09.06.16, Bratchel, Medieval Lucca

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Duane Osheim

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.016


Bratchel, M. E.. Medieval Lucca and the Evolution of the Renaissance State. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 272. ISBN: 978-0-19-954290-1.

Reviewed by:
Duane Osheim
University of Virginia

Michael Bratchel describes this book as a hybrid, a summary of previous research on Lucca plus his own reading of published and unpublished sources. The combination is most integrated in the later sections of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a period where he previously has made significant contributions to Lucchese studies. The question at the center of his study is what the evidence from Lucca adds to the broad question of the connections between the urban core and the rural hinterlands in medieval Italy. This is obviously not a new question and Bratchel makes wise use of the previous works of Chris Wickham and Raffaele Savigni in particular. He downplays the role of the ecclesiastical diocese in creating the connections between the city and the surrounding countryside. He accepts Cinzio Violante's argument that before the eleventh century, pievi and even dioceses were not territorially based. Thus the eventual shape of the medieval contado owed more to landholding patterns, especially of the bishop, than to any previous legal or institutional structures. This is no doubt a general pattern, but what is especially remarkable in Lucca is the close connection between the city and the local elites. Even those families with jurisdictional claims in the countryside are strongly connected to the city itself. The process of incastellamento, which in many places brought political and legal changes, was less significant at Lucca. Many of the castelli were episcopal and even those that were not, never became serious obstacles to the city government. It is this connection plus the extinction of peripheral noble families, like the Cadolinghi on the eastern edge of the Lucchese contado, that accounts for what Bratchel calls "a precocious example of state formation." (50)

Bratchel argues that the six-mile district, the area closest to the city was carefully and completely integrated into the state. The structure, he suggests, is derived from previous imperial or papal administrative practice. Here the pievi functioned as secular administrative districts rather than simply as religious centers. Increasingly, however, judicial and administrative functions within the district were concentrated in Lucca itself. Further afield, the countryside was divided into vicariates with jurisdiction over all but the most serious crimes. This rather thoroughly integrated administrative structure, he believes, is found earlier at Lucca than elsewhere in Tuscany. There were changes after 1400, with the beginnings of the thirty-year Guinigi signoria. But these were less a response to Florentine influence than a logical continuation of previous Lucchese developments.

Throughout Bratchel underscores the contingent and the political as the source of change. He takes Chris Wickham's point about movement of village elites to Lucca. But he is less convinced that it was a systemic or an inevitable integration of town and countryside. He rather believes volatile relations between Lucca and the towns and villages of the Valdinievole (the contested area between Lucca and Pistoia) show that there was nothing inevitable about Lucca's control of its contado. In fact, the contingent and political is what distinguishes Bratchel's description of Lucca's state in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from Sam Cohn's explanation of Florence's rural policy in Creating the Florentine State: Peasants and Rebellion, 1348-1434. In Cohn's telling, the Florentines continually privileged the areas close to the city and harshly exploited the peripheries until a wave of popular rebellions forced the government to change its policy. Bratchel, and indeed most who have studied the Lucchese countryside, emphasize the care with which the Lucchese and their bishops dealt with rural villages and the small towns (the quasi-città in Chittolini's formulation) in areas where the Pisans, Modenese or the Florentine's themselves offered a political alternative. Although Bratchel does not develop the idea as forcefully as he might have done, this may be one of the most important aspects of his explication of the Lucchese state. The sort of systemic exploitation and conflict that seems essential to Cohn's description of the Florentine state seems largely absent. Lucca's state was an integrated one with few competing jurisdictions. The bishop and chapter did have independent jurisdictions, but they regularly cooperated rather than competed with the commune. Further, this lack of internal competitors allowed the city an opportunity to centralize its government earlier than seems to have been true elsewhere. But throughout, the commune's choices were canalized and limited by the fact that it had to defend its territories against its neighbors. Repeatedly Bratchel notes Lucchese initiatives limited by geography and resources. The Lucchese were aware of the limits to their power; the Florentines, as Cohn describes them, responded to peasant revolts but not to the influence of their neighbors.

Bratchel's comparison of Lucca and Renaissance states seems meant to be ironic. First, there is simply no clear model for a Renaissance State. Regional states like Florence or Milan sometimes supported rural signors or the oligarchs of subject towns. They sometimes centralized administrative and legal practice, but not always. In the north, many of the small cities of Milan's regional state even maintained its own subject communes. But more significantly, Lucca's state resembled neither the great regional states nor any of their larger subject communes. It was a late-medieval anachronism: even when it intervened its actions were "moderated by the practical need to pacify and accommodate." (168)

It is especially odd that Bratchel's title should include "the evolution of the Renaissance State." This really is a theme that is explicitly developed in a single chapter. Since his narrative takes the reader from the late antique world to the sixteenth century, Bratchel needed to be more careful to make clear what sort of government he was describing, or how the term "state" applied to the dramatically different times he covered. The chapters stand as very accomplished individual essays on the state of research on the early middle ages, the twelfth century and the late middle ages. But it is not always clear how they connect to the broad question of "the evolution of the Renaissance State." This is especially true of the final chapter, "Lucca and its Territories in the Fifteenth Century: Economy and Society." The chapter makes clear the local nature of economic life, but its theme and structure stand in dramatic contrast to the previous chapters. Perhaps a concluding essay on Lucca's history might have pulled these complex themes together. This is really a minor problem, however, in a book that does thoughtfully describe an unusual city-state, and one that would survive until it was finally conquered by Napoleon.

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Author Biography

Duane Osheim

University of Virginia