Archive for April, 2019

CA Wildfire

Wildfire scene north of Sacramento, CA

Looks like it will take substantially more than diligent raking of the forest floor to prevent wildfires.

According to the Wall Street Journal (4/27/2019 ed.), San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric will shut off power to large portions of its service territory when ground and weather conditions threaten to spark wildfires. In other words, PG&E will intentionally black out part of California’s population for periods that may range up to five days.

One need not think too long or too hard about the effects of PG&E shutting off its power. When the power is out, just about everything comes to a grinding halt. Modern human civilization stops.

According to the report, the utility is still working on how to avoid harming persons with medical needs that require continuous electric power, and how to deal with water safety (when pumps stop, boil orders start), traffic lights and other essential services.

There is no doubt that the situation in California is extreme. Scores of people have been killed in wildfires, and losses and damage from the fires are in the tens of billions of dollars. During the recent Camp fire the City of Paradise, California, was reduced to ashes with the loss of 88 lives. PG&E has been found at fault for a number of these fires.

Not everyone is greeting PG&E’s plan warmly. Businesses will suffer losses, and some say it amounts to PG&E shifting the risks of maintaining its grid to its customers. PG&E says it could take five years or more to strengthen its grid to reduce the risk of fire.

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Edward III of England (1322-1377)

Most Americans derive what little they know of the Middle Ages from HBO miniseries. Even ardent Wikipedia fans erroneously believe that England only broke with the Church of Rome when Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and try again for a male heir. We should not blame ourselves too harshly for this lack of knowledge since Hollywood has spent the last seventy years warping historical reality, and of no era is this more true than the medieval one. One can begin to correct these distortions by keeping in mind that the Age of Chivalry was not the Age of Dentistry. That’s why nobody was smiling in those old paintings.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Henry VIII was a late-comer to the Break-with-Rome game. Tensions between England and the Papacy had been brewing for centuries, and one of the first big ruptures was known as the Statute of Provisors, which was enacted in 1351 during the reign of Edward III (1322-1377). That’s almost two hundred years before Anne Boleyn’s first date with Henry VIII. The Statute of Provisors dealt with the Pope’s power of disposition of benefices in England.

What, you may well ask, is a benefice? It’s not a misspelling on a form letter from your health insurer. Rather, a benefice was a high (and high-paying) position in the Church such as bishop, abbot or cardinal. The Statute of Provisors dealt with the thorny issue of whether the pope or the English king had the right to appoint prelates in England. To our modern ears all that may sound like choreography for angels on pinheads, but back then it was a matter of the greatest importance.

William the Conqueror recognized the importance of the Church to consolidating his newly-acquired hold on England. He compelled all the cathedral cities in England, as well as in those parts of France he controlled, to elect his nominees as bishops. This process, in which the king “invested” his appointee with a bishop’s ring and staff, was called “investiture,” and it gave the bishops a badge of both spiritual and temporal authority. Bishoprics had been handled this way across Europe for centuries.

Then, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII up-ended all that. He prohibited laymen from electing bishops (“lay investiture”). He held that the Church was both independent of the state and above it, and that no temporal ruler could confer ecclesiastical authority. Gregory VII’s edict gave rise to what later became known as the Investiture Controversy. But things didn’t quite go as Gregory VII had planned.

On the Continent, in response to the edict, Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and Rex Germanorum (King of the Germans), declared that Gregory VII was no longer pope. In return, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV. Excommunication was a big deal back then, much bigger than canceling a State of the Union Address. When the Pope excommunicated a king, it meant that all that king’s vassals were released from their feudal oaths of loyalty to him, and that anybody could invade that ruler’s domains without committing a sin.

But Henry IV beat him to the punch and invaded Italy, forcing Gregory VII to flee Rome. Then, in a supreme act of lay investiture, Henry IV proclaimed his appointee, Clement III, pope.

In England the Investiture Controversy was much less sanguinary, in large part because a very smart bishop, Anselm, of ontological argument fame, designed a compromise that avoided war and fleeing pontiffs. Taking Anselm’s advice, Henry I, King of England and second son of William the Conqueror, resigned his claim to invest bishops with ring and staff, which were the symbols of spiritual authority, but required that all bishops had to be elected in the presence of the king. Anselm’s settlement was eventually put in effect throughout Europe by the Concordat of Worms in 1122.

Control over high Church posts meant better control over your kingdom. Prior to the Reformation, the Church in Western Europe was universal in both name and reality: it had a monopoly on all knowledge and learning, and it had the only organized and regimented bureaucracy that was common across Europe. It had all sorts of internal frictions and contradictions, of course, but at its root it was one organization led by one man. To the extent that any coherent body of law existed in Europe after Rome fell, it was the canon law of the Church of Rome. In an age when the common law in England was still in a preadolescent stage, canon law was a sophisticated and mature product of centuries of work by scholars. It would take centuries for English lawyers to develop the common law we now take for granted.

Bishops controlled the administration and interpretation of the canon law, which did not depend on the king. They believed, and taught their faithful flocks to believe, that the canon law was superior to what little civil law existed. Ecclesiastical courts were to be found at every bishop’s seat (the cathedra), and these courts tried much more than just errors of faith. Because spirituality informed nearly every phase of life, the ecclesiastical courts had an undefined jurisdiction capable of almost unlimited extension, much to the chagrin of feudal and seignorial courts. Marriage, inheritance, theft and usury were all justiciable before the bishop’s seat.

Bishops also handled contract disputes: in an age where most people could neither read nor write, and, long before the doctrine of consideration was even thought of, agreements were customarily confirmed with the sanction of an oath made before witnesses. Breach of an agreement meant a breach of faith, which was a crime in the eyes of the Church. Even down to the present day “good faith” is part of contract law, and bits and pieces of medieval canon law have survived under the heading of equity.

And that’s just the legal side. The Church controlled all communications. It was the internet of its day. If one king wanted to send a message to another, it had to be heard by a priest in the local tongue, translated into Latin, carried overland, and then translated from Latin into the language of the receiving kingdom. (And we thought the old telephone modems were slow.)

The Church was an indispensable tool of the throne’s political messaging as well. In an era without mass communication and a population that was mostly illiterate, bishops told the lowly parish priests what to preach to their flocks every Sunday.

The positions of cardinal, bishop and abbott were important not only because of their legal roles, but also because they were lucrative. Bishops and abbots were often among the largest landowners in an era when land was the predominant form of wealth.

By the mid-14th century, at the height of Edward III’s reign, the old Concordat of Worms was no longer working very well for England. There had been some developments on the ground that impelled a response.

First, Edward III had to deal with the Avignon papacy. For about sixty years popes had resided not in Rome, but in Avignon, France. This wasn’t good for England. The Avignon popes were subject to undue influence, if not outright control, by the French king. Since England and France were in the middle of the Hundred Years War, this did not sit well with Edward III.

The Avignon popes also liked to flex their theological muscle to show that they were still popes, even though they weren’t in Rome, and controlling foreign benefices was an important muscle to flex. A “provisor” was a nominee to an English benefice who had been named by a “provision” from the pope. So Edward III was faced with a situation in which his enemy, France, had substantial control over law, spirituality, communications, and wealth in his kingdom.

This must have really irritated Edward III because, militarily, he was in a strong position. In 1346 he’d won a major victory over the French at Crecy, in northern France, and he had put the Pas de Calais firmly under English control.

As if things weren’t complicated enough already, the Black Death had arrived in England in June 1348. By the summer of the following year it had killed anywhere from 40% to 60% of England’s population. Since the Black Death did not distinguish peasant from prelate, a large number of English benefices became vacant, and the pope in Avignon was busy “provising” their replacements. The upshot was that by 1351 almost all the benefices in England were in the hands of foreigners appointed by a pope under the French thumb.

Edward III’s Statute of Provisors found this situation was “to the damage and destruction of the whole realm.” The statute imposed a penalty on any person attempting to disturb the “canonical order” by asserting any rights of a papal provisor to any bishopric in England. The provisor, together with his advocates and his retinue, were to be arrested and brought before the king’s court to answer for their offense. If found guilty, they would be imprisoned until they renounced any papal provision and found someone to stand surety that they would not re-offend.

All this may seem rather distant, but on reflection some parallels with Brexit become apparent.


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