Thomas Hobbes’s famously depressing description of life in a “state of nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” has often been applied to describe life in the Middle Ages. From our vantage point, sitting on sofas in climate-controlled homes equipped electricity, running water, and toilets, this makes perfect sense. Except the solitary part is wrong. And oh, what an oversight that is. For what we see after 1000, and especially after 1150, is a real flowering of city life in Europe, at least compared to the relative torpor of the premillennial era. Those who lift the phrase from Leviathan forget that what he’s describing is only life before government, before visible social institutions.
Medieval cities were far from solitary. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a bit hard to fathom, especially for North Americans, just how crowded a medieval town would have been. We’re in Bamberg today, which at our pace is a week’s journey from Erfurt. And here we get an inkling from the narrowness of the streets, the overhangs on the houses, the escalating layers on the buildings. Teeming with life, then and now.
The cities England, the Low Countries, and Germany in particular blossomed with technological innovations like horse collars and plows. Technical developments like fertilization, legume production, and crop rotation increased the crop yields in these northern lands some fourfold from their Dark Age lows. This abundance meant more wealth and more people than needed in the countryside. An unprecedented migration to the cities began. By 1600 some half of all people in the Low Countries lived in recognizably urban areas.
Living in a city had advantages. At its basic level, a city is a market. We can imagine the stalls getting more and more permanent, then eventually becoming the buildings themselves. Because a city attracted people from a wide area, it could boast specialization of labor, availability of a wider variety of goods, and the possibility of food in times of crop failure. There were also walls. Vast, unpatrolled countryside was hardly safe: brigands could be common, and in the not-uncommon times of war, refuge within a sturdy fortress meant a temporary lease on life.
Which indicates also the disadvantages of city life. While the infamous Black Plague decimated country and city alike around 1350, it continued to be a problem in cities for centuries to come. Unlike ancient Rome, premodern cities lacked any sewage or sanitation. Streets were full of filth of the most foul kind. Dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, goats—they kept things slightly cleaner but only slightly less smelly. Rat infestations ate up huge quantities of food and spread disease, especially their plague-infected flea hitchhikers.
This concentration of life created new kinds of poverty and made obvious the vast ignorance of the Christian faith held by the population at large. New religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Luther’s own Augustinian Hermits sprang up to deal with these new social and catechetical challenges. Preaching became more common in the churches, often executed by one of these friars. Communication in all forms became concentrated and more rapid, both of which helped to spread the Reformation quickly and inflammably.
Out of cities came the guilds as well: wine merchants, carpenters, masons, fishmonger, brewers, needlemakers, etc. These industry monopolizers and regulators came to wield tremendous power in cities. As we can see here in Bamberg, their buildings came to rival and even surpass the splendor of the churches and monasteries; and they became rival places of meeting for men in authority.
It’s no wonder that the Reformation took hold up north, and in the cities. They offered systems of uncontrolled communication and well-established power structures ready to unseat ecclesiastics and their accumulated privileges. This is not to say that the church institutions were all corrupt, or even that people in general were dissatisfied. It’s just that the movement Luther ignited in 1517 inflamed a well-kindled Northern European world.
The coincidence and confluence of this social revolution with the theological one has confused us all for centuries. Today we’re going through our own even more radical social and communication revolution. There’s no reason to continue this confusion about the past; we’ve got plenty of confusing things about the present to ponder.