Late medieval and 16th century urbanization – Stagnation, expansion or both?

Late medieval and 16th century urbanization – Stagnation, expansion or both?

By Per Gunnar Sidén

Eighth International Conference on Urban History (2006)

Abstract: Were the later Middle Ages a period of urban stagnation or expansion in Europe? Lack of aggregated population estimates has made it difficult to reach any consensus among urban historians, while a 16th century expansion has generally been accepted. Based on population estimates of all medieval and 16th century towns in Sweden and Finland with corresponding levels of urbanization for 1349, 1410, 1460 and 1510, 1560 and 1610 this paper presents a surprising doubling of the level of urbanization during the agrarian crisis 1350-1460, followed by stagnation until the 17th century. This paper also argues for a closer look at GDP per capita as a determinant for urbanization level in pre-industrial Europe.

Introduction: Most historians would probably agree on the overall impact of the plagues and agrarian crisis of the later Middle Ages. The decline in agrarian production was less severe than the decline of population, implying a GDP per capita increase. Due to shortage of labourers, real wages increased while land rents dropped, implying a redistribution of wealth from larger land owners to labourers and tenants. During the second half of the 15th century demographic growth returned, implying recovering land rents and declining real wages. As a result, GDP per capita stagnated until the industrial revolution in most European countries, except England and the Netherlands, according to a number of recent studies.

How was the level of urbanization affected by these changes? Urban historians and economic historians alike have hesitated to apply the close correlation between GDP per capita and urbanization level in the modern world to pre-industrial Europe, and for good reasons. The impact of the redistribution of wealth from land owners to tenants is just one of several uncertainties that have opened up for contradicting conclusions regarding this period.

Four different urbanization scenarios are thus possible for the period 1350-1610:

1) Stagnation (or even decline) during the whole period

2) Stagnation (or even decline) during the first half of the period followed by an increase

3) A steady increase during the whole period

4) An increase during the first half of the period followed by stagnation

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