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22.08.08 Asenjo-González et al. (eds.), Urban Hierarchy

22.08.08 Asenjo-González et al. (eds.), Urban Hierarchy

Urban Hierarchy contains ten contributions, which cover a time span from about 1200 to 1600, and concern investigations on urban structures. The volume is placed in an original investigative perspective: the hierarchical one. The premise, penned by Maria Asenjo-Gonzáles, takes stock of the previous historiography: in the last 30 years we have moved from quantitative statistics to the interpretation of statistical data in relation to urban society and policy. Asenjo-Gonzáles retraces the main theories on urban evolution: from the central place theory (proposed by Walter Christaller and taken up by Jan de Vries) to the network theory (proposed by Hohenberg and Lees, also developed by Peter Clark), according to which the city depends more on large-scale interactions than on local resources.

According to Asenjo-Gonzáles, only by following the hierarchical approach it was possible to clearly identify a key aspect of the growth of late medieval cities. This growth was connected to a political project promoted by the monarchies and consequently pursued by the local city powers, which favoured the formation of urban hierarchies and led to the emergence of regional capitals. Given that until the end of the last millennium urban history surveys were mainly case studies, and not related to their (or other) specific contexts, to overcome these limitations, one of the objectives that the volume proposes is to increase knowledge of the integration mechanisms of individual cities within their respective regional context, paying attention to the differences between networks created spontaneously or imposed by a higher authority.

Asenjo-Gonzáles explains that the accurate mathematical models set up to read demographic data within urban history have proved unsuitable as they cannot take into account the inhomogeneity of the phenomena; the new approaches can instead compare urban centres distant in time and space. In order to address these issues, it is necessary to investigate the “nature” of cities in their formation, that is the form and function (but also the multiple forms and functions) of the single urban structure. In this sense, the new methodological approach must be “between empiricism and modelling” (“Introduction,” 15). Asenjo-Gonzáles delves into the differences between the concepts of centrality and hierarchies in an urban context. A “centre” presupposes a homogeneous space, within which each place has similar characteristics. It is therefore a space where a process (of a political nature) of identifying a centre has already taken place, whether this has happened from above (royal decision) or from below (ability of the local ruling class to bring out the city). One or more “hierarchies,” on the other hand, can refer to more flexible processes, including multiple actors and multiple areas, for example, the religious, cultural, or social one.

The volume collects research on the most urbanized European areas: Italy, France, England, Holland, the Germanic Empire, and Castile. All chapters have the same goal, namely the study of the dynamics underlying urban hierarchies, calibrated to the characteristics of the specific city system. The volume consists of three parts: “Urban Networks and Central Place,” “Capital Cities and Political Actions,” and “Dynamics of Government. Cooperation, Rivalry and Conflict between Cities.”

Kucab investigates the role of Rouen as an urban centre and as a centre of consumption through a variety of sources: from the local archbishopric, parish institutions, and public notaries, used to retrieve information on the production and consumption of goods. The importance of the city is tested in relation to multiple contexts: its political importance for the Crown, for the Church (it was the episcopal seat), and for trade (already taken over by Michel Mollat in 1952). Through comparisons on various types of sources, and on the distances that goods and people travel, Kucab can build a range of influence for Rouen which substantially confirms the “pyramidal” model theorized by Christaller, but also underlines the refractoriness of relations between cities to be simplified.

Coquelin explores the evolution of the city of Erfurt. To do this, she starts from the quantity of its population and compares it with that of other cities of the Holy Roman Empire. She evaluates Erfurt’s resources (the main one of which is the Gera River) using fiscal sources, and relates the multiple authorities in the area to each other in order to evaluate their weight: a double analysis, on a local and regional scale, makes it possible to recognize that the city constitutes an exceptional case. Particularly useful for identifying the relations between Erfurt and other cities is the intitulatio reserved for each of them in the institutional correspondence: from “ersam fursichtig und wiese besundern gute frunde” to “ersame lute.” In the case of Erfurt also, the classical model, where the city holds control over the surrounding agricultural resources, must be corrected by recognizing the economic and political weight of Erfurt in dynamic relationship with the numerous other cities of Lower Thuringia.

Gamberini investigates the evolution of relations between Lombard cities in the Po valley over three centuries. Going through the historiographical developments known from the municipal era to the founding of regional states, Gamberini wonders on what basis hierarchies between Lombard cities are established: if on one hand the pre-eminence of Milan remains evident, other elements such as the wealth of the individual cities and their respective autonomy vis-à-vis the capital are not easy to recognize. Gamberini identifies a key element in the mechanism by which areas and cities undergo aggregations and disaggregations.

Alonso García addresses the issue of the political, economic, and commercial importance of Madrid before its election as capital. García wonders if Madrid’s status as capital is a consequence or a cause of its weight in the Castilian area. For this purpose, he analyzes notarial protocols and fiscal sources. It emerges that the importance of Madrid, the seat of the court well before Philip II and a pole of attraction for high officials and wealthy nobles, is clearly expressed in its ability to impose on the surrounding territories the weight of court consumption, demanding daily supplies of bread.

Senatore delves into the late medieval situation of Capua and Cava dei Tirreni starting from the inapplicability of Christaller’s “pyramid” model: the kingdom of Naples saw the increase, in parallel, of the urban centers of Naples, L’Aquila and Capua. Each city had a complex system of suburban appurtenances, which Senatore identifies, for Capua, in four hierarchical levels. Using mainly demographic estimates and administrative sources, the author recognizes in the interpretation of settlement structures, and in the relationship between them and the management of the exercise of urban functions, a fundamental key of interpretation for explaining local political developments.

Ángeles Martín Romera analyzes a short period of the history of Valladolid: 15 years, chosen because the attempt by the city to organize an alliance between Castilian cities lasted so long. Its purpose is to identify poorly investigated aspects of Iberian history, in the light of the promotion, “from below,” of connection between urban centres. The event underlying the project, the attempt to kidnap the heir to the throne domiciled in Valladolid, paradoxically places the search for autonomy in a project to safeguard the crown. The official correspondence between cities, although it did not lead to the formulation of formal agreements, provides important elements for understanding the relationships between urban centers, and how the other cities of the region were mutually perceived.

Vojtišek delves into the extension of the ties of the Bohemian city of Kolín (about 50 km from Prague) during the fourteenth century. By “ties” Vojtišek means any kind of communicative ties, of the most disparate nature (political, commercial, ecclesiastical...). His main sources are the Codex iuris municipalis regni Bohemiae, the local Liber contractuum and the Libri erectionum archidioecesis pragensis. In light of the documents, Kolín’s place in central Bohemia can be clarified in relation to both the capital and neighboring centers.

Van Steensel discusses “the significance of urban corporate institutions in relation to the position of cities and towns in hierarchical urban systems and to the functional distribution of income” (169). Using previous studies, van Steensel compares the evolution of the respective urban networks in England and Low Countries during fifteenth century. The main outcome of the research is that political and economic institutions were independent variables.

López Gómez compares two urban centers, Cadalso and Escalona, between the thirteenth and fifteenth century. Subjected to the second, the first assumed disobedience as a political line, which López Gómez traces through council acts. The contribution shows the legal instruments put in place by Cadalso to oppose the supremacy of Escalona over the span of over three centuries.

Vojtíšková aims to investigate the Bohemian urban space and the interactions between Bohemian royal cities and other cities, during the sixteenth century. After the clarification of the institutional framework, Vojtíšková uses previous studies to recognize that the status of royal city clearly separated those who possessed this title and who did not, limiting ties to trade and culture, and putting into context the consequences of the anti-Habsburg revolt of 1547 which led to a collective deterioration of the conditions of the rebellious Bohemian cities.

All in all, the results contained in the volume demonstrate the effectiveness of the “hierarchical” method.