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Εleni Sakellariou

Coping with crisis: cities and towns in southern Italy in the late Middle Ages

The late Middle Ages in Italy is a period of crisis at many levels: the demographic, economic, institutional and political. The crisis seems to be systemic and long lasting; however, it is interrupted by shorter periods of recovery and growth. In this rapidly changing environment, the prime role of cities and the high level of urbanization is the distinguishing feature of the Italian case. In the study of Italian cities, the paradigm of the largely independent urban communes of the centre and north is still dominant as a reference point for the evaluation of the economic, social and institutional complexity, of the polity and the civilization of these urban centres and of the peninsula as a whole. At the same time, and next to the dominant paradigm of the north, the towns and cities of southern Italy attain a mature civic identity following a different path. As a rule, they do not claim autonomy and a large margin of initiative outside and in opposition to the centralized royal authority that has dominated the south since the twelfth century, nor do they try systematically to secure control over an extended hinterland. Rather, they seek and achieve participation, next to the central government, in the administrative control of their territory and, in the last analysis, in the government of the unified institutional entity, which was embodied in the monarchy in southern Italy. They also achieve recognition of, and set in motion, their role as political bodies with a certain negotiating clout towards the central authority and other social and political entities. Under this viewpoint, it seems that the yardstick for the assessment of southern Italian urban settlements must not be their neighbours in the north of the peninsula, but the cities of political structures with comparable characteristics in the north and west of Europe.

© EPLO 2017