(Social): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

Social mobility has traditionally been associated with Medieval and Early Modern urban centers. Plenty of studies show that towns became a fertile ground for upward mobility, but not few people also experienced a social decline. In order to engage in debates about increasing inequalities and stalled social mobility, it is necessary to refine methodological tools and to undertake new approaches.


This session aims to focus on social mobility, a subject implicit in scholarly literature devoted to urban societies of Premodern Europe for many decades but still presenting several methodological challenges, for example with respect to statistical evidences or inquiries into large groups of people. Therefore, we would like to bring together approaches dealing with three main aspects about the study of social mobility in towns: the definition of indicators allowing to investigate this phenomenon, the identification of the most frequent routes to purposive social advancement and the detection of several factors and patterns, integrating both upward and downward mobility.

The debate we would like to promote, through case studies covering the whole Western Europe between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 18th century, is expected to include the following issues:

  • The exploitation of specific sources (e.g. tax registers, notarial records and others emanated from public institutions) or the development of methodologies (mainly prosopography and social network analysis) in order to get representative samples beyond the description of isolated success stories provided by biographies or derived from exceptional private archives.
  • The making and development of political elites according to specific institutional frameworks. It can be explored, for example, through researches revisiting traditional views such as that of cursus honorum. Similarly, we would like to consider the impact of princely courts and the service to royal administration as a pathway of upward mobility.
  • The most usual economic sectors or profiles of investments for successful entrepreneurs, so candidates for purposive social rise, decoding other complementary strategies (such as marriage) and the way they showed their status. As the other side of the same coin, we will welcome contributions examining driving forces in the histories of those dragged by social decline.
  • The role played by education and cultural training in social promotion. It means, for example, the exercise of qualified professions in the field of finances, law or medicine. It is also closely connected with the ecclesiastical milieu.
  • Reflections about variables or factors such as changes in economic or political junctures (e.g. wars or tax pressure), natural disasters or other historical circumstances which may explain rises and falls of some families and collectives or even can be identified as instances of equalization.

  • Spokesperson: Pere Verdés Pijuan, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas
  • Co-organizer(s): Denis Menjot, Université Lumière Lyon 2  | Albert Reixach Sala, University of Girona
  • Keywords: Upward mobility | Downward mobility | Methodology
  • Time period: Premodern period (covering more than one period)
  • Topic(s): Social | Economic
  • Study area: Europe