Book Summary: “The Medieval City” by Norman Pounds

The Medieval City

Title: The Medieval City
Author: Norman Pounds
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Pounds overviews the cities of Medieval Europe.

If you would like to learn more the importance of cities in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments:

It is my belief that the growth of autonomous trade-based cities is the one of the four keys to progress. Since Western Europe is the only region that developed entire networks of these cities, they are a key factor in explaining why Western Europe developed much faster and earlier than the rest of the world.

Key Take-aways

  • Medieval cities in Europe were usually established by a charter (or town constitution) from the local noble between 1000 and 1250. This charter outlined their unique rights regarding taxation, criminal trials, civil trials and military service obligations.
  • Local nobles found these charters to be expedient because they could raise more revenue from a prosperous city than a stagnant rural area.
  • Because many nobles were trying to establish cities simultaneously, they were forced to compete against each other to give the best terms to their local city. Otherwise, they could not attract the immigrants necessary to make a city an economic success.
  • These rights sharply separated the city from rural areas. Keep in mind that about 97% of the population lived in rural areas, so cities were small islands within a rural ocean.
  • Medieval European cities had a few key characteristics:
    • A charter
    • Few, if any, nobles, the dominant class of the era.
    • A town council, usually consisting of merchants elected by their peers.
    • City walls to clearly separate themselves from the countryside and as a defense against predatory states.
    • A market for trading agricultural goods from the local countryside and locals crafts made within the city
    • A port to facilitate water transportation over rivers and ocean.
    • A bridge and roads to facilitate land transportation.
    • A large number of merchant and artisans.
    • A constant stream of peasant immigrants from the local countryside looking for employment.
    • A militia where most able-bodied men served.

Important Quotes from Book

“a city is a nucleated settlement that must engage in manufacturing and service occupations for the simple reason that agriculture could neither support nor employ all of its population.”

“this charter conferred on it certain legal and economic rights. The city or town was cut off in these respects from the surrounding countryside. It was subject to the authority of a council, usually elected, whose jurisdiction was precisely defined and was separate from and independent of the feudal jurisdiction of the several lords of the rural manors and estate that surrounded and enclosed it. But there were various levels of independence, ranging from the city-state, which was in most respects sovereign and independent, to the very restricted independence enjoyed by most small towns.” (p xxvi)

Cities were enclosed within walls and fortified gates.

Cities has many hazards: limited water, sewage, rotting wood structures that collapse, fires, disease, higher mortality rates.

“The city was a continent-wide institution” (p xxix)

“the furthest cultivated field could be not more than what a citizen could walk in an hour or so.” (p 2)

In most of the Byzantium Empire, urbanism declined or even disappeared. Only in its Asiatic provinces, in Syria, Egypt, Galatia and Cappadocia, did urbanism retain some vitality.” (p8)

Feudal authorities built castles in surviving Roman towns and imposed charters that undercut their liberties to impose their authority.

Most Medieval towns were created during that era by a feudal lord setting aside land and giving it a charter to attract immigrants. (p 12)

“It became a general rule that no town could be founded closer to another existing town than a day’s market journey” (p 14)

“The biggest wave of town foundation during the Middle Ages was in central and eastern Europe… Most were in existence by the year 1100… Few towns were founded between 1250 and 1300… By 1300 the movement had for practical purposes run its course” (p 14-15)

“Security was a major factor in the creation and growth of most towns. The Middle Ages were a lawless time.” (p25)

“Most towns in western and central Europe grew up on the banks of a river. In southern Europe, towns were more likely to have been located on a hilltop, or at least on higher ground. (p34-35)

Rivers offered advantage of water, sewage, navigation and defense (at least on one side)

“Most immigrants to the growing towns came relatively short distances… Larger cities have greater attraction as do closer ones.” (p 59)

Towns were surrounded by its market region, the size of which was determined by the distance a man could walk in one-third of a day (about 6-7 miles).

Larger towns had a greater range of services and occupations, larger population and a wider effective region. (p 73)

The total population of small towns was much larger than the total population of large cities. (p 79)

“A kind of urban axis reaching from London to Naples and passing through Flanders, the Rhineland and northern and central Italy. Most of the rest of Europe was almost devoid of cities.

A village community remained subject to its territorial lord. The grant of a charter severed this link. In return, the lord received rents paid gathered by the towns elected leaders. By the end of the Middle Ages these payments were rarely demanded.

The town charter usually allowed the town to:

  • Establish its own courts of law.
  • Regulate commercial activities.
  • Establish weekly markets and sometimes larger fairs
  • Protect itself from competition from merchants outside the town. (p 102-3)

“The emergence of a class of professional craftsmen was in turn a response to the rise of an aristocratic class able and willing to pay for quality products” (p 120)

The structures of urban trade assumed three basic forms:

  1. Shop – craftsmen sold to customers face-to-face
  2. Market – peasants sold products from their farms and gardens and bought goods that they could not buy in their village from urban craftsmen
  3. Fair – merchants from greater distance buying goods of higher value (p 126)

From the mid-eleventh century, the Counts of Flanders encouraged the growth of towns and the spread of commerce with generous charters. These charters were modeled on Arras in northern France. The counts allowed elected town councils, which gradually diminished the count’s authority. The Flemish cities were not totally independent like in Italy, but there was little external control. (p 181)

If you would like to learn more the importance of cities in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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