Reflecting Upon Belonging in late Medieval Cities

by Joshua Ravenhill (University of York)

On the 28th-29th June 2019, the Centre of Medieval Studies at the University of York held a stand-alone conference entitled ‘Belonging in Late Medieval Cities’ at the University of York’s King’s Manor campus. This sold-out event brought together Early Career Researchers and more established academics from the UK, Europe, North America, and Russia. I was also delighted that historians working outside of a university context attended the conference.

Delegates contributed to an engaging discussion concerning the study of belonging in late medieval cities. In the late medieval city, there were various groups in which individuals could be included in or excluded from. These ranged from neighbourhoods, long-distance social networks, parishes, fraternities, craft guilds, and the citizenry, to name a few. Ideas of belonging and non-belonging can be conceptualised, and applied, in various ways. The key aims of the conference were the exploration of how ideas of belonging could be utilised in the study of late medieval urban centres and to identify which sources could be used in this study.

The conference began with a panel entitled informal communities, which was designed to focus on communities not connected to more formal groups, such as craft guilds and the citizenry. Kirstin Bernard started off the conference with her paper entitled ‘Neighbours and Belonging in Late Medieval Urban England’. Kirstin demonstrated how ecclesiastical and civic court records could be utilised to explore how practices of neighbourliness could be used to foster an individual’s belonging to a neighbourhood and how defamation might be wielded to exclude individuals from a community. Anna Anismova discussed how small towns under monastic lordship in South-East England constructed their own communities through the selective choice of their new burghers, some of whom did not even live in these towns themselves. The panel was concluded by Charlotte Berry, who presented her research concerning the lives of those living on the margins of London’s urban life. She argued how inhabitants outside the city’s gates had a looser sense of belonging to the structures of civic life than those living inside the city walls and noted that alternative social networks developed there. There were two key themes running throughout these papers. Namely, how the construction of belonging was a process which required negotiation by different actors, and the nature of this negotiation should be studied with reference to spatial and jurisdictional contexts.

Moving away from more informal modes of belonging, Aurore Denmat Leon started off our second panel concerning burghership and civic office named ‘The Urban Elite and the Criteria of Inclusion’. Aurore shared her research, which entails both the prosopographical study of urban miseurs (urban treasurers) in Nantes and the analysis of administrative practice in the city. This approach has allowed Aurore to study the strategies which office holders undertook to progress up the civic cursus honorum and to identify how these strategies were closely linked to serving the prince and civic government concurrently. Susan Maddock then gave a paper which questioned what ‘burgess’ actually meant in late medieval Lyyn, highlighting a divide between the artificer burgesses, who throughout the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were technically freemen but barred from civic office, in contrast to the elite merchant burgesses of the town. Susan’s prosopographical research of Lynn’s burgesses has highlighted a deep divide between these two groups of burgesses, and how this was a cause of conflict in the town in the early fifteenth century. Leen Borvoets concluded the panel with a fascinating discussion concerning the shift in Tournai from the notion of the city as a commune of male inhabitants to ideas concerning an individual’s status as burgher, which happened during the course of the twelfth century. Leen argued that the idea of a whole body of inhabitants constructing an urban commune slowly changed towards an emphasis of individual burgher status, which increasingly became better defined as time progressed. The panel clearly demonstrated that ‘burghership’ never meant one thing in any given historical context, but instead was something which was negotiated and constructed, giving it variant meanings in different towns, and that it overlapped with other forms of association.

The last session before lunch differed from more conventional conference panel. The aim of this session was to explore the use of sociological ideas of belonging as an analytical tool in historical scholarship. To this end, Levke Harders, a historian of nineteenth century migration and gender, gave a paper discussing how she uses the sociological concept of belonging in her research. Levke’s paper was wide-ranging, outlining the key components of belonging and its different conceptualisations, the benefits of using it to pose questions of our source material. Levke also detailed which components of the concept might be explored in the historical record, and how she uses it in her research. One of the many ideas which were discussed throughout the conference as a result of Levke’s paper was the idea that belonging to a group is a constant process of negotiation, conducted by a number of different agents, and something which is always in flux. Joshua Ravenhill gave a response to the paper, suggesting certain ways in which sociological ideas of belonging might be utilised in the study of late medieval cities.

Three panellists came together after lunch to discuss the other side of belonging, namely ‘non-belonging’ or exclusion. In this panel which focused on political exclusion, Francesco Barbarulo presented his research concerning the strategy of forced exclusion of political rivals from the community of political life implemented by different factions in Florence during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He discussed how political and institutional changes influenced the exclusion of the Ghibeline party in 1302 and also of the White Guelphs. Margaret Freeman took our focus away from Europe by explaining what little is known about a group known as the Banu Susan, which was a loose fraternity of vagabonds, wandering poets, entertainers and petty criminals who moved around the cities of Persia and the Fertile Crescent from the tenth to the fourteenth century. Margaret argued that the urbanisation across the near East marginalised the Banu Susan, but this actually presented an opportunity for them to form an underground criminal network. Robin Shields followed with a presentation concerning how the tensions between the closely connected cities of Arta, in Epiros, and Ragusa (Debrovnik) in Dalmatia, could come to a head when merchants from each city were assaulted while in the other city on business. Robin focussed on an attack against Ser Dinos Cavalavopou (1439) in Ragusa, and that of Vitcus Vlatković in Arta (1443). He argued that the responses to these attacks by the civic authorities of each city was not identical, but rather was heavily reliant upon the political relations between the two polities at the time of the attacks. One theme running throughout these papers was how ‘non-belonging’ to a collective did not have the same implications throughout time and was heavily dependent upon changes in the political climate.

Our fifth thematic panel of the day concerned aliens, that is first generation immigrants, in late medieval England. This panel strongly aligned with research interests at the University of York, as the University spearheaded the recent AHRC-funded England’s Immigrants project (2012-2015). Joshua Ravenhill started this panel off, arguing that the sociological concept of belonging might be used as an analytical tool to conceptualise aliens and their inclusion in, and exclusion from, different groups in late medieval London. Josh argued that resident aliens undertook strategies to negotiate inclusion within social networks and more formal groups in the city to access social support and legal benefits. He also critiqued the ways in which scholars have conceptualised the incorporation of aliens into London society to date. Next up was Bart Lambert, who explored whether alien status as a category of social difference impacted the ability of aliens to acquire political office in late medieval cities. Through the discussion of three alien individuals who acquired political office, Bart argued that the nationality of aliens did matter, but only in the second instance. During times of economic and political tension, the nationality of aliens holding civic office could be utilised against them by opponents. Within less-strained contexts, however, aliens could participate fully in urban politics. This paper was followed by Shannon McSheffrey’s first contribution to the conference, which was a paper entitled ‘The Ballad of John Baptist Grimaldi: Sex and Corruption in anti-Italian Rhetoric in Early Tudor London’. With specific reference to a derogatory ballad concerning an Italian merchant in London, Shannon discussed the crimes purported to have been conducted by Grimaldi as alleged by the ballader, such as lechery and avarice, to common national stereotypes surrounding Italians by English Londoners. One of the major causes for such negative stereotypes, Shannon argued, was culturally different attitudes towards sex held by English and Italian men.

Members of the public joined conference attendees to listen to an open lecture given by Christopher Fletcher at the end of the first day concerning masculinities and the emergence of public politics in late medieval England. Christopher discussed how it became increasing important for English kings to negotiate with bodies which represented the common good and the people of England with the aim to acquire taxation in the early thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries, as opposed to drawing upon their own resources to fund projects, like military campaigns, which they had done previously. He gauged how this impacted the balance of power between different political masculinities, particularly how masculinities based on aristocratic violence and personal status proved so resilient despite the increasing roles of (non-aristocratic) men further down the social ladder in public politics.

The second day began with our first panel concerning the media of belonging. Sebastian Rossignol explored how urban law books compiled for Silesian towns in the fourteenth century helped create an identity for urban communities for which they were created, and how this could have fostered feelings of belonging to these towns. He noted that such books can be used to understand how urban communities could create belonging to an urban community through law and the uses of pragmatic writing. Claire Bourguignon stressed the need for a multi-disciplinary approach involving artistic, architectural and historical sources to comprehend the relationship between mendicant friars and residents in the towns of the Auvergne region in France. Particular emphasis was given to the local decorative and architectural models, and local labour, which mendicant orders to construct their buildings, which enabled them to express their belonging to the region in which they were situated. This offered an important reminder that building styles, and materials, could be used by certain groups as means to claim belonging to a place. Linde Nuyts then shared her research concerning a popular song produced after the Siege of Nieuport in 1489, and its subsequent adaptations. Her paper detailed how the song, along with other narrative sources, can be studied as a means to identify the ways interest groups and individuals used different media to represent themselves and their roles in the siege. Linde noted that the song portrays belonging to the city as synonymous to being part one with the Hapsburg lands. A strong commonality between these papers was how different groups could use various media to express their claim of belonging to urban areas, and that such claims can be studied as one facet within the construction of belonging.

Continuing with our theme of the media of belonging, Stefania Merlo Perring gave a paper regarding her research undertaken as part of the HERA-funded CitiGen project in conjunction with the Museum of London. Stefania argued the need to understand the relationship between materiality and feelings of belonging held by Italian merchants trading in late medieval London. Stefania explored material culture of their belonging through looking at archaeology, urban topography and written sources. One particularly notable aspect of the paper was Stefania’s presentation of her research into the study of the accounts of mercantile firms with trading interests in London and what they can reveal about the place of food within the experiences of Italians living in the city.

The penultimate event of the conference was a roundtable led by Christopher Fletcher. Christopher provided an overview of the key ideas which had been discussed over the past two days concerning how ideas of belonging, conceptualised in various ways, could be used in future analysis of late medieval cities, and also which sources might be used in its study. Inter alia, he suggested that the use of Leet Court records, and the records of minor courts, could be used to explore what belonging actually meant to people lower down the social scale. He also suggested that we should not perceive belonging as always being positive, because belonging to certain groups might have entailed problematic obligations, and also that not everyone, such as transients, would have wished to negotiate their belonging in urban environments. Half an hour of discussion by all attendees followed. One idea which was of particular interest to participants was that inclusion within a group, or community, is not static, but rather requires constant work and always has a performative aspect. Other ideas which were discussed as being important for future studies of urban centres was how an individual’s belonging to a community, or area, is negotiated by a number of different agents, and how an individual’s positions and experiences of belonging would differ according to intersecting categories of social difference, such as gender, life-cycle stage and householder status.

The conference was concluded by a public lecture delivered by Shannon McSheffrey entitled ‘Belonging and Not Belonging in Early Tudor London: Immigrant Artisans and the Evil May Day Riot of 1517’. This lecture was based upon Shannon’s research into the alien artisans living within the sanctuary of St Martin’s le Grand in late medieval London, and the attempts by London’s companies to control this source of unenfranchised labour. Shannon’s current, SSHRC-funded, research project concerns anti-alien riot of 1517 called ‘The Evil May Day’, and her lecture gave an overview of the alien population in this sanctuary and the implications of the riot. Shannon’s lecture offered a taster of her prosopographical analysis of the aliens who lived in St Martin’s which she uses to reconstruct their lives. One major theme of the lecture was how these aliens were not members of body of London citizens, and by extension of the city’s companies, and the resulting tensions between aliens within St Martin’s and the civic corporation. As well as detailing the importance of this sanctuary as an important centre of leather-good production, the occupations of aliens living there, their demographic composition and social activities, Shannon highlighted tensions between aliens in St Martins. This, she argued, are most likely to have existed between resident aliens and alien newcomers.

All in all, the conference was a success, with many attendees stating that they had heard ideas which they intend to use in their own research. I would like to thank all our sponsors for their kind support which made this conference possible.

A record of online discussion around this event has been created here.

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

Past & Present journal masthead

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

Leave a Reply