Town and City Life

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Town and City Life



Fortifications. Cities at this time were great walled-in islands existing in the midst of fields and pastures. A traveler approaching the early-modern city encountered on either side of the road, cows, sheep, and goats grazing in the pastures lying outside the city's walls. Most cities of Europe were encircled by constantly repaired Roman and Medieval walls, and often by moats filled with flowing water, as well. Gallows and torture wheels (heavy wooden wheels used to crush a convict's bones, and then attached— with the still-living victim twisted among its spokes—to a

huge pole) dotted the landscape outside the walls. The rotted corpses of those executed were left deliberately outside the walls to prevent disease and to serve as a warning to newcomers that the city's laws were to be obeyed.

City Gates. Due to the almost constant warfare of the era, walls and moats alone were not sufficient to safeguard a city. Defensive towers were therefore inserted periodically within the walls. These were huge battlements usually adjacent to those limited number of gates from which people entered and departed the city during daylight hours. The seriousness attached to the city's defensive structures is revealed in the writings of a Milanese merchant staying in Calais around 1518 (the city was controlled by the English then), who noted that any foreigner seen near the moat or climbing the walls would be put to death. The city's gates would be carved out of the fortified walls at those locations where major highways from neighboring cities intersected the walls; thus, the settlement patterns of neighboring cities dictated where a particular city's gates would be placed. (Though it should be noted that highways linking the major cities of Europe were little better than deeply rutted roads.) Nördlingen, a German city whose late-medieval walls stand intact, represents well what was once fairly typical: a little under two miles of fortified walls surround the entirety of Nördlingen, and along the town walls lie five gates (all of which are so narrow that today's automobiles have trouble squeezing through them) and eleven defensive towers. Florence's wall was five miles in circumference and included seventy-three towers and fifteen gates. The design of these towers was fairly standard: their base was usually square, and was itself about four stories high. Upon the base would stand a circular two- or three-story tower containing a balustrade and firing slits, from which one could shoot at marauders attacking adjacent parts of the wall. Cities with moats had drawbridges inserted at the gates, allowing passage over the flowing water below. Gates were manned, particularly at night, with watchmen and guards. Towers erected at gates also served as the municipal prisons, and the cells—some so small that it would be difficult for a prisoner to lie down in them—often occupied the third or fourth story. As the gate was the first edifice encountered by a newcomer to a city, messages and warnings were often posted on the exterior walls of the gate. For instance, in Dinkelsbuhl, visitors can still see, on a building just inside one of the gates, a painting of a cleaver chopping off a hand amid a pool of blood. The message to visitors was clear: stealing was not tolerated.

City Populations. Notarial documents, judicial records, hospital registers, tax records, and baptism and death certificates reveal that populations within the larger cities varied considerably, so the following figures are estimates. Around 1500, Paris, Naples, and Venice alone among European cities had populations of at least one hundred thousand, while London, Florence, and Rome each had roughly fifty thousand. Other great cities in 1500 included the Flemish trading centers of Ghent (fifty-five thousand) and Antwerp (forty-five thousand), while Berlin and Madrid were little more than villages at the end of the fifteenth century. The largest cities in German speaking lands—Cologne, Augsburg, Vienna, and Nuremberg— each had populations around twenty thousand. Most striking, however, is the rate of growth these cities experienced. By 1700, Paris and London, for example, each contained about half a million residents, while Amsterdam and Naples had populations of roughly two hundred thousand. Cities were thus full of strangers: merchants in search of new markets, pilgrims, students coming to study at the emerging urban universities, the ever-desired carpenters and masons, and mercenaries. Peasants, seeking to avoid unemployment, hunger, and the dangers of the countryside, would attempt to establish citizenship and obtain work within the city as well. For example, in 1600 about twenty-four thousand people lived in Munich, the capital of the duchy of Bavaria, although fewer than one-half had resided in the city long enough to qualify as actual citizens with full rights, reflecting not only the general increase in population throughout Europe during the sixteenth century but also the dawning of urbanization as well. Indeed, in an era when 30 percent to 40 percent of babies died within their first year, immigration was the only way a city could guarantee a relatively stable population.

Inside the City. Within the walls one still found citizens working on vegetable gardens, which nearly every house possessed. In many cities, even the jailer's wife maintained a garden outside the prison, where she grew vegetables to supplement the meager diets of the incarcerated. There was not a sharp distinction between the rural world outside the walls and the urban world inside them: streams flowed everywhere, and the city's landscape was filled with wooden barns, fences, and stables. Animals of all sorts—horses, chickens, pigs, goats, sheep—walked up and down the streets and alleys, which were strewn not only with rubbish heaps, but with feces, both animal and human. People regularly threw their garbage into the street, where pigs or even stray dogs would forage on it. Cities were far from self-sufficient, however, and all depended upon close relationships with the rural communities in their hinterlands. Renaissance Florence established such greatness in part because of the auspicious relations it maintained with sharecroppers in the Tuscan countryside who provided the urban elite with a secure food supply, as well as with grain, oil, and wine, which the Florentine elite in turn sold or traded throughout Europe.

Building Materials. Most, if not all, of the typical city's buildings would be made out of wood, though fifteenth-century Paris and seventeenth-century Amsterdam were making the transition to stone. As a safeguard against fire, some exceptionally crowded cities, such as Florence and Bruges (Flanders) had passed ordinances that mandated tiles on all roofs. The risk of fire was especially great because houses were closely packed together, so close in fact that the structures truly held up one another. In early-modern Goslar, Germany, more than 1,500 buildings housed 12,000 people in an area covering just 240 acres. Mazes of walkways and vaults connected houses to other rows of houses. It is easy to see how fire, once started, could quickly spread. Nearly the entire city of Troyes in France burned to the ground in 1547, Moscow experienced repeated fires throughout the early modern era, and a great fire destroyed 75 percent of London—more than 12,000 homes—in 1666. By the early fourteenth century, Florence had, in addition to mandating tiled roofs, passed laws stipulating that, to prevent fire, all buildings on major streets had to be faced with stone to at least seven feet off the ground. Early-modern urban planning sought to create more open space: in Munich, Duke William V tore down entire neighborhoods and erected in their stead churches, mansions, and monasteries, all with dramatic courtyards, and wider avenues. Those areas untouched retained narrow, interwoven city streets that mingled in a mazelike fashion, seemingly to belie any forethought in their design. Added to the maze of streets in many early-modern cities was an equally elaborate web of canals and smaller, artificially constructed waterways, which were somewhat like aqueducts. These channels provided a water network throughout the city and, in addition to guaranteeing a drinking supply, they also furnished the tanners, dyers, millers, and fullers with the water needed for their operations. Even smaller towns like Goslar had close to thirty mills in the sixteenth century, while larger towns such as Munich had as many as thirty-six wells and eighteen fountains to supply its residents with water. Conversely, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Pisa lacked an adequate waterworks and consequently saw its population decimated by marsh disease and malaria.

Darkness and Congestion. Typically, each story in a house jutted out from the one directly below it. This building style rendered the streets’ maximum width at ground level, but meant that little air or light penetrated to ground level, as the distance between buildings facing one another on opposite sides of the street was greatly reduced at the rooftops. In parts of York, England, contemporary visitors can still stroll through serpentine streets, many of which are so narrow that an adult leaning out of a window on the second floor can touch the building on the other side. The oldest part of Florence, near the Piazza della Signoria, possessed streets only about eight feet wide at ground level. As they were lined, however, with relatively tall buildings, light was effectively blocked out on these streets, and the district was infamous for being habitually dark, damp, and fetid. While noteworthy today, these sections of York and Florence would have been all too common in 1500. Signs hung everywhere, protruding from the buildings into the narrow streets, and added to the sensory congestion. Guilds, shops, hotels, taverns, and even private homes were wont to hang a placard or festoon, making the narrow and dark streets all the more congested. By evening, the absence of street lights guaranteed that the city was an eerily dark environment, illuminated only by a burning taper or oil lamp in a house window or by the candles that lighted a neighborhood tavern. Undoubtedly the surest way for a traveler or new resident, lost in the maze of streets at ground level, to orient oneself within the city would have been to locate the towers of the largest cathedral or church, which almost always lay in the center of the city. Given that the average building in an early-modern city was three or four stories high, the spires of the great cathedrals, such as the Gothic cathedral in Strasbourg, which towered above the city's roofs at a height of over 460 feet, or the summit of the belltower in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, which one would have to climb over eight-hundred steps to reach, clearly dominated the skyline.

Need for Open Spaces. By all accounts early-modern cities were quite noisy and smelly, and, even by today's standards, the air must have been difficult at times to breathe. Despite their impressive waterworks, only a few wealthy cities, such as Milan, possessed paved (cobblestone) streets, and so, depending on the weather and season, dust or mud could be everywhere, mixing with the garbage and fecal matter on the streets. Due to the narrow and winding nature of the streets, the almost complete lack of circulating air prevented dissipation. The city's slaughterhouses and tanneries, its noxious hospitals, its old, rotting wooden buildings, and its lack of spacious streets created ideal conditions for the spread of smallpox, typhoid, consumption, hydropsy, and pleurisy, as well as workplace injuries. Antonio de Beads, who recorded his travels through Europe in 1517-1518, noted that the streets of Paris were so muddy and narrow, and that so many carts vied to get through the city's corridors, that simply walking within the city was quite dangerous. In Edmond Rostand's famous play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), the title character is murdered in 1655 Paris by villains who, with no effort, mask the assassination as a simple— and common—street accident. It is not surprising, then, that one of the main goals of nearly every early-modern municipal government was the creation of more open spaces. Fourteenth-century Florence responded to a common problem when it devoted a high percentage of its financial resources to street improvements. The primary reason Florence turned its main streets into rectilinear ones did not stem from abstract aesthetic considerations but rather from the inability of farmers and merchants transporting foodstuffs to reach the city's internal markets.

Market Squares. Markets emerged periodically from these mazes of dusty streets. Every city would have a number of markets, each held in a different square: a hay market, coal market, fish market, corn (or vegetable) market, and cloth market. Adding to the din caused by the daily buying, selling, fighting, and bartering (and by all the construction under way in the adjoining streets) was the sound of craftsmen—tanners, leatherworkers, weavers, cobblers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, swordsmiths—who worked in front of their shops and homes from dawn until the night's darkness prevented further work. In the 1470s Florence had 84 cabinetmakers’ shops, 54 stone and marble cutters’ shops, 44 goldsmiths’ shops, 70 butchershops, and 66 apothecaries and groceries. A century later, Antwerp could boast of having 594 bootmakers and tailors, 78 butchers, 92 fishmongers, and 110 barbers and surgeons.


In the following passage Pope Pius II describes Vienna, circa 1458. This portrait of urban life is excerpted from a work tided The History of Emperor Frederick III, which was published in 1669. Although Vienna's walls, architecture, churches, and markets impress Pius, aspects of the city's, social life trouble him. He also notes how many of Vienna's residents are new to the city, reflecting the general trend toward urbanization. An old proverb, “city air makes one free,” referred to the custom which granted liberty and citizenship to former serfs who spent a year and a day within a city's walls. Based on Pius’ account, this custom applied to peasants who carried wine into Vienna.

Vienna is surrounded by a wall two thousand paces in circumference, but it has large -suburbs with moats encompassing them, and a palisade all around. The city also has a great moat and rising from it a very high rampart. Thin there are thick and lofty walls with numerous towerl and defenses prepared for war, The houses of the citizens are roomy and richly adorned, yet solid and strong in construction. Everywhere them are arched doorways and broad courts.... The stables are full of horses and domestic animals of all kinds. The high facades of the houses make a magnificent sight. Only one thing produces an unpleasant effect; they very often cover the roofe with wooden shingles, and so few are tied. For the rest, the houses are built of stone....

The wine cellars are so deep and so spacious that it is said that Vienna has as many buildings under the earth as above it. The streets are paved only with hard stone, so that the wheels of vehicles are not easily worn out. The churches . . . are both large and splendid, built of dressed stone, full of light, and admirable for their rows of columns....

It is believed that the city numbers jafiy thousand communicants. Eighteen men are chosen as magistrates, and there is a judge whose duty it is to interpret the law, and a master of citizens, who has charge of civic affairs....

It is really incredible how much produce is brought into the city day after day. Many wagons come in loaded with eggs and crayfish. Flour, bread, meat, fish, and poultry are brought in tremendous masses; nevertheless, by evening nothing is left to be bought. The wine harvest lasts here for forty days, and every day three hundred carts foil of wine are brought in two or three times, and twelve hundred horses are harnessed daily to the hojpes. In the villages outside Vienna . . . liberty is granted to all who bring wine into the city, it is unbelievable how much wine is brought in....

On the other hand, in so large and noble a city, brawls are, fought like military engagements; now the craftsmen against the students, then the citizens against the workers. . . . Hardly a celebration goes by without a man-slaughter; numerous murders are committed. When there is a brawl, there is no one to separate the contending parties; neither magistrates nor the princes try, as they should, to prevent such great evils.

To sell wine in the home is in no way damaging to the reputation. Almost all citizens operate taverns for drinking . . . The common people worship their bellies and are gluttonous. What a man has earned during the week by the work of his hands, he squanders down to the last penny on Sunday. This is a raggish, boorish lot, and there is, a very great number of whores.... Old families are rare, and practically all the inhabitants are immigrants or foreigners....

The Viennese live, moreover, without any written law; they say that they live according to ancient customs, which they often distort or interpret as they wish. Justice is wholly venal. Those who have the means sin without punishment; the poor and unprotected are punished with the foil rigor of the law.

Source: James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin, eds., The Portable Renaissance Reaikr (NewYork: Penguin, 1958), pp. 208-213.

Noise Pollution. The early-modern city was a symphony of clanging, hammering, chopping, filing, and forging sounds that were periodically supplemented by the pealing of church bells, the yelling of street urchins chasing a cart, the chanting of a choir of monks emanating from the open windows of a monastery, and the crowing of roosters. Vendors roamed urban streets all day long hawking spices, clothes, and sausages; wandering musicians beat their instruments; charismatic preachers attracted crowds with impromptu public sermons that filled city squares; and jugglers, prostitutes, ventriloquists, and mendicant friars sought attention from those congregating in the markets and those gathering at the city's wells. Beggars, some hideously deformed, called out for alms. Begging was a profession in those days and was referred to as “the golden trade.” In 1574 Nuremberg, more than seven hundred beggars were officially registered with the municipal authorities, making begging, by far, the largest “occupation” in the city. But there were probably more than one thousand beggars in Nuremberg at that time, most of whom loitered around taverns or in front of the doors of churches and monasteries. Though professional beggars, in this highly charged religious environment, satisfied the elites’ need to display publicly their Christian charity, their wailings and importunings surely contributed to the noise in the city. As the Nuremberg city council described the situation in 1588: “The general citizenry here is especially inconvenienced by vagrants, beggars, and tramps, especially by the screaming and bawling of children both day and night in the streets and before the houses. ...” Because the workday began at 5 A.M., the main meal (dinner) was eaten at noon, and work, for most of the city's residents, ceased around 3 P.M. The night brought relative quiet: people went to bed early by our standards (taverns in most cities were closed by 10 P.M.), and no respectable citizen, save the watchmen patrolling the city walls, alert to fires and would-be thieves, was out much after 9 P.M. Nocturnal crime was relatively rare, partly because crimes committed after dark brought a much harsher penalty than if they had occurred during the day, and partly because cities closed their gates at sunset and imposed curfews that were regarded by the residents as a form of protection, not as an attack on liberty.

The Wealthy. Because suburbs did not exist as they are known today (although as city populations expanded, rural settlements and gardens administered by noble families and religious institutions developed outside the city's walls), wealthier families also lived within this crowded jumble, in narrow homes with steep pediments. However, their homes were built along the edges of the major city squares and along the city's widest avenues, thus insuring for themselves dwellings that were airy, dry, and clean. For example, in Erfurt, Germany, most of the patricians resided in beautiful homes—each painted with a unique fa$ade—that form the perimeter of the lovely square known as “Fish-market,” while in another German city, Schwabisch Hall, the patrician homes stand side by side, facing the large, open square that lies between them and the monumental St. Michael's Church. The Fuggers, as wealthy a family as any in early-modern Europe, including those of kings and emperors, lived in grand style along Augsburg's Maximilian Street, a wide and airy boulevard lined with beautiful mansions and famous, even today, for the elaborately carved bronze fountains which dot its path.

Availability of Goods. Just as in contemporary times, the city in the early modern era was a hub of commerce and exchange. A city's status was largely determined by the power and influence of its guilds, by the level of its global economic connections, and by the commodities that could be found within it. Thus, Benedetto Dei, a fifteenth-century Florentine merchant, argued in a famous tract that his city was grander than either Venice or Rome because of its wool and silk trade, counting 270 shops belonging to the wool merchants’ guild, and 83 to the silk merchants. Fifteenth-century Venice was famed for its spice trade, as well as for the availability of silks, pearls, precious gems, and rare cloths imported from the Mideast and various Mediterranean ports. Noting Antwerp in 1560, the Florentine lawyer and diplomat Francesco Guicciardini wrote that the first reason to account for the city's preeminence was its “fairs for merchandise.” He praised not only Antwerp's spice and drug trade with India, which brought rare treasures like clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and rhubarb to the city, but also celebrated the city for being a place where one could obtain such prized items as Turkish carpets and fustians, armor, delicate glasswork, sugar, silks, wools, velvet cloth, satin, tapestries, and skins of sable, ermine, lynx, and leopard. Although cities were filled with poverty, stench, and disease, they were at the same time exciting places—almost mythical to the rural peasant—where one could hear countless languages spoken, purchase tobacco from the New World or ivory from Africa, and encounter people from all parts of the world.

Jewish Ghettos. Although officially expelled from some countries, like Spain and England, Jews built sustainable communities in many European cities, such as Prague, Worms, and Venice. The neighborhoods where Jewish communities lived were known as ghettos and they were, given the congested and mazelike nature of the early-modern city, fairly segregated and recognizable. In Worms, for example, contemporary visitors can still easily find the large block of buildings packed tightly together, forming a little island amid several main thoroughfares, against the city walls by St. Martin's Gate. The boundary of the ghetto in Worms is fixed by a boulevard called Judengasse (Jewish Alley); there is hardly a city in Germany today without such a street, and, by locating it, one can find where the ghetto was. Life in the cities was always uncertain for Jews. For example, in 1349, blaming the plague on Jewish intrigue, the citizens of Freiberg burned every adult Jew, except pregnant women, in the city. In 1519 the Jewish community of Regensburg, one of the largest in the Holy Roman Empire at that time, was summarily banished, inspiring similar expulsions in other cities. Even in cities where Jewish communities were allowed to remain, such as Frankfurt am Main, Jews were subjected to great hostility. In early-modern Frankfurt, travelers who entered the city through the Bruckenturm Gate gazed upon a large painting of a Christian boy being tortured to death by Jews. Renovated as late as 1678, it was removed only in the 1770s.

Entertainment. Like today, cities were worlds filled with all kinds of exciting entertainment. In addition to restaurants and taverns (Munich in 1600 had forty-two wine shops and fourteen alehouses), the early-modern city offered periodic entertainment. Chief among these would be parades, such as the great citywide procession held in Bruges every 3 May, and the processions in London (prior to Henry VIII's break with Rome) that occurred on the feasts of St. John and St. Peter, and for which the streets of the city were covered with flowers. Great fairs were eagerly awaited by city residents. Geneva, for example, held four fairs annually, and though ostensibly commercial, these fairs provided great forms of amusement and distraction for all of Geneva's citizens. Also popular throughout western Europe were dances, horse or pig races through the city streets, outdoor theatrics such as mystery (or miracle) plays staged by religious confraternities (laymen) and religious orders such as the Jesuits (London's Globe Theatre was somewhat unique in its secular status), and minstrel and puppet shows. One famous entertainer, Arnoul Greban, delighted the citizens of the French town of Angers in 1490 with a mystery play about Christ's Passion during which he recited sixty-five thousand verses. Unlike modern cities, there were no museums in the early-modern era. However, royal courts were collecting items of natural history and art that would in later centuries form the basis of the urban museum, and on occasion these would be open to the public.

Public Executions. The always popular witch-burning or criminal execution did not always transpire on the gallows hill outside the city's walls and must be considered a form of entertainment. The government of Renaissance Florence viewed highly publicized executions not only as necessary deterrents to crime, but as events that gratified the popular appetite. Thus, a slave girl who had poisoned her master in 1379 was, prior to being burned at the stake, led in a cart through Florence as the executioner periodically tore the flesh from her body with red-hot pincers. In Verona, gallows were built in the Roman amphitheater in the center of the old town.

Gambling and Prostitution. For men, there were also games of chance, which were tolerated during the day in squares and markets, and which took place clandestinely at night in back alleys or barns, and prostitution, which was legal and regulated in most of the larger cities. At the start of the sixteenth century, Venice had more than 11,000 registered prostitutes (close to 10 percent of the population!), while Rome, a city just beginning to rebuild after centuries of neglect, listed 6,800. In Valencia, Spain, an entire neighborhood was given over to prostitutes, who were housed in 150 special houses and who illuminated their doorways with three or four candles: hence, the “red-light district.” In addition, though London's government attempted to combat syphilis in the early 1500s by confining prostitutes to a single locale at the Bankside in Southwark, soliciting occurred throughout the city, even within St. Paul's Cathedral. City dwellers also enjoyed the use of public baths, and men and women often bathed naked together, eating their meals on a buoy. Late-sixteenth-century Munich had a dozen public bathhouses. Although many maintained that visiting baths was medicinal, many municipalities closed their baths during the sixteenth century in an effort to curb the spread of syphilis. Often the seizure of the bathhouse provoked great anger, as is revealed in the official complaint written to Count Sigmund von Lupfen by the residents of Stiihlingen (southwest Germany) in 1525.


A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay, “The Significance of the Metropolis,” in London 1500-1700, edited by Beier and Finlay (London: Longman, 1986), p. 3.

Gene A. Brucker, Renaissance Florence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

Lorenzo Camusso, Travel Guide to Europe 1492. Ten Itineraries in the Old World (New York: Holt, 1992).

Ronnie Po-chia Hsia, The Myth of Ritual Murder (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Michael Kunze, Highroad to the Stake, translated by William E. Yuill (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Margaret Pelling, “Appearance and Reality: Barber Surgeons, the Body and Disease,” in London 1500-1700, edited by A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (London: Longman, 1986), pp. 82-112.

James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin, eds., The Portable Renaissance Reader (New York: Penguin, 1958).

Gerald Strauss, ed., Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971).