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Peter Carelli, Brave New Urban World: The Emergence of Urban Identity in Medieval Europe, c. 1000–1300

During the High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300), Western Europe experienced a radical changeover. The prime mover was an intellectual reorganization with an emphasis of critical and reflexive thinking. Its impact on society was so great that contemporary scholars describe it as a paradigmatic shift, 'a cognitive revolution'. New ideas of agentic responsibility and free will came to affect all spheres of society, which affected and generated the perception that agents can influence and change the earthly existence. This initiated processes that, in a relatively short time span, led to radical societal changes, such as far-reaching individualization, privatization and commercialization.

The High Middle Ages is also characterized by a very strong urbanization. A great number of older cities and towns were given new life at this time, others were newly founded. Within these cities, a new lifestyle soon developed, which in many respects differed from rural way of life. In effect, this resulted in a collective awareness of the existence and particularity of city life. Urban self-consciousness gradually developed into a specific urban identity. Its purpose was to create an exclusive sense of participation and belonging in cities and towns. This occurred through a system of coercive elements accepted by most of the city's inhabitants.

The project Brave new urban world aims to study this process of change. The overarching goal is to understand how the new urban identity was formed during the High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300) and how the ideas were materialized in contemporary urban life. This will primarily be carried out by studying material expressions and manifestations of the new mental legacy, but also by conducting a more theoretically oriented discussion of medieval identity and urbanity. The ambition is to study the process of change in a wider Western European context, including areas of ancient urban traditions and areas without. The primary study areas consist of northern and central Italy, Germany, England and Scandinavia.

The project takes its theoretical starting point in a model of regional identity, developed by the Finnish geographer Anssi Paasi. The model uses the theory of institutionalization as an analytical tool to describe the growth, development and reproduction of regions. According to Paasi, the institutionalization process takes place in several stages. The first is the establishment of territorial awareness and form, which occurs through the constitution of boundaries. The second step is the establishment of a conceptual and symbolic form, which occurs through the creation and use of common symbols. The third step is the constitution of corporate institutions, which lead up to a collective sense of togetherness. The fourth and final step is the emergence of a common sense of place, a unified idea and awareness of a given territory, i. e. the existence of a regional identity.

Based on Paasis model, it is therefore reasonable that the emergence of a new urban identity in the High Middle Ages was shaped by the successive establishment of defined boundaries, the use of common symbols and the makeup of corporate institutions. In the project Brave new urban world, material expressions and manifestations of the institutionalization process in urban Europe will be studied, such as the presence of town walls, town seals, coins with urban iconography, and town halls. These elements are chosen since they represent different steps in the institutionalization process. Town walls set up the boundaries for the city communities, town seals and coins with urban iconography were symbols that signaled the city communities’ legal and economic sovereignty, and the town halls were physical manifestations of the city communities’ municipal self-government. Based on the physical occurrence and dating of the material elements, it will be possible to give a broader reasoning about the emergence of urban identity in High Medieval Europe, and to clarify both chronology and chorology of the process.

Peter Carelli
Associate Professor Historical Archaeology
The Archaeologists, National Historical Museums, Sweden
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