A city break in medieval Europe

From Rome to Rheims and Bologna to Bamberg, join us on a tour of the 12th and 13th centuries’ bustling metropolises. Savour their sights and sounds via the accounts of those who lived in them. Your guide for our trip is Paul Oldfield...

Canterbury pilgrims from John of Lydgate’s ‘Story of Thebes’ written c1420. (Photo by Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Towering achievements

The 12th century is witnessing a major building boom – and, as you’ll see, the the results are spectacular

The best way to start your tour of Europe’s medieval cities is surely to look to the heavens. Newly built cathedrals and church spires seem to be pushing cities ever upwards, nearer to God – and so are city towers. Some are constructed to defend the city, others are privately owned, adverts of a family’s power. In Metz, as an abbot tells us, you’ll have to crane your neck backwards to see the tops of towers that are lost in the clouds.

If you feel fit enough, you could tick off all 361 towers that an author boasts are dotted around Rome’s city walls. A Milanese called Bonvesin reckons Milan has 120 bell-towers with more than 200 bells – so here you can also experience an amazing melody of sound throughout the day. Bonvesin also recommends Milan’s best viewing point: “Whosoever wishes to see and savour the form of the city and the quality and quantity of its estates and buildings, should ascend thankfully the tower of the court of the commune; from there, turning the eyes all round one can marvel at the wonderful sight.”

For the most spectacular experience, perhaps you should go to Seville and view the huge Tower of Mary. It is said to have four spheres on top, and when the sun strikes them they radiate bright rays throughout the day.

To get in and out of many cities you will have to pass through gates, often adorned with sculptures bearing religious messages. Some gates might even offer prophecies. At Naples locals tell us that a magic spell has been placed on one city gate. If you enter through it on the right-hand side, you will receive good fortune, as shown by the marble head laughing in delight. If you enter the left-hand side, near another marble head – this one weeping – it will be bad luck I’m afraid. So take care!

Some cities boast monumental royal palaces, and these are certainly worth a visit. A Parisian student recommends the exceptional royal palace complex next to the Seine on the Île-de-la-Cité. Or if you want to catch a glimpse of the secretive kings of Sicily, head to Palermo. Here in the 12th century you will see the new royal palace rising above the city. But sunglasses might be necessary to fully appreciate its sparkling internal walls decorated with gold and precious stones.

Wine, wool, wax and weapons

There is little you can’t buy in the biggest city markets – remember to pack your purse!

Europe is in the midst of a commercial revolution, so don’t be surprised to encounter bustling, well-stocked markets whenever you visit a medieval city. Citizens are proud of the range of products that they sell, especially exotic ones. At London’s markets, a writer named William FitzStephen says that you will find Egyptian palm oil, Chinese silks, French wines and Scandinavian furs. At Genoa, a 13th-century poet claims that you can purchase anything you desire. But do note that he complains that the shops are shut on Sundays and feast days!

You can get excellent wine in Rouen, while at Caen a poet tells us that you have the choice of an array of herbs, cinnamon, incense, pepper, apple, honey, wax, cumin and also dyed woollen cloths, threads of linen, soft silk, bristly swines, woolly sheep, animal skins, horses and all types of food and drink. Some cities specialise in particular goods. If we believe some of our authors, the awards for best wool and weapons go to Florence, and best olive oil to Seville.

Many of our writers praise the things that make this productivity possible: rivers (which are the motorways of the Middle Ages), bridges, and the surrounding countryside. The latter is well worth a visit, according to many medieval citizens who suggest the hinterland is like an earthly paradise. No wonder, given that this is where much of the raw materials for the city’s wealth are sourced.

Bonvesin, whom we encountered earlier, claims that the mills in Milan’s surrounding countryside produce enough bread for the entire city and its 100,000 dogs, and that Milan boasts such an abundant grape harvest that it throws more wine away (for flies to become intoxicated on) than some cities have for their entire population.

However, if all this consumerism becomes too much, you could relax in the countryside around Lisbon, where we’re told the coastal air and pure water springs will protect you from coughs and tuberculosis.

Founts of all knowledge

Join the intelligentsia flocking to Europe’s flourishing universities

If your tastes are a little more refined than the average tourist, you’ll be delighted to learn that medieval Europe is undergoing an intellectual revival. Schools are springing up across the biggest cities (rather than in rural monasteries), and these are now being joined by universities. So, if you’d like to mix it with students and academics, you could learn from the best legal experts at the university in Bologna, or train for a career in the civil service in Naples. Or why not devour Aristotelian philosophy at university in Toulouse? These cities boast that there is an abundance of goods to make for comfortable student living too.

But for the supreme university experience, you must head to Paris, which leads the way in theological studies. Letters from Parisian students speak glowingly of the academic debates you can attend and of the throng of scholars. This knowledge transforms Paris (Parisius) into a Paradise (Paradisus), so you’ll find yourself in a ‘garden of delights’ (‘paradisus deliciarum’) and a ‘city of letters’ (‘civitas litterarum’).

Because of this educational climate, medieval cities are widely hailed as centres of civilisation. Their citizens are praised for elegance and sophistication. A 13th‑century encyclopaedia entry on Venice says it would take “too long to recount all the goodness and virtues and wisdom and knowledge and foresight and harmony and peace and love and humility and righteousness of the people of Venice”. And our friend Bonvesin has helpfully written a book on table manners called The Fifty Courtesies of the Table. It advises people against speaking with full mouths, sneezing or coughing on the table and, worst of all, licking their fingers.

Divine designs

Finding God will be easier than you ever imagined

The Christian faith has certainly made its presence felt in Europe’s medieval metropolises – and not just in their holiest shrines and vaulting cathedrals. Take a walk around any number of city centres and you’ll find that their layouts are heavily influenced by their designers’ piety.

Take Chester, for example. According to the monk Lucian, its two main roads meet in the middle of the city to form a cross. At the ends of both roads you will find a city gate, each protected by a patron saint: St John, St Peter, St Werburgh and St Michael.

At Bamberg, on the advice of a German imperial official, you can trace the position of the four churches located around the main cathedral and see how they create a cruciform shape at the heart of the city. Perhaps, though, you would simply prefer to marvel at the magnificent new cathedrals and shrines that are being built in many of Europe’s cities. In Milan, one 13th-century writer tells us, there are 200 saints’ shrines and around 480 altars.

William FitzStephen recommends London, not only to see the wonderful cathedral of St Paul but also to soak up the piety of its inhabitants. FitzStephen claims you will see excellent holy plays, and citizens joyously celebrating saints’ days and charitably offering alms to the poor.

If you don’t want to bump into any heretics, your best bet is Venice, a city free from such troublemakers – or so a Venetian chronicler boasts.

Past glories

Marvel at the money-spinning potential of the cities’ ancient remains

Finally, you might want to extend your foray into medieval cities by learning more about these conurbations’ distant pasts. Europe’s leading cities are becoming increasingly keen to understand (and manufacture) their own origins. This is part of a renewed craze for the ancient world.

Rome has to be your starting point. Medieval writers marvel at the beauty of the city’s ancient remains, sometimes lamenting their decay. They encourage you to look anew at the magnificence of structures such as the Colosseum and the Baths of Diocletian, or to read the inscription at the spot where Julius Caesar is commemorated. Rome’s 12th-century rulers have even put a preservation order on Trajan’s Column so that it will remain intact for “as long as the world lasts”.

You could also visit all those cities – such as Rouen and Seville – which claim to have been founded by Julius Caesar, and walk in the footsteps of one of the most famous Roman generals. If you’re looking for something even more ancient, try Trier, which maintains that it was founded by Trebeta, the son of Ninus, the king of the Assyrians.

Rouen has a quirky slogan about its ancient past which is based on its Latin name: Rodomus (Romanorum domus), the dwelling place of the Romans. Other cities have developed these catchy ‘brand names’: Rheims is supposedly named after Remus, the brother of Romulus, who founded Rome. León in Spain allegedly took its name Leo (lion) in honour of its former ruler Leovigild, king of the Visigoths.

You could even visit the supposed burial place of King Lud at Ludgate in London. He was an ancient mythical ruler who is said to have given his name to the city (Lundinium).

No doubt you’d like to take away a souvenir of your trip. Perhaps you could keep a coin minted in one of the cities, or furtively detach a seal from a document. Since about 1150, these have contained images of the city, local saints, or ancient mythical founders. So, don’t worry, you don’t need to read Latin to understand these cities’ rich histories – you can simply admire the visual evidence all around you.

Paul Oldfield is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of Manchester. This article is based on his current project on medieval cities, which was aided by funding from a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship.

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