Scattered broadcast over the territory of every medieval state are towns endowed with special privileges, and ruled by special magistrates. Some of these towns - particularly in Italy, Southern France, and the Rhineland - stand on the sites, and even within the walls, of ancient municipia, those miniature Homes which the statecraft of the Empire had created as seats of government and schools of culture. But, even in Italy, the medieval town is indebted to classical antiquity for nothing more than mouldering walls and aqueducts and amphitheatres and churches. The barbarians had ignored the institutions of the municipium, though it often served them as a fortress or a royal residence or a centre of administration. The citizens were degraded to the level of serfs; they became the property of a king, a bishop, or a count, and were governed by a bailiff presiding over a seignorial court. Only at the close of the Dark Ages, with the development of handicrafts and a commercial class, was it found necessary to distinguish between the town and the manorial village; and to a much later time the small town preserved the characteristics of an agricultural society. Many a burgess supplemented the profits of a trade by tilling acres in the common fields and grazing cattle on the common pastures; pigs and poultry scavenged in the streets; the farmyard was a usual adjunct of the burgage tenement. Whether small or great, the town was a phenomenon sufficiently unfamiliar to vex the soul of lawyers reared upon Teutonic custom. They recognised that they were dealing with a new form of community; but they were not prepared to define it or to generalise about it. They preferred to treat each town as sui generis, an awkward anomaly, a privileged abuse.

Indeed, definition was no easy matter, for medieval towns differed infinitely in size, in government, and in the ingredients of their population. In one respect they are all alike; the most energetic and influential, though not necessarily the greater number, of the inhabitants are artisans or traders. But side by side with the industrial colony stand older interests, which often struggle hard against the ascendancy of commerce. In the town or near it there may be an abbey or a castle or a cathedral or a royal palace, to which the very existence of the burgess community is due. The townsmen, profiting by the custom and the protection of the great, have grown rich and independent; they have bought privileges or have usurped them. But they have still to reckon with the servants, the retainers, and the other partisans of a superior always on the watch to recover his lost rights of property and jurisdiction; the forces of the common enemy are permanently encamped within the walls. Again, if the town lies on a frontier or in newly-conquered country, it will be as much a fortress as a mart; a number of the residents will be knights or men-at-arms who hold their lands by the tenure of defending the town; and these burgesses will be naturally indifferent to the interests of the traders. Finally, in the Mediterranean lands, with their long tradition of urban society, we find the nobles of the neighbourhood resorting to the town, building town-houses, and frequently caballing among themselves to obtain control of the town's government. Often a long time elapses before the class which conceived the idea of municipal liberty is able to get the better of these hostile forces; and still more often the hardly-won privileges are wrested from those for whom they were intended, are cancelled, or are made the monopoly of an oligarchic ring.

Still, the aims of the medieval burgess are more uniform, from one place to another and from one generation to another, than we might anticipate in ages when information travelled slowly, and when the relations of every town to its lord were settled by a separate treaty. In modern Europe the town is an administrative district of the state, and is organised upon a standard pattern. In medieval Europe the town-charter was frequently a compromise with the caprices and the interests of a petty seignor; and even kings were inclined to deal with the towns which stood upon the royal demesne in a spirit of the frankest opportunism. Moreover, the inclination of all lords was to meddle with their burgesses no further than seemed necessary to ensure the full and punctual discharge of all services and pecuniary dues. So long as these were guaranteed, the internal affairs of the town might be left for the residents to settle as seemed good to them. But, as to the main conditions of the compact, each of the contracting parties holds clear-cut and unwavering views. The lords are agreed that privileges of trade and tenure may safely be granted if the chief magistrates are nominated by, and accountable to themselves. The townsfolk, on the other hand, assume that promises of free tenure and free trade will be worth nothing unless accompanied by the permission to elect all magistrates and councils.