Grievances & Mischiefs

     Here’s an interesting old law, and a modern question about it, and a comment about the question.
     Citing “the evils, grievances and mischiefs” which have “impoverished” the nation – particularly the overconsumption of meat – “our Lord the King” hath ordained “that no man, of what estate or condition soever he be, shall cause himself to be served, in his house or elsewhere, at dinner, meal, or supper, or at any other time, with more than two courses, and each mess of two sorts of victuals at the utmost, be it of flesh or fish, with the common sorts of pottage, without sauce, or any other sorts of victuals.”
     Parliament approved the law in 1336, and Edward III approved it in the 10th year of his reign.
     Now here’s the question: Should we consider this law conservative or liberal?
     “Liberal!” today’s Republicans would say, by their dim lights: Government intrusion into private lives, restricting freedom for the presumed good of the people.
     But hold on: Edward was trying to reduce wasteful government expenditure. Who but the nobles – which is to say, the government – could afford meals of more than two courses, be they flesh or fish; and who were the members of government feeding but their enormous retinues?
     Edward, then, through his sumptuary law, was trying to reduce the size of government. So the law is conservative.
     Now here’s the comment about the question: The question is stupid. We can’t judge a 677-year-old law by today’s standards.
     On the other hand, we can’t judge today’s laws by today’s standards either. Not when it comes to the words “liberal” and “conservative,” not in our country. For neither of those words have any meaning anymore in U.S. politics. They are used only for an ill-natured spitting – a fight between deaf, particularly stupid cats.
     Oh, “liberal” means “bad” and “conservative” means “good” when a Republican says them. Yet if you asked a Republican: “Isn’t it true that our government is a liberal democracy?”, can you imagine a one of them coming up with a response that makes sense? Or that they’d even understand the question?
     Conservative Republicans, after all, hate socialism, but say they’ll fight to protect Medicare and Social Security.
     Umm …
     Conservatives want to restrict the power of government – but not of the corporations that write the laws that Congress enacts.
     I hate to leave Democrats out of this, but it’s tough to include them, since they don’t stand for anything anymore. You never hear them saying the words at issue, anyway. Maybe that’s good, since the words no longer mean anything – though more likely the Democrats clam up from their customary cowardice.
     A.J. Froude, in his “History of England,” used Edward III’s law to draw a more sensible distinction. Six hundred years ago, Froude wrote, “while the differences of social degree were enormous, the differences in habits of life were comparatively slight, and the practice of men in these things was curiously the reverse of our own.”
     That is, back in the days when the ideals that would come to form our government were being hammered out, at great cost of lives, nobles and members of government had great status, but day after day they could not eat much better than a commoner.
     Whereas today, we’re all supposed to be equal, more or less, though our “habits of life” separate the rich, and the members of government, from us commoners, by a far greater distance than the villain of 700 years ago ever was separated from his lord.

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