Were European Cities Responsible for Liberalism?

We appreciate Hans Eicholz’s further comments on our essay. His conclusion is that we should look to European cities as the source of liberal tendencies in medieval and early modern Europe.

This is a venerable argument that goes back to Max Weber and Henri Pirenne, and indeed to Adam Smith. Cities were incubators of civil republicanism, market liberalism, and greater religious freedom.

There is much to this argument. Certainly, we agree that the Italian city-states in particular provided governance models that later states imitated. They developed republican political institutions and built fiscal capacity. Sovereign debt markets first developed in late medieval Italian cities were only adopted by larger states in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cities also offered freedom to serfs.[1] But it is important to point out that recent research cautions against viewing Europe’s independent cities as forebears of modern liberalism.

Stephan R. Epstein’s important work Freedom and Growth pointed out that city-states such as Florence were far from liberal in how they treated their rural hinterlands.[2] Contrary to their reputation, princely states were often less rapacious or extractive.

In the late Middle Ages, Florence imposed protective tariffs and restrictions on the products of its local rivals, Pistoia and Prato. Epstein documents how powerful cities like Florence had a detrimental impact on rural proto-industrialization. In Epstein’s view,

Up to the 1450s Florentine policy towards the contado combined paternalistic and authoritarian norms established in the early fourteenth century, including rural export bans and forcible supplies at fixed prices to the city, the forced distribution of grain imports and excess stocks among the peasantry, and loans to stimulate agricultural recovery (Epstein, 2000, 161).

Recent work by Sheilagh Ogilvie also casts shade on the pro-market reputation of medieval city-states. Medieval cities were dominated by craft and merchant guilds that established barriers to entry and regulated trade. Ogilvie notes that medieval cities were less open than is often supposed:

Few towns admitted outsiders freely to the full economic rights of ‘citizens’ status.’ They placed conditions on citizenship and, as a consequence, excluded people who could not fulfill the requirements. Towns often charged citizenship admission fees to raise revenue, something they were able to do because citizenship meant access to a pool of profitable privileges which only urban citizens enjoyed, among them the right to apply for guild membership (Ogilvie, 2019, 97).

This research cautions against a reading of European history which posits “liberal” cities against “autocratic” states. Medieval city states did cultivate Republican notions of civic virtue and autonomy and were important centers of long-distance trade and manufacturing. But sustained economic growth required access to larger markets than any single city-state could provide. The economic rise of Western Europe certainly cannot be understood without recognizing the legacy of the independent cities of the Middle Ages, but it also can’t be fully appreciated without recognizing the important contribution of nation-states and larger federations, such as 19th-century Zollverein.


[1] It is less clear whether medieval cities offered meaningful bastions against religious persecution.

[2] S.R. Epstein, (2000). Freedom and Growth. Routledge: London.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Religion was central to premodern states. So why isn’t it central to the story of how modernity arose? Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that it should be. They argue that states with greater capacity — that is, stronger states — could enforce social rules that were neither personal nor based on religious identity, but that could at least potentially treat all religious believers fairly. Religion, they write, is a cheap source of legitimacy for weak states. Strong states can paradoxically offer more freedom, they argue.

Response Essays

  • James A. Robinson looks at how European states enjoy, or suffer from, a unique relationship to monotheistic religion. The early modern English state did not distance itself from religion as a source of state authority. Rather, it tried to make religion more tractable — while keeping the glow of its authority. Robinson extends his argument with examples from Saudi Arabia and China.

  • Hans Eicholz characterizes Johnson and Koyama’s theory of religious liberty as stadial — and thus as similar to theories expounded by Hegel and Marx. He finds it not so immediately objectionable, however, and he subjects it to a careful critique. He argues that it was not stateness per se that caused toleration to emerge, but rather competition among states, and among the institutions of state power, that brought them to seek the tangible advantages of legal toleration.

  • Dalibor Rohac agrees with the claim that stronger states and more effective protections of individual liberty tend to be found together. While state capacity can often be used for evil, the lack of state capacity is not the option to choose in preference to it. Rather we should understand federalism as an important missing piece of the puzzle because it gives individuals multiple levels of authority to resort to in the pursuit of justice.