Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nanny state, circa 1433

I am now in the "Of the Food and Diet of the English" chapter of A Description of Elizabethan England, as republished from the Holinshed Chronicles (c. 1577, 1587) in the Harvard Classics. Toward the front of it is this somewhat remarkable passage:

In Scotland likewise they have given themselves (of late years to speak of) unto very ample and large diet, wherein as for some respect nature doth make them equal with us, so otherwise they far exceed us in over much and distemperate gormandise, and so ingross their bodies that divers of them do oft become unapt to any other purpose than to spend their times in large tabling and belly cheer. Against this pampering of their carcasses doth Hector Boethius in his description of the country very sharply inveigh in the first chapter of that treatise. Henry Wardlaw also, bishop of St. Andrews, noting their vehement alteration from competent frugality into excessive gluttony to be brought out of England with James the First (who had been long time prisoner there under the fourth and fifth Henries, and at his return carried divers English gentlemen into his country with him, whom he very honourably preferred there), doth vehemently exclaim against the same in open Parliament holden at Perth, 1433, before the three estates, and so bringeth his purpose to pass in the end, by force of his learned persuasions, that a law was presently made there for the restraint of superfluous diet; amongst other things, baked meats (dishes never before this man’s days seen in Scotland) were generally so provided for by virtue of this Act that it was not lawful for any to eat of the same under the degree of a gentleman, and those only but on high and festival days. But, alas, it was soon forgotten!
Alas, my foot.

By the way, meat generally meant food in general a few centuries back, not necessarily flesh. So, I'm not sure what exactly was meant to be under Wardlaw's ban, but, well, nobody tells me what to cook in my kitchen or serve in my house, thanks, and I don't want others to be bossed in that way, either. Plus, I'm decidedly opposed to governments having one set of rules for persons of high estate and another for common folk. Silly me.

I am not advocating obesity, by the way. It looks so dreadfully uncomfortable, it does get in the way of being able to do some things, and it can cause problems for other people. (If you know a fireman or paramedic or mortician, and he feels comfortable taking you into his confidence, he could probably tell you some hair-raising stories about rescuing or transporting fat people. For that matter, nurses have their own experiences. And...) And of course I think people should be held accountable in some fashion if they are recklessly fatalistic about germs and are cooking for an unsuspecting public. I just don't think government exists to tell people what cookbooks to use or what food dishes may be invented or on which days you may cook what. Or, for that matter, to tell civilians at large how much they are allowed to weigh. Silly me, again.

By the way, I am beginning to think that one of the too-little-appreciated touches of genius in the founding of the United States of America is that our founders set up obstacles to litter the path of a do-gooder or busybody who wants to use government to punish anybody who doesn't want to ride his favorite hobbyhorse, particularly if the hobbyhorse isn't on the list of legitimate government functions. (Enough of a mix of metaphors for you there? My apologies to language purists. Well, and the rest of you, too. It's late and it's been a long day. May I use that for some sort of feeble excuse? No? Well, of course not. I'll try to do better from here on out...)

That so many social engineering types have managed to dance past the obstacles by declaring the rules passé is another story. (These folks are generally fond of calling the constitution a Living Constitution, by which phrase, as far as I can determine, they mean that they've declared parts of it dead. 'Reinterpretation' is so much handier than that pesky amendment process, I guess.) The fact remains that our founders drew definite boundaries and told government officials they couldn't step out of them in their capacity as governors, because (get this) they don't have any right to do so. There are, they said, limits to what government should even try to do. The founders even, bless their hearts, set up watchtowers and barricades and armories in the form of separation of powers, so that, if need be, one branch of government could beat back another branch of government that it caught trying to storm the realm reserved for personal responsibility.

It's a noble experiment, trying to establish a government that protects even otherwise-powerless people from abuse of power instead of (as has happened so often in history) shoving out-of-favor residents around however the wind blows, to please a covey of well-connected and/or wealthy and/or vicious and/or paranoid and/or power drunk individuals. Could we, possibly, try to get back to the nice experiment, please? I don't think we're giving it a fair enough trial these days.

For any of you scratching your heads, wondering how in the world you could make a better world without government taking charge of the project, may I just say that families, neighborhoods, churches, service clubs, and even total strangers who happened upon calamity have managed to help folks in need for centuries now (at the very least). For that matter, I doubt that the original Good Samaritan was the original compassionate fellow, nor even the first person to have a practical head as well as a caring heart.

And, how's this? If you'd like to change the world, have you heard of discussion? Of laying out your case in a polite, logical fashion to try to convince someone to change his opinion on something?

Have you heard of setting a good example?

Or offering even just a word of encouragement, when someone's trying to change for the better?

I know that simply assigning government to do the mucky work can seem like a good deal. But, it seems to me, it depends on getting very virtuous, intelligent and wise individuals in the right offices, and hoping they can, against the odds, be nimble and flexible enough to deal with problems as they are as they arise, and not problems as foreseen or guessed at by the folks who got on a hobbyhorse and passed however many laws they thought would promote their cause. (Or consolidate their power, as the case might be.)

We've tried that a while. The results have been less than stellar, I'd say, with a marked drop-off in civility as partisans fight down and dirty for a chance to wield instead of dodge the ever-larger sledgehammer that government has become.

And now, thanks to aggressive government (and government-backed) meddling in recent years, we have swarms of people more or less trained to stay out of the way and let government take care of an astonishing array of problems, either out of a strangely-optimistic view that 'the government' is good at this sort of thing, or out of fear that some perhaps unknown, possibly counter-intuitive, perhaps insane, regulation will be triggered and bring penalties down on their head if they get involved. (You may now invoke the sledgehammer mental image, if you'd like. Or envision a bulldozer, if you'd rather. Or a plow. Or a minefield.) This is, I would like to suggest, probably not the best sort of government/citizenry interaction possible.

I might also venture to say that, in and of itself, it seems, on the face of it, inherently unwise to train people to distance themselves from the concept of personal responsibility.

We also have swarms of people for whom the government is now seen, apparently, as Arbitrator of All Things, or something close to it; additionally, a Dispenser (and/or Guardian) of Respect. These people, I propose, are, for starters, perhaps a little confused on what creates respect. But I digress.

Previous related post: A course in the classics

Update: Later in the chapter, there's the following, which includes another 'how or when you are allowed to eat' edict. It doesn't qualify as Nanny State behavior, unless the Normans meant the restrictions for the improved personal health of the inhabitants (I doubt that, but any historians out there who know about this time period, please feel free to weigh in), but I think it's interesting, as long as we're discussing what people in power sometimes try to do. I've added the emphasis:

Heretofore there hath been much more time spent in eating and drinking than commonly is in these days; for whereas of old we had breakfast in the forenoon, beverages or nunchions 6 after dinner, and thereto rear suppers generally when it was time to go to rest ( a toy brought into England by hardy Canutus, and a custom whereof Athenæus also speaketh, lib. I, albeit Hippocrates speaks but of twice at the most, lib. 2, De rat vict. in feb ac). Now, these odd repasts—thanked be God!—are very well left, and each one in manner (except here and there some young, hungry stomach that cannot fast till dinner-time) contenteth himself with dinner and supper only. The Normans, misliking the gormandise of Canutus, ordained after their arrival that no table should be covered above once in the day, which Huntingdon imputeth to their avarice; but in the end, either waxing weary of their own frugality, or suffering the cockle of old custom to overgrow the good corn of their new constitution, they fell to such liberty that in often-feeding they surmounted Canutus surnamed the Hardy. For, whereas he covered his table but three or four times in the day, these spread their cloths five or six times, and in such wise as I before rehearsed. They brought in also the custom of long and stately sitting at meat, whereby their feasts resembled those ancient pontifical banquets whereof Macrobius speaketh (lib. 3, cap. 13), and Pliny (lib. 10, cap. 10), and which for sumptuousness of fare, long sitting, and curiosity shewed in the same, exceeded all other men’s feasting; which fondness is not yet left with us, notwithstanding that it proveth very beneficial for the physicians, who most abound where most excess and misgovernment of our bodies do appear, although it be a great expense of time, and worthy of reprehension. For the nobility, gentlemen, and merchantmen, especially at great meetings, do sit commonly till two or three of the clock at afternoon, so that with many it is a hard matter to rise from the table to go to evening prayer, and return from thence to come time enough to supper….

(I'd say the author, William Harrison, had some strong opinions on how people should eat, yes?)

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