals, such as a cathedral chapter, also had power mandated to them as representatives of the wider community or group for whom they acted. Thus a cathedral chapter represented the wider Christian community in a diocese in the same way that a Roman procurator acted for his principal, the person who had granted him his power to act for him. 50 When a cathedral chapter thus gave its consent to a bishop’s decision, or the college of cardinals agreed to a particular papal policy, they acted on behalf of each and every member of the wider church, whether of the local diocese or in the whole of the western Church.

Canon Law Idea of Mandated Authority Basis of Constitutional Support for Secular Governing Councils

The theory of mandated authority clearly gave such advisory assemblies great powers and authority. Nevertheless the theory had been developed to solve the practical problem of how each person in the community could be represented in a matter when ‘what touches all should be approved by all’. In the cases of an ecclesiastical issue that affected every member of the church in the diocese, it was difficult or impossible to consult them individually. The idea of mandated authority allowed an advisory assembly, such as a cathedral chapter, to make decisions on their behalf as their representatives. The theory also gave considerable legal support to such councils, whether ecclesiastical or secular, such as the feudal grand councils, parliaments and estates-generals. It thus supported checks on the power of princes and bishops by granting legal rights and status on the councils that advised them. 51 Thus, for historians such as Brian Tierney, ecclesiastical Canon law formed the basis of ‘parliamentary constitutionalism’ – the constitutional rights of parliaments and representative assemblies, rather than monarchs, to make laws. 52

Attempt by Concialiarists to Make Authority of General Council Superior to the Pope

From the view that authority within the Church derived from its members as a whole, expressed and operating through a general council, the movement’s theorists developed more extreme views in which such general councils were therefore superior to the papacy in matters of faith. Furthermore, as the Church was the only infallible earthly institution, it possessed the power to decided church doctrine and correct and depose the pope if his doctrines were incorrect and he was incapable of properly governing the Church. Like Aquinas and the theorists of secular politics, the Conciliarists accepted the subject’s right to resist an unjust ruler, and that the best form of government was a mixed constitution that included elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. These ideas resulted in the declaration of Council of Constance in 1414 that all authority within the Church ultimately derived from such a council, which possessed power over everyone within it, including the pope. 53

This decree has been described as ‘the most revolutionary official document in the history of the world.’ 54 The Council succeeded in ending the Schism by deposing John XXIII, achieving the resignation of Gregory XII, while Benedict XIII was later condemned as a schismatic and heretic. In their place, the Council elected a new pope, Martin V. However, there then followed a period of conflict between the Councils and the papacy, which eventually resulted in the emergence of two Councils, one at Florence and another at Basel, which elected an anti-pope, Felix V. 55 This new period of conflict and schism was eventually resolved in 1460 with the formal condemnation of the movement by Pope Pius II. Pius II had already reconciled the German emperor, Frederick III, to the papacy, and so deprived the Conciliarists of his support. 56

Roman and Canon Law Used also by Secular Courts as International Law for Particular Cases

The constitutional theories and movements that attempted to limit the power of secular princes through the establishment of advisory councils or other checks on their authority, and the Conciliarist movement to subordinate papal authority to a general council of the Church both developed from the interdependence in Europe of secular and Canon law. Both civil and canon law used Roman law, and the revival of Roman law in the 12th century reinforced the canon lawyers’ interest in it. 57 Such was the interdependence between secular and Roman law that when judges and plaintiffs in secular courts were unable to find a way of satisfactory solving a dispute, they turned to Roman and canon law to find a solution. Roman and Canon Law, to medieval lawyers, represented ‘everyone’s general law’, as both were considered to be universally applicable. They thus constituted a ius commune, or international law that could be used to settle disputes when there was a conflict in points of law between two parties of differing legal systems. This system of Roman and Canon law therefore became a ‘peacemaker’s law’ that allowed international disputes to be settled peacefully without military conflict. 58

Medieval View that Law Rational and that Unreasonable Laws therefore had no Force

The medieval Canon lawyers also stressed the rational nature of law, and considered that any law that was unreasonable was therefore invalid. Stoic philosophy had considered that there was a universal Law of Nature affecting human conduct. The Romans identified this Law of Nature with the ius gentium, the universal law that was held to govern the actions of the peoples of all nations. Canon Lawyers identified this natural law with the divine law revealed by the Almighty, which they considered an extension of a natural law. The great canon lawyer Gratian, at the end of his Decretum, declared that the golden rule was the Law of Nature, and that this was superior to all other laws because of its antiquity and dignity, and whose power therefore superceded custom and the legislation of human authorities. The British legal historian Sir Frederick Pollock considered this attitude towards the innate and superior rationality of the Law of Nature to be the origin of the English lawyer’s view that a custom could not be good if it was contrary to reason. It was also for him the origin of the attitude from the 16th to the 18th centuries that a law was invalid if it was held to be against reason and ‘common right’. 59

The thirteenth century Canon lawyer Hostiensis held the same view that laws should be reasonable. In his Golden Summa, extending and commenting on Gratian’s Liber Extra, Hostiensis indeed stated that the divine law revealed by God in Scripture was an extension of natural law, and that any law or judicial decision that was in conflict with rational natural law was invalid and untenable. 60

Conciliarists and Supporters of Secular Governmental Assemblies not Advocates of Democracy

While the Conciliarists considered that the Church’s authority lay in the community of the Church as a whole, and that this authority was expressed and exercised through general councils, they were not democrats in that they did not consider that this meant that everyone should have an equal vote. The extreme Conciliarists believed that everyone, including women, had a right to be heard in the Church’s debates, but considered that only the most important section of the ecclesiastical community was qualified to make decisions. 61

The Conciliarists were not alone in reserving practical political decisions to a better qualified minority, rather than the majority. Secular political theorists, like Marsilius of Padua, who strongly advocated populated sovereignty and rejected any involvement in politics or secular privileges by the Church, also considered that people did not possess an equal right to vote or involvement in politics. In his Defensor Pacis of 1324, Marsilius of Padua argued that the source of legislation was the people, expressing their will through a general assembly, stating that

‘The legislator, or the primary and efficient cause of the law, is the people or the whole body of the citizens, or the weightier part thereof, through its election or will expressed by words in the general assembly of citizens, commanding or determining that something be done or omitted with regard to human civil acts, under a temporal pain or punishment.’ 62 This ‘weightier part’ of the people, according to him, referred to ‘the quantity and quality of the persons in that community over whom the law was made.’ 63 Thus while he appears to have accepted that the whole community did indeed possess the power to make decisions, nevertheless his statement that this could rest in the best-qualified section of the community appears to indicate that he also accepted Aristotle’s view that citizens should participate in the community according to their position in society, with the result that those citizens lower down the social scale would have correspondingly little or no political involvement. 64

Nevertheless, although the Conciliarists were not democrats, their arguments for the sovereign authority of councils, rather than individuals, was a powerful contribution to the development of modern ideas of democracy. The historians Brian Tierney and Francis Oakley, have noted the similarities between the arguments used by the supporters of parliament against the king in 17th century England, such as Philip Hunton, Henry Parker and Charles Herle, and the Conciliarists two centuries previously. Indeed, the Royalist writer, John Maxwell, in his Sacro-Sancta Regum Majestas, had stated that the parliamentarians had been influenced in their idea that the people had the right to depose a monarch by the French Roman Catholics of the League during the Wars of the Religion in the 16th century, and the Conciliarists, including Gerson, Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham. 65

Common Origin of Conciliarist Movement and English 17th Century Parliamentary Political Theory in Medieval Constitutional Political Philosophy

Historians have also suggested that the Conciliarists spread the idea of constitutional limits on power across Europe through its application to the papacy, thus spreading the idea beyond its use in national politics to the whole of western European Christendom. As a result, they preserved the idea of constitutional checks and balances against the development of absolutism, and spread its popularity throughout Europe. 66 Even if there was no direct link between the parliamentary supporters of popular sovereignty and the authority of governmental assemblies and the Conciliarists, it is possible that both were influenced in their views by the common culture of political philosophy that had developed in Medieval Europe. This common culture of political philosophy continued the medieval view of popular sovereignty, derived ultimately from the adoption of Roman ideas of the people as the source of political authority by the early Church.

Theological Arguments by English Serfs During the Peasants’ Revolt for the Abolition of Serfdom

The later Middle Ages was torn by a number of popular revolts against monarchical, aristocratic and municipal oligarchic authority, such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England, the Jacquerie in Paris of 1358 and the revolt of the Maillotins, again in Paris in 1382, the revolts of the weavers of Ghent and Bruges of 1379-82, and the insurrection of the Ciompi in Florence in 1378. They were primarily the result of economic and political grievances against the abuse of power by the ruling elites, and demanded specific reforms to redress them. The English Peasants, however, justified their revolt against serfdom on religious grounds. According to the French chronicler, Froissart, they argued that there were no slaves and serfs at the beginning of the world, and that slavery should not exist except for those that had betrayed their lords. As, however, both serfs and lords were equally human, the peasants had a right to resist their subjection and demand wages for the services they performed for their lords. 67

Attempts to Establish Government by Parliamentary Assemblies on Partially Successful

The medieval attempts to establish systems of government based on advisory councils or representative assemblies, founded on popular sovereignty, was only partially successful. Republican administration of Novgorod was destroyed in the 15th century when it was annexed by the Grand Duke of Moscow, who carried off its bell. Political turmoil and dissension in the Italian republics resulted in the replacement of democracy by muncipal tyrants such as the Sforza, Visconti and Medici families. The English and Scots parliaments became established parts of these nations’ government, as did the cortes in Spain.

Although the estates-general was regularly held in France during the 14th and 15th century, it failed to become an established, constitutional part of the French governmental system in the way parliament had in England. Louis XI finally established the right of the French crown to levy taxes and wage war without calling the estates, which made its last efforts to assert its authority in 1484. 68 The imperial diets in Germany similarly failed to achieve any effective power, and only met occasionally when the emperor required them to consider the levying of extraordinary taxes. 69

The states-general in Germany was nevertheless successful in establishing itself as a representative body for the whole of Germany, where laws were passed through the consent and decision of the majority. Moreover the German princes managed to establish the local estates-general within their territories as constitutional governmental institutions. 70 As part of the landtag – the estates-general of that particular German state, they acted as a constitutional check to the power of the prince, thus creating a form of balanced constitution. 71 In France the provincial estates-general continued to meet and vote on taxes in the fifteenth century until they, like the national estates-general, were ended by the expansion of royal power by Charles VIII. 72

Conclusion:Medieval Governmental Assemblies not Democratic, but Origins of Later Parliamentary Government and Constitutional Limits to Power of Monarchy, partly Produced and Accepted by Theologians, Philosophers and Canon Lawyers

Even when such assemblies did become an established part of a state’s system of government, they were not democracies. Membership of these governmental councils, and the ability to vote in their election, was confined to members of the aristocracy, knights, and municipal commercial elites. Nevertheless, the Middle Ages had succeeded in establishing constitutional limits to the powers of monarchs and the authority of councils to represent the wider people, based on ideas of popular sovereignty, partly based on the arguments of theologians such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and developed by canon lawyers from the conduct of ecclesiastical councils. These theories and their legal support were based on ancient Greek and Roman political theory, and Roman commercial law.

Although such institutions could become secular, such as Marsilius of Padua’s idea of a secular city state ruled by such an assembly of citizens in his Defensor Pacis, the papacy was also willing to call such governmental assemblies of its citizens in the administration of its states, while the Russian Orthodox Church had fully participated in the republican governmental institutions of medieval Novgorod. Even when these parliamentary assemblies failed to become part of system of government, monarchs were still subject to constitutional checks. From the Middle Ages to the French Revolution, the parlement of Paris – not an assembly of subjects, but a committee of lawyers – had the responsibility of examining royal legislation to check whether it was constitutional. These ideas of popular sovereignty, constitutional limits on the power of the monarch and the ability of governmental assemblies to pass legislation and advise the monarch, were further developed in the 16th and 17th centuries to provide the foundations for modern theories of representative government and democracy.

Notes

  1. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, (Harlow, Longman 1995), pp. 157-8.
  2. Waley, Later Medieval Europe from St. Louis to Luther ( Harlow, Longman 1985), p. 8; Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, Maryland, Lexington Books 2002), p. 50.
  3. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 50.
  4. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, pp. 8-9.
  5. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom and Grace, p. 51.
  6. Henry of Langenstein, ‘Consilium Pacis’, cited in Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 105.
  7. James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law , p. 107.
  8. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 108.
  9. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 110.
  10. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, pp. 105-6.
  11. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 106.
  12. Waley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 106; Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford, OUP 1963), p. 136.
  13. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 136.
  14. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p.111.
  15. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 112.
  16. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1923), p. 527.
  17. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 157.
  18. David Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in David Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy: An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1986), pp. 48-9.
  19. George Holmes, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320-1450, second edition, (Oxford, Blackwell 2000), p. 111.
  20. Holmes, Hierarch and Revolt, p. 111.
  21. Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy, p. 49.
  22. Wootton, ‘Introduction’, in Wootton, ed., Divine Right and Democracy, p. 48.
  23. E.F. Jacob, Political Thought, in Crump and Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 521
  24. Holmes, Hierarchy and Revolt, pp. 74-5.
  25. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 482.
  26. Charles Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.
  27. Geoffrey Barrowclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1947), p. 349.
  28. Barrowclough, Modern Germany, p. 351.
  29. Johnson, ‘Royal Power and Administration’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 483.