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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

Adjustments in the Feudal-Bourgeois Society

Urban economy had a first cycle of expansion that lasted from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. It was a period of intense social and economic change. The bourgeoisie made a succession of experiments: it explored markets, chose the staples for every sector of trade, organized different types of mercantile and financial systems and, after a mixture of successes and failures, managed to produce a relatively stable economic order. In those experiments, the bourgeoisie of the different cities underwent some dramatic changes and sudden reversals. Large fortunes came crashing down and new ones were quickly made in their place. Today’s big winners often became tomorrow’s big losers. But, as a group, the bourgeoisie gained order and stability through those centuries of experimentation. For in that period the local patrician groups came into being, made up of those who very early on had amassed wealth and power and had consented to lead the new society in its battle against the old legal and political system. The aim of that battle was to obtain all the warranties and exemptions necessary to perform the new mercantile activities. Its immediate objectives were the commune, the local codes of law, the statutes and charters. Sometimes these objectives were pursued by means of authentic revolutions, which presupposed—and therefore revealed—a few significant facts: that the claimants had very clear ideas and enormous strength; that those against whom the claims were asserted were considerably weak; and that, in either case, there was a major crack in the traditional structure. Generally the patricians got what they wanted, either by means of confrontation, or through the gracious, if obviously self-interested, concession on the part of their lord, or even by paying a large sum of money. But as the patricians amassed their wealth and power, they acquired, virtually everywhere, the legal status that allowed them to restructure the new urban society so as to make sure that they would prevail.

A certain retraction of the bourgeoisie began to take place at the start of the fourteenth century. This retraction grew even more pronounced after the black plague of 1348. It became extremely hard to secure many things, and skilled labor became scarce. There were famines, epidemics and shortages all over Europe and the Mediterranean. It was at this time and in this context that the new society and its new economy entered into a process of readjustment that became visible in every realm of life.

Even the monarchy experienced a severe crisis. In its effort to centralize power, it had fought the aristocracy, usually with the support of the bourgeoisie. But the situation had become complicated and the interests at stake— discordant and torn between the old and the new ideas—led to interminable conflicts: dynastic struggles, civil wars, palace intrigues. At the heart of these conflicts was the monarchy, trying to adapt itself to the new society and seeking to control all the mechanisms of power. There were inevitable tensions between the bourgeoisie and the feudal lords, and their disputes took on many different forms. There were hard-fought confrontations—like the one between Etienne Marcel and the General Estates of Paris in 1356—that provided an early model of the modern parliamentary state. But after their sporadic head-on battles, the bourgeoisie and the feudal lords tried to restore their alliance, above all to contain the growth of social mobility. By the end of the fifteenth century they had succeeded in their effort throughout almost all Europe, in spite of the groups that on either side refused to join the compact. Out of this process, the feudal-bourgeois society came into existence. It was this society that would attempt the second European expansion—this time across the oceans—and would sustain the modern world until the eighteenth century.

Doubtless, the patrician class continued to seek the support of the feudal lords for its vast economic enterprises whenever these raised territorial or political problems. Doubtless, the feudal groups tried to get closer to those in the bourgeoisie who had good business instincts and would discover opportunities, dream up inventive ways of doing things and have capital at their disposal. Starting with the commenda, every business arrangement, brought rich men and noblemen closer together. Then came the matrimonial alliances, this or that bourgeois turned into a nobleman, this or that nobleman turned into a bourgeois. The extravagant lavishness of the newly rich patrician brought him closer to the style of life of the nobleman; the economic mediocrity of the impoverished aristocrat brought him down to the level of a modest bourgeoisie. The rungs in between on this subtle and complex scale ultimately produced a rather tenuous hierarchy within the upper classes, with the exception, perhaps, of the great aristocracy closer to the throne.

Beneath the nobility and the bourgeoisie was the vast and diverse mass of the popular groups—both urban and rural—and the low middle class. This mass was exposed to all the social and economic ills brought about by the contraction that gave way to the realignment of European society. And it was this mass that suffered the most from pestilence and famine; this mass that paid the luxury taxes, that absorbed the losses of the entrepreneurs, that never had a voice in political life or quickly lost whatever voice it had managed to get. From time to time these classes rose and brought about large peasant uprisings or urban riots, which were invariably suppressed and served, at best, only to let a few lucky adventurers rise up socially. A distinctive trait of fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe was indeed the impotence of its middle and lower classes. That impotence also reached the lower and even the middle strata of the feudal-bourgeois group. The early stages of capitalism led to a well-defined mercantile policy inspired by the ideology of the bourgeoisie. At the core of this ideology was the conviction that no one could fight the system without some support from within. In other words, it was impossible to expand the economic frontiers and therefore increase profit without taking risks and facing problems that could only be overcome with the help of the political power. When the urban bourgeoisies wanted to establish a regional market in order to broaden their opportunities, they discovered that they needed the support of a territorial lord willing to eventually go to war. And when they began to think in terms of bigger markets, a monarch or a grand duke would be more than happy to provide protection for such lucrative venture. The bourgeoisie of the communes no longer counted; what did count was to be the bourgeoisie of the king, or more precisely, the bourgeoisie of the national market. This was a clever exchange of services: the Bardi in the fourteenth century—like the Fugger in the sixteenth—bankrolled the royalty.