Tom Scott has written an extremely valuable book. The political and economic issue of the relationship of towns to their hinterland is essential for understanding early modern Europe. Further, the book is a bibliographical tour de force, introducing American readers to a host of Italian and German authors who should be much more widely appreciated in this country than they are. Finally, the book provides a valiant attempt to understand what is common and what is unique about how various European towns were related to their hinterlands. The definition of a city-state is rather slippery. Scott tends to assume a city-state would be any city that could claim some sort of autonomy. This may be true, in some sense, of Spanish or French towns, but, as a practical reality, he is concerned with Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany. Common to all these areas was weak or intermittent central authority.

Scott begins his story with the emergence of Italian communes after 1000, and his method throughout the study is to lay out the problem in terms of work done in Italy (Giorgio Chittolini, Antonio Ivan Pini, and Maria Ginatempo provide much of the conceptual frame for analysis) and then move out, generally to the north. What is the story? Scott wants to consider why and how—and with what consequences—cities in Europe chose to dominate their hinterlands to the point where, in a clearly discernible belt of civic territories stretching from central and northern Italy over the Alps to the German-speaking lands and the Low Countries, they succeeded in constructing polities (1).

For an older generation of Italian historians, the story would be founded on a juridical revolution that began around 1000 and that created conditions of freedom allowing for the commercial revolution that followed. Scott largely reverses the story.

The early autonomy of towns was based on economic connections to their hinterland and only later on international trade. Throughout the book, Scott argues that economic and commercial interests predominate and only later did towns worry about jurisdiction, fiscal and military policy, or settlement. Yet one of the key distinctions really is juridical in nature. In the north, many towns regularly enrolled rural citizens or “outburghers.” These could be nobles, peasants, or even convents who would be given citizenship rights in a town. This often included the access to urban markets. Scott underlines that rural citizenship could vary in significance, but it was found throughout the north. This could mean that the countryside was peppered with tiny islands of competing jurisdictions and rights.

At first glance this seems to differ dramatically from Italy, where towns tended to dominate their contadi. Yet Scott believes that a territorium clausum was not so common in Italy as Giorgio Chittolini, for one, has tended to believe. This, in fact, may be a weakness in Scott's approach. Older ideas of a unified contado tied together by roads, rural communes, and market structures do seem to predominate, especially in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but he is certainly correct to point to mixed jurisdictional patterns in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But in any case, as Scott shows, outburghership in the north or “sylvan citizenship” in the south really were rather different.

In the end, Scott analyzes a host of theories about city-states and finds them all wanting in one way or another. The basic problem is that scholars quickly look to north-central Italy or Flanders without realizing that models generated there rarely work in complex areas like Switzerland or southwest Germany—his treatment of Switzerland and south Germany really is a great strength. In the end, he seems most happy with Maria Ginatempo's emphasis on a regional model, which emphasizes the relative strength of rural lords. In places like Lombardy, where rural lords remained largely independent, political power always was mediated by their interests. The author prefers this model because it deemphasizes ideological terms like republic or despotism—and in this he recalls Philip Jones's classic study.[1]

In the end, Scott admits there is no entirely satisfactory model for the European city-state. But then this is not a book that depends on a clearly demonstrated thesis. His elegant description of European city-states, their experiences, and their limitations is a wonderful survey of early modern Europe. One can quibble with some conclusions, but Scott is always clear and fair in his discussions. This reviewer's only real complaint concerns the bibliography; it contains nearly seven hundred entries but is subdivided into eleven categories and even more subcategories. It is so complex one cannot always follow up on the work of various scholars. That said, students and researchers will find this book extremely valuable.


  1. Top of page
  2. Bibliography
  • 1
    Philip J. Jones, “Communes and Despots: The City State in Late-Medieval Italy,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1965, 15, 7196.