Jaroslav Miller: UZAVŘENÁ SPOLEČNOST A JEJÍ NEPŘÁTELÉ. MĚSTO STŘEDOVÝCHODNÍ EVROPY (1500–1700)

Luďa Klusáková

In the works of authors who have succumbed

to the fascination of urban

history,

we frequently find various metaphors

that present urban society and the

town itself as an environment that concentrates

basic social processes as a display

case of social hierarchy and change.

European towns and urban culture are

unhesitatingly regarded as the criterion

of identification and foundation stone of

European cultural identity. Even so, in

some European historiographies, urban

history remains on the edge of the mainstream

of scholarship and is sometimes

reduced to the theme of individual towns.

This applies to Spanish, Portuguese,

Latvian, Russian, Slovak and, alas, Czech

historiography, and it can be supported

with reference to the very small number

of overviews, the absence of syntheses,

and also the lists of participants at the

conference of the European Association

for Urban History (EAUH) from its first

conference in 1992 in Amsterdam to its

eighth conference in 2006 in Stockholm. It

is also the reason why all the synthesizing

works on the development of European

towns published so far by West European

or American authors have essentially

lacked properly founded chapters on the

development of towns in East Central

Europe. This is the case with the books

produced by Christopher R. Friedrichs,

Alex Cowan, Jan de Vries, Paul Bairoch,

Paul Hohenbergh and Lynn Hollen Lees.

When Peter Clark was editing a book on

small towns in early modern Europe, he

asked the Hungarian historian Vera Bacskai

to put together the chapter on East

Central Europe. The problem is always

the same. The historiographies of the

countries of East Central Europe include

a number of works that have contexts and

implications beyond the national perspective

but are inaccessible because of

language (e.g., the synthesis on the earlier

development of Polish towns by Henryk

Samsonowicz and Marie Bogucka,

the analysis of the demographic development

of modern Polish towns by Marie

Nietyksza, or the older Slovak work of

Anton Špiesz). There do, in fact, exist

numerous studies with a narrower focus

in accessible languages (e.g., articles by

Gabor Sokoly, Györgyi Granasztoi, many

by Maria Bogucka or, among the younger

authors, Markian Prokopovich), but,

unfortunately, these accessible works

have, for various reasons, remained outside

the field of vision of the authors of

the syntheses and, of course, they are

too specialized to fill in the gaps in our

knowledge by themselves. Despite all the

research possibilities available today, the

younger generation has not been interested

enough in urban themes to embark

on synthetic and comparative work in this

area. In this context, the constant and systematic

interest shown by Jaroslav Miller

is exceptional and gratifying.

It would be extremely unfair and

misleading to claim that the field was

untouched by scholarship before Jaroslav

Miller entered it. On the contrary,

among historians of East Central Europe

(as they have defined it), there has always

been great interest but interest of uneven

intensity. In the Czech case, historians

have tended to be attracted by the “life

stories” of towns: their beginnings, the

founding of towns and their early phases

of growth or, later, the stage of rapid

industrialization. The period of crisis,

regression, conflicts and problems was,

for a long time, left on one side, although

even this period found its historiographers.

Historical demography has also

been providing us with extensive information

about the towns of individual

countries, or groups of towns. What has

been lacking, however, is the systematic

archival research and comparative analysis

that would set the towns and urban

society of East Central Europe in the context

of European urban development. We

did not have a work that would analyze

and define Central European types of

town, characterize the dynamics of their

development, compare them and outline

their place and specific features as contrasted

with other European regions. In

this context, Jaroslav Miller’s book is the

book for which urban historiography has

been waiting for years. It has attracted

a corresponding amount of interest not

only from reviewers (Bůžek in ČČH 105,

3/2007, pp. 751–753[ Český časopis historický

– Czech Historical Review];

Ďurčanský for ĎaS, 08/2007, http://

www.dejiny.nln.cz/archiv/2007/082007-

45.html [Dějiny a současnost – History

and Present]) but also among students

(it appears quite often in lists of literature

studied).

Readers will be engaged both by the

formulation of the problem in the book

and the offer of a comparative approach.

The notion of towns as conservative

closed societies contrasts with the generally

accepted image of towns as associated

with modernity. The expert on early

modern towns, Peter Clark, has characterized

towns, their populations the bearers

of innovation since the Middle Ages,

as the identifying mark of European society.

Some European areas have, at different

times, been more open to new

developments and changes and acted as

a model for others. Gradually a particular

area would lose influence and the innovative

energy would move elsewhere. Thus

the Mediterranean towns, which were

the model from the Middle Ages to the

Renaissance, were replaced in this sense

in the early modern period by the towns

of the Netherlands and England and,

later in the twentieth century, the model

became Scandinavian. Is this characterization

invalid according to J. Miller, or

does it apply only to Western Europe?

Was there such a major difference

between Western and Central Europe?

Or is it only a question of emphasis, the

choice of angle of view? Are introversion

and conservatism, as described by Jaroslav

Miller, the general mark of the European

towns of the early modern period?

Can a socially conservative and closed

urban society at the same time show itself

to be technologically innovative? Jaroslav

Miller has posed the whole question

P. CLARK: European Cities: Culture and

Innovation in a Regional Perspective, in Marjaan

NIEMI & Ville VUOLANTO (eds.), Reclaiming

the City. Innovation, Culture, Experience. Studia

Fennica Historica, Helsinki 2003, pp. 121–134.

in a very provocative way and one that

definitely entices the reader. For Miller,

towns are, above all, living organisms.

It is their inhabitants, structures, societies

and communities that create them.

Miller offers his analysis and comparison

as the story of towns and their particular

inhabitants, while demographic and

social historical study is the foundation

of the work. Conceived in this way, the

book is addressed to the reading public

with an interest in social history. The systematic

way in which Miller sets his analysis

in the Central European context and

the example of the use of the comparative

approach make the book particularly useful

for students.

How does Jaroslav Miller present the

historical comparative approach in his

book? What does he compare and how?

The historical comparative method has

its followers in Czech historiography, but

it is not one of the most widely employed

methods and has not previously been

employed in relation to urban themes in

the early modern period. To help us with

orientation here, let us take the clear

guide to the use of the historical comparative

method (approach) as formulated

by Miroslav Hroch, who developed this

methodology in Czech historiography

and trained several generations of historians

in its application.

The theory of comparison demands

that, first and foremost, we should distinguish

between ordinary comparison,

which is the prerequisite for any assessHe

has most recently formulated his idea

in the introduction to M. HROCH: Comparative

Studies in Modern European History. Nation,

Nationalism, Social Change, Ashgate: Aldershot

(UK) /Burlington (VT–USA) 2007, pp. xiii– xiv.

ment of phenomena and processes or for

the assessment of a personality, and the

comparative method as a comprehensive

procedure involving the targeted use of

a whole range of techniques and methods.

Jaroslav Miller, who studied comparative

history at the Central European

University in Budapest, identifies with

this concept of comparison as an elaborated

comprehensive method.

Hroch defined four basic steps or

requirements that the researcher must

fulfill when deciding on the use of comparison

in any particular case. If we look

at how Jaroslav Miller fulfills them in

his book, we shall learn more about his

methodology.

The first step is the proper and precise

definition of the object of comparison;

here it is necessary to chose comparable

objects, i.e., objects that, without regard

to the level of abstraction, belong to the

same category. With Jaroslav Miller, the

objects of comparison are towns as part

of the corresponding regional network of

towns, or certain groups, a type of town.

For East Central Europe, he draws attention

to the considerable regional differences

in the density of settlement and

occurrence of towns. The status of towns

and their inhabitants typically differs

depending on whom they legally belong

to. Given the variety of types of town

settlement, J. Miller has created a set

of selected towns in which royal towns

are strikingly predominant, for these

represent a closed group that occurs

throughout the region and so the examples

are genuinely comparable. It can be

assumed that their institutional life operated

in a similar way and that, in view of

their importance in their time, there is

enough accessible evidence about their

development. The author has to define

and characterize the region on which he

concentrates. Miller decided to fill a gap

in our knowledge of urban development

in the lands of the Bohemian Crown, the

Polish-Lithuanian Union and the Royal

Hungarian Lands. These are neighboring

countries that were in many respects

close and similar, but also showed differences.

Despite the differences, they can

be defined as a region, as East Central

Europe. This category is commonly used

today, and sometimes covers an even

wider territory.

Right at the beginning, the historian

must also decide whether he or she will

apply the comparative method to the

development of a phenomenon, a specific

process over time, or will use it to

analyze the structure of phenomena.

This is a very difficult decision when the

researcher is interested in both. To which

view should he or she give precedence?

Might it not be possible to combine the

two approaches? Jaroslav Miller’s decision

was for the structure of phenomena,

which also involves the development.

In the next phase, the researcher must

clearly formulate the goal of the comparison,

because as a method it can produce

different kinds of results. One can

look for similarities or differences, interpret

causal relations, or use the results

as a basis for an overall typology. At the

same time the comparison can be conceived

symmetrically or asymmetrically,

i.e., when the comparison is between several

objects only one of which is considered

to be central. Although Miller knew

that he would not have an identical set

of sources for all the towns studied and,

in many cases, would be dependent on

the secondary literature, he decided for

a wide-angle approach and a basically

symmetrical comparison.

The third prerequisite for this method

is clarification of the relationship of comparison

to the time access. The historian

must decide and make clear whether

his or her interest is in a synchronic or

diachronic analysis. Tracing development

over time is of course the procedure

most proper to historians, and so

one of the forms of comparison focuses

on comparison of the transformation of

phenomena or processes in time, i.e.,

establishing what about them changes

before and what after. Synchronic analysis

makes possible a comparison of historical

processes or particular social

phenomena as they appear in more than

one country in the same period of time.

Through comparison we can discover

whether these processes were independent

of each other or whether certain links

and connections can be uncovered here.

In Miroslav Hroch’s view, the most interesting

thing about this procedure is that

it enables us to ascertain whether the

objects compared have gone through the

same stage of development, and thus, by

extension, enables us to explore these

analogical situations (or analogical stages

of development) even when they occurred

at different times from the point of view

of absolute chronology. Jaroslav Miller

decided for a synchronic analysis of urban

society in selected countries in what is

known as the early modern period, which

he defined for his purposes as 1500–

1700, with necessary overlaps into the

earlier and later periods. In this case, we

do anticipate dramatic lack of uniformity

within the region, but the comparison

with Mediterranean or North-Western

Europe would be interesting.

The fourth essential step in formulating

the tasks of comparative study and

concrete methods is to define the criteria

of comparison, which must be the same

for all the objects chosen. The choice of

these criteria is crucial. They must be relevant,

they must provide an effective picture

of the phenomenon studied, and they

must make it possible to compare the

objects investigated in accordance with

these criteria. It is recommended that the

more objects an author is studying, the

fewer criteria of comparison he or she

should use. Picking these criteria is also

a very difficult decision. In the case of

the comparison of the town networks in

three countries, what is too many, what is

appropriate and what is too few?

The first criterion of comparison in

Miller’s study is the regional town network.

Miller offers a situation report on

the urban map of East Central Europe.

He draws attention to the situation and

changes in each individual country and

shows differences in the intensity and in

the type of urbanization; for some people

these may seem obvious, but they will be

revealing in European comparative perspective,

above all on the West-East axis.

The second criterion is the problem of

migration to the towns. Connected with

this are the status of the town population

and the attraction of a specific group of

towns. These factors necessarily show up

via immigration. Carrying on from this

issue, Miller raises the question of the

identity of the town and town community

and its relationship to “others.” We can

consider these factors to be another two

criteria of comparison. A town community

can preserve its identity by closing

up, guarding its borders and controlling

immigration. These tendencies may

be expressed in the policy towards integration

of migrants and in attempts to

defend town autonomy in relation to the

state. The “others” were most often Jews,

who themselves wanted to preserve their

identity and spontaneously separated

themselves off, but were at the same time

segregated by the majority society which,

however, also needed them and exploited

their commercial skills and financial

services. Miller presents another type

of “other” in the form of the nobility,

who settled at court for reasons of prestige

and politics, and in the major towns

for economic reasons, and who, in some

cases, developed or even built their own

towns. We expect to find tension between

the townspeople and nobility, but mutual

cultural influence is also evident. The life

of the urban community was governed

by fixed rules, regulations, legal norms.

Conflicts that occurred between the community

and council tell us a great deal

about the way the town councils functioned

and the way the town operated.

For this period, conflicts can typically

be expected over the church in the context

of reformation and re-catholicization

and over the centralizing policies of

the state. The final two criteria are first

the estates monarchy in Central Eastern

Europe, the struggle between the estates

and the state in the Rzecz pospołita, the

Royal Hungarian Lands and the Bohemian

Lands as a political issue on the

one hand, and the town economy on

the other. The analysis of these themes

involves a broadening of the comparative

focus to include not only royal towns but

the private tributary towns, whose economic

growth based on exploitation of

traditional economic instruments (economic

liberties and rights) strongly characterizes

the type of urban network in all

three compared countries. The account

of the legal framework and fundamental

features of town economies and hinterlands

on the basis of these criteria represents

the starting point for a concluding

summary. Jaroslav Miller agrees with

Ch. Friedrichs and A. Cowan that, in the

early modern period, towns appeared

outwardly much the same as they had in

the late medieval period. Neither with

respect to the running of the town or the

social structure within which internal

communication took place were there

dramatic changes underway. The family

or individual who moved from one urban

environment to another, his parents or,

a couple of generations further on, his

children or grandchildren would have

been living in an environment that essentially

functioned in the same way. Considering

England at the end of the 17th

century and beginning of the 18th century,

Peter Borsay saw a change in the life style

of the urban population, in the discovery

of leisure, but above all in the transformation

of the functions of the town and the

development of towns with a specialized

function. From Jaroslav Miller’s analysis

it follows that the society of the not particularly

populous towns of East Central

Europe was not just very close to its agriP.

BORSAY: History of Leisure: The British

Experience Since 1500, Palgrave 2006, pp.

1–35 and especially his earlier work on the renaissance

of English towns.

cultural hinterland, but fairly impervious

to change. Naturally, aspects of urban

life take different forms viewed through

the eyes of old inhabitants, immigrants

who can and wish to immigrate, and

those who wish, at all costs, to preserve

their difference. They are seen one way

by a town council and another by a nobleman

or other feudal or ecclesiastical

authority. Jaroslav Miller refers to differences

in the average figures for density

of population and the size of the towns

of Western Europe, especially France

(p. 33). We should not forget that the picture

was far from homogenous, for small

towns were very numerous and close in

their relationship to the countryside. The

average figures have been distorted by

the great ports, provincial centers and

capital cities. It is no accident that Peter

Clark and Bernard Lepetit devoted a collaborative

project to the small towns of

Europe. In France there is an association

for the history of small towns and a whole

range of studies on the theme. The continuing

importance of the small towns,

the traditional character of their populations

and their close relationship to the

countryside was pointed out as early as

the 19th century by Eugen Weber, and

later by Fernand Braudel. Despite this,

B. LEPETIT: In search of the small town

in early nineteenth-century France in P. CLARK:

Small towns in early modern Europe, Cambridge

1995;

E.g. J.-P. POUSSOU (ed.): Les petites villes

du sud-ouest de l´antiquité a nos jours, Mamers

2006.

E. WEBER: La Fin des Terroir. La modernisation

de la France rurale 1870–1914, Paris

1983 (first in Stanford 1976); F. BRAUDEL:

L’Identité de la France I. Histoire et environement,

Paris 1986.

the pre-industrial period is considered

important for the urbanization of European

society.

In conclusion it must be said that the

theme of the book is a fascinating one,

and that Jaroslav Miller has put together

and organized marvelous material which

can be used for future research and the

enlargement of the comparative perspective

to include other European regions.

Miller’s comment on and responses to

international discussion on the problems

concerned are very interesting and readable.

His bibliography and catalogue of

sources is admirable, and will be appreciated

by any researchers wanting to pick

up his themes. In this book, Miller also

shows that the unit of comparison need

not necessarily be the state, but can be

a social phenomenon, and that quantification

can be combined with the qualitative

analysis needed to draw attention to

the actors in the processes explored and

in some cases to compensate for a lack of

official records providing for statistics.

Of course, from the point of view of the

historiography of events, this approach

is misleading and comparative analyses

involve inadmissible simplification and

schematization. This tension between

the comparative and narrative is classical,

long familiar and useful. By means of

his definition of the six levels of comparison,

Jaroslav Miller, on the one hand, follows

basic criteria that he exploits for the

regional typology of the town network

E. MAUR in Pavla HORSKÁ – Eduard

MAUR – Jiří MUSIL: Zrod velkoměsta. Urbanizace

českých zemí a Evropa [The Birth of

the Metropolis. The urbanisation of the Czech

Lands and Europe], Paseka: Praha/Litomyšl

2002, pp. 80–120.

and, on the other, gives readers an insight

into the town environment, its mechanisms,

and urban stories. By characterizing

the urban societies of East Central

Europe as conservative and closed, he

inspires us to carry on looking for the

relationships between an innovative

approach to social problems and urban

environments.


Luďa Klusáková


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