Social classes in the early towns. In order to ascertain who made up the early trading and producing groups in the towns, one must glance back into Roman times.Next Page
In Italy, after the Empire, the leading citizens of the towns were not averse to engaging in trade and commerce. There is every reason to believe that those who had the entrepreneurial spirit to develop the industrial and commercial life of early medieval times were persons who were following the trades and activities of their ancestors, or noblemen who had been driven from the land by the country loving Lombards, and who were not content to sit idly by and let opportunity slip away -- they chose to enter commercial life (much as their distant cousins in Gaul, after centuries of pacifist laziness, had taken up the sword and learned to fight). By doing so, they preserved their social class position by finding a new economic base, shared by the commercial experts from Byzantine and the descendants of the old Roman municipal administrators.
It is not one of the customs of the upper classes to quit, to disappear into the proletarian mass, even in times of great change.
Merchants have belonged to all the ages; they have experienced an unbroken line of tradition and behavior, if there was a market place to stand in, from the time of the Phoenicians through the present scramble for sales outlets by radio advertising.
In the age under discussion apprenticeship in commerce was a family matter and early native business men passed their knowledge and their wealth on to their children and established the slowly rising commercial aristocracies.
The groups of traders in Gaul that survived the invasions and kept alive the commercial life were the very groups whose experience and habits had most secure roots in long tradition. "When King Guntram in 585 passed through Orleans . . . he was welcomed by a great crowd, among which the Jews and traders from the East . . . . " 16 This can only be interpreted as class continuity, the maintenance of the father's activity by the son, rather than as a racial characteristic. (There were many Jews not engaged in commercial pursuits!) Knight reports that "Syrians and Jews from the Near East were the pioneers in finance in the Italian towns." 17
All the way up through Europe the light which drove out the darkness of the barter world was kindled by trading experience, old and solid. (Once this knowledge got into the hands of natives, who were not subject to limitations and discrimination, they used it rapidly to build up commercial classes, even commercial aristocracies.) "William the Conqueror . . . actually taking Jews to that country in the hope of building up a type of economic life which could be made to yield revenue." 18 The people who introduced commercial life into northern Europe, although some Scandinavians had run ships through Gibraltar, were "pedlars . . . from Byzantium, Syria, and from the cities of southern Europe . . . . " 19
The social class implications of the foregoing are shown in the following: 20
In Italy, the towns took the lead. Eventually, a new commercial aristocracy was able to play nobles, clergy, kings and commoners against each other and to seize the real power for itself. This took place in Venice in 976, in Milan slightly later, spreading to Cremona, Sologna, Pavia, and Genoa.
If the commercial classes could crystalize an aristocracy in the 900's, there must have been a carry-over from ancient and honored Greek and Roman families, as was shown to have been the case in Venice. There is every reason to believe that part of the commerical aristocracy in northern Italy was made up of the descendants of the old senatorial nobility and that others were descended from Roman middle classes.
The early gilds. It is entirely possible that in some places certain artisan organizations may have enjoyed continuous existence from Roman times to the twelfth century. 21 It is "even possible that Roman regulations may have served as models for the organization of servile artisans on the lands of monasteries and great nobles -- from which, on the continent, some of the later craft gilds doubtless sprang." 22 But, all things considered, it is likely that only a few organizations in northern and western Europe remained intact during the centuries of invasion, chiefly because of the decline in town life. In northern Italy, however, there was, as in Byzantium, a hierarchy of commercial and craft groups, "with the financial, commercial, and legal people at the top, followed by the larger-scale industries, and the craftsmen, in the stricter, narrower sense, at the bottom." 23 One reads that "the fraternal aspects of gild life were much the same in Byzantium as in the Italian cities later on." 24
16. Samuel Dill, Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age (London, 1926) p. 244.
17. Knight, op. cit., p. 96.
18. Ibid., p. 104.
19. Jerome Dowd, Control in Human Societies (New York, 1936) p. 47.
20. Knight, op. cit., p. 105.
21. Ashley, op. cit., pp. 77 - 78.
22. Loc. cit.
23. Knight, op. cit., p. 94.
24. Loc. cit.