The Town

In the days of the Republic and in the first days of the Empire, all kinds of skilled labour were in the hands of slaves: in every palace, whatever was required for the household was manufactured on the premises. But before the occupation of the Germans, a free class of artisans had sprung up, in what manner is not precisely known; they were probably the descendants of emancipated slaves. This class, divided into guilds and corporations, continued to inhabit the towns: they manufactured armour and clothes they travelled as pedlars about the country, and thus acquired wealth, which they cautiously concealed, for they were in complete subservience to the castle lord. They could not leave their property by will, dispose of their daughters in marriage, or perform a single business transaction without the permission of their liege. But little by little their power increased. When war was being waged, it became needful to fortify the town; for the town was the baron's estate, and he did not wish his property to be destroyed. When once the burghers were armed and their town walled they were able to defy their lord. They obtained charters, sometimes by revolt, sometimes by purchase, which gave them the town to do with it as they pleased; to elect their own magistrates, to make their own laws, and to pay their liege-lord a fixed rent by the year instead of being subjected to loans and benevolences, and loving contributions. The Roman Law, which had never quite died out, was now revived; the old municipal institutions of the Empire were restored. Unhappily the citizens often fought among themselves, and towns joined barons in destroying towns. Yet their influence rapidly increased, and the power of the castle was diminished. Whenever a town received privileges from its lord, other towns demanded that the same rights should be embodied in their charters, and rebelled if their request was refused. Trade and industry expanded; the products of burgher enterprise and skill were offered in the castle halls for sale. The lady was tempted with silk and velvet; the lord, with chains of gold, and Damascus blades, and suits of Milan steel; the children clamoured for the sweet white powder which was brought from the countries of the East. These new tastes and fancies impoverished the nobles. They reduced their establishments; and the discarded retainers, in no sweet temper, went over to the Town.

And there were others who went to the Town as well. In classical times the slaves were unable to rebel with any prospect of success. In the cities of Greece every citizen was a soldier: in Rome an enormous army served as the slave police. But in the scattered castle states of Europe, the serfs could rise against their lords, and often did so with effect. And then the Town was always a place of refuge: the runaway slave was there welcomed; his pursuers were duped or defied; the file was applied to his collar; his blue blouse was taken off; his hair was suffered to grow; he was made a burgher and a free man. Thus the serfs had often the power to rebel, and always the power to escape; in consequence of which they ceased to be serfs and became tenants. In our own times we have seen emancipation presented to slaves by a victorious party in the House of Commons, and by a victorious army in the United States. It has, therefore, been inferred that slavery in Europe was abolished in the same manner, and the honour of the movement has been bestowed upon the Church. But this is reading history upside down. The extinction of villeinage was not a donation but a conquest: it did not descend from the court and the castle; it ascended from the village and the town. The Church, however, may claim the merit of having mitigated slavery in its worst days, when its horrors were increased by the pride of conquest and the hostility of race. The clergy belonged to the conquered people, whom they protected from harsh usage to the best of their ability. They taught as the Moslem doctors also teach, and as even the pagan Africans believe, that it is a pious action to emancipate a slave. But there is no reason to suppose that they ever thought of abolishing slavery, and they could not have done so had they wished. Negro slavery was established by subjects of the Church in defiance of the Church. Religion has little power when it works against the stream, but it can give to streams a power which they otherwise would not possess, and it can unite their scattered waters into one majestic flood.

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