Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

Mediaeval Self-Government

How the People of the Cities Asserted Their Right to Be Heard in the Royal Councils of Their Country

A S long as people were "nomads," wandering tribes of shepherds, all men had been equal and had been responsible for the welfare and safety of the entire community.

But after they had settled down and some had become rich and others had grown poor, the government was apt to fall into the hands of those who were not obliged to work for their living and who could devote themselves to politics.


The Spreading of the Idea of Popular Sovereignty

I have told you how this had happened in Egypt and in Mesopotamia and in Greece and in Rome. It occurred among the Germanic population of western Europe as soon as order had been restored. The western European world was ruled in the first place by an emperor who was elected by the seven or eight most important kings of the vast Roman Empire of the German nation and who enjoyed a great deal of imaginary and very little actual power. It was ruled by a number of kings who sat upon shaky thrones. The every-day government was in the hands of thousands of feudal princelets. Their subjects were peasants or serfs. There were few cities. There was hardly any middle class. But during the thirteenth century (after an absence of almost a thousand years) the middle class—the merchant class—once more appeared upon the historical stage and its rise in power, as we saw in the last chapter, had meant a decrease in the influence of the castle folk.

Thus far, the king, in ruling his domains, had only paid attention to the wishes of his noblemen and his bishops. But the new world of trade and commerce which grew out of the Crusades forced him to recognise the middle class or suffer from an ever-increasing emptiness of his exchequer. Their majesties (if they had followed their hidden wishes) would have as lief consulted their cows and their pigs as the good burghers of their cities. But they could not help themselves. They swallowed the bitter pill because it was gilded, but not without a struggle.

In England, during the absence of Richard the Lion Hearted (who had gone to the Holy Land, but who was spending the greater part of his crusading voyage in an Austrian jail) the government of the country had been placed in the hands of John, a brother of Richard, who was his inferior in the art of war, but his equal as a bad administrator. John had begun his career as a regent by losing Normandy and the greater part of the French possessions. Next, he had managed to get into a quarrel with Pope Innocent III, the famous enemy of the Hohenstaufens. The Pope had excommunicated John (as Gregory VII had excommunicated the Emperor Henry IV two centuries before). In the year 1213 John had been obliged to make an ignominious peace just as Henry IV had been obliged to do in the year 1077.

Undismayed by his lack of success, John continued to abuse his royal power until his disgruntled vassals made a prisoner of their anointed ruler and forced him to promise that he would be good and would never again interfere with the ancient rights of his subjects. All this happened on a little island in the Thames, near the village of Runnymede, on the 15th of June of the year 1215. The document to which John signed his name was called the Big Charter—the Magna Carta. It contained very little that was new. It re-stated in short and direct sentences the ancient duties of the king and enumerated the privileges of his vassals. It paid little attention to the rights (if any) of the vast majority of the people, the peasants, but it offered certain securities to the rising class of the merchants. It was a charter of great importance because it defined the powers of the king with more precision than had ever been done before. But it was still a purely mediaeval document. It did not refer to common human beings, unless they happened to be the property of the vassal, which must be safe-guarded against royal tyranny just as the Baronial woods and cows were protected against an excess of zeal on the part of the royal foresters.

A few years later, however, we begin to hear a very different note in the councils of His Majesty.

John, who was bad, both by birth and inclination, solemnly had promised to obey the great charter and then had broken every one of its many stipulations. Fortunately, he soon died and was succeeded by his son Henry III, who was forced to recognise the charter anew. Meanwhile, Uncle Richard, the Crusader, had cost the country a great deal of money and the king was obliged to ask for a few loans that he might pay his obligations to the Jewish money-lenders. The large land-owners and the bishops who acted as councillors to the king could not provide him with the necessary gold and silver. The king then gave orders that a few representatives of the cities be called upon to attend the sessions of his Great Council. They made their first appearance in the year 1265. They were supposed to act only as financial experts who were not supposed to take a part in the general discussion of matters of state, but to give advice exclusively upon the question of taxation.

Gradually, however, these representatives of the "commons" were consulted upon many of the problems and the meeting of noblemen, bishops and city delegates developed into a regular Parliament, a place "où l'on parlait," which means in English where people talked, before important affairs of state were decided upon.

But the institution of such a general advisory-board with certain executive powers was not an English invention, as seems to be the general belief, and government by a "king and his parliament" was by no means restricted to the British Isles. You will find it in every part of Europe. In some countries, like France, the rapid increase of the Royal power after the Middle Ages reduced the influence of the "parliament" to nothing. In the year 1302 representatives of the cities had been admitted to the meeting of the French Parliament, but five centuries had to pass before this "Parliament" was strong enough to assert the rights of the middle class, the so-called Third Estate, and break the power of the king. Then they made up for lost time and during the French Revolution, abolished the king, the clergy and the nobles and made the representatives of the common people the rulers of the land. In Spain the "cortes" (the king's council) had been opened to the commoners as early as the first half of the twelfth century. In the German Empire, a number of important cities had obtained the rank of "imperial cities" whose representatives must be heard in the imperial diet.


The Home of Swiss Liberty

In Sweden, representatives of the people attended the sessions of the Riksdag at the first meeting of the year 1359. In Denmark the Daneholf, the ancient national assembly, was re-established in 1314, and, although the nobles often regained control of the country at the expense of the king and the people, the representatives of the cities were never completely deprived of their power.

In the Scandinavian country, the story of representative government is particularly interesting. In Iceland, the "Althing," the assembly of all free landowners, who managed the affairs of the island, began to hold regular meetings in the ninth century and continued to do so for more than a thousand years.

In Switzerland, the freemen of the different cantons defended their assemblies against the attempts of a number of feudal neighbours with great success.

Finally, in the Low Countries, in Holland, the councils of the different duchies and counties were attended by representatives of the third estate as early as the thirteenth century.


The Abjuration of Philip II

In the sixteenth century a number of these small provinces rebelled against their king, abjured his majesty in a solemn meeting of the "Estates General," removed the clergy from the discussions, broke the power of the nobles and assumed full executive authority over the newly-established Republic of the United Seven Netherlands. For two centuries, the representatives of the town-councils ruled the country without a king, without bishops and without noblemen. The city had become supreme and the good burghers had become the rulers of the land.

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