Millers and Monopoly
Chalcedon Report No. 120, August 1975
One of the more important people in medieval life was the miller. Then, far more than now, bread was basic to man’s diet and life. In terms of estate and calling, the miller should have been one of the more highly esteemed men in the community, because his was a most necessary function. In reality, he was one of the most hated of men.
Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims delighted in hearing a ribald story about a miller, because all shared the common dislike for millers. A medieval riddle asked, “What is the boldest thing in the world?” Answer: “A miller’s shirt, for it clasps a thief by the throat daily.” All kinds of laws were passed to try to control millers, but they failed, because the heart of the problem was not dealt with.
The problem was monopoly. The millers, working under a lord, an abbot or bishop, or the Knights Templars, were granted a monopoly on all milling in their area. No man could go to another miller, or use a hand mill, except on severe penalty and serious trouble. This monopoly, very profitable to the miller and his overlord, also meant no competition and, as a result, high and exorbitant profits as well as great inefficiency. The fee for milling was more than a fee: it was a harsh and brutal tax on the people. Chaucer said of his miller that the man knew how to steal grain and to charge thrice over for milling it, and yet was reasonably honest as millers go!
The miller was a necessary member of society, but, because his position had been used to gain a stranglehold over the people, men did everything possible to avoid using his services, to gain other means of food, and to undercut the prestige and position of the miller. From a social necessity, the miller had descended to the level of a social plague.
There was nothing in milling as such to make millers evil men, any more than there is anything in church or state as such to make either by nature and necessity evil. In fact millers, despite their disrepute in medieval England, were obviously superior people, because their descendants, who today bear the name Miller, have a long and demonstrable record of superiority. Criminals and welfare recipients bearing that name are uncommon.
The problem was that, what should have been an honorable estate and calling was turned into a vicious monopoly and a social plague. Millers were problems, not mainstays, to medieval man.
The analogy to the modern state is an obvious one. Instead of confining itself to the realm of civil justice, the modern humanistic state has extended a monopolistic power over one area of life after another. As the central means of protection against criminals and against foreign invaders, it has a necessary function, and the loyalty and patriotism it once inspired was great. As the monopolistic oppressor, it has become a feared and hated enemy, an oppressive taxing power whose exactions are beginning to destroy society. The most elementary function of the state is policing, but Americans are now spending more money on private forms of policing than the state does. This is a clear indication that the state, in its quest for power, is failing to discharge its most elementary and basic service. The failure of the modern state is thus far greater than the failure of the medieval miller, or, for that matter, the medieval church. The monopoly enjoyed by church and miller led to their rejection, and today there are on all sides signs of a growing disillusionment and incipient rejection of the modern humanistic state.
The matter has been very aptly summed up in the title of an excellent article in the February 1975 number of the California Real Estate magazine, written by a friend of Chalcedon, Frank J. Walton, “Government: It’s the Problem, Not the Solution.” Men have been asking the problem to give the answers.
It has been man’s faith in the state, his humanism, which has led him into his present crisis, and disillusionment is not enough to take him out of it. Some of the best analyses of the decay of Rome, written by Romans of the day, were also the most impotent of statements. Problems do grow so great that awareness of them is finally inescapable for most men, but we have too long labored under the silly idea that knowing the problem is half the answer. Knowing the problem is simply knowing the problem.
The Bible gives us God’s answer. It rests first of all in His regenerating power, and, second, in the application of His law to the problems of life. The answer is not in man’s hatred, nor in man’s love, nor is it a new combination of men and organizations. Scripture gives us God’s plan of action for victory, for the godly reconstruction of all things according to His law and under the authority of His Son.
There is no greater sign of hope today than our world crises: they witness to the collapse of the enemy’s power and the impossibility of his world plan. If all were going well today, then we would indeed have cause to tremble and to be afraid, because it would mean the decay of justice, judgment, and mercy. It would mean that God’s mercy had been withdrawn from us. But our crises are evidences of God’s judgment against the present world order, and we had better see them as such; they are evidences of the decay and approaching collapse of world humanism and its dreams.
Look to your foundations: if they are being shaken, you are in the wrong camp, or else you are placing your trust in what must pass away.
Topics: Business, Economics, Government, Humanism, Justice