Review of Wickham, Sleepwalking into a New World

By Daniel Morgan / May 25, 2017

Chris Wickham. Sleepwalking into a New World: The Emergence of Italian City Communes in the Twelfth CenturyPrinceton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2015.
Reviewed by Daniel Morgan

Chris Wickham’s new work is a reconsideration of the rise of the early Italian communes through three major case studies. After some general remarks on the Italian communes and their historiography, Wickham takes a close look at the development of the communal regimes of Milan, Pisa, and Rome, and then uses the conclusions drawn from these analyses to reassess the rise of communal governance across North and Central Italy. Wickham’s central question is: what did the founders of the Italian communes think they were doing? He argues that their political projects were not intentional, farsighted articulations of a new form of government. Wickham’s thesis is that the communes were ad hoc political formations. They were altogether a defensive response to the failures of political authority in the Kingdom of Italy and their unique individual histories were defined by the relationships between the different classes making up their urban elite.

Wickham’s book is part of a larger and enduring debate on the rise of the communes in twelfth-century Italy, and one can see his argument in outline in an earlier essay, “The ‘Feudal Revolution’ and the Origins of the Italian City Communes.” However, Sleepwalking into a New World is primarily in response to the work of Jean-Claude Maire Vigueur in Cavaliers et Citoyens. According to Vigueur, a mounted class that included commercial, artisanal, and judicial experts (in addition to landed elites) ruled the communes, constituting a fairly wide range of people in the urban environment of the medieval Italian city. Although Vigueur notes that there was some class differentiation among the members of this elite, Wickham adds nuance to this picture by arguing that this group may be divided into a tripartite class structure: a top tier of major landowners usually holding both seigniorial privileges and castles, a second tier of large-scale landowners with few if any seigniorial privileges and almost certainly no castles, and a third tier made up of medium rentiers, successful artisans, and judicial and notarial professionals. This model, Wickham argues, allows historians to assess how different communes responded to different circumstances. The history of communal governance in each city was, in part, the product of the relationships between these three classes within the broader urban elite. It is therefore possible to reconstruct some of what the leading men of the communes thought they were doing if careful attention is paid to these class relations.

In chapter one, Wickham argues that historians have agreed broadly on a number of key features concerning early communal governance. Most importantly for Wickham, the early communes were characterized by elite leadership, even as historians have disagreed sharply on the nature of this elite group. Based on a set of common features that most communes displayed by the second half of the twelfth century, Wickham defines    an ideal commune as a self-conscious “urban collectivity” made up of all or most male members of the city-dwelling community, bound by oaths, and governed by a “regularly rotating set of magistracies chosen or at least validated by that collectivity,” with “a de facto autonomy of action for the city and its magistrates, including in warfare and justice, and eventually taxation and legislation.” Using the ideal commune as a template for assessing the stages of communal governance, and with special attention paid to the class makeup of the communal elite, he turns to his case studies.

Chapter two is entirely devoted to Milan, and here Wickham concludes that there was an economic affinity among the three tiers of the Milanese elite, who together formed a broad militia class. However, even as they worked together, they never formed a single political community, and, after the 1130s, third-tier judicial experts ruled the Milanese commune. Even as third-tier elites came to dominate Milan, they articulated the public values of the commune through the customs of the landed aristocracy and described the political life of their own class in terms reminiscent of top-tier elites.

In chapter three, Wickham argues that in Pisa there was a continuity of second-tier elites running the affairs of the city. In the wake of civil wars and the confusion of non-traditional hierarchies, the economically cohesive non-comital elite of Pisa turned towards the urban collective practices of the Pisan community and began to form incipient institutions. What once was a defensive action became a proactive one as second-tier Pisan elites began to treat civic institutions as a way to practice forms of collective lordship unavailable to them in the Tuscan countryside.

And in chapter four, Wickham discusses the formation of the commune of Rome, which was led by third-tier elites reacting to Innocent II’s consolidation of power. The pope brought Roman first- and second- tier elites into his patronage system but marginalized the lesser civic elites, giving rise to the commune. The Roman commune was somewhat unique in that it was founded as a self-consciously counter-aristocratic and counter-papal organization that sought to usurp local civic rule from the papal circle. Unlike elsewhere in Italy, there was no sleepwalking into communal governance in Rome.

Finally, in chapter five, Wickham tests the utility of his case studies for analyzing the rest of communal Italy. His analysis here is regional, moving first from Genoa to the Piemonte and Lombardy, and then to the Emilia before turning to Romagna and the Veneto, and then finally to Tuscany. Wickham argues that there were a number of differences between each group of communes, roughly breaking down  by  region.  For  example, the precociousness of the Lombard communes was likely due to this region having been the center of the old Carolingian regime, where the collapse of the old structures of political rule was most sharply felt. But Wickham concludes that although the speed of communal development broke down along roughly geographic lines, it still followed the following narrative: political crisis led to various city elites (in most cases second tier) responding collectively, creating ad hoc assemblies that later formalized into discrete ruling groups, and finally these ruling groups articulated their authority in codified, judicial terms. In order to account for exceptional incidences, such as Rome, and the salient differences between different communes in terms of character and pace of development, the historian should pay close attention to how the various tiers of the urban elite related to each other and responded to circumstance.

Although far from exhaustive, Sleepwalking into a New World is useful not only for the historian of the Italian communes in particular, but also for historians of the medieval world in general. Wickham’s intervention is an important one for scholarship on the Italian communes because he creates a model for assessing how the urban elite functioned, and he demonstrates this model’s usefulness for explaining how and why urban collectivities formed as they did in twelfth-century Italy. The deeper implication of this explanatory framework, and the one most relevant for medieval historians working outside of Italy, is that Wickham proves once again the importance of prosopography and the analytical tool of class in assessing historical change. By asking which families were part of which class of urban elites, and whether or not they participated in the rise of communal governance, Wickham has been able to assess the political choices that were available to people in times of political change. Wickham’s book is a powerful argument for the power of social history to begin to answer questions concerning the motivations and thought-worlds of medieval peoples.