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Guizot on the rise of the Free Cities

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Source: François Guizot, General History of Civilization in Europe by François Pierre Guillaume Guizot, edited, with critical and supplementary notes, by George Wells Knight (New York: D Appleton and Co., 1896). Chapter: LECTURE VII.: RISE OF FREE CITIES.

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We have already, in our previous lectures, brought down the history of the two first great elements of modern civilization, the feudal system and the Church, to the twelfth century. The third of these fundamental elements—that of the commons, or free corporate cities—will form the subject of the present, and I propose to limit it to the same period as that occupied by the other two.

It is necessary, however, that I should notice, on entering upon this subject, a difference which exists between corporate cities and the feudal system and the Church. The two latter, although they increased in influence, and were subject to many changes, yet show themselves as completed, as having put on a definite form, between the fifth and the twelfth centuries—we see their rise, growth, and maturity. Not so the free cities. It is not till towards the close of this period—till the eleventh and twelfth centuries—that corporate cities make any figure in history. Not that I mean to assert that their previous history does not merit attention; not that there are not evident traces of their existence before this period; all I would observe is, that they did not, previously to the eleventh century, perform any important part in the great drama of the world, as connected with modern civilization. Again, with regard to the feudal system and the Church; we have seen them, between the fifth century and the twelfth, act with power upon the social system; we have seen the effects they produced; by regarding them as two great principles, we have arrived, by way of induction, by way of conjecture, at certain results which we have verified by referring to facts themselves. This, however, we cannot do with regard to corporations. We only see these in their childhood. I can scarcely go further to-day than inquire into their causes, their origin; and the few observations I shall make respecting their effects—respecting the influence of corporate cities upon modern civilization, will be rather a foretelling of what afterwards came to pass, than a recounting of what actually took place. I cannot, at this period, call in the testimony of known and contemporary events, because it was not till between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries that corporations attained any degree of perfection and influence, that these institutions bore any fruit, and that we can verify our assertions by history. I mention this difference of situation, in order to forewarn you of that which you may find incomplete and premature in the sketch I am about to give you.

Let us suppose that in the year 1789, at the commencement of the terrible regeneration of France, a burgess of the twelfth century had risen from his grave, and made his appearance among us, and some one had put into his hands (for we will suppose he could read) one of those spirit-stirring pamphlets which caused so much excitement, for instance, that of M. Sieyes, What is the Third Estate? (“Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?”) If, in looking at this, he had met the following passage, which forms the basis of the pamphlet:—“The third estate is the French nation without the nobility and clergy:” what, let me ask, would be the impression such a sentence would make on this burgess’s mind? Is it probable that he would understand it? No: he would not be able to comprehend the meaning of the words, “the French nation,” because they remind him of no facts or circumstances with which he would be acquainted, but represent a state of things to the existence of which he is an entire stranger; but if he did understand the phrase, and had a clear apprehension that the absolute sovereignty was lodged in the third estate, it is beyond a question that he would characterize such a proposition as almost absurd and impious, so utterly at variance would it be with his feelings and his ideas of things—so contradictory to the experience and observation of his whole life.

If we now suppose the astonished burgess to be introduced into any one of the free cities of France which had existed in his time—say Rheims, or Beauvais, or Laon, or Noyon—we shall see him still more astonished and puzzled: he enters the town, he sees no towers, ramparts, militia, or any other kind of defence; everything exposed, everything an easy spoil to the first depredator, the town ready to fall into the hands of the first assailant. The burgess is alarmed at the insecurity of this free city, which he finds in so defenceless and unprotected a condition. He then proceeds into the heart of the town; he inquires how things are going on, what is the nature of its government, and the character of its inhabitants. He learns that there is an authority not resident within its walls, which imposes whatever taxes it pleases to levy upon them without their consent; which requires them to keep up a militia, and to serve in the army without their inclination being consulted. They talk to him about the magistrates, about the mayor and aldermen, and he is obliged to hear that the burgesses have nothing to do with their nomination. He learns that the munieipal government is not conducted by the burgesses, but that a servant of the king, a steward living at a distance, has the sole management of their affairs.* In addition to this, he is informed that they are prohibited from assembling to take into consideration matters immediately concerning themselves, that the church bells have ceased to announce public meetings for such purposes. The burgess of the twelfth century is struck dumb with confusion—a moment since he was amazed at the greatness, the importance, the vast superiority which the “Third Estate” so vauntingly arrogated to itself; but now, upon examination, he finds them deprived of all civic rights, and in a state of thraldom and degradation far more intolerable than he had ever before witnessed. He passes suddenly from one extreme to the other, from the spectacle of a corporation exercising sovereign power to a corporation without any power at all: how is it possible that he should understand this, or be able to reconcile it? his head must be turned, and his faculties lost in wonder and confusion.

Now, let us burgesses of the nineteenth century imagine, in our turn, that we are transported back into the twelfth. A twofold appearance, but exactly reversed, presents itself to us in a precisely similar manner. If we regard the affairs of the public in general—the state, the government, the country, the nation at large, we shall neither see nor hear anything of burgesses; they were mere ciphers—of no importance or consideration whatever. Not only so, but if we would know in what estimation they held themselves as a body, what weight, what influence they attached to themselves with respect to their relations towards the government of France as a nation, we shall receive a reply to our inquiry in language expressive of deep humility and timidity; while we shall find their masters, the lords, from whom they subsequently wrested their franchises, treating them, at least as far as words go, with a pride and scorn truly amazing; yet these indignities do not appear, in the slightest degree, to provoke or astonish their submissive vassals.

But let us enter one of these free cities, and see what is going on within it. Here things take quite another turn: we find ourselves in a fortified town, defended by armed burgesses. These burgesses fix their own taxes, elect their own magistrates, have their own courts of judicature, their own public assemblies for deliberating upon public measures, from which none are excluded. They make war on their own account, even against their suzerain, and maintain their own militia. In short, they govern themselves, they are sovereigns.

Here we have a similar contrast to that which made France, of the eighteenth century, so perplexing to the burgess of the twelfth; the parts only are changed. In the present day the burgesses, in a national point of view, are everything—municipalities nothing; formerly municipalities were everything, while the burgesses, as respects the nation, were nothing. From this it will appear evident that many things, many extraordinary events, and even many revolutions, must have happened between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, in order to bring about so great a change as that which has taken place in the social condition of this class of society. But however vast this change, there can be no doubt but that the commons, the third estate of 1789, politically speaking, are the descendants, the heirs of the free towns of the twelfth century. And the present haughty, ambitious French nation, which aspires so high, which proclaims so pompously its sovereignty, and pretends not only to have regenerated and to govern itself, but to regenerate and rule the whole world, is indisputably descended from those very free burghers who revolted in the twelfth century—with great spirit and courage it must be allowed, but with no nobler object than that of escaping to some remote corner of the land from the vexatious tyranny of a few nobles.

It would be in vain to expect that the condition of the free towns in the twelfth century will reveal the causes of a metamorphosis such as this, which resulted from a series of events that took place between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. It is in these events that we shall discover the causes of this change as we go on. Nevertheless, the origin of the “Third Estate” has played a striking part in its history; and though we may not be able therein to trace out the whole secret of its destiny, we shall, at least, there meet with the seeds of it; that which it was at first, again occurs in that which it has become, and this to a much greater extent than might be presumed from appearances. A sketch, however imperfect, of the state of the free cities in the twelfth century, will, I think, convince you of this fact.

In order to understand the condition of the free cities at that time properly, it is necessary to consider them from two points of view. There are two great questions to be determined: first, that of the enfranchisement of the commons, or cities—that is to say, how this revolution was brought about, what were its causes, what alteration it effected in the condition of the burgesses, what in that of society in general, and in that of all the other orders of the state. The second question relates to the government of the free cities, the internal condition of the enfranchised towns, with reference to the burgesses residing within them, the principles, forms, and customs that prevailed among them.

From these two sources—namely, the change introduced into the social position of the burgesses, on the one hand, and from the internal government, from their municipal economy, on the other, has flowed all their influence upon modern civilization. All the circumstances that can be traced to their influence, may be referred to one of those two causes. As soon, then, as we thoroughly understand, and can satisfactorily account for, the enfranchisement of the free cities on the one hand, and the formation of their government on the other, we shall be in possession of the two keys to their history. In conclusion, I shall say a few words on the great diversity of conditions in the free cities of Europe. The facts which I am about to lay before you are not to be applied indiscriminately to all the free cities of the twelfth century—to those of Italy, Spain, England, and France alike; many of the facts were undoubtedly common to them all, but the points of difference are great and important. I shall point them out to your notice as I proceed. We shall meet with them again at a more advanced stage of our civilization, and can then examine them more closely.

In acquainting ourselves with the history of the enfranchisement of the free towns, we must remember what was the state of those towns between the fifth and eleventh centuries—from the fall of the Roman empire to the time when municipal revolution commenced. Here, I repeat, the differences are striking: the condition of the towns varied amazingly in the different countries of Europe; still there are some facts which may be regarded as nearly common to them all, and it is to these that I shall confine my observations. When I have gone through these, I shall say a few words more particularly respecting the free towns of France, and especially those of the north, beyond the Rhone and the Loire; these will form prominent figures in the sketch I am about to make.

After the fall of the Roman empire, between the fifth and tenth centuries, the towns were in a state neither of servitude nor of freedom. We here again run the same risk of error in the employment of words, that I spoke to you of in a previous lecture in describing the character of men and events. When a society and its language have lasted a considerable time, its words acquire a complete, a determinate, a precise, a sort of legal official signification. Time has introduced into the signification of every term a multitude of ideas, which are awakened within us every time we hear it pronounced, but which, as they do not all bear the same date, are not all suitable at the same time. The terms servitude and freedom, for example, call to our minds ideas far more precise and definite than are warranted by the facts of the eighth, ninth, or tenth centuries. If we say that the towns in the eighth century were in a state of freedom, we say by far too much; we attach now to the word freedom a signification which does not represent the fact of the eighth century. We shall fall into the same error, if we say that the towns were in a state of servitude; for this term implies a state of things very different from the circumstances of the municipal towns of those days. I say again, then, that the towns were in a state neither of freedom nor of servitude; they suffered all the evils to which weakness is liable; they were a prey to the continual depredations, rapacity, and violence of the strong; yet, notwithstanding these horrid disorders, and their impoverished and diminishing population, the towns had, and still maintained, a certain degree of importance; in most of them there was a clergyman, a bishop who exercised great authority, who possessed great influence over the people, and served as a tie between them and their conquerors, thus maintaining the city in a sort of independence, by throwing over it the protecting shield of religion. Besides this, there were still left in the towns some valuable fragments of Roman institutions. We are indebted to the careful researches of MM. de Savigny and Hullmann, Mademoiselle de Lézardière,* and others, for having furnished us with many circumstances of this nature. We hear often, at this period, of the convocation of the senate, of the curiœ,* of public assemblies, of municipal magistrates. Matters of police, wills, donations, and a multitude of civil transactions, were concluded in the curiœ by the magistrates, in the same way that they had previously been done under the Roman municipal government.

These remains of urban activity and freedom were gradually disappearing, it is true, from day to day. Barbarism and disorder, evils always increasing, accelerated depopulation. The establishment of the lords of the country in the rural districts, and the rising preponderance of agricultural life, became added causes of the decline of the cities. The bishops themselves, after they had incorporated themselves into the feudal frame, attached much less importance to their municipal life. Finally, upon the triumph of the feudal system, the towns, without falling into the slavery of the agriculturists, were entirely subjected to the control of a lord, were included in some fief, and lost by this title, somewhat of the independence which still remained to them, and which, indeed, they had continued to possess, even in the most barbarous times—even in the first centuries of invasion. So that from the fifth century up to the time of the complete organization of the feudal system, the state of the towns was continually getting worse.

When once, however, the feudal system was fairly established, when every man had taken his place, and become fixed as it were to the soil, when the wandering life had entirely ceased, the towns again assumed some importance—a new activity began to display itself within them. This is not surprising. Human activity, as we all know, is like the fertility of the soil,—when the disturbing process is over, it reappears and makes all to grow and blossom; wherever there appears the least glimmering of peace and order the hopes of man are excited, and with his hopes his industry. This is what took place in the cities. No sooner was society a little settled under the feudal system, than the proprietors of fiefs began to feel new wants, and to acquire a certain degree of taste for improvement and melioration; this gave rise to some little commerce and industry in the towns of their domains; wealth and population increased within them,—slowly indeed, but still they increased. Among other circumstances which aided in bringing this about, there is one which, in my opinion, has not been sufficiently noticed,—I mean the asylum, the protection which the churches afforded to fugitives. Before the free towns were constituted, before they were in a condition by their power, their fortifications, to offer an asylum to the desolate population of the country, when there was no place of safety for them but the Church, this circumstance alone was sufficient to draw into the cities many unfortunate persons and fugitives. These sought refuge either in the Church itself or within its precincts; it was not merely the lower orders, such as serfs, villeins, and so on, that sought this protection, but frequently men of considerable rank and wealth, who might chance to be proscribed. The chronicles of the times are full of examples of this kind. We find men lately powerful, who upon being attacked by some more powerful neighbor, or by the king himself, abandon their dwellings, carrying away all the property they can secure, enter into some city, and placing themselves under the protection of a church, become citizens. Refugees of this sort had, in my opinion, a considerable influence upon the progress of the cities; they introduced into them, besides their wealth, elements of a population superior to the great mass of their inhabitants. We know, moreover, that when once an assemblage somewhat considerable is formed in any place, other persons naturally flock to it, perhaps from finding it a place of greater security, or perhaps from that sociable disposition of our nature which never abandons us.*

By the concurrence of all these causes, the cities regained a small portion of power as soon as the feudal system was not restored to an equal extent.* The roving, wandering life had, it is true, in a great measure ceased, but to the conquerors, to the new proprietors of the soil, this roving life was one great means of gratifying their passions. When they desired to pillage, they made an excursion, they went afar to seek a better fortune, another domain. When they became more settled, when they considered it necessary to renounce their predatory expeditions, the same passions, the same gross desires, still remained in full force. But the weight of these now fell upon those whom they found ready at hand, upon the powerful of the world, upon the cities. Instead of going afar to pillage, they pillaged what was near. The exactions of the proprietors of fiefs upon the burgesses were redoubled at the end of the tenth century. Whenever the lord of the domain, by which a city was girt, felt a desire to increase his wealth, he gratified his avarice at the expense of the citizens. It was more particularly at this period that the citizens complained of the total want of commercial security. Merchants, on returning from their trading rounds, could not, with safety, return to their city. Every avenue was taken possession of by the lord of the domain and his vassals. The moment in which industry commenced its career, was precisely that in which security was most wanting. Nothing is more galling to an active spirit, than to be deprived of the long-anticipated pleasure of enjoying the fruits of his industry. When robbed of this, he is far more irritated and vexed than when made to suffer in a state that has become fixed and monotonous, than when that which is torn from him is not the fruit of his own activity, has not excited in him all the joys of hope. There is in the progressive movement, which elevates a man or a people towards a new fortune, a spirit of resistance against iniquity and violence much more energetic than in any other situation.

Such, then, was the state of cities during the course of the tenth century. They possessed more strength, more importance, more wealth, more interests to defend. At the same time, it became more necessary than ever to defend them, for these interests, their wealth and their strength, became objects of desire to the nobles.* With the means of resistance, the danger and difficulty increased also. Besides, the feudal system gave to all connected with it a perpetual example of resistance; the idea of an organized energetic government, capable of keeping society in order and regularity by its intervention, had never presented itself to the spirits of that period. On the contrary, there was a perpetual recurrence of individual will, refusing to submit to authority. Such was the conduct of the major part of the holders of fiefs towards their suzerains, of the small proprietors of land to the greater; so that at the very time when the cities were oppressed and tormented, at the moment when they had new and greater interests to sustain, they had before their eyes a continual lesson of insurrection. The feudal system rendered this service to mankind—it constantly exhibited individual will, displaying itself in all its power and energy. The lesson was applied; in spite of their weakness, in spite of the prodigious inequality which existed between them and the great proprietors, their lords, the cities everywhere broke out into rebellion against them.

It is difficult to fix a precise date to this great event—this general insurrection of the cities. The commencement of their enfranchisement is usually placed at the beginning of the eleventh century. But in all great events, how many unknown and disastrous efforts must have been made, before the successful one! Providence, upon all occasions, in order to accomplish its designs, is prodigal of courage, virtues, sacrifices—finally, of man; and it is only after a vast number of unknown attempts apparently lost, after a host of noble hearts have fallen into despair—convinced that their cause was lost—that it triumphs. Such, no doubt, was the case in the struggle of the free cities. Doubtless in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries there were many attempts at resistance, many efforts made for freedom:—many attempts to escape from bondage, which not only were unsuccessful, but the remembrance of which, from their ill success, has remained without glory. Still we may rest assured that these attempts had a vast influence upon succeeding events: they kept alive and maintained the spirit of liberty—they prepared the great insurrection of the eleventh century.

I say insurrection, and I say it advisedly. The enfranchisement of the towns or communities in the eleventh century was the fruit of a real insurrection, of a real war—a war declared by the population of the cities against their lords. The first fact which we always meet with in annals of this nature, is the rising of the burgesses, who seize whatever arms they can lay their hands on;—it is the expulsion of the people of the lord, who come for the purpose of levying contributions, some extortion; it is an enterprise against the neighboring castle;—such is always the character of the war.* If the insurrection fails, what does the conqueror instantly do? He orders the destruction of the fortifications erected by the citizens, not only around their city, but also around each dwelling. We see that at the very moment of confederation, after having promised to act in common, after having taken, in common, the corporation oath, the first act of each citizen was to put his own house in a state of resistance. Some towns, the names of which are now almost forgotten, the little community of Vézelay, in Nevers, for example—sustained against their lord a long and obstinate struggle. At length victory declared for the Abbot of Vézelay; upon the spot he ordered the demolition of the fortifications of the houses of the citizens; and the names of many of the heroes, whose fortified houses were then destroyed, are still preserved.

Let us enter the interior of these habitations of our ancestors; let us examine the form of their construction, and the mode of life which this reveals: all is devoted to war, every thing is impressed with its character.

The construction of the house of a citizen of the twelfth century, so far, at least, as we can now obtain an idea of it, was something of this kind: it consisted usually of three stories, one room in each; that on the ground floor served as a general eating room for the family; the first story was much elevated for the sake of security, and this is the most remarkable circumstance in the construction. The room in this story was the habitation of the master of the house and his wife. The house was, in general, flanked with an angular tower, usually square: another symptom of war; another means of defence. The second story consisted again of a single room; its use is not known, but it probably served for the children and domestics. Above this in most houses, was a small platform, evidently intended as an observatory or watch-tower. Every feature of the building bore the appearance of war. This was the decided characteristic, the true name of the movement, which wrought out the freedom of the cities.

After a war has continued a certain time, whoever may be the belligerent parties, it naturally leads to a peace. The treaties of peace between the cities and their adversaries were so many charters. These charters of the cities were so many positive treaties of peace between the burgesses and their lords.*

The insurrection was general. When I say general, I do not mean that there was any concerted plan, that there was any coalition between all the burgesses of a country; nothing like it took place. But the situation of all the towns being nearly the same, they all were liable to the same danger; a prey to the same disasters. Having acquired similar means of resistance and defence, they made use of those means at nearly the same time. It may be possible, also, that the force of example did something; that the success of one or two communities was contagious. Sometimes the charters appear to have been drawn up from the same model; for instance, that of Noyon served as a pattern for those of Beauvais, St. Quentin, and others; I doubt, however, whether example had so great an influence as is generally conjectured. Communication between different provinces was difficult and of rare occurrence; the intelligence conveyed and received by hearsay and general report was vague and uncertain; and there is much reason for believing that the insurrection was rather the result of a similarity of situation and of a general spontaneous movement. When I say general, I wish to be understood simply as saying that insurrections took place everywhere; they did not, I repeat, spring from any unanimous concerted movement: all was particular, local; each community rebelled on its own account, against its own lord, unconnected with any other place.

The vicissitudes of the struggle were great. Not only did success change from one side to the other, but even after peace was in appearance concluded, after the charter had been solemnly sworn to by both parties, they violated and eluded its articles in all sorts of ways. Kings acted a prominent part in the alternations of these struggles. I shall speak of these more in detail when I come to royalty itself. Too much has probably been said of the effects of royal influence upon the struggles of the people for freedom. These effects have been often contested, sometimes exaggerated, and in my opinion, sometimes greatly underrated. I shall here confine myself to the assertion that royalty was often called upon to interfere in these contests, sometimes by the cities, sometimes by their lords; and that it played very different parts; acting now upon one principle, and soon after upon another; that it was ever changing its intentions, its designs, and its conduct;* but that, taking it altogether, it did much, and produced a greater portion of good than of evil.

In spite of all these vicissitudes, notwithstanding the perpetual violation of charters in the twelfth century—the freedom of the cities was consummated. Europe, and particularly France, which, during a whole century, had abounded in insurrections, now abounded in charters;* cities rejoiced in them with more or less security, but still they rejoiced; the event succeeded, and the right was acknowledged.

Let us now endeavor to ascertain the more immediate results of this great fact, and what changes it produced in the situation of the burgesses as regarded society.

And, at first, as regards the relations of the burgesses with the general government of the country, or with what we now call the state, it effected nothing; they took no part in this more than before; all remained local, enclosed within the limits of the fief.

One circumstance, however, renders this assertion not strictly true: a connection now began to be formed between the cities and the king. At one time the people called upon the king for support and protection, or solicited him to guaranty the charter which had been promised or sworn to. At another the barons invoked the judicial interference of the king between them and the burgesses. At the request of one or other of the two parties, from a multitude of various causes royalty was called upon to interfere in the quarrel, whence resulted a frequent and close connection between the citizens and the king. In consequence of this connection the cities became a part of the state, they began to have relations with the general government.

Although all still remained local, yet a new general class of society became formed by the enfranchisement of the commons. No coalition of the burgesses of different cities had taken place; as yet they had as a class no public or general existence. But the country was covered with men engaged in similar pursuits, possessing the same views and interests, the same manners and customs; between whom there could not fail to be gradually formed a certain tie, from which originated the general class of burgesses. This formation of a great social class was the necessary result of the local enfranchisement of the burgesses.* It must not, however, be supposed that the class of which we are speaking was then what it has since become. Not only is its situation greatly changed, but its elements are totally different. In the twelfth century, this class was almost entirely composed of merchants or small traders, and little landed or house proprietors who had taken up their residence in the city. Three centuries afterwards there were added to this class lawyers, physicians, men of letters, and the local magistrates. The class of burgesses was formed gradually and of very different elements: history gives us no accurate account of its progress, nor of its diversity. When the body of citizens is spoken of, it is erroneously conjectured to have been, at all times, composed of the same elements. Absurd supposition! It is, perhaps, in the diversity of its composition at different periods of history that we should seek to discover the secret of its destiny; so long as it was destitute of magistrates and of men of letters, so long it remained totally unlike what it became in the sixteenth century; as regards the state, it neither possessed the same character nor the same importance. In order to form a just idea of the changes in the rank and influence of this portion of society, we must take a view of the new professions, the new moral situations, of the new intellectual state which gradually arose within it. In the twelfth century, I must repeat, the body of citizens consisted only of small merchants or traders, who, after having finished their purchases and sales, retired to their houses in the city or town; and of little proprietors of houses or lands who had there taken up their residence. Such was the European burgher class in its primary elements.

The third great result of the enfranchisement of the cities was the struggle of classes; a struggle which constitutes the very fact of modern history, and of which it is full.

Modern Europe, indeed, is born of this struggle between the different classes of society. I have already shown that in other places this struggle has been productive of very different consequences; in Asia, for example, one particular class has completely triumphed, and the system of castes has succeeded to that of classes, and society has there fallen into a state of immobility. Nothing of this kind, thank God! has taken place in Europe. One of the classes has not conquered, has not brought the others into subjection; no class has been able to overcome, to subjugate the others; the struggle, instead of rendering society stationary, has been a principal cause of its progress; the relations of the different classes with one another; the necessity of combating and of yielding by turns; the variety of interests, passions, and excitements; the desire to conquer without the power to do so: from all this has probably sprung the most energetic, the most productive principle of development in European civilization. This struggle of the classes has been constant; enmity has grown up between them; the infinite diversity of situation, of interests, and of manners, has produced a strong moral hostility; yet they have progressively approached, assimilated, and understood each other; every country of Europe has seen the rise and development within it of a certain public spirit, a certain community of interests, of ideas, of sentiments, which have triumphed over this diversity and war. In France, for example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the moral and social separation of classes was still very profound, yet there can be no doubt but that their fusion, even then, was far advanced; that even then there was a real French nation, not consisting of any class exclusively, but of a commixture of the whole; all animated with the same feeling, actuated by one common social principle, firmly knit together by the bond of nationality. Thus, from the bosom of variety, enmity, and discord, has issued that national unity, now become so conspicuous in modern Europe; that nationality whose tendency is to develop and purify itself more and more, and every day to increase its splendor.

Such are the great, the important, the conspicuous social effects of the revolution which now occupies our attention. Let us now endeavor to show what were its moral effects; what changes it produced in the minds of the citizens themselves, what they became in consequence, and what they should morally become, in their new situation.

When we take into our consideration the connection of the citizens with the state in general, with the government of the state, and with the interests of the country, as that connection existed not only in the twelfth century, but also in after ages, there is one circumstance which must strike us most forcibly: I mean the extraordinary mental timidity of the citizens; their humility; the excessive modesty of their pretensions to a right of interference in the government of their country; and the little matter that, in this respect, contented them. Nothing was to be seen in them which discovered that genuine political feeling that aspires to the possession of influence, and to the power of reforming and governing; nothing attests in them either energy of mind, or loftiness of ambition; one feels ready to exclaim, “Poor, prudent, simple-hearted citizens!”

There are not, probably, more than two sources whence, in the political world, can flow loftiness of ambition and energy of mind. There must be either the feeling of possessing a great importance, a great power over the destiny of others, and this over a large sphere; or there must be in one’s self a powerful feeling of personal independence, the assurance of one’s own liberty, the consciousness of having a destiny with which no will can intermeddle beyond that in one’s own bosom. To one or other of these two conditions seem to be attached energy of mind, the loftiness of ambition, the desire to act in a large sphere, and to obtain corresponding results.

Neither of these conditions is to be found in the situation of the burgesses of the middle ages. These were, as we have just seen, only important to themselves; except within the walls of their own city, their influence amounted to but little; as regarded the state, to almost nothing. Nor could they be possessed of any great feeling of personal independence; that they had conquered, that they had obtained a charter did but little in the way of promoting this noble sentiment. The burgess of a city, comparing himself with the little baron who dwelt near him, and who had just been vanquished by him, would still be sensible of his own extreme inferiority; he was ignorant of that proud sentiment of independence which animated the proprietor of a fief; the share of freedom which he possessed was not derived from himself alone, but from his association with others—from the difficult and precarious succor which they afforded. Hence that retiring disposition, that timidity of mind, that trembling shyness, that humility of speech (though perhaps coupled with firmness of purpose), which is so deeply stamped on the character of the burgesses, not only of the twelfth century, but even of their most remote descendants. They had no taste for great enterprises; if chance pushed them into such, they became vexed and embarrassed; any responsibility was a burden to them; they felt themselves out of their sphere, and endeavored to return into it; they treated upon easy terms. Thus, in running over the history of Europe, and especially of France, we find that municipal communities have been esteemed, consulted, perhaps respected, but rarely feared; they seldom impressed their adversaries with the notion that they were a great and formidable power, a power truly political. There is nothing to be astonished at in the weakness of the modern burgess; the great cause of it may be traced to his origin, in those circumstances of his enfranchisement which I have just placed before you. The loftiness of ambition, independent of social conditions, the breadth and boldness of political views, the desire to be employed in public affairs, the full consciousness of the greatness of man, considered as such, and of the power that belongs to him, if he be capable of exercising it; these sentiments, these dispositions, are of entirely modern growth in Europe, the offspring of modern civilization, and of that glorious and powerful generality which characterizes it, and which will never fail to secure to the public an influence, a weight in the government of the country, that were constantly wanting, and deservedly wanting, to the burgesses our ancestors.

As a set-off to this, in the contests which they had to sustain respecting their local interests—in this narrow field, they acquired and displayed a degree of energy, devotedness, perseverance, and patience, which has never been surpassed. The difficulty of the enterprise was so great, they had to struggle against such perils, that a display of courage almost beyond example became necessary. Our notions of the burgess of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and of his life, are very erroneous. The picture which Sir Walter Scott has drawn in Quentin Durward of the burgomaster of Liege, fat, inactive, without experience, without daring, and caring for nothing but passing his life in ease and enjoyment, is only fitted for the stage; the real burgess of that day had a coat of mail continually on his back, a pike constantly in his hand; his life was nearly as stormy, as warlike, as rigid as that of the nobles with whom he contended. It was in these every-day perils, in combating the varied dangers of practical life, that he acquired that bold and masculine character, that determined exertion, which have become more rare in the softer activity of modern times.

None, however, of these social and moral effects of the enfranchisement of corporations became fully developed in the twelfth century; it is only in the course of the two following centuries that they showed themselves so as to be clearly discerned. It is nevertheless certain that the seeds of these effects existed in the primary situation of the commons, in the mode of their enfranchisement, and in the position which the burgesses from that time took in society; I think, therefore, that I have done right in bringing these circumstances before you to-day.

Let us now penetrate into the interior of one of those corporate cities of the twelfth century, that we may see how it was governed, that we may now see what principles and what facts prevailed in the relations of the burgesses with one another. It must be remembered, that in speaking of the municipal system bequeathed by the Roman empire to the modern world, I took occasion to say,* that the Roman world was a great coalition of municipalities, which had previously been as sovereign and independent as Rome itself. Each of these cities had formerly been in the same condition as Rome, a little free republic, making peace and war, and governing itself by its own will. As fast as these became incorporated into the Roman world, those rights which constitute sovereignty—the right of war and peace, of legislation, taxation, etc.—were transferred from each city to the central government at Rome. There remained then but one municipal sovereignty. Rome reigned over a vast number of municipalities, which had nothing left beyond a civic existence. The municipal system became essentially changed: it was no longer a political government, but simply a mode of administration. This was the grand revolution which was consummated under the Roman empire. The municipal system became a mode of administration; it was reduced to the government of local affairs, to the civic interests of the city. This is the state in which the Roman empire, at its fall, left the cities and their institutions. During the chaos of barbarism, notions and facts of all sorts became embroiled and confused; the various attributes of sovereignty and administration were confounded. Distinctions of this nature were no longer regarded. Affairs were suffered to run on in the course dictated by necessity. The municipalities became sovereigns or administrators in the various places, as need might require. Where cities rebelled, they reassumed the sovereignty, for the sake of security, not out of respect for any political theory, nor from any feeling of their dignity, but that they might have the means of contending with the nobles, whose yoke they had thrown off; that they might take upon themselves the right to call out the militia, to tax themselves to support the war, to name their own chiefs and magistrates; in a word, to govern themselves. The internal government of the city was their means of defence, of security. Thus, sovereignty again returned to the municipal system, which had been deprived of it by the conquests of Rome. City corporations again became sovereigns. This is the political characteristic of their enfranchisement.

I do not, however, mean to assert, that this sovereignty was complete. Some trace of an exterior sovereignty always may be found; sometimes it was the baron who retained the right to send a magistrate into the city, with whom the municipal magistrates acted as assessors; perhaps he had the right to collect certain revenues; in some cases a fixed tribute was assured to him. Sometimes the exterior sovereignty of the community was in the hands of the king.

The cities themselves, in their turn, entered into the feudal system; they had vassals, and became suzerains; and by this title possessed that portion of sovereignty which was inherent in the suzerainty. A great confusion arose between the rights which they held from their feudal position, and those which they had acquired by their insurrection; and by this double title they held the sovereignty.

Let us see, as far as the very scanty sources left us will allow, how the internal government of the cities, at least in the more early times, was managed. The entire body of the inhabitants formed the communal assembly: all those who had taken the communal oath—and all who dwelt within the walls were obliged to do so—were summoned, by the tolling of the bell, to the general assembly. In this were named the magistrates. The number chosen, and the power and proceedings of the magistrates, differed very considerably. After choosing the magistrates, the assemblies dissolved; and the magistrates governed almost alone, sufficiently arbitrarily, being under no further responsibility than the new elections, or, perhaps, popular outbreaks, which were, at this time, the great guarantee for good government.*

You will observe that the internal organization of the municipal towns is reduced to two very simple elements, the general assembly of the inhabitants, and a government invested with almost arbitrary power, under the responsibility of insurrections,—general outbreaks. It was impossible, especially while such manners prevailed, to establish anything like a regular government, with proper guarantees of order and duration. The greater part of the population of these cities were ignorant, brutal, and savage to a degree which rendered them exceedingly difficult to govern. At the end of a very short period, there was but little more security within these communities than there had been, previously, in the relations of the burgesses with the baron. There soon, however, became formed a burgess aristocracy. The causes of this are easily understood. The notions of that day, coupled with certain social relations, led to the establishment of trading companies legally constituted.* A system of privileges became introduced into the interior of the cities, and, in the end, a great inequality. There soon grew up in all of them a certain number of considerable, opulent burgesses, and a population, more or less numerous, of workmen, who, notwithstanding their inferiority, had no small influence in the affairs of the community. The free cities thus became divided into an upper class of burgesses, and a population subject to all the errors, all the vices of a mob. The superior citizens thus found themselves pressed between two great difficulties: first, the arduous one of governing this inferior turbulent population; and secondly, that of withstanding the continual attempts of the ancient master of the borough, who sought to regain his former power. Such was the situation of their affairs, not only in France, but in Europe, down to the sixteenth century. This, perhaps, is the cause which prevented these communities from taking, in several countries of Europe, and especially in France, that high political station which seemed properly to belong to them. Two spirits were unceasingly at work within them: among the inferior population, a blind, licentious, furious spirit of democracy; among the superior burgesses, a spirit of timidity, of caution, and an excessive desire to accommodate all differences, whether with the king, or with its ancient proprietors, so as to preserve peace and order in the bosom of the community. Neither of these spirits could raise the cities to a high rank in the state.

All these effects did not become apparent in the twelfth century; still we may foresee them, even in the character of the insurrection, in the manner in which it broke out, in the state of the different elements of the city population.

Such, if I mistake not, are the principal characteristics, the general results, both of the enfranchisement of the cities and of their internal government. I have already premised, that these facts were not so uniform, not so universal, as I have represented them. There are great diversities in the history of the European free cities. In the south of France and in Italy, for example, the Roman municipal system prevailed; the population was not nearly so divided, so unequal, as in the north. Here, also, the municipal organization was much better; perhaps the effect of Roman traditions, perhaps of the better state of the population. In the north, it was the feudal system that prevailed in the city arrangements. Here all seemed subordinate to the struggle against the barons. The cities of the south paid much more regard to their internal constitution, to the work of melioration and progress. We see, from the beginning, that they will become free republics. The career of those of the north, above all those of France, showed itself, from the first, more rude, more incomplete, destined to less perfect, less beautiful developments. If we run over those of Germany, Spain, and England, we shall find among them many other differences. I cannot particularize them, but shall notice some of them, as we advance in the history of civilization. All things at their origin are nearly confounded in one and the same physiognomy; it is only in their after-growth that their variety shows itself. Then begins a new development which urges forward societies towards that free and lofty unity, the glorious object of the efforts and wishes of mankind.*

[* ] The centralization of the power of administering local affairs in France, begun in the thirteenth century, was completed under Louis XIV (1643-1715). An agent of the king, the intendant, was absolute ruler in each of the provinces into which France was divided; in each town or commune within the province there was a subagent of the intendant, who exercised by authority of the king all the powers of local government. In many communes the people ceased even to elect local officers, either legislative or administrative. In others they continued to elect, but the power and activity of the king’s subagent left nothing for the elected officers to do. Thus all local government was centered in the king.

All this was swept away by the Revolution of 1780. Today, the residents of each commune and city elect a council, and the council chooses the mayor and his assistants. The local government is vested in and exercised by the council and mayor, but the latter is responsible to the central government of France and is removable by the President.

[* ] Of these, Frederick Karl von Savigny (1779-1861) is the only one of first rank. As a university professor in Germany and a writer on Roman law and institutions he exercised a great influence. His most important work in this connection is Geschichte des römischen Rechts im Mittelalter.

[* ] In the Roman municipality the curia, or senate, whose membership was based on a land qualification, deliberated on the affairs of the city and chose the magistrates.

[† ] These statements must be taken as only approximately exact. Conditions differed widely in different parts of Europe. In Italy and southern France the old municipalities appear to have retained during this entire period much of their old form and vitality. Further north the cities succumbed more readily to the mediæval influences, and lost power and activity; indeed, almost disappeared between the fifth and the tenth century.

[* ] The most potent cause of the revival of the old cities and the planting and growth of new ones in the tenth, eleventh, and later centuries, was the revival of industry and of commerce. So long as the unsettled life of the dark ages continued, so long as agriculture was almost the sole occupation, there were few reasons for the existence of cities. As soon, however, as the trade and commerce which had been wiped out by the barbarian inroads began again to be demanded by the improving civilization, cities sprang into life everywhere, and not least in northern France, in Germany, and in England, where in ancient times there had been few. Some of the monasteries had been granted the right of holding annual or more frequent fairs or markets, to which merchants resorted from wide distances. Gradually around such monasteries where market rights existed arose cities of artisans and traders. Again, on the feudal domains were artisans dependent upon the lord or suzerain, to whom the product of their labor belonged. These artisans grouped themselves in communities and villages, organized themselves into industrial associations (craft or artisan gilds), which came in various ways to exercise powers over industrial matters and to protect its members. The exact relation of these gilds to the towns and cities is not entirely clear, nor was it uniform throughout Europe. It is certain, however, that whether the gilds became in time cities, or remained subordinate to the municipalities, the towns and cities were a part of the feudal system in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and were subject to feudal exactions and dues.

Thus industry and trade account for the revival of city life, the planting of new cities, and the growth of old ones. The causes for this development were substantially the same throughout western Europe. The reasons and the methods of their enfranchisement were widely variant in different countries.

The growth and enfranchisement of the cities, and especially the industrial organization and its connection with municipal life, have been the subject of the most scholarly investigations during recent years. Most of these studies are unavailable for English readers. The following contain brief accounts of value: Duruy, History of the Middle Ages; Emerton, Mediæval Europe; Ashley, English Economic History; Gross, The Gild Merchant; Cunningham, English Industry and Commerce; Stubbs, Constitutional History of England.

[* ] The continuity of city life and municipal institutions from Roman time to modern was not so great, in all probability, as is assumed in the lecture. The rise of the free city was rather the rise of a new institution than the restoration of an old one, save in southern France and Italy.

[* ] To describe the exact relations of the cities to the feudal lords would demand too much space. In general it may be said that the inhabitants were individually or collectively liable for all the services and obligations which were due from vassals to their superiors, including allegiance, tribute, and aid. The burdensome nature of these exactions, the desire for more power over their own lives and affairs, led to the insurrection, the successful outcome of which constitutes “the enfranchisement of the towns.”

[* ] It was mainly in France that the enfranchisement of the cities was attended with great violence and war. In Germany, England, and even in Italy while the results attained were similar, the process involved more of purchase and less of war. See page 214, note.

[* ] Like all other treaties of peace, they stood until broken by one or both parties. The charters were frequently violated by the lords, or revoked by the king, in order that, as the price of their renewal, large payments of money might be obtained from the cities.

[† ] The first French commune was at Le Mans (1067), which was abolished after two years. After this, Cambrai (1076), Noyon, Beauvais, St. Quentin, and Laon (1106) followed in the order named, though they did not obtain charters until dates slightly later.

[* ] The apparent vacillation in the policy of the French kings until the latter part of the twelfth century was due in large degree to their uncertainty of their own power; they hesitated to favor the enfranchisement of the cities at the risk of the hostility of the large feudal lords, including especially the Church. Later, the policy of the monarch was consistently favorable to the cities.

[* ] There was great variety in the charters, but the privileges granted to the cities in the middle ages were in general these: the right of corporate property; a common seal; exemption from the more ignominious or oppressive tokens of feudal subjection, and the defined regulation of the rest; settled rules as to succession and private rights of property; and lastly, and of the greatest value, exemption from the royal jurisdiction, as well as from that of the territorial judges, and the right of being governed by magistrates of their own, either wholly, or (in some cases) partly chosen by themselves.


[* ] The class here referred to is the great middle class—the bourgeoisie of France and the continent generally, the commons of England—made up of the merchants and traders, distinguished on the one hand from the nobility, on the other from the laborers and peasants.

[* ] See p. 35 et seq.

[* ] There were two general types of government in the cities, communal and consular. In the former, the government was vested in a select body of from twelve to one hundred citizens. This body was probably elected by the citizens. It chose from its own number the chief executive officer of the commune, who, with the select body, exercised the administrative and judicial power of the city, subject to such control as still remained in the feudal lord whose vassal the commune was. In the consular cities a board of twelve consuls wielded the executive power, assisted by a council of not more than one hundred. For special purposes a larger assembly representing the entire body of citizens was summoned. The cities of Italy and southern France were of the latter class; those of northern France and parts of Germany were of the former. Many points concerning these governments are still buried in obscurity. M. Guizot’s discussion throughout the lecture has special referrence to the French communes and cities.

[* ] The origin of these “trading companies”—the merchant and artisan gilds—and their exact connection with municipal life is still somewhat obscure, notwithstanding recent researches. The student may with profit consult Brentano’s History and Development of Gilds, Gross’s Gild Merchant, or Lambert’s Two Thousand Years of Gild Life.

[* ] As the population of a town or city increased, the desire for and tendency towards self-government were natural. In France, as already stated, this was obtained, as a rule, only after a struggle between the city and the feudal lord upon whose domain the city stood. Later, the cities often obtained their charters or gained additional rights by purchase or on the gift of large sums of money to the suzerain or king. Whether it came as the result of war or of bargain, the end attained was the same: the commune or city received a charter from the feudal lord, by which the future relations of the lord and the commune were determined. Usually a regular, fixed payment by the commune was substituted for the irregular feudal exactions, and the amount and character of the military service due from the commune was fixed. Thereafter the lord’s dealings were with the commune as a corporation, and not with the individual inhabitants. On the other hand, the commune gained the right of managing in great degree its own affairs. The charters varied, however, in the grant of powers. In some there was a mere substitution of corporate for individual relations to the suzerain, in others almost complete freedom from demands of the lord.

Each communal or city charter was a grant of rights; to just the extent that the city gained power and privilege, by just so much was the authority of the lord diminished. This diminution of the power of the feudal baronage was welcomed by the king. Hence the cities often found ready aid from the monarch, in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Note especially the policy of Louis VII (1137-1180). Later, however, the king, having established his own power more firmly, began to break down that of the cities by imposing upon them his own judicial and administrative officers. Thus, in France, the communes helped to break down feudalism, gained some rights of self-government, but instead of becoming and remaining entirely self-governing in their local affairs, were left in the end closely dependent on the monarch.

In Italy, so far as the enfranchisement was involved, much the same course was run by the cities. There was, however, no strong central government in Italy, hence the cities were able to take one step further and establish their complete independence, forming the city-republics that occupy so prominent a place in the later mediæval and early modern history of Italy. By the middle of the twelfth century the cities of Lombardy, with Milan at their head, had become extremely rich and powerful; they formed a confederation among themselves—the Lombard League—and maintained an obstinate struggle for more than thirty years with Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of Germany, which terminated in 1183 by the treaty of Constance, wherein the emperor renounced all legal privileges in the interior of the cities, acknowledged the right of the confederated cities to levy armies, erect fortifications, exercise criminal and civil jurisdiction by officers of their own appointment.

In Germany, the majority of the cities were of mediæval origin. Their development and enfranchisement resulted as in Italy. In the absence of any strong central power in Germany which could either compel their allegiance or protect their interests, they were obliged to rely on their own resources for defence.

Among the German cities, confederations were also formed; of these the most celebrated was the Hanseatic League, which originated in 1239-1241, from a convention between Lübeck, Hamburg, and one or two other cities, by which they agreed to defend each other against all oppression and violence, particularly of the nobles. The number of towns united in this league rapidly increased; it included at one time eighty-five cities. Regular diets were held every third year at Lübeck, the chief city of the confederacy. This league was at various times confirmed by kings and princes, and in the fourteenth century exercised a powerful political as well as commercial influence. It made treaties with other states, and maintained a fleet to protect its commercial rights. The league was dissolved in the seventeenth century. The League of the Rhine was a similar confederation. During the later middle ages the majority of these cities were absorbed into the states near them.

In England the feudal system never held so complete sway, and the cities gained rights of self-government by a more orderly process of development, through purchase from the lords of the manors and by charters from the kings, beginning with that of London.

The influence of the crusades in all these countries facilitated the enfranchisement of the cities.

The literature of the subject in foreign languages is abundant. In English it is mainly confined to special chapters in general works. In addition to those already cited, see Adams, Civilization during the Middle Ages, chap. xii. Hallam’s Middle Ages has been made less valuable by later researches. Zimmern, The Hansa Towns, contains some useful information.

Last modified April 10, 2014