Northern Italy in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Northern Italy were a tumultuous time marked by an economic boom which led to the foundation of Europe’s modern urban civilization, but were marred by violent conflict.


Our vision of the Middle Ages is that of the lord in his manor house, the serfs on the land, the bishop in his cathedral and the king in his castle or off fighting Crusades. Yet this hierarchical, rural world where everyone knew their place may have been typical of Northern Europe — France, Germany and England in particular — but was far from the norm in Medieval Italy.

Although the Western Roman Empire was the subject of wave after wave of barbarian invasions from the third century AD, it was not until the invasion of the Germanic Lombards in the sixth century that urban Roman civilization broke down completely in Northern Italy. In their turn the Lombards were conquered by Charlemagne in the eighth century, bringing Northern Italy into the Frankish empire. In the meantime, the Byzantine Roman Emperors consolidated their hold on Southern Italy and its development followed a completely different trajectory. The two halves of Italy would not be reunited until the nineteenth century.

Charlemagne made himself and his heirs kings of Northern Italy so that technically the King of Italy was also the Holy Roman Emperor. However, his son Pepin granted sovereignty over Central Italy to the Pope. It was only through the position of emperor that the Carolingian Emperors could exert any influence over the Papal lands so that in effect the title of King of Italy became redundant. However, while the Emperor could exert temporal power over the Pope as local monarch, it was the Pope, as the spiritual power, who crowned the Emperor, thus granting him his temporal power. This created a situation in which two great powers, both of which purported to be the superior, claimed supremacy in Northern Italy and would tear the country apart for hundreds of years to come.

The Carolingian Emperors sought to rule Italy through a system of appointed counts, viscounts and marquises to whom they granted authority over certain territories. However, they were not able to maintain control of this system so far from the centre of power and over time these local authorities assumed feudal ownership of lands they were only meant to administer and their positions became de facto hereditary titles. While the feudal nobility were mostly of Germanic, that is to say Lombard and Frankish, stock, the remnants of the Latin population remained in the crumbling cities. Though now thoroughly Christian, many of their towns being ruled by bishops and protected by saints and martyrs, the townspeople also remembered their urbanised Roman past.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, an economic revival took place in Italy as the population began to grow, agriculture spread and international trade was re-established. This led to a rebirth of many of the old Roman cities, as well as the establishment of new ones, as centres of exchange of local produce and international trade. While the feudal nobility also partook of the benefits of this revival, the extra spoils on offer only accentuated the already brutal rivalry between noble clans as they vied to take control of the cities. In many cities, the nobles developed self-defence associations which built defensive towers from which they sallied forth to fight each other. (The picturesque towers of Sam Gimignano are the best preserved examples.)

a fresco of the countryside in medieval Northern Italy
from The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

In order to defend themselves the townspeople formed communes, a council of representatives chosen in a variety of ways, to administer the cities and curb the power of the nobility. Thus the cities developed strong civic and democratic cultures with most of the affluent men taking part in their city’s administration. While the feudal nobility were deliberately excluded from these institutions, they still maintained the power and influence that their wealth and land ownership bestowed. Meanwhile the cities extended their control over the surrounding countryside, becoming city states (see The Medieval Italian City State). Though nominally under the sovereignty of the Emperor, they were, to all intents and purposes, totally independent entities.

However, democracy also engendered fierce competition for civic power and prestige, and in a country already divided between nobleman and townsman, between Pope and Emperor, these personal rivalries also became embroiled in the wider divisions. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, all of Northern Italy was torn between Guelfs and Ghibellines. Nominally the Guelfs were the supporters of the Pope and Ghibellines of the Emperor. Guelfs were largely the feudal nobility and Ghibellines were largely the townsmen.

However, the divisions were never so clear-cut nor the motives always to do with international politics. Whole cities might support one side or the other, but then be divided within the city along lines of personal and family loyalties. Thus Dante Alighieri found himself exiled from Florence in 1301 for supporting the White Guelfs against the Black Guelfs who, after a six day killing spree, had taken control of the city while Dante was absent.

These internal divisions made the cities almost impossible to administer democratically, so that often an administrator known as a podestà was called in to take over the running of the city temporarily. Although the podestà might be a local man of personal authority with some legal training, many a podestà was a professional in the role and went from city to city attempting to bring order to chaos. In some cities, the podestà had his contract renewed year after year, making his position a permanent one that might also become hereditary.

Rivalries were not only between clans and within cities, but extended between cities. Again inter-city rivalries over territory or trade routes became embroiled in Guelf and Ghibelline divisions and more often than not culminated in warfare. However, the cities did not have the resources to man or maintain armies so they hired mercenary armies that were under the command of a warlord known as a condottiere. These mercenary armies would fight for whoever paid them and otherwise were a power unto themselves. (see The Scourge of Italy: the Condottieri and their mercenary armies)

However, while the contracting of a podestà or of mercenary armies freed the townsmen to continue to amass wealth, the price was appallingly high. The old democratic institutions slowly gave way to despotic government by local tyrants, while the devastation, chaos and depopulation in the wake of the Black Death (see La Pestilenza: the Black Death in Italy) left the way open for the condottieri to take control of the city states and their wealth. By the dawn of the fifteenth century, most of the city states had been taken over by one petty tyrant or another, but it was these petty tyrants who were to become the patrons of the Renaissance.


© Pauline Montagna 2015

Read more about Medieval Italy…


Society and Politics in Medieval Italy by J.K. Hyde (1973)

The Italian City Republics by Daniel Waley (1988)



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