September 25, 2009

Mercurius Medicus: a salve to sovereign problems

Mercurius Medicus was one of many short tracts published during the English Civil Wars. It came out in two editions in October 1647, today I want to concentrate on the first edition, dated by Geogre Thomason the London bookseller October 11th 1647. Mercurius Medicus was, so the catalogues inform us, authored by Henry Walker: the pamphlets or newspapers themselves actualy don't tell us who wrote them butmerely that they were printed for William Ley. Walker or whoever else wrote Mercurius Medicus was obviously a Parliamentarian and a supporter of the New Model Army- the first pamphlet is directed at the citizens of London and imagines itself as answering a citizen's questions about the New Model and the purpose of keeping it in existance after the war had ended. (The first English Civil War finished in 1646 and the New Model had stayed in existance until the autumn of 1647 despite Parliamentary orders to disband and unrest in London because of high taxes to pay it to stay in the field.) Mercurius Medicus was therefore a topical document: it was addressed to an audience who were vitally interested in what it was saying.

The pamphlet begins with wit, pointing out that the royalist 'firebrands' are 'quenched'- that the newspapers Melancholicus, Pragmaticus, Diabolicus and Clericus, the 'ink squitterers' are vanished. The titles mentioned are parodies in part- Mercurius Clericus and Diabolicus parody the royalist affection for the priest and the devil (this is a broad attack!) but the point is serious. For what he moves onto was a real question in the autumn of 1647- who was to blame for the English civil war. The author adopts a providential line of argument reminding his audience that ''Tis his [God's] chief glory to bring good out of evill, as it is the Devills greatest ambition to bring evill out of good, who can tread his inscrutable pathes'. (2) To assume that human beings have caused the sufferings of the civil war is 'great madnesse' 'to lay upon our own shoulders more then we are able to bear and great wickenesse to debar our Maker of that honour which he so greatly delighteth in, to wit, to use us at his pleasure' (3). This Jobian sentiment is interesting because one of the common places of independent thought was that history reflected God's providence and was discernable to mankind: this pamphlet advances a sceptical case about our abilities to read God's intentions out of the book of history.

The second interesting idea that we can pick out of Mercurius Medicus is another cynical one. The pamphlet is subtitled 'a soveraigne salve for these sick times' and that word 'soveraigne' is important. The English Civil War produced many important texts on the idea of sovereignty. In the early 1640s, Henry Parker argued that the King was not sovereign if he did not maintain the public interest. In the early 1650s, Thomas Hobbes and other thinkers like Francis Rous and Anthony Ascham maintained in the engagement controversy that a reasonable person should support their government in lieu of protection even if they believed that government to be, as many Royalists considered the Rump, illegitimate. We can see the begginings of a formation of such an idea in Mercurius Medicus: he writes in defence of the New Model

therefore my good Citizen, forbeare not to commerce for fear of shadowes, doth it greive you to pay your owne, now they guard you from a forraigne as well as when they opposed your domestic enemie; now you may easily imagine what will happen, at most but to part with money to maintaine them till things are setled; But were they disbanded, you nor the wisest living, could promise any man his life or livelihood;
The passage is important: the author argues here that the citizen supports the soldiers because they guarentee his life and liberty, were they disbanded the guard from foreign (Irish?) enemies would be abandoned too. Furthermore his point is that they have saved the citizen from worse tyranny, from that of Bishops and that of Kings.

The last point about the pamphlet I want to draw out is a point about its author. A better piece of work on Walker in the blogosphere can be found here, but whoever wrote this pamphlet was well informed. From the autumn of 1647 onwards you are beggining to get rumblings in the New Model Army about the status of the King. John Morrill convincingly argued in the Ford Lectures he delivered a couple of years ago that this argument about the King was a forgotten aspect of the Putney debates. Mercurius Medicus implies that such rumours were traversing his circles and distubring some, 'the Army ground their proceedings on this axiome, that the greater the persone is that offends, the more occasion is given to impeach him.' This principle is stated in the most general way in order to draw away its conclusion- that the King could potentially be put on trial. However his following sentence conditions it: 'the Souldierie in generall, I beleeve they will not be hastie to undertake that which is above their might to mannage, nor I beleeve have they the least thought to wrest the sword out of the hand of justice'. Whatever perspective or circle this pamphlet comes out of, it reflects the fact that by the end of 1647 there was a debate going on in some circles about judicially trying the King.

Mercuruis Medicus is a short but interesting document for the three reasons I have given above- but also because it gives testament to the lack of a peace dividend at the end of the English Civil War. It has to disappoint the citizen who expected the army and its commander Sir Thomas Fairfax to bring the King back to Whitehall, 'Sir Thomas when he made that promise expected not those obstructions which have since happened, and were it a wise course, thinkest thou, for his Majesty to come to his Pallace rather to heare controversies then to end differences.'. (5) Likewise it closes by councilling its audience 'since things are as they are, let us strive to make the best of them and according to the proverb, Since we cannot doe as wee would,d oe as we may' (6). In this sense, I think the pamphlet is useful, too often we pay attention to those exhilerated by revolution: Mercurius Medicus's author was when he wrote it addressing those who were not exhilerated and neither does he reccomend over optimism.

Instead this pamphlet is uncertain, wry and sceptical: it recommends caution about overestimating providence, support for the New Model because they keep things from getting worse, defends the possibility of trial and says that a settlement is still far off: it reminds us of how uncertain and dangerous the end of the first Civil War was and how much of a backlash there was against the side that won the civil war, not to mention the difficulties of creating out of a wartorn country a new state. Mercurius Medicus holds itself out as curing the newspapers of the time: actually its salve is more to do with the sovereign issue, what to do in the aftermath of victory?

September 22, 2009

Monkish Hospitality: the evolution of Economic Specialisation

This review of a recent study of Medieval Monastic Hospitality raises some very interesting questions. We do not often think, in the wider world, of monasteries as what some were, particularly by the twelfth century: large houses of men who held large lands. What is important about this is that of course it all had to be managed. The first thing that strikes me as an amateur in medieval history is that by the twelfth century, the review and hence the study probably suggest that monasteries evolved a more specialised structure in the period. Monks specialised in hospitality for guests- abbots moved out of the general refectory, out of the general monastery into their own quarters. The structure of the society is both specialising and complicating.

In this sense, we see and I do not know whether the author intended or would endorse this view but I think something interesting might have happened here. Traditionally we see the Church opposing the development of a market. However if we agree with Adam Smith that part of the story of economic development is the story of increased specialisation- the transition that turns twenty people making nails in a community into a factory where every man and woman makes the bit of the nail that they are best equipped by skill and experience to make. If we believe that, then in my view, what Julia Kerr's work shows is that monasteries are part of this longer story towards specialisation and the complication of structure and hierarchy that are the hallmarks of a modern economy.

September 21, 2009

Endless Lists of Ancient Names

Plenty of people who read this blog will have struggled through the parts of the Bible or Homer that just list page after page of names. Whether they are place names or the endless series of begats it is often difficult not to be incredibly frustrated by an author who wilfully seems to want to tell us that Macedemus fell in this fight without telling us anything else about him or her!

A rather interesting article in the Bryn Mawr Book Review journal reviews a book that attempts to get to the bottom of these lists and why the poets included them. Some of the suggestions are ingenious and leave you impressed by the skill that poets like Homer and Virgil demonstrated. For example both of the above poets say at one point in their poem that a group of soldiers scatttered- from them on for a page, the names of those soldiers are literally scattered through the text in irregular ways without pattern. They use names to slow the tempo, to demonstrate the running forwards of time or to give a context to vast numbers. Catalogues can also deliver clues- when Ascanius son of Aeneas is introduced by Virgil, his placed between two dense lists one of the Trojans (of whom in a way he is the last), the second of the Latins (whom in a sense he will give a foundation to).

The artistry of ancient poetry is something I've been aware of ever since a Greek teacher at school pointed out to me that Homer's line that tells you that Nausicaa is taking Odysseus home to her palace sounds like a carriage running along a street. The beauty of the rhythm of Homer or the terseness of Tacitus is something that you cannot appreciate in modern translation as much as in the original and I suspect these catalogues like 'Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester' sounded better in their native tongue than in translation. As a consequence we ought to be more charitable to translated works, particularly in languages we shall never hear again, things that seem ugly to us might not have been to them, things that seem meaningless to us might not have been to them. Perhaps I should give those begats another chance.

September 20, 2009

The Merchant of Venice, the Law of Equity and the Law of England


The Merchant of Venice is often known as Shakespeare's anti-semitic play, in truth while anti-semtism is one issue in the play, it is not the only one. A very contemporary issue relates to law and that is what I want to concentrate on today. Amongst the most famous scenes in the play concerns a drama in court, where Portia disguised as a young man, defends Antonio the merchant. Her mission there is to obtain acquittal for him as he has become bound to Shylock the moneylender for funds. Antonio was unable to pay Shylock on the stated day and Shylock claimed his pound of flesh, as stipulated in his contract, from Antonio. Portia speaks to Shylock attempting to persuade him that he should remember the 'quality of mercy' and relax his judgement on Antonio, especially as the latter is now able to repay the debt. Shylock refuses and Portia offers him the chance to take up his fee but with one proviso: he must take a pound of flesh and only so much- should he take more by one whit then he will be punished for assault and die, should he take any blood then he will be punished for assault and die. Shylock unable to do so (obviously) in despair relinquishes the right to extract his fee: the court then prosecutes him for an onerous contract and Antonio is freed, as is Portia to marry Antonio's young friend Bassanio.

Shakespeare was aware of contemporary issues and his scene taps into debates that had been ongoing in English law since the 1530s and were to continue in the 1610s, 1620s and notably in the English Civil War. In England, where all law was and is royal (a point James I made to Chief Justice Coke by reminding him that he James might at any time come to a court and take his seat as a judge), the crown allowed two methods of prosecuting legal cases. The first was through the common law courts- these prosecuted the law according to the common law. The common law was made up of precedent and statute- some of which like Magna Carta was impressively antique by 1600, some of which like Henry VIII's statute of uses which regulated wills were more modern. As opposed to that jurisdiction there was the court of Chancery presided over by the Lord Chancellor and Chancery judges where judgements were made on the basis of equity, of what appeared just in the conscience of the Chancellor to dispose in a particular case. On the one hand you had a system of courts of law, on the other you had a court of equity- a court of common right and one of the most notable themes in English legal history was the conflict between the two.

English law recognised the centrality of contract- its view, like current English law, was that all who signed a contract were capable of doing so, if not directly incapable (ie not mentally competent). In Chancery the Chancellor and his staff were able to take a more relaxed view of contract: Sir Francis Bacon was one among many who believed that Chancery could stop creditors enforcing ridiculous conditions upon debtors. This provoked a great deal of hostility- common lawyers from George St Germain in Henry VIII's reign to Sir Edward Coke (Lord Chief Justice 1613-16) in James I's reign blasted Chancery. Likewise on the other side men like Sir Anthony Benn, Recorder of London, argued that the court of chancery should exist. For Benn its existance was based upon the fact that the laws of equity or justice were prior to the rule of law- that justice as he argued it came before Magna Carta. Sir Robert Filmer went further suggesting that Chancery encapsulated and reinforced the prerogative of the King. Ultimately to caricature we have two concepts of law here: the first procedure, precedent and statute based, the second equity and royally based.

The speech made by Portia at Antonio's trial clearly binds into these legal languages: Shakespeare appeals to the language of equity through Portia when he contrasts the brute precedent of the law against the mercy of Kings which stands above their sceptre, Francis Bacon would have eagerly concurred. Likewise there is something ridiculous about Shylock's charge- a debt results in Antonio being forced to sacrafice a pound of flesh and yet given the strict nature of English common law, though the example is caricature (no judge would have allowed it), it is hard hitting accurate caricature. Portia may succeed in manipulating Shylock's bond but had it said a pound roughly of flesh and blood then the lady lawyer would have failed. What Shakespeare is pointing to here is the inequity of a system which takes contract to be inviolate no matter what, his argument in the scene is for equity- either on behalf of the plaintiff (Portia is urging Shylock to relinquish his cause) or as Shakespeare shows us a plaintiff who would not relinquish his cause, a further extra legal authority to enforce equity. The laws of Venice, like those of England, in the case of Antonio versus Shylock are inadequate: equity rather than process ought to triumph and it is only because of chance and a badly written clause that it fails.

Portia wins her case- the discussion between Chancery and Common law was to last though longer than any single scene in any play.