Chapter Seventh Prime
Scene Five: Wealth, Not Money
This is a place that has at least heard of accountants. Nevertheless, the lack of guild means the lack of a school, Denario wrote in his journal. My assistant, Wilfried, can't write more than his initials. He can't read. He doesn't know how to detect fraud in tallies. He accepts all numbers as they're given even when they contradict one another. From year to year, one farmer increased his herd of dairy cows from 15 to 30 but declared that only 2 calves had been born, none traded or inherited. This raised no suspicions in Wilfried, who never checks the old tallies. It's a stretch to call the man a book keeper when he has no books, keeps no master records, and his main qualification for the job is his birth as a second cousin to both Sir Ulrich and Mayor Jolli.
Tax figures have never been reconciled from year to year in Furlingsburg. Wilfried seems shocked by the idea that someone would do so. I found that out on my first day with him. Now I understand why Friedrich Jolli wants to revise his reports to Sir Fettertyr. He'll improve his relationship with the knight. How can updating the town's book keeping do anything else?
Still, there's a limit to how much we can achieve. It isn't practical to read back further than the last two years of tax payments. Even in sorting out the last two years, I took over the mayor's office, most of the hall outside, and part of another second floor room. My assistant moved shelves for me and brought in new ones so we didn't need to lay down leather belts on the stairs. It's amazing how much Friedrich Jolli stored in these heaps. Toward the end of the day, Friedrich and his men brought in a set of wooden tablets that a merchant had delivered to his house. Wealthy folks visit him at home more than they see him in the town hall. He keeps their records in his shed, apparently.
Merchants of the right kind can be rich in Furlingsburg. The same is true for guildsmen and for the Mundredi houses, which are usually two to six home networks, all of the homes related by blood or marriage. The town as a whole is great producer of goods even though it lives under threat from Sir Fettertyr as a result.
Perhaps I should explain my thoughts in that regard.
Once I assumed that nobles didn't understand wealth. Now I suspect that they do. They regard it as a threat. The wealthier that their peasants become, the harder it is for nobles to keep them in their place. They blame the immigrant Mundredi but the greater issue is the rise of the caravans and tradesmen. The Mundredi simply represent a convenient minority of free workers to attack. There are many others as well, some of them too powerful for the nobles to confront. Local guilds, for instance, are led by traditional waldi families. They have good connections and fix prices in their favor. They avoid taxes through barter systems. The knights, meanwhile, rely on their traditional lands farmed by serfs. Those lands have not seen improvement in one hundred years. The rest of the barony continues to bring in new technologies such as ox-plows, horse-plows, yokes, clocks, smithies, dams, and irrigation. But not the serfs. The serfs have not changed their methods.
Irrigation in various forms is known throughout the former Muntabi empire. But here, in Furlingsburg, the serfs seem to have been forgotten it. So it was re-introduced by the free farmers. Mundredi clans practiced step irrigation in the Seven Valleys for as long as they can remember. When they migrated to this area, they turned lands once thought to be useless into lush fields of barley, sometimes supplemented by peas or lentils. They've hunted bears and wolves to near extinction, which has greatly endeared them to the better-established peasants. But that doesn't matter to the knights. What I believe motivates Sir Fettertyr, his baron, and perhaps the Count of West Ogglia is that everyone's lands are improving but theirs. The serfs have not adopted the irrigation techniques, according to Wilfried. It's too much work and too little in return for them because the knights take the profits.
I find it strange that the Mundredi immigrants should be so much more productive than the better established citizens but this appears to be the case. Although the Mundredi had irrigation, they otherwise arrived with sub-standard, primitive technologies for tilling, planting, and crafting. Most of them had no oxen or draft horses when they came. They had to till by hand. Yet in only two generations they've created incomes equal to or exceeding the more established peasant families. How did they do it? Does freedom account for any part of it?
There is a particular case I find revealing and troubling.
The Mundredi Sickel clan, according to a leather rope record about twenty years old, once owned a thriving lamp and candelabra business. They imported enough metal to show up in the records of tradesmen. Making the basic wood forms took effort and the brass fittings were expensive. When taxes rose past a certain point, the clan slowly stopped making lamps, candelabras, or indeed any finished goods. Today I can see in their records that they have no craftsmen. They have become simple, peasant farmers like the more established families. They arrived poor, worked their way up, grew sophisticated, encountered a tax ceiling designed to discourage certain kinds of wealth, and settled back into trading and land-owning.
This makes me wonder: are the knights making their lands poorer? It seems possible. Moreover, it looks like a strategy. Even in the distant past, rather than avail themselves of the advances of the guildsmen and merchants, they murdered the most troublesome of those classes. They strove to keep their peasants poor rather than allow greater equality between peasants and nobility.
That brings me back to a suspicion that the nobles don't understand wealth. Despite what I wrote above, I think they only understand money. The nobles don't see how wealth is generated or how it turns into money.
For instance, a look at Sir Fettertyr's tax code shows that he doesn't comprehend bartering. He taxes his peasants as if they deal in cash. Perhaps they once did. If so, the locals are regressing to barter under the cultural influence of the Mundredi and the tax incentives imposed by their knight. The levy on cash holdings is one-eighth per year, a rate that's as ruinous as it is unenforceable. It relies entirely on spies. How else can authorities know who has coins hidden?
When the knight doesn't collect enough cash through the spy network, he simply demands finished goods from each town's tradesmen. There aren't enough tradesmen to supply what Sir Fettertyr and his superior, Baron Ankster, need to support their wars. As a result, the baron increases his taxes year to year. He's created an environment in which no skilled journeymen will move from Oggli to smaller towns, like Furlingsburg, because the taxes on goods in the farmlands have grown higher than in the cities.
I have not made friends with the mayor by telling him that his tax rates are ridiculous. He is on his knight's side in that regard. The guilds in town give him more trouble than any other groups. He feels they need kept down.
One problem with the rates is that services such as healing, book keeping, and tattooing go untaxed because the knights don't seem to know what to make of them while services such as shoe making and milling, which produce tangible products, are taxed highly. Carting is an unusual case in that it is not taxed in towns but suffers high rates for use of the roads between them.
On top of learning much about the area, I met an excellent ink maker. From him, I learned that tattoo artists are among the wealthiest of Mundredi men. They can accept money and pay no taxes. It was a surprise to me to find that there are women working as tattoo artists as well. My ink maker spoke highly of them. Such women are wealthy and respected. They touch the bodies of other women and it is considered a sacred trust. They are lent in a cautious way from clan to clan when there is a need, such as there seems to be from time to time.
The ink maker and I tested his products on an edge of vellum scroll. They do not produce the cleanest or darkest marks but his pigments will do for the final draft. For the early work, I returned to carving my math in the dirt and in wooden planks. I'll scrape the vellum clean later and use it for the letter to Fettertyr.
I asked Friedrich if I should write to Sir Fettertyr about the corruption in Ziegeburg. I thought Friedrich might be against revealing the problems of another mayor.
'Write, write,' he said. 'Tell your story. Anything to distract from Furlingsburg.'
So I composed a short, formal report on the taxes in Zeigeburg in addition to my other duties.
Next: Chapter Seventeen, Scene Six