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Cities have led high civilization for so long that one can scarcely imagine one without the other. Yet it is not easy to delimit their place in the creation of values and the organizing power to implement them that constitute a developing civilization. They can be described in innumerable ways, for as is true also of small towns and villages each city has a unique personality. The existing literature leans either to extreme particularity of detail or to an unconvincing generality. The two articles that follow are the first of a series in which common general questions will be brought to bear on the rise of different types of city in different societies and on the conditions under which they play particular creative and organizing roles. Since three recent books have attempted large-scale comparison along these lines our own series had best open with an attempt to review their contributions.
Historic China and pre-industrial Europe were both once typed as rigid societies with their population more or less frozen into fixed social groupings. Since in both cases the trend of research has altered this view, one cannot help wondering why it ever prevailed. The present revision in Chinese studies is the more dramatic in being a return to the view of Quesnay, namely, that Confucian ideals guaranteed a constant social circulation: men of merit could rise in the world, but their sons, if they were inept, would sink. In medieval and early modern European studies there has been a steady shift away from emphasis on hereditary fixity to recognition that very considerable currents of social mobility may exist within a stable social structure.
In both fields writers had begun by relying on ideals of order, rather incautiously, as a clue to actual custom. Confucian philosophy and ethical doctrine, it is true, gave rise to Quesnay's happy guess, but when this was discarded as doubtful, scholars fell back on legal texts. Here they found ideals of order expressed in an array of distinctions of juridical status. Instead of still postulating that these were mere lines of demarcation between groups, lines that a man could cross, they chose to regard them as effective barriers to mobility.
If historians, as some non-historians imagine, were occupied only with the detail of national past politics, they would have nothing to say to each other at an international conference. Yet leading historians have labored to create a permanent organization, the International Congress of Historical Sciences, which now holds regular quinquennial meetings with increasingly worldwide representation. At least twenty countries besides all European countries and the Soviet Union were represented at its eleventh meeting, held at Stockholm in August 1960.
Professor Russell was the first historian to try to apply statistical methods to analysis of the effects of epidemic plague on the composition, not just on the total size, of medieval population. He argues now that general plagues differed from the type of the disease that became epidemic after the crop failures of 1315–1317, in sharply lowering the sex ratio and in greatly increasing the burden of child-rearing.
For anyone on the green side of fifty who didn't start historical browsing in the playpen it may be quite hard to see the present appeal of statistical theory and method in perspective. To one lucky enough to have been a student abroad in the 1920's, it is merely one of the consequences of a fundamental shift, which was firming in that decade, in conceptions of the economic historian's job. Essentially the shift consisted in making the economy and the social institutions in which it is embedded analytically distinct. Voices from the Polanyite school still claim that this step was as wrong as Adam's eating of the apple. Milder critics complain only that some of us let economic analysis run away with the ball to the neglect of social analysis and of the interplay between the two. For workers on the recent past this is defensible, because the heavy fall-out of purely economic data clamors to be dealt with in its own terms. The preindustrialist, who has to dig harder for data, and seldom turns up such pure economic ore, is more inclined to think in terms of interplay.
I shall confine my comments to the papers by Messrs. Mendels and Hohenberg, which lie within my period of interest and competence. First, regarding Mendels: I found this a very useful survey, wide-ranging in space and time, with very strong coverage of the literature. One of its many virtues is that it tries to grapple with some of the serious difficulties of analysis and explanation, especially in the statistical realm. Despite, or perhaps because of, these general merits, however, there are a number of points of detail that are open to criticism. Let me take these seriatim: