Medieval Commons

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How the medieval commons supported an emerging market system

Adam Arvidsson:

"In recent decades historians have come to pay new attention to role of the ruralcommons and their urban equivalents, in the form of guilds and fraternities, both in thetransition to capitalism and as harbingers of ‘modernity’ more generally. In earlier scholarship the origin of the commons was often attributed to tradition or ‘custom’, like the ancient traditions of Germanic tribes who, as E.A. Thompson suggested (along with Tacitus before him) lived in a society where ‘the private ownership of land was unknown’ and where the soil was worked collectively (Thompson, 1966: 74, cf Anderson, 1975:107). In thistradition the commons were understood as residuals of earlier, more ‘primitive’ forms of property that had survived into the modern age: a view that was shared by liberal promoters of the 18th century enclosures as well as by some of their critics, like, notably Friedrich Engels (Bravo and Moor 2008: 160, cf. Linebaugh, 2008). Although the commons may certainly have ancient roots, contemporary scholarship agrees that they underwent a process of formalization and institutionalization as part of the consolidation of European feudalism. ‘Feudalism’ remains a contested concept. However there is little doubt that a distinct institutional arrangement emerged in Western Europe around the last turn of the millennium.The reaffirmation of social order and the strengthening of royal power in the 11th century allowed for a demographic upswing and an increase in commerce and communications, cities grew and, as Marc Bloch (1961) notes in his classic work, the social fabric grew denser. This new density of people and communication led to a series of mutually reinforcing processes. Itcreated an increased pressure or land and other natural resources. Early merchant capitalists connected Europe to the Chinese centred ‘world-economy’. Centers of manufacturing grew in Flanders, Lombardy and Picardy. This ‘commercial revolution’ allowed for rising a prosperity, which was concentrated to Italy but spread across Central and Northern Europe(Abu Lughod, 1989, Lopez, 1976). The intensification of commerce led to a new importance of cities and markets, along with the rise of new strata of urban and rural ‘petty producers’. It also led to a growing cultural centrality of towns and promoted a shift in the relational modality, a sort of social modernization if you like, expressed in the emergence of new institutions, like the monastic orders or the fraternities that were based on free association,rather than kinship (de Moor, 2008: 179). This allowed the Church to mobilize ‘the little people’ in ideologically motivated resistance to arbitrary seigneurial power. Robert Mooregoes as far as suggesting that the ensuing ‘Peace Movement’, organized around itinerant preachers who mobilized the power of relics, constituted a ‘First European Revolution’ fromwhich feudalism emerged as a (more or less) balanced settlement of claims and interests between peasants, lords, the church and the growing strata of market oriented petty producers (Moore, 2000:51, Wallerstein, 1992:581).

The commons were part of this settlement. In the countryside the rural commons became an integral element of the feudal manorial system comprising the land of the lord, the private plots of peasants and the common lands of the village. In part this was simply a consequence of the greater population density . Already Perry Anderson noted (in passing) something of the sort, attributing the rise of the English rural commons to the development of feudalism in which ‘scattered Celtic hamlets gave way to nucleated villages in which the individual property of peasant households was combined with the collective co-aration ofopen fields.’ (Anderson, 1975: 124). The commons were an essential part of the village economy, supplying a necessary foundation for the reproduction of the feudal workforce, aswell as a source of popular empowerment and opposition. In the following centuries population increase coincided with the rising levels ofexploitation that derived from new forms of royal taxation, together with more intense seigneurial rent extraction. This process tended to increase seigneurial interest in enclosing the commons as well as peasant interest in defending them (Birrell, 1987). The result was acycle of peasant struggles where traditional common rights were defended, and, when successful, codified and made explicit in new ways, and where new ones were introduced. The resulting commons, often highly complicated arrangements of varying rights of access,should be seen as ‘settlements of conflicts that arose between the lords and the inhabitants of a village’ in the context of the ‘great European reclamations that took place during the tenthto the twelfth centuries’ (de Moor, 2008: 185). Sometimes this process included theinscription of some of these settlements into law, as in the case of the English Magna Cartaand the accompanying Forest Charter of 1215.The development of the feudal economy thus put the commons at the heart of economic exploitation as well as social struggles. This tended to transform them from commons 1 - more or less freely available resources with little or no legal or customary value - as was thecase in the ‘affluent society’ of Carolingian Europe (Moore, 2000:45,ff.)- into commons (2) collectively enforced property arrangements with culturally sanctioned forms of economic and identitarian value, or ‘magic’.The urban guilds that flourished in the same period can also be understood to have antecedents in classical institutions like the Roman collegia. However, they flourished as part of the development of market relations in the 11th to 14th centuries, leading to the proliferation of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of such organizations by the year 1300 (de Moor,2008:191). The flourishing of guilds was linked to the new social environment of the growing cities. Attracting serfs that had fled or somehow been purged form a countryside facing intensified seigneurial pressure, or other ‘masterless men’- to use Norman Cohn’s (1961) old expression - that sought a fortune as traders or craftsmen, the cities exemplified the new prevalence of free association over kindship. Along with fraternities and religious orders guilds provided a space where new identities and rule systems could be articulated. These would serve to regulate and improve productive and commercial activates, ensure quality andreduce insecurity. This applied in an economic sense as guilds were able to fix prices, set therules of market exchange and provide a number of welfare services for their members. It alsoapplied in an existential sense. Like the new monastic orders, guilds provided a new meaningful framework for life, endowing it with goals and aims, along with the secrets andrituals that were able to sustain them (Lucassen et al. 2008).And while the guilds certainly functioned to protect against the risks of the market, theyalso supported the development of a new market society. They did this by regulating market transactions, but also by providing a source of social capital and a shared identity for traders and artisans, thus contributing to altering their status. Importantly they also functioned assource of significant legal developments. Along with the Universities to which they were sometimes closely linked, the guilds drove the re-discovery of Roman law and its development into a new lex mercatorioum, for the regulation of commerce, and by extension the civic life of towns as well. As Avner Grief (2006) has argued, these new organizations were fundamental for the formation of an infrastructure for modern market economy." (


* Article: Capitalism and the Commons. By Adam Arvidsson.Theory, Culture & Society, 2019