The Medieval Review 10.06.15

Oldfield, Paul. City and Community in Norman Italy. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 310. $99.00 ISBN 9780521898041. .

Reviewed by:

Louis Hamilton
Drew University

Paul Oldfield's City and Community contains a wealth of detail from the lives of the cities of primarily Apulia and Campagna in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The five-page bibliography of primary sources in printed editions not only reveals the breadth of his survey of the material but also makes this work an invaluable resource for all scholars and students of medieval Italy. Such a concentrated survey of urban life in southern Italy is a unique and difficult undertaking, and most welcome. City and Community comes out of Oldfield's thesis as will be apparent to the reader. The wealth of material that Oldfield collects is both the strength and great weakness of the work as Oldfield's broader analytic point and overall thesis is too often lost in loosely organized details. This work will ultimately, I believe, prove an important starting point for future research on urban life in Norman Italy.

Oldfield is concerned to demonstrate that, despite an entrenched historiography that has long since marginalized the cities of southern Italy, the cities of Norman Italy developed and retained elements of independence, self-governing, and civic identity. Oldfield is correct to challenge the portrait of southern Italy as "more a passive object than actor in history," as Giovanni Tobacco once described it (5). In this traditional portrait, urban creativity and liberty were crushed by church and state alike. Oldfield offers much evidence that reveals the cities of southern Italy as anything but passive and oppressed.

It should be noted that the title is City and Community, not "city and commune." The latter is a concession to the limited authority of the citizens of southern Italy. Oldfield defines communal as "an adjective meaning 'that which relates to or benefits the community.' It is not to be associated with the commune as an institution unless this is specifically indicated" (7). Such a definition obviously begs the questions, what is "the community," who defines what "benefits" it, and how and by whom was that benefit attained? In this definition, a royal privilege granted to a monastic community, a bishop's household, a guild, or a group of self-described citizens are all equally "communal" actions. A more limiting, but traditional definition of the commune as a sworn association formed with the purpose of governing public activity within urban areas would have loaned greater clarity to Oldfield's work. It would have also allowed more ready comparison with urban transformations on the rest of the Italian peninsula. Nor was it necessary for Oldfield to invent such a distinction as he offers evidence of sworn associations (societies, for ex.) exerting independent authority within the city. In addition, he repeatedly discovers the traditional actors of the communes (boni homines, iudices, cives, etc.) acting with common interests, even if without direct evidence for a sworn association. A more traditional definition would not only have been more precise but would have enabled greater integration of the two historiographies of medieval Italy. The equally thorny question of what defines a city is dealt with in the more typical manner, albeit imprecise, of confining the study to the self-described civitas.

The first part of the work, "Urban Government and Communal Independence," provides a chronological overview of the effects, or lack thereof, of the Normans on the urban centers of southern Italy. The first chapter, "Before 1085: the arrival of the Normans," is filled with tantalizing clues of a vibrant urban life in the eleventh century. One wishes that the cives, boni homines, or iudices (23, 25) that Oldfield has discovered in his research or the uprising against ducal control that he thinks "may be evident of incipient communal participation in civic affairs" were more closely scrutinized in their details. This book is filled with such clues that will surely become the basis of future research. Chapter two highlights the absence of Ducal presence in cities like Troia and Bari. In Bari in particular the Byzantine elite appeared to have retained their titles through the eleventh century. The situation in the cities became more fraught in the early twelfth century with Benevento and Capua asserting greater independence from the Norman dukes and Bari, Gaeta, Trani and Troia following suit more or less. Bari, Gaeta and Trani appear to have experienced the greatest independence although the organization of the chapter requires the reader to construct the comparisons with some difficulty. Here, at least, Oldfield is using the more traditional phrase "communal institutions." Chapter three contends that the years of civil war from 1127-39 did not result in an abandonment of civic privileges but reveals much greater continuity with the privileges gained in the preceding two generations than had been previously thought. This relative, and surprising, independence continued on the mainland through the early thirteenth century.

Part two of the book, "Urban society: community identity and wealth," largely attempts to survey social identity within the cities and is less successful. Intriguingly, Oldfield notes that the term cives is increasingly popular in the twelfth century and that it denotes greater social status although it admittedly cannot be precisely defined (180). He mentions in passing a greater emphasis on civic rights at the expense of civic custom with little effort made to explain what seems a remarkable observation (182). A close examination of the context of that evidence might have enabled greater causal explanation. As is often the case, one wishes that Oldfield could have presented the reader with a range of examples of the use of the term so that the reader could either better understand his reluctance to impose precision or understand the spectrum of possible meanings he has discovered. Chapter seven, "The Community," is perhaps the least satisfying in the entire work, but again tantalizing clues abound. His argument that the distinction between the (ill-defined) categories of "elites," "middle" and the "edges" of society is imprecise, is unsurprising. Still, we are treated to a wealth of detail; the neighborhoods of different cities are sprinkled throughout the chapter (198-202 for example) and would repay revisiting and reorganizing by individual city. If it matters that the tanners were located outside of the cities, then it would matter where outside a given city they were located as it might tell us something about the status of the community they were near. Physical proximity may or may not reveal interconnectedness but it is certainly worth knowing to the extent possible. A social map does not, but could emerge from these pages. Saracen slaves are briefly considered but the Jewish community gets closer discussion here as well (206-15). Chapter eight on the bishop is brief but reveals the interconnectedness of episcopal household and civic identity. The final chapter on the economy is an interesting sketch of the extent and limits of urban trade organization and Mediterranean-wide exchange drawn from a range of sources, from pilgrimage accounts to privileges and charters.

Oldfield has brought together a wide range of evidence and materials that reveal the complexity of urban life in Norman southern Italy. In doing so, he has achieved the objective he set for the work. This work will be useful to future scholars interested in both precise portraits of individual cities and reintegrating the urban history of medieval Italy.