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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover: The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages

Author's response


The Towns of Italy in the Later Middle Ages

by Trevor Dean
Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2000
ISBN-13: 978-0-71-905204-0; 300 pages, price £16.99

Gervase Rosser

St Catherine's College, Oxford

I am grateful to Dr. Rosser for his careful consideration of my book. Phrases such as 'accessible and lively' and 'a mine of thought-provoking material' are very gratifying. I also liked 'gentle, unhectoring editor'. He makes six substantial points, on which I would like to comment. I have bundled together my comments on four of his points.

1. Dr. Rosser argues that in mixing 'celebratory' texts with what Dr. Rosser calls 'by laws' I 'chose not to' draw attention to the fact these texts need to be read very differently. How much guidance to give is of course a very delicate decision; how much guidance is needed will vary from reader to reader. That I might not have judged this correctly in every single case I am more than ready to accept. However, as I am sure Dr. Rosser will admit, I do not ignore these issues altogether, and the fact that he can, from the documents in the book, present a picture of 'juxtapositions and tensions' between the 'rhetoric of collective identity' and the reality of 'resistance and conflict' suggests to me that the selection of documents has been successful.

2. That in providing 'vivid description', I have given insufficient attention to 'mental attitudes', the rhetoric of the sources, the aims of authors and the identity and response of audiences.

3. That the range of coverage, though taking in Genoa at one end of the peninsula and Brindisi at the other, is still too heavily weighted towards the centre and north.

4. The exclusion of visual material.

With these four points, Dr. Rosser is really writing a proposal for a different book: one twice the size, twice the price and taking twice as long to write. This is a game that I am sure every reviewer will play. Given the format of the MUP series, there are of course many regrettable exclusions, but any suggestion for added material should really be accompanied by a recommendation for deletion.

5. That the selection errs on the side of stability, because of the type of source used, which Dr. Rosser effectively reduces to two, 'normative measures' and 'semi-official civic histories'. He would have liked more documents of a judicial or notarial character, in which resistance to civic norms and ideals are attested. It is worth pointing out that other types of document are included. Several poems and novelle do indeed show the contesting of norms and ideals; and the longest document is in fact a trial record. Many of the extracts from chronicles (not all of which, by the way, can be called 'semi-official') also contain episodes of conflict and instability.

6. That the claim in the jacket blurb that the documents are structured around the fourteenth-century crisis was 'unwise', as they shed only indirect light on social problems consequent upon fourteenth-century demographic and economic change. Here I will have to admit that one document on demography had to be excluded at a late stage because the Italian publisher asked for a hefty copyright fee (to licence its translation!). However, this does not significantly weaken the repeated and varied attention to fourteenth-century demographic and socio-economic problems, as shown in documents on food-shortage and food-riot, public building projects, education, policies on immigration and trade, increased materialism, or the attitudes to Jews and slaves. Moreover, for a number of these themes I attempted to provide thirteenth-century documents that would provide either contrast or continuity. It is precisely on the basis of such a pairing that Dr. Rosser is able to point out that 'the perception of social mobility was not brought about by early fourteenth-century famines or the Black Death'!

November 2000

Original review

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