City Limits: Perspectives on the Historical European City.
The European city, its physical forms and the cultures found within them, have long been the focus of historical analysis. Yet modern-day historical inquiries, in light of their detailed attention to issues such as social class, gender, social customs, and governance, have tended to underscore the pluralist disposition of many of Europe's urban settlements in the past, and it is from this exploratory foundation that City Limits, a volume of thirteen essays composed by a range of North American scholars, originates. Comprised of three principal sections, these being "Placing the City", "Gender, Mobility, and the City," and "Redressing Boundaries," City Limits brings a variety of academics working in six different intellectual fields in Canada and the US for the sole purpose of explicating socioeconomic, artistic, cultural, and conceptual matters within effervescent European cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, London, and Paris. Embracing other parts of Europe, too, including East Anglia (in Britain) and Augsburg (Germany), City Limits strives not only to impart new information, but to impress upon the reader the significance of bypassing conventional lines of thought. By taking up, for instance, an interdisciplinary line, City Limits challenges its readers to reconsider how cities have become sites for intellectual exploration so that new ways of thinking about the cultural experiences of Europe's urban past can emerge and thus develop. As Clark, Owens, and Smith assert in the tome's introductory chapter, interdisciplinarity is not utilized within City Limits merely as an end in itself, but rather it is made use of as a consequence of its usefulness in advancing both knowledge and approaches to history.
Engaging with themes that include architecture, art, historiography, literature, music, protest, and tourism, the authors contributing to City Limits fundamentally strive to reveal the lived experiences of European cities during a distinct phase of Europe's past. To do this they ambitiously focus upon the early modern to early industrial age, a time span when the breadth and complexity of urban life widened. Not only examining Europe's cities as entities fixed to the continent, writers such as Christopher Friedrich venture to widen the historiography by placing Europe's urban political cultures within the genre of world history, thereby challenging long standing assumptions about cities in both Asia and Europe. Similarly, for example, Robin Hoople in the chapter "The 'Divine Little City,"' connects the transatlantic world to Europe by explaining the attractiveness of Florentine Italy to New York society. Numerous other authors take up the notion of connectivity, albeit though through an intra-continental lens, revealing the impact of, by way of illustration, Venice upon Copenhagen's musical scene and that of the Jewish population upon Amsterdam's sense of architectural taste. The latter, explains Saskia Coenen Suyder in "'Madness in a Building': Gentile Responses to Jewish Synagogues," left a massive visual imprint upon the city, so much so that she contends that Amsterdam earned the reputation of the "New Jerusalem" of Europe if at the cost of manufacturing racial and cultural tension: "many Christians visiting the Amsterdam synagogues lauded the buildings for their elegance, but they denounced the people who actually built them because they could not harmonize what, in their minds, constituted unequivocal opposites" (p. 274).
Lewis Mumford's classic text Culture of Cities, an obvious historiographical influence on the concept of City Limits, put forth the thesis that urban places are sites of exchange. The notion of exchange and interaction, as City Limits lays bare, cannot be overlooked in urban history. In the case of Edinburgh, clarifies Pare Perkins, the beauty of Britain's "new Athens" and the sophistication of its society played a major role in selling the city to any person undertaking a grand tour of Europe. As a place where one could at first hand witness the straddling of the old and modern worlds, due to the construction of the New Town, an extension contrasting with the urban form and problems of the Old Town, Edinburgh was able to offer unrivaled magnificence while concurrently granting visitors sights of poverty and whiffs of unpleasant smells equally unparalleled in Europe. Embodying both the best and worst of European civilization, Edinburgh was able, as Perkins explains, to market itself as a modern tourist centre, somewhat at the expense of its Scottish counterpart Glasgow, and as the most authentically Scottish city, characterizing itself as a genuine example of Scots culture by its high fashion, gaiety, and civility, which encouraged men and women to contribute to the expansion of the Enlightenment. Such mythology, as Perkins dexterously reveals, was incredibly successful to the extent that it masked the reality of the inability of Edinburgh women to expand Scottish culture.
Despite the focus of City Limits upon an age and themes already widely commented upon, it would be wholly unfair to label the tome as "just another book." Indeed, there is much reason to praise its authors. As a starting point, the many essays are neatly formed, are easy to read, and clearly offer new insights into Europe's urban cultural past. As with any book, City Limits is not without fault. The lack of illustrations is a hindrance, and this could be a matter of concern for students not wholly conversant with urban historical studies and so not able to completely absorb the information put forward in the book's many chapters. Likewise, for traditionalists seeking a volume of essays that sit tightly within the time-honoured borders of urban historiography, City Limits is a book to maybe shirk. However, one person's criticism is another's advantage, and, with its interdisciplinary approaches, the book offers a great deal to those instructors wishing, for instance, to demonstrate the value of literary or cultural studies to modern historical investigation. As scholars well know, elucidating cities is no easy task, but City Limits represents a notable accomplishment.
Chinese University of Hong Kong