The (re)birth of cities in Middle Age Italy

The one that raged in Italy, in the early decades of the eleventh century, was an unbridled struggle of special interests, and nothing else. Needless to seek a connection.

However there is a character that differentiates the Peninsula from the rest of Europe: the fact that feudalism never fully took hold and could not ruralize the whole country.

Even in the darkest period, cities have not disappeared. They have expired, are empty, but remained. For the moment they are only small villages, but are slowly gaining increasingly large autonomy and processing a system that is loosely approximating to a democratic one.

The phenomenon is just beginning, but you can see it especially where conditions allowed it, or even urged it. It’s the case of the maritime cities, the cutting edge of this process, for two reasons:

  1. because they are outside the main routes of the German armies that fell in Italy affter the emperors;
  2. because these cities are forced by the threat of Saracen pirates in a fight that is quickly maturing a sort of public awareness in the population. They can not expect help from anyone: neither the Emperor nor the Pope possess fleets. The only guarantee of salvation lies in the discipline of the crews. And this presupposes harmony of citizens and facilitates the equality between them.

(…) The breakup of the feudal civilization happened earlier in Italy than anywhere else for essentially two reasons.

  1. the authority of the noble depended on the imperial power which had become more and more intermittent.
  2. he can not count on the support of so-called “masses”, with whom it has no direct contact.

The second aspect is far more important than the previous one since the farmer plowing the field along the slopes does not know and does not recognize, as a master, anybody but “his” noble: the one who lives up there, in the turreted castle on the hill. It’s him that interfere in his private life, by conducting two tasks, one welcome and one unwelcome, but both decisive: that of protector and that of tax collector.
Up there you have to bring a third of the crops, this is the part the farmer would likely avoid. But up there, behind those solid walls, he can also take refuge with his family and livestock, if marauding gangs of of Hungarians, Normans or Saracens should appear on the horizon, as in those days very frequent happened.

All of this creates a complex and intertwined relationship between the Lord and the farmer. The castle grimly dominates the surroundings, standing over the little houses that crouch at its basis. Often his tenant commits abuses and harassment, but the sight of the manor instills confidence in these troubled times, in which justice is powerless against violence. Everyone is trying to stay as close as they can. And when they see a wall crumble down or in need of maintenance, they enlist themselves as laborers to rebuild it for free.

This is not only the private residence of an odious master. But also the fortress of them all. And, as such, a good of the community. So much so that the time dedicated to watch patrolling is voluntary and free.

From the reading of the documents of the time it does not seem that anybody ever complained against such performances.

Problem was that in Italy the subjects of the noble were not only the farmers who lived in the countryside or in the nearby of the castle. They were also the inhabitants of the villages which, when they didn’t rely upon agriculture to make a living, they had to provide a third of their income in cash to their master.

They had a very different relationship with him: they saw no refuge in the castle, because usually townships had their own walls and so they were able to defend themselves. So the master, to them, was just a tax collector and nothing more.

This aspect created a common ground for solidarity and mutual interests that gave birth to the Communal Age especially in the middle-northern part of Italy.

Of which I will speak on another article.


About Gabriele Frontini

I share my time between Italy, Belgium and UK. [ music critic since 1999, gamer, historian, pet lover ]
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