History expert Dr Ian Stone, delves into the ancient narratives composed by the townsmen of 12th and 13th-century Europe, the age of the greatest developments in the urbanisation of western Europe since Roman times.

Writing history in medieval western Europe always was an institutional business. It was a practice which first developed in the monasteries, cathedral chapters and royal courts. By the 14th and 15th centuries it had diffused widely into the towns as men holding office in civic administrations, such as the Florentines Dino Compagni and Giovanni Villani, began to write chronicles in large numbers.

What are of particular interest to me, however, are the townsmen of 12th and 13th-century Europe, the age of the greatest developments in the urbanisation of western Europe since the time of Rome, who penned historical accounts of their time. The first such urban historian was the Genoese Caffaro (c. 1080–1166). Over the next two centuries writers in at least a dozen Italian cities composed substantial historical narratives. In addition to the Italians, other city officials were composing historical works in England, Germany and the Low Countries.

My interest in this topic grew out of my doctoral research project, for which I prepared an edition of a manuscript compiled by one of these writers, the London alderman Arnold fitz Thedmar. Thanks to the support of the Institute of Historical Research, I was able to compare Arnold with his contemporary writers in Genoa and Cologne.

This comparative study revealed that these writers, who knew nothing of each other’s works, wrote for many of the same reasons. Each took great pride in their civic past, each desired to give their cities a place in the world, each wrote to defend hard-won urban liberties, and each made similar yet independent calls for civic unity.

Very much in contrast to historical writing undertaken by the monks and secular clerks of the period, it also seems clear that this new form of historical writing was a very public and communal business. That need not surprise us. It was a public, urban community, after all, which was having its past preserved and glorified, its position justified, its privileges defended, and its independence asserted.

What I should like to do now is broaden this research project. Through comparison of a variety of written texts produced in the towns of medieval western Europe, not just prose chronicles, but also eulogies, epic poems, German Reimchronikenand law codes, alongside other types of evidence such as inscriptions, statuary and architecture, I should like to examine the depictions of power and civilitasproduced by the townsmen of the time to understand how urban laymen constructed civic identities in the years 1100–1300.

The first aim is to explore what drove these men to compose and compile their accounts when they did. For whom were they writing? What factors, common across Europe were most responsible for the beginnings of this new historiography? How did these broader concerns interact with local factors? And how did they use existinghistorical works and their own compositions to construct a communal historical memory?

The second is to examine how European urban elites understood and pragmatically negotiated communal liberty and independence, and how they articulated their philosophy when communal autonomy was being forged variously in the fire of conflict between prince and town. How important were Roman ideas of liberty in the towns of Western Europe, 1100–1300? How widely had Gregorian ideas of libertas ecclesie been absorbed, mutatis mutandis, by contemporary urban elites?And if these writers were not writing in classical or Gregorian traditions, in what traditions did they think themselves working?

A third aim is to use the works composed and compiled by the townsmen of medieval Europe in these centuries as a mirror to reflect the interests, preoccupations and concerns of urban elites. I will use the ipsissima verba of the European townsmen to explorehow urban elites sought to justify the power they wielded and show how these urban elites defined themselves. In short, to understand what the many similarities in these works, the vast majority of which were composed completely independently of each other, tell us about the contemporary cultures of European towns.

A fourth aim is to explore the authors’ idea of space. How it could be used as a means of civic control? How did these writers perceive the frontiers of the ‘city’? But understanding the boundaries of the ‘city’ must extend beyond this simple geographic sense, too, and I want to understand the ideological and anthropological conceptions of the city’s frontiers also. To whom did the ‘city’ belong? Who was – and was not – included within all its physical and intellectual boundaries? How jealously guarded were all of these frontiers?

In 2019, preliminary findings from my doctoral research will be published in the Thirteenth-Century Englandseries. Thereafter, I hope to work towards publication of a book which considers all of the above questions in a comprehensive way, while continuing to prepare an edition of Arnold fitz Thedmar’s chronicle for publication with the Oxford Medieval Textsseries.

It can fairly be said that the production of these historical works by these urban writers opened a new chapter in the writing of European history. Many of the issues that this project focuses on, such as urban identity and governance, are, of course, very much current. The work will be of use to historians of European towns and cities, and political scientists interested in the development of urban political and administrative structures.

Dr Ian Stone specialises in the medieval period and the history of London, and teaches courses in history and Latin in the UK and Europe. He previously held a junior research fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he is currently a research associate. He has published several papers in peer-reviewed academic journals; written entries for The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and The Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle; and contributed many other articles to non-academic titles.