Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bayeux Tapestry

Well I got nothing today so I'll just throw something medieval up. My new banner comes from the first panel of the Bayeux Tapestry probably commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux to commemorate his half-brother William the Conqueror's victory over Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066 and what we now know as the Norman Conquest.

The entire tapesty plus Latin translation and English commentary can be found here: Bayeux Tapestry. The Tapestry is not primarily a depiction of the Battle of Hastings, but instead lays out the case for William's legitimacy as king and equally of King Harold's illegitimacy as an oathbreaker of his pledge to support William as successor to Edward the Confessor.

However you judge the evidence it is clear that William claimed to be the rightful successor to Edward and took only what was due to him as such. In later centuries there was a theory that William take possession of all of England and then doled it out to his followers by right of conquest. Under this concept all land titles were ultimately feudal and all land held in one way or another of the King. This idea really doesn't hold up on inspection which can be seen quite clearly by sampling the Domesday Book of 1086. Domesday was a land survey designed to show all the property in England and its tenure and worth. It is introduced as follows:
Here is subscribed the inquisition of lands as the barons of the king have made inquiry into them; that is to say by the oath of the sheriff of the shire, and of all the barons and their Frenchmen, and the whole hundred, the priests, reeves, and six villains of each manor; then, what the manor is called, who held it in the time of king Edward, who holds now; how many hides, how many plows in demesne, how many belonging to the men, how many villains, how many cottars, how many serfs, how many free-men, how many socmen, how much woods, how much meadow, how many pastures, how many mills, how many fish-ponds, how much has been added or taken away, how much it was worth altogether at that time, and how much now, how much each free man or soeman had or has. All this threefold, that i8 to say in the time of king Edward, and when king William gave it, and as it is now; and whether more can be had than is had.
What is important is the continuity, the expectation is that the pattern of ownership is the same as it was prior to the Conquest "in the time of king Edward" and in many places it is clear there has been no disruption at all.

The idea that all land actually came into the hands of the king at one time is expressed even here "when king William gave it" but is not totally supported by close examination. Instead you have a process by which almost all land came into and out of William's hands over time. From William's perspective armed opposition to his invasion constituted treason and one of the penalties for treason was forfeiture of land. Meaning that after Hastings he came into possession of all of the Crown lands plus all of the possessions of Harold, the richest and most powerful Earl prior to his own accession, plus all of Harold's followers meaning a very large percentage of England. But those powerful men who stood aside at Hastings were left in possession until they too rose in revolt as many did in 1070.

What this meant is that every time there was a civil war or unrest, which happened periodically, top level tenures that had been free were legally subordinated to the Crown or to the King personally and so ultimately resulting in those top levels becoming almost totally feudalized. But none of this necessarily automatically transfered downward leaving a bewildering tangle of sub-tenures and common rights that didn't neatly fit into a feudalized scheme.

The result is an economic history where major landholders embarked on a centuries long attempt to preserve their property rights vs a vs the Crown while maintaining and extending those rights vis a vis the peasantry. Ultimately the major property holders won out and rights held from time immemorial by the free peasantry were wiped out and in many cases taking that free status away. The major events of medieval England including the issuance of the Magna Carta in 1215 and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 can not be seen in isolation from this struggle over property rights. Effectively the large land holders won over against the king in 1215 and against the peasantry in 1381 and then against the king again during the English Civil Wars of the 17th century. All revolved ultimately around the issue of property rights.

Which BTW ties back to some of my posts about Conservatism which equally can't be divorced from this property based struggle. Conservatives represent the winning side of all three events referenced here, they held their own all of the way down to the Reform Act of 1832 and in many respects right through 1920 and the introduction of universal suffrage in England.


coberly said...

perhaps only after it was discovered that the propertied class could effectively manipulate universal suffrage. and "democracy" is a much more effective tool to manage the masses than a standing army.

Bruce Webb said...

But the propertied class did not manage universal suffrage well, instead it delivered them defeat after defeat as the original Progressive Movement, itself to some degree a development coming out of Populism started chipping away at its power. Trust Busting, Anti-Trust, Citizens Initiatives, Popular Election of Senators all chipped away at their power until they were left defenseless by the Great Depression and entered near fifty years in the wilderness. We have to remember that top marginal rates were at 90% or higher into the early sixties and 70% until the early eighties.

I am not saying that government ever really escaped control by the elite, but back then the part of government carrying the water for them was the semi-private Federal Reserve which treated every bit of good news for workers (more jobs at better pay) as a horrible threat of inflation and clamped down accordingly.

It was really only after 1980 that politicians on all sides started falling prey to the never ending re-election campaign and consequent constant need for money.

And I think they feel the danger of a populist/progressive comeback which has led to such things as Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter whose premise is that the propertyless are to stupid to understand why they should vote for the interests of the propertied and so should be denied the right to vote outright.

It's early days but we may be emerging from a twenty year period where all you needed to control the people was to control their TV sets. This may still work on the Right but it is breaking down on the Left. The days that the DCCC chose who got enough money to run and who didn't are breaking down and small dollar donors see that they can have more impact by directing their money to specific targets rather than letting Party leaders take credit by controlling the redistribution.

This is why the current Health Care debate is so important, a month ago it was CW that corporate interests had won by locking down Senate Finance, now the outcome is unsettled and uncertain.

Exciting days. Well for geeks like me anyway.

coberly said...

hope you are right, and continue to educate your loyal readers.

i am not so sure that the "elite" suffered anything at all from the New Deal. some of the elite were smart enough to see that they were the ultimate benefactors of government programs designed to help the poor.

that there is a faction of some people who have money who don't get this is undeniable. but i question whether those people can even get into the best restaurants.

at best there are just some barons who are at war with other barons and they compete for advantage and the loyalty of the peasants.