Rural, urban and trade development in 11th century NW Europe - setting the medieval stage

"At the beginning of the eleventh century the culture and economy of the West were almost wholly rural. It is true that many of the old Roman cities still exísted, and rnoreover that they were important. Not only were they walled towns and centres of defence, but they contained the cathedrals and therefore the remains of diocesan administration.

Nevertheless their population was small and there were relatively few Roman cities in northern France and England and none at all beyond the Rhine and Danube.

The demographic expansion which gave rise to the clearances in the countryside was also reflected in the growth of the cities. lndeed, they were part of the same process. Most cities grew because of the increasing vitality of the economic life of the region which they served, for a larger population and greater production required better centres of exchange. 

To that must be added the growth of transcontinental trade. By 1150 the outlines of the later medieval
commercial pattern had been firmly sketched. The Italian ports controlled the carrying trade to Constantinople, Syria, and Egypt, while they themselves obtained cloth from the industrial towns of
Flanders. For its raw materials, Flanders in turn drew from a wide area: wool from England, corn and wine from the lle de France. The cities therefore ranged in importance from small regional markets to
trading centres with connections in every part of the world. 

Almost no numerical evidence remains of their population, but an indication of their growth is given by the walls. At Cologne, the Roman walls enclosed ninety-seven hectares, and these already had received a minor extension in the tenth century. In 1106, there was a further small extension, and then a major new wall in 1180, which enclosed 401 hectares. one of the largest city areas in Europe. At Paris the Roman settlement south of the river Seine on the Mont Sainte-Geneviève had not survived the Germanic invasions, and urban life continued mainly on the tiny Ille de la Cité, with an area measuring
only eight hectares. Rapid expansion apparently began late in the eleventh century, and the walls built by Philip Augustus early in the thirteenth century encompassed almost 273 hectares. 

The growth of Paris was produced by a combination of the features which were encouraging urban development. On the right bank of the Seine was a commercial centre, from which the merchants controlled trade on the river from Rouen eastwards. From the reign of Louis VI (1108-37) Paris became increasingly the centre of royal government, and at the same time the famous schools began to attract students from all over Europe. Under Abbot Suger (ca 1080 -1151) the abbey of Saint-Denis, just to the north, developed into a national shrine and centre of pilgrimage."

This blog quotes, with some adaptions, from pp 39-41 of The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 by Colin Morris (1989, 2001 Oxford University Press, source; Illustration Map of Paris, c. 1200 by Rouse with the wall of Philip Augustus, source.

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