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12

What factors led to the rise of independent towns during the eleventh century?

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What factors led to the rise of independent towns during the eleventh century?

The key word here is "independent." We first need to think about how these towns first came into existence, and then how they gained a form of political independence from the local rulers.

Medieval towns grow up in really different ways from Roman towns and you can see this if you go to Europe or if you look at a map of any European town. You can tell that if this town is square in shape and is laid out in a grid system, it is either a Roman town founded by the Romans or it's a very modern town built after World War II, and there are very few such modern towns in Europe. But most European towns are circular which means that they grow up around a monastery or a cathedral or around a castle, so they grow up around some center of authority that offers them a modicum of protection.

However, they also grow up around these centers of authority because they peoples who are settling in these places are then being exploited by these centers of authority. The individual lord, whether that lord is a monastery or a person, is harnessing the power of people and putting them to work on the land. In many cases, these people themselves become very productive. Sometimes the serfs of a monastery are not just laborers in the field but merchants. They are selling the raw produce that comes from the land; they're trading with other communities.

Eventually medieval towns grow in this sort-of organic fashion where there is a division of labor within these communities and the peoples of these towns begin to realize that they have a lot of economic power. They don't necessarily want that economic power to be harnessed solely for the purposes of the lord. Fascinatingly, what we start to see happening around the year 1100 is that, especially in northern France and the Netherlands, groups of often un-free men and women coming together to form what are called communes, and that comes from the word meaning "sworn association." They swear to stand in solidarity with one another against their lord and they essentially cut a deal with the lord. They say, "If you give us our freedom, we will continue to work for you and make money for you and produce goods for you, but we want to have our own laws and we want a certain measure of self-governance," and in places where the local lord doesn't want to grant this, there are consequences.

There is a great story of the bishop of a French city called Nonne who doesn't want to free his townspeople and so they murder him because it's just the easiest way to get their point across. And that sends a powerful message to any other lord, that if you're not going to allow your people this freedom, things could happen to you.

But for many kings and princes and lords, what they see are the benefits of this, which is really the beginning of capitalism. They understand that if you give the people a certain measure of freedom, if you let them do what they do and make money and produce stuff, you can tax them and attract wealth that way. In other words, by creating the free conditions in which money can be made, more people will come and want to live in your territory, in your towns. It becomes a very attractive thing.

And so this is a feature of a medieval town that makes it very different from a Roman town: its capacity to be independent. Many of these towns, especially in northern France and Germany, continue to be independent political entities until the 16th or 17th century. In fact, in Germany, there are still independent towns that aren't part of any principality when Germany is unified in the latter part of the 19th century.