Citizenship in Medieval and Early Modern Italian Cities

Citizenship in Medieval and Early Modern Italian Cities 

By Anna Maria Pult Quaglia

Citizenship in Historical Perspective, edited by Steven G. Ellis, Guðmundur Hálfdanarson and Ann Katherine Isaacs (Pisa University Press, 2006)

Introduction: The conditions for belonging to a given political community together with associated individual rights, duties and responsibilities deriving from this belonging have changed in space and time. Going over each phase of these transformations can help us better understand if and how such a community constructed its self image in the different contexts of time and space, defined its own identity, set its limits and worked out the rules for belonging and exclusion.

This analysis will deal with Central and Northern Italy, where cities were more numerous and important, in the period between the 14th and the 18th centuries, when city-states modified their territorial and institutional framework. This gave rise, generally, to the constitution of territorial states, when some cities included other cities and territories in their dominions, extending their own frontiers. Nevertheless the category of “citizenship” and the idea of “identity” did not develop in the same way, and did not extend their field of reference; on the contrary they redefined themselves from time to time according to the social realities involved, their necessities, the existing power relations, always however at local level and still maintaining particular features according to the different contexts.

The central period in the redefinition of the category ‘citizenship’ is generally considered to have been between the 11th and the 13th centuries when cities and communes became more powerful. Within these entities the element of association was fundamental and participation played an essential role. Initially, in fact, the commune was constituted by an oath and all those who participated in swearing the oath became citizens. In the initial phases it was in the interest of these new communities to facilitate immigration in order to promote internal growth, extend penetration into the surrounding area and weaken the rival neighbouring forces such as feudal lords, enemy communes and the like. At the same time, it was also possible to lose the status of citizen: for example, being convicted of a serious crime or being banished for belonging to a political faction in opposition to the ruling one, could lead to the loss of citizenship.

Citizenship brought with it rights and privileges, but at the same time it imposed precise duties. The most relevant advantages bestowed on citizens were: political rights, legal advantages in the case of civil or criminal proceedings, right to possess real estate, particular privileges for navigation and sea trade in merchant cities, and tax exemptions. On the other hand, the citizens’ duties consisted of residence in the city, sometimes the ownership of a house or a plot of land (in order to ‘materialise’ the citizens’ presence), participation in political life or in city administration, and the obligation to defend the city gate in person, or through a paid deputy. But soon differences developed between the various medieval Italian cities so that it is very difficult to define common rules of citizenship. In the following analysis we must, therefore, distinguish according the locality and the period considered.

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