A comment by John de Meyrick in The Australian,[i] “Still ticking after 750 years” reminds readers that 2015 is the 750th anniversary of the first English parliament, an event that laid the foundation for England’s and subsequently Australia’s parliamentary system of government. De Meyrick connects this important development with Magna Carta, 50 years earlier in 1215, which laid the foundations for liberalism by limiting the power of the monarch and setting out various rights. De Meyrick states that both events were led by the high aristocracy in an attempt to wrest some power from the king. The reality was more complex and pregnant with implications for our times.
De Meyrick claims that the parliament of 1265 “creat[ed] the first early form of representative government”, which is both profoundly true and mistaken. It is true in the sense that modern parliamentary government in Anglo-Saxon countries is linearly descended from England in 1265, just as their civil liberties are descended from England in 1215. But it is misleading to date those noble traditions only from these two particular events.
The democratic impulse had deep roots in European tradition. The Anglo-Saxon tribes that colonised England from the fifth century replaced kings who did not retain the confidence of their followers. The tradition developed into witenagemots, assemblies of aristocrats and clerics called by English kings to advise them from the 7th to the 11th centuries. The Icelandic general assembly, the Althing (general assembly) dates from the first half of the tenth century AD, as does the Jamtamot of Central Sweden. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian assemblies had even deeper roots in the ancient Germanic folkmoot, meeting of the folk. Deeper roots still are apparent in Greek democracy and the Roman senate, at which policy was debated and decided.
To be fair, de Meyrick’s brief comment cannot be expected to be comprehensive. Understandably he did not have space to discuss ethnic origins or how Christianity checked royal pretensions to absolute power. Magna Carta and the first English parliament were not the result of a power struggle alone. Another factor was also the Church’s pastoral duty to the common people. The Medieval Church was an independent institution that forbade polygyny, even by aristocrats. By preventing powerful men from having many wives, the chances of commoners to find wives was increased. In effect the Church protected the reproductive interests of the lower orders.
Hunter gatherers are democratic and egalitarian. But agriculture and the resulting social stratification generally broke down this equality as society becomes stratified. Powerful men monopolise many women, effectively denying some in the lower orders the chance to find a wife. This also happened in pre-Christian Europe, though not to the extent shown in the Near East. Perhaps that was because agriculture arrived later, allowing some hunter traditions to continue, or perhaps few genes accompanied the practice of agriculture as it spread into Europe from the Near East. How did the Church manage to overcome this trend and thereby protect what is perhaps the most fundamental social equality, the ability to form a family? The Church could frustrate this otherwise inexorable connection between stratification and polygyny because it was an independent institution that could censure monarchs by excommunicating them. Once the sanctity of a king’s reign had been removed, he was more likely to be overthrown from within or invaded by without.
Christian support for monogamy had flow-on effects. It increased social cohesion by giving most men wives and children and therefore a stake in defending society. Consensus became possible, at least on some issues, opening the way to liberalism and democracy. By contrast, polygynous societies are necessarily despotic because the lower orders must be forcibly excluded from the marriage market, at which point they have relatively little at stake in defending the social order.[ii]
The monogamy imposed by the Christian Church from the early Medieval period through to the early modern – almost a millennium – equalised people’s reproductive interests somewhat compared to other agrarian societies, by giving them all a chance to marry and have children. Still, before the advent of the welfare state in the 19th and 20th centuries an individual’s fertility depended on his or her resources. Gregory Clarke’s study of wills from 1200 to 1800 indicates that individuals with more resources – the aristocracy and more and more the emerging artisan and middle classes – had more children than the poor. As a result genetic fitness accrued not to pugilists but to those who followed the law and worked diligently. The . Is civilisation shaped by Christianity was eugenic for traits of peacefulness, lawfulness and sustained work. Christianity was the West’s evolutionary group strategy, to use Kevin MacDonald’s term.[iii]
By rendering society more cohesive, Christianity also helped European societies ward off invaders and assemble the collective goods, such as taxation and armies, needed to conduct intra-European warfare. As societies were tribal, most citizens were ethnic kin. By boosting social ties and cooperation, Christianity also served to protect and advance people’s ethnic genetic interests, the large store of gene copies they had (and have) in their ethnic groups. This aggregate kinship, often called “inclusive fitness”, is orders of magnitude greater than that found in nuclear families, even within a region of low genetic variability such as Europe. Ethnic kinship, and the fitness advantage of solidarity, was much greater in conflicts between European and non-European societies.[iv]
At the same time, the Church was an international institution that did not favour any particular Christian nation until the Reformation. Under its auspices European warfare gradually became civilised in its treatment of prisoners and civilians. Christian international law laid the precedent for a comity of nations, initially within Christendom, that moved towards an international order that optimised national, and hence ethnic, interests.
By joining forces with the lower orders, the Church helped limit the crown’s arbitrary power. It is not often noted that the Church had a role in formulating the Magna Carta and the first parliament, not only by providing scribes but as a political ally. This can be inferred from the Magna Carta’s clauses that protect ordinary citizens against arbitrary punishment (Habeas corpus) and unfair financial dealings. Indeed, the document is perhaps the first instrument that regulates a monarch’s financial practices. At the time one of the king’s instruments for raising revenue was the local Jewish community, and as a result they enjoyed royal protection. This acted as a general cover for all financial dealings, fair and unfair. The Magna Carta laid down rules of fair financial dealing, such as disallowing Jewish lenders from seizing a widow’s assets should be husband die in debt. While the document makes clear that it is directed at unfair dealings conducted by individuals of any religion, by concerning itself solely with the welfare of the Christians community this document ties the foundations of Western liberalism with ethnocentric particularism.
The implication is that liberalism and democracy originated in societies with strong Western cultural and religious identities that were relatively homogeneous on both counts. This remained the situation while Western elites continued the Church’s tradition of ethnocentric pastoral duty, helping explain the emergence of the modern nation state. The tradition continued until the decades following the Second World War.
The big question is whether the heritage of Magna Carta and representative democracy can survive the radical diversification imposed by alienated Western elites from the 1960s. The rise of the intolerant globalist left and its disproportionate influence in public education and the media do not bode well.
[i] John de Meyrick (2015). “Still ticking after 750 years”, The Australian, 29 January, p. 10.
[ii] Alexander, R. D. (1979). Darwinism and human affairs. Seattle, University of Washington Press.
MacDonald, K. B. (1995). “The establishment and maintenance of socially imposed monogamy in Western Europe [with peer commentary].” Politics and the Life Sciences 14(1): 3-46.
[iii] Clark, G. (2007). A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.
Clark, G. (2014). The son also rises: Surnames and the history of social mobility. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
[iv] Salter, F. K. (2007). On genetic interests : family, ethnicity, and humanity in an age of mass migration. New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction Publishers.