Ye Olde Shoppyng Liste

From Smithsonian.com, courtesy of Reinhardt alumna Wanda Pirtle Cronauer:

Seventeenth-Century Shopping List Discovered Under Floorboards of Historic English Home

Penned in 1633, the “beautifully written” list hints at household life 400 years ago

Among other necessary items, the list includes “greenfish,” a “fireshovel” and two dozen pewter spoons. (Image courtesy of the National Trust)

By Brigit Katz

SMITHSONIAN.COM
JANUARY 31, 2017

Pewter spoons, a frying pan and “greenfish”—these must-have items were scribbled on a shopping list 400 years ago. The scrap of paper was recently discovered under the floorboards of Knole, a historic country home in Kent, England.

As Oliver Porritt reports for Kent Live, Jim Parker, a volunteer working with the archaeology team at Knole, discovered the 1633 note during a multi-million dollar project to restore the house. The team also found two other 17th century letters nearby. One, like the shopping list, was located under the attic floorboards; another was stuffed into a ceiling void.

More, including a complete transcription, at the link. It is wonderful when such slices of social history appear after so many years. (I would happily save more of my ephemera as a service to humanity, although I don’t really have the space for it…)

Exam Question

Both the Vikings (around the year 1000) and the Spanish (from 1492) were Europeans who set foot in the New World. But a majority of the people in the New World now speak Spanish as their native language, while virtually no one speaks Old Norse. What explains the Spanish success at colonization?

This question uses language as a gauge of colonial success, but does it deserve to be? A fuller picture involving law, religion, technology, music, clothing, and other folkways might be more useful. There may, after all, be something “recessive” about some languages. As we learned in class, everywhere the Vikings settled, whether northern England, Ireland, Normandy, or Russia, saw them lose their language within a generation – often without them losing their fighting spirit! The only place this did not occur was Iceland, where there was no local population to get absorbed into. If the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was not abandoned, it is entirely possible that John Cabot, when he arrived in Newfoundland in 1497, would have been surprised to meet blonde-haired Beothuks employing Viking technology. That might indicate some colonial success. Similarly, in Latin America, Spanish may have extinguished native languages, but many native customs continued unmolested.

Be that as it may, it is manifestly apparent that the Spanish colonial enterprise was more successful than the Viking by any number of metrics. L’Anse Aux Meadows was occupied for perhaps five years, and the two small Greenland settlements were abandoned in the fifteenth century, while much of the New World was “New Spain” from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. What explains the difference?

One explanation might be simple geography. Greenland and Newfoundland, even in the medieval warm period, did not have as much to offer in terms of exploitable resources as Central America and the Caribbean. Similarly, the Aztec and Incan empires were already civilized, and all the Spanish needed to do was replace the rulers at the top to win the whole thing; the conquering had already been done for them. Such conditions did not prevail in the extreme northeast.

But differences in time are probably more significant. The five-hundred year gap between Leif Erikson and Hernán Cortés saw the advent of a number of technological and cultural changes that gave an impressive advantage to the Spanish in their colonial endeavors. The medieval silk road that flourished under the Mongols gave Europeans a taste for Asian luxury goods, and the advent of the Ottoman Empire, which impeded this traffic, impelled Europeans to find alternate routes to Asia. Various technologies borrowed from the Arabs and/or developed through Mediterranean commerce allowed Europeans to sail longer distances out of sight of land, such as lateen sails and fixed rudders (allowing ships to tack against the wind, and obviating the need for galley crews), the astrolabe (for determining latitude), the magnetic compass (for determining cardinal directions when the sun or stars are occluded), or the traverse board (for plotting distance traveled). Such technologies allowed for a transatlantic voyage, something the Vikings were not capable of. That it was the Spanish who discovered the New World is also no accident – the union of Castile and Aragon, and its 1492 defeat of Grenada, completing the reconquista, gave it an overweening sense of self-confidence. God was on their side! The fact that Portugal was establishing a route to Asia down the coast of Africa make the Spanish fearful, and willing to gamble on a trans-Oceanic route. This is another difference between 1000 and 1500 – states were simply more powerful, and in competition with each other.

But perhaps the most significant event to occur in Europe between 1000 and 1500 was the Black Death. Europeans alive in 1500 were the descendants of people who had survived the plague (and other diseases like smallpox and swine influenza). They could still die from these diseases, of course, but they had a much greater chance of surviving them than did the native Americans, whose bodies were more evolved to counter parasites than microbes. This biological weapon (coupled with other weapons like firearms and steel swords, the other points of Jared Diamond’s triad, and domesticated fauna like attack dogs and ridable horses), gave the Spanish, and eventually other Europeans, an overwhelming advantage at conquest and colonization.

Pirates

Via Instapundit, an interesting article on pirates, from Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities (so you should probably visit the site while you still can):

A Lot of What Is Known about Pirates Is Not True, and a Lot of What Is True Is Not Known

By Mark G. Hanna

In 1701, in Middletown, New Jersey, Moses Butterworth languished in a jail, accused of piracy. Like many young men based in England or her colonies, he had joined a crew that sailed the Indian Ocean intent on plundering ships of the Muslim Mughal Empire. Throughout the 1690s, these pirates marauded vessels laden with gold, jewels, silk, and calico on pilgrimage toward Mecca. After achieving great success, many of these men sailed back into the Atlantic via Madagascar to the North American seaboard, where they quietly disembarked in Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston, and made themselves at home.

When Butterworth was captured, he admitted to authorities that he had served under the notorious Captain William Kidd, arriving with him in Boston before making his way to New Jersey. This would seem quite damning. Governor Andrew Hamilton and his entourage rushed to Monmouth County Court to quickly try Butterworth for his crimes. But the swashbuckling Butterworth was not without supporters.

In a surprising turn of events, Samuel Willet, a local leader, sent a drummer, Thomas Johnson, to sound the alarm and gather a company of men armed with guns and clubs to attack the courthouse. One report estimated the crowd at over a hundred furious East Jersey residents. The shouts of the men, along with the “Drum beating,” made it impossible to examine Butterworth and ask him about his financial and social relationships with the local Monmouth gentry.

Armed with clubs, locals Benjamin and Richard Borden freed Butterworth from the colonial authorities. “Commanding ye Kings peace to be keept,” the judge and sheriff drew their swords and injured both Bordens in the scuffle. Soon, however, the judge and sheriff were beaten back by the crowd, which succeeded in taking Butterworth away. The mob then seized Hamilton, his followers, and the sheriff, taking them prisoner in Butterworth’s place.

A witness claimed this was not a spontaneous uprising but “a Design for some Considerable time past,” as the ringleaders had kept “a pyratt in their houses and threatened any that will offer to seize him.”

Governor Hamilton had felt that his life was in danger. Had the Bordens been killed in the melee, he said, the mob would have murdered him. As it was, he was confined for four days until Butterworth was free and clear.

Jailbreaks and riots in support of alleged pirates were common throughout the British Empire during the late seventeenth century. Local political leaders openly protected men who committed acts of piracy against powers that were nominally allied or at peace with England. In large part, these leaders were protecting their own hides: Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of the instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

There were less materialist reasons, too, why otherwise upstanding members of the community rebelled in support of sea marauders. Many colonists feared that crack-downs on piracy masked darker intentions to impose royal authority, set up admiralty courts without juries of one’s peers, or even force the establishment of the Anglican Church. Openly helping a pirate escape jail was also a way of protesting policies that interfered with the trade in bullion, slaves, and luxury items such as silk and calico from the Indian Ocean.

Much more at the link. It’s interesting how such popular violence was a part of life in early America.

Thoughts I have had while lecturing

I. An interesting shift: at one point African-American slaves took inspiration from Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of bondage from Egypt, hence the spiritual:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My people go!
Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!

But of course Egypt is African, or judged to be representative of Africa, so starting in the twentieth century African-Americans began to look back with admiration on ancient Egypt, partly as a riposte to the European idealization of Ancient Greece (this is where the Afrocentric charge that the latter “stole” everything from the former comes from). Thus, for example, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first black fraternity, founded at Cornell in 1906 and which:

utilizes motifs from Ancient Egypt and uses images and songs depicting the Her-em-akhet (Great Sphinx of Giza), pharaohs, and other Egyptian artifacts to represent the organization…. This is in contrast to other fraternities that traditionally echo themes from the golden age of Ancient Greece. Alpha’s constant reference to Ethiopia in hymns and poems are further examples of Alpha’s mission to imbue itself with an African cultural heritage.

(This despite the fact that they use Greek letters to identify themselves – why not a couple of hieroglyphs?)

I suppose the fall of slavery in the United States lessened the appeal of the ancient Hebrews, allowing the shift toward sympathizing with the Egyptians.

II. One of my favorite records when I was in college features the novelty song “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” which dates from the 1950s and is (I suppose) a celebration of the rise of nationalist Turkey. By way of explaining the name change of that county’s most famous city, the song points out a parallel situation:

Even old New York, was once New Amsterdam.
Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.

But perhaps a more accurate assessment of this name change is that the British defeated their continental rivals the Dutch and took possession of the New Netherlands in 1664, and promptly changed the names of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange to New York and Albany respectively, after the Duke of York and Albany, the future King James II. Fort Orange was so called, of course, on account of “Orange” being the name of the ruling house of the Netherlands.

What’s ironic is that James II was a Catholic, and didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself, and provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688, whereby Parliament invited his daughter Mary Stuart to become queen, and her husband to become king… that husband being none other than William of Orange, king of the Netherlands. These two reigned as co-monarchs, hence the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

So an Orange was replaced by an Albany, who was replaced by another Orange (who opened up Ireland for Protestant settlement, hence the Orange Order, and Orangeman’s Day).

Caitlin Green

As chance would have it, today I discovered two interesting items from Caitlin Green, an archaeologist of Roman and medieval Britain and currently a tutor at the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge.

The first was an article of hers that originally appeared in The Heroic Age in 2012:

John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic 

From 1577 to 1580 the English polymath John Dee was engaged in manufacturing and disseminating some extraordinary claims on behalf of the English monarchy and its imperial ambitions. Most intriguingly, Dee, generally seen as the originator of the phrase ‘the British Empire’, argued that Queen Elizabeth could assert dominion over a vast tract of the northern globe and the New World, partially by dint of it having been once conquered and ruled by the Tudors’ reputed early medieval ancestor, King Arthur. In his most important treatment of the issue, the Brytanici Imperii Limites (‘Limits of the British Empire’) of 1578, he wrote that Elizabeth could claim “title royall to all the coastes and ilandes begining at or about Terra Florida and so alongst, or neere vnto Atlantis [=America], goinge northerly, and then to all the most northern ilands great and small, and so compassinge about Groenland [=Greenland], eastwards until the teritoris opposite vnto the farthest easterlie and northen boundes of the Duke of Moscovia his dominions…” Dee’s arguments, culminating in the Limites, do not rest exclusively upon Arthur’s supposed conquest of the northern latitudes – an Oxford friar, the Welsh Prince Madoc, and St Brendan the Navigator were all also cited as evidence for a historical dominion and thus current ownership – but Dee himself admitted that his case did ‘depende cheiflie vppon our Kinge Arthur’. As a result, Dee went to some pains to legitimise his Arthurian material, complaining that the profusion of ‘fables, glosinges, vntruthes, and impossibilities, incerted in the true historie of King Arthure’ meant that the ‘truth ytselfe’ of Arthur’s historical acts – as Dee conceives them – was often disbelieved or ignored, and can only be retrieved through a purging of the parasitic legends that had gathered around it, something which Dee proceeded to do. Having weeded out the ‘untruths’ from his gathered Arthurian narratives, Dee could confidently proclaim that Arthur had conquered Gaul, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, all the northern islands around Russia i.e. the entire Arctic Ocean abutting northern Europe, Estotiland (which may be the Canadian Baffin Island, if it describes a real place), and even up to the North Pole itself.

This reminds me of a paper I wrote in graduate school and I’m annoyed that I did not discover John Dee in the course of my research for it! The historicity of King Arthur was much debated in Tudor England: Polydor Vergil, an Italian humanist at the court of Henry VII, got the ball rolling in his Anglica Historica (1513), which deals with Arthur in a single paragraph:

At this time Utherius departed owte of the world, after whome succeded his sonne Arthur, being noe doubte suche a mann as, if hee hadd lived longe, hee surelie would have restored the whole somme beeing allmost loste to his Britons. As concerninge this noble prince, for the marvelus force of his boddie, and the invincible valiaunce of his minde, his posteritee hath allmost vaunted and divulged suche gestes, as in our memorie emong the Italiens ar commonlie noysed of Roland, the nephew of Charles the Great bie his sister, allbeit hee perished in the flour of his yowthe; for with woonderus admiration they extol Arthure unto the heavens, alleginge that hee daunted three capitans of the Saxons in plaine feelde; that hee subdewed Scotlande with the Iles adjoyninge; that in the teritorie of the Parisiens hee manfullie overthrew the Romaines, with there capitan Lucius; that hee didd depopulat Fraunce; that finallie hee slewe giauntes, and appalled the hartes of sterne and warlike menne. This redowbted conqueror, of so manifolde exploits, is reported to have ben sodainle retrayted from his jornay with domesticall contention, while hee minded to invade Rome, and consequentlie to have extinguished his tratorus nephew, Mordred, who usurped the regall power in his absence, in which conflict hee himselfe receaved a fatall stroke and baleful wounde, whereof he died. Not manie years since in the abbey of Glastonburie was extructed for Arthur a magnificent sepulchre, that the posteritee might gather how worthie he was of all monuments, whearas in the dayse of Arthure this abbaye was not builded.

This attack is actually rather mild, consisting of the brevity of the passage (cf. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who devotes five of the twelve books in his twelfth-century Historia Regum Brittaniae to the subject of King Arthur), the use of the word “alleging,” and the demonstration that King Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury was anachronistic. But even if Vergil was simply employing new techniques of humanist critical enquiry, he was still a foreigner, attacking a hometown hero! So for the rest of the century a number of Englishmen vociferously defended King Arthur, using the same techniques (or what they imagined to be the same techniques) to argue that King Arthur did in fact exist – and running down Vergil and Italians for good measure. Of course, some of the embarrassingly exaggerated Arthurian stories had to go – just as Dee discarded some of the more fanciful material in his own investigation. But that didn’t mean that King Arthur himself didn’t exist!

(“Cleaning up” fanciful medieval legends, rather than discarding them entirely, also played itself out with the figure of St. George: Pope Clement VII, stung by Protestant mockery, tried to expunge all mention of the dragon from prayers to St. George in breviaries and missals of the church, while maintaining that he was still worthy of veneration.)

The second item of Dr. Green’s was an interesting post on her blog today:

The aim of the following post is to offer a draft look at an interesting Arabic account of early medieval Britain that appears to have its origins in the late ninth century. Despite being rarely mentioned by British historians concerned with this era, this account has a number of points of interest, most especially the fact that it may contain the earliest reference yet encountered to there having been seven kingdoms (the ‘Heptarchy’) in pre-Viking England and the fact that its text implies that Britain was still considered to be somehow under Byzantine lordship at that time.

Read the whole thing.

Henry the Terrible

Interesting article on Mental_floss. I had heard traumatic head injury proposed as a theory to explain Henry’s tyrannical adult behavior; a trio of neurologists has injected new life into the theory in the journal Clinical Neuroscience. Excerpts from the Mental_floss article are below:

Did Head Injuries Cause Henry VIII’s Bad Behavior?

From all accounts, as a young man, Henry was a pretty happy dude, and a pleasure to be around. By 1536, he was decidedly … not. The King Henry VIII we think of today was a bloodthirsty tyrant, impulsive, unpredictable, and murderous—the kind of man who would send two of his six wives to the executioner. So what happened?

The most severe blow [to Henry’s head] came in 1536, during another jousting match. Henry was unhorsed. He fell to the ground, and his horse fell on top of him. The king was out cold for two hours.

That same year, Henry’s reign of terror commenced. His unpredictable, inexplicable explosions made him the terror of his own court, for he was just as likely to order the execution of a friend as he was a foe. His behavior was erratic and violent, and he often flew into rages for reasons that were unclear to those around him. He became impulsive—and if you need more evidence of that, just look at his six marriages and two dispatched queens.

Henry started suffering bouts of bizarre amnesia, which led to dangerous contradictions in his commands. As the city of Boulogne was under siege, Henry reportedly demanded on paper that the city be protected, while saying aloud he wanted it to be demolished. In 1546, the king assured his sixth wife Catherine Parr that he would protect her, forgetting that the day before he had ordered his guards to take her to the Tower of London.

The king was also subject to migraine headaches and deep depressions, as well as a number of seeming endocrinological problems that could have been triggered by TBI. His rages, his erratic behavior, even his impotence later in life—there may be a simple explanation for it all, lead author Arash Salardini said in a press release: “It is intriguing to think that modern European history may have changed forever because of a blow to the head.”

 

Medieval and Modern Time

Rod Dreher reviews the YouTube series Tudor Monastery Farm, in reference to Charles Taylor’s A Secular AgeExcerpts:

Charles Taylor begins his magisterial book A Secular Age by asking why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500, but in 2000, believing in God is seen as something you do with difficulty, if at all. Taylor says that it’s because the late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. You really feel this in Tudor Monastery Farm, and the feeling is important, because, says Taylor, what really matters are the things that everybody takes for granted. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose.

 

As theologian Hans Boersma has shown me, the ideas that swept away the TMF worldview were already in play among religious and academic elites for centuries before they had a popular effect. And as Taylor, as well as the historian Brad Gregory, demonstrate, the Reformation was the key event that destroyed the medieval sense of sacramentalism undergirding the TMF “imaginary” (a Taylor word). To be clear, neither Taylor nor Gregory blame the Reformation. The medieval church was massively corrupt, and efforts to reform it from within Catholicism itself inadvertently brought the whole superstructure of medieval belief crashing down — and with it, Christendom.

It’s a much more complex story than I have time to get into in this blog post, and it’s by no means simply a matter of ideas having consequences. It is also true that, as you might put it, consequences also have ideas. That is, you can’t understand why the project of church reform had so much power without also understanding how traumatic the Black Death of the 14th century — which killed one in three Europeans — was for the people of Europe. Plus, it is plain even in Dante, writing in the early 14th century, that the wars fought by the papacy, and its thoroughgoing corruption as a worldly power, was bound to undermine the belief of ordinary Christians.

Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in “reality” now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, “exclusive humanism” — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a “take” on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.

There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, “a secular age” means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.

The Habsburgs Come to Atlanta

Pleased to have been able to see the exhibit “Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections” at Atlanta’s High Museum today. Some pictures:

arms

Embroidered Habsburg coat of arms.

IMG_2161

One knight…

knight

…faces another.

IMG_2162

Hans Daucher, Emperor Maximilian I on Horseback as St. George, a “Christian Soldier,” 1522.

arms2

A fuller Habsburg coat of arms.

IMG_2172

A painting of a girl with Ambras Syndrome. For more on the phenomenon, see Merry Wiesner-Hanks, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds (2009).

golden

The hem of a robe of a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Note the fleece and flint-and-steel devices.

sebastian

A silver St. Sebastian shot with golden arrows.

smoke

Corregio’s Jupiter and Io (c. 1530).

buildings

On the way out: a building reflecting another building.

A Model Essay

I rediscovered the essay below just now. It is one of my all-time favorite examples of good student work. Read it to see how it’s done!

***

Comparing the English and US Bills of Rights
by Alex Johnson

One of the most famous documents in British history was ratified on December 16, 1689. The Bill of Rights defined the rights of parliament, the judiciary, and the average British subject against the monarch, representing the culmination of a century of struggle against royal absolutism. So powerful a symbol did the Bill of Rights become that it sparked the American revolution in the 1760s, as the colonists felt that their rights, guaranteed in the Bill, were being denied. The colonists were successful in founding a new nation, but very quickly adopted their own Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to their constitution (ratified in 1791). The American Bill of Rights, however, was no mere plagiarism of the earlier British one, but went even further in guaranteeing individual rights against the power of the state. In this fact we see the influence of the Enlightenment, which was deeply concerned with such questions and was largely a phenomenon of the eighteenth century.

The seventeenth century had witnessed an epic struggle between the forces of the king and of parliament in Britain. At issue were two competing political philosophies: a modern one in which the king, as God’s representative on earth, had the right to rule absolutely, and an older one in which new laws, especially new taxes, could only be enacted after consultation with the “community of the realm.” Religion made the situation worse: the Stuart monarchs tended to be “high” Anglican, tolerant of Catholic ritual, and even friendly with actual Catholics, while Parliament contained a substantial number of “Puritans” who viewed such things with horror and who wished to eliminate them from English public life. After a vicious civil war in the 1640s, Parliamentarians executed King Charles I in 1649, but they ultimately proved unable to rule the country themselves, so Charles’s son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. An uneasy truce prevailed between court and parliament throughout his reign, but when Charles’s brother James ascended the throne in 1685 conflict broke out once again. Not only was James a Catholic, he had the same sort of absolutist pretensions that had gotten his father executed. He provoked enough opposition that he fled London, and Parliament invited his Protestant daughter Mary and her Protestant husband William of Orange, prince of the Netherlands, to become queen and king of Great Britain. In return, William and Mary agreed to the Bill of Rights, which placed firm checks on their own power.

What were those checks? First and foremost, Parliament. The king was not allowed to abrogate, or even suspend, laws passed by Parliament. He was not allowed to collect taxes without consent of Parliament. Election of members of Parliament was to be free, as was speech within Parliament – the king could not stack Parliament with his supporters, nor prosecute people for saying things in Parliament that he happened to dislike. (Presumably all these things had been happening under the Stuart monarchs.) For good measure, Parliaments had to be convened frequently and the king was not allowed to keep a standing army without consent of Parliament (standing armies were favorite tools of absolutist oppression on the European continent – and since England was an island, there was no real need for one anyway).

The judiciary was also set up as a check on the monarch’s power. The third item in the Bill of Rights reads “the commission for erecting the late Court of Commissioners for Ecclesiastical Causes, and all other commissions and courts of like nature, are illegal and pernicious.” The Court of Commissioners was an invention of James II aimed at procuring judicial decisions he wanted; the judges were his appointees, and carried out his will. Such a device was another tool of absolutism that the English would have none of; courts were to be free of such interference, and in addition “jurors ought to be duly impanelled and returned, and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders.” The right to trial by a jury of one’s peers (i.e., not a royal judge) was guaranteed by Magna Carta in 1215; the Bill of Rights upheld this right, even for the charge of high treason.

The powers given to the legislative and judicial branches of English government in the Bill of Rights established a “balance of powers” so favored by Montesquieu and the other French philosophes. The Bill of Rights, however, did not stop there. It went even further and guaranteed rights to all British subjects, or at least Protestant subjects. All subjects were allowed to petition the king without suffering prosecution for doing so; they were to be free from excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments; and they were not to suffer fines or forfeitures until actually convicted of an offense (a version of the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty”). One can easily see how the British people would have desired these rules, which made illegal the various means by which would-be absolutists could impose their will on the citizenry. Finally, all Protestant subjects were granted the right to “have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” Again, the right to bear arms was seen as a bulwark against tyranny (the king was not allowed to keep a standing army, but the citizenry was allowed to arm itself), although it is interesting that this right was not absolute: since Catholics were potential subversives, their right to bear arms was not guaranteed; furthermore, an idea existed that arms were suitable to one’s “condition” – presumably the upper classes were allowed to have better arms than their social inferiors, forestalling any attempts at a peasant revolution – and that the right could be further curtailed by other laws. Weapons, of course, can be used for good or ill; the authors of the Bill recognized that weapons could not just be used in defense of liberty, but against it too.

Just over one hundred years later and an ocean away, the citizens of the newly formed United States of America adopted a constitution and a Bill of Rights of their own. They had just concluded a successful rebellion against Great Britain, which had started as a result of the earlier Bill of Rights: after the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), Britain had begun levying taxes on the colonists, who sent no representatives to Parliament, a clear violation of the principle of “no taxation without representation.” Britain insisted, however, that the colonists were “virtually” represented in Parliament, and continued levying taxes; eventually armed conflict broke out, and the colonists declared their independence on July 4, 1776. In the document, Thomas Jefferson wrote that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The ideas in this passage are mostly derived from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689), but had become common over the course of the eighteenth century: sovereignty resides with the people, governments rule by the consent of the people, and whenever governments abandon this trust they have forfeited their right to exist. This is rather more radical than the British Bill of Rights, which took the legitimacy (and sovereignty) of the king for granted, and merely placed checks on his power. Now, the Americans declared, they were not claiming their traditional rights as English subjects, but natural rights as human beings.

Such a shift is seen in the U.S. Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution (which was composed in 1787 and ratified the following year, with the Bill of Rights following in 1791). The U.S. Bill of Rights is somewhat different from its English counterpart, in that the powers of the various branches of government were defined (and balanced) in the constitution itself, leaving only the rights of the citizenry against the state to be enumerated in the Bill. But what rights they were! The people enjoyed all the rights they had previously under the English Bill of Rights: they were to be free from excessive bail, excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishments, free to petition the government for redress of grievances, free to be tried by jury, and free from legal punishment until conviction (Article V: “no one shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”). But the people were also guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of peaceable assembly, and of religious conviction (with the government prohibited from establishing a state church) (Article I). All people were allowed to bear arms, and to be free from soldiers being quartered in their homes (Articles II and III). They were to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and their property could not be expropriated arbitrarily (Article IV). When put on trial, a person could not be compelled to testify against himself, and if acquitted could not be tried again for the same crime (the “double jeopardy” rule) (Article V). A defendant was to have the right to a speedy and public trial, to know the charges against him, to cross-examine any witness against him, to bring witnesses of his own, and to have legal counsel (Article VI). For good measure, the US Bill of Rights states explicitly that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” (Article IX) and “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (Article X).

The most striking thing about this new set of rights is how much more comprehensive it is. The property of citizens, for instance, was inviolate. Whereas the English Bill of Rights merely prohibits forfeiture before conviction, the American Bill guarantees that citizens shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, meaning that except for probable cause, state authorities require a legal (and specific) search warrant before they can go poking around in these things. Furthermore, private property could only be taken for public use after the person losing it was compensated for it. Even though Jefferson had changed Locke’s “Life, Liberty and Property” to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” it is quite clear that the American colonists had thoroughly absorbed the Enlightenment idea that liberty and property went hand in hand.

The concern with the rights of a criminal defendant is also a novelty in the US Bill of Rights. The English Bill of Rights ensured that the courts would not become creatures of the king, guaranteed the ancient right to trial by jury, and emphasized that people were innocent until proven guilty. But the Americans seemed to be aware that all government, whether royal or not, and whether executive or judicial, had the power to oppress, and attempted to prevent that from happening. In addition to jury trial and presumed innocence, therefore, they made sure that Americans can henceforth “plead the fifth” (since a defendant should not be obliged to help the state make its case against himself), that they cannot be held in detention indefinitely, that they cannot not be repeatedly tried for the same crime – the state has one chance to make its case, and that is it; it cannot harass people by repeatedly prosecuting them. Court proceedings are to be transparent: knowledge of the charges against one, and the ability to answer them, are important steps toward preventing the sort of judicial tyranny satirized so brilliantly by Franz Kafka.

Perhaps the biggest difference is in the respective Bills’ attitudes towards religion. The English Bill of Rights is very much a document of the seventeenth century, with its identification of Protestantism with liberty (in another section, the Bill of Rights prohibited the inheriting of the crown by Catholics). In America, however, the Enlightenment idea that religion itself was the problem is apparent: no church whatsoever was to be established in America, and all citizens, not merely Protestants, were allowed to keep and bear arms. The state was not forbidden from expressing religious sentiments (“In God We Trust,” for instance), but it was explicitly forbidden from favoring one religion over another. All citizens were free to believe what they wished, and they did not need to belong to a state church in order to enjoy certain privileges, as the English did.

Many more such observations could be made about the respective Bills of Rights, but from this brief survey the influence of the Enlightenment on the American one is clear. Of course, many of these rights have been eroded in recent years (“no-knock” raids, detention without trial for terror suspects, confiscation of large sums of cash on the automatic suspicion that it is drug money, etc.), as the power of the federal government has grown beyond the wildest dreams of the founders. On the whole, however, these rights still prevail, more than two hundred years after they were first composed, proving the enduring influence of the Enlightenment on American politics.

Jenny Wormald, 1942-2015

From the website of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford:

It is with sadness that we share the news that Jenny Wormald died peacefully on 9th December 2015. Jenny was Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at St Hilda’s for twenty years (1985-2005), during which time she served also as Fellow Librarian and Senior Tutor. She was a highly respected and much loved friend, colleague, scholar, and tutor. She will be greatly missed.  A memorial event will be planned to take place in 2016.