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9-08-2015, 15:13

Power at the local level

The Italian city-states are the most visible example of politics at the level where it had the greatest impact on most people’s day-to-day lives: the local. Their history reminds us that in all of Europe, underneath the highest layer of intermarrying hereditary dynasties, cities, villages, parishes, timars , and many other smaller governmental units all had authority over people and their families. Just as national or territorial rulers did, these lower levels of government demanded taxes, developed bureaucracies, and issued ordinances. They created and maintained courts that set punishments for those who did not pay their taxes, obey offi cials, or follow ordinances. Though most men could not hope to become an offi cial for a national or territorial ruler, they might gain a position as village constable, gate-keeper, church sexton, or market overseer. Some of these more local institutions of government were run by the church. Christians throughout Europe paid taxes to their local parish and were under the authority of church courts for matters involving marriage, morality, and a variety of other issues. Other of these institutions were secular. By 1450 villages in many parts of Europe had become what were called communes, with institutions of self-governance such as councils or courts that regulated planting and harvesting, and might represent the village as a whole to outside political authorities. In some places such groups could issue ordinances and make legal decisions, either in conjunction with the local lord or on their own. The towns and cities that won their independence from local lords and gained charters had even stronger institutions of governance. In Germany and Italy, as we have seen, they might be under the jurisdiction of only the emperor or of no higher political authority at all, but even in areas in which national monarchies developed, cities collected taxes, passed and enforced ordinances, built and maintained walls and fortifi cations, and established courts, hospitals, orphanages, and often municipal brothels. Larger cities were often dominated by a merchant oligarchy, and in smaller towns and villages the men from wealthier families were often the most powerful, but in many places all adult men swore an oath annually to defend and protect their town, so that they were at the very least symbolically part of a political community. They were citizens, a word that is linked etymologically and conceptually in many European languages to living in a city or community – in Latin the word civitas means both citizenship and community; in French a city is a bourg and its residents are bourgeois ; in German Burg is a walled city or fortress and its residents are Bürger . Citizenship in a city or town did not bring direct voting rights in this period, but it did bring preferential legal treatment, often lower taxes than those paid by non-citizens, the right to live in the city and buy property there without seeking anyone’s permission, the right to be free from the demands of anyone living outside the city, and the right to claim certain services if one fell ill or became incapacitated, such as staying in a city hospital or receiving public support. In short, it brought many of the same benefi ts we associate with citizenship today, particularly the right to live and work undisturbed in a particular location. Citizenship was thus a coveted commodity, and, like property or a monarchy, became heritable. The importance and heritability of citizenship meant that – again as with property or a monarchy – distinctions were made on the basis of gender. Until about 1500 women were regularly listed as “citizeness” ( Bürgerin , bourgeoise ) in court records, though they do not seem to have been part of the annual oath-swearing. This label gradually became rarer, as cities sought various means to restrict the number of citizens, and as Roman law – which viewed women as mentally weak – spread in Europe. Women in towns and cities very occasionally held minor offi ces such as those of churchwarden, market inspector, or gate-keeper, especially if they were the widow of a man who had held this offi ce, and in more places held offi cial positions as city midwives. In these positions, they swore oaths of offi ce just as men did. They never held high positions in urban or village government, however. Women inherited and governed nations and regions, of course, but those female rulers did not grant or allow other women a more signifi cant political role than male rulers did. They named no women as ministers or judges, nor did they sell them the government offi ces that were so often for sale to men.