Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Medieval taxes

Today is income-tax day in the US, so I will blog about medieval taxes.  I discussed medieval taxes once last year, but this is a topic that can always stand revisiting.

A tax is, by definition, something charged by a government, to pay for things that government does, theoretically for the good of everybody:  defense, infrastructure, help for the weak.  Private individuals can and do charge rents and fees but not, strictly speaking, taxes.  This distinction was also found in the Middle Ages, though it would have been more blurry than it is now, because the public-private distinction was not as sharp as we now try to make it.

The one kind of tax not found in the Middle Ages was income tax.  This is because essentially no one had what we would call a regular income.  Payments of rents and dues, or the equivalent of salaries for servants, were generally made once or twice a year and were subject to change without notice.  Farmers who sold part of their crop would have a lot of money coming in at some times of the year, none at other times.  Extremely few people would have kept close track of how much they received in a year.  There were however plenty of property taxes and sales taxes and head taxes.

The Roman emperors had collected taxes from all their provinces.  These were collected once a year, each province expected to come up with the amount Rome felt they owed, and it was basically up to each local governor how to find that much coin.  When the emperors left for Byzantium these taxes were assessed much less rigorously, especially with the breakdown of trade routes and urban culture in the sixth and seventh centuries.  But the kings of western Europe continued, at least intermittently, to collect taxes from what were called fisc lands, that were attached to the crown rather than to the person who happened to be king.  (This is the root of the modern word fiscal.)

In ninth-century England, King Alfred fought to keep the Vikings confined to northeast England and levied a tax, one penny per household, that was used both to pay for the fighting and to serve as a bribe to keep the Northmen in the territory known as the Danelaw.  This dane-geld, as the tax was known, continued to be levied in subsequent centuries, becoming a more or less general property tax.  Ironically, the Norman kings of England, descended from Vikings themselves, continued to collect this tax (now called simply the geld) long after the Danelaw Vikings had settled down to become Yorkshiremen and were no longer being bribed.

In the twelfth century, when the trade fairs of the Champagne region became established, the counts of Champagne, that is the regional government, became responsible for making sure that tradesmen were safe and that order was maintained.  To pay for this, they charged sales taxes on every transaction.

Medieval cities levied property taxes to pay for things that cities did:  paving the streets, maintaining the bridges, hiring mercenaries to fight other cities (in Italy), hiring guards and watchmen to keep the peace, hiring judges, building municipal buildings like city hall, erecting walls, caring for the destitute, paying to keep things (sort of) clean.  These taxes were all property taxes, assessed by deciding how much each individual household was worth and coming up with a figure of what they therefore owed.  Cities also assessed sales taxes in their markets.

Modern American income taxes are actually not particularly high compared to most western countries, but they very complicated, with all sorts of pieces of paper to keep track of, amounts to enter in the right place, lots of extra forms to file if one has done this thing or that thing.  So maybe we'd be happier with medieval taxes?  Do you like the idea of a city clerk, probably accompanied by a member of the municipal guard, coming to your door and just announcing what you owe this year?


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