The Medieval Comune: An Imperfect Democracy

An Imperfect Democracy

In the late 11th century, merchants became wealthier and more important to the daily economic life of the small Italian cities, just as the old landed aristocracy was becoming obsolete with the collapse of the feudal system. Many of these merchants were minor gentry who began to get involved in trade and in big business like the textile industry and banking.

They organized themselves into guilds and gradually became the bourgeoisie oligarchical leaders of the cities. The self-governing comuni they established weren’t the perfect democracies they’ve often been made out to be. While many were ruled by popularly elected councils, usually only the guild members of the middle class were enfranchised. The majority of city laborers, as well as the rural farmers, remained powerless. 

In a tradition first inaugurated by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, whose empire tenuously extended through the area in the early 13th century, these councils became primarily legislative, while the executive power was placed in the hands of a Podestà. This sort of governor or mayor was usually brought in from out of town to govern for a set period of time (often a year). It was believed an out-of-towner would be less likely to play favorites with the local powerful families or factions vying for power and could therefore rule more evenhandedly. 

As the comuni thus stabilized their infrastructures—after dealing with blows like the 1348 Black Death, a plague that swept through Europe and left well over half of central Italy’s population dead, they also set about roughing up their neighbors and traditional rivals. Battles were fought both to increase the city-states' trading power and to acquire more towns under their control (or at least secure subservient allies). To this end, instead of raising militia armies, they hired condottieri, professional soldiers of fortune who controlled forces of armed mercenaries. These soldiers came from all over and all walks of life.

Many of these trade wars and ancient rivalries were fought between cities that used Europe’s big power struggle of the age—the Holy Roman Emperor versus the pope—as an excuse to attack their traditional antagonists. Although in the end the terms Guelf and Ghibelline meant little to the parties involved (even if they did have overriding and longer-term effects on the towns that defined themselves as one or the other), the conflict between these factions comes up constantly in medieval Tuscany and Umbria, so the history behind it bears a brief overview.