The Air of the Town Makes You Free
Into [European feudalism’s] backward-looking, ritualistic, rigidly structured life, the growing economic forces at work in the new towns brought stress. As the trade in surplus goods increased, merchants found that the raw materials they needed were controlled by feudal lords who neither understood nor cared about commerce. Transportation of goods through their lands was both dangerous and costly. Alternative sites for commerce had to be found and the towns seemed to offer the best alternative.
Free from the feudal bonds of the countryside, the urban dweller was envied by his peasant counterpart. ‘Stadtluft machtfrei’ (the air of the town makes you free), they said in eleventh-century Germany, because after a statutory period of residence there a serf would automatically become a freedman. Soon enough the townspeople, with their economic strength and their craftsmen supported by the general surplus, began to demand from kings and emperors those statutes which would reinforce their freedom in law. Merchants who had no place in the feudal pyramid of serf, knight, priest and king now had the money to buy social status.
As the aristocrats began to commute their serfs’ dues from service to cash, money began to weaken the old social structure. Ambition began to express itself in outward show. ‘It is too easy to change your station now’ complained the Italian, Thomasin of Zirclaria. ‘Nobody keeps his place!’ The word ‘ambition’ took on common usage for the first time.
— The Day the Universe Changed, p. 31