Metropolitan measures

The Early Modern City 1450-1750 - The Growth of the Medieval City from Late Antiquity to the Early 14th Century - The Later Medieval City 1300-1500
November 28, 1997

The civilisation of modern Europe is a creation of the cities, gradually evolving from the walled oases of the Middle Ages into the global city which engulfs us all today. It is therefore rather surprising that, apart from the classic but rather skimpy generalisations of Henri Pirenne and Max Weber, there has not been much attempt to provide a general, comparative account of European cities, their history, their institutions and their significance.

These three volumes do make a serious attempt to provide a study of the first two of these aspects: history and institutions. They are well-informed about a very wide range of modern scholarship, clearly organised and informative. The two authors differ somewhat in their approaches. Christopher R. Friedrichs is more reflective and provides more engaging anecdotal offerings, which hold one's attention. He ends his book, for example, with the pleasing story of Sarah Wallington, aged four, getting lost in London in 1631, not perhaps much different from the experience of children getting lost in cities nowadays, but still entertaining. By the early modern period there is much detailed information about individual lives, generally denied to the medievalist, so that Friedrichs has the use of a whole book about Nehemiah Wallington, a master turner. David Nicholas is systematic in a slightly more efficient and bureaucratic manner - this is a "report" about the medieval city - but he has absorbed and organised a vast amount of published research and his two volumes will be valuable to other historians by providing an introduction to many topics. These three volumes do then offer what one had thought would be useful, a general survey of the history of the European city.

Nevertheless they leave one with a feeling that this kind of approach has very serious limitations. The most obvious weakness is naturally that they cannot have a real grasp of the whole of such a large subject. Nicholas is well known to medievalists as an expert on the Flemish towns in the 14th century. Friedrichs is the author of research on Nordlingen in Germany in the 17th century. They are both northern Europeans as far as their academic background goes and this has probably affected their outlook. One is surprised to find no mention of the long-published views of Philip Jones about the evolution of the early medieval Italian city. And one is halted by reading that, after the burning of Savonarola in 1498, Florence "went back to politics as usual". The fact is that there remained a substantial body of people devoted to the things Savonarola had stood for, and the constitutional experiments after 1498 were quite different from anything done before Savonarola's time. These fairly trivial things do not alter the fact that the authors have provided very useful guides, but they illustrate the difficulty of encompassing such a large field.

The more interesting question is whether the comparative study of the institutions of the city gives any real indication of the city's historical significance; whether it does not miss the point. The European city took off in the 15th century. Before then civilisation was rather more centred in royal courts and in universities and other ecclesiastical institutions. In the 15th century cities, like Bruges and Antwerp in the north and Florence and Venice in the south became extremely wealthy and established essentially city-based cultures which were eventually to find acceptance in Europe as a whole. We are familiar with the expressions of this new culture, soon to become European, in the art of Donatello and Van Eyck and the writings of Alberti and Erasmus. Of course we cannot expect a book about the institutions of the city to tell us about everything, culture included. But it is arguable that a book about the city should be aiming to explain how and why the city was able to produce the things which make it important in European history, why the role of cities changed so fundamentally. Cities became the major centres of wealth, dominating industry and trade and therefore the major sources of cultural ideas. It is the interaction between city and court and the interaction between cities that one wants to have explained. Why was London more important than Naples or Madrid in 1700?

That kind of question cannot be answered by looking at the city in isolation. It requires attention to the relations between the city and society outside it, and also relations between the city and the worlds of literature and religion. The important thing in 15th-century Europe was the balance between the cities, on the one hand, and the courts and cathedrals on the other. If this balance is ignored the cities lose their very great significance. The point has no doubt been made many times before, because the astonishing wealth of Venice at that time and the dependence of the major "monarchical" power of the dukes of Burgundy on the wealth of the northern cities forces it on the historian's attention. Anyone writing about cities in the 15th century really needs to start from the general fact of their comparative importance, rather than from the institutions of the city itself.

Friedrichs's book tends to emphasise the relative continuity of life within the cities and also the comparability of urban life in different parts of Europe. He shows, for example, how the distribution of occupations was rather similar in the populations of Dijon and Frankfurt-am-Main. He tells us about urban crisis and conflict, but he does not dwell on the enormous changes in the relative importance of great cities during his period. We are told that London "underwent the most spectacular growth of any major city in early modern Europe", so that it had become the biggest city in the continent in the early 18th century, but we do not hear about the commercial and political reasons for this evolution.

This leads one to feel that one might get a better appreciation of the city's role in Europe by taking a cross-section at one period, which would show the relationship between different factors operating in society, rather than by tracking the evolution of the institutions of one or many cities over two centuries. To go back to Savonarola, it is difficult to understand the significance of change in Florence at that period, unless one takes into account the war with Pisa, the invasion of Cesare Borgia, the changes in papal policy from Alexander VI to Julius II, the temporary success of the export trade to Asia Minor, the balance of wealth between Florence and the invading French king, etc, etc. Institutions within the city are affected by the shifting relationships outside, which require a fairly broad view of Italian and European history as a whole. If you go on to look at the way the Florentine republic was transformed into a duchy of Tuscany, you have to place the city-state fiscal system, once so brilliantly successful in mobilising wealth to fight wars, against the development of monarchical finances in France and Spain, and the beginnings of the Atlantic commercial system which pushed the Mediterranean into the shade. That may seem to be writing the history of Europe rather than the history of a city, but the development of such a major city as Florence is not intelligible unless it is placed in this wide context.

The most substantial history of a single city has probably been Robert Davidsohn's study of Florence (not mentioned in Nicholas's bibliography), which required eight fairly stout volumes to reach 1320; before Florence became really important perhaps, though that is a matter of opinion. The history of European cities as a whole cannot be written. It must be left to the sketches of sociological essayists, which depend on the brilliance of their occasional insights rather than the massive accumulation of detail.

One might, however, suggest the possibility that a synchronic approach might be more revealing than the diachronic approach so steadily adopted in these books, and in many other works which deal with the history of institutions. Historians are commonly frightened of that kind of enterprise because it involves them in acquaintance with several languages and societies, which would take a long time to acquire. But research supervisors should perhaps suggest it to some of their (abler) pupils. It would be interesting, to have, for example, an account of London, Rome, Paris and the others in the age of Shakespeare. That might produce some interesting new insights.

George Holmes is emeritus professor of medieval history, All Souls College, Oxford.

The Early Modern City 1450-1750

Author - Christopher R. Friedrichs
ISBN - 0 582 01321 6 and 01320 8
Publisher - Longman
Price - £44.00 and £16.00
Pages - 381

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