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1Based on a series of lectures given in Belfast in 2017, this book explores the theme of the stranger in European cities, from the British Isles to central Europe, and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean basin, in the years 1000–1500 CE. In it, Miri Rubin explores the place accorded in medieval towns to ‘strangers’—those ‘not from here’—who could be close neighbours or immigrants from the furthest reaches of the known world. The cities themselves were defined by topographic and architectural particularities, were often religious centres, and enjoyed economic and political privileges that distinguished them from the neighbouring villages.

2From the year 1000 until the 13th century, European cities experienced vigorous economic and demographic growth directly connected to the continuous arrival of new populations. In studying the treatment of strangers in the city—more precisely in the city as autonomous political entity, the institutionalized government responsible for the administration of the city as territory—Rubin explores these political communities’ strategies of inclusion/exclusion in favour of, or against, populations defined by their origins.

3The book is built around this dichotomy: born elsewhere but living here, regardless of gender, age, talents, fortune, religion, miles travelled, or the time they plan to spend in the city. It is thus not a study of strangers in cities, but an analysis of the logics and mechanisms shaping how they were treated in the large cities of Christian Europe and in towns with smaller populations but ample archives.

4In these urban territories, municipal authorities had the autonomy they needed to decide whom to invite to stay, what activities to allow different groups to practise, and whom should be granted ‘citizenship’. Certain kingdoms used similar policies to control the flows of those coming from elsewhere and to promote the settlement of merchants and financiers, like the Flemish in England and Jews and Lombards in Hungary. Depending on the circumstances, these policies varied from benevolent and inclusive when strangers were seen as increasing the prosperity of the city or the kingdom, to sometimes violent exclusion when security (in food, health, economic, or social terms) was in doubt.

5The coexistence of new arrivals and city dwellers with more or less long-standing local roots was not always easy. Although Rubin does not go into detail on this, it is worth recalling that medieval cities attracted very large numbers of traders, bankers, pilgrims, students, mercenaries, and practitioners of various arts (architects, artists, doctors, lawyers). Some came from far away (Europe, Africa, and Asia were connected by both land and sea). Some were rich, others were not. A great diversity of traditions of food and dress, religion, and language made medieval towns veritable towers of Babel. To cope with suspicions, competition, or outright rejection of strangers, city authorities undertook to govern their status, conferring specific privileges (or restrictions) on different identity groups, defining conditions for access to certain trades and to municipal posts, and finally by circumscribing areas of residence; in short, guaranteeing their protection through a legal framework.

6But the administration of cities (or kingdoms) for the good of all also sometimes led to policies of the opposite kind, when the stranger ceased to be perceived as beneficial to the community or when economic tensions led to calls for exclusion. This, Rubin observes, is what happened in the 14th and 15th centuries, as famines and epidemics multiplied. Laws and edicts which, a few decades earlier, provided incentives to immigrate now came to focus on designating strangers to be expelled, even if they had long been settled in the city. After the terrible famines in northern and western Europe between 1314 and 1322, and the demographic and psychological shock of the Black Death (1346–1352), welcome transformed into stigma and exclusion, even towards powerful and well-established social groups. Locally, and predominantly for Jews, strategies were used to differentiate the stranger, while stopping short of expulsion, which would have been economically harmful to the community. Jews were made to wear a distinctive sign, a yellow badge, in Siena from the beginning of the 14th century; a ghetto was created in Venice in the opening years of the 16th century. Policies on the reception of strangers thus fluctuated on short timescales, depending on the economic and political interests of the city or kingdom. Here, the Jews were expelled, accused of having spread the plague; there, immigration was encouraged to repopulate a city or territory after it was decimated by the epidemic.

7In defining Jews as ‘familiar strangers’, Rubin emphasizes both their otherness and their singular position, linked to their religious affiliation, which, by allowing them to make money grow, enabled them to occupy a central financial position. While the Jews were a nomadic population that always faced discrimination in the Christian West, they were also recognized as lenders, a position virtually imposed on them given the many activities they were forbidden to engage in. In southern Europe, this afforded them relative immunity during crises, while elsewhere it excited the interest of ruling groups in need of funds. The originary otherness thus gave way to a constructed one. This also happened to other communities which, having accumulated some wealth, were discriminated against and expelled by secular and religious authorities always short of money to finance the wars and crusades of the Middle Ages.

8In her exploration of conditions for those excluded from ‘citizenship’, Rubin also looks at those who, although born in the city, were viewed in the same way as strangers: women and the poor. They too were victims of this seesaw movement between acceptance and rejection, depending on the status assigned to them and/or the needs of the city. The book focuses relatively little on the poor, but Rubin devotes an entire chapter to women. Examining the condition and role of different categories of women—from wives to slaves, from businesswomen to the beguines of northern Europe, from midwives to prostitutes—Rubin highlights their (apparent) vulnerability and a (certain) marginalization within their own city.

9As in the case of the ‘familiar stranger’, this social group is not defined by its origin in a more or less distant place, but by otherness, here of gender. Half of humanity assigns the other half to a specific place and views it only through the lens of the services it can render and the requirements prescribed for, and through, proper administration of the common good.

10In a little under 100 pages, accompanied by an almost equivalent quantity of endnotes and references reflecting the great diversity of her sources, Rubin paints a comparative portrait of the reception of the ‘other’, stranger or not, across the Christian West. This book is neither a history of cities in the Middle Ages nor a history of immigration, but a reflection at the intersection of here and elsewhere, of the sedentary and the nomadic, of inclusion and exclusion. The reader will thus find very little quantitative data on migrant populations or on the proportion of women in city populations and no analyses based on population densities or the economic or political specificities of particular cities.

11Four short chapters of little more than 20 pages each sweep through a myriad of situations in small towns, large commercial centres, and financial or political capitals. This diversity of situations is at once a strength—the book paints a very wide-ranging portrait of strategies of welcome and exclusion across Europe towards specific social groups—but also a weakness because it lacks the space to analyse them in the light of specific contexts of place, time, and culture. It is also regrettable that Rubin did not examine the conditions of other categories of migrants who played an essential role in the development and renown of certain cities (students, architects, and artisans who built cathedrals, for example). Nor, unfortunately, does she explore problems related to the presence of mercenary soldiers or peasants forced into homelessness, who always found refuge in cities; nor does she examine the consequences of the mass expulsions (of Muslims, Jews, ‘heretics’) as states (re)conquered different territories. Finally, it is regrettable too that the author did not broaden her research to encompass archaeological data that would have supported and enriched her observations; for example, on the grouping of Jewish populations and certain categories of women in particular quarters, or on the extraordinary intensity of intercontinental exchanges in the Middle Ages. This essay’s interest lies mainly in its own origins—the theme was directly inspired by the influx of refugees to Europe in 2015 and the addition of a million ‘strangers’ to the German population—and in the particular context of its publication, as the COVID-19 epidemic has reactivated mechanisms of exclusion against newly settled populations (internal migrant workers in India, for example). While the subject of the stranger in the city is not new, having been addressed in works by other historians, this twofold resonance with recent events underscores the contemporary relevance of this historical survey.

Uploaded on on 06/07/2021
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