Feeding Medieval European Cities, 600-1500

Feeding Medieval European Cities, 600-1500

By Derek Keene

E-seminars in history (1998)

Introduction: I’m taking it as axiomatic, first that the large city cannot exist without a fertile and productive hinterland (which is itself a characteristic commonly praised in medieval descriptions of cities); and second, that whatever the natural endowment of the hinterland, its productivity will to a large extent be shaped by the growth of the city. A third axiom overrides the first: namely, that at a certain level of a city’s power or wealth, and given the appropriate transport and institutional infrastructure, its demand for supplies transcends the pedological limitations of its immediate hinterland, so that that the interplay between city and country can take place at a great distance from the point of consumption. Thus we enter the world of the Kenyan mange tout, an image not entirely inappropriate for understanding at least some aspects of the feeding of medieval cities.

In the context of food, as in much else, the words ‘Medieval City’ denote a problematic concept, for except in chronological terms, it is not a readily definable type.

In the first place, different medieval cities could have very different specialisms. The city could be a local or regional centre of exchange, of limited wealth and with limited horizons; it could be a commercial gateway, an industrial centre, or the capital of an extensive territorial state. It could combine these functions in various ways.

Moreover, over the period in question they covered a wide range of physical types, from filthy but relatively low-density agglomerations of houses of sticks and mud, to high-density, solidly built, well-ordered and impressive environments. They also ranged in widely in size: from just a few thousand inhabitants to populations in the low hundreds of thousands. Actually, we don’t know very exactly what those populations were. In my short recollection, for example, London, Milan, and Paris at their peak populations around 1300 has each doubled in size; they may get larger still, or even shrink. This makes comparison especially difficult, for the current state of knowledge and opinion is far from clear.

Still, it is clear that cities were very important, both ideologically and physically. Over western Europe as a whole urbanisation reached a peak by 1300 which may have been about equal to the peak under the Roman Empire. It remained at that level for at least the next 200 years, despite the overall fall in population and a considerable reshaping of the urban network. In 1300 England’s level urbanisation was perhaps 20 per cent urbanised, having climbed from something over half that level 200 years before, and from virtually nil 500 years before that. Over a good deal of Italy and parts of the Low Countries, however, the level in 1300 was 40 per cent, but much depends on how you define your territory.

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