Book Review: The Medieval City

The Medieval City, by Norman Pounds

In this book, part of the Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World, medieval historian Norman Pounds takes a broad view of the urban history of the Middle Ages, looking at it from a variety of perspectives and with a fair amount of detail, mostly focusing on the cities of England, France, Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries, but addressing specific examples in other contexts throughout the European world from the fall of the Roman Empire to the early modern period. For students of urban geography and the history of the Middle Ages, this book provides a worthwhile and fairly short (at just over 200 pages) account that manages to include enough detail to make it a good picture and enough synthesis and analysis to provide worthwhile general conclusions.

In terms of its contents and structure, after an introduction to the series (which has other books that look interesting to read about the Middle Ages, including within North America) as well as a preface, the book itself consists of eight chapters. The first chapter looks at the origins of the Medieval city in Celtic hill forts or the classical cities of Greco-Roman society, the urban plan in streets and structures, the urban way of life, with its focus on trade, industry, and service, the church in the city, with its cathedrals or chapels-of-convenience, urban crafts and trade, health, wealth, and welfare, and some conclusions about the city in history. After this comes some case studies of a biographical or geographic nature and a substantial body of intriguing primary documents ranging from the complaints of city dwellers in London to the Anglo Saxon poem “The Ruin” to sample apprenticeship contracts and urban charters. As a whole, this book is a worthwhile resource for those who are interested in the history and geography of cities.

Overall, this book offers some sound conclusions, even if the author is rather skeptical about the value of tithes and of religious services devoted to the health of souls. The author is far more interested in tangible cultural and economic benefits, from education, to provision of hospitals for the elderly and inform, to the actual material goods that were traded and created by merchants and craftsmen. The author takes a rather cynical approach to urban politics during the Middle Ages, pointing out that it was anything but egalitarian, involved a great deal of corruption because of the close ties between guild leaders and city councilmen [1], and the fact that efforts to overturn the elites of cities typically failed. Even so, the author points out that cities only thrived where they had something to offer the larger population, and that the rapacious behavior of many elites tended to harm their wealth, and that contemporary efforts at worldwide free trade spring from the efforts of merchants to have the freedom to trade in the next town. The author also provides a thoughtful discussion of last names that are attached to various urban trades as evidence of the continuing importance of the medieval bourgeoisie in contemporary society. Overall, despite the author’s materialism and cynicism, this is a worthwhile book, full of witty comments as well as supporting maps, pictures, and documentation for the author’s conclusions.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Medieval City

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide To Medieval England | Edge Induced Cohesion

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