Carol Symes

title.none: Nicholas, Urban Europe (Carol Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.044 05.01.44

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, University of Illinois,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Nicholas, David. Urban Europe, 1100-1700. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xi, 239. $22.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-333-94983-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.44

Nicholas, David. Urban Europe, 1100-1700. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xi, 239. $22.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-333-94983-8.

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
University of Illinois

As the chronological scope of its title suggests, Urban Europe revises the traditional historiography of towns by challenging the division between "medieval" and "early modern." David Nicholas argues that patterns of development discernible after 1500 are not the revolutionary changes described as such by Immanuel Wallerstein, but the acceleration or aggrandizement of trading networks, trends in production, social structures, and political institutions that had already grown up in the formative twelfth and thirteenth centuries--and which remained largely intact through about 1700. Strikingly, he rejects the familiar economic models of Henri Pirenne and Fernand Braudel in favor of a paradigm drawn from the works of Max Weber, for whom the city was the crucible of (modern) rational endeavor. According to Nicholas, a "neo-Weberian notion of rationality" and its workings in medieval Europe can better account for a range of phenomena associated with the rise of towns, including the promotion of commercial competition, the division of labor, and the implementation innovative legal formulae that would eventually lead to the articulation of civil rights.

I find this medieval application of an essentially Aristotelian idea both attractive and persuasive: the history of the city is the history of mankind's self-definition through associative behavior and meaningful interaction. In fact, my only criticism of the book is that it does not consider some of the further implications of its own argument. For surely, if Nicholas is right--if modern Europe is the product of a process bookended by two industrial revolutions, one of which can be dated to the earliest decades of the twelfth century, at the latest--then the very definition of modernity is called into question. Joseph Strayer declared as much in his discourse On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (1970) and the thesis that the "origins" of the modern are really medieval has been implicit or explicit in numerous provocative monographs published since then. Most recently, one thinks of R.I. Moore's The First European Revolution (2000) or Michael McCormick's Origins of the European Economy (2001), not to mention Peter Haidu's The Subject Medieval/Modern (2004), a problematic book that nonetheless addresses this issue head-on. Eventually, I myself hope to show that something like the modern Öffentlichkeit delineated by Jürgen Habermas was already being noised abroad in the open-air publicity of at least one medieval town.

But perhaps it is unfair to ask David Nicholas to weigh in on this question when he has already committed himself to covering such a broad landscape, and so economically. The book contains seven chapters, each of which deals with a different aspect of urban development across the entire chronological and geographical scope of the work: a concise introduction to urban historiography, a study of the relationships between cities and their surrounding regions, a look at "The Morphology of the Urban Plan," overviews of different urban political institutions and social structures (two chapters), a brief history of material culture and the urban environment (perhaps the most unsatisfying segment, given the nature of the topic and the amount of work that remains to be done in this area), and a very brief conclusion. In little more than two hundred clearly-written and well-organized pages (exclusive of index and bibliography), Nicholas has thus distilled decades of comparative research into a comprehensive narrative that functions both as a scholarly introduction to problems and methods, and a textbook suitable for students of history. Indeed, this is how the book is billed on its back cover, and I have seldom encountered a hybrid that accomplishes this feat, whatever the lofty claims of its publishers. I read it with interest and pleasure, and recommend it highly.