Medieval Italian Republicanism: Genuine or Mythical? | Dan Mikhaylov

Without the Apennine peninsula, the foundations of Western civilisation would have been much hollower. The Roman Empire, for instance, has shaped how we speak and plan our settlements as well as what religion the majority of us follows, at the same time as Renaissance Italy has enriched us culturally with artworks of Michelangelo and Titian and the literary masterpieces of Dante and Machiavelli. Even the roads of our republican tradition invariably lead to Ancient Rome, whose holdovers flourished into the idyll of the medieval city-states, such as Florence. Their idealistic portrayal inspired multiple generations of proponents of government by consent in Europe and America, chief among them the United States’ Founding Fathers.

Recently, however, historians have become sceptical of Italian republicanism in the Middle Ages. As Oxford University’s P.J. Jones succinctly puts it, “all Italian governments were tyrannies – of party, of class, of despots”, since contemporary republics hardly differed from their authoritarian counterparts, including the Duchy of Milan, in terms of power distribution between the middle (popolo) and the upper (grandi) classes. Although the urban elites’ composition changed over time, social mobility did not always presuppose diverse political representation, he argues. Therefore, popular rule is but a convenient, yet misleading political myth.

Whilst many conservatives tailor their agency to the parochial boundaries of modern politics, intellectual conservatism neither should not, nor cannot, afford to abstain from philosophical and historical discussions. After all, tradition is extremely valuable to us, but it ought to be clearly defined for us to venerate it and defend its application to modernity. Then, historical revisionism is as significant an opponent as socialism and cosmopolitanism, and must be confronted accordingly. Historians rightly indicate the imperfections of medieval republican systems, but the institutional representation we now deem synonymous with political participation did not necessarily explain the entire experience back then.

As medieval Florence amply demonstrates, many groups advanced their interests through electoral enfranchisement or pressure on those in power. In other words, the Italian city-state embodied republican values as much as the time allowed that. Not only did government representation gradually increase, but so did quantity of individuals and social groups with the power to mould internal political discourses.

Starting with institutional representation, it is important to note that medieval Florence constituted a polycentric environment; hence, one should consider participation in guilds and revolts as comparable manifestations of political will. However, even if we limited our view to conventional institutions, they were intermittently dominated by elite families and the so-called popular governments, created out of middle-class rebellions on four occasions in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. What this implies is that oligarchy was combined with prolonged periods of middle-class republicanism, at least as far as medieval Florence was concerned.

The latter lacked representativeness, as they undertook to disenfranchise magnate families, much like modern progressives are campaigning for punitive progressive taxation of the rich, but it is irrefutable that each popular government brought about more inclusivity than its predecessor. The second popular government derived 44% of deputies from hitherto apolitical families, and its successor recruited some 40 priors from amongst the minor guildsmen, belonging to the lower middle-class. In 1380, urban citizenship was even extended to all workers by the popular government that seized power following the 1378 Ciompi Revolt. Evidently, political participation was consistently increasing, suggesting that Florence was embracing republican virtues rather than merely flaunting them for external appeal or internal concord.

Similarly, as the late historian of Renaissance Italy, Gene Brucker, argued, “guild affiliation was a prerequisite to membership in the political community”. Although these guilds only accounted for a third of Florence’s adult male residents, and sometimes succumbed to magnate usurpation and power struggles, they remained adequate vehicles for popular engagement. There, urban middle-classmen could voice their opinions both to one another and to their superiors, who shared guild membership. Likewise, brief leadership terms of four to six months enabled many to stand for office or elect candidates, who would effect legal statutes that promoted their interests. The consequent political involvement of many residents, in turn, adduces yet another example of contemporary republicanism at work.

Furthermore, revolts were frequently not a subversion of order, but a fundamental element of interactions, serving to intensify the extant processes of political negotiations in cities. Thus, they almost always resulted in meagre casualties; by representing controlled political chaos, rather than an unpredictable wave of riots, protests cajoled the authorities into concession in lieu of seeking to overthrow the system entirely. Their composition vindicates this point: the Ciompi Revolt, for instance, incorporated coalitions of patricians, upper guildsmen, lower-classmen, and even several magnates, their political aims overawing any class divisions.

With this in mind, political participation was comparatively open to the Florentine population, when taken as a whole. In turn, this suggests that the city’s republican tradition was lively and worthy of admiration by the successive generations of republican thinkers and politicians. Whether through institutional and corporate participation or even thanks to rebellion, different societal factions asserted their political positions and accrued some representation. In addition, the period of 1250-1382 witnessed four popular governments, all of which tried to enfranchise progressively more guilds and include more residents in the government. The clear discontinuity as regards those who wielded authority in Florence and the diversity of political interactions, I maintain, contributed to a healthy society, driven by popular political decision-making.

Another important element of political participation is the issue of power distribution amongst the public. Arguably, on several occasions, the lack of legislation or its enforcement did not necessarily mean that power was not converted into action. Rather, this highlights the polyhedric nature of urban medieval politics, where both enaction and enforcement necessitated widespread consensus and was easily stymied by the prototypical structure of checks and balances. Under such conditions, the proliferation of consensus politics reflected the extent of popular involvement in legislative action.

Indeed, we see this in economic policymaking. Whilst Florentine magnates could dominate fiscal policy, as evidenced by how they lobbied for the abolition of direct taxes in 1315, economics was not their exclusive prerogative. Conversely, contemporary chronicles record that the Ciompi protesters successfully petitioned the authorities against the magnates, gaining debt amnesty and depriving the rich of their rights to impose forced loans on citizens. Moreover, the fourteenth-century popular governments overtly confronted the feudal lords, occupying the land around Florence, by prohibiting the sale of rural grain outside the city. Since both groups could avail of their political power to further their agenda, power must have been profoundly decentralised, and politics was characterised as much by diverse, conflicting interests as by some compromise, which enabled the passage of legislation. All of this certainly spells republicanism.

The same could be said of the contemporary judicial system. Anti-magnate legislation was customarily poorly enforced during the less politically inclusive periods, which underscores the wide distribution of power. However, when lesser guilds took part in legislation, laws developed to accommodate their demands. The 1293 Ordinances of Justice, adopted by the second popular government to delimit elite influence and prescribe harsh punishments for magnate assaults on ordinary townsfolk, constituted a compromise between the underrepresented guildsmen and some members of the upper-class. Even when the elites recaptured the city from their middle-class rivals, they hesitated to restore the status-quo-ante between 1310 and 1343 and never repealed the Ordinances of Justice, no doubt reflecting the relative strength of other social groups’ political positions in Florence. Based on this, medieval Florentinians were in many respects participating in republican political processes.

Certainly, the Florentine case-study might not account for the political lives in other famous republican medieval Italian cities, namely Venice and Genoa. Still, this example reveals that political interactions were more inclusive than revisionist historians, who mistakenly judge them not on their merits, but against the framework of modern values and concepts, would have wanted to admit. Republican institutions both existed in medieval Italian city-states and improved with time, and these dynamics ought to be recognised by academics and extolled by republican conservatives. We are already witnessing many attacks on our past: the 1619 Project is seeking to rewrite America’s foundational myth, some are castigating the war hero Winston Churchill, and the revisionist critique of medieval Italian republicanism is yet another such instance. More than ever before, conservatism has to be intellectual; if conservatives do not tell their stories, it would be impossible to appeal to the ideals, which we derive from them.

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