9th Grade: Mark Twain and Renaissance Florence

Greetings,

This week we began looking at the Renaissance in Europe.  The Renaissance can be viewed as a either a reaction to, or an extension of, the feudal period that preceded it.  Whatever position one takes on that issue, no one doubts that that the Renaissance represents a new way of thinking about the world and our relationship to it.

Historians debate exactly when the Renaissance began, but most agree that the ‘Spirit of the Renaissance’ had its origin in Florence, a city in northern Italy.  Why this city, previously of no real importance, should suddenly be the epicenter of a whole new way of thinking poses a question we needed to explore.

If we look at the conditions under which cultural revolutions take place throughout history, a few general trends emerge.  For one, it appears that they generally arise in geographical and social frontiers, and not as we might expect, in the centers of power and influence.  Thus, in the Middle Ages, we see the Gothic style originate in northern France, which saw so much conflict with England and the Vikings.  On top of that, northern France had relatively less Roman influence than southern France near the Mediterranean, making them less “civilized” in the eyes of many.  But the tension between “Gallic” and “Roman” may have given them the freedom to think of things in new ways.

UnknownIn our own history Mark Twain invents American literature on what was for the time, the geographic and social frontier of America.  Today, the mythology and folklore of the “frontier” still do much to shape the American psyche. If we think of Twain’s vocabulary and compare it to say, Hawthorne’s, we see that Twain occupied a social frontier as well as a geographic one.

Notice also, for example the incredibly dynamic & spiritual  response of African-Americans to persecution from say, 1880-1964 or thereabouts.  Swing, jazz, blues, motown, soul, rock and roll — all of them basically their creations, and that hardly encompasses a final account of their contributions to American life and culture.  Perhaps their disadvantaged social position led them to think of creative ways to deal with that challenge, which helped them create such vibrant music.

Florence found itself on the geographic frontier of two more established civilizations, that of France and southern Italy.  Divided politically (as the map below indicates) northern Italy never quite had the chance to develop its own social identity.  It appears that culture arises not from comfort, but from a challenge, be that challenge physical or social.

 

 

Another common thread in cultural innovation seems to be water.  The great cultural explosions, be it in Athens, Amsterdam, London, New York, or New Orleans, all have water in common.  I don’t think this is a coincidence, something I take up much more fully in this post, which we discussed in class.  Here is a link to a post that formed part of the basis of our discussion about water and creativity.

As we delve into the Renaissance, we face many questions:

1. Inherent in the names “Middle Ages,” and “Renaissance” (which means “rebirth”) are a lot of assumptions, namely, that the Renaissance took major leaps forward for humanity after we treaded water in the “Middle Ages” after the fall of Rome.  Some historians, however, like Regine Pernoud, see the Renaissance as a step backward from what came before.  Who is right?

2. Will the new view of mankind in the Renaissance be consistent with Christianity?  Will it correct what some perceive to be a medieval over-spiritualization, or will it give humanity too much pride of place?

3. How will this new view of mankind spill over into the rest of Renaissance society?

The Renaissance emerged from the wreckage of the feudal system in the 14th century.  The old social structure did not hold, the Church was busy shooting itself in the foot, and so on.  Different ways of thinking had opportunity to emerge, and we looked at the financial innovations of the Renaissance, particularly in banking.

Many thanks,

Dave

9th Grade: Maps as Worldview

Greetings,

This week we spent time with two maps, each respective of their time, each revealing much about the societies that created it.

First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Map of the World), from the late 13th century :

 

We noted that, among other things

  • The map has very little water
  • The map is filled with animals, real or fanciful
  • Jerusalem is at the map’s center
  • The map has no actual geographical accuracy to speak of, almost on purpose

Basically the Hereford Mappa Mundi does not attempt to a map in any modern sense of the world.  It tells you nothing about physical geography.  But it does mean to orient one spiritually.  Christ sits enthroned above, the word “MORS” (Latin for death) forms a ring around the sphere, reminding us that death encompasses the globe.  Jerusalem stands at the center to remind us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Did they know nothing of physical geography.  Well, they may not have known much, but they knew more than this map indicates.  I think they just did not particularly care about it, it had no real importance in their society, and other Mappa Mundi’s of the era reflect the same values.

About 150 years later, we see this map:

Obviously many differences exist between the two.

  • The geography approaches reasonably accuracy
  • If you look closely you might see that upon the water there are many ships, obviously reflecting the explosion of exploration.
  • The spiritual symbolism is nowhere to be seen

The map is intended to represent physical reality, to perhaps guide one (at least marginally) while physically traveling.

Of course the map could have had spiritual symbolism if it wanted to.  But it had other purposes and goals in mind, and reflected the different values of the period, and this brings us to one of the crucial differences between the feudal period and the Renaissance.

For the Medievals, what counted most was not the actual, physical person/place/thing as it existed in reality, but the meaning behind the physical, or the symbolism inherent in the object.  So when they want to make a map of the world they did not really make a map of the world, but a spiritual map, a gospel tract.  When Dante uses Beatrice in his Divine Comedy Beatrice as an actual woman has no real importance.  But for Dante she serves as a powerful symbol of how the feminine can help lead him to salvation.

During the Renaissance we begin to see a shift in the other direction.  The physical world in itself has value, and is worth investigating and depicting.  I think both perspectives have value, and neither one has much value apart from the other.  Neither a peanut-butter sandwich, or a jelly sandwich, satisfies, but combined it works beautifully.  The Renaissance began by offering a helpful balance or corrective to some weak spots of the medieval order.  Whether it finishes there or not, we shall see.

If you have interest, last week we watched a brief portion of a video on the development of perspective in art which I include below.   Medieval art did not use perspective, partly because they did not know of the technique.  But I think that part of the reason why they did not discover perspective is that they never looked to develop an artistic technique that would allow them to represent the physical world accurately.  It had no real importance for them.

Blessings,

Dave

 

The Prophet or the Madman

A good education should prepare one to see many sides of an issue and to see the complex nature of problems. Solutions, should they exist, come from seeing the good in things and building upon that, along with balance, patience, and so on.

It seems to me that about 95% of problems or questions should get handled in this fashion.

But the remaining 5% probably require none of the aforementioned qualities, but instead call for a prophet.  Some problems have such deep and destructive roots in society that only radical solutions suffice, and coming to these conclusions require a complete change of perspective not unlike repentance.  In such cases balance and moderation hurt more than help.

The problem with prophets is that they usually sound crazy.  They are entirely “unreasonable” and see nothing among us to build on.  They abhor compromise.  No doubt this explains why most of Israel’s prophets were dismissed as lunatics or dangerous subversives.

The fact that not all prophets deserve the title of “Prophet” adds to the dilemma.  God mandated harsh punishments for false prophets, who unnecessarily rile up/provide false comfort in addition to the far worse consequence of giving us the wrong view of God and our place in the universe.

If we took the Industrial Revolution as an example, we might expect a “reasonable” historian to take a standard cost/benefit approach.  On the one hand, the Industrial Revolution eventually ushered in higher wages and higher standards of living.  Medical technology improved and helped us lead healthier lives.  Mass production led to greater social and political equality.  On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution also disconnected us from nature and allowed us to mass produce destructive things like weapons and pollutants.  The regimentation of the factory led to regimentation of other areas of life.  Modern conveniences also facilitated longer working hours, which helped erode the family.  Some good, some bad, and the trick lies in deciding how to weigh the importance of each category.

Enter Ivan Illich.

Illich (a one time Catholic priest turned social critic) wants nothing to do with the above paragraph.  The Industrial Revolution, or in his phrase, “hygenic progress” has led to continuing impoverishment of all who drink from its waters.

Perhaps you think he means impoverishment of the soul, and then we can still perhaps argue that certain economic benefits outweigh that at least in some circumstances.

But no — he means impoverishment of the soul and economic impoverishment. Industrial society has made us poorer in every sense, which on the surface seems demonstrably untrue.  But nevertheless, he wants to burn it all down, if not physically, then at least in our whole approach to what lies around us.

Do we have a madman or a prophet?

I will say that having read his book Toward a History of Needs I’m not quite sure myself. He fits one criteria for having a prophetic voice — neither the political right or left knew what to do with him in his day.  On the imgresone hand, Illich heavily criticized market-based solutions as essentially imperialistic projects that in the end only benefitted producers.  On the other hand, he spoke just as harshly against the industrialized “do-gooders” of the left and their projects like the Peace Corp and The Alliance for Progress.  He saw both sides as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum — the same person with a different face, sharing essentially the same destructive perspective.

Illich’s main idea is that the “hygenic progress” of the last two centuries has not solved any problem mankind faces so much as it has created needs that have become mandatory for civilization. These “mandatory needs” continue to increase and drain both soul and wallet.  This favors not only producers but also, “anyone in the driver seat” (government bureaucracy). He cites many examples to prove his point, and we can add to those examples today.

Some of his examples (with hardly an exhaustive list) . . .

Medicine has become vastly more expensive over the last few decades without necessarily making us healthier. Pregnant women, for example, now have seemingly dozens of “mandatory” checkups involving expensive lab work to check on her health.  But babies are not measurably more healthy than they were 20-30 years ago.  These checkups did not come in response to a severe crisis, but as part of the logic of the “producers of health.”  Ilich also argues that most of the vast costs involving medical care for the elderly go more towards prolonging suffering than actually making us healthier.  Of course, this suffering in turn drives us back to the health producers.

Simple things like driving also fall prey to this logic.  In days of yore, you acquired driving skills more or less by osmosis and guided practice from parents.  Now prospective drivers need a certification from driving schools to prove their merit.  The fact that many who take courses from “driving schools” spend their time doing errands for the producer of the certificates should call for us to abolish the criteria altogether.  Instead, because we are a society of “hygenic progress,” we call for reform, not abolition, of such institutions, which bring in government bureaucrats once again.  The system continually empowers “those in the driver’s seat” literally and figuratively.

This dynamic impoverishes us financially by forcing us to pay for the certification and government authentication of our lives, and it also steals away time and personal initiative.  Citizens of “hygenic progress” societies will get boxed in continually.  We realize that one “must” have a car to survive in modern society (with the rare exception of a few cities), and the logic of car ownership has followed suit. No layman can repair their car anymore, which drives us toward complete reliance on the producers of car health.  Writing in the early 1970’s, Illich did not foresee the rise of digital technology.  Now, we “need” not just computers and internet, but cell phones and the like to “survive” the modern world.  Failure to keep up brings nebulous social penalties, along with more realistic drawbacks.  Who communicates by phone anymore?**

Education has gone through the same process.  Public education once was conceived as a free gift.  Now this gift is mandatory, with a mandated curriculum.  Initially the system called for you to stay through 8th grade, now one must stay until 16.  Of course, society’s demands for more pieces of paper to certify one as “educated” has increased. Now everyone “must” graduate high school to have any chance in society, and to get a “real job” everyone must go to college — though we know that many high school and college educations hardly dignify the name.  Now Master’s Degrees have become “required” in many professions.  Some of this might be acceptable if the certificates proved that you actually had a good education, when what it really proves it that you jumped through the required hoops.  The role of government oversight and financial enrichment of the producers of certificates (think of the growth of private companies in the standardized testing industry) again go hand in hand.

Of course not all want this outcome, but that’s just “the way it goes.”  I have an autistic son, and from time to time speculate on why autism diagnoses have dramatically increased over the last 20-odd years.  With the caveat that the question is complex and mysterious, part of me wonders if the increased regimentation in education makes those who lack the social skills necessary to navigate that world stand out in much bolder relief than previously.

Illich uses many more examples which I will pass over.  He astutely references the classical concept of “nemesis” from Greek mythology.  Nemesis served justice and punished hubris.  In the modern sense, nemesis stood for the punishment of a rash abuse of privilege.  In heroic literature the truly elite of society experience “nemesis” by going too far beyond the lot of mortals.  Now, Illich comments that nemesis has been democratized and no longer is reserved for rash abuse of a privilege.  Rather, “Industrialized nemesis is retribution for dutiful participation in society.”

At this point we may want to push back a bit.  Maybe the benefits of industrial society have plateaued somewhat, but if we do a before/after look since the start of industrialization, we see that life expectancy has gone up, and more people have access to more conveniences of life.  Who would want to return to pre-industrial living?  And while we can’t repair our cars, they do last a lot longer than they used to, which puts us back to the +/- calculus of the “reasonable” historian.  Some products over time became ubiquitous, but also cheap.  A perfectly good land-line phone, for example, costs no more than $15.  DVD players began by costing a few hundred bucks and now come at 1/10 of that price.  These examples seem to go against the idea that producers will get continually enriched at consumer expense.

I’m not sure how Illich would respond to these arguments, but I would guess that he would say that producers will continue to turn today’s luxuries into tomorrow’s “needs.”  And — they will continue to partner with government to make the needs mandatory — hence, good bye rabbit ears, hello to required conversion to digital.  DVD players are cheap, but look out for Blue-Ray, which will likely supplant DVD’s soon enough and start the cycle over again.

Of course prophets don’t just critique, they also offer hope and a way forward.  For Illich that means more creative and especially, autonomous action on the part of individuals.  We must escape the professionalization, the certificates of approval, and the commodification that governs modern lives.  We no longer make decisions — we have algorithms or rubrics to that for us.

However, a question remains — do we wish to be free? Do we even know what that means?  Would it matter if we did?  I am reminded of a passage in Machiavelli’s Discourses which captures the essence of the issue.  Are we a healthy body with a corrupt head, i.e. Rome at the time of the latter Tarquin kings? After the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus the Romans immediately had the ability to form a stable, successful, alternative government.  Or, has the whole body been infected, and cutting off the head will produce only more problems?  Much later in Rome’s history a new “Tarquin” arose in the form of Julius Caesar, but his death only made things worse for Rome — the whole body had become corrupt.

Illich also fails to discuss another question — is the situation he describes (if he correctly describes it — I am at least partially persuaded) a necessary or contingent consequence of industrialization?  If the latter, then we can work to change things.  If the former is true, then we need to pattern ourselves after the characters in many of Phillip K. Dick’s stories and go “through” the situation rather than running away from it, and find a spot of peace therein.

I suspect, however, that if Illich is correct, then we are living with contingent consequences of industrialization.  We can get pushed in certain directions but never off the road entirely.  While I would not call him a madman, nor would I yet call him a prophet.  He describes some of the technical reasons for our situation, but he fails to unmask the religious devotion that created this situation.  The key question, “What does industrial bureaucratic capitalism truly worship?” has yet to receive an answer.  Until we understand this, we will have no power to change our circumstances.  We need also to see that the situation Illich describes results not just from the confluence of bureaucrats and producers, but from everyone.  We “the people” cannot be part of whatever path forward may exist without acknowledging our own complicity.

Dave

*Hence his book Deschooling Society on the surface seems like a call to dismantle public education in favor of more market based approaches (the “Right” cheers).  But what Illich really calls for is that society “de-school” itself and fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between “school” and “society” (the Right and the Left look at each other quizzically).

**The confluence of the producers of society’s digital “needs” and government oversight continues with a vengeance with the rise of technology in education.  Now curricula get planned around the assumption that students have technology in the classroom.  Those who don’t will be given access.  The option to “drop out” — i.e., “I don’t want my child to have access to a tablet, phone, etc.” — doesn’t really exist.  Most teacher training now gets geared towards showing teachers how to better serve the god “Technology in the Classroom.”  All of this of course is “necessary” because we must “prepare students for the modern world.”  Meanwhile of course, we create the “modern world” via the use of technology in the classroom.  One hand washes the other.  This seems a similar argument to Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State.

9th Grade: The Black Death and the Death of Feudalism

Greetings to all,

This week we brought an end to the Medieval world by seeing its erosion in the 14th century, mostly through the decimation of the Black Plague, as well as the early hints of nationalism.

The disaster wrought by the Plague went beyond the deaths of millions of people.  It also did away with an entire social and moral fabric upon which the medieval world rested.

The virulent and contagious nature of the disease created acute moral dilemmas wherever it struck.  Should diseased people be quarantined?  Should apparently well people be allowed to flee to other towns?  They might have the disease but not yet show the symptoms.  The communal spirit that medievals needed to make their society work broke down.  Fear and uncertainty meant that no one could trust one another.

Imagine that you know that a couple people in a certain household have the plague.  Probably their other family members have it too, but of course you can’t be sure.  Should you let the apparently well people out of the house?  Some towns took the step of immediately boarding up houses where even one person had the plague, which would condemn all those in the house to death.  But towns that took these harsh measures had far fewer deaths overall than those who didn’t.  Is this moral?  It condemns a few to certain death, but it might save a number of other lives. The plague caused a great deal of tension between those who thought the greatest good lay in the safety of the community, and those who thought the priority should be treatment of the individual.

A number of contemporary chroniclers tell of the debilitating social impact of the disease.  Families abandoned even the bodies of their dead for fear of catching the disease, and so many went unburied.  Healthy (and usually wealthier) people abandoned towns if they could, and the mutual relationships between nobility and the “commons” eroded.  The plague may have had an indirect role in the peasant uprisings, first in France in 1358, and later in England in 1381.  Froissart records events in France this way. . .

Thus [the peasants] gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. And they then went to another castle, and took the knight thereof and bound him fast to a stake, and then violated his wife and his daughter before his face and then slew the lady and his daughter and all his other children, and then slew the knight by great torment and burnt and beat down the castle. And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children. They made among them a king, one of Clermont in Beauvoisin: they chose him that was the most ungraciousest of all other and they called him king Jaques Goodman, and so thereby they were called companions of the jaquery. They destroyed and brent in the country of Beauvoisin about Corbie, and Amiens and Montdidier more than threescore good houses and strong castles. In like manner these unhappy people were in Brie and Artois, so that all the ladies, knights and squires of that country were fain to fly away to Meaux in Brie, as well the duchess of Normandy and the duchess of Orleans as divers other ladies and damosels, or else they had been violated and after murdered. Also there were a certain of the same ungracious people between Paris and Noyon and between Paris and Soissons, and all about in the land of Coucy, in the country of Valois, in the bishopric of Laon, Nyon and Soissons. There were brent and destroyed more than a hundred castles and good houses of knights and squires in that country.

The plague also had a catastrophic impact on the Church and its witness.  Many priests demonstrated great courage in tending to the sick, and in consequence died in much higher numbers than the average population (I came across one figure that estimates that the plague may have killed 80% of the priests in Europe).  This left many towns with  no priest at all, while other had priests rushed into office with little to no training.  This led to a poorly trained, uneducated clergy and many layman with no religious guidance at all.  The Reformation 150 years later had many causes, but surely the gutting of Church leadership from 1350-1450 is one of them.

Desperate people usually seek scapegoats, and the medievals did the same.  Many blamed Jews for the plague, and although the Pope declared that anyone “who believed Jews responsible for the disease is deluded by Satan,” people did not listen and Jews were unjustly attacked.  A sect called The Flagellants arose, and they claimed to avert the disease through their own personal penance.  Their argument seemed to go something like:

  • The Plague is God’s judgment upon humanity
  • Once the allotment of God’s wrath is poured out, the Plague will stop
  • If we ‘absorb’ some of God’s wrath, other people will suffer less
  • Therefore, we inflict punishment on ourselves to atone for the sins of others.

The Church rightly declared such people heretics.  They had a faulty view of  God, suffering, humanity, and the disease itself.  Froissart comments again,

In the Year of Grace 1349, the penitents went about, coming first out of Germany. They were men who did public penance and scourged themselves with whips of hard knotted leather with little iron spikes. Some made themselves bleed very badly between the shoulders and some foolish women had cloths ready to catch the blood and smear it on their eyes, saying that it was miraculous blood. While they were doing penance, they sang very mournful songs about the nativity and passion of Our Lord.

The object of this penance was to entreat God to put a stop to the mortality, for in that time of death there was an epidemic of plague. People died suddenly and at least a third of all the people in the world died then. The penitents of whom I am speaking went in companies from town to town and from city to city and wore long felt hoods on their heads, each company with its own color. Their rules forbade them to sleep more than one night in each town and the length of their goings-out was fixed by the thirty-three and a half years which Jesus Christ spent on earth, as the Holy Scriptures tell us; each of their companies went about for thirty-three and a half days, and then they returned to the towns or castles from which they had come. They spent very little money on their journeys, because the good people of the towns which they visited asked them to dinner and supper. They slept only on straw, unless illness forced them to do otherwise. When they entered a house in which they were to dine or sup, they kneeled down humbly on the threshold and said three paternosters and three Ave Marias, and did the same when they left. Many reconciliations were achieved through the penitents as they went about, for instance, over killings which had taken place and about which it had so far been impossible to reach an accord; but by means of the penitents peace was made.

Their rules contained some quite reasonable and acceptable things which agreed with such natural human inclinations as to journey about and do penance, but they did not enter the Kingdom of France because Pope Innocent, who was at Avignon at that time with his cardinals, considered the practice and opposed it very strongly, declaring in condemnation of the penitents that public penance inflicted by oneself was neither right nor lawful. They were excommunicated for doing it, and especially those clergy who went with them.

But again, most did not listen, so strongly did fear grip them.

As the Church declined in prestige, the first inklings of nationalism arose.  The Church opposed nationalism in the past because they did not want people to think of themselves as primarily English or French, but Christians.  One goal of the medieval church was to create a unified Christendom in Europe, a Christendom that if necessary could serve as a “power” bloc to the Moslem world.  To achieve this, however, the church had to minimize the role of national hero-kings.  But as the war progressed both sides had their national heroes, like Henry V and Joan of Arc, and this led to the rise of an “English” and “French” spirit that helped end to the medieval dream of a unified Christendom.

I think we can point to a few possible reasons for this rise of nationalism, and while we should not confuse it with modern day nationalism, it had some similarities.

  • As the length of the war increased, the ‘bet’ each side made increased as well.  With so much invested, no one wanted to fold.  War has a logic of its own, and finds new ways to justify itself, so. . .
  • Nationalism would be an easy target for the war to find.  The kings that began the war died.  Neither side could claim the conflict as a holy crusade.  If you can’t fight for Edward III, or for the Church, perhaps you could fight “for England.”

Henry V clearly capitalized on this, but so too did the more distinctly Christian Joan of Arc.

By the end of the 100 Years War in 1453 the medieval world had disappeared.  Those that survived the plague found their labor in much more demand, forever altering the relationship between peasant and noble. What the Battle of Crecy began the plague finished.  Western Europe would seek a new way of understanding themselves and humanity’s place in the world, which we know as the Renaissance.  We turn our attention to this period at the end of next week.

Dave M

Mixed Messages

At this point in the school year different classes I teach touch on a similar theme . . .

Why did the French Revolution happen to such a nice guy as Louis XVI?

Obviously answering this question involves many factors, but one clearly is the problem of the mixed message and the tension that creates.  Louis worked hard to reform much of France.  He spent less money, he spent less time at Versailles, he believed in the power of science to transform the country, etc. etc.  In his excellent Citizens, Simon Schama points out that Louis’ scientific passions helped undo his regime.  He uses the example of ballooning.  Louis invited many not in the nobility to come to Versailles to witness some of the first hot air balloon experiments.  Again, we see Louis the nice, modernizing king at work. But as Schama points out, ballooning meant

  • The presence of “commoners” at Versailles, previously the exclusive stomping grounds of the nobility
  • The mingling of commoners and nobility
  • The commoners traipsing over the hallowed Versailles grounds to follow the balloon, ignoring traditional boundaries in the immaculately kept gardens
  • Absorption in the “boundary-free” nature of flight itself (this last one might be a stretch, but perhaps he’s onto something).

A few years later when the Estates General wanted to “modernize” and merge the three estates into one “National Assembly” dominated not by the nobility, but by the “everybody else,” Louis protested.  “That’s not how we do things.  We should preserve the ancient and inviolable traditions of France.”  One problem Louis had, however, was that he had been subtly changing those inviolable traditions.  He could not ride the tiger of the changes he helped bring about, and it cost him (and France) dearly.

A less overt, but no less impacting tension of “mixed messages” got introduced into Rome’s Republic ca. 200 B.C.  One can’t help admire the stability and effectiveness of Rome’s government from the founding of the Republic ca. 508 B.C. through the 2nd Punic War.  They had new elections every year, with new people in new offices most every year, and they thrived.  Part of the reason for this lay in the conservative nature of its society.  A society of farmers values stability and cohesion.  You see this cohesion demonstrated in this brief clip of how they fought.  In Rome’s prime, no barbarian horde of individual warriors ever stood a chance against a disciplined Roman maniple.

Naturally such a well-run state would have success and expand.  This expansion, however, threatened the very social cohesion that made them great in the first place.  The governing structure of Republican Rome had no idea how to navigate the dramatic change from its agricultural rustic roots to its “Mediterranean Empire” status, and even if they did, the Republic was built largely to prevent change. Rome grew great by preserving its identity through preserving their traditions.  This tension between Rome’s success and Rome’s identity helped lead to a century of intermittent civil war and the eventual collapse of the Republic between 44 and 27 B.C.

I have always enjoyed college basketball, and the men’s “March Madness” tournament is usually my favorite sporting event of the year.  I did not pay as much attention this year, partially due to business, and partially because watching college basketball has become much more a chore than I remember.  The pace of the game gets mangled by constant fouling (the Kentucky v. West Virginia game averaged more than 1 foul per minute of play), and constant timeouts (in televised games coaches get five timeouts plus eight mandatory tv timeouts).  While one might expect that constant fouling would mean more easy points in the form of free throws, in fact scoring is down across the board, no doubt due in part to the fact that no offense can ever establish a rhythm with continual game stoppages.

If this were professional basketball the solution would be relatively easy in the form of rule changes to make the game more entertaining.  But there lies the rub for the NCAA, because their sports don’t exist, in theory at least, for entertainment. The players are “student-athletes.”  They play the game to learn (hence, a mountain of opportunities for coaches to pound whiteboards and teach during timeouts), not entertain.  Charles Pierce lays some of this out expertly in his recent Grantland column here.  Pierce writes,

What’s fascinating to me, though, is not how to fix the problem [of scoring]; it’s how the problem doubles as the perfect expression of the current state of the NCAA and the amateur model itself. Because neither of college basketball’s twin personalities came into being spontaneously. They both exist by design, and whether the outcomes of that design are deliberate or not, the principles underlying it are deeply bound up with the contradiction at the heart of the NCAA’s idea of itself.

Here’s what I mean by that. Men’s college basketball has to be entertaining, because the NCAA, which derives most of its annual revenue from the tournament, wants it to make a lot of money. But men’s college basketball can’t prioritize entertainment too openly, because then the commercial motive would be obvious and would threaten the NCAA’s supposed reason for being.3 “We refuse to admit that we are selling it,” as Bilas recently said. This is how it’s possible to devote a tournament engineered for maximum fun to a style of basketball that elevates pseudo-moral qualities like instruction, teamwork, and sacrifice over carnal indulgences like, I don’t know, jumping, or the ball occasionally going into the basket.

The tension between basketball as revenue stream and the student-athlete model have been stretched to the breaking point.  The NCAA will have to make a difficult choice, and have boxed themselves in.  They can choose between . . .

  • Basketball is primarily entertainment/revenue driven and so we make rule changes based on that principle, which sacrifices the student-athlete principle, or
  • Basketball is about being a student-athlete and not money, and so changes will only be made that enhance the “student” aspect of the athletes.  Time-outs will stay, and money will disappear.

I suppose a third option exists, one the NCAA will likely take.  They will make rule changes, but under the cloak of improving the student-athlete experience.  They may believe this story.  Whether they believe it or not, they will increase the volume of their mixed message much further that I would think possible.  The NCAA as we know will be living on borrowed time.

One can say many things about Kentucky’s John Calipari, but his message is perfectly clear.

9th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow

Greetings,

This week we looked at the beginning of the 100 Years War (1337-1453), and especially the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The battle, though a major victory for England, did not prove decisive in the long run.  However, it is perhaps the most famous battle of the war because it foreshadowed the beginning of the end of chivalry, and with it, the feudal system as a whole.

As we noted a few weeks ago, the Church in particular, and the feudal system in general, tried to limit the possibility of conflict.  So, only a certain group of people should fight, and then, fight in a certain way with certain weapons.  Riding on horseback with lance and sword required a great deal of training, which in itself restricted who could possibly fight.

This is part of the reason why the Church tried to prevent the widespread use of the crossbow.  The simplicity of the design meant that anyone could use this weapon, a kind of medieval version of point and click.  And, at close enough range, a powerful crossbow could pierce a knight’s armor.  Some suggest that the Church sought only to protect the privileges of the nobility in their attempt to ban the crossbow, but I believe it’s more than that.  The crossbow posed a threat to limited warfare, restricted to a narrow class.  With a crossbow almost anyone could join the fight.

The English had a tradition of using the longbow.  Though simpler in design, longbows had much more power than crossbows, and could be fired more quickly.

Another difference between them, however, is that longbows require much more developed skill than a crossbow.  Like riding and swordsmanship, it required time and practice to attain proficiency.  Hence, longbowmen, though peasants, became a kind of privileged nobility.

At Crecy the English had longbows, but the French did not, and this proved decisive in the battle.  Muddy ground, combined with French disorganization gave the English bowmen plenty of shots at the French forces.  The French suffered untold thousands of casualties and had to flee the field.  We might be tempted to chalk this up to the ‘fortunes of war, but if we peel back layers, we see that it was no coincidence that the English had longbows and the French did not.  Armies that take the field are a byproduct of specific political cultures, and the battle at Crecy was no exception to this.

Longbows posed an even greater threat to the knightly nobility than crossbows, and the longbow could be expected to meet with the resistance of the nobility.  It would take a strong central government to allow for the longbows development.  The king would need a great deal of authority over local nobility to make this happen.

Since the Norman conquest, England had in fact this tradition of strong kingship, starting with William the Conqueror himself, but also Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, who many believe started the 100 Years War.  These kings created special laws to further ensure the longbow’s use, including

  • Protecting forests with yew trees
  • Giving peasants with longbows time off from certain feudal duties to practice their skill
  • Giving longbow hunters the right to hunt in some normally protected forests
  • Finally, those who accidentally killed or injured others with the longbow were exempt from legal punishments.

Clearly, the longbow was not just a technological innovation, it was an innovation of a particular political environment.  To raise the longbow to the status of the sword meant elevating the status of peasants, or at least some peasants.  The longbow was not just a weapon, it foreshadowed a social revolution.

The Church found out that stemming innovation is a fruitless endeavor, but they correctly judged the consequences of the introduction of these weapons.  The feudal system could approach fairness if each group in society served legitimate needs of other groups.  The nobility had certain privileges, but also difficult military duties that endangered their lives, took them away from home frequently, and so on.  But if the peasants did not really need them for protection anymore, what was the reason for the existence of the nobility and their privileges?

Next week we will look at how Crecy may have spurred on peasant revolts in France, and the devastation of the Black Plague.

Thanks so much,

Dave