A sense of community

Defining community is not an easy business. By the mid-1950s, according to Wikipedia’s entry on community, sociologists were grappling with 94 definitions, and are yet to come up with an overarching one that everybody is happy with – beyond the unspectacular “a group of interacting people living in a common location” (or, in the age of the internet, not living in a common location, though the early modern era’s so-called republic of letters also fits that bill). The virtual community that has collectively produced this Wikipedia entry –  793 more or less active individuals making a total of 1,531 revisions over 10 years – tends to leave the question of definition to one side.  I tend to agree with them.

All this is by way of briefly introducing our review of the scholarship on urban communities between roughly 1400 and 1700. Thankfully, the purpose of the review is not to examine the literature in pursuit of the best definition of community. It is more concerned with assessing how historians in recent years have been going about identifying various communities (emphasis on the plural) in the cities of early modern Europe, and what approaches have been bearing the most fruit, are offering the freshest angles on urban cultures. If there is one thing I suspect almost all historians agree on these days, it is that community was a process, that communities were in some sense always in a state of becoming – through a multitude of everyday interactions, common experiences and relationships with particular places, through rituals and processions, through formal corporations, through the establishment of physical and cultural boundaries, through the rhetoric of community itself. The list could go on. As the editors of a recent volume entitled Defining Community in Early Modern Europe put it, early modern communities were complex, and the study of them, while indispensable, is complicated, drawing in models from anthropology, literary criticism, sociology and so on. “The danger,” they warn, and I think most historians would more or less agree with this too, “lies not in trying to analyse community dynamics, but in attempting to impose too great a clarity, simplicity or transparency to the operations of any particular community.” (p.5)

In order to get a firm handle on the historiographical trends that have made the subject so complex and interesting, and the agendas driving current research, the project will be as collaborative as possible. At the end of the process, in October, there will be a review that I will co-author with Fabrizio Nevola. Along the way, and feeding into that, I will interview a number of specialists. Edited transcripts of these will appear on this site. The first series of interviews, really discussions, will take place at the annual Renaissance Society of America conference towards the end of this month in Montreal. I will speak to Ed Muir, who has been at the cutting edge of scholarship on urban ritual for decades; Sharon Strocchia, a leading authority on female religious communities; Nick Terpstra, an expert on confraternities, orphans and charity; Tom and Elizabeth Cohen, who have both used Rome to push forward the microhistories of community and gender in the early modern city; and Niall Atkinson, who is asking how Florentines heard, not just saw, their city, a sensory anthropological approach that recently has been adding new dimensions to our understanding of urban life. We are starting with our strengths: the initial contributors are all Italianists, as are Fabrizio and myself. Italy has been a fertile ground for the study of early modern urban culture, partly due to the importance placed upon its cities and city-states, partly because the sources are often so rich. However, as the project progresses, so will our coverage of Europe.

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