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Updated on September 30, 2012

Europe during the middle ages was a society in transition, though the popular perception was that of stagnation and orthodoxy. Soon after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the center of gravity shifted to the eastern Roman Empire which lasted until the 15th century. With the gradual decline of the Western Roman Empire great changes took place. Politically, though the king was the supreme ruler in his country, he was in reality very much dependent on his nobles on the one side and the powerful church on the other. He could therefore not ignore the wishes of either the nobility or the clergy. Real power was vested with the barons in their fiefdom and the vast majority of the people who were peasants were very much dependent on their feudal lords. The church too had immense power, so much so that the Pope Gregory VII had once ex-communicated the holy Roman emperor Henry IV. A similar fate was faced by King John of England in 1207. But he soon made amends and continued with his misrule.


Everyone knows that King John got the opportunity to be the king as his brother King Richard the Lion Heart went to the Holy Land as part of the crusade. During his long leave of absence, King John who was a poor administrator alienated his subjects. It was this which forced him to sign the Magna Carta in the Village Runnymede on 15th June 1215. This was the first major concession made to the commoners. The noteworthy part of this big charter was that for the first time the rising class of merchants got a lot of concessions. Despite being a typically feudal document, this concession was a great one when we consider some of its consequences. King Richard who had financed his crusades with loans from Jewish money lenders had later ordered that the representatives of the cities be part of his great council. So in 1265, for the first time they attended these deliberations usually as financial experts. Though they were not part of the general discussion, their advice was always sought on issues like taxation. So while the king discussed matters of the state with the nobles and bishops, he also sought the opinion of the ‘Commons’. Soon the council became a place for ‘où l'on parle which means in English ‘Where people talked’. That was how the word parliament gained currency. This concept of King and his parliament was prevalent in other parts of Europe too. For example, in 1302 CE, representatives of the cities of France were included in the meetings of the French parliament. But unfortunately, these representatives were absolutely powerless until the outbreak of the French revolution.


In Spain too, there was a King’s council called ‘Cortes’. Unlike in England and France, this was opened to the commoners as early as the first half of 12th century. In Sweden, representatives of people were included in the year 1359 in the RIKSDAG neighboring Denmark opened the doors of Daneholf in 1314 thereby empowering the commoner. Switzerland, had a unique style of governance were they managed their different cantons without undue interference of ambitious barons.


All this was on account of the social change that was slowly taking place beneath the apparently static medieval society. The crusades had opened up trade and many cities became rich and powerful. The Italian city states of Venice and Florence are just examples of the emergence of new centers of power-- namely the merchants and financiers. The old monopoly of feudal lords was gradually getting eroded. By the beginning of the renaissance European cities were right for great changes both politically and culturally. The emergence of representative government though modest was the first indication of great changes that were to come.


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