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Democracy in Town

Seeds of democracy—and some analogies to today—can be found in an unlikely place: medieval European towns.

Jørgen Møller

On vacation one day in the village of Whitchurch, in Dorset, I was awakened by the bells of the parish church. It is descended from a church founded by Alfred the Great in the 9th century and deeded in the 11th century by William the Conqueror to Benedictine monks. The most famous of the Benedictines—the Cluniacs, named after Cluny Abbey in Saône-et-Loire, France—were founders in more than the architectural sense. Among their other legacies to us is the idea of the self-governing city, a critical foundation of the modern rule of law, representative democracy, and the territorial state.

At least since the posthumous publication of Max Weber’s essay “The City” in 1921, urban self-government—that is, government by town councils whose members were chosen by at least a part of the citizenry—has been recognized as critical to the formation of European states. It led to the “free” towns that Weber saw as distinguishing features of Western and Central Europe. These politically autonomous and often wealthy towns, in turn, were a driving force behind the parliaments and other representative institutions that cropped up across medieval and early modern Europe. They were part and parcel of a bottom-up state-building process in which strong social groups—primarily nobles, clergy, and townsmen—could not only balance rulers but often keep them on a tight leash, a development that presaged modern representative democracy and the rule of law. Tocqueville pointed out that the medieval self-governing town was also “transported overseas” as a model for the townships of New England, among the foundations of American democracy. According to Tocqueville, local institutions of self-government are vital for democracy because they create vigilant citizens and local political authorities who mobilize to fend off undemocratic measures taken by the powers-that-be at the national level. We are currently seeing these Tocquevillian dynamics play out as U.S. state-level institutions, including those led by Republicans, vigorously resist the Trump administration’s attempt to discredit the outcome of the presidential election in a number of swing states.

This foundational importance explains why, in the current millennium, social scientists have redoubled their attempts to understand the origins of urban self-government, or the medieval “communal revolution.”

This scholarship has been dominated by two perspectives. One sees urban self-government as intimately associated with war and taxation. According to this “bellicist” perspective—identified in particular with the work of the late American sociologist Charles Tilly—rulers’ need to raise the wherewithal for warfare forced them to bargain with town elites. The results of this bargaining were charters of liberties for medieval towns, often including the right of town councils to govern their own affairs.

The second perspective, in contrast, presents an economic explanation of urban self-government. It emphasizes geographical and economic “endowments,” like fertile land and access to riverine trade routes. Areas with favorable endowments saw population growth and economic development, which created urban agglomerations. Political self-government followed naturally as towns became strong economic units that could build city walls, muster citizen militias, and strike bargains with lay lords.

There is much to learn from this scholarship. However, if we are interested in the origins of urban self-government, there are two problems with these explanations. First, around 1000 C.E. we find other areas, particularly in Eurasia, that had much more economically vibrant towns but did not produce urban self-government. Examples include great towns in the Middle East like Fustat in Egypt (today part of Cairo) and Baghdad in today’s Iraq, Central Asian cities like Merv, and the great cities of Song China. These areas were also regularly ravaged by warfare, whether internecine wars between Muslim rulers, wars with Byzantium, or the numerous wars between Song China and northern neighbors such as the Liao and Jin empires; yet urban self-government was not among the consequences.

Second, the first European towns became self-governing before 1100 C.E.; and at least 136 out of the 383 European towns that eventually gained self-government did so before 1200, with a substantial proportion of these transitions taking place before 1150. This was well before the medieval commercial revolution got into gear and warfare intensified.

Thus, neither the bellicist nor the “endowment” literature is well placed to shed light on the origins of urban self-government, which began deep in the 11th century, though they might well explain its later spread and the places where it came to have staying power.

This is further illustrated by a more specific pattern of differential development, which has been ignored by earlier research on the subject. Almost all the early transitions to urban self-government took place in towns that were ruled not by lay lords but by bishops. Only after 1200 C.E. did towns not governed by bishops begin to follow suit. Recent work on the subject has little or nothing to say about this striking divergence.

The Role of Clerical Reform

Shedding light on these puzzling aspects of early urban self-government takes as a starting point the church reform movement that began in Cluny in the late 10th century. This reform movement was enabled and incentivized by a large-scale collapse of public authority, which had hit West Francia—what was to become France—in the century and a half after the death of Charlemagne in 814. Amid the collapse of Carolingian power, local lay lords came to control ecclesiastical institutions like churches and monasteries, appropriating church tithes and appointing abbots, often from among the lay lords’ relatives. German historians term this process Eigenkirchentum, or the proprietary church system.

In the late 10th century, this practice elicited a response from pious churchmen, felt most strongly in the areas of southern France where royal power had most completely collapsed. In these areas, clerics began a campaign to free ecclesiastical institutions, particularly monasteries, from lay encroachment. This reform movement began in and took its name from the monastery of Cluny, which had been founded in 910 and which by the early 11th century had become the most influential ecclesiastical institution in the Latin west.

More precisely, the agenda of the Cluniac reform movement was to battle the selling of church offices (simony) and to promote clerical celibacy. The aim of both policies was the same, namely, to rid the church of hitherto widespread practices that entangled clergy in the affairs of the world (by answering to wealthy patrons or by favoring their own children and wives) and kept them from living the true vita religiosa in accordance with scripture and church tradition.

However, reform-minded ecclesiastical institutions like Cluny could not force this program on unreformed clergy or the lay lords who had benefited from control of churches and monasteries where royal power was feeble. Therefore, to spread the reform program, the Cluniacs allied themselves with popular movements that had their own interest in putting a stop to lay lords’ abuses of power. This carried the reform program to towns in areas where Cluniac influence ran high, particularly southern France and northern Italy. It is these social realignments that triggered the dramatic political changes that paved the way for early urban self-government.

In areas influenced by Cluniac monks, townsmen became eager allies of the reform program. By the mid-11thcentury, popular movements in towns like Milan in northern Italy had begun to campaign against their simoniac archbishops, demanding that they be replaced by more pious clergymen—or at least clergymen who had not bought their high offices. This campaign intensified in the 1070s because of the actions of the stalwart reformer Pope Gregory VII. Not accidentally, Gregory lent his name to the “Gregorian reforms” beginning around 1050, which can best be seen as a papal adoption and furtherance of the bottom-up Cluniac reform program that had begun in southern France two generations earlier.

As pope, Gregory increased the stakes of the reform program by defining any lay investiture of an official like a bishop as an instance of simony. He deliberately encouraged townsmen to oppose and challenge bishops who had been appointed by lay rulers, particularly those appointed by German Emperor Henry VI, Gregory’s key adversary in what became known as the Investiture Controversy. To quote one of Gregory’s remarkable appeals:

To clergy and laymen, high and low, who love the law of Christ.... Your bishop has openly tolerated in his clergy things altogether repugnant to our command, or rather St Peter’s—that those who had women might keep them, and that those who did not have them might commit the unlawful brazenness of taking them.... Accordingly, by apostolic authority we charge all of you, both greater and lesser, who stand by God and St. Peter, that if he is determined to continue in his obduracy you should show him neither respect nor obedience.

Townsmen committed to the church reform movement therefore challenged their unreformed lord-bishops in the name of Gregory—or, rather, St. Peter. In the town of Cambrai, in present-day northeastern France, townsmen took political power in 1076–77 in order to rid themselves of a certain bishop Gerard, who had been appointed by Emperor Henry VI and elicited the wrath of Pope Gregory, and who was therefore by definition simoniac in the reformers’ eyes.

The initial transition to communal rule in Cambrai was thus a byproduct of the church reform program, which less than a century earlier had begun in Cluny. The reform movement had created new norms and ideas about the proper role of bishops, backed by the force of a new political coalition between reform-minded clergy and pious townsmen. These ideational changes underlay the staggering innovation of urban self-government in a society that otherwise cherished tradition.

But why could townsmen not simply throw out simoniac bishops and replace them with reformed ones? Why did they have to go to the extreme of establishing communal rule?

The problem was that the unreformed lord-bishops, who had normally been appointed by monarchs like Henry IV, held both political and religious power over their towns. Therefore, political self-government should be understood as a way of ensuring the “staying power” of church reform. Only by taking political power could townsmen force the reform program on unreformed clergy who themselves had little interest in repudiating their wives and concubines (not to speak of their children) and in forcing out those of their colleagues who had been appointed by lay rulers or had outright bought their offices.

Democratic Empowerment

This argument can be likened to recent theories about democracy as a commitment device that ensures economic redistribution. Here, the argument is that only by taking power could the masses be sure that redistribution from the rich elite would persist.

This analogy shows us something important about the differences between the modern context assumed by scholarship on democracy and democratization and the medieval context in which the church reform movement arose and influenced laymen. In the high Middle Ages, townsmen may have made a similar calculus to the one that citizens fighting for democracy today do; but, if so, what the medieval townsmen prized was not economic redistribution but the salvation of their souls. This speaks to a more general point: When we analyze pre-modern circumstances, we need to understand the religious motivations that often lay behind political actions. This has been ignored by both the “endowment” and the “bellicist” literatures, which solely emphasize lay factors, whether favorable geographical and economic conditions or warfare.

The basic problem seems to be that social scientists working out of secular educational institutions—often areligious themselves—have a hard time comprehending circumstances in which people operated within a religious understanding of the social world. As they look back on the past from a social context in which politics, or at least the study of politics, has long since freed itself from religion—the process that Max Weber described as the “disenchantment” of the modern world—they are likely to miss the fundamental importance of religious institutions and ideas.

This “disenchantment” was on my mind as I listened to the church bells in Whitchurch, trying to conjure up an image of the old Benedictine environment that existed in the 12th century, when urban self-government was spreading like wildfire across the Latin west. Back then, Benedictine monasteries were ubiquitous in the region. Much has happened since, within both the Catholic Church and the lay society in which ecclesiastical institutions are planted. But even today the Benedictines, named after the 6th century Benedict of Nursia, remain active in and beyond Europe.

The Benedictine tradition is thus still alive, even if the great abbey of Cluny, once the grandest church building in Western Europe, has long since crumbled to ruins. Indeed, in 1964 Pope Paul VI declared St. Benedict the patron saint of Europe. In light of the role of the 10th- and 11th-century Benedictine Cluniac monks in creating modern Europe, this acknowledgment is more than appropriate.

Jørgen Møller is professor of political science at Aarhus University. He is writing a book with Jonathan Stavnskær Doucette on the role of the Catholic Church in European state-formation. For further reading on the Cluniac monks, see their “The Collapse of State Power, the Cluniac Reform Movement, and the Origins of Urban Self-Government in Medieval Europe,” International Organization (2020).