Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

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Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby bigdummy » 25 May 2012 16:52

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Kropotkin's map of Siberia see the full version here

Before I get to his book and why it is relevant to historical fencers, a brief synopsis of the man's rather extraordinary life is in order. Kropotkin was an interesting historical figure who stood out from his peers in many ways. Known primarily as a political dissident, and an anarchist, he was also renowned in his own time as a scientist and an historian. He was made a member of the Russian Geographical society due to his discovery and mapping of mountain ranges in Siberia, he pioneered influential new ideas in evolutionary biology, and he wrote several entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Born a prince (kynaz) as a descendant of Rurik on his fathers side, he was in the Tsars own circle as an Imperial Page, his family owned 1200 serfs. He opposed serfdom however and stopped using his title at age 12, taking an increasingly republican political bent from that early age. After military training as an officer in the Imperial Russian Army he became attaché for Cossack affairs in Eastern Siberia in 1863. From 1864-1867 he led a series of important and successful scientific expeditions into Siberia, mapping mountain ranges and identifying new animal and plant species. As a result of papers he published in 1873 based on his expeditions the maps of the entire region were officially redrawn. In 1874 he published another influential paper (correctly) asserting that the Ice Age was not as far in the past as had been originally thought.

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The Peter and Paul fortress in St Petersburg

By the fall of 1874 however his political leanings had gotten him in trouble with the secret police and he was arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Peter and Paul fortress. For a while he continued to publish scientific papers from prison, but in 1876 he staged a famous and widely publicized escape. He initially fled to the Swiss Jura, where he had friends in the anarchist movement, but Swiss authorities were hostile and he soon relocated to Savoy, where he was again arrested by French authorities in 1883 due to suspected sympathy for the ideas of the Paris Commune. When he was released thanks to continued agitation by sympathizers in the French Parliament he moved to England, where he found welcome and ended up spending most of the rest of his life.

The English authorities were surprisingly unphased by Kropotkin's presumably dangerous ideas and English society seemed to have a certain affinity for the elderly radical, and vice versa. He lived near London at various times in Harrow, Ealing, and Bromley, then later in Brighton. He was welcomed by English socialists such as William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, but also by much of the scientific and social elite of English society as well. Oscar Wilde said of him "Who is this new Christ who has come from Russia?**". Kropotkin was befriended by H.W. Bates, the naturalist and explorer who had mapped out much of the Amazon, with whom he had a great deal in common as an explorer in Siberia. Bates introduced him to the English scientific community where he was well liked, and he was effectively adopted by the Royal Geographical Society, for whose Geographical Journal he wrote numerous articles from 1886 -1905. He was also invited to write a handful of scientific articles in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica including entries on biology and geography as well as the entry on anarchism*. Kropotkin was opposed to the English Monarchy but supported England's resistance to German imperialism in WW I, angering anarchists and socialists thereby. This in addition to his critiques of Bolshevik style centralized Communism left him largely abandoned by the left. But it was in England where he found prominent publishers (notably William Heinemann) who printed several of his most important books, among them The Conquest of Bread, Fields and Factories, and Mutual Aid, which is the one I'm most interested in here.

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No 6. Crescent Road, Bromley, UK, Kropotkin's home from 1886-1914

Kropotkins scientific work far outlived his notoriety as a revolutionary. His maps of southern Siberia and Mongolia proved to be accurate and consistent with subsequent aerial mapping, and remained the standard into the 1960s. The biological ideas he outlined in Mutual Aid were influential in the development of the important concept of Mutualism in Biology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutualism_%28biology%29, which covers such a wide range of concepts as domestication of animals to benign intestinal flora.

As an historian Kropotkin has been largely overlooked. His book Mutual Aid, a factor in evolution, was written partially as a response to the Social -Darwinism*** of the late 19th Century. But unlike so many of his peers in the political opposition, Kropotkin was a scientist at heart and based his books solidly in science; the integrity and skill with which he approached his research has meant that, though forgotten in the modern political discourse, his work has held up far better over the years under careful scrutiny than nearly all of his peers. Mutual Aid in particular is considered a strong scientific effort as well a political work. The modern author Daniel P. Todes, an expert on Russian naturalists and biographer of Pavlov, for example notes that Kropotkin’s work "cannot be dismissed as the idiosyncratic product of an anarchist dabbling in biology" and that his views "were but one expression of a broad current in Russian evolutionary thought that pre-dated, indeed encouraged, his work on the subject and was by no means confined to leftist thinkers." Stephen Jay Gould, the science historian and paleontologist, wrote an essay in the Journal "Natural History" in 1997 entitled "Kropotkkin was no crackpot", defending the ideas set forth in Mutual Aid.

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Augsburg in 1550 AD, Heinrich Vogtherr d. J. If you want to know what the hell is going on in this painting, Mutual Aid is a good place to start

And this is where (finally!) Mutual Aid becomes relevant to historical fencers. Mutual Aid takes a biological and historical path through nonhuman animals, pre-feudal societies, medieval cities, and 'modern' (i.e. late Victorian) society. Though the whole book is fascinating, it is the third category which is chiefly of interest to me at the moment, and to most readers here. I've spent much of the last two years researching Medieval cities, particularly the City-States of northern Italy and the Free Cities, Royal Free Cities and Free Imperial Cities of Central Europe, because I'm writing a book on the Medieval Baltic which is primarily focused on the towns. Part of the reason for my interest is that most of the German language fencing manuals we know of derive from these very places: Frankfurt am Main, Strasbourg, Danzig, Augsburg, Bologna, Nuremberg, Basel and so on. We know of the fencing fraternities, that the Marxbrüder were founded in Frankfurt, the Federfechter in Prague, and the Guilds of Sint Michael in Bruges and Ghent.

So the context of the social, political, and military organization of these surprisingly war-like towns has significant relevance for the student of historical fencing. As Kropotkin put it "In reality, the medieaval city was a fortified oasis amidst a country plunged into feudal submission, and it had to make room for itself by the force of arms." The burghers fought wars against regional Bishops, feudal Lords, robber knights, and between factions inside of their own walls, all of which has relevance for fencing. In the course of my research I have amassed a great deal of sources, ranging from very recent academic papers to scans, transcriptions and translations of dozens of primary - source documents. When I read Mutual Aid 20 years ago, I had a very different view of Medieval life, and frankly glossed over his section on Medieval cities a little bit because my mind was full of cliches from Monty Python movies and Conan films so I was turned-off by the idea of a Medieval urban environment. By a fluke I recently read a few pages from the section in Mutual Aid which deals with Medieval cities, and I was amazed to see references to all the same primary sources I have so painstakingly collected, and the easy familiarity and extraordinary sophistication with which the author understood the subject. His analysis of the medieval urban economy is nearly identical to that of two books I just read published by the London School of economics on the Guilds system in 2007 and 2008, which are supposed to be 'new' research.

Simply put, Kropotkin has the deepest understanding of the reality of medieval society that I have ever encountered, he makes it accessible and brings together all the incredibly tangled threads of this world in an effective way. Mutual Aid is not a polemic, to the contrary it is a well reasoned scientific analysis of the best available data, with the best balance between good writing and accessibility with academic accuracy that I've found so far on the subject of Medieval life. His voice is clear and lucid, and perhaps most importantly he references all of the best sources which were available in his time, which are also 95% of the best sources that are available now. For no other reason than it's utility as a bibliographical resource, if you want to get up to speed on what life was really like in the Medieval world, particularly the cities****, I think this is an indispensable and accessible book.

The section on the Medieval Cities starts on Chapter 5, page 192 in the free epub version I downloaded from Project Gutenburg to my ipad, which you can find here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4341

* which remains to this day the best description of the concept that has ever been written.

** Oscar Wilde converted to anarchism after meeting Kropotkin and wrote a political treatise in 1891 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_o ... _Socialism

*** as a man of science Kropotkin was a darwinist, in the sense that he certainly believed in evolution, but he was attempting to correct the rather crude political interpretation of Darwinian ideas. Mutual Aid makes the case that cooperation is as strong a factor in evolution as competition.

**** he also deals extensively with rural and village life in an earlier section.
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Re: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby Gil-Galadh » 26 May 2012 08:24

Thanks for the extensive review. I think I would definitely look into "Mutual aid"
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Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby Anders Linnard » 26 May 2012 09:42

This will make me pick up mutual aid again and hopefully read it with a little bit different perspective.
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Re: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby MugginsToadwort » 26 May 2012 09:45

BD,

Thanks for an interesting review. I'd know of Kropotkin from his geological works, but didn't realise he went in for the social side as well.

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Re: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby bigdummy » 26 May 2012 16:10

It's interesting to me how Kropotokin seems to be known to biologists and geologists and paleontologists but not to anyone else. I hope that more people become aware of his historical work, I found it useful.

BD
"In the case of an ailing social order, the absence of an adequate diagnosis... is a crucial, perhaps decisive part of the disease." -Zygmunt Bauman

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Re: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby Thearos » 26 May 2012 16:13

I only knew Kropotkin as a Russian anarchist. But you've brought out a great richness there-- his opposition to pure Darwinism, his insistance on collaboration-- and his interest in the city-state !!! I mentioned this to a friend who teaches political science, and he said that this sort of phenomena is being studied by evolutionary scientists again, after long years of poo-poohing.

So thanks for that.
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Re: Kropotkin's Mutual Aid as a resource on Medieval Cities

Postby bigdummy » 27 May 2012 00:49

Thanks Thearos, that is really interesting.

There also seems to be some general re-assessment of Medieval society going on right now in academia, I think possibly due in part to the success they have had in Germany and some other places in using the Guild system to train skilled labor.

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