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The Growth of Cities
Starting with the 12th century, many cities, particularly in southern France, began to revolt against their overlords. City folk had become accustomed to work together through their guild organisations. The guild merchants, particularly, were anxious to throw off feudal restrictions, which hampered trade and commerce. Many cities secured their freedom by force; others, by purchase. Upon securing freedom, they set up communes to govern themselves. Some cities never secured freedom, but were called villes de bourgeoisie. These were subject to a king or lord, but had virtual autonomy. Paris and Orleans are examples. Nobles frequently established new cities, known as villes neuves. To induce people to settle in these new cities, the lords offered special privileges. Some cities thus became places of safety (salvites), because they could offer the right of asylum to all criminals except thieves or murderers. Serfs who resided in a place of safety for a year and a day were declared free men.

Officials of a commune were chosen by the commune itself. Generally the method of election was very complex. Officials were called consuls, mayor, jurati, aldermen, echevins, or podesta. They exercised legislative and executive power. They controlled city finances. Since they were not directly responsible to the citizens of the cities, officials often were guilty of financial fraud, and cities often became bankrupt. Bad administration of finances also resulted in riots in which various factions fought one another over real or fancied cases of maladministration. Rioting and insolvency led to the destruction of the communes. As the kings of various countries pursued a policy of gathering power into their hands, they interfered more and more in the affairs of the cities, and by 1400 virutally all communes had disappeared.

Contributed by Gifford, Katya
10 July 2001

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