Town life in the Middle Ages

The municipalities survived the downfall of the Roman empire. Their history varied greatly in different parts of Europe, but none the less some observations can be made that are broadly accurate with respect to most of them.

From the fifth to the tenth century the state of the towns was a state neither of servitude nor of liberty. They suffered all the woes that are the fate of the weak; they were the prey of continual violence and depredation; yet in spite of the fearful disorders of the time, they preserved a certain importance. When feudalism was established, the towns lost such independence as they had possessed; they found themselves under the heel of feudal chiefs.

But feudalism did bring about a sort of peace, a sort of order; and with the slightest gleam of peace and order a man's hope revives, and on the revival of hope he takes to work. So it was with the towns. New wants were created; commerce and industry arose to satisfy them; wealth and population slowly returned. But industry and commerce were absolutely without security; the townsmen were exposed to merciless extortion and plundering at the hands of their feudal overlords. The only way in which the towns could defend themselves from the violence of their masters was by using violence themselves. So in the eleventh century we find town after town arising in revolt against its despot and winning from him a charter of liberty.

Although the insurrection was in a sense general, it was in no way concerted--it was not a rising of the combined citizens against the combined feudal aristocracy. All the towns found themselves exposed to much the same evils and rescued themselves in much the same manner. But each town acted for itself--did not go to the help of any other town. Hence these detached communities had no ambitions, no aspirations to national importance; their outlook was limited to themselves.

Although it may be broadly asserted that the emancipation did not alter the relations of the citizens with the general government, that assertion must be modified in one respect. A link was established between the citizens and the king. Sometimes they appealed for his aid against their lord, sometimes the lord invoked him as judge; thus a relation was established between the king and the towns, and the citizens came into touch with the center of the state.

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