Bill Long 11/29/05
One More Essay on Ames
Now that Ames has fully confused us, he is ready to get to his main point. He goes on:
"With this step we have a complete formal obligation. Other things came to be used in place of the straw, such as a glove or ring: the engagement ring is a survival of this practice. The name wadia (pledge) was given to the article so presented" (still p. 97).
What makes it a formal obligation? The straw or other sign of the obligation? The ceremony? The fact that the debtor is directly, without the mediation of a surety, indebted to the creditor? Ames makes the interesting observation that other items were later used as pledges, such as rings or gloves, and that engagement rings relate to this custom (I guess the words "distress" and "engagement ring" sometimes do belong in the same sentence). Who or what determined what an acceptable pledge would be? Could you just give over one of a set of gloves when you had lost the matching one in the wash? Sort of like, 'Well, this glove isn't worth anything anymore; might as well use it as a pledge?' I get the impression that the article given must have solemnity attached to it (but why, then, the straw?), but I can't go further than this right now. Let's do a wonderful thing now. Turn the page to p. 98 of Ames' treatment.
From Ceremonies to Writings
Ames has to get us to covenant and to writings in some way. Now he does it.
"When the Germans became familiar with Roman civilization it was natural to put the terms of the agreement into a written document, which was passed to the creditor along with the wadia; and in time the wadia itself was omitted. This document, adding the requirement of a seal to make it formal, is the English covenant" (98).
OK. We cover a lot of ground in this paragraph. Germans connect with Romans. We don't have a time period here, but probably sometime around the 4th or 5th centuries? Your guess is as good as mine. So, somehow the Germans became educated anad started writing, too. Now they decided not only to learn to write but to create documents in which they put words that, I suppose, spoke of the legal obligation to which the former ceremonies pointed. So, I suppose it said, "I am indebted to you for X amount." Ames tells us that the pledges were omitted. Hostages too? Wait a second. Would creditors easily allow themselves to go from hostages + pledges to just a slip of paper? Only a professor, who worships the printed page, could believe such an account. So, Ames gives a completely unconvincing story of why documents replaced hostages/pledges. But, then he says that the seal was added to the document, which may have been true, and this document is "the English covenant." So, therefore, the first English covenants were sealed documents testifying to an indebtedness. Who prepared them? The creditor or the debtor? Well, Ames doesn't tell us, since we are still with the Germans who now have discovered the joys of writing.
The Covenant Document
So, this covenant document is still mighty unclear to me. I suppose it indicates a debt, but who issued it, what it said, and for what reason a creditor would have accepted its legitimacy are still questions whose answers elude me. And, when did all this happen? Where? Now I know why people are so satisfied with science fiction and imaginative literature. Ok, one more paragraph until we quit. Next paragraph.
"The earliest covenants we find in the books seem to touch the land. The earliest instance of a covenant not relating to land is of the time of Edward III. The earliest covenants were regarded as grants, and suit could not be brought on the covenant itself. So a covenant to stand seised was a grant, and executed itself. The same is true of a covenant for the payment of money; it was a grant of the money, and executed itself. For failure to pay the money, debt would lie. Afterwards an action of covenant was allowed, so that to-day there is an option" (98).
On my, I think I will almost be tempted to give up scholarship after looking at this paragraph. So, the previous paragraph gave us the impression that a covenant related to debt and was a sort of statement laying out the debtor's indebtedness to a creditor. Looks like it is much more confusing than that. Why? Because he says that the earliest covenants relate to the land. Now, that provokes some questions. How do you know, first of all, that it is a covenant? What does the document actually look like? If people would just show me history, I would be a much happier person. Ok, next question. Why did you just tell me that the action for debt is the origin of the English covenant and now tell me that the first covenants "touch" the land? Does that mean that the debtor pledged (whoops, we don't use that term anymore), the debtor was liable to lose his land if he didn't pay up?
Confusion reigns. Ok, let's go to the next sentence, where the first covenant not relating to land only goes back to Edward III (reigned 1327-77). Two questions. Does this mean that the covenant which didn't relate to land related to a debt? You see, I am just trying to link his paragraphs in some way. Second, why is it only in Edward III's time (reigned 1327-77), when I thought that covenant flowed like a river right after when the Germans learned to read and write from the Romans?
Let's move on. The earliest covenants were regarded as grants upon which you couldn't sue. Now, if this sentence makes any sense at all, please, someone tell me how it does. I thought that a covenant was a sort of IOU, a piece of paper which replaced the old hostage system, which said you were indebted to someone for some amount. But what does Ames mean when he says that it was a grant? A grant, as far as I know the word, means that something is being given to someone. Then he says that a covenant to stand seised was a grant, and he completely loses me. I can't even limp through the rest of the paragraph. It makes no sense to me. Thus, I have no idea about the idea of covenant in English law, its relationship to anything prior in German law, its connection with a system of pledges, or anything else, really.
When I studied the life and work of the great Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, I learned that this most prolific author actually gave up writing late in 1273 about 3 months before his death, late in 1273 (he was only about 48 at the time; he died in Spring 1274). He attributed this abandonment of writing to a vision that he received of God, a vision which made all written words paltry indeed. After reading James Barr Ames and trying just to understand very simple things, I don't think I need a vision of God to give up the written word.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long