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On the history of death and taxes

I have recently been suffering from one of those annoying state-of-the-art flu bugs that made me properly ill for only a few days, but which then hasn’t allowed me to get truly better for another month. I still await full functionality.

When in such a state, I find serious writing difficult. (I can still manage unserious writing.) But what I really like to do when thus semi-incapacitated, is to read. And there is nothing, I find, like reading well-written history about long-ago times to make me count my modern blessings and cheer me up.

I recently began what looks like being a very good book about King Edward I. (A short excerpt from this book, on the subject of medieval historical evidence, can be read here.) Edward I was the English monarch who won the Battle of Crécy, and who soon after that presided – if that’s the right word – over the Black Death. You want a bug? That was a bug.

But I haven’t got to the Black Death bits yet. …

(LATER: And I won’t ever. I’m muddling Edward I up with Edward III, see commenter number one below, to whom thanks, and with apologies to everyone else. Edward III was the victor of Crécy, and I will wait in vain for anything about the Black Death in this book. I will be learning about such persons as Simon de Montfort. But the Black Death was, as I have read elsewhere, very nasty.)

… In the bits I have read so far, Edward is still a teenager, and his dad, Henry III, is fretting about how to crush a rebellion in his French possessions, and in particular (p. 16), how to persuade his English subjects to foot the bill for that enterprise:

The obvious solution was to impose a general levy on everyone – a tax – and Henry’s immediate predecessors had on occasion done just that. King Richard and King John had found that they could raise huge sums in this way – England, it bears repeating, was a rich and prosperous country – but such taxes proved highly unpopular, …

It is always worth keeping an eye out for a use of the word “but” when it would make more sense to have encountered the word “and”, or “therefore”. The unpopularity of taxes in England on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that England was a rich and prosperous country sound to me a lot like a cause and an effect. But the way that modern-day author Marc Morris phrases it, if your country is rich, it can accordingly afford to pay higher taxes without its richness being in any way disturbed.

It was this next bit that made me laugh out loud:

… but such taxes proved highly unpopular, and were regarded as tantamount to robbery.

Ah those medieval fools, so lacking in our modern grasp of the obvious and fundamental differences between taxes and robbery!

Here is a way in which things – things that in general are so much better now than then – have actually got worse.

I do not want to single out Marc Morris for criticism here. He is only describing matters in a way that most of his readers will immediately understand. Taxation? Of course. What he personally thinks about the idea of there now being higher taxes, to pay for such things as foreign wars, now, I do not know. As for me, although I will not live to see it, I look forward to a time when both taxation and death (at the sort of age that I will in due course be encountering it) are thought of in the same kind of way that we now think only of such things as the Black Death.

How on earth could those blundering and miserable twenty-first centurions not understand such obvious ideas?

16 comments to On the history of death and taxes

  • David Graeme

    I hope the statement “Edward I was the English monarch who won the Battle of Crécy” is just a typo. Edward I died in 1307 and the Battle of Crécy was won by Edward III forty years later (Black Prince, and all that). Edward I spent much of his time wrangling with the Scots.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Mr Graeme – it was also Edward III who lived into the era of the Black Death.

    However, Edward the First was a big spending King – and in spite of his taxes, still died insolvent.

    As late the time of James II there was virtually no national taxation in England and Wales (there was the local Poor Law tax and the Church tax or tithe – and there were a handful of excise taxes at national level).

    The land tax was introduced to help finance the wars with France – and I will upset by saying that the Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) was a real threat to this country and to other nations (he was a despot – and a highly expansionist one).

    Sir Robert Walpole reduced the Land Tax to a very low level and tried to abolish it and excise duties on imports – with his suggested general excise tax (a general sales tax) but this was rejected by Parliament.

    Income tax was wildly (and correctly) seen as despotic – as it would require a government inquisition to determine exactly what the income of people was.

    An excise tax on imports, or a land tax (“I see you have X amount of land – so pay us….”) was not seen in quit the same light – especially as (till 1832) Parliament was dominated by the land owners and so could be expected not to loot them.

    From 1867 onwards most voters in Britain did not pay the income tax (the principle form of taxation by that time – having been introduced during the wars with Revolutionary France, then abolished, then reintroduced), a dangerous development.

    Gladstone pledged, as late as the elections of 1874 to abolish the income tax (then less than 2%) but keep free trade – which would have meant that Britain was largely tax free (local tithes having gone by this time – and the Poor Rate greatly reduced by the Act of 1834) – with just a few excise duties (on booze and so on) remaining.

    However, Disraeli won the election in 1874 – and national taxes started to rise.

    Both Gladstone and Disraeli presented themselves as anti income tax – but Disraeli was lying (as was his custom).

    But Gladstone was not blameless – in 1870 he had accepted the Bill which had set up Education Boards in areas that voted for them, that created extensive taxation for education – and forced out private alternatives for the education of the poor (see E.G. West “Education and the State”).

    In the country generally taxation starts to increase from the 1870s onwards.

    The total weight of taxation at the start of this process was very small indeed.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Clang. I have added a big corrective apology into the original text. This was no mere typo. It was a major blunder. Apologies all round, and thanks to David Graeme for pointing out this blunder so quickly.

  • Paul Marks

    The idea of regular taxation was hotly opposed in the Middle Ages.

    The idea was that the King should “live off his own” (his own limited estates) and only have a tax in time of war.

    The French violated this principle before the English did – although the wars with England were to blame (although they also had the good effect of de facto ending serfdom in France – “you are free of serfdom, of course you have to pay the King of France for this boon of freedom – but rejoice you are free” – the myth that the French Revolution ended mass serfdom in France is just that, a myth).

    The French Kings decided that they needed a standing professional army – and a perpetual land tax (modelled on the old Roman practice) to pay for it.

    The French Estates General (the French Parliament) made the terrible mistake of establishing this as a perpetual tax – no need to vote on it regularly.

    This meant that the French Estates General was not really needed by the French Crown and was rarely called.

    The English Parliament was always careful with any MAJOR tax (a few minor excise taxes were for the full reign of a monarch) to demand that tax had to be approved each year – which meant that Parliament had to be called.

    The other great difference is that trial by jury died in France (there had once been juries – indeed there had even been juries in old Republican Rome).

    This meant that not only was there no regular Estates General to limit the power of the King – but that tax disputes were (in most of France) settled by Royal judges (not juries) who tended to find in favour of the State.

    Although there were some areas of France (notably Brittany) where local assemblies dealt with taxation disputes (and so on).

    Such areas of France tended to be much better governed than areas where Royal judges and officials (and the private Tax Farmers) had much greater power.

    Brian is also correct to note that it is the PROPORTION OF THE ECONOMY taken by taxation that matters.

    For example, Edmund Burke pointed out in the 18th century that taxes in Ireland only looked lower than in England – in reality they were much higher (as the population, even the great lords, were much poorer).

    However, one must be careful – for example Latin American taxation looks low (even as a percentage of the economy), it is not really low.

    This is because to live in most Latin American countries (Chile is an exception that springs to mind) – one has to pay bribes to many layers of officials (including the police).

    These bribes are not included in the “tax as a percentage of GDP” figures.

    Of course in the United States some areas are corrupt also – but these areas tend to be areas of high official tax as a percentage of the economy figures anyway.

    New York and California are much more corrupt places than, say, South Dakota – but they are also places where the official taxes are also higher.

    In most of medieval Europe the great exception to the “taxes were only in an emergencies” rule was the tithe (the Church tax).

    This was not really to feed the bellies of fat priests (although there was a bit of that) – it financed a lot of good things also, but it was still a tax (i.e. based on force and fear).

    Nor was it necessary.

    For example Norway was Christian for centuries before the perpetual tithe was imposed.

    Lastly Gough (in his book on John Locke) points out that the slippery move in Locke from individual consent to majority consent would have been denounced in medieval thought.

    It was well known that individual consent and majority consent were different things – and John Locke (well versed in the literature of past ages – as the Reformation had NOT meant a great purge of past learning in Oxford) knew this well.

    So Locke is being a bit slippery – not just falling into an innocent intellectual error.

  • Mr Ed

    Edward I was ‘Longshanks’ and ‘the Hammer of the Scots’, perhaps easier to remember him by those appellations and his antics against the Scots and Welsh rather than a numeral designation. He might come back into fashion in England after May 7th.

  • staghounds

    Here’s an interesting sidelight on how the Black Death’s biological effects affect us still-


  • Paul Marks

    In defence of John Locke – he (and even the Levellers) was firm in the belief that only taxpayers should have the vote.

    He did not support Pericles Athenian or Roman “Populari” politics – where the taxpayers are outvoted by the mass of “tax eaters”.

    For example modern Alabama is often attacked for not allowing local governments the “freedom” to tax and spend as they wish.

    This is for actually for a very good reason.

    In the State as a whole tax payers outnumber tax eaters – but in some local areas this is not so.

    If these cities and so on were allowed the “freedom” to tax, spend and borrow the places would be destroyed.

    Indeed some cities and counties in Alabama which have gained such “freedom” have indeed destroyed themselves.

    The 51% who loot the 49% do not just destroy the 49% – they also destroy themselves (by destroying the economy).

    This is why taxation and voting should be carefully structured so that the voters feel the weight of taxation.

    If everyone has the vote (which is the modern doctrine) than everyone must feel the weight of taxation.

    The best way to do that is via a general sales tax.

    This is how South Dakota finances its State government.

    There is no State income tax or business tax – so no chance of “Class War” politics.

    More government spending means a higher sales tax – which directly hits everyone (not just in the long term, as all taxes do eventually – but at once).

    This is a system of taxation that is consistent with the democratic doctrine that all adults have the vote.

    “But Paul it was also the policy that was rejected by Parliament when Sir Robert Walpole suggested it – and it is a policy once suggested by THOMAS HOBBES – whom you detest”.

    I never said that the sales tax was a good tax (there is no such thing as a good tax), I said it was consistent with democracy.

    A system that relies on property taxes (such as a “mansion tax”) or income taxes, is not consistent with democratic voting – as most voters may not feel the full weight of taxation, and thus Class War politics (looting) can flourish.

    “Ah Paul that is the point of democracy…..”

    Then it is no different from the politics of Pericles and his followers (who ruined Athens).

    Or the politics of the “Populari” in Ancient Rome – who undermined the Republic.

    It is certainly NOT what someone such as President Martin Van Buren meant by “democracy” or being a “democrat”.

    To keep taxes (and government spending) down – most voters must feel the weight of them.

    Not in the long term and indirectly (via a ruined economy), but at once.

    Of the 50 States of the United States – South Dakota may come closest to this principle (especially as it is not particularly dependent on special taxes – such as on gambling or on natural resources).

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – Edward’s (very expensive) invasions of Scotland, were not really successful.

    Even his operations in Wales (which appeared far more successful) were not really so – there were later Welsh revolts.

    Indeed it was not till the time of the Tudors (a Welsh dynasty that came to power after their invasion of 1485) did the Welsh and English come to feel themselves to be one allied peoples.

    If they even do now……..

    Henry VIII (that “mad Welsh adventurer” as David Starkey calls him – although he spent many years in France and so on) went from being a nobody to King of England.

    And his grand daughter Elizabeth was careful to have the Bible translated into Welsh (the Morgan Bible – which swept Wales and became the bed rock of “Bible black” Welsh culture) – the lady showed no such intense interest in having a Bible in Irish and spreading it in Ireland – which may be the reason that most of Ireland stayed Catholic (and fanned the flames of conflict – as a Protestant government was trying to govern a Catholic people).

    I am no fan of the “English Justinian” Edward the First – but then I am no fan of the Emperor Justinian either.

    Even the legal reforms of Edward the first, appear to me to be basically a power grab.

  • Mr Ed

    Henry VIII (that “mad Welsh adventurer” as David Starkey calls him – although he spent many years in France and so on) went from being a nobody to King of England.

    Henry VII, obviously a typo. 🙂

    Scotland is still expensive, but Mr Cameron thinks it worth it.

    Ditto Wales.

    Coming back on thread, politics is the way to carry out taxation with the consent of those who matter to you, and to do so to reward failure and penalise success.

  • Roue le Jour


    Income tax was wildly (and correctly) seen as despotic – as it would require a government inquisition to determine exactly what the income of people was.

    This a point I think which is not made often enough. There are two parts to taxation, assessment and collection. Assessment is in itself an imposition as the revenue requires you to do business in a way which facilitates assessment rather than commerce.

  • Runcie Balspune

    According to Mr James Burke’s rather excellent Connections series, if I recall, the Black Death led to less people, which led to more prosperous workers as there was more demand and less of them, which led to linen being discarded as people could afford new clothes, which was used in high quality paper, that led to an increase in manuscripts and eventually the printing press and the enlightenment. So there (makes best James Burke smug expression).

  • Mr Ed

    That Is one of the memes I have come across. So if James Burke is right, Pitcairn is doing fine with almost no one on it.

  • Regional

    The bigger the city, the bigger the market. More regulations, the more cunning you have to be. Don’t draw attention to yourself and keep your mouth shut.

  • Regional

    7th May will be interesting in that how many people actually turn out to participate in this farce or to put it more politely choose who’s going to butt fuck you.

  • So if James Burke is right, Pitcairn is doing fine with almost no one on it.

    No, because Pitcairn’s main problem is that it is too far from anywhere to truly exploit its appeal as a tourist destination (HMS Bounty and all that) and the size and age of the population means even the plentiful fishing and bountiful agriculture are wasted as there is no market nearby and the population too small to exploit the surplus.

    The fact that the island is still tainted by the incest and sexual abuse (including child sexual abuse) of its leaders doesn’t help either. If you go back to articles published before the trials though, it is clear that the island was dying even then.

    People’s 1989 article on Pitcairn is dying

  • Patrick Crozier

    It seems to me that Marc Morris is a fine historian if something of a leftie. Check out his TV series on castles if you can. He’s also wonderfully sceptical about things like the Magna Carta and de Montfort’s parliament.