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Surveilling Communities: Public office holders and popular control in Southern Europe (13th-15th century)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SurvCom (Surveilling Communities: Public office holders and popular control in Southern Europe (13th-15th century))

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2020-09-30

The overall objective of SurvCom was to analyse the participation of local communities in holding public officers accountable in late medieval southern Europe. This analysis aimed to answer three fundamental questions. 1. Were local medieval communities effectively empowered by their participation in officers’ accountability? 2. If so what was their resulting input in the designing and shaping of the incipient states? 3. How did their engagement in controlling officeholders relate to the longue durée shift in the relationship between governors and governed in the transition from feudal to absolutist societies?
While officers’ accountability appears modern, past societies had their own systems for local communities to engage in politics and even in procedures to control public office holders. Most European regions experienced a major socio-political transformation in the 13th century, with significant expansions in the number and range of officers. This increase was accompanied by varied attempts to implement accountability procedures in order to evaluate whether officers were executing their duties properly. SurvCom has offered a comparative analysis of territories from Castile, the south of France and the north of Italy and an emphasis on a perspective ‘from below’.
The action has provided evidence that the people’s involvement in accountability procedures was crucial for the fundamental shift in the relationship between governors and governed from the 13th to the end of the 15th century. By taking communities’ participation and surveillance as the main heuristic tool, SurvCom has brought new academic perspectives to contemporary debates about state-building from below, corruption studies and officers’ accountability itself. Through its dissemination activities, the project enriched our understanding of the links between corruption, government accountability and the participation of civil society, issues that are fundamental for the understanding of European and world politics, and to encourage popular control as a central democratic act.
Research has been conducted mainly at the UCL History Department, but in close contact with the IHR, with a 3-months secondment stay at the Universitè Jean Monnet and a 2-months secondment stay at Università degli Studi di Siena.
The current pandemic has inevitably affected the results in terms of dissemination and outreach (many of the scheduled events being posponed to 2021), but it did not affect the archival work (since the secondments took place in 2019), nor the deliverables (except for a minor delay of D5.1 in response to the postponement of the organised workshop on popular control). The deliverables have in fact exceeded the results initially scheduled.
1. Article “Las ciudades y los juicios de residencia desde el siglo XIII hasta el reinado de los Reyes Católicos: contrapuntos a una narrativa de centralización” submitted to Hispania (D1.1).
2. Article “Accountable to the Community? Medieval officials in Castile: the perspective from below”, Journal of Medieval History, 46-5 (2020) pp. 552-571.
3. Article to be part of a special issue for a prestigious journal, together with the contributions of the scholars participating in a workshop on Popular Control (D5.1).
4. A book draft that explores further aspects of the project beyond the articles published (D6.1).
Aside from the scheduled deliverables, another article to be submitted to a peer reviewed Journal and the edition of a collective volume (& ZIEGLER, H.) (eds.), The officer and the people. Accountability and Authority in Premodern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press (forthcoming)) have been completed.
Regarding dissemination activities, the fellow has given seven papers in London, Madrid and Munich and has co-organised or co-convened three scientific events.
Outreach activities were mostly scheduled for the last year of the action and have, therefore, been particularly affected by COVID. However, outreach activities will be pursued beyond the end of the fellowship assuring the impact of the action. Among the activities completed and scheduled there is a talk in Madrid, a paper in Rome, a news journal article and an article for a handbook.
The Action has uncovered the sociopolitical implications of popular engagement in accountability mechanisms. Researching concrete contexts and how popular involvement in accountability took place has resulted in dramatic changes in respect to previous historiographical discourses regarding ‘the people’ in their interaction with power structures.
The Hispanic case presents a model where the population was not only active in the praxis of these procedures, but also in the promotion of its regulation through concrete legislation that assured that officers were accountable to local communities and not just to central powers. Furthermore, people were also able to make a flexible and effective use of the residencia. Ordinary individuals often made use of these procedures to complain about personal grievances received from the officers and it was not unusual for them to receive an economic compensation. The records of the sindacati in the cities of Italy include even small claims presented by unlikely members of the elite, including women, and the general enquête of Charles II d’Anjou in 1290 shows a variated spectrum of the people of Provence amongst the claimers and witnesses involved. One of the main results of the action is to demonstrate that popular agency is often overlooked because its aims and successes diverge from historians’ expectations. Satisfaction was more often than not connected to the right to fair justice and appealing against unfair sentences, as well as more focused on the compensations that the plaintiffs might receive than on the penalty applied upon the official.
The action has employed two main approaches that have largely been overlooked: (i) understanding accountability as a widespread and flexible system that extends to the infrajudiciary and (ii) the perspective of the participants. Consequently, they hold great potential for a renewed and comprehensive understanding of accountability beyond the realms of institutional history and corruption studies reintegrating the agency of the people. SurvCom provides a methodology that can be applied in other regions and historiographic periods, including reflecting on contemporary European politics and the factors that trigger popular participation.
A main conclusion of the Action is that the rise of accountability in the 13th century must be seen as a starting point in a new understanding of the relationship between subjects and rulers. These results have set the foundations for a follow-on project that builds up on the Action’s success to further advance the research. Such a project has already been successful in securing funding from 2021 through an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Researchers. Next to the position obtained by the MSCA fellow at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, they prove that the Action has succeeded extremely well both in consolidating the career of the fellow and in advancing a research with strong potential for Europe in the near future.