Blogging Utopia (6): Governing Utopia

In this post, Prof Phil Withington looks at the description of Amaurot, the capital city of Utopia. He explores how it relates to London and English structures of governance, and asks what it tells us about Thomas More’s conception of urbanization and civil society.

16th century map of London; the only bridge across the Thames is London Bridge
The Agas Map of London (1572-1605), from Maps of Old London (1908)

There are fifty-four cities on the island, all spacious and magnificent, identical in language, customs, institutions and laws. […] Once a year each city sends three of its old and experienced citizens to Amaurot to consider affairs of common interest to the island. Amaurot lies at the navel of the land, so to speak, and convenient to every other district, so it acts as a capital. […]

If you know one of their cities, you know them all, for they’re exactly alike, except where geography makes a difference. So I’ll describe one of them, not matter which. But what one rather than Amaurot, the most worthy of all? – since its eminence is acknowledged by the other cities that send representatives to the annual meeting there […]

Well, then, Amaurot lies up against a gently sloping hill; the town is almost square in shape. From a little below the crest of the hill, it runs down about two miles to the river Anyder, and then spreads out along the river bank at somewhat greater distance […] For some miles above the city, the river is tidal, ebbing and flowing every six hours with a swift current. When the tide comes in, it fills the whole Anyder with salt water for about thirty miles, driving the fresh water back. […] The two banks of the river at Amaurot are linked by a bridge, built not on wooden piles but on massive stone arches. […]  The town is surrounded by a thick, high wall, with many towers and battlements. On three sides it is also surrounded by a dry ditch, broad and deep and filled with thorn hedges; on its fourth side the river itself serves as a moat. […]

Once a year, each group of thirty households elects an official, called the syphogrant in their ancient language, but now know as the phylarch. Over every group of ten syphogrants with their households there is another official, once called the tranibor but now known as the head phylarch. All the syphogrants, two hundred in number, are brought together to elect the prince. […] The tranibors meet to consult with the prince every other day, more often if necessary: they discuss affairs of state and settle disputes. […] All matters which are considered important are first laid before the assembly of syphogrants. They talk the matter over with the households they represent, debate it with one another, then report their recommendation to the senate. […] The senate also has as standing rule never to debate a matter on the same day that it is first introduced; all new business is deferred to the next meeting. This they do so that a man will not blurt out the first thought that occurs to him, and then devote all his energies to defending his own prestige, instead of impartially considering the common interest.

[From Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (Cambridge UP, 1989)]

Cities are integral to More’s vision of Utopia – not as an alternative to rural living, in the way we might think of urbanization today, but as centres of habitation that enjoy a symbiotic relationship with nature and the surrounding countryside, and which are themselves full of gardens and clean, flowing water. For More, as for the ancient philosophers he drew from, cities embodied a number of values and behaviour that were fundamental to the good life. As well as the perfect alignment of man and nature, they were the quintessence of order, in terms of planning and design; the triumph of artifice, as expressed through their architecture, craft economies and material culture; the means to communal living (no houses were private or owned); and the key to civil society and government, in the sense that citizens governed themselves.

It is tempting to think, then, that More’s love of cities encapsulates the way in which Utopia was an idealistic text – an exercise in fanciful and learned imagination – that was entirely divorced from the realities of sixteenth-century England. In many historical accounts, after all, England at this time is presented as an overwhelmingly rural society that, beyond the power of lords and barons, was pockmarked with a few provincial centres – little more than villages by today’s standards – and dominated by tumescent London: a dirty and dangerous place full of migrant poor and avaricious merchants. Dick Whittington did not go to London to join a communal republic of the kind found in Utopia; he went to make his fortune.

But a more measured glance suggests that More’s depiction of Amaurot –  ‘the most worthy of all’ the Utopian cities – was more rooted in his own times than we might think. Most obviously, the geography of Amaurot and its relation to its rivers was strongly reminiscent of London both in terms of its general topography and in its combination of buildings and green spaces: gardens, allotments, orchards, common lands. So too the way that ‘other cities … send representatives to the annual meeting there’ imitated English cities and boroughs sending representatives to Parliament. As notably, the kind of citizenship practiced in Amaurot – whereby households annually elected local representatives to elect their ‘prince’ (i.e. mayor) and form a ‘senate’ – was not too far removed from the corporate system of common councilors, aldermen, and lord mayor through which London’s citizens governed their city. More, as a London citizen himself, would have known this culture of corporate citizenship well.

Less appreciated is that these resonances were not restricted to London and Amaurot. Hythloday begins his account of Utopian cities with the observation that ‘If you know one of their cities, you know them all, for they’re exactly alike, except where geography itself makes a difference’. And what is striking about England at the beginning of the sixteenth century is that London was at the centre of a system of English provincial capitals which, while smaller in size demographically, nevertheless replicated its primary ‘urban’ features: of built and green spaces, of craft and guild economies, and, perhaps most importantly, of comparable systems of household and corporate citizenship. Indeed the ideal size of cities in Utopia, of six thousand households (as Hythloday later tells us), tallied fairly closely to the populations of late medieval cities like York, Norwich, Bristol, and Newcastle.

But just how embedded Utopia was in contemporary English society can be appreciated if we shift out attention from More’s original Latin text, published in 1516, to the first English translations of Utopia in the 1550s.

On the one hand, in the thirty-five years between the publication of the Latin and English versions, England’s national and provincial governors seem to have taken More’s valorisation of cities to heart. What we find is a proliferation of provincial communities looking to develop and institutionalize precisely the kind of generic urban features found in Amaurot and London – in particular guild and craft economies and the structures of corporate citizenship. This was a process that only gained momentum into the seventeenth century, so that by 1640 the number of English towns that could claim similarities with Amaurot had more than trebled over the previous century.

On the other hand, the men behind the translation of Utopia into English in the 1550s – the translator Ralph Robinson and George Tadlow (at whose ‘earnest request’ it was translated) – were London citizens actively committed to a programme of public and social reform both in the national parliament, in Westminster, and London’s common council. Their aim was the creation of schools, hospitals, and other charitable institutions, as well as a regulated economy to promote manufacture and ameliorate problems of poverty and inequality.

It is likely that what these goldsmiths and merchants saw in Utopia was neither a mirror of their own city nor some impossible nirvana. Rather Utopia represented a powerful vision of the kind of civil society that cities like theirs could create.

Close up of London Bridge from Claes van Visscher's 1616 Panorama
Close up of London Bridge from Claes van Visscher’s 1616 Panorama