Chapter 3a: The rise and progress of cities after the fall of the Roman empire
After the fall of the Roman empire, the people of cities and towns were not more favoured than those of the countryside.
- They were very different from the first inhabitants of the ancient Greek and Italian republics.
- Those of Greece and Italy were composed chiefly of the proprietors of lands among whom the public territory was originally divided.
- They built their houses near each other and surrounded them with a wall for common defence.
- After the fall of the Roman empire, those proprietors lived in castles on their own estates in the midst of their own tenants and dependants.
- The towns were chiefly inhabited by tradesmen and mechanics.
- In those days, townspeople were servile.
- The privileges granted by ancient charters to European townspeople show that before those grants:
- Tradesmen and mechanics could not allow their own daughters to marry without their lord's consent
- Upon their death, their goods would belong to their lord instead of their own children.
- They could not dispose of their own effects by will.
- These privileges prove that townspeople were serfs, as people in the countryside
The tradesmen and mechanics were very poor and mean people.
- They travelled with their goods from place to place and from fair to fair, like the current hawkers and peddlers.
- In all European countries, like in present-day Russia, taxes were levied on the persons and goods of travellers when:
- they passed through certain manors
- they went over certain bridges
- they carried their goods from place to place in a fair
- they erected a booth or stall in a fair to sell them.
- These taxes were known in England as passage, pontage, lastage, and stallage.
- Sometimes the king or a great lord who had authority to do this, would grant a tax exemption to traders who lived in their own demesnes*.
- Such traders, though servile, were called Free-traders.
- In return, they paid an annual poll-tax to their protector.
- In those days, protection was seldom granted without a valuable consideration.
- This poll tax was compensation for what their patrons might lose by their exemption from other taxes.
- At first, those poll-taxes and exemptions were personal.
- They affected only certain individuals during their lives or during the pleasure of their protectors.
- The Domesday-Book** had very imperfect accounts of English towns.
- It says the tax paid by each burgher was frequently mentioned to the king or to a great lord for this protection.
- Sometimes only the general amount of all those taxes was mentioned.
* feudal lands
** early tax record
3 Townspeople were free and independent much earlier than the people of the countryside.
- The king's revenue from poll-taxes were rented out in farm for a term of years for a certain rent payment, sometimes to the sheriff of the county or to other persons.
- The burghers frequently got enough credit to be admitted to farm poll-tax revenues from their own town.
- They became jointly and severally answerable for the whole rent.
- To rent out a farm in this way was agreeable to the economy of all the European sovereigns.
- They frequently rented out whole manors.
- The tenants became jointly and severally answerable for the whole rent.
- In those days, the tenants got something most important:
- They were allowed to collect rent in their own way
- They were allowed to pay it into the king's exchequer through their own bailiff
- They were freed from the insolence of the king's officers.
At first, the farm of the town was probably rented out to burghers for a few years, in the same way it was rented out to other farmers.
- In time, it became the general practice to grant it to them forever, reserving a certain rent which would be never increased.
- Thus, the payment and exemptions became perpetual.
- Those exemptions ceased to be personal.
- They could no longer belong to individuals but to burghers of a particular burgh.
- They were called Free-burghers or Free-traders of a Free burgh.
Important privileges were bestowed on the burghers along with this grant:
- They might give away their own daughters in marriage.
- Their children should succeed to them.
- They might dispose of their own effects by will.
- I do not know if such privileges were granted to burghers with the freedom of trade.
- Villanage and slavery were removed and they became really free.
Burghers had other privileges:
- They were formed into a commonalty or corporation.
- They had their town council and magistrates.
- Their magistrates made by-laws for:
- building walls for defence
- obliging their inhabitants to guard and defend those walls
- In England, they were exempted from lawsuits in the district and county courts.
- All such pleas, except those of the crown, were left to their own magistrates.
- In other countries, more jurisdictions were granted to them.
Such towns farmed their own revenues.
- It might be necessary to grant to them some compulsive jurisdiction that obliges their citizens to pay.
- In those disorderly times, it was inconvenient to seek justice from any other tribunal.
- It is extraordinary that all European sovereigns exchanged their naturally-increasing revenue, which was expence-free, for a perpetual rent.
- They voluntarily established independent republics within their own dominions.
To understand this, we must remember that in those days, no European sovereign was able to protect his weaker subjects from the great lords.
- Those whom the law could not protect and not strong enough to defend themselves, were obliged to get the protection of some great lord by:
- becoming his slaves or vassals
- entering into a league of mutual defence
- As single individuals, the people of cities and burghs could not defend themselves.
- By entering into a league of mutual defence with their neighbours, they were capable of resistance.
- The lords despised the burghers.
- The lords considered them as a emancipated slaves, a different species from themselves.
- The wealth of the burghers always provoked their envy and indignation.
- The lords plundered them on every occasion without mercy or remorse.
- The burghers naturally hated and feared the lords.
- The king hated and feared the lords too.
- The king might despise the burghers, but he had no reason to hate or fear them.
- Mutual interest disposed the burghers to support the king.
- The king supported the burghers against the lords.
- The lords were the enemies of the king's enemies.
- It was the king's interest to render the burghers secure and independent of those enemies.
- By granting them privileges, the king gave the burghers all the security and independence he could bestow.
- Without a regular government, without some authority to compel the people to follow a plan or system, no voluntary league of mutual defence could provide any security nor support for the king.
- Jealousy and oppression from the king's allies would arise from:
- raising the town's farm rent or
- granting the farm to some other farmer
- By granting them their town's farm for a perpetual rent, the king took away this jealousy and oppression.
The princes who hated their barons gave the most liberal grants to their burghs.
- King John of England, for example, was a most munificent benefactor to his towns.
- Philip I of France lost all authority over his barons.
- According to Father Daniel, towards the end of his reign, his son Lewis the Fat, consulted with the bishops of the royal demesnes how to restrain the great lords.
- They had two proposals:
- To create a new order of jurisdiction by establishing magistrates and a town council in every big town of his demesnes.
- To form a new militia made up of the townspeople under the command of their own magistrates, to assist the king.
- This period marks the institution of the magistrates and councils of French cities.
- During the unprosperous reigns of the princes of the house of Suabia:
- most of the German free towns received the first grants of their privileges
- the famous Hanseatic league first became formidable
The militia of those cities were not inferior to militia of the countryside.
- They could be more readily assembled on any sudden occasion.
- They frequently had the advantage in their disputes with the neighbouring lords.
- In countries where the sovereign lost his whole authority, such as in Italy and Switzerland, the cities became independent republics.
- Its authority was lost due to:
- the distance of the cities from the principal seat of government
- the natural strength of the country itself
- some other reason
- This is how the republic of Berne and other Swiss cities came to be.
- They conquered all the nobility in their neighbourhood.
- They obliged the nobility to pull down their castles to live in the city.
- Except for Venice which has a different history, it is the history of all considerable Italian republics.
- So many Italian republics rose and perished between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 16th century.
In countries where the sovereign's authority was never destroyed, such as in France or England, the cities had no opportunity to become independent.
- However, they became so big that the sovereign could not impose taxes besides the farm-rent without their own consent.
- They were called on to send deputies to the general assembly of the states of the kingdom.
- Those deputies joined the clergy and the barons to grant extraordinary aid to the king on urgent occasions.
- The deputies were employed by the king as a counter-balance to the authority of the great lords in those assemblies.
- Hence the origin of the burgh representation in the states of all the great European monarchies.
Order, good government, liberty, and security were established in cities when the countryside was still exposed to violence.
- But the men in the countryside naturally content themselves with their necessary subsistence.
- Acquiring more might only tempt the injustice of their oppressors.
- On the contrary, when they are secured in enjoying the fruits of their industry, they naturally exert it to better their condition, and also acquire the conveniences and elegancies of life.
- That industry, that goes beyond the necessary subsistence, was established in cities long before it was practised in the countryside.
- A poor cultivator, oppressed with serfdom, will hide his little stock from his master.
- He would run away to a town at the first opportunity.
- At that time, the law so indulgent to townspeople in order to diminish the authority of the lords in the countryside.
- If a poor cultivator could conceal himself in a town from his lord for a year, he was free forever.
- The stock accumulated by the industrious of the country naturally took refuge in cities.
City people must always ultimately derive their subsistence and raw materials from the countryside.
- But the subsistence and materials of a coastal city or one near a navigable river can be sourced from the most remote corners of the world in exchange for their manufactured produce.
- They may serve as carriers between distant countries and exchange their produce.
- In this way, a city, no matter how poor, might grow to great wealth and splendour, including:
- its surrounding areas
- all the areas where it trades to
- Each of those countries taken singly perhaps could only afford a small part of its subsistence or employment
- But all of them taken together could afford much more.
- Within the narrow circle of commerce of those times, some countries were opulent and industrious.
- Examples were:
- The Greek empire
- The Saracens during the reigns of the Abassides
- Egypt before it was conquered by the Turks
- Some part of the North African coast
- Spain under the Moors
Next: Chapter 3b: The development of commerce