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Urban Fortifications and Public Places

Urban Fortifications and Public Places


The Scope of Medieval Cities. By the tenth century urbanization in Europe followed two patterns. Almost every city of any substantial size (5,000–10,000 residents or larger) in Christian Europe was located south of the Alps or along the Mediterranean, while those few surviving cities north of the Alps were based around administrative centers or were located in Flanders and along the western Rhine. Scholars have many theories about the reasons for this division; the influence of Roman foundations, traditions of urbanism, and the extent of Viking or other invasions are three of the most convincing. By the fourteenth century, this pattern remained roughly the same, but the number and size of urban centers all over Europe had grown enormously. Spurred by administrative centralization and economic revival throughout Europe, cities such as London and Paris reached 30,000 and 70,000-80,000 residents respectively, and entire regions of northern Europe, such as Flanders and the southwestern Holy Roman Empire, were dotted with cities whose populations ranged from 3,000 to 20,000 people. In southern Europe the cities had grown proportionately larger, and leading cities such as Florence, Milan, and Venice formed city-states (communes) of their own, independent from any noble lord. Although the European population that lived in cities remained only 5–10 percent, medieval city dwellers had a disproportionate impact on European history.

The Appearance of Cities. Medieval law made a technical distinction between a city and a town. A city was the seat of a bishop and contained a cathedral with its dependent population, while a town was an urban center that did not have a bishop. This distinction may be important legally, judicially, and even socially, but from the point of view of how people lived their daily lives it is insignificant, and this discussion applies city and town according to population. Some cities were based on old Roman establishments, particularly in southern Europe. Often a city grew up around a monastery, cathedral, or castle, while still others were plantations, promoted by lords who wanted to establish a community in a particular region so that its resources could be exploited. Creating a new town was a relatively simple procedure. A lord gave permission for a settlement to develop on his land. Although he leased the land to the settlers as well as exacting labor and other services from them, these taxes of rent and services were generally at reduced rates, and the peasants who settled in a new town also enjoyed legal privileges. Frequently they were granted lucrative rights, such as the ability to hold fairs, and they might even be given permission to collect taxes to build some sort of fortifications to protect their city.

Size. Medieval cities were generally quite small by modern standards and remained so long after 1300. Size depended on the location and the economic and social foundations of the city or town. For example, in thirteenth-century Germany the average city numbered 2,000-3,000 residents, and at most only fifty cities had populations of more than 5,000. Yet, in Italy or Spain more than a dozen cities had populations in excess of 25,000. Because of the differences in population, the geographic sizes of cities varied enormously. A large city such as Cologne, the biggest city in medieval Germany, might have almost 1,000 acres of land within its city walls, but most cities were sub-stantially


According to Alfred Franklin in Les rues et les cris de Paris au XIIIe siècle (1874), the streets of Paris were paved in the twelfth century because of a decree from the king:

King Philip Augustus was staying at Paris, and was pacing around the royal hall meditating on the affairs of the kingdom. He came to the windows of the palace, where he liked sometimes to watch the river Seine to revive his spirit, but the horse-drawn carts that traveled through the city, churning up the mud, raised an intolerable stench. The king, pacing about in his hall, was unable to bear this, and he conceived of a very arduous but necessary plan, which none of his forebears had dared to approach because of the great difficulty and expense of the work. He called together the burgesses and provost of the city, and ordered by royal authority that all the streets and roads of the whole city of Paris should be laid with hard and strong stones.

Source: Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999), p. 187.

smaller. The typical area enclosed by city walls was between 50 and 200 acres. Moreover, much of this area was undeveloped; only in the fourteenth century, and then only in certain towns, was there pressure to build on the open spaces within the walls. In addition, most cities had at least some jurisdictional rights beyond the city walls, and most residents owned or worked land there. For these reasons medieval city dwellers were sometimes uncertain about where the city stopped and its exact size. It depended on what aspect of a city a person was considering.

City Walls. Walls were one of the qualities that distinguished a city from a village. The strength and maintenance of these walls varied enormously from place to place. Many cities were content to rely on old Roman walls or on wooden palisades until the twelfth century. Even then, when town councils around Europe began to rebuild and sometimes extend their walls, their efforts were piecemeal. Wars inspired urban residents to open their coffers for improving, maintaining, and extending fortifications, and in times of peace the structures were frequently neglected. There are even records of walls being propped up by wooden braces or of itinerants digging through the walls at night after they had been denied admission through a gate. When a wealthy and powerful lord decided to fortify a city, however, the results could be impressive. In the late twelfth century, the French king Philip Augustus renovated the walls of Paris and extended them so that they enclosed all the residents on both sides of the river Seine. In this case the appearance of the walls, as well as the money and resources expended on them, might be compared to those of well-fortified castles. The fortifications at Paris had walls six to ten feet thick and up to thirty feet tall. Every two hundred feet a tower was constructed, and six gates were built into the walls on each side of the river. A series

of castles provided further fortification. As in other medieval cities, groups of citizens patrolled the walls night and day and were led by craft masters or members of the town council. Many regional centers could not afford such elaborate walls, especially since many medieval cities needed to expand their walls at least once to accommodate the population surge of the High Middle Ages.

Markets. Many cities were established to be markets or developed at the site of markets, and market squares remained important locations in every medieval town. Any city had one site designated for general markets at least once a week, and they were often held more frequently. Larger commercial towns such as those in Flanders had several markets open several days a week with each specializing in a particular kind of goods, including cloth, food, and flowers. Frequently craftsmen built their houses around the market where they sold their goods. Although markets began as open squares where a craftsman or farmer displayed his or her goods on the ground or on tables, they rapidly gained set locations and structures, particularly in mercantile centers. A town looking to attract merchants built a covered market hall and rented fixed spaces to traders, assuring consistent attendance even in poor weather by sellers and buyers alike. Moreover, merchants who had shops around the market square opened the fronts of their shops, providing both free access during markets and a secure and convenient shelter for their products. Both methods enhanced trade because consumers could be sure that their shops would be at the market month after month, year after year. In addition, markets attracted less-prosperous sellers. Peddlers and farmers working from carts were licensed by the town council to sell used goods and produce from their farms. When a city had bridges, they often became important commercial centers for luxury goods; London Bridge had such shops, and the Ponte Vec-chio in Florence continues to house elegant jewelry shops. A city of 5,000–10,000 had markets and shops that could supply any goods a resident might need, and large commercial ports sold goods from Africa, Asia, and the Near East at their markets.

Roads. By modern standards, the roads in medieval towns were narrow, dark, crooked, and filthy, a natural outgrowth of the lack of early medieval urban planning. Even cities founded by lords developed in a relatively random way, with maybe only one or two straight streets laid out as part of the original plan. These main roads were dirt and were often only twelve to fifteen feet wide. Most medieval cities expanded gradually and with minimal supervision from town councils or lords. Roads developed to connect markets, churches, and buildings belonging to civic leaders, and they wove around the fronts of established structures and vacant lots. As foot or cart paths, most of these secondary roads needed to be no wider than eight to ten feet wide. Once buildings were constructed alongside these paths, they could not be widened. To get more light inside their structures, medieval masons built each story so that it jutted out a foot or two beyond the level below it. Although this style did not hinder passage in the street, it reduced the amount of light that reached street level. Horses, dogs, and other livestock roamed city streets and left their droppings behind them. A well-planned city might have a drain in the center of the road with water running through it, and city street cleaners infrequently pushed the garbage that collected on the road into the drain, so that it would run into a neighboring stream, river, or lake. Because the roads were dirt, dust was an ongoing problem, and when it rained the roads turned into quagmires. There were no sidewalks. During the Middle Ages some attempts were made to put cobblestones on at least their major thoroughfares, but they were successful only in major cities that had wealthy and powerful patrons. Most regional centers had primarily dirt streets well into the fifteenth century.

Water . Access to water was a problem in most medieval cities. Even though many were founded alongside rivers, lakes, or streams, every river in the more populous parts of Europe was polluted by the Middle Ages. To obtain a supply of pure water, most cities in medieval Europe built wells. They were generally lined with masonry, and some even used animal power to lift the buckets of water. Although digging and maintaining these wells could be a difficult task, most cities were built on low ground and were, therefore, closer to the water table than structures such as castles, which were usually built on hills. Some cities around the Mediterranean enjoyed piped water carried to them on ancient Roman aqueducts, but as in cities elsewhere in Europe this water was generally made available to residents in public wells or fountains. Obtaining clean water was an arduous chore for the residents of most medieval cities.

Sanitation and Cleanliness. As the descriptions of roads and water supplies suggest, sanitation was poor, and cleanliness was difficult to achieve in most medieval towns. Roaming animals did more than just defecate and urinate in the streets; loose pigs and dogs sometimes wandered into houses and were known to attack unsupervised children. Rats, mice, fleas, flies, and lice were common, and medieval guides to household management despaired of eliminating such vermin, concentrating instead on maintaining acceptable levels of them. Although the Black Death of the mid fourteenth century is the most dramatic disease that struck medieval urban concentrations, throughout the Middle Ages cities were susceptible to diseases of various sorts. Malaria, typhoid, influenza, and other sicknesses with names that have not been linked to specific diseases were recurring killers. In fact, cities would have declined in population if rural residents did not regularly move to the city to take advantage of the freedoms and opportunities there. Disposing of industrial waste was also a problem. Crafts such as tanning leather and dyeing cloth demanded large quantities of water, so tanners and dyers located their shops on rivers. Despite repeated injunctions by town councils to locate those shops downstream from the town, there is repeated evidence that their by-products entered the urban water supply. Even if craftsmen obeyed these injunctions, the pollution was in the water supply for all downstream communities. Human waste was also a serious problem. Some cities made feeble attempts to concentrate the waste in one area for ease of removal. For example, medieval London had at least sixteen public latrines, but they were for a population of at least twenty-five thousand. Most medieval houses had their own cesspits in back, where waste was disposed, and the contents gradually seeped into the water table. These cesspits also created an incredible stench. People without yards frequently dumped the contents of their chamber pots out the window into an alley or into a neighboring river. The filth in rivers could reach amazing extremes. In medieval London, jailers complained that the Fleet River, which ran alongside the prison, was “so obstructed by dung” that the river had become almost solid and no longer hindered prisoners from escaping. Under such conditions, it is amazing that some residents of medieval cities lived to ripe old ages.

Families, Rivalries, and City Towers: The Example of Genoa. Although medieval cities might seem small by modern standards, they often intimidated medieval people, and both new and old residents formed smaller communities within the city for support. In urban Italy, these leagues left visible marks on cityscapes: fortified towers. Although these towers were originally wood, stone or brick was preferred and used by the most powerful leagues. Towers were designed so that league members could throw or shoot projectiles at members of rival leagues who were passing below or stationed in neighboring towers during the frequent feuds in medieval Italian cities. City governments did try to stop these feuds. For example, cities such as Pisa passed laws limiting heights of towers and banning private citizens from owning the most deadly weapons of the time. Such laws were frequently ignored, however, and another powerful Italian city, Genoa, was known for its towers. Anyone approaching the city saw the standard urban landmark, the main church, and then a cityscape bristling with towers that surpassed the official city limit of eighty feet. According to Frances and Joseph Gies, these “rugged square towers dominated neighborhoods that were fortified compounds, within which banded together the great aristocratic lineages. The core of each enclave was composed of a few wealthy families claiming relationship, around which were settled a number of lesser families, some of them poor relations, some dependent clients. Houses fronted on a square enclosing market, shops, covered corridors and walkways (loggias), ovens, gardens, bath, and church.” The social life of aristocratic Genoese and their urban leagues centered around such complexes, each dominated by its tower. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, urban governments in Italy became strong enough to tear down most of these towers, but remnants can be seen in most Italian cities.


M. W. Barley, European Towns: Their Archaeology and Early History (New York: Academic Press, 1977).

Maurice Beresford, New Towns of the Middle Ages (Wolfboro, N.H.: Sutton, 1988).

Frances Gies and Joseph Gies, Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

Urban Tigner Holmes, Daily Living in the Twelfth Century, Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckham in London and Paris (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952).

Diane Owen Hughes, “Domestic Ideals and Social Behavior: Evidence from Medieval Genoa,” in The Family in History, edited by Charles E. Rosenberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975).

David Nicholas, The Growth of the Medieval City: From Late Antiquity to the Early Fourteenth Century (London & New York: Longman, 1997).

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