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Urban memories and counter-memories

A second work package is concerned with the city as a site of memory and commemoration. The way urban memories were organised is one of the most striking manifestations of ‘urban resilience.’ The remarkable expansion of the field of ‘memory studies’ in the past decade has shown time and again the importance of memory as a constituent of collective and individual identities (Erll 2005; Cubitt 2007). This project aspires to provide a critical assessment of the ways urban society was structured through practices of remembrance in the pre-modern Low Countries.

First and foremost, the very nature of cities as an arena for individuals and groups with very heterogeneous interests and outlooks made it essential to develop an ideology of a coherent urban community to counterbalance internal tensions (see also work package 3). Secondly, city dwellers needed an intellectual toolkit to navigate a space that was distinctly different from that of a rural community. The spatial and socio-economic organisation of the city was a very complex issue, and it is the contention of this work package that ‘memory studies’ are vital to reconstruct the adaptive strategies of city dwellers to position themselves physically and ideologically. In other words, ‘urban memories’ are not only understood to be vital for urban identity formation in the face of short- or long-term change, but also for the politics of space (Arnade, Howell & Simons 2002). As this project is concerned with the resilience of the cities in the Low Countries in the face of long-term change, it therefore has to incorporate a study of the self-image of their inhabitants and how those conceptions of ‘self’ were revised with the passing of the generations.

This line of research will be developed through a multilayered approach, in which three very different methodological approaches are used to reveal the integrated components of a specific ‘culture of urbanism.’

Research themes

  1. The first cluster will focus on early modern city views and urban cartography. Firstly, this project will provide a critical edition and contextualisation of the first generation of mathematically precise city maps in the Low Countries, which were largely the work of Jacob van Deventer in the second half of the sixteenth century. In addition to this, the project will focus on the so-called ‘cityscapes’ that appeared in print in the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. An art-historical analysis of cityscapes and images in urban society by Flemish artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder will provide additional information about the ways city dwellers developed landmarks of remembrance to ‘map’ the urban landscape. As Bruegel’s paintings still influence the image that scholars have of the medieval and early modern city in the Low Countries, this project must provide a close scrutiny of his pictorial language.
  2. A second approach traces this genealogy of urban space as an ideological construct back to the late Middle Ages by considering city archives as ‘imaginary cartographies.’ As the path-breaking work of Smail (2000) has shown, documents such as property deeds and wills are extremely revealing for the way city dwellers navigated the city both in a geographical and temporal sense, precisely because literacy was essentially a way to anchor oneself in urban society and its history. Through a meta-historical perspective on producing and conserving written documents in towns of the Low Countries, historians can retrace the templates used by contemporaries to frame urban space from a social, economic, political and geographical perspective.
  3. A last cluster provides a touchstone for the previous two by focusing on the politics of remembering. It is divided into two parts. Firstly, we propose to study the origins of urban archives. In the course of the High Middle Ages, cities started to collect and copy documents in official city archives which served as the ‘collective memory’ of the town. Though historians have abundantly studied the functioning of these archives, it remains unclear which groups in town were responsible for their genesis. Much scholarly effort went into imagining and remembering the city and its inhabitants as a coherent community, but the construction of memories was also an integral part of the ways in which various groups defended their own interests against others in the competition for access to urban resources (e.g. the wielding of political power). This project therefore intends to study the role of subordinated groups in town in the formation of archives, for it seems that, in the Low Countries, the middling sort of people and the urban craft guilds took important initiatives to force urban elites to be accountable for their political decisions. Secondly, scholars have shown that these subordinated groups in town developed counter-memories in town, though their precise function deserves more scholarly attention. Through an in-depth study of the function of memory culture in urban politics, it will be possible to contextualise both the memorial ideologies through which urban elites aspired to propagate urban unity (e.g. urban chronicles) as well as the performance of ‘remembering’ – that is, constructing – the position of a certain group of inhabitants in the history of the pre-modern city. Just as urban elites did, their political opponents also have written texts in which the politics of the elites was challenged and contested. ‘Alternative’ and ‘rebellious memories’ (e.g. of the Dutch Revolt) will therefore be at the core of the research of this cluster.