To build defenses, regulate and improve trade, raise taxes, and maintain order, organization of an urban area was necessary. The earliest attempts at united action of the burghers involved the forming of associations in which the burghers swore an oath binding themselves together in a personal bond of mutual support and defense. The communes grew in power and, as autonomous corporate entities, became extremely influential in organizing city government. By the late 12th cent., when cities were well established, all who chose to live in them had to take an oath acknowledging the authority of the communes.
Because the town was located on land belonging to a king or emperor (see feudalism), the town owed allegiance to its lord and paid him tribute and, in wartime, service or money payment. Suzerains often favored the communes as sources of wealth and confirmed their rights in liberal charters. Disputes, nevertheless, frequently arose between communes and their overlords. In the struggle between kings and nobles, the kings usually strengthened the communes and sought alliances with them. However, in the 16th and 17th cent., when European states (notably France and Spain) became centralized, the privileges of the communes were gradually withdrawn.
The extent of their liberties and the details of their organization varied widely. A common feature was the elected council. The magistrates were usually called consoli, podestàs, and capitouls in Italy and S France, échevins and jurés in N France and the Low Countries, Senatoren and Ratsherren in Germany. Corporations and guilds gained a prominent share in the government. Militia insured the defense.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.