Sunday, October 30, 2016

Medieval European Feudalism: Mutuality and Reciprocity

Between the years of absolute rule by Roman emperors and the years of absolute monarchy fostered by the Renaissance is the time of feudalism.

This medieval system, along with its economic analogue called ‘manorialism,’ provided a respite from a strictly top-down authority model. Feudal relationships were built on mutual obligation: the lord’s obligation to provide for the serf was as binding as the serf’s obligation to do agricultural work for the lord.

Manorialism is also called ‘seigneurialism.’

Legally, a serf had a claim on his lord. By contrast, a slave in the Roman Empire had no claim on the emperor, and subject in a Renaissance absolutist monarchy had no claim on the king.

It’s difficult, or impossible, to give an exact starting time for feudalism. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., it gradually emerged as Germanic tribal patterns were applied to the remnants of Romans estates in northwestern Europe, e.g., in Gaul.

One Germanic tribe, the Franks, took leadership roles in Gaul. The collapse of Roman authority left a ‘power vacuum’ and threatened to leave the region in chaos. The Franks stepped in and began to organize.

Feudalism, along with Frankish political influence, spread through much of Europe.

The variations and historical stages of feudalism are many and complex. But at its core are a few simple ideas. One of them was localized control instead of centralized government. As the details of feudal agreements responded to local conditions, many slightly different forms of feudalism emerged, as historian Irma Simonton Black writes:

Indeed, in the Middle Ages, as in most of history, it is a serious mistake to try to separate opposing forces into the all good and the all bad. Historical developments are rarely that simple. The relationship of nobles and serfs had grown up over a period of centuries.

Given the serf’s legal claim on his lord, and given the flexibility to adjust feudal contracts and oaths to local conditions, feudalism represents a historical moment of legal recognition for the individual, located historically between Roman imperialism and Renaissance absolutism.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Banned Books Week

Since 1982, the last week of September has been designated as ‘Banned Books Week,’ celebrating the freedom of the press. The unlimited right to print ideas and opinions, no matter how radical or controversial, is a foundational liberty in Western-style democracies.

It’s worth thinking about a definition: what do we mean when we say a book is “banned”? Generally, the word is defined this way -

A book is banned if it is illegal, and punishable by law, to write, print, publish, distribute, sell, buy, own, or read it.

Put simply, that means that the police will arrest you, and a court will sentence you, if you do any of those things.

Significantly, a decision to omit a book from a particular library or school is not the same as “banning” it.

Today, in the United States, there are no banned books. In fact, there are more books available than ever before, thanks to the Internet.

Many of them are even available for free, if you’re content to have an electronic copy and not a physical copy.

The police do NOT go to booksellers like Amazon, or to bookstores like Barnes and Noble, to inspect which books they sell. Those businesses are free to sell whichever books they choose.

We celebrate Banned Books Week because the United States is one of only a few countries in the world which has this great liberty. Frankly, you can print almost anything you want on paper.

It’s important that we appreciate this freedom, because we want to preserve it for future generations.