We are publishing bi-weekly microreviews on Twitter: short discussions of monographs, edited volumes and articles which have inspired us (#RetroConflictsInspirations). Diplomatic, social, economic, legal history on the one hand, and conflict resolution & management theory on the other.

History meets the social sciences.

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The darker angels of our nature (ed. Dwyer and Micale)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Steven Pinker’s ‘The better angels of our nature’ painted an optimistic picture of the decline of violence in our modern world: the historical perspective was to demonstrate that we have come to grips with dark inclinations. The civilizing progress of Norbert Elias, once again. It’s a perspective we would like to believe, but is it true?

The current news upends it when it comes to the 21st century. In today’s #microreview, the superb ‘The darker angels of our nature’ (2022), the historians who wrote the 18 chapters argue that violence in the past centuries is a far more complex topic than Pinker assumed. There are many methodological points to be raised, e.g. his use of statistics of deaths over long periods of time, and without context. From our #conflictmanagement point of view, one of the major issues is the definition of violence: it does not and did not only equal homicide, which Pinker presented as a proxy. Violence encompasses nonlethal forms like injuries, humiliation, sexual and verbal violence. This broad spectrum still exists, and it certainly occurred in the past. Another point is that such violence was not simply accepted: laws, legal procedures or treaties on good behaviour show societies wanted to curb it. The premodern days were not just the bad example against which the modern time can cut a good figure. The volume shows that in order to understand human violence and our ways of dealing with it, specific historical cases (and the news) have to be analysed in their context. Few angels appear, but it clear that people see, reflect on - and act on violence.[....]

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Common good and private justice (Beck)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Today’s #microreview turns towards Christopher Beck’s article ‘Common good and private justice: letters of marque and the utilitas publica in fourteenth-century Marseilles’ which provides a fascinating case study about a medieval municipality navigating between political thought, the urban market, private property rights, and the common good.

Throughout late medieval Western Europe, marques presented an instrument of legal enforcement, especially for merchants. Municipal governments could grant the seizure of foreign goods in their city to compensate open debts or other claims against actors outside of their jurisdiction. Yet, over the course of 14th century, the council of Marseilles several times suspended its citizens’ marques for economic and diplomatic reasons: Open marques could dissuade foreign merchants to travel to Marseille and hindered the influx to the city’s market. They could also let the city appear as contentious and not led according to the ideal of peace. Publicly, the town council justified the suspensions and thus the neglect of its own burghers’ property rights with the common good of the community, reflecting learned discourse about just government. The issues pointed out by Beck also applied to Hanseatic city councils which had to balance individual interests not only with the common good of the city but also with the common good of the #Hanse. Not just in light of recent political debates, it seems worthwhile reminding that the question of how a society negotiates the relation between public and private interests is not an invention of modernity.[....]

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Power politics and princely debts: why Germany's common currency failed, 1549–56 (Volckart)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

After taking a few weeks off to report on the #historyinconflict webinar, we’re back with our #retroconflictinspirations #microreview series. For our first review, we’re looking at Oliver Volckart’s 2017 article on Charles V’s failure to unify his Empire’s currency.

By the sixteenth century, the Holy Roman Empire’s overlapping coinage jurisdictions had produced acute problems. Not least, the ‘trade in coinage’: Coins of high material value from some states were frequently exported to neighbouring mints as raw material lower value coins. The trade drove conflict in the Empire. Bavaria, Swabia, and Franconia all complained about it, as did the Salzburg's bishop and Hamburg's magistrates. The trade, they said, devalued coins throughout the Empire, violating a key value of premodern politics, ‘the common good’. Standardizing exchange rates between the coins was an appealing fix for this issue, but required coordination among the Empire’s estates. Volckart argues that the inability to reconcile non-monetary conflicts between estates was the main driver of this project’s failure. Previous research identified conflict over the value of coins as key to the project's failure, pitting silver producing estates against those reliant on imports. Others saw weak imperial political institutions at the heart of the failure. For Volckart, the root conflict lies elsewhere. Following the Schmalkaldic War, the silver-producers’ were more confident that Charles could enforce coinage reform, so were prepared to make concessions on value. Meanwhile, imperial institutions were more effective negotiators in the lead up to the 1551 Currency Bill than was previously assumed. What undermined the single currency project was not conflict over the monetary questions themselves, but the intrusion of other conflicts. The Emperor and his allies wanted to press their advantage and use the issue to weaken their enemy Saxony by devaluing its currency, the Thaler. But, when Charles’ conversion system was introduced, the Saxon Thaler’s face value was significantly lower than its real value. Merchants thus preferred it to the overvalued Imperial Guldiner, and Saxon authorities didn’t enforce the exchange rate between the coins, leading the system to collapse. Volckart’s article is a powerful illustration of how conflict in one domain can spread to another as actors seek new strategies to manage the situation to their advantage. [....]

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Cultures of Conflict Resolution in Early Modern Europe (Cummins and Kounine)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Today’s microreview is about a highly interesting volume, ‘Cultures of Conflict Resolution in #EarlyModern Europe’ (2016), edited by Stephen Cummins and @laurakounine. It frames conflicts and their management as accounts of change, and in particular discusses the lasting impact of John Bossy’s legal anthropological ‘Disputes and Settlements’ (1983).  

Several contributions take issue with the notion of diminishing violence in the course of history, as posited by Norbert Elias and more recently by Steven Pinker. There are three main themes: peacemaking as practice; varieties of early modern mediation and arbitration; the roles of criminal law in interpersonal conflict. From the point of view of our project, one of the captivating insights is that #conflictresolution was not always positive and consensual, but rather ‘a product of domination and reinforcement of inequality.’ Another is a reminder of Simon Roberts’ statement that the distinction between mediator and adjudicator should be seen as a continuum, not a rigid typology. An article to be highlighted: John Jordan’s very clear historiographical overview of the application legal anthropology is of use for many #twitterstorians, especially for future avenues of research: the role of violence, global approaches, #legalpluralism, the shift from the urban to the rural, and attention to #legalism. [....]

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Anger's Past (Rosenwein)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Considering that it is time for the year’s final #microreview, it seems appropriate to become emotional. However, since this project is about conflict, the chosen emotion is anger. In 1998, Barbara H. Rosenwein, edited a collection of articles under the title ‘Anger’s Past – The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages.’

Instead of discussing the thematically broad individual contributions, we draw our #RetroConflictsInspirations from the varied, sometimes disagreeing interpretations of anger they provide. Emotions were and are an integral part of conflict but pose a particular challenge to historians: how are we to interpret anger when we encounter it in our sources? The contributions to ‘Anger’s Past’ provide us with several options, ranging from earnest emotions to anger as a carefully chosen ‘signaling tool’ in dispute. Taken together, however, the articles remind us to not construct a strict dichotomy between emotion and rationality. A merchant could be truly embittered by a cheating trading-partners and simultaneously instrumentalize this sentiment at court. A king’s angry outburst at a diplomatic meeting could be an earnest emotion while at the same time serve political functions.[....]

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Political Participation and Economic Development (Wahl)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

We’re mostly into the qualitative side of #conflict here at retroconflicts, but a little quantification can be useful to grasp the scale and consequences of historical urban conflict. That’s why today’s #retroconflictinspiration #microreview is about the work of Fabian Wahl.

Wahl’s 2019 article ‘Political Participation and Economic Development’ set out to answer a simple but important #econhist question: which urban political institutions contribute to economic growth. To do so, Wahl investigated 3 ‘participative’ institutions across 282 cities. His three institutions are 1) guild representation in the council 2) citizen representation alongside the council (e.g greater- or outer-councils) and 3) the selection of councilors by election, even if only with a very limited franchise. In line with Sheilagh Ogilvie’s research, Wahl finds no evidence for guild government strengthening economic growth, and in the medieval period it may even have been harmful. Representatives outside the council likewise had no demonstrable effect on growth.
As these two institutions did not make economic contributions, Wahl argues, they must have arisen for other purposes. The most likely explanation, he suggests, is the management of conflict between different social groups involved in urban politics, as proposed by Acemoglu.[....]

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The Trouble with Networks. Managing the Scots' Early-Modern Madeira Trade (Hancock)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Management of long-distance trade often led to complex networks and with them, unique challenges for the individuals involved. Today’s choice for #RetroConflictsInspirations is a study of Scottish networks in the early-modern Atlantic build around the export of Madeira wine.

In his 2005 article 'The Trouble with Networks. Managing the Scots' Early-Modern Madeira Trade', David J. Hancock turns our attention to a part of network literature that had, until then, been neglected: 'the troubles networks created for members'. Revisiting this critical approach underlines the double-edged sword of trade networks. The Madeira trade networks were solutions to familiar premodern problems of distance, transportation and communication. Here, we find recurring themes from our #microreviews: reputation, trust and reciprocal relationships. Specifically, the focus on network 'memory' and reputation in this study deserves further attention. A trader’s reputation (e.g., his connections or trustworthiness) could be the key to unlocking more opportunities, but failure/mismanagement of his network led to sanctions and exclusion. Network memory could also fail or provide incorrect assessments, leading traders to agreements with partners turned out to be ‘a bad investment’. Maintaining the advantages of networks required careful & continuous management; any failure led to new challenges to overcome. [....]

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Economies of violence (Esmer)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

Today’s microreview is on an article which examines the complex role of violence in premodern conflicts. In a very captivating way, Tolga U. Esmer discusses in ‘Economies of violence, banditry and governance in the Ottoman empire around 1800’ how bandits were not marginals, but in fact quite central to the functioning of the empire in modern-day Balkans.

Their actions  were ‘essential aspects of the Ottoman imperial model for upholding a ‘common good’ and achieving order’. Since they acted both in cooperation with officials and on their own behalf, the officials strove to control the narrative about bandits: they were extra-military forces in times of war, and bandits in peacetime. This echoes a phenomenon we encounter in our sources: namely ‘privateers’ and ‘pirates’, who pose challenges of classification because of the boundaries of their liability, of contemporary terminology with an agenda, and of modern day terms to be used in the analyses. Esmer points out there was an ‘economy of violence’ in the exchanges with the officials, with the local society, and within the groups of bandits. Apart from property or money, less tangible aspects like honour, loyalty, social capital played a fundamental role in the choice to take risks or position themselves in the society. These ‘surpluses of human behaviour’ as Esmer quotes after Georges Bataille, need to be taken into account when discussing state formation, land tenure, taxes or conflict management. Again, this evokes a parallel in our project, namely to the role of trust not only in mercantile exchanges, but also in conflict management.[....]

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Politische Kommunikation in der Hanse (1550-1621) (Schipmann)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

This week’s #retroconflictinspiration and #microreview takes us to a rather understudied field of Hanseatic research: the late 16th and the 17th century. Published in 2004, Johannes Ludwig Schipmann’s PhD thesis ‘Politische Kommunikation in der Hanse (1550-1621)’ anticipated some of the more recent developments in Hanseatic research.

By taking a comparative approach and based on research around the Imperial Diet, Schipmann argued against the often-presupposed uniqueness of the Hanse. To concentrate too narrowly on formal qualities like a common seal and coat of arms can avert our attention from a shared political communication and culture. (See already our microreview on Duncan Hardy’s take on diets.) Even when agreeing that the Hanse is and was difficult to grasp in terms of political and economical institutions, it shared practices of communication with its contemporaries. Thus, Schipmann does not, through the lens of 19th century state-theory, consider the Hanseatic diet as ‘inefficient’ due to its slow decision-making. Rather, he identifies it as just one (albeit important) cogwheel in a long process of consensus-making which – featuring tactics of escalation and de-escalation – allowed participants to reconcile common and individual interest, Hanseatic commonalities and regional particularities. [....]

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Negotiated Reformation (Close)

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

In the 1540s the city of Augsburg was in negotiation with two smaller cities over their religious policy, Donauwörth and Kaufbeuren. In Kaufbeuren the negotiations rolled along uneventfully, in Donauwörth they escalated to invasion by Augsburg. That is the scene of inter-urban conflict which begins Christopher Close’s ‘The Negotiated Reformation’ (2009), and a great #retroconflictinspiration to kick off this year’s #microreview series.

The book explores how communication within and between cities contributed the unfolding of the Reformation in the urbanized region of eastern Swabia. It challenges both top-down and bottom up views of Reformation arguing instead that it was communication between cities which ensured the Reformation’s spread and accounted for its local variations. In East Swabia this meant cities taking on differentiated roles in a network of information exchange. This network, centred on Augsburg, allowed cities to debate the reformation as it emerged and shape religious practice through conflict and collaboration. Some cities like Augsburg sought to advocate their Reformation as model of others, while other cities sought influence through exporting church personnel (Memmingen), contact with reformers further afield (Donauwörth), or cultivating strong local traditions and preferences (Kaufbeuren). By reconstructing this communication network’s function in regional politics, and the differentiated roles of East Swabian cities within it, Close’s book puts interurban conflict management at the centre of the Reformation, and prompts further consideration of its wider role in politics. [....]

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