Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Universal Spider

I'm reading Louis XI: The Universal Spider by Paul Murray Kendall, which seems to be the only book in English on this king. The 15th century struck me as a fertile background for romantic drama. It has colorful figures such as Joan of Arc and Francois Villon. The period is late middle ages, with lots of intrigue among many factions.

At this time local dukes and barons and so on had a lot of power. The Duke of Burgundy was actually more powerful than the King of France. Louis XI in effect ended the middle ages by consolidating royal power and creating the modern nation-state with centralized power. Doubtless this is enough to make him a great villain to anarchists and libertarians. But what better provides justice, peace and liberty, feudalism or the nation-state? Doesn't the market work more efficiently among nation-states than among a crazy quilt of duchies and fiefdoms?

Louis kept his tenuous hold on power through a network of spies, thus his nickname "The Universal Spider." This spider sat at the center of his web and knew everything that was happening not only in France but in England, Italy and elsewhere. This raises the question: can good come through evil means? Or does a good end make all means good? If the USA tortures to defend its freedom, does that make torture good? There is a difference between murder and killing in self-defense, right? Purpose determines whether an action is good or bad.

I have long maintained that all historical dramas set in pre-capitalist times are fantasies. They might not have overt fantasy elements, but these stories have little to do with the reality of pre-capitalist life. The brutality and deprivation of life back then is so disturbing and alienating that a realistic portayal would detract from anything I, for one, would want to write. Historical dramas are greatly romanticized.

Just to give a few examples of the brutality, Louis was once so outraged by the report of a messenger that he wanted the poor fellow tied in a sack and thrown in a river. He was talked out of it and the messenger merely spent months in a dungeon.

When young Louis led a band of freebooters looting Alsace -- an act that rocked all of Europe and made everyone take note of this new force on the scene -- the freebooters liked to stuff a peasant in a chicken coop then rape his wife on top of the coop. Ghastly stuff. That the freebooters would get their kicks from this is evidence of how living in a "might makes right" culture perverts a man's psychology.

Louis was not all bad. He was on the side of the towns people and the merchants, who looked to him for national security against the rapacious nobility. These merchants and towns people would become the great middle class of capitalism.

Louis was phenomenally organized and energetic. His top value was competence; his messages are filled with commands like, "See that there are no slip-ups!" When he found a competent man he would be loyal to him even when such loyalty was not necessarily in his interest.

Louis cared nothing for luxury or the rituals of state. He wore modest clothes and did almost nothing but work and hunt during his waking hours.

History is for the most part the story of thievery. The Romans were glorified gangsters when it comes down to it. The Vikings were glorified pirates. Diplomacy is the polite phase of extortion and blackmail before the phase of war.

It makes one appreciate all the more the thinkers and producers who somehow brought man out of this world lit only by fire.


Anonymous said...

There's a good novel by Samuel Shellabarger, called The King's Cavalier, set about the time and place you describe here - France, 16th century, I believe.

Shellabarger is a good plot writer, with good value conflicts. He also wrote Prince of Foxes, and Captain from Castille, which were made into movies starring Tyrone Power.

And while on the subject of excellent historical dramas, and leaders who insist on competence, I have to recommend the outstanding Korean tv series/drama, Dae Jang Geum.

The Korean King was so set on having the most competent people serving him and the nation, that he broke with all tradition and appointed a female - Jang Geum - as the Royal Physician.

It's the best television I've seen since Perry Mason.


Myrhaf said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Chuck.

Kim said...

I didn't know Louis XVI was actually calculating. I thought (recognizing I 'don't know much about history') he was just an incompetent.

Myrhaf said...

Kim, I was talking about Louis XI.