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Elements of democracy: from the 3rd century BC

In various societies, during the long gap between Athenian and modern democracy, the people acquire some elements of democratic power without achieving the ultimate control implicit in the ballot box.

The Roman republic is a good example. Early in the 5th century the citizens of Rome, by a programme of passive disobedience, win the right to elect their own officials - the tribunes. Two centuries later, in 287 BC, the decisions of the people's assembly are technically given the status of law. But in this oligarchic society, the votes of the people are mainly important as an expression of the power of their elected tribunes - who themselves become key figures within the oligarchy.

The votes of the Roman people, or plebs, are registered not individually but as the decision of a tribe. Every Roman citizen is a member of a tribe (he is allotted to one, if not a citizen by birth). By the 3rd century BC the number of tribes grows to thirty-five, as more are added to enrol an urban population of new citizens.

When an assembly is called, any citizen may attend. The area of the assembly is divided by ropes into a section for each tribe, and a walkway leads from each section to the presiding magistrate's platform. The tribes have their own officials to count the votes.

Until 139 BC citizens vote orally, giving their answer to a teller. Thereafter they mark a tablet and place it in an urn, constituting a secret ballot. When each tribe's returns have been counted, the result is taken to the magistrate as a single vote.

It is the beginning of the kind of voting system needed in any democracy larger than an ancient Greek city (similar methods are now used for elections in many representative democracies). But the change from republic to empire, in the 1st century BC, brings a temporary end to such developments. Roman citizens are subsequently appeased with bread and circuses rather than votes.

The Scandinavian thing: from the 8th century

The Christian empire, from the 4th century AD, is no more interested than the Roman empire in the opinions of the people. And when the Germanic tribes from the north usurp the western empire, their warrior traditions throw the emphasis more on the hero than the common man.

But in the extreme north, in Scandinavia, there is an interesting example of a kind of a democracy more common among very small and primitive communities. It takes place in a thing.

A thing is a meeting of all the free men of a community (several communities coming together for a joint meeting on larger issues constitute an all-thing). The function of these democratic gatherings is limited, for they are legislative rather than political. The free men gather either to affirm or to amend the existing state of the tribal law, which is expounded to them by experts in the matter.

In a pre-literate society this is in a sense a communal aide-mémoire, but it also enables the group to assess its own response to any new situation. The ancient tradition of the thing is echoed today in the names of the parliaments of Iceland (Althing), Norway (Storting) and Denmark (Folketing).

Communes in Italy: 11th - 13th century

The period from the 11th to the 13th century sees a steady rise in prosperity in the cities of Europe. One of the first regions to prosper is northern Italy - on the trade route between the eastern Mediterranean and northern Europe, with goods landing at Venice for the journey through the passes of the Alps, north to Austria and Germany or west through Milan to France.

Yet northern Italy is politically insecure, crushed between the rival claims of imperial Germany to the north and the papal states to the south. Prosperous but threatened, the cities seek greater control of their own destiny. The result is the form of government known to historians as the medieval commune.

Between about 1080 and 1140 many of the towns of northern Italy (among them Pisa, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Genoa) acquire municipal councils in which the elected councillors call themselves consuls - in a deliberate echo of Italy's republican past.

As these republican communes grow in wealth, and assert control over large tracts of the surrounding countryside, they become in effect independent. Technically they acknowledge either pope or emperor as feudal overlord. Unable to restrain these fledgling city states, popes and emperors often authorize their new form of government and thus give it legitimacy.

In the early years of these Italian communes every male citizen can participate in an assembly known as the arengo. But this glimmer of democracy is soon extinguished in favour of oligarchy. Considerations of efficiency coincide with the interests of the nobility and the rich merchants of the city. Electoral power in the communes becomes increasingly restricted to members of a few families.

This process in its turn leads towards authority in each city being placed in the hands of one man. The noble families constantly feud within the communes, just as the communes regularly go to war against each other. The practical solution is a powerful chief executive.

During the last three decades of the 12th century nearly all the north Italian communes appoint a mayor or podestà (someone with potestà, 'power') to run the city's affairs. The podestà is usually a nobleman from another district, who arrives with his own household and administrative staff. His appointment is for a fixed term, rarely more than a year.

But once the machinery of individual rule is in place, a more permanent and even perhaps hereditary ruler becomes a likely option. During the second half of the 13th century the podestá gives way to the signore.

In commune after commune, from the late 13th century, the local oligarchs accept a powerful leader as their signore and subsequently allow the post to remain with a family. The Visconti of Milan are an early example. Matteo Visconti is signore from 1287 to 1322 and the post is declared hereditary in 1349. Florence remains technically a republican commune for very much longer; the Medici only become hereditary dukes in 1532.

In this way the near-democracy of the early Italian communes reverts gradually to princely rule. The one exception is the earliest commune of them all. The self-perpetuating oligarchy of Venice is a refined system which preserves power in the hands of the local grandees until the 18th century.

Communes elsewhere: 12th - 13th century

In many parts of Europe the Italian example of urban communes is followed, though about a century later. There are a variety of reasons why these communes come into being.

One is the need for medieval rulers to counterbalance the growing power of their own barons. The developing towns are often at odds with their feudal overlords. In that sense they and the ruler have a common cause. If a town can be relied on to supply funds or fighting men in return for a royal charter, guaranteeing a measure of self-government, the king or duke is likely to consider the bargain a good one.

A second reason for the development of communes is colonization. Newly founded towns in frontier regions sometimes begin life with charters and privileges already granted them by a ruler. This is particularly true on the eastern frontiers of Germany, where settlers are needed to hold territory won from the Slavs, and in Spain where there is a similar requirement in previously Muslim areas.

But the impulse behind the most powerful communes comes from the prosperity of the merchants and the guilds. Such communes, like those of northern Italy, are often at the hubs of Europe's trading network. Prime examples are Barcelona, Lübeck and the cities of Flanders.

The emergence of communes in the rich Flemish towns - such as Ghent, Bruges, Arras or Ypres - is gradual. Since the time of the Frankish empire these towns have had their own magistrates or échevins (usually twelve or thirteen in a numerical tradition deriving from missionaries in this region). With growing prosperity the magistrates acquire a certain independence.

The first important step is the right to be appointed by the burghers of the town rather than by the feudal overlord, the count of Flanders. A subsequent development is for the role of magistrate to be reduced from a life appointment to an annual period of office.

This important change, creating a municipal council, is achieved by the major Flemish towns between about 1190 and 1240. As in the Italian communes, the system of government is oligarchic rather than democratic; power tends to be in the hands of relatively few families.

But the Flemish communes remain municipal, concerned with regulating a shared commercial venture rather than establishing rule over a wider rural territory. As a result, during the 14th century, the craftsmen in many places acquire a measure of power. In Ghent, after 1369, three separate groups elect the thirteen magistrates. The merchants choose three; the weavers and fullers choose five; the smaller crafts choose five.

Landsgemeinde in Schwyz: 1294

The forest districts of Switzerland, smaller than other political units in the Middle Ages, adopt a form of government in the Athenian tradition of direct democracy.

These districts are like Athens, in that the community is small enough for every adult male to be able to walk to an assembly and cast a vote. In Switzerland such a meeting is called a Landsgemeinde (district community); the earliest record of one is in Schwyz in 1294. Held in the open air, assemblies of this kind become the highest legislative authority in the rural cantons of the Swiss federation - Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Glarus and Appenzell.

Parliament: 12th - 14th century

The idea of parliament, a place for speaking (from the French parler) begins to evolve from the 12th century in the monarchies of western Europe. It develops from the curia regis, or 'council of the king', the feudal court in which the monarch makes legal judgements and discusses important issues of state with the most powerful bishops and nobles of his kingdom.

A parliament is summoned whenever the king requires it. At a period when a monarch is almost permanently on the move to maintain his authority, a parliament will be held wherever the royal court may happen to be.

The crucial step in the evolution of the curia regis into parliament is the inclusion of citizens representing the wealthy towns of the period. They are the third estate, added to the two already familiar in royal councils - the nobles and the bishops.

The burghers of the towns become involved because rulers increasingly need their support (almost invariably of a financial kind). Spain provides one of the earliest examples of representatives of the towns being summoned to a king's council. They take part in a parliament in Léon in 1188.

England is often referred to as the 'mother of parliaments' (a phrase coined by John Bright in 1865). It is a valid claim in some senses, such as the length of the unbroken parliamentary tradition in England. And Westminster is the first parliament to assert its independence of the monarch, in the person of Charles I. But the British cannot claim any priority in historical precedence.

Parliaments are held fairly frequently in England from 1246. By that time the Spanish Cortes ('courts') are well established as parliaments in Léon, Castile and Catalonia. In Portugal a Cortes is summoned in 1211, and commoners are included as the third estate from 1254.

France is the first kingdom to establish parliament on a permanent basis. In the mid-13th century Louis IX grants the parlement a chamber in his palace on the Ile de la Cité in Paris, where the councillors gather for sessions four times a year.

But the name of the room, the chambre aux plaids ('pleading chamber'), reflects the fact that this French parliament is restricted to the legal work of the broader curia regis. All the councillors are jurists, trained in law. The Palais de Justice stands today on the same site.

The French parlement acquires an element of political power in the early 14th century, when it is given the task of registering the king's edicts. The ability to withhold or delay registration eventually brings the parlement into direct opposition with Louis XIV in the 17th century.

In England parliament develops into a vehicle for the political expression of the community's views. In France this function is fulfilled by a different form of occasional assembly - that of the estates general.

Two famous English parliaments:1265-1295

When Simon de Montfort summons his parliament in Westminster Hall in 1265, he knows that he has relatively little support among the nobility (in the event only five earls and eighteen barons attend). Hoping to involve other sections of the community in his cause, he invites to Westminster two knights from each county, two citizens from each city and two burgesses from each borough.

This is not a representative assembly, since any known opponents of Montfort are excluded. But something closer to representation evolves in some of the many parliaments summoned between 1275 and 1307 by Edward I.

Edward summons parliaments when he feels he needs them, and for whatever reasons the particular moment demands. To some of these assemblies (approximately one in seven, and usually when he has pressing needs for funds) he invites people of lesser rank than the magnates of nobility and church. Knights are summoned from the shires and citizens from the towns.

These men are genuinely representatives of their community. The king insists that they come with full delegated authority so that any agreement made in parliament (in particular a commitment to provide money) will be honoured by their county or borough. They are the origin of the Commons (or commoners) who eventually become the more powerful of the two houses of parliament.

The parliament summoned by Edward in 1295 later comes to seem the most significant of his reign, because it prefigures a future pattern - as its subsequent name, the Model Parliament, implies.

This assembly in Westminster Hall represents the nation in a very real sense. The magnates are present in force (the two archbishops, all the bishops, 67 abbots, 8 earls, 41 barons) but they sit with elected representatives of the parish clergy (2 from each diocese) and of each shire (2 knights), city (2 citizens) and borough (2 burgesses). The underlying purpose is to raise money for the king, but that will be true of many subsequent parliaments. Meanwhile a valid pattern of representation has almost accidentally fallen into place.

Estates general in France: 14th - 15th century

In the strict hierarchy of medieval society three groups of people stand out as exercising special power. They are the clergy, the nobility and the rich burgesses or burghers (in French bourgeois) of the rapidly developing boroughs, towns and cities. These groups are together known as the three estates.

Delegates in any medieval assembly are seen as representing one of the estates. This is as true of parliament in England as of other such gatherings which use the term 'estates' in their title, as in France.

The estates general are first summoned by the French king Philip IV in 1302. They meet in Notre Dame in Paris to discuss the king's relationship with the pope, Boniface VIII. The estates support Philip wholeheartedly - contributing no doubt to his bold decision in the following year to send a French agent to arrest the pontiff.

Estates general continue to be summoned frequently in France during the 14th century, often taking an independent course unpopular with the monarch. Thereafter their influence gradually declines, until the absolutism of French monarchy in the 17th century makes the institution defunct. It is briefly revived in the early stages of the French Revolution.

Estates general elsewhere in Europe: 14th - 15th century

Meanwhile other regions develop their own versions of the estates general. During the 14th and 15th century rulers in most parts of Europe use assemblies of the estates as a method of acquiring assent to their policies or to proposed taxes.

Among the most influential are the estates of the Netherlands. In Flanders there is a record of an assembly as early as 1279, and by the 14th century the estates are regularly gathered and consulted at a local level. The great assembly brought together at Bruges in 1463-4 is generally regarded as the first full gathering of the Netherlands States General - an institution which later plays such an important part in Dutch history.

The royal dynasty of Aragon makes effective use of the three estates when it transfers this form of assembly from Aragon itself (where it has developed during the 13th century) to Sicily.

The three estates or bracci of Sicily do their Aragonese king a favour in 1314 when they repudiate a treaty agreed by him in 1302. By its terms he holds the Sicilian throne only for his lifetime, after which it reverts to the Angevins of France. This suits neither him nor his Sicilian subjects. Their resolution of 1314 is an early example of a ruler and a representative assembly working together in a common political cause.

In Bohemia, during the 15th century, assemblies of three estates play a regular part in public affairs, insisting in particular on their right to elect the king.

In this century of religious turmoil in Bohemia, the clergy are usually omitted from the deliberations of the Czech estates. At a national assembly in Prague in 1446, bringing together representatives from Moravia and Silesia as well as Bohemia, the three estates involved are the nobles, the knights and the burghers of the royal boroughs.

Such a small part of the community is represented in these assemblies, at any rate in their early versions, that they may be more justly considered aspects of oligarchy rather than of democracy.

An interesting exception, at least in principle, is Sweden. Popular opposition to royal pretensions in the mid-15th century leads to a unique form of parliament, the riksdag, which has representatives from four estates. The fourth estate, after the clergy, nobles and burghers, are the peasants - reflecting the part played by the common people in recent upheavals.

The Polish sejm: 1493-1505

A European parliament which exercises unusual power from the early 16th century is the sejm ('assembly') of Poland.

Its origin lies in the gatherings (or sejmiki) of local gentry and burghers, organized from the late 14th century onwards to defend their interests. In less than a decade, from the end of the 15th century, an assembly of this kind becomes established as a national institution of considerable importance.

The first recorded parliament or sejm representing the whole of Poland is called by the king (John I Albert) in 1493. The royal purpose, as with parliaments elsewhere, is to raise funds.

The power of the new national assembly is vividly emphasized in 1505 when the crown accepts the principle of Nihil novi (Latin for 'nothing new'). The principle states that no new law may be introduced without the authority of the sejm.

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