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About this book

An essential introductory survey of the towns, villages and parishes in which people lived in the medieval and early modern periods. Beat Kumin assesses the similarities, differences and the wider significance of these communities for European society prior to 1800.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
This is a book about an empowering force in European history. Lacking privileges conveyed by birthright (like the nobility) or religious authority (like the clergy), the common people acquired social and political influence through association. From the High Middle Ages, out of a variety of causes, Europeans developed local communities in which they organized public affairs with at least partial autonomy and relatively broad participation. These became the chief frameworks for the articulation of interests by burghers and peasants until the rise of general enfranchisement in the modern period. The following chapters offer an introductory survey to the ‘Communal Age’ in western Europe between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries. In an attempt to overcome common demarcations in the field, the perspective extends over different settings (urban, rural), spheres (secular, ecclesiastical), timeframes (medieval, early modern) and regions (especially English-, German- and Italian-speaking areas).
Beat Kümin

Case studies

Frontmatter

1. The Italian City

Abstract
After a temporary decline of urban life following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the resurgence of trade prompted a new wave of town foundations in the High Middle Ages, from Russia and Scandinavia right across to the Mediterranean. The most extensive ‘urban belt’ stretched from the Netherlands via the western part of the Holy Roman Empire to the Apennines. At its southern tip, the communes of northern and central Italy became so strong that they ‘have no equals … in other European countries. These cities …, which were practically independent of the Empire, evolved into genuine city states.’ [74: 153]
Beat Kümin

2. The Village in the Holy Roman Empire

Abstract
Many Imperial Free Cities acquired considerable autonomy, economic clout and territories over the course of the Middle Ages. Nuremberg and Augsburg, in particular, evolved into major European centres, but — compared to the Italian situation just studied above — imperial control remained stronger and the standing of city states weaker north of the Alps [84; 86; 98]. This regional case study thus focuses on another type of local community.
Beat Kümin

3. The English Parish

Abstract
The third ‘ideal type’ of a local community had ecclesiastical roots and an explicitly territorial character. It acquired particular significance in areas like England, where the secular ‘vill’ did not reach the same level of institutionalization as we have just observed for the Holy Roman Empire. There is evidence for collective action independent of the manor, the main form of English local government before the sixteenth century, but it is more patchy and informal than in German-speaking Europe [8; 116; 290]. As Max Weber noted nearly a century ago, the strength of royal jurisdiction eroded the autonomy of local associations and communities, which did not enjoy the same legislative power to regulate themselves according to sets of customary law revealed ‘from within’ [279: 438].
Beat Kümin

Local Communities in Comparative Perspective

Frontmatter

4. Communal Cultures

Abstract
The significance of the communal phenomenon can be illustrated in very concrete terms: there were some 500 English towns by the mid-fourteenth century, at least 50,000 parishes in the Holy Roman Empire at the close of the Middle Ages and literally hundreds of thousands of villages throughout early modern Europe. Even within the same region or time-period, however, each and every one of these had a distinct history and profile, which prevents simple generalizations [100: 15; 163; 135: 136]. Any attempt to identify basic building blocks, common structural features and long-term trends must thus be undertaken with due acknowledgement of numerous exceptions and contrasting developments. Communal culture was made up of many components: in what follows, we will concentrate on aspects of community formation, membership, inner coherence/divisions, resources, values, political life and communication patterns.
Beat Kümin

5. Interactions

Abstract
Towns, villages and parishes entered into relationships with a wide range of other agents and institutions. Some existed within their own boundaries, others had focal points well beyond their sphere of influence; some interactions were voluntary and conducted in an essentially harmonious manner, others derived from external pressure with the potential to cause considerable tensions. This chapter surveys an illustrative spectrum of evidence to highlight the multilayered embedding of local communities at any point in time [126], and the long-term intensification of exchange with the powers of Church and state in particular. It starts with a look at local and regional settings; proceeds to contacts with secular and ecclesiastical lords; and concludes with an assessment of the growing interaction with central bodies.
Beat Kümin

Assessment

Frontmatter

6. Perceptions and Debates

Abstract
An examination of pre-modern viewpoints can start with the community members themselves. Previous chapters have highlighted the manifold ways in which townspeople, villagers and parishioners formed and articulated specific understandings of their localities, for example through the careful preservation of acquired rights and privileges, communal crests and seals, the periodic renewal of oaths of association, collective investment in better religious provision, construction of representative buildings like town halls and the ritualized constitution of political space through elaborate processions and the periodic beating of communal bounds [110; 154: 51; Hindle in 51: 205–27]. This demonstrable sense of awareness, belonging and often pride reflected early modern horizons which were — by no means exclusively, but to a very significant extent — local.
Beat Kümin

7. Conclusions

Abstract
Twenty-first-century Europeans are used to go ‘large’: multinational companies, long-haul flights, steady EU expansion, global media empires and easy access to the World Wide Web form part of everyday experience. This book, in contrast, focuses on a period in which people tended to think ‘small’: more limited spatial horizons, closer embedding in kinship groups, humbler economic ambitions and, as highlighted here, stronger communal ties. Between c. 1100 and c. 1800, hundreds of thousands of towns, villages and parishes shaped the lives of literally billions of inhabitants — ironically enough, a phenomenon of truly ‘massive’ proportions.
Beat Kümin
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