16.02.11, Lantschner, The Logic of Political Conflict in Medieval Cities

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David Foote

The Medieval Review 16.02.11

Lantschner, Patrick. The Logic of Political Conflict in Medieval Cities: Italy and the Low Countries, 1370-1440. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. xii, 275. ISBN: 978-0-19-873463-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Foote
University of St. Thomas

Based on a comparative study of six cities--Bologna, Verona, and Florence in Italy; Liege, Lille, and Tournai in the Low Countries--Lantschner offers his readers a careful, thorough, and insightful analysis of conflict in late medieval cities. The book opens with a passage from Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy, which establishes the fundamental premise for the study (1). Conflict is a normal component of political life. It is neither essentially constructive nor destructive; rather, it manifests itself in a multiplicity of forms and trajectories, or "systems of conflict." This multiplicity, which is the explanandum for any adequate account of political conflict, finds its ultimate ground in the irreducibly polycentric nature of medieval cities. As Lantschner explains, cities were "densely populated polycentric arenas," "constituted by multiple political centers," operating with varying levels of authority and whose "precise configuration was rarely fixed" (6-7). Given this context, political actors could craft a variety of strategies for engaging in political action and conflict.

In Part I of the book, "Conflict in a Polycentric Political Order," Lantschner maps out and classifies the components from which political actors could craft these strategies. The first chapter, "Legitimating Political Conflict," considers various strategies for justifying political conflict. Lantschner draws attention to three in particular (22-23). First, "rebels"--that is, political actors whose engagement in conflict was considered beyond the boundaries of legitimate political action--often sought to appropriate and reinterpret judicial categories in ways that would lend a greater sense of legitimacy to their actions. Second, political actors working within established institutions often sought to expand their scope of political action by appealing to the "liberties" to which they were rightfully due as members of a constitutionally recognized corporate body (e.g., guilds, popolani, institutions etc.). Finally, political actors often appealed to justice, which, according to Lantschner, was the most potent of all "strategies." As it seems to me, Lantschner's choice to describe appeals to justice as 'strategies' for legitimating conflict introduces a certain ambiguity into the discussion. Is justice a goal--something a political actor hopes to achieve? Or is it a tactic one employs for pursuing conflict? I will return to this apparent ambiguity later.

In chapter 2, "Modes of Conflict," Lantschner maps out three overlapping ways in which political actors actually engaged in conflict--protest, constitutional bargaining, and open warfare. The three modes are, for the most part, distinguished by a political actor's proximity and access to the city's constitutional mechanisms. Actors engaging in constitutional bargaining pursue their objectives within constitutionally binding mechanisms like elections, legislative assemblies, and courts (41-42). Actors engaging in protest present their petitions and grievances from the outside to officials within a constitutionally recognized institution. Protesters rely on the good will of officials within the institution to entertain their grievances, inasmuch as these officials are not constitutionally bound to do so (41). Finally, political actors engaging in open warfare are furthest removed from the city's constitutional mechanisms. In choosing warfare, they put themselves in the position of a sovereign power attacking the city from the outside (53). Yet, even here, appeals to justice and just war theory demonstrate the way in which the most radical forms of political action "took their grammar from the normalizing framework of the law" (41).

Chapter 3, "Action Groups," describes the composition of group political action. Lantschner identifies three types of action groups in particular: corporate and quasi-corporate action groups; factions and parties; and coalitions (63). These three types of groups are distinguished by their durability and their tendency toward certain modes of conflict. Corporate and quasi-corporate groups are the most durable and most likely to engage in constitutional bargaining, largely because they were more fully integrated into the city's governing institutions than the other two types of action groups.

In Part II, "Urban Systems of Conflict," Lantschner turns his attention to three distinct "systems of conflict." Chapter 5 examines "volatile systems of conflict," most evident in Bologna and Liège. Chapter 6 examines "constitutional systems of conflict," most evident in Florence and Tournai. Chapter 7 examines "contained systems of conflict," most evident in Lille and Verona. The underlying logic accounting for these three systems of conflict is fairly straightforward. In Part I, Lantschner mapped and classified the components from which a political actor could craft a strategy for engaging in conflict. The availability of these components and the likelihood of success in employing them depended upon the particular political and social configuration of a given city. The second part of the book addresses this aspect of the problem.

"Volatile systems of conflict" emerged in Bologna and Liège because the external and internal conditions in both cities made the formation of coalitions relatively easy. These systems were volatile, for, as we learned in chapter 3, coalitions were the most likely of the three types of action groups to engage in open warfare. Both cities were situated within relatively weak territorial states: Bologna within the Papal State; Liège within the prince-bishopric of Liège. As a result, their hinterlands were plagued by warfare between varieties of smaller, relatively autonomous power bases outside the city. Within Bologna and Liège, varieties of corporate groups--ecclesiastical institutions, university, guilds, and parties--were poorly integrated into the governing institutions of the city. This combination of fluid and relatively unstable conditions, both internally and externally, created the conditions for "volatile systems of conflict."

Florence and Tournai, by contrast, tended toward "constitutional systems of conflict." Florence developed its own territorial state, which achieved a greater degree of consolidation than the Papal State. Likewise, Tournai, one of the most autonomous cities of northern Europe, was not plagued by endemic warfare in its hinterlands as was Liège. Internally, the principal action groups within both cities were more fully integrated into the apparatuses of their respective governing institutions. The greater proximity and access of action groups to governing institutions made constitutional bargaining a more rational means for achieving political objectives.

Finally, Verona and Lille tended toward "contained systems of conflict." Both cities were situated within strong territorial states. Lille was the capital city of the duke of Burgundy; Verona was subject successively to Milan, Padua, and Venice. Internally, political action groups, such as guilds, parishes, and parties were much less developed. At the same time, there were more opportunities for office-holding and access to judicial channels. For this reason, conflict more typically took the form of low-level protest.

The model which Lantschner carefully lays out (chapters 1-3) and applies (chapters 5-7) is deeply compelling. I was less convinced by his larger theoretical reflections concerning the significance of conflict as a political/social phenomenon (introductory chapter and chapter 4). In the introductory chapter Lantschner announces his intention to challenge and revise an older historiography by thinking about conflict "beyond order and disorder" (17). Such an approach is necessary, according to Lantschner, because the concept of order carries a certain conceptual baggage which makes it difficult to render a robust account of political conflict.

Lantschner identifies two ways in which the concept of order obscures our understanding of political conflict. Concerning the first, Lantschner writes, "as I have argued elsewhere, the modern conceptual baggage of terms like state, class, and revolution continued to conjure up an untenable dichotomy between state-controlled 'order' and 'disorder' into which political conflict and revolt always risked being shaped" (5). Lantschner's point is well taken. This habit of thinking about order and conflict as contraries operating in accordance with a zero-sum logic tends to reduce political conflict to a one-dimensional, fundamentally destructive phenomenon. According to Lantschner, this way of thinking about order and conflict has long plagued the historiography of late-medieval state formation, where "intrusive governments of centralizing late medieval states were seen as increasingly asserting their control over recalcitrant subject populations" (3). Indeed, one of the explicit goals of the book is to call into question this way of telling the story of late medieval states (15, 200-203).

There is a second, closely related problem. The concept of order, as typically understood, tends toward a functionalist account of conflict. (6) In chapter 4, where Lantschner defines "systems of conflict" in considerable detail, he is careful to point out that he does not use this phrase "in a functionalist sense: its nature is not pre-determined by any common goal, such as social order, that all its constituent parts are supposed to follow. In a system of conflict, conflict is not an aberration or a mere means to maintain social peace, but an integral part of the repertoires of interaction of the existing political order" (92). Once again, we find a conception of order as an intrusive, almost cosmic force operating in accordance with a zero-sum logic. In this case, the victim is human agency. That this is Lantschner's principal complaint against functionalism (and the concept of order which it entails) is clear on the following page, where he is careful to explain how his understanding of "systems of conflict" leaves room for human agency (93).

While I found Lantschner's diagnosis of the problem compelling, I was less convinced by the manner in which he resolves it. He writes, "[a]s anthropologists have been suggesting more recently, the notion of order, itself culturally contingent, may not, in fact, be the most helpful way in which to approach the complex relations underlying many societies around the world" (6). In other words, to clear the way for a more robust account of conflict and human agency one must think "beyond order and disorder."

Since the problem with which Lantschner is rightly concerned originates in an understanding of order and conflict as contraries, it is not necessary to jettison the concept of order altogether. One need only define its relation to human agency and conflict with more precision. Interestingly enough, it is Lantschner himself who points in this direction. In an interesting passage toward the end of the introductory chapter, he recognizes that conflict and order are governed by a means-ends logic (as opposed to the zero-sum logic typical of contraries). He writes, "The behavior even of rebels was rarely merely habitual, and involved a normative element which was expressive of their aspirations for a better and more just political order" (15). He goes on to explain that concrete expressions of conflict (or what he calls "modes of conflict" in chapter 2) belong to the sphere of instrumental reason; that is, a political actor's rational choice of means for achieving his/her vision of order.

It seems to me that if Lantschner had pursued this solution consistently, he could have accomplished his goals without trying to think beyond order. Since citizens and competing groups within any given city hold varying degrees of commitment to justice and possess varying degrees of understanding concerning what a just and peaceful order entails, striving for order will always and necessarily involve conflict. The order which emerges from such conflict is hardly predetermined; given the multiplicity of visions from which any given order arises, it will necessarily seem more just and peaceful to some (those who are successful in the conflict) than to others (the less successful and the unsuccessful). As a result, conflict will remain a normal part of the political process, as Lantschner rightly contends. Moreover, conflict is neither essentially destructive nor constructive. No doubt, conflict can be destructive (e.g., a civil war); just as often, if not more, it is a constructive force, effecting genuine improvements in a given social and political order. In sum, the concept of order, if properly understood, is neither a contrary to conflict, nor does it necessarily entail functionalism.

This, however, is not the direction Lantschner chooses to pursue. Rather, his account of conflict seems to hover between two incompatible (to my mind, at least) understandings of the relation between conflict and order. The first, which he clearly prefers, requires him to think "beyond order and disorder." He chooses not to pursue the second, which recognizes the means-end logic governing the relation between conflict and order (though he finds it difficult to jettison completely). As a result, it is not altogether clear whether the reader is supposed to consider conflict as an end, or whether conflict is still a means to some other unspecified end (see comments above on chapter 1). Or, perhaps the question of means and ends altogether irrelevant; in which case conflict is simply one among a vast array of autonomous forces exercising efficient causality on each other.

Let me conclude by saying that even if these quibbles are justified, the theoretical reflections with which Lantschner frames this study are little more than a distraction buzzing beneath the surface of the work. They do nothing to detract from his deeply compelling model of urban conflict, which offers historians a powerful set of tools for understanding political life in medieval cities.

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