In modern-day nation states – in which equality before the law and popular sovereignty represent fundamental ideological principles – the distinction between citizens and foreigners constitutes a highly sensitive political border. It is a disputed limes which is associated to mechanisms and discourses of exclusion. But what did it mean to be a foreigner in earlier times? What was a foreigner in an Old Regime state, in which sovereignty was not conceived in national terms and the legal system – far from heralding “equality” – was inherently pluralistic? What rights were migrants entitled to and what kind of discriminations did they have to cope with?
By focussing on eighteenth-century Naples, a European metropolis which was a major hub of regional and international migrations, I have tried to find some answers to these questions. On the basis of a thorough inquiry in judicial, diplomatic, commercial and police records, I have attempted to show what it meant to be a foreigner in front of a customs officer, a policeman and – for and foremost – at the bar of those many competing courts of justice which struggled to impose their authority over the second-largest city of the Mediterranean space.
In a context which was informed by innumerable particular privileges, foreigners – especially foreign merchants – rarely asked for equal rights. On the opposite, they tended to claim their legal difference. And with the support of their consuls they often succeeded in influencing the functioning of Neapolitan institutions. The “foreigner” was not a clearly defined legal category. Rather it was a social classification which was constantly negotiated between local authorities, the representatives of foreign states and the migrants themselves.
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