[Above: guildhouses in the Grote Markt, Antwerp]
How is a city defined?
Legally and juridically a city was a corporate community embodied in its citizens, the adult male heads of households. Economically, by the standards of the 16th and 17th centuries a major city was one with a population of around 100,000 people.
In 1500 there were only four cities of this size: Paris, Venice, Naples and Istanbul. (Antwerp reached this figure briefly in the middle of the 16th century.) By 1600 there were twelve European cities of 100,000 or more: the new arrivals included Lisbon, Seville, London, Rome, and Moscow.
This remarkable growth is one of the many signs that the population of Europe as a whole was increasing. With the high mortality rate in the towns, they could only maintain and increase their population by immigration.
Industry, wealth and trade
However an urban community did not have to reach this size to play a major economic and cultural role. Towns generated wealth by marketing the products of agriculture and commerce but they also made things, engaged in major construction projects and commissioned works of art. At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century the Venice Arsenal, employed some 16,000 people who apparently were able to produce nearly one ship each day, and could fit out, arm, and provision a newly-built galley with standardized parts on a production-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution. Cordoba made leather goods. Haarlem and Amsterdam brewed beer. The towns of Flanders and Brabant produced fine cloth from English wool, though as England increased its own cloth manufacture (with the help of Flemish guest workers) production declined and disgruntled weavers and dyers caused headaches to the authorities.
All large towns had their international trading communities and had done so since the Middle Ages (see Lombard Street, London). There were Genoese merchants in Seville, Spaniards in Nantes and Antwerp, Netherlands merchants in the Baltic and German merchants in London and Venice
The Mediterranean spice trade benefited Venice in particular. In the 1560s some 4.5 million pounds of spices – mostly pepper – arrived in Alexandria and the Venetians played a key role in bringing it west. Venice’s stability was remarkable in this period, though in the seventeenth century it was to find that it could not compete with the Atlantic powers.
Poverty, hardship and disease
City dwellers were subject to considerable economic insecurity and could be thrown out of work in times of crisis. These temporarily unemployed were the ‘masterless men’ who so troubled the authorities and social commentators. Even in prosperous cities like Antwerp and Lyon 75% of a craftsman’s income would be spent on food. Economic crises swelled the numbers of poor. In 1586 the Aumône Générale of Lyon had to cope with a queue of 6,000 people out of a population of 70,000 seeking food. Plague was always a hazard. In London in 1563 27% of the population died of the plague. The plague closed the theatres between 1592 and 1594. In the great plague of 1575-7 some 50,000 died in Venice out of a population of almost 170,000 (including Titian’s son). (When the plague went away the Venetians built the church of the Redentore in gratitude.) In 1597 more than 6,000 people died in Hamburg out of a population of no more than 40,000.
The elite dominated the social structure of towns. The ‘rich’ – those who had access to grain reserves - made up 10-15% of the population. At the bottom of the social heap were widows, orphans, and the disabled.
The larger cities in Europe could have hundreds of different guilds, each of which had a strong sense of identity through ceremonies, processions and sometimes distinctive clothing. Guild members enjoyed a greater measure of protection than non-guild members. Guilds were led by master craftsmen, adult male heads of households who had become members by producing a product judged acceptable – a ‘masterpiece’. Each craftsman led his own shop, which could be in his own house and hired apprentices. Craftsmen enjoyed status and honour because they exercised a specialist profession and because they were economically ‘free’ and independent.
Thomas More’s paternal grandfather was a baker, the son-in-law of a brewer, and his maternal grandfather, Thomas Graunger, was a tallow chandler. Both grandfathers were members of their Guilds; Graunger was a warden of the Tallow Chandlers’ Company.Most urban dwellers were not guild members. Journeymen worked for masters. Below them were the unskilled workers and the numerous servants (between 15 and 30% of the population). The rural workers who lived in the city but earned their wages in the countryside had the lowest status.
Antwerp flourished as the great entrepôt port and boom town of Northern Europe. Its population rose from 40,000 to 90,000 in the first half of the century. Merchants handled some 10 million florins of exports per year in the mid-1540s, about 75% of the total exports of the Netherlands. Its fortunes were made in 1501 when several Portuguese caravels tied up at the wharf, their holds stowed full of Indian spices. The king of Portugal, who had a monopoly of the trade, had decided to make Antwerp the distribution centre for his oriental products in Western Europe. This was not just because of the town’s key position on the river Scheldt but because it was linked by trade routes to the cities of the south German bankers. Only in Antwerp could he obtain the quantities of precious metals which were indispensable for his trade with India (silver) and Africa (copper). It was claimed that a thousand vessels were at times anchored off the city, and one hundred came and went daily. In 1531 Antwerp built a new Exchange – the Beurs – (left) to house the money market.
In turn this impacted on London as Antwerp handed about a third of England’s cloth production. From Antwerp much of the cloth went to south Germany and Italy inland by river and overland in wagons. The Portuguese and the south Germans bought English worsted and local ‘new draperies’ on an increasing scale. London and Antwerp remained intimately connected until the city fell to the Spaniards in 1585.
London dominated the economy of England, on its own accounting ofr half the increase in population. It seems to have risen from a population of 85,000 by 1565, rising to 155,000 by 1605. According to John Stowe, Survey of London, the fields beyond the city had ‘now within a few years made a continual building throughout of garden houses and small cottages, and the fields on ether side turned into garden plots, tenter yards, bowling alleys and such like’. According to the Elizabethan antiquary, John Stow, Southwark was ‘pestered’ with places of popular resort, taverns and brothels, pleasure grounds and theatres. The overcrowding became so serious that in 1580 Elizabeth issues a proclamation forbidding ‘any new buildings of any house or tenement within three miles from any of the gates of the said city of London’. Of course it did not work. Within three years of the proclamation the city authorities were lamenting the continual increase in sheds, lodgings and tenements outside the walls.
Like all the great cities, London had a variety of trades and occupations including brewers, dyers, brickmakers and soap and salt boilers.
Advanced schools were to be found in towns, such as John Colet’s St Paul’s school. There were charitable institutions such as the Maagdenhuis in Antwerp for orphaned girls. By the early sixteenth century the larger cities were acquiring printing presses.
Seville expanded as a result of its importance in dealing with New World silver. Its population rose from about 65,000 in the 1550s to at least 90,000 in the 1590s. Its trade in precious metals and sugar was handled by the Genoese through the Casa de Contratación. However, the Genoese did not have a monopoly, as unusually for the Iberian peninsular, the aristocrats of Seville were not too grand to trade.
Lyon grew because of its strategic position on the Rhône, making it the main beneficiary of the great urban expansion of the sixteenth century. By 1580 its population had reached 80,000. The city was linked to the Atlantic by the interests of its merchants in spices and silver – the king of France regarded Lyon as his ‘Peru’. Its main industry was silk. Two merchants, Voison and Durier, were said to employ between 800 and 1,000 people. Lyon’s prosperity faded during the Wars of Religion.
Danzig was the eastern outpost of European trade. Its population of 60,000 was not large by western European standards but it was remarkable in the east, where the advance of manorialism had crushed the prospects of urban development. It imported grain from Poland, Prussia and Pomerania. The grain was handed by Dutch merchants and was destined for western Europe.
Both Germany and Italy had a variety of city states which stood out as exceptions in a predominantly agrarian and feudal world. The inhabitants had a separate body of law and concept of citizenship. Their landscape was marked by high town walls, churches, cathedrals and market squares. The degree of independence of the city states varied inversely with the strength of the monarchies.
Civic pride: The more self-confident cities linked themselves with the Roman Empire – for example Antwerp used the letters SPQA, a variation of the Roman SPQR. This was a republican parallel to the dei gratia used by kings. City states made up for their lack of obvious divine authority by claiming other origins. The Florentines insisted on their Etruscan/Roman foundation. Antwerp claimed its origin from Silvius Brabo, who slew the giant Antigonus and flung the giant’s hand into the Scheldt. Venice prided itself on its possession of the body of St Mark.
Civic ritual: One of the most important Venetian rituals was the desponsatio, the 'marriage to the sea', celebrated on Ascension Day. The Joyous Entry was the main state ritual of the Flemish towns in which the new state regent performed the ceremony of recognizing the charters and freedoms of the city.
The Italian situation
The term Italy was strictly geographical, though in times of crisis, Italians talked of a common Roman origin and a common linguistic inheritance. The peninsula included powerful city states:
Venice: population 1 ½ million. This was a republic and the only Italian state with an overseas empire.
Milan: population 1 ¼ million; a duchy. It was taken over first by the Viscontis and then by the Sforza. In 1450 Francesco Sforza became duke of Milan.
Florence: population ¾ million. The Medici family rose to prominence in the 15th century. In 1469 Lorenzo de Medici, the grandson of Cosimo, gained power. In 1494, following the French invasion, the Popular Party overthrew the Medici, but they had to rely on French support in order to do this. This led to a period of confusion dominated by the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, who owed his success to his powerful pulpit preaching and the accuracy of his prophecies (he predicted the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492 and the French invasion two years later). However in 1498 Florence returned to oligarchic rule. In 1512 the Medici marched in with a papal/Spanish army and established their domination as in the days of Lorenzo the Magnificent. In 1513 Lorenzo’s son Giovanni became Pope Leo X. Florence was now a republic only in name.
By the end of the fifteenth century the city states were almost invariably governed by an oligarchy: a patriciate of rich merchants and property owners. This created problems, especially in Italy. The city states tamed the feudal nobility of the countryside by forcing them to live for at least a part of the year in the city. But they introduced their feuds into the city where they became mixed up in the social and factional fights of town politics. Only Venice escaped this problem. The Venetian patriciate became the most exclusive ruling class in Europe.
In Italy the contado was the surrounding rural area, also including the smaller cities (eg, Pisa was part of the contado of Florence, though in 1494 it rebelled against Florentine jurisdiction. The war against Pisa lasted until 1509.) The city states needed the contado to ensure food supplies (the Venice contado was not large enough for this). Cities also needed to control rural manufacturing. Basel forbade rural propertyless workers into the city. It kept them in the countryside so that they could live and work in the surrounding villages.
The great banking family of the Fuggers of Augsburg were the Rothschilds of their day. Vying with Florence to dominate Europe financially, Jakob Fugger (1459-1525), who came to be known as ‘Jakob the Rich’, loaned money to nobles, church leaders and rulers, accepting control of mining properties as security on the loans. He gradually established a monopoly of silve and cooper mining in the Tyrol, Hungary and Slovakia, which provided him with 1.5 million florins profit. That profit was recirculated into further loans. Jakob financed the imperial election of Charles V in 1519 for which he was given control of mercury and silver mines in Spain. The Fuggers came to have houses in many of the major European cities, such as Antwerp. By the early 17th century, as the Spanish crown sank deeper into debt, they kept representatives in Seville to claim first rights on the incoming silver from Mexico and Peru.
The Fuggers pioneered lending money at interest. Conrad Summenhart, of Thubingen University put aside Aristotle’s view, declaring it was permissible to use something in a way that wasn’t intended. The Fuggers financed his student Johann Eck to argue the permissibility of certain loans for five hours before the full assembled University of Bologna in 1515. Eck assured them that the method of charging interest had been in use for 40 years with no-one being excommunicated. As economies became more dynamic, with real growth possibilities, it became clear that charging interest on business loans where the borrowing merchant prospered could not be condemned as greed or lack of charity and by 1516 the idea of a lending institution charging interest for its services had been overwhelming accepted.
One of their most celebrated clients was the 24 year old Hohenzollern prince, Albert of Brandenburg. He was already Archbishop of Magdeburg and Administrator of the diocese of Halberstadt, but in 1514 he had his eyes on the Archbishopric of Mainz far away to the south west. This Archbishopric carried with it the office of Imperial Chancellor and also made him primate of Germany. Albert acted decisively to secure his own election, while keeping on to his other offices. This plurality was against canon law. There were also routine fees involved in gaining the Archbishopric and it would require a dispensation from Leo X, who at the same time needed money for the new basilica of St Peter’s and was proposing to raise part of this by the sale of indulgences. A deal was struck: Albert would promote the indulgence and also gain a cardinal’s hat; half the money for each indulgence was to go to Rome; the other half would help to pay off Albert's debts to the Fuggers, who had also arranged the deal. It seemed a win-win situation! [This story seems to destroy the Weber thesis about the links between capitalism and Protestantism; mercantile capitalism was well underway before the Reformation.]
Another great financier, Simón Ruiz of Medina del Campo belonged to a family specializing in trade with France. He grew rich and founded a hospital in his home town. But from 1576 when the trading world felt the impact of the Dutch revolt, he moved his money into public financing. The next generation was more interested in acquiring noble status. By this time it had become a common complaint that rich merchants were more interested in acquiring noble status than in continuing to trade. The same might also have applied to lawyers. In the English Act of Apparel (1483) purple and velvet were forbidden to lawyers – a sure sign that they were aping the nobility. The urban community was a place of upward mobility (for the few!).