Publication Spotlight: Churchmen and Urban Government in Late Medieval Italy

Prof Frances Andrew’s edited volume, Churchmen and Urban Government in Late Medieval Italy, c.1200–c.1450: Cases and Contexts, is an attempt to understand an intriguing phenomenon. It explores, through a number of case studies, the employment of members of monastic communities in urban government. The focus is, in particular, on paid, fixed service. These men were not involved in council, or high politics. Instead they were engaged in lower level, but equally essential, work: they might be employed in the treasury, for example, oversee building works, or make sure that all the bread sold within a city was edible.

This phenomenon raises interesting questions. How did this relationship between religious communities and urban government work? Why did it work? The answers to these questions have the potential to break down the neat categories between religious and secular spheres which continue to dominate our understanding of the medieval world.

Frances came across this phenomenon in her work on the Humiliati, an order originally dominated by lay people who committed to a religious life. She knew that there was a close relationship between these brothers, the secular clergy (priests, bishops and deacons), and urban government. Indeed, the Humiliati were well known to have been engaged in communal offices. It was during a year-long fellowship in Florence, however, that she noticed that in late medieval Siena and Florence this was also very often the case for other regular clergy (i.e. monks, canons and friars). Bearing in mind the vast number of urban governments in central and northern Italy and the abundance of extant sources, it was at this point that it became clear that on her own it would take decades to get a real sense of how this relationship worked.

The project which arose from this realisation and resulted in Churchmen and Urban Government, began with a conference Frances organised in 2007, funded by the British Academy. This enabled her to bring speakers together from Italy, the US, and closer to home, to discuss relations between regular clergy and public life. This fed directly into the creation of a major research project, ‘Religion and Public Life in Late Medieval Italy’, which was supported by AHRC funding.

The collaborative nature of the work has proved to be especially fruitful. Not only has this approach enabled urban and religious historians to work together and benefit from one another’s approaches, but it has facilitated comparison across northern Italian cities, something which is still relatively unusual. The volume contains an essay on each of a sample of thirteen cities, building on the expertise of each scholar on ‘their’ city. In the second half of the volume experts on religious life then explore the reactions of particular monastic orders, including the Camaldolese and the Cistercians. Thus, Churchmen and Urban Government shows the great variety in the relationship of monks, friars and penitents with urban governments: in Milan, being a Cistercian monk might mean spending some of your time working for the city, in Turin it did not.

So, the big question: why did cities employ monks in this way? The classic interpretation, put forth by Richard Trexler in 1978, places a lot of emphasis on the role of trust. Hypothetically, a religious superior instructed a monk to go and work in the city. The city could therefore trust this monk, because of the bond of obedience which bound the monk and abbot.

Whilst Frances believes that trust and integrity did play a role, there were a number of other reasons why monks were engaged. They possessed technical skills, such as in book keeping and the production of registers. In addition, relationships of patronage between monasteries and certain powerful families seem to have led to the greater deployment of monks in these roles.

Perhaps most importantly, Churchmen and Urban Government highlights the importance of the political context in determining the deployment of regular clergy. It demonstrates that the initial idea of employing people from religious orders or penitential brethren was something associated with the popolo, that is, the anti-magnate group in cities, a factional body closely identified with papal politics. Whilst trust was involved, the illumination of these worldly factors begins to turn Trexler’s model on its head.

What comes next? This work is, in fact, just one part of a larger project, and Frances is currently working on the second volume: a monograph intended to build on the case studies. As well as this, Frances intends to continue looking further afield for other comparisons. Churchmen and Urban Government closed with three colleagues’ case-studies on areas outside Central and Northern Italy, covering Sardinia, the southern Regno under the Hohenstaufen and, in a deeply comparative mode, England. Next year she’ll be in the Netherlands, where she plans to examine Dutch material on urban government. Unlike northern Italy, it doesn’t seem as though regular orders were employed by Dutch cities. Frances will be asking why this was the case, and who was doing these jobs, if not the regular clergy.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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