Town Mouse Tom Hodgkinson
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.