Does anybody know of research papers or academic resources that study the full development and growth of medieval cities? I mean, from village stage to city stage. Or maybe cities did not develop that way. I'm trying to know what usually happened, in the most accurate and comprehensive way possible, since the "foundation" of what would be a city up to c. AD 1450. I know of course that most surviving cities c. AD 500 were old Roman forts etc., but were there any cities founded in Europe in the middle ages that are chronicled?

I am also curious about population in cities and villages. I mean, I know large medieval cities had around 20,000 people, but where did they live? As far as I know, medieval houses were not that big and there weren't many of them in cities and villages.

By the way, I'm only talking Europe here. Raw numbers aren't that important. I'd like to know about the process in great detail, at least of one particular city. Then, I think, raw numbers could be interpreted more easily, and common "stages" or "sub-processes" might be identified in other cities.

  • Are you curious about the process, or are you looking for lots of raw numbers for actual cities?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 18:52
  • Actually raw numbers aren't that important. I'd like to know about the process in great detail, at least of one particular city. Then, I think, raw numbers could be interpreted more easily, and common "stages" or "sub-processes" might be identified in other cities.
    – rlbstr
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 18:58
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    Welcome to the site and +1 for a good question. Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 19:51
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    Central place theory. Should be in Wikipedia.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 19:57
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    Just a small point - you say that medieval houses were not that big, but ideas of personal space were very different - servants, for instance, might bed down in the hall,children of the family would share a bed. As late as the 18/19C, Jane Austen shared a bedroom, possibly a bed, with her sister into adulthood.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Oct 2, 2017 at 20:27

3 Answers 3


Offhand, you may want to look up Pirenne's work. His study of cities led to the powerful and controversial Pirenne Thesis, but I think that reading his original work would be valuable in itself and relevant to your question.

it was not the invasion of the Germanic tribes that destroyed the civilization of antiquity, but rather the closing of Mediterranean trade by Arab conquest in the seventh century. The consequent interruption of long distance commerce accelerated the decline of the ancient cities of Europe. Princeton University Press

One point to note about the question: describing a 5-6th century cities as "old Roman forts" is a serious oversimplification.

  • But are there any major medieval cities that weren't originally Roman? I can only think of Venice
    – none
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 3:52
  • @mgb why do you think that Venice was not Roman?
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 9:25
  • @Anixx: Venice is indeed Roman in foundation, but actually it fits the "old Roman fort" label not bad at all. Its first significant development belongs to the Byzantine era. Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 11:54
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    @Lohoris Thanks, good point. Edit approved! Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 13:01
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    @MarkC.Wallace It's from the PUP blurb which I linked to. Commented Dec 23, 2013 at 13:32

Well, looking at Paris we can see an example of a city that was built around an old Roman city. It's not entirely correct, as Felix pointed out, that medieval cities are descendants of "old Roman forts", as Roman cities were actually often used in a rather directly copied format.

In short, up until a certain time, it's pretty likely that cities were basically just rebuilt Roman ones. If a city was built or extended after Roman times, it was built around an important fortification or old Roman settlement but would be built not on a grid, rather taking advantage of the elevation of the surrounding terrain (according to Wikipedia). River banks would also serve as a guide for how towns came together.

This is not, however, to say exclusively that medieval towns were built without rhyme or reason; Elberg, for instance, was built with straight streets and a symmetrical design that was reminiscent of Roman designs and foreshadowed Renaissance building.

  • What might be particularly interesting is that Elberg started out as a town that was then expanded into its more orderly, planned format. The original town did not necessarily look as orderly as it did once it was expanded in the late 1300's. Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 2:05

Well, the most Medieval of Medieval cities were not necessarily located in Northern or Central Europe, but rather, in Southern Europe, specifically, the cities of Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, as well as Constantinople....the Capital of the Byzantine Empire and the city of Venice in Northern Italy.

In terms of population, Constantinople was estimated to have approximately 500,000 residents about 1000 years ago, when the city was its political, commercial and cultural zenith. However, the Andalusian city of Cordoba, also was estimated to have a similar population size during its zenith, around the year, 900. And during The Late Middle Ages, the Castilian city of Toledo, became the most cosmopolitan European city West of Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad (as well as North of Fes).

There was also the city of Venice, which, by the 1300's, begins to emerge as a major commercial center, as Constantinople began to wane in power. Many of the additional territories that Venice would eventually occupy, were Greco-Aegean islands which for several centuries, had been under the control of Byzantine Constantinople. In occupying much of the Aegean region during the latter part of the Middle Ages, Venice's wealth and sophistication as a major city-state began to take Center stage-(historically speaking).

These 4 European cities, were some of the more highly developed cities of the Middle Ages, centuries before the emergence of the Central and in particular, North European city.

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