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Response to Review no. 906

City and Cosmos was born out of frustration. It seemed to me that for too long historians and archaeologists working on medieval urbanism had sought to view it in their own terms, rather than through the imaginations of those living in the Middle Ages who knew towns and cities first-hand. Like all writing projects, the more I worked on this book the more I realised how much I didn’t know, and the final publication maps out these gaps and weaknesses in my knowledge; so I am pleased to see that Professor Andrews highlights positively the interdisciplinary approach I tried to take, ranging across a variety of sources, though I understand too her concerns about there being ‘a lack of contextual details’ with some of these. Likewise, I do not disagree with her comments about the placing of illustrations, the need for more historiographical discussion, and the cross-referencing. The illustrations are indeed ‘an important part of the argument’ of the book, but their placing in the text was dictated by the production requirements of the publisher, whose efforts to create such a high-quality production I commend, by the way. Similarly, much of the historiographical discussion had to be edited out, partly in response to referee comments, partly to shorten the book to a publishable length. The cross-referencing, however, was my decision, based upon the principle that most readers will dip into the book rather than read it cover-to-cover, but, yes, these could have been better placed in the endnotes. But what of Prof. Andrews’ substantive criticisms?

Whenever I give a public lecture or university seminar on City and Cosmos, it seems to solicit two strongly opposing reactions from my audience: there are those who simply cannot (and do not) accept the idea that, say, geometrical urban forms in the Middle Ages symbolised a Christian view of the world, and that such symbolism was written into certain layouts of urban landscapes. It seems to me that these individuals believe only in a ‘dull pragmatism’ (to use Prof. Andrews’ words) as explanation as to why towns and cities were shaped the way that they were. On the other hand, though, I have had a far more positive response from some, particularly from literary historians and cultural geographers, whose interpretative approach, like mine, relies not on pure positivism but on critical theory. Thus, the shaping of the medieval city is not either ‘pragmatic’ or ‘symbolic’; it is both, depending on how the material evidence is being interpreted, and by whom. City and Cosmos is simply an attempt to provide an alternative view to the pragmatists therefore, and to say to medievalists that there is more to be gained if urban forms are interpreted contextually. So I would have no problem with accepting other interpretative frames that were also being used in the Middle Ages to make sense of the city; notably the symbolic mirroring of cities with Rome or Troy, for example. But that is something for others to undertake, to take forward the thesis of City and Cosmos (or to refute it) with other examples, and other cases. What I would find depressing, however, is if the pragmatists’ view wins out, for this stifles our appreciation of the complex multiple meanings that urban landscapes had in the Middle Ages (and still have today), and in so doing limiting our understanding of the richness of medieval cultures and the diversity of ways that the inhabitants of medieval Europe saw the world around them.