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Social mobility is a matter of great relevance for present societal concerns as well as for historical research. As a subject of study, it has been mostly studied as a post-medieval phenomenon. The assumption that pre-modern societies were static, rigid and fundamentally unequal has thus far led to little or no systematic interest in the study of social mobility in the Middle Ages on its own terms. The volume under review aims to provide a more comprehensive view of the variety of channels, factors and practices of social mobility in medieval Italy.
The main goal of the collection is to summarize the results of a research project conducted at several Italian universities on medieval social mobility. It also aims to place that research into a broader historical and historiographical European framework.
The volume is a reflection of these aims as it is structured in three sections: 'Frameworks', a review of social mobility in other European areas, and 'Surveys' and 'Themes' which present the results of the research on the Italian Peninsula, Sardinia and Sicily between the central Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As outlined in the 'Introduction', the research that generated the volume set out to study social mobility by focusing on social, economic, political and institutional factors (culture and learning, the Church). Moreover, the researchers involved adopted methods and categories of analysis from sociology, such as channels of mobility, structural and horizontal mobility, new concepts of 'social space'. What this collective endeavor argued for, as expressed in the volume under review, was that the later medieval period saw a diversification and transformation of channels, forms and opportunities of social mobility that have been largely neglected by mainstream narratives.
The volume thus proposes to emphasize the plurality of the mobility channels and factors and their continuous interaction. To achieve these aims, the essays on the Italian case approach the subject-matter from the perspective of internal mobility (horizontal), i.e., that within a particular social stratum, rather than the more utilized structural (or vertical) mobility, which is considered less promising for the study of medieval social processes and phenomena (13). Also, they work with a more flexible concept of institution than usually employed and include formal (e.g. education, Church, diplomacy, public office, etc.) as well as informal channels, such as nepotism, clientele, one's social networks, patronage, oftentimes crucial in the workings of mobility whether up or downwards.
The first section comprises essays on social mobility as a subject of historical research in England (Christopher Dyer), France (François Menant), the German Empire (Pierre Monnet), the Low Countries (Frederik Buylaert and Sam Geens), and Christian Iberia (David Igual Luis). The authors in this section try to sketch some of the most important features of the respective (national) historiographical traditions in addressing the topic of social mobility and review patterns and forms of mobility of each focus area. As all note, social mobility has not been a central topic, but rather subsumed in broader topics concerning social movements and categories, change and transformations.
Sections 2 and 3 are devoted to thematic issues and case-studies, respectively, in both urban and rural areas of medieval Italy. The essays in the former focus on institutions and occupations as channels and consequences of social mobility, namely the Church (Sandro Carocci), high public office, e.g., chancellorship (Andrea Gamberini), lordship as a factor of restricting mobility for rural inhabitants (Simone Collavini), business as a source of economic and political power (Sergio Tognetti), wealth as the primary driving force of mobility (Giuseppe Petralia), diplomacy as 'political function' and an 'open social field' (Isabella Lazzarini). Further, one essay explores women and social mobility, a little researched topic, at least in the context of Italy (Serena Ferente). The author shows that channels of mobility and autonomy available to medieval women cannot be limited to marriage, but also to their active participation in the economy through paid and un-paid work, e.g., in industry, prostitution, household management, etc., and financial investments. The last article in this section discusses 'social identities' by approaching the subject from the perspective of 'active representations' in Dante's Paradiso (Giuliano Milani), i.e., those that play an active in social change rather than merely reflecting it.
Economic and institutional factors as main drivers of social change or stagnation are also at the heart of the third section, which examines themes from the previous section by concentrating on very specific areas. Social identities as consequences of the multifactorial process of social mobility are analyzed through material culture, i.e., architecture in Southern Italian Renaissance (Bianca de Divitiis), and through an interdisciplinary outlook that seeks to explain the formation of a new, distinct, social 'class'- the popolo (Alma Poloni). Collective social identities as discursively negotiated and often grounded in material realities are scrutinized in the context of communal property of rural groups (Massimo della Misericordia). Two essays explore migration and the geographical mobility of groups as factors of social mobility in Sicily (Alessandro Silvestri) and Sardinia (Olivetta Schena) and their role in the transformation of urban centres under the Aragonese rule. Institutional factors of mobility and political representation of the higher strata in the towns of the Kingdom of Naples are treated by Francesco Senatore and Pierluigi Terenzi. Maria Elena Cortese analyses military service as a channel of mobility and the formation of a category of rural knights in Northern Italy. Last, one essay focuses on particular associations - the guilds of lawyers and notaries - in communal Italy (Lorenzo Tanzini) and their mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.
What emerges from the volume is that no general claim can be made about patterns of social mobility in the European Middle Ages since there were variations not only between different regions and polities, but also within the same areas. Although the collection is premised on an understanding of social mobility as a complex historical phenomenon, economic factors and channels and politics are treated as primary cause of social phenomena. This, as suggested by Jean-Claude Maire Vigueur in the concluding essay, could be related to a desire of the historians to return to 'the basics', i.e., the very material conditions of social inequality, and to an 'obsession' with politically powerful social groups. Further, as also noted by the editors, the immaterial factors of social mobility and medieval women remain underrepresented topics, particularly in the essays dealing with Italy. The envisaged audience of the volume appears to be specialist and international, as most of the articles are English translations, while two are in French. In addition, the 'Italian' essays are very condensed pieces of work derived from previously published research. Each provides with a historiographical overview of the specific theme examined and indicate further lines of investigation, which will be useful for the interested reader wanting to learn more about medieval social mobility in all its complexity.