Of The Rise And Progress Of Cities And Towns After The Fall Of The Roman Empire

The inhabitants of cities and towns were, after the fall of the Roman

empire, not more favoured than those of the country. They consisted,

indeed, of a very different order of people from the first inhabitants

of the ancient republics of Greece and Italy. These last were composed

chiefly of the proprietors of lands, among whom the public territory was

originally divided, and who found it convenient to build their houses in
/> the neighbourhood of one another, and to surround them with a wall, for

the sake of common defence. After the fall of the Roman empire, on

the contrary, the proprietors of land seem generally to have lived in

fortified castles on their own estates, and in the midst of their own

tenants and dependants. The towns were chiefly inhabited by tradesmen

and mechanics, who seem, in those days, to have been of servile, or very

nearly of servile condition. The privileges which we find granted by

ancient charters to the inhabitants of some of the principal towns in

Europe, sufficiently show what they were before those grants. The people

to whom it is granted as a privilege, that they might give away their

own daughters in marriage without the consent of their lord, that upon

their death their own children, and not their lord, should succeed to

their goods, and that they might dispose of their own effects by will,

must, before those grants, have been either altogether, or very nearly,

in the same state of villanage with the occupiers of land in the


They seem, indeed, to have been a very poor, mean set of people, who

seemed to travel about with their goods from place to place, and from

fair to fair, like the hawkers and pedlars of the present times. In all

the different countries of Europe then, in the same manner as in several

of the Tartar governments of Asia at present, taxes used to be levied

upon the persons and goods of travellers, when they passed through

certain manors, when they went over certain bridges, when they carried

about their goods from place to place in a fair, when they erected in

it a booth or stall to sell them in. These different taxes were known

in England by the names of passage, pontage, lastage, and stallage.

Sometimes the king, sometimes a great lord, who had, it seems, upon some

occasions, authority to do this, would grant to particular traders, to

such particularly as lived in their own demesnes, a general exemption

from such taxes. Such traders, though in other respects of servile, or

very nearly of servile condition, were upon this account called free

traders. They, in return, usually paid to their protector a sort of

annual poll-tax. In those days protection was seldom granted without

a valuable consideration, and this tax might perhaps be considered as

compensation for what their patrons might lose by their exemption from

other taxes. At first, both those poll-taxes and those exemptions seem

to have been altogether personal, and to have affected only particular

individuals, during either their lives, or the pleasure of their

protectors. In the very imperfect accounts which have been published

from Doomsday-book, of several of the towns of England, mention is

frequently made, sometimes of the tax which particular burghers paid,

each of them, either to the king, or to some other great lord, for this

sort of protection, and sometimes of the general amount only of all

those taxes. {see Brady's Historical Treatise of Cities and Boroughs, p.

3. etc.}

But how servile soever may have been originally the condition of the

inhabitants of the towns, it appears evidently, that they arrived at

liberty and independency much earlier than the occupiers of land in

the country. That part of the king's revenue which arose from such

poll-taxes in any particular town, used commonly to be let in farm,

during a term of years, for a rent certain, sometimes to the sheriff

of the county, and sometimes to other persons. The burghers themselves

frequently got credit enough to be admitted to farm the revenues of

this sort winch arose out of their own town, they becoming jointly and

severally answerable for the whole rent. {See Madox, Firma Burgi, p.

18; also History of the Exchequer, chap. 10, sect. v, p. 223, first

edition.} To let a farm in this manner, was quite agreeable to the usual

economy of, I believe, the sovereigns of all the different countries of

Europe, who used frequently to let whole manors to all the tenants of

those manors, they becoming jointly and severally answerable for the

whole rent; but in return being allowed to collect it in their own

way, and to pay it into the king's exchequer by the hands of their

own bailiff, and being thus altogether freed from the insolence of

the king's officers; a circumstance in those days regarded as of the

greatest importance.

At first, the farm of the town was probably let to the burghers, in the

same manner as it had been to other farmers, for a term of years

only. In process of time, however, it seems to have become the general

practice to grant it to them in fee, that is for ever, reserving a

rent certain, never afterwards to be augmented. The payment having thus

become perpetual, the exemptions, in return, for which it was made,

naturally became perpetual too. Those exemptions, therefore, ceased

to be personal, and could not afterwards be considered as belonging

to individuals, as individuals, but as burghers of a particular burgh,

which, upon this account, was called a free burgh, for the same reason

that they had been called free burghers or free traders.

Along with this grant, the important privileges, above mentioned,

that they might give away their own daughters in marriage, that their

children should succeed to them, and that they might dispose of their

own effects by will, were generally bestowed upon the burghers of the

town to whom it was given. Whether such privileges had before been

usually granted, along with the freedom of trade, to particular

burghers, as individuals, I know not. I reckon it not improbable that

they were, though I cannot produce any direct evidence of it. But

however this may have been, the principal attributes of villanage and

slavery being thus taken away from them, they now at least became really

free, in our present sense of the word freedom.

Nor was this all. They were generally at the same time erected into a

commonalty or corporation, with the privilege of having magistrates

and a town-council of their own, of making bye-laws for their own

government, of building walls for their own defence, and of reducing all

their inhabitants under a sort of military discipline, by obliging them

to watch and ward; that is, as anciently understood, to guard and defend

those walls against all attacks and surprises, by night as well as by

day. In England they were generally exempted from suit to the hundred

and county courts: and all such pleas as should arise among them, the

pleas of the crown excepted, were left to the decision of their own

magistrates. In other countries, much greater and more extensive

jurisdictions were frequently granted to them. {See Madox, Firma Burgi.

See also Pfeffel in the Remarkable events under Frederick II. and his

Successors of the House of Suabia.}

It might, probably, be necessary to grant to such towns as were admitted

to farm their own revenues, some sort of compulsive jurisdiction to

oblige their own citizens to make payment. In those disorderly times,

it might have been extremely inconvenient to have left them to seek this

sort of justice from any other tribunal. But it must seem extraordinary,

that the sovereigns of all the different countries of Europe should have

exchanged in this manner for a rent certain, never more to be augmented,

that branch of their revenue, which was, perhaps, of all others, the

most likely to be improved by the natural course of things, without

either expense or attention of their own; and that they should, besides,

have in this manner voluntarily erected a sort of independent republics

in the heart of their own dominions.

In order to understand this, it must be remembered, that, in those

days, the sovereign of perhaps no country in Europe was able to protect,

through the whole extent of his dominions, the weaker part of his

subjects from the oppression of the great lords. Those whom the law

could not protect, and who were not strong enough to defend themselves,

were obliged either to have recourse to the protection of some great

lord, and in order to obtain it, to become either his slaves or vassals;

or to enter into a league of mutual defence for the common protection of

one another. The inhabitants of cities and burghs, considered as single

individuals, had no power to defend themselves; but by entering into

a league of mutual defence with their neighbours, they were capable of

making no contemptible resistance. The lords despised the burghers,

whom they considered not only as a different order, but as a parcel of

emancipated slaves, almost of a different species from themselves.

The wealth of the burghers never failed to provoke their envy and

indignation, and they plundered them upon every occasion without mercy

or remorse. The burghers naturally hated and feared the lords. The king

hated and feared them too; but though, perhaps, he might despise, he

had no reason either to hate or fear the burghers. Mutual interest,

therefore, disposed them to support the king, and the king to support

them against the lords. They were the enemies of his enemies, and it was

his interest to render them as secure and independent of those enemies

as he could. By granting them magistrates of their own, the privilege

of making bye-laws for their own government, that of building walls for

their own defence, and that of reducing all their inhabitants under a

sort of military discipline, he gave them all the means of security and

independency of the barons which it was in his power to bestow. Without

the establishment of some regular government of this kind, without some

authority to compel their inhabitants to act according to some certain

plan or system, no voluntary league of mutual defence could either have

afforded them any permanent security, or have enabled them to give the

king any considerable support. By granting them the farm of their own

town in fee, he took away from those whom he wished to have for his

friends, and, if one may say so, for his allies, all ground of jealousy

and suspicion, that he was ever afterwards to oppress them, either by

raising the farm-rent of their town, or by granting it to some other


The princes who lived upon the worst terms with their barons, seem

accordingly to have been the most liberal in grants of this kind to

their burghs. King John of England, for example, appears to have been

a most munificent benefactor to his towns. {See Madox.} Philip I. of

France lost all authority over his barons. Towards the end of his reign,

his son Lewis, known afterwards by the name of Lewis the Fat, consulted,

according to Father Daniel, with the bishops of the royal demesnes,

concerning the most proper means of restraining the violence of the

great lords. Their advice consisted of two different proposals. One was

to erect a new order of jurisdiction, by establishing magistrates and a

town-council in every considerable town of his demesnes. The other was

to form a new militia, by making the inhabitants of those towns, under

the command of their own magistrates, march out upon proper occasions

to the assistance of the king. It is from this period, according to

the French antiquarians, that we are to date the institution of

the magistrates and councils of cities in France. It was during the

unprosperous reigns of the princes of the house of Suabia, that the

greater part of the free towns of Germany received the first grants

of their privileges, and that the famous Hanseatic league first became

formidable. {See Pfeffel.}

The militia of the cities seems, in those times, not to have been

inferior to that of the country; and as they could be more readily

assembled upon any sudden occasion, they frequently had the advantage in

their disputes with the neighbouring lords. In countries such as Italy

or Switzerland, in which, on account either of their distance from the

principal seat of government, of the natural strength of the country

itself, or of some other reason, the sovereign came to lose the whole

of his authority; the cities generally became independent republics, and

conquered all the nobility in their neighbourhood; obliging them to pull

down their castles in the country, and to live, like other peaceable

inhabitants, in the city. This is the short history of the republic of

Berne, as well as of several other cities in Switzerland. If you except

Venice, for of that city the history is somewhat different, it is the

history of all the considerable Italian republics, of which so great

a number arose and perished between the end of the twelfth and the

beginning of the sixteenth century.

In countries such as France and England, where the authority of the

sovereign, though frequently very low, never was destroyed altogether,

the cities had no opportunity of becoming entirely independent. They

became, however, so considerable, that the sovereign could impose no tax

upon them, besides the stated farm-rent of the town, without their

own consent. They were, therefore, called upon to send deputies to the

general assembly of the states of the kingdom, where they might join

with the clergy and the barons in granting, upon urgent occasions, some

extraordinary aid to the king. Being generally, too, more favourable to

his power, their deputies seem sometimes to have been employed by him

as a counterbalance in those assemblies to the authority of the

great lords. Hence the origin of the representation of burghs in the

states-general of all great monarchies in Europe.

Order and good government, and along with them the liberty and security

of individuals, were in this manner established in cities, at a time

when the occupiers of land in the country, were exposed to every sort of

violence. But men in this defenceless state naturally content themselves

with their necessary subsistence; because, to acquire more, might only

tempt the injustice of their oppressors. On the contrary, when they are

secure of enjoying the fruits of their industry, they naturally exert it

to better their condition, and to acquire not only the necessaries,

but the conveniencies and elegancies of life. That industry, therefore,

which aims at something more than necessary subsistence, was established

in cities long before it was commonly practised by the occupiers of land

in the country. If, in the hands of a poor cultivator, oppressed with

the servitude of villanage, some little stock should accumulate, he

would naturally conceal it with great care from his master, to whom it

would otherwise have belonged, and take the first opportunity of running

away to a town. The law was at that time so indulgent to the inhabitants

of towns, and so desirous of diminishing the authority of the lords over

those of the country, that if he could conceal himself there from the

pursuit of his lord for a year, he was free for ever. Whatever stock,

therefore, accumulated in the hands of the industrious part of the

inhabitants of the country, naturally took refuge in cities, as the only

sanctuaries in which it could be secure to the person that acquired it.

The inhabitants of a city, it is true, must always ultimately derive

their subsistence, and the whole materials and means of their industry,

from the country. But those of a city, situated near either the

sea-coast or the banks of a navigable river, are not necessarily

confined to derive them from the country in their neighbourhood. They

have a much wider range, and may draw them from the most remote corners

of the world, either in exchange for the manufactured produce of their

own industry, or by performing the office of carriers between distant

countries, and exchanging the produce of one for that of another. A city

might, in this manner, grow up to great wealth and splendour, while not

only the country in its neighbourhood, but all those to which it traded,

were in poverty and wretchedness. Each of those countries, perhaps,

taken singly, could afford it but a small part, either of its

subsistence or of its employment; but all of them taken together, could

afford it both a great subsistence and a great employment. There were,

however, within the narrow circle of the commerce of those times, some

countries that were opulent and industrious. Such was the Greek empire

as long as it subsisted, and that of the Saracens during the reigns of

the Abassides. Such, too, was Egypt till it was conquered by the Turks,

some part of the coast of Barbary, and all those provinces of Spain

which were under the government of the Moors.

The cities of Italy seem to have been the first in Europe which were

raised by commerce to any considerable degree of opulence. Italy lay in

the centre of what was at that time the improved and civilized part of

the world. The crusades, too, though, by the great waste of stock and

destruction of inhabitants which they occasioned, they must necessarily

have retarded the progress of the greater part of Europe, were extremely

favourable to that of some Italian cities. The great armies which

marched from all parts to the conquest of the Holy Land, gave

extraordinary encouragement to the shipping of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa,

sometimes in transporting them thither, and always in supplying them

with provisions. They were the commissaries, if one may say so, of those

armies; and the most destructive frenzy that ever befel the European

nations, was a source of opulence to those republics.

The inhabitants of trading cities, by importing the improved

manufactures and expensive luxuries of richer countries, afforded some

food to the vanity of the great proprietors, who eagerly purchased

them with great quantities of the rude produce of their own lands.

The commerce of a great part of Europe in those times, accordingly,

consisted chiefly in the exchange of their own rude, for the

manufactured produce of more civilized nations. Thus the wool of England

used to be exchanged for the wines of France, and the fine cloths of

Flanders, in the same manner as the corn in Poland is at this day,

exchanged for the wines and brandies of France, and for the silks and

velvets of France and Italy.

A taste for the finer and more improved manufactures was, in this

manner, introduced by foreign commerce into countries where no such

works were carried on. But when this taste became so general as to

occasion a considerable demand, the merchants, in order to save

the expense of carriage, naturally endeavoured to establish some

manufactures of the same kind in their own country. Hence the origin

of the first manufactures for distant sale, that seem to have been

established in the western provinces of Europe, after the fall of the

Roman empire.

No large country, it must be observed, ever did or could subsist without

some sort of manufactures being carried on in it; and when it is said

of any such country that it has no manufactures, it must always be

understood of the finer and more improved, or of such as are fit for

distant sale. In every large country both the clothing and household

furniture or the far greater part of the people, are the produce of

their own industry. This is even more universally the case in those poor

countries which are commonly said to have no manufactures, than in

those rich ones that are said to abound in them. In the latter you

will generally find, both in the clothes and household furniture of the

lowest rank of people, a much greater proportion of foreign productions

than in the former.

Those manufactures which are fit for distant sale, seem to have been

introduced into different countries in two different ways.

Sometimes they have been introduced in the manner above mentioned, by

the violent operation, if one may say so, of the stocks of particular

merchants and undertakers, who established them in imitation of some

foreign manufactures of the same kind. Such manufactures, therefore,

are the offspring of foreign commerce; and such seem to have been the

ancient manufactures of silks, velvets, and brocades, which flourished

in Lucca during the thirteenth century. They were banished from thence

by the tyranny of one of Machiavel's heroes, Castruccio Castracani. In

1310, nine hundred families were driven out of Lucca, of whom thirty-one

retired to Venice, and offered to introduce there the silk manufacture.

{See Sandi Istoria civile de Vinezia, part 2 vol. i, page 247 and 256.}

Their offer was accepted, many privileges were conferred upon them, and

they began the manufacture with three hundred workmen. Such, too, seem

to have been the manufactures of fine cloths that anciently flourished

in Flanders, and which were introduced into England in the beginning of

the reign of Elizabeth, and such are the present silk manufactures

of Lyons and Spitalfields. Manufactures introduced in this manner are

generally employed upon foreign materials, being imitations of foreign

manufactures. When the Venetian manufacture was first established, the

materials were all brought from Sicily and the Levant. The more ancient

manufacture of Lucca was likewise carried on with foreign materials. The

cultivation of mulberry trees, and the breeding of silk-worms, seem not

to have been common in the northern parts of Italy before the sixteenth

century. Those arts were not introduced into France till the reign of

Charles IX. The manufactures of Flanders were carried on chiefly with

Spanish and English wool. Spanish wool was the material, not of the

first woollen manufacture of England, but of the first that was fit for

distant sale. More than one half the materials of the Lyons manufacture

is at this day foreign silk; when it was first established, the whole,

or very nearly the whole, was so. No part of the materials of the

Spitalfields manufacture is ever likely to be the produce of England.

The seat of such manufactures, as they are generally introduced by the

scheme and project of a few individuals, is sometimes established in

a maritime city, and sometimes in an inland town, according as their

interest, judgment, or caprice, happen to determine.

At other times, manufactures for distant sale grow up naturally, and

as it were of their own accord, by the gradual refinement of those

household and coarser manufactures which must at all times be carried

on even in the poorest and rudest countries. Such manufactures are

generally employed upon the materials which the country produces, and

they seem frequently to have been first refined and improved in

such inland countries as were not, indeed, at a very great, but at a

considerable distance from the sea-coast, and sometimes even from

all water carriage. An inland country, naturally fertile and easily

cultivated, produces a great surplus of provisions beyond what is

necessary for maintaining the cultivators; and on account of the

expense of land carriage, and inconveniency of river navigation, it

may frequently be difficult to send this surplus abroad. Abundance,

therefore, renders provisions cheap, and encourages a great number of

workmen to settle in the neighbourhood, who find that their industry

can there procure them more of the necessaries and conveniencies of life

than in other places. They work up the materials of manufacture which

the land produces, and exchange their finished work, or, what is the

same thing, the price of it, for more materials and provisions. They

give a new value to the surplus part of the rude produce, by saving the

expense of carrying it to the water-side, or to some distant market; and

they furnish the cultivators with something in exchange for it that is

either useful or agreeable to them, upon easier terms than they could

have obtained it before. The cultivators get a better price for their

surplus produce, and can purchase cheaper other conveniencies which they

have occasion for. They are thus both encouraged and enabled to increase

this surplus produce by a further improvement and better cultivation

of the land; and as the fertility of she land had given birth to the

manufacture, so the progress of the manufacture reacts upon the land,

and increases still further it's fertility. The manufacturers first

supply the neighbourhood, and afterwards, as their work improves and

refines, more distant markets. For though neither the rude produce, nor

even the coarse manufacture, could, without the greatest difficulty,

support the expense of a considerable land-carriage, the refined and

improved manufacture easily may. In a small bulk it frequently contains

the price of a great quantity of rude produce. A piece of fine cloth,

for example which weighs only eighty pounds, contains in it the price,

not only of eighty pounds weight of wool, but sometimes of several

thousand weight of corn, the maintenance of the different working

people, and of their immediate employers. The corn which could with

difficulty have been carried abroad in its own shape, is in this manner

virtually exported in that of the complete manufacture, and may easily

be sent to the remotest corners of the world. In this manner have grown

up naturally, and, as it were, of their own accord, the manufactures

of Leeds, Halifax, Sheffield, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton. Such

manufactures are the offspring of agriculture. In the modern history of

Europe, their extension and improvement have generally been posterior

to those which were the offspring of foreign commerce. England was noted

for the manufacture of fine cloths made of Spanish wool, more than

a century before any of those which now flourish in the places above

mentioned were fit for foreign sale. The extension and improvement of

these last could not take place but in consequence of the extension

and improvement of agriculture, the last and greatest effect of foreign

commerce, and of the manufactures immediately introduced by it, and

which I shall now proceed to explain.