Eliohs: Electronic Library of Historiography
Collane Catalogo Generale Altre Risorse Home

William Robertson

A View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (1769)

Section I - Par i-ii

Note editoriali

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

Proofs I-XII | Proofs XIII-XVIII | Proofs XIX-XXIII | Proof XXIV-XXIX

§ I.

The crusades, or expeditions in order to rescue the Holy Land out of the hands of infidels, seemed to be the first event that roused Europe from the lethargy in which it had been long sunk, and that tended to introduce any considerable change in government or in manners. It is natural to the human mind to view those places which have been distinguished by being the residence of any illustrious personage, or the scene of any great transaction, with some degree of delight and veneration. To this principles must be ascribed the superstitious devotion with which Christians, from the earliest ages of the church, were accustomed to visit that country which the Almighty had selected as the inheritance of his favourite people, and in which the Son of God had accomplished the redemption of mankind. As this distant pilgrimage could not be performed without considerable expense, fatigue, and danger, it appeared the more meritorious, and came to be considered as an expiation for almost every crime. An opinion which spread with rapidity over Europe about the close of the tenth, and beginning of the eleventh century, and which gained universal credit, wonderfully augmented the [20] number of credulous pilgrims, and increased the ardour with which they undertook this useless voyage. The thousand years, mentioned by St. John (6), were supposed to be accomplished, and the end of the world to be at hand. A general consternation seized mankind; many relinquished their possessions, and, abandoning their friends and families, hurried with precipitation to the Holy Land. where they imagined that Christ would quickly appear to judge the world (7). While Palestine continued subject to the caliphs, they had encouraged the resort of pilgrims to Jerusalem, and considered this as a beneficial species of commerce, which brought into their dominions gold and silver, and carried nothing out of them but relics and consecrated trinkets. But the Turks having conquered Syria about the middle of the eleventh century, pilgrims were exposed to outrages of every kind from these fierce barbarians (8). This change happening precisely at the juncture when the panic terror which I have mentioned rendered pilgrimages most frequent, filled Europe with alarm and indignation. Every person who returned from Palestine related the dangers which he had encountered in visiting the holy city, and described with exaggeration the cruelty and vexations of the Turks.

When the minds of men were thus prepared, the zeal of a fanatical monk, who conceived the idea of leading all the forces of Christendom against the infidels, and of driving them out of the Holy Land by violence, was sufficient to give a beginning to that wild enterprise. Peter the Hermit, for that was the name of this martial apostle, ran from province to province with a crucifix in his hand, exciting princes and people to this holy war, and wherever he came kindled the same enthusiastic ardour for it with which he [21] himself was animated. The council of Placentia, where upwards of thirty thousand persons were assembled, pronounced the scheme to have been suggested by the immediate inspiration of Heaven. In the council of Clermont, still more numerous, as soon as the measure was proposed, all cried out with one voice, « It is will of God.» Persons of all ranks caught the contagion; not only the gallant nobles of that age, with their martial followers, whom we may suppose apt to be allured by the boldness of a romantic enterprise, but men in the more humble and pacific stations of life; ecclesiastics of every order, and even women and children, engaged with emulation in an undertaking which was deemed sacred and meritorious. If we may believe the concurring testimony of contemporary authors, six millions of persons assumed the cross (9), which was the badge that distinguished such as devoted themselves to this holy warfare. All Europe, says the princess Anna Comnena, torn up from the foundation, seemed ready to precipitate itself in one united body upon Asia (10). Nor did the fumes of this enthusiastic zeal evaporate at once: the frenzy was as lasting as it was extravagant. During two centuries, Europe seems to have had no object but to recover, or keep possession of, the Holy Land; and through that period vast armies continued to march thither [N].

The first efforts of valour, animated by enthusiasm, were irresistible; part of the lesser Asia, all Syria, and Palestine, were wrested from the infidels; the banner of the cross was displayed on Mount Sion; Constantinople, the capital of the Christian empire in the East, was afterwards seized by a body of those adventurers, who had taken arms against the Mahometans; and an earl of Flanders, and his descendants, kept possession of the imperial throne during half a century. But though the first impression of the crusaders was so unexpected that they made their conquests with great case [22], they found infinite difficulty in preserving them. Establishments so distant from Europe, surrounded by warlike nations, animated with fanatical zeal scarcely inferior to that of the crusaders themselves, were perpetually in danger of being overturned. Before the expiration of the thirteenth century [1291], the Christians were driven out of all their Asiatic possessions, in acquiring of which incredible numbers of men had perished, and immense sums of money had been wasted. The only common enterprise in which the European nations ever engaged, and which they all undertook with equal ardour, remains a singular monument of human folly.

But from these expeditions, extravagant as they were, beneficial consequences followed, which had neither been foreseen nor expected. In their progress towards the Holy Land, the followers of the cross marched through countries better cultivated and more civilized than their own. Their first rendezvous was commonly in Italy, in which Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and other cities, had begun to apply themselves to commerce, and had made considerable advances towards wealth as well as refinement. They embarked there, and, handing in Dalmatia, pursued their route by land to Constantinople. Though the military spirit had been long extinct in the eastern empire, and a despotism of the worst species had annihilated almost every public virtue, yet Constantinople, having never felt the destructive rage of the barbarous nations, was the greatest, as well as the most beautiful city in Europe, and the only one in which there remained any image of the ancient elegance in manners and arts. The naval power of the eastern empire was considerable. Manufactures of the most curious fabric were carried on in its dominions. Constantinople was the chief mart in Europe for the commodities of the East Indies. Although the Saracens and Turks had torn from the empire many of its richest provinces, and had reduced it within very narrow bounds, yet great wealth flowed into the capital [23] from these various sources, which not only cherished such a taste for magnificence, but kept alive such a relish for the sciences, as appears considerable, when compared with what was known in other parts of Europe. Even in Asia, the Europeans, who had assumed the cross, found the remains of the knowledge and arts which the example and encouragement of the caliphs had diffused through their empire. Although the attention of the historians of the crusades was fixed on other objects than the state of society and manners among the nations which they invaded; although most of them had neither taste nor discernment enough to describe these, they relate, however, such signal acts of humanity and generosity in the conduct of Saladin, as well as some other leaders of the Mahometans, as give us a very high idea of their manners. It was not possible for the crusaders to travel through so many countries, and to behold their various customs and institutions, without acquiring information and improvement. Their views enlarged; their prejudices wore off; new ideas crowded into their minds; and they must have been sensible, on many occasions, of the rusticity of their own manners when compared with those of a more polished people. These impressions were not so slight as to be effaced upon their return to their native countries. A close intercourse subsisted between the East and West during two centuries; new armies were continually marching from Europe to Asia, while former adventurers returned home, and imported many of the customs to which they had been familiarized by a long residence abroad. Accordingly we discover, soon after the commencement of the crusades, greater splendour in the courts of princes, greater pomp in public ceremonies, a more refined taste in pleasure and amusements, together with a more romantic spirit of enterprise, spreading gradually over Europe; and to these wild expeditions, the effect of superstition or folly, we owe the first gleams of light which tended to dispel barbarism and ignorance [24].

But these beneficial consequences of the crusades took place slowly; their influence upon the state of property, and consequently of power, in the different kingdoms of Europe, was more immediate, as well discernible. The nobles who assumed the cross, and bound themselves to march to the Holy Land, soon perceived that great sums were necessary towards defraying the expense of such a distant expedition, and enabling them to appear with suitable dignity at the head of their vassals. But the genius of the feudal system was averse to the imposition of extraordinary taxes; and subjects in that age were unaccustomed to pay them. No expedient remained for levying the sums requisite, but the sale of their possessions. As men were inflamed with romantic expectations of the splendid conquests which they hoped to make in Asia, and possessed with such zeal for recovering the Holy Land as swallowed up every other passion, they relinquished their ancient inheritances without any reluctance, and for prices far below their value, that they might sally forth as adventurers in quest of new settlements in unknown countries. The monarchs of the great kingdoms in the West, none of whom had engaged in the first crusade, eagerly seized this opportunity of annexing considerable territories to their crowns at small expense (11). Besides this, several great barons, who perished in the holy war, having left no heirs, their fiefs reverted of course to their respective sovereigns; and by these accessions of property, as well as power taken from the one scale and thrown into the other, the regal authority rose in proportion as that of the aristocracy declined. The absence, too, of many potent vassals, accustomed to control and give law to their sovereigns, afforded them an opportunity of extending their prerogative, and of acquiring a degree of weight in the constitution which they did not formerly possess. To these circumstances we may add, that as all who assumed the cross were taken under the immediate [25] protection of the church, and its heaviest anathemas were denounced against such as should disquiet or annoy those who had devoted themselves to this service, the private quarrels and hostilities which banished tranquillity from a feudal kingdom, were suspended or extinguished; a more general and steady administration of justice began to be introduced, and some advances were made towards the establishment of regular government in the several kingdoms of Europe (12) [O].

The commercial effects of the crusades were not less considerable than those which I have already mentioned. The first armies under the standard of the cross, which Peter the Hermit and Godfrey of Bouillon led through Germany and Hungary to Constantinople, suffered so much by the length of the march, as well as by the fierceness of the barbarous people who inhabited those countries, that it deterred others from taking the same route; and, rather than encounter so many dangers, they chose to go by sea. Venice, Genoa, and Pisa furnished the transports on which they embarked. The sum which these cities received merely for freight from such numerous armies was immense (13). This, however, was but a small part of what they gained by the expeditions to the Holy Land; the crusaders contracted with them for military stores and provisions; their fleets kept on the coast as the armies advanced by land; and, supplying them with whatever was wanting, engrossed all the profits of a branch of commerce which, in every age, has been extremely lucrative. The success which attended the arms of the crusaders was productive of advantages still more permanent. There are charters yet extant, containing grants to the Venetians, Pisans, and Genoese, of the most extensive immunities in the several settlements which the Christians made in Asia. All the commodities which they imported or exported are thereby exempted [26] from every imposition; the property of entire suburbs in some of the maritime towns, and of large streets in others, is vested in them; and all questions arising among persons settled within their precincts, or who traded under their protection, are appointed to be tried by their own laws, and by judges of their own appointment (14). When the crusaders seized Constantinople, and placed one of their own leaders on the imperial throne, the Italian states were likewise gainers by that event. The Venetians, who had planned the enterprise, and took a considerable part in carrying it into execution, did not neglect to secure to themselves the chief advantages redounding from its success. They made themselves masters of part of the ancient Peloponnesus in Greece, together with some of the most fertile islands in the Archipelago. Many valuable branches of the commerce, which formerly centred in Constantinople, were transferred to Venice, Genoa, or Pisa. Thus a succession of events, occasioned by the holy war, opened various sources from which wealth flowed in such abundance into these cities (15), as enabled them, in concurrence with another institution, which shall be immediately mentioned, to secure their own liberty and independence.


§ II.

The institution to which I alluded was the forming of cities into communities, corporations, or bodies politic, and granting them the privilege of municipal jurisdiction, which contributed more, perhaps, than any other cause, to introduce regular government, police, and arts, and to diffuse them over Europe. The feudal government had degenerated into a system of oppression. The usurpations of the nobles were become unbounded and intolerable; they had reduced the great body of the people into a state of actual servitude: the condition of those dignified with the name of freemen was often little preferable to that of the other. Nor was such oppression the portion of those [27] alone who dwelt in the country, and were employed in cultivating the estate of their master. Cities and villages found it necessary to hold of some great lord, on whom they might depend for protection, and become no less subject to his arbitrary jurisdiction. The inhabitants were deprived of those rights which, in social life, are deemed most natural and inalienable. They could not dispose of the effects which their own industry had acquired, either by a latter will or by any deed executed during their life (16). They had no right to appoint guardians for their children during their minority. They were not permitted to marry without purchasing the consent of the lord on whom they depended (17). If once they had commenced a lawsuit, they durst not terminate it by an accommodation, because that would have deprived the lord, in whose court they pleaded, of the perquisites due to him on passing sentence (18). Services of various kinds, no less disgraceful than oppressive, were exacted from them without mercy or moderation. The spirit of industry was checked in some cities by absurd regulations, and in others by unreasonable exactions; nor would the narrow and oppressive maxims of a military aristocracy have permitted it ever to rise to any degree of height or vigour (19).

But as soon as the cities of Italy began to turn their attention towards commerce, and to conceive some idea of the advantages which they might derive from it, they became impatient to shake off the yoke of their insolent lords, and to establish among themselves such a free and equal government as would render property secure, and industry flourishing. The German emperors, especially those of the Franconian and Suabian lines, as the seat of their government was far distant from Italy, possessed a [28] feeble and imperfect jurisdiction in that country. Their perpetual quarrels, either with the popes or with their own turbulent vassals, diverted their attention from the interior police of Italy, and gave constant employment to their arms. These circumstances encouraged the inhabitants or some of the Italian cities, towards the beginning of the eleventh century, to assume new privileges, to unite together more closely, and to form themselves into bodies politic under the government of laws established by common consent (20). The rights which many cities acquired by bold or fortunate usurpations, others purchased from the emperors, who deemed themselves gainers when they received large sums for immunities which they were no longer able to withhold; and some cities obtained them gratuitously, from the generosity or facility of the princes on whom they depended. The great increase of wealth which the crusades brought into Italy occasioned a new kind of fermentation and activity in the minds of the people, and excited such a general passion for liberty and independence, that before the conclusion of the last crusade, all the considerable cities in that country had either purchased or had extorted large immunities from the emperors [P].

This innovation was not long known in Italy before it made its way into France. Louis le Gros, in order to create some power that might counterbalance those potent vassals who controlled, or gave law to the crown, first adopted the plan of conferring new privileges on the towns situated within its own domain [1108-1137]. These privileges were called charters of community, by which he enfranchised the inhabitants, abolished all marks of servitude, and formed them into corporations of bodies politic, to be governed by a council and magistrates of their own nomination. These magistrates had the right of administering justice within their own precincts, of levying taxes, of embodying and [29] training to arms the militia of the town, which took the field when required by the sovereign, under the command of officers appointed by the community. The great barons imitated the example of their monarch, and granted like immunities to the towns within their territories. They had wasted such great sums in their expeditions to the Holy Land, that they were eager to lay hold on this new expedient for raising money, by the sale of those charters of liberty. Though the institution of communities was as repugnant to their maxims of policy, as it was adverse to their power, they disregarded remote consequences, in order to obtain present relief. In less than two centuries, servitude was abolished in most of the towns in France, and they became free corporations, instead of dependent villages, without jurisdiction or privileges [Q]. Much about the same period the great cities in Germany began to acquire like immunities, and laid the foundation of their present liberty and independence [R]. The practice spread quickly over Europe, and was adopted in Spain, England, Scotland, and all the other feudal kingdoms [S].

The good effects of this new institution were immediately felt, and its influence on government as well as manners was no less extensive than salutary. A great body of the people was released from servitude, and from all the arbitrary and grievous impositions to which that wretched condition had subjected them. Towns, upon acquiring the right of community, became so many little republics, governed by known and equal laws. Liberty was deemed such an essential and characteristic part in their constitution, that if any slave took refuge in one of them, and resided there during a year without being claimed, he was instantly declared a freeman, and admitted as a member of the community (21).

As one part of the people owed their liberty to the [30] erection of communities, another was indebted to them for their security. Such had been the state of Europe during several centuries, that self-preservation obliged every man to court the patronage of some powerful baron, and in times of danger his castle was the place to which all resorted for safety. But towns surrounded with walls, whose inhabitants were regularly trained to arms, and bound by interest, as well as by the most solemn engagements, reciprocally to defend each other, afforded a more commodious and secure retreat. The nobles began to be considered as of less importance when they ceased to be the sole guardians to whom the people could look up for protection against violence.

If the nobility suffered some diminution of their credit and power by the privileges granted to the cities, the crown acquired an increase of both. As there were no regular troops kept on foot in any of the feudal kingdoms, the monarch could bring no army into the field, but what was composed of soldiers furnished by the crown vassals, always jealous of the regal authority; nor had he any funds for carrying on the public service but such as they granted him with a very sparing hand. But when the members of communities were permitted to bear arms, and were trained to the use of them, this in some degree supplied the first defect, and gave the crown the command of a body of men, independent of its great vassals. The attachment of the cities to their sovereigns, whom they respected as the first authors of their liberties, and whom they were obliged to court as the protectors of their immunities against the domineering spirit of the nobles, contributed somewhat towards removing the second evil, as, on many occasion, it procured the crown supplies of money, which added new force to government (22).

The acquisition of liberty made such a happy change in the condition of all the members of communities, as roused them from that inaction into which they had been sunk by [31] the wretchedness of their former state. The spirit of industry revived. Commerce became an object of attention, and began to flourish. Population increased. Independence was established; and wealth flowed into cities which had long been the seat of poverty and oppression. Wealth was accompanied by its usual attendants, ostentation and luxury; and though the former was formal and cumbersome, and the latter inelegant, they led gradually to greater refinement in manners, and in the habits of life. Together with this improvement in manners, a more regular species of government and police was introduced. As cities grew to be more populous, and the occasions of intercourse among men increased, statutes and regulations multiplied of course, and all became sensible that their common safety depended on observing them with exactness, and on punishing such as violated them with promptitude and rigour. Laws and subordination, as well as polished manners, taking their rise on cities, diffused themselves insensibly through the rest of the society.

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

Proofs I-XII | Proofs XIII-XVIII | Proofs XIX-XXIII | Proof XXIV-XXIX


(6) Revel., XX, 2, 3, 4.

(7) Chronic. Will. Godelli ap. Bouquet, Recueil des Historiens de France, tom. X, p. 262. Vita Abonis, ibid., p. 332. Chronic. S. Pantaleonis ap. Eccard, Corp. Scrip. Medii Aevii, vol. I. p. 909. Annalista Saxo, ibid., p. 576.

(8) Jo. Dan. Schoepflini De Sacris Gallorum in Orientem Expedtionibus, p. 4, Argent. 1726, 4to.

(9) Fulcherius Carnotensis ap. Bongarsii Gesta Dei per Francos, vol. I, p. 387, edit. Han. 1611.

(10) Alexias, lib. X, ap. Byz. Script., vol. XI, p. 224.

(11) Wilhelm. Malmsbur. Guibert. Abbas ap. Bongars, vol. I, p. 481.

(12) Du Cange, Glossar., voc. Cruce signatus. Guil. Abbas ap. Bongars, vol. I, pp. 480, 482

(13) Muratori, Antiquit. Italic. Medii Aevi, vol. VII, p. 905.

(14) Muratori, Antiquit. Italic. Medii Aevi, vol. II, pp. 906, &c.

(15) Villehardoin, Hist. De Const. sous l’Empereur François, p. 105, &c.

(16) Dacherii Spiceleg., tom. XI, p. 374, 375, edit. In 4to. Ordonnances des Rois de France, tom. III, p. 204, no. 2, 6.

(17) Ordonnances des Rois de France, tom. I, p. 22, III, p. 203, no. 1. Murat. Antiquit. Ital., vol. IV, p. 20. Dacherii Spicel., vol. IX, pp. 325, 341.

(18) Dacherii Spicel., vol. IX, p. 182.

(19) M. l’Abbé de Mably, Observat. Sur l’Hist. De France, to. II, pp. 2, 96.

(20) Murat. Antiquit. Ital., vol. IV, p. 5.

(21) Statut. Humberti Belljoci, Dacher. Spicel., vol. IX, pp. 182, 185. Charta Comit. Forens., ibid., p. 193.

(22) Ordonnances des Rois de France, tom. I, p. 602, 785; tom. II, p. 318, 422.

References to Proofs and Illustrations

[N] Note XIII

[O] Note XIV

[P] Note XV

[Q] Note XVI

[R] Note XVII

[S] Note XVIII

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

Proofs I-XII | Proofs XIII-XVIII | Proofs XIX-XXIII | Proof XXIV-XXIX