Italian Renaissance and democracy from below

Under the tumult of the Italian wars, the Renaissance was also a time of social revolts and collective resistance. Through the development of democratic concepts and ideals, could protest be the crucible of our political modernity??

Over nearly three decades, Samuel Cohn made the theme of revolt and rebellion his own at the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, with half a dozen works relating to the subject, devoted to England as well as Italy, France and Italy. Flanders. The subject was more fashionable in the 1960s and 1980s, particularly in France, with some works becoming classics such as Peasant furies by Roland Mousnier, the Blue nails by Michel Mollat ​​and Philippe Wolff, or the Crunchy and Barefoot dYves-Marie Berc. Then he suffered from a certain confinement in the quarrel between Marxist and non-Marxist historians, but also from various rereadings under the influence of the social sciences, psychology and mental representationsrarely accompanied by a real in-depth study of the sources.

The social background of the Italian Wars

conversely, Cohn endeavored to refound the study of revolts, starting with the Middle Ages, to establish work after work of a history over the long term, emancipating from the classic distinction between a model modern revolution and pre-modern forms, necessarily unfinished. He also moved away, from the beginning, from studies illuminating protest movements only from the social angle and often seeing there only structural phenomena, devoid of real organization or fully political demands, beyond the resolution of a momentary crisis situation (food difficulties , tax resistances).

Samuel Cohn approaches the Italian popular revolts of the Renaissance within a strict framework: that of the Italian Wars (1494-1559), a period conducive both to resistance against foreign incursions, and to uprisings in the face of the economic and social impact of conflicts. Methodically, Cohn uses as vast a collection of sources as possible. The subject is thus based on the careful dismantling of diplomatic and judicial archives, in particular the petitions addressed to those in power, or the criminal registers mentioning certain rebels and their actions. Added to this are the narrative sources, of incomparable richness for the period: chronicles, but also public and private correspondence, diaries and memoirs, often coming from the important administrative and diplomatic staff of Italian cities and republics (p. 7-10).

The quantitative work carried out from this corpus allowed the author to identify 751 events on the Italian peninsula for the period, to which at least one source attests (we can, however, regret the absence of a table summarizing the data). A detailed analysis also highlights their main factors and their location (p. 18-21). The geographical distribution of events also corrects some preconceptions: if Milan or Naples are the main theaters of revolt on the peninsula (respectively 63 and 54 during the period), the same is almost true of Modena (49). Conversely, Florence, overexposed in the historiography of popular revolts due to the undermining character of the events concerning it (the overthrow of the Medici and the accession of Savonarola in 1494, then the establishment of the Republic, the reestablishment of the Medici in 1512, and so on) is known in reality relatively few disorders during the same period (p. 18).

Repoliticizing the revolt

To successfully carry out his revaluation enterprise, the author also extracts himself from definitional quarrels. Revolt? Rebellion? pack? By multiplying categories, historiography has often fragmented the history of popular movements into so many distinct objects, while establishing a radical distance between them and the revolution, a modern, canonical and unprecedented phenomenon. Returning again to the sources, Cohn also notes the existence of a great variety of terms from which it is hardly possible to draw clear categories (p. 12): from the noise of the riot (rumor, clamore) the agitation of the crowd (tumulto, subleveranze) to more vigorous demonstrations (mutiny, movement, far movesta). From then on, we understand the author's side, who usually brings together all the expressions of revolt or resistance under the general idea of ​​protest (popular protest).

Part of a long-term work, the work is also largely devoted to identifying the differences (chaps. 1 to 4) and similarities (chaps. 5 and 6) of the Italian revolts of the Renaissance compared to the Middle Ages. The character popular of protest is also one of the main aspects by which it distinguishes itself from the demonstrations of previous centuries. Medieval revolts were often, in Italy as elsewhere, the result of menu people (popolo minuto), more affected by crises and shortages.

They also participated in the identification of this working and disadvantaged population, like the weavers of Siena who revolted in 1371, and the Ciompi of Florence in 1378. However, in XVe And XVIe centuries, this dividing line moves between a restricted social and political elite on the one hand, and on the other hand a popolo expanded and unified by the revolt, ranging from workers and peasants to artisans and merchants (p. 13-17). Compared to the medieval period, new actors are also appearing, as well as new forms of resistance to power. The closing of their shops by merchants thus becomes, even more than one act among others in an insurrectional context, a real tactic of inciting uprising, capable of provoking large-scale revolts (p. 93-99).

The revolts of the Italian Renaissance also present particularities compared to the rest of the continent. If we except the Savonarolian push in Florence (1494-1497), and the extension into Trentino and Friuli of the German Peasants' War (1524-1526), ​​protests based on religious reasons (even partially) remain very rare. Italy remains on the sidelines of the reforming efforts at work in neighboring countries, since the Hussite current in XVe century until the Lutheran Reformation and its consequences (p. 148-152). From then on, the main expressions of religious violence remained above all anti-Semitic: in the Middle Ages, Jews, Marranos and conversos were commonly targeted, although Cohn notes a gradual decline in persecutions (p. 145-148). At the same time, forms of resistance and revolt against ecclesiastical authority, and particularly the Inquisition, were also noted. Certain movements thus demanded greater religious tolerance, like Naples in 1509-1510 and 1547, or rose up specifically against anti-Jewish measures and their religious and economic consequences, like Rome in 1559 (p. 143-144).

Popular revolts and the rise of democratic ideals

The third and final part of the book is devoted by Cohn, under the term democracy, to the observation of the development of a certain number of ideas, ideals and practices within popular currents of revolt, and under their impetus. Already studied in one of his previous works, the demands and slogans highlighting the word freedom enrich the concept itself. Until now synonymous with exemption for certain specific groups (on the tax level in particular), freedom becomes the standard of cities rebelling against the occupation of foreign forces and against the abuses of civic elites (p. 181-186).

Likewise, the character democratic of certain movements emerges from their own practices, such as the election of leaders, and the deliberative dimension which reigns there. The protest gatherings collectively develop specific demands, propose specific legal measures, or agree to defend certain threatened statuses (p. 187-195). Elsewhere, uprisings explicitly aimed to promote forms of representation against the monopolization of power, such as Genoa from 1506-1507, or even Prouse (p. 197-198). Faced with the authority of the Pope, the Prugins periodically resurrected great councils and assemblies, particularly under the salt war against the institution of a new tax by Paul III (1540). The failure of the revolt does not signify the extinction of these demands.

It is perhaps the author's examination of the notion of equality that attracts the most attention. The Italian popular revolts are in fact an opportunity to question a received idea: that, emanating from a number of political scientists, according to which the concept of equality was historically devoid of any social and economic meaning. From then on, and until XIXe century, inequalities in status or wealth would have been both accepted as natural, and so to speak indistinguishable by subjects and citizens. Many political, historical or literary sources, however, contradict this postulate (pp. 201-205). On the other hand, and beyond testimonies that can be attributed to a clear elite or in advance, numerous collective protests and supplications formulated in the face of natural disasters or excessively heavy taxes also call it into question. In the Duchy of Milan especially, without the author providing a very precise explanation for this northern particularity: Cimo, Novara, Cremona, Lodi or even Pavia, collective petitions to the authorities are multiplying, demanding theequality (Or equality). We also develop arguments against inequality and its consequences: increase in poverty, weakening of small economic players, artisans and workers (p. 210-218). Also Cohn concludes, through the extension of uses during the period considered, the crystallization of the very concept of equality. This one is now a right, a matter of justice that demanded tax changes and condemned the corruption of nobles, wealthy citizens, and government officials (p. 226).

Also the revolts and social protests which constitute the background of the Italian wars were fully part of the Italian political laboratory of early modernity. The continuation under the Renaissance of phenomena of popular revolts already common in the Middle Ages makes it possible to reestablish a true historical continuity up to contemporary revolutions, but also to affirm with Cohn the relevance of a history from below extending political thought, by reestablishing a true filiation of ideals, demands and even forms, inseparable from the development of modern democratic thought.