Urban Environments and Environmental Change

Professor Guy Geltner

About the project

Cities are fascinating, rich and dynamic places, and they have appeared as such to historians since their earliest documented existence. Cities are also complex spaces, where non/human animals constantly interacted among themselves and with their physical and spiritual surroundings.

Concepts such as health and disease, piety and heresy, progress and decay, were often defined in cities from an environmental perspective. That is certainly the case in the sites that I tend to focus on, Italian city-states between the thirteenth and fifteenth century. Places like Rome, Bologna, Florence and Venice have preserved rich textual, material and environmental remains that allow us to pose new questions and reconstruct diverse aspects of city life in the deeper past. For instance, how did different residents manage risk? The answer depends, on the one hand, on their gender, religious, ethnic and socioeconomic identity; and on the other, by how they perceived and tried to shape their living spaces, from the household, neighborhood and work place, to the port, inn and place of worship, to the city as whole and its food-producing hinterland. These concerns bred sometimes uniquely urban institutions, such as the municipal prison, specialized markets and community policing, topics that I continue to research and write about.

On the other hand, civilization is often (and sometimes wrongly) associated with urbanization. The latter is by all means a fascinating process, involving politics, economics, technology and demographics, and its first major wave in Europe actually began in the twelfth century. But we tend to forget that cities, especially pre-industrial cities, were carved out piecemeal out of their surrounding countryside. How town dwellers harnessed rural people, knowledge and infrastructures remains rather poorly explored, despite well documented precedents in Europe’s monastic history.

Some of my recent research attempts to shed light on these processes of urban expansion, a long and ubiquitous experiment in subjugating the land and its people to new metabolic needs. In this respect, my recent discovery of the records of field wardens (campari, pictured above) in Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, have been a real boon for reconstructing city-countryside relations from the integrated perspective of geology, seasonality, local traditions and markets, and of course policing practices that trained an urban gaze on rural residents and habits. Rather than tracing a linear process, the daily records of these urban officials in fact show the degree to which their activities were contested and subverted, sometimes in rather ingenious ways, by rustics.

Related publications 

G. Geltner, Roads to Health: Infrastructure and Urban Wellbeing in Later Medieval Italy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019

Taylor Zaneri and G. Geltner, “The Dynamics of Healthscaping: Mapping Communal Hygiene in Bologna, 1287-1383,” Urban History. FirstView August 2020

G. Geltner “Rural Policing in the Long Trecento: An Urban Project and Its Obstruction” [forthcoming].