Saturday, August 9, 2014

French cities of the Dark Ages

Roman cities.... only existed in name in the sixth century; their space was infinitely shrunk, and they became what they had formerly been, villages. To well understand the life of the first part of the Middle Ages, one must only see in these cities large boroughs. Little or no industry, or else the latter had become an appendix of the rural economy, large monasteries, large landowners. the Church with its great wealth, had to in their own interest be self-sufficient. Life in this time became more and more monotonous. The borough took on a dark and sad aspect, agriculture was exploited inside what formerly had been the location of its temples and its capitols. Great antique monuments became the home of the poor, served as defense; livestock lived with the laborers. Such was the aspect of these cities which had formerly been the center of Hellenism like Marseilles, the center of Roman culture like Narbonne and Bordeaux, cities like Nimes and Autun.
The nineteenth century writer Marignan provides an image of early medieval French cities which is based on something more than Dark Age caricatures; he cites cartularies, charters and some archeology as his sources. Still, had French cities indeed become mere auxiliaries to rural life, shells used to shelter the poor and their livestock?

Certainly there is some basic evidence that cities remained exceptional spaces, not simple boroughs with no special role separate from the agricultural bulk of the country. The most obvious evidence of this is that bishops invariably had their seats in cities, and typically cities which had existed under the Romans and still exist today. Church councils too were held in cities. Finally, cities remained both prizes and refuges during conflicts. Marauding armies may well have captured the isolated enclaves into which power is sometimes believed to have devolved in this period; but their conquests and defeats continued to focus on cities.

For food history, the survival of cities has a particular importance. Gallo-Roman cities, for instance, had sometimes had corporations (collegia) of bakers, butchers and other trades. Did anything similar survive into the Middle Ages or did such public trades disappear with the urban infrastructure to support them? Realistically, it is very unlikely that specific direct evidence will ever appear that they did. But a first step in trying to at least determine how likely that was is simply to see what state cities were in before the tenth or eleventh centuries, when they are generally thought to have been “reborn”: “The beginning of the second millennium of the Christian era, with the rebirth of cities, was a real watershed in the history of Europe” (Cavagna/Cian); “The revival of trade in Europe in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries is thus a central cause of the rebirth of cities.” (Esler). 

Archeology is of some help here, but as always, the prime source for the earliest centuries is Gregory of Tours (c. 538–594).

Merovingian cities

Gregory's History of the Franks is in fact so rich in references to cities that Loseby has drawn a whole study from it: “Gregory's Cities: Urban Functions in Sixth-century Gaul”. Before looking at some specific passages, consider this general note from Loseby: "The writings of Gregory of Tours convey little, if any, overt sense of urban decline. The one feature of Gregory's urban anecdotes which can almost always be guaranteed is a crowded scene."

Gregory gives only glimpses of cities, but they are telling ones. He shows Leudast (c. 579) in Paris "going about the merchants' houses, inspecting various merchandise, weighing silverwork and examining different precious objects;" basically, a rich man shopping in a big city. Certainly, one of Marignan's “boroughs” would not have had dealers in silverwork and other precious objects available for a visitor to stroll.

In another tale, he tells of a woman of Paris being accused of infidelity and the bloody conflict which followed between her and her husband's relatives. Only some way into the tale does he write “these were men of the highest birth, and the first beside king Chilperic" (reigned 561–584). The fact that such people lived in Paris and not on some country estate or in castles gives some idea of its continuing importance.

He makes various tantalizing remarks about Marseilles. He shows the bishop Theodore being siezed in the middle of the city. Childebert (reigned 575-595) wanted to take half of Marseilles from Gontran (reigned 561-592) – hardly something one would do with a “village”. When a duke went to arrest someone there, he took the bishop and the most distinguished citizens (seniores civium) with him. After which "the gates of the city and the doors of the churches opened; and both, the duke and the bishop, entered Marseilles, with signs and various honorary banners praising them." Later, when Gontran wanted to arrest the bishop, he had to lure him out of the city. When the bishop had been captured and was being taken through Aix, another bishop gave him aid. Again, this was done in a city, not just anywhere along the countryside. In one humorous passage, Gregory, enraged against a fellow bishop, writes "If Marseilles had had you for bishop, its vessels would have brought you not oil and other precious items ["spices"], but only paper so that you could write at your ease against the reputation of good people." This incidentally reflects the thriving trade which continued in the city.

The idea that people were identified with their city – rather than fortuitously taking refuge there, as in Marignan's picture – occurs more than once. Gregory tells of men from Orleans and Blois coming to take turns to guard a man in Tours, and then carrying off livestock and other things belonging to St. Martin (the patron saint of Tours). In another case, men from Orleans and Bourges joined to oblige those of Poitiers to submit. When the latter did, it was collectively, as a city, just as cities would in later centuries. Shortly after, he tells how Gondovald required cities to swear allegiance either to Childebert or (where appropriate) to himself. Again, these oaths were collective municipal acts. When Gondovald then marched towards Toulouse, the bishop there spoke to the citizens, urging them to resist him. (Seeing the size of Gondovald's army, they later opened the gates to him.)

Loseby gives some similar examples in which people from neighboring cities were summoned by kings taking action against a city: "it is sufficient here to note that kings could call on their subjects for services as well as taxes, and that once again Gregory's narrative shows how the basic administrative unit through which those services were organized was the civitas."

A similar impression comes from a canon of the 567 council at Tours which ordered cities to take care of their poor (and priests in the country to take care of theirs). The explicit intention of this canon was to prevent beggars from roaming cities and regions, a concern which would recur all through French history. But of course this also shows that, as Loseby writes, “Cities even had their own poor.”

In another famous passage, Gregory tells how "a merchant named Christopher left for the city of Orleans; because he learned that a great deal of wine had arrived there. He went there then, bought wine, which he had transported on boats" and left, carrying a large sum of money from his father-in-law. Note that trade was not only active enough in Orleans for it to be worth going there to buy wine, enough infrastructure existed for him to arrange for the wine to be shipped. Such commercial activity would also seem to imply the existence of at least basic inns (as one would also expect at Marseilles), but unfortunately Gregory has no reason to enter into such details.

Perhaps his most vivid and complete description of what was essentially a city concerns Dijon. First he describes its setting:
It is a stronghold, surrounded by very solid walls. It is built in the middle of a laughing plain, whose earth is so fertile and productive that the fields, labored only once before sowing, nonetheless give very rich harvests. To the south flows the Ouche river, which is filled with fish; in the north is another small river which enters by one of the gates, passes under a bridge, exits by another gate, and surrounds the ramparts with its rapid water. Before this last gate, it turns mills with an astonishing speed.
before describing its walls:
Dijon has four entrances, turned towards the four parts of the sky; its walls are adorned with thirty-three towers. Up to twenty feet high, they are made of dressed stone, above that in smaller stone. Overall they are thirty feet high and fifteen feet thick.
(Archeology has confirmed these dimensions (Dutour).)

He then adds, "This place does not bear, I do not know why, the title of city." That is, civitas. The Latins had several words for various urban agglomerations, but only some were considered "cities". As the example of Dijon shows, other important urban centers existed, however. (In later centuries, a city would be defined by having a bishop.) Still, writes Loseby:
in Gregory's mind, at least, alternative administrative units, whether larger dukedoms, or smaller pagi, were still nascent, and of secondary importance. The civitates remain the basic building-blocks of which the various regna were composed. Like many urban monuments, the city-based institutions were in a state of decay; but they had not collapsed entirely by the late sixth century.
When cities were walled, they also served another familiar purpose: refuge. “In times of crisis or invasion Gregory's cities became refuges, places to hole up while invading forces pitilessly ravage the surrounding countryside, as well as the suburbs.”

It is a truism of this era that bishops largely ran cities: “Christianity was a 'city-friendly' religion... Its structure was grafted unto that of the Roman state, and so replicated its cellular organization, with a bishop for every civitas. As is well known, bishops came to assume responsibility for a wide range of ostensibly secular functions...” But, Loseby points out, "Gregory repeatedly shows how this could bring them in to conflict with the secular authorities, and in particular with the leading city-based officials, the counts." The most important point here is that there were city-based – that is, secular – officials; cities at this point had not been reduced to extensions of the Church.

Still, writes Loseby: “The apparent dominance of the Church in urban life can be used negatively to argue that cities in this period were nothing more than ecclesiastical centres and... not proper towns at all.” But:
this dismissive reaction runs the risk firstly of neglecting the role of the Church and its personnel as a motor of urban life in a broader sense, and, secondly, of uncritically reproducing the bias of writers such as Gregory towards churches rather than markets, and towards bishops and saints rather than merchants and artisans. The growth of early medieval urban archaeology has nevertheless tended to encourage these more pessimistic interpretations. The ramshackle Tours excavated (to a limited extent) by archaelogists.., dominated by its churches and seemingly full of open spaces despite its small area, bears little superficial relation to the bustling impression of a dynamic centre which it is most natural to draw from the writings of its bishop...
This discrepancy between the archaeological evidence and the written sources deserves to be debated further.
difficult though it is to derive a rounded analytical picture of urban life in late sixth-century Francia from Gregory's works, they nonetheless offer a range of suggestive and, for the most part, positive indications. It is clear that, alongside their role as Christian centres, Gregory's cities continued to perform a range of administrative, social, economic and military functions which could not (or not all) be found elsewhere.
They were, in a word, something more than the villages or boroughs envisioned by Marignan.

Carolingian cities

Moving beyond Gregory's time, there is no such rich literary source, but rather a suggestive variety of data from a variety of sources (both written and archaeological). The interpretations of these have varied over the centuries and rather than citing this or that period source, one is obliged here, in a brief account, to explore the different conclusions reached by modern historians.

Before looking at these, consider that the revival of trade, and with it the revival or birth of cities, is typically said to have occurred around the eleventh century: "they saw the demographic and economic turnaround as coming only towards the year 1000." (McCormick, introduction to Pirenne); "After the invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries subsided, the towns and cities of Europe experienced a revival." (Hall);
the surge of urban growth ... that began a little before the year 1000...As early as the eleventh century, and even more during the twelfth, rapid urban growth unquestionably took place. All available studies and contemporary records testify to the expansion of those cities already in existence and to the creation of a great many new urban centers...
In other words, the period in question here is somewhere between the seventh and the tenth century. This is not short – three to four hundred years, depending on the key dates – but nor is it anything like the full Middle Ages, which went from about the fifth century to the fifteenth. It is important to note this because often the most extreme observations made based on this period are applied at the least to all of the “Dark Ages” (roughly, the medieval centuries before the Crusades) or even most of the Middle Ages, when in fact they only apply to part of the period.

The few major narrative accounts after Gregory come in Charlemagne's biographers, Einhard and Knotker the Stammerer. Neither gives anything like Gregory's mentions of cities, but scattered mentions still show that these had importance in Charles' time (king 768-814; emperor 800-814). In Charlemagne's will (appended to Einhard's biography), he parcels out alms to be given to a number of cities: “Rome, Ravenna, Milan, Frejus, Grado, Cologne, Mainz, Juvavum which is also called Salsburg, Treves, Sens, Besançon, Lyons, Rouen, Rheims, Aries, Vienne, Darantasia, Embrun, Bordeaux, Tours, Bourges.” The list of French cities included here is intriguing. It does not for instance include Metz, which had been a royal capital and retained some importance at this point. But aside from the thorny question of why certain cities were considered more worthy of alms than others, the most salient question here is the fact that the Emperor thought in such urban terms in the middle of the early Middle Ages.

Knotker mentions Charles celebrating Christmas and Advent at Trevi and Metz and then the following year at Paris or Tours. Again, if the selection is quirky, the fact that he chose major cities for these feasts hints at their continuing importance. He also mentions Charles being “detained” at Aix, probably because of those who wanted to see him there.

Otherwise, the great figure in considering French medieval cities is the Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne (1862–1935). If you are unfamiliar with his work, one thing to know is that even those who challenge or disagree with him acknowledge the value of his methods and insights. It is also true that it is difficult to find any serious work on French medieval cities today which does not build on his own, even if to contradict it.

Pirenne's great thesis can simplistically be resumed as saying that the rise of Islam led to the decline of the West, as trade with the East via the Mediterranean was blocked and commercial activity, much reduced, moved to the north. This also, by his account, made Charlemagne possible: "Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would probably never have existed and Charlemagne, without Mahomet, would be inconceivable." (The idea of blaming Islam for an earlier decline of the West of course attracts some writers today and Pirenne has been posthumously recruited, even where discredited, for some very modern arguments; is it necessary to point out that a broad attack on Islam in general was never part of his own agenda?)

Since trade and cities were intimately linked, Pirenne has a great deal to say about cities in this period. Notably, in asking if cities survived in this period, he makes this useful distinction:
If by [city] is meant a locality the population of which, instead of living by cultivating the soil, devotes itself to commercial activity, the answer will have to be "No". The answer will also be in the negative if we understand by "city" a community endowed with legal entity and possessing laws and institution peculiar to itself. On the other hand, if we think of a city as a center of administration and as a fortress, it is clear that the Carolingian period knew nearly as many cities as the centuries which followed it must have known.
...the thrust of Islam in the Mediterranean, in making impossible the commerce which up to name had still sustained a certain activity in the cities, condemned them to an inevitable decline. But it did not condemn them to death. Curtailed and weakened though they were, they survived.
This is an important distinction for many (if not all) purposes; there is ample evidence that many key cities survived in some form from Roman times until the present day. Still, says Pirenne,
In ceasing to be commercial centers they must have lost, quite evidently, the greatest part of their population. The merchants who once frequented them, or dwelt there, disappeared and with them disappeared the urban character which they had still preserved during the Merovingian era....
It is quite characteristic, and quite illuminating, that the palaces (palatia) of the Carolingian princes were not located in the towns. They were, without exception, in the country, in the demesnes of the dynasty.
Even Aix-la-Chapelle, says Pirenne, was only important because it was Charlemagne's favorite residence; it would not become a city for centuries. 

Pirenne does not factor in, however, such mentions as those in Charlemagne's will, which seem to indicate more interest in traditional cities than the Emperor's choice of residence might suggest. Still, his note is striking when one considers that the Merovingian kings often had cities such as Soissons, Paris, or Metz as capitals.

By Pirenne's account, even the counts charged with the secular administration of counties were always traveling around their domains, rather than being established in cities. He contrasts this with the bishops:
On the contrary, the immobility which ecclesiastical discipline enforced upon a bishop permanently held him to the city where was established the see of his particular diocese. Though they had lost their function in civil administration, the cities therefore continued to serve as the key points in religious administration.
..the word civitas from the beginning of the ninth century... became synonymous with the bishopric and the episcopal city. The phrase civitas Parisiensis was used to designate the diocese of Paris as well as the city of Paris itself, where the bishop had his residence.
But he sees the cities after Merovingian times as losing their secular vocation: “the disappearance of trade, in the ninth century, annihilated the last vestiges of city life and put an end to what still remained of a municipal population..." (Whether trade actually disappeared at that point is another question.) Based on his idea of a French city at this point, he conjectures that a city's population was
composed of the clerics of the cathedral church and of the other churches grouped nearby; of the monks of the monasteries... in the see of the diocese; of the teachers and the students of the ecclesiastical schools; and finally, of servitors and artisans, free or serf, who were indispensable to the needs of the religious group and to the daily existence of the clerical agglomeration.
Almost always there was to be found in the town a weekly market whither the peasants from roundabout brought their produce.
Note that, if this does not imply anything like a municipal administration or organized trades groups, it still resembles a more general idea of a city in several ways, not least in being the site of a market where people from surrounding areas could meet, communicate, etc. The “servitors and artisans” might have been attached to individual institutions, as they would have been to monasteries and great households, but if the population was large enough, one can imagine, for instance, public bakers or inn keepers serving anyone in the city. In other words, even a city dominated by the Church might have resembled what the Romans had and later French people would think of as a city.

Even so, the populations of these cities might have been minimal. Russell, studying the demographics of the feudal system, writes:
We have been taught that the feudal system could only be born into a very primitive society. From a demographic point of view, a primitive society is a society in which the cities are small... From this point of view, the Carolingian period, and that which succeeded it, appear as very primitive. ... supposing that a quarter of the Frankish Country had a million inhabitants, where is the city of 15,000 inhabitants? Aix-la-Chapelle and Ingelheim, which Charlemagne appreciated for their waters, were small agglomerations, and Paris only had a few parishes. Tours, Toulouse, Lyon and even Marseilles were centers of several thousand people. Cologne and Trevi did not fill their Roman walls, Mainz was still so close to a village that the names of neighbors were used to indicate certain localizations. Demographic study shows once more what other sources have already revealed: the economic life of the first feudal period was very weak.
Russell then points out that the population started to grow in Western Europe in the tenth century, and that one can see the growth of cities in the traces of expanding walls.

Still, even if cities were smaller, their particular role in this period continues to be debated, often with regard to Pirenne's ideas specifically:
Pirenne argues that there was an economic rupture that separated the Roman towns and cities of the antique world from their medieval descendants.... but much more continuity between Roman and medieval towns can be shown than Pirenne claimed....
The strongest attack came against Pirenne's chronology, especially his suggestion that the economy of Western Europe performed poorly in the ninth and tenth centuries, and then began to improve rapidly and dramatically in the eleventh century... Guillaume Des Marez..., Robert Lopez, and David Herlihy later insisted on an economic revival that began in the tenth century, and Michael McCormick has recently situated its origins in the late eighth and early ninth centuries.
McCormick, in his introduction to one edition of Pirenne's work on cities, writes:
The delicate remains of the organically-built early trading towns, or emporia,... have now emerged around Europe's northern seas. The new little towns are more numerous and started earlier than might have been thought. These settlements' primary vocation was manifestly commerce and craft production. And they have now begun to appear in the Mediterranean as well.
At the same time, surveys and excavations in the northwestern European countryside are uncovering considerable numbers of visibly multiplying and growing settlements, water mills, rural churches, and cemeteries, starting in the seventh or even late sixth centuries.... Instead of limiting their vision to the rare individuals explicitly identified as merchants, historians began counting travelers such as pilgrims, ambassadors, and slaves and reconstructing their trips across the Mediterranean... or detecting networks in the northern seas...
One major writer to revisit Pirenne's views is Verhulst. Here he is on the emporia mentioned above:
As of the last quarter and perhaps even the middle of the seventh century there was a considerable amount of traffic – and seemingly increasing commercial traffic – between the coasts of southern and south-east England and of the Continent from the mouth of the Seine to the mouth of the Scheldt, Meuse and Rhine. On the Continent that traffic emanated from several ports often located some distance from the coast in the estuaries of large or smaller streams: from south to north those ports were Rouen on the Seine, Amiens on the Somme, Quentovic on the Canche, Domburg... and Dorestat at the bifurcation of Rhine and Lek.
Amiens and Rouen were Roman cities and of course survive today. Quentovic and Dorestat have been called "mushroom cities", having held sway for a brief period. But Quentovic in particular is often mentioned in regard to early medieval trade. One readily imagines it as being as lively as any port city in any period.

How much does the vigor of such a coastal city tell us about that of inland cities in the same period? Such questions are exactly those that continue to be examined, largely with the help of archeology. This is just a hint of the sort of reexaminations which continue to revise ideas of French cities in the early Middle Ages.


It should be clear from the above that a great deal remains to discover, and is being discovered, about French cities in the period so long known as the "Dark Ages". But it should be clear as well that cities did not simply collapse or become irrelevant; to the contrary, all through this period, they played a special role even if that role is sometimes hard to define.

Very roughly, it seems that for several centuries after the Franks took over Gaul, cities remained active, important centers which still had a strong secular, as well as ecclesiastic, vocation. This no doubt varied city by city, but overall Gregory's accounts show a world where cities were entities with a distinct character and often centers of trade and commercial life.

This seems to have begun to fade in the seventh century, but how much is difficult to make out. Certainly, by Charlemagne's time, cities remained important enough for him to spend major holidays in the bigger ones and to allocate alms through them. Yet he himself seems not to have resided in any of them, unlike his Merovingian predecessors. Certain cities stand out distinctly as centers of trade, such as Rouen and Quentovic, and probably maintained some form of infrastructure to welcome all the visitors that implies.

When did cities not only survive from Roman times, but begin to claim the identity most had by the end of the Middle Ages? That remains a complex and uncertain question; but scattered data suggests the process began, however fitfully, before the standard eleventh century date that has long been accepted. Any substantial decline of cities, then, only lasted for a few centuries in a period of almost a thousand years.

From the point of view of food history, all this is preliminary work. It may never be possible to know, for instance, if Carolingian cities had town bakers and butchers, or inns and taverns to receive travelers. But however unsatisfactorily, these expanding and uncertain glimpses of early medieval cities are necessarily where one must start to even try to answer such questions.


Loseby, S. T., “Gregory's Cities: Urban Functions in Sixth-century Gaul”, Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian Period: An Ethnographic Perspective, ed. Ian Wood 2003


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