In the early Middle Ages there had been only two classes in western Europe: German conquerors and native conquered; by and large the later aristocracies in England, France, Germany and northern Italy were descendants of the conquerors, and remained conscious of this blood relationship even amid their wars. In the eleventh century there were three classes: the nobles, who fought; the clergy, who prayed; and the peasants, who worked. The division became so traditional that most men thought it ordained by God; and most peasants, like most nobles, assumed that a man should patiently continue in the class into which he had been born.

The economic revolution of the twelfth century added a new class—the burgesses or bourgeoisie—the bakers, merchants, and master craftsmen of the towns. It did not yet include the professions. In France the classes were called états—estates or states—and thebourgeoisie was reckoned as the tiers état, or “third estate.” It controlled municipal affairs, and won entry into the English Parliament, the German Diet, the Spanish Cortes, and the States-General—the rarely convened national parliament of France; but it had, before the eighteenth century, little influence on national policy. The nobles continued to rule and administer the state, though they were now a minor force in the cities. They lived in the country (except in Italy), scorned city dwellers and commerce, ostracized any of their class who married a bourgeois, and were certain that an aristocracy of birth is the only alternative to a plutocracy of business, or a theocracy of myths, or a despotism of arms. Nevertheless the wealth that came from commerce and industry began now to compete—and in the eighteenth century would surpass—the wealth that came from the ownership of land.

The rich merchants fretted over aristocratic airs, and scorned and exploited the craftsman class. They lived in ornate mansions, bought fine furniture, ate exotic foods, and garbed themselves in costly dress. Their wives covered expanding forms with silks and furs, velvets and jewelry; and Jeanne of Navarre, Queen of France, was piqued to find herself welcomed into Bruges by 600 bourgeois ladies as gorgeously robed as herself. The nobles complained, and demanded sumptuary laws to check this insolent display; such laws were periodically passed; but as the kings needed bourgeois support and funds, these laws were only spasmodically enforced.

The rapid growth of urban population favored the bourgeois owners of city realty; and the consequent unemployment made it easier to manage the manual working class. The proletariat of servants, apprentices, and journeymen had little education and no political power, and lived in a poverty sometimes more dismal than the serf’s. A thirteenth-century day laborer in England received some two pence per day—roughly equivalent, in purchasing power, to two dollars in the United States of America in 1948. A carpenter received four and one eighth pence ($4.12) per day; a mason three and one eighth, an architect twelve pence plus traveling expenses and occasional gifts.119 Prices, however, were commensurately low: in England in 1300 a pound of beef cost a farthing (twenty-one cents); a fowl one penny (eighty-four cents); a quarter of wheat five shillings nine and one half pence ($57.90).120 The work day began at dawn and ended at dusk—sooner on the eve of Sunday or a feast day. There were some thirty feast days in the year, but in England probably not more than six exempted the people from toil. The hours were a bit longer, the real wages no worse—some would say higher121—than in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century England.

Toward the end of the thirteenth century the class struggle became class war. Every generation saw some revolt of the peasantry, particularly in France. In 1251 the oppressed peasantry of France and Flanders rose against their secular and ecclesiastical landlords. Calling themselves Pastoureux (Shepherds), they formed a kind of revolutionary crusade under the lead of an unlicensed preacher known as “the Master of Hungary.” They marched from Flanders through Amiens to Paris; discontented peasants andproletairesjoined them en route, until they numbered over a hundred thousand men. They bore religious banners, and proclaimed devotion to King Louis IX, then a prisoner of the Moslems in Egypt; but they were ominously armed with clubs, daggers, axes, pikes, and swords. They denounced the corruption of government, the tyranny of the rich over the poor, the covetous hypocrisy of priests and monks; and the populace cheered their denunciations. They assumed the ecclesiastical rights of preaching, granting absolution, and performing marriages, and slew some priests who opposed them. Passing on to Orléans, they massacred scores of clergy and university students. But there and at Bordeaux the police overcame them; their leaders were captured and executed; and the wretched survivors of the futile march were hunted like dogs and dispersed into divers haunts of misery. Some escaped to England, and raised a minor peasant uprising, which was in turn suppressed.122

In the industrial towns of France the craft guilds rose in repeated strikes or armed insurrection against the political and economic monopoly and dictation of the merchant class. In Beauvais the mayor and some bankers were manhandled by 1500 rioters (1233). At Rouen the textile workers rebelled against the merchant drapers, and killed the mayor who intervened (1281). At Paris King Philip the Fair dissolved the workers’ unions on the ground that they were plotting revolution (1295, 1307). Nevertheless the craft guilds won admission to the municipal assemblies and magistracies at Marseille (1213), Avignon, Arles (1225), Amiens, Montpellier, Nîmes…. Sometimes a member of the clergy would side with the rebels, and give them slogans. “All riches,” said a thirteenth-century bishop, “come from theft; every rich man is a thief or the heir of a thief.”123 Similar revolts disordered the Flanders towns. Despite the penalty of death or banishment for strike leaders, the coppersmiths of Dinant rose in 1255, the weavers of Tournai in 1281, of all Ghent in 1274, of Hainault in 1292. The workers of Ypres, Douai, Ghent, Lille, and Bruges joined in revolt in 1302, defeated a French army at Courtrai, won the admission of their representatives to communal councils and offices, and revoked the oppressive legislation with which the mercantile oligarchy had harassed the crafts. Acquiring power for a time, the weavers sought to fix—even to reduce—the wages of the fullers, who then allied themselves with the merchant rich.124

In 1191 the merchant guilds won control of London; soon afterward they offered King John an annual payment if he would suppress the weavers’ guild; John complied (1200).125 In 1194 one William Fitzobert or Long-beard preached to the poor of London the need of a revolution. Thousands listened to him eagerly. Two burgesses sought to kill him; he fled into a church, was forced out by smoke, and committed hara-kiri almost by the Japanese ritual. His followers worshiped him as a martyr, and kept as sacred the soil that had received his blood.126 The popularity of Robin Hood, who robbed great lords and prelates but was kind to the poor, suggests the class feeling in twelfth-century Britain.

The bitterest conflicts took place in Italy. At first the workers joined with the merchant guilds in a series of bloody insurrections against the nobles; by the end of the thirteenth century this struggle was won. For a time the industrial population shared in the government of Florence. Soon, however, the great merchants and entrepreneurs secured ascendancy in the city council, and imposed such arduous and arbitrary rules upon their employees that the struggle entered, in the fourteenth century, its second phase —sporadic and intermittent war between the rich industrialists and the workers in the factories. It was amid these scenes of civil strife that St. Francis preached the gospel of poverty, and reminded the nouveaux riches that Christ had never had any private property.127

The communes, like the guilds, declined in the fourteenth century through the expansion of a municipal into a national economy and market, in which their rules and monopolies obstructed the development of invention, industry, and trade. They suffered further through their chaotic internal strife, their ruthless exploitation of the surrounding countryside, their narrow municipal patriotism, their conflicting policies and currencies, their petty wars upon one another in Flanders and Italy, and their inability to organize themselves into an autonomous confederation that might have survived the growth of the royal power. After 1300 several French communes petitioned the king to assume their governance.

Even so the economic revolution of the thirteenth century was the making of modern Europe. It eventually destroyed a feudalism that had completed the function of agricultural protection and organization, and had become an obstacle to the expansion of enterprise. It transformed the immobile wealth of feudalism into the fluent resources of a world-wide economy. It provided the machinery for a progressive development of business and industry, which substantially increased the power, comforts, and knowledge of European man. It brought a prosperity that in two centuries could build a hundred cathedrals, any one of which presumes an amazing abundance and variety of means and skills. Its production for an extending market made possible the national economic systems that underlay the growth of the modern states. Even the class war that it let loose may have been an added stimulant to the minds and energies of men. When the storm of the transition had subsided, the economic and political structure of Europe had been transformed. A flowing tide of industry and commerce washed away deep-rooted impediments to human development, and carried men onward from the scattered glory of the cathedrals to the universal frenzy of the Renaissance.

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