IX. THE FREE TOWNS
We should be glad to know more of the bold spirits who directed the communal movement in this early stage. They startled contemporaries by their radicalism, and their conduct gives the lie to our preconceived idea that a townsman is a man of peace. These medieval burgesses were accustomed to defend their rights by force; there is nothing abnormal in the rule of the merchant-gild of Valenciennes that the gild-brethren should always bring their weapons with them to the market, and should ride in armed companies to distant fairs. The Milanese and the men of Ghent are typical in their greed for empire, in their readiness to strike a blow for their own profit whenever war is in the land. If the seigneurs of such cities gave cause for dissatisfaction, they found that they had brought a hornet's nest about their ears. In the struggle for liberties the popular party displayed a high courage which rose superior to defeat, though in the hour of triumph it was too often sullied by ferocious acts of vengeance. They threw themselves with intelligence and energy into the feuds of other interests and classes, backing the Church against the State, the State against the baronage, or the weaker against the stronger of two rival lords. The policy of the towns was often double-faced, material and separatist; but it also embodied ideals of justice and of citizenship which were destined to prevail in the struggle for existence, and to produce a wholesome reformation in the structure of society.
The communal programme was not realised in a day; the struggle for free governments, which began in the eleventh century, was continued into the thirteenth and fourteenth; and the forces of the movement were already exhausted in North France and Italy before it reached a head in South France or in Germany. Naturally, in a conflict waged over so wide an area for several hundred years, the watchwords were often modified, and many different patterns of town government were devised. In its later stages the movement was more peaceful, and the purse was often found a better argument than the sword; the communal parties ceased to be democratic, though they never ceased to be republican; and power was practically if not formally monopolised by a municipal patriciate. The mass-meeting of the burgesses, all-powerful in the days when the commune was an organised rebellion, gradually became insignificant in the older communes, and in many of the late foundations was never recognised at all, its powers being distributed among the craft-gilds meeting in their separate assemblies. Concurrent with this diminution in the importance of the ordinary burgess, there is a tendency to restrict the franchise by demanding higher and higher qualifications from the candidates. The commune, in fact, sinks almost to the level of a trades union or a benefit society, and membership is valued chiefly as a title to exclusive rights of trade and poor-relief. The political aspect of the institution is almost forgotten in countries where the power of the state gains ground upon the centrifugal forces of society; and, in those communes which preserve the dignity of states, an internecine conflict between the rich and poor, the rulers and the ruled, usually becomes the main feature of domestic politics.
In spite of these changes in principles and spirit, the organs of communal government are almost everywhere the same. The executive power is vested in a board or committee, called in Italy the consules, in France the echevins, jurati, or syndics, in Germany the Rath (council). Commonly this board has a president, known in France and England as the mayor, in Germany as the burgomaster, who represents the body-corporate in all negotiations with the seigneur or the Crown or other communes. One or more councils (sapientes, pares , etc.) are often found assisting the executive with their advice; and in the older type of commune the mass-meeting plays a conspicuous part, not only electing magistrates and councils, but also voting taxes, auditing the accounts of expenditure, and deciding on all questions of exceptional importance. Where the general assembly is non-existent or moribund, offices are filled either by co-optation or by elections in the assemblies of the craft-gilds, or are even allowed to descend by hereditary right. As the popular control over the executive declines, jealousy of the executive leads to some disastrous changes: to the multiplication of offices, to the shortening of terms of office, to the creation of innumerable checks and balances, to the organisation of this or that powerful interest or party as a state within the state. But the morbid pathology of the communes in their last stage of decline is a subject with which we need not here concern ourselves. These intricate expedients, which are best exemplified in the constitution of fourteenth-century Florence, weakened the government but could not make it more impartial or more tolerant. By the end of the Middle Ages, the ordinary burgess was prepared to hail the advent of a royal bailiff or a self-constituted despot, as the only cure for the inveterate disorders incident to freedom.
It is refreshing to turn back from the period of disillusionment to that of sanguine expectations, and to study the commune in the period of infancy and growth, when no other refuge from anarchy and oppression was open to the industrial classes, and when emancipated serfs were still intoxicated with the dream of liberty.