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Age of Trust and Cooperation? The Social Fabric of Urban Communities in England, Italy and the Low Countries, c. 1350-1550 


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Cooperative institutions are generally regarded as an important innovation of the European Middle Ages. Scholars since Max Weber have made sweeping claims about the significance of these institutions for Europe’s unique path of development, and the debate about their characteristics and functions continue to this day. Remarkably, however, a systematic and comparative study of the role of these institutions in medieval urban society has not been undertaken so far. This project will investigate the social fabric of a number of cities in Italy, England, and the Low Countries, three of late-medieval Europe’s core regions. The ambition of the project is to assess to what extent the social activities of these corporations were beneficial to both individual members and the wider urban community, and how their organisation and functioning can be comparatively explained. The project provides an in-depth and comparative analysis of craft guilds and brotherhoods in Florence, Lucca, London, Norwich, Ghent, and Leiden from 1350 to 1550. It aims to reconstruct the social networks, rules, and institutional contexts that shaped urban societies, and to explain variations in institutional development between cities in southern and north-western Europe by identifying the structural factors and local circumstances that affected this process. The investigation will be based on extensive archival research and literature study. It deals with various methodological challenges related to comparative history and social network analysis, and draws on social theory pertaining to social solidarity, institutions, and collective action. Apart from providing new insights into medieval society, the project also contributes to interdisciplinary debates about the role of bottom-up forms of association, social capital, and citizenship in the formation of communities. The project’s relevance exceeds the study of urban history, as its findings offer historical and theoretical perspectives on present-day problems of social integration, solidarity arrangements, and the allocation of public responsibilities.




Utrecht University: Dr.  Arie van Steensel

Funding body

Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Veni Grant 


Dr. Arie van Steensel

Contact details

Dr. Arie van Steensel

Utrecht University, Research Institute for History and Culture

Drift 6

3512 BS  Utrecht

The Netherlands

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