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Conceived in Liberty: The Medieval Communes of Europe

This article was translated by Bernardo Ferrero, from the original Italian

The Omnipresent Law of Escalating Power: As True as the Law of Gravity

From the dawn of the earliest civilizations to our present days political power has shown, everywhere, a centralizing tendency. Power, in fact, tends toward perpetual expansion defeating or absorbing all weaker subjects that it encounters on the way. By feeding itself with its own victories, the strongest power always becomes stronger. This is the reason why historically, within the realm of politics, concentration of power has been the rule, while the dispersion of power the exception. During antiquity this self-feeding logic of power has nearly always prevailed. If one excludes those who have remained at a primitive stage of development, for thousands of years the great majority of people lived within vast centralized reigns, which were politically despotic and economically stagnant. The first empires arose in the land of Mesopotamia more than 6,000 years ago, and then extended to every other continent: The Sumerian, Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Russian, Arabian, Ottoman, Indian, Chinese, Mongol, Incas and Aztec. Among the few luminous exceptions that the ancient world provided were the mercantile cities of Phoenicia and the Polis of ancient Greece.

Even the West had an experience which was analogous to the societies of the ancient orient. Starting from the third century A.D. the political economy of the Roman Empire, which in the two preceding centuries had adopted a more laissez faire approach, became, due to the increasing pressures coming from its military engagements, always more bureaucratic and fiscally encroaching. If the empire would not have fallen it would have probably smothered for who-knows-how-many years — under its bureaucratic apparatus — the cultural and technological progress of Europe, just like those despotic regimes had been able to do in Asia.

The crumbling of the western part of the empire, however, offered the people of Europe the extraordinary opportunity of edifying a new civilization on the ashes of Rome. In this sense, the end of the old civilization, in light of how things were unfolding, was a lucky event for it freed the peoples of Europe from the despotic machine that had chained the economy and societies of the eastern world, thereby warding off a destiny of oppression and stagnation. Europe enjoyed then a lengthy period characterized by the absence of a centralized power: every attempt to reinstall an empire, beginning with Charlemagne and following with the Germanic emperors, failed. This lack of unity enabled extensive, small-scale experimentation and unleashed creative competition among hundreds of independent political entities.

Feudal Anarchy

The most visible trait of the feudal system, born out of the break-up of the empire, was the dispersion of public power. The feudal society was a society that lacked a central authority, and for this reason scholars do not hesitate to talk about “feudal anarchy.” The feudal society was, however, a military-aristocratic society, characterized by low intensity yet continuous conflicts between lords, and as such its spirit and institutions shared very few classical liberal or libertarian traits. In a system based on the subjugation of the peasant to the lord, on serfdom, on a closed economy and on a limited range of exchanges, it is not easy to find wide spaces of liberty. In spite of these facts, Feudalism offered, nonetheless, certain peculiar characteristics which in the long run would play a significant preparatory role for the development of Capitalism in Europe.

At first sight the difference between the powers of an imperial functionary and the authority of a feudal lord would seem minimal, since the governed face subjection in both cases. The differences however were noteworthy because the imperial functionary was only a small part of a huge centralized machine, while the feudal lord was at best a “little despot,” representative of a power which was largely autonomous, surrounded by many other lords with powers similar to his: each of whom was jealous of his own prerogatives. The Germanic heritage of feudalism had, in this way, introduced the idea of individual independence, and its implications were to be seen in the predominance of private property over public property, personal life over collective life, family over society.

The feudal system therefore contained within itself the seeds of its own evolution. Unlike the despotic system, feudalism was structured in a way that made the liberation of society and the economy possible. As a consequence, European society was able to liberate itself from the feudal grip, while the oriental societies, with the only exception of Japan, never managed to free themselves from the bureaucratic cage in which despotic power had enclosed them.

The Medieval Communes: Conceived in Liberty

The commune was born out of a private and voluntary association among citizens, based on the bond of an oath (in latin Conjuratio). The initiative of these citizens replaced, in fights that lasted even hundreds of years, the authority of the feudatory or Bishop. The liberation of the cities from the dominion of feudalism was the result of a general insurrection across Europe, of a real war declared by the inhabitants of the boroughs against their lords. In Italy, Spain, Germany, Flanders, Holland, France, England, the inhabitants began to fortify their own boroughs and in this way they subtracted themselves from the dominion of their lords, beginning to reconstruct society from the bottom up. In Italy the propitious opportunity that the cities were able to grasp was rendered possible by the long investiture contest between political and religious power. This conflict represented a turning point because the communal movement would not have been able to grow had there been no division and struggle between the Papacy and the Empire. Their rivalry created a favorable situation for the emancipation of the cities: the little David’s, the citizen’s militia, defeated the powerful Goliaths, the formidable institutions of the emperors and the lords. The sense of independence and the strength that the communes emanated prevented, after the 11th century, the growth of a political body able to concentrate power both at the national and supranational level. The law of escalating power — a rare historical fact indeed — had been challenged and defeated.

In this way some non-feudal islands — the free cities — emerged amidst a feudal sea. The cities became real oases of liberty as they enabled a marvellous process of emancipation of the exploited from the feudal dominion. “City air makes you free” was a dictum of German descent which was very diffused in the high middle ages precisely because the medieval city became an irresistible pole of attraction for serfs who wanted to escape from their lords, for merchants and artisans who wanted to trade and produce freely, and also for those impoverished knights who sought to improve their social conditions. The city offered protection, liberty, earning opportunities and a strong sense of belonging, strengthened by the permanent fight against the lords in which all inhabitants participated. These cities could then be referred to as the first fatherlands of the west, their patriotism being far more spontaneous than that established in the following centuries with the first nation-states, which was most frequently imposed from the top down.

Nothing of the kind had ever occurred in Europe just as in the rest of the world. Outside of Europe, in fact, cities were “bricked encampments” lacking any type of political or economic autonomy: merchants and artisans worked only to satisfy the needs of the governing classes. Marco Polo, during a visit to the middle kingdom, remained impressed from the fact that Chinese cities, unlike their multifarious counterparts in Europe, were all identical to one another and architecturally squared off. This structure served the governing class ideally for it favored the control of the center over the city: in Asia, accordingly, the peasant who escaped from the countryside had no opportunity of obtaining freedom by seeking refuge in the city (as instead was customary in the West) because the cities were bureaucratic entities, presided upon by the imperial army.

A Culture of Constitutionalism Aimed at the Limitation of Power

The communes were a magnificent expression of self-government. To put a brake on the endemic internal conflicts (that, when compared to the complete immobility of Asian cities, were still a sign of vitality) which from time to time interrupted the peaceful environment, a culture of constitutionality developed in the independent cities of the middle ages: a culture aimed at curtailing political power. Continuous experimentation of new norms and protections followed in order to come up with the best method for defending the citizens from the tyrannical degeneration of the governments in charge.

The justified dissidence towards power was manifested in extremely strict rules, from which modern democracies would have a lot to learn. One of these institutional inventions was the figure of the Podestà, a sort of foreign manager (therefore disinterested in local interests) who served as an outside referee: a primus inter pares (first among equals) who was to assure the impartiality of good governance. The Podestà was really a sort of condominium manager who was responsible for his conduct in front of his citizens; this responsibility was often rendered at the end of the mandate, before the payment of his last installment. A real and proper trial was instituted on the way the Podestà had administrated the city: only in the case of absolution was he allowed to leave office with all of his conferred honors.

The power of the governors had to be limited and disciplined with written norms; public offices, were assigned in rotation between all those who enjoyed political rights; draws were successful instruments, largely used, in order to prevent the formation of political clienteles; to avoid the growth of an encroaching political apparatus with consolidated power, mandates were also generally brief, lasting a few months on average. In addition political offices were, by norm, not remunerated, mainly because their brief duration did not distract the leading authorities from their other day to day activities and works. In this way the Communes avoided the formation of permanent political and bureaucratic classes which have been authentic companions of Modern States up to the present. Another important institution that was present in the Communes was a rich and pluralistic network of social security services for the sick and the needy (charity institutions, hospitals, shelters and other type of religious confraternities) which were financed entirely by private citizens.

Communes: Cradles of Capitalism and of the Bourgeoisie

The cities were more importantly the central engines of the commercial revolution that realized on a local scale what the industrial revolution would realize at a national and continental level many centuries later. It was specifically in the northern cities of Italy where the most important commercial innovations arose: credit, banking, and contracts like the commenda — which could be said to be the ancestor of the modern joint-stock company. It was here that the transition from a closed and feudal economy — based on a limited and unsecured supply- to an economy of abundance was for the first time carried out.

The medieval city, born out of the economic development that took off between the tenth and the twelfth centuries was primarily an economic center, a center of production and exchange. Ancient cities like Rome, on the other hand, were primarily centers of consumption, not of production, and had no reason to claim any autonomy whatsoever: they had been founded by and for the state and as such they existed only for the scope of ruling, collecting taxes, running local administrations and lodging troops.

The inhabitants of the communes, on the contrary, began to orient themselves toward the economic means and not towards the political means because, unlike the subjects of the ancient cities, they did not have a great mass of slaves at their disposal whom they could use as working tools to cultivate their lands, as these great lands largely remained in the hands of the lords. In this way they were forced to earn a living from manufacturing and commercial activities, and by doing so they were able to enlarge the horizons of the market economy to a far larger extent than was ever deemed possible in the closed feudal world. The bourgeois was to be that heroic figure who for the first time, was able to multiply wealth: not with the violent methods of conquest or war, which had been in vogue since the beginning of times, but with the peaceful means of invention, work, production and exchange. 

In no other place in Europe was the mercantile class able to reach a level of economic and political power comparable to that reached in the Italian cities. In no other place did a similarly vast section of the populace engage in mercantile activity. The communes and the maritime Republics were the birthplace of the bourgeoisie, a new class that would play a fundamental role in the historical evolution of Western Civilization. The bourgeoisie will in fact become the leading class of western society that will assure the progress of techniques, exchanges; the one that will express the most knowledgeable men of science and breed the inventors of new ingenuous processes. The European bourgeoisie will forge a free and dynamic civilization that will give the occident the supremacy in every field for many centuries to come, changing forever the history of the world.

A Wave of Vitality and Dynamism

The three centuries that followed the year 1000.A.D. are to be viewed as the most surprising of all European history. A continent worn-out from the regular incursions of Arabs, Vikings and Magyars, living amidst economic, cultural and demographic regression, demonstrated an unimaginable capacity of recovery. The communes and maritime Republics were the indisputable protagonists of the European expansion in these centuries, and their initiatives render great honor to the courageous spirit of their inhabitants. Under their governments the people of Europe enjoyed a period of great prosperity, superior even to the golden ages of Rome.

Especially the Italian cities appear, in the summaries and travel chronicles of the time, places full of marvel and beauty: flooded with every kind of merchandise and adorned with churches, buildings and streets. Notwithstanding epidemics, famines and wars, the European population under the communal system grew at an exponential rate. The communes competed with one another to construct cathedrals, buildings and medieval towers; to give birth to fountains, and to found schools and universities. Civilization during these centuries was able to ‘cross mountains and seas’ behind the wave of commercial activities. Europe, using a rhetorical image put forth by the great historian Will Durant, lived "its time of strapping youth."

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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