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Luisa Radohs: Urban Elite Culture. A Methodological Study of Aristocracy and Civic Elites in Sea-Trading Towns of the Southwestern Baltic (12th-14th c.) (= Quellen und Darstellungen zur hansischen Geschichte. Neue Folge; Bd. LXXVIII), Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau 2023, 691 S., 200 Farb-Abb., ISBN 978-3-412-52860-7, EUR 110,00
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Rezension von:
William L. Urban
Monmouth College, Monmouth, IL
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Ralf Lützelschwab
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William L. Urban: Rezension von: Luisa Radohs: Urban Elite Culture. A Methodological Study of Aristocracy and Civic Elites in Sea-Trading Towns of the Southwestern Baltic (12th-14th c.), Köln / Weimar / Wien: Böhlau 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 4 [15.04.2024], URL:

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Luisa Radohs: Urban Elite Culture

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This is a book for archeologists. It deals with two Baltic communities, one in Germany (Stralsund) and one in Denmark (Næstved), but the questions raised by the author apply widely. Some readers in other disciplines might be interested in the philosophical and practical discussions, but most will want to go to chapters seven and eight and to the short summary of the arguments.

The central problem is in determining what an elite is. Although this may seem self-evident, in medieval terms it is not. The first kind is the aristocracy, a word that is often used interchangeably with elite, but which Radohs uses for nobles whose incomes come from their estates and various forms of taxation and tolls. Following the model of Thorsten Veblen, this is a hereditary group characterized by leisure and conspicuous consumption. (The warrior aspect is not considered deeply here, since that seldom leaves significant material remains in cities.)

The second kind is the civic elite, which must make a living by trade or producing goods for sale. Together, they make up perhaps 1% of the population, and because the members vary greatly in wealth and power, there is an important area of overlap in the cities. This is the urban elite.

The aristocracy had been of decisive importance in the early decades of the two cities, but as the cities grew in size and wealth, the aristocracy's role diminished. Diminished, not disappeared. Radohs was able to create a list of the aristocratic families by studying the legal documents, each of which would name actors and attestors, but archeologists could not find a clear dividing line between the material culture of the aristocracy and the urban elite, and whatever lines existed in social and political life were repeatedly crossed in the processes of administration, commerce, and religious ceremonies. Still, we can discard the nineteenth century concept of a static rural aristocracy facing dynamic rising cities - local aristocrats often had dwellings in the cities, and there was some intermarriage.

The civic elite was composed of families that could influence political and economic decisions, families that were represented in the local government, and which were looked to for leadership in cultural and religious life. They usually lived near the city hall and the most significant churches, and their large, multi-storied brick houses faced the most important streets.

As far as wealth went, the two elites had much in common, but they remained separate, one oriented toward royal or ducal politics, the other toward maritime trade. They coexisted rather than commingled, except for their shared desire to enjoy as much luxury and comfort as their incomes allowed. That is where the scholars' problems begin.

Archeologists cannot easily determine which elite objects had belonged to which group, and while records show that urban elites occasionally managed to crowd their way into the aristocracies' realm, as in participating in occasional jousts and adding decorations to their houses, they cannot say how common this was. Both groups came to see the importance of education and the value of being seen as belonging to a superior social order, but whether one says "to the manner born" or "to the manor born", the principle is clear - some belong and some would only like to.

That said, the members of the civic elite were in competition with each other, not the classes above them. There are difficulties, however, in studying them, because they are highly mobile and appear in official documents less than one might expect. (The laboring class and the poor, of course, hardly ever appear in legal documents and leave less material evidence for archeologists to study.)

Even the most commonly found objects in excavations cannot be understood by themselves. For example, all classes left pottery shards in their trash heaps, but these were usually from objects that were so common that we cannot say whether the owner was rich or poor. Decorated pottery, in contrast, is sufficiently rare and so obviously desirable that we can associate it with the elite; that is true also for swords, rings, belt buckles, coins, glass objects, and tiles. The author provides beautiful photos of these "barometer objects" as well as a complete record of where and when each was found. This means that many pages of the book are of interest only to specialists, but the photos allow us to imagine what the furnishing of houses belonging to the elite would be.

Much material culture did not survive. Furniture was used until it was suitable only for firewood, and seals of private citizens might have been used only a few times before being thrown into a latrine. Fortunately for the archeologists, the latrines were cleaned out periodically and the contents used on surrounding fields. This means, of course, that it is impossible to connect the material object to its place of origin.

Radohs presents some practical advice on how to interpret the material that did survive. Most useful is NAT (number of artifact types), which gives greater weight to the variety of barometer objects in a location than to the sheer number. This, when combined with the written evidence, allows us to determine roughly where the owner of the residence fits in the social hierarchy.

Næstved was used as a control for the Stralsund chapters, along with barometer objects from the National Museum of Denmark. This confirms the existence of a Baltic urban elite that crossed national borders and language barriers. Merchants bought and sold wherever they could, and they lived wherever it was most convenient for business.

What we learn in these chapters is the complexity of the problems facing the archeologist, not the least of which is the paucity of written records that would allow us to put names to the houses that have been excavated, thereby giving us a better idea of how they fit into the urban elite.

Appendix 8 might be of more general interest because of its detailed floor plans. Creating these was possible because Lübeck law (which was used in Stralsund) demanded a strong firewall between buildings. While the upper stories of many buildings have been destroyed or altered, the basements have remained intact. Combining this information with structures standing elsewhere, the author can show what the interiors of the buildings must have looked like.

This brings us to one of the author's strongest lessons, namely that nothing explains itself in isolation. Context is everything, and all possible sources of information must be used. In this study, the combination of written sources and archeological research provides us a glimpse beyond the material culture of the urban elite into how that elite functioned. A glimpse, alas, is less than a look. For that, more work is needed. And "the man in the street" needs a simple story that he can remember and tell.

What Radohs hopes for is a renewed debate on past and present urban archeology, a debate that can better define the goals and measures to be used in the future, a debate that will lead us to better understand what life was really like in a medieval city.

William L. Urban