Town Mouse Tom Hodgkin­son

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This month, I would like to re­mem­ber a great rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment started by the coun­try-mice-turned-town-mice of old: the me­dieval city state.

Most of us, when con­fronted with the word ‘me­dieval’, think of su­per­sti­tion, plagues, rot­ting teeth and servile stu­pid­ity. In fact, the me­dieval pe­riod saw an ex­tra­or­di­nary and peace­ful upris­ing of the or­di­nary peo­ple against their feu­dal op­pres­sors. The move­ment flow­ered in the cre­ation of count­less, for­ti­fied city states or com­munes across Europe. They were ruled not by a king or other au­to­crat, but by a demo­cratic com­mit­tee of newly lib­er­ated, bour­geois town mice, wear­ing crim­son coats lined with er­mine and dec­o­rated with gold stars.

I’ve just been stay­ing with friends in Tus­cany, which is full of these com­munes. What is remarkable is that many of the city states have barely changed in ap­pear­ance since the days of Piero della Francesca, and the towns­peo­ple still meet weekly to dis­cuss lo­cal mat­ters.

To­day you can wan­der round the mag­nif­i­cent, dec­o­rated cathe­drals and guild­halls of Florence, Siena and Arezzo. I com­pare these build­ings with the prod­ucts of moder­nity. Take the bridge at Genoa which re­cently col­lapsed. It has been al­leged that it was shod­dily built to save time and money. In the Mid­dle Ages, ir­re­spon­si­ble and greedy be­hav­iour by builders was pretty much out­lawed. Which era was more so­phis­ti­cated?

Many of the old cus­toms are still alive. In Siena, there’s the Palio, the horse race where the var­i­ous dis­tricts, or con­trade, of the city com­pete with one an­other. As a fan of the slow, idle life, my eyes were par­tic­u­larly drawn to the Con­trada della Chioc­ci­ola, the ‘district of the snail’. Still to­day, mem­bers of this gang pa­rade around with their snail-covered ban­ners.

The me­dieval city states were of a man­age­able size. The pop­u­la­tion tended to num­ber 50,000 to 100,000. This made them less alien­at­ing than the mod­ern city.

It is this sur­pris­ing pe­riod of self­gov­ern­ment in Europe that won the city-state move­ment praise from the great Rus­sian an­ar­chist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). It was the ven­er­a­ble Kropotkin who wrote the def­i­ni­tion of ‘an­ar­chism’ for the 11th edi­tion of the En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica, of­ten cited as the best pro­duc­tion from this ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion, now sadly eclipsed by that shabby, fac­tu­ally du­bi­ous and messy up­start, Wikipedia. He was a friend of Os­car Wilde and lived in Brom­ley to­wards the end of the 19th cen­tury.

In his book Mu­tual Aid, Kropotkin ar­gues that the Mid­dle Ages saw the flow­er­ing of the prin­ci­ple of broth­er­hood – as op­posed to author­ity – as an or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple of so­ci­eties:

‘They in­sti­tuted their “co-ju­ra­tions”, their “fra­ter­ni­ties” and their “friend­ships”, united in one com­mon idea, boldly march­ing to­wards a new life of mu­tual sup­port and lib­erty. And they suc­ceeded so well that, in three or four hun­dred years, they had changed the very face of Europe. They had covered the coun­try with beau­ti­ful, sump­tu­ous build­ings, ex­press­ing the ge­nius of free unions of free men, un­ri­valled since for their beauty and ex­pres­sive­ness.’

Sadly, it has been rather down­hill for town mice ever since the Re­for­ma­tion. The 17th cen­tury in Eng­land was a night­mare of anx­i­ety and re­li­gious up­heaval. The 18th cen­tury saw a lot of fun but a lot of mis­ery – just look at Hog­a­rth prints. In the 19th cen­tury, we only have to read Dick­ens and May­hew to see how mis­er­able and squalid life in the city was for many.

The equiv­a­lent of rich and suc­cess­ful cities such as me­dieval Florence and Venice to­day would be, I sup­pose, San Fran­cisco, home of the bil­lion­aire tech over­lords. But un­like its me­dieval coun­ter­parts, it has no creative spark or imag­i­na­tion, and its ar­chi­tec­ture is hum­drum in the ex­treme. Where would you rather live – Palo Alto or Venice? Beauty has been sac­ri­ficed to util­ity.

The scale of to­day’s cities is just too vast. The me­dieval – and in­deed the an­cient Greek – cities were built on a hu­man scale. You could walk around them and you would know a lot of the peo­ple.

The Ox­ford sci­en­tist Robin Dun­bar came up with what is known as ‘Dun­bar’s num­ber’ for happy so­ci­eties. He reck­oned 150 was the op­ti­mum num­ber of friends and fam­ily one per­son could have. He reck­ons that most English vil­lages in the 18th cen­tury had around 150 in­hab­i­tants – also the num­ber that can fit in to most coun­try­side churches, sug­gest­ing that 150 was the size of ear­lier vil­lage com­munes as well.

Per­son­ally, this town mouse is very happy liv­ing in Lon­don which, as has of­ten been noted, is re­ally a col­lec­tion of vil­lages – Maryle­bone, Prim­rose Hill, St John’s Wood, Peck­ham etc… And Lon­don over the sum­mer has been bliss­fully empty; so we have had a brief glimpse of a more Dun­bar­ian sit­u­a­tion.

Ah yes, one day the bour­geois town mice will rise again and cre­ate our own self-gov­erned cities and dec­o­rate our er­mine coats with stars and snails.

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