Thursday 18 August 2011

Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me!

By Richard Morley.

As I write this the Pope has just arrived at Madrid, Barajas airport and on my TV screen is being greeted by the great and the good. He is here to lead the celebrations for la Jornada Mundial Jóvenes, or World youth day.

His arrival has been preceded over the past few days by an estimated one and a half million pilgrims. Most of them are in their teens or early twenties, although there are a few that most definitely are no longer in the throws of juventud. They seem to be enjoying themselves. As I travelled into the centre of Madrid yesterday evening my Metro carriage was stuffed to the walls with young people wearing the official yellow tee-shirt emblazoned with a giant M. As we alighted at Gran Via station one of their number started to sing and the refrain was picked up by EVERY OTHER similarly clothed person on the platform. The serenade continued as we slowly rose on the escalators to the surface.

There, the normal residents of Montera, famous for its ladies of “negotiable affection”, had been replaced by groups of singing, cheering, flag-waving kids. The neighbouring McDonalds burger joint was packed with hungry youth, the pavements of Gran Via, and side streets, heaving with visitors.

This is August. Normally at this time the streets of  Madrid are comparatively quiet as most residents are on their annual vacations. Seats on the Metro are obtainable as are tables in the restaurants. This week is different.

I walked along Gran Via to Callao where I was meeting a friend. Both of us are fans of Harry Potter and we had arranged to see the ultimate film or the eponymous young wizard. The newly rebuilt Plaza Callao that now boasts an acre of rather boring flat grey stone (criticised in the local press, together with the other newly refurbished plazas of Sol and Isabel II, as “ugly deserts of granite” with little character,) was also crowded with the young pilgrims. Each waved their countries flag around which they grouped. One group of young Filipino boys held a sign optimistically offering “Free hugs and kisses”, another group chanted in time to a noisy vuvuzela. Last year’s world cup in South Africa has a lot to answer for! Another burger joint, Pans and Co and Starbucks next door were packed to the doors. Wherever you looked there were smiles. There was laughter from all directions and in all accents. (Yes, laughter has an accent!)

And it was infectious. It was impossible not to smile. As I said to my friend when she arrived, “There’s are lots of people who have no idea where they are going, but are singing as they go there”.

It has been billed as a “party” for Catholic youth. Unfortunately, every party has its “party-poopers” or “aguafiestas” as they say here. They are saying that it is wrong for Madrid to host such a party at a time when more than twenty percent of the population is out of work. They are claiming that while the government has cut funding for medicine and education the state should not be spending an estimated sixty million euros on just a few days of celebration. Knowing quite a lot of teachers who have felt first hand the effects of the cuts in the education budget it is difficult not to sympathise.

 The Government cut 40 million euros from the education budget, yet it is claimed they are spending 50 million on the pope's visit. AMAL thinks the church should pick up the tab.

Leading the protests against this event has been the Asociación Madrileña de Ateos y Librepensadores, (The Madrid Association of Atheists and Free-thinkers), AMAL. They have been leading a campaign against the use of public funds from taxation being spent for this purpose. There are many who agree with them.

The political sweep though my friends here swings from right(ish), - the days of far right wing in Spain are still active in many people’s memories, - to quite left. I know people who attend mass every week, though those who go for “special occasions” to those who hate any form of Church intervention in affairs of state. As an atheist brought up non-conformist protestant I tend to agree with the latter.

Yet is was hard last night not to join in the obvious joys of the faithful who today will meet their leader. (The TV now shows me that the pope has now arrived in the centre of town. He zoomed from the airport to the centre in the pope-mobile, which travelled at a quite alarming rate. He shot through my barrio so fast that the faithful who had been waiting on the roadside for hours would have missed his passing if they had blinked!) Interviews with people in the waiting crowds displayed an excitement not seen since the victorious Spanish football team returned from the World Cup along the same route.

But last night AMAL thought it was a good time to make their voices heard. They had been organising the protest over several days on Facebook and more than six thousand had declared their intention to attend. The march would begin in the plaza Tirso de Molina and terminate in Sol. This was bad news for my friend and I. Our cinema tickets were for the Cine Ideal, one of the cinemas that shows movies in VO, or original language, and was on the marchers’ route. So I got a close up view of the parade and heard the shouts of the protesters.

They made me angry!

It was meant to be a protest again what they see as a misuse of public money and I am sure that is what the organisers intended. Yet among those who attended the protest were members of the 15M, Democracia, ya! Movement and suddenly the demonstration ceased to be a legitimate protest of taxpayers into a revolt against the church and the pope. Indeed this morning the newspapers are headlining it as an “Antipope protest”, which it was never meant to be.

Within the march were those who held banners proclaiming the moderate atheist view that “you don’t have to believe in a god to be good” and so on, and those who criticised the Catholic Church’s attitude towards contraception, gays and abortion. Unfortunately there were also those who chanted insults, including a ribald rhyme claiming the Virgin Mary to have been a lesbian. This was designed to provoke and insult those who held different opinions. I hope the organisers were ashamed. I hope they point out to their “supporters” that invective and insults can never replace intelligent debate. And it has to be said that today their Facebook page laments the idiocy of some of the marchers.

It has to said that it is reported the government is also a little concerned about what the pope might say during his visit. Spain’s liberal views on gay marriage, abortion and with a contraceptive machine on nearly every street corner and in every metro station has drawn criticism from the Vatican in the past. They are hoping he keeps his orations on matters of youth and away from politics.

Voltaire did not say “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to impose your views on others”. That said though, I have met religious people who feel they do have that right. There’s a right that is wrong. It was probably the case that the “mal educado” in the march were a small minority. The police made a few arrests and there were a few wounded in scuffles. It is also worth a mention that earlier this week a Mexican Catholic youth was arrested by police for threatening to throw acid in the face of any protesting against the pope’s visit.

Official declarations claim that most of the cost of this celebration will be borne from the fees paid by the celebrants, but there are reported to be fifteen thousand police on the streets of Madrid this week. The use of government property for the celebrations does not come cost free and neither do the conversion of Cibeles and Recoletas into a grand outdoor cathedral. All attendees have been given an eighty percent reduction on public transport while those of us who live here are now suffering a fifty percent increase on the cost of a single ticket. The church and state claimed that donations from Spanish companies would also ameliorate the cost, but played down the fact that those companies would be getting an 80% tax break on those contributions. So, that’s more money the state won’t get. One of what I consider to be one of AMAL’s legitimate demands is that the Catholic Church pick up the tab for everything. After all, it is their party!

But theses facts and the protests of the “antipapistas” seem to have no effect whatever on the gathered, celebrating catholic youth in Madrid last night. They continued to sing and dance. The film finished just before midnight. As my friend and I walked through the plaza major en route to Opera metro (Sol station having been closed yet again!) the groups of pilgrims continued to sing from their seats on the terrace cafés and a fairly large group in the centre danced the Macarena - loudly. Scenes on TV right now of the crowds patiently awaiting the pope show lots of high spirits and enjoyment of their life.

In fact TV is showing little else right now. The protesters had their fifteen seconds of fame on the news broadcasts, but its all about the pope. I hope the celebrants will leave for their home countries with good memories of their time in this wonderful town. Judging by the joy on the faces of one and a half million young people, life is meant to be enjoyed and Madrid is a great place to enjoy it.

We can cry “Bah Humbug” when they’ve all gone home.

Monday 8 August 2011

How to steal a wife.

.By Richard Morley.

I have been researching the reconquista of Spain. That period when the Catholic Spanish rose up against their Muslim masters and took their country back. In one particular town, Colmanar de Oreja, in the south of the Comunidad of Madrid, the successful siege by the forces of Alfonso VII sent the Muslim residents packing and then required a repopulation of the town by new people. But how do you encourage them to come?

Well, one way is to grant sanctuary and immunity from prosecution to every murderer or thief who was on the run. You have to remember that medieval laws were almost excessively severe. Your crime could be minor by today’s standards, but the penalty would be harsh. Even if your crime was murder, it could just be that you were the survivor of a fight in which your opponent was unlucky enough to die. But there was no mitigation. If you wanted to live, you had to flee. Luckily there were places you could flee to.

You have to remember too that Medieval Sanctuary law was widespread in most of Europe and seen as a way to ameliorate not just those harsh legal responses to minor offenses, but also used by rulers to grant protection to those who did their dirty work for them. One way to lessen the expense of keeping an army was to allow it to benefit from the spoils of war, the taking of which could be considered a crime.

One of these crimes was abduction of another person, or kidnap. And it might be that you kidnapped a female. But did you commit a crime? Remember that women were regarded as property. A wealthy family would see their daughters as assets that could be traded for alliances, either political or in business. Conquering armies would see women as the spoils of war. And in some cases some young love struck Romero would spot the beautiful Julia across a market square and want to make her his own, and it’s possible the desire would be reciprocated, but not possible due to lack of wealth or status on the part of Romero.

If the couple chose to run away together the law made the man a kidnapper and a criminal, even though his stolen bride had colluded in the crime.

But, criminals from one place could make desirable citizens in another, especially when they arrived with a woman in a town where females were in short supply. It meant that the new arrival would not compete with the men already there for the existing women.

In fact, in the new town they might not be seen as criminals at all. They might have been technically guilty of kidnap in the town the woman came from, but if she came willingly in the event that the supposed “abduction” was in fact an elopement and while her parents might be screaming “kidnap” and the abductor a criminal in their eyes, in the new town he would be seen as a welcome and able citizen.

So, in 1133 Alfonso VII granted the “Abduction Privilege” to Guadalajara. A fugitive who sought sanctuary with an abducted woman was protected by a royal fine of 500 sueldos on his accusers. The crown could hunt down murderers, thieves and traitors, but abductors were hidden away from pursuers. Then, in 1139, Alfonso also allowed similar laws in Oreja, now known as Colmanar de Oreja, where a “colonist-abductor” could bring into the town any willing and marriageable woman, so long as she was not already married, a relation or was being brought by force.

But in fact this had been going on for years. In 986 Count Ramon Borel of Catalonia banned incoming abductors, but only those who came with women who were already married or betrothed to another. A girl free of obligations was therefore fair game.

And in 1076 Alfonso VI granted protection to the colonisers of Sepúlvada when they brought in a “woman, girl, or other stolen goods”.

Towns close to the border with Aragon admitted killers, thieves and explicitly those importing women. In 1131 the town of Calatayuz granted asylum to known murderers and men bringing in abducted women. The townspeople would then vote as to whether to allow their pursuers admittance.

In some places this “abduction” was not even what it purported to be. In Lower Navarra it was said that a noble could make any girl a noblewoman by undertaking a ritual of abduction. He only had to carry her nine steps away from her home, provided she was dressed in a chemise and her hair was let down. She then became an infanzona forever. It could be claimed that our modern custom of carrying a new bride across the threshold of the couple’s new home is no more than an extension of this “rite”. And surely her “deshabile” would make it pretty clear she was a willing party to the abduction.

In some of the newly established communities a daring young abductor would be seen as just the sort of man they needed.

And how could it be wrong when the church allowed it. The Decretum Gratiani, a code of canon law decreed by the Roman Church in 1240 defended the validity of the marriage even though no parental consent had been given. Incidentally, this code lasted until  1918 although legal statutes had banned the practise of “Bridal Theft” (I love that phrase!) centuries before.

Communities, ironically even those who had been founded by abductors, sought remedies to stop the practise. One of the ways this was done was by the enforcement of arranged marriages where all parties consented to the union. But still kidnappers had to be dissuaded with the introduction of very severe penalties including large fines, exile and death. The death being carried out by the avenging family.

At Alba de Tormes the penalties were worst when the daughter of a property owning citizen was abducted. Apparently this distinction was made in cases of rape as well. And as virgin daughters were the main target, Castilian custom tended to disregard widows and the marriage of a widow against her family’s wishes was considered less offensive.

Where an abducted bride was in fact a runaway bride, in that she had colluded with her abductor, she was now considered a party to the crime and would be punished. In Cuenca disinheritance and exile were the normal penalties for the woman.  Cuenca also made provision for the abducted women already being someone’s wife. In which case the abductor, if caught, could expect to be burnt at the stake and all his possessions confiscated. This punishment was also exacted on the woman when she colluded with her kidnapper.

But now the law of the land came into conflict with the church. If vows had been exchanged and the marriage consummated the church decreed the union was legal. To the State, though, it was a crime and several kings sought to increase revenues by imposing severe fines on the perpetrators.

But you had to catch them before you could punish them. If a couple had slipped away unnoticed and travelled far, they could live happily ever after without fear of punishment. However, any property the man possessed in the town would be confiscated and the family were saved the cost of a dowry, which was recompense of a sort and perhaps a blessing for the father of the bride, who would remain that much richer.

The right of  “Abductors Privilege” in towns like Guaralajara and Colmanar de Oveja did much to encourage the settlement in new or depleted town taken from the Moors after the reconquista and probably did much to mix the gene pool of Spain. I imagine that many Spanish Romeros and Julias did live happily ever after.

I doubt us single males could get away with it now!