VI. THE COMMUNES

The economic revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like those of the eighteenth and the twentieth, caused a revolution in society and government. New classes rose to economic and political power, and gave to the medieval city that virile and pugnacious independence which culminated in the Renaissance.

The question of heredity versus environment affects the cities, as well as the guilds, of Europe; were they the lineal descendants of Roman municipalities, or new concretions deposited by the stream of economic change? Many Roman cities maintained their continuity through centuries of chaos, poverty, and decay; but only a few in Italy and southeastern France kept the old Roman institutions, and fewer still the old Roman law. North of the Alps, barbarian laws had overlaid the Roman heritage; and in some measure the political customs of the German tribe or village had seeped even into ancient municipalities. Most transalpine towns belonged to feudal domains, and were ruled by the will and appointees of their feudal lords. Municipal institutions were alien, feudal institutions natural, to the Teutonic conquerors. Outside of Italy, the medieval city rose through the formation of new commercial centers, classes, and powers.

The feudal town had grown up, usually on elevations, at the junction of roads, or along vital waterways, or on frontiers. Around the walls of the feudal castle or fortified monastery the modest industry and trade of the townsmen or burgesses had slowly developed. When Norse and Magyar raids subsided, this extramural activity expanded, shops multiplied, and merchants and craftsmen, once transient, became settled residents of the town. In war, however, insecurity returned; and the extramural population built a second wall, of wider circumference than the feudal moat, to protect itself, its shops, and its goods. The feudal baron or bishop still owned and ruled this enlarged town as part of his domain; but its growing population was increasingly commercial and secular, fretted under feudal tolls and controls, and plotted to win municipal liberty.

Out of old political traditions and new administrative needs an assembly of citizens and a corps of officials took form; and more and more this “commune”—the body politic—regulated the affairs of the city—the body geographical. Towards the end of the eleventh century the merchant leaders began to demand from the feudal overlords charters of communal freedom for the towns. With characteristic shrewdness they played one overlord against the other—baron against bishop, knight against baron, king against any of them or all. The townsmen used diverse means to achieve municipal freedom: they took a solemn oath to refuse and resist baronial or episcopal tolls or taxes; they offered the lord a flat sum, or an annuity, for a charter; on the royal domain they won autonomy by money grants, or services in war; sometimes they bluntly announced their independence, and fought a violent revolution. Tours fought twelve times before its liberty was won. Lords in need or debt, especially in preparing for a crusade, sold charters of self-government to the towns that they held in fief; many English cities in this way won their local autonomy from Richard I. Some lords, above all in Flanders, granted charters of incomplete freedom to cities whose commercial development enhanced baronial revenues. The abbots and bishops resisted longest, for their consecration oath bound them not to lower the income of their abbeys or sees—by which their many ministrations were financed; hence the struggle of the towns against their ecclesiastical owners was most bitter and prolonged.

The Spanish kings favored the communes as foils to a troublesome nobility, and the royal charters were many and liberal. Leon received its charter from the king of Castile in 1020, Burgos in 1073, Najera in 1076, Toledo in 1085; and Compostela, Cadiz, Valencia, Barcelona soon followed. In Germany feudalism, in Italy the cities, profited from the mutual exhaustion of Empire and papacy in the war of investitures and other conflicts between Church and state. In northern Italy the cities attained a political vigor hardly known before or since. As the Alpine streams fed the great rivers of Lombardy and Tuscany, and these accommodated commerce and fertilized the plains, so the commerce of transalpine Europe and western Asia, meeting in northern Italy, generated there a mercantile bourgeoisie whose wealth rebuilt old cities, raised up new ones, financed literature and art, and proudly cast off feudal bonds. The nobility from their castles in the countryside fought a losing war against the communal movement; yielding, they took up residence in the city, and swore loyalty to the commune. The bishops, who for centuries had been the real and able governors of the Lombard towns, were subdued with the help of the popes, whose authority they had long ignored. In 1080 we hear of “consuls” governing Lucca; in 1084 we find them at Pisa, in 1098 at Arezzo, in 1099 at Genoa, in 1105 at Pavia, in 1138 at Florence. The cities of northern Italy continued till the fifteenth century to acknowledge the formal sovereignty of the Empire, and indited their state papers in its name;97 but in practice and effect they were free; and the ancient regime of city-state was revived, with all its chaos and stimulus.

In France the enfranchisement of the cities involved a long and often violent struggle. At Le Mans (1069), Cambrai (1076), and Reims (1139) the ruling bishops, by excommunication or force, succeeded in suppressing the communes set up by the citizens; at Noyon, however, the bishop of his own accord gave a charter to the town (1108). St. Quentin freed itself in 1080, Beauvais in 1099, Marseille in 1100, Amiens in 1113. At Laon in 1115 the citizens took advantage of their corrupt bishop’s absence to establish a commune; on his return he was bribed to take oath to protect it; a year later he induced King Louis VI to suppress it. In the monk Guibert of Nogent’s account of what followed we sample the intensity of the communal revolution:

On the fifth day of Easter week … there arose a disorderly noise throughout the city, men shouting “Commune!” … Citizens now entered the bishop’s court with swords, battle-axes, bows, hatchets, clubs, and spears, a very great company…. The nobles rallied from all sides to the bishop…. He, with some helpers, fought them off with stones and arrows…. He hid himself in a cask … and piteously implored them, promising that he would cease to be their bishop, would give them unlimited riches, and would leave the country. And as they with hardened hearts jeered at him, one named Bernard, lifting his battle-ax, brutally dashed out the brains of that sacred, though sinner’s, head; and he, slipping between the hands of those who held him, was dead before he reached the ground, stricken by another blow under the eye-sockets and across the nose. There brought to his end, his legs were cut off, and many another wound inflicted. Thibaut, seeing a ring on the Bishop’s finger, and not being able to draw it off, cut off the finger.98

The cathedral was fired, and was razed to the ground. Thinking to take two steps at once, the pillagers began to sack and burn the mansions of the aristocracy. A royal army stormed the city, and joined nobles and clergy in massacring the population. The commune was suppressed. Fourteen years later it was restored; and the citizens labored with pious enthusiasm to rebuild the cathedral that they or their fathers had destroyed.

The struggle continued for a century. At Vézelay (1106) the people killed Abbot Arnaud and set up a commune. Orléans rose in 1137, but failed. Louis VII granted Sens a charter in 1146, but revoked it three years later on petition of the abbot within whose domains the city lay; the populace killed the abbot and his nephew, but failed to re-establish the commune. The bishop of Tournai fought a civil war for six years (1190–6) to overthrow the commune; the pope excommunicated all the citizens. On Easter Sunday of 1194 the people of Rouen sacked the houses of the cathedral canons; in 1207 the city was put under a papal interdict. In 1235 at Reims the stones brought into the city to rebuild the cathedral were seized by the populace and were used for missiles and barricades in a revolt against the highest ecclesiastic in Gaul; he and his canons fled, and did not return until two years later, when the pope induced Louis VII to abolish the commune. Many cities of France never succeeded, till the Revolution, in establishing their freedom; but in north France most of the cities were freed between 1080 and 1200, and, under the stimulus of liberty, entered upon their greatest age. It was the communes that built the Gothic cathedrals.

In England the kings won the support of the cities against the nobility by granting them charters of limited self-government. William the Conqueror gave such a charter to London; similar charters were yielded by Henry II to Lincoln, Durham, Carlisle, Bristol, Oxford, Salisbury, and Southampton; and in 1201 Cambridge bought its communal rights from King John. In Flanders the ruling counts made substantial concessions to Ghent, Bruges, Douai, Tournai, Lille … but overcame all attempts at complete municipal independence. Leyden, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Delft, and other Dutch cities obtained charters of local autonomy in the thirteenth century. In Germany the liberation was long drawn out, and mostly peaceful; the bishops, who had for centuries ruled the cities as feudatories of the emperors, yielded to Cologne, Trier, Metz, Mainz, Speyer, Strasbourg, Worms, and other cities the right to select their own magistrates and make their own laws.

By the end of the twelfth century the communal revolution was won in western Europe. The cities, though seldom completely free, had thrown off their feudal masters, ended or reduced feudal tolls, and severely limited ecclesiastical rights. The Flemish cities forbade the establishment of new monasteries, and the bequest of land to churches; they restricted the right of the clergy to be tried by episcopal courts, and contested clerical control of primary schools.99 The mercantile bourgeoisie now dominated municipal and economic life. In nearly all the communes the merchant guilds were recognized as self-governing bodies; in some cases the commune and the merchant guild were identical organizations; usually the two were distinct, but the commune rarely contravened the interests of the guilds. The lord mayor of London was chosen by the city guilds. Now, for the first time in a thousand years, the possession of money became again a greater power than the possession of land; nobility and clergy were challenged by a rising plutocracy. Even more than in antiquity the mercantile bourgeoisie turned its wealth, energy, and ability to political advantage. In most cities it eliminated the poor from assemblies or offices. It oppressed the manual worker and the peasant, monopolized the profits of commerce, taxed the community heavily, and spent much of the revenue in internal strife, or in external wars to capture markets and destroy competitors. It tried to suppress artisan associations, and refused them the right to strike, under penalty of exile or death. Its regulation of prices and wages aimed at its own good, to the serious detriment of the working class.100 As in the French Revolution, the defeat of the feudal lords was a victory chiefly for the business class.

Nevertheless the communes were a magnificent reassertion of human liberty. At the call of the bell from the town campanile, the citizens flocked to assemble, and chose their municipal officers. The cities formed their own communal militia, defended themselves lustily, defeated the trained troops of the German emperor at Legnano (1176), and fought one another to mutual exhaustion. Though the administrative councils soon narrowed their membership to a mercantile aristocracy, the municipal assemblies were the first representative government since Tiberius; they, rather than Magna Carta, were the chief parent of modern democracy.101 The atavistic relics of feudal or tribal law—compurgations, duels, ordeals—were replaced by the legal and orderly examination of witnesses; the wergild or blood price gave way to fines, imprisonment, or corporal punishment; the law’s delays were reduced, legal contracts replaced feudal status and loyalties, and a whole new body of business law created a new order in European life.

The young democracy leaped at once to a semisocialistic state-managed economy. The commune minted its own currency, ordered and supervised public works, built roads, bridges, and canals, paved some city streets, organized the food supply, forbade forestalling, engrossing, or regrading, brought seller and buyer into direct contact at markets and fairs, examined weights and measures, inspected commodities, punished adulteration, controlled exports and imports, stored grain for lean years, provided grain at fair prices in emergencies, and regulated the prices of essential foods and beer. When it found that a price set too low discouraged the production of a desirable commodity, it allowed certain wholesale prices to seek their own level through competition, but established courts or “assizes” of bread and ale to keep the retail price of these necessities in constant relation with the cost of wheat or barley.102 Periodically it published a list of fair prices. It assumed that for every commodity there must be a “just price,” combining costs of materials and labor; the theory ignored supply and demand, and fluctuations in the value of currency. Some communes, like Basel or Genoa, assumed a monopoly of the trade in salt; others, like Nuremberg, brewed their own beer, or stored corn in municipal granaries.103 The flow of goods was impeded by municipal protective tariffs;104 and in some cases by requiring transient merchants to expose their goods for sale in the town before passing through.105 As in our century, these regulations were often circumvented by the subtlety of refractory citizens; “black markets” were numerous.106 Many of these restrictive ordinances brought more harm than good, and soon ceased to be enforced.

But all in all, the work of the medieval communes did credit to the skill and courage of the businessmen who managed them. Under their leadership Europe experienced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries such prosperity as it had not known since the fall of Rome. Despite epidemics, famines, and wars, the population of Europe swelled under the communal system as not for a thousand years before. The population of Europe had begun to decline in the second century, and had probably reached nadir in the ninth century. From the eleventh century to the Black Death (1349) it rose again with the resurrection of commerce and industry. In the region between the Moselle and the Rhine it probably multiplied tenfold; in France it may have reached 20,000,000—hardly less than in the eighteenth century.107 The economic revolution involved a migration from country to city almost as definite as in recent times. Constantinople with 800,000, Cordova and Palermo with half a million each, had long been populous; but before 1100 only a few cities north of the Alps had more than 3000 souls.108 By 1200 Paris had some 100,000; Douai, Lille, Ypres, Ghent, Bruges, approximately 50,000 each; London 20,000. By 1300 Paris had 150,000, Venice, Milan, Florence 100,000,109 Siena and Modena 30,000,110Lübeck, Nuremberg, and Cologne 20,000, Frankfort, Basel, Hamburg, Norwich, York 10,000. Of course all these figures are loose and hazardous estimates.

The growth of population was both a result and a cause of the economic development: it came from improved protection of life and property, better exploitation of natural resources through industry, and the wider spread of food and goods through rising wealth and trade; conversely it offered an expanding market to commerce and industry, to literature, drama, music, and art. The competitive pride of the communes turned their wealth into cathedrals, city halls, bell towers, fountains, schools, and universities. Civilization crossed seas and mountains in the wake of trade; from Islam and Byzantium it swept over Italy and Spain, and marched over the Alps into Germany, France, Flanders, and Britain. The Dark Ages became a memory, and Europe was alive again with lusty youth.

We must not idealize the medieval town. It was picturesque (to the modern eye) with castle-crowned hill and towered wall, with thatched or tiled houses, cottages, and shops crowding gregariously around cathedral, castle or public square. But for the most part its streets were narrow and tortuous alleys (ideal for defense and shade), where men and beasts moved to the clatter of hoofs and words and wooden shoes, and with the leisureliness of an age that had no machines to spare its muscle and wear its nerves. Around many of the city dwellings were gardens, chicken coops, pig pens, cow pastures, dunghills. London was finicky and decreed that “he who will nourish a pig, let him keep it in his own house”; elsewhere the swine rooted freely among the open garbage piles.111Every now and then heavy rains swelled the rivers and flooded fields and cities, so that men rowed boats into Westminster Palace.112 After rain the streets would be muddy for days; men wore boots then, and fine ladies were borne in carriages or chairs, undulating from hole to hole. In the thirteenth century some cities paved their main streets with cobblestones; in most cities, however, the streets were unpaved, unsafe for foot or nose. Monasteries and castles had good drainage systems;113 cottages usually had none. Here and there were grassy or sandy squares, with a pump from which people might drink, and a trough for passing animals.

North of the Alps houses were nearly all of wood; only the richest nobles and merchants built of brick or stone. Fires were frequent, and often swept unchecked through a town. In 1188 Rouen, Beauvais, Arras, Troyes, Provins, Poitiers, and Moissac were all destroyed by fire; Rouen was burned down six times between 1200 and 1225.114 Tile roofs became the custom only in the fourteenth century. Fire fighting was by bucket brigades, heroic and incompetent. Watchmen were provided with a long hook to pull down a burning house if it threatened other buildings. Since all wished to live near the castle for security, buildings rose to several stories, sometimes six; and the upper floors projected charmingly and alarmingly over the street. Towns issued ordinances limiting the height of buildings.

Despite these difficulties—hardly felt because felt by nearly all—life could be interesting in the medieval city. Markets were crowded, talk was plentiful, dress and goods were colorful, pedlars cried their wares, craftsmen plied their trades. Strolling players might be performing a miracle or mystery play in the square; a religious procession might pass down the street, with proud merchants and sturdy workers marching, and gaudy floats and solemn vestments and stirring song; some glorious church might be a-building; some pretty lass might lean from a balcony; the town belfry might summon the citizens to meeting or to arms. At sunset curfew rang, and bade all people hasten home, for there were no lights in the streets except candles in windows, and here and there a lamp before a shrine. A nocturnal burgher would have his servants precede him with torches or lanterns and arms, for police were rare. The wise citizen retired early, shunning the tedium of illiterate evenings, and knowing that at dawn the noisy cocks would crow, and work would clamor to be done.

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