Fraternity is a key Western value since the time of the Greeks… But how did it become the yearning of the urban masses to the point of forming a triad with freedom and equality?

In order to rescue the following story in this series, we will travel with Henri Pirenne to the times of the birth of the merchant class and the rise of the arts between the tenth and fifteenth centuries. Pirenne was one of the great historians of the Middle Ages, and although his work focused on what would later become Belgium, the story we are interested in affects all Western Europe, because:

The “brotherhoods,” “charities” and commercial “companies” of the Romance-language countries are exactly analogous to the hanses and guilds of the Germanic regions. There is even a similar organization in Dalmatia. What has dominated economic organization are in no way “national genius,” but social needs. Primitive trade institutions were as cosmopolitan as the feudal ones.

So let’s go to the 10th century. The first merchants don’t have the glamor of their Renaissance descendants:

The sources allow us to get an accurate idea of trade groupings that, from the tenth century onwards, are becoming more numerous in Western Europe. You have to imagine them as armed gangs whose members, armed with weapons and swords, surround the horses and carts loaded with sacks, bales, and barrels.

caravanaThey are armed because their life is nomadic and risky, constantly subjected to the dangers of the trips of those times.

In the same way that the navigation of Venice and Amalfi, and later, that of Pisa and Genoa, make far-reaching voyages from the start, mainland merchants spend their lives wandering through vast areas. It was the only way for them to obtain significant profits. In order to be able to sell at high prices, they had to travel far to the areas where products were in abundance, in order to then be able to resell them profitably in places where they were scarce, and therefore more valuable. The farther the merchant’s trip was, the more advantageous it was for them. And this is easy to understand assuming that the profit motive was powerful enough to counteract the fatigue, the risks, and the dangers of a wandering life, exposed to all hazards.

It is this continuous and dramatic risk that strengthens the social cohesion of the group. Neither can survive without the other. They themselves are considered a phratry, a group of “brothers”:

The standard-bearer marches at the head of the caravan. A boss, the Hansgraf or Dean, assumes command of the company, which consists of “brothers” united by an oath of fidelity. A strong spirit of solidarity encourages the whole group. Goods are apparently bought and sold in common, and profits distributed in proportion to the contribution made by each to the association.

This new kind of real community collides with the prevailing values at the time due to its nomadism and meritocratic ethos.

Other than in winter, the merchant of the Middle Ages is permanently on the road. Interestingly, the English texts of the twelfth century called them “dusty feet” (pedes pulverosi). These wandering beings, these vagrants of commerce, must have amazed the agricultural society with whose customs it clashed, and where there was no place reserved for them, due to their extraordinary lifestyle. It represented mobility among a people with strong bonds to the land. It introduced, in a world faithful to tradition and respectful of a hierarchy that determined the role and range of each class, a calculating and rationalist mentality for which fortune, instead of being measured by the condition of man, only depended on his intelligence and energy. We cannot be surprised, then, if it caused scandal. The nobility had nothing but contempt for those foreigners, whose origin was unknown and whose insolent fortune was unbearable. It was enraged for seeing them in possession of larger amounts of money than them; it felt humiliated by having to rely, in difficult times, on the help of these new rich.

Nor will the Church approve of them:

As to the clergy, their attitude to traders was even more unfavorable. For the Church, commercial life endangered the salvation of the soul. The trader, says a text attributed to St. Jerome, can hardly please God.

Freedom as identity

mercaderes urbanosBecause the merchant is a freedman who breaks the social scale, an upstart son of servants who “improves without improving his blood”:

The legal status of traders eventually provided them, in this society for which they were original for so many reasons, a totally unique place. Due to the wandering life they led, they were foreigners everywhere. No one knew the origin of these eternal travelers. Most came from non-free parents, whom they abandoned very young in order to live a life of adventure. But servitude is not pre-judged, it must be proved. The law establishes that a man that cannot be assigned to a master is necessarily free.

It so happened that it was necessary to consider traders, most of whom were undoubtedly sons of servants, as if they had always enjoyed freedom. In fact, they became free by loosing their attachment to their native soil. Amid a social organization in which the people were tied to the land and each member depended on a lord, they presented the unusual spectacle of going about without being claimed by anyone. They don’t demand freedom: it was given to them as a result of the impossibility of showing them that they did not enjoy it. In a way, they acquired it by use and by prescription. In short, just like the agrarian civilization had made the peasant a man whose habitual state was slavery, commerce allowed the merchant to become a man whose habitual state was freedom.

ciudad medievalGradually, fairs and markets become stable, and with them, the presence of merchants-artisans:

For these newcomers, association was the surrogate, or even the substitute of family organization. Thanks to it, a new, more artificial and at the same time simpler social grouping emerged among the urban population, together with the patriarchal institutions that had prevailed until then.

The artisans/traders didn’t recognize children of a marriage of a slave and a freedman man as subject to bondage. Moreover, if a servant came to town and was accepted as an apprentice, he was freed, for all practical purposes, and protected by the community. The law allowed the Lords to claim the children of mixed marriages or urbanized servants, but,

For the trader, the mere idea of such interference must have seemed monstrous and intolerable.

The arts and equality

Enter the arts. Their aim is to consolidate, through economic equality, that which originally had been a close cooperation between different “bands” of merchants/artisans to ensure survival. Within each art, competition was regulated to the point of making revenues and way of life equal for all members.

Among these men of equal profession, equal fortune and equal longings, close ties of friendship were created or, to use the expression that appears in contemporary documents, of fraternity. A charity was organized in each trade: brotherhood, charité, etc. The brothers helped each other, took care of the livelihood of widows and orphans of their comrades, jointly attended the funerals of the members of their group, participating side by side in the same religious ceremonies and in the same celebrations. The unity of feelings corresponded with economic equality. It constituted their spiritual guarantee, while reflecting the harmony between industrial legislation and the aspirations of those it was applied to.

The Arts were real communities, groups of artisans/merchants who knew each other and reproduced and developed in their organization a specialized expertise of their own. But their weight in cities is such that their lifestyle becomes the spirit of the city itself:

Rural organization was patriarchal. The idea of paternal power gave way to the concept of brotherhood. The members of the guilds and the charités already called each other brothers, and the word passed from these associations to the entire population, “Unus subveniat alteri tanquam fratri suo,” says the “keure of Aire”: “one shall help the other as a brother.”

Taking fraternity to city government

And that’s when the fraternity that characterizes the arts inwardly starts to become a project and a political myth, together with the demand for freedom associated with the end of the “right of womb” and their practice of internal egalitarianism. Their way of materializing this was simply hacking the feudal order by occupying public services, taking them for themselves:

They were no longer content with their corporate competencies. They dared to assume public functions and, facing no opposition from the authorities, usurped their place. Each year in Saint-Omer, the guild allocated its surplus revenues to the common good, that is, to road maintenance and construction of gates and walls in the city. Other texts suggest that something similar happened, from very ancient times, in Arras, Lille, and Tournai. In fact, during the 13th century, the urban economy in these two cities was controlled, in the first, by the charité Saint-Christophe, and in the second, by the count of the Hansa.

Officially, it had no right to act the way it did; its intervention is explained by the cohesion that was reached by its members and the power they had as a group

And by then the committees mercatorum of Carolingian times has already become Count of the Hansa, a title that did not come from royal or feudal merit, but from a tradition that was based on the very organization of the original caravans of merchants.

mercadoThe contradictions between the first urban patricians and the arts will not take too long to arise. The latter would eventually end up openly fighting for the representation and the the power to organize the cities. In Liege, they will earn it intermittently beginning in 1253, and definitively as of 1384, and in Ghent, intermittently during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries until the fifteenth.

This brings about a novel form of political legitimacy: the judges of the boroughs exercise power on behalf of the communitas (community), or the universitas civium (all citizens), and not on that of the civil Prince or the Church, but neither on that of the fraternity or brotherhood that binds together the artisans and builds the obligation to belong to a trade to exercise full citizenship (as in the Florence ruled by the arts). The community, however, was not defined in a trivial way. On the contrary, it required an identity and strong material relationships of each to the whole.

In the cities where there were courts, as well as in those lacking them, citizens were a body, a community whose members were all in solidarity with each other. Nobody was a bourgeois without paying the municipal oath, which linked him closely with the rest of the bourgeois. His person and property belonged to the city, and both could be, at any time, required if need be. You could not conceive the bourgeois in isolation, nor was it possible, in primitive times, to conceive of man individually. At the time of the barbarians, one was considered a person thanks to the family community to which one belonged, and one was a bourgeois, in the Middle Ages, thanks to the urban community that one was part of.

Fraternity, which was born as the characteristic relationship among caravan traders, had grown to define the foundation of the body politic. The result in Liege — according to Pirenne, “the most democratic system that ever existed in the Netherlands” — required that

All major issues should be submitted to the deliberation of the thirty-two guilds, and settled on each of them by recess or “sieultes” (verbal process through which the discussions of the diets are deposited.)

Urban communitas is actually a confederation of arts in which, although the commitment of each is made towards the whole city, deliberation and decision remained in the space where relationships did not require mediation or representation.


triada republicanaBrotherhood as a political myth is born of mutual aid among medieval merchants and artisans. It meant bringing the open and strongly cohesive logic of the arts to the government of the bourgeois city. This is why it would become the longing of the urban popular classes, but as we shall see, with the dilution of the rigid organizational framework of the art, the original idea of fraternity is transformed and becomes confused. It will no longer be the product of a series of interactions among peers that scale only through the guild confederation.

In the next installment, we will go back to the Greek classics to understand why “fraternity,” even if it remains one of the founding values of European political thought, became so difficult to define.

Translated by Alan Furth from the original in Spanish.

1 Comment Fraternitas Mercatorum : the political origins of brotherhood in the merchant and craft guilds

  1. AvatarAlbertine harris

    indeed. I would comment on the importance of involving the workforce and creating a green concept to unite all organizations. Serving black or green certificates will have a great effect to improve systems pirated by dangerous fraudsters.

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