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MIDDLE AGE/ Baldwin’s “Paris, 1200”

MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS comments on John Baldwin’s book “Paris 1200”, about a year in Paris’ history and the relationship between the church and politics, important today as well.  

Notre Dame de Paris Notre Dame de Paris

John Baldwin’s “Paris, 1200 [3]” is a completely different type of history from that contained in the book I last reviewed, Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation.” Where Gregory engaged a broad sweep of history, tracking the interface of ideas and events over several centuries, Baldwin focuses on one city in one year. Nonetheless, this is an important work not only because the precise focus never leads to a narrative bogged down in minutia, but because so many of the issues considered are as perennial as the New England irises I weeded around this weekend.

Quite striking is the level of moral examination of economic decision-making and commerce that existed in 1200, in some ways more than we witness in our own day. Usury was still considered a sin, although we witness the first attempts to differentiate between permissible extensions of credit and usury per se. Nonetheless, usurers had to pay compensation to their victims (what they called victims we would call credit card holders today) before they could be permitted to donate money to the construction of Notre Dame which was then on-going. Conversely, the canon law at the time stated that “a prostitute acts immorally for what she does, but she does not receive money immorally because she is a prostitute.” She had earned her money. The authorities at Notre Dame did not permit a group of prostitutes to donate money for a special window of their own, but they were permitted to donate to the general construction fund. The next time someone uses the adjective medieval as a slur, you might recall this delicious detail to them: The proceeds of banking were concerned ill-gotten but not those of the ladies of the evening. Far be it from me to suggest that our moral compass has improved in the intervening centuries.

Of course, consideration of usury was frequently tied in with anti-Semitism. In the years 1180-1183, the King enacted a series of anti-Jewish measures, concluding in their expulsion from his lands and his confiscation of their property. Contemporary chronicles indicate that the King was motivated in part by religious reasons but certainly his finances, at first, were not harmed by the confiscation. Over time, however, the finances of the realm suffered and in 1198, King Philip permitted the Jews to return to Paris.

Baldwin provides a magnificent portrayal of a few key figures about whom there is sufficient documentary evidence left to construct an historically accurate picture. Philip the Chanter, a key official at Notre Dame and noted theologian shines through as the kind of exemplary figure our Church has need of in every age. A serious scholar, he produced one of the first full commentaries on the entire canon of scripture, not only on the psalms and the Pauline epistles as many of his contemporaries did. Amongst other of his disciples, we can number Stephen Langton, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Innocent III. Although none of Pierre’s sermons survive, we gain a glimpse of his method through a volume that has survived, the Verbum abbreviatum, which combines scriptural and classical citations with commentary from the Church Fathers and a series of “exempla,” little stories that contained moral themes and which were taken from his lectures and debates in the classroom at the cloister of Notre Dame.