Medieval Cities

by Henri Pirenne

This is a classic work by an eminent historian. It was based on lectures given in 1922. One might think that a work this old is hopelessly outdated. Not so; the book is still in print because it is packed with insights. Pirenne was truly one of the great historians of the early twentieth century.

Pirenne’s starting point is the nadir of Western civilization in the 900s. Trade had collapsed and Western Europe had reverted to a primitive economic system based on self-sufficiency of small manorial units. Such units were too small to be able to afford tools to increase productivity, so overall economic output was dismal. Typically, the lord of the manor built a fort on the highest hill he could find. This provided shelter for the population when raiders showed up. It didn’t take long for some people to locate their residences close to the fort; this made it easier to get into the fort when raiders came.

The first driving force was serfdom. Everybody was born into their place in the world, and if you were born to a serf, you became a serf, tied to the land. Serfs were unable to benefit from increased exertion; any surplus just went to the lord. This discouraged productivity. However, there was an outlet for ambitious serfs. If you could sneak off and get far enough away, the lord’s people would never be able to find you and you could set up somewhere else as a free man. The obvious place to do this was at one of the tiny villages clustered at the base of some other lord’s fort, where the now-free serf might find employment assisting one of the local craftsmen.

This tiny population of runaways expanded in two ways: becoming artisans in their own right, and as merchants selling the output of the artisans to other lords. This is what started the ball rolling. Artisans were able to increase their productivity with more employees, larger shops, and better equipment. Merchants perked up the economy by getting trade moving again. From here forward there was a virtuous circle that just kept growing.

But that growth triggered huge changes in Christendom. The growing mass or artisans and merchants clustering around the lords’ forts (later castles) evolved into towns. These towns needed protection and so walls were built around them. This triggered an economic shift: now more wealth was being created in the towns than in the lands owned by the lords. But the lords had no traditional rights over the citizens of those towns; they could not take advantage of the towns’ wealth. Needing funds to maintain their military forces, the lords ended up making deals with the towns: in return for tax payments, the towns were given political independence. The lord provided military protection, but the merchants made their own laws and set up their own justice systems.

Another crucial factor in this process was the triangular relationship between the king, the lords, and the towns. Generally the king sided with towns against their lords, but the towns had no compunction about switching sides when it suited their needs. Over the centuries, they leveraged their way up to greater independence, and even began setting up their own military forces. The lords sneered at these “citizen soldiers” until a battle in the thirteenth century in which the infantry of the towns bested the cavalry of the lords. That too changed things dramatically.

By the early 15th century, the transition from the self-sufficient manorial economy to the trade-driven capitalist economy was almost complete. Most of the serfs had been freed, because the lords simply could not prevent them from running away to towns. Trade was crucial to the economy, and now cities were the fundamental political unit. People identified with their home city, which is why Erasmus is usually referred to as Erasmus of Rotterdam.