Part 1In no more than 1,500 words, write your answer to the following question: To what extent was urban life in early modern Europe characterised by order and harmony?’What a difficult thing it is for so many persons from different towns and nations, and mostly coarse people, as there have always been, and are, in our trade to come together in communal concord in one council and with one will.’Statute of the Biliemme Potenze (Rosenthal, 2011, p368) Compared to today’s standards, a significantly smaller proportion of the population or early modern Europe lived in what could be classed as urban areas. While principal towns were considered very large if they had over 50,000 inhabitants, chief towns could have as little as 5000 inhabitants (Roberts, 2014, p58-59). It is estimated that in 1500 only around fifteen percent of the population lived in towns with 2000 or more residents, rising to 17.5 percent by 1800 (Lynch in Brunton, 2016 p54). However it was not just size that defined a town. Physical features, and economic or legal privileges were also important. The legal right to hold a market was often considered an important factor.
Towns were usually places of trade and production, and often they were centres of government and administration, whether they be local, national or ecclesiastical. So despite accounting for a relatively small percentage of the general population, urban settlements had a disproportionate effect on society because of their economic importance (Brunton, 2016 p54). There was a significant variation in the ways in which life was experienced by early modern Europeans, largely dependent upon if they lived in the town or the country. For urban settlers, their different routines, lifestyles and pressures, resulted in different problems, that required specific solutions.
While order and harmony is desire able in any community, the growing urban settlements of early modern Europe, brought with them new levels of overcrowding, inward migration caused new culture clashes, and the tempestuous effects of the reformation both created and heightened religious discord between individuals and communities. Trade and commerce was, for most town-dwellers, a way of life and the daily struggle to survive created new commercial pressures centred around trading rights, competition, standards and moral standards. With all these very specific problems manifest in urban society, it was incumbent on those who lived and worked in these towns to ensure that order and harmony was maintained, but the extent to which these needs characterised urban life is questionable.
Perhaps the most tangible way in which early modern towns sought to create a sense of order and harmony can be demonstrated in the way that they were laid out. Walls and gates that were designed to keep towns safe from invasion in times of war were re-purposed during times of peace to control the flow of people and goods and to keep out ‘undesirable people such as beggars and those who might be carrying infection’ (Brunton, 2016, p55). Expensive and imposing public buildings, such as town halls, law courts, exchanges and markets were placed in prominent locations and helped to convey a sense of ordered and well-organised settlements. Civic celebrations, such as the ‘Bruges Procession’ presented towns in their best possible light, showing how prosperous and pious they could be (Brown in Brunton, 2016, p87). Sometimes authorities allowed convention to be subverted in a playful manner, such as electing a ‘King of Misrule’. This provided an official outlet for controlled disorder designed to highlight how peaceful and ordered their town was for the rest of the year. However, while this civic pride and order was good for the town itself, it presented problems of rivalry and parochialism between neighbouring towns, such as the Maypole conflicts of the seventeenth century that may have been light-hearted in intent, but often escalated into full scale disorder (Brunton, 2016. p81).
Ironically, this parochialism-by-design appears so strong that rather than create order and harmony within towns, the reverse may have been true. As inward migration increased urban populations, tensions between communities, both religious and secular led to greater division and segregation. In sixteenth century London, Jeremy Boulton described the make up of the district of Boroughside as relatively ‘heterogeneous’ despite marked wealth inequality (Boulton, 1987, p291), but by the late seventeenth century, an expanding consumer society and newly-built suburbs were attracting wealthier families and creating social and structural divisions within the towns themselves (Brunton, 2016, p69-70). The bread riot in Paris, described by David Garrioch is an example of these created tensions, in which the poor were seen to be venting their frustration at both the shopkeepers who they believed were impoverishing them, and the authorities who they believed were protecting the interests of the wealthy. The role of authorities such as local governments and militia was key to ensuring that towns functioned well and were ordered and harmonious.
It was their responsibility to make sure that the people’s needs were catered for. A great many people worked in the administration and service of the town and even the most lowly were expected to serve in the militia so it could be argued that that everyone was in some way involved and invested in the running of the town (Brunton, 2016, p76). However, only the wealthy were placed in positions of authority, offices that were often sold to the highest bidder, passed from father to son, or awarded through patronage. Many of these roles could be financially beneficial to their holder, and this created systems that were both open to criticism and corruption. While we know of the case of Burgomaster Michiel Van Der Heyden, who was posthumously brought to book over his pilfering of building supplies (Lindemann in Brunton, 2016, p77-78), the question of why wealthy individuals would choose to involve themselves in local governance – for the greater good, or for personal gain – would doubtless have been a particularly pertinent source of tension within wider communities. Official authorities and governments were not alone in seeking to create a sense of order and harmony in urban life.
Local neighbourhood schemes such as the Gebuurten in Haarlem, and the Potenze of Florence were locally elected neighbourhood leaders who collected taxes and imposed fines. The money collected helped the sick and the poor. They also mediated in disputes acting as intermediaries between the townsfolk and the official authorities. (Brunton, 2016, p61-62). Trade guilds helped to control the flow and quality of goods into towns and cities, protected customers by controlling weights and measures and provided valuable support networks for people of similar skill sets. Charities and religious confraternities were also seen to be a positive influence in towns. Voluntary organisations, they too had a stated aim of helping the poor and unfortunate (Brunton, 2016, p73-74). However, in the particular case of confraternities, it is difficult to fully appreciate their positive influence on society when considered against the wider negative impact of religious segregation.
While foreigners and outsiders were often viewed with suspicion and distrust, those of a different faith, could be persecuted and marginalised entirely (Brunton, 2016, p64). This is clearly illustrated in the case of the French merchant Simon Lecomte, who was tried for heresy in 1586. Despite not being a local, Lecomte had built up strong trade and social links in Toulouse in the preceding two decades, only to be arrested for harbouring ‘protestant sympathies’. He challenged the validity of his trial, and commissioned a report designed to expose the hidden networks within the town. This report suggested that due to the nature of his accusers and prosecutors links, be they though their trade, religion, or social status, it was impossible for an outsider to be granted a fair trial. (Brunelle, 2001, p676-688) It could be argued from this that the early modern preoccupation with maintaining order and harmony may have had less to do with fairness and equality than we might like to believe.
In conclusion, I would suggest that perhaps the pursuit of, rather than the experience of order and harmony, was to a great extent the defining characteristic of urban life in early modern Europe. While a desire to live in peace and unity with ones neighbours is almost universal, those urbanites in authority in early modern Europe found that an ordered and harmonious society often ran contrary to their own interests, and that this created additional tensions and difficulties that in fact resulted in the very opposite effect. The statute of the Biliemme Potenze, written by wool weavers in 1576, appears to identify both the reasons why order and harmony were so vital to urban settlements in the early modern era, and the difficulties and barriers to achieving this.
Newly diverse populations, with conflicting beliefs, cultures and priorities were a breeding ground for unrest and discord, and it was in the interests of those who planned and governed these towns to characterise urban life as ordered and harmonious. The examples above would suggest that the reality however, was somewhat different. (1462 Words)BibliographyBoulton, J. (1987) Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Brunelle, G. K. (2001) ‘Kinship, identity, and religion in sixteenth-century Toulouse: the case of Simon Lecomte’, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 669–95.
Brunton, D. (2016) Chapter 10 ‘Urban Communities’ in O.P. Grell and D.
Brunton (eds) A223: Book 1, Individuals, Lives and Livings, Milton Keynes, The Open University.Roberts, P. (2014) Part II ‘Urban Society’ in Kumin, B.(ed) The European World 1500-1800, An introduction to Early Modern History, 2nd edition,. Abingdon. RoutledgeRosenthal, D.
(2010) “‘Every sort of manual type, and mostly foreigners’: migrants, brothers and festive kings in early modern Florence,” Urban History, Cambridge University Press, 37(3), pp. 360–371.The Open University (2017) A223 Assignment Resources. Online.
Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1050837§ion=1.1 Accessed 28-Jan-2018Part 2In no more than 100 words, write a summary of the essay you wrote for Part 1.