Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries throughout western Europe, especially in Italy, merchants, artisans and professionals established communes with their own autonomous governments. Members of the commune swore an oath to protect each other's interests and liberties. At public assemblies, people made decisions and elected administrators. Membership in the commmune was exclusive to certain skilled male workers, but the Pavia commune reached 1,000 members and Milan 900 members. Peter Kropotkin thought highly of the Medieval commune and devoted to it two chapters in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. The anthropologist Harold Barclay criticized Kropotkin's portrayal, arguing "there is little justification for Kropotkin's treating it as if it were some worthy example of early anarchy.".
Kropotkin describes the effect that participatory society had on the communes' architecture:
Mediæval architecture attained its grandeur -- not only because it was a natural development of handicraft; not only because each building, each architectural decoration, had been devised by men who knew through the experience of their own hands what artistic effects can be obtained from stone, iron, bronze, or even from simple logs and mortar; not only because, each monument was a result of collective experience, accumulated in each "mystery" or craft -- it was grand because it was born out of a grand idea. Like Greek art, it sprang out of a conception of brotherhood and unity fostered by the city. It had an audacity which could only be won by audacious struggles and victories; it had that expression of vigour, because vigour permeated all the life of the city. A cathedral or a communal house symbolized the grandeur of an organism of which every mason and stone-cutter was the builder, and a mediæval building appears -- not as a solitary effort to which thousands of slaves would have contributed the share assigned them by one man's imagination; all the city contributed to it.
At popular assemblies, the earliest communal institution in the Medieval commune, people passed laws and elected executive and judicial administrators for a one-year term. The city was divided into several sections, each with a degree of autonomy. Kropotkin writes, "The city was usually divided into four quarters, or into five to seven sections radiating from a centre, each quarter or section roughly corresponding to a certain trade or profession which prevailed in it, but nevertheless containing inhabitants of different social positions and occupations -- nobles, merchants, artisans, or even half-serfs; and each section or quarter constituted a quite independent agglomeration. In Venice, each island was an independent political community."
The Pavia commune reached 1,000 participating members and Milan reached 900 participating members. Still, the communes "excluded the unskilled, the poor, field workers, and most immigrants" and women.
Within the commune, workers joined guilds based on their trade. Kropotkin describes the practices of a Danish guild to illustrate the spirit of comradery the guilds exemplified:
If a brother's house is burned, or he has lost his ship, or has suffered on a pilgrim's voyage, all the brethren must come to his aid. If a brother falls dangerously ill, two brethren must keep watch by his bed till he is out of danger, and if he dies, the brethren must bury him -- a great affair in those times of pestilences -- and follow him to the church and the grave. After his death they must provide for his children, if necessary; very often the widow becomes a sister to the guild.
The anthropologist Harold Barclay points out a hierarchical nature in the guilds:
Kropotkin overlooks the class oriented and exploitive nature of the European guild system. Ostensibly one might say members of a guild gradually progressed from one status to a higher and more responsible one - that the ultimate aim of guild membership was graduation to the rank of master. This then is no different from the ideal of any rational educational system in which the student has the potentiality of becoming equal in knowledge to his or her teacher. However that might be, in the guild system, masters were the rulers and indeed dictators. The apprentices at the bottom were treated hardly better than common slaves. They had to be especially submissive and obedient if they wanted to advance to a higher rank of journeyman, since that depended upon the say of the masters. All power in the guild was vested in the masters and the majority of members could only act as 'yes men' to them.
Communes in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Italy and Russia used to purchase goods at bulk and distribute them to all citizens at cost price. Later on, when the communal purchase of goods was abandoned, communes ensured that citizens received a sufficient amount of food. When food arrived, it went immediately to a market where anyone could purchase it before the remainder was sold to retailers. Kropotkin writes, "In short, if a scarcity visited the city, all had to suffer from it more or less; but apart from the calamities, so long as the free cities existed no one could die in their midst from starvation, as is unhappily too often the case in our own times."
Kropotkin argues that science had advanced by the fifteenth century that the Industrial Revolution necessarily had to result. He speculates without capitalists' primitive accumulation, Europe could have industrialized under the jurisdiction of the participatory Medieval communes.
Sarah Blanshei has studied the legal systems in the medieval communes Perugia and Bologna. In the first half of the thirteenth century, Bologna imposed a fine as a punishment for homicide and mandated that the perpetrator seek a peace agreement from the victim's family. Perugia also imposed a fine for homicide and by 1266 mandated the expulsion of perpetrators for a minimum of five years. Penalties became more severe over time. By the end of the century, the communes mandated the death penalty for certain types of homicide, including hiring assassins, parricide, and killing someone in their own home.
In Ghent and Ypres, cloth weaves and fullers organized into "lesser guilds" and "waged a veritable class war against their patrician exploiters and ultimately triumphed over them, establishing a civic structure that gave consideravble rights both to themselves and to 'low degree' guildsmen-and excluding most patricians."
Federations of communes and villages continually waged war against the feudal lords in Italy. Kropotkin writes, "The burghers sent out emissaries to lead revolt in the villages; they received villages into their corporations, and they waged direct war against the nobles."
In addition to the anti-feudal confederations mentioned in the last section, communes formed confederations for the peaceful purposes of regulating wine production, commerce and navigation.
Kropotkin argues that the communes declined for of two reasons. First, their economy over-emphasized commerce and industry, to the neglect of agriculture. Second, the commune members became increasingly won over by the Statist teachings of the Church, universities, and law courts.
Excerpt from Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism
After AD. 1000, however, in northern Italy, the Rhone valley, the Rhineland, and Flanders, a new merchant class began to emerge in the interstices of feudalism, and these innovators began to breathe new life into the medieval towns. Between the late tenth century and the first half of the thirteenth, the towns—or communes— that they revived became centres of lucrative commerce and craft production.
Initially the commercial and craft towns remained under the sovereignty of the older authority in whose domain they were located—usually the church or a count—and continued to be subject to external rule. But gradually the ecclesiastical and noble authorities were less and less able to address the local needs of the commune residents. Church laws, in particular, were irrelevant to commerce, when they were not restrictive of it. Ever more averse to complying with external control, the communes arrived at their own ways of handling taxation, marriage and inheritance, among other things, and developed their own legal systems, guaranteeing their inhabitants’ personal liberties and limiting their princes’ rights in fiscal, judicial, and other matters, until they were eventually managing their own local affairs de facto if not de jure.
Inevitably, the communes demanded that their sovereigns recognize their local liberties—demands that normally met with refusal from the ecclesiastical and princely powers. In turn, during the twelfth century, many communes began to free themselves from their sovereigns. In northern Italy a group of towns calling themselves the Lombard League rebelled against the Holy Roman Empire to gain their liberties. By the Peace of Constance, signed in 1183, the Empire granted recognition to the several towns of the league, permitting them to elect their own officials, to make their own local laws, and essentially to govern themselves.
What were the communes? They were essentially associations of burghers—merchants, professionals, and artisans— who swore an oath, or conjuratio, to respect one another’s individual liberties and to defend and promote their common interests. The conjuratio was, in effect, an expression of citizenship in a distinct civic community.
The earliest communal institution of the Italian towns, in fact, was a general assembly of “all the members of the commune.” This assembly approved statutes and chose a executive and judicial magistrate who, for a term of one year, was charged with the administration of town affairs.
As the communes grew in population and size, more artisans were needed to craft goods necessary for local use and regional trade, such as barrels and vehicles, and service workers were required to supply food and lodging. Rural people who gravitated toward the towns to seek refuge from feudal duties and to improve their living conditions took up this work, but before 1200 they usually did not share in the commune’s political liberties. For the most part, the communes were not complete democracies; membership was restricted to the founding families and their descendants. Although all resident adults were subject to rule by the commune—they were required to pay taxes and to serve in the militia-not all of them were permitted to be politically active citizens. Active citizenship depended on property qualification, length of residence, and social connections, as did the right to hold public office, a right enjoyed by only a tiny fraction of the male population.
Indeed, in the twelfth century political power was developing along patrician lines, so that by 1160, in most communes, certain families were preeminent in civic affairs. Even as the communes as a whole were fighting for their autonomy from feudal lords and bishops, these patricians dominated the magistracy, manipulated the assembly, and basically ruled the city, With the result that the civic assemblies steadily atrophied.
This situation did not last long, however. Around 1200 democratic sentiments began to stir in many communes; at Nimes, for example, in 1198 the entire people elected their magistrates. In the Italian communes the popolo—the master craftsmen, shopkeepers, professionals, notaries, tradesmen, financiers, commercial bourgeoisie (but not the weavers and labourers)—confronted the aristocracy with demands that communal political life be expanded to include their participation.
In various communes the popolo formed neighborhood movements of vocational guilds that interlinked men of the same occupation. These guilds were soon supplemented by armed popular societies, also organized by neighbourhood. The mobilized popolo now clashed with the nobility in towns such as Brescia, Milan, Piacenza, Cremona, Assisi, and Lucca, among many others. To a remarkable extent their revolts succeeded in radically democratizing communal political life. Between 1200 to 1260, in a number of communes including major towns like Bologna and Florence, the popolo actually took over reins of power. Pavia’s council expanded from 150 to 1,000 members in the same years, and Milan’s grew from 400 to 900, while at Montpellier the guild organizations actually fused with the municipal government itself. This dramatic process of democratization was reflected in the writings of the Aristotelian philosopher Marsilio of Padua, who wrote, “The legislator, or prime and proper effective cause of law, is the people or body of citizens, or its more weighty part, through its choice or will orally expressed in the general assembly of citizens.”
In the northern cities, by contrast, democratization of communal life occurred more slowly than it did in Italy. In Freiburg, after a popular revolt, the commune mutated its oligarchy into a board of twenty-four magistrates, elected annually, while Liége created a guild-type city republic and after 1313 made the issuance of new laws contingent upon approval by a popular assembly, composed of all citizens regardless of status. However, in Flanders, in cloth-manufacturing Ghent and Ypres, civic self-government was shaped by the weavers and fullers. Organized into so-called “lesser guilds,” these working people—virtual proletarians—waged a veritable class war against their patrician exploiters and ultimately triumphed over them, establishing a civic structure that gave considerable rights both to themselves and to “low degree” guildsmen—and excluding most patricians.
Even at their most democratic, however, the popular communes of Flanders, the Rhone valley, and Italy still did not give equal political rights to all male citizens. They excluded the unskilled, the poor, field workers, and most immigrants, who, they felt, were dependent people and therefore easily controlled by wealthy merchants and aristocrats. Nor was the democratizing process long-lasting: In time these early democracies yielded to republican forms of governance, and political power reverted to the influential families, with the result that the communes later ended up with rule by oligarchical councils or by elites such as the Medici in Florence. However incomplete the medieval communes’ democratization may have been, it aroused the dormant political realm from its slumber and set it in motion for several centuries in piazzas and other public spaces. As such, these communes constitute an important moment in the developing tradition of direct democracy.
Excerpt from Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy
Another social and cultural milieu upon which Kropotkin looked with considerable favour was the medieval free city commune. He leads us to believe that in its early form it was a society without the state and a community of free men. But how free was it? Did it in fact lack government?
Kropotkin argues that the medieval free city had its origin in the village community and in the notion of the fraternity or guild. "It was a federation of these two kinds of unions, developed under the protection of the fortified enclosure and the turrets of the city." In some places this was a 'natural growth' , in others, especially in Europe, it resulted from revolution. "(I)nhabitants of a borough . . . mutually took the oath to put aside all pending questions concerning feuds arisen from insults, assaults or wounds, and they swore that henceforth in the quarrels that might arise they would never again have recourse to personal revenge or to a judge other than the syndics nominated by themselves in the guild and the city" (Kropotkin, 1943, 19).
The Encyclopaedia Brittanica says: "It would be very wide of the mark, however, to imply that the communes were democracies. The life of all the towns was characterised by a struggle for control, as a result of which the wealthiest and most powerful citizens (patricians) were usually more or less successful in monopolising power. Within the communes oligarchy was the norm."
The liberal characteristics of these communes did vary considerably, however not only from place to place, but also the same city might experience a period of relative liberality and, then, ultimately decline into tyranny. Indeed, the latter seems to be the historic process of most of them.
The residents of the medieval commune, as Kropotkin notes, swore a collective oath to follow the decisions of the city's elected judges. However, this collective oath was not always freely given; residents were often forced to make it. In addition, it soon became only a perfunctory act. Judges and other city administrators were chosen, often in a popular assembly, from the wealthy and influential families who were precisely those most interested in having a free city - free of the interference of neighbouring dukes and kings so they might better pursue their business interests. Not only did this situation then create a ruling body of oligarchs, but it enhanced the class differentiation already present.
Kropotkin overlooks the class oriented and exploitive nature of the European guild system. Ostensibly one might say members of a guild gradually progressed from one status to a higher and more responsible one - that the ultimate aim of guild membership was graduation to the rank of master. This then is no different from the ideal of any rational educational system in which the student has the potentiality of becoming equal in knowledge to his or her teacher. However that might be, in the guild system, masters were the rulers and indeed dictators. The apprentices at the bottom were treated hardly better than common slaves. They had to be especially submissive and obedient if they wanted to advance to a higher rank of journeyman, since that depended upon the say of the masters. All power in the guild was vested in the masters and the majority of members could only act as 'yes men' to them. Also the free cities acquired an increasing population of wage working proletarians who had no decision making role in the guilds, or in any part of the economy or polity.
From the point of view of the serf on the feudal estate, the free commune of the medieval period might have seemed like a haven of freedom. And even from the vantage point of a 19th century European the free commune must have stood out as a laudable oasis in a desert of authoritarianism. But there is little justification for Kropotkin's treating it as if it were some worthy example of early anarchy.
- Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism.
- Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy
- Janet Biehl. The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism.
- Peter Kropotkin. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
- Janet Biehl. The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism
- Kropotkin, Mutual_Aid:_A_Factor_of_Evolution#Trade_by_the_guild_and_by_the_city
- Kropotkin, Mutual_Aid:_A_Factor_of_Evolution#Double_origin_of_the_free_medi.C3.A6val_city
- Kropotkin, Mutual_Aid:_A_Factor_of_Evolution#Conclusion. Carson, Kevin, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Fayetteville: 2004), 189. http://www.mutualist.org/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/MPE.pdf.
- Sarah Blanshei. "Criminal Justice in Medieval Perugia and Bologna." Law and History Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1983), pp. 251-275. Accessed 31 August 2014, http://www.jstor.org/stable/743852.
- Janet Biehl. The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism.
- Peter Kropotkin. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
- Peter Kropotkin. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. "Causes of Decay".
- Marsilio of Padua, Defensor Pacis (1324), dictio 1, chap. 23, sec. 3; in John H. Mundy and Peter Riesenberg, The Medieval Town (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1958), p. 125.