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History in Focus

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

The City

Book cover:  Urban Europe 1100-1700

Author's response


Urban Europe 1100-1700

by David Nicholas
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2003
ISBN-13: 978-0-33-394982-5; xii + 239 pages, price £49.50

Keith D. Lilley

Queen's University Belfast

The point of a book review, as I understand it, is to inform potential readers briefly of the content of the book, so that they can understand whether it is relevant to their own interests; delineate its conceptual framework and/or analytical innovations, and indicate how successful the author was, in the reviewer's opinion, in accomplishing his/her stated goals. My themes, as I stated in the preface of Urban Europe, 1100-1700, were to delineate the functions that some places fulfilled that caused them to evolve into major cities, while others remained small towns or villages; to describe the characteristics of the cities that attracted people to them; to show the irrelevance of the 'medieval-modern' distinction to the study of urban history; and to show the continued relevance of the work of Max Weber for urban history. The first two of these themes involved me in an examination of geographical theory; the last two did not. The non-geographical parts of my book get very cursory treatment in Keith Lilley's review, and the Weberian analysis is not mentioned at all. It is not enough to say that Chapters 4-6 borrow heavily from my earlier work. Not only does this mean nothing to readers who have not read my previous books, but it is also misleading. Of 321 footnotes to Chapters 4-6, my previous works are mentioned in 46. I have indeed written several previous books and articles, but Urban Europe is not simply a recapitulation of their contents.

The thrust of Dr Lilley's critique bears on my discussion of geographical theory, which is prominent in Chapters 1-2 and plays some role in Chapter 3 of a six-chapter book. It is also the aspect with which, as a historian, I am admittedly less familiar. But what I do know about geography as a discipline indicates that Dr Lilley's critiques are exaggerated. I never suggested the geographical theories of urbanisation that I discussed were the only ones with which I was familiar, but rather that they were the most useful ones for understanding the development of cities before the Industrial Revolution. The insights of Conzen and others are difficult if not impossible to apply to the pre-modern period simply for lack of data. If Lilley's point is that I am the only scholar of pre-modern European urbanisation who still feels that rank-size and central place (which are not, incidentally, the only theoretical constructs that I discuss) are useful tools for understanding the spatial distribution of European towns and cities before modern industrialisation, he is simply wrong. The rank-size and central place models are not as antiquated as he thinks: While it is true that Christaller and Zipf formulated their theories in the first half of the twentieth century, and von Thünen is even earlier, there is a substantial literature in urban history since then that applies their views. Readers of Lilley's review would get the impression that I simply decided to apply geographical theories and in my ignorance picked some obsolete ideas. In fact, given that Urban Europe is a work of synthesis, I relied heavily on the works of Jan de Vries, Peter Stabel, Franz Irsigler, Tom Scott and Bob Scribner, and an edited work of Emil Meynen, all of whom used central place or rank-size, and the most recent of whose books appeared in 1997. I cite the 1993 work of Bruce M. S. Campbell and his colleagues on the grain supply of medieval London as an example of the continuing usefulness of von Thünen's insights.(1) I am sorry if British geographers find these two models as antiquated as Dr Lilley says, because first, I am far from being the only historian to find them useful still; and secondly, while I cannot address the situation in Britain, in the United States rank-size and central place are taught to geography students at the university level, and not as obsolete theories. If Dr Lilley's point is that these models, whatever their intrinsic merits, are to be discarded simply because they have been around for some years and cannot be applied without major modification, he has decided a priori that useful analytical tools are irrelevant simply because of their age. I do not share that view.

There are other but less serious problems with this review. Dr Lilley faults me for not 'discuss[ing] more specifically the perceived differences between "medieval" and "modern" urbanism and urbanisation'. I assume that he means the post-Industrial Revolution city, since my thesis is that the differences between medieval and 'early modern' urbanisation were of degree rather than of kind. Secondly, while it is true that I adopt the 'planned-nuclear' dichotomy as an organisational tool, I also say that no city was completely one or the other, and on p. 64 I note that as the older cities expanded, they developed planning. In short, he oversimplifies my argument. Surely Dr Lilley would not deny that places established in a deliberate founding act, such as Salisbury, had more geometrically planned cores than did the inner cities of places like Ghent and London.

As to my organisation, he has a point that the first three chapters are geographical, while the last three are historical. Chapters 1-2 concern the spatial and demographic distribution of the European urban network before 1700. Chapter 3 provides a transition to the internal life of the cities by discussing spatial relations inside the city, including occupational geography. Chapters 3-6 deal with government, society and culture (the latter is not mentioned in Dr Lilley's review). I see no problem with this. Had I followed his suggestion of a chapter per century, the result would have been an intolerable degree of repetition, given my thesis of a basic medieval-early modern continuity.

Finally, on a minor point, Dr Lilley twice mentions Christopher Dyer's Making a Living in the Middle Ages. I share his admiration of it, and in fact I plan to use it as a class text this autumn. Unfortunately, it appeared when my writing was far advanced, too late for me to do more than scan it. I do cite other works of Dyer. Lilley notes the second edition of Schofield and Vince, Medieval Towns, which appeared in 2003, when my book was in press; I understandably used the first edition.

Interdisciplinary work is difficult, because people who expand into areas where others have stronger academic training often do not use the 'right' sources or approaches. The nature of interdisciplinary work is not the impossible task of mastering fully a discipline other than one's own. Rather, it consists of borrowing selected concepts, tools and insights from other disciplines to apply them to one's own. For all the geography that it contains, my book is intended as a work of history. Dr Lilley, a geographer who has written a very good book on medieval urban society, clearly regrets the problem with interdisciplinary applications, as do I. He is sadly correct that geography students in the United Kingdom learn next to nothing about the period before 1700. As I was finishing Urban Europe I was appalled to read of a conference on the 'birth of European urbanisation, 1700-1900' or words to that effect. Perhaps if geographers and social scientists were more tolerant of the 'antiquated' theories that I used, they would avoid making such monumentally ahistorical gaffes as this. The point of historical inquiry is explaining how a situation developed over time. If a model proves useful as an analytical tool for interpreting data, I shall use it, even if it was spawned in the brain of a dead white male.

  1. Bruce M. S. Campbell, James A. Galloway, Derek Keene et al.,. A Medieval Capital and its Grain Supply : Agrarian Production and Distribution in the London Region, c.1300, Institute of British Geographers, Research Papers, 30 (Cheltenham: Inst. of British Geographers, 1993). Back to (1)

May 2004

Original review

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