Friday, February 15, 2008

Justice denied, justice upheld

Ken Follett weaves a marvelous tale set in 12th century England in his The Pillars of the Earth. Drop in for a moment to witness justice denied to a laboring girl and to see what happens when, just in time, relief arrives.

Next, two young men dragged a whole sack of wool up to the counter. The merchant examined it carefully. "It's a full sack, but the quality's poor," he said. "I'll give you a pound."

Aliena wondered how he could be so sure the sack was full. Perhaps you could tell with practice. She watched him weigh out a pound of silver pennies.

Some monks were approaching with a huge cart piled high with sacks of wool. Aliena decided to get her business done before the monks. She beckoned to Richard, and he dragged their sack of wool off the cart and brought it up to the counter.

The merchant examined the wool. "Mixed quality," he said. "Half a pound."

"What?" Aliena said incredulously.

"A hundred and twenty pennies," he said.

Aliena was horrified. "But you just paid a pound for a sack!"

"It's because of the quality."

"You paid a pound for poor quality!"

"Half a pound," he repeated stubbornly.

The monks arrived and crowded the stall, but Aliena was not going to move: her livelihood was at stake, and she was more frightened of destitution than she was of the merchant. "Tell me why," she insisted. "There's nothing wrong with the wool, is there?"


"Then give me what you paid those two men."


"Why not?" she almost screamed.

"Because nobody pays a girl what they would pay a man."

She wanted to strangle him. He was offering her less than she had paid. It was outrageous. If she accepted his price, all her work would have been for nothing. Worse than that, her scheme for providing a livelihood for herself and her brother would have failed, and her brief period of independence and self-sufficiency would be over. And why? Because he would not pay a girl the same as he paid a man!

The leader of the monks was looking at her. She hated people to stare at her. "Stop staring!" she said rudely. "Just do your business with this godless peasant."

"All right," the monk said mildly. He beckoned to his colleagues and they dragged up a sack. . . .

. . . "How many sacks have you got?" said the merchant.

A young monk in novice's robes said: "Ten," but the leader said: "No, eleven." The novice looked as if he was inclined to argue, but he said nothing.

"That's eleven and a half pounds of silver, plus twelvepence." The merchant began to weigh out the money.

"I won't give in," Aliena said to Richard. "We'll take the wool somewhere else--Shiring, perhaps, or Gloucester."

"All that way! And what if we can't sell it there?"

He was right--they might have the same trouble elsewhere. The real difficulty was that they had no status, no support, no protection. The merchant would not dare to insult the monks, and even the poor peasants could probably cause trouble for him if he dealt unfairly with them, but there was no risk to a man who tried to cheat two children with nobody in the world to help them.

The monks were dragging their sacks into the merchant's shed. As each one was stashed, the merchant handed to the chief monk a weighed pound of silver and twelve pennies. When all the sacks were in, there was a bag of silver still on the counter.

"That's only ten sacks," said the merchant.

"I told you there were only ten," the novice said to the chief monk.

"This is the eleventh," said the chief monk, and he put his hand on Aliena's sack.

She stared at him in astonishment.

The merchant was equally surprised. "I've offered her half a pound," he said.

"I've bought it from her," the monk said. "And I've sold it to you." He nodded to the other monks and they dragged Aliena's sack to the shed.

The merchant looked disgruntled, but he handed over the last pound bag and twelve more pennies. The monk gave the money to Aliena.

She was dumbstruck. Everything had been going wrong and now this complete stranger had rescued her--after she had been rude to him, too!

Richard said: "Thank you for helping us, Father."

"Give thanks to God," said the monk.

Aliena did not know what to say. She was thrilled. She hugged the money to her chest. How could she thank him? She stared at her savior. He was a small, slight, intense-looking man. His movements were quick and he looked alert, like a small bird with dull plumage but bright eyes. His eyes were blue, in fact. The fringe of hair around his shaved pate was black streaked with gray, but his face was young. Aliena began to realize that he was vaguely familiar. Where had she seen him before?

The monk's mind was going along the same path. "You don't remember me, but I know you," he said. "You're the children of Bartholomew, the former earl of Shiring. I know you've suffered great misfortunes, and I'm glad to have a chance to help you. I'll buy your wool anytime."

Aliena wanted to kiss him. Not only had he saved her today, he was prepared to guarantee her future! She found her tongue at last. "I don't know how to thank you," she said. "God knows, we need a protector."

Well, now you have two," he said. "God and me."

Aliena was profoundly moved. "You've saved my life, and I don't even know who you are," she said.

"My name is Philip," he said. "I'm the prior of Kingsbridge. (pages 389-391)


Janet said...

It's a good story...but as a woman, it still bothers me. The lady had to be "saved" by a man because the system didn't allow her to receive equality on her own.

I don't think the story goes far enough...and I don't think it's justice. Instead of the monks "purchasing" it from her so that they could sell it for her, I would have hoped that they would have denied the man their business of 10 sacks until he agreed to purchase hers for the same amount as any other person's. That would be justice in my mind.

Larry James said...

Janet, as a man, it bothers me too. That's why I put it up! Remember, this is 12th century England and we still have parallel realities affecting women today. I also posted it to demonstrate that systems harm people--hard working people. As you likely have noted, some who visit here don't seem to believe that the system is the problem. You know, all about individual effort as the only thing that matters or holds folks back. I also posted because this story showed how people of faith and a communitiy of faith regarded, and ought to regard today, injustice. If communities of faith acted against the prevailing system like this monk, we would have far less injustice and oppression.

Anonymous said...

Janet, seeing your comment, I think now of Larry's previous post. Part of his message was that some assistance must come from outside the community to deal with the reality that the system is broken. In this story, the kids harvested the wool (a beginning inside the oppressed community) and needed help to get a fair return on their effort.

The story's message isn't anti-feminist: the man intervened, not because the woman was inherently incapable, but because the woman was inherently valuable and faced an unjust system.

You are partly correct to say that she didn't receive justice. She got just compensation and guarantees of future just compensation, but she got no guarantee of a future system free of injustice. I think that's unavoidable: injustice, however well ameliorated, is here to stay. The question is this: does her savior become her patron? You must know well from CDM that settling for patronage is no victory, but that getting outside help is a blessing.

I think that what the woman got was a parallel system (alongside and interacting with the unjust system) among those of good will that created a community of mutual support. That's the best we can hope for in a world where injustice cannot be eliminated. It is, in fact, what you're creating at CDM.

By the way, I'd bet that the monk goes to the mat for her next time if the merchant, savvy to their agreement, tries to low-ball their combined transaction. At some point, those of good will who can receive the benefits of the unjust system have to engage in non-violent resistance and then suffer the consequences (e.g., no sale) imposed by the system.

Jeff W

Eric Livingston said...

Good story.

The part that struck me was the monk's response when the girl expresses thanks. He says "God and me." We have such a wonderful blessing in our call to participate in God's mysterious workings in His Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

Karen said...

Gosh, guys, thanks for explaining to Janet and the rest of us women reading this how to understand injustice against women in systems, ancient and modern!

Larry James said...


SeriousSummer said...

It's the 12th century. I think expecting an unequivocal statement of equal rights for women is a bit optimistic. People still believed in the Divine Right of Kings, the Chain of Being, imprisonment for debt, torture, witches and killing heretics.

The concept of the boycott (which Janet is advocating) wasn't invented as a term until the 19th century--by the Irish, of course.

If you apply modern standards of morality that far back in history, then I don't think there is very much that you will find palatable.

Better to understand old stories in their context, or as parables, or as standing, metophorically, for important principles.

Or else, not to bother with them.

In this case, what I find interesting is the brutal application of free market principles. The storekeeper acts directly to maximize his profit. He pays the women less because he can. He pays the monks more because he must. It is not a matter of making a "fair" profit, but of maximizing gain.

It shows the fallacy of believing that the market acts equitably in light of the disparate bargaining power of the parties.

Like the storekeeper, employers don't pay a fair wage, they pay the lowest amount they can without regard to its fairness. Like the hungry women, employees often take what they are offered because, without intervention by someone with more power (the monk; the government by establishing a minimum wage), they have no choice.