Growth Of Commerce And Its Results
Formation Of France
England And The Other States
The Papacy In The New Age
Summary - Medieval Civilization
Read More Articles About: Medieval Civilization
Growth Of Commerce And Its Results
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IF there is one line of advance in civilization which is a necessary condition of progress in all other directions it would seem to be economic advance. It is no doubt true that more than once in history, under peculiar circumstances, times which appear to be those of remarkable economic advancement have brought with them dangers which seemed to threaten the very existence of civilization itself, as in the last days of the Roman republic. It is also true that sometimes economic improvement has been made possible only by advance in other lines, like the establishment of a better government, for instance, as in Italy during the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth.
The truth is, the various lines of progress are so inter-woven, as has already been said, advance in any is so dependent on advance in all, that it is not possible to say that any one of them, either in theory or in fact, is a necessary condition of the others. But this much is true, that a country which is falling into economic decay is declining in other things as well, and that no general and permanent progress of civilization is possible unless it is based the word seems hardly too strong to use even if it is a begging of the question on economic improvement.
This was emphatically true of the period of medieval history which extends from the crusades to the Reformation. I hope to make evident, in the portion of this book which follows, how completely the various lines of growth which began an increasing activity from the crusades, and which led out from the middle ages into mod-ern history, were dependent for their accelerated motion, for immense reinforcement, if not for actual beginning, upon the rapidly developing commercial activities of the time. Bad roads and no bridges ; the robber baron or band of outlaws to be expected in every favorable spot ; legalized feudal exactions at the borders of every little fief ; no generally prevailing system of law uniform throughout the country and really enforced ; a scanty and uncertain currency, making contracts difficult and payment in kind and in services almost universal; interests and desires narrowed down to the mere neighbor-hood ; these were the conditions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A successful commerce meant necessarily a ceaseless war upon all these things, and the introduction of better conditions in these respects was, al-most in itself, the transformation of the medieval into the modern.
The German invasions had broken up the organization of Roman commerce and destroyed large amounts of capital. They had diminished the currency in circulation, lowered the condition of the Roman artisan class and broken up their organizations, impaired the means of intercommunication, and brought in as the ruling race in every province a people on a much lower plane of economie development, with fewer wants, hardly above the stage of barter, and entirely unused to the complicated machinery of general commerce. Such a change was a severe blow to commerce. Large parts of the empire fell back into a more primitive condition, where the domain supplied almost all its own wants, very few things being bought from without and very few being sold.
But the invasions did not entirely destroy commerce. Even in the worst times there can be found many traces of what may be called inter-state exchanges, of commerce between the East and the West, or between the North and the S nth. The church needed, for its ornaments and vestments and in its services, cloths and spices and other articles which could not be obtained in the West. Nobles made use of numerous articles of luxury and display in a life that was, on the whole, hard and comfortless. Where wealth existed there was a tendency to invest it in articles which would store great value in small space, and which. could be quickly turned into money, or exchanged. The demand, consequently, for the articles which commerce would supply, though it was limited, was strong, and of a sort which insured a great profit.
Under such circumstances the importation of the goods needed was certain to exist. Indeed commerce never died out. Every period of good government in any of the new German states, as under Theodoric, even if it lasted but for a moment, saw a revival of it. Justinian's conquests in Italy created a natural line of connection between the East and the West which continued unbroken until the crusades. Even before his invasion, the Venetians had the reputation of making long voyages, and notwithstanding the troublous times which followed, their commerce was firmly established by the eighth century. Before the eleventh, nearly all the east-ern goods which found their way into the West came through Italy, where Venice and Amalfi were the two chief ports. Occasionally something reached southern Gaul and eastern Spain directly, but the overland route through the Danube valley seems to have been used only for a brief interval or two. In the eleventh century commerce appears to have developed rapidly for the time. The conditions which rendered the crusades possible, that is, the beginnings of something like a real community life in Europe, showed themselves also, and earlier than anywhere else, in an increasing commerce, and new cities came up to take part in it. Pisa and Genoa were able to conquer privileges from the Mohammedan states of northern Africa. Marseilles was in a position to obtain extensive favors from the first crusaders. Inland cities, also, had begun to have extended relations, as distributing points for the goods which reached them overland from Italy, and a sea commerce of some importance had begun in the North.
The crusades, then, did not originate commerce, but they imparted to it a new and powerful impulse. They created at once a strong demand for increased means of transportation. The first crusade went overland, but the later ones wholly or partly by water. The occupation of the Holy Land by the Christians made necessary a more lively and frequent intercourse between East and West. The crusader states were able to maintain themselves only by constant new arrivals of men and supplies. The West was made acquainted with new articles of use or luxury, and desires and needs rapidly increased. Connections were formed with new peoples, as with the Mouguls. New commercial routes were opened up, geographical knowledge increased, and new regions appeared in the maps.
The change in the general atmosphere of Europe which accompanied the crusades, the broadening of mind and the growth of common interests, favored in-creased intercommunication and exchange, and, from the first crusade on, commerce increased with great rapidity, penetrated constantly into new regions, aided the growth of manufacturing industries, multiplied the articles with which it dealt, improved greatly its own machinery the art of navigation, currency, forms of credit, maritime law, and mercantile organization and exerted a profound influence upon every department of human activity.
The regions embraced within the world commerce of the middle ages may be divided for convenience of examination into three divisions the East, the North, and the states, chiefly Mediterranean, which acted as middle-men between these two extremes.
The goal at the East was India, though there was for a time some direct overland connection with China starting from the Black Sea. From the East came the articles of luxury and show, which formed the bulk of medieval commerce, and returned enormous profits spices, incense, perfumes, precious stones, carpets, hangings, and rich cloths. The Christian merchants of Europe could not purchase these direct from India, but only from the Mohammedan states of western Asia, which maintained relations with the farther East. These could sell to India but few goods in exchange horses, linen, and manufactured metals, especially weapons and large quantities of the precious metals had to be exported to settle the balance. These goods reached the West by a variety of routes, some coming through the Black Sea, where Trebizond was an important port; others coming up the Persian Gulf and the Euphrates, and reaching Mediterranean ports like Antioch or Bey-root ; others by the more southern route, through the Red Sea and Egypt. The frequency of the use and the profitableness of any one of these routes depended upon the political condition of the intermediary Mohammedan states, and varied greatly at different times. With the advance of the Turks the more northern lines were gradually rendered impossible, and this was one of the chief causes which led to the rapid decline of the commerce of Genoa in the fifteenth century, her dependence being chiefly upon the Black Sea routes. On the eve of the great discoveries of the end of the fifteenth century almost the only secure and profitable connection with India was through Egypt.
The Mohammedan states took of the western merchants a much greater variety of goods than India —food supplies, grain, oil, and honey, metals and minerals, lead, iron, steel, tin, sulphur, cloth in great variety, leather, wool, soap, furs, and slaves Circassians being conveyed, for instance, from the Black Sea to Egypt, and even Europeans being sold without much hesitation by their Christian brethren when opportunity offered. The ships of the West, loaded with the east-ern goods which they had purchased, made the return voyage, beset with dangers from pirate attacks and unskilful navigation, and at home, at Venice or Genoa, the goods were unloaded and stored for further ex-change.
From the Mediterranean ports overland routes led up into the country to important points of interior trade. In France and Germany commerce centred about the fairs, which were held at fixed seasons. In the great fairs wholesale trade was carried on, the merchants from the smaller places meeting there the importers who had the goods of the East, and so obtaining their supplies. In the fairs of the smaller places retail trading was done,' but a very large part of the retail trade of the interior was carried on by pedlers, who went about from village to village, carrying packs themselves or sometimes with horses.
After a time the ships of the Mediterranean ventured into the Atlantic, and direct connection by water was established with the North. Venice sent regularly each year a fleet to touch at ports in England and the Nether-lands, and the latter country became finally the centre of nearly all exchanges between the North and the South, so that it should fairly be reckoned as belonging in the middle region rather than in the northern. Bruges was the chief place for this traffic, and it came to be filled with the warehouses of the different nations where their goods were stored for exchange.
The North was the great source of food supplies and of raw materials for the increasing manufactures of the middle region grain, wool, hides, tallow, salt meat and fish, flax, hemp, timber, furs, and tin and other metals. The North developed, from the thirteenth century on, a very extensive and diversified commerce of its own, with a more compact organization through the Hanseatic League than Italian commerce had, and reaching into Russia and by degrees becoming bold enough to send its ships into the Mediterranean. Before the end of the middle ages there was also considerable manufacturing in some countries of the North.
Notwithstanding the great development of commerce and manufactures, and the multiplication of articles of use and luxury which followed, the lives of most men still continued to possess few comforts, to the end of the middle ages. From the first century of the crusades many articles which we now consider among the necessities of life, chimneys, windows of glass, bedroom and table furniture, carpets, clocks, artificial lights, and other things of the sort began to make their appearance in the houses of the rich, commonly first in the cities, and were slowly adopted by the country nobles. The poorer people of the country remained in general without them, and with their insufficient diet, consisting chiefly of pork or salt meats, and the coarse grains, with very few vegetables, and their uncleanliness of person and of surroundings, it is not strange that frequent plagues carried off large numbers of them.
By the fifteenth century commerce had lost Much of its earlier simplicity. It had become greatly diversified, and had taken on many of its more modern features. With this transformation of its character some of the problems of international exchange began to arise before the mind of the time, now capable of taking wider views than once, and men began to grope, at least in a half-conscious way, for the solution of questions which we do not seem to have settled to our entire satisfaction even yet the relation of the supply of gold and silver to the national wealth, and the theory that national wealth may be increased and commerce developed by legislative restrictions of one sort or another upon the commerce of other people.'
It can hardly be supposed that the theories of international trade, which began to take shape at this time, were permanent contributions to civilization, but certainly they have profoundly affected its course ever since. Our own century has been not more intensely interested in any subject than in the question whether legislation should continue to be controlled by them or not. These theories were formed at a time when the facts upon which they were supposed to be based were very imperfectly under-stood. Experience in general commerce was only just beginning, and any real knowledge of the laws which operate in it, or even of its primary facts, was entirely impossible. They were pure theories, almost as completely so as the speculations of any closet philosopher who ever lived. Probably there is not to be found in any other department of civilization an attempt to carry out pure theories in practice on such a scale as this. But these ideas had an apparent and temporary basis of fact in the existence of a narrow but extremely profitable trade, so situated that it could be artificially controlled one, in other words, which could be made to operate for a time like the exclusive possession of a gold mine and there was no experience at hand to show that this condition of things was temporary and exceptional. These theories had further an extremely plausible foundation in the apparent self-interest of the moment, and they obtained a hold upon the popular mind which the better informed have found it extremely hard to loosen.'
For our purpose these forming theories are far less important in themselves than as signs of the wider views and more comprehensive grasp of mind which they certainly indicate and which was now possible, made possible in large part by the extension of commerce itself.
This fact is shown still more clearly in the idea which dawned upon the minds of many men in the fifteenth century of far wider possibilities for commerce than any which lay along the old lines the first faint traces of the idea of a world commerce, and even of a conception of the world itself in anything like its actual reality. It was only the first beginning of these ideas, but they were held strongly enough for men to take the risk of acting upon them, and the discoveries of the last years of the century followed, which not merely opened new worlds to commerce but broadened immensely all horizons.
The impulse to exploration and the daring spirit and pluck of the explorer had come with the first expansion of commerce, and as early as the thirteenth century the then " dark continent " of Asia had been traversed by many Europeans. The immediately active cause, however, of the oceanic discoveries of the fifteenth century was the coming up of new nations eager to take part in the extremely profitable commerce in eastern goods, at the moment when the Turkish conquests in the northern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean were narrowing down the possibilities of that commerce as it had existed, and the footing of the Venetians in Egypt made competition with them very difficult. The Portuguese were the first of these new nations to cherish this commercial ambition, and they turned their attention to finding a way to- India around Africa. In the first half of the fifteenth century Prince Henry of Portugal nobly devoted his life to the encouragement of these explorations, because, as he thought, they fell naturally within the duty of princes, since they afforded no good hope of profit to tempt the merchant.
It required no little daring to sail into unknown seas in an age when men fully expected that they might meet with the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor, and worse things also, and progress was necessarily slow. One expedition advanced along the coast as far as it dared, and when it returned in safety the next one ventured a little farther. In 1434 they passed Cape Bojador ; in 1441, Cape Branco ; in 1445, Cape Verde ; in 1462, Cape Sierra Leon ; in 1471 they reached the gold coast ; the equator was crossed in 1484, or possibly a little earlier ; in 1486 Bartholomew Diaz turned the Southern Cape, henceforth the Cape of Good Hope ; and finally, in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached India. This first success the king of Portugal immediately followed up by sending fleets especially fitted out for trading, and though they were bitterly opposed in India by the Arabs of Egypt, whose monopoly was threatened, they returned with loads of spices.
The revolution wrought by the opening of this new route was tremendous. Venice, though in a favored position, had been compelled to buy her goods in Egypt at a great disadvantage, as the Arabs had a practical monopoly. Heavy tolls and dues were added to the original cost, and the Portuguese were able to buy in India several times cheaper than the Venetians in Egypt. Venice was thrown into a panic. Contemporary evidence is said to show that when the news first came that spices had reached Portugal direct from India, the price of such goods fell more than fifty per cent. in Venice.
For the Venetians it was certainly a question of life and death. Their whole commercial existence depended upon the result. They urged the Arabs of Egypt most earnestly to oppose the Portuguese in India in every way possible ; they discussed for a moment the opening of a Suez canal, and even the project of securing an overland route around the Turkish dominions in alliance with the Russians. But it was all in vain. The world's commerce had outgrown the Mediterranean. Six years before Vasco da Gama's success Columbus had reached America, and the world passed at once out of the middle ages.
Commerce had hardly more than begun its new activity before its influence began to be felt far outside its own proper field. It is entirely impossible to indicate, in anything approaching a chronological order, the various ways in which this influence was directly exerted. Even an attempt to state them in something like a logical system can be of value only as serving to indicate for examination the points of contact between this increasing commerce and other lines of advance during the same time.
With the growth of commerce cities began to arise. Italy and Gaul had had numerous great cities in Roman times, and most of these continued after the invasion undestroyed, but with their relative importance diminished, and in many cases certainly with their institutions changed. Roman Germany had had a few cities, and of these at least Cologne retained a noticeable civic and commercial life through the period before the crusades. The interior and north of Germany had had no cities in the Roman times, and only slight beginnings of them be-fore the eleventh century.
With the revival of commerce these old cities wakened to a new activity and grew rapidly in size and wealth.' New cities sprang up where none had existed before, perhaps about a fortified post or near a monastery where a local market or fair began to be held. The privileges granted to the market attracted merchants to settle there and gradually widened into considerable rights of self-government and a local law, and, often at least, as the city formed about the market and was enabled by circumstances to take its place as an independent member of the national community, the original market rights gradually developed into the city constitution.
The natural tendency on the part of the city to strive for local independence and self-government was greatly aided by the fact that at the time when the movement began the feudal system was at its height as the prevailing form of political organization throughout Europe. It was itself the realization, as far as possible, of the idea of local independence, and though the feudal lord on whose territory the city had grown up might struggle to maintain his control over it, the logic of the whole situation was on the side of the city. The example which the lord had set in his effort to escape from his dependence upon his suzerain was a very plain one to follow, and the feudal system furnished forms of easy application which secured a practical independence.'
This was especially true of France, and though the cities of Italy exhibit more fully some other results of the movement which are extremely important in the history of civilization, the French cities reveal more clearly than those of any other country the political tendencies which the rise of the cities everywhere favored in the general government of the state, but which were more completely realized in the kingdom of France than in any other of the large states of Europe.
In France, though opposed in spirit to the feudal system, the movement follows distinctly feudal forms, and the tendency is always toward the formation of " communes." By no means all the cities of France succeeded in reaching this result, and in organizing actual communes, probably only a small proportion of them did, but the tendency is in that direction, and those that failed stopped at some intermediate point in the process.
The commune is, strictly speaking, a corporation regarded as a feudal person, and, as such, having the obligations and the rights of a vassal in respect to its lord and able to become a suzerain in its turn. The act of forming a commune within the limits of a feudal territory was an act of subinfeudation the formation of a subfief where none had existed before. By this act a group of persons, brought together in ordinary cases from -a great variety of sources, some of them were full freemen of the country or neighborhood, some were foreigners to the country or to the fief who had settled in the place for purposes of trade, and so were subject to various feudal dues to the lord, some of them were serfs of varying degrees of right with respect to the lord, and therefore subject to special exactions for his benefit —this group of persons was transformed into a single person and raised to the position of a vassal, subject no longer to the varying and indefinite rights of the lord over serf and foreigner as individuals, but only to the limited obligations specified in the contract of the fief between the lord and the commune. This contract was under the ordinary feudal sanctions. The officers of the commune paid homage and swore the vassal's oath to the lord, and he, in turn, swore to observe his obligations toward them.
The special obligations which the commune entered into toward the lord differed in different cases like those of other vassals, but within the limits established by these obligations in the given case the commune obtained the right to regulate its own affairs as every vas-sal did. This meant, of course, for the city the right of local self-government, though the growth of the general government in France did not allow the result which was reached in Italy and Germany, the establishment of a virtually independent city state.
Besides the commune proper, there was in France a multitude of cities and towns which never became full communes, but which obtained by definite contracts more or less extensive rights of self-government and of freedom from exactions. These were the villes de bourgeoisie, or chartered towns. The number of these towns was much greater than that of the real communes, and their influence on the general results which followed from this movement was precisely the same. The difference was not one of principle or M character, but one which concerned the completeness of the local rights secured.
It is easy from what has been said to understand the attitude of the local nobility toward the commune. To grant the right to form such an organization was to cut off so much of his fief from his own immediate control. It was to diminish his rights of exaction and to reduce his power. Opposition was natural. In very many cases the commune succeeded in establishing itself only after a long and bitter conflict, and as the result of a victory which forced the lord to yield.
This was particularly true of the attitude of the ecclesiastical nobles toward the town. The seat of every bishop was in an important city. The larger abbeys also were, as a rule, in the towns, and so it happened that the towns which began to strive for local independence were more likely to be in ecclesiastical than in lay fiefs. The larger portion of the long-continued and desperate struggle between the rising cities and the older power was in fiefs held by the church.
Among the lay nobility it was more likely to be the small noble, the lord of the locality, who opposed the city than the great lord whose domain included a province. The small noble saw the town growing up in his little territory, perhaps out of nothing or next to nothing, and menacing his dominion with a serious danger, possibly even threatening to annex it entirely, and to crowd him to the wall. The inferior nobility were in many cases contending for existence, and sometimes in France, as happened so generally in Italy, they were absorbed into the town ; in some cases they seem to have gone into the commune voluntarily and with good-will.
The great nobles whose territories were principalities followed no common policy. If the count or the duke was strong, and his government a really centralized one, as was the case in some instances, he seems to have favored the growth of the towns with chartered rights but not of communes, keeping the real control in his own hands. If his power was weak and divided, usurped by vassals whom he could not hold to obedience, he favored the development even of the commune as a means of weakening them. In some cases, also, the great lords seem as bitterly opposed to the cities as the great officers of the church.
The wavering policy of the French kings toward the movement, which is not in reality so inconsistent as it appears at first, is to be explained in the same way by their relation to their vassals. The early Capetians no doubt perceived the advantage which the independence of the towns would give them in weakening the power of the feudal nobles, and did not hesitate to grant their aid to the efforts of the cities whenever they were able to do so. They early labored to establish the principle that the commune, once formed, belonged immediately to the king, and was in an especial degree under his protection. But the early Capetians were in a peculiar position. From the weakness of their general power they were especially dependent upon the support of the church, and this was in truth one of the chief sources of their strength. In many cases they could not break with these allies nor afford to support their enemies, though they might on other grounds have been glad to do so. We have them, therefore, following a policy which seems contradictory, aiding the communes where they could do so safely, and opposing them elsewhere, because in the latter cases there was danger of losing more than might be gained.
As the monarchy grew stronger and more independent of the support of the church, we find the kings adopting a more consistent policy, and at the beginning of the thirteenth century distinctly favoring the cities. As it grew stronger still, and something like a real centralization began to be possible, then the commune with its rights of independent local government stood, as the king looked at it, much in the same attitude toward the general government as that of the independent feudal baron. It represented a bit of the territory of the state in which the central power did not have free way. Consequently, we have later kings endeavoring to break clown the privileges of the communes and to gain a direct control by introducing into them royal executive and judicial officers. This process can be clearly traced before the close of the thirteenth century, and it is very speedily concluded, partly because of the isolated position of the communes and their inability to combine as the nobles did, and partly because they had always recognized a more direct right of government on the part of the king, and had never become independent, as had the cities of Italy and Germany.
Toward the towns which were not communes, the villes de bourgeoisie, the policy of the kings was more consistent and more steadily favorable. These towns had not gained a complete self-government and were not closed against the officers of the king, but their formation was as great an aid to him as that of the communes in his efforts to build up the power of the central government by weakening the power of the nobles.
But in many other ways, and really in more decisive ways than by dividing their fiefs and weakening their local power, the growth of the cities, or the increase of commerce as the underlying cause, rendered it no longer possible for the feudal lords to maintain the position which they had held in the state.
As one direct result, a much larger amount of money was brought into circulation, and its use was made more general. In the thirteenth century not only did gold begin to be coined, but also coins of much smaller de-nominations than formerly, a sure sign that commercial transactions were becoming more frequent among the lower classes, and that sales were beginning to take the place of barter. From the cities and smaller towns the money would work its way into the country and gradually come into more common use among the laborers on the farms.
This increased circulation of money struck at the very root of feudalism. The economic foundation of the feudal system was the scarcity of money and the impossibility of using it freely for purchases to supply daily needs which must be supplied in any state of society. It was not possible, in such conditions, for rent and income to take any other form than that of personal services and payments of produce. Feudalism had a foundation also in the political conditions of the time, as we have seen, but it was hardly possible for the political conditions to change, to such an extent as to lead to the overthrow of the system, so long as it was impossible to substitute some other kind of payment for payments in services and in kind.
As soon as money came into increased general circulation the situation was changed. It became possible to substitute definite and specific contracts for the arrangements, always more or less vague, of the feudal customs, and the increased usefulness of money was a convincing argument with the lord, in very many cases at least, that the money paid in commutation of services would be of greater value to him than the services themselves, uncertain and irregular, and performed with great reluctance as they usually were. But the introduction of money payments in this way, in the place of feudal services, while it left the feudal lord in title and rank and social position what he had been, deprived him of his immediate personal hold upon his subjects and undermined his political power.
It must not be understood that this was the sole or even the chief cause in the fall of feudalism. A hundred causes worked together to that end. Nor must it be supposed that all feudal services disappeared. It was only here and there in the most favored localities that this was the case, and in some of these even, some feudal services have remained, in form at least, to the present time, while in some parts of Europe feudalism can scarcely be said to have declined at the end of the middle ages. Nearly everywhere it had, however, and for peasant and burgher, in their rise to independence, scarcely anything was so helpful as the increased circulation of money.
This more general use of money had also most important consequences in another direction. It made taxation possible. The extension of commerce had led to large accumulations of wealth in the cities. Here was a new resource for the state which, if it could be made to contribute to public purposes in some systematic and re-liable way, would relieve the central power of its dependence upon the feudal system, and give it a new and more solid foundation on which to build, an indispensable foundation indeed. Arrangements long in use provided, as we shall see in the next chapter, an easy way of introducing the cities directly into the state machinery, and of obtaining from them their consent to a levy of taxes of which they were to pay the larger portion. The cities showed evident signs of a reluctance to part with their wealth, as was natural, but there were, on the other hand, reasons of their own which prevailed with them to consent.
The accumulation of capital in the towns and the ex-tension of commerce throughout the country created an intense demand for order and security. Nothing makes so strong a demand for these things, or tends to secure them so perfectly, as the possession of wealth. The feudal confusion, the private wars, the robber baron, so prominent a feature of declining feudalism, were the deadly foes of commerce, as the merchant was of them.. His protection was to be found in the establishment of a public power able to suppress these evils and to maintain order throughout the state, and wherever such a public power was forming the capitalist class of the day came to its aid with all its resources. No doubt it was anxious to do this with as little expense to itself as possible, but it was ready to sacrifice its wealth unsparingly in its own defence when directly attacked, and it did not fail to see the advantage it would gain from providing the king with a revenue which would support a standing army and a national system of courts of justice.
Commerce and wealth came to the aid of the forming national government not merely in the fact that they created a demand for established order but also by a demand for uniformity. Commerce extended from common centres through the entire state, and bound it together in a united system with lines as living and real as those of the church organization. The interests of the merchant were alike everywhere, and it was extremely important for him to know what he had to expect in every locality. The arbitrary exactions of the uncontrolled feudal lord ; the varying tolls and dues of every little fief ; a hundred systems of coinage in whose purity and honesty no dependence could be placed ; worse still, if possible, the local customary law differing from every other in points perhaps of the greatest importance to the merchant and enforced by an interested local court from which there might be no appeal these things were, in the long run, more serious obstacles in the way of commerce than private wars and robber barons. The whole influence of the merchant class and of the cities was toward doing away with this local confusion of practice, and toward putting in the place of it a national control, national coinage, courts, and law.
In the matter of a national law the influence of the cities was especially strong. It was in this respect not merely a general influence, a favoring condition, which the cities created. In the cities the professional lawyer made his appearance and the study of the Roman law was begun and actively pursued. This was possible be-cause the growth of the cities and the accumulation of wealth in them meant leisure. That leisure which had been possible in the earlier middle ages only to the ecclesiastic became possible now to men outside the church. They could devote themselves to intellectual pursuits with a certainty of support. The new study of the Roman law, which began in this way, and which the cities strongly favored, as a general and highly organized system ready made for their purpose in place of the feudal variety and confusion, gave congenial employment to this new class and gave rise to the professional lawyer. He was a layman and a bourgeoise, but he was a man of thoroughly trained intellect, of self-respect and pride as great as the nobles, and he cherished the strongest ideas, derived from the system of law in which he had been trained, of the supremacy of a national law, and of the right of the sovereign to exact obedience everywhere. It followed that, in his efforts to recover the legislative and judicial power, and to establish a uniform law, the king had not merely the general support of the cities, but they furnished him also with a ready-made and highly perfected legal system capable of being immediately applied, and with a force of trained men earnestly devoted to its establishment and enforcement.
We have here sketched somewhat briefly the influences which commerce everywhere tended to exert, and the results which it everywhere tended to produce. These are to be found reaching their logical conclusion, in combination with other causes, only in France, and there the logical result involved the destruction of the independence of the cities. Other states of Europe show results of this movement which are peculiar to themselves, and some of them exhibit tendencies which just as truly belong to it, but which do not appear so clearly in French history because there the political result was so fully worked out in the establishment of an absolute central government.
In Italy the existence of the Holy Roman Empire, together with the policy which the popes adopted in de-fence of their political dependence, prevented the formation of any native national government while the empire furnished the pretence of one. In consequence of this the cities, when they became strong, found themselves depending upon a shadowy state whose sovereignty they recognized in form, but which was not at hand to exercise a real and direct government. As a result, the cities in Italy found it easy to become little independent states, after the manner of the feudal principalities in Germany. Their early and rapid growth enabled them to absorb nearly all the nobles of the country, and they intrenched themselves so strongly that when the Hohenstaufen emperors attempted to bring them under a direct control, they were able, in combination, as we have seen, to maintain and secure their independence.
The peculiarities of their growth had made them as independent of one another as they were of the state, and except when brought together by some common danger, each pursued its own interests without regard to the others. It often happened that conflicting interests led to the fiercest struggles between them, ending only with the ruin of one of the rivals, as in the contest between Florence and Pisa, or that between Venice and Genoa. Many of them were able to extend their sovereignty over the surrounding territory and smaller towns, and to bring together a considerable state like that of Milan. In nearly all of them, toward the end of the middle ages, corruption among the citizens or the necessities of their military defence made it easy for unscrupulous and enterprising men to establish tyrannies and to destroy their republican governments, as in the case of the Medici family in Florence or the Sforza family in Milan.
The diversity of life in these Italian cities, the multiplicity of their interests, their rivalries with one another, and the party struggles within their walls, stimulated a general mental activity among their citizens, especially in the case of the large leisure class which their great wealth had created. And so in the cities of Italy, earlier than anywhere else, a keen and cultivated intellectual society formed itself, which was characterized by many modern traits, and which prepared the way for the revival of learning.
In Germany a considerable number of cities in favored localities reached the same position of local independence as those of Italy, and for the same reason their immediate dependence upon a nominal national government which had lost all power to interfere in the management of local affairs. There existed, then, in Germany, as in Italy, permanently independent little city states regulating their own affairs under a republican government. Many of these continued independent into modern times, and three of them Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen are at present states of the federal empire of Germany.
Many of these cities were, however, in the end, to undergo the same fate which befell the French cities, and to be absorbed into some neighboring centralized state founded upon a feudal territory. But these states were formed in Germany only at a relatively late date, some of the most extensive of them not until after the middle ages, and there was no one of them, at whatever time formed, large enough to include within its government the circle of commercial territory in which the cities were interested. It happened, therefore, in Germany, that the cities were thrown upon their own resources for protection, and were obliged themselves to repress the evils which a national government would naturally have held in check, and which even a forming central power, like that of France, was able to deal with in a constantly in-creasing degree. As a consequence of this there appears in Germany a political result of the commercial development which is not seen in the sanie form elsewhere the city leagues. The Italian cities united together in the Lombard League, in their struggle against the Hohenstaufen emperors, but that was a league for mutual defence against a special danger, and it did not have the permanence nor the political character of the German leagues.
The greatest of these leagues was the Hanseatic, formed during the thirteenth century and reaching its height in the fourteenth. Its power extended over the whole north of Germany and into all the countries bordering on the Baltic and North Seas. Almost a nation itself in its organization and resources, it dealt with states on equal terms and protected its commercial rights with great fleets. The League of the Rhine Cities, almost as powerful, and perhaps even of earlier formation, was an equally effective agent in keeping the peace and protecting commerce, within the range of its influence. So efficient an instrument in preserving order did the league prove itself to be that at the very close of the middle ages the free cities of southern Germany entered into an alliance of the sort with the princes, who had succeeded in forming states in that part of the country the so-called Swabian League to put down disorder, caused mostly by the despairing and desperate efforts of the small nobles to preserve their political independence.
In England the city never played so important a part in public affairs as on the continent, and the reason for this fact is easy to be found. In England, the feudal system was never established as on the continent, and the state never split into fragments the law was always national law. The central government was always strong and had all parts of the state in hand, and the improvement of that government was an orderly and natural process of growth, in which all parts of the community shared alike, no one part needed to be uprooted and destroyed by the others. The existence of a definite machinery of free local self government the township or the hundred organization furnished as ready a means by which the city could secure control of its own affairs as the forms of the feu-dal system gave to the commune in France.' But this very fact incorporated it completely in the organization of the shire or the state, of which the township or the hundred formed a regular part, and prevented the English city from establishing a perfect independence like the Italian or German city, or even from coming so near to it as did the communes of France. In the long struggle for English liberty the boroughs were to play an honorable part, but they did it, not as independent powers, but as corporate elements of the state.
Translated into other terms, this increase of commerce and development of the cities becomes the rise of the Third Estate into a position of influence and power, beside the other two. This is a fact of the utmost importance in the general history of civilization, because this progress once begun, though it was to be here and there very slow, and sometimes even ended, to all appearance, in reality never ceased, and our own time is characterized by its complete triumph and the practical absorption, both economically and politically, of the other two estates in the third.
All the middle ages may have recognized the existence of three classes in the population a working class besides the clergy and the nobles but politically and in all practical concerns no account was taken of this third class until it began to possess wealth. The First Estate, the clergy, with the Second Estate, the nobles, controlled everything, and no one outside their ranks had any voice in affairs.
With the growth of commerce this began to be changed. Wealth meant power. The ready money of the merchant was as effective a weapon as the sword of the nobles, or the spiritual arms of the church. Very speedily, also, the men of the cities began to seize upon one of the weapons which up to this time had been the exclusive possession of the church, and one of the main sources of its power knowledge and intellectual training. With these two weapons in its hands, wealth and knowledge, the Third Estate forced its way into influence, and compelled the other two to recognize it as a partner with themselves in the management of public concerns.
This formation of the Third Estate must not be regarded as the formation of the " people " in the modern sense of that word. This is a very important historical distinction and one that should be made clear if possible.
According to our modern democratic ideas the " people " includes the whole body of inhabitants in the country. If we say, "the will of the people controls the state," we mean the will of the mass of the population without distinction of classes. But such an idea would have been impossible to the middle ages. It would have been foreign to all its notions. Even within the self-governing cities the governments were not democratic, and they tended, in most cases, to become more and more aristocratic, and the distinction between "patricians " and common people was as clearly drawn as outside their walls, though based upon different grounds.
The rise of the Third Estate did not mean the formation of the " people." It was the first step toward it, but, in the middle ages, it went no further than to bring up beside the other classes, who had heretofore controlled the state, and who continued to retain their distinct existence as classes, and nearly everywhere kept a preponderance of influence, another class, clearly marked within itself as a class and clearly separated from them. Beyond this the middle ages did not go, except in Italy, where something almost like the " people " may be seen, though in England, also, one very decisive step toward modern times had been taken in the association of the smaller nobles with the " commons." The government which resulted from the rise of the Third Estate was a government of classes and separate interests, with the characteristic weaknesses of such a government, and unless reinforced from other sources presented no serious obstacle to the growth of absolutism.
The Third Estate was itself divided into two well-marked divisions the city population and the laboring class of the country districts. This distinction was so clearly marked that in some countries the peasants were reckoned as forming a Fourth Estate. The agricultural laborers of Europe can hardly be said to have gained political rights or any share in the government at the close of the middle ages ; indeed, with insignificant exceptions, and with the exception of course of America, it was reserved for the nineteenth century to make this advance.
The Third Estate, considered as having an influence on public affairs, was in reality only the burgher class. This was, however, as a matter of fact, drawn largely from the country population, though the nucleus around which it gathered was in all cases, except in the new towns, the city population which had descended from earlier times. As commerce increased, means of employment naturally multiplied. Manufactures developed; new lines of industry and of mechanical work were opened. An easier and more advantageous life was to be had in the cities than in the country, and a current set constantly into them of the more enterprising and better situated peasants to take advantage of the more favorable conditions there, and to reinforce the Third Estate. The cities themselves encouraged this tendency and sometimes also the suzerain, or the sovereign of the city, by the grant of his protection to immigrants. It had its reflex influence also upon the people remaining in the country, by securing them better treatment or even special privileges from lords anxious to retain the peasants on their lands.
In the case of the laboring classes of the country the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the middle ages had seen the slave transformed into the serf. This change consisted in giving certain limited rights to a class which had before possessed no rights whatever. A serf is a slave to whom a few but not all the rights of a freeman have been granted. He has taken the first step toward becoming a freeman. That he is chained to the soil is at the beginning as much of an advantage as it is later a disadvantage, for it secures him a home, a family, and certain limited rights of property, none of which can be taken away from him. It was perfectly natural that in the course of time, as the general conditions which surrounded the serf improved, the limitations upon his right should come to be the main things noticed, and that it should be forgotten how very little those limitations were regarded centuries before in comparison with the rights then granted.
This change to serfdom was accomplished in the later empire by economic causes, chiefly by the difficulty of getting a sufficient number of agricultural laborers. The slavery of Christian men was not entirely extinguished, however, though forbidden. It lingered on in various ways until the very end of the middle ages.
In the times which follow the German conquests there is to be seen a mixture of phenomena. Exactly opposite things seem to be happening at different dates or in different places at the same date. In some cases freemen sink down toward the serf class, and many of those in the higher grades of serfdom represent earlier free laborers. Sometimes, on the contrary, the lower classes may be seen rising toward the higher, and reinforcing from this source the same upper grades. In a general view of the whole period we may say that the condition of the laborer is, in most particulars, improving ; or the fact would be, perhaps, more accurately stated in this way : that the forms of land tenure and the general economic conditions of the middle ages made it, on the whole, easy for the serf who was somewhat more enterprising than his class, or who found himself in a better situation to improve his condition and to rise toward the rank of a freeman.
This fact explains the great variety of rights possessed by the agricultural laborers of a given time in any one of the countries of Europe, and as well the great variety of legal conditions which can often be found upon a single estate. These various gradations of right and of tenure represent the intermediate steps or stages through which the serf is passing on his way to freedom. On the same estate there may be some, perhaps, whose condition is hardly to be distinguished from that of slaves, others who have a few more rights, others still more, and some who are almost indistinguishable from full free-men.
This second change from serf to free laborer, like the earlier one from slave to serf, was determined by economic causes, often by the saine one, indeed, the scarcity of laborers and the consequent willingness of the land-lord to grant better conditions of tenure in order to gain new laborers or to keep his old ones. It consisted almost everywhere in the transformation of vague and indefinite personal services into clearly expressed and definitely limited services, and these into payments of rent, some-times in produce and then finally in many places in money. When a fixed money payment took the place of labor services the serf had become a freeman.' It is characteristic of the later part of the middle ages that these various forms of servile tenure coexist on the same estate, and very frequently in the case of the same man, who will be held to render in part services and in part rent payments.
In the more favored parts of Europe this process of emancipation was completed by the end of the middle ages. In Italy serfdom had disappeared as early, probably, as the end of the fourteenth century. In England the same result was reached, with some exceptions, by the beginning of the sixteenth. Of parts of France and of Germany the same thing is true. In some of the less favorably situated parts of the continent serfdom or some features of serfdom lived on until the revolutionary age which opened the present century.