The Return of City Rights

During the time of the Holy Roman Empire, and really anywhere you had walled cities and fortified communities, it was understood that only those with city right, what we’d call citizenship, had the right to be protected by the walls. In ordinary times, non-citizens could stay overnight for business, or to spend money, or as diplomats or common workers. When war, natural disaster, or plague struck, non-citizens could not remain. The city only had enough food, water, shelter, and other supplies for citizens. A citizen had duties to the city, duties of prayer, support, and defense as well as paying taxes and providing labor.

Once walls ceased having a useful function, city rights shifted a little. This coincided with a lot of debates over who had what claims on the state, and how one defined citizen. It was generally understood (in the Western world) that citizens had duties as well as privileges and rights. In many cases, visitors who behaved and had followed the proper rules (got visas, did not break the law or offend local custom) could enjoy some of those rights like freedom of movement or visiting public parks and gardens. If a war broke out, or a natural disaster took place, well, visitors were less welcome and might be chased out or removed by the authorities (deported). In the US, a lot of people miss this, because the US is very, very loose about applying citizen rights to visitors. Europe and Great Britain are a different story, and Russia, or a non-Western country? Ah, that hysterical sound you hear is the local police laughing at you when you demand US legal protections.

One thing that the self-described “citizens of the world” miss is that place matters for a lot of things. Once you get away from London, NYC, LA, Dubai, Shanghai, and other “international cities,” who you are and where you are from can be a life and death matter, especially when the fit hits the shan. Old patterns do not vanish overnight from a culture. When trouble comes, people default to old patterns and practices. It’s what humans do.

I’m not at all surprised at closed borders and a proposed export block on vaccine from the European Union. “Us first, others as able if at all” is coded in human thinking. “Me, my family, my clan, my village, my state/province/parish, and then the rest.” Closing borders and gates in order to keep out pestilence goes back thousands of years. If traders bring disease, keep them out until they can prove that they and their goods do not carry illness. Thus the original quarantine, lazarettos, and the Habsburg border stations where merchants waited a set period of time to prove that they were in good health. When disease did appear, governments took care of their own first.

Over the past year I’ve watched the pattern repeat. “Buy local” has become a defense against . . . I’m not entirely certain how to describe it. A sort of miasma, perhaps, a bad thing wafting in from outside the region. I know in my region, charitable giving has turned inward to an extent, with people giving to local causes, buying from local shops and regional chains, and staying in state more when they travel. Now, part of this is forced by closed borders (in theory) to the west of us, and occasionally to the northwest as well. Part of it is the old, old reaction to threats from outside, which the “whatever we are calling it this hour” virus has brought. Economic autarchy is also a response to stress. “We care for our own/support our own” applies to shopping.

Expand this to a state, national, and international scale. That’s why I’m not surprised by a surge of regionalism in Europe that’s growing stronger as older bonds than the EU kick in. Ditto swaths of the US and Canada, parts of Asia (as best I can tell. Getting news requires some effort. Not much, but you do have to dig.) At the moment, at least in my area, it’s a positive response more than negative. If the pattern holds, a negative element will kick in if things get worse. “Outsiders out. We feed our own first.”  Look at the EU and vaccines. “Our people, then others.”

Readers know that I’m not a cosmopolitan in the sense of being a “citizen of the world.” I’ve seen too much of the world for that. I’m a historian, a student of long patterns. So when I see a repeat of the Great Fear of 1789 sweeping the US in March 2020, or I observe the drawbridges and gates closing on the walled and unwalled cities, it’s not something new. A surprise, yes, in the case of last March-April, but not new.

The past might not repeat, but it certainly does rhyme on occasion.


9 thoughts on “The Return of City Rights

  1. (Looks at the political/media/financial centers trying to emulate the Hapsburgs)
    You don’t say.
    (Too bad they’ve only achieved deepest Appalachia. It would be funny, if they weren’t declaring a feud.)

  2. I wonder how many European Cosmopolitans would “close the gates” if things got tougher?

    • On the other hand, there was a Web-Comic about “Fantasy Game Adventurers” that showed a town raising prices just before the Adventurers arrived. [Crazy Grin]

      • I know that one! And no, I’m not linking it, it’s so NSFW it ain’t funny– but yes, that one was amusing.

        (Started as a pr0n series, but the guy has amazing comedic skill, so there are some totally safe for work gems among the….stuff.)

  3. I have to disagree, I think it IS repeating, and will get worse, especially in Europe. Poland/Hungary and to a limited extent Germany are getting rid of refugees as quickly as they can. France may not be able to, due to the influx of Muslims and the no go zones in various areas unless they bring in the military. It will be interesting to watch the southern border here in the next couple of months…

  4. Much of the belief that larger & more-connected entities are inherently better than smaller & more-self-contained ones has been driven by the idea this follows automatically from improvements in transportation and communications. The former Confederal general Porter Alexander (he was Lee’s artillery commander at Gettysburg), who became a railroad president after the war, put it this way:

    “Well that (state’s rights) was the issue of the war; & as we were defeated that right was surrendered & a limit put on state sovereignty. And the South is now entirely satisfied with that result. And the reason of it is very simple. State sovereignty was doubtless a wise political instution for the condition of this vast country in the last century. But the railroad, and the steamboat & the telegraph began to transform things early in this century & have gradually made what may almost be called a new planet of it… Our political institutions have had to change… Briefly we had the right to fight, but our fight was against what might be called a Darwinian development – or an adaptation to changed & changing conditions – so we need not greatly regret defeat.”

    What hasn’t been well-recognized, though, is that connecting up entities into larger ones has downsides as well as upsides, whether we’re talking about cities or countries or power grids. See my post Coupling:

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