The Urban Economy

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The Urban Economy


Types of Towns. The economic division of labor between town and countryside meant that towns were different entities from villages, even when they were sometimes almost the same size as a village. It makes sense to think of two distinct types of towns during the Renaissance and Reformation. The vast majority of towns functioned as regional market centers for the surrounding villages. They might range in size of up to perhaps ten thousand inhabitants, though most had fewer than five thousand. They were large enough to have a variety of trades among their citizens, but small enough that everyone who lived there knew his or her neighbors. Conversely, the few larger towns were dedicated primarily to fostering long-distance trade and making products available to a small stratum of wealthy people. They were too large for there to be a sense of neighborliness among all inhabitants. Instead, there were more pronounced social tensions between the “haves” and “have-nots,” who sometimes encountered one another and sometimes existed in different orbits. From 1350 to 1600, the largest cities in Europe grew from just 100,000 inhabitants to more than 250,000 people. However, even in 1600, any city with more than 20,000 inhabitants would have been considered large.

Corporate Body. The basic distinction between a town and a village was a legal one: towns had market rights and villages did not. Yet, in most cases, the visible symbol of the difference between town and countryside was the town wall. In medieval times town walls acted as a defensive system against invaders, but by the Renaissance only towns in war-torn regions could afford the complicated fortification systems that would protect them against modern siege techniques. Nevertheless, even old-fashioned walls created a distinct social space that emphasized separation from the outside world. Most towns used their walls as a way of regulating who came in and went out. At night, the gates of the town would be closed and guards posted to check on who wanted entry. During the day, the gates formed a useful checkpoint for wagons bringing their produce in to market.

Self-Government. Towns were also distinctive for their tradition of self-government. Citizenship was jealously protected because it was the prerequisite to political participation. The towns usually had elaborate and distinctive constitutions that regulated internal politics. Small towns were deliberately quite insulated from the migration of the neighboring countryside. New residents were only permitted with the approval of the town council, and if someone tried to sneak in, it was not usually long before they were discovered and told to leave. Furthermore, permission to reside in the city was not the same thing as gaining citizenship. To become a citizen one usually had to demonstrate a certain level of wealth, pay a substantial fee, be nominated by someone who was already a citizen, and swear an oath of allegiance to the town.

Large versus Small. In larger cities the same regulations existed in theory, but it was harder to drive hangers-on away. Large cities received a greater number of “foreign” visitors (meaning from a different town, not a different nation) who could blend in with visitors and immigrants from local villages. In times of war and local dearth, a fortified major city was a logical destination to escape the turmoil. The elites of large cities were thus more tolerant of long-term residents who had no claim of citizenship. There were also more menial tasks that had to be taken care of in the cities, and thus a mobile underclass who could fill in when necessary was tolerated.

Immigration. Life could be hard and dangerous in the largest European cities of the era. Most grew considerably larger during this era, but they did so primarily from immigration, not from natural Malthusian growth. In fact, for most cities, the death rate far exceeded the birthrate, and population would have gone down were it not for the even larger number of immigrants.

Guilds. The most common way that economic activity took place in the urban economy was through an organization known as the guild. Like towns, guilds were self-governing bodies with a defined area of jurisdiction. Yet, what they governed was a specific industry, not a geographical area. There were guilds for almost every common craft of the era, such as tailors, weavers, carpenters, shoemakers, and coopers. There were also guilds for more obscure industries, such as spurmakers, armorers, and gold-foil beaters.

Conflicts of Interest. There were several built-in tensions, or conflicts of interest, in guild organization. First of all, guilds regulated the entire production process of any given craft. They set the quality standards for finished products, the prices that could be charged for those products, and the mechanisms for punishing people who violated those standards. At the same time, they were an advocacy group for the craft and its members, defending it against encroachment from other crafts. Though they sometimes posed as protectors of consumers because they guaranteed a specific quality level from producers, their primary loyalty was to the guild members themselves. Production was usually in the workshop of a guild master, which was within his home. Only in rare instances would a shop employ more than about fifteen workers. There was no incentive to develop larger-scale industrial production because of the dominance of guild masters in the guild organization.

Dual Orientation. Guilds had a dual orientation. On the one hand, they were located within towns and participated in the social and political life of the town. Guild members were generally among the most politically active groups in any city. On the other hand, guilds also had ties to members of the same guild in other towns. For the sake of their craft, they had to be aware of trends in other regions. The traditional learning stage of production in a guild was known as “journeyman” because it was based on wandering from guild town to guild town, learning techniques at various locations.

Manufacturing in Larger Cities. Guilds were active in large cities just as they were in smaller towns. Even in cities such as Paris, London, or Florence, most production took place in the small shop. However, there were more gradations in the kind of guilds that might be active in the largest cities. In Florence, for example, there were guilds of mer-chants as well as of craftsmen. Some of the most specialized guilds, such as goldsmiths and sculptors, were only present in the largest towns where there would be sufficient commissions from patrons of the arts to support them. Thus, in a typical large town like Frankfurt, which had about twelve thousand inhabitants at the start of the sixteenth century, there were 130 different guilds.

Government. In some cities the guilds played a major role in town government. Seats on the council would be reserved for guild masters, and guild members would vote as a bloc to achieve their political goals. In other cities, such as Nuremberg in Germany, guilds were excluded from the town government, and a merchant patriciate ran the city alone. In either case, there were usually significant social tensions between the guilds and the merchants.

Specialized Industries. Even in the largest cities, guild regulations usually made it impossible to set up a large fac-tory for manufacturing. The concentration of industry

depended more on the connections between artisans and merchants than it did on the need to be where the natural resources were. Nevertheless, some cities were noted for their excellence in a specific industry, even without large-scale fac-tories or dominance over raw materials from the immediate neighborhood. For example, Florence was renowned throughout Europe for fine woolen textiles. The most prominent exception to the predominance of small shops was the shipbuilding industry, which flourished in large factories in Venice and Amsterdam. The most famous “factory” of the Renaissance was the Venetian Arsenal, or shipyards, which employed more than five thousand workers.

Patterns of Urbanization. Large towns were not evenly spaced across the European landscape. Instead, there was an “urban belt” running along the Mediterranean and north-south from Italy to the Netherlands where towns were numerous, and a “rural belt” extending to the east and west. Before the Black Death, the largest cities were the independent city-states of Italy. The ten largest European cities before 1350 were Venice, Florence, Paris, Milan, Bologna, Genoa, London, Ghent, Siena, and Palermo. Most of these cities shared a diverse base of manufacturing for international export, along with a significant merchant-banker segment.

Largest Cities in 1500. Even after the Black Death and the shift to an Atlantic economy, Italy continued to be home to half of Europe’s largest cities. In 1500, the largest European cities were Paris, Venice, Naples, Milan, Ghent, Moscow, Florence, Prague, Genoa, and Bruges. The presence of Moscow and Prague on the list is a sign that the economic geography of Europe was beginning to change and even the “rural belt” was developing major urban centers.

Largest Cities in 1600. The change in urbanization was even more apparent by 1600. Now the largest cities in Europe were Paris, Naples, London, Venice, Seville, Prague, Milan, Palermo, Rome, and Lisbon. With the exception of Milan, all of these cities were either capitals or major ports of larger European principalities. The presence of Seville and Lisbon underscores the importance of the Atlantic trade for population growth.

New Kinds of Towns. During the Renaissance and Reformation, a new type of town began to develop in northern and western Europe in both a small and large format—the court city. Before the 1400s and even into the sixteenth century, most kings and princes lived a mobile lifestyle. They had castles in the countryside and spent much of their time traveling from one part of the kingdom to another, bringing the entire court with them. The “capital” of any country was wherever the king happened to be. Over time, more and more of the regular functions of the court began to be carried out at an urban “home base,” which had a central royal palace that was the seat of government. In the largest kingdoms, a great city with traditional ties to the monarchy became the capital of the country, such as London in England or Paris in France. In the case of Vienna in Austria and Madrid in Spain, a relatively small city immediately became a major center because a powerful monarchy set up permanent residence there. In lesser dukedoms and principalities, a less substantial city had to become the focus, and so that city grew in order to serve the needs of the court. The most dramatic changes were in cities such as Munich and Berlin, which were minor urban centers in 1400, probably less important than neighboring towns such as Ingolstadt or Stendahl. Once the courts of Bavaria and Brandenburgv became fixed in those cities, however, they grew to be the major urban centers of their regions.

Needs of the Nobility. A court city had to be different from an ordinary market center or international merchant center because the needs of the nobility so clearly dominated its social life. Only rarely would those nobles become citizens of the town, so there was a real split between court and citizenry in jurisdiction. On the other hand, nonnoble officials who contributed to the territorial administration more often did become citizens of the town, becoming locally prominent administrators as part of the urban patriciate.


Philip Benedict, ed., Cities and Social Change in Early Modern France (London & New York: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

Alexander Cowan, Urban Europe, 1500–1700 (London & New York: Arnold, 1998).

Christopher R. Friedrichs, The Early Modern City, 1450–1750 (London & New York: Longman, 1995).

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The Urban Economy

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