January 28, 2011

Parliament

I've been rereading Maddicott's discussion of Medieval Parliamentary history. Its a very interesting book but one aspect interests me. What do you mean by the word Parliament? Arguing with a friend at work about Maddicott's overall thesis- that Parliament dates back to the 10th Century- I realised that we were arguing about very different things. He believed that Parliament was connected to representation and therefore dated its formation to the first elections (probably 1254). I connected Parliament to its function- so who cares when it was elected first- its the fact that a claimed representative starts taking decisions and becomes key to the royal governance of the Kingdom. We can date that far earlier: the Abbott of Bedford said in 1140 that no King could ammend the laws beyond his own lifetime without the consent of some council. I think that council was a Parliament because its functions, as Maddicott argues, are continuous with the functions of the Parliament that emerges in the 14th Century. Its an interesting debate and reveals how much people can agree about narratives whilst disagreeing about what they mean and are: the definition of the word Parliament might not matter much, but take that disagreement to other issues and it could easily matter a lot.

The other thing my argument this morning illustrated was how difficult a single language is at capturing an evolutionary reality. Take the French revolution: its easy to say that before 1789 you have a monarchy, post 1793 you don't- why? Because the King is dead and his heir in exile. Its not as easy to discuss when something became a Parliament. The first law making powers are very early, the selection of successors is very early. Kings are making promises to Parliament as early as 1014 with Ethelred. On the other hand the Commons only separated from the Lords in 1311. Parliamentary privilege was only constructed in 1526. Democratic elections involving women only happened in 1928. So you have an argument for suggesting that we have had a Parliament since 924 with Maddicott, or that you've have had a Parliament since 1928! You pays your money and takes your choice to some extent: but the problem is one embedded in our own historical language. We have a blunt instrument to describe the past which cannot capture its subtlety.

6 comments:

goodbanker said...

This links to our previous exchange of comments about comparative history and abstraction: if it's difficult to agree on what is meant by "Parliament", because - to different people - it conjures up quite different concepts across different ages and cultures, then, as you point out, it's not even purely abstract concepts that we struggle with in writing accurate history.

For what it's worth, when I read your third and fourth sentences, and before going on to read the rest of your post, my immediate thoughts were: 1. isn't it Iceland that claims to have the oldest Parliament (the "Althing") - though googling that, I see it may only go back to 930AD? 2. even before that there were public assemblies, which I'd always thought of as proto-Parliaments. For instance, archeologists found evidence of a ?C7th wooden structure at Yeavering, which looked like a part of a Roman amphitheatre. For a long time, this puzzled historians - why would Northumbrians build a structure that looked like that - and why there? I remember archeologist Martin Biddle describing at a lecture his eureka moment when he made the connection that London's Guildhall is built on the site of the Roman amphitheatre in London: Biddle postulated that after the Romans left, amphitheatres were generally reused as public assembly points (and this is why the Yeavering structure looked the way it did - to the Anglo-Saxons, this is what public assemblies looked like!).

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker- fascinating point on the structures- I'd not thought of that before but it makes perfect sense.

Yes I agree with your first point- I wrote this because I was thinking of the comparative history agenda because of our earlier discussion.

James Higham said...

Tiberius, where do you place the Witan in this scenario?

James Wilson said...

It's a slight diversion, but I have an article on the Chaytor expenses due to be published at the end of next week, and have become involved in a debate with a couple of colleagues on one tangental point. The Court of Appeal said that the greatest example of the importance of free speech in Parliament, guaranteed by art 9 of the 1689 Bill of Rights, was Amery's speech imploring Chamberlain to go in 1940. Colleague is dismissive of this pointing out that many PMs have received criticism during wartime, but I'm not so cynical - not many wars have threatened national survival, at least on the scale of 1940. Just wondered if you had any different offerings having surveyed Parliament's history recently.

Gracchi said...

James- the witan is the earliest assembly that Maddicott describes which developed into the Parliament. The evidence suggests it was an important place for the nobles of the Kingdom to decide their agenda. Mostly it advised on matters of war and peace, law and the succession. Also an arena for publically displaying a royal decision- eg a trial.

JW: I am sure that's the greatest modern example of the freedom of speech in Parliament. Its a very ancient idea see for example Haxey http://home.freeuk.net/don-aitken/ast/h4.html#105. I think the thing with teh Amery case is that that is a case in a climate where freedom of speech was seen as a value: free counsel is seen as a value in the past but freedom of speech not always. So Elizabeth arrested MPs- sending Sir Peter Wentworth and Thomas Norton to the Tower from memory.

James Wilson said...

Cheers for that. One other thing about Amery I think is that it was such a contradistinction from Britain's enemy of the day. Tragically his oldest son was at the very moment in enemy territory and was executed for treason after the war ...