The Middle Ages refers to the period dating from when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century to the start of the Renaissance in the 15th century.
Although the Far East was where culture and trade were centered, studies of the Middle Ages are usually confined to the history of Europe. While the largest city in the world at that time was in China, we turned the spotlight on the important cities of Europe during the Middle Ages.
During the early Middle Ages, there were no self-governing countries in Europe, and the Church played a pivotal role in the region, with, for example, the Pope appointing Charlemagne in 800 CE as head of the Holy Roman Empire.
As territories were conquered, cities were established, becoming important centers of trade, while some ancient cities crumbled and decayed.
We’ve pinpointed six important cities during the Middle Ages.
Table of Contents
Originally the ancient city of Byzantium, Constantinople was so named after the Roman emperor Constantine and was the capital of successive empires, including the Roman, Latin, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
Considered to be the cradle of Christianity, the city was renowned for its magnificent churches, palaces, domes, and other architectural masterpieces, as well as its massive defensive fortifications.
As the gateway between Europe and Asia and between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Constantinople achieved great prosperity and remained unconquered for centuries during the Middle Ages, despite the efforts of many armies.
In 1204, though, it fell to the Crusaders, who devastated the city and sparked a decline that lasted until Constantinople came under the control of the Ottoman Empire in 1453, towards the end of the Middle Ages.
Venice, with its network of islands and lagoons, only came into existence after the fall of the Roman Empire. For much of its early history, the city was home to only a small population, but this grew when in the 6th century, many people fleeing from the attacking Lombards sought safety here. Venice became a city-state, an independent republic, and for centuries was the wealthiest and most influential center in Europe.
The Venetian Republic included the Venice of the islands and lagoons, the expansion of the city to include a strip of the mainland, and then, with its independent naval strength, most of the Dalmatian coast, Corfu, a number of Aegean islands, and the island of Crete.
Situated at the northern end of the Adriatic, Venice controlled trade to the east, into India and Asia, and with the Arabs to the east. The spice route, the slave trade, and commercial control over much of the Byzantine empire created enormous wealth among the nobles of Venice, which reached its peak in the High Middle Ages.
Besides being a commercial, trading, and financial hub, Venice was also famous for its glass manufacturing, based in the Murano area of Venice from the 13th century. Also, towards the end of the Middle Ages, Venice became the center of Europe’s silk-manufacturing industry, adding to the wealth of the city and its place as an important center of medieval Europe.
From being a flourishing provincial capital during the Roman Empire, Florence experienced centuries of occupation by outsiders, including the Byzantines and the Lombards, before emerging as a prosperous cultural and commercial center in the 10th century.
The 12th and 13th centuries saw Florence rise to become one of Europe’s wealthiest and most influential cities, both economically and politically. Despite political strife within the city between powerful families, it continued to grow. It was the home of several banks, including that of the powerful Medici family.
Florence even minted its own gold and silver coins, which were widely accepted as a strong currency and were instrumental in the city controlling trade in the region. The English coin, the florin, derived its name from Florence’s currency.
Florence also had a flourishing wool industry, and during this period in its history, over one-third of its population was involved in producing woolen textiles. The wool guilds were the strongest in Florence and, together with other guilds, controlled the civic affairs of the city. This theoretically democratic form of local government was unique in an otherwise feudal Europe but was finally outlawed in the 16th century.
Until the 10th century, Paris was a provincial city with little significance, but under Louis V and Louis VI, it became the home of kings and grew in stature and importance, becoming the most populous city in Western Europe.
Because of the city’s geographic location at the confluence of the Seine, Marne, and Oise rivers, it was supplied with abundant food from surrounding areas. It was also able to establish active trade routes with other cities, as well as Germany and Spain.
As a walled city in the Middle Ages, Paris offered a secure home to many immigrants from the rest of France and beyond. As the seat of government, too, the city had many officials, lawyers, and administrators, which led to the creation of centers of learning, colleges, and universities.
Much of the art of Medieval Europe was centered around the Parisian community of sculptors, artists, and specialists in the creation of stained-glass works, which were used in cathedrals and palaces of the day.
Nobility was attracted to the royal court and built their own lavish homes in the city, creating a large market for luxury goods, and a demand for banking, financial services, and moneylenders.
The Catholic Church played a very prominent role in Parisian society, owned much of the land, and was closely linked with the king and government. The church built the University Of Paris, and the original Notre Dame cathedral was built during the Middle Ages. The Dominican order and the Knights Templar were also established and centered their activities in Paris.
In the mid-14th century, Paris was devastated by two events, the bubonic plague, which struck the city four times in twenty years, killing ten percent of the population, and the 100 Years War with England, during which Paris was occupied by the English. Much of the population left Paris, and the city began to recover only after the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance.
Ghent was established in 630 CE at the confluence of two rivers, the Lys and the Scheldt, as the site of an abbey.
In the early Middle Ages, Ghent was a small city centered around two abbeys, with a commercial section, but it was sacked by the Vikings in the 9th century, only recovering in the 11th century. However, for two hundred years, it flourished. By the 13th century Ghent, now a city-state, had grown to become the second-largest city north of the Alps (after Paris) and larger than London.
For many years Ghent was ruled by its affluent merchant families, but the trade guilds became increasingly more powerful, and by the 14th century, a more democratic authority had power in the state.
The region was ideally suited to sheep farming, and woolen fabric manufacturing became a source of prosperity for the city. This grew to the point where Ghent had the first industrialized zone in Europe and was importing raw materials from Scotland and England to meet the demand for its products.
During the Hundred Years War, Ghent sided with the English to protect their supplies, but this created conflict within the city, forcing it to change allegiance and side with the French. Although the city continued to be a textile hub, the pinnacle of its importance had been reached, and Antwerp and Brussels became the leading cities in the country.
For three centuries in the Middle Ages, Cordoba was considered the greatest city in Europe. Its vitality and uniqueness stemmed from the diversity of its population – Moslems, Christians, and Jews lived harmoniously in a city of over 100,000 inhabitants. It was the capital of Islamic Spain, with the Great Mosque being built partly in the 9th century and expanded in the 10th century, mirroring the growth of Cordoba.
Cordoba attracted people from all over Europe for various reasons – medical consultations, learning from its scholars, and admiration of its sumptuous villas and palaces. The city boasted paved roads, streetlights, meticulously kept public spaces, shaded patios, and fountains.
The economy boomed in the 10th century, with skilled craftsmen producing quality work in leather, metal, tiles, and textiles. The agricultural economy was amazingly diverse, with fruit of all kinds, herbs and spices, cotton, flax, and silk introduced by the Moors. Medicine, mathematics, and other sciences were far in advance of the rest of Europe, cementing Cordoba’s position as a center of learning.
Sadly, the power of Cordoba collapsed in the 11th century due to political infighting, and the city finally fell to invading Christian forces in 1236. Its diversity was destroyed, and it slowly fell into decay which was only reversed in modern times.
Other Cities Of The Middle Ages
Any discussion of important cities in the Middle Ages will include a different range of cities. We have selected the six above because of their unique but important role. Some, like London, had regional significance in the Middle Ages but reached their most important position in the modern era. Others, like Rome, were already decaying in the Middle Ages. While their historical significance cannot be denied, they were less important than more recently established cities.
Header image courtesy: Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (Text: Hartmann Schedel), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons