Flows in 1000 AD

The birth of the modern city

The twelfth century was a crossroads underrated by project culture, which often prefers to concentrate on Renaissance pomp. The statutes of the Comuni established an unprecedented form of cohabitation between different people 400 years before the Italian aristocratic courts set up a model of co-operation between patrons and artists, i.e. the wealthy and the creative. Nothing in the whole of the evolution of human affairs had ever indicated that the simple gesture of urban living determined a right superior to that of birth. People have dutifully remained as they were born for social class, family origin or religious belonging since the dawn of time and, outside the western cultural context, that is still largely true today. It’s only in Europe, and only since the 12th century, that the right of anyone to become somebody else has been granted on condition that they live in a house in a town.

After leaving the symbolic threshold of 1000 AD unharmed, European imagination took less than a century to reactivate that peculiar enthusiasm for living that the ancient cultures had taught. However, the reactivation immediately turned into a radical reinterpretation. Greeks, Arabs and Romans had never thought that people could use the town to free themselves from their destiny. On the contrary, the mediaeval Comune guaranteed the right to vote to those who lived or owned a house within the city walls irrespective of any other existential feature. The Comune authority ratified a universal equality that anyone can be elected to represent their fellow townspeople if the latter attribute him with the qualities necessary to do so through the recognition of a self-determined identity (“I am what I do, my birth doesn’t fully represent me; I belong to my home-town not my family”). Far from being a simple administrative provision, the turning-point in free mediaeval citizenship determined a rule without exceptions which we all still respect – the identity of each person is linked to just one town. We can leave at will and elect the town that represents us best as our residence. For a thousand years, creating an identity has meant acting in a specific urban context for all men and women throughout Europe.

The creation of the free Comune as priority reference, which happened in our continent more or less everywhere in two generations, determined the sudden and tumultuous opening to a network of flows. The fall of Rome led to the crumbling of the road infrastructure, which the empire had used to dot the world with opportunities for trade, from the fifth century. There was then little to trade for almost 600 years until the rumour that “the city makes people free”, which spread with a speed that would now make social networks blanch.

And so the flows took up their course once again, more impetuously than ever. Flows of bodies – peasants who abandoned the cultivated lands to seek fortune in towns and clerics who wandered from school to school to receive the best teaching. Flows of goods – empty urban spaces turned into squares to offer markets the necessary hospitality, and collective hysterias for exotic products, which arrived in the town after journeys as long as the earth’s circumference. And, above all, flows of ideas, because the invention of modernity, which occurred in the mediaeval comune, opened horizons, which no-one had dared to explore up to then, to knowledge. Released from human bodies, which had always limited their nomadism, ideas were set down on very light and efficient paper (the invention of the portable book dates to the twelfth century) and thus started to fluctuate in all directions to ratify the start of a complexity which has never stopped increasing since then. Flows of bodies, goods and ideas, not unlike today – unpredictable migrations, trade exchanges governed by impenetrable laws, and knowledge that crosses and is renewed making the most astute wise men obsolete.

The generative value of flows and the fertility shown in movement and trade have been obvious to European citizens for 1,000 years. If project culture is able to recognise the historic roots of this universal fluctuation, it will be able to deal better with the difficulties that the flows place on it now that the bodies, goods and ideas are able to run at dizzying speed. The teaching that comes from mediaeval designers is structured yet unmistakeable – the most appropriate banks for channelling a movement that is never entirely possible to anticipate have to be recognised to govern a flow. It’s a question of giving shape to formwork that is sufficiently plastic to adapt to the changes that the flows inexorably, and mainly imperceptibly, bring because the project of the flows is that of a becoming, not an essence.

 Share on Linkedin              

Leonardo Previ

Chairman of Trivioquadrivio. Teaches Management of Human Resources at the Catholic University of Milan. His latest book, Manuale illustrato di incompetenza manageriale (Illustrated Manual of Managerial Incompetence), is dedicated to collective ingenuity. He edited the Italian edition of Jugaad Innovation with Giovanni Lo Storto for the publisher Rubbettino.