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Lecture Notes ©1999 C.M.Gutjahr

PART 4 - Medieval Cities
The eclipse in the European civilization between the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (4th and 5th centuries) and the re-emergence of activity in the Early Middle Ages (10th-12th centuries), is known as the DARK AGES.

A period of tribal migration which saw the break-up of the Mediterranean economy and the end of Ancient World). The urban ideal of the antique world came to an end with the sacking of Roman towns by barbarian invaders (3rd century onward), th whom the urban culture of Hellenic and Roman tradition meant little.

Rottweil, Germany

12th century Zähringer New Town

Henri Pirenne in his classic text “Medieval Cities”, maintains that:

(a) Barbarians did not go into Empire to destroy it, they came to possess warmer, easier life of cities nearer the Mediterranean, on which the Empire was based.
(b) Lacking experience of urban life, they did not run cities as well as the Romans did, nor did they like them.
(c) Trade, moreover, declined from other causes. Nevertheless a measure of civic life and trade continued to exist. Islam ultimately destroyed the ancient world, not as often suggested, the German invaders alone.
(d) Dark Ages came, bringing with them the extinction of civic life, when the Arabs, inflamed by their new Islamic faith swept around east and southern shores of Mediterranean and brought trade of western Europe to a standstill. Ties between eastern and western Europe were cut.
Western Europe was forced to live on its own resources. Cities decayed and did not recover until the Mediterranean routes re-opened and trade revived. This coincided with the next great silver discovery according to Patterson (geochemist at Caltech).

European Towns During the Dark Ages

The Barbarian Invasions caused:
1 the general destruction of Roman cities (except in Spain);
2 townsmen, having lost urban livelihood, to move to the safer countryside.
3 thousands of Roman cities, while seldom disappearing completely, to shrink physically, much like the gold towns of Australia; for example, the conqueror Alaric the Goth defended Nimes from within the walls of its Roman arena; Arles experienced a similar reduction in its urban area, leading eventually to the establishment of a complete small medieval town within the circumferential walls of the Roman arena1 The strongest areas of urbanization left by the Romans were in Italy and along the shores of the Mediterranean while the proliferation of cities diminished going northward into areas inhabited by Germanic Tribes.
4 establishment of a new pattern of life in the former Roman provinces (i.e. most of Europe). Centre of gravity moves northward to Frankish and Carolingian Empires.
Barbarians despised city life and permanent settlements of civilized nations: cities, walls and human-made environment appeared unnatural to the Franks, Saxons, Jutes, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, etc.

Accordingly, the new lords of Europe, after 450 A.D., were bound to the soil, to nature, and led a rural existence. They were hunters, animal breeders and warrior peasants of youthful, unbridled vigour and strength, seizing land where possible, as their ancestors had done 1,000 years before them.

he amphitheatre at Arles serving as fortification for urban housing

since early medieval period

View of 1686
of primary considerations were:

1 self protection;

2 tilling of enough soil to support human life at a low level (meanwhile, forces of nature re-afforested the once cultivated areas of Europe).
Germanic settlements were formed by solitary farmsteads (belonging to a family or clan) independently situated in cultivating or grazing land, and located in proximity to places of refuge. Early in their history, groups of farmsteads would unify into hamlets, leading to the formation of village cultures and group settlements (known as ‘Streusiedlung’ or ‘Sporadic’ settlement patterns).

All Roman concepts of urban life were wiped out for the time being or suspended; the ideas of law and order, and of civic institutions had become meaningless.

    Nevertheless, the Roman heritage: its ideas of law, organization and administration of cities, city life, and its municipal organization was preserved. These Roman concepts provided the basis for the rebirth and revival of cities and city life in the 10th century when Mediterranean trade routes re-opened.


Two different worlds stand opposed to each other during the Dark Ages:
1 the world of Nature, of open countryside and rural settlements


2 the world of the Urban Culture of Rome, of classical antiquity

1. The World of Nature, is that known to the Germanic tribes, who did not possess a word for city in their vocabulary but called it bourgh (fortress) (originally indo-european concept, also found in India)
2. The World of the urban culture of Rome; while Roman cities were largely destroyed in the physical sense, the spiritual legacy of the urban example of Rome remained in the minds and souls of Europeans. Roman urban concepts continued to live in the languages of Italy, France and Western Germany.
The first centuries of the middle ages in Europe were characterized by the confrontation and mutual intertwining of these two worlds. This process occurred in various forms, depending on location and the period of time. At the end of this clash - there emerges all over Europe a medieval town pattern in which the urban soul of mediterranean civilizations is finally triumphant over the Germanic ideal, yet, the mature medieval city is the child born out of the union of both these worlds (note: today’s city continued yearning for nature and the wide open spaces.)

The confrontation between urban and rural ideals is further intensified by:
1 The new powers which crystallize within the secular and ecclesiastical worlds.

People were subject to 2 forms of government in Western Europe, each of which had its symbolic head:

Secular Power (worldly or temporal)
The head of the secular power was the Holy Roman Emperor although in practice his jurisdiction was never as wide-spread or uniform as that of the Pope. The Kings held temporal power, in effect. Each King held sway over the Barons and through them over the people as a whole.

The basis of this system of secular authority was land-holding. All the land was supposed to belong to the King, who parcelled it out on terms of duty and loyalty to his supporters, who in turn parcelled it out on similar terms to lesser men. This is known as a feudal system, which is intensely conservative and based on a subsistence economy i.e. it produced just enough for immediate and local consumption (like the agrarian societies of the East in our times).

Note: the transition from a peasant society of free men with their elected leader to the feudal system took place between 350 A.D. and 650 A.D. (in places 800 A.D.)
The Secular Power was characterized by Rural tendencies:

Emperors, Kings, Princes and Barons did not, as a rule, think of making their permanent residences in cities (France is an exception) instead, they established themselves in:

Castles and Fortresses


Royal Palaces and the courts

and these settlement ‘cells’ (typical of the Germanic spirit prevailing at the time) grew with time and developed into new cities.

Between the 5th and 12th centuries, the seat of government and power was constantly shifting. Kings, their courts and their supporters were always ‘en route’ travelling around their kingdom, seeking homage of their subjects, as well as gifts, taxes, and bribes. They would follow fixed itineraries and visit certain localities, where residence would be taken up for a period. This custom, naturally, favoured the development of residence cities (residences of royal power in absentia). Permanent seats of government (capital cities) as such only began to develop during the 12th century.

Ecclesiastical Power (the Christian Church)

A hierarchical system at the head of which was the Pope who created all the archbishops and bishops and retained their allegiance (and through them that of the lesser clergy) cf. 325 Council of Nicea (Turkey).

The church exhibited strong Urban tendencies:

The church was well formed at beginning of the Middle Ages. Bishops became untiring defenders of the urban concept: they either took up their bishopric in remains of earlier cities or founded new ones around their churches and cathedrals.

From the 5th century, the Christian church became the strongest civilising force in Europe, whose growing network of monasteries constituted the only international organisation. Within monastery walls lay the treasures and the records of the earlier civilisation; monks were the practical pioneers in the early Medieval period, playing a major part in the then acute problems of land clearing, draining fens, cutting down forests and building of bridges.

Its growth cells were:





Some of these grew on old Roman town centres, while others grew near them or completely outside in the rural landscape.

2. The General state of Insecurity and Uncertainty
Europe and its population were fragmented. The section of the population who was not engaged in warfare was forced to seek protection i.e. craftsmen, artisans, merchants; accordingly, they preferred to settle near centres of spiritual or worldly power and pay for their protection with taxes, military service or their freedom.
3. Growing need and desire for goods and services
Permanent commercial centres establish where one might expect a large buying and selling hinterland e.g. Venice led the trade revival in 10th century and spread it to other cities, reanimating and transforming them.

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