Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Democracy, Progress and a Lost Chance in 1265

I’ve recently returned from a conference sponsored by the Mortimer Society in the UK, the subject was “What if Simon de Montfort had won the battle of Evesham?” 

To those who haven’t gotten through the fourth volume of my book Montfort this mightn’t be an animating subject. But it is. For the history of Europe in any case. And indeed for all mankind.

If Simon de Montfort had won, there’s a chance that democratic government as we know it: the House of Lords and House of Commons, the Senate and Congress, etc., might have persisted intact in England from 1265 onward.

What would that have meant? The theology of Thomas Aquinas probably would have been squelched.

Aquinas held that God’s Creation presents an immutable hierarchy, from God through the gradations of angels and saints to the Pope, then kings, then each member of the rest of humanity -- who should properly be locked into the station in life into which he or she was born -- and from mankind thence to the animals down to the lowliest worm.

It is this tenet that granted kings divine rights -- power to do as they pleased so long as they didn’t offend the Pope.
Just possibly the French Revolution, inspired by England’s success, would have occurred in the early 14th century instead of the late 18th.  And all the revolutions that followed it might have come tumbling along by 1500.

The Wars of the Roses, battled between claimants to England’s throne, wouldn’t have happened. Being king wouldn’t have been such a tempting prize when the king’s actions were controlled by the Parliament.

Who would be king would be up to Parliament’s decision anyway -- as shown by the English people’s government’s predilection for Protestant over Catholic candidates when the Catholic’s rights were plain as 1-2-3.

And the wars between England and France, so costly in lives and wealth, wouldn’t have happened in all likelihood. Or perhaps they would, but the excuses would have been a clear matter of trade dominance rather than genealogical niceties. 

We’ve seen that people’s governments will surely go to war if it looks like a prospect for monopoly might be in it – be it monopoly of the wool processing trade, the Silk Route, petroleum or whatever is the dominant way to riches at the moment.

There is an intriguing aspect of history since the advent of governments guided by the vote of the people: that is the vast increase in competitive trade and what, in 19th century America, was referred to as “building a better mouse trap.” 

This urge to develop something new and more appealing to the shopper is the engine that has changed our world. Horse travel, by cart or astride, has been replaced by a worldwide fleet of internal combustion engines. And now we’re trying to replace those.

Communications no longer are dependent upon the footman you keep; the stranger who happens to be going from Joppa to Toulouse where you hope your letter from Palestine will be received; the ship that may founder on its way from you in New York to your business partner in Canton.

That wonder of orderly government, the Postal System, has been all but replaced now by the instant communications of the internet and email.

Might these developments not have occurred if monarchy had continued to hold sway? Monarchy thrives on old customs and traditions and has a vested interest in shunning the new. 

We can see that in those countries where monarchy lasted late – monarchy curbed by elected government being the striking exception – the innovations that have changed the world did not take place.

If government by the people had lasted unperturbed from 1265 onward, would Nicholas Tesla and Bill Gates – no doubt with some other names – have brought forth their world changing discoveries by the year 1500? What would our world be now, five hundred years into further development?

Of course this isn’t what I spoke of at the Mortimer Society conference. I talked of Joachim de Flore and the Millennium – but I’ll write of that here next time.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series