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This essay is based upon the methodological assumption that by examining an exceptional event in an exceptional place one can unmask the hidden assumptions of the mundane and quotidian. The problem is to determine what the idea of community could have meant in north Italian towns and villages during the Renaissance. Depositions about a brawl in an otherwise insignificant small town provide an opportunity to examine how the idea of community was crystallized in three ways: community as social interaction in an institutional guise, community as a certain kind of space, and community as a process of social exclusion
Putnam explains the successful democratic performance of regional governments in northern and central Italy since 1970, as opposed to the poor record of those in the South, as the product of an abiding tenacity of civic traditions. His analysis presupposes some fundamental historical questions:
“Why did the North and South get started on such divergent paths in the eleventh century?” The hierarchical Norman regime in the South is perhaps readily explained as the consequence of conquest by an unusually effective force of foreign mercenaries. More problematical and potentially more interesting are the origins of the communal republics. How did the inhabitants of north-central Italy first come to seek collaborative solutions to their Hobbesian dilemmas? The response to that question must await further research, not least because historians report that the answer seems lost in the mists of the Dark Ages. Our interpretation, however, highlights the unique importance of trying to pierce those mists.
This essay is an attempt to grope through the historical mists. Although the vast cultural chasm between us and the early Middle Ages makes it difficult to ask modernist questions of a decidedly archaic society, the so-called Dark Ages are not a cipher. A great deal can be discovered about the process of building civil societies in northern Italy. Even more important, the construction of civil society—as Putnam posits in his more recent work on social capital—was not so much an event as a process, the inner dynamics of which is clearly discernable in later periods, and the process was not always evolutionary. It was punctuated by dramatic moments of rapid political change.