What is the Magna Carta?

Spread the love

It begins with a garden or two. Once you have gardens, you have a resource that has the two most important characteristics anything can have with respect to human society. First, you can eat it. Second, your enemies can destroy it.

If you have just a few gardens and get your food somewhere else, no big deal. But back in the old days, and by “old days” I mean any time during the last several thousand years everywhere and anywhere that is not urbanized and has gardens, most people relied on their gardens. These gardens were maintained by families or small villages or occasionally larger cooperatives.

Since a garden can be destroyed by enemies, you have to have a way of defending the garden and everything else. So weapons, militarism, bellicosity, and all that become normal. Note that you could have a herd of beasts instead of a garden and something like this would still happen. Note that if among your beasts there are those you can mount, usually horses, then your weapons, militarism, bellicosity, and all that are now much taller and can run faster, so if you are the only ones with that setup you win.

This all leads eventually to an arms race that usually no one wins for too long. This is the Hobbesian world of Warre, where people are nasty brutish and short, or at least, their lives are. Eventually almost everyone in the world is doing this. Societies that resemble Medieval Europe’s Feudalism emerge wherever there is enough of this going on, which is why a French Knight and a Japanese Shogun and a Shona Chief are all kinda alike.

Then, something like climate change happens. Not the globally devastating climate change we are seeing today, but something likely more regional and not as severe, but that affects everyone’s gardens in roughly the same way. Over here you have famine more often, but over there you have higher productivity many years in a row. Maybe there is a three year long drought that causes mass migration, or maybe there is a summer with out a winter.

Or, if not climate change, population density increases too much and the gardens are not enough. So less than ideal land is planted, or more rapid turnover of cropping in a swidden system becomes normal, or something like that happens. People need to cooperate more to irrigate more, or to store or move around food more. The garden’s of the village become something slightly different.

In any event, the pot is stirred, but when you stir the Stone Soup of society over a large area, you don’t increase homogeneity like when you put all the different stuff in a blender to make a smoothy. Some stuff gets all mixed together evenly but other stuff clumps up and gets all goopy. The goopy parts, the clumps, those are Lords, or Bishops, or Shogan, or Overlords, or something that is bigger than in the old days. Instead of the guy in charge (and it will almost always be a guy because men can’t have babies and thus feel the need to take over everybody else’s junk all the time) being older and stronger and better connected than the other guys in a village, the guy in charge is the one with an extra 100 horses or a better blade or a clever strategy like stabbing the other guys up close instead of throwing something at them.

This is how you get a king.

Once you have one king, you’ll get other kings, or emperors, or whatever, until finally the only way somebody can be a lord or a chief is to suck up the king and that means fighting for the king. And taxes, you get them too. The gardens are now owned by the king, or if not, might as well be. The most convenient way to make this work, by the way, is to make sure that most people are not valid individuals, that they don’t have a place at the table. Those would be the slaves, or peasants, or whatever you want to call them.

Now there are kings or the equivalent everywhere, and some of them are relatively good and some are relatively bad. Badness may be enhanced by technology. Perhaps you’ve invented beer or wine but store it in lead casks so the privilaged few with the drink are more likely to be brain damaged. Or perhaps there is a mind-damaging venereal disease kings tend to get. Or perhaps just bad upbringing. Sometimes you get boy kings because the system of inheritance of power requires it, even though that is totally dumb. Boy kings can go either way. They tend to totally burn out or, alternatively, take over the world, eventually.

And you have kings with more power or with less power.

Eventually, in a region, something the size of a European Country or so, you get both a bad bad man as a king and a king that is very powerful all wrapped up in the same person. Everything that is bad about this sort of self organized system is now worse than it has ever been in anyone’s memory. It isn’t just the peasants taking it in the neck, but also, people in the middle who have power, lords and chiefs and such. Straws fall among the elite breaking one camel’s back after another.

This is when the people in the middle, who have now lost their power, insist on an agreement with the King that happens to benefit the peasants and slaves of the very distant future. That would be the Magna Carta, in the case of England. Other parts of the world have had other outcomes.

The BBC on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, has produced a fun and interesting video exploring this history (though it starts later in time than the history I just outlined above.)

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
*Please note:
Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

Spread the love

9 thoughts on “What is the Magna Carta?

  1. Haven’t time to watch right now but I read somewhere recently that if it wasn’t for the churches copying the Magna Carta and sending it through the land we would never have known about it – it was only meant for the gentry. Had it been given to the Sheriffs to distribute it would never have seen the light of day – they were a main target of the document

  2. The 800th anniversary of the awesome Magna Carta.
    Worth reflecting on, and being thankful for.

    “And indeed, Magna Carta conceives rights in NEGATIVE terms, as GUARANTEES AGAINST STATE COERCION. No one can put you in prison or seize your property or mistreat you other than by due process. This essentially NEGATIVE CONCEPTION OF FREEDOM is WORTH CLINGING TO in an age that likes to redefine rights as entitlements—the right to affordable health care, the right to be forgotten and so on… they saw parliamentary government NOT as an expression of MAJORITY RULE BUT as a GUARANTOR OF INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM.”
    http://www.wsj.com/articles/magna-carta-eight-centuries-of-liberty-1432912022

    ………..
    I’m not at all sure how most of Greg’s piece has anything to do with the Magna Carta, but I have a couple observations:

    “Then, something like climate change happens. Not the globally devastating climate change we are seeing today, but something likely more regional and not as severe, but that affects everyone’s gardens in roughly the same way. Over here you have famine more often, but over there you have higher productivity many years in a row. Maybe there is a three year long drought that causes mass migration, or maybe there is a summer with out a winter.”

    That paragraph seems to describe what man has experienced throughout recorded history. Except for “the globally devastating climate change we are seeing today”.

    I don’t know what Greg’s talking about.
    Greg, what is the ONE GREATEST globally devastating climate change we are seeing today?

    “In any event, the pot is stirred, but when you stir the Stone Soup of society over a large area, you don’t increase homogeneity like when you put all the different stuff in a blender to make a smoothy.”

    In the U.S., the metaphor of a “melting pot” is usually used instead of the more modern “blender.” But regardless, although you might put IN to the blender Italian prosciutto, Irish potatoes, African camel’s milk, and Japanese ginseng, you don’t expect to get OUT of the blender those same things. In a very real sense, what results is not Italian or Irish or African or Japanese.

    I don’t have a name for the hypothetical recipe above. Perhaps I’d call it “Cut out the hyphenated-American crap.” Or maybe “How about you learn to speak English when you decide to become an American?” Or maybe “Damn the Diversity. Up with Unity.”

    Who knows? Maybe it’ll end up in the Betty Crocker Cookbook, just in time for the Fourth of July.

    “Instead of the guy in charge (and it will almost always be a guy because men can’t have babies and thus feel the need to take over everybody else’s junk all the time) …”

    Remarkable. But I’ll make no remarks about it right now. Instead, I’m just going to give it an instant replay for all to consider. YOU make the call!
    “Instead of the guy in charge (and it will almost always be a guy because men can’t have babies and thus feel the need to take over everybody else’s junk all the time) …”

    “Instead of the guy in charge… being older and stronger and better connected than the other guys in a village, the guy in charge is the one with an extra 100 horses or a better blade or a clever strategy like stabbing the other guys up close instead of throwing something at them. This is how you get a king.”

    Let’s see. That first king might have a bloodless but nevertheless liberty-crushing reign. The second may spill some blood in defense of liberty.
    Either way you get a king.

    Which king is better?

  3. To Greg Laden #6:

    “Yeah. I know, right?”

    I don’t know if you know.
    But I think you THINK you know.

    So, I’ll ask again:
    Greg, what is the ONE GREATEST example of the “globally devastating climate change we are seeing today”?

  4. SN: “one greatest example”

    Greg was speaking of global warming in toto, the sum of events with a global root cause. Your question is yet another example of the weird sophistry that lets denialists think they’re scoring some sort of important point. It shows a remarkable ineptitude when it comes to logic not to mention reading comprehension. You are exhaustingly tedious. I’m surprised he bothers to respond to you at all.

  5. I would also like to point out, because this may be missed by some, that the historical model I present here is VERY generalized. This should be clear from the ability of the narrative to similarly address the rise of the Medieval Feudal system in Europe, the Feudal system in Japan, and the agropastoral tribal system in SE Africa all in one or two sentences.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.