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Hendrik Willem Van Loon

The Mediaeval City

Why the People of the Middle Ages Said That "City Air Is Free Air"

T HE 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 own interests.

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 understand 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 his rounds.

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 eggs—in fagots.

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?


The Belfry

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.