“They say death and taxes are the only things that are inevitable. The truth is, you can not pay your taxes. I’ve done it, and there’s consequences, but it can be done. Death you’re not going to get out of, and you kind of got to deal with it” – Steve Earle

I feel like we’ve been here before…

We tend to think that civilization consists of the finer things in life like literature, art, science, and the security of knowing that wild beasts and barbarians will be kept at bay.  These are only “symptoms” of civilization, which can ultimately be boiled down to one fundamental element – taxes.  The first monkey that swung down from the trees and convinced his primate compatriots to hand over their hard won fruit for the ambiguous idea of “community” invented civilization.  The monkey that originated the idea of throwing his own feces in protest invented the concept of “political punditry”, but that’s a story for another occasion.  Taxes are so essential to civilized life that the origins of writing are rooted in keeping a record of who had paid their taxes.  It’s no wonder historically that the collapse of civilizations starts with an onerous change in the tax laws.

The taxation policies of 3rd Century A.D. Roman Emperor Diocletian drove many people into bankruptcy and starvation, and were said to have greatly contributed to the disintegration of the Roman Empire.  2nd Century Han China came apart as local landlords increased taxes on the peasants, leading to the Yellow Turban Revolt.  The American Revolution embraced the oddly uninspiring slogan “No taxation without representation”.  Basically, when things start to go to hell in a handbasket, it usually starts with disgruntled taxpayers.  We make a lot of self-righteous noise about the rights of man, but we generally start reaching for the pitchforks and torches when someone wants an extra dollar from our pocket.  16th Century Holland was no exception.

From the 10th-16th Century, Holland (the Netherlands, these days) was a remote administrative unit of the Holy Roman Empire.  The Eighty Years’ War erupted in 1568, when seventeen Dutch provinces revolted against Philip II of Spain, the anointed sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands, raised taxes and unexpectedly sent in the Spanish Inquisition to counter burgeoning Reformation tendencies.  War ensued.  Armies led by William of Orange and his younger brother Louis of Nassau raised an army and set about fighting the Spanish Hapsburgs.  This insurrection would eventually result in Dutch independence, but in 1574, there was not a lot of cause for optimism among the revolutionaries.  Funds were low, and the Spanish armies were closing in on Middelburg and Leiden.  In April 1574, Louis of Nassau crossed the Meuse River to engage the Spanish forces at the Battle of Mookerheyde.  This was a time when military commanders still did silly things like lead cavalry charges, and Louis was shot.  He was brought to a nearby house, bleeding prolifically, and was never seen again.  In the fog of 16th century war, this is puzzling as we do tend to keep better track of our nobles than the front line infantry, but not entirely unexpected.  The Spanish outmaneuvered the Dutch and took the day at Mookerheyde.  As it turns out, the bookmakers had already anticipated this outcome due to a phantom battle occurring in the skies over Utrecht in February 1574.  Clearly, the mail from Utrecht was running a bit slow.

Early in February five soldiers of the burgher guard at Utrecht, being on their midnight watch, beheld in the sky above them the representation of a furious battle. The sky was extremely dark, except directly over their heads, where, for a space equal in extent to the length of the city, and in breadth to that of an ordinary chamber, two armies, in battle array, were seen advancing upon each other. The one moved rapidly up from the northwest, with banners waving, spears flashing, trumpets sounding, accompanied by heavy artillery and by squadrons of cavalry. The other came slowly forward from the south-east, as if from an entrenched camp, to encounter their assailants. There was a fierce action for a few moments, the shouts of the combatants, the heavy discharge of cannon, the rattle of musketry, the tramp of heavy-armed foot soldiers, the rush of cavalry, being distinctly heard. The firmament trembled with the shock of the contending hosts, and was lurid with the rapid discharges of their artillery. After a short, fierce engagement, the north-western army was beaten back in disorder, but rallied again, after a breathing time, formed again into solid column, and again advanced. Their foes, arrayed, as the witnesses affirmed, in a square and closely-serried grove of spears and muskets, again awaited the attack. Once more the aerial cohorts closed upon each other, all the signs and sounds of a desperate encounter being distinctly recognised by the eager witnesses. The struggle seemed but short. The lances of the south-eastern army seemed to snap “like hemp-stalks,” while their firm columns all went down together in mass, beneath the onset of their enemies. The overthrow was complete, victors and vanquished had faded, the clear blue space, surrounded by black clouds, was empty, when suddenly its whole extent, where the conflict had so lately raged, was streaked with blood, flowing athwart the sky in broad crimson streams; nor was it till the five witnesses had fully watched and pondered over these portents that the vision entirely vanished. So impressed were the grave magistrates of Utrecht with the account given next day by the sentinels, that a formal examination of the circumstances was made, the deposition of each Witness, under oath, duly recorded, and a vast deal of consultation of soothsayers’ books and other auguries employed to elucidate the mystery. It was universally considered typical of the anticipated battle between Count Louis and the Spaniards. When, therefore, it was known that the patriots, moving from the southeast, had arrived at Mookerheyde, and that their adversaries, crossing the Meuse at Grave, had advanced upon them from the northwest, the result of the battle was considered inevitable; the phantom battle of Utrecht its infallible precursor (Motley, 1903, p562-563).

Whenever a bunch of people get together with the object of slaughtering each other, one expects a certain amount of resultant spectral phenomena.  When the phantom battle occurs before the actual battle, we should probably take a keener interest in our strategy for the upcoming mayhem.  The again, perhaps we are too wedded to our notions of a linear chronology in a universe that keeps serving up absurd strange phenomena that presage, rather than reflect our predilection for violent conflict.  Our species has spent a lot of time examining animal entrails, tracking the stars, and throwing bones in an attempt to divine the outcomes of our incessant warfare.  Maybe we should just pay closer attention to the tax code.

Fraprie, Frank Roy, 1874-. The Spell of the Rhine. Boston: The Page Company, 1922.
Gore, James Howard, 1856-1939. Holland: the Home of Peace. New York: Holland-American line, 1913.
Motley, John Lothrop, 1814-1877. The Rise of the Dutch Republic: a History. London: J. Murray, 1903.