CHAPTER XI

TRADE AGAINST FEUDALISM (1152-1190)

The last chapter dealt with the struggle between the two great mediaeval institutions, the Empire and the Papacy. This deals with the contest between the Empire, representing the feudal system, and a new social force, the spirit of trade, represented by the Lombard cities. Naturally the Papacy joined in the fray and sided with the Lombard cities; and, before the end, all Italy was divided into two great parties designated by terms derived from Germany: Guelfs, which indicated those opposed to the Empire, and Ghibellines, which indicated friends to the Empire. But the particular issue here fought out was that between feudalism and trade, and the triumph of trade indicates the close of the Middle Ages.

The Emperor Frederick I (1152-90) of the great house of Hohenstaufen is the hero of this period. He was a noble specimen of the knight of the Middle Ages, such as Sir Walter Scott conceived a knight to be. He had a bright, open countenance, fair hair, that curled a little on his forehead, and a red beard (Barbarossa) which impressed the Italian imagination. Valiant, resolute, energetic, bountiful in almsgiving, attentive to religious duties, he was a kind friend and a stern enemy. To his misfortune he was born too late; he belonged to a chivalric generation out of place in a world which had begun to deem buying and selling matters of greater consequence than chivalry and crusades. He thought himself entitled to all the Imperial rights that had been exercised by the Ottos; and, measuring his own prerogatives by their standard, resolved to make good the deficiencies of his immediate predecessors, who for one reason or another had neglected to assert those prerogatives in their plenitude. Barbarossa's situation may be compared to that of Charles I of England, who believed himself lawful heir to all the prerogatives of the Tudors.

Opposed to these old-fashioned views was the hard-headed spirit of commercial Italy. Barbarossa's particular enemies were the Lombard cities, but that was because they were nearest to him. The same mercantile spirit animated all the cities of the peninsula; in fact, it pervaded the maritime cities before it pervaded the Lombard cities, and can best be described by means of a description of them.

The southern cities bloomed earlier than their northern sisters. Amalfi, now a little fishing village which clings to the steep slopes of the Gulf of Salerno, in the eleventh century was an independent republic of 50,000 inhabitants. She traded with Sicily, Egypt, Syria, and Arabia; she decked her women with the ornaments of the East; she built monasteries at Jerusalem, also a hospital from which the Knights Hospitallers of St. John took their name; she gave a maritime code to the Mediterranean and Ionian seas, and circulated coin of her own minting throughout the Levant. Salerno, her near neighbour, had already become famous for her knowledge of medicine, acquired from the Arabs. The speculations of her physicians upon the medicinal properties of herbs went all over Europe. She abounded in attractions. Vineyards, apple orchards, nut trees, flourished round about the city; within there were handsome palaces; "the women did not lack beauty, nor the men honesty." The Normans must have found themselves very comfortable. Naples, Gaeta, and the Greek cities of the heel and toe were also important and prosperous. But these southern cities were soon outdone by their sturdier northern rivals, Pisa, Genoa, Venice.

Pisa, which now lies at the mouth of the Arno like a forsaken mermaid on the shore, is said to have been a free commune before the year 900. She traded east and west; she waged wars with the Saracens, drove them from Sardinia, captured the Balearic Islands (1114), and carried the war into Africa. Rich with booty and commercial gains, she erected (according to a traveller's estimate) ten thousand towers within the city walls, completed her dome-crowned, many-columned, queenly cathedral, and built the attendant baptistery, within whose marble walls musical notes rise and fall, circle and swell, as if angels were singing in mid-air. She received many privileges from the Emperors; her maritime usages were to be respected; she was to enact her own laws, and to judge her citizens. No Imperial Marquess was to enter Tuscany until he had received approval from twelve men of Pisa, to be elected at a public meeting, called together by the city's bells (1085). She spread her power in the Levant. Jaffa, Acre, Tripoli, Antioch were in great part under her dominion, and her factories were scattered along the coasts of Syria and Asia Minor.

Further to the north, mounting hillward from her curving bay, lay Genoa the Proud, who for a time was Pisa's ally against the Saracens, and then became her rival and enemy. Genoa, too, was devoted to commerce and established settlements in Constantinople, in the Crimea, in Cyprus and Syria, in Majorca and Tunis. She, too, had obtained from the Empire a charter of municipal privileges and was a republic, free in all but name.

Venice, their greater sister, first rivalled and then surpassed both Pisa and Genoa. She traces her origin to the men who fled from the mainland in fear of Attila and sought refuge on the marshy islands of the coast (452). In later days others fled before the Lombards, and joined the descendants of the earlier refugees. Here, under the nominal government of the Eastern Empire, the Venetians gradually developed strength and independence, and took into their own hands the election of their Doge (697). The city of the Rivo Alto, the Venice of to-day, was begun about 800. Thirty years later the body of St. Mark the Evangelist was brought from Alexandria, and the foundations of St. Mark's basilica were laid over his bones. Politically Venice maintained her allegiance, shifting and time-serving though it was, true to Constantinople, not from sentiment, but because Constantinople was the first city in the world, the centre of art, of luxury, of commerce. Indeed, Venice was like a daughter or younger sister to Constantinople; all her old monuments, her mosaics, her sculpture, her marble columns, show her Byzantine inclinations. She took an active part in the Crusades, furnished transports and supplies, and mixed religion, war, and commerce in one profitable whole.

These maritime cities constantly fought one another; Pisa destroyed Amalfi, Genoa ruined Pisa, and Venice finally crippled Genoa. The glory they won was by individual effort; whereas the glory of the Lombard cities is that they effected a union, tardy indeed and imperfect, but successful at last in its purpose of enforcing their liberties against the Imperial claims. These Lombard cities included in their respective dominions the country round about, and were, in fact, except for a negligent Imperial control, little independent republics. It has been a matter of long dispute whether these communes were survivals from old Roman times, or sprung from the love of independence brought in by the Teutonic invaders; whatever their origin they virtually began with trade, rested upon trade, and flourished with trade. This trade, which, beginning between neighbouring cities, extended northward over the Alps, was greatly aided by the maritime cities. Ships called for cargoes. The stimulus imparted by the energy of Venetian, Genoese, and Pisan seamen to manufactures and transalpine trade was felt in every Lombard city. For instance, the Venetians, eager to carry a wider range of merchandise over sea to Alexandria or Jaffa, held fairs in the inland cities, exposed the wares they had fetched home, and stirred mercantile industry. A burgher class of traders and artisans grew up. Men met in the market-place, talked business, considered ways and means, discussed the conditions of production and exchange, and became a shrewd, capable class. The moment business expanded beyond the city walls, it bumped into feudal rights at every corner; at every crossroad it found itself enmeshed in feudal prerogatives and privileges. Trade could not endure a system fitted only for a farming community. Trade took men into politics; and in those days politics meant war. The citizens of Milan, Pavia, and neighbouring cities were not wholly unused to civic rights, for they had long had a voice in the election of bishops, and they had their trade guilds. These rights they enlarged whenever they got a chance; and chances came frequently in the quarrels between Emperor and archbishop, or between the greater and lesser nobility. Both sides wanted their support; and they sold it in exchange for privileges, here a little, there a little, and obtained many concessions. Finally, after the burghers had advanced in wealth and social consideration, the petty nobles made common cause with them; and the two combined succeeded in forcing the great lords to join also, and make one general civic union. These great lords, who had been little tyrants in the country roundabout, were compelled to live within the city walls for part of the year and be hostages for their own good behaviour, and were thus converted from enemies into leading citizens. The consequence of these changes was that the former government by a bishop, which in course of time had supplanted the old Carlovingian system of government by a count, was superseded in its turn by a much more popular form of government. The bishop's authority was narrowly limited, the executive power was lodged in consuls, two or more, who were elected annually, and the legislative power was placed in a general council of the burghers (in Milan not more than fifteen hundred men), and in a small inner council, which represented the aristocratic element. By Barbarossa's time the government of the cities had ceased to be feudal, and had become communal. There was inevitable antagonism between Lombardy and the Holy Roman Empire. The league of Lombard cities embodied the revolt of trade against the feudal system, of merchants against uncertain and excessive taxes, of burghers against foreign princes, in short, general discontent with an outgrown political system.

Barbarossa's war with the Lombard cities lasted for twenty-five years, and for convenience may be divided into two periods,--the period before the cities had learnt the lesson of union and the period after. So long as they were divided by mutual distrust and jealousy, Barbarossa was victorious; when they were united they conquered him.

Barbarossa made his first expedition across the Alps in answer to appeals that had been made to him from various parts of Italy. Como and Lodi complained of Milan; the Popes complained of the insubordinate Romans, who had set up a republic and were going crazy over an heretical republican priest, one Arnold of Brescia; the lord of the little city of Capua complained of the Norman king. Barbarossa, with his lofty notions of Imperial authority and Imperial duty, gathered together an army and descended into Italy to settle all troubles. He began by issuing orders to Milan with regard to her conduct towards Como and Lodi. Milan shut her gates. The proud city and the proud Emperor were at swords' points in a moment. A letter from Barbarossa from his camp near Milan, written to his uncle, Otto of Freysing, briefly narrates the circumstances: "The Milanese, tricky and proud, came to meet us with a thousand disloyal excuses and reasons, and offered us great sums of money if we would grant them sovereignty over Como and Lodi; and because, without letting ourselves be swayed one jot by their prayers or by their offers, we marched into their territory, they kept us away from their rich lands and made us pass three whole days in the midst of a desert; until at last, against their wish, we pitched our camp one mile from Milan. Here, after they had refused provisions for which we had offered to pay, we took possession of one of their finest castles, defended by five hundred horsemen, and reduced it to ashes; and our cavalry advanced to the gates of Milan and killed many Milanese and took many prisoners. Then open war broke out between us. When we crossed the river Ticino in order to go to Novara, we captured two bridges which they had fortified with castles, and after the army had crossed, destroyed them. Then we dismantled three of their fortresses ... and after we had celebrated Christmas with great merriment, we marched by way of Vercelli and Turin to the Po; we crossed the river and destroyed the strong city of Chieri, and burned Asti. This done, we laid siege to Tortona, most strongly fortified both by art and nature; and on the third day, having captured the suburbs, we should easily have carried the citadel, if night and stormy weather had not prevented us. At last, after many assaults, many killed, and a piteous slaughter of citizens, we forced the citadel to surrender, not without losing a number of our men."[10]

Such vigour as this reduced Milan and her sister cities to obedience. But Frederick was not content with raids into Italy and spasmodic punishment administered to this rebellious city or to that; he wished to have the Imperial rights and authority definitely settled on a permanent basis; so he convoked a diet on the plain of Roncaglia, not far from Piacenza, to which he summoned bishops, dukes, marquesses, counts, and other nobles of the realm, four famous jurists from Bologna, and two representatives from each of fourteen Lombard cities. Frederick was a just man; he merely wished his legal rights, and proposed to ascertain what those rights were. The determination was left to the lawyers.

By this time lawyers had already begun to play a part in public affairs. Roman law had never been lost. For centuries it had remained side by side with the customs of the conquering Barbarians, less as a code of laws than as the tradition of the subject Latin people; and, when the needs of quickening civilization required a more elaborate system of law than custom could supply, there was the Roman law ready for use. It suddenly leaped into general interest, and rivalled the Church as a career for young men. St. Bernard complained that the law of Justinian was ousting the law of God. In 1088 the great law school of Bologna had been founded. Thither students crowded by thousands; and the opinions of its jurists were received with the deepest respect.

At Roncaglia the body of lawyers appointed to determine Imperial rights, decided, doubtless in accordance with Barbarossa's expectation, in favour of the Imperial side. The feudal nobles were delighted. The archbishop of Milan, the recognized head of the Lombard nobility, said to the Emperor: "Know that every right in the people to make laws has been granted to you; your will is law, as it is said, Quod Principi placuit legis habet vigorem [The Emperor's will has the force of law], since the people have granted to you all authority and sovereignty." In accordance with the spirit of this principle, the regalia, tolls, taxes, forfeits, and exactions of various kinds, were defined, and the right to appoint the executive magistrates in the communes adjudged to the Emperor. In substance the decision of the jurists was the restoration of the Imperial rights as they had been under the Ottos, when the communes were in their infancy.

Frederick's legal triumph was complete, but such a decision could only be sustained by force. The cities would not accept it; they preferred war. In the course of one campaign Milan was razed to the ground (1162), so literally, that Frederick dated his letters post destructionem Mediolani, "after the destruction of Milan." But the cities at last learned the necessity of union and stood shoulder to shoulder. The Papacy, too, which had been friendly to the Emperor during the insurrections in Rome, turned round and joined the cities against him, and Frederick, in retaliation, set up an anti-pope. Nevertheless, the glory of defeating the Emperor belongs to the cities, and not to the Papacy. The decisive battle was fought near Milan on the field of Legnano (1176).

The arbitrament of the sword reversed the decision of the lawyers at Roncaglia. Frederick frankly accepted defeat. A ceremonious conference was held at Venice. At the portal of St. Mark's, Pope Alexander III, no unworthy successor to Hildebrand, raised up the kneeling Emperor and gave him the kiss of peace. Temporary terms were agreed on, and a few years later the Peace of Constance (1183) definitely closed the war. The Emperor relinquished all but nominal rights of sovereignty over the confederate cities. They were to elect their municipal officers, and, with comparatively unimportant exceptions, to administer justice and manage their own affairs. Trade had conquered feudalism. The Middle Ages were near their setting.

No more of Barbarossa's doings need here be chronicled, except what he deemed a brilliant stroke of diplomacy, by which he hoped to unite the crown of the Two Sicilies with the Imperial crown on the head of his son, Henry, and through him on the heads of a long line of Hohenstaufens. The Empire had always asserted a claim to Southern Italy, but its claim had never been made good except during the temporary occupation of an Imperial army; and since the Normans had established their kingdom, Southern Italy had not only been lost to the Empire, but had become the chief prop of the Empire's enemy, the Papacy. If the Empire could acquire Southern Italy, it would hem in the Papacy both south and north, and crush it to obedience. Frederick's son Henry was married to the heiress of the Norman kingdom (1186); and the good Emperor, happy in the prospect before his Imperial line, but happier in that he could not foresee truly, took the cross and led his army towards the Holy Land. He died on the way (1190), leaving behind him a reputation for honour and chivalry, inferior to none left by the German Emperors.

FOOTNOTES:

[10] Storia d'Italia, Cappelletti, pp. 99, 100.