G. Geltner (Department of History, University of Amsterdam)
Urban History: 40, 3 (2013)
In early fourteenth-century Lucca, one government organ began expanding its activities beyond the maintenance of public works to promoting public hygiene and safety, and in ways that suggest both a concern for and an appreciation of population-level preventative healthcare. Evidence for this shift (which is traceable in and beyond the Italian peninsula) is mostly found in documents of practice such as court and financial records, which augment and complicate the traditional view afforded by urban statutes and medical treatises. The revised if still nebulous picture emerging from this preliminary study challenges a lingering tendency among urban and public health historians to see pre-modern European cities as ignorant and apathetic demographic black holes.
Even in its demographic peak, sometime around the dawn of the fourteenth century, medieval European society was roughly 80 per cent rural, a fact that rendered many cities anomalous in their original landscapes. Today, by contrast, the continent is a global trend-leader with an urbanized population estimated at 75 per cent. But the juggernaut of urbanization, even where – as in the Lowlands and central-northern Italy – cities were more common than elsewhere, did not proceed unopposed. The proliferation of urban centres, while responding to and enabled by profound technological, social and political changes, simultaneously exacerbated the pressures incumbent upon urban life,some of which persist to this very day. Salient among these pressures was the need to provide ever more numerous and diverse inhabitants with a safe, healthy and productive surrounding in which to live, work and procreate. The challenges facing pre-modern cities were indeed great. Yet, as recent historiography demonstrates, and in contrast to their traditional image as passive and ignorant, at least some pre-modern urban governments and residents rose to meet these challenges, at times explicitly citing a commitment pro maiori sanitate hominum – to people’s greater health.