Rise of Civil Freedom and Social Improvement

Civil freedom, as we have seen, dawned first in the great commercial cities of Italy, whence it spread to Germany, Flanders, and Britain. This important change in society may be traced to the institution of free communities of traders, or guilds of merchants; and such confederacies were a necessary consequence of the usurpation and tyranny of the nobles and feudal possessors of the soil. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the usurpations of the nobility became intolerable; they had reduced the great body of the people to a state of actual servitude. Nor was such oppression the portion of those alone who dwelt in the country, and were employed in cultivating the estates of their masters. Cities and villages found it necessary to hold of some great lord, on whom they might depend for protection, and became no less subject to his arbitrary jurisdiction. The inhabitants were deprived of those rights which, in social life, are deemed most natural and inalienable. They could not dispose of the effects which their own industry had acquired, either by a later will, or by any deed executed during their lives. Neither could they marry, nor carry on lawsuits, without the consent of their lord. But as soon as the cities of Italy began to turn their attention towards commerce, and to conceive some idea of the advantages which they might derive from it, they became impatient to shake off the yoke of their insolent lords, and to establish among themselves such a free and equal government as would render property and industry secure. The Italian cities were the first to emancipate themselves, and their example was followed in other great seats of population, the king of the country in general countenancing the establishment of free communities, in order to gain support against the encroachments of the overgrown power of the barons. The first community of this description formed in Scotland is understood to have been that of Berwick-upon-Tweed, which received its charter from William the Lion. Towns, upon acquiring the right of community, became so many little republics, governed by known and equal laws. The inhabitants being trained to arms, and being surrounded by walls, they soon began to hold the neighboring barons in contempt, and to withstand aggressions on their property and privileges. Another great good, of fully more importance, was produced. These free communities were speedily admitted, by their representatives, into, the great council of the nation, whether distinguished by the name of a Parliament, a Diet, the Cortes, or the States-General. This is justly esteemed the greatest event in the history of mankind in modern times. Representatives from the English boroughs were first admitted into the great national council by the barons who took up arms against Henry III in the year 1265; being summoned to add to the greater popularity of their party, and to strengthen the barrier against the encroachments of regal power. Read ers may draw their own conclusions from an event which ultimately had the effect of revolutionising the framework of society, and of rearing that great body of the people commonly styled 'the middle class.'

The enfranchising of burghal communities led to the manumission of slaves. Hitherto the tillers of the ground, all the inferior classes of the country, were the bondsmen of the barons. The monarchs of France, in order to reduce the power of the nobles, set the example, by ordering (1315 - 1318) all serfs to be set at liberty on just and reasonable conditions. The edicts were carried into immediate execution within the royal domain. The example of their sovereigns, together with the expectation of considerable sums which they might raise by this expedient, led many of the nobles to set their dependents at liberty; and servitude was thus gradually abolished in almost every province of the kingdom. This beneficial practice similarly spread over the rest of Europe; and in England, as the spirit of liberty gained ground, the very name and idea of personal servitude, without any formal interposition of the legislature to prohibit it, was totally banished.

While society was assuming the semblance of the form it now bears, the progress of improvement was accelerated by various collateral circumstances, the first of which worth noticing was The Revival of Letters. The first restorers of learning in Europe were the Arabians, who, in the course of their Asiatic conquests, became acquainted with some of the ancient Greek authors, discovered their merits, and had them translated into Arabic, esteeming those principally which treated of mathematics, physics, and metaphysics. They disseminated their knowledge in the course of their conquests, and founded schools and colleges in all the countries which they subdued. The western kingdoms of Europe became first acquainted with the learning of the ancients through the medium of those Arabian translations. Charlemagne caused them to be retranslated into Latin; and, after the example of the caliphs, founded universities at Bonona, Pavia, Osnaburg, and Paris. Similar efforts were made in England by Alfred; and to him we owe the establishment, or at least the elevation, of the university of Oxford. The first efforts, however, at literary improvement were marred by the subtleties of scholastic divinity. Perhaps the greatest and wisest literary character of the middle ages was an English friar, named Roger Bacon. This extraordinary individual was not only learned, but, what was more uncommon in those times, he was scientific. Hallam asserts that he was acquainted with the nature of gunpowder, though he deemed it prudent to conceal his knowledge. He saw the insufficiency of school philosophy, and was the first to insist on experiment and the observation of nature as the fittest instruments by which to acquire knowledge. He reformed the calendar, and made discoveries in astronomy, optics, chemistry, medicine, and mechanics.

It is to Italy, however, that we owe the first and greatest exertions in the revival of letters. The spirit of liberty which had arisen among its republics was favorable to the cultivation of literature and accordingly we find that not only did they produce many individuals who were most active and successful in bringing to light the relics of classical lore, but that there also, arose among them men possessed of the highest order of original genius. Florence produced Dante so early as 1265. Dante was associated with the magistracy of his native city in his earlier years; but having given dissatisfaction in that capacity, he was banished, and in his exile produced his great poem entitled the 'Divine Comedy.' It is a representation of the three supposed kingdoms of futurity Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise - divided into one hundred cantos, and containing about 14,000 lines. The poem has been much praised. Petrarch, born in the year 1304, was likewise a Florentine by birth. The misfortunes of his father had impoverished the family, and Petrarch was too proud to take the usual method of retrieving his affairs. His genius, however, earned for him the friendship of many Italian princes, and even of more popes than one, although he had exerted his talents to expose the vices of their courts. Petrarch's personal character seems to have exhibited some unamiable traits; but he has sung of love, friendship, glory, patriotism, and religion, in language of such sweet ness and power as to have made him the admiration of every succeeding age. Boccaccio, like the two great poets named, was a Florentine. He was born in 1313, and his name has descended to posterity less associated with his 'poetry than the light, elegant, and easy prose of his novels.

The discovery of Justinian' s Laws, as detailed in the Pandects, was another event which powerfully tended to modify the barbarism that prevailed during the middle ages in Europe.

The invention of the Mariner's Compass must be reckoned of still greater importance, and yet it is absolutely unknown to whom we owe it. That honor has been often bestowed on Gioia, a citizen of Amalphi, who lived about the commencement of the fourteenth century. But the polarity of the magnet at least was known to the Saracens two hundred years before that time; though even after the time of Gioia, it was long before the magnet was made use of as a guide in navigation. 'It is a singular circumstance,' says Mr. Hallam,' and only to be explained by the obstinacy with which men are apt to reject improvement, that the magnetic needle was not generally adopted in navigation till very long after the discovery of its properties, and even after their peculiar importance had been perceived. The writers of the thirteenth century, who mentioned the polarity of the needle, mention also its use in navigation; yet Campany has found no distinct proof of its employment till 1403, and does not believe that it was frequently on board Mediterranean ships at the latter part of the preceding age.' The Genoese, however, are known in the fourteenth century to have come out of that inland sea, and steered for Flanders and England. But by far the greatest sailors of the age were the Spaniards and Portuguese. This latter nation had little or no existence during the greater part of the middle ages, but in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, they were able to expel the Moors from a great part of their country; and in the beginning of the fifteenth, John, surnamed the Bastard, who was then their king, was the first European prince who exhibited a respectable navy. It was in 1486 that this adventurous people first doubled the Cape of Good Hope.

The discovery of America (1493) may be mentioned supplementarily to the invention of the mariner's compass, as an event which, without it, could never have taken place. The immortal honor of that discovery rests with Christopher Columbus, a sailor of Genoa. After unsuccessful applications at almost every court in Europe, and braving obloquy and contempt, Columbus at last obtained a miserable force from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain; and with no landmark but the heavens, nor any guide but his com pass, he launched boldly into the sea, and at last conducted Europeans to the great western hemisphere.

In the course of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries, various discoveries in the arts were made, which powerfully tended to the advancement of society; among these the more important were the invention of gunpowder and firearms, clocks and watches, paper-making and printing. This last, the greatest of all, prepared the way for the Reformation in religion, in the sixteenth century, by which religious was added to civil freedom, and a great spur given to individual activity.