The countries huddled about the lower Rhine and its many mouths were among the richest in the medieval world. South of the Rhine lay the county of Flanders, running from Calais through modern Belgium to the Scheldt. Formally it was a fief held from the French king; actually it was ruled by a dynasty of enlightened counts, checked only by the proud autonomy of the towns. Near the Rhine the people were Flemish, of Low German origin, and spoke a German dialect; west of the Lys River they were Walloons—a mixture of Germans and French on a Celtic base—and spoke a dialect of French. Commerce and industry fattened and disturbed Ghent, Audenaarde, Courtrai, Ypres, and Kassel in the Flemish northeast, and Bruges, Lille, and Douai in the Walloon southwest; in these cities population was denser than anywhere else in Europe north of the Alps. In 1300 the cities dominated the counts; the magistrates of the larger communities formed a supreme court for the county, and negotiated on their own authority with foreign cities and governments.56 Usually the counts co-operated with the cities, encouraged manufactures and trade, maintained a stable currency, and as early as 1100 —two centuries before England—established uniform measures and weights for all the towns.
The class war ultimately destroyed the freedom of both the cities and the counts. As the proletariat rose in number, resentment, and power, and the counts sided with them as an offset to the bumptious bourgeoisie, the merchants sought support from Philip Augustus of France, who promised it in the hope of bringing Flanders effectively under the French crown. England, anxious to keep the chief market for her wool out of the control of the French king, allied herself with the counts of Flanders and Hainault, the duke of Brabant, and Otto IV of Germany. Philip defeated this coalition at Bouvines (1214), subdued the counts, and protected the merchants in their oligarchic regime. The conflict of powers and classes continued. In 1297 Count Guy de Dampierre again allied Flanders with England; Philip the Fair invaded Flanders, imprisoned Guy, and forced him to cede the country to France. But when the French army moved to occupy Bruges the commons rose, overcame the troops, massacred rich merchants, and gained possession of the town. Philip sent a large army to avenge this affront; the workers of the towns formed themselves into an impromptu army, and defeated the knights and mercenaries of France in the battle of Courtrai (1302). The aged Guy de Dampierre was released and restored, and the strange alliance of feudal counts and revolutionary proletaires enjoyed a decade of victory.
What we now know as Holland was, from the third to the ninth century, part of the Frank kingdom. In 843 it became the northernmost portion of the buffer state of Lorraine created by the Treaty of Verdun. In the ninth and tenth centuries it was divided into feudal fiefs for better resistance to Norse raids. The Germans who cleared and settled the heavily wooded district north of the Rhine called it Holtland, i.e., Woodland. Most of the people were serfs, absorbed in the struggle to wrest a living from a land that had always to be diked or drained; half of Holland exists by the taming of the sea. But there were cities, too, not quite as rich and turbulent as the Flemish towns, but soundly based on steady industry and orderly trade. Dordrecht was the most prosperous; Utrecht was a center of learning; Haarlem was the seat of the Count of Holland; Delft became the capital for a time; then, toward 1250, The Hague.* Amsterdam made its debut in 1204, when a feudal lord built a fortress château at the mouth of the Amstel River; the sheltered site on the Zuider Zee, and the pervasive canals, invited commerce; in 1297 the city was made a free port, where goods could be received and reshipped free of customs duties; and thenceforth little Holland played a large part in the economic world. There as elsewhere commerce nourished culture; in the thirteenth century we find a Dutch poet, Maerlant, who vigorously satirized the luxurious life of the clergy; and in the monasteries Dutch art, in sculpture, pottery, painting, and illumination, was beginning its unique and extraordinary career.
South of Holland lay the duchy of Brabant, which then contained the cities of Antwerp, Brussels, and Louvain. Liége was ruled independently by its bishops, who allowed it a large measure of autonomy. Still farther south were the counties of Hainault, Namur, Limburg, and Luxembourg; the duchy of Lorraine, with the cities of Trier, Nancy, and Metz; and several other principalities, nominally subject to the German emperor, but left for the most part to their ruling counts. Each of these districts had a vibrant history of politics, love, and war; we salute them and move on. South and west of them lay Burgundy, in what is now east central France; its varying boundaries discourage definition; its political fortunes would fill vain tomes. In 888 Rudolf I made it an independent kingdom; in 1032 Rudolf III bequeathed it to Germany; but in that year part of it was united, as a duchy, to France. The dukes of Burgundy, like its early kings, governed with intelligence, and for the most part cherished peace. Their great age would come in the fifteenth century.
In classical times Switzerland was the home of diverse tribes—Helvetii, Raeti, Lepontii—of mixed Celtic, Teutonic, and Italic origin. In the third century the Alemanni occupied and Germanized the northern plateau. After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire the land was divided into feudal fiefs subject to the Holy Roman Empire. But it is difficult to enslave mountaineers; and the Swiss, while acknowledging some feudal dues, soon liberated themselves from serfdom. The villages in democratic assemblies chose their own officials, and ruled themselves by the ancient Germanic laws of the Alemanni and Burgundians. For mutual protection the peasants neighboring Lake Lucerne formed themselves into “Forest Cantons” (Waldstätte)-Uri, Nidwalden, and Schwyz, which later gave its name to the state. The sturdy burghers of the towns that had grown along the Alpine passes—Geneva, Constance, Fribourg, Berne, and Basel—elected their own officials, and administered their own laws. Their feudal overlords raised no objection to this so long as basic feudal taxes were paid.57
The Hapsburg counts who, from 1173, held the northern districts, proved an exception to this rule, and earned the hatred of the men of Schwyz by attempting to apply feudal dues in full severity. In 1291 the three Forest Cantons formed an “Everlasting League,” and swore a confederatio to give one another aid against external aggression or internal disturbance, to arbitrate all differences, and to recognize no judge who was not a native of the valley, or had bought his office. Lucerne, Zurich, and Constance soon joined the League. In 1315 the Hapsburg dukes sent two armies into Switzerland to enforce all feudal dues. In the pass of Morgarten the infantry of Schwyz and Uri, armed with halberds, defeated the Austrian cavalry in “the Marathon of Switzerland.” The Austrian forces withdrew; the three cantons renewed their oath of mutual support (December 9, 1315), and created the Swiss Confederacy. It was not yet an independent state; the free citizens acknowledged certain feudal obligations, and the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Emperor. But feudal lords and holy emperors had learned to respect the arms and liberties of the Swiss cantons and towns; and the victory of Morgarten had opened the way to the most stable and sensible democracy in history.*