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Response to Review of Cities of Strangers: Making Lives in Medieval Europe

I learned a great deal from Professor Sarah Rees Jones’s review of my book Cities of Strangers (2020). I learned from her attention to the book’s intention, format and ideas; and from her willingness to examine a field she knows so well – the history of later medieval urban life – from a new perspective. Her review offers generous collegiality combined with constructive suggestions.

As Professor Rees Jones describes, my book arose from the Wiles Lectures 2017, delivered at Queens University Belfast. Platforms such as the Wiles Lectures remove an academic from her comfort zone; they encourage new thinking, and historical writing that is bolder than that we use in our monographs and articles. The Lectures are soon turned into books and these present the underpinning arguments and research, though not a complete arc of research; these are timely interventions. Some of my favourites in the series are J H. Eliot’s The Old World and the New (1970), E. J. Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990), and R. R. Davies’ Domination and Conquest: The Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (2008). Each pursued an idea, and helped imagine how it may inform future historical work through the examples presented in a short book.

I began working on Cities of Strangers with a commitment to recording the conditions of strangers, and with the expectation of finding exclusion and limitations. What I found was far more interesting: a set of civic conversations across Europe, in kingdoms and in autonomous cities, on the conditions by which newcomers may become part of urban communities. Cities, from around 1100, expected strangers to become their neighbours, and sought to govern the process which allowed this to happen. Where cities has the power to legislate for their local arrangements – say Siena and Pisa – their statutes reflect the outcome of local deliberation; a city like Toulouse required its Lord, the Count, to confirm its statutes; while in England and Hungary, France and Castile, cities had to accord with royal policies on migration and naturalisation.

So the need to receive newcomers, and especially those with specialist knowledge – medical, financial, technical, artistic, legal – was a recurrent item on the agendas of town councils. Their policies varied with the economic cycle and depended on the sense of well being in the urban enterprise of living together. I soon found most interesting to think of the communities of strangers not as a marginal phenomenon, a problem to be solved, but as a feature of urban life. Flourishing life in towns and cities depended on the presence of a wide range of endowments, capacities, and talents. Some arrived with these skills at the city gates of their own accord, others were enticed to the city by attractive contracts and privileges. Some newcomers went local swiftly through integration into workshops, or through marriage, even gaining local citizenship. But as interesting were those who retained a mark of difference and whose families continued to do so, who accepted – even preferred – this condition: Jews in many cities, with their distinctive religion and culture; Tuscan bankers in Venice with their Tuscan tongue and networks of Tuscan kin and business partners; Flemings in London, who spoke Flemish as well as English, who frequented pubs run by other Flemings, and whose marriage and business networks saw them criss-crossing the channel.

People chose to remain somewhat-different locals, so long as they felt safe. And this could persist for generations, with long-standing communal groups in many cities. These were as much locals, as they were something else too: they worked, paid taxes, knew the city as well as any other, delighted in its style of dress and food, and took pride in its achievements. Yet there was an inherent vulnerability to this type of difference. Like all difference, it could be made into more, presented as a danger, an aberration, something to be removed, excluded. And so it was. The book shows the ways cities re-examined the terms of difference for a variety of groups – moneylenders, women, the poor – in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time when so many assumptions about the economic, social and civic order had dramatically changed.

Sarah Rees Jones is right in pointing us to research into documents of practice so as to understand better the experience of this otherness in good times and bad. In Cities of Strangers I discuss the findings of scholars who have studied long series of court cases, like Matthew Stevens’ work on Ruthin, or Daniel Smail’s on Marseille.(1) There is currently a great deal of work just or about-to-be published: publications still arising from the England’s Migrants project inspired by the late Mark Ormrod;(2) monographs by Milan Pajic and Charlotte Berry; studies on the ethics of Italian civic life by Lidia Zanetti Domingues and Lorenzo Caravaggi. All of these and others will contribute to more detailed and regionally nuanced sense of the experience of cities where so many – and in some sense even women – were strangers indeed.

Sarah Rees Jones also noted that Cities of Strangers, resonates with our times. It is indeed a book inspired by our discontents. I hope what it helps us think about the ways we may understand, include, tolerate, and profit from the difference that is bound to be our condition, now, just as it was in the many pasts we study.

Notes

  1. Matthew Frank Stevens, Urban assimilation in post-conquest Wales: ethnicity, gender and economy in Ruthin, 1282-1348, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2010; Daniel Lord Smail, The Consumption of Justice. Emotions, Publicity, and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264–1423, Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press, 2003.Back to (1)
  2. Migrants in medieval England, c. 500-1500, ed. W. Mark Ormrod, Joanna Story, and Elizabeth M. Tyler, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2020.Back to (2)