The Medieval Review 11.04.04

Goodson, Caroline, Anne E. Lester and Carol Symes. Cities, Texts and Social Networks 400-1500: Experiences and Perceptions of Medieval Urban Space. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. 261. $124.95 ISBN 978-0-7546-6723-0. .

Reviewed by:

James M. Murray
Western Michigan University

I can think of no better testament to the power of nodes and networks than this fine collection of essays. Conceived around the Leeds Congress "thematic strand" of 2007--Medieval Cities--this group of predominantly early and mid-career scholars has produced a four-part reconnaissance of recent approaches to writing the history of the pre- modern city. Generous in both geographical and chronological extent, the volume seeks to "offer new interpretations of the pre-modern urban past through written, visual and physical evidence...[the articles] focus on the ways that urban spaces were called into being, used and perceived." Not content with this ambitious goal, the volume also seeks to combine documents and topography, sensorial stimuli and the built environment, and human social networks, while taking stock of the "full implications of post-modern cultural criticism."

The initiative's three moving spirits, Caroline Goodson, Anne E. Lester, and Carol Symes, collaborated on an introduction that sketches their vision of the volume and how each individual essay realizes it. Having completed their PhDs in the same decade (2000-09) the three share the conviction that the history of the medieval city has been wrongly marginalized by theorists and modern urbanists. Seeking to recenter urban historiography in the middle ages, the editors call for an extension of theoretical models pioneered by Fernand Braudel, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, Jürgen Habermas and Benedict Anderson, to new investigations of the pre-modern city. They argue that new studies will show a continuum of commonalities in the urban experience that should interest historians of other times and places, especially "postcolonial or 'non-Western' societies whose sources and cities have been similarly marginalized in theoretical discussions of urban space, discussions that too frequently misrepresent evidence that does not adhere to modern western conceptions of what cities are and how they function, or of what defines the urban experience" (4).

The "Medieval" city has been in part a prisoner of its own historiography, defined by the theories of Marx and Weber, which sequestered medieval urbanism between "decline and rise" of the ancient and modern city respectively. The "heuristic and historical challenge" must ask different questions of the historical record: for example, histories of the early medieval city have been trapped in the "continuity/rupture" debate, effectively ignoring texts and evidence speaking to "the urban milieu as defined by perceptions and experiences" (6). Urban histories of the Islamic world are also similarly strait-jacketed by a dichotomy of "order/continuity, disorder/conquest", ignoring the important role of cities in the development of Islamic civilization itself. The late medieval city has its own dilemma of historical understanding of both the "disruption/continuity" and classification variety, together with a flood of new data gained in the last generation of research. These data have overwhelmed the old schematics of Edith Ennen and Rodney Hilton, themselves based on demographics and market functions, and call for new approaches emphasizing urban space, social networks, and ritual.

The collection's first of four "interlocking clusters" of essays, "Constructing and Restructuring" takes up the task of analyzing the built environment for what it can tell us about the meanings attached to it by those who created and used it. Gregor Kalas first examines inscriptions on public statuary in Rome especially as it was altered during the numerous restoration campaigns of the fourth and fifth centuries CE. He argues that the advent of Christianity forced Rome's senatorial class to literally reformulate the public memory and its own values by means of alterations to inscriptions in the late antique Roman forum. Next, Hugh Kennedy looks at the meaning of urban foundation in early Islam. His "How to Found an Islamic City" analyzes historical narratives of urban creation in Islam, showing that they pay scrupulous attention to the building of a mosque and city walls as constitutive of an urban foundation. Often individual creators were behind such acts, which "enabled" the creation of a fiscal and economic framework for the flourishing of a city community. Meredith Cohen devotes a chapter to the subject of "how the built environment was related to Paris's special character," specifically, how the construction of fifty-five substantial buildings within the twelfth-century walls reflected the monarch's plans and patronage for a city that was at once "sacred, civic, royal and [the] artistic centre of France" (67). She argues that Philip Augustus created a new urban space, which in turn set off the building boom that gave shape and definition to a distinct architectural style--the rayonnant. The style's apogee was reached with Louis IX's Sainte-Chapelle, built between 1239 and 1248 to house the king's relic collection. But the building's purpose was not just monumental: it was designed to consolidate and integrate the king's importance in the cityscape--to decorate and dominate the city--and to bring the populace into contact with royal sacred power.

The second group of chapters, "Topographies as Texts," considers urban space as a palimpsest, i.e. its surface is inscribed, erased, then reinscribed in meaningful ways, which can be decoded by the historian. Ann Christys begins the section with medieval Crdoba, with a review of sources that describe its topography, in particular those that describe the ruler's procession route through the countryside, suburbs, and city itself. She is interested in how topography "worked" for medieval Crdobans, arguing that they conceived of space in a particular way. For them, "the the opposition between the old walled city inherited from the Visigoths and what was within and outside it" (122). Breaching the walls in conquest in the eighth century, then processing through them in the tenth, symbolizes the progress of Umayyad power. Anne E. Lester, in "Crafting a Charitable Landscape: Urban Topographies in Charters and Testaments from Medieval Champagne," argues that close study of scribal language of charitable foundation reveals an urban and suburban landscape of leprosaria, hospitals, and almshouses that offers broader clues to medieval conceptions of space. This "Topography of Charity" closely follows the route of trade and travelers, passing along streets and urban marketplaces, to suburban and country charitable foundations. Like trade, charity "was dynamic, changing, and responsive," and the force of it bubbled outward from urban centers. Jolle Rollo-Koster and Alizah Holstein in their co-authored "Anger and Spectacle in Late Medieval Rome: Gauging Emotion in Urban Topography" take on the task of measuring popular emotion by analyzing descriptions of two important events in fourteenth-century Roman history. The first is the assassination of Cola di Rienzo in 1355, after his abortive attempt to restore Rome as an imperial capital; the second is the return of the Avignon papacy to the city in 1377. Rienzo's death at the hands of the Roman popolo took place on the Capitoline hill and the subsequent procession of the body through the city "reveal the inner workings of social and political realities in c. 1350 Rome" (157). Specifically, Rienzo's ambitions were mocked, his memory ritually effaced, and the power of his enemies--the Colonna clan-- proclaimed in the course of that death and procession. The Adventus of the Avignon pope Gregory XI offers clues to the degree of anger of the Roman populace at the absence of their pope, which in turn supports the claim of the Cardinals who claimed intimidation in the papal election of 1378 setting off the chain of events that resulted in the Great Schism. Subverting the traditions of papal entry, the Adventus staged by the Romans in 1377 manipulated the city's symbolic spaces to effect a "carnivalesque" rite of mockery, a "not-so-innocent joke on a nave foreigner," as an expression of pent-up anger (169).

Section three, "Citizens and Saints," contains three chapters that explore the links between religious devotion and civic identity, again across a broad chronology and landscape. Scott G. Bruce explores urban hagiography in his analysis of the earliest life of a Cluniac abbot and his relation with the northern Italian city of Pavia. Cluny had important properties in the region, which drew abbot Mariolus across the Alps on a number of occasions. The growth of Cluny, its charismatic abbots, and the important support of Otto I, caused this Pavia-based hagiographer to produce a Vita sancti Maioli that elides Pavia, the cities of the Old Testament, and the saint's miracles to claim a special relationship of this saint and the city. Sarah Reese Jones observes a similar urban appropriation of sanctity in her "Cities and Their Saints in England, circa 1150-1300: The Development of Bourgeois Values in the Cults of Saint William of York and Saint Kenelm of Winchcombe." She makes the interesting observation that the development of urban England brought with it the first saints' cults rooted in urban communities, and goes on to argue that urban saints did more to craft "ideas" of urban community than the policies of royal bureaucrats. She urges attention to the study of the "sacred" and its attendant institutions, such as confraternities, and urban guilds, processions, and religious festivals, to understand the dynamics of social change. Shifting to late-medieval Germany, Franz-Josef Arlinghaus challenges Weber's argument that urban unity in the West was founded on the shared Christianity of a city's inhabitants, in contrast to the East where feuds and rivalries disrupted civic order. His "Myth of Urban Unity: Religion and Social Performance in Late Medieval Braunschweig," presents a case study of the five-borough separatism that reigned in this German city, where Christian and secular rituals were designed to emphasize and preserve differences among the five self-governing city quarters.

The book's fourth and final section, "Agency and Authority," presents three essays with a similar time frame (1100-1300) but with three distinct, if somewhat complementary, subjects. In "City as Charter: Charity and the Lordship of English Towns, 1170-1250," Sethina Watson examines lordship and governance through the lens of the placement of charitable institutions and the drawing up of urban charters of liberty. Arguing for a link between negotiating freedom from one's lord and organizing poor relief, Watson shows that setting down in ink and parchment and creating in stone and mortar are really two sides of the same coin. By building hospitals, towns both ordered urban space and wrested from their lords the symbolic and practical duty of caring for the poor. Guy Geltner continues and somewhat broadens this line of argument mutatis mutandis by arguing that the urban prison is also an institution taken over from lords and turned to civic purposes of identity creation. His ironic title "The Best Place in the World: Imagining Urban Prisons in Late Medieval Italy" reflects a literary device developed in this period to imagine incarceration. Satire and irony, similes of purgatory and inferno, were all coined by the late thirteenth century by Italian writers to capture the essence of the urban prison cell. The last word of this collection is reserved for co-editor Carol Symes whose essay "Out in the Open, in Arras: Sightlines, Soundscapes and the Shaping of a Medieval Public Sphere" comes on the heels of her prize-winning 2007 monograph, A Common Stage: Theater and Public Life in Medieval Arras. Here she takes up ideas developed by Jürgen Habermas of a public sphere of rational discourse that was developed in certain eighteenth-century towns, which he considered the bridge to modernity. Symes counters this exclusion of the Middle Ages from Habermas's ffentlichkeit by showing how a public forum of information exchange came to be in thirteenth-century Arras. Created around and through the public marketplace, this was an oral and aural exchange, distinctly pre-modern in its media, but no less a space for public discourse for all that. Through control and manipulation of bells, buildings, and skills in public speaking and theater, the people of medieval Arras, Symes argues, were successful in fashioning meaning, identity, and a full-fledged public discourse well before the Enlightenment.

Fittingly, this fine collection of essays ends with a question mark, to which I might add the question of what will become of these new approaches to urban history? The answer is clear in some cases, as several authors have already produced monographs on the subjects they treat here. One can hope that others will follow them into print, elaborating and developing the ideas they present here and thereby invigorating the study of the pre-modern city.