City Air Makes Men Free

The peasant carpenters continue to work in the adjoining room.  Huge Clovis with his Niederdeutsch dialect, mousey Ergot, and sharp Fedor with the ruined face, a scar, a mass of too-white flesh, covering the entirety of the left side.  Last night, as they leaned on the other side of the wall against which my cot is abutted, Clovis said softly, “Today I become a free man.  My son will not be a serf.”

A cheese so strong that I could smell it through the cracks in the wall must have been unwrapped, as Clovis continued.  “My family and village were tenants of a certain noble for as long as memory holds.  We always paid our rents and gave our lord everything he required.

“But with each generation, the nobles grow more foolish.  They waste their fortunes on clothing and the new spices.  They quarrel among themselves and ruin the land by attacking one another’s villages.  My house was burned three times in four years, the crops destroyed every time.  Once they burned the barn with my ox in it.  As the nobles grow poorer, they take more from us.  They change the laws and take away our ancient rights to hunt, to fish, to gather firewood on the common lands.  They make us work more and more days.”

Fedor amazed me when he said, “It’s this new Roman law.  Our ancient rights came from the old German law.  It made a difference among serfs, tenants, freers.  The Romans had only slaves.  Their law had only slaves.  Now we are all slaves.”

I shifted on my cot.  We scholars believed that the rewriting of the law codes along Roman lines was an admirable return to simplicity and justice.

“When my lord invoked the new law,” Clovis said, “I had to work two days a week for him, and I had to work extra boon days during the busy harvests.  That was bad enough.  But the mistress!  Ach, she galled me!  I had to gather snails for her, stand guard to shoo the wild hogs away from her garden, keep the frogs quiet in the pond on cloudy afternoons while she slept.  My days spent in such foolishness, I worked my own crops by the light of the moon.  Dark nights, my son carried a torch before the plow.”

Ergot seemed to be eating apples, for I heard the bite, though at this time of year, they would be wintered over, shriveled and moldy.  “How’d you get away?” he squeaked.

“My lord took his men to war.  So, we fled in the night.  Many days I spent between the shafts of the handcart, saying to my wife and son:  Faster.  Faster.”

Ergot must also have been eating the apple cores, for he spat the seeds.  “Pist.  Did they look for you?”

“I know not.  Perhaps in the nearer cities, but I avoided those.  I made for Freiburg, over a hundred miles away.  Once I was within the city walls, the lord had a year and a day to reclaim me.  But there’s been no rumor of his appearing.  True is the saying: City air makes men free.” 

Now I smelled dried fish as Fedor said, “May it please the saints.  For I shall never go back.”

I assumed Ergot referred to the scar when he said, “Did a noble do that?”

“I spoke too directly to my lord.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said nothing.  But I gave him the Spanish finger.”

Ergot’s squeal was piercing.  “Why?”

“Because he had claimed the right of first night with my wife.  I did not think he should claim also my daughter.”

Clovis spoke now.  “So he called for the tongs.  Odd how it healed back so raised and smooth.  The tongs usually leave a hole.”

“It’s the burning,” said Fedor.  “You can never predict how a burn will grow back.”

The other two men murmured agreement.  Then Fedor said, “He took this little finger because I ate a few berries when he ordered me to pick them.” 

“It’s good you fled,” said Clovis.  “Before he got the rest of you.”  After a pause, he added, “How long since you fled?”

“All Soul’s Day.” 

“Six months,” Clovis said.  “Half the required time.”

But Fedor just said, “Ergot!  Are you eating only apples?  You’ll beshit yourself.”

Tonight, at the Hog’s Snout, I asked Fabri, with his jurist degrees, if this common saying about city air were truly law.  He nodded over his tankard.  “It is.  It’s been in effect since a treaty of 1424 between the lords and the towns.  The margraves have the right to claim within a year any of their subjects who flee their jurisdictions to the freedom of the cities.”

“But does this not creat a great influx of poor?”

Fabri attacked the dumpling the alehouse mistress set before him.  “It does.  And the more that come, the more difficult it is for the lord to find the individual.  A runaway serf blends easily into the common herd.  But the city needs the labor and especially the additional men for any military musters.” 

I nodded, but I wondered which side these poor would take in a general peasant uprising.  Would they stand with the city that had offered them freedom?  Or would they be the enemy within the walls?


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  1. “City air makes men free”: I’ve always loved that saying. You could say it is the basis of the modern world. Nichts?

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