Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY XXV.: ON THE ENFRANCHISEMENT OF THE COMMUNES. - The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era
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ESSAY XXV.: ON THE ENFRANCHISEMENT OF THE COMMUNES. - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
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ON THE ENFRANCHISEMENT OF THE COMMUNES.
The communes of the middle ages are now nothing more than a name; but their name has resounded so loudly in our history, that the problem of that past existence still forms one of the most serious controversies. Whence came the communes of France? What genius, what power created them? To these questions our historians reply, that as the first royal charters bearing the concession of communes belong to the reign of Louis the Sixth, surnamed the Fat, it was Louis the Fat who founded the communes. Neither in the treasury of the charters of the tower of the Louvre, nor in that of the Sainte Chapelle, was to be found, it is said, any act containing the concession of communes anterior to the reign of Louis the Sixth, who consented to the establishment of a municipal system in the towns of Laon, Amiens, Noyon and Saint Quentin: this circumstance, which I willingly grant, by no means proves that before the reign of Louis the Sixth no city of France had enjoyed and fully enjoyed, a similar system.
Previously to the date of the four or five charters of Louis-le-Gros, the large cities of Provence, Languedoc and Burgundy, possessed laws of their own, and magistrates of their own choosing: from time immemorial Narbonne, Béziers, Lyons, Marseilles and Arles, were municipal cities. If, therefore, Louis the Fat enfranchised, as it is said he did, the cities of the north of France, and founded in them municipal government, he only imitated what already existed in the south: he was not a creator, he was only a copyist. And does even the merit of this imitation belong to him? This is doubtful. The very tenour of the royal charters is contrary to this belief. The charters say: I have granted, concessi; this clause implies, it appears to me, the idea of previous solicitation; it leaves at least in doubt whether the free system which was to convert the city into what was then called a commune, whether the imitation of the government of the southern cities was not a project at first conceived by the inhabitants themselves, and then submitted by them to the approbation of the authority whose opposition they feared; whether, in one word, the community of citizens had not the first and consequently the greatest share in the act which constituted in a fixed and durable manner its independent existence.
The obstinacy of historians never to attribute any spontaneity, any conception to bodies of men, is a very singular thing. If a whole nation emigrates and seeks a new dwelling for itself, it is in the opinion of annalists and poets, some hero who to illustrate his name chooses to found an empire: if new customs are established, it is some legislator who imagines and imposes them; if a city is organized, it is some prince who gives it life: the people and the citizens are materials for the thought of one man. Do you wish to know precisely who created an institution, who conceived a social enterprise? Look who were those who really wanted it; to them must belong the first idea, the will of acting, and at least the largest share in the execution, is fecit cui prodest: the axiom is as admissible in history as in justice. Therefore, who derived most benefit in the twelfth century from the system of municipal independence, from equality before the law, from the election of all local authorities, from the fixing of all taxes, which caused a city to become, according to the language of the period, a commonalty or commune?* Who, if not the city itself? Was it possible that a king, however liberal he may be supposed, could have more interest than itself in the establishment of institutions which would withdraw it in many ways from royal influence? The participation of the kings of France in the great social movement from which the communes sprung, could only be, and really was, a sort of non-resistance, more often forced than voluntary.
Within the old dismantled walls of the ancient Gallo-Roman cities conquered by the Franks, dwelt a population which could not be enslaved and divided with the land, like the population of the country. The conquered had inflicted on it at hazard taxes levied according to the edicts of imperial taxation, or according to new edicts arbitrarily drawn up. It had painfully sustained itself in the midst of the violence and exactions of the barbarians, supporting itself by its industry, by the remains of Roman industry which it practised without rivals, on account of the idle and haughty mode of life of the conquerors. Feudal isolation rendered its condition still harder and more full of dangers; it was a prey to all kinds of pillaging, plundered in a thousand ways, and at last driven to take up arms for its preservation and defence; it repaired the breaches which time and carelessness had made in its walls; and sometimes, to strengthen the enclosure, it pulled down old monuments half in ruins, a palace, a theatre, or a triumphal arch, the remains of the grandeur and glory of the Roman name. Soon the cities which had assumed this defensive attitude declared themselves to be free, under the safeguard of the archers who watched over their towers, and the iron portcullises which fell before their gates. Externally they were fortresses, internally, fraternities; they were, in the language of the period, spots of friendship, independence and peace.† The energy of these authentic names suffices to convey an idea of the equal association of all, consented to by all, which formed the political condition of these men of liberty, thus separated from the world of illegality and violence. Towards the close of the eleventh century, the south of Gaul already contained a great number of its cities which reproduced to a certain extent in their internal government the forms of the ancient Roman municipality; their happy example gaining ground, soon spread a new spirit north of the Loire, and as far as the banks of the Somme and the Scheldt. Associations consecrated by oath were formed in the least strong and least rich cities of the country to which the name of France was then applied in a special manner; an irresistible movement agitated the semi-serf population; peasants escaped from the soil, came to swell it and conspire with the inhabitants for the enfranchisement of the city, which thenceforth assumed the name of commonalty without waiting for a royal or seignorial charter to grant it. Confiding in the power which the union of all wills towards one same object gave them, the members of the new commonalty signified to the nobles of the place the act of their future liberty. The nobles resisted; war ensued, and was followed by a mutual arrangement; and thus were drawn up most of the charters; a stipulation of money became the basis of the treaty of peace, and the payment of independence.
If the cities had not been in a condition to offer war to whoever should not recognize their right of freely organizing themselves, they would not have obtained, even for money, the avowal and recognition of that right; no sum once paid, no rent reasonably imposed, could compensate for the tailles hautes et basses,* the droits of marriage, of death, of mortmain, of justice, and of all the other droits which the nobles and the kings themselves lost by the creation of these new political authorities. If the cities, at the moment when they required the consent of the nobles and kings, had not previously established the bases of their independent constitution, neither kings nor nobles would have formed the conception for them, and taken the lead in enfranchisement, even with the intention of selling it at the highest possible price; it was not a merchandize which it was profitable to sell. It was likewise never a good scheme for the king to plan against the great vassals, to enfranchise spontaneously and erect into commonalties the cities of the royal domain, unless we suppose the kings to have had the singular intention of weakening themselves in order to induce by their example the great vassals to weaken themselves. Kings and vassals only submitted in their own defence to the revolution which enfranchised the communes. The money they derived from them was seized on by them as the wreck of a ship. There was no speculation in that; at a later period the kings of France really speculated, but it was on the destruction of the communes; they all perished one after another by royal proclamations between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The establishment of the first commonalties in the north of France was, therefore, a fortunate conspiracy. It was the name they gave themselves.† Their citizens called themselves conspirators.‡ The taste for these political associations spread to the small cities and boroughs. It even reached the champaign country, the country of pure slavery; and sometimes fugitive slaves, after binding themselves to one another by the oath to live and die together, dug deep ditches and built ramparts of earth behind which they slept in peace, lulled by the vain sound of their masters’ anger. Liberty gave them industry; industry rendered them powerful in their turn; and those who had cursed them soon sought their alliance. Sometimes a noble, abandoned by the serfs of his domain, enclosed with strong pallisades some portion of desert and uncultivated land, and proclaimed far and wide that this place should in future be a place of freedom. He promised by an oath, beforehand, liberty of person and property for whoever should inhabit within the enclosure of his new city, and drew up to secure the observance of this oath, a charter expressing the privileges of the future commonalty. He demanded in payment of the land and dwelling-place an annual rent and precisely defined services. Those whom the agreement suited, resorted to this new asylum, and the city increased gradually under the protection of the castle.
It was thus that some commonalties really had for their founder the signer of their charter; but these were the minority, the least important ones, and those which came last. The most ancient and most considerable established themselves spontaneously by insurrection against the seignorial authority. When the king interfered in this quariel, the commonalty already existed. There was no longer any thing left to do but to interpose between it and its immediate lord to stop the civil war. By examining the facts more closely, by reading, not the modern historians but the original documents, it will be seen that this work of simple mediation was all the share which Louis the Fat took in the enfranchisement of the communes.
[* ] Here is the formula of the rights of commonalty Scabinatus collegium, majoratus, sigillum, campana, berfredus et jurisdictio.
[† ] Libertas, amicitia, pax. (See Ducange’s Glossary.)
[* ]Taille haut et bas, in the customs of the duchy of Burgundy, is the taille aux quatres cas which is levied on the taillables haut et bas; that is to say on the vassals and other free tenants, as well as on the serfs and mortmainables. (Encyclopédie.)
The taille aux quatres cas is the tax for the marriage of the lord’s eldest daughter, for his voyage beyond sea, for his ransom from the enemy, and for his knighthood. (Ed.)
[† ] Communio civium, quæ et conjuratio dicta. (Annal. Trev.)
[‡ ] Conjurati, jurati. (Ducange’s Glossary.)