IX. THE FREE TOWNS
Curiously enough, the communal revolution began most quietly in the land where it was ultimately responsible for the fiercest conflicts. The cities of North Italy gained their first instalments of freedom, at different periods in the eleventh century, by bargains or by usurpations of which few records have come down to us. At Pisa we hear of an agreement between the bishop and the citizens (1080-1085) under which the latter are permitted to form a peace-association, to hold mass-meetings, and to elect consules who shall co-operate with the bishop in the government. At Genoa, on the other hand, the commune appears (in 1122) after several earlier conjurationes have been successfully resisted and dispersed. Probably the case of Pisa is more typical than that of Genoa, since we usually hear of a commune for the first time when it is already a fully developed institution. In most of the North Italian cities it was at the expense of a bishop that the commune was established. Legally the change meant the transference, from the bishop or another seigneur to the town, of powers derived by delegation from the Emperor; and it took place in the course of the Investitures contest, when the bishops, conscious of simony and other offences which made their position insecure, were more concerned to dissuade their citizens from siding with the party of ecclesiastical reform than to fulfil their duties as officials of the Empire. The Emperors themselves, hard-pressed in the struggle with the Papacy and eager to purchase support at any price, contributed to the success of the communal movement by the charters which they bestowed on some important cities.
In Northern France the situation was less favourable to the towns. Often indeed it suited the policy of the Capets to weaken an over-mighty subject by protecting his rebellious serfs. But the bishops and the lay seigneurs offered a pertinacious opposition to all demands for enfranchisement; the King was a timid and vacillating ally, always inclined to desert the cause of the townsfolk for a bribe, always in fear that the movement might spread to his demesne. Whatever his sympathies, he could do little, when it came to blows, but stand aside and watch the conflict. Two examples will serve to illustrate the general features of these feuds between municipalities and lords.
(1) In 1070 the men of Le Mans were driven to rebellion by the lawlessness of the local baronage, and by the oppressions of the governor whom an absentee count had put over them. They formed a commune, and compelled the more timid of their enemies to swear that they would recognise it. Others they caught and hanged or blinded; and they made systematic war against the castles of the neighbourhood, which they took one by one and burned to the ground - and this, says the outraged chronicler, in Lent and even on Good Friday! The citizens themselves thought no season too sacred for such a crusade against anarchy; once, when their militia went out to attack a castle, the bishop and his clergy were induced to lead the vanguard, bearing crosses and consecrated banners. But after a time the fortune of war turned against the commune; the militia were routed and the count's lieutenant recovered the castle which dominated Le Mans. The citizens offered their allegiance to the Count of Anjou, if he would deliver them. He came to the rescue, the governor fled, the castle was surrendered by the garrison and at once demolished. But, before the citizens had settled their future relations with Anjou, an English army appeared, led by William the Conqueror, their lawful suzerain. The Angevins effaced themselves; the citizens, making a virtue of necessity, opened their gates to the King; and since he would only confirm their ancient liberties, the existence of the commune was abruptly terminated (1073).