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23.12.10 Stevens/Czaja (eds.), Towns on the Edge in Medieval Europe

23.12.10 Stevens/Czaja (eds.), Towns on the Edge in Medieval Europe

The present volume is a collection of essays on social and political organisation and order in urban communities in the periphery of medieval Europe. As the editors emphasize in their introduction, their volume is based on the hypothesis that models and concepts of urban life and communities were not simply exported from the centre of the continent to the peripheral regions, but that in the latter regions they were actively modified and adjusted to suit local needs, which also included the creation of new unique models of urban society (3-4).

In nine case studies, grouped in three major themes, comparative analyses have been carried out connecting two or more regions. As a result, each contribution is a collaboration between at least two authors. From a geographical perspective, the focus is on three separate regions: Wales and Ireland; Prussia, the Baltic region and Sweden; and Franconia. Most of these were conquered during the Middle Ages--Wales and Ireland by the English and Prussia and the Baltic region by the Germans--meaning an initially foreign elite was introduced above the native population.

The first theme, to which the first three case studies are dedicated, is the formation of community. The two editors kick things off in a comparative discussion of the position of the native population in newly chartered Welsh and Prussian towns. Both the English colonisers and the Teutonic Order founded new towns. The former organised them close to their castles, creating close links between towns and royal power, while the Prussian towns enjoyed a higher degree of independence. Were the native populations subjected to discrimination by the new--respectively English and German--dominant groups? Both regions seem to generally fit a similar three-tiered model, in which at first the necessity to create an economically viable urban community eliminated any form of discrimination. Only later, the attitude of the government towards the native population grew more hostile. In Wales this was in part the result of uprisings, while in Prussia it appears to have been initiated in the wake of jurisdictional clashes with regard to the countryside population. In a third phase, bottom-up discrimination became more common as the dominant urban group tried to ward off others from their economic and political privileges, especially in the post-Black Death era and subsequent depression. In Prussia the cities specifically wished to halt a disruptive exodus of labour from the countryside into the cities.

The second contribution has been written by Matthew Frank Stevens and Sparky Booker and discusses the appearance of ethnic enclaves in Ireland and Wales, specifically those where the local population lived within settlements dominated by a foreign group. Such enclaves, often with names indicating this ethnic component, emerged once a sufficiently large English community had populated the area. From property and rental records, the authors deduced that while the enclaves were ethically mixed areas, and their names thus became anachronistic, they harboured a higher proportion of non-English inhabitants with a lower social position. Nonetheless, in Ireland and especially in Wales a process of “counter-colonisation” might be recognised where they managed to set foot into English boroughs and take up civic offices.

The contribution by Aleksandra Girsztowt and Deborah Youngs compares the economic position of women in small towns in Wales and Prussia, in particular Caernarfon and Marienburg. In both regions, women were subjected to stricter laws than men, but managed regardless to actively take up important roles in urban society. Prussian inheritance law allowed widows to--at least temporarily--continue their late husband’s workshop, while in Caernarfon women often worked in commercial ale production. The sources also clarify that women were active on the credit market, bought and sold property, and borrowed and lent. Similarly, they were not afraid to engage in conflicts of even interpersonal violence, and engage--sometimes without a male representative--in the existing legal systems.

The second theme is social life and social discipline, which is again discussed in three case studies. The contribution by Anna Maleszka and Julia Możdżeń discusses the position of urban legislation in German towns in Prussia and Anglo-Norman towns in Ireland, and its role in safeguarding the interests of authorities and citizens. Comparing the town charters, custumals, and other legislative sources revealed that in both regions more or less similar provisions were adopted. The relations between authorities and citizens were safeguarded, as offences against town officials were severely penalised. Restrictions against commercial activities of outsiders aimed to protect the economic position of citizens, and provisions regarding food quality served both the prevention of fraud and the safekeeping of public health. Despite these similarities, differences were observed in the chronology--quality-control for instance occurred in Ireland earlier than in Prussia--and the degree of influence by central authorities.

In their case study Aleksandra Girsztowt and Piotr Kołodziejczak analyse the political participation of craftsmen in town governance in Marienburg and Stockholm. In both towns, guilds were supervised by the town council, to avoid organised subversion. Although individuals from this group managed to acquire positions in the government of both towns, only in Marienburg was there a political role for guilds as collectives. Due to their participation, craftsmen did not violently riot against their town councils, unlike in many larger cities in the Baltic region.

Zofia Maciakowska and Anna Maleszka analyse the shaping of public spaces in Dublin and Danzig. The earliest provisions regarding the spatial layout of the city were included in the privilege charters: for Dublin from 1172, for Danzig--with highly detailed provisions on lot size and specific allocation of economic or religious buildings--from the 1220s. The town governments were granted the authority to take measures to safeguard the public spaces and keep the bonum commune as guiding principle. For this goal occasionally private interests had to yield. The specific spatial development of the two towns was influenced by maritime trade and transport. Later, additional provisions were created to govern hygiene, the width of the streets, the supply of and access to clean water, the containment of fire hazards, and to keep the towns’ defensive works clear from unauthorised constructions.

The final theme, again with three contributions, touches on peace making and keeping. Juhan Kreem, Krysztof Kwiatkowski, and Anna Maleszka discuss the influence of military affairs on the growth of a communal identity in the regions Ireland, Prussia, and Livonia. Unlike in Ireland, where townsmen had no military obligations toward the ruler, war was a continuous threat in urban life in Livonia and Prussia, located close to the borders separating Christian Europe from pagan lands. The authors discuss four elements: the possession of arms, watch-keeping, inspection of weaponry and musters, and contributing to the construction of town fortifications. While all these characteristics were present in both Livonia and Prussia on the one hand and Ireland on the other, their evolution differed as a result of local circumstances. In the end the authors have to conclude that the elements under study had only limited effect on community building. This was partially the result of a decreasing military threat and partially of the redeemability of the duties: citizens bought off their obligations and professionals were hired to replace them.

Roman Czaja and Helmut Flachenecker shed light on the concept of “quarters” and the quartermasters that governed them in towns in Prussia and Franconia. Both regions contained towns founded and governed by the Teutonic Order; the more centrally located Franconia was never conquered, however. The custom of dividing of towns into quarters appeared in the latter region in the fourteenth century, in Prussia a century later. Initially a means for organising the town’s defence (including combatting fire hazards), the quartermasters later acquired administrative duties, such as tax collection and the observance of the law. As such, quarters became an instrument for tighter control over the community. Despite this, in Franconia quartermasters were considered intermediaries and in times of conflict or rebellion--such as the Peasants’ War of 1525--often acted as mouthpiece of the community. In Prussia, the quarters served mostly to undermine the influence of the guilds and were controlled by the town councils.

The final contribution is by Anna Maleszka and Matthew Frank Stevens and studies the use of petitions made by Irish and Welsh towns to the Crown to reinforce links between core and periphery. In these regions interaction with the Crown usually took place through settler towns, not the landed gentry. The contents of these petitions were generally complaints about royal officials, and incidentally conflicts with boroughs or marcher lords. Petitions could also request favours or admonish the Crown to take responsibility in protecting the newly founded towns against the native population, the latter generally in maintaining the towns’ economic privileges. Such requests were in form and content not that divergent from the general body of petitions sent to king, council, and parliament. Nonetheless, as Ireland and Wales fell under direct royal control rather than parliament’s, the king was expected to bear a personal responsibility to protect the English settlers, who in turn represented royal authority in colonised Ireland and Wales.

This volume is an impressive collection of research, approaching the peripheral regions of northern Europe as geographical units worthy of analysis in their own right. The multiangular perspective gives the volume a useful variety of topics, including the position of women, the ethnic structure of towns, and the relation with the authorities. The contributions demonstrate how in the colonised areas simultaneous processes of assimilation and segregation took place. In various examples the native population was driven out into enclaves, subjected to discriminatory regulations, or their economic position undermined through legislation. Despite the many local differences, in particular concerning chronology and intensity, the major developments occurred more or less similarly in all regions. Fascinating also is the image of women as active participants in town society, unafraid to engage in activities and behaviour that might have risky consequences. These results show significant overlap with existing research on the position of women in other cities of medieval Europe. [1]

Some terminological questions remain. A major question that is left unanswered is what the authors consider “towns.” Did they employ objective characteristics for the identification? As the volume mainly discusses newly founded “colonial” towns, was it necessary for towns to have been chartered? If so, how do the “Irishtowns” from the contribution of Booker and Stevens fit in? The terminology is sometimes a bit obscured by statements in individual contributions, such as that of Girsztowt and Youngs, who claim that their case studies “can be considered small towns in the context of their own countries” (74). Similarly, Girsztowt and Kołodziejczak surprise when stating that Stockholm and Marienburg should not be considered peripheral (123). While it would certainly have been true that both were respectable and important towns in their own right, the authors appear to diverge from the criterion of geographical periphery that is maintained throughout the book, and distinguish instead on the basis of an economic or functional peripheral quality.

With the degree of coherence between the various contributions--such as the relatively small number of contributors and the fixed regions that were subjected to the research--it would have been valuable if the Conclusion was not just a summary of the contents of the case studies, but also further abstracted the results and described the general developments and characteristics for each region. Such details do not distract from the great value of this volume and the insightful new perspectives that have been touched upon by the authors. It certainly shows that community building was a much more diverse process than was previously thought.



1. Cf. the essays in J. Haemers, A. Bardyn and C. Delameilleure, eds., Wijvenwereld: vrouwen in de middeleeuwse stad (Antwerp, 2019).