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Reading: Pre-Modern Citizenship. An Ancient Concept for the Modern World?


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Debate Article

Pre-Modern Citizenship. An Ancient Concept for the Modern World?


Phil Withington

University of Sheffield, GB
About Phil

Phil Withington is Professor of Social and Cultural History at the University of Sheffield. He has worked extensively on pre-modern urbanism, urbanization, and sociability, publishing The politics of commonwealth: citizens and freemen in early modern England (Cambridge, 2005), Society in early modern England (Polity, 2010), and contributing the chapter on ‘Urbanization’ in Keith Wrightson, ed., A social history of England 1500–1750 (Cambridge, 2017). Other areas of interest include the social and economic history of ‘renaissance’ and the history of intoxicants and intoxication. He is currently leading the HERA-funded project ‘Intoxicating Spaces’ (

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This article discusses the challenges and opportunities of turning to the pre-modern world to address contemporary problems. To do so it compares Maarten Prak’s approach to practical citizenship in Citizens without nations with Jurgen Habermas’s infamous evocation of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’. While different in important respects – not least in terms of the kind of historical citizenship they recover and the methods by which they do it – Prak and Habermas nevertheless share an important similarity. This is that both are quite idealistic, in an aspirational sense, about how their pre-modern forms of citizenship can benefit and improve the modern world. This sense of idealism can be contrasted with Max Weber’s preference for excavating ideal types that described, for better or worse, the normative values and behaviours of particular cultures in the past. This response then outlines the normative practices of Prak’s citizenship and asks whether they are really commensurate with modern life.

How to Cite: Withington, P., 2020. Pre-Modern Citizenship. An Ancient Concept for the Modern World?. TSEG - The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 17(3), pp.79–90. DOI:
Published on 20 Dec 2020.
Peer Reviewed


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