essays

Sep 1, 1981

Medieval Liberty & Its Evolution

“The foundation stone of the Western tradition of liberty is to be found in the medieval concept of territorial immunity.”

Alan Harding
University of Edinburgh

“Political Liberty in the Middle Ages.” Speculum 55 (3) (1980):423–443.

Although some have asserted that the Middle Ages contributed little if anything to the development of political liberty in the West, Prof. Harding points out that the word “liberty” occurs with great frequency in medieval charters and legal records. Harding argues that, in the great majority of cases, the word does refer essentially to political freedom in an embryonic form. Of course, no conception as yet existed concerning the right to vote or the right to express political opinions, which are central to political freedom in a modern context. The liberty which was understood and cherished in the Middle Ages served, nevertheless, as the necessary precondition of these modern freedoms. This medieval liberty encompassed the power to act in community affairs and to exert influence on one’s fellows without the interference of government.

In England and France, at least, political liberty was first of all a prerogative of lordship, involving territorial immunities such as exemptions from taxation, noninterference by royal courts, and the right to enforce law and order without the aid of the king’s peace officers. For centuries, therefore, liberty was a matter of feudal privilege before it acquired the character of general right. This privilege was attached to the favored lord’s land and was exercised there. As a result, the term “liberty” might refer to the land, as well as to the freedom enjoyed on that land. According to Prof. Harding, this peculiarly medieval view of liberty contributed three essential qualities to the idea of political freedom as it subsequently evolved in the West.

First of all, the lord’s power of independent action within his domain (or “liberty”) imbued the idea of freedom with political force. This lordly power was in fact Hobbes’ “natural liberty” —for Hobbes the only genuine form of liberty. The authority of the lord within his domain constituted a practical fact which medieval kings would simply recognize in their charters.

Secondly, rights were subsequently acquired by communities in rural and especially urban territories, giving rise to the notion of individual liberty. This concept may be defined as the collection of separate privileges considered appropriate to a man’s sphere of life: for instance, a merchant’s burgage (land tenure) rights, his freedom of passage, and freedom from prosecution outside his borough. These liberties were more negative than the freedom of action of territorial lords, but they were accessible to a far more numerous population. From these beginnings, the idea of freedom for the man without noble blood slowly acquired form and content. Freedom of passage granted to burgesses along with protection from arbitrary imprisonment accorded in the thirteenth century combined to make up the notion of “individual civil liberty.” Individual political liberty in the modern sense evolved quite naturally as boroughs acquired the right to send representatives to parliament.

Lastly, the curbing of the territorial powers of the lords by thirteenth-century kings endowed the concept of freedom with an emotional force and helped create the politics of freedom. From the Florentine legislation against the magnates in the 1290s to the French revolutionaries’ attacks on the clergy and nobility, a major element of the European political tradition was the opposition between the liberties of the whole community and the license of the lords.

Despite these developments, the foundation stone of the Western tradition of liberty is to be found in the medieval concept of territorial immunity. This concept allows us to synthesize the various facets of freedom in a single abstract idea—inviolability. In our own day, however, liberty no longer refers to the inviolability of the great estate, but to that of the individual citizen in his proper sphere.