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commune (kôm´yōōn), in medieval history, collective institution that developed in continental Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Because of the importance of the commune in municipal government, the term is also used to denote a town itself to which a charter of liberties was granted by the sovereign or feudal overlord. Although in most cases the development of communes was inextricably connected with that of the cities, there were rural communes, notably in France and England, that were formed to protect the common interests of villagers.


To build defenses, regulate and improve trade, raise taxes, and maintain order, organization of an urban area was necessary. The earliest attempts at united action of the burghers involved the forming of associations in which the burghers swore an oath binding themselves together in a personal bond of mutual support and defense. The communes grew in power and, as autonomous corporate entities, became extremely influential in organizing city government. By the late 12th cent., when cities were well established, all who chose to live in them had to take an oath acknowledging the authority of the communes.

Because the town was located on land belonging to a king or emperor (see feudalism), the town owed allegiance to its lord and paid him tribute and, in wartime, service or money payment. Suzerains often favored the communes as sources of wealth and confirmed their rights in liberal charters. Disputes, nevertheless, frequently arose between communes and their overlords. In the struggle between kings and nobles, the kings usually strengthened the communes and sought alliances with them. However, in the 16th and 17th cent., when European states (notably France and Spain) became centralized, the privileges of the communes were gradually withdrawn.

The extent of their liberties and the details of their organization varied widely. A common feature was the elected council. The magistrates were usually called consoli, podestàs, and capitouls in Italy and S France, échevins and jurés in N France and the Low Countries, Senatoren and Ratsherren in Germany. Corporations and guilds gained a prominent share in the government. Militia insured the defense.

Important Communes

The earliest communes arose in N and central Italy. In the struggle between emperors and popes, the communes forming the Lombard League gained a great deal of independence and became almost synonymous with the cities themselves. In the 14th cent., however, the communes were usurped by local tyrants. The commune of Rome was established by Arnold of Brescia in 1144. In the Low Countries, e.g., in Flanders, communes arose very early and enjoyed very wide privileges. In S France, Avignon, Arles, and Toulouse were outstanding examples of self-governed communes, as Barcelona was in Spain. In Germany, cities such as Frankfurt, Cologne, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Lübeck became republics immediately subject to the emperor (imperial and free imperial cities). Others, such as Magdeburg, held charters that became models for numerous towns in N Germany, Bohemia, and Moravia.


See W. F. T. Butler, The Lombard Communes (1906, repr. 1969); H. Pirenne, Medieval Cities (tr. 1925, repr. 1969); M. V. Clarke, The Medieval City State (1926, repr. 1966); J. H. Mundy and P. Riesenberg, The Medieval Town (1959).

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com·mune1 / ˈkämˌyoōn/ • n. 1. a group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities. ∎  a communal settlement in a communist country. 2. the smallest French territorial division for administrative purposes. ∎  a similar division elsewhere. 3. (the Commune) the group that seized the municipal government of Paris in the French Revolution and played a leading part in the Reign of Terror until suppressed in 1794. ∎  (also the Paris Commune) the municipal government organized on communalistic principles elected in Paris in 1871. It was soon brutally suppressed by government troops. com·mune2 / kəˈmyoōn/ • v. [intr.] 1. (commune with) share one's intimate thoughts or feelings with (someone or something), esp. when the exchange is on a spiritual level: the purpose of praying is to commune with God. ∎  feel in close spiritual contact with: to commune with nature. 2. Christian Church receive Holy Communion.

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commune Refers to either a group of people sharing life and work, a utopian community in which members attempt to found a new social order, based on a vision of an ideal society; or to a territorial administrative unit, originally used in the French Revolution to refer to a subdivision of a canton, introduced in 1792. The latter usage was adopted by the Jacobin regime of 1793–4, extended to other insurrectionist bodies such as the Paris Commune of 1871, and to several other countries including Italy. In the post-war period it has also referred to Chinese units of territorial administration and Israeli kibbutzim.

However, sociological interest in communes focuses mainly on the commune in the first sense; namely, the attempt to create new, shared, egalitarian living and working relationships. Among the questions posed by these experiments is whether behavioural patterns and power relations (such as those based on gender) are significantly transformed in a more socially egalitarian context. Andrew Rigby (Alternative Realities, 1973) has offered a useful six-fold typology of communes: self-actualizing communes offer members the opportunity to create a new social order by realizing their full potential as individuals within the context of the communal group; communes for mutual support attempt to promote a sense of solidarity that members feel they have been unable to discover in the world at large; activist communes provide an urban base from which members can venture forth to involve themselves in social and political activity in the outside world; practical communes define their purpose at least partly in terms of the economic and other material advantages they offer to members; therapeutic communes, as the name implies, offer some form of care and attention to those who are considered to have particular needs; and religious communes are defined by their members primarily in religious terms. These categories are, of course, not mutually exclusive.

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communeafternoon, attune, autoimmune, baboon, balloon, bassoon, bestrewn, boon, Boone, bridoon, buffoon, Cameroon, Cancún, cardoon, cartoon, Changchun, cocoon, commune, croon, doubloon, dragoon, dune, festoon, galloon, goon, harpoon, hoon, immune, importune, impugn, Irgun, jejune, June, Kowloon, lagoon, lampoon, loon, macaroon, maroon, monsoon, moon, Muldoon, noon, oppugn, picayune, platoon, poltroon, pontoon, poon, prune, puccoon, raccoon, Rangoon, ratoon, rigadoon, rune, saloon, Saskatoon, Sassoon, Scone, soon, spittoon, spoon, swoon, Troon, tune, tycoon, typhoon, Walloon •fortune, misfortune •vodun • veldskoen • honeymoon •forenoon • tablespoon • teaspoon •soupspoon • dessertspoon • Neptune •tribune • triune • opportune

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commune 2 in France, territorial division XVIII; (hist.) commonalty, corporation XIX. — F. commune, earlier †comugne — medL. commūnia, n. pl. of commūnis COMMON, taken as fem. sing. in sense ‘group of people having a COMMON life’.
So communal XIX.

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commune 1 communicate, esp orally, with XIII; hold spiritual intercourse with XVII. — OF. comuner share, f. comun COMMON.

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a body of the commons; a group forming an interim government. e.g., in Paris in 1794 and 1781; a group living together in a common community.

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commune, in agriculture: see collective farm.