Skip to content

Response to Review no. 774

We thank the editor of Reviews in History for the opportunity to respond to Dr. Jerram’s thoughtful critique of our book.

Our first set of points pertains to the functions of textbooks in classroom teaching. Dr. Jerram takes the position that there is only one way in which the authors of works written for students and for non-specialists should proceed: that they should focus on conflicting interpretations, open questions, and the sorts of evidence that might be used in trying to answer these questions. Such a textbook would function as an extended review essay and an analysis of sources. That approach might, we admit, work well as an assignment in a research seminar for advanced students who already have a good grasp of the field in question. But what of introductory courses or topical colloquia? Students of urban history, particularly in American classrooms, have widely varying backgrounds in European history. One way to bring them to the point where they can debate specific issues is to give them a text which provides precisely the sort of ‘distillation’ with which he credits us before launching into what we did not do. Such a text, we feel, ought to convey basic information and broad generalizations on which many if not all historians can agree. In addition, illustrating those generalizations with selected quotations from primary sources and with examples drawn from the histories of particular cities increases readability, while also making concrete the broader processes being discussed. Exposing students to historiographical disagreements is basically the job of the instructor, who should point out ways in which more specialized writings can complicate the overview provided by the text. Textbooks do not and should not stand alone. Instructors normally assign multiple other documents and readings which problematize those topics and issues on which they choose to focus.

As regards the matter of argument, we disagree with Dr. Jerram’s assertion that our book does not present one. We point out the ways in which industrial growth and intensified urbanization led to a period of  ‘disruption’ (1750–1850) of earlier urban networks and patterns of organization, followed by an era of ‘reconstruction’ (1850-1914) during which both voluntary groups and municipal authorities established infrastructures and institutions that reflected cities’ increased density, wealth, and widened political representation. Activists articulated set of problems to be solved, and authorities on both the local and state level subsequently tried out various solutions. This view of an urban trajectory is, as Dr. Jerram recognizes, built into the book’s very structure. It is enunciated explicitly both in the introduction and in the conclusion, where we write as follows: ‘European cities were marked by great dynamism and diversity. Rapid growth was at first chaotic. It was accompanied both by environmental and social problems of great magnitude … Increasingly, however, urban dynamism and diversity pointed toward urban improvements … [As a result] life in European cities became a great deal better by the end of our period than it had been earlier’ (pp. 284–5). This argument is certainly open to question and deserves debate in the classroom through contrast with the views of historians, for example, of either a Marxist or a Foucauldian persuasion. The passages we have just quoted are among our last words in this book, but there is no reason why they should function as the last words on the subject in a well-conceived seminar.

We wish to conclude with a few additional points. While our book is not theory driven, it is theory informed. We do not fail to discuss Jürgen Habermas and the concept of ‘the public sphere’. Both are treated explicitly on pp. 90–1 at the start of a section on urban sociability and mobilization, as is Michel Foucault elsewhere. (Karl Marx is also referred to several times.) Rather than picturing cities as ‘agglomerations of people not necessarily connected’, we discuss their populations in terms of social class, ethnicity, gender, and cultural choices, following rather conventional historiographical practice. Finally, the complex relationships between cities and nation-states in the modern period cannot be ignored. One of our main points is that cities ‘ought to be seen as a ‘third force’ in modern European society, occupying a large space between individuals and nation-states and mediating contact between them’ (p. 281). The story of urban change needs to be linked to larger narratives not only of industrial development and democratization but also of state formation, so that what happened in cities can be seen in relation to broader developments that transcended cities.