The Medieval Review 11.05.21

Eckstein, Nicholas and Nicholas Terpstra. Sociability and its Discontents: Civil Society, Society Capital, and their Alternatives in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Early European Research, 1. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. 326. $95 ISBN 978-2-503-52473-3. .

Reviewed by:

Shona Kelly Wray
University of Missouri, Kansas City

This successful volume is the result of sessions at two international conferences organized by the editors to engage historically with the ideas of the influential American sociologist, Robert Putnam. The editors' introduction provides an update on the debates over the last two decades and a summary of the key concepts of social capital, civil society, networks, trust and reciprocity. The articles offer case studies--primarily from Renaissance and early modern Italy--to critique Putnam's model for the development of democratic society that sees the medieval and Renaissance commune of northern Italy as the source of social capital and social society in modern Italy.

The first part, "Negotiating Civil and Social Disorder" begins with Thomas Cohen's presentation of civil society in southern Italy among peasants of mid-sixteenth century Lazio. The villagers rebelled against their overlord and eventually the community even took their case to Rome. Cohen's analysis draws on passages from the trial records; his interpretation focuses on the "communalist" language and details of social ritual. The process of peasant unity was not an easy one--there was some mutiny and violence--but these early modern peasants of the south had an unstoppable sense of their communal rights (contrary to Putnam's view of the south as lacking civil society).

Next follows a close study of a fifteenth-century Florentine law suit between feuding pairs of brothers that involves the pronouncement of consulting jurists (a consilium). Kuehn counters Putnam's claims that our modern reliance on law has pushed aside the use of informal networks based on reciprocity to find resolution in disputes, that is, that social capital has lost out to law. In Florence, hostile reciprocity among feuding parties could cause social harm, and thus it was the law or "legal capital" (here the judges who forced the parties to accept the results of arbitration and peace) that brought civic engagement and social virtue to the situation. More broadly, Kuehn's case study repeats the current view in medieval Italian legal history that there was no strong divide between public and private: solutions worked out privately, such as by arbitration, were reinforced or even initiated by the courts (for example, the threat of suit could induce parties to seek a private arrangement of peace), while a party might bring on litigation with its high costs as a bloodless vendetta against an enemy.

Nerida Newbigen injects a new concept into Putnam's matrix: scandal in Renaissance Florence was a form of social capital that stimulated action for the common good. When we are scandalized we are collectively sharing values of what is wrong, while at the same time taking pleasure in scandal as entertainment. Her principal example is the lavish display of Emperor Frederick III on his visit to Florence in 1452/3. The scandal served both to indulge the Florentines' penchant for luxury and to highlight their austerity in the face of foreign excess. Scandal, she further argues, is the result of social capital and its presence demonstrates active social networks. Thus, one hundred years later the scandalous festivals of the ducal court, in this case, public spectacles ignoring surrounding poverty, had little response, because ducal power had quashed the effectiveness of informal networks--society had been rendered impotent.

Anne Scott's article moves the discussion outside of Italy to literary analysis. The Regiment of Princes by the socially-aware courtly poet Thomas Hoccleve has old-age poverty as a major theme. Scott argues that Hoccleve's urging his future king to be mindful of the poor should not be seen through the lens of a top-down approach whereby the aged poor are viewed simply as dependents on a donor's charity, but rather that the poet gives a voice for and promotes recognition of those who should be justly recompensed for a life of service and work. In non-democratic medieval England--where Putnam would find no social capital--Hoccleve argues that at the heart of the relationship between the king and his subjects there must be mutual recompense or reciprocity.

The second part is concerned with "Networks in Operation." Breaking away from Putnam's unrealistic attempt to separate horizontal and vertical associations, Nicholas Eckstein examines the artistic community of Renaissance Florence, which he argues is based on intertwining and overlapping relations of many professions. He seeks to explore "communities of experience" through a micro-analytical approach that draws on the multitude of contacts between individuals in the past. This approach is felicitous for shedding new light on Massaccio and Masolino, painters of the fifteenth-century frescoes of Santa Maria del Carmine, for whom little documentary evidence remains. By following the threads, Eckstein ties Masolino and Massaccio to the "devotional culture" of the church that was fostered by its confraternity. Eckstein's other task is to identify elements of the social capital of this community within the artists' works themselves. This is a less satisfying analysis, because he argues on the basis of literary descriptions of now-lost frescoes. Nevertheless, the article shows the value of Putnam's ideas for understanding historical communities and interpreting art.

Hugh Hudson's methodology is similar to Eckstein's, but unlike the other articles is not framed by an initial discussion of Putnam. Since there is a lack of documentation for the mural painting cycle in the Chiostro Verde of the church of Santa Maria Novella, Hudson must search elsewhere to investigate the role of artist Paolo Uccello in the project. He argues for involvement of the church's confraternity in artistic patronage, then links Uccello to the confraternity indirectly through family contacts and directly through work on a hospital owned by the confraternity, to explain that Uccello's later employment at Santa Maria Novella would have been the result of "reciprocal obligation" based on the previous hospital project. He also applies to the mural's iconography the dictum that the cooperation of Florentine families ensured civic peace, but the analysis is thin with little discussion of the mural cycle itself.

Caroline Castiglione's insightful article is a further example of microhistory, this time with gendered analysis. The letters of Anna Colonna Barberini to her husband Taddeo illustrate the dynamic and fluid views of family in Renaissance Rome's aristocracy and the complicated and evolving nature of trust (against Putnam's static definitions of both). Fully aware of the aristocratic sense of family and household as led by the eldest patriarch, Anna fashioned and focused her attention on the nuclear unit (for which there was no useful term) of Anna, Taddeo, and their children. Her affection for her children and vigilant management of her husband's financial situation while he was away earned his trust. Paradoxically it was this trust that led Taddeo to abandon her in Rome, a Colonna who could safeguard the Barberini interests, as he fled with their children to Paris, thereby shattering her dreams for her nuclear family.

The articles of Part III "Unexpected Civility" counter Putnam's depiction of southern Italy as distinct from the north, especially in terms of a southern lack of social capital. David Abulafia masterfully lays out the political history of southern Italy in the fifteenth century to argue the political cultures of north and south shared more essential characteristics than differences. Though under a monarchy, the great princes of the south exercised autonomy in their internal affairs. His main example is the principality of Taranto, a "statelet" with its own bureaucratic and judicial administration, and, indeed, its prince saw himself as kingmaker with his own ideas on foreign policy. Convergence of north and south can be seen in the methods of rulers (popes, northern lords and southern princes alike) to control power and restrain the nobility.

John Marino explains the social geography of sixteenth-century Naples of noble and popular districts or seggi, which mirrored the neighborhood politics of northern communes. Marino shows how the urban policies of Viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo drove a wedge between the nobility and popolo by privileging the professional class (lawyers and jurists), thereby destabilizing neighborhood sociability and gaining absolutist control.

Gregory Hanlon finds social capital in despotism, turning Putnam on his head. He examines the new feudataries established by early modern northern Italian princes to argue these feudal lords and the process of refeudalization created social capital: the lords could protect the interests of their underlings, bring gifts, titles and economic development, and offer clemency, good for "winning friends in low places" (217). The result was stability--territorial lordships lasted far longer than the medieval city-state.

After enumerating the many faults of Putnam's model privileging sociological concepts over historical analysis (e.g. it jumps from the medieval and Renaissance periods to the nineteenth century), Christopher Black examines confraternal and guild sociability in the neglected early modern south. Despite the paucity of available sources, he presents a strong argument that guilds, guided by laity, fostered religious vitality in southern Italy before they came under clerical and noble control in the "meaner, uncharitable late nineteenth and twentieth centuries"--the period where, according to Black, we should search for explanation of the south's lack of social capital (241).

The final part "Adaptations and Reconsiderations" contains two Italian studies and the remaining two foreign cases. Current work on Renaissance Florentine confraternities and guilds is synthesized by Mark Jurdjevic to complicate Putnam's view of these voluntary associations. He argues that, as much as they could promote trust, these institutions could exacerbate conflict. Confraternities could be used for political means and guilds were often violently competitive. The various regimes' suppression of confraternities and suspicion of guilds were part of a larger political problem for Florence, viz. its "inability to generate a political language that reflected the complexities of urban collective politics" (261).

Inspired by Putnam's analysis of civic culture, Anne-Laure Van Bruaene examines medieval and early modern Ghent. Her aim, unlike the Italianists, is not to critique Putnam, but to illuminate Ghent's strong civic culture as it changed over time. Although participation was reserved to male burghers with a guild or patrician background, the medieval civic community was vibrant, harmonious, and relatively egalitarian. Civic activities and public rituals were organized by religious confraternities, "shooting" guilds, and the "Chambers of Rhetoric" (that staged vernacular theater). In 1540 Emperor Charles V struck all this down with laws banning the guild regime, but there was a resurgence of medieval civic traditions during the Calvinist Republic (1577-84). Nevertheless, the author argues, the Calvinist rejection of traditional devotional practices (based on the intercession of the saints) meant that restoration was incomplete: religious confraternities ended and a crisis of identity hobbled the activities of the other voluntary associations.

The last two articles provide the strongest critique to Putnam's model, exposing its ideological and American idealist underpinnings. Nicholas Terpstra examines the region that scores highest in terms of Putnam's statistics of a modern civic society, viz., Emilia Romagna. As he details, the people of early modern Bologna benefited from an extensive and highly effective network of social service institutions. The system was managed not by a republican or guild-based government, but by an oligarchy made up of an increasingly restricted number of senatorial families who governed the locality within the larger authority of the absolutist papal state. The civil society of Emilia Romagna and Bologna, however, does not follow Putnam's model of American democracy based on liberal capitalism, but rather "holds up as its model socialist, cooperativist, and communist policies" (309).

David Garrioch's study of confraternities and freemasonry in eighteenth-century Paris addresses Putnam's idea that social capital generated by voluntary associations leads to the development and maintenance of democracy. Freemasonry is traditionally viewed as a new form of--secular--sociability as opposed to the traditional-- religious--form offered by confraternities. Garrioch argues that both types of associations have more similarities than differences and that confraternities, in fact, were more democratic and egalitarian, i.e., better trainers of engaged and politically-informed citizens. Nevertheless, these voluntary associations did not lead to the modern democratic state, as Putnam's model would suggest, but functioned within an absolute monarchy.

It is refreshing to have such non-Italian studies included, but I wondered where the Italians themselves were. It would have been a great service to researchers to have introduced some Italian voices to this international discussion. Each article departs from the particularities of Putnam to highlight profound aspects of medieval and Renaissance European culture and, thus, the volume will be useful for undergraduate and graduate courses, though most likely those on Italian history. The book is well copy edited.

The volume ends abruptly after Garrioch's essay without any biographical sketches uniting this community of scholars interested in social capital, without a bibliography bringing together the rich array of sources, and without the wonderful tool of an index, with which the editors could have informed readers of the connective tissue of ideas and people they must certainly have discovered as a result of working with such a creative group and which the reader could have used to discover new connections to inform his or her own research. Doubtless this decision was dictated by the press, but it is an unfortunate lack of scholarly sociability that may leave readers with some discontent.