The City: The Early Modern Period

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Christopher R. Friedrichs

Throughout the early modern era, cities and towns played a vastly greater role in shaping the character of European society than the number of their inhabitants might suggest. European society in the early modern era was predominantly rural. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, only about one-tenth of the total population of Europe inhabited urban centers, and by the end of the eighteenth century this proportion was not substantially larger. Yet cities and towns (the terms are almost interchangeable, with American usage generally preferring "cities" and British usage favoring "towns") had an economic, political, and cultural impact out of proportion to their collective size.

Cities were bigger than villages. What defined them as cities, however, was not mere size, for they had specific characteristics and functions that made them fundamentally different from the rural communities in which most Europeans lived. Cities were centers of exchange. They always had frequent markets that served the needs of the surrounding region and often had annual or semiannual trade fairs that attracted merchants from much farther away. They were also centers of production, for handcrafted goods were manufactured and sold in every European town. Often this craft production was highly specialized. Distinct trades with their own techniques and traditions were devoted to the production of particular varieties of textiles, clothing, leather goods, metalware, ceramics, and wooden products. Larger urban centers also played an important role in organizing long-distance trade and providing financial services. Often the inhabitants of cities enjoyed the exclusive right to carry out these various urban functions.

The special character of the European city had emerged gradually during the Middle Ages, when feudal rulers granted charters that gave town dwellers special economic and political privileges in return for benefits, usually financial, that the towns could offer the rulers. A typical privilege was the right to hold markets and fairs. Another was the right to construct a wall, which would enable the town to regulate the flow of people and goods through its gates. Often towns also obtained rights of self-government, under which interference by the ruler's officials was sharply restricted. Only a few cities were fully independent city-states, but many enjoyed a high degree of political autonomy.

The social organization of towns was also distinctive. Each European city had a body of adult male householders—citizens, burghers, freemen, bourgeois, or the like—who collectively embodied the political community. Membership in the citizenry was passed on to male descendants, though newcomers might also be admitted. In theory, though not always in practice, only citizens could participate fully in the city's economic life as merchants or craft masters. Economic life was organized largely around guilds, which were typically but not always made up of individuals who practiced the same occupation. Membership in the relevant guild was often a prerequisite for engaging in a particular trade or craft. Authority in all its forms was exercised on a collective basis. Virtually every city was governed by a council or group of councils made up of prosperous male citizens. Power was always gendered. Women could inherit and own property and engage in certain forms of economic enterprise, but they were excluded both from decision making in the guilds and from membership in any of the governing councils.

These basic parameters of urban life remained largely constant during the early modern era. Yet urban society was by no means static. Some cities acquired an entirely new role in the early modern era, as hitherto minor towns like Madrid or Berlin turned into major administrative capitals for the absolutist states which emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even cities whose functions remained largely commercial also underwent significant changes between the end of the Middle Ages and the eve of the industrial era. But urban historians continue to debate the pace, extent, and character of these changes.


Writings on the history of cities in early modern Europe can be grouped into three main categories. The first group examines cities from the perspective of urbanism. This approach emphasizes changes in the design and layout of cities and the character of buildings and urban infrastructures. Though drawing heavily on the history of architecture and urban planning, the urbanist tradition is ultimately concerned with the relationship between the physical structures of cities and the quality of urban life. The most influential work in this tradition is Lewis Mumford's The City in History (1961). Mumford valued what he perceived as the organic and intimate character of the medieval city and viewed the attempts by early modern rulers to redesign cities along more grandiose lines as alienating—a view adopted, with modifications, by some of his disciples.

A second approach looks at cities from the point of view of urbanization. This approach is concerned less with specific cities than with the relationship among cities within broader urban networks and attempts to delineate or measure changes in the size and economic importance of urban society as a whole. Notable works within this group include the important survey by Paul M. Hohenberg and Lynn Hollen Lees, The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950 (1985), and the pioneering summary and analysis of demographic data by Jan de Vries, European Urbanization, 1500–1800 (1984).

The third approach, which might be called urban history as such, is founded on the description and analysis of the social, political, economic, or cultural history of particular cities. The earliest publications in this tradition belong to the genre of local history, works whose main purpose is to inform inhabitants or visitors about the history and heritage of individual cities. But the most important works of urban history are those whose authors examined individual cities as case studies to cast some light on the character of urban society as a whole. French historians of the early postwar era established a benchmark for such studies with their attempts to study the histoire totale of particular cities. Only a few historians have attempted to achieve the same breadth that Pierre Goubert did in his pioneering study of Beauvais and its region, but many have emulated his commitment to understanding early modern society by examining individual urban communities in depth.

In fact most of the great themes of early modern European history are closely linked to the urban experience. Inevitably, then, urban historians have striven to determine both the extent to which cities played a role in causing fundamental changes and the extent to which the cities themselves were transformed by these changes.

One major theme involves the religious division of Europe brought about by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Cities played a key role in the emergence of Protestant ideas, and some cities became arenas of bitter religious conflict. But cities also served as templates for religious compromise when Europeans began to experiment with the concept of confessionally divided communities.

A second theme relates to the growing power of centralized states, especially in western and northern Europe. Cities inevitably felt the impact when monarchical regimes tried to expand their administrative reach. But the process of state expansion was irregular, and the way in which cities responded was far from uniform. In some cities local elites firmly resisted any attempts to diminish local autonomy, but in other cases urban leaders cooperated with state officials and welcomed the opportunity to integrate themselves into broader structures of authority.

A third great theme has to do with the cluster of economic changes generally referred to as the growth of capitalism. Historians have debated exactly what capitalism is or was. To some, notably those in the marxist tradition, capitalism is an economic system in which the dominant form of production is manufacture and the means of production are mostly owned by bourgeois entrepreneurs. To others, influenced by Max Weber, capitalism is a system of economic practice characterized by the rational pursuit of sustained profit. To yet others, capitalism is virtually synonymous with market relations, the free exchange of goods and services, with prices and wages determined by supply and demand rather than traditional expectations or state controls. Yet no matter which of these definitions is preferred, substantial evidence indicates that economic transactions in early modern Europe increasingly took place in a capitalistic way. Less self-evident is the role that cities played in this process. Traditional marxist historiography presupposed that capitalist enterprise was based in cities and was controlled by members of the urban bourgeoisie. Yet analysts emphasized the extent to which capitalist practices were also applied to agricultural production. Some also argued that the emergence of large-scale rural manufacturing during the early modern era—the process generally referred to as protoindustrialization—diminished the importance of cities in the transition to a modern industrial economy. There is little question, however, that even if dramatic increases in production took place in the countryside, cities continued to supply much of the capital invested in rural enterprises. Of course cities, especially strategically located ports, were the conduit through which the profits generated by European conquests in the New World were funneled back to the Old.

Some historians have posited a fourth major theme of early modern social history, the growth of what is generally labeled "social discipline." This refers to the efforts by social elites to impose habits of obedience and regularity on the rest of society to make members of the lower orders more pliant to the authorities and more accustomed to the work routines required by the capitalist system. The pervasiveness of this program and the degree to which cities were involved have been matters of dispute, but attempts by urban magistrates to streamline systems of poor relief and to diminish the number or visibility of people they regarded as social undesirables have been cited as manifestations of this undertaking.

Finally, the early modern era was characterized by cultural transformations in which cities played an important part. High culture—literature, music, theater, and the visual arts—continued to depend heavily on royal or aristocratic patronage, but artists, composers, and writers were generally of urban origin. Throughout the early modern era cultural consumption was broadened to include many patrons among the urban bourgeoisie. Even more important, however, were the invention of printing in the fifteenth century and the explosive diffusion of printed matter from the sixteenth century onward, which in turn stimulated and reinforced the spread of literacy among ever larger circles of the European population. Almost all printed matter was produced in cities, and much of it was consumed there as well. Literacy rates varied sharply between regions and countries, but almost everywhere literacy was higher in cities than in the rural hinterland. Though firm measurements are lacking, it is apparent that by the end of the eighteenth century, at least in northwestern Europe and Germany, the great majority of men and women in cities were able to read and write. Cities were thus the pacesetters for the diffusion of print culture throughout Europe as a whole. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, European cities also experienced a proliferation of organizations, societies and clubs devoted to the presentation of scientific findings or the discussion of political, cultural, and literary topics. All of these typically urban institutions, which ranged from scientific academies established by royal charter to informal salons run by aristocratic hostesses, eventually contributed to the ferment of new thinking associated with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.


Nobody knows exactly how many cities existed in early modern Europe or exactly how many people lived in them. Comprehensive census data did not exist before about 1800. Furthermore, despite the generally clear distinction between cities and villages, the legal status of a number of market communities remained ambiguous. The overall picture, however, is clear. Most cities were small by modern standards. In 1500 only three or four cities in Europe had populations of more than 100,000, and by 1800 the number remained less than twenty. Jan de Vries estimated that in 1500 Europe had about 500 cities with populations over 5,000 and by 1800 Europe had roughly 900 such places. But the pace of urbanization was uneven, with more growth in the sixteenth century, a slower rate in the seventeenth century, and a sharp increase in the eighteenth century. Many cities experienced only a moderate increase in size during the early modern era, and some even lost population as their economic importance declined. Yet a few cities, especially national capitals that were also major centers of commerce, experienced spectacular growth. Naples, whose population of about 150,000 made it the largest city in Europe in 1500, almost tripled in size by 1800. Paris grew from about 100,000 to 600,000 during the same three centuries. By far the most dramatic increase, however, was experienced by London, which went from less than 50,000 in 1500 to almost 900,000 by the end of the eighteenth century.


Donauwörth, situated at the junction of the Danube and Wörnitz Rivers in southern Germany, was by any measure a small town. At the beginning of the seventeenth century the city had about 4,000 inhabitants, and the population declined to less than 3,000 as a result of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). But the city's physical layout, depicted in the 1640s by the celebrated topographer Matthaüs Merian, had many elements characteristic of European cities large and small. The city was surrounded by a wall and some additional fortifications, which enabled it to keep out unwanted visitors and fend off small-scale raiders. The wall was not adequate, however, to discourage a truly determined foe, as the citizens discovered in 1607, when the city was seized by the duke of Bavaria. The city did not have a formal market square, but it did have an unusually wide central street, the Reichsstrasse or Imperial Way, which served as the marketplace and the site of ceremonial events. At the eastern end of this street stood the relatively modest city hall. Toward its western end was the large Fugger House, from which the powerful South German dynasty of the Fuggers administered its properties in the surrounding region. Far more imposing than these secular buildings, however, were the city's major ecclesiastical structures, notably the parish church in the city center and the large monastery of the Holy Cross in the southwestern corner. One of the major trades of Donauwörth was the production of woolen cloth. After the cloths were woven and fulled, they were hung out to dry on huge racks just outside the city's western wall. Gardens and orchards were located both within and outside the walled area. The city retained this appearance until it began to raze the walls in the early nineteenth century.

Matthaüs Merian and Martin Zeiller. Topographia Bavariae: das ist, Beschreib: vnd Aigentliche Abbildung der Vornembsten Stätt vnd Orth, in Ober vnd Nieder Beÿern, der Obern Pfaltz, vnd andern, zum Hochlöblichen Baÿrischen Craisse gehörigen Landschafften. 2d ed. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1657. Illustration facing page 106.

The factors that accounted for the growth of cities have long been the subject of debate by historians. In the long run many cities must have experienced some natural increase caused by an excess of births over deaths. But the balance was precarious, for cities were often subject to sudden increases in mortality as a result of harvest crises or epidemic diseases. Until the late seventeenth century, for example, cities all over Europe faced periodic visitations of the bubonic plague, which could wipe out a third or more of a community's population within a matter of months. A key element in the growth of cities was undoubtedly immigration from the surrounding hinterland or more distant regions. But not all immigrants contributed to the demographic growth of the city, for many of them were ill-paid laborers or servants who never accumulated enough resources to get married and establish families. Altogether, despite the exceptional growth of a few major cities, the pace of urbanization in Europe during the early modern era was modest compared to what occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

At the beginning of the early modern era towns of every size had certain structural characteristics in common, and many of these features remained intact until the end of the eighteenth century. Inevitably some of the great metropolitan centers began to diverge from the general norms, but even in cities like London or Paris much of the institutional and physical legacy of earlier times remained firmly entrenched.

Almost every early modern city was surrounded by a wall punctuated by gates and watchtowers. If a city grew, the new districts were supposed to be enclosed by extensions of the wall. This did not always happen, for the fastest-growing cities were ringed by suburbs and faubourgs outside the walls, often populated by newcomers who were only partially integrated into the city's administrative system. In cases like these, the walls became increasingly irrelevant and were gradually broken through or allowed to decay. In other cities, especially in areas that faced sustained military activity, the walls were not just preserved but were transformed into elaborate systems of fortifications, with bastions and outerworks designed to thwart all but the most determined siege.

The internal layout of almost all cities had certain elements in common. The typical city had an array of gently curving streets supplemented by a confusing network of hidden alleys, lanes, and courtyards. Every city had a number of open squares or wider streets that served as marketplaces. In ports and riverside cities the streets were generally intersected by a system of moats and canals. The largest buildings were usually ecclesiastical. At the beginning of the early modern era this category included parish churches, chapels, monasteries, and nunneries. If the city was the seat of a bishop, it also had a cathedral. In cities that went Protestant the monastic houses disappeared, but the churches remained. Major public buildings included city halls, granaries, warehouses, hospitals, and almshouses. A few cities also had castles left over from medieval times. Larger cities often had mansions or palaces occupied by particularly prominent families. No matter what other structures a city might have, most of the building stock consisted of houses. Virtually every house served a dual function as a residence and as a workshop or place of business. The later differentiation between industrial, commercial, and residential zones was unknown, but generally the very center of the city was considered the most desirable neighborhood. The city's greatest merchants typically lived in houses clustered around the main marketplace or near the largest church. Poorer inhabitants were more likely to live farther from the center or even outside the walls. Sometimes a city's unique topography created its own rules. In canal-webbed Venice, for example, streets were used only by pedestrians, while vehicular traffic was exclusively waterborne. The grandest palazzi were not clustered in the city center but stretched out along both sides of the Grand Canal. But most cities conformed to a more familiar pattern of spatial organization.

This traditional pattern, however, was not attractive to Renaissance theorists of urban planning or absolutist rulers whose vision of perfect cities involved broad avenues radiating uniformly from great central plazas. Not many new cities were founded in early modern Europe, so few opportunities to apply notions of urban planning to entire communities arose. But these visions did find increasing expression in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when, in contrast to the usual haphazard growth of suburbs, carefully planned neighborhoods were laid out on the peripheries of existing towns. By the end of the eighteenth century, many of Europe's larger cities thus had a modern district with elegant new squares and broad boulevards awkwardly conjoined to a more traditional city center.


Despite regional variations and the inevitable differences between large and small communities, the basic social structure of most European cities followed a common pattern. Every city had a core group of established householders. In some places almost all of these householders were citizens; but even where the formal rights of citizenship were confined to a more exclusive group, noncitizen householders still had a recognized status with clearly defined rights. The adult male householder was likely to be the master of some craft and thus a full member of the relevant guild. The master carried out his trade with the assistance of his journeymen and apprentices and some help from family members and unskilled servants. In theory each master was economically independent, buying raw materials and selling finished products on the open market. In practice things were never so simple, for poor masters often found themselves doing piecework for wealthy entrepreneurs on whom they were economically dependent. Furthermore the master's wife, or sometimes even the master himself, might seek to supplement the household income by engaging in retail activity or other work outside the home. Some householders were not artisans but worked in the service sector, for example as innkeepers, teachers, or clerks. Nevertheless, the traditional image of the urban community consisting largely of households headed by artisans who plied their own trades under their own roofs never lost its validity.

Every city, large or small, also had a highly visible social elite. The wealthiest craftsmen or practitioners of the most prestigious trades might belong to the lower fringes of this elite group. The core of the elite, however, was normally made up of merchants and some professionals, notably lawyers. The largest cities might also have an even higher stratum of patrician families, whose members were no longer active in trade but lived off their investments and strove to be regarded as members of the aristocracy. Some towns attempted to define formally who belonged to the social elite, usually by specifying which families had the right to be represented in the city's highest political bodies. Such cases were rare, however. Most cities required some flexibility in defining membership in the elite, if only to replace old families that had died out. Even those municipal elites whose members made the most stringent attempts to bar any newcomers from joining their ranks, such as the patriciates of Venice or Nürnberg, eventually found it necessary to bend the rules and admit a few particularly wealthy or well-connected families.

At the other end of the social spectrum, every city harbored a large population of individuals who were too dependent, poor, or transient to be counted among the regular householders. Many of these people lived as journeymen, apprentices, or servants in the households of their employers. Others were unskilled laborers who lived in small rented quarters and supported themselves by performing the menial tasks that abounded in a premechanized society, such as carrying, digging, transporting, and animal tending. Even further down the scale was a floating population of paupers and thieves with no fixed homes or legitimate means of sustenance. Some Iberian cities also had slaves, both white and black. A special social niche was occupied by people regularly employed in occupations that placed them outside the margins of respectable society, such as executioners, carrion removers, and dung porters. The status of prostitutes declined in the early modern era. In the late Middle Ages prostitution was an acknowledged occupation, and its practitioners generally lived in carefully supervised establishments. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, almost all of those houses had closed, and prostitutes unavoidably slipped into the urban underworld.

The presence of ethnic or religious minorities complicated the social structure of some communities. Occasionally ethnicity determined a resident's legal or social status. In some cities in the Baltic region, for example, people of Slavic origin were barred from political rights and occupations that remained open to people of German descent. Religious minorities were even more common. Most of these religious subgroups arose during the Reformation, when some town dwellers insisted on adhering to a religious faith different from the one approved by the authorities. Sometimes adherents of a persecuted religion arrived as refugees in cities and were given rights of residence. In many cases members of religious minorities were allowed or even encouraged to participate in lucrative economic activities even though they were not accepted as full members of the community. Often this meant that members of a religious subgroup became quite wealthy while remaining socially and politically marginalized.

The most extreme case involved the Jews. By the early sixteenth century Jews had long since been barred from living in England and France and had more recently been banished from various places in central Europe and from the Iberian Peninsula. But Jews were allowed to live as members of self-contained, socially isolated communities in cities in Italy, Germany, and much of eastern Europe. Some Jews became wealthy as moneylenders and merchants, and by the eighteenth century "court Jews" were deeply involved in helping European princes finance their regimes. Even so, wherever they lived the Jews remained socially segregated until the beginning of emancipation in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Early modern government officials were assiduous record keepers, and in many cities substantial data survived, making possible statistical reconstructions of urban social structure. Among the most informative sources are the records of property taxes paid by citizens or other established householders. Despite significant differences between various types of communities, wherever these data survive they demonstrate huge disparities in wealth among the householders of any given city. The great south German city of Augsburg is typical. In 1618 just under 9,000 citizen households were inscribed in the tax registers of Augsburg. Almost half of the householders were listed as "have nots," meaning not that they were entirely without resources but that their real and liquid property was not substantial enough to be taxable. Another quarter of the citizens paid an annual tax of not more than 1 gulden, corresponding to taxable assets worth up to 400 gulden. Above them were ranged an ascending scale of ever wealthier taxpayers. At the pinnacle were ten merchant princes, whose annual tax payments were over 500 gulden, representing fortunes of 100,000 gulden and up.

Disparities like this help explain why urban elites were so insistent on seeing the social structures of their communities in hierarchical terms. Some cities issued tables of ranks showing who could march where in public processions or clothing ordinances specifying what forms of adornment could be worn by which social groups. Yet no attempts to perpetuate the existing social hierarchy were ever able to resist the ceaseless pressure of social mobility. Urban patricians sometimes pretended they constituted a virtual caste, but in fact they belonged at best to an unstable status group. The upper reaches of urban society were constantly replenished by new families made rich by marriage, inheritance, or success in business. Prosperous immigrants from other communities also had to be accommodated and shown the respect that their wealth commanded. Some experienced downward mobility too, as the fortunes of wealthy families decayed or even, in some spectacular cases, rich men went bankrupt. In fact movement up and down the ladder of wealth and prestige took place throughout all ranks of urban society. Significant change often occurred within one or two generations. It was not unheard of for poor men to have rich grandchildren or, conversely, for rich men to have poor descendants.


Urban government was always conciliar in structure. Cities often had a number of councils, but most of them were merely consultative. Real power was typically invested in a single council that combined executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Cities like Venice or Strasbourg with complex systems of interlocking councils were rare. Mayors might rotate in and out of office, but council members generally served for life. Occasionally the councilmen were elected, and sometimes a certain number of seats were reserved for particular constituencies, such as guilds or neighborhoods. In most cases, however, when a seat on the council became vacant through death or retirement, the existing members chose the replacement themselves. Thus many city councils were in effect self-sustaining oligarchies. On the whole urban constitutions were highly conservative. Occasionally changes were introduced, most often when rulers intervened to restructure the municipal government or to install their own clients in positions of authority; but whenever possible the magistrates resisted such changes and preserved the form of government that had been established during the Middle Ages.

Research on the composition of councils in European cities has shown that, no matter how the members were chosen, the end result was almost always the same: council members tended to be drawn from among the wealthiest members of the community. This was already the case in the late Middle Ages, but the tendency was steadily reinforced during the early modern era, when city councils became increasingly exclusive in their memberships. Yet the fact that wealth rather than pedigree was the most common ingredient in appointing new councilmen insured that political power could become available to emerging members of the social elite. Some changes occurred in the occupational profile of councils. Late medieval councils were typically composed of merchants and wealthy craftsmen, but during the early modern era craftsmen gradually disappeared from councils except in the smallest cities. At the same time more seats were held by rentiers who were not active in trade. The role of the legal profession in urban government shifted. In the late Middle Ages lawyers were influential in municipal affairs as advisers to the magistrates, but in the course of the early modern era more lawyers actually came to occupy council seats. By contrast, members of the clergy did not hold municipal office, though in some Protestant cities they sat with council members on consistories that formulated and enforced policies about marriage arrangements and personal conduct.

Changes in the composition of the urban political elite were closely linked to a gradual transformation in the relationship between cities and broader political structures. In the Middle Ages urban leaders struggled to assert their autonomy from kings and princes. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, greater financial and military resources made it easier for rulers to assert or reassert their authority over cities. A few cities, such as Venice, Geneva, and the free cities of the Holy Roman Empire, managed to resist this trend. Other cities struggled against the rulers' power only to be forced into submission by military action. Most urban oligarchies soon perceived the advantages of cooperation with princely governments. Often the traditional municipal elite and the corps of royal officials slowly merged into a single urban oligarchy of wealthy and well-educated men whose families were intermarried with each other and increasingly isolated from the rest of the community.

Yet although civic leaders were drawn from an ever narrower fraction of the population, a number of factors prevented them from becoming entirely self-serving. City governments never commanded police power in the twentieth-century sense. They employed a few beadles or constables, but in attempting to maintain order the council depended chiefly on the cooperation of civic militias and neighborhood watches made up of the citizens themselves. The existence of an armed citizenry aware of its latent rights as members of the political community was a significant constraint on the exercise of arbitrary power. From time to time, when excessive taxes or unwelcome policies suggested that the magistrates had too blatantly ignored the wishes of their fellow citizens, uprisings flared. Sometimes council members were actually deposed, but more often they got a serious fright. Magistrates did not have to wait until they faced an armed crowd in the marketplace to know that they could govern effectively only by heeding the interests of the established citizen householders.


Numerous groups in urban society voiced the concerns of adult male citizens, including militia companies and parish councils. But the most significant interest groups in European cities were generally the guilds. Although guilds sometimes had religious and social functions, their major purpose was always economic, that is, to guarantee the uniformity and quality of the goods and services their members provided and to protect their members' livelihoods by regulating the process through which apprentices became journeymen and journeymen became masters. A persistent objective of the guilds was to prevent the manufacture of goods by nonmember craftsmen in the surrounding countryside or in the city itself. This occasionally brought the guilds into conflict with aristocrats who patronized rural craftsmen or with entrepreneurial merchants who employed the cheap labor of nonguild artisans. But guilds also experienced internal conflict, typically between poorer masters, who might want to limit the number of journeymen permitted to work in any one shop, and richer masters, who wanted no restrictions.

The tensions between guild artisans and merchants or among the craftsmen themselves arose largely from developments associated with the spread of capitalism. When merchant entrepreneurs gained control of the sources of raw materials or the markets for finished goods, they made it impossible for masters to function as independent economic actors and effectively reduced the masters to wage laborers. Such trends were by no means new to the early modern era, having already become evident in some late medieval cities. But the trends accelerated in early modern times and triggered in turn more aggressive efforts by craftsmen to preserve their traditional rights.

In the struggle to protect their interests, guild members often voiced their faith in the legitimacy of economic monopolies, but this faith was by no means confined to traditional artisans. For urban capitalism in early modern Europe was also largely dependent on monopoly rights. Certainly some merchants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tried to break guild monopolies by articulating the case for freedom of exchange in particular branches of production. But many of the most significant capitalist enterprises in early modern Europe, notably the overseas trading companies that pioneered in the extraction of wealth from the New World or the Indies, depended on royal charters or other privileges that granted their members the exclusive right to deal in specific goods or to trade in specific regions.

To the liberal or physiocratic thinkers of the eighteenth century, guilds, like chartered trading companies, were obstacles to economic freedom that stood in the way of economic growth. The assumption that guilds were backward-looking organizations that hindered social and economic progress persisted through the twentieth century. Many historians have recognized, however, that this is an oversimplification. Guilds never uniformly opposed technological innovation or entrepreneurial activity, though they consistently protected the ability of their members to earn a living as independent economic actors. In fact the guilds often played an effective and useful role in promoting the interests of their members and preserving the autonomy and integrity of skilled craft production throughout the early modern era.

Journeymen were integral to the guild system of production without being actual members of the guilds. A young journeyman was expected to spend some years traveling from town to town, enriching his experience and honing his skills by working on a contract basis for a succession of masters. Eventually the journeyman would hope to settle down in one city, often his town of origin. In theory journeymen were thought of as masters in the making who could ascend to full mastership once they met such customary requirements as the payment of a fee, presentation of an acceptable masterpiece, and engagement to a suitable bride. But often masters attempted to limit their own ranks by imposing stiffer fees or tightening the standards for admission. Journeymen had organizations of their own—compagnonnages in France and Gesellenvereinigungen in central Europe—whose importance increased as more of their members faced the prospect of never ascending to mastership. These organizations not only helped the journeymen to locate work and lodgings when they arrived in a new town but also provided the fellowship and solidarity that emboldened journeymen to protest or strike against inadequate wages or unfair conditions. Guilds are occasionally but inaccurately described as an early form of trade unions. In fact it was the journeymen's associations rather than guilds that served as prototypes for the labor unions that emerged in the nineteenth century.


Though urban magistrates were repeatedly called upon to adjudicate the disputes that arose among various groups with conflicting economic interests, the challenge of settling even the most bitter economic disagreements often paled before some of the other problems confronting urban rulers. Beginning in the sixteenth century, many of these problems had to do with religion. Religious tensions had not been unknown in medieval cities, especially when the authorities faced destabilizing outbursts of religious enthusiasm fueled by charismatic preachers. But an entirely new situation was introduced by the Protestant Reformation, which began when Martin Luther issued his Ninety-five Theses in 1517. The Protestant cause, which challenged some of the most fundamental beliefs and practices of the traditional church, found early support in the cities of central Europe, where widespread anticlerical sentiments merged with the humanist values of some educated citizens. The changes the early reformers demanded—a transformed structure of worship, a married clergy, an end to monasteries and nunneries, and a rejection of the traditional veneration of saints—required not just a new religious outlook but also a different relationship between the institutions of secular and religious authority. Some municipal leaders bowed to popular pressure and openly embraced these changes, while others adamantly opposed them. But many urban authorities took a more cautious line and ended up simply implementing the religious policies and preferences formulated by their princes.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, Protestant ideas in various forms had spread from Germany and Switzerland to much of the rest of Europe. In some areas, especially in northern Europe, Protestantism was imposed by royal or princely fiat. Authorities in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula prevented it from ever taking root. Communities in some countries, notably France and the Netherlands, were split by religious differences that led to bitter tensions and occasional riots. Historians have struggled to find a social basis for the religious allegiances of Protestants and Catholics in sixteenth-century cities, usually with little success except to note that urban men and women with some degree of education were more likely to be attracted to the new faith than those with no education. Municipal leaders, themselves often divided along religious lines, struggled to retain their authority while balancing the conflicting demands of their fellow citizens or of rulers and other powerful outsiders. Mostly the magistrates succeeded in retaining power, though sometimes new elites representing a different religious outlook took their place.

By the seventeenth century the confessional complexion of European cities was generally stabilized. There were numerous exceptions—notably England, where religious and political struggles within the Protestant camp in the mid-seventeenth century divided many cities into Puritan and Anglican factions. But sooner or later in most cities one confession came to predominate, and through a process of steady "confessionalization," the differences between Protestant and Catholic cities became fixed and permanent. Protestant communities, for example, had a small core of highly educated pastors primarily concerned with preaching and religious leadership. Catholic cities, by contrast, continued to have large ecclesiastical establishments with substantial numbers of priests and members of religious orders who provided spiritual, educational, and charitable services. Religious practices not just in churches but also in schools and households assumed distinctly Protestant or Catholic forms.

Although only a handful of cities, mostly in Germany, formally granted equal status to members of more than one Christian confession, the tumults of the sixteenth century left a residue of religious minorities in many communities. Often the members of a minority developed far-flung business contacts within their own subgroup or became noted practitioners of a particular craft. Some urban leaders, especially in dynamic port cities that tended to attract religious refugees, tried to take advantage of the economic services such groups provided while still upholding the concept of religious uniformity. In the great north German entrepôt of Hamburg, for example, the Lutheran clergy struggled throughout the early modern era to keep the city solidly Lutheran, while the more pragmatic, business-minded leaders of the municipal government repeatedly extended residential rights and even some religious freedoms to Calvinist, Catholic, Mennonite, and Jewish subcommunities. Although the number of religious subgroups in Hamburg was particularly large, the presence of such groups and the issues they raised for the urban authorities were far from unique.

The capacity of some urban leaders to put economic interests ahead of religious purity was linked, at least in some cases, to their mounting concern with an issue that confronted the authorities in every European city, namely the problem of poverty. Of course there had been poverty in the medieval city, but it was generally viewed in religious rather than social terms. Guided by the biblical maxim "the poor are always with us," lay and religious leaders of the Middle Ages stressed the obligation to help the poor but never felt challenged to eliminate poverty as such. Good Christians were encouraged to perform acts of charity more for the sake of their own souls than for the benefit of those whom they helped. The sixteenth century, however, witnessed a markedly heightened concern with poverty as a social issue, particularly in cities. A widespread notion emerged that the number of poor people in cities was increasing. In fact the demographic upsurge of the sixteenth century seems to have caused more men and women who could not sustain themselves in their own villages to head for urban centers. There was also a shift in attitudes. Beginning in the early sixteenth century, one city after another adopted ordinances to outlaw begging in the streets and replace it with centralized mechanisms to collect and distribute charity. In theory only the "deserving" poor, local inhabitants who had fallen on hard times, were to be aided, while "sturdy beggars" from outside were to be excluded. These ordinances owed something to the new Protestant doctrines that rejected good works as irrelevant to salvation; but the new approach to urban poverty was adopted, with some modifications, in Catholic cities as well. The real mainspring was the growing conviction among Protestants and Catholics alike that idleness in general and begging in particular were contrary to divine command and to earthly productivity. Those who could no longer work should be given assistance, but everyone who could work should be required to do so.

By the seventeenth century institutions such as orphanages, workhouses, and hospitals, in which people who did not belong to households would be provided for and the able-bodied among them would be put to productive labor, proliferated. To some historians this development amounted to a "great confinement" of the urban poor as part of a grand program to subject them to social discipline. In fact these institutions housed only a small fraction of those in need, and many of the inmates, resentful of having to work long hours for negligible pay, chose the first opportunity to escape. For most of the poor the first line of assistance in times of trouble was the informal system of self-help provided by family and friends supplemented, especially in Catholic cities, by church-based philanthropy. Only when these means were inadequate would they turn to municipal charity or, despite all prohibitions, resort to open begging. Unified schemes to deal with urban poverty on a citywide basis almost always failed because their proponents repeatedly confronted an unbridgeable gap between the extent of the need and the amount of available resources. Despite their unremitting attempts to deal with the problem, urban leaders always found it impossible to eliminate poverty or even sweep it off the streets. The poor were indeed always with them.


By the end of the early modern era, significant changes had taken place in European urban life, yet the elements of continuity were still preponderant. Though a few cities were approaching a size unknown in Europe since Roman times, the spatial organization and even the physical appearance of most cities were little changed from what had prevailed in the Middle Ages. The urban skyline was still dominated by steeples. Most cities were still walled, though progressive-minded thinkers increasingly urged that the walls be razed so as to integrate suburbs more effectively into the urban core.

The basic structure of economic life also showed significant continuities. Early modern Europeans were enthusiasts for technological innovation, and the early modern era saw the introduction of numerous improvements and refinements in the way goods were manufactured or transported. Yet the basic processes of production and distribution in the key sectors of the economy, including food, textiles, and metal-working, changed little. Except in England, where they steadily lost importance during the eighteenth century, guilds remained influential in the organization of economic life. Capitalist entrepreneurs who engaged in long-distance or overseas trade or who found ways to circumvent guild restrictions by organizing large-scale production continued to make huge fortunes. Rural manufacture of goods by peasants outside the guild system expanded significantly during the early modern era, but the capital that made this production possible normally came from wealthy men in the cities. Urban craftsmen continued to dominate the production of more complex, delicate, or refined goods.

The social organization of cities also remained fundamentally constant. Urban society was still strongly patriarchal. Men exercised authority in the community, shop, and family, though women had some influence over the property they inherited and some opportunities to earn an independent living. Power in cities belonged to a small oligarchy of wealthy men who dominated municipal councils, but places were always available for "new men" whose families had recently become rich. The old antagonisms between cities and princely regimes were largely forgotten as members of the urban elite worked with officials of the regime and the regional aristocracy and their families socialized or even intermarried. The broad mass of ordinary householding citizens, though generally excluded from real political decision making, exercised some influence through their seats on lesser councils, their participation in guild affairs, or their membership on parish or neighborhood committees.

Urban society in the early modern era was never static. The city offered endless opportunities for ambitious men and, in a more limited way, ambitious women to move up the social ladder by increasing their wealth or by finding useful patrons or spouses. The city offered pitfalls as well, for misfortune or miscalculation could cause rapid downward movement. The overall contours of urban society were modified as new forms of capitalistic enterprise and changing visions of culture and comfort created new occupations and opportunities. Religion, which had generated intense hopes and fearful conflicts in cities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, began to play a slightly less dynamic role as it competed for allegiance with the rationalist culture of the eighteenth century. Yet none of the changes in urban life during the early modern period could rival the transformations that lay ahead in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The emergence of modern industrial society would transform urban life in ways that could never have been envisioned or imagined during the three centuries of the early modern era.

See alsoMarxism and Radical History; The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation (volume 1);Capitalism and Commercialization (volume 2);Charity and Poor Relief: The Early Modern Period; Social Class; Social Mobility (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


General Works

Clark, Peter, and Paul Slack. English Towns in Transition 1500–1700. London, 1976. A slightly dated but still highly effective overview of the topic.

Cowan, Alexander. Urban Europe, 1500–1700. London, 1998. A useful survey that stresses the ways in which European cities coped with change during the early modern era.

De Vries, Jan. European Urbanization, 1500–1800. Cambridge, Mass., 1984. Uses extensive demographic data to delineate the contours of urban growth in the early modern era.

Friedrichs, Christopher R. The Early Modern City, 1450–1750. London and New York, 1995. A broad survey of the social history of early modern European cities that stresses the elements of continuity in urban life.

Garnot, Benoît. Les villes en France aux XVIe, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Gap and Paris, France, 1989. A brief overview with useful references.

Gerteis, Klaus. Die deutschen Städte in der Frühen Neuzeit: Zur Vorgeschichte der "bürgerlichen Welt". Darmstadt, Germany, 1986. The best one-volume overview of early modern German urban history.

Hohenberg, Paul M., and Lynn Hollen Lees. The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950. Cambridge, Mass., 1985. A broad overview of European urbanization that treats the early modern era as a "protoindustrial age."

Jack, Sibyl M. Towns in Tudor and Stuart Britain. New York, 1996. Covers cities in both Great Britain and Ireland.

Konvitz, Josef W. Cities and the Sea: Port City Planning in Early Modern Europe. Baltimore, 1978. An important analysis of state-directed city planning.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, ed. La ville classique de la Renaissance aux Révolutions. Vol. 3, Histoire de la France urbaine, edited by Georges Duby. Paris, 1981. A survey of French urban history during the early modern period.

Mackenney, Richard. The City State, 1500–1700. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1989. A short but useful overview of the relationship between cities and states.

Mumford, Lewis. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York, 1961. The central work in the urbanist tradition of urban history.

Selected Case Studies

Amelang, James S. Honored Citizens of Barcelona: Patrician Culture and Class Relations, 1490–1714. Princeton, N.J., 1986. A brief but penetrating analysis of the elite in one city.

Boulton, Jeremy. Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1987. An admirably detailed investigation of social relations in one London parish.

Brady, Thomas A. Ruling Class, Regime, and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520–1555. Leiden, Netherlands, 1978. A classic treatment of the urban Reformation approached through the collective biography of one city's leaders.

Cowan, Alexander Francis. The Urban Patriciate: Lübeck and Venice, 1580–1700. Cologne, Germany, 1986. An important comparative study of elites in one northern and one southern European city.

Dinges, Martin. Stadtarmut in Bordeaux 1525–1575: Alltag, Politik, Mentalitäten. Bonn, Germany, 1988. A conceptually pathbreaking analysis of the dimensions of urban poverty and the strategies for coping with it.

Friedrichs, Christopher R. Urban Society in an Age of War: Nördlingen, 1580–1720. Princeton, N.J., 1979. Uses tax registers and other records to analyze social structure and social mobility in a German city.

Goubert, Pierre. Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730: Contribution à l'histoire sociale de la France du XVIIe siècle. 2 vols. Paris, 1960. A pioneering attempt to encompass the total history of one city and its hinterland that influenced many subsequent studies of French cities.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Carnival in Romans. Translated by Mary Feeney. New York, 1979. Draws on anthropology and other disciplines to interpret the violence that beset one French city in 1579–1580.

Lottin, Alain. Chavatte, ouvrier lillois: Un contemporain de Louis XIV. Paris, 1979. Uses the personal journal of an obscure weaver as the basis for a broad analysis of the society of one French city.

Pullan, Brian. Rich and Poor in Renaissance Venice: The Social Institutions of a Catholic State, to 1620. Cambridge, Mass., 1971. A thorough treatment of social values and the administration of charity in a major city.

Robbins, Kevin C. City on the Ocean Sea, La Rochelle, 1530–1650: Urban Society, Religion, and Politics on the French Atlantic Frontier. Leiden, Netherlands, 1997. A masterly integration of urban social and political history.

Roeck, Bernd. Eine Stadt in Krieg und Frieden: Studien zur Geschichte der Reichsstadt Augsburg zwischen Kalenderstreit und Parität. 2 vols. Göttingen, Germany, 1989. A massive analysis of the society of one German city before and during the Thirty Years' War.

Underdown, David. Fire from Heaven: Life in an English Town in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, Conn., 1992. A lucid description of the social impact of religious change.

Whaley, Joachim. Religious Toleration and Social Change in Hamburg, 1529–1819. Cambridge, U.K., 1985. Shows how urban authorities coped with religious pluralism.

Wunder, Gerd. Die Bürger von Hall: Sozialgeschichte einer Reichsstadt, 1216–1802. Sigmaringen, Germany, 1980. An outstanding example of a methodologically sophisticated work in the local history tradition.

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The City: The Early Modern Period

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