Thursday, 30 June 2016

JEH 67/3: Marriage and other capital crimes

Normally the Journal of Ecclesiastical History stipulates that articles should be no more than 8000 words in length, so running to under 20 pages. Occasionally, for a really strong piece, we’re willing to stretch that a little, especially if the extension is in response to our recommendations for revision. So it tells you something that the new edition includes a 55-page article. André Vitória’s ‘Two Weddings and a Lawsuit’ is really quite a piece. More than half of that page extent consists of appendices, transcribing in full a set of court documents in Portuguese found in the Vatican archives.
A Portuguese matrimonial dispute from 1369 involving nobody anyone has ever heard of might not seem to be the most promising basis for an article. But a three things set this apart.
First, Vitória can write. This is academic prose at its best – precise, scholarly, but full of life and spirit. All too rare, especially when united with top-notch research as it is here.
Second, he has a terrific story to tell. The unfolding mess of bigamy, secret marriages, theft, family feuds and deception is as gripping as any court-based microhistory you may care to name.
This is not a new Martin Guerre, however, since the documents aren’t extensive enough to allow it. What it is, and this is the third and the genuinely important point, is a window into how both ecclesiastical law and civil law touched everyday life in an ordinary corner of medieval Europe. What Vitória has done is to demonstrate how closely all the participants in the dispute – except perhaps the hapless bigamist at its centre, whose crime could have and possibly did cost him his life – understood where the legal fault-lines were, and shaped their testimony and their behaviour accordingly.
Much of this hinges around the tension between marriage as a public event, defined socially, a matter of family and property; and marriage as a sacrament, a private and perhaps secret commitment between two individuals. The theology was clear and, in the medieval social context, terribly impractical. Secret marriage was easy to contract and impossible to prove. Or, as Vitória felicitously puts it: ‘A slip of the tongue was all it took to create an indissoluble marriage; stout denial all it took to end it.’ We’ve rarely been shown with more care how those problems actually played out in the reality of people’s lives.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Start again from our beginnings

So, post the Brexit vote ... Time to stop just being stunned and angry, and work out the best way out of this mess. I now actually think there are reasons to be hopeful.
Here’s what a good outcome looks like, in ascending order of achievability.
1. Internationalism, internationalism, internationalism. Leaving the EU need not mean closing of borders, drawing up of bridges, revoking of treaties, shrinking of horizons. Various Leave-ers have been promising that it would not. They need to be held to their word.
2. We remain in the single market. Neither the Norwegian nor the Swiss terms would exactly work, nor would they be exactly available, but something of that sort is very possible. Necessarily this would involve free movement, though presumably not simple access to benefits for migrants. – I spent some time in Norway earlier this month. You could do a lot worse.
3. The UK holds together. The single market is what could make this possible, since it means we can avoid closing the Irish border, and that the calculus of risk for the Scots becomes finely balanced. I note that Nicola Sturgeon’s statement emphasised keeping Scotland in the EU or at least in the single market. If it becomes possible to remain in the single market without breaking from the UK, embracing the euro, etc etc then the outcome of a second indyref becomes much less certain, and the SNP – which cannot afford to lose a second one – may not risk it.
4. It becomes possible to reconsider the vote to leave. The ‘re-run the referendum’ cry is obviously futile, but useful to this extent: it emphasises that the losing side is not lying down and taking this, and that a 52-48 win based on some deeply mendacious claims is not a mandate for anything beyond the bare question asked. As the SNP said in similar circumstances: if there is a material change in our situation, then it becomes legitimate to re-ask the question. Thus: if either a noticeably different relationship with the EU is on offer (that seems unlikely) or the EU itself changes noticeably, such that membership did not mean the same as once it did (which seems more possible, given the turmoil), then a new vote and a Breturn is on the cards.
So, how do we get there?
1. Break up the Leave coalition. Happily this is dead easy, because they can’t agree on anything. The Tory Brexiteers, especially the splendidly opportunistic Mr Johnson, do not appear to have an appetite for taking us out of the single market. Not least because they, too, want to keep the UK together. What we want is for UKIP to be hopping up and down and shouting ‘betrayal’ in a few months’ time.
2. Get a functioning opposition which will force the Tories to contest the political centre. Hard to see how this happens at present. Still, anything’s possible.
3. Ensure that MPs, especially the large cross-party Remain majority, understand that their voters expect them to stand by their principles and to interpret this referendum strictly and minimally.
4. Tell a bigger story about Brexit. Immigration was the immediate issue, and that makes the whole thing look like a xenophobic spasm, but us Remainers need to recognise that there was a lot more to it than that: a long-term alienation from the EU’s strategic agenda, and a deep dissatisfaction with its opacity, unaccountability and dysfunction. Right or wrong, those are not illegimate views. We need to say this, both so that we can stop the whole world from seeing us as a country that just ticked the ‘We hate foreigners’ box; and so that immigration is not allowed to become the touchstone of any new settlement. We have to say, loudly, that is not what we just voted against.
5. On that note: I don’t want to celebrate the result. But there is undeniably something mulishly admirable about the bloody-minded Englishness of saying, sod you, we’re not going to do what we’re told. For once, the establishment has been given a damn good kicking by people whom both main parties have simply ignored for decades. In that sense: we deserved it. By all means fix the appalling damage done by last Thursday’s vote. But don’t ignore what drove it. In this sense – if only in this sense – this result is better than a 52-48 for Remain, after which the 48% would simply have carried on being ignored.

And on all these notes: stay angry, stay visible, stay vocal. This is an extraordinary moment of possibilities, some of them quite attractive, some of them truly dreadful. It can’t be allowed to drift.