The Third Estate: a peasant works for the two others (17th-century gable stone; Amsterdam)

The Third Estate: a peasant works for the two others (17th-century gable stone; Amsterdam)

And onto the stage came Marsiglio dei Mainardini, an Italian political philosopher from Padua who taught at the Sorbonne. In his treatise Defensor pacis (Defender of the Peace), written in1324, he maintains that all power is derived from the people and that their ruler is only their delegate. There is no law but the popular will, as manifested in the ruler. These were not minor matters that Dei Mainardini put forward. To start with, he made a case for the separation of Church and State, a view which put him ahead of his time by a number of centuries. Unprecedented was his proposition that the welfare of the nation – and not the prestige of the ruler – should be the goal of the exercise of power. Furthermore, the people should not only be well-governed but should also have a say in the exercise of power.

This last proposition would neutralize the ruler’s self-interest, promote adherence to the laws and serve as a stimulus to giving good counsel. However, the illiterate were also part of ‘the people’ and, as it was thought in the Middle Ages that illiterate people could not contribute in any meaningful way to society, Dei Mainardini considered that until everyone had received a higher education it was wiser to admit only those from the ‘better’ part of the nation’s population to a body (the Meeting of the Estates) whose task it was to choose and supervise the ruler. He, therefore, advocated a separation of the executive power of the ruler and the legislative power of the people, as represented in the Estates.

By putting forward these propositions, Dei Mainardini became the founder of the modern European science of public administration. This is not to say that his contemporaries were able to grasp fully the consequences of The Defender of the Peace. The Pope condemned the work out of hand; in his opinion, the sole duty of the state was to defend the Church. Worldly rulers were not very comfortable either with the propositions in the treatise, as they did not feel like accepting the people as co-rulers. The only person to appreciate Dei Mainardini’s book was Emperor Louis IV, the Bavarian: the revolutionary document may have been more acceptable to him because he was married to Margaretha, the daughter of Count William III of Holland. Who can say? Perhaps she told her husband that in her native Holland the ruler and the people had been collaborating very satisfactorily in this way for about a century-and-a-half.

For the time being, the Estates did not elect the ruler but could otherwise exercise great influence on the government. For example, if a ruler should get into financial difficulties, he could not impose new taxes on his own initiative, since the property of a free man was sacrosanct. Therefore, he had to petition the Estates for extra money. Only the towns could grant this request and they made high demands in the form of new privileges. Another occasion on which the towns could haggle for extra privileges via the Meeting of the Estates was when the ruler died without having appointed a successor. They usually gave their support then to the candidate who made the most concessions to them.

Theoretically, the Meetings of the Estates took place at a national level. Thus France had the États Généraux (States-General) where one of the best known accords passed was the introduction of the taille, a direct land tax which gave the king sufficient money to finance a professional army and to wage war against the English. In England the Meeting of the Estates was called Parliament and was divided into the Upper House or House of Lords and the Lower House or House of Commons. In the Upper House the aristocracy and clergy discussed jurisprudence and in the Lower House the towns debated over money. The Holy Roman Empire, having fallen apart after Frederick II’s death in 1250, did not have a representative body. Therefore, negotiations between clergy, aristocracy and the towns only took place at district level. In the Bishopric of Utrecht, for example, this happened from 1350. In Brabant the right of consultation of the towns was laid down in the Blijde Inkomste (‘Joyful Arrival’), a charter which regulated the relations between a ruler and his people and was proclaimed each time a new ruler took office.

There were also exceptions, especially in the more urbanized and richer regions of the empire. In Flanders there were only four enfranchised members of the Meeting of the Estates: the towns of Ypres, Bruges, and Ghent, together with a group of free peasants. The aristocracy and the clergy did not contribute to this body and therefore it cannot rightly be called a Meeting of Estates. Nor in Holland were all three estates summoned: when the Estates of Holland met, they were attended by representatives of six towns and one representative of the knights.

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