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15.10.39, Wickham, Sleepwalking into a New World

The Medieval Review

15.10.39, Wickham, Sleepwalking into a New World

In the spring of 2013 Chris Wickham delivered the prestigious Lawrence Stone Lectures at Princeton University, and they constitute the basis for this insightful, erudite, and thought-provoking book. The subject, as the title describes, is the emergence of urban communes in twelfth century Italy. The author's approach is comparative, original, and comprehensive. He focuses on several case studies, most importantly Milan, Pisa, and Rome (about which he just completed a book). His conclusions come from a profound familiarity with the sources and a thorough knowledge of the complex historiography. Wickham argues that urban elites by 1150 in north and central Italy had effectively created "a new world" (6). Communes were "autonomous and novel forms of collective government focused on annually changing consuls in fifty or more cities and towns" (6). Yet, with regards to the elites that created them, except in very few exceptions, there is no evidence that there was any "awareness that they were doing anything new" (6). Indeed, "they were most likely making it up as they went along" (19), effectively "sleepwalking into a new and often radically different regime" (20). This excellent book deserves a broad readership among medieval historians, even if not all of its conclusions are fully convincing.

Wickham lays out his argument in five chapters. Three chapters focus on three cities as principal case studies: "Communes" (chapter 1), "Milan" (chapter 2), "Pisa" (chapter 3), "Rome" (chapter 4), and "Italy" (chapter 5). In the first (and essentially, introductory) chapter, the author rejects defining the word, "commune," in favor of describing it as an (i. e., Weberian) ideal type. According to his formulation, the basic characteristics of a twelfth-century commune are the following: "a conscious urban collectivity," usually bound by oaths; "a regularly rotating set of magistracies," and "a de facto autonomy of action for the city and its magistrates" (15) in the areas of justice, taxation, warfare, and legislation. By 1150 communes had emerged in north and central Italy in which the governance by consuls was widespread. In one way or another, the assemblies in what later became communes were outcomes of a "defensive reaction to the absence of traditional hierarchies" (87) during the collapse and fragmentation of the Kingdom of Italy in the twenty years after 1080. These new communes drew their legitimacy from below, not above.

In chapter 2 Wickham analyzes Milan, not because it is typical or representative, but because it exerted powerful influence over other city-states in the Po valley of northern Italy. The methodology and type of approach adopted here, rooted in social analysis, are represented in the remaining chapters as well. The story begins in the middle of the eleventh century, when the archbishop became the principal authority of the city after the last documented count in 1045. By 1097 we have the first evidence for the existence of an assembly, and by 1132 all the elements of the ideal type that constituted the commune were in place. Increasingly, as the consuls came to replace the archbishop as the principal authority in the city, jurists came to replace aristocrats in the consulate. Indeed, at least after 1130, aristocrats were opting out of the consulate in favor of aligning with the entourage of the archbishop. By the 1140s, the governance structures at Milan had been transformed. Throughout his analysis, Wickham follows the trajectory of three "economic strata" (not classes): the top level (a military aristocracy holding land, castles, enfiefed tithes), leading prosperous urban citizens and valvassores holding less land and castles, and judicial experts. It is this third stratum that came to dominant the new commune. Nevertheless, Wickham argues, the legal writings of the jurist and consul, Oberto dall'Orto, himself a member of the third stratum, were immersed in the feudal world of the aristocracy. His work offers no hint that he knew that the world had changed and was no longer aristocratic. Wickham uses Oberto as an example of a man "who was (along with his peers) taking his city in a profoundly new direction, but his mind was elsewhere" (61). This stark contradiction between thought and practice, as he explains, summarizes what the author means by "sleepwalking."

It is a truism (indeed, a cliché) in medieval Italian historiography that the history of every city is unique and that there is no such thing as a typical commune. In the remaining three chapters, Wickham compares and contrasts a variety of city-states, identifying common markers as well as significant differences. He does so by basing his analysis on the criteria of the ideal type and a social analysis that tracks families in three different levels of economic strata. Pisa (chapter 3) was the earliest commune, influencing many other cities in turn (Milan, for example, probably borrowed the word, "consul," from the Pisans, and Pisa was where the word first appeared in documents in the 1080s). For Wickham, the Pisans were totally original with regards to their commune; "they thought it up themselves" (94). Naval raiding expeditions as well as the construction of the cathedral gave the Pisans valued prior experience at collective governance. An assembly ran the city by 1090, and consuls (appearing perhaps as early as the 1090s) were acting as urban representatives by 1109. Unlike Milan, judicial experts were respected but did not serve as leaders. It was this second stratum in Wickham's formulation that became dominant here (an urban elite, not the rural castle-owning aristocracy, the former made wealthy through land and commerce). Like Milan, there is no indication in the major literary work that commemorated the raid on the Balearic Islands in 1113, the Liber Maiorichinus (1110s), that Pisans were aware that their society was changing dramatically. Indeed, Wickham argues, the heroes of the expedition, consul and aristocrat alike, appear equally heroic in a "victorious collective enterprise" (68).

In chapter 4 ("Rome") and chapter 5 ("Italy"), the author extends his analysis to the eternal city (never a part of the Kingdom of Italy) and to the rest of central and northern Italy. In the case of Rome, there was no "sleepwalking", unlike other cities in Italy. Romans from the non-aristocratic (and third stratum) "medium elite" self-consciously established a commune with a Senate in 1143 in opposition both to Innocent II's "monarchical papacy" (154) and to the aristocratic families who were increasingly aligning with him. In chapter 5 Wickham continues to examine the full "range of urban experience" (161) in various regions of Italy, covering no less than fifteen cities in Piemonte, the Veneto and Romagna, and Lombardy and Emilia. He begins the chapter however with two of the earliest communes (along with Pisa): Genoa and Asti. A principal theme in this chapter is that cities "regularly borrowed best practice from each other" (161), echoing a trend we saw earlier in the case of Milan and Pisa. A few examples demonstrate "the range of urban experience" (161) quite well. In Lombardy and Emilia, bishops were strong presences in some cities (Milan to 1130s) and less so in others (Cremona). In Tuscany, compared with other city-states, the development of the commune of Florence was very slow, with consuls probably in existence earlier than the documents reveal. Wickham concludes his overview in this chapter with a summary of his most important conclusions. Among those final thoughts is the observation that a fundamental element that helps explain "the root causes of communal differences" is "the way the different leading strata of each city related to each other" (190). Ever the social historian, the author highlights socio-economic differences as a major motor of historical change.

This significant book on the crucial importance of the twelfth-century Italian commune is a welcome addition to the body of historical literature on pre-modern Italian cities that still seems to focus excessively on later centuries (not the mention the Italian Renaissance). Wickham's extensive endnotes alone make the book a worthwhile purchase for any medieval historian. The quality of the maps adds value and dimension to the narrative. In addition, the methodology adopted in the book (defining an ideal type and proceeding to compare and contrast cities) is exactly the right approach. This comprehensive, detailed, and comparative overview will be greatly appreciated by and useful to all the social, economic, and political historians of medieval Italy who read it. In some ways, however, the argument that the leaders of the communes were "sleepwalking into a new world" falls short and is less than convincing. The sources themselves make it very difficult to capture the consciousness of communal elites (whether they were unaware of what they were doing or not). Indeed, the similarities of language in the documents from commune to commune, and even many of the author's own statements, indicate that these cities were constantly borrowing and learning from one another. They seemed to know where they were going (with the exception perhaps of the earliest ones, Genoa and Pisa). The fact that literary works often did not reflect the social reality of the time in which they were written is also not at all surprising, and this certainly does not necessarily imply that the authors were unaware of the social changes around them. Finally, historians of church reform may find themselves disagreeing with an approach to twelfth-century papal history that seems to exclude ideological factors. That said, although the detailed nature of the subject matter can make for some difficult reading, this is a book that will always reward the reader with novel insights, rich information, and original conclusions.