Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800

By Chris Wickham | Go to book overview
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1. The problem of urbanism

THERE HAS BEEN a great deal of disagreement over the nature of urban continuity into the early middle ages; this has both fruitful and unfruitful aspects. On the positive side, the urban debate has been the focus for much important work in the last couple of decades, and the steadily rising number of urban excavations has tended to be made use of unusually quickly to develop new versions of rival syntheses, with the league table of successful and unsuccessful towns subtly shifting each time; ten or so recent conferences have also contributed to establishing an effective international dimension to the debate.1 On the negative side, there is a frequent lack of agreement even over the object of debate, not to speak of the criteria that might be used to assess it. One issue, not in itself a negative one, is that historians and archaeologists alike (although they often disagree profoundly over whether documentary or archaeological criteria are more important) have viewed 'the city' with a double vision: through both an economic and a political/institutional framing. Urban centres have an economic function, and if they do not (if, for example, they consist of a handful of administrative or ecclesiastical buildings and nothing else, as with most of the civitates of Bede's England), then their urban status is legitimately in doubt. But in nearly all the regions discussed in this book urban centres were also usually defined in politico-administrative terms, as self-governing and tax-raising municipia under late Rome, as episcopal centres in every Christian region, as secular administrative centres in the post-Roman world. Indeed, if they were not (as with some of the North Sea emporia of the eighth century), then once again there are scholars who doubt their 'real' urban status. Inside any given region this does not have to be a problem, but a comparative analysis has to take the double focus into account, so as to find a common language that can

1 An incomplete list is Rich, The city; Christie and Loseby, Towns in transition; Francovich
and Noyé, La storia dell'alto medioevo; Lepelley, La fin de la cité antique; Brogiolo and Ward-
Perkins, The idea and the ideal of the town; Brogiolo, Early medieval towns; Brogiolo et al.,
Towns and their territories; Ripoll and Gurt, Sedes regiae; Lavan, Recent research; Burns and
Eadie, Urban centers and rural contexts. The best book to start with in this list is the second.
Note that Hordern and Purcell, The corrupting sea, pp. 89–108, argue for the abandonment of
urbanism as an analytical category; I disagree entirely.


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