The Feudal system in Italy

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The Free Communes in Italy                                    (Back to menu of History of Italy)

This development of mercantile activity by the maritime cities (which also favoured the accumulation of capital as a necessary condition for economic enterprises, apart from often being an instrument of political influence) was accompanied, over the period spanning the first and second millennium AD, by a slow but sure social, economic and cultural growth in the rest of Italy. A new religious spirit can be seen in the initiatives of various, rulers, as in the case of Henry II, the last emperor from the House of Saxony (1002-24). Agriculture, crafts and commerce prospered, the latter two in particular becoming the foundations of an urban economy that was to produce the Free Communes so characteristic of a large part of Central-Northern Italy.

Notwithstanding their formal subjection to the emperor, his Italian feudal lords (and with them, though often in opposition, the newly emerging urban middle-classes, the religious and military aristocracy and the administrative bureaucracy) were particularly attached to the personal and caste privileges they had gradually acquired. Thus it was not surprising that they rebelled, led by Arduin, marquis of Ivrea, who was elected king of Italy (1002-14), against the excessive demands of the bishops and counts and the imperial attempts to re-establish supremacy.

The particular interest of the German imperial dynasties (Saxons and Franks) in Italy and the Church of Rome's constant assertions of independence, combined with identical claims for supremacy, inevitably led to conflict between emperor and pope. The ensuing investiture contest was to last for over sixty years (1059-1122) before being settled, in favour of the church, by the Concordat of Worms.

With the replacement of the Swabian House of Hohenstaufen over that of Bavaria at the head of the empire, the Italian Free Communes formed the Lombard League and, supported by the pope, defeated the new Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick I Barbarossa at the Battle of Legnano (1176). This was soon claimed as a symbol of refound national unity in the face of foreign intervention but can more realistically be seen as a particular reaction of Italian society of that period against the sovereignty of the emperor.

An echo of this conflict was to occur in the following century with the tragic end of the House of Hohenstaufen, following the deaths of Manfred, Frederick II's illegitimate son, at Benevento (1266) and then of Conradin (1268). These events marked the decline of the Ghibelline idea of imperial and lay supremacy against the consolidation of the church's temporal power and the prevailing Guelf ideal of papal authority over the State.

The resolution of differences between lay and religious ideals, realized with a further request for help from foreign powers, was a choice that was very soon to damage Italian liberty. The pope's request to the Angevins for assistance against the last of the Hohenstaufen only laid Italy open to new foreign occupations and the division of her territory among the early European nations. The Angevins were to remain in Southern Italy for almost two centuries (1266-1442), only initially encountering the obstacle of the war following the Sicilian Vespers Revolt (1282-1302) with the island consequently passing to the House of Aragon. In 1287 the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily was transferred to Naples, while the strongly fiscal and centralizing policy of the new rulers led to the surrounding territory being sacrificed to the capital, traces of which can still be seen today in the social and economic imbalance of Southern Italy.

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