Social Origins of Democracy: The Rise of political institutions in Italy

Centuries of relative physical security and stability under the feudal system led to the re-emergence of long suppressed human energies and aspirations. The feudal system maintained a delicate balance between the rights and power of feudal lords and those of the central monarch.

The growth of guild crafts and trade created new centers of wealth and power concentrated in cities. The rise of city-states undermined the power of rural, land-based feudal kingdoms and created an alternative source of support for the monarch. The merchant class that rose to power in these city-states utilized the power of their new found wealth to leverage greater economic freedom and political independence from the monarch in exchange for financial support. As early as the 11th century, the bishops lost control over the Italian city of Lombardy to self-governing communes, whose members were appointed by their citizens. By the end of the century, the commercially active Italian cities of Venice, Florence and Genoa enjoyed a considerable degree of political freedom. Local independence created a rivalry of cities in the fields of art, literature and philosophy. In their attempt to bring themselves to the forefront, aristocrats and princes took over the patronage of literature and art from the Pope. Academies were founded by patron princes in Florence, Naples, Venice, Milan and Padua. Through these academies the influence of new learning infiltrated the late medieval society. The new humanistic education and economic prosperity of the Italian city-states brought into greater prominence the role of the individual in social advancement.

The growth of commerce spurred the rise of money as a new center of wealth. The shift from a land-based to a money-based social system laid the economic foundation for the emergence of individualism by according status and privileges to those who acquired wealth by effort and merit rather than restricting it to a hereditary aristocracy. It undermined the power of the feudal lords and transferred power to a new merchant class. The organization of agriculture also underwent tremendous changes. It was found that free laborers who paid rent or worked for wages produced more crops and generated more profits than enserfed laborers. The shift to a new system of wage payments for agricultural labor not only increased agricultural productivity, but also freed peasants from permanent ties to their feudal rulers. The decline of feudalism that resulted led to an increase in individual economic freedom.

This new economic freedom became the breeding ground for the rebirth of Greek ideas. It was the wealth gathered from commerce that financed the Renaissance. Cities became fertile soil for the spread of humanistic thought, social aspirations and individual enterprise, leading to the rebirth of classical learning and literature in Renaissance Italy. The rise of vernacular languages acted as a channel for the spread of humanistic ideas to all sections of the society. Humanism tried to free intellect from the control of religion. The new humanism transformed the medieval ideal of a man with a sword to that of individual attaining worth by absorbing the culture of the Greeks and Romans. Study of the Classics was no longer confined to the clergy and aristocracy. Humanism opened the gates of secular learning to layman. The hereditary base of social privilege began to give way.

The new economic, political and intellectual environment contributed to religious reformation. The Reformation was a direct attack on the suppression of individualism by a despotic church organization. The Reformation transmitted new humanistic ideas to all parts of Europe. It shifted authority in the sphere of religion from the institution of the church to the individual. It sowed the seeds of freedom that later sprouted in the economic, political and social spheres.

Source: MSS Research

Seyoum T.