Book Summary: “Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History” by Peter Clark

Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History

Title: Oxford Handbook of Cities in World
Author: Peter Clark
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

This is the best overview of cities in history in all major regions of the globe.

My Comments:

Since this book is a compendium of dozens of cities throughout history without a connecting narrative, there are no “Key Take-aways”. I do believe that the histories covered show that cities are one of the driving forces in progress.

Important Quotes from Book

“Looking first at economic development, agricultural surpluses and the existence of urban markets able to distribute and commercialize them were of decisive importance”

“In terms of the impact of power, many new cities were the direct result of the political and economic ambitions of princes and feudal lords or of ecclesiastical lords, who sought to demarcate their respective territories by granting ‘urban’ rights to new or existing settlements. The latter were thus turned into strongholds helping to defend a territory from the ambitions of other lords.”

“Gourevitch pointed out how the medieval burgher was a quite exceptional phenomenon that appeared in European history and was as such not present in contemporary Byzantine or Islamic societies. Recent historiography has argued that ‘communalism’ deserves as much attention as more traditional topics like ‘feudalism’ or ‘parliamentarism’ in the analysis of Europe’s medieval past.”

“This brings us to another crucial element of Weber’s archetypal European city: the effects of self-governing urban institutions.”

“Political disorder and the fragmentation of power in the feudal Europe of the high Middle Ages reinforced in a decisive way the communal movement. In many cities, the power of the local bishop proved no longer capable of imposing the peace that commerce needed so badly.”

“many urban governments tended to become dominated by a small oligarchy. ”

“the European city was a hotbed of liberties but in the medieval sense: not of individual citizens, but of collective enterprises… In sum, the two-fold nature of the medieval European city emerges: an urban community that creates and reinforces bonds among its members but excludes without compassion those who do not comply.”

“All in all, the medieval city paved the way for important developments of the European city in the early modern period.”

“the rapidly changing urban lifestyle in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Without a doubt early modern times were a period of ‘critical transition’ for urban Europe. In this period cities developed an ‘urban’ way of life that would become the leading behavioural code for society, eventually spreading beyond the city walls and still inspiring the urbanized world of today.”

“the centuries between 1450 and 1750 can be suspected to have altered the course of ‘European urbanization’ by degree rather than kind. In nothing was the early modern European urbanization process comparable to the ‘revolutionary’ achievements of the high Middle Ages and the 19th century.”

“It was only in the 18th century, and for most parts of Europe after 1750 at the earliest, that something of an ‘urban renaissance’ really did take root. England especially wrapped its conservative, medieval townscape in neoclassical attire, and it did so while putting emphasis on new leisure and entertainment spaces, like coffee houses, concert halls and opera houses, theatres, parks, and sports grounds. In this period too, western European cities started to refurbish their basic infrastructure according to an enlightened taste for order and cleanliness, leading to changes in drainage systems, street lighting, pavements, and pedestrian walkways, installing uniform street names, and silencing rattling shop signs. Such dynamism remained, however, isolated and of limited quantitative importance. Urban improvement in the period before the 19th century remained first and foremost a slow, modest, and predominantly incremental process.”

“In addition, the end of the 16th century also marked a turning point in the geographical redistribution of the European urban population. For centuries Italian towns had taken the lead in European urbanization, but from the end of the 16th century onwards they had to step aside for cities in northern countries.”

“More often than not the main beneficiaries of the increasing state debt were urban residents. Consequently, tax flows, often stemming from the rural economy, were pumped into the urban economic system again. Many cities found support in the expanding state machinery, and towns profited greatly from the growing administration of surplus extraction and state control.”

“As members of the higher middle ranks and elite these state officials added considerably to the attractiveness of towns as centres of culture and consumption. In doing so, they contributed indirectly to a cultural climate that was pulling increasing numbers of landowners into town. Even very small towns made an important part of their living from the presence and expenditures of rentier households,”

“The list of capital cities that flourished during the second half of the 17th century is impressive. By the end of the 18th century Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London, Warsaw, St Petersburg, and Naples figured at the top of the European urban hierarchy. Thanks to a brilliant court life and an extended bureaucracy, these capital cities managed to attract and concentrate there members of the high nobility, alongside military staff and numerous administrators. The social and economic momentum engendered by this spin-off of state formation was enormous”

“The era after 1750 witnessed a strong new wave of urbanization, but this time European urbanization was marked by an ‘urbanization from below’ again. Across Europe small towns with industrial, specialist, and rural market functions recovered a significant, albeit small, share of their lost positions in the preceding centuries. ”

“the European-wide urban achievements of the long 16th century were more impressive. Generally speaking, changes in the early modern urban world owed more to income redistribution than to income generation.”

“Whether in 16th-century Frankfurt, or 18th-century Paris, social inequality was the most visible social characteristic of urban communities across early modern Europe. Little more than a tiny group of officeholders, rentiers, and merchants claimed the lion’s share of urban wealth. Yet, while these virtual millionaires have attracted attention, perhaps the most distinctive feature of urban society was shaped in the densely populated middle classes. Professionals, shopkeepers, innkeepers, and affluent artisans, in short ‘the middling sort of people’, earned decent incomes and fully participated in the construction of a distinctive urbanity. ”

“Political power was unequally distributed as well, and here, once again, the mutual interests of a nascent modern state on the one hand and a local urban oligarchic elite on the other came to the fore. While early modern cities lost enormously in autonomy and city rulers were often supervised if not appointed by princes, they were increasingly recruited according to oligarchic and plutocratic principles.”

“On a macro level, the endurance of poverty and social inequality in the early modern town matches the absence of sustained economic growth. Put more precisely, though urban and economic growth set in again after 1750, the 18th-century achievements were comparatively meagre.”

China: 600-1300:

“Perhaps the most frequently cited and the most pertinent difference in comparisons between Chinese and other (especially European) cities is their embeddedness within an administrative hierarchy that theoretically denied the separation of city and countryside. Throughout imperial Chinese history urban centres were always part of a larger jurisdiction (county or prefecture) that jointly controlled rural areas and urban centres and that incorporated local communities in a hierarchy of administrative places that culminated in the court located in the main capital.”

“Chinese society went through major changes in the centuries spanning the Tang and the Song Dynasties. Demographically, there was a major shift in the distribution of the population from the north to the south. North China had historically been the most heavily populated part of the Chinese territories. The capitals of the unified Chinese empires (Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang) had been located in the north. During the 1st millennium CE, there were several waves of migration from the north to the south but none with such lasting effect as the migrations set off by the period of civil unrest that started in the mid-8th century. Whereas an estimated 23 per cent of the registered population lived in the south in 606 and 43 per cent in 742, by 1078 65 per cent was resident in the south”

“Commerce, premised on the maximization of private profit, remained a suspect occupation in the estimation of many elite families. Obtaining an education, passing the civil service examinations, and so entering the bureaucracy became the preferred track for ambitious elite men since the examinations had become the most prestigious track to officialdom in the 10th and 11th centuries.”

“The absentee landlord became a common phenomenon in the countryside”

“Even though the overall percentage of urban households was low in what continued to be an agrarian empire (5–10 per cent), in some areas, particularly along the Yangzi and along the south-east coast, it ranged between 30 and 40 per cent. Southward migration, the development of regional specialization in agricultural and manufactured goods, interregional and cross-cultural trade, and the active engagement of both central and local governments and urban residents in commercial development all contributed to an ‘urban revolution’.”

China 1300-1900:

“China by 1300 hosted several of the largest cities in the world and was arguably the world’s most urbanized society. These cities did not enjoy nor had they explicitly sought ‘autonomy’ from encompassing political regimes, but they did enjoy a modest amount of practical communal self-management. China’s urban history under the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) empires continued these developments in particular ways.”

“As von Glahn concludes, ‘The real rupture in Jiangnan’s urban and commercial development occurred not under the much-maligned Mongols… but rather after the restitution of autocratic rule in the early Ming.”

“The Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang (Ming Taizu) held great animus against the mercantile lineages of the lower Yangzi region, who had opposed his rise, and systematically destroyed them as soon as he was able, impressing their members into artisan or menial labour service. In 1371, he instituted a ban on maritime travel.

Early Ming society was minutely regulated. The population was divided into hereditary occupational groups, initially there were many of these (medical doctors, scholars, etc.), but they quickly reduced to three: soldiers (junji), artisans (jiangji), and other commoners (minji). Each of these were under the control of a separate central government agency, had distinct fiscal and labour service obligations, and were as much as possible residentially segregated. Although there was large-scale government relocation of the population, personal travel was largely prohibited.

“An exception was made for professional merchants, whose need to move goods around the empire was recognized but minutely monitored; away from home, they were required to stay and register at semi-governmental hostels… Occupational and geographic mobility, in short, were prevented with reasonable success under the first several Ming reigns, and so too were market-driven commercial development and urbanization”

“The mushrooming urban population was fed not primarily by the market but by commandist means; the surrounding lower Yangzi prefectures, among the most agriculturally productive in all the empire, were subjected to fiscal extraction that left even the wealthiest households in perpetual tax arrears that were still a problem for centuries thereafter. ”

“China’s modern urban history—and, I would argue, Chinese early modernity—genuinely begins with what I have called the ‘second commercial revolution’, beginning in the mid-16th century and centred on the era nicely dubbed by one Chinese historian ‘from Wanli (reigned 1573–1619) to Qianlong (1736–95)’. This second commercial revolution differed qualitatively from the first, under the Song. Among the key differences was the fact that whereas the first, although it pioneered long-distance interregional private commerce in a significant range of commodities, was essentially in luxury goods carried between urban centres, the second involved huge quantities of low value-per-bulk staples. Thus it deeply involved rural as well as urban populations:”

“Late imperial Chinese urbanization, in other words, was nearly the inverse of that occurring in Western Europe, with the most dramatic action taking place at the lower levels of the urban hierarchy.”

“whereas much of the European growth was observed in major cities (the result of migration from the overpopulated countryside), in China the areas experiencing greatest growth were peripheral rural ones, especially highlands and marshlands newly reclaimed for settlement.”

“Western merchants began to call at Chinese coastal cities in progressively greater numbers over the early and mid-Qing era, but after the 1760s were legally confined to Guangzhou (‘Canton’). This changed in the wake of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the first Anglo-Chinese ‘Opium War’ and opened several cities farther north along the coast to Western trade and residence. Subsequent treaties progressively opened additional ports in north China and inland up the Yangzi River. The era of the ‘treaty port’ and the foreign ‘concession’ was born. After a period of experimentation with a range of ports, Shanghai emerged as the single most important entrepôt of Sino-Western trade and beachhead of Western influence in the empire.”

“It was, rather, simply the latest incarnation of a particular segment of indigenous society—an ‘other China’—that had always been outward-looking and highly interactive with other global cultures.”

“Who lived in early modern Chinese cities? The answer depended very much on the type of city we are looking at. Since the marketing hierarchy only very imperfectly overlay the administrative hierarchy of county seat, provincial capital, and imperial capital, the population and social structure of a given central place varied systematically between a city like Kaifeng (a provincial capital of only localized commercial importance) and Shanghai (a modest county seat with very important domestic and maritime trade functions), or Nanjing (in which administrative and commercial functions were of relatively equal importance). Bureaucrats, sub-bureaucrats, and military were both more numerous and more socially important in the Kaifeng type of urban place than the Shanghai type.”

“In some heavily commercial cities such as Guangzhou and Yangzhou, which also hosted long-standing concentrations of wealthy literati, the gentry/merchant status distinction remained significant; in other cities such as Hankou, where an indigenous literati was lacking, the merchants were essentially the urban elite. Even among merchants, however, there was a long-term trend toward acquisition of classical education and, if only through marriage or one’s children, gentry status. By the latter 19th century in many commercial centres a hybrid ‘gentry-merchant’ (shenshang) class—perhaps best thought of as ‘businessmen’—had emerged.

Urban commoners—shopkeepers, petty traders, and artisans—formed the core population of most large cities.”

“By the close of our period of study, Qing China enjoyed an extraordinarily developed commercial economy, and a sophisticated urban politics and culture. And yet it was still primarily an agrarian society. G. William Skinner estimates that in 1893, at the close of our period, there were 877 cities of 4,000 or more inhabitants, an overall urbanization rate of between 5 and 7 per cent of the empire’s population. This rate was far lower than that of Europe, where, according to Andrew and Lynn Hollen Lees, 14.5 per cent of the population in 1800 lived in towns and cities of 5,000 or more,”

“China’s phenomenal early modern population growth had occurred less in cities than in the countryside, in marginal lands newly developed for agriculture, and in small market towns. Indeed, the urbanization rate in Tang and Song China was very likely higher than that in 1893.”

“urban form and function in Ming and Qing China and Tokugawa Japan were distinctly different. Both empires hosted very large capital cities (Beijing and Nanjing, Edo and Kyoto), and both were strewn with a mesh of smaller administrative places (county seats in bureaucratic China and castle towns in feudal Japan). But beyond these similarities the higher level of agrarian commercialization in China created an urban system in far different ways than Japan. Osaka, an overgrown castle town, completely dominated Japan’s national market in rice and cotton, within what was largely a command economy, whereas in China there were numerous regional metropolises within which market exchange vied with administration for functional primacy, as well as some very large commercial and industrial cities which performed no administrative functions whatsoever.

More politically decentralized than either China or Japan, Europe basically lacked the mesh of administrative cities common to East Asian societies (cathedral towns within the ecclesiastical hierarchy played this role only to a lesser extent). ”

“Rather, in Western Europe—like China but unlike Japan—trade, especially water-borne trade, was the major driver of urban development. The largest cities in early modern Europe tended to be those linked to overseas trade (Venice, Amsterdam, London); this was not the case in China—that is, until the phenomenal growth of Shanghai in the later 19th century.”


“in 1603, the Heavenly Sovereign, whose family had reigned as Japan’s monarchs since the mid-7th century, appointed Ieyasu to the office of shogun, a position that delegated to him (and his family successors) governing responsibilities over the country, as well as the specific tasks of maintaining law and order and overseeing the samurai class. His family’s future secure, Ieyasu eventually settled his entire army of warrior followers—tens of thousands in number—around his castle residence. As merchants and artisans moved into the community to tend to the needs of the military estate, the small town of Edo grew into a metropolis of well over 1 million people, becoming by 1700 the world’s largest city, and the forerunner of modern Tokyo.”

“Across Japan in the decades marking the turn into the 17th century, powerful regional lords—daimyo—were constructing their own fortress-residences. Those warrior leaders, approximately 220–250 in number at any given moment,”

“Soon, those daimyo headquarters, like Edo, became the nuclei for vibrant communities composed of samurai, merchant, and artisan neighborhoods.”

“Their growth ignited one of the world’s great urban revolutions. In the brief span of years between 1580 and 1610, nearly half of today’s largest cities came into existence as castle towns”

“The size of the castle towns was as impressive as their numbers; approximately 140 boasted populations of at least 5,000 persons, and the giants Kanazawa and Nagoya topped the 100,000 mark (as did Edo, the imperial city of Kyoto, and the commercial city of Osaka). By 1700, when the process of castle-town construction had run its full course, only the Netherlands and England–Wales had urban densities as great as Japan.”

“Kyoto was not unique. At the turn of the 16th century, self-governing bodies appeared across Japan—in Uji and Yamada in the capital region, Ōminato near Ise Shrine, Hyōgo on the Inland Sea, and Hakata in Kyushu, to name just a few. In all those towns, leading citizens (moneylenders, saké brewers, and shipping agents who transported rice and other commodities from the countryside into Japan’s urban centres) constituted themselves as councils of elders to oversee local affairs. Documents tell us most about the city of Sakai. Located on the shore of Osaka Bay not far distant from Kyoto, Sakai emerged during the late 15th century as a leading centre of ironwork and textile production and as an important entrepôt for trade with China and mainland Asia. By the 1530s, almost all of its 40,000 or so residents earned a living through commercial enterprises (and a significant number were among the wealthiest individuals in the country). Moreover, contemporary European observers sometimes hailed this maritime city as kin to the autonomous urban polities of Europe.”

“Eventually, a general consensus emerged that Japanese town councils did not challenge traditional structures of governance; Japanese burghers continued to pay taxes to the imperial court or levies to locally powerful military overlords, basically in exchange for being left alone to manage their own internal affairs. Consequently, Japanese merchants never set themselves the task of obtaining charters or constructing city-states that would confirm their complete independence from outside authority. Thus, it is perhaps most appropriate in the Japanese case to speak of ‘self-management’ and ‘self-governance’ rather than ‘autonomy’ or ‘free cities’.”

“Osaka, just south of Kyoto, self-consciously promoted itself as a city of merchants. Few would dispute that claim, for Osaka was the central rice and wholesale market for central Japan (the ‘country’s kitchen’ in the words of the time), and 90 per cent plus of its 380,000 residents at the beginning of the 17th century were merchants and artisans.”

Port Cities of Southeast Asia:

“Hydrological instability, soil erosion, and a continuous process of delta formation combined with frequent tropical storms created the massive flooding or the silting up of estuaries, and frequently cut port cities off from the sea. Consequently, by and large Indian Ocean cities were insubstantial and lacked continuity, a phenomenon Wink has described as ‘labile urbanism’.”

“At the end of the 1st millennium, two types of political systems emerged in South East Asia, represented by the Indo-Chinese peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago respectively: inland agricultural societies based on alluvial river plains (such as Majapahit or Mataram in Java) and port principalities along the coast focused on the trade of the rivers and the sea (such as Melaka on the Malay peninsula). Occasionally a city combined these functions,”

“For the most part situated away from the major thoroughfares of long-distance trade, these port towns—characterized by their particular mode of production and organization—rose and declined spasmodically in the regional pecking order, surviving far into the 19th century as semi-autonomous principalities until finally being overtaken by the expansion of Western imperialism. In some port principalities the orang kaya’s status seems to have been akin to that of the ruling merchant elites in European port cities.”

Latin America:

“The anticipation that the New World would disclose many cities was exaggerated, but not altogether fantastic. In parts of the Americas there really were indigenous cities, in the sense of self-defined places with densely clustered populations numbered in thousands. The Spanish monarchy managed to engross almost the whole urban indigenous world, leaving unurbanized zones to Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English rivals. This accident shaped the empire. By annexing the regions of densest population, Spaniards founded the only great empire of both land and sea in the early modern world,”


“the role of the towns is clear: most of these non-agrarian functions were generally concentrated in the towns.

Following on from this, one could say that the more developed and sophisticated the urban functions were and the bigger the non-agrarian sectors, the bigger the towns would be. These big towns would also require a highly productive agricultural sector, able to generate the surpluses to feed the non-agricultural population.”

“high levels of urbanization show an advanced development of both agriculture and the transport sector, and perhaps by implication, the urban industrial and services sectors.

The preceding is reflected by the fact that in the pre-industrial period the highest levels of urbanization were found in what are considered the focal points of economic development, from the Yangtze area to the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and from the Nile delta to the northern shores of the Mediterranean and the North Sea area.”

“Some of these areas saw a further growth of urbanization rates, such as the North Sea area, while others stagnated”

“In order to adapt Weber’s classifications to our analyses we have denoted his producer cities with the term ‘market-oriented’ and called his consumer cities ‘coercion-oriented’, since the latter implies some type of coercion channeling the surpluses from the countryside to the town. Moreover, we have added a further distinction, that is, between centralized and decentralized systems.”

“Centralized coercion is found with the classical state-oriented city. This is a centre of government and military protection (or occupation), which supplies services—administration, protection—in return for taxes, and its position is intimately linked to the state and the sovereign. The flourishing of his realm and the expansion of his territory and its population will lead to urban growth, in particular of the capital city, which is the sovereign oriented city par excellence. Moreover, the most efficient location of such a city tends to be in the middle of the territory it controls;”

“Decentralized coercion is found in situations where central states are weaker, capitals less important and taxes are not the main way of extracting surpluses from the countryside. This kind of city can be labelled urban elite oriented. These cities often fulfil roles in administration and particularly in production and services but add a particular element: the control over agricultural surpluses by way of a coercive hold over rural properties or agricultural output, by way of force or more often by property rights, that is, by economic coercion. This can be in the form of ownership of land or tithes, manors or slave estates. Often, this is combined with the control of non-agricultural activities and market exchange in the countryside, and the exclusion of possible urban or state contenders in these fields, if necessary by military force.”

“The economic basis of the market-oriented city, on the other hand, is the production and exchange of goods and commercial/marketed services for and with its immediate hinterland and other (market-oriented) cities at a greater distance. International trade is an important element in the flourishing of these towns.”

“Capital cities are typical state-oriented cities. A possible proxy of the degree to which the urban system is dependent on the state is the share of the largest—often the capital—city in the urban population.”

“Urban giants ultimately stem from the concentration of power in the hands of a small cadre of agents living in the capital. This power allows the leaders “to extract wealth out of the hinterland and distribute it in the capital.’ A high level of urban ‘primacy’, that is, a high share of the largest/capital city in the total urban population, therefore suggests that cities are state-oriented, whereas a system of typical market-oriented cities is relatively balanced, with only a relatively low level of urban primacy.”

“The cities of the viceroyalties of New Mexico and Peru are therefore among the classic examples of ‘coercion-oriented’ cities within a centralized system of control.”

“Were we to measure economic success on the basis of the level of urbanization only, then Spanish Latin America would be a ‘success story’, and North America a ‘failure’. In about 1800 still only about 3 per cent of the population of the North lived in cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, whereas this share was between 7 per cent and 10 per cent for both Mexico and the Andean region.”

“The North and the South of the Americas were more or less ‘pure’ versions of ‘market-oriented’ and ‘coercion-oriented’ urban systems. In other parts of the world, we often do not find such ‘ideal types’, but more mixed systems.”

“The urban structure was dominated by three cities: Edo (present-day Tokyo), with perhaps as many as 1 million inhabitants, was probably the largest city in the world in the 18th century, but Osaka and Kyoto, with between 300,000 and 400,000 inhabitants, were also quite large. This urban boom reflected centralization of political control under the new regime in the first place.”

“Tokyo was therefore a classical consumer city, as was Kyoto, where the (politically impotent) emperor was living. At the same time, Osaka emerged as the central marketplace of the country; a large part of the rice crop, which was marketed here, consisted of taxes paid to the state.”

“As a result of the centralization of political power under the first Ming emperors, a rather imbalanced urban system had emerged, with a very strong ‘capital city effect’:”

“As the example of Istanbul demonstrates, in the Middle East the ups and downs of cities and of the urban system in general were intimately linked to the rise and decline of large states in the region—the early Islamic caliphates and the Ottoman empire in particular. The relatively high urban primacy of the region reflected this: in particular between 800 and 1000—with the flowering of the Abbasid empire—and again after 1500—when the Ottoman empire is doing well—the capitals of those empires have a large share of the total urban population”

“In Europe, having direct access to the sea spurred urban development. European trade was very much focused on water transport. In the Islamic world the proportion of cities located on the coast is higher than in Europe, but these cities do not generally fare better than their landlocked counterparts. Really large Muslim cities, including Baghdad, Damascus, Fès, Marrakech, Cairo, and Córdoba, are all located away from the sea and often even far inland (Istanbul is a notable exception, but it becomes a Muslim city only in 1453). Mediterranean trade in the Islamic world was of only marginal importance compared to Muslim trade across the Sahara and the Indian Ocean. The caravan trade was more efficient in the Muslim world than trade by horse, oxen, and/or wheeled cart. However, this camel-based form of transport did not allow for any further efficiency gains over time in contrast to Europe’s focus on water-based, in particular seaborne, trade.”

“The second important explanation for the differences between the growth of cities in Western Europe and the Middle East/North Africa can be found in a number of institutions.”

“Also, cities that held a prominent position in the ecclesiastical organization are larger than other cities, and more so the more important their status within the church.”

“Capital cities dominated the landscape of the Muslim world from its start. Despite substantial changes in the political map of the Islamic world, the extent of the capital city’s dominance did not significantly change over the period 800 to 1800. In contrast, in Europe, we find a rise of the capital city effect over time,”

“From the 13th century onwards we start observing a capital city bonus, and only from the 16th century do capital cities dominate the European urban landscape to the same extent as in the Muslim world, or even more so. Their increasing dominance clearly reflects the (slow) process of state formation in Europe.”

“One of the major explanations of the different long-run urban development patterns in Europe and the Middle East/North Africa is the representative institutions: local participative government and/or parliamentary representation. This does happen in Europe, but never takes hold in cities in the Islamic world that remain ruled by a strong central bureaucracy.”

“the European cities, by virtue of their influence in local and national policy-making, managed much better to withstand any ‘predatory actions’ undertaken by these new powerful states. It may therefore also be no surprise that the centre of Europe’s urban development shifted to exactly those regions (notably the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, but also for example Switzerland and Sweden) where in contrast to France or Spain, for instance, cities were able to maintain their local authority and/or strengthen their position in national representative institutions.”

“Western Europe is a microcosm of different urban constellations. We sketch this for the successive centres of European urbanization: northern Italy, the Low Countries, and England. After about 1000, three core regions of European urbanization appeared, which showed certain similarities. In northern Italy, the Rhineland, and the Low Countries, central power was relatively weak, also in part due to the rising powers of the cities themselves. The development of these towns was driven by the flourishing of trade and export industries, within more or less decentralized systems of market exchange”

“Towns and urban elites in the central and northern parts of Italy were most successful in this, resulting in a system of decentralized coercion. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the large towns also succeeded in eliminating smaller urban rivals, often by military force,”

“According to Epstein, the associated institutions impeded further economic growth, reduced the productive power of the countryside and blocked any further growth of urbanization. The urbanization rate peaked around 1300, and then stagnated and even slowly declined.

In the southern parts of the Low Countries and the northernmost parts of France, but later also in Lombardy, processes like these were halted halfway by the rise of princely power: the count of Flanders and the king of France in the late Middle Ages, and the duke of Lombardy in the 15th and 16th centuries.”

“The case of London, and the other West European cases discussed, show two additional patterns to the ones observed earlier. First, the rise of towns and acceleration of urbanization in pre-industrial Western Europe mostly took place in forms of intensive market exchange and decentralized political power, within a balanced urban system with low urban primacy. This applies to all areas which at a certain point took the lead in the urbanization process. Second, all of these areas subsequently saw an increase in centralization, mostly linked to a growing role of coercion; often led by the urban elites, as most clearly in the case of Italy.”

“Towns certainly need agricultural surpluses, and therefore a productive agriculture, and they need an advanced physical and institutional infrastructure to bring these surpluses to town. This can be done, however, within different systems: within a market system or within systems of tribute or taxation, and within centralized or decentralized systems. It is the exact arrangement of these systems which promotes or obstructs further growth.”

“Generalizing, we find that balanced urban systems generate the best conditions for further economic development.”


“first centuries of the 2nd millennium of the current era set the scene for marked urban expansion in both China and Europe, resulting in what appears to have been roughly comparable aggregate levels of urbanization of around 10 per cent by the 13th century—when using the benchmark of 5,000 inhabitants to define a city—although China counted more big cities (with more than 100,000 inhabitants) than Europe. While Chinese urbanization might have progressed somewhat further, from the 16th century onwards the urban proportion of the population started to decline, to reach a level of only 5 per cent by the early 19th century, by which time the comparable figure for Europe stood at 13 per cent. The relative decline in Chinese urbanization during the late Ming and especially Qing periods went hand-in-hand with a very strong expansion of the overall population, concentrated mainly in rural and frontier areas, and did not imply any decrease in the absolute size of China’s urban population.”

“state intervention appears to have played a more important role in realizing large-scale displacements in China than in Europe. Only in Russia do we see large-scale deportation and forced settlement, particularly to the new towns established on its eastern borders.”

“Existing research for ancien régime Western Europe has uncovered the existence of distinct migration circuits, whereby the direct hinterland was often the main supplier of apprentices, domestic servants, day labourers, and other relatively unspecialized labour, while specialized artisans and white-collar workers generally moved between different cities and over greater distances.”

“swift to emerge when new opportunities opened up, but equally swift to disappear when perspectives elsewhere proved better. Merchant, artisan, and ethnic networks often provided important institutional frameworks for channelling their movements, as with the medieval Hanse, the Italian merchant associations, the French compagnonnages or the Huguenot diaspora.”

“The density of commercial and interpersonal connections tying a city to an urban network appears to have determined the durability of inter-urban migration patterns.”

“most inter-urban migration in China probably occurred within the boundaries of macro-regional urban systems. Although difficult to quantify and important exceptions notwithstanding, median distances of inter-urban migrations were therefore not necessarily larger than in Europe. Yet whereas they generally took place within one empire, in Europe the most mobile and up-market inter-urban migrants frequently transgressed state boundaries.”

“urban migration over the long term, however, they probably operated on an overall smaller scale than in Europe. Another apparent difference, related to the former, was the lower participation of women in patterns of migration and labour mobility, which was in turn related to women’s nearly universal and earlier marriage in China than in Europe—late teens rather than late twenties. With no life phase like that of ‘early adulthood’ in Europe, the Chinese case shows no institution comparable to that of female domestic service so decisive for women’s migration in Europe. More broadly, female labour outside the house was considerably less customary”

“With family and male migration comparatively more important, migrants’ impact on urban nuptuality and fertility patterns must have in turn been mitigated.”

“This freedom of movement contrasted with the limits to personal mobility imposed by the concomitant rise of ‘second serfdom’ in Eastern Europe, curbing urban growth dynamics. In Ming-Qing China, freedom of movement was contained by the imperial household registration system, assigning each household to a specific district. Stringent under the early Ming, however, migration restrictions were subsequently relaxed and transfers of registration facilitated.”

“The density of non-kinship ties connecting individuals to urban society has been identified an exceptional feature of early modern Europe, a result of the demographic characteristics of urban life. Because high mortality and migration rates produced many individuals with few family ties to rely on, voluntary associations developed to take over both affective and supportive functions of kinship networks. The density of fraternities, sororities, associations, clubs, and societies in urban contexts not only provided newcomers with manifold entries to local social networks, but also fostered the development of civil society.”

“When measured in terms of interactions with local-born residents, for instance with regard to lodging arrangements or marriage patterns, most research shows that hinterland migrants were more ‘integrated’ than the more upmarket migrants from the higher regions of the urban migration pyramid. The latter were in turn involved more often in ethnic or supra-local networks extending far beyond the urban environment, such as merchant associations or religious diasporas.”

“Patterns of incorporation and integration, however, again appear to have differed considerably. Striking in most Chinese studies and sources on migration is the great significance attached to origin and ancestry, nurtured by the imperial household registration system and exemplified by the important role played by native-place associations in Chinese cities.”

Port Cities:

“The first steam and sailing ship hybrids crossed the Atlantic in the early 19th century, but it was not until the 1880s that port views of New York, San Francisco, or Boston would show a large number of steam ships… Steamships allowed for reliable scheduled transportation of goods around the globe, resulting in increased globalization.

The new vessels—and expanded trade—required harbours around the world to rebuild their facilities: the form and size of the wharfs, the equipment to load and unload the ships, the service and storage facilities for fuel. ”


“BUILDING and living in towns was not the first thing that humans did. Yet becoming globally urban is one of our great collective achievements through time.”

“Once established, all towns and cities have common requirements. They need sustainable resources (including water, food, raw materials and, integral to growth, a stream of population recruits) plus a viable economic role (including the economic functions of administrative and religious centres: ”

“So supportive administrative, fiscal, and legal frameworks are essential, as are favourable socio-cultural belief-systems which accept mass living.”

“One influential broad-brush Grand Narrative of historical change, which was traditionally but not invariably favoured in rural societies, saw history as a cyclical process. Changes do occur but ultimately revert to their starting-point, as do the cycles of the seasons or the phases of the moon. ”

If you would like to learn more about cities in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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