15.08.09, Wickham, Medieval Rome

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Paolo Squatriti

The Medieval Review 15.08.09

Wickham, Chris. Medieval Rome: Stability and Crisis of a City, 900-1150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. xxviii, 501. ISBN: 978-0-19-968496-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paolo Squatriti
University of Michigan

In the new millennium, Chris Wickham has accustomed his readers to seeing another big book from his pen about every five years. This Stakhanovian productivity has not lowered quality: Framing the Early Middle Ages (2005) and The Inheritance of Rome (2009) were recognized as essential texts when they appeared. But alongside his career as an acute synthesizer of European and Mediterranean history, Wickham continued to pursue his first love, medieval Italy. From 2005 to 2012 he worked on a more focused project about medieval Italy's biggest city (until 1100), Rome. As the dust jacket to Medieval Rome announces, Wickham, now an Oxford professor, "has travelled to Rome for short and long research visits over a hundred times," and quite aside from the frequent flyer miles this implies, it is the density of social and intellectual engagement with Rome those trips suggest that emerges most clearly in his new book.

New here is a relative term, for Viella published the Italian version of Medieval Rome in 2013. The English edition is virtually identical to the first edition, but is printed on shiny and see-through paper, with the words crammed tightly onto 457 pages (as opposed to Viella's creamy 520). The venerable north Roman "libreria editrice," specializing in medieval and early modern publications, also managed to slip twelve quite nice color pictures in after page 288, while Oxford put its grainy black and white ones in the text where the author addresses the item reproduced. Whether Anglophone historians will cheer the appearance of Medieval Rome or not depends on how easily they read Italian.

Certainly this book is an achievement. It is very learned and refers equitably to a huge amount of scholarship about Rome in the chosen period (mostly tenth through twelfth centuries). Moreover, Wickham is more methodologically self-conscious than most medievalists, and aware of why and how historiographies have developed. Thus Medieval Rome can orient beginning "romanisti" in the literature, while also offering specialists the interpretations of a master practitioner. Further, Wickham combed through the written sources, including some unpublished ones (e.g. 281-2), so Medieval Rome is a useful index of the evidence available to historians of the Eternal City in the central Middle Ages. Typically, Wickham also integrates archaeological data with the written sources, and brings in excavations, coin finds (or the lack of them), minute description of monuments like the Casa dei Crescenzi, and even a very up-to-date treatment of the bronze she-wolf that lately has turned out to not be by Vulca at all, but medieval. Hence Medieval Rome clarifies much obscure and difficult material and makes available to Anglophone scholars the expansive knowledge Wickham's Roman studies, and contacts, have developed in some four decades of frequentation of the city.

The book is divided into seven chapters. To begin, Wickham "problematizes" the "papal grand narrative" he thinks has skewed medieval Roman historiography. And since any "structural urban history" (2) rests on economic foundations, chapters 2 and 3 lay out the workings of Rome's economy in the two-and-a-half centuries considered. The treatment of the rural hinterland is particularly lucid, deeply original in pinpointing the unique hegemony the Eternal City exercised over a doughnut of land about 25 km wide. But by tracing the productive specialization of some of Rome's neighborhoods in ch. 3, Wickham also greatly advances understanding of the complexity and integration of the urban economy. However, the author thinks the social history of the Roman aristocracy spelled out in ch. 4-5 are "the central chapters of the book" (181). He protests that he does not seek "prosopographical completeness" (185, 238) but after 140 pages of family reconstructions the reader might well wonder about that. Even Wickham admits that "probably" this long section is difficult to read (305) and recognizes that he risks "boring and confusing" (201) some readers. But he thinks that this level of detail alone can give "a sense" of Rome's elites and their particularities in different periods. Ch. 6, on Roman ritual, addresses a more popular topic among Anglophone historians, and makes the point that ecclesiastical processions helped sew together a community divided by residence, occupation, and class. The final chapter in Medieval Rome is about the rise of the comune, or at least of a comunal movement, in Rome during the 1100s. Wickham argues that the Senate of 1143 did not come from nowhere but had several decades of gestation in the power vacuum created by Gregory VII's violent confrontation with Henry IV, and the consequent collapse of the older governance structures. Though Wickham seeks to avoid the "romance of the Roman Revolution" (17), he sees this "popular revolt" (446) as an "unusually self-aware" and anti-aristocratic, secular movement, indeed a "relatively widely based popular aggregation" (450), pretty much what Ferdinand Gregorovius had divined in the 1860s, for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps because he is "opposed to teleologies" (386) and to the grand narrative of Church Reform, as well as to reading the rising of 1143 as a precursor to the secular Italian nation of the nineteenth century, Wickham discovers considerable stability in the culture, society, and economy of medieval Rome. In effect Rome's later status as a small, underdeveloped, provincial backwater was produced by the city's remarkable high medieval stolidity. Because Rome controlled its agrarian hinterland so thoroughly, the exploitation of vineyards, orchards, and grain fields within 25 km of the Aurelian Walls could continue unabated from Carolingian to Hohenstaufen times, with the same (ecclesiastical) landowners and (aristocratic) leasers and (relatively lightly squeezed) peasants. Rome did not adapt well to the new "Mediterranean" economy of the twelfth century (112) in part because it did not need to: Rome remained a "hyperactive early medieval city" (180) even when other settlements in Italy and Europe reoriented their economic activities to take advantage of the new conditions.

This Rome had little incentive to transform its culture radically in the new, high medieval times. The Twelfth-century Renaissance hardly registered in the city. Roman law had always prevailed, though in the 1100s Romans applied it to inheritance with more rigor than previously. Ritual topography, in a city with centuries of processional tradition, required predictability to be meaningful. As Wickham slyly observes (349), "renovatio" in Roman texts usually meant renewing a contract for the long-term lease of land. The biggest, most socially complex and economically sophisticated city of early medieval Latin Christendom did not budge much in the central Middle Ages, and when Rome changed it did so gradually and grudgingly.

Though Wickham belabors the nuances between various strata of Roman aristocracy (e.g. in their commitment to rural or urban embeddedness), it is arguable that even the class best revealed by the circa 900 charters constituting Wickham's main evidence did not change much 900-1150. But of course these Romans were not static either, and Wickham identifies the biggest changes in Roman high politics. The "crisis" of the subtitle (or the "crisis century" that first appears in the "List of Popes" on p. xiii) is a political shift whereby the Reform popes first asserted and then lost control over the city, new aristocratic figures pushed to the forefront, and slowly, over some five decades, new forms of association among Romans were worked out. When the new-style collectivities asserted themselves on a pan-Roman scene in 1143, they apparently drew on memories of pre-Reform aristocratic participatory assemblies, entitling Wickham to say that twelfth-century Rome remained a Carolingian city (457).

Medieval Rome tries to "figure Rome structurally" (20) and see its history from within, marginalizing exogenous forces that in other accounts have seemed earth-shaking in their transformative power. Late antique scholars like Kate Cooper, Tina Sessa, and Kim Bowes have been de-papalizing Roman history for some years. Wickham extends the trend into the high medieval centuries, following the lead of a few Italian (Marco Venditelli, Sandro Carocci) and French (Jean-Claude Maire Vigueur) scholars. The results are plausible and satisfying, a more Roman history of Rome than previously prevailed in English books. But one can wonder if religious devotion in the tenth-twelfth centuries was quite as unconnected to clerical leadership as Medieval Rome suggests, for instance in its insightful treatment of the San Clemente frescos and "amateur lay asceticism" (367) in eleventh century Rome. Pursuing this critique, one might generalize that Medieval Rome underestimates religion and religious institutions, so monasticism and monastic reform, the Roman clergy's experience of Reform, and the place of Christian belief in the revolt of 1143 (Arnold of Brescia is barely mentioned), could have been better developed in a history focused "on the aims and strategies, needs and constraints, of the Romans" (2). Wickham's concern for endogenous, secular agency inevitably overlooks some things.

A medieval Roman history without the Papacy (though it enjoyed Gramscian "hegemony:" 416) pays its greatest dividends when Wickham compares the Eternal City to more ephemeral ones. It is particularly to the cities of Lombardy that Rome gets juxtaposed, but also to those of Tuscany and southern Italy (Gaeta, Benevento, Naples), and occasionally to Paris or other northern centers. Such "systematic, interregional comparison" (2) does not just normalize Rome, whose Senate looks much less weird set in the context of contemporary north Italian consulates than it does in a purely Roman narrative of "renovatio." Intelligent evocations of other agglomerations also highlight what made Rome special, beginning with its demography, continuing with its unrivalled mastery of nearby lands, and finishing with the abundant circulation of bullion brought by pilgrims and, later, litigants. Wickham wisely decided to forego a formal conclusion at the end of this long book. But his considerations on what set the Roman Senate of 1143 apart from Tuscan or Lombard comunal experiments are a fitting epilogue to the whole discussion. Like the southern cities, Rome's rulers had sovereignty over wide territories and did not need to amass a contado by long wars and litigation. Like the northern cities, Rome had a large elite at ease in "secular political associations" (310) and therefore prone to creating governing institutions that proved able to rival the Curia for half a century. Medieval Rome was in between, hybrid, different from and similar to its peers.

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