Urban history is a rapidly expanding field of historical studies, driven by the rise in city populations across the globe. It is, moreover, a comparatively recent arrival on the scene: in the UK it did not emerge as a distinct discipline until the 1960s. In the United States, by contrast, urban studies with a historical dimension had been rather longer established. That is not to say, however, that the town as a unit of historical study had been neglected before then. On the contrary, there is a long tradition of historical writing, based upon the town or city as the principal unit, which goes back to classical antiquity. In the medieval period many large cities had chroniclers who recorded the privileges granted by charters, the actions of the civic elite and the key events associated with the city, both as a practical measure and as an expression of civic pride and identity. In the early modern period, under the influence of renaissance humanism, historians such as Machiavelli and Guicciardini produced a new kind of urban history: one which used the city as a microcosm through which to tell a political or moral narrative.
In the 18th and 19th centuries studies of particular towns and cities proliferated. The town as subject provided a readily identifiable and defined area of study and, generally, readily available sources. To write an urban history was an act of local piety and an expression of identity, but while local patriotism was an important consideration, there was also a widespread recognition that towns and cities were crucial agents of historical change. Towns, and the growth of a commercial economy, had undermined the feudal system of unfree labour. 'Stadtluft', as the German expression had it, 'macht frei'. Urban settlements were the centres of political change and conflict; they were the point from which civilisation emerged; they were the locus of modernity.
The kind of urban history that was being written until the early 20th century was generally focused upon the experience of a particular place: indeed that was part of its appeal. It reinforced a sense of local difference and civic identity. In the broader narratives of political and constitutional change, however, towns rarely featured as autonomous agents: they simply had walk-on parts as the backdrop to major historical events or developments. But the rapid rate of urban growth in the 19th century also stimulated interest in the city as the object of historical and sociological inquiry. As the population of Western Europe and North America became ever more urbanised and urban society itself grew more complex, ways of interpreting and knowing the city multiplied. It was the German sociologist, Max Weber, who first attempted to establish a typology of the city – a typology which is still of considerable significance for urban historians today – on the basis of a historical analysis of urban forms in Europe and Asia from antiquity to the present.
The typological approach to studying towns and urban systems represented an important step in moving beyond studies of particular places. Typologies could be based on scale (capital cities, metropolitan cities, megalopolises, administrative units), on function (ports, railway centres, textiles, shipbuilding and heavy engineering, iron and steel, spas and tourist centres), on categories (industrial cities, new towns, Mediterranean cities, imperial cities, sun belt/rust belt cities), on ideology (capitalism, communism, utopian planning), and on power and social relations. Thematic studies based on transport, demography, income and occupational patterns were each attempts to move decisively away from studies of particular places.(1)
Scholars were no longer concerned simply to trace the events that took place in any particular town, but rather to locate that town's history into wider systems of communication, power or social relations. The study of the street alignment in Rennes was valid in itself, for example, but how did this inform an understanding of regulatory frameworks in the French urban system?(2)
This pursuit of the general pattern rather than the particular experience reflected the fact that the study of towns, and by extension the study of urban history, was something that was increasingly being undertaken by social scientists by the 1960s. This was a development which coincided not only with a surge of newly created social science departments in universities, but also with the availability of main-frame computing power to analyse data, which encouraged data rich projects.
Ideologically, a faith in social and behavioural analysis as a basis for macro-level policy and planning, together with the relatively recent post-war reconstruction of cities, provided a bridge between the historical and the contemporary. Social scientists relied on a statistical methodology and built up generalisations on the basis of confidence limits associated with probabilities. It was an empirical approach on which theories could be built, general laws established and hypotheses refined. This structuralist vision of urban history left little room for the individual study of the particular town which had sustained the antiquarian traditions of the previous centuries.
It was also a highly interdisciplinary approach: economists, geographers and sociologists as well as economic and social historians engaged in a remarkably fruitful intellectual exchange.(3) The early 1960s saw informal discussions on the 'scope and methodology' of urban history, on its terminology and on the desirability of some general models of growth and decline. A loose grouping of scholars gradually coalesced into the more formal structure of a conference devoted to urban history held at Leicester in 1966, the principal objects of which were: '(1) to clarify the general scope and methods of urban history, and (2) to examine some specific possibilities for comparative research'.(4) The papers were later published as The Study of Urban History (London, 1968).
The conference was organised by Jim Dyos, subsequently professor of urban history at Leicester, whose vision of what constituted urban history ('a field of knowledge, not a single discipline a focus for a variety of forms of knowledge, not a form of knowledge in itself') shaped the development of the subject in the UK through the 1960s and 1970s.(5) His contribution to the establishment of urban history in this country subsequently became known as the 'Dyos phenomenon'.(6) Dyos died in 1978, but his legacy in the field of urban history continues to be highly visible: the newsletter which he founded is now the Urban History Journal which appears three times a year, and at the University of Leicester, where much of his academic career was spent, the Centre for Urban History (founded in 1985) continues to play a leading role in promoting urban historical research.
Dyos's own research focused upon 19th- and 20th-century London and many of the questions which dominated the agenda in this early period were similarly directed towards the more recent experience of rapid and intense urbanisation. Dyos himself never set any temporal boundaries to his conception of urban history, but many medievalists and early modernists were uncomfortable with the theory and empiricism which characterised much of the urban history of the 1960s and 1970s. Quantification, which was axiomatic for so many of the questions posed by historians of the modern city, was problematical: even establishing basic population figures for urban settlements has been a challenge.
The value systems of medievalists and early modernists also sat uncomfortably with those analysed by urban historians of the modern period. Questions of legal status, systems of authority or the organising role of religion have loomed large for medievalists. Concepts of class, by contrast, were far less important. Rather than urban growth, it was frequently decline and decay that attracted historians' attention. At times, it seemed that there was little in common between the towns of medieval Europe, which numbered a few thousand or less, and the great cities of the 19th and 20th centuries.
This temporal divide hardened, with social scientists dominating urban historical writing in the period after 1750 and historians colonising the earlier period – crudely a divide either side of the main thrust of industrialisation in Britain.(7) This in itself is a (social science-based) generalisation, but the emergence of a separate Pre-Modern Towns group in 1987 was an expression of this intellectual and philosophical divide in Britain, and the disciplinary distinction between colonies of social scientists and of historians in their respective approaches to towns and cities should be made explicit.
More recent developments in historical writing have encouraged something of a rapprochement between historians across this chronological divide. Since the 1980s, the rise of cultural history, linguistics and post-modernism, and the influence of the Annales School (as reflected in interest in the construction of historical mentalits, for example) cast doubt on the empiricism and the theoretical assumptions of the social science-based approaches. Quantitative methods, which were implicit in much early social science-based urban history, could be criticised for having reified towns as depersonalised, abstract entities which simply grow or decline, which experience problems or resolve them.
Such an approach distorted the nature of historical inquiry by focusing on issues and questions for which quantifiable sources exist, and by marginalising aspects of urban life which did not lend themselves so easily to quantification, such as women's work. At its worst, urban history, as Griffiths and Jenner observed, was rendered as 'a series of graphs and tables, or a succession of maps'.(8)
The 'linguistic turn', however, and the school of cultural history which grew from it, directed historians towards the analysis of language and the way in which it shaped perceptions of identity and experience, particularly in terms of social status, class and gender. This has been an approach that has lent itself to sources from the middle ages to the 20th century. The concentration of people within towns and cities and the rich potential for different forms of communication in urban society multiplied the opportunities to establish and create meaning or express identity. Prostitution, violent crime and class relationships in 19th-century London could now be analysed in terms of competing representations of sexual danger.(9) The emphasis on 'experience and identity' as categories of analysis has opened up new avenues for urban historians to explore which were previously ignored or regarded as incidental: the sensory experience of the city – its sight, smell, touch and sound – for example, has provided the subject of recent books and articles.(10)
Since the translation into English of Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space in 1991, historians, and urban historians in particular, have sought to 'spatialise' understandings of identity, social relations and human activity. The urban environment and the material fabric of streets, houses and public buildings can no longer be seen as passive actors in the historical process: rather urban space was both moulded by and moulded the behaviour and actions of urban inhabitants.(11) Questions of identity and social experience, meaning and representation equally transcend the chronological boundaries.
It is 40 years since the Urban History Group held its first official meeting in 1968. In the intervening years the study of towns and cities has itself mutated as intellectual fashions and policies in the universities have ebbed and flowed. In the first decade of its existence the networks of scholars working on the historical development of towns and cities included many social historians who at that time had no formal organisational structure, or journal. But that changed for several reasons from the late 1970s. First, the wave of social scientific positivism receded; second, the clusters of urban historians previously located in economic history departments lost their focus; and third, 'New Universities' flourished in the emerging glow of cultural history. Finally, the study of towns and cities became embedded in almost all social history courses, reintegrated into the mainstream history curriculum, as the structures of universities changed both in response to funding imperatives and to the administrative 'reforms' associated with the Research Assessment Exercise.
If the distinctiveness of urban history as a discipline is no longer so clearly demarcated, this is due to changes in the nature of historical discipline itself rather than to any crisis of confidence in the validity of the town or city as the object of historical research. The 'cultural' turn, as noted above, has helped to dissolve the boundaries between many different subgenres of history, not just urban history.
The cogency of urban history as a framework for historical inquiry, however, remains powerful and it continues to evolve in new directions. As South Asia, China and parts of Africa undergo unprecedented urbanisation the study of urban history is losing its Eurocentric focus and taking on an increasingly global perspective. 'World cities' such as Bombay and Delhi, Shanghai and Singapore, as well as London and Los Angeles, are the crucial nodal points of global networks and key players in the emergent field of transnational history which looks at interactions and developments beyond the nation state and across continental boundaries. And as the temperature of the global village rises, a historically informed understanding of the interaction between cities and the environment has become increasingly pressing.(12)
Professor Rosemary Sweet is the Director of the Centre for Urban History at Leicester