Wednesday, 28 October 2015

On Anniversaries

It's a bumper year for Anglophone medievalists.  We have Agincourt (600 years) and we have Magna Carta (800 years).  Both have become emblematic historical moments, and there's a lot to be gained from thinking carefully and publicly about these events - in the case of Magna Carta, commemoration challenges us to think about the place of the law today, in some ways less and less accessible because of the erosion of legal aid.

But I think the most interesting anniversary is that of the Fourth Lateran Council.  This was the Church council convened by Innocent III in 1215 which did so much to streamline the role of the Church throughout Europe.  Its implications stretch way beyond the history of the Church - it was the point at which a big impetus was given to the persecution of heretics; marriage, baptism and confession were codified; the idea of Purgatory was formalised; canon law (the law of the Church) was imposed more uniformly across Europe.  The net effect of these impulses (I withhold judgement on the extent to which they were actually practised) was to systematise and to streamline the ways in which people were to think about religion and law.

There's much to admire in the Council, and much to find terrifying.  Innocent III himself was the figure who had responded to the French king Philip II, who wished for a marriage annulment, with the words: 'We have an immoveable mind, and an immoveable intention.  Not by prayer, not by price, not by love, not by hate, shall we swerve from the path of righteousness.  We shall walk the royal road.  We shall not deviate to the right.  We shall not deviate to the left.  We shall make judgements without taking up persons.'  This was about law as a system.  There were to be no favouritism, no bribes, no exceptions.  It's surely a critical moment.  Innocent was also the figure who pronounced Magna Carta null and void as soon as he possibly could.  None of these anniversaries are unambiguous.

Innocent III, from the Grandes Chroniques.  Source: wikimedia

I wonder why we are so much more willing to remember Agincourt and Magna Carta (and Waterloo), than something like Lateran IV.  My first instinct was to assume that this is essentially nationalist (in the broadest sense).  But (since nostalgia is so often on my mind at the moment), I wonder whether Agincourt and Magna Carta are more appealing because they lend themselves to romanticisation - both look like the victory of the weak over the mighty.  The outnumbered English soldiers and the courageous barons, make for edifying David and Goliath type stories.  I can't think of a way to romanticise Lateran IV - Innocent III was powerful, determined and unassailable.

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