MEDIEVAL DEMOCRACY




CONTENTS

Population-
density

Trade

Democracy

Conclusion

Other factors

Notes

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Medieval democracy
P. Kramer.
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Studying of the origin and downfall of medieval democracy in the Frisian territories may yield important information in regard of the functioning of democracy in the modern world.

Density of Population
In the early middle ages Frisia must have had a relatively high density of population. From the number of terps and the number of houses on each terp, combined with the statements of the goods index of the abbey of Fulda, Slicher van Bath1 calculated that around the year 900 Westergo will have had a density of about 20 inhabitants per square KM. In Western Europe that density was only exceeded by the Seine area around Paris, the vicinity of Saint Omer and perhaps the Rhineland near Cologne and the Meuse area near Maastricht, Liege and Huy.

In that time such population densities were far too large to be fed from the concerning areas of land. Therefore grain must be imported, about which are tidings from later times. From that it can be concluded that there was a considerable prosperity, based on strongly developed cattle-breeding and connected trade, which was enabled by the favorable situation near the water. Therefore a money-economy could maintain itself near the coast, whereas a goods- economy appeared in the inland. For that reason there was no soil for thet feudal system in the coast area. So far globally after Slicher van Bath.




















CONTENTS

Population-
density

Trade

Democracy

Conclusion

Other factors

Notes

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Trade
From contemporary written data and archeologic investigations Lebecq2 built an image of that mediaval trade. It appearrs that the Frisians were the greatest traders of the North Sea and that they had important connections with the East Sea and the English Channel (see map).

They traded hides, pelt, metals and wool, but also wine, silk and spices. Their most important merchandise, however, were slaves. That trade also appears from a great number of coins finds. They even developed their own kind of coins, the small silver sceatta. Traces of Frisian trade colonies have are reported from at a great number of places.

After about the year 900 sea trade decreased because of Northman invasions. Instead of that Frisians more strongly developed inland trade, especially along the Rhine and the Elbe and the great landroutes. Only because of the rise of the Hanseatic League, the coastal area lost its preponderance.


Sceatta's (according to Lebecq I, 44).






















CONTENTS

Population-
density

Trade

Democracy

Conclusion

Other factors

Notes

Top

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Democracy
Because of the absence of feudalism, a system of more or less democratic republics developed at the south coast of the North Sea, leaving behind a great collection of law manuscripts. Of those the law manuscripts of Brokmerland3 near Aurich attract our attention.

Originally Brokmerland was a swampy area, which was brougth into culture since around 1200 by colonists from the neighbouring Emsgo. Colonisaton went well, as can be seen from the fact that six churches had already been built before 1250. Around that year a treaty must have been concluded with the people of Emsgo, which as far as we can see has lead to independence of Brokmerland. Some decades later the first lawbook must have appeared - the Brokmer letter - which is the base of the saved manuscripts.

The Brokmer letter is striking because of its free democratic tone. Several times a law is introduced by "And thet wellath brocmen" (and that the Brokmen - the inhabitants - want). Brightening is also the ban on building castles in $159, which should prevent taking over power by headlings, which had caused bloody feuds in neighbouring regions. For the same reasons a "redjeva" (principal judge) should not keep his function for over a year. In the end of the manuscript, stronger regulations in that spirit were added, indicating the increase of feuds. Ultimately this nearly ideal democracy also perished in Brokmerland. So the Brokmer headling Ocko tom Broke became one of the first the obtain power in the neighbouring regions too.




















CONTENTS

Population-
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Trade

Democracy

Conclusion

Other factors

Notes

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Conclusion
The rise of the headling-system caused the end of the Frisian democracies: warfare replaced negotiation as a means of interest promotion. It is of major importance to understand what caused the grow of this headling-system. The longer maintenance of democracy in Brokmerland may learn us something about that.

In general, the colonists will have been poor devils without properties, boys for whom was no place left at the parental farm. In those circumstances prosperity was particularly based on labor and so everyone in principle had the same chances and mutual prosperity differences will have been rather small. Afterwards, however, adroitness and slyness will have started to play a part en will have brought some individuals to a greater wealth. Wealth asks for protection and so the headling was born.

Now the question is, how democracy arose in the much wealthier neighbouring districts. The answer should be, that originally that wealth was based on trade rather than on agriculture. A farmer has his property on the fields and with that he is at the mercy of the whims of his wealthier neighbour the headling, who has a small army and is consequently able to force him to pay tax. The trader on his turn is much more flexible; his connections are his capital and he may rather easily settle elsewhere. Because of that he is much more elusive for the headling. Therefore democracy may arise and flourish especially in a trade-based society.






















CONTENTS

Population-
density

Trade

Democracy

Conclusion

Other factors

Notes

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English.htm

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Other factors
But still another factor has to be taken into account. The Frisian republics stood under continuous pressure from foreign rulers, who felt that a nation without a lord was improper and that it should be better when they themselves would be the masters4. In every possible way they tried to intervene and that succeeded the better according as coastal trade became less important and consequently the coastal area lost its relative wealth. They alternately supported different parties, leading to weakening of democracy and in 1498 to a total collaps of the central area, todays Dutch province of FryslÔn (Friesland). From that it follows that democracy flourishes best in a relatively rich country.

One exception is Saterland. That very poor area was so isolated by peatmoors, that it did not pay for the great powers to go and fetch something there. As a consequence that small country could maintain its democratic jurisdiction even until 1811. Third conclusion: democracy may remain into being in countries where is nothing to be had.






















CONTENTS

Population-
density

Trade

Democracy

Conclusion

Other factors

Notes

Top

English.htm

Home

NB.
The facts mentioned above attracted little attention in Dutch historiography and as a consequence remained rather unknown in the outside world. The reason of that will be that those facts are so strongly connected to the name of the Frisians, although by that name we should understand something else than today. But because of that those facts perhaps did not yield enough Dutch national honour to be interesting for the historians. Even the knowledge of them might have been treated as dangerous. Considered objectively, however, that medieval trade is the straight predecessor of the Dutch 'golden age' trade of the 17th century, which made the Netherlands the most powerfull nation of the world.

NOTES
1. B.H. Slicher van Bath, Middeleeuwse welvaart in: J.J. Kalma e.a. ed., Geschiedenis van Friesland, Leeuwarden 1973: 201-228.
2. StÚphane
Lebecq, Marchands et navigateurs frisons du Haut Moyen Age, Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1983. ISBN 90-6171-791-4. Also in Frisian: Fryske keaplju en seefarders fan de iere midsieuwen. Fryske Akademy, Ljouwert 1994 (two volumes).
3. Die Brokmer Rechtshandschriften, uitgegeven door W.J. Buma, 's-Gravenhage 1949. (Especialle used pages 16*-20* and 54*-56* of the introduction).
4. Oebele Vries, Het Heilige Roomse Rijk en de Friese vrijheid, Leeuwarden 1986.

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