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in the broad sense, all the inhabitants of a Western European city during the Middle Ages who were covered by city law—that is, all the members of the city commune, including the city’s patricians; in the narrower sense, the sense in which this term is used most frequently in historiography, the middle stratum of a city’s population, consisting primarily of independent master craftsmen who usually belong to guilds and medium-sized and small merchants.
The burghers formed as a stratum during the struggle against the feudal seigneurs (11th—13th centuries) for city land, a process of liberation from feudal exploitation. They were descended primarily from dependent peasants and rural artisans who had fled to or moved to the city. In the early stage of the development of cities (approximately up to the 14th and 15th centuries), city communes generally accepted these people freely as members (that is, as burghers), helping the feudally dependent peasants to gain their personal freedom. The mandatory attributes of burgher status were personal freedom and the privileges that derived from it—the exclusive jurisdiction of the city court and the right to control one’s own property, for example.
The burghers had an economic interest in the centralization of the country, and in most cases they supported the royal authority against the great feudal lords. With the emergence of the so-called estate monarchy, the burghers, who had grown economically, won the right to participate in representative-estate institutions and finally became an estate in feudal society. Generally speaking, only the rich burgher elite was represented in the estate institutions, and it was this group that took power in those cities where the burghers were victorious over the patricians. The burghers occupied a dual position in feudal society. On the one hand, they constituted a tax-paying estate, unprivileged and lacking certain civil rights; on the other hand, they were a propertied stratum, the upper elements of which exploited the lower strata of the city. The burghers participated actively in antifeudal actions, simultaneously displaying the tendency to reach agreements with the feudal lords. The lower burghers frequently acted in consort with the plebeians and peasants.
The burghers played an enormous role in the development of feudal society. They facilitated the development of commodity-money relations and created their own urban culture, which bore the seeds of an antifeudal ideology and prepared the way for the humanist movement of the Renaissance. During the 16th-18th centuries, some burghers who had shifted to capitalist methods of production were involved in the formation of the bourgeoisie, while impoverished strata of burghers swelled the ranks of the city plebeians.
V. A. ERMOLAEV