Over the summer, I was pleased to visit a shining example of a medieval town on the Dalmatian coast. Town mice have a great fondness for the medieval era and, in particular, for the gorgeous, self-governing cities that sprang up across Europe during the Middle Ages.
Ignorant people use ‘medieval’ as an insult but, for me, medieval means beautiful, elegant and fair, and the cities and towns were miracles of good planning. The Italian name given to the medieval towns was comune.
The town I stayed in, Korčula, is the capital of an island of the same name. It sits opposite Venice, 300 miles across the Adriatic Sea, and can be reached by a two-hour car journey, plus short ferry ride, from Dubrovnik.
Though it’s in Croatia, you would think you were in Tuscany, in the land of Piero della Francesca: there is a Gothic cathedral; the streets, paved with shining stone, are narrow, with high walls. The sound of singing, of violins, of organs and of bells, of course, echo round the miniature city, and people hang out their washing on lines stretched between the houses. The vegetable lady is charming and the fishmonger is grumpy.
And, as the Italian city states were surrounded by fields, Korčula is surrounded by water; boats of all sizes drift past. There are mountains and sheltered inlets nearby. You feel as if you are in the land of Odysseus. Except for the odd party boat which pulls in, playing banging rave tunes.
Various warring tribes have competed to own Korčula over the years. It was colonised by Illyrians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Italians, Austrians and the Brits. But by far the longest period of settlement was from 1420 to 1797, when it was ruled by the Venetian Republic, whose symbol was a winged lion – the lion of St Mark – with its front paw on a copy of the Bible. An image of this lion remains carved into a stone slab on the entrance tower to the town. While medieval stonemasons were geniuses in many ways, getting a good likeness of a lion’s face seems to have been beyond them. The lions look like silly cartoons.
Though Korčula was owned by Venice, it kept a measure of autonomy. Far from being nasty, brutish and short, life in a medieval town was characterised by politeness and civility. First off, the political system was democratic. There was no aristocracy; the bourgeois ruled themselves through a council, with a leader freshly chosen every month.
Secondly, the economic system was dominated by the guilds, fraternities of workers who met to fix prices and keep a strict eye on quality. The guilds have nearly all disappeared in Britain these days; but, to give you an idea of how they worked, we can point to two surviving guild systems, doctors and lawyers. To become a doctor or lawyer, you have to undergo a gruelling training but, once in, you benefit from high wages and a supportive network. London cabbies are another example. Thirdly, the medieval church operated a fantastic network of charitable institutions – foundling hospitals, leper colonies, schools and various kinds of other hospitals.
It was this enlightened system of town management that led the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin – described by his friend Oscar Wilde as ‘that great white Christ’ – to praise the medieval commune as a shining example of co-operative living.
Upon entering the tiny city through Korčula’s tower, you see a covered, forum-type space on the left. This is where town council meetings took place, and still do, with the mayor presiding from behind an old stone table. During the Town Mouse’s visit, I witnessed several lively assemblies that brought to mind Kropotkin’s words.
‘A federation of village communities, covered by a network of guilds and fraternities, was called into existence in the medieval cities,’ he wrote in his great work Mutual Aid, arguing that this system of brotherly love and co-operation was dismantled entirely in the Reformation and gradually replaced with a system of selfish individualism.
Looking around London town, you have to conclude that he was right. The spirit of me-first money-grubbing dominates entirely.
When did we last build something as beautiful as Westminster Abbey? Look how long it’s taking to repair a muffled Big Ben and its tower: four years – longer that it took to build.
We simply would not know how to construct an abbey these days, nor would we be able to mobilise an army of unpaid creatives making gargoyles and so forth, in service of the greater good, as happened in the old days. Far from advancing, both social progress and architecture seem to be going backwards.
Immediately after the Second World War, Korčula became part of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, itself part of Tito’s communist Yugoslavia. Korčula become completely Slav-dominated once more; it is still so today. And an attempt was made to bring back some of the old ideas of mutual aid and co-operative practices.
The huge difference, though, between the quasi-socialist, medieval city states and communist nations is that the first were not ruled by a vast state, but by a small gathering of guild leaders. This is why they are praised by anarchists: there was no king, president or ruling party; the people took care of themselves.
In ancient times, cities were usually seen as places of vice, luxury and pride. But Korčula and the medieval towns show us that they can be run on co-operative lines, too. We should give a copy of Mutual Aid to the town planners of Blighty.