09.01.09, Kowaleski, ed., Medieval Towns

Main Article Content

Ben R. McRee

The Medieval Review baj9928.0901.009


Kowaleski, Maryanne, ed.. Medieval Towns: A Reader. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006. Pp. xvii, 405. ISBN: 1-55111-449-6.

Reviewed by:
Ben R. McRee
Franklin 8 Marshall College

Maryanne Kowaleski's collection of primary sources is a wonderful addition to the literature available to teachers and students for the study of medieval urban life. Far more than a compilation of traditional constitutional and economic documents, this volume contains a wealth of material that illustrates the daily lives and concerns of medieval urban people. The material is well organized, well presented, and intrinsically interesting. I recommend it enthusiastically for courses on medieval urban life, and it should be useful for other courses as well, such as those focusing more broadly on medieval society.

The organization of the volume is thematic rather than chronological, with the exception of the opening section, which is devoted exclusively to the Early Middle Ages. Subsequent sections examine the political emergence of towns (formation of communes, charters, the rise of the popolo in Florence, and more), social conflict, the urban economy, municipal finance and justice, marriage and family, women, religion, education, and entertainment and ritual. The closing sections of the book present an interesting mix of material, organized into "dangers" (plague, famine, fire, war, and prostitution), the "environment" (sanitation, building regulations and contracts, property rentals, clothing, and diet), and the "idealized city" (descriptions of twelfth-century London and thirteenth-century Milan, along with Richard of Devizes warning about the evils of city life). (Full contents listed on the publisher's website: http://www.utphighereducation.com/product.php?productid=763) Most sections contain a range of material from 1000-1500 and from northern and southern Europe; nothing from the period before 1000 appears outside the first section.

The volume contains a number of classic selections: the privilege issued by Philip II to the University of Paris in 1200, Guibert of Nogent's account of the communal rising at Laon, Peter Waldo's midlife conversion to a life of poverty and preaching, and Boccaccio's description of the Black Death in Florence, for example. But most documents concern more prosaic matters of everyday living: gossip, dress, marriage, inheritance, apprenticeship, market regulations, wills, and churchwardens' accounts. And there are unexpected gems, such as Bernardo Machiavelli's accounting of the sums spent on the education of his two sons in the fifteenth century. But perhaps the most pleasant surprise is the inclusion of a range of non-traditional material. In addition to the charters, accounts, chronicles, and byelaws that comprise so much of the urban record, Kowaleski includes an interesting selection of visual and quantitative evidence. She reproduces sketches of items unearthed in an archaeological dig in York, for example, including a die for stamping pennies, a wine pitcher, and a set of dice. Town seals from Dover and Yarmouth are depicted, as well as the plan of a merchant's house at King's (then Bishop's) Lynn. Drawing heavily on the nineteenth-century work of Charles Knight, Paul LaCroix, and others who sketched medieval buildings and images from manuscript illuminations, she also includes scenes from everyday life (an urban streetscape, women in a marketplace, and a group of craftsmen, for example) and of men's and women's clothing from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Quantitative evidence presented in tabular form includes data on wealth, social rank, and household size in England and Italy, as well as mortality figures from the famine year of 1316 in Bruges and Ypres, and a tally of animal bones found in archaeological excavations.

A brief introduction is offered for each document, situating the material in time and space and explaining relevant technical matters such as the value of money. Translations of unfamiliar terms ("tapster," for example) appear in brackets right in the text, rather than in footnotes or endnotes. A series of questions follows each selection, pointing readers to information they should glean from the material and prompting them to think about why things were as they were. Following an extract from "How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter," an advice poem from the fourteenth century, the following questions appear: "What types of activity were young English townswomen doing? Which of these activities were frowned upon? What can this poem tell us of attitudes toward women, or of relations between women and men" (216).

A variety of helpful apparatus is included: a separate, chronological listing of the contents, a basic set of maps showing the location of the towns mentioned in the sources, separate indexes of topics, towns, and officials, and a list of the places from which sources have been taken. There is no list of recommended readings. The introduction is quite brief, and is largely devoted to explaining the principles of organization and selection. You'll have to look elsewhere for a general introduction to the study of medieval urban life.

What is missing? There is not much in the collection that deals with urban topography or the uses of urban space. Maps of selected towns showing periods and patterns of settlement and growth would have been a welcome addition. As Kowaleski notes, there is only a modest amount of material from the Early Middle Ages and from countries outside England, France, and Italy. A glance at the index of towns shows that London and Florence easily outdistance other locations in the sheer number of entries. That's not necessarily a bad thing; given the quantity of scholarly writing devoted to those places, it would be easy to coordinate documents from the reader with relevant scholarly literature. A great many towns are, nevertheless, represented; that same index runs more than five pages and includes places such as Novgorod, Dublin, Strasbourg, Magdeburg, Copenhagen, and Cuenca.

What is here is eminently useful for a class on medieval urban life. If you teach a course on medieval towns, you will want to assign it. If you have students interested in projects connected with medieval cities, you will want to recommend it. And if you simply want to learn more about the lives of townspeople in the Middle Ages, you will want to pick it up and browse through it. But be forewarned; once you start reading, you may find that the range and vitality of the material in this volume makes it difficult to put down.

Article Details

Author Biography

Ben R. McRee

Franklin 8 Marshall College