Sketch by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath (1791), which marked the emancipation of the French bourgeoisie, or the Third Estate, from the Estates-General.
Urban charters had grown out of collective efforts to sustain collective responsibility in the medieval town. Even though urban administrators were elected to their positions, medieval towns were not centers for democracy or equality. Quite the opposite, in fact. The medieval town was ruled by an urban oligarchy. A burgher was “elected,” or chosen, by his fellow burghers to serve at his administrative post. Prosperous merchants had the most to gain from charters, as it was they who controlled their towns’ governments. Generation after generation they looked out for themselves and their economic interests.
Did the development of urban charters and laws contribute to the bourgeoisie’s achieving class consciousness in the Middle Ages?
I would argue that establishing the customs of the towns—which emphasized the rights, privileges, and liberties of the medieval bourgeoisie— was a crucial process that set the bourgeoisie apart from both their seigniorial lords and the rural peasantry.
Sheila Delany provides a succinct overview of the reasons for which the medieval bourgeoisie began to claim for themselves specific legal freedoms and privileges, which she rather brilliantly connects to the bourgeois revolutions that marked the end of a bloody 18th century:
From the start the medieval bourgeoisie were in competition with feudal lords. They competed first for labour-power, for they required a pool of free workers and artisans to produce what they would sell. Free, that is, from feudal ties, free to move where they were needed, free to work when they were needed, and free from property. To this end most town charters guaranteed freedom to any serf who lived peacefully in the town for a year and a day…But the bourgeois himself, whether merchant, employer or financier, also required freedom from domination by lay and ecclesiastical lords. He wanted freedom to trade unimpeded and travel safely, freedom to hire and release employees, to raise or lower prices, wages or interest, to accumulate a fortune, marry a noblewoman or purchase an estate. The political privileges granted to the urban bourgeoisie were known as ‘liberties.’ Indeed the notion of ‘liberty’ was the distinctive contribution to European thought of the bourgeoisie breaking free of feudal bonds; it culminated in the slogans of French and American bourgeois revolutionaries of the 18th century.
I emphasize the last point of this passage to highlight the continuing relevance of the medieval bourgeoisie to our modern political discourse. Our modern conceptions of liberty and freedoms were derived, at least partly, from definitions that the medieval bourgeoisie had begun to codify in urban charters so that they could adequately protect and defend their economic interests.