Part 4 Medieval Cities

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Medieval towns can be classified according to function e.g.:

Farm Towns - especially in Scandinavia and Britain

Fortress Towns - Toledo, Edinburgh, Tours, Warwick

Church Towns­ - York, Chartres

Merchant Prince Towns - Florence, Siena

Merchant Guild Towns - Hanseatic League towns

or plan type

Among the many possible classifications it seems convenient to divide Medieval town plans into those which are spontaneous and those which are planned.

1. Spontaneous or Organic Towns

These grew for the most part from the huddle of peasants in need of protection about a nucleus such as the stronghold of a local wealthy leader or perhaps a monastery, which might be equally fortified. In later times, and in settled areas, spontaneous development also took place at junctions of trade routes where exchange of goods induced development of a market. The resultant bargain of protection in exchange for work was the essence of the feudal system.

The majority of towns of medieval origin in Western Europe fall into this group.

The street pattern of the spontaneous town was not conditioned by traffic problems; streets were narrow, winding and steep according to the physical demands of the site.

(Types A to F fall within this group)

2. Planned or Geometric Towns

Building of new towns to accommodate growing population numbers and economic expansion became soon became a major task because of:

a) natural limitations of local food supply for older towns,

b) the needs of a constant extension of conquered territory eastward across Europe.

The chain of new cities which includes most of Europe’s Eastern capitals shows orderly, grid-iron layouts such as Breslau, Vilna, Cracow.

(The Bastide Towns and Type G fall within this group).


These occurred in an inexhaustible variety of forms, shapes reflecting different planning ideas and needs. The plans depended on location, time, method and purpose of the city’s foundation, and the existence of any previous settlements.

In general, it is possible to classify medieval plan types, according to their historic origin [^ 1 F] , their geographic peculiarities [1C, D & E], and their mode of development [1 A & B and 2].

All three can be found in a variety of forms, either separate or in combination, all over Europe.
Principal Types of Plans


Towns which grew by slow stages out of a village or group of villages under the protection of a monastery, a church, or a castle - these would conform to topographical and geographical peculiarities, and change from generation to generation.



wo medieval villages in Essex, England:

Witham, anglo-saxon ‘burh’, and late medieval ‘town’ of Wulvesford, built along the Roman road

  • can be regarded as the archetype of the industrial settlement with a long, narrow street flanked by houses of tradespeople cf. oriental Bazaar

Simplest form of axial or linear plan with side streets forming a rib layout

Kienzhein near Kaisersberg, Germany

  • linear plans have one or more axes (hence axial plans) with longitudinal main streets, lined with (almost) continuous buildings running through the settlement.

A controlled linear plan layout with two principal axes

Mühldorf on the Inn

Form of Growth

  • the principal axis invariably ensured the formation of a street market settlement. Note

    that this preceeded the later, centralized market square.

e.g. in south-west Germany 12th most towns were based on street market plans; in the 13th century market squares become more common.

Medieval urban street patterns developed on a route axis.

  1. Rib pattern 2 Parallel street pattern 3 Spindle or elliptical patterns

4 Grid patterns

[from Dickinson]

Normal mode of Growth: (expansion)

1. initial development of one linear street with market function - the main street

2. a secondary axis is formed parallel to the main street i.e. repetition of the archetype; this was usual when new groups of settlers were strangers to each other: as a new group of merchants settled, it would form another market street, parallel to the original one, repeating the arrangement anew.

3 interconnecting streets, often based on existing tracks running off the principal axis, would be developed and also flanked by housing.

Later, this led to development of central markets.

4. note variety of forms of development:

  1. 2 or more street market systems could intersect at right angles forming a cross and, ultimately, nearby a market place

  2. regular spaced pattern of interconnecting streets would form rib or fishbone patterns.

Gosen, Brandenburg, Germany

Two intersecting linear routes forming cross pattern

^ Development of the market place in relation to the route axis

1 Street Markets 2 Rectangular or Long markets between two parallel streets

3 Rectangular or long markets in a spindle pattern 4 Square market place in a grid layout

[from Dickinson]


Linear Plan type is found predominantly in flat country as the village of Giesen, Pomerania, below; although distorted linear layouts, following contours, can be found on hilltops or hillsides.

^ Herrenberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany

A linear plan distorted by contour lines

Cordes, France

linear plan developed along ridge of a hill

street layout reflects contour lines

B. Radial or Radio-Concentric Plans

grew gradually, house by house, around a central nucleus such as a church, monastery/abbey, or castle. Urban expansion takes place by series of consecutive rings of residential development (usually quite irregular rings) around the original growth point.

shapes of these towns range from irregular forms to oval, circular, rectangular, or even starshaped outlines.

^ St.Quentin showing first nucleus of settlement grouped around the cathedral,

with market place outside it.

[from Dickinson]


  • is a most typical form of radial plan with a regular oval to circular shape or outline.

  • originally a Roman settlement but town structure evolved in medieval times around a central growth point: a Royal Frankish Court.

  • town gradually formed successive rings of buildings (rather protective of its precious centre) around nucleus.

Plan of Nördlingen, Germany

A - Cathedral B - Moat

^ The growth of Aachen

1 –Nucleus of Carolingian palace , church and baths, around which clustered the first urban settlement 2 – Areas walled by Frederick Barbarossa

3 –Areas walled in the 14th century

i. Towns with oval, rectangular, or circular outline

Germany: Nördlingen, Wemding, Rothenburg

France: Perouges

Flanders: Bergues

Holland: Amersfoort

ii . Towns with Star-shaped outl ine

Geneva, Lausanne, Zürich, Dublin have starshaped outlines as cities developed in some directions only because of physical limitations of site.


Martina Franca ( 1300 A.D . Italy)


Bazas (France), known in Roman times as Vasates.



‘Natural’ or historic plans are those spontaneous types which originated in antiquity, generally Roman cities, and which were revived in medieval times.

Their plans were the result of natural development of events (historical accident rather than conscious choice) which acted freely on urban fabric and caused haphazard growth and extensions.

These usually retained their rectilinear street systems (at least in the core area) and now included a citadel or monastery.

The tendency to follow the original concept (castrum) varied from example to example and often met with little success.


Paris, Rome, Florence, Verona, Bologna

Carcassone (Cite),

^ P
lan of old Carcassone, France

its Roman origin is only vaguely recognizable; more usually, the ‘natural’

or historic type tends to have an ancient i.e. Roman nucleus

and a radio-concentric development around it.

^ Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany

Note Roman castrum shown in black, contained cathedral and palaces of bishop and emperor

Mercantile settlement lies to the west, became part of town and walled in 920 AD.

[after Gradmann]

^ 2. PLANNED, GEOMETRIC TOWNS (the Bastide Towns and type G)

This category comprises the numerous planned new foundations of the high middle ages: i.e. the colonial towns, laid out on the grid-iron plan and commonly referred to as Bastides. These represent a significant aspect of medieval city development.

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