- The City-State in Europe, 1000–1600: Hinterland, Territory, Region by Tom Scott
In this well written and thoughtful study, Tom Scott interrogates the conventional assumption that the late medieval and early modern city-states of Europe were so diverse that a comparative analysis from a European-wide perspective cannot offer any meaningful insights into their origins and development. Scott acknowledges that no single template can be imposed on the range of southern and northern examples since the city-states of Italy followed a very different evolutionary path to their northern European counterparts.
Indeed he spends a good part of his book articulating the contrasts. Italian city-states emerged in ancient urban centres that were usually also the seat of bishoprics and grew wealthy on the proceeds of long-distance trade. In the north, they arose considerably later, were not coterminous with ecclesiastical boundaries, and their entrepreneurs engaged mostly in local, rather than international, trade. These differences are thoroughly examined by Scott in numerous case studies and are traced chronologically over six centuries. Chapters 1 to 3 trace the rise of the communes and the struggle for [End Page 274] autonomy by urban elites, while Chapters 4 and 5 analyse the full flowering of the European city-state during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Scott shows that city-states all over Europe inexorably expanded their control over the surrounding countryside in response to the need to secure the food supply for large urban populations. From the basic need for provisions, wider political ambitions flowed, as cities sought to secure markets and to organize efficient production and distribution of essential resources. It is the interaction of both Italian and northern European city-states with their rural hinterlands, territories, and regions that Scott regards as the way forward in our attempt to understand the complex, and seemingly unpredictable, process of state formation in the early modern period. The traditional historiographical approach privileged the study of Italian city-states on the grounds that they lasted much longer, established sophisticated and efficient administrative systems to a greater extent, and were more politically assertive than those in the north, which have been dismissed as imperfectly realized, or even stunted, polities. The ideological concern in much of this scholarship has been to distinguish the progressive features of communal or republican Italian city-states from monarchical or dynastic ones. However, no convincing link has been made between forms of political organization and the emergence of particular kinds of city-state. As Scott points out, there was little difference between the territorial policies pursued by civic regimes and dynastic principalities. The republic of Florence and the principality of Milan are shown, for example, to have been similarly aggressive in their determination to dominate their hinterlands, while the Venetian republic was lax, or even benignly neglectful, towards its subject territory in the terraferma.
If the unitary model of the Italian city-state is undermined, and its status as prefiguring modern notions of sovereignty is no longer assumed, it makes sense to look anew at the rise of this polity from a territorial and regional perspective. Scott’s aim is to investigate why, and how, a range of city-states across Europe came to dominate the contado beyond their city walls and what were the consequences of this expansion. He identifies four types of European city-state. Some acquired no territory but dominated the areas in their vicinity through commercial contracts that imposed mechanisms of quality control on rural outworkers. Others used jurisdictional instruments to reinforce urban economic clout. Coastal cities that had no easy access to hinterlands acquired territories in distant places. Genoa, for example, was cut off from inland areas by rugged terrain and relied on its control over Sardinia and Corsica to provide sustenance for its population. The fourth group of city-states dominated their contado through the acquisition of land along axial trade routes. Thus urban centres could evolve into city-states through [End Page 275] legal instruments and economic domination, rather than land ownership...