The 1,000 Year Argument

Don’t Let Your Dreams Be Dreams

Historically, personhood is something that was invented then forced onto lords and elites alike against the will of thousands of years of traditional social and legal power structures. The meaning and application of personhood — legal recognition of the individual, voting rights, the ability to enter into contracts, basic social standing — has been a thousand-year struggle against forces ancient and feudal. In ancient times, the basic organizational structure was the family and clan or tribe; the family — its honor and property and rights — operated as a unit incapable of being broken down further.[1] Rituals and gods were possessions of the family, and these families then formed the larger family of the city-state, which affixed greater unifying rituals and gods to somewhat unify this collection of families.[2] The orbit of each family within the social and legal universe was determined by status and class; each sub-population was assigned its own rights and responsibilities — or lack thereof. An individual was nowhere to be found.

Wait. There was a renaissance before the Renaissance?

Charles, on the road to becoming Charlemagne, catalyzed what was to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance in many ways — there were the usual scholars and schools — but perhaps his most lasting contribution was the invention of the individual. A key to creating and recognizing individuals is by requiring oaths of the people — not just the lords or the knights — but all the people “without exception.” Oath-taking in this manner wasn’t so much a question of what was being promised to the King of the Franks but rather that the King would want anything from the dirty and desperate poor. Such oaths were taken by the individual rather than a class or clan, which was inconceivable in the ancient world. And as Christianity had much of its roots in the rural poor and Roman slaves, Charlemagne’s oath-taking project was especially targeted to the rural poor. Over the next two centuries, the church held councils (town halls) across Western Europe and required oaths; peasants responded with enthusiasm because it was a sign that someone — the King! — recognized them. This oath-taking project was a recognition of each individual — each soul — by the political sphere. And as castle-mania swept Europe in the tenth century with local lords desiring to demonstrate their wealth and authority, the church responded by erecting churches and cathedrals even in peasant towns as a balance against the potential arbitrary power of the prince. And so European towns developed as scales with the castle weighing on one end and the church on the other, the former the rapacious protector of the assets of the fiefdom and the latter the shepherd of these newly minted individual souls. These churches — response and resistance to political power — offered ritual and stained glass windows and community meetings that recognized and gave contour to these new individual identities. These efforts ended the practice of ancient slavery as no man could own another’s soul.[4]

Charlemagne sent his boys to Baghdad to pick up an elephant. Seriously.
Aachen Cathedral. Built by order of Charlemagne. Consecrated in 805. Charlemagne was buried there in 814 (don’t worry he was already dead).

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Such efforts promoted the status of the poor but also demoted the status of lords, since the church made clear “the authority of the pontiffs is all the greater” because the church must render an account of souls — the same souls that take oaths and enter contracts.[6] Writing to Louis II in 881, Hincmar[7] argued “While living amidst the pomp of your ancestors, ask yourself where your ancestors died and now repose; so that your heart does not become puffed up in the face of him who died for you and for all of us, and who was then raised from the dead, and no more dies. And be certain that you will die. But the holy church with its leaders, under the Christ, its sovereign leader, and according to his promise, will remain eternally.” In the East, the church served the nation and its government; but in the West, the church sought to be part of the government — not that it wanted to pave roads and lay sewage pipes but rather that the operation of government and application of its laws would carry with it the moral imprimatur of Christianity. Western Europe was largely governed by local princes, and regardless of the Church’s efforts, much political power still lay with these princes, but the church would establish a universal status of personhood, sought to limit the arbitrary power of princes and privileged classes, and created a continental identity. The two-century journey catalyzed by Charlemagne to establish universal personhood was not a coherent effort, but it did mark the end of the basic assumption of human inequality that had marked humankind up to that point. Plato’s Republic was dead. Christian slavery was dead. And over the next millennium, the fruits of personhood would grow from this fertile ground.

The Practical Application of Souls

The meaning and application of universal personhood developed over the next thousand years. The unborn was generally recognized with personhood, which not only affected abortion laws but homicide (if one murders a pregnant woman, is the charge for one or two homicides?) and inheritance (can the unborn’s inheritance vest in utero?). Women found guilty and sentenced to death could plead pregnancy, as the state was permitted to execute only the woman, and thus the execution would be delayed. So recognition of pre-natal personhood affected the law in many areas. For centuries, the standard for personhood was “quickening,” which broadly meant the pregnant woman could feel movement in the womb (“quick” just means “alive” or “living,” as in “the quick and the dead”). In the 1830s, the British medical community determined that life — as something that is living and part of the human species — begins at conception. Thus, quickening laws were rewritten over the next few decades to recognize conception as the catalyst for personhood. Many of the same state legislative committees that ratified the Fourteenth amendment wrote the new conception statutes. By the 1870s, from New York to Ohio, personhood began at conception.

Personhood and Privileged Classes

I suspect that the pro-choice crowd fears a Supreme Court review of Roe v Wade not because there’s a chance that justices will ban abortion; not a single justice in the last 50 years has stated or implied that he or she would vote thusly. The most conservative position, such as Scalia’s, holds that the constitution is silent on abortion and thus would leave the legality of abortion up to the states.

The Madness of Equality

Personhood and thus individual agency was created by that mid-eighth century boy who finagled his way to King and then, using the leverage of the church, established in law the individual soul. This energized peasant movements and was irreparably subversive to the ancient regime. Charlemagne was, in a very real sense, the first modern Western populist. Over the next two centuries, groups of peasants occasionally revolted from their lords, decided to manage their own affairs, elected their own government and ignored everyone else. Monks began to elect their own abbots and ignored the local prince, their benefactor and even the local bishop; they reported only to the Pope. The uniformity of culture that developed around individual agency enabled a mosaic of local cultures and governments that catalyzed the dynamism of Renaissance Europe. And it started with the horrifying new reality that a semi-toothed lice-infested dirt farmer could sue a prince for stealing his goats.

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