Posts Tagged ‘urban civilization’

“Notions of hierarchy ordered views
of what had seemed the anarchy of American racial and class diversity. They
were crucial, as well, in justifying the seemingly contradictory ways reformers
approached the problems of the poor. Some at the top of the hierarchy might be
saved. The degenerate were to be eliminated. Historians have understood
segregation simply as the dividing lines of blackness and whiteness, as
something rooted in Southern Jim Crow culture. The move toward Jim Crow around
the turn of the century occurred alongside another contemporary campaign for
‘segregation’: the isolation of the degenerate and their eventual extinction through
the regulation of reproduction Segregation, most broadly, in
turn-of-the-last-century America was obviously not about separate but equal,
but nor was it purely about separation.
Like observers of African Americans who imagined their eventual extinction,
those who advocated the segregation of tramps, the feebleminded, and
prostitutes aimed at their elimination, biological selection, and extinction. As
Franklin Giddings would demand: ‘Give them the fat of the land, build them
separate cottages…but put a hedge and a ditch around their garden and prevent
them mingling with untainted children and youth.’

The idea of segregation was applied
to a range of degenerates, from tramps to prostitutes to the feebleminded to
paupers. The segregation of delinquent women has received the most historical
attention. Ruth Alexander, for example, has described the incarceration of
adolescent women in two New York State reformatories. The experience of these
women, while providing a glimpse of the confrontation of young working-class
women with changing sexual mores, also hints at the way segregation potentially
replaced regulation as the means to combat female degradation and degeneracy.
Thus, the Committee of Fifteen’s report criticized simple regulation. It argued
that regulation only perpetuated the existence of prostitution in tenement
houses and poor neighbourhoods.  Instead,
the committee recommended the formation of a ‘morals police’ charged with
formal investigation – indeed, the ‘surveillance’ – of prostitution. Along with
a Chicago vice commission, the committee sought to arrest degeneration by
separating the ‘semi-delinquent from delinquent girls’ and by creating ‘an
industrial home’ that would segregate confirmed prostitutes.

Concurrently, reformers sought to
segregate tramps. They advocated the creation of a model municipal lodging
houses that would provide an alternative to city jails or to the private
lodging houses castigated by Sanborn. Such model lodging houses, in addition to
providing a sober environment, food, and a bath, would aid in  the very process of classification. Inmates
would be subjected to a ‘work-test’; those capable of work would be forced to
labor. Advocates also described the municipal lodging house as a substitute for
harmful almsgiving. Instead of loose change, a beggar might be presented with a
ticket for a night at the municipal lodging house. Chicago’s Municipal Lodgin
House created a ticket that the well-meaning could give to a passing tramp.
Indeed, the text of the ticket, explaining the work of the house and its labor
test, was aimed primarily at ‘citizens and housewives of Chicago,’ not at
tramps. The ticket worked not only to segregate the tramp but also to replace,
reform, and improve the practice of charity.

Massive institutions, labeled
‘colonies’ and removed from cities, represented the most ambitious plans for
the segregation of tramps, as well as the feebleminded. ‘Colonies’ for tramps
and the feebleminded took their inspiration not from the nineteenth-century poorhouse
(which they resembled in general form, but not in intent) but from European
examples. American observers admired European experiments in segregation, such
as Mexplas, a Belgian colony for the ‘waste of humanity’ that included the
feebleminded and vagabonds. Rice argued that colonies might not only separate
tramps from those they might contaminate and dissuade others from vagrancy but
they also improved the efficacy of philanthropy. With the colony, charitable
aid could be directed toward those who might actually climb the class
hierarchy. By the turn of the century, colonies became an essential part of the
American campaign for social reform and settlement work. For Kelly and tramp
expert Orlando Lewis, colonies were key to remaking reform along scientific
lines. With the tramp removed, there was less temptation for what Kelly
denigrated as ‘indiscriminate almsgiving and such…charities as shelters, soup
kitchens, etc.’ Lewis, likewise, denigrated the mere imprisonment of the tramp.
Once released from prison, the tramp remained at large and became ‘a teacher of
parasitism.’ In the compulsory colony, vagrants could be put to work producing
their own food, while being segregated from the rest of the population.

At the same moment that Kelly and
Lewis advocated the creation of tramp colonies, leading reformers also clamored
for the construction of colonies to segregate the feebleminded, the label for a
newly defined category of congenital mental degenerates. The segregation of the
feebleminded, argued the Committee on Colonies for and Segregation of Defectives,
would relieve future generations of the burden of their degeneracy. Yet their
segregation, the committee said, was simply part of a movement for the
segregation of all degenerates, including ‘prostitutes, tramps and…many
habitual paupers.’ The colony housed classes of degenerates ‘who, if they
mingled with the world at large, would be useless or mischievous.’

The term ‘colony’ was affixed with
yet another meaning, alongside its imperial and immigration contexts: the idea
of removal. Calls for the construction of colonies along European models echoed
in reform and even socialist circles. It was, for example, central to efforts
to remake New York’s system of philanthropy. In 1911, with great support from
reformers and social workers, the New York legislature approved a bill to fund
the construction of a tramp colony. Reformers boasted that able-bodied tramps
could be forced to work to grow their own food. They would meanwhile be removed
from local jails and city streets.

Segregation was particularly
central to reform. Armed with the evidence gathered from slum exploration,
reformers set out by the early 1900s to reform the proletarian environment.
Naturally, they clamored for better housing and safe streets; they also sought
the elimination of degeneracy. In 1901, the South End House, Boston’s leading
settlement house, proudly reported the eviction of a drunk tramp from it’s men
reading room. The settlement, it declared, was not ‘a resort of bums.’ The
settlement’s leaders even saluted the refurbishment of the reading room with
new paint and open windows as part of a process of closing the city’s
working-class colonies to tramps. Something as simple as new paint might become
part of a larger, if brutal, process of segregating and eliminating the
degenerate: ‘Thus, death itself is the final factor in this process of social
regeneration. The morally fit survive, and the morally unfit drop away.’
‘Social degeneracy,’ the House declared,’ demanded isolation. The degenerate
was a ‘carrier’ whose presence could pass on their affliction to the desperate
poor. As a result, the House urged the creation of lodging houses and colonies
to put Boston on the ‘tramp’s black list.’ Social reformers, the inheritors of the
survey and slum exploration tradition, were dedicated to the positive
amelioration of the social environment as well as to the segregation and
extinction of degenerates. As the South End House reported, ‘From the beginning
of its career, the South End House strongly urged and earnestly striven for the
gradual segregation from the community of its degenerate and degraded types.’

Social Darwinists such as William Graham
Sumner had long been suspicious of reform as charity that led to the survival
of the unfit. Reformers were similarly concerned about the biological effects
of their work. To balance the preservation of those who might otherwise have
been eliminated in the social struggle, reform depended on a program of
segregation. ‘Charity…must not itself multiply the occassion for its
exercise,’ editorialized the Survey journal in 1909. But, in its
inherent contradictions, the balance between segregation and amelioration was
impossible to achieve. As the new century wore on, definitions of degeneracy expanded
and programs of elimination and segregation necessarily proliferated. As plans
for segregation and elimination broadened in their viciousness to include
sterilization and immigration restriction, social reformers would find
themselves questioning their ability to combine uplift with extinction. As
early as 1913, one settlement worker decried the expanding definition of
degeneracy. ‘Care must be taken to guard the border line between the fit and
unfit,’ she warned. When should reformers ‘halt’ the elimination of those ‘who
carry the germs of degeneracy?’

– Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 157-60.

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“The work of the noted Italian
criminologist Cesare Lombroso on prostitutes was translated from Italian into
English in 1895. Its English publication helped American authors, regardless of
their fidelity to his theories, refocus debates about prostitution from the
sense of moral crisis prevalent in the 1870s and 1880s to a biologically driven
concern about degeneration by the dawn of the new century. The surgeon G. Frank
Lydston, one of the most vocal American popularizers of Lombroso, sought to
render moral outrage secondary to ‘modern scientific thought’ and ‘evolutionary
law as applied to biology.’ The task of the criminologist, as of the
sociologist, was ‘to reduce the subject to a material, scientific, and
…evolutionary basis.’ The degenerate, for Lydston, must be understand less in
terms of moral failing than for its place at the bottom of the evolutionary
ladder where hierarchies of race and class converged. Vice commissions, formed
in large American cities, often by elite civic leaders, sought to fulfill
Lydston’s dictate – even as they less rigorously followed Lombroso’s theories.
New York’s Committee of Fifteen (and the Committee of Fourteen that succeeded
it), as part of a report that used European theories and experience to
understand New York’s prostitution problem, noted a changing attitude toward
the problem from one of moral outrage to one of scientific concern about
degeneration. As the noted sociologist and the Committee’s secretary Edwin
Seligman noted, ‘In America to-day, we find not only special associations
devoted to this matter, but also its more frequent appearance on the programmes
of many of our great scientific associations.’ The committee’s report located
modern prostitution within the ‘industrial conditions’ of the ‘social
organism.’ However ancient the root of prostitution, the committee focused on
the ‘Social Evil’ as ‘a creature of civilisation.’

Lombroso claimed that the
prostitute – and the degenerate generally – was produced by a combination of
physical heredity and environment. Therefore, he focused attention on the
prostitute’s body and surrondings. He advocated the close examination of the
prostitute’s anatomy: brain size, skull shape, and physical features. The same
method of measurement applied to immigrants was also employed for degenerates.
American investigators adopted the technique of examining the prostitute within
the broader context of their slum explorations. Yet such a gaze presented
problems. Explorations of the life of prostitutes might ‘gratify…prurient
curiosity,’ as the authors of Chicago’s Dark Places put it, but, unlike
investigations of tramps and the unemployed, even disguise could not morally
insulate elite observers. Instead, New York’s Committee of Fourteen paid
working-class men to assume the disguise of men of their own class seeking out
the city’s vice. Their findings replicated Lombroso’s evolutionary hierarchy of
the prostitute. Lombroso argued that some prostitutes were simply born into the
profession; poverty acted merely as a ‘catalyst’ that transformed moral
deficiency into degeneration. Others were ‘occasional prostitutes,’ whose
defeneracy could be blamed largely on their dangerous environment. The
Committee of Fifteen echoed Lombroso when it suggested that many prostitutes
were ‘a type which varies little with time and place.’ In addition to these
biologically ordained ‘real prostitutes,’ the committee described a hierarchy
of other women seduced into the Social Evil. Some women were attracted to
prostitution because the wages of prostitutes trumped those offered by wage
labor. Others became prostitutes because their environment pushed them toward
degeneracy. They were ‘contaminated by constant familiarity with vice in its
lowest forms.’ At the top of the hierarchy were ‘occasional prostitutes,’
driven temporarily toward the Social Evil because of destitution. Their
position as ‘occasional,’ however, was fraught with peril. Degeneration loomed
and ‘many of them drift gradually into professional prostitution.’

Unlike elite vice commissions, the
socialist muckracking author Reginald Wright Kauffman was willing to live with
the sordid world of prostitutes. He and his wife spent a year among New York’s
prostitutes to write his 1910 novel House of Bondage. Like many
socialist critics of prostitution, he linked an attack on the ‘vice trust’ to
hierarchies of prostitutes. Typically, Kauffman included victims of white
slavery in his pantheon of prostitute types. Although the novel focused on
Mary, a victim of white slavery, it introduced a variety of prostitute types.
Fritizie chose prostitution as an alternative to wage work. Wanda was an
immigrant victim of seduction. Evelyn had trod the ‘descending steps’ of
degeneration. Celeste, alone, was ‘temperamentally predetermined’ for
prostitution. Most socialist observers minimized the numbers of women naturally
inclined toward prostitution – even as they relied heavily on the statistics of
reform vice commissions. Theresa Malkiel, for example, declared that
‘congenital sexual perverts…form only a negligible fraction of the entire
number of prostitutes.’ Instead, Kauffman, Malkiel, and other socialist
observers described the degradation of women as a symptom of capitalism. The
‘prostitute is a production of civilization,’ concluded the Socialist Woman.
‘And the capitalist brand is the worst humanity has ever known.’

Socialists cast prostitutes as
capitalist victims by stressing their odiousness. Malkiel mourned our
‘unfortunate sisters,’ but her sympathy was restrained. Prostitutes were still
‘miserable creatures…left to rot in their own vice.’ The normally staid
Malkiel turned to the lurid language of primitivism to describe prostitutes.
They became ‘hordes, like beasts driven from their lairs.’ The aging prostitute
Old Frances, likewise, was a ‘victim of the system’ and also an example of
‘repulsive womanhood.’ In a socialist parable, she spent money for medicine on

Tramps emerged as the male
equivalent of the despised prostitute. The focus on male tramps was less
European in its origin. American fears of tramps coalesced in the aftermath of
the great strikes of 1877, one of the first shocks of the industrial age. For
elite observers the tramp came to represent, at once, the dangerous tendencies
of the disaffected unemployed, the zeal of revolutionaries, and the murderous
moral failings of the inebriate. Lee Harris’s 1878 novel, The Man Who
Tramps: A Story of To-Day
, notably casts tramps as leaders of a conspiracy
to foment tension between capital and labor. In dramatic, reactionary prose his
novel echoed a chorus of voices accusing tramps of stirring up the culturally
jarring strikes.

Even as memory of the strikes
receded, the tramp continued to evoke alcoholism, uncontrolled sexuality,
criminality, and indolence. Increasingly the tramp came to be represented as a
degenerate, a consummate threat to civilization. By the late 1870s and 1880s,
many states had begun drafting vagrancy laws. Such laws, while offering a
series of punishments for vagrancy, also proposed definitions of the tramp.
Tramps appeared in these laws less as conspiratorial revolutionaries than as
degenerates living of misguided charity and unwilling to work. L. L. Barbour’s
1881 definition of the tramp was typical: ‘He is an indigent, idle wanderer who
has nothing to do and wants nothing to do – no trade, no business, no aim in
life but to satisfy his daily hankerings at the expense of society.’ By 1886,
the National Conference on Social Welfare had launched a survey to identify the
causes of trampery.’ Using reports from thirty states describing trampery as an
‘inherited mental condition’ or – more colloquially – as ‘pure cussedness,’ the
Conference characterized tramping as laziness, drink and vice, unemployment,
and depravity.

The tramp may have been revolved,
but he was also a focus of fascinated study, as historian Frank Tobias Higbie
has noted. By assuming disguises, social investigations sought to penetrate the
urban habitat of the tramp in order to understand the symptoms of his
degeneracy. The moderate socialist and settlement worker Robert Hunter pointed
to physical evidence gathered from the Chicago Municipal Lodging House to prove
the degeneracy of the tramp. In a remarkable confession of voyeurism, he
described watching vagrants taking spray baths. He noted their potbellies and
pigeon breasts, curved spines, and degraded muscles. From these ‘physical signs
of degeneracy,’ he read their character. Such tramps possessed a ‘childlike
love of petty adventure,’ but little energy or efficiency. They were beyond
redemption. Similarly, Stuart Rice, an investigator for the New York
Commissioner of Charities, studied the city’s vagrants after donning the
‘outfit of hobo.’ As an investigation, he boasted that he often assumed
different disguises in order to work in the most dangerous of environments. He
had labored among immigrants mucking a railroad tunnel and slept in a rough
bunkhouse. As a tramp, he experienced not simply the desperation of empty
pockets, but also the very process of degeneration itself: ‘Have you felt the
insidious, downward pull of the undertow, the loosening of your moral grip, a
deterioration of your character which you seemed powerless to prevent?’

Such explorations helped observers
outline a hierarchy of tramps and vagrants. Like hierachies of prostitutes, the
classification of tramps divided those who had sunk to the lowest levels of
degeneracy from those afflicted by poverty. Stuart Rice and Alvan Sanborn both
used their experiences in the guise of a tramp to study vagrancy
‘introspectively.’ Not only could they experience tramp life for themselves but
they also could physically examine other tramps in the close quarters of the
lodging house. Rice described the different categories of tramps, including the
tramp temporarily ‘down on his luck’ and the professional beggar. He even
donned fake splints and bandages to join the ranks of vagrants unwilling to
work. They preyed on the sympathy of the civilized. The lecturer and
self-proclaimed tramp expert Edmund Kelly built on the notion of tramp types to
insist on the classification of tramps as the first step in their
‘elimination’. In a complex hierarchy, he divided vagrants into five
categories, including youths seized by ‘wanderlust,’ the born degenerate whose
tramping was a symptom of his condition, the able-bodied, and the

The gendered classification of
degenerates – the tramp and the prostitute – produced a new kind of ‘poverty
knowledge,’ as historian Alice O’Connor calls it. In particular, this
hierarchical view helped distinguish poverty from pauprism. The pauper, like
the tramp or prostitute, was distinct from the poverty-stricken unfortunate.
Pauperism was recast as racial atavism, the final stage of degneration. In the
urban context, savagery by the 1890s came to mean the lowest levels of both
class and race hierarchies. The bodily decrepitude of paupers was the sign not
only of their individual misery and fate but also of their biological unfitness
and racial primitiveness.  Even Edward
Devine, the long-time editor of Charities and Commons, argued that
‘biologically, pauperism represents a primitive type, surviving in the struggle
for existence only by parasitism.’ Male and female degenerates led a life that
was, as Devine argued, ‘suitable to an earlier and more primitive stage of
existence, but out of place in the modern world.’ The fall from poverty to
pauperism was recidivism and economic free fall: it was also racial
degeneration, as the semicivilized impoverished worker became an urban savage.
John Commons worried therefore that the impoverished might join the parasitic
ranks of ‘the criminal, the pauper, the vicious, the indolent, and the vagrant,
who, like the industrial classes, seek the cities.’

Socialist commentators equally cast
paupers and degenerates as primitives. Jack London compares those in the abyss
to the primitive Inuits he had encountered in his travels in the Klondike.
Residents of the slums, for London, were ‘the unfit and the unneeded! The miserable
and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of
prostitution – of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and
blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour.’ The
evocation of savagery allowed socialists to undermine capitalist claims to
civilization. Yet socialists did not abandon the comparison of civilization and
savagery. ‘If this is the best that civilization can do for the human,’ noted
London, ‘then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of
the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a
people of the machine and the Abyss.’ The life of the savage, dwelling in
caves, was preferable to the squalor of the slums. The poet Ernest Crosby evoked
‘bleached and stifled and enervated’ laborers and ‘the army of tramps’ in a
poem ironically entitled ‘Civilization.’

Socialist and reformer observers of
prostitutes and tramps cast degenerates as primitives. Some were born
degenerate whereas others tumbled down the slippery slope of degeneracy in the
slum environment. The degenerate dwellers of the abyss, for London, lived ‘like
swine, enfeebled by chronic innutrition, being sapped mentally, morally, and
physically, what chance have they to crawl up and out off the Abyss from which
they were born falling?’ When women tumbled into the abyss, they fell toward
prostitution; degenerating men became tramps. Charlottte Perkins Gilman
described women’s turn to prostitution not as a moral fall but as racial
degeneration toward primitivism. The prostitute ‘naturally deteriorates in
racial development.’ Likewise, a leading social worker, William H. Allen,
characterized the tramp as a ‘swaggering, ill conditioned, irreclaimable,
incorrigible, utterly depraved savage.’ For the noted reformer of tramps John
J. McCook, tramps had rejected the rigors and rules of industrial society, and
surrendered to primitivsm. Tramps, like ‘aborigines,’ lived outdoors and
relished the ‘savage life.’ Social worker A. O. Wright similarly declared that
tramping was simply ‘a reversion toward the savage type’ and Hunter argued that
the tramps he watched in the shower had all the characteristics of the
‘savage.’ Like tropical savages, they lacked foresight with only ‘maudlin’
dreams of the future.

Degeneration gripped the lowest
levels of the class hierarchy. However, it was not safely confined to the
bottom rungs of the American abyss. It might spread because of the effects of
the slum environment in which degenerates dwelt in close proximity to the poor
and desperate. Degeneration also passed from parents to children. Hunter noted
after years of exploring and living in the slums that ‘children, bred into the
ways of pauperism, nearly always took up the vices of their parents.’ Girls learned
promiscuity and boys learned to tramp. To explain degeneration in the
environment of slums, Hunter appropriately turned to the image of the
primordial jungle. He portrayed degeneracy in the form of predators preying on
the unfit and unlucky. For those in the slum ‘the abyss of vice, crime,
pauperism and vagrancy was beneath them, a tiny hop above them. Flitting before
them was the leopard persistently trying to win them from their almost hopeless
task by charms of sensuality, debauch, and idleness. The lion, predatory and
brutal, threatened to devour them…Some were won from their toil by sensual
pleasures, some were torn from their footholds by economic disorders, others
were too weak and hungry to keep up the fight.’ For Hunter, the urban and colonial
jungles were thousands of miles apart. Racially, they were frighteningly close.

–  Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 152-157.

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“It is clear that, universally, after c.550 (the rough date recurs consistently,
marking the generalized crisis of the Gothic war) early medieval cities in
Italy were poorer than Roman ones. Some indeed vanished altogether, and
others lost their urban functions (Luni is the clearest instance among the
excavated sites). But even those where urban activities survived, which
include every city mentioned in the immediately preceding pages, were very
much poorer, with most urban administrative functions (such as street-
cleaning) reduced to a minimum, and with often very simple buildings, or
Roman buildings fairly crudely reused. Were their populations also reduced?

The open fields and internal courtyards might imply so, although one must
also note that here, as in the East, one-roomed houses could often imply
denser settlement than the generously constructed peristyle houses and
extensive temple precincts of the empire. Aristocrats themselves probably
occupied fairly simple two-storeyed buildings. Even the houses of the Forum Nervae, by far the most impressive yet found, do not match the mosaic-
floored town houses found regularly in imperial-period levels. If one extends
one’s sights away from residential building and looks at churches, such as
S. Salvatore/S. Giulia in Brescia, or the prestige foundations of Pavia, Cividale, and Spoleto, or any number of eighth- and ninth-century churches in
Rome, it is true that one immediately finds good-quality brick- and stone-
work, sometimes newly fired or quarried, and also the marble and mosaic
traditions of the ancient world. These show a continuity of patronage of
skilled artisans, as also do those buildings surviving from the Roman empire
up to the present day, for artisans must always have been on hand to make
sure their roofs were repaired. The existence of such specialist artisans is
further confirmed in documents, such as the eighth-century price-list in the
Memoratorium de mercedibus commacinorum. We must
conclude, however, that there was not sufficient demand for their services to
support enough artisans, in any one city, to transform residential housing as
well as church architecture. The very richest aristocrats, ducal families for
example, may have had houses in new brick, stone, and marble, probably
resembling more elaborate versions of the two-storeyed houses of Ravenna
and Rome; but they were probably few in number. The rest settled for
buildings like those in the Via Dante of Verona or the Piazza Dante of Pisa,
and maybe put rich hangings or frescos on the walls to cover the simplicity of
the construction. Overall, the aristocracy of early medieval Italy—Byzantine
and Lombard alike—although they still lived in cities, were far poorer than
their predecessors, or their eleventh-century successors in their tower
houses. And their neighbours, artisans or shopkeepers or servants, were
poorer still.


It has become common in Italy to argue for a temporal division inside the
early middle ages, between roughly the period 550–750 and the period
750–950, the first one of urban crisis, the second one of tentative revival.
It is true that the documents for cities would support this, as would the
global evidence for greater aristocratic wealth in the Carolingian period. One could read parts of the archaeology that way too, in
particular the greater number of churches, built with good construction
techniques, in the second period, and the finding of buildings such as the
Forum Nervae houses. Recent excavations in Siena, too, show good-quality
stone buildings beginning to be built from the ninth century onwards.
I would be cautious, all the same. Rome, at least, is a very atypical city;
and church-building follows its own rhythms, independent of any simple


correlation with economic prosperity. It could equally well be said that
sites like the Via Dante point to much longer continuities of poor construction, and it is also fair to note that the ninth and tenth centuries are as yet less
well known archaeologically in most Italian cities than is the seventh.
Unhelpfully, the single most unambiguous sign of renewed economic
activity after 750 is the huge wealth and artisanal sophistication found in
S. Vincenzo al Volturno in the early ninth century; but S. Vincenzo was one
of the remotest rural monasteries in Italy.142 If this is the kind of prosperity
that the ninth century could generate, then it needs to be stressed that it has
not yet been recognized in most Italian cities. There may very well have been
an urban revival in Italy after c.750; but this is a sector of the debate for
which we must await more excavation. 

With these observations about the changing nature and quality of urban
building in mind, let us look again at the issue of the overall structure of
Italian cities. An important question that came up in the context of our
discussions of Syria and of Africa was the fate of the old forum/agora areas
of cities. Italian archaeology does not allow the generation of easy parallels
to those debates, for relatively few fora have been subjected to systematic
analysis, given the chancy patterning of urban excavations in still-occupied
towns. Some have been studied, however, and these tend to situate Italian
developments with those of Africa rather than those found in the East, even
in the case of major cities. At Verona, there are signs of monumental
destructuration (the systematic demolition of the Capitolium) already in
the 510s, and sixth-century encroachment on the open square. At Brescia,
the ruined Capitolium was reused for ceramic production by 600, indicating
an earlier monumental decay. At Milan, sketchier interventions indicate a
fifth-century date for the same process. We should also add to this list Luni,
whose forum was losing its classical appearance in the fifth century, when it
was stripped of marble and underwent a period of formation of silt deposits,
before wooden houses were built there in c.550. Luni is different from these
other sites, because the city’s economy was equally clearly already in trouble
(it was the main outlet for Carrara—then Luni—marble, so the stripping of
the forum paving is particularly indicative), and it was eventually abandoned; all the same, the early demonumentalization of the forum is significant, for the city’s bishops were capable of spending substantial sums on the
cathedral up to the ninth century. The forum of Florence, by contrast, seems
to have been repaved in the mid-sixth.

We should finally add Rome, where the forum area was huge and complex; here, the main forum (the Foro
Romano as it is now called) was still the focus of monumental building
into the seventh century, with the column of Phocas of 608, and the Fora of
Nerva and Trajan were still being maintained as late as the ninth century (the
start of the century for the former, the end for the latter). As already stressed,
Rome was always highly atypical, however. Its curia building, on the Foro
Romano, was still used by the Senate into the late sixth century (it was
converted into a church after 625), and its monuments maintained for a long
time an intensity of symbolic meaning and state-supported protection,
which those of other cities could never match. All the same, many were in
decay by 500—there were simply too many to maintain—and one of the
fora, that of Augustus, even though it adjoined those of Nerva and Trajan,
was already a quarry in the sixth century.  

Fora in Italy maintained a spatial centrality. Many had become markets by
the ninth or tenth centuries at the latest, as with Brescia, Milan, Pavia,
Florence; others may have done (we do not have the documents elsewhere),
and most remained at least open spaces, although these were usually rather
smaller than in classical times, that is, substantially encroached on (even if
this did not necessarily occur in our period). But it is likely that they began
to lose their monumentality by or before the Gothic war, sometimes substantially earlier, much as in Africa. Interestingly, Italian curiae seem to have
survived longer than in Africa; although they had long since vanished from
building inscriptions, they are regarded as normal in the Variae, and some
(as at Ravenna, Rieti, or Naples) are referred to after 550 in documents and
letters. We cannot, that is to say, conclude that a demonumentalized
forum automatically means that a curia no longer existed. But it is likely,
all the same, that the latter were much less important; by 550 practical
power in cities was in the hands of bishops, local senators, and other
notables, whether or not there was still a curia.  

Italian archaeologists invented the term citta ad isole already cited, and
there are some cities in the peninsula where some spatial destructuring
undoubtedly occurred, following on from the monumental weakening of
forum areas. Brescia may be one example, with a cathedral-curtis ducalis
area in the south-west of the city separated from the public (later monastic)
area in the north-east by a decaying and underpopulated forum area. Lucca
has been canvassed as another, given the apparently early weakening of the
forum area (in the second and third centuries), with a late Roman refocusing of the city in the cathedral area in its south-east corner, and, by the eighth
century, a wide array of churches in the city’s suburbs as alternative settlement foci, with open areas between them. 

A third example of fragmentation is
certainly Rome, whose third-century walls included after c.600 only perhaps
a twentieth of its late Roman population, grouped, as it would appear from
recent work, in a set of what could be called urban villages, maybe as many
as a dozen, held together by a common politics and, probably, a continuing
ritual of processions across the old classical centre. Brescia and Rome are
parallels to the fragmented tendencies of some of the African cities, and
indeed Rome is a better example than any of them, although a dangerous
one to generalize from, given the huge space inside its walls. How typical
they were is, all the same, not clear. Cities fragment because their centres
have become less powerful, because new foci, like churches on the edge of
town and outside city walls, become more important, and, crucially, because
their demography and urban economic activities become too weak to root
all these foci in the same urban fabric. My sense of the evidence for Italian
cities is that in the case of those which maintained their political importance—as in almost all of the examples cited above—they maintained that
essential level of coherence in their urban structure. We have the surviving
street plans; we have no cases in Italy of the closed-off urban fortresses
documented for some cities in Africa. We have eighth-century evidence of
urban artisans (goldsmiths, cauldron-makers, and others) for Lucca,
of urban subdivisions for Lucca and Ravenna. And, of course, we have
the evidence of the urban aristocrats—the source of demand for the artisans—which fits with what else we know
about Italian cities. All of these mark a tendency towards the maintenance
of a considerable degree of urban vitality, at least in the successful cities of
the peninsula; hence, probably, their continued spatial coherence. The survival of fora as market areas probably reflects that economic vitality, but
would have further reinforced the continuing coherence of the urban fabric.

Conversely, it must be repeated that the material poverty of Italian cities
cannot be denied. Italy’s new two-storeyed buildings simply mark changes in
the way prosperous town-dwellers wished to live, and represent themselves
to others, in the same way that the fortified houses of Sbeıtla and Belalis
Maior do; they are signs of vitality, not weakness. But they are a minority.
The subdivided houses and the wooden buildings built precariously on
Roman foundations show a clear technological involution, which is greater
than that visible in Africa. Italian cities, one can propose, maintained a
greater density of settlement and structural coherence than did those of
Africa, but that density by now consisted of buildings that were very different from those normal in cities elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and indeed
much poorer. It has been argued elsewhere in this book that Italy was
substantially damaged by the Gothic and Lombard wars, more seriously
than any other region was harmed by war in our period apart from, perhaps,
the seventh-century Byzantine heartland. After c.600 Italian
aristocracies, although still city-dwelling, were also much less rich in their
landed property than those of, in particular, Francia. Italy’s cities
maintained their classical spatial structure, but were unusually poor, in the
same way that Italy’s political and territorial structures changed rather less
than those of elsewhere, and its aristocrats changed their habits less than
elsewhere, but were all much poorer.

The seventh-century crisis in the Byzantine heartland produced a process
in which the continuing force of the state, and the attraction of its hierarchies, accelerated the abandonment of most of its classical cities, with urban
elites concentrating in a smaller number of centres. This process did not
occur in Italy, whether Byzantine or Lombard; here, by contrast, cities
tended only to fail in economically marginal areas like the southern Appennines, the Alps, or the underpopulated coast of southern Tuscany. In richer
areas they persisted in, at times, quite dense networks, as with the southern
Exarchate and Pentapolis in the Byzantine lands, or northern Tuscany in the
Lombard lands. The reorganization of the Byzantine state in its heartland
was much more centralized than in Italy; the
various sectors of Byzantine power in the peninsula were arguably more
conservative than in the Aegean and Anatolian areas, and also steadily
drifted away from imperial control. The local state was weaker as well;
tax-raising slowly broke down even in Byzantine areas, as it had done in the
Lombard kingdom by 600, thus further decreasing the economic
hegemony of even local power centres, Rome or Ravenna or Naples. There
was thus no obvious reason for a notable from (say) Senigallia to be tempted
to relocate to (say) Ravenna, and even less for any such ‘rationalization’ to take place in the Lombard lands. 

City elites, whether rich or poor, stayed in
their own cities, and their heirs would eventually act as the core of the
autonomous city-based polities of later centuries, urban polities which had
no parallel either in the states of the southern and eastern Mediterranean or
in the fragmented rural lordships of tenth-century Francia.
Urban Italy was thus both materially poor and culturally conservative in
the early middle ages. Signs of this are the praise-poems for Milan (739) and
Verona (c.800), which are highly unusual in the centuries after 600 as
specific panegyrics of the fabric of cities, with few parallels anywhere in
the former empire. (Constantinople and Rome both have them, although
in each case they are peculiar texts, with no generic parallels. Alcuin’s poem
on York spends most of its space on the qualities of local bishops, and very
little on the urban fabric. The only other example known to me is the Anglo-
Saxon poem The Ruin, a nostalgic evolution of barely comprehensible
glory.) They praise the walls, the forum, the streets, an aqueduct
(in Milan), the amphitheatre (in Verona), and the network of churches in
both, in the same way that late Roman panegyrists like Ausonius and
Sidonius had—the only novelty was the churches, generally ignored in the
late Roman tradition. But, as we have seen, they lied about the state of
the fora: the classical image they sought to present evidently did not have to
have be directly reflected on the ground. Whether this was simply self-deception, or else, more specifically, the tunnel vision of a rich minority,
does not really matter; the fact is that, in cities of mud and poor wooden
buildings, it was possible to talk as if the buildings of imperial Rome were
still standing. 

Paul the Deacon at the end of the eighth century, too, expressed the devastation of a seventh-century epidemic at Pavia in terms of
vegetation being allowed to grow on the forum and plateae of the city: an
image of the country invading the city which has exact parallels in the later
Roman empire, but which was still resonant in the very different material
world of the early middle ages in Italy. Italian conservatism maintained
classical civic ideals, and thus, by extension, the concept of urban living
for its elites, through the greatest economic crisis in the history of the
peninsula. These ideals were still operative in the period of economic revival, and acute political decentralization, which can be clearly seen in the
eleventh century at the latest.”

– Chris Wickham, Framing The Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 649-656

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