In The Road to Serfdom, F. A. Hayek tells us that intellectuals and governments in the twentieth century tragically abandoned the road to liberty in pursuit of collectivist utopias. That road stretched at least as far back as the democratic polis of ancient Greece, but it was not always straight and unbroken. Once, it was completely lost, only to be rediscovered centuries later.
The idea of liberty emerged in the struggle between the forces of collectivism and individualism. It is the idea that each of us has a rightful sphere of autonomy in which we may be free from aggression. In politics this manifested itself as liberal democracy, in economics as market competition, and in the broader social realm as scientific advance, artistic expression, and religious tolerance.
In his concise masterpiece, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne explains just how, long after the fall of the western Roman empire, the liberal idea gradually reemerged and how this was directly tied to the birth of the modern city.
The Decline of Cities and Civilization
Between AD 400 and 900 cities virtually disappeared from Europe. Even in Rome, which at its height had a population of one million, the population fell to mere thousands – most of whom were either Churchmen or those who served them. Bishops and clerics dominated urban life, while princes, who had little reason to spend time in dreary medieval towns, focused attention on protecting their feudal estates, earning tribute from their vassals, and exploiting the labor of their serfs.
Then as now, nobles followed wealth, and in the Middle Ages, as trade among cities dwindled, the basis for wealth went from money to land. Money, liquid and essential for commerce, became superfluous, while control and acquisition of land became paramount. This land-based economy tied not only serfs to the service of their lords via ancient contracts, but also bound lord to serf and to the static hierarchy of the manorial system, generation after generation. Meanwhile, those who did inhabit the changeless towns were virtual prisoners there.
The Rise of the Middle Class and the Modern City
Then, with the reawakening of trade in the tenth and eleventh centuries – first among Hanseatic towns, regional fairs, and eventually through longer-distance trade – Europe began the slow transition back from land-based to money-based economy. Serfs could pay their rent in coin, liberating them from direct service to their lords, towns offered commoners opportunities for profitable trade and an urban lifestyle that had been absent for centuries, and the urban social structure had to accommodate something that had also been lost since Roman times, a rising merchant and middle class – not among the elite in town centers but in the suburbs, “below the city.” Not surprisingly, princes and bishops began to pay more attention to the new market-driven, wealth-creating cities.
As commerce provided a greater share of life’s necessities, the feudal manor declined in social, economic, and political importance. And so to the first estate of the nobility and the second estate of the Churchmen had to be added the burghers and merchants of the middle class, “although the third in dignity, the first in importance.” Cities became “civilized” once again, and in a way we would recognize today.
More than this, however, as business contracts extended over greater distances and for longer periods of time, it was critical to merchants and their sons to be able to read and write, and in the vernacular rather than Latin. The demand for books and printed material created a market for Gutenberg’s printing presses. Also, as business began to flourish recordkeeping and numeracy became essential skills as well as, in some cases, the mechanical arts. Traditional educational forms and curricula were no longer adequate. New local schools and, in the thirteenth century, the great universities were founded in Bologna, Paris, and Cambridge and Oxford, breeding grounds for ideas that challenged the established order.
Growing literacy and numeracy among wealthy burgesses, the humanistic emphasis in education and religion, and the ability to publish on a scale theretofore unknown set the stage for revolutions in the Church with Luther, in science with Bacon and Newton, and in the arts, where the very idea of the artist, godlike in his creative powers, was born. And all these radical changes either took place or were conceived in the ferment of the modern city.
Radical Social Change and the Idea of Liberty
Money, literacy, art, science and mathematics, and the radical criticism and radical toleration of differences were irrelevant in the land-based rural society of the Middle Ages. Even the concept of property rights, in all its complexities and contingencies we associate with it today, was rooted in densely populated settlements where conflict might otherwise have been an everyday occurrence. The rural peasant, of course, benefited from — indeed, was liberated by — these ideas and the technical advances that arose from them.
And although Pirenne argues that the middle class tried to claim a monopoly on what they saw as its unique privileges, “nevertheless, to that middle class was reserved the mission of spreading the idea of liberty far and wide and of becoming, without having consciously desired to be, the means of the gradual enfranchisement of the rural classes.”
So with the rebirth of the city came the rediscovery of liberty.
On the feudal manor or the clerical town, the liberty of the common man had no place. Only in the commercial society of the cities, which then as today attracted the ambitious, the talented, and the misfit, did liberty have a real meaning and substance. Only if you can “vote with your feet,” leave the manor or village to pursue your dreams, or simply travel (and have a reason to travel) from place to place, are you really free. That is what the city fundamentally represents. As the old saying goes,
But “city air” didn’t simply make us free. It gave us the chance to think about freedom, as well as the means to articulate its philosophy and, in the dense social networks of cities, to spread the idea.
You can read a Portuguese version of this article here.