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December 05, 2003

The estate tax and the "Dark Ages"

Recently I heard some people talking about the estate tax (death tax). Someone commented how reducing it might perpetuate *medieval* patterns of familial wealth. All of a sudden a cascade of thoughts were triggered, and I recalled, as noted Adam Bellow's new book on nepotism, "medieval" inheritance laws were much more progressive than classical ones when viewed through the lens of the estate tax, and perhaps more progressive than most modern regimes. As noted by Bellow, the Church in the post-Roman world was active in campaigning against the system of extended families and fictive kinship which characterized European societies. Adoption, bequests to nieces and nephews and incestuous marriages were on the "hit list" of the church. As Bellow notes, with the destruction of the ideological monopoly of the Universal Catholic Church in the 16th century, all of these patterns of social life reappeared in European society. One of the consequences of allowing inheritance only to direct blood descendents in an age with high infant morality was that much of the land went to the Church.

When it is remembered that in the medieval period the Church was much like a state, in form and function, it might be interesting to think that it was a more progressive period as far as wealth distribution across generations than the period after the Reformation. A more general point: the idea of "Dark Age" after the fall of Rome in the 5th century and the rise of the Italian city-states in the 15th needs to be revised. Some history books state clearly that the Dark Age lasted only until 1000, after which the High Middle Ages expressed a far more sophisticated culture. But in the general public, the idea of an uncultured and intellectually narrow period persists. Why is this? I tend to agree with David Gress, who argues in From Plato to Nato that secular intellectuals of the 18th century Enlightenment, and culminating in the seminal 20th century work of historian Will Durant, attempted to minimize the Roman, and especially Christian, element of Western civilization in favor of the Greek Democratic non-Christian tradition. Many children today in the United States think of their nation as the heir of the Athenian democracy, not knowing that our classically educated founders rather self-consciously emulated the Roman republic. Those of us who are consider ourselves secular, but adhere to the faction of Truth, should work to reverse this historic injustice. The period between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance was not a fallow period, but played a crucial role in the incubation of the modern, liberal, ideals of the West.

Posted by razib at 06:04 PM