We read books like “The Maid and the Queen” because we are interested in what happened in the past. But why? Why are we interested? Is it of any consequence at all the story of a peasant girl who became a prophetess, a prophetess who commanded armies, a commander who saved a king, a savior who became a prisoner, a prisoner who was dubbed a heretic – and a heretic who became a saint? What does any of this have to do with the world we live in today, so far removed from the feudal battles of medieval France?
The answer is of course that we learn from those who came before us. We are not a ‘tabula rasa’, a history-less culture-less entity only seeking that flawless prejudice-less tutor for the creation of the “new man”; as the progressives would have us believe. “Just deny everything that came before, atone for it by paying it no tarriance – except perhaps to seek exculpation – and we shall all be free,” they say. What a dark world that would be indeed, where there are no great books, no great thinkers, and no great ideas. When there is no objective truth, only various perceptions and degrees of discrimination in a world where victimization has become the new Marxism and the new alleged oppressors are guilty not by action or even association but simply by their existence.
I digress. “The Maid and the Queen,”; this is an excellently written book about Joan of Arc and the end of the 100 Years War between France and England. Of how a peasant girl from a French village served pivotal in the resolution of this war, and by extension the future of European history since what was at play was England’s claim on the throne of France and had France not won the war the entire country might by now be speaking English and eating bangers and mash. The book is full of rich anecdotes and powerful prose which gracefully escort the reader through tumultuous Medieval society; one where Lords and Ladies wiled and schemed away their lives in a quest for power and survival, while peasants died.
My takeaways from “The Maid and the Queen” are perhaps twofold.
Pre-Westphalian Europe was a bit of a mess; ruled as it was by two oft-competing and oft-colluding forces, neither of which is conducive to “life more abundant” for the common peasant class. Of course I’m talking about the Church and the Nobility. The Church was concerned about retaining its power and position over the nobles and through them the peasants in order to preserve their power and their wealth. They had ecclesiastical judges, called inquisitors, and they raised armies and held temporal power. Their calling card to control? Excommunication, the regulation of peasant beliefs – weaponized.
And then there was the nobility; constantly scheming to increase their power and position over each other through marriages, alliances, invasions and assassinations. No concern for the peasants because nobilities were born into their position and hence their only competition lay in the ‘economy of intrigue’. “…past wealth was always obtained by the subjugation of others or the theft of their goods. All the elites in the empires of old built their fortunes by taking land, enslaving peasants, and sacking the bounty of wealthy neighbors. Inequality was said to be ordained by God and preserved by blue blood and one’s condition at birth,” if I am allowed to quote myself.
The aspect of these medieval tales of war that always hits home to me is the description of the battles. “Then 3000 foot soldiers were slaughtered,” it says in passage after passage, “and Lord X or Duke Y was taken to be held in the tower of this or that castle to be ransomed.” You see, my family is of English descent and we moved to America more than 150 years ago to escape just this. We were the peasants cowering in fear of the church, handing over our money to the nobles and serving at their command in their armies to be slaughtered unnamed upon fields of battle at the behest of their personal aspirations for power. My family, and the rest of us came to America so long ago because we had had ENOUGH of this type of behavior – and we committed to building a place where never again would we fear the arbitrary pretensions of church and nobility vying for control over our powerless lives.
But the fight for freedom is ever-present; and always the same. Today those who seek power are constantly telling us the ‘Dictatorship of Capital’ is the greatest modern threat to our freedom. But this is not true, is in fact a bait and switch. Because capital and its nobilities are extremely vulnerable to the next good idea; to the shifting moods of a vast and unknowable market. It is in fact the ‘Dictatorship of the State’ (and more specifically those who control it) – new nobilities who are not bent to the consent of the governed – as has been proven a thousand times over to be the real threat to liberty. States that these days do not come in the form of nobles of old – only insomuch as they have lost all sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ – and who instead think it is their right to rule because they are part of a new nobility that knows no blood but nevertheless expects power. The Davos crowd; the media; the arts and yes the church – facilitated by the ‘Managerial Elites’ as James Burnham has called them. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who have learned that in the 21st century, socialism is the best “Road (back) to Serfdom”.
“Our freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes, we can turn to another. But if we face a monopolist we are at his absolute mercy. And an authority directing the whole economic system of the country would be the most powerful monopolist conceivable…it would have complete power to decide what we are to be given and on what terms. It would not only decide what commodities and services were to be available and in what quantities; it would be able to direct their distributions between persons to any degree it liked.” ― Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
But we will not be serfs again. So we should give thanks to the American people for giving us Donald Trump; and before him Barack Obama; and before him George W. Bush – because in the changing hands of power the people are protected from the establishment of new predator nobilities.
Although the church and nobility worked hand in hand, I think our civilization was very fortunate to have had two competing power bases, instead of a straight up theocracy. Also, the church was one place where an intelligent man could overcome humble origins and rise through the ranks. And La Pucelle herself–I know of no other examples of a peasant girl attaining such power and influence. I am fascinated by Joan of Arc because I can’t understand or explain her story. I don’t believe in miracles, or the idea that some Saints would involve themselves directly in a civil war in France, but neither was Joan a schizophrenic. Thanks for the book recommendation!
I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the “Church” and “Nobilities” of Medieval europe being a check on each others power. I’ll have to think about that. Is there any historian or book you know of which makes that case?
Joel, I was with you until the last paragraph. Perhaps you mean to be facetious. But America has become an oligarchy, controlled by those who are creating a new peasantry by controlling access to money, jobs and education. Rigging the system of elections. Consolidating power in the hands of elites, pandering to the extreme political Right-wing. Every year our position becomes more precarious. I do not know if there will be anything left by the time Trump finishes dismantling what little choices remains to us.
So, yes and no. True, US has become an oligarchy with the comingling of economic with political. Nevertheless, the election of Trump shows that changes can happen. I remember reading a post by Robert Reich who was encouraging people to sit around their kitchen table conspiring against Trump. I thought to myself, “if the voters can reduce a former cabinet member to whining with his mother over Cheerios, we’re still doing something right.” That was sort of my point. Power tends to monopolize itself but the people around Trump will be there 4 to 8 years, same as Obama’s were. And those who were powerful are now worried about prosecution or looking for other jobs. In Nobilities, this process takes centuries making the power structures much harder to break up.