Maarten Prak: Democracy in medieval and early-modern towns was stronger than democracy post 1789

In this interview with Maarten Prak, hosted by RevDem Assistant Editor Karen Culver, they discuss Maarten’s book Citizens without Nations: Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World c. 1000-1789. Maarten comments on how citizenship functioned in medieval and early modern Europe; why the term “urban governance” is preferable to “urban democracy”; how accessible guilds were at this time, and more.

Maarten Prak is Professor of Social and Economic History at the Department of History and Art History, Utrecht University, Netherlands. He is an expert of medieval and early modern history, having authored and edited numerous publications on Dutch national history, comparative history of Europe, and global history. His research work focuses on topics such as citizenship, institutions, cultural industries, guilds and human capital. In the past, Maarten Prak has been a visiting scholar at various universities in France, Germany, and the UK. He chaired the Humanities Board of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO (2014-16) and served as a member of the governing board of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences until September 2020. His latest monograph is Citizens without Nations: Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World c. 1000-1789 (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Karen Culver: The ‘traditional’ view is that citizenship in medieval and early modern Europe was limited to a small percentage of the population who played an active role in government. You challenge this view and contend that citizenship went much deeper and wider into the population. In addition, you argue that active engagement with governance structures often went beyond those with formal citizen status. Please, can you explain? 

Maarten Prak: As your question implies, there are two sides to this; the first is the number of people who held formal citizen status, and second the people who did not have that status but still acted like citizens. So let me say first a few words about formal citizen status; in medieval Europe an institution emerged, slowly but surely, in which people were able to register their formal membership of an urban community and thus become citizens. How that process went is still the topic of research, but in each town and city of the period before the French Revolution, you would find people with that formal status. 

On the basis of some famous examples, the assumption is usually made that the number of people holding citizenship status was actually quite limited. The most famous example is Venice, where a small number of formal citizens, something in the order of a thousand individuals, all males, were separated by their status in a formal sense from the rest of the urban community that consisted of tens of thousands of individuals, male and female. I have found that looking at Europe as a whole, Venice is a very atypical example. In many cities and towns across Europe this formal citizen status was held by large numbers and in some places more than half of the heads of households. In Frankfurt, for example, in the late 18th century, around three quarters of households had a formal citizen at their head, and these could be both male and female. So, the percentage varies very much across Europe, but I would claim that in most towns and cities, it was substantial and close to half or even over half. 

Next to the people holding formal citizen status, you have an even larger group who might not have the formal status but were still involved in all kinds of activities that assumed they were a citizen. So, by practicing citizen activities these people could also be considered, and in fact considered themselves, as citizens. 

A good example is the urban militias – which we will talk about later – but here you have individuals who were called upon to help defend the local community in a military sense. This was, of course, an onerous duty and gradually the people who held formal citizen status were saying, “wait a minute, other people are benefitting from our activities as defenders of the local community, and we want them to participate in this onerous duty.” So they would start to recruit large numbers of people based on a variety of criteria. These people then became part of the civic community by acting like citizens even though they might not always have the formal status. 

Yes, as a British citizen living in Hungary that is exactly my status now. 

That is a wonderful modern equivalent, and in lots of countries in Europe, you can participate in local elections after you’ve been resident in the community for a certain number of years. You are not a formal citizen of that country, but you can still participate in citizen’s activities. 

In your recent book you discuss the many varieties and activities of citizens and how the urban governance was managed. As we have discussed, this included electing public officers from among the citizens, but also consulting with local people about issues relevant to them, and the towns themselves sometimes had representation at regional or national level. But in your book, you very rarely use the word ‘democracy’. Please can you explain why you don’t call these forms of governance urban democracies?

Yes, there are two reasons why I don’t. One of them is that usually in that period people themselves refrain from using the word democracy, and the reason was that they considered democracy as a form of rule in which the mob was in charge, and they did not like this. One of the lines in the sand that they very often drew is that citizenship is something for the propertied classes. The argument was that if you own property, for example, you own a house or you own a business, you have a stake in the community. And if you don’t have a stake in the community, your vote will be for sale. Only the stakeholders have their own original interest in the affairs of the community, and therefore they can think and judge independently on what is happening or should happen. 

The other reason why I am reluctant to use the word democracy is because it is so connected to what you might call modern democracy. The point I make in my book is that 

modern democracy as it was introduced by the French Revolution was in many ways a step back from the situation found in many medieval and early-modern towns, as under modern democracy as it developed in the early stages, only a very small number of people could actually vote

and there were very high wealth barriers for people to get the vote for precisely the reasons I gave. But when you look at what was happening locally in 17th and early 18th century towns and cities you could see that a fair number of the people involved in running those local communities would be denied the vote after 1789. They would only regain it much later as the franchise was widened. In the meantime, those towns and cities lost a lot of their political autonomy after the French Revolution. 

My point is here that if you think about democracy as a system in which a fair share of the population is participating in political processes, the argument could be made there was less democracy in the early 19thcentury than there was in the 17th and 18th centuries, at least in urban communities. The argument that the French Revolution created more democracy is valid when you look at most country-level situations, but it’s no longer quite as valid when you factor in local governance structures. 

In medieval and early-modern Europe, guilds were the professional associations that represented, supported and controlled merchants and craftsmen. In many places guild membership was an important route for migrants to gain citizenship. This was probably good for the guilds as more members presumably meant more wealth, power and influence. Conversely guilds have been accused of being ‘closed-shops’ as a person could not engage in business without the right guild membership. How did the guilds manage this tension between, effectively, promoting migration, and restricting trade to their members only? 

Let me start by saying that this criticism of the guilds as being closed-shops was raised and vocalized only in the second half of the 18th century. This is a criticism that is much less in evidence in earlier centuries, and it had something to do with the emergence of a new, liberal idea about how the world should work without all those so-called feudal privileges which set certain groups apart from others. 

One of the PR problems of the guilds was their so-called monopoly. In guild privileges it is usually stated that only members of the guild are entitled to open a shop or a workplace in which to practice the craft that is being regulated by the guild. This is the so-called guild monopoly. A monopoly means that access to that particular privilege was very limited, and there is no doubt that it was limited. There were barriers to entry; for example, one of the things we know is that relatively few women opened shops and workshops as compared to men, and at least in some cases it was because guilds placed barriers that women found more difficult to surmount than men. 

But new research on guilds has shown that in general, a lot of these barriers were actually not as high as has been assumed. For example, it was quite possible for immigrants, and even for females to overcome these barriers. The fact that relatively few guild members were females was probably as much due to the broader patriarchy of the era than to the specific rules of the guilds. You might argue that guild rules were part of that much broader patriarchy that was so typical of medieval and early-modern Europe, but it is difficult to blame the guilds for that. And as you said, 

guilds facilitated the access of migrants into the community life of the urban settings in which they were active.

Another argument that reduces the contrast between then and now is the fact that in most countries business is almost as organized as it was in early modern and medieval Europe, although it now happens on a voluntary basis. 

On this voluntary basis the great majority, and I mean over 90% of businesses, are members of organizations that when you start to look at them, look remarkably like guilds as they used to be. 

And these modern business associations also do much the same things as guilds used to do; they worry about apprenticeships and about training youth in their particular business; they lobby the government; they set rules for the business, and so on. In other words, the guilds have disappeared, but other institutions have taken their place. One difference is that these organizations are much more national nowadays, and the reason is that rules for businesses are set nationally whereas in the past they were set locally. 

Now there is a big debate about whether guilds were beneficial, yes or no. I think there is something to be said against them. They were restrictive in some areas but not in others. One country where guild-like structures have very much continued is Germany, and Germany is also praised for its extensive and high-quality apprenticeship system. A country that lost its guilds relatively early is the UK, and the UK is very often criticized for the poor state of its apprenticeship system. So, this is one area where you can see that guilds were not only a negative influence on the economy but could also be beneficial. 

We mentioned earlier the urban militias, and in your book you quote Charles Tilly, the US sociologist, “War made the state, and the state made war”. In relationship to urban militias, do you think this is also true of towns? And what impact do you think the need for urban militias had on popular participation in urban governance?

There are reasons to say that it was also true for towns, that war made the town, although towns making war is less true, but in a way that is really different from what Tilly had in mind. Tilly was thinking about the military revolution of the 16th century when warfare in Europe changed from what was essentially an amateur business into a much more professional business. In the 16th century, states in Europe started to set up permanent armies and to raise money to pay for those armies. The argument in Tilly’s book is that both the permanent armies and the taxation necessary to pay for them became the nucleus of the modern state as we know it. In the course of time, the states expanded their business into education, healthcare, and so on, but that only came in the 19th century. 

In the case of towns, the urban community in the high middle-ages started to protect urbanites against their vulnerability to warfare and other predatory activities and the general unsafety of the environment in which they lived. This was particularly the case for merchants who ventured outside the town and were extremely vulnerable to all kinds of predators who tried to capture either them as individuals or their merchandise; there were no rules and regulations governing inter-urban trade. So, to gain more control over their environment, they set up institutions that tried to reduce this insecurity; that is to say, rules and regulations, institutions to monitor those rules and regulations, to prosecute people who disregarded the rules and regulations, and so on. This is how urban communities started. Gradually they adopted other public services, became more extensive, and that is where you get these elaborate sets of urban privileges plus citizenship as a member of the community. 

One of the things these urban communities then had to do was to protect themselves militarily against the outside world, against predators, against other urban communities but also against feudal lords who wanted to conquer the communities and capture the wealth of the inhabitants. So, we see that from very early on, part of citizenship is military service. One of the things that urbanites worried about is that they could be called upon to help defend their community or to help their lord in military campaigns. Well-to-do citizens start to train themselves in so-called militia guilds in the art of war. But they were a small group of people, and they want to share this onerous duty with larger parts of the community, or to pay professionals to do it for them. This is where the urban militias come in, and it is a duty of the inhabitants of the community as part of their membership of the community, whether they are citizens or not. 

The next stage in this process is that these urban militia say “wait a minute, we are serving here as members of the community, and we want a say in how the community is being run.” 

And being armed, these urban militias could easily rebel or pressure the local government into adopting policies that the militia thought would be valuable and in their interest. So, we see these forces of order very often involved in urban rebellion. This is one of the ways in which citizens can make their voices heard and pressure local governments in a political way. You see this happening all the time – you see the guilds as forces of exclusion and inclusion, and here we see the militias as forces of order and forces of disorder. 

In your book you show that the urban areas in a broad region from middle England to northern Italy had more citizens and were more likely to have governance structures that involved their citizens. I am sitting here in Budapest, and I wonder what was happening in the more eastern and western parts of Europe, and why didn’t they adopt similar urban citizenship structures?

I need to make a distinction here between two elements of governance. Locally we find citizenship as I have been describing it both as a formal status and as a set of practices everywhere across Europe, in Budapest and other Hungarian towns, in Poland, but also in France, Spain, Portugal and so forth. This is a European wide phenomenon. What is different in the regions you mentioned? In Italy, in medieval and early-modern southern Germany, in the Low Countries, and from the 17th century also increasingly in England is the impact urban citizenship had on national institutions. In renaissance Italy it is quite simple because in city states the city and the state overlap. In Florence, for example, the local institutions of citizenship almost by definition have an impact on state structure. In the medieval Low Countries we see something similar because towns already had an important percentage of the population; towns were represented in regional assemblies that helped to run that area in the middle ages. 

Urban citizenship, through its representation on a regional level, had an impact well outside the confines of the town or city. In the Low Countries this became particularly prominent with the establishment of the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century because it was run through the Estates General that comprised of the representatives of seven regional assemblies. In those regional assemblies, towns were either in the majority or held at least half of the votes. You can see, particularly in the most important province, Holland, the regional assembly was dominated by the towns of that province.

In England something similar was happening because there you have Parliament, and Parliament consists of individual Members of Parliament who were sent there by urban communities as well as by rural regions. From the reformation onwards the number of urban communities represented in Parliament continues to increase to a point where by 1689 well over half the seats in Parliament are occupied by people who are elected by urban citizens. To some extent this is hidden from view because the individuals elected are very often members of the gentry or the aristocracy. 

But the people who sent them to Parliament are very often urban citizens, and we know from a lot of local investigations that 

these urban electorates were not just deferential, no, they instructed their Members of Parliament, quite like today, on what they wanted from them, they told them “we want you to vote in favor of this, or put these rules and regulations before Parliament and make sure that our interests are looked after.”

So the composition of Parliament doesn’t quite give you a sense of how much local citizens were involved in Parliamentary activities, and particularly after 1689 when Parliament becomes the dominant force in English politics, this is extremely important. It is no coincidence that this coincides with the start of England’s rise to global dominance and its role in the global economy. And in that respect, Italy, the Low Countries, and England are indeed different from Hungary, Poland, and so on, where the nobility is the dominant force. One of the reasons is that the levels of urbanization are much lower in East Central Europe, in France, and in Spain. The other reason is that those areas don’t have the sort of political structures where towns and cities make a big impact in representative assemblies.

That brings me nicely onto my final question which looks at today. You show how urban governance impacted national governments and how much the state absorbed the democracy of the urban areas. Do you now see similar processes happening between the nation states and supra-national authorities, particularly the EU? And do you see any parallels with the way numbers of European cities are requesting direct funding rights from the EU and thus circumventing the nation states? 

Let me first explain how I see what happened in the decades around 1800 when a lot of these towns and cities lost their legal autonomy. National authorities took over and imposed themselves on the local communities, and by broadening the scope of their activities reduced the scope of activities of local communities. We are in a different situation now with the EU because the EU is a federation of national states. Although the EU is taking over certain activities of national states it cannot do that against those national governments, it cannot over-rule those national governments, it always requires the approval of national governments. And so, in a disingenuous way many national governments distance themselves from the EU but everything the EU does has been approved by a majority or even all the national governments. None of it happens that they don’t want. 

What I’m arguing in the book is not to go back all the way to medieval and early-modern Europe, but to restore some of the powers of local governments, and to create a sort of three-layered citizenship. We already have in the EU what you might call a double citizenship, as within the EU, everyone is at one and the same time a citizen of her or his country and a citizen of the EU as a whole. This is very much what Brexit was about. The British didn’t want that. They wanted to be British only, and to deny EU citizens some of the benefits of British citizenship because they were EU citizens. 

What I’m saying is that national citizenship has, in a way, a bit of a problem nowadays and we don’t need it in quite the same way as we needed it in the 19th and 20th centuries. It would be really interesting to have alongside EU and national citizenship, forms of local citizenship in ways that already exist but are not fully thought through and legally acknowledged. You mentioned earlier that you already have certain citizen rights in Budapest even though you are not a Hungarian national, and it is because you have been living there long enough to enjoy some of those rights. 

What I am arguing in my book is that looking back at that long – and I would argue quite successful – history of urban citizenship in Europe, 

we might seriously consider taking the current double-layered citizenship and expand it to a three-layered model in which people would have local, national, and European citizenship. Those three layers do not necessarily have to overlap in the same way, as is already developing on the ground but not legally acknowledged.

And that is an interesting proposal with which to end our conversation today. Maarten, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas. It’s been fascinating to talk to you. For anyone who is as interested as I am, I would highly recommend them to read your book Citizens Without Nations; Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World, c. 1000 – 1789, it is a very good read.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

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