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22.08.21 Caers et al. (eds.), Urban History Writing in Northwest Europe (15th-16th Centuries)

22.08.21 Caers et al. (eds.), Urban History Writing in Northwest Europe (15th-16th Centuries)

Urban History Writing in Northwest Europe (15th-16th centuries) is as focused as its title suggests, yet contains essays of interest to a wide variety of scholars, beyond those who study medieval urban history writing. As the thorough introduction by Jan Dumolyn and Anne-Laure Bruaene explains, “urban history” has traditionally been very narrowly defined, so that no such history is said to exist in English, Dutch, or French-speaking regions during the Middle Ages (11). This volume sets out to challenge that assumption by asking us to look more closely and ask new questions. As Dumolyn and Bruaene state, “the days are long gone when historians could discern hard and fast dichotomies between conceptual pairs such as ‘urban culture’ and ‘court culture,’ ‘lay culture’ and ‘clerical culture’ and the same holds true for historical texts and wider memory practices” (15). Instead, they argue, “rather than the breadth of a chronicle’s geographical scope, the main criteria should be the display of a set of social and political values typical of urban society” (17). Furthermore, this means we should not limit ourselves to the contents of the text alone, but should also look at networks of ownership and production (24). The ten chapters that follow answer this call.

The first section of the volume engages with questions of genre and typology. Marco Tomaszewski appropriately opens the section and the volume with an essay on the dangers of relying too much on modern editions. As he warns, “many modern historians perceived the content of medieval urban history writing as some kind of prefiguration of their own modern bourgeois society and their urban constitutions” (29). Doing so, these scholars presented unity and homogeneity within cities. In reality, Tomaszewski argues, when we turn to the manuscripts what we find is a world of “high social differentiation” resulting in “heterogenous unities” (30).

Ina Serif’s chapter, which follows, provides an example of this dynamism within urban chronicles. She uses the example of Jakob Twinger’s vernacular chronicle of Strasbourg, arguing that he likely wrote to “broaden the historical knowledge of the citizens of his town, to strengthen their urban identity” (49). Twinger’s text is found either in whole or in part in 125 manuscripts, resulting in considerable variation. Serif finds that one scribe used Twinger’s text to provide a specifically urban element to his chronicle of Basel, changing the name of the city, of course (54-55). Conversely, another manuscript only excerpts portions of Twinger’s text that relate to broader events, ignoring the urban context (57). Serif concludes by asserting that if we look beyond the “classical” edited versions of chronicles, we find a much broader and more dynamic urban consciousness than is generally recognized. The essay ends with an appendix of manuscript variations.

Jenine de Vries expands this approach further, arguing, “It’s not just about Chronicles.” She explains that “histories...are fundamentally intertwined with the social context they come from” and therefore study of them must include “the background of both the author and audience” (68). However, De Vries focuses on “material form and lay-out and geographical scope of contents” (68). She examines custumals, annotated mayoral lists, and common-place books as historical texts. The article ends with a focus on Bristol and specifically The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar. Devries concludes that we can, in fact, find truly urban history in England if we look beyond the narrow definition of town chronicles.

Paul Trio’s excellent contribution ends this section by discussing the remarkable amount of historiographical writing we have for Ypres, despite the devastations of World War I. He identifies three chronicles: one attributed to Olivier van Dixmude, a lesser-known one connected to Pieter van de Letewe, and a set of notes added to the first said to be by Joos Bryde. Scholars have questioned these (mostly nineteenth-century) attributions, as well as the chronicles’ reliability. To answer these questions, Trio first turns to the memorieregisters of the fourteenth century. Sadly, these documents were lost in 1914. Nonetheless, we have some sense of their contents thanks to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century copies and continuations, in which “quite a few notes relating to the late Middle Ages that could be verified proved to be factual,” suggesting they were based on earlier memorieregisters (86). This information makes the idea that Van Dixmude, Van de Letewe, and Bryde used these documents for their chronicles plausible, especially as we know that Bryde once possessed some of the registers, as well as the works of Van Dixmude and Van de Letewe. Trio then reveals that the three men are related to one another, making the chronicle attributions almost certain. Altogether, this research reveals “how the first historiographical activities to be labelled ‘urban historiography’ came into existence” in Ypres (91). The chapter ends with an addendum on “the familial and political network of the Van Dixmude family” (92).

The second section of the volume turns to social and political contexts of urban historiography, especially in relation to the “memory of conflict.” Laura Crombie’s riveting chapter opens this section by exploring the description of war and suffering in Tournai found in Jehan Nicolay’s Kalendrier. As with Ypres, much of the town archives of Tournai were lost, this time thanks to the Second World War. However, one copy of Jehan’s Kalendrier still exists, preserved in Paris. The Kalendrier records events from 23 May 1477 to 11 June 1478, the period during which the French occupied the town. Crombie posits that as religious calendars were used for remembrance, so was Jehan’s, but in this case, for a remembrance of Tournai’s great suffering. At the same time, however, Jehan wishes to show his town’s loyalty. The result is a subtle yet revealing account. He copies documents in full to lend credence to his account and subtly imply the rebels are to blame for the war. On the other hand, Jehan uses silence to stress the horror of his town’s situation. For example, he will write “there were no acts that should be remembered…as is always the case one side or the other made raids for plunder” (109). As Crombie wisely notes, this wording underscores the constancy of this state of violence. She concludes Jehan’s account tries to be true, but not unbiased; rather it recounts for posterity a particular view of Tournai’s experience of war.

Tineke van Gassen expands the discussion of conflict from physical to legal in her essay on the Diary of Ghent. She notes two unusual things about the narrative section of the Diary: its neutral tone and its inclusion of numerous official documents. She then places the text in the context of the 1452 conflict between Ghent and the Duke of Burgundy in which representatives of the Parlement of Paris served as mediators. Noting the number of copied documents included, she posits that the document began life as a background text for preparing legal arguments to be made to the French representative during negotiations. Thus, the document originally made practical, political use of history, but after the negotiations, the text was kept and added to by later civic officials.

The last essay to this section is written by Bram Caers and Lisa Demets and considers differing accounts of “loyalty and rebellion.” They begin by warning against the tendency to look for an “‘urban view’ of historiography,” which ignores the “complexity of the urban social stratification” and “micro groups” within the cities (140). They argue that instead we can find “conflicts over the interpretation of a text” (140). Bruges and Mechelen serve as their examples. In Bruges, we find the use of the Excellent Cronike van Vlaenderen to provide an “elite” view of the rebellion against Maximilian of Austria, in which“violent upheaval is exclusively attributed to the common people” (144). Caers and Demets argue that the elite participants in the Bruges revolt intentionally chose this regional, Flemish chronicle to “legitimize their participation in the revolt” because it built upon an older traditional authority, regional histories were “ideal counter-discourses” to Hapsburg centralization, and it allowed them to connect themselves to the other major cities of Flanders. Conversely, Mechelen did not belong to a larger county, making its historiography unique. Its chronicles more closely follow ducal history, but also present a more positive view of the city than those written in Brabant. There are two historiographical traditions in Mechelen: A and B. Possibly written by a cleric, the A chronicle takes the perspective of the city’s elites, not even mentioning the uprising against Charles the Bold (150). Conversely, the B text was written from a “middling class” perspective, leaving “no stone unturned to show the how the magistrate and established elites were responsible for the escalation of violence” and painting the duke as a victim of these plots (152). In conclusion, Caers and Demets argue that while Burgundian unification may have given birth to regional historiography, it was revolt and class divisions that gave rise to urban history.

The third and final section of the collection is the most varied. Entitled “Materiality and Mixed Media,” it seems mostly to continue the discussion of codicology, transmission, and ownership contained in the first two parts as well. The first of these essays, written by Marcus Meer, examines the use of heraldry in theCronographia Augustensium and the Grossembrot Armorial, noting the similar but arguably opposite uses of heraldry to make historical claims. Looking at the copy of the Cronographia owned by Hector Mülich, a merchant and master of the grocers’ guild, he makes two interesting observations. First, the Mülich manuscript’s illustrations of the Roman conquest of the region mix ancient and medieval imperial heraldry to suggest that Augsburg has always had a close association with the Empire. Secondly, though Mülich does not insert his family into the narrative of the text, he does include their coat of arms in an armorial that includes the “other eminent families of Augsburg” allowing him to “record their eminent status...for the future” (179). Meer argues that while “upstarts” themselves, the Mülich family “guarded their pre-eminent position within society from other aspiring guild and merchant families.” The Grossembrot Armorial also reflects the anxieties of a time of social change. Unlike Mülich, Hans Grossembrot was from an old, aristocratic family. In this instance, we find an armorial containing fifty-two families, but only seventeen still in existence at the time of the manuscript’s creation. Meer argues that in response to the new social reality, this allowed Hans to “preserve a distinction within this elite of patricians...and distinguished guild and merchant families” (183).

In the next chapter, Peter Bakker argues that the two town chronicles of Kampen served different purposes, though both were written for the use of secretaries. He begins by carefully explaining the text De Annalibus quaedam and its position within the larger Liber Diversorum C. Having established the latter’s “production units” and how they were put together in the present form, he explains why these were bound together as they were, arguing that the purpose of this town chronicle was to provide context for the practical information for the daily use of secretaries included in the rest of the volume (194). Conversely, Annalia ende andere copien is written as a sort of political treatise. It begins by identifying with “the episcopal principality of Utrecht and not the Holy Roman Empire” (200). Then, at folio 142, the perspective changes to a broader geographical scope and an identity with the empire. Bakker argues that its intention was to “obtain peace and stability in the region through the involvement of its readers in the town and government administration” (202).

The last contribution to this volume takes us to the time of the Reformation and Dutch Revolt. Louise Vermeersch examines printed almanacs and their relationship to political and religious dissent. She explains that Dutch almanacs were often bound with vernacular translations of the Psalms, which were used for Protestant worship, and the historical annotations relate to the Reformation and revolt. Thus, Vermeersch explains that almanacs served to circulate religious and political ideas, and as such, they were part of an urban historiography. When compared to almanacs from Geneva and Leiden, the Ghent almanac is much more radical. Vermeersch notes that of 203 historical annotations in the text, nineteen cannot be found in other almanacs, and “twelve of the events that do not appear in the other calendars relate to Spanish tyranny and military developments during the Dutch Revolt” (215). She further notes, that while religious events are discussed with detachment, this is not at all the case for these political ones. Conversely, the almanac not only continues to use saints’ days traditional in Ghent, it also adopts the Gregorian calendar, reflecting a “tense compromise” (219). When the new calendar is introduced, the almanac explains that “’his highness of Ghent’ had introduced the reformation of the Julian calendar” (219). “His highness” was the Duke of Anjou, a Catholic. Furthermore, while the “polemical almanac” could serve to circulate information in support of the Calvinist regime, it had to be accepted, meaning it had to appear in a familiar form. It was in Vermeersch’s words “a minor change to a well-known concept” (220). In this way, the radically Calvinist rulers of Ghent hoped to establish their authority not only among Catholics but among their “battle-weary citizens” (221).

Altogether, the editors should be congratulated on an incredibly coherent volume. The essays move outward from a broader rethinking of historiographical approaches to specific, examinations of texts that move in a roughly chronological fashion. Further, every article in the volume engages deeply with the manuscripts using codicology, prosopography, and other oft-neglected tools to make their argument. In places, the English could be improved for clarity; however, this is likely due to the constraints of the publishing editors. Also, I would have appreciated a more consistent translation protocol; in some places translations are provided in text beneath the original language, in others they are relegated to the footnotes, in still others the opposite holds true, and in a few instances one or the other is missing. Nonetheless, these criticisms should not detract from a well-executed volume that is truly in conversation with itself across articles, and which contributes to our knowledge not only of late medieval urban historiography, but its society as well.