Political propaganda: the zero-sum “fairness” technique

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is well-known for claiming that conservatives use a wider range of moral foundations in political thought than left-wingers. But the more I see of recent rightwing politics, especially in the UK, the more I think that much of their success rests on a distorted version of one moral foundation: “fairness”. A sense of fairness seems to be near universal: it’s been observed in chimpanzees for example. And it’s probably evolutionarily necessary for any social group to avoid too many freeloaders (people who take resources without contributing them). But such basic principles of fairness can be manipulated to create a very cruel society.

The zero-sum fairness argument, as used by right-wing politicians, works like this. We only have a fixed sum of resources (money, housing, jobs etc).  If undeserving group B get these resources there isn’t enough for deserving group A. This is an argument made both in opposition: “you’re not getting help because the government is spending too much money on foreign aid” and in government: “we have to crack down on disability benefit fraud in order to have enough money to help people who are really disabled.” And it’s a very successful argument.

It works, I think, because it rests on several wrong but intuitive beliefs and cognitive biases. Firstly, that the overall level of government spending is unalterable. We’re used to having fixed budgets in our own lives, so it’s easy to forget both that governments can raise money in other ways, and that we ourselves might borrow to obtain something that will be an investment (an education, a house, etc).

The second cognitive error this argument uses is the actor-observer bias. We know our own motives, but we judge other people on their actions. What this means, for example, is that we know that we deserve unemployment benefit, because we really want to work, but that other person down the street is lazy and just wants to sit around doing nothing. We only need help to feed our children because of unforeseen events; that mother deliberately chose to have another child to get welfare.

This bias very easily combines with in-group bias. We know the people in our group and so we know they’re deserving; those other people whom we don’t know aren’t so deserving. The tendency to think that “they” aren’t deserving is made even stronger by the availability bias: we’re very much affected by what comes most easily to mind. So if we read lurid newspaper stories about how a family of immigrants has got thousands of pounds in housing benefits or how millions of pounds has been spent to save a species of butterfly, it’s such rare cases we’re likely to remember rather than the fact that they are rare. Similarly, the one person we know who’s cheating the benefit system is likely to be far more memorable than the hundreds of people we know who aren’t. (In fact, people in most countries tend to be wildly inaccurate about their country’s actual social statistics).

In one way this is nothing new: when it comes to jobs, for example, this is essentially the lump of labour fallacy as used in anti-immigration arguments: the reason there aren’t enough jobs for “good” people is that undeserving immigrants have taken them. And in Britain there’s been a division of the poor into the deserving and undeserving since at least Elizabethan times. But Elizabethan or Victorian divisions of people into the deserving and undeserving were predominantly made by the middle classes in deciding who among the poor ought to be given support.

What seems newer to me politically is right-wing politicians using zero-sum fairness to get the poor and less educated to vote for them, rather than more left-wing candidates. Arlie Hochshild, for example, talks about how many white people in southern states see others as “cutting in line”, getting ahead of them in the wait for prosperity via the unfair preferences of politicians such as Barack Obama. As a result, such people vote for Republicans, even though they are harmed by Republican policies.

It’s easy to see this simply as due to the exploitation of racial divides in the US. But the same arguments have been used in the UK for a number of years, without necessarily any racial angle to it. The archetypal scrounger in the UK, for example, isn’t black, but white (although there may be regional biases, such as making them Scouse).  Notoriously, back in 1992, Peter Lilley claimed that teenage women got pregnant just to get a council house, a stereotype that’s still current today.

So people who are influenced by zero-sum fairness arguments aren’t necessarily doing so because they’re racist. Nor are they necessarily just spiteful, willing to suffer themselves in order to make sure others don’t get help. If you have a disability that means that you can’t work, for example, it may be quite reasonable to think that disability benefits should be a higher priority for government spending than benefits for healthy unemployed people. An employed person without a disability might also agree that those who aren’t healthy enough to work should be given priority in support over those who can work. Setting spending priorities is part of a government’s role.

But once this is put into a zero-sum framework, it becomes a way of pitting the unemployed against people with disabilities. We have to cut your disability benefits because of the money we’re spending on lazy people who don’t want to find jobs. We can’t help you when you’re unemployed because the cost of disability benefits is out of control. It’s someone else’s fault that you’re suffering, not government choices.

The same technique is repeated over and over again, setting one group against another, and it’s very successful. I’ve heard a homeless seller of the Big Issue complaining about how the government shouldn’t be spending money on overseas aid, for example. And the Brexit campaign relied heavily and successfully on this claim that money sent to the EU should instead be used on the NHS. (The fact that this claim was promptly dropped after the referendum, says all you need to know about the sincerity of right-wing politicians).

How can left-wing politicians counter this potent argument? I’m not sure I know good answers, but I think both the zero-sum aspect and the “fairness” side needs to be countered. One way may be to tackle the zero-sum point, for example, by saying that a shortage of housing isn’t due to immigrants, but to the government’s failure to build more houses. But part of the problem is that the deserving/undeserving divide can make voters unwilling to support more spending generally. What’s the point of building more houses if we’re letting in “too many” immigrants: they’ll just take all the new houses?

So I think we also probably need more effective use of (accurate) graphics to display statistics. Claims about the undeserving often rely on headline-grabbing large numbers, which are actually either outliers or small percentages of total budgets. I rather like the anti-Brexit ad by Laurence  Taylor, for example, as a means of debunking this, but I don’t know empirically how effective it is. If anyone knows more effective ways of countering this zero-sum fairness argument, it’d be very useful to hear about them in comments. Because otherwise, conservative tactics of divide and rule are likely to continue to be successful in the UK and elsewhere.

Medieval political culture 1: let a hundred flowers bloom

This is my first report on the conference I went to in Manchester in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. One of the things that struck me during the conference was how wide a range of topics could plausibly come together under that theme. Usefully, Martin Aurell, during the keynote speech, described political culture as being about the ‘atmosphere of power’, not just political structures and institutions, but how politics was performed. Katy Dutton* had already pointed out one small example: how between 1090-1150 in Anjou royal and comital acts moved away from the king or count’s children acting as co-signers or consenters. Katy argued that the ending of this tradition of including children, which he saw as an assurance of continuity, wasn’t just as bureaucratic change, but affected the experience of ruling and being ruled.

Martin’s main focus was on the turbulent events of 1773-1774, when several of Henry II’s sons revolted against him. Could descriptions of these events by chroniclers be seen as propaganda or is that an anachronistic term? Although Jürgen Habermas claims that no political space existed before the emergence of the printing press, Jacques Le Goff argued for ‘informal propaganda’ in the Middle Ages, and Martin showed that the chroniclers’ accounts did look like propaganda.

One point that wasn’t raised in the paper or in questions afterwards is whether propaganda needs to be contemporaneous. Should the chroniclers’ work be seen more as after the fact justifications, a political genre that’s very familiar after the Iraq War? However, there’s surely an argument that chroniclers may be writing down arguments that were already circulating in 1173-74, i.e.  that what we have is fossilized propaganda.

henry_ii_to_henry_iii_f_9r

Matthew Paris’ picture of kings from Henry II to Henry III

Martin’s interest was anthropological, looking not at possible structural reasons for the revolt, such as magnates’ reaction to the reinforcement of royal administration, but at what the chronicles themselves talked about, focusing on a series of images. Some are expected: the revolot of sons against their father as being the insanity of a revolt “against nature”; Eleanor of Aquitaine refusing to submit to her husband as she should. But there were also other narratives possible, such as justifications of Henry the Younger attacking the “avaricious” Henry II, or stories about the harmful effects of previous transgressions by the Angevin family (for example the claim that Eleanor had fornicated with Geoffrey of Anjou, before marrying Geoffrey’s son Henry). In the same way, as well as familiar colonial narratives contrasting civilised English to barbarous and bloodthirsty Scots and Welsh, there are positive depictions of Welsh warriors fighting on the “right” side. And while some chroniclers invoked the effect of the murdered Christian saint Thomas Becket on events, Gerald of Wales quoted Merlin’s pagan prophecies.

These varied perspectives support the idea of chronicles as propaganda, manipulating significant images (often Biblically-inspired) to support a particular side in the conflict. Martin’s final point was about the key role of fidelity as a value in this propaganda. The stress in the sources was on personal bonds of faith and fidelity, not on more abstract ideas of kingship or monarchy. To the twelfth and thirteenth-century chroniclers at least, the political was still personal.

After Martin’s paper we had Stephen Church on another aspect of Henry II’s reign. Stephen was focusing tightly on one small fragment of political culture: Prince John being called “dominus Hiberni” in charters from 1185. Stephen was arguing against Rees Davies, among others, who had seen this title as some distinctive form of dominion. Stephen argued from other examples that in fact it was the normal title of a king who had not yet been formally crowned.

From this very focused case-study, we went to a much broader view, by Thomas Foerster on “Plantagenet and European traditions of gift exchange in the late twelfth century”. Thomas argued for two different traditions, which he saw colliding in 1198, during the Third Crusade, when Richard I and King Tancred of Sicily made peace. On the first day, Tancred gave Richard rich gifts and would accept only the token countergift of a little ring. On the second day, however, Richard gave King Arthur’s sword to Tancred.

Thomas saw Tancred as acting within a Mediterranean/Byzantine tradition of lavish gift-giving, emphasising the incomparable wealth of the ruler. In contrast, English sources of the period have less to say on gift-giving and often regard it negatively as a sign of greed and corruption. (Nevertheless, they show Richard triumphing over Tancred in the gift-giving via a more culturally prestigious gift; the Sicilian sources don’t mention Arthur’s sword).

In questions, some of us raised the chronology of this proposed northern/southern European split (Thomas wondered if it was linked to Tim Reuter’s butter/olive oil line). There’s certainly an Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian tradition of rulers giving lavish gifts. Thomas thought the change came around 1100, when there was new emphasis on the humility of kings in gift-giving in more northern sources, (which he linked to chivalry)and less of an emphasis on the king standing out from all others. If Thomas is right about this pattern, it’s a useful example of how a specifically political culture can be influenced by wider cultural changes, such as the rise of chivalry.

After lunch, we had a session on gender history. I argued that countesses in the tenth century were able to carry out actions that they hadn’t been able to under the Carolingians (developing an argument I first made on this blog a number of years ago). I also in passing coined what became one of the key phrases in the conference, when in discussing the origins of the term “political culture”, when I referred to it as the “squidgy bits” in-between the normal nuts and bolts of political systems.

Amy Livingstone, meanwhile, talked about the twelfth-century Breton countess Ermengarde (wife of Alan IV), arguing that neither she nor twelfth-century Brittany was as marginal as conventionally thought. Amy is writing a biography of Ermengarde, who was noted for her religious patronage. In one sense her research might be seen as part of mainstream political history, but I think there are good reasons for including her research in a study of political culture. Ermengarde’s political role, like those of many “lordly women” has been underestimated by earlier research because of their underlying assumptions about medieval political culture. Part of the deliberate study of political culture should be to shine a spotlight on cultural assumptions made by previous generations of scholars.

The final session of the day looked at crusading culture. Natasha Hodgson talked about clerical masculinity on the First Crusade. There’s been a lot of recent interest in Crusade masculinity, but Natasha saw previous studies as focusing on investigating a single model of the ideal crusader. In contrast, Natasha was arguing for a variety of masculine models and using the example of Arnulf of Chocques, briefly the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Arnulf was a controversial figure, the son of a Flemish priest who rose because of his scholarship and preaching ability, but also his relationship to powerful individuals such as Odo of Bayeux, whose wealth he inherited. Natasha pointed out how often writers contrasted Arnulf with other men, implicitly setting up a variety of standards of masculinity. For example, in a debate in 1099 between Arnulf and Tancred, Arnulf stressed his own role in the success of the crusade and complained about Tancred despoiling the Temple of Solomon. Tancred in response said that as a mere soldier he lacked Arnulf’s eloquence: Arnulf’s strength was in his tongue, like a scorpion.

Natasha’s point about the opportunities for social mobility offered by the crusades was one that hadn’t occurred to me before, but her paper indirectly raised wider questions about the nature of ‘political culture’. Clearly there was politics going on within the Crusade armies themselves and in the Crusader States, but how does that relate to wider European political culture? And how does a model of political culture originally developed in the era of nation states deal with political entities such as the papacy?

The final paper of the day was by Jamie Doherty on “The Holy Land in the charters of the twelfth-century counts of Champagne”. There’s been increasing interest in using charters to look at political culture, because they potentially allow us to get nearer the perspective of individual rulers than narrative sources normally allow. Jamie was interested in how crusading could be used to gain cultural capital, and get a laugh for a reference to “the itinerant boasting campaign of William of Aquitaine after 1101”.

Jamie’s paper focused on two counts of Champagne, Hugh of Troyes and Henry the Liberal, who both led independent crusades (i.e. not connected to the main numbered ones). Despite issues about scribal versus issuer intent, Jamie argued that you can sometimes see the counts “performing crusader status”, e.g. when it’s explicitly mentioned that Hugh is confirming a number of acts before going on crusade, or Henry publicly states that he’ll deal with a dispute in Dijon when he returns from crusade.

This crusade performance may have spread lower down the social scale: twice in Hugh’s witness lists there’s a witness called “Bovo of Holy Sepulchre”. Jamie thought that it was too early for him to be a settler in the East, but that instead Bovo may have sworn himself to the Holy Sepulchre and continued to use that as an identification. In the comments afterwards, Charlie Rozier pointed out the key role of reputation in political culture; it would be interesting to consider if there are parallels or differences between how medieval and modern political figures create such reputations.

As my title suggests, I’m not sure there was a particular common thread connecting all the papers together, even though they all struck me as related to political culture. But as a taster of different ways you might approach medieval political culture, I certainly found it valuable.

* Update (10/9/16): I’ve been reminded that it was Katy Dutton who talked about witnessing by children, not Martin Aurell, so have corrected this.

 

 

 

The creation of Carolingian homosociality

I’ve recently been thinking about masculinity again and was reading with interest Rachel Moss’ discussions of her new project on medieval homosociality. Rachel states:

I will argue that homosociality was a cultural mindset that, by privileging bonds between men, made it possible to create networks of socially-codified relationships that supported hegemonic norms and facilitated the structuring of patriarchy.

I also discussed the concept briefly with her on Twitter, when she was explaining that she saw homosociality as “a set of socio-cultural mechanisms of which socialisation is an element”.

Rachel works on the late medieval period, so most of the key sources she used in her previous book on fatherhood aren’t available for early medievalists or only in very small quantities: conduct literature written by the laity, gentry letters and chivalric romances. In fact there’s probably only one Carolingian status group about whose socialisation and male bonding we know in detail; that’s monks, whose homosociality is likely to be considerably different from that of other men.

What I started thinking about instead is what type of consciously-created homosocial  structures exist in the premodern West (and in the Carolingian period specifically) and when and why they are created. I’m focusing on deliberately-created structures because there’s one immediate difference between the twenty-first century West and most earlier periods. Both work and education are now substantially less sex-segregated than they used to be. Educating boys and girls together (past their early years) isn’t the historic norm and while officially mixed-sex working places have existed, they’ve normally been less common than single-sex ones, from the weaving shed to the regiment. So the question becomes why homosociality in the premodern world wasn’t just left to arise naturally, as a by-product of such segregation. Why was it made to happen? (I realise that you can have socio-cultural mechanisms for homosociality that arise incidentally from institutions/cultural patterns created for other ends, but “mechanism” does imply at least some purpose).

These are my four suggestions of where and why such (male) homosocial structures were created:

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The skin and bones of history

Chris Wickham
Chris Wickham a number of years pre-retirement

Last month I was at a conference on political culture in the earlier Middle Ages. I’ll talk about that in future posts, but for now I want to think about it in combination with another event I went to recently: a celebration of Chris Wickham’s work to mark his retirement. Rachel Moss has written appreciatively  of Chris as a colleague; the short papers on the day had much to say about different aspects of his research. One recurrent theme was Chris’ determination to get inside national historiographies and understand them fully, rather than merely cherry-pick from them. (His review-article, Marx, Sherlock Holmes and Late Roman Culture got particular mention).

I want to talk about the most important insight I got from Chris’ work, especially from Framing the Early Middle Ages. This was his use of explicit models and ideal types to pin down specific components of what we are trying to compare over time and space. Such a move may be seen as reductionist or too schematic, but it’s a powerful tool if well-used. Several of my more recent projects have started from this idea of comparing underlying structures, even if they’ve been on topics a long way from Chris’ own interests.

Chris’ focus has been on underlying social and economic structures, what you might call the bones of history. A review of The Inheritance of Rome complained it didn’t have enough about kings in it. It was quite a mental stretch to go from that to the conference that Katy Dutton organised in Manchester on “Political Culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins”. That was full of kings, as well as dukes, counts and countesses and a surprising number of archdeacons. Ever since I read Mayke de Jong’s Penitential State I’ve become interested in Carolingian political culture, because Mayke emphasized its dynamic nature. Many previous studies of Carolingian ideology had focused on royal image-making as relatively untroubled process, whether it’s Charlemagne’s followers sneering at the Merovingians or Charles the Bald’s creation of an imperial image. Penitential State, in contrast, showed political tactics being contested and how metaphors and discourses allowed actions (such as deposing a king) that were unthinkable otherwise.

How does this political culture relate to the kind of structural history that Chris favours? I’m starting to see it as the skin over the bones. In the keynote speech at the Manchester conference, Martin Aurell talked about the conflicts of Henry II and his sons in 1173. Although there were important underlying economic and social issues beneath the conflict, the chroniclers discussed it largely in terms of personalities and individuals.

In the same way, the Brexit result, which inevitably haunted the conference, combined deep underlying structural issues (such as the depressed state of the economy in some regions) with important roles for spectacular personalities, such as Boris Johnson and a campaign marked by the successful use of sometimes horrifying propaganda. To understand what happened, here, as with other political events, you need skin and bones – political culture combined with socio-economic structures.

How we carry out that combination varies. Much of my historical work has tended towards the ‘skin’ side, focusing on specific cultural moments, but Chris’ work keeps on reminding me that I need to look at wider patterns as well, see how all the pieces of a society fit together. That’s the impact, often indirect but important, that he’s had on my own research.

 

The novelty of sermons

I’ve been thinking recently about moral instruction on marriage in the early centuries AD and how it was changed or not by the coming of Christianity. And it occurred to me that the sermon as a method of moral instruction is something distinctively different from the previous Roman culture. What’s new about the sermon? Essentially that it provided repeated moral instruction to a substantial non-elite audience.

It’s this combination that strikes me as distinctively new (although I’m open to correction). The Roman tradition of speechmaking (whose style influenced some preachers, such as Augustine, heavily) was centred on political speeches and those in the lawcourts: accessible to the non-elite, but not on moral topics and not repeated regularly. Wandering teachers and preachers of various religions provided moral instruction to a non-elite audience, but their itinerancy meant that only a relatively small number of faithful disciples would hear them repeatedly.

The ancient philosophical tradition of moral teaching, meanwhile, was predominantly aimed at a small elite (although Stoicism was more of a popular philosophy), who gained repeated instruction as a pupil of the philosopher. The nearest equivalent to the Christian sermon and presumably its inspiration was the Jewish homiletic tradition of the derasha, a vernacular explanation and exposition on a passage of Scripture.

The difference between the derasha and the sermon that I’m interested in is the changing size of the relative audiences. While Jewish communities were greatly disrupted after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Christianity continued to spread and flourish throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with more and more churches and parishes appearing at which the priest was expected to give a sermon or homily every week. Churchmen may have complained about the infrequency with which many of their flock attended church, but I think that the sermon still provided a more substantial platform for moral outreach than had previously available in the classical world.

Big History and the Early Middle Ages

In December 2015, I went off to the LSE and heard Ian Morris give the first of his public lectures as the  Philippe Romain Chair in History and International Affairs. In this one, he was looking for a grand unified field theory of history and laid out what he considered the basics of a “Theory of Everything” which covered the last 20,000 years of human history. He started by making an important point: he sees every historian as having a Theory of Everything, even if they don’t make it explicit and even if that theory is that everything is contingent. In response to that, I want to begin sketching out some of my theories of everything. But I also want to look at how the early Middle Ages does or doesn’t fit into Ian’s own Theory of Everything.

After an overview of the historiography of a theory of everything, starting from the eighteenth century), Ian sketched the outline of the current leading contender for such a theory, at least in the English-speaking world. The basis of this is evolutionary thinking, looking at what he called the 100,000 year question: how did we get from very few modern humans with a minimal standard of living and low life expectancy 100,000 years ago to the modern world?

Ian also talked about the three key components of such a theory: biology (humans as animals), culture and cultural evolution, and geography. In terms of evolutionary big history, Ian claims, what we see as an overall picture is a move from foraging to cultivating, farming villages, and then several different levels of more complex states. The speed of the movement through this sequence varies between regions of the worlds according to environmental conditions and there are also regions which move to herding rather than cultivating, but the broad patterns are quite similar. In many ways this part of the talk sounded like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, with geography essentially being destiny. However Ian’s interested in the future, as well as the distant past, so he pointed out that “time’s arrow flies diagonally”. In other words, as bigger units expand, they cut off indigenous paths of development in the societies they come into contact with, such as with the Old World invasions of the New World or with industrialisation nowadays.

In the long run, though, Ian sees a very smooth process of increasing scale; he talks of history being “largely an endless pursuit of energy” and his new book, based on that thesis, is called Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. In other words, his Theory of Everything is not just evolutionary, but materialist and broadly teleological. He did point out, however, that despite the long-run smoothness in the short run there could be catastrophic periods (and didn’t forget to quote Keynes on the fact that in the long run we’re all dead).

The difficulty here is what counts as the short run, when you’re talking about either 100,000 years or at least 20,000 years, as his later talks do. But I’m going to look at western Europe in the early Middle Ages (say 500-1000 CE) and in the 20,000 year period, I’d say that isn’t just a momentary blip.

Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages is, as global historians repeatedly point out, a backwater. The early medieval West is doubly so, which is really my point. There’s a change in the period from the Roman Empire to considerably simpler forms of societies and economies. If you’re Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome you see this as the “end of civilization”, whereas Chris Wickham sees more opportunities for free peasants.  But regardless of whether you see this as positive or negative, the fact of the change is clear, and that’s a problem for Ian’s theories. Time’s arrow is flying backwards in his terms and no-one seems particularly interested in getting it to fly the “correct” way, towards the more complex society that has been lost. What’s more, when more complex societies do develop in the West in the Central Middle Ages, they’re not “Roman” in socio-economic terms, and they’re not very Roman culturally.

There’s an obvious contrast here with the Chinese empire, which also fell apart periodically in the first millennium CE. Large and complex premodern societies can be brittle and prone to collapse: we know that. But the Chinese state was repeatedly recreated; after Justinian no-one seriously tried to revive the western Roman empire.

One obvious response is to say that they were factors that meant that the Roman empire couldn’t be revived, such as a loss of key territories, population decline (due to climate change or disease) or the loss of substantial technological knowledge. It’s not clear to me, however, that any of these suggestions is an adequate explanation. In terms of territory, the West’s big loss was North Africa and its grain supply, but to compensate that, there were substantial new areas of farmland that became available in Germany for any would-be Roman emperor. And population loss and climate change also probably happened in China as well.

Technology loss seems at first sight more plausible. But there weren’t actually many technologies that were completely lost, long-term, to the whole of the post-Roman West. Wheel-made pottery and glass may have vanished from Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, but they could be re-imported from Gaul at a later date. Concrete probably was lost entirely, but the metalwork skills of the early Middle Ages remained substantial. What changed most drastically was the scale of production, rather than the specific technologies used. Bryan Ward-Perkins argues that in terms of the range and quality of material goods available, the Roman empire was comparable to thirteen or fifteenth-century Europe (Fall of Rome, p. 100), i.e. one that was still premodern.

It’s possible that there’s some other factor that I haven’t considered which explains why the Roman empire (or something akin to it) couldn’t be revived. But that doesn’t explain why no-one seriously tried to revive it. Charlemagne and the Carolingians are emblematic here. They certainly tried to revive some aspects of Roman culture, such as more classical Latin. But what is also interesting is what they didn’t try and revive. There was no royal attempt to recover and apply Roman law, even though there was a considerable amount of it still available in manuscript form. Nor did anyone try and recreate the Roman army, even though there were texts around, such as Vegetius’ De re militari that might have allowed this.

The list of opportunities not taken goes on. In 757, a hydraulic organ was brought to Pippin III’s court: there’s no evidence that anyone tried to reverse-engineer it. There was a lot of other technology floating around in the eighth and ninth-century Byzantine and Islamic worlds: despite their contacts with these, the Carolingians don’t seem to have been searching for it. (This contrasts with texts of canonical collections, the Benedictine Rule etc, which Charlemagne and his successors were keen to get from outside the kingdom).

All this brings me back to something that I think John Gillingham once said (though I can’t now find the specific reference), to the effect that “We needs must love the highest when we see it” is historically inaccurate. Elites could often see or know about more sophisticated forms of government and larger, more complex states without necessarily thinking they were a Good Thing. The early medieval west strikes me as an important counter-example to a Theory of Everything that is evolutionary, teleological and materialist.

One possible way round this problem is to say that the evolutionary process is very path-dependent. Once you’ve made a key decision or incurred a vital loss, there’s no way back: the early medieval state has become flightless, as it were. One possible key moment is identified by Chris Wickham as the point at which the Merovingian rulers gave up collecting taxes. But that decision is in itself hard to explain in a purely materialist framework.

I think that to get a workable Theory of Everything we have to abandon one of evolution, teleology and materialism, and funnily enough its materialism I want to abandon rather than teleology. At the 20,000 year scale I think there is evidence for humans overall wanting more complex societies rather than the simple life. It also seems to me unnecessarily drastic to throw out evolution completely. Repeated small changes that make an institution or a society more “successful” is a plausible mechanism for many historical developments.

But as Ian himself pointed out, cultural evolution is often directed and purposeful, unlike the randomness of biological evolution. That means, however, that individual cultures and subcultures can sometimes move in the “wrong” direction: individuals or groups can deliberately choose options that are not in their own material interest and that reduce, rather than increase, complexity. Whether you think of Egyptian monasticism or the Cambodian Year Zero, such acts are repeated throughout history.

Any materialist theory of everything, therefore, needs to build in an understanding of humans’ economic irrationality, both accidental (Daniel Kahneman’s Fast Thinking) and deliberate. And in particular, I think that the early Middle Ages demonstrates that a sufficient Theory of Everything needs to look quite hard at why cultural evolution sometimes leads to societies (or at least the elites leading them) coming up with the “wrong” results. Seeing culture largely as superstructure simply doesn’t work, and I’m not yet convinced by Ian’s idea of morality as dependent on material conditions. I think we need a theory of everything that looks in a rather different way at the interplay between morality and economic circumstances, even if I’m not yet certain exactly what it’s going to look like.

 

 

Bigamy and bureaucracy

NPG 4478; Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (nÈe Braddon) by William Powell Frith
Mary Elizabeth Braddon by William Powell Frith, oil on canvas, exhibited 1865

 

Over the Christmas holiday I was reading some Victorian novels: I re-read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and then I went on to another novel of hers: Aurora Floyd. This too, turned out to have bigamy as a central part of the plot. In fact, a recent academic study by Maia McAleavey, The Bigamy Plot: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian  Novel, reckons there are over 200 Victorian novels with bigamy or prospective bigamy as part of the plot.

McAleavey links the sudden appearance of this plot (which nineteenth century critics, such as Margaret Oliphant particularly associated with Braddon) to changing laws on marriage. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 specified the new formalities required to make a marriage legally binding, while the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 made divorce more readily available. McAleavey sees bigamy as a plot device which provides an evasive “quiet” alternative to adultery or divorce, allowing the author to show either an innocent victim committing the offence unknowingly or a villain knowingly flouting the law, rather than merely the seventh commandment.

I want to bring a slightly wider perspective to the question, however and ask why the bigamy plot wasn’t popular in medieval times. After all, as Sara McDougall, Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne shows, “bigamy” (in the sense of remarriage while the previous spouse was alive) was relatively common. The relatively few examples of medieval literature she finds using this plot concentrate on one single version of it: the husband who goes to war and is believed dead, but who returns either just before or after his “widow” remarries.

This story (which is as old as the Iliad) finds a real-life parallel in the sixteenth-century case of Martin Guerre. But the location of all these real-life and fictional cases is key: the spouse or supposed spouse returns “home”. These premodern plots reflect the realities of worlds before bureaucracy, where identification, recognition and acknowledgement were almost exclusively local. A would-be bigamist who moved only a day’s journey or so away could effectively reinvent themselves and change their marital circumstances. Indeed, in a world without the registration of births, marriages and deaths, proving the original person had even existed came down to sometimes fallible eye-witness statements.

In contrast, Victorian bigamy plots take place in a society where bureaucracy and faster travel make reinventing oneself via relocation increasingly difficult. It has become easier to trace people, at least those above the lowest ranks in society. Written evidence, such as passenger lists and city directories, play important roles in the novels of Braddon and others. Lady Audley fears that she cannot rely on her secluded country location to protect her from her first husband finding her. Indeed, it is no longer so secluded with the coming of the railways: she is able to go up to a London for a day’s burglary at one point.

But bureaucracy also offers new possibilities for the bigamy plot in another way, especially useful to a sensation novelist such as Braddon. Traditionally, the revelation of bigamy requires a confrontation between the first spouse and one of the second married pair or would-be married pair. The novelist has to engineer this confrontation and make it plausible that the returned spouse is believed, that the previous marriage is recognised as existing. Lady Audley’s bigamous secrets survive for longer than expected because George Talboys, her first husband, confronts her in secret and she responds by murdering him (or at least attempting to do so).

The ending of Lady Audley’s Secret also makes clear the poor planning of his bigamous marriage by Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. He confines his mad wife to his own attic, making her available to confront the would-be second Mrs Rochester.  In contrast, once Lady Audley has been diagnosed as “mad”, she is securely removed to an asylum in Belgium and thus cannot cause further harm.

Victorian bureaucracy, however, also allowed bigamy to be revealed in a different and more definite way.  Aurora Floyd’s first marriage, although it is repeatedly hinted at during much of the novel, is first made explicit in the most dramatic circumstances. Her first husband’s murdered body is found with a blood-stained document hidden in his coat: that document proves to be their marriage certificate.

A society in which every marriage, even a clandestine one, had to be officially recorded provides more scope for drama than is given by the careful weighing of evidence necessary to prove a prior marriage or betrothal revealed in medieval archives  such as the York Cause Papers. Bigamy was not a new plot device in the mid-nineteenth century, but Victorian technological and bureaucratic developments allowed many new and sensational variations on the theme.