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By H. W. C. Davis
Text in [square brackets] was added especially for this online publication by Ellopos
IX - THE FREE TOWNS
Scattered broadcast over the territory of every medieval state are towns endowed with special privileges, and ruled by special magistrates. Some of these towns - particularly in Italy, Southern France, and the Rhineland - stand on the sites, and even within the walls, of ancient municipia, those miniature Homes which the statecraft of the Empire had created as seats of government and schools of culture. But, even in Italy, the medieval town is indebted to classical antiquity for nothing more than mouldering walls and aqueducts and amphitheatres and churches. The barbarians had ignored the institutions of the municipium, though it often served them as a fortress or a royal residence or a centre of administration.
The citizens were degraded to the level of serfs; they became the property of a king, a bishop, or a count, and were governed by a bailiff presiding over a seignorial court. Only at the close of the Dark Ages, with the development of handicrafts and a commercial class, was it found necessary to distinguish between the town and the manorial village; and to a much later time the small town preserved the characteristics of an agricultural society. Many a burgess supplemented the profits of a trade by tilling acres in the common fields and grazing cattle on the common pastures; pigs and poultry scavenged in the streets; the farmyard was a usual adjunct of the burgage tenement. Whether small or great, the town was a phenomenon sufficiently unfamiliar to vex the soul of lawyers reared upon Teutonic custom. They recognised that they were dealing with a new form of community; but they were not prepared to define it or to generalise about it. They preferred to treat each town as sui generis, an awkward anomaly, a privileged abuse.
Cf. Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) * Ancient Rome * Ancient Greece * The Making of Europe
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