Urban Institutions and Politics: The Early Modern Period

views updated


Christopher R. Friedrichs

The institutional structure and political practices of European cities during the early modern era were products of the Middle Ages. The framework of institutions and customs by which European town dwellers regulated both their internal affairs and their relations with the broader society took shape roughly from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. Despite significant pressures for change, this framework remained relatively constant throughout the early modern era. Only with the gradual emergence of mass politics following the French Revolution (1789) and the acceleration of urban growth following the industrial revolution did this framework fully fall apart.

Not only was the institutional structure of European cities during the early modern era highly stable, it was also remarkably uniform. The names of urban institutions and the details of their organization varied enormously from place to place, but the fundamental forms and functions did not. In many ways Europe had a common urban political culture.

The institutional structure of early modern European cities is well documented and widely known. By contrast, the character of political interaction within European cities is less well understood. Because city councils normally conducted their deliberations in secret, exactly how urban rulers arrived at their decisions is often hard to reconstruct. But historians are increasingly aware of the complexity of urban politics. Cities were normally governed by a small stratum of wealthy men who expected deference and obedience from those over whom they ruled. Yet even the most well entrenched urban elites always had to respond to pressures exerted by an array of rival authorities and interest groups inside and outside the city.


The most fundamental urban institution was the citizenry. Whether known as freemen, burghers, bourgeois, Bürger, or even (as in Rome) the populo, the citizens represented an identifiable segment of every city's total population. They were that portion of the adult male householders who comprised the city's political community. In almost every city, membership in the citizenry could be obtained in two ways: by inheritance or by purchase. Typically citizenship was activated when a young man married and established his own household. At that point he paid the necessary fees and took an oath of allegiance to the community. As a citizen he had the right to live and practice a trade in his city and the obligation to pay taxes and to bear arms in the city's defense. Citizenship was gendered: only an adult male could fully hold this status, though wives and daughters of citizens might enjoy a latent form of citizenship, which protected their right to live in the city and to carry on certain businesses. Many—often most—of a city's adult inhabitants were not citizens at all: the broad mass of servants and unskilled or unemployed laborers generally had no political status and lived in the city only as temporary or tolerated residents with no recognized rights.

Although in formal juridical terms citizens formed the city's political community, their actual level of involvement in political decision making was often limited. An assembly of all citizens might meet from time to time to hear decrees or voice opinions, but the actual power to rule the community was normally invested in a small council or, in certain cities, a group of councils. Occasionally the citizens played some role in the election of council members, but in many cities the council simply filled any vacancy in its ranks without broader consultation.

The political structure of cities was not democratic. But at the same time it was not autocratic, for political power in cities was almost always collective, exercised by councils rather than individuals. Most cities had mayors, but their powers were usually limited. Typically they were senior or former council members who held the highest office on a rotational basis. Even in Venice, where the elected prince, or doge, served for life and enjoyed enormous prestige, real decision-making authority was still exercised primarily by the senate and its various committees.

The council (or councils) typically regulated almost every conceivable aspect of the city's economic, social, and cultural life. Yet the council was normally answerable to some higher authority—the overlord who had granted or confirmed the city's charter of rights and privileges. Only a handful of cities were truly autonomous city-states. Almost every city owed allegiance and taxes to its overlord—typically an emperor, king, or prince, but sometimes a bishop or even a collective entity like the council of a larger city. Relations with the overlord were rarely stable. During the Middle Ages urban leaders had struggled to expand their own powers and to limit the role of the ruler's officials in administering the city's affairs. But as the feudal states of the Middle Ages gave way to the absolutist states of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, sovereigns steadily reasserted their authority over cities and their officials intruded ever more deeply into the day-by-day details of urban administration.

Every city had an administrative structure of municipal officials appointed by the council. At the pinnacle were the city's legal advisors. Then came the clerks and scribes who codified the council's decisions and an array of market inspectors, constables, beadles, and watchmen who regulated economic activities and maintained order. Some administrative functions were carried out by the citizens themselves, often on a part-time basis in their capacity as neighborhood or parish officeholders. Citizens everywhere were expected to participate in defending their city from intruders or invaders. In some cities, the structures for maintaining civic self-defense evolved into highly organized militia companies, whose members gathered regularly for purposes of drill or conviviality.

For many town dwellers, the institutions that had the most significant impact on their everyday lives were the guilds. The medieval origins of these organizations are somewhat obscure, though they seem to have filled a combination of economic and devotional functions. By the early modern era, guilds had assumed a clear form in almost every part of Europe. The guild was typically an association of all the adult male householders engaged in a particular craft or branch of trade. These masters ran their own home-based shops, often supervising the labor of a few journeymen and apprentices. Though economically independent, each master was bound by his own guild's collective decisions about the way in which shops should be run, goods produced and new members trained. Each guild, in turn, was answerable to the city council, which confirmed the craft's by-laws and issued decrees about prices, wages, and the quality of goods.

Other institutions of urban life reflected the city's connections to broader systems of authority. In many cities one might find representatives of the overlord, though the number of such officials and the degree to which they were involved in urban administration differed substantially from one country to another or indeed from one town to the next. In France, for example, a handful of major towns had royal courts of justice known as parlements, which often intervened directly in running the affairs of the cities in which they were located. In other French cities the council might have to share its authority with a royal governor or intendant. Yet there were many cities, in France and elsewhere, where the overlord's involvement was far less heavy-handed. In a few cities, especially in Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy, the overlord's authority had become greatly attenuated or even—as in Geneva after the 1530s—disappeared altogether.

A universal presence in European cities was provided by the institutions of the Christian church. Every city in Europe had parish churches. In the late Middle Ages larger cities also had monasteries and convents, and any city that served as the seat of a bishop had an episcopal bureaucracy. Often the ecclesiastical institutions enjoyed administrative autonomy: their property and buildings within the city functioned as enclaves over which the city officials exercised little or no control. This changed radically in certain parts of Europe in the sixteenth century, for in those cities that underwent the Protestant Reformation monasteries and convents were dissolved and the parish clergy came under the direct authority of the secular officials. In Catholic countries and communities, however, the autonomous status of ecclesiastical institutions was largely preserved. Indeed, the intense spiritual revival of the Catholic Reformation led to the establishment of new religious orders and lay organizations, which were added to the institutional structure of Catholic cities.

In some cities, notably in Italy, Germany, and parts of eastern Europe, a parallel set of urban institutions emerged: the self-administrative structures of Jewish communities. Only in economic affairs were the Jews allowed to interact with the surrounding Christian community; in every other sphere of life, the Jewish community was expected to remain separate. If Jews were granted residential rights, they not only lived in their own neighborhoods and maintained their own religious, educational, and welfare institutions, but they also had their own council, their own officials, and their own mechanisms for resolving conflicts.


The mainspring of the urban political system was always the city council or, in some large cities like Venice or Strasbourg, the cluster of interconnected councils. In modern urban politics, a city council is typically a body in which representatives of different parties or viewpoints openly debate the issues that divide them and then arrive at decisions by majority vote. In early modern Europe, discussions and votes were held in secret. Occasionally there was some evidence of factional disputes among the council members; more often, however, the magistrates papered over their differences so as to appear to contemporaries as a unified body that embodied supreme authority within the community.

A significant element in the political system of any city was the process by which individual citizens became council members—a process whose importance was heightened by the fact that once they were chosen, the successful candidates often served for life. Every city prided itself on maintaining its own customs for the nomination or selection of council members. Some cities had rules or traditions according to which only the members of certain families were eligible for seats on the council. Sometimes guilds or neighborhoods had a constitutional right to council representation. Often, however, the only formal criterion for council membership was status as a citizen. In some cities the selection process involved vigorous public contests between hostile families or factions. More often choices were made behind closed doors in a carefully orchestrated process of consultation and compromise. Yet despite these differences, the analysis of urban elites in early modern Europe has shown that in the end council members in almost every city were drawn from the ranks of the community's wealthiest families. In a deferential society, people expected to be ruled by their superiors.

Urban magistrates were proud of their rank. They wore robes of office to denote their authority and filled town halls and other public buildings with portraits of themselves to perpetuate their memory. Sometimes they voiced sweeping claims of complete authority over their communities. Yet in actual fact the magistrates were constrained in their powers, and they knew it.

In the first place, most city governments were subordinate to the authority of a king or some other overlord. If he was dissatisfied with a city's response to his demands for revenue or political cooperation, an angry sovereign might send troops or arrive in person to compel obedience or install more pliable magistrates. Ecclesiastical institutions or members of the regional nobility might also enjoy rights and privileges that restricted the magistrates' freedom of action. Though less likely than overlords to use military means to enforce their will, bishops or nobles might apply economic pressure or engage in litigation to achieve their aims. And no matter how proud the magistrates might be of their city's legal autonomy, they generally knew that it was wiser to respond to pressures of this sort than to resist.

Yet the most important forms of political pressure exerted on the magistrates often came not from outside the community but from within. Most city councils had very limited means at their disposal to enforce their decisions. Typically the magistrates commanded only a small number of soldiers or constables. The maintenance of order depended largely on the cooperation of the inhabitants themselves—especially the citizens, who were often armed and always opinionated. For even when citizens were excluded from direct participation in decision making, they retained a strong sense of their identity as part of the political community and they rarely hesitated to give expression to their point of view.

Almost any aspect of urban life could become politicized, but certain issues were recurrent sources of contention. Economic issues were perpetually on the council agenda. The city council regulated every aspect of economic life and was often called upon to adjudicate between the competing claims of different economic actors: craft masters versus merchants, journeymen versus masters, artisans in one trade versus artisans in another, visiting traders versus local retailers, consumers versus producers. At certain times, however, religious issues became paramount. During the sixteenth century, for example, the Protestant groups that emerged in countless cities often pressured magistrates to accept or adopt the new religion. At such times the magistrates were often faced with agonizing choices, for they had to consider not only the religious passions of the city's own inhabitants but also the preferences of the city's overlord and of other powerful political and ecclesiastical stakeholders outside the community.

Often the citizens' dissatisfaction with the way in which the magistrates had dealt with economic, religious, or other issues led to deeper conflicts over the way the city was being governed. Suspecting the magistrates of mismanaging the city's finances or endangering the city's well-being, the citizens might insist that the council be made more accountable for its actions. They might even call for changes in the constitutional arrangements under which the council exercised its powers. In modern cities dissatisfaction with the current administration is often resolved by elections, which can put new people into office. This option hardly existed in a system under which council members would often remain in office until they died. But there were other means by which the citizens—and other inhabitants—could put pressure on the magistrates. These included petitions, litigation, agitation, or, in extreme cases, violence.

The one political right shared by all inhabitants of the community was the right to submit petitions to the council for the granting of some benefit or redress of some grievance. All petitions had to receive due consideration, but special attention had to be paid to those submitted by members of the citizenry. Women or servants or laborers whose petitions were rejected had no formal means by which to demand reconsideration. But male citizens did. Their experience as members of guilds, militias, parish councils, or other interest groups not only heightened their political awareness but also taught them the potential value of collective action. A faction of citizens might form a committee or deputation to pursue their objectives. If thwarted by the magistrates, such opposition groups might appeal to the city's ruler, who could respond by revoking the city's old charter and granting a new one that reduced the magistrates' authority. Alternatively, citizens who opposed the actions of the current magistrates might take their complaints to some court of law that claimed jurisdiction over the city's affairs. There were always lawyers willing to argue such cases and judges willing to hear them. The city's magistrates, of course, could also appeal to the ruler or to the courts. But in many cases it was wiser to make concessions to disaffected citizens rather than to run the risks that outside involvement might entail.

Sometimes there were public demonstrations or even outbreaks of violence. The most vigorous expressions of popular protest in cities often took the form of food riots. To insure that the community had an adequate supply of grain or bread was one of the most fundamental obligations of urban leaders, and their failure to do so could trigger violent outbreaks. Groups that normally remained politically passive—notably women—often played a leading role in such episodes. Yet the actual frequency of such riots was small, precisely because magistrates knew how dangerous it was to let granaries become empty or to let bakers charge too much for bread.

But violence could also break out over constitutional issues. Occasionally when groups of disaffected citizens felt they had exhausted all other means of achieving their aims, they resorted to force. Council members might be overpowered, imprisoned, or forced into exile, and a new group of council members representing the opposition group would take power. This was high-risk behavior, for the ousted magistrates would try to convince the ruler or other powerful authorities that such insubordination had to be repressed by force. Yet such episodes recurred sporadically throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in cities all over Europe. Rare as they were, these events were widely publicized and long remembered.

A particularly dramatic rash of civic uprisings broke out in the second decade of the seventeenth century. In the German city of Frankfurt am Main, a citizens' uprising of 1612–1614 was directed simultaneously against the city's patrician magistrates and the local Jewish community. Not only the ruling magistrates but also the Jews were banished from the city until intervention by the Holy Roman Emperor brought about the restoration of the old regime, the return of the Jewish community, and the execution of the citizen leaders. In La Rochelle, on the west coast of France, an equally dramatic uprising in 1613–1614 led to the overthrow of the existing magistrates, many of whom were confined to dungeons for almost a year. The new government formed by the citizen rebels remained in power for more than a decade. Other urban uprisings, with various outcomes, occurred during the same decade in places like Utrecht in the Netherlands, Wetzlar and Worms in western Germany, Stralsund and Stettin on the Baltic, and elsewhere. In the 1680s a civic uprising in the German city of Cologne lasted for almost six years until the movement was finally suppressed and the ringleaders executed.

Food riots and other spontaneous surges of popular protest continued into the eighteenth century, as did litigation against urban rulers. But sustained uprisings of citizens against their own magistrates did not. The growing power of centralized states had much to do with this. As standing armies grew and towns became the seats of permanent garrisons, it became steadily easier for magistrates to summon the help they needed in suppressing disorder. At the same time, and even more importantly, the administrative reach of the state increasingly penetrated into the city. The traditional distinction between city and state officials declined as members of the urban elite moved into positions of service to the state. The extent to which magistrates and citizens alike focused on the city as the primary source of their political identity steadily diminished.

Many cities grew larger during the eighteenth century, but this did not necessarily transform urban politics. As population growth overwhelmed existing resources, city governments in many regions grappled with growing problems of poverty and the provision of poor relief. But most urban regimes stuck to traditional assumptions and arrangements for dealing with such problems and continued trying to send poor people back to their (often rural) place of origin.

Until the end of the eighteenth century the outward forms of urban politics remained remarkably constant. Magistrates and citizens alike clung stubbornly to the traditional institutions of urban life and rituals of urban governance. And despite growing criticism from Enlightenment thinkers who regarded guilds as obstacles to economic growth, almost everywhere in Europe the guild system remained intact. Major changes in the institutional structure of urban life only came about with the onset of the French Revolution and the wars to which it gave rise. In 1797 Napoléon Bonaparte swept away what had once been the grandest and most self-confident urban regime in Europe: the doge, senate, and Great Council of Venice. His action prefigured the less dramatic but no less thorough changes that lay ahead for the institutional structure of countless other European cities in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

See alsoAbsolutism (in this volume);Moral Economy and Luddism; Urban Crowds (volume 3);Church and Society (Volume 5); and other articles in this section.


Beik, William. Urban Protest in Seventeenth-Century France: The Culture of Retribution. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. An important analysis that illuminates both the patterns of popular protest and the ambivalent response of the authorities in French cities of the early absolutist era.

Brady, Thomas A., Jr. Ruling Class, Regime and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520–1555. Leiden, Netherlands, 1978. A classic attempt to interpret the Reformation in one major city through a collective biography of the community's political leaders.

Finlay, Robert. Politics in Renaissance Venice. New Brunswick, N.J., 1980. Shows in dramatic detail how family rivalries and factional conflict underlay the seemingly incorruptible system of politics in sixteenth-century Venice.

Friedrichs, Christopher R. Urban Politics in Early Modern Europe. London and New York, 2000. A brief overview that describes the interplay of political forces in early modern cities in the light of modern theories of urban politics.

Halliday, Paul D. Dismembering the Body Politic: Partisan Politics in England's Towns,1650–1730. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998. Describes the interaction between politics on the municipal and the national level in an era when religious conflict was evolving into partisan politics.

Lindemann, Mary. Patriots and Paupers: Hamburg, 1712–1830. New York, 1990. Argues that traditionally paternalistic approaches to the problem of urban poverty lasted until the end of the eighteenth century, giving way only after 1800 to new, more punitive attitudes.

Livet, Georges, and Bernard Vogler, eds., Pouvoir, ville et société en Europe, 1650–1750. Paris, 1983. A selection of essays on power and society in early modern cities, both in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Mauersberg, Hans. Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte zentraleuropäischer Städte in neuerer Zeit; dargestellt an den Beispielen von Basel, Frankfurt a.M., Hamburg, Hannover und München. Göttingen, Germany, 1960. An older but still authoritative description of the political and economic institutions of selected German and Swiss cities.

Nussdorfer, Laurie. Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII. Princeton, N.J., 1992. Shows how municipal government functioned in a city whose overlord was the Pope himself.

Robbins, Kevin C. City on the Ocean Sea: La Rochelle, 1530–1650: Urban Society,Religion, and Politics on the French Atlantic Frontier. Leiden, Netherlands, 1997. A major study that illuminates the social underpinnings of political conflict in an important French city.

Schilling, Heinz. Religion, Political Culture, and the Emergence of Early Modern Society: Essays in German and Dutch History. Leiden, Netherlands, 1992. Translations of key essays by the leading German interpreter of urban political culture in early modern Europe.

Soliday, Gerald Lyman. A Community in Conflict: Frankfurt Society in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries. Hanover, N.H., 1974. Shows how a classic urban constitutional dispute was rooted in social conflicts.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648–1871. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971. An influential interpretation that argues that some key elements of modern German politics can be traced to the political culture of small towns in the early modern era.

About this article

Urban Institutions and Politics: The Early Modern Period

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article