the walls of medieval cities -- 2/7/23

Today's selection -- from The City in History by Lewis Mumford. Walls in medieval cities built up a “fatal sense of insularity”:
"The determining elements in the medieval plan [of a city] hold both for an old town on a Roman foundation, like Cologne, or for a new town like Salisbury. The wall, the gates, and the civic nucleus determine the main lines of circulation. As for the wall, with its outside moat, canal, or river it made the town an island. The wall was valued as a symbol as much as the spires of the churches: not a mere military utility. The medieval mind took comfort in a universe of sharp definitions, solid walls, and, limited views: even heaven and hell had their circular boundaries. Walls of custom bounded the economic classes and kept them in their place. Definition and classification were the very essence of medieval thinking: so that philosophic nominalism, which challenged the objective reality of classes, and presented a world of unrelated atoms and disconnected events, was as destructive to the medieval style of life as cannonballs proved to be to the walls of the town.

"The psychological importance of the wall must not be forgotten. When the portcullis was drawn and the town gates were locked at sundown,(the city was sealed off from the outside world. Such enclosure helps create a feeling of unity as well as security. It is significant -- and a little – disturbing -- that in one of the rare modem communities where people have lived under analogous conditions, namely in the atomic-research community at Oak Ridge, the protected inhabitants of the town grew to value the 'secure' life within, free from any sort of foreign invasion or even, unauthorized approach -- though it meant that their own comings goings were under constant military surveillance and control.

North Gate Salisbury 2

"But once again, in the medieval community, the wall built up a fatal sense of insularity: all the more because the poor state of road transport increased the difficulties of communication between towns. As often happened in urban history before, defensive unity and security reversed their polarity and passed over into anxiety, fear, hostility, an aggression, especially when it seemed that a neighboring city might prosper at its rival's expense. Recall Florence's shameless assaults on Pisa and Siena! This isolationism was in fact so self-defeating that it gave sanction to forces of exploitation and aggression, both in Church and in State, that sought at least to bring about some more inclusive unity, by turning the all too solid wall into a more etherealized frontier boundary, outlining a far wider province.

"One may not leave the wall without noting the special function of the town gate: far more than a mere opening, it was a 'meeting place of two worlds,' the urban and the rural, the insider and the outside. The main gate offered the first greeting to the trader, the pilgrim, or the common wayfarer; it was at once a customs house, a passport office and immigration control point, and a triumphal arch, its turrets and towers often vying, as in Lubeck, with those of the cathedral or town hall. Wherever the river of traffic slows down, it tends to deposit its load: so it would be usually near the gates that the storehouses would be built, and the inns and taverns congregate, and in the adjoining streets the craftsmen and merchants would set up their shops.

"Thus the gate produced, without special zoning regulations, the eco­nomic quarters of the city; and since there was more than one gate, the very nature of traffic from different regions would tend to decentralize and differentiate the business areas. As a result of this organic disposition of functions, the inner area of the city was not burdened by any traffic except that which its own needs generated. The original meaning of 'port' derives from this portal; and the merchants who settled in this port were once called 'porters,' till they passed the name on to their menial helpers.

"Finally, one must not forget an ancient function of the wall, which came back in the Middle Ages: it served as an open promenade for recreation, particularly in the summer. Even when the walls were no more than twenty feet high, they gave a point of vantage over the sur­rounding countryside,  and permitted one to enjoy summer breezes that might not penetrate the city."



Lewis Mumford


The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects


A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc.


Copyright 1961 by Lewis Mumford


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