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

The First Expansion towards the Margins of Europe

Strictly speaking, the oceanic expansion of the fifteenth century was only a second wave that repeated, in a larger scale, another one that had started some four centuries earlier. That first wave, which lasted from the end of the eleventh century until the beginning of the fourteenth, was at the source of the early transformation of Europe and may thus reveal some of the traits that made that expansive process so unique.

Over the centuries, a series of crises had altered the configuration of the old core of Roman Europe. When that core became internally divided, the vast unity that framed the economy of the Mediterranean began to break up. First the Germanic invasions and later the Muslim dominance over what once had been the Roman sea completed the destruction of that unity. The mercantile system broke down; cities and urban life fell into utter decay and, in a brief period of time, the entire area became an eminently rural world. After the shutdown of Mediterranean commerce in the eight century, Christian feudal society began to take shape at the very heart of what had once been Roman Europe. This new dual society of milites et rustici1 brought into order the unstable situation that so many—and such profound—changes had created. The self-sufficient feudal estate gave perfect expression to the economic structure of the new society, just as feudal monarchy gave perfect expression to its political structure in the person of a king who was primus inter pares. By the eleventh century feudal society had been fully established.

Feudal Europe was weak and isolated, rooted in transcendence and disdainful of reality. Technically powerless, it was surrounded by a menacing outside world. Muslims, Normans, Slavs, and Magyars repeatedly appeared in its outlying areas to prey upon them, sometimes to settle there and make the occasional foray into the interior. The situation began to change, however, in the eleventh century. The invaders on the periphery became less aggressive and at the same time large groups at the heart of feudal Europe began to try to re-establish trade.

The most spectacular change occurred perhaps in the Mediterranean. Internally divided and worn out, the Muslims began to surrender their positions. Groups from the Christian regions of Western Europe began to converge to the coastline, intent upon harassing the Muslims to the bitter end. The Crusades hastened this process and brought it to its conclusion, opening once again the Mediterranean to trade between the Levant and the West. The consequences of this change soon became visible.

Opening up the Mediterranean to the Christian kingdoms brought brisk business to its shores, based on trade in luxury products; it also gave rise to intense trade activity inside the continent, first along its main routes—most of them rivers—and then into secondary routes that reached every corner of Europe. Articles from the East Xno longer were the only stock in trade; the great commercial routes began to carry also the small, incipient regional trade: salt, wine, oil, textiles, skins, timber, wax, as well as foodstuffs and goods produced by small local cottage industries.

Someone had to attend to all this new activity. As early as the tenth century in some areas, but definitely in the twelfth century, a new class began to take shape: the bourgeoisie.2 Modest and almost insignificant at first, the new class grew increasingly prosperous as markets were organized and business became customary. Neither milites nor rustici, the bourgeoisie was a new breed of men. A new morality, a new concept of life, a new attitude towards reality would soon set them apart as a social group with entirely new traits. Their natural domain was the city, which sometimes they brought to new life and sometimes even built from scratch to give appropriate context to their activities and their form of life.

There was a true urban explosion. Countless clusters of population, small perhaps but certainly enterprising, appeared all over the countryside, the riverbanks or the seashore, along roadsides or at crossroads, near an abbey or in the shadow of a castle wall. Many sleepy old towns awoke from their slumber, as new people moved in and started their trades and businesses. In the midst of the feudal estates, the attitude of these new urban societies was unmistakably heterodox, although it did not provoke right away the kind of confrontations that would later arise. But their business activity was in itself enough of a threat: it began to alter the ties of economic and social dependency; it opened up a host of opportunities for the new generations; it laid the ground for the raise of a monetary economy.

On the other hand, the city fulfilled certain aspirations of the new groups: it gave them some measure of security and freedom. It also began to operate a market—an open space where buyers and sellers met under the protection of some authority—and soon set into motion a market economy. Thus, the city was more than a mere context for the form of life of these emerging societies; it proved to be the most powerful agent of change within the system of economic and social relations. And it was even more. The market that brought buyers and sellers together soon became a place where the members of the new society began to engage in dialogue, to exchange opinions, to form common views as they criticized the behavior of others, to develop norms and ideas and to draw up projects. One of those projects might have—indeed it was—to go beyond the limits of the urban market in search of greater profits.

In fact, this kind of development stemmed from the very essence of the new economic style. The marketplace showed the forces of supply and demand at work, and it was sensitive to every opportunity available within its own domain. Increasing profits was just a matter of establishing a presence in other markets.

Increasing profits was the economic objective of the new bourgeois groups. But winning other markets could prove to be an enterprise for which they had neither the power nor the skills. It was a real conquest. And so, as early as the end of the eleventh century, an odd alliance began to take shape between the middle classes and the feudal lords, who took up the enterprise of expanding the reach of the European bourgeoisie.

The same routes that had been taken by conquering invaders began to be travelled now by these lords on their way to reconquest. Perhaps the most important among these routes were those in the Mediterranean, because they linked regions that knew each other well and were economically compatible. The Crusades proved that the Mediterranean could be navigated once again; and centers open to European commerce were established all along the shores of the Levant. The lords were carving out kingdoms and duchies, but behind—or with them—came the merchants who were setting active trade into motion.  Pisans, Genoese, Normans, Englishmen and Venetians all became strong in the new trade centers: Jaffa, Acre, Biblos, even Constantinople itself, in the wake of that most extraordinary venture of Franks and Venetians that they themselves cared to call a Crusade.

And so, the Mediterranean regained the economic role it had played for centuries. Old cities awoke from their lordly slumber to marshal their resources and, as they did so, they arose as new bourgeois societies with an irrepressible creative energy. This energy was evident in their daring projects of expansion as well as in the forms of life they adopted. It was a kind of Roman Renaissance to which the Muslim world of the African coast somehow contributed, by giving it occasion to increase and diversify its possibilities.

The resurgence of the Mediterranean was not confined to its shores. There, in their ports, began the trade routes through which products came and went; and that traffic brought prosperity to countless cities, big and small, that began to expand their own, more restricted, trade circuits. In any case, the Mediterranean was no longer the only area of interest to that world that had arisen after the Germanic invasions and was now stretching toward the Atlantic and the central and northern parts of Europe.

Countless trade centers, well connected among themselves, had sprung up, along the invasion routes of the Normans, on the North Sea, and the Atlantic coast. This area had been settled and organized during the Carolingian empire and in the period that followed its breakdown. It did not have, thus, a Roman tradition, and the production, circulation and consumption of goods within it developed strictly out of the play of the new circumstances. It did not take long for this area to stretch as far as Northern Germany and beyond, across the Baltic Sea, onto the routes that began there and carried trade into Russia and Poland. Like the Mediterranean expansion, this one was spontaneously prompted by groups of merchants. But there was also something quite methodical about it: the lords followed closely the economic process; the Germanic Hansa organized the mechanisms of international trade; and Danes, Englishmen, and Normans, who were in charge of the political unity to the area, set up a power structure within which the new economic forces could actually work. The trading network of the Hansa was, however, larger than the area the lords had managed to organize politically, perhaps because the structure of the network was more fluid. The same had happened in the Mediterranean, where no political power was able to encompass the fluid economic system of major cities like Genoa, Barcelona or Venice.

To the East, German lords and merchants began to push beyond the Elbe. Chiefs of border regions whose occupation had to be secured, these lords founded cities like Stetten, Lübeck, Rostock and Riga and won the support of the Church and of German immigrants. In those regions and in others like Bohemia and Hungary, these immigrants—merchants many of them—settled in the cities, new and old, as traders, perhaps also as artisans, and eventually managed to acquire land. Trade became intense between the areas these groups were developing and the old German cities, expanding thus even further the vast network of the new Europe.

In the meantime, at the opposite end of the continent, Christian groups in the Iberian peninsula were pushing the Muslims back South. On the Mediterranean, groups from Catalonia were freeing most of the eastern shores. On the Atlantic, Portugal was reclaimed; and from the little Kingdom of Asturias, the valleys of the Duero and the Tajo were retaken and repopulated until finally Fernando III made his way into Andalusia and cornered the Muslims in their Kingdom of Granada. This living, solid frontier between Christians and Muslims was the only one that remained in a continent where trade had become very fluid.