Does morality have an effect?

I’ve just started turning my thesis into a book on Carolingian masculinity and morality and in the introduction face again answering some of the objections I faced to my work. I think I’ve got a reasonable argument for why it makes sense to study masculinity, but in discussing why it makes sense to study morality, there is one big problem. Did all the vast amount of Carolingian moral texts (sometimes it seems that the Franks, like A.P Herbert’s English, never did anything except for a moral reason) actually make a blind bit of difference?

This is only secondarily a problem about the scarcity of early medieval sources (or even about texts and realities). It’s really a problem about another gap: between attitudes and actions. How do you assess (even today) the views of a society (or a group within society) on a particular moral norm? One take on this is that actions speak louder than words. So you look at whether there’s adherence to a moral norm. The problem is, does adherence necessarily correlate with attitudes? As one interesting example, if you judged by abortion rates, the people in the US are far more positive towards abortion than in the Netherlands. Similarly, you might conclude from the higher US murder rates that murder is taken less seriously there. As this shows, even if you can get accurate statistics on behaviour (and my examples are some of the relatively few acts concerning sex or violence where you can), the interpretation of them is tricky. Given the complete lack of statistical data from the early Middle Ages, adherence doesn’t look very helpful as a measure of the impact of moral norms.

What does legislation on a particular moral topic tell us about wider views on it? It’s perfectly possible to have a wide gap between the legislation passed and majority views, even in democratic societies: for example, capital punishment in Britain was abolished by MPs on a free vote long before public opinion as whole was opposed to it. In the case of early medieval law-making, carried out by the king with the supposed consensus of the ruling elite, it does seem reasonable to assume that the political class as a whole accept the moral norms conveyed, at least nominally. A trickier question is how much emphasis should be put on enforcement of legislation. There’s an argument that a lot of early medieval legislation is in fact largely symbolic (or in the term that’s preferred ‘programmatic’); it doesn’t make much practical difference. But increasingly, I can’t help feeling that a lot of modern legislation is mainly symbolic as well: from Section 28 of the Local Government Act via the Dangerous Dogs Act to all the tinkering round with Criminal Justice Acts. That doesn’t mean that people don’t feel strongly about such matters. On the contrary, much of this kind of legislation is passed precisely because people are very concerned about a moral issue (such as the growing acceptability of homosexuality) but there’s no practical way to stop particular behaviour/changes. Similarly, repeated legislation tends to be a sign of a feeling that ‘something must be done’: it doesn’t necessarily correlate with the actual scale of the problem. (For example, violent crime in the UK has actually been decreasing since the mid-1990s, but that doesn’t stop constant demands for more laws and more determined enforcement of them). There’s also the problem that the amount of legislation (or discussion) on a particular moral issue doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual importance of the issue: as has become notorious, there was far more parliamentary time discussing and legislation on banning hunting with dogs than on starting the Iraq war.

How else might you find out about moral attitudes? Nowadays you can use opinion polls, but aside from issues about leading questions and the unwillingness to tell the truth, that’s not much help for most of historical research. The other main way is by listening to what people say: either at a micro-level or via reflections of ‘popular opinion’ such as the mass media. There are always issues here: is what you hear representative, how much are people saying what they think they ought to say rather than what they really think, etc? Discourse of this kind, however, does seem to me a reasonable way of assessing attitudes, because so often the way the debate is framed is crucial. (It’s extremely difficult, for example, to talk positively about homosexuality if you start from a term like ‘sodomite’, just as the unofficial renaming of the UK community charge as the ‘poll tax’ and US inheritance taxes as ‘death taxes’ were politically devastating moves).

So in my assessment of how seriously moral norms were taken I’ve tended to focus on discourses and also collective legislation. I’ve paid less attention to evidence on adherence to or enforcement of norms and I haven’t assumed that repeated legislation is always a sign of ineffectiveness. These are all, as I hope I’ve shown, logical decisions. But taken together, I now find myself worrying: am I putting my thumb on the scales? Have I rigged my criteria so I’m bound to find that early medieval noblemen took moral norms seriously?

If I look at my underlying assumptions, I think I do presume generally that people normally pay attention to ‘rules’ (notice, this is not the same necessarily as obeying them). I suspect that some other historians I know start from the assumption that of course people don’t pay any attention to rules (possibly our different views start from differences either in our personal temperaments, political outlook or religiosity). There’s no way to tell which is a more accurate assessment of human nature. So, to approach the problem from a different angle, what would it take to persuade me that particular moral norms weren’t seen as important by laypeople? (If there isn’t evidence that would change my mind, I’m in the realms of faith-based history, which is always suspect).

Well, in some cases, we get told that explicitly by those promoting the norms. Jonas of Orleans says that men who are told they shouldn’t sleep with their pregnant wives should not laugh at the suggestion. And that demand only turns up in one council in the Carolingian period (one at which Jonas was particularly influential). So that moral precept can certainly be marked down as non-normative. Otherwise, I think you can only attempt to judge whether there seem to be wide-scale and blatant disregarding of moral demands. I don’t think, for example, that you can see the church’s ban on tournaments as taken at all seriously by laymen; not only do they carry on with them, there’s no attempt to excuse them. However, if you compare some of the eleventh century marriage disputes that Georges Duby looks at in ‘The knight, the lady and the priest’ and Carolingian period ones, there does seem to me a difference. There are relatively few ninth-century cases where the church’s rules on marriage and divorce are simply ignored (as happens e.g. with the Capetian kings Robert the Pious and Philip I). Instead, what you see is attempts to bend the rules. The aims are the same – to get a desired marriage, to get out of one no longer desired, but the tactics are different. It seems to me that you can therefore say that moral norms about indissoluble marriage are more important to Carolingian noblemen than later on. On the other hand, when ninth-century Catalonian counts are marrying their first cousins, you have to say that they at least don’t care two hoots about 100 years of incest regulations. In the end, the evidence on most moral topics isn’t clear-cut. All I can do is try and set out my assumptions and data reasonably clearly; at least that way someone with a different view can see my justification for my conclusions, even if they’re not convinced by it.


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