On looking in the past for a better future

This month I am very proud to say that the media collective that I am a part of Alternative Leftist Entertainment (or ALE, to friends) has launched. (You can follow us on Twitter, here.) This is a very nice thing for me, because it is a treat to have colleagues. Also it will be very nice for you, the lovely person reading this, because it means I have to do a piece each month along with everyone else in the collective that focuses on the monthly theme, so that is a nice thing to force me to write. Yay! (We like that right? We agree that me writing things is good, yes?)

This month’s theme is capitalism, which you might think would be tricky for someone who is, you know a medieval historian. After all, capitalism is very much a modern invention. The very idea of debt in the medieval period was experienced as a sin, and was also used as an excuse for massive antisemitism. Indeed, if you are, say, Marx, you might that capitalism it is the modern invention, and the one that marks a decisive break with the medieval world.

That idea is a part of what historians refer to as Historical Materialism, which I have been covering over at my podcast We’re Not So Different. (Slowly! It is a big concept! That I don’t really necessarily agree with, but think is important! And this is a very very short breakdown of one facet of the idea! Do not, under any circumstances @ me!) Anyway, the way Historical Materialism sees history is as having distinct time periods that are determined by the material and technological conditions of the times. This is often broken into specific stages: primitive communism (during the hunter-gatherer period, aka most of humanity’s existence); the ancient mode of production (early agriculture, slaves, all that); the feudal mode of production (nobles, serfs, what have you); and finally/currently the capitalist mode of production (now). So you, know, not a lot of medieval history about the shop.

Interestingly, as anti-Marxist as our society often is, this idea has been pretty much absorbed by culture writ large. We believe in it so hard that I have to constantly get in arguments with non-experts about feudalism, because it didn’t really exist. However, because our society has internalised the idea of a mythic feudalism to capitalism pipeline, it often treats our own society both as inevitable and a step in the right direction. Even those who are critical of capitalism will think stuff like, “Well yeah it is not good but at least I am not a serf, so this is progress.” This tendency is something that Mark Fischer has termed Capitalist Realism, or “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”[1]

Now, I too do not wish to be a serf, but here is the thing: you know how I said feudalism didn’t really exist? Well one of the reasons it didn’t really exist is that actually everywhere in medieval Europe didn’t have what you would recognise as feudalism (a structure with some serfs, owned by a lord, who pays homage to a king). More to the point, there were places and times in medieval Europe where people actually organised communal republics and today I want to tell you about two of them: the independent peasants’ republic of Dithmarschen and the communal Hussite society of Tabor.

A map of Dithmarschen and their neighbours/antagonists Holstein.

Dithmarschen is still an area on the North Sea, in what is now Germany, and was one of those parts of Northern Europe that people hadn’t got around to draining out yet, unlike the lowlands in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands. So it was, as the name indicates, a big ol’ marsh that supported smaller communities to thrive. One of the big reasons they did so was the wool trade. Marshy land wasn’t great for planting crops, but was excellent for grazing hardly lil’ sheep on, and so people did that, collected wool, and made cloth. However, the generalised marshy conditions of the place overall made it super hard to rule with an iron fist or whatever, cuz what were you gonna do? March an army through here to oppress the shepherds? Good luck man, this is a bog.

 It was usually considered to be under the control of the Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen, but in 1180 that changed cuz a bunch of rich dudes started fighting, naturally. Siegfried of Anhalt (c. 1132-1184) then Prince-Archbishop, decided to give the area to his brother Bernhard III (c. 1140-1212), the Count of Anhalt and Duke of Saxony. Thing is, a whole other dude, Adolf III (1160-1225), the Count of Schauenburg and Holstein, had sorta also taken possession of Dithmarschen. Essentially, the Archbishop gave the land to his bother as more of a contact than a gift. He was essentially admitting that he couldn’t bring these lands under his control, so he gave them to Bernhard on the condition that he take them back from Adolf. That did not happen.

The next Prince-Archbishop to take a crack at the whole thing was the excellently-named Hartwig of Uthelde (d. 1207). Instead of trying to go into war with Adolf to get hold of Dithmarschen, he persuaded Adolf to give up his control in return for regular taxes levied on the Ditmarsians, which the Archbishop was sure he could take through military means. Anyway, the Ditmarsians were like, yeah sure buddy, you can be our Prince-Archbishop or whatever, and then the minute Hartwig and his troops left they started scheming against him.

The Ditmarsians got another rich dude Bishop, Valdemar of Denmark (1158 – 1236), the steward of the Duchy of Schleswig to mount up for them and say that he controlled the area. By now Archbishop Hartwig was broke. He owed money to Adolf, as well as to his allies who had supported him in his military claim, and couldn’t afford to march back into Ditmarschen. Valdemar was declared the winner, and subsequently elected in 1192 as the new Prince-Archbishop of Bremen, a move which the Ditmarsians supported because they knew he had their back.

Sheep in a pen, or, how to get rich and flex on the nobility. From MS Douce 195

The Ditmarsians were extremely pumped about this. Nominally, they were still controlled by the Archbishop of Bremen, but in practice, they were what we now recognise as a peasants’ republic. They set up a series of communes, based around their local parishes, which chose their own representatives. As a collective, the terrae universitatis Dithmarsiae, or united lands of Dithmarschen passed their own laws, which was overseen by a common assembly. They also, crucially, administered their own resources, meaning that there were no overlords taking a cut along the way.

And the thing about all of this is that it worked super super well. Turns out a bunch of peasants were perfectly able to get their heads around the ins and outs of legislation and law making, as well as taxation and how to govern. It was always perfectly workable – the technological conceits of the time be damned.

Of course, not everyone was happy about peasants having a nice time, and neighbouring nobles attempted at various times to reign in that whole poor people doing self-determination thing. However, not only could the poors organise governance, they could also do self-defense. They fought off attacks from, among others, the King of Denmark, the rulers of Schleswig, and the nearby Counts of Holstein-Rendsburg. Repeatedly. Over and over. Just a lot. At times they also allied with their neighbouring free peasants in neighbouring Wursten.

What the nobility hate to see – peasants thriving. From Getty Ms Ludwig IX 18, fol. 125v.

One of the most famous of their victories came over the winter of 1499-1500, when the Ditmarsians were forced to fight an army of 6,000 mercenaries called the Great or Black Guard, depending on who you were asking, overseen by the King of Denmark. This culminated at the Battle of Hemmingstedt, where the Ditmarsians, numbering only one thousand were able to repel the invaders. So, it turns out you didn’t actually need a bunch of rich guys on horses to do that for you, and you don’t need a whole new mode of production to allow for that. Who knew?

Eventually in 1559 the belligerent rich guys won out, with the Danish Count Johan Rantzau (1492-1565) eventually going in real hard to oppress the locals and just generally be a dick about things. However, a three-hundred-year run is longer than, say, America has been going at things, so you can’t say that a peasant-run communal elective system wasn’t possible or successful.[2]

See Tabor up there? Second to the left up the top. Yes yes.

Of course, I will not allow a discussion of my favourite collective groups in the medieval period to go past without discussing my boys the Taborites as well. The Taborites were a group of Hussites that were centred in, well Tabor, in Southern Bohemia. The town had been set up by the group following the successful seizure in 1420 of nearby Hradiště castle. As far as the Taborites were concerned, it was very good to topple the dominant counts who were still Catholic in order to ensure your religious freedom, yes. But what if you went further, razed their towns to the ground and then started your own based on a specific collective vision, and named it after Mount Tabor in Galillee? They thought that was cool, and I also agree.

A central part of the Taborite community was the belief that society should not be stratified, and that conceptions like servant and master must be abolished. Taborites would call each other brother or sister as an appellation, stressing the equality both in their community as well as that of all humans before God. This was extremely popular, and Hussites from all over Bohemia started to show up to get themselves free. The new residents were able to support themselves through farming (Hell yeah, peasants!) and also through control of the local gold and silver mines. However, even though there were jobs that had a theoretical variation in terms of “value” the Taborites weren’t having that. They instead declared that all property would be held in common, and abolished taxation. After all, if the whole community owned everything there wasn’t a need for taxation to redistribute funds, right?

The Catholic Counts of Bohemia did not like this a) on account of the fact that they were Catholic, and b) on account of the fact that they were haters and didn’t want people to get ideas about equality. In order to stop the community from growing, they would wage military campaigns to try to stop common Hussites from reaching Tabor. To prevent this, they set up a commission of four military leaders including the legendary badass Jan Žižka (c. 1360-1424), Mikuláš of Hus (d. 1420), Chval Řepický of Machovice (d. 1433), and Zbyněk z Buchova (d. ?).

Hussite forces (them with the cup banner), fighting crusaders. From the Národní Muzeum Jena codex, fol. 56a.

While the Taborites were all busy protecting their radical community they were also chill and nice guys. This means they even pitched in militarily to help protect Prague (which was home to a much more moderate iteration of Hussitism, which suited the tastes of the wealthier city folks there) when the first anti-Hussite crusade was called, after they had already successfully defended Tabor against an onslaught, naturally.

None of this is to say that things went perfectly in Tabor. Eventually there was friction due to religious factionalisation. Žižka went off to join the more moderate Orebites in Hradec Králové, though they often fought alongside each other. A group, the Adamites, sprang up who rejected the conception of the Eucharist that didn’t go down well, and they were expelled from the city, and eventually surpressed by Žižka. Twenty years later, the Taborites would be defeated at the Battle of Lipany, which spelled the beginning of the end. Sensing a weakness, Catholic lords went for them hard, and eventually Oldřich of Rožmberk (1403-1462), from one of the most powerful Bohemian noble families was able to take the town. The Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437), Charles IV’s hateful failson, granted the city imperial status, in an attempt to cement it as a Catholic stronghold. The remaining Taborite leaders were hanged in Old Town Square in Prague.[3]

This is a depressing ending, but it tells you something important – a world based on religious freedom (up to a point, to be sure) and equality was a massive threat to the status quo, and it was treated as such. This tiny little upstart community managed to shake not only local lords, but the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope into action. It took the combined forces of some of the most wealthy people in Europe to tear up this dream, and they did it all to make sure that no one tried anything like it again.

The history of communities like Dithmarschen and Tabor is important because it calls into question what we consider to be the inevitability of unequal systems as well as capitalism. Even in a time with fewer freedoms and more fractured forms of communication, people were able and eager to establish communities and societies that worked for them. They were expressly working against authority and pushing for a society where they lived and were treated equally. It was never inevitable that the medieval period end with capitalism, and capitalism wasn’t necessary in order to bring about an end to “feudalism”, whatever the hell that is supposed to be. It was always possible for communities to govern themselves, and it was only concerted violent coercion from the ruling forces that prevented that from happening.

There is a lesson here for us all. It has always been viable for our societies to be more equal and communal. We can look to the past and communities like Dithmarschen and Tabor for clues about how to organise a better and more equitable future. None of this was inevitable, and none of it is permanent. We are simply prevented from achieving this through the interests of the wealthy.

[1] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010), p. 2.
[2] For more on the bad-asses of Ditmarschen, you can check out: William L. Urban, Dithmarschen: A Medieval Peasant Republic, (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1991 ) or if you have German, Walther Lammers, Die Schlacht bei Hemmingstedt: Freies Bauerntum und Fürstenmacht im Nordseeraum, 3rd ed. (Heide im Holstein: Westholsteinische Verlagsanstalt Boyens, 1982).
[3] Nice introductions to the Taborites in English include Thomas A. Fudge, “Žižka’s Drum: The Political Uses of Popular Religion”, Central European History 36, no. 4 (2003): 546–69; and Ernst Werner, “Popular Ideologies in Late Mediaeval Europe: Taborite Chiliasm and Its Antecedents”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 2, no. 3 (1960): 344–63.

For more futuristic visions from the past, see:
Medieval policing and race reading lists
On Odious debt
On defeats, small people, and the UK election

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

4 thoughts on “On looking in the past for a better future”

  1. At these times of political squabble about “abolishing the police”, do you have knowledge about communal/peasant’s way of dealing with bad or criminal behavior ?
    Was it “burn, witch, burn” or “he’s not from the village so he must be guilty, let’s hang him” or were there better and fairer community responses ?


    1. Oops, I just found your post about “a world without police”.
      I’d still like more developments about the successes and failures of those restorative justice systems, though, and on how the fact that there were no professionals induced better or worse justice.


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