It is easy to understand why modern historians, trained in the Roman way of thinking and seeking to associate all institutions with Rome, find it so difficult to appreciate the communalist movement that existed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This movement with its virile affirmation of the individual, and which succeeded in creating a society through the free federation of men, of villages and of towns, was the complete negation of the unitarian, centralizing Roman outlook with which history is explained in our university curricula. Nor is it linked to any historic personality, or to any central institution.
It is a natural development, belonging, just as did the tribe and the village community, to a certain phase in human evolution, and not to any particular nation or region. This is the reason why academic science cannot be sensitive to its spirit and why the Augustin Thierrys and the Sismondis, historians who really had understood the mood of the period, have not had followers in France, where Luchaire is still the only one to have taken up - more or less - the tradition of the great historian of the Merovingian and Communalist periods. It further explains why, in England and Germany, research into this period as well as an appreciation of its motivating forces, are of very recent origin.
The commune of the Middle Ages, the free city, owes its origin on the one hand to the village community, and on the other, to those thousands of brotherhoods and guilds which were coming to life in that period independently of the territorial union. As a federation between these two kinds of unions, it was able to assert itself under the protection of its fortified ramparts and turrets.
In many regions it many regions it was a peaceful development. Elsewhere - and this applied in general to Western Europe - it was the result of a revolution. As soon as the inhabitants of a particular borough felt themselves to be sufficiently protected by their walls, they made a `conjuration'. They mutually swore an oath to drop all pending matters concerning slander, violence or wounding, and undertook, so far as disputes that might arise in the future, never again to have recourse to any judge other than the syndics which they themselves would nominate. In every good-neighborly or art guild, in every sworn brotherhood, it had been normal practice for a long time. In every village community, such as had been the way of life in the past, before the bishop and the petty king had managed to introduce, and later impose on it, its judge.
Now, the hamlets and parishes which made up the borough, as well as the guilds and brotherhoods which developed within it, looked upon themselves as a single amitas, nominated their judges and swore permanent union between all those groups.
A charter was soon drawn up and accepted. If need be, someone would be sent off to copy the charter of some neighboring small community (we know of hundreds of such charters) and the community was set up. The bishop or the prince, who had been until then the judge in the community, and often more or less its master, could in the circumstances only recognize the fait accompli - or oppose the new conjuration by force of arms. Often the king - that is the prince who sought to be a cut above the other princes and whose coffers were always empty - would `grant' the charter for ready cash. Thus he refrained from imposing his judge on the community, while at the same time gaining prestige in the eyes of the other feudal lords. But this was by no means the rule; hundreds of communes remained active with no other authority than their goodwill, their ramparts and their lances.
In the course of a hundred years, this movement spread in an impressively harmonious way throughout Europe - by imitation, to be sure - covering Scotland, France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Poland and Russia. And when we now compare the Charters and the internal organization of all these communities we are struck by the virtual uniformity of these Charters and the organization that grew in the shadow of these `social contracts'. What a striking lesson for the Romanists and the Hegelians for whom servitude before the law is the only means of achieving conformity in institutions!
From the Atlantic to the middle course of the Volga, and from Norway to Sicily, Europe was being covered with such communities - some becoming populated cities such as Florence, Venice, Amiens, Nuremberg or Novgorod, others remaining struggling villages of a hundred or as few as some twenty families, but nevertheless treated as equals by their more prosperous sisters.
As organisms bubbling with life, communities obviously developed in different ways. Geographical location, the nature of external commerce, and resistance from outside to overcome all gave each community its own history. But for all of them the basic principle was the same. The same friendship (amitas) of the village communities and the guilds associated within the precincts whether it was Pskov in Russia and Bruges in Flanders, a village of three hundred inhabitants in Scotland or prosperous Venice with its islands, a village in the North of France or one in Poland, or even Florence la Belle. They all represent the same amitas; the same friendship of the village communes and guilds, united behind the walled precincts. Their constitution, in its general characteristics, is the same.
Generally the walls of the town grew longer and thicker as the population grew and were flanked by towers which grew taller and taller, and were each raised by this or that district, or guild, and consequently displayed individual characteristics - the town was divided into four, five or six sections or sectors, which radiated from the citadel or the cathedral towards the city ramparts. Each of these sectors was inhabited mainly by an `art' or trade whereas the new trades - the `young arts' - occupied the suburbs which in due course were enclosed by a new fortified wall.
The street, or the parish represented the territorial unit, corresponding to the earlier village community. Each street or parish had its popular assembly, its forum, its popular tribunal, its priest, its militia, its banner and often its seal, the symbol of its sovereignty. Though federated with other streets it nevertheless maintained its independence.
The professional unit which often was more or less identified with the district or with the sector, was the guild - the trade union. The latter also had its saints, its assembly, its forum and its judges. It had its funds, its landed property, its militia and its banner. It also had its seal, symbol of its sovereignty. In the event of war, its militia joined, assuming it was considered expedient, with the other guilds and planted its own banner alongside the large banner (carrosse) of the city.
Thus the city was the union of the districts, streets, parishes and guilds, and had its plenary assembly in the grand forum, its large belfry, its elected judges and its banner to rally the militias of the guilds and districts. It dealt with other cities as sovereign, federated with whomever it wished, concluded alliances nationally or even outside the national territory. Thus the Cinque ports around Dover were federated with French and Dutch ports across the Channel; the Russian Novgorod was the ally of the Germano-Scandinavian Hansa, and so on. In its external relations each city possessed all the attributes of the modern State. From that period onwards what came to be known later as International Law was formed by free contracts and subject to sanction by public opinion in all the cities, just as later it was to be more often violated than respected by the States.
On how many occasions would a particular city, unable `to find the sentence' in a particularly complicated case, send someone to `seek the sentence' in a neighboring city! How often was the prevailing spirit of that period - arbitration, rather than the judge's authority - demonstrated with two communes taking a third one as arbitrator!
The trades also acted in this way. Their commercial and craft relations extended beyond the city, and their agreements were made without taking into account nationality. And when in our ignorance we boast of our international workers' congresses, we forget that by the fifteenth century international congresses of trades and even apprentices were already being held.
Lastly, the city either defended itself against aggressors and itself waged fierce war against the feudal lords in the neighborhood, naming each year one or two military commanders for its militias; or it accepted a `military defender' - a prince or a duke which it selected for one year and dismissed at will. For the maintenance of his soldiers, he would be given the receipts from judicial fines; but he was forbidden to interfere in the affairs of the city.
Or if the city were too weak to free itself from its neighbors the feudal vultures, it kept as its more or less permanent military defender, the bishop, or the prince of a particular family - Guelf or Ghibelline in Italy, the Rurik family in Russia, or the Olgerds in Lithuania - but was jealously vigilant in preventing the authority of the bishop or the prince extending beyond the men encamped in the castle. They were even forbidden to enter the city without permission. To this day the King of England cannot enter the City of London without the permission of the Lord Mayor.
The economic life of the cities in the Middle Ages would deserve to be recounted in detail. The interested reader is referred to what I have written on the subject in Mutual Aid in which I rely on a vast body of up-to-date historic research on the subject. Here it must suffice simply to note that internal commerce was dealt with entirely by the guilds - not by individual artisans - prices being established by mutual agreement. Furthermore, at the beginning of that period external commerce was dealt with exclusively by the city. It was only later that it became the monopoly of the Merchants' Guild, and later still of individual merchants. Furthermore, nobody worked on Sundays, nor on Saturday afternoons (bath day). The provisioning of the principal consumer goods was always handled by the city, and this custom was preserved for corn in some Swiss towns until the middle of the nineteenth century. In short there is a massive and varied documentation to show that mankind has not known, either before or since, a period of relative well-being assured to everybody as existed in the cities of the Middle Ages. The present poverty, insecurity, and physical exploitation of labour were then unknown.