Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE MEDIAEVAL CITY
WHY THE PEOPLE OF THE MIDDLE AGES SAID THAT "CITY AIR IS FREE AIR"
 THE early part of the Middle Ages had been an era of
pioneering and of settlement. A new people, who thus far
had lived outside the wild range of forest, mountains and
marshes which protected the north-eastern frontier of the Roman
Empire, had forced its way into the plains of western
Europe and had taken possession of most of the land. They
were restless, as all pioneers have been since the beginning of
time. They liked to be "on the go." They cut down the
forests and they cut each other's throats with equal energy.
Few of them wanted to live in cities. They insisted upon being
"free," they loved to feel the fresh air of the hillsides fill their
lungs while they drove their herds across the wind-swept pastures.
When they no longer liked their old homes, they pulled
up stakes and went away in search of fresh adventures.
The weaker ones died. The hardy fighters and the courageous
women who had followed their men into the wilderness
survived. In this way they developed a strong race of
men. They cared little for the graces of life. They were too
busy to play the fiddle or write pieces of poetry. They had
little love for discussions. The priest, "the learned man" of the
village (and before the middle of the thirteenth century, a layman
who could read and write was regarded as a "sissy") was
supposed to settle all questions which had no direct practical
 value. Meanwhile the German chieftain, the Frankish Baron,
the Northman Duke (or whatever their names and titles) occupied
their share of the territory which once had been part of
the great Roman Empire and among the ruins of past glory,
they built a world of their own which pleased them mightily
and which they considered quite perfect.
They managed the affairs of their castle and the surrounding
country to the best of their ability. They were as faithful
to the commandments of the Church as any weak mortal could
hope to be. They were sufficiently loyal to their king or emperor
to keep on good terms with those distant but always dangerous
potentates. In short, they tried to do right and to be
fair to their neighbours without being exactly unfair to their
It was not an ideal world in which they found themselves.
The greater part of the people were serfs or "villeins,"
farm-hands who were as much a part of the soil upon which they
lived as the cows and sheep whose stables they shared. Their
fate was not particularly happy nor was it particularly
unhappy. But what was one to do? The good Lord who ruled
the world of the Middle Ages had undoubtedly ordered everything
for the best. If He, in his wisdom, had decided that
there must be both knights and serfs, it was not the duty of
these faithful sons of the church to question the arrangement.
The serfs therefore did not complain but when they were too
hard driven, they would die off like cattle which are not fed
and stabled in the right way, and then something would be hastily
done to better their condition. But if the progress of the
world had been left to the serf and his feudal master, we would
still be living after the fashion of the twelfth century, saying
"abracadabra" when we tried to stop a tooth-ache, and feeling
a deep contempt and hatred for the dentist who offered to help
us with his "science," which most likely was of Mohammedan
or heathenish origin and therefore both wicked and useless.
When you grow up you will discover that many people do
not believe in "progress" and they will prove to you by the
terrible deeds of some of our own contemporaries that "the
 world does not change." But I hope that you will not pay
much attention to such talk. You see, it took our ancestors
almost a million years to learn how to walk on their hind legs.
Other centuries had to go by before their animal-like grunts
developed into an understandable language. Writing—the art
of preserving our ideas for the benefit of future generations,
without which no progress is possible—was invented only four
thousand years ago. The idea of turning the forces of nature
into the obedient servants of man was quite new in the days of
your own grandfather. It seems to me, therefore, that we are
making progress at an unheard-of rate of speed. Perhaps we
have paid a little too much attention to the mere physical comforts
of life. That will change in due course of time and we
shall then attack the problems which are not related to health
and to wages and plumbing and machinery in general.
But please do not be too sentimental about the "good old
days." Many people who only see the beautiful churches and
the great works of art which the Middle Ages have left behind
grow quite eloquent when they compare our own ugly civilisation
with its hurry and its noise and the evil smells of backfiring
motor trucks with the cities of a thousand years ago.
But these mediaeval churches were invariably surrounded by
miserable hovels compared to which a modern tenement house
stands forth as a luxurious palace. It is true that the noble
Lancelot and the equally noble Parsifal, the pure young hero
who went in search of the Holy Grail, were not bothered by
the odor of gasoline. But there were other smells of the barnyard
variety—odors of decaying refuse which had been thrown
into the street—of pig-sties surrounding the Bishop's palace—of
unwashed people who had inherited their coats and hats
from their grandfathers and who had never learned the blessing
of soap. I do not want to paint too unpleasant a picture.
But when you read in the ancient chronicles that the King of
France, looking out of the windows of his palace, fainted at
the stench caused by the pigs rooting in the streets of Paris,
when an ancient manuscript recounts a few details of an epidemic
of the plague or of small-pox, then you begin to
under-  stand that "progress" is something more than a catchword used
by modern advertising men.
No, the progress of the last six hundred years would not
have been possible without the existence of cities. I shall,
therefore, have to make this chapter a little longer than many
of the others. It is too important to be reduced to three or
four pages, devoted to mere political events.
The ancient world of Egypt and Babylonia and Assyria
had been a world of cities. Greece had been a country of
City-States. The history of Phoenicia was the history of two cities
called Sidon and Tyre. The Roman Empire was the "hinterland"
of a single town. Writing, art, science, astronomy, architecture,
literature, the theatre—the list is endless—have all
been products of the city.
For almost four thousand years the wooden bee-hive which
we call a town had been the workshop of the world. Then came
the great migrations. The Roman Empire was destroyed.
The cities were burned down and Europe once more became a
land of pastures and little agricultural villages. During the
Dark Ages the fields of civilisation had lain fallow.
The Crusades had prepared the soil for a new crop. It
was time for the harvest, but the fruit was plucked by the
burghers of the free cities.
I have told you the story of the castles and the monasteries,
with their heavy stone enclosures—the homes of the knights
and the monks, who guarded men's bodies and their souls.
You have seen how a few artisans (butchers and bakers and an
occasional candle-stick maker) came to live near the castle
to tend to the wants of their masters and to find protection
in case of danger. Sometimes the feudal lord allowed these
people to surround their houses with a stockade. But they
were dependent for their living upon the good-will of the
mighty Seigneur of the castle. When he went about they knelt
before him and kissed his hand.
Then came the Crusades and many things changed. The
migrations had driven people from the north-east to the west.
The Crusades made millions of people travel from the west to
 the highly civilised regions of the south-east. They discovered
that the world was not bounded by the four walls of their little
settlement. They came to appreciate better clothes, more
comfortable houses, new dishes, products of the mysterious Orient.
After their return to their old homes, they insisted that they
be supplied with those articles. The peddler with his pack
upon his back—the only merchant of the Dark Ages—added
these goods to his old merchandise, bought a cart, hired a few
ex-crusaders to protect him against the crime wave which
followed this great international war, and went forth to do
business upon a more modern and larger scale. His career was
not an easy one. Every time he entered the domains of another
Lord he had to pay tolls and taxes. But the business
was profitable all the same and the peddler continued to make
Soon certain energetic merchants discovered that the goods
which they had always imported from afar could be made at
home. They turned part of their homes into a workshop.
They ceased to be merchants and became manufacturers. They
sold their products not only to the lord of the castle and to the
abbot in his monastery, but they exported them to nearby towns.
The lord and the abbot paid them with products of their farms,
eggs and wines, and with honey, which in those early days was
used as sugar. But the citizens of distant towns were obliged
to pay in cash and the manufacturer and the merchant began to
own little pieces of gold, which entirely changed their position
in the society of the early Middle Ages.
THE CASTLE AND THE CITY
It is difficult for you to imagine a world without money.
In a modern city one cannot possible live without money. All
day long you carry a pocket full of small discs of metal to
"pay your way." You need a nickel for the street-car, a dollar
for a dinner, three cents for an evening paper. But many
people of the early Middle Ages never saw a piece of coined
money from the time they were born to the day of their death.
The gold and silver of Greece and Rome lay buried beneath
the ruins of their cities. The world of the migrations, which
 had succeeded the Empire, was an agricultural world. Every
farmer raised enough grain and enough sheep and enough
cows for his own use.
The mediaeval knight was a country squire and was rarely
forced to pay for materials in money. His estates produced
everything that he and his family ate and drank and wore on
their backs. The bricks for his house were made along the
banks of the nearest river. Wood for the rafters of the hall
was cut from the baronial forest. The few articles that had to
come from abroad were paid for in goods—in honey—in
 But the Crusades upset the routine of the old agricultural
life in a very drastic fashion. Suppose that the Duke of Hildesheim
was going to the Holy Land. He must travel thousands
of miles and he must pay his passage and his hotel-bills.
At home he could pay with products of his farm. But he
could not well take a hundred dozen eggs and a cart-load of
hams with him to satisfy the greed of the shipping agent of
Venice or the inn-keeper of the Brenner Pass. These gentlemen
insisted upon cash. His Lordship therefore was obliged
to take a small quantity of gold with him upon his voyage.
Where could he find this gold? He could borrow it from the
Lombards, the descendants of the old Longobards, who had
turned professional money-lenders, who seated behind their
exchange-table (commonly known as "banco" or bank) were
glad to let his Grace have a few hundred gold pieces in exchange
for a mortgage upon his estates, that they might be repaid
in case His Lordship should die at the hands of the Turks.
That was dangerous business for the borrower. In the end,
the Lombards invariably owned the estates and the Knight
became a bankrupt, who hired himself out as a fighting man to
a more powerful and more careful neighbour.
His Grace could also go to that part of the town where the
Jews were forced to live. There he could borrow money at a
rate of fifty or sixty percent. interest. That, too, was bad
business. But was there a way out? Some of the people of the
little city which surrounded the castle were said to have money.
They had known the young lord all his life. His father and
their fathers had been good friends. They would not be
unreasonable in their demands. Very well. His Lordship's
clerk, a monk who could write and keep accounts, sent a note
to the best known merchants and asked for a small loan. The
townspeople met in the work-room of the jeweller who made
chalices for the nearby churches and discussed this demand.
They could not well refuse. It would serve no purpose to
ask for "interest." In the first place, it was against the
religious principles of most people to take interest and in the
 second place, it would never be paid except in agricultural
products and of these the people had enough and to spare.
THE MEDIAEVAL TOWN
"But," suggested the tailor who spent his days quietly sitting
upon his table and who was somewhat of a philosopher,
"suppose that we ask some favour in return for our money.
We are all fond of fishing. But his Lordship won't let us
fish in his brook. Suppose that we let him have a hundred
ducats and that he give us in return a written guarantee allowing
us to fish all we want in all of his rivers. Then he gets
the hundred which he needs, but we get the fish and it will be
good business all around."
The day his Lordship accepted this proposition (it seemed
such an easy way of getting a hundred gold pieces) he signed
the death-warrant of his own power. His clerk drew up the
agreement. His Lordship made his mark (for he could not
sign his name) and departed for the East. Two years later
he came back, dead broke. The townspeople were fishing in
the castle pond. The sight of this silent row of anglers annoyed
his Lordship. He told his equerry to go and chase the crowd
away. They went, but that night a delegation of merchants
visited the castle. They were very polite. They congratulated
his Lordship upon his safe return. They were sorry his
Lordship had been annoyed by the fishermen, but as his Lordship
might perhaps remember he had given them permission
to do so himself, and the tailor produced the Charter which
had been kept in the safe of the jeweller ever since the master
had gone to the Holy Land.
His Lordship was much annoyed. But once more he was
in dire need of some money. In Italy he had signed his name
to certain documents which were now in the possession of Salvestro
dei Medici, the well-known banker. These documents
were "promissory notes" and they were due two months from
date. Their total amount came to three hundred and forty
pounds, Flemish gold. Under these circumstances, the noble
knight could not well show the rage which filled his heart and
his proud soul. Instead, he suggested another little loan. The
merchants retired to discuss the matter.
 After three days they came back and said "yes." They
were only too happy to be able to help their master in his
difficulties, but in return for the 345 golden pounds would he give
them another written promise (another charter) that they,
the townspeople, might establish a council of their own to be
elected by all the merchants and free citizens of the city, said
council to manage civic affairs without interference from the
side of the castle?
His Lordship was confoundedly angry. But again,
he needed the money. He said yes, and signed the charter.
Next week, he repented. He called his soldiers and went to
the house of the jeweller and asked for the documents which
his crafty subjects had cajoled out of him under the pressure
of circumstances. He took them away and burned them.
The townspeople stood by and said nothing. But when next
his Lordship needed money to pay for the dowry of his daughter,
he was unable to get a single penny. After that little
affair at the jeweller's his credit was not considered good.
He was forced to eat humble-pie and offer to make certain reparations.
Before his Lordship got the first installment of the stipulated sum,
the townspeople were once more in possession of all their old charters
and a brand new one which permitted them to build a "city-hall"
and a strong tower where all the charters might be kept protected
against fire and theft, which really meant protected against
future violence on the part of the Lord and his armed followers.
This, in a very general way, is what happened during the
centuries which followed the Crusades. It was a slow process,
 this gradual shifting of power from the castle to the city. There
was some fighting. A few tailors and jewellers were killed and
a few castles went up in smoke. But such occurrences were
not common. Almost imperceptibly the towns grew richer
and the feudal lords grew poorer. To maintain themselves
they were for ever forced to exchange charters of civic liberty
in return for ready cash. The cities grew. They offered an
asylum to run-away serfs who gained their liberty after they
had lived a number of years behind the city walls. They came
to be the home of the more energetic elements of the
surrounding country districts. They were proud of
their new importance and expressed their power in the
churches and public buildings which they erected
around the old market place, where centuries before
the barter of eggs and sheep and honey and salt
had taken place. They wanted their children to
have a better chance in life than they had enjoyed
themselves. They hired monks to come to their city and
be school teachers. When they heard of a man who could
paint pictures upon boards of wood, they offered him a pension
if he would come and cover the walls of their chapels and their
town hall with scenes from the Holy Scriptures.
Meanwhile his Lordship, in the dreary and drafty halls of
his castle, saw all this up-start splendour and regretted the
day when first he had signed away a single one of his sovereign
rights and prerogatives. But he was helpless. The townspeople
with their well-filled strong-boxes snapped their fingers
at him. They were free men, fully prepared to hold what they
had gained by the sweat of their brow and after a struggle
which had lasted for more than ten generations.