Wednesday, August 22, 2012

That's "Positively Medieval!"

It is not uncommon for the term "medieval" to be used negatively, to connote an action or opinion that is primitive or uncivilized, or that displays outright savagery. There is, of course, much discussion among medievalists who feel this does a disservice to a time that, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, was "not a matter of having no manners, as having different manners."*

There is a recent story in the U.S. political realm, however, whose medieval roots are difficult to ignore. It's time, therefore, to take a brief look at some early law books at the beginning of Western Civilization to see if we can explain some of the modern attitudes that some of us would call "positively medieval."

Fleta was published not earlier than 1290, and probably shortly after. It is a 557-page Latin book of English laws found in the Cotton Library. It seems to be largely a re-write of the De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliæ (On the Laws and Customs of England) of Henry Bracton (c.1210-1268). Fleta contains some early laws that support ideas that are still with us. For instance, in one place, it says:
Those who have dealings with Jews or Jewesses, those who commit bestiality, and sodomists, are to be buried alive after legal proof that they were taken in the act, and public conviction.**
It should be noted that the penalty of burial alive is not known to have been carried out at any time. Fleta also contains the following clause while discussing rape, which has become a very popular topic this week:
If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive.
The claim is that if a woman conceives during intercourse, she cannot claim rape. The belief was that part of the mechanism for conception of a child was the love between the husband and wife, and their enjoyment of the act. If the pleasure were missing, conception could not occur.

I mention Fleta because it is being quoted this week in public forums. In fact, more than one compendium of laws existed early on. One of them, called Britton, was contemporaneous with Fleta. Britton was written in French, was very similar to Fleta (having drawn from the same sources), was more organized and codified, and was probably turned to more over time because French was a more accessible language to a majority than Latin. Like the U.S. Constitution, which denied equality to women and blacks, these works are interesting historical documents that deserve to be discussed but need to be amended if we expect to actually apply them to the modern world.

*From That Hideous Strength, when describing the eating methods of the recently-revived 6th century Merlin.
**The 1290 date can be surmised because that is the year Jews were declared "outlaw" in England, and given the choice of Expulsion or conversion and a kind of "house arrest" in the London "Converts' Inn." Prior to this, "dealings with Jews" would have been typical.

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