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Introduction: The Closed Arena and the Open Gate
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In modern historiography, the prevailing view of English urban life from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century has been closer to Handlin’s than to the one implicit in Bristol’s coat of arms. Until recently most writers have considered the typical English town of the period not as part of an integrated realm but as a “self-conscious and coherent community with a distinct life of its own,” separate from that of the kingdom at large.[7] Or in the words of Mrs. J. R. Green, it was “a free self-governing community, a state within the state…a little principality” carrying on an “isolated self-dependent life.”[8] At the heart of this understanding is a vision, familiar enough to anyone who has read Thomas Hobbes, that juxtaposes the state to society and its constituent communities. Hobbes saw all corporate bodies, the towns included, “as many lesser Common-wealths in the bowels of a greater, like wormes in the entrayles of a naturall man,” and thought the state could not tolerate them. “For what is it to divide the Power of a Common-wealth, but to Dissolve it,” he says, “for powers divided mutually destroy each other.”[9] Hence for him, and for those historians who follow his model, the existence of independent, self-standing communities that command the primary loyalties of their members implies the absence of a strong state, just as the rise of the state entails their disappearance.

At its inception this idea focused on politics. According to Green, a town’s autonomy consisted in its freedom to arm its own soldiers and defend its own territory; elect its own rulers and officials; draw up its own constitutions and ordinances; assess, levy, and raise its own taxes; settle its own trading relations; and administer the law through its own courts. But more recent scholarship has added an emphasis upon sociology, as revealed by the use of the term “community.” In everyday language the word can mean no more than a collectivity of people having common interests and sharing common activities. It need not imply competition with the larger social organisms of which it may be a part. In this sense the village or neighborhood, the county or town, the district or region, and the kingdom or nation can each be called a community in its own right. Localists following Green’s lead, however, consider the community more narrowly, as a bounded social system of a particular type, or, in Alan Everitt’s words, “a little self-centered kingdom on its own.”[10] The type is what sociologists sometimes call a Gemeinschaft, a small community characterized by multifaceted, face-to-face, and permanent social relationships in contrast to the partial, impersonal, and transitory relationships found in the larger society. According to theory, such communities are homogeneous, self-sufficient, and slow-changing, marked by a continuous corporate existence and a high degree of interaction and common endeavor among their members. Typically they are dominated by the institution of the extended family, which through patriarchal authority and close ties of affinity provides the community with a strong bond of social solidarity.[11]

Most of the sociologists of the small community have found a particular place for it in a broad view of social history. According to their model, the earliest societies were simple, undifferentiated, tiny social organisms of men and women living in isolation, close to nature and bound by tradition. More intricately organized forms of social existence, marked by a highly articulated division of labor and governed by rational principles, developed only in the modern world. As this evolutionary process unfolds, the world changes from a place in which social cohesion is the dominant motif to one where competition and the rational pursuit of self-interest hold supreme sway. In the course of the history, small communities gradually disappear as meaningful entities because their members become integrated into larger and larger social organizations.

Similar ideas, amounting to a theory of modernization, are deeply embedded in the approach of localist historians of English rural and urban life. H. P. R. Finberg, for example, tells us that the self-conscious local communities in which he is interested are “not much in evidence today.” Rather, they—or most of them, at any rate—have undergone a strict course of development from birth, often in the distant past, to death “the day before yesterday.” The archetypical local history, then, tells the story of “the Origin, Growth, Decline and Fall of a Local Community,” emphasizing that present-day towns and rural districts lack “the old degree of social cohesion” that characterized communities of the past.[12] Finberg also suggests some reasons for this change. “A railwayman or a mill-owner today,” he says,

pretty certainly feels himself more closely linked in sympathies and interests and aspirations with his fellow-railwaymen or fellow manufacturers up and down the country than with the majority of his fellow townsmen. Moreover Leviathan, as we all know, looks with no friendly eye upon allegiances that are not centered on its omnicompetent self. It may be that just as the family, once so powerful a unit, has withered into social impotence, so the local community is destined to wither in its turn. But while it flourished it yielded only to the nation, and not always even to the nation, in its hold over men’s loyalties.[13]

Thus the local community is a form of social life peculiar to a particular phase of history. With the growth of the modern economy and the rise of the state, its existence becomes increasingly problematic and it gradually disappears from view.

This theory of localism has had its uses. By reminding us that state and society have not always existed in their present forms, it has helped us to break new ground in urban history and to reveal much that we did not know about the fabric of social and cultural life in early modern England. Where history once was little more than the study of grand politics, political institutions, and constitutional ideas, it has become all-encompassing, covering everything from architecture to xenophobia, each understood in the context of lives lived by ordinary men and women at home. Nothing human—or inhuman, for that matter—is alien to us anymore. Nevertheless, there is something anachronistic in the approach of the localists, since it relies upon an understanding of political and social reality that emerged only at the end of the early modern period and did not become widely held until very much later. The views of those living through this era usually depended upon different premises, ones that accepted a dimension of communal autonomy without also implying a rivalry with the nation or the central authorities.

According to the Elizabethan civil lawyer Thomas Wilson, early modern English cities were highly independent places. “They are not taxed,” he says, “but by their owne officers of the[ir] owne brotherhoodes,” and “no other officer of the Queen nor other” possessed “authority to entermeddle amongst them.” The queen, indeed, placed no “governor in any Towne through out the whole Realme”; rather, a city’s mayor, chosen locally without reference to royal nomination, served in the capacity of “Queens Lieftenant.” It was his duty “to governe the Citty in good order,” and, with the consent of the Common Council, “to make lawe and constitutions for the benifitt of the Citty.” In addition, Wilson points out, “every citty hath a peculier jurisdiction among themselves…by which jurisdiction…they have the authority to Judge all matters Criminell and Cyvill.” For these reasons, Wilson thought of cities as privileged enclaves within the structure of government and society. “Every citty,” he said, has “as it were, a Comon Wealth among themselves.”[14]

But despite this use of the term “commonwealth,” Wilson recognized—as Green did not—that at no time were English cities entirely free from the fabric of royal rule. Their privileges did not completely liberate them from the system of royal justice or from the obligation to pay taxes. Nor did city governments exercise jurisdiction over wide territories as did some of their continental counterparts. In no sense, therefore, were they classical city-states, radically separated from the hierarchy of rights and obligations that shaped neighboring communities. Wilson stresses that a city’s “peculier jurisdiction” was the consequence of individual and explicit grants “by the King in divers times…confirmed by letters patent under the great seale,” and operated under the important “restraynt that still all Civill causes may be removed from theirs to the highest Courts at Westminster.” Cities, then, were effectively subordinated to both the will and the jurisdiction of the Crown. Although they enjoyed a great deal of self-government, they were not completely self-contained worlds, whole unto themselves.[15]

This conclusion is carried even further by early modern London’s great antiquary, John Stowe. He refrains from using the word “commonwealth” in discussing his city, but instead conceives of a more encompassing commonwealth of which London was but a part. At the conclusion of his Survey of London Stowe prints a long “Apologie” for his city, written probably by the lawyer James Dalton. It argues that

[i]t is besides the purpose to dispute, whether the estate of the gouernement here bee a Democratie, or Aristocracie, for whatsoeuer it bee, being considered in it selfe, certayne it is, that in respect of the whole Realme, London is but a Citizen, and no Citie, a subiect and no free estate, an obendienciarie, and no place indowed with any distinct or absolute power.

Not only are its citizens governed by the same law as “the rest of the Realme…a few customes onely excepted,” but in Parliament

they are but a member of the Comminaltie…and are as straightly bound by such lawes as any part of the Realme is, for if a contribution in subsidie of money to the Prince bee decreed, the Londoners haue none exemption, no not so much as to assesse themselues: for the prince doth appoint the Commissioners. If Souldiers must be mustered, Londoners haue no law to keepe themselues at home, if prouision for the Princes housholde bee to bee made, their goods are not priuileged. In summe, therefore, the gouernment of London differeth not in substance, but in ceremonie from the rest of the realm.[16]

London was without doubt the most highly privileged and independent city in England. If Stowe could agree to this view of its participation in the life of the kingdom, he surely would have said at least as much about the provincial towns.

This model, however, offers a dual vision of urban life. For within its boundaries a city may be said to have a community of its own, existing for the fellowship and mutual aid and affection that citizens give to one another. “[W]hereas commonwealthes and kingdomes cannot haue, next after God, any surer foundation than the loue and goodwill of one man towardes another,” Stowe’s apologist says, the same is “also closely bred and maintayned in Citties, where men by mutual societie and companying together, doe grow to alliances, comminalties and corporations.”[17] Such a community could be a democracy or an aristocracy, since as a corporate body it must consist of a head to lead and members to obey, whether the head be selected by a free vote, co-optation, or inheritance.

Neither this approach nor Wilson’s leads us inevitably to a localist interpretation of city life, since neither begins with a vision of the state or society as the necessary enemy of community or the individual. Each focuses our attention on different issues: Wilson’s on the relation of civic to national institutions; Stowe’s on the relation of the civic to the national community. The former stresses civic autonomy but recognizes the city’s dependency on the nation for its freedoms. The latter offers a more complex view. On the one hand, the city is seen as part of a larger polity—a subsidiary body of the commonwealth of England. On the other, it is said to have its own communal integrity and common purposes. From this second viewpoint, the essence of urban society is the fellowship that citizens have with one another. Put in other words, from the perspective of the national polity a city is an organization with important functions to perform; from the perspective of the inhabitants it is a moral community in which head and body work together for common ends. Or, as F. W. Maitland says, it is “both organ and organism.”[18]

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Introduction: The Closed Arena and the Open Gate
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