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1122-1300 - Age of the Communes

The final gainers by the war of investitures were the Italians. In the first place, from this time forward, owing to the election of popes by the Roman curia, the Holy See remained in the hands of Italians; and this, though it was by no means an unmixed good, was a great glory to the nation. In the next place the antagonism of the popes to the emperors, which became hereditary in the Holy College, forced the former to assume the protectorate of the national cause.

By far the greatest profit the Italians reaped was the emancipation of their burghs. During the forty-seven years' war, when pope and emperor were respectively bidding for their alliance, and offering concessions to secure their support, the communes grew in self-reliance, strength, and liberty. As the bishops had helped to free them from subservience to their feudal masters, so the war of investitures relieved them of dependence on their bishops. The age of real autonomy, signalized by the supremacy of consuls in the cities, had arrived.

In the republics, as they emerged after the war of investitures, government was carried on by officers called consuls, varying in number according to custom and according to the division of the town into districts. These magistrates, were originally appointed to control and protect the humbler classes. But, in proportion as the people gained more power in the field the consuls rose in importance, superseded the bishops, and began to represent the city in transactions with its neighbors. Popes and emperors, who needed the assistance of a city, had to seek it from the consuls, and thus these officers gradually converted an obscure and indefinite authority into what resembles the presidency of a commonwealth. They were supported by a deliberative assembly, called credenza, chosen from the more distinguished citizens. In addition to this privy council, a gran consiglio, consisting of the burghers who had established the right to interfere immediately in public affairs, and a still larger assembly called paramento, which included the whole adult population.

Though the institutions of the communes varied in different localities, this is the type to which they all approximated. It will be perceived that the type was rather oligarchial than strictly democratic. Between the parlamento and the consuls with their privy council, or credenza, was interposed the gran consiglio of privileged burghers. These formed the aristocracy of the town, who by their wealth and birth held its affairs within their custody. There is good reason to believe that, when the term popolo occurs, it refers to this body, and not to the whole mass of the population. The comune included the entire city - bishop, consuls, oligarchy, councils, handicraftsmen, proletariate. The popolo was the governing or upper class. It was almost inevitable in the transition from feudalism to democracy that this intermediate ground should be traversed; and the peculiar Italian phrases, primo popolo, secondo popolo, terzo popolo, and so forth, indicate successive changes, whereby the oligarchy passed from one stage to another in its progress toward absorption in democracy or tyranny.

Under their consuls the Italian burghs rose to a great height of prosperity and splendor. Pisa built her Duomo. Milan undertook the irrigation works which enriched the soil of Lombardy forever. Massive walls, substantial edifices, commodious seaports, good roads, were the benefits conferred by this new government on Italy. It is also to be noted that the people now began to be conscious of their past. They recognized the fact that their blood was Latin as distinguished from Teutonic, and that they must look to ancient Rome for those memories which constitute a people's nationality. At this epoch the study of Roman law received a new impulse, and this is the real meaning of the legend that Pisa, glorious through her consuls, brought the pandects in a single codex from Amalfi. The very name consul, no less than the Romanizing character of the best architecture of the time, points to the same revival of antiquity.

The rise of the Lombard communes produced a sympathetic revolution in Rome. A monk, Arnold of Brescia, animated with the spirit of the Milanese, stirred up the Romans to shake off the temporal sway of their bishop. He attempted, in fact, upon a grand scale what was being slowly and quietly effected in the northern cities. Rome, ever mindful of her antique past, listened to Arnold's preaching. A senate was established, and the republic was proclaimed. The title of patrician was revived, and offered to Conrad, king of Italy, but not crowned emperor. Conrad refused it, and the Romans conferred it upon one of their own nobles. Though these institutions borrowed highsounding titles from antiquity, they were in reality imitations of the Lombard civic system. The patrician stood for the consuls. The senate, composed of nobles, represented the credenza and the gran consiglio. The pope was unable to check this revolution, which is now chiefly interesting as further proof of the insurgence of the Latin as against the feudal elements in Italy at this period.

Though the communes gained so much by the war of investitures, the division of the country between the pope's and emperor's parties was no small price to pay for independence. It inflicted upon Italy the ineradicable curse of party warfare, setting city against city, house against house, and rendering concordant action for a national end impossible. No sooner had the compromise of the investitures been concluded than it was manifest that the burghers of the now enfranchised communes were resolved to turn their arms against each other. There is not always an obvious motive for each separate quarrel.

All that is known for certain is that, at this epoch, Rome attempts to ruin Tivoli, and Venice Pisa; Milan fights with Cremona, Cremona with Crema, Pavia with Verona, Verona with Padua, Piacenza with Parma, Modena and Rcggio with Bologna, Bologna and Faenza with Ravenna and Imola, Florence and Pisa with Lucca and Siena, and so on through the whole list of cities. The nearer the neighbors, the more rancorous and internecine is the strife; and, as in all cases where animosity is deadly and no grave local causes of dispute are apparent, one is bound to conclude that some deeply-seated permanent uneasiness goaded these fast growing communities into rivalry.

Italy was, in fact, too small for her children. As the towns expanded, they perceived that they must mutually exclude each other. They fought for bare existence, for primacy in commerce, for the command of seaports, for the keys of mountain passes, for rivers, roads, and all the avenues of wealth and plenty. The pope's cause and the emperor's cause were of comparatively little moment to Italian burghers; and the names of Guelf and Ghibelline, which before long began to be heard in every street, on every market-place, had no meaning for them. These watchwords are said to have arisen in Germany during the disputed succession of the empire between 1135 and 1142, when the Welfs of Bavaria opposed the Swabian princes of Waiblingen origin. But in Italy, although they were severally identified with the papal and imperial parties, they really served as symbols for jealousies which altered in complexion from time to time and place to place, expressing more than antagonistic political principles, and involving differences vital enough to split the social fabric to its foundation.

Under the imperial rule of Lothar the Saxon (1125-1137) and Conrad the Swabian (1138-1152), these civil wars increased in violence owing to the absence of authority. Neither Lothar nor Conrad was strong at home ; the former had no influence in Italy, and the latter never entered Italy at all. But when Conrad died, the electors chose his nephew Frederick, surnamed Barbarossa, who united the rival honors of Welf and Waiblingen, to succeed him ; and it was soon obvious that the empire had a master powerful of brain and firm of will.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:00:50 ZULU