The Italian City-Republics Were the Manhattan of the Twelfth Century
The beautiful Italian town of Bologna is famous for its vast historical center full of medieval buildings, palaces, churches, and elegant porticoes. The visitor is left speechless by the remaining twenty-two towers out of about 180 erected between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Asinelli tower, the tallest of them at 97 meters, compares to the standard height of a modern skyscraper. It is truly amazing that in the early Middle Ages, Bologna’s spectacular towers made it look very much like Manhattan today.
Such towers were built in many northern Italian towns by rich families for defensive purposes when rivalries between oligarchic clans turned deadly. They were also a status symbol, and their construction, which was quite onerous, bears witness to the economic miracle that took place in that period. Starting from the fourteenth century, many towers were demolished, and others simply collapsed. The rise and fall of the towers illustrate very well the early Middle Ages experiment of independent Italian city-republics with capitalist and democratic institutions.
Breaking from the Oppressive Feudal System
The feudal economic system was rigidly based on people’s predetermined status in the feudal hierarchy in terms of obligations and rewards. The majority of the population was engaged in subsistence agriculture around self-sufficient manors, and most of the agricultural workers were bound to the land in a system of serfdom. Wages and prices were set by the political and religious authorities or by towns’ guilds, which restricted free competition. There was limited room for entrepreneurship, and economic growth was dismal.
Starting from the eleventh century, cracks opened in the feudal system, and many European towns started to develop as major centers of trade and manufacturing. The so-called free cities or independent city-states purchased charters granting various degrees of self-government from their sovereigns through negotiations, which sometimes implied violent uprisings.
Independent cities prospered from free exchanges and greater labor division, gradually lifting the rural economy too. The free towns also became directly involved in the liberation of serfs in the surrounding countryside. They began to dominate economically and militarily.
Ralph Raico and Robert Higgs underlined several factors contributing to the emergence of merchant capitalism in Europe. Unlike other great civilizations, especially the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic ones, Europe was decentralized into a system of divided powers and jurisdictions, such as kingdoms, principalities, city-states, and ecclesiastical domains. The constant rivalry among kings, feudal nobility, and the powerful Catholic church reduced the rulers’ capacity to oppose the struggle for the freedom of the townspeople.
Christianity and Christian philosophers mitigated serfdom and justified the legitimacy of resistance to unjust rulers, recognizing the moral superiority of natural over positive law. In addition, the Italian city-states benefitted from the rugged terrain of the Alps, which
Article from Mises Wire