IX. THE FREE TOWNS
The French commune, in fact, was a special expedient for the cure of a transitory evil. Republican institutions were in France an exotic growth, inconsistent with national traditions, and only welcome to classes which had neither the political intelligence nor the material resources to maintain their own ideals in the face of persistent opposition. It is significant that the charters of the French communes were frequently cancelled with the approval of the citizen assemblies. The situation was different in Flanders and North Italy, where the city was the natural unit of society, and the burgher class, enriched by foreign trade, were strong enough to negotiate on equal terms with their nominal superiors. Cities such as Ghent and Milan were shielded from contact with the great monarchies until the habit of self-government was firmly rooted in the citizens. When at last they were confronted with the absolutist claims of the Capets or the Hohenstauffen, these cities did not shrink from a direct appeal to arms; and the wars which they waged for independence are not the least interesting chapter of medieval history.
Flanders was vexed by a problem of over-population, for which neither the continuous exodus of emigrants nor the systematic reclaiming of marsh-lands offered a permanent solution. At an early date her middle-classes discovered the grand principle of modern industry: that by manufacturing for foreign markets the production of wealth can be accelerated to an indefinite degree, and the most prolific communities maintained in affluence upon a sterile or restricted territory. The superfluous labour of the Flemish countryside flocked into towns, at the bidding of Flemish capital, and found remunerative employment in the weaving trade. From 1127 onwards these towns were bargaining with the Counts of Flanders for emancipation. Bruges, Ypres, Lille and Ghent were only the most successful among forty thriving communities which, at the close of the twelfth century, enjoyed a large measure of self-government but found their liberties threatened by the King of France. To meet the danger the Flemish communes embarked on the stormy sea of politics. At first they fought the King, in the name of the Count, and made their first appearance as a military power on the disastrous field of Bouvines (1214), which cost Count Ferrand his liberty and the communes the flower of their militia. The successors of Ferrand sank deeper and deeper into dependence on the Capets, until the communes were forced in self-defence to assume the leading role. At Courtrai (in 1302) they turned the tables on the Crown, and took an ample vengeance for Bouvines, by a terrible slaughter of French knights and men-at-arms, demonstrating to a startled Europe that feudal tactics were obsolete, and that pikemen on foot were a match for the best mailed cavalry. Cheated by a treacherous Count of the due fruits of their victory, the Flemish communes nursed their resentment and waited for new opportunities, while consoling themselves with savage persecution of the nobles, the clergy, and all others whom they suspected of French sympathies. The ambition of Edward III came at length to their assistance; under the leadership of Jacques van Artevelde, a merchant-prince and demagogue of Ghent, they signed a treaty with the English King for the invasion and conquest of France (1339). It was a brief and ill-starred alliance, ruinous to Flemish trade and abruptly ended by the fall of Artevelde, whom his fellow-citizens tore limb from limb under the impression that he was aiming at a tyranny (1345). But events soon justified the bold proposals of the fallen statesman. In 1369 the heiress of the county was given to a French prince of the blood; the French party in Flanders reared their heads; Bruges, to the alarm and fury of all patriots, joined the foreign cause from jealousy of Ghent. War broke out between the two great rivals; and the men of Ghent, commanded by Philip, the son of Jacques van Artevelde, gained the upper hand. Victorious in a pitched battle, they pursued the beaten army into Bruges, massacred the partisans of France, and put the city to the sack. No other commune dared to imitate the policy of Bruges, or to dispute the supremacy of Ghent in Flanders. The younger Artevelde, like his father before him, stood out for a brief moment as the dictator of a league of free republics. But the generals of France had profited by their hard experience in the wars with England; at Roosebeke (1382) the men of Ghent, charging the French cavalry "like wild boars," found themselves outflanked, and were crushed by the weight of superior science and numbers. They fought with the fury of despair, neither expecting nor receiving quarter. More than twenty thousand of the citizens fell in the battle, and were left, by the King's order, unburied on the field. The corpse of Artevelde, who had been suffocated in the press, was hanged on a gibbet for a warning to all demagogues. With him died the day-dream of an independent Flanders. Though her cities remained prosperous, they were destined to be successively the subjects of the Burgundian, the Spaniard, and the Austrian. It was only in 1831 that Flanders at length became a province in a kingdom based on the Walloon nationality.