The aim of this chapter is to present the stages which in our opinion mark the evolution of urban settlements in north-west Europe from the late Roman period to the end of the ninth century. Each of these stages are characterised by the pre-dominance of specific urban types: late Roman towns from the fourth to the seventh century; the new, so-called emporia from the seventh to the middle of the ninth century; and new, commercial settlements, most often called portus, from the ninth century onwards. This succession of urban types can be found in the Low Countries, northern France and the Rhineland, more particularly in the valleys of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse and Rhine and on the continental southern shores of the North Sea.
The aspects of particular interest here will be some of the specific problems concerning the second stage—broadly coinciding with the “long”eighth century—during which the so-called emporia had their ephemeral existence.
After having been militarised in the fourth century, mainly by the building of walls, several towns of Roman origin in this area (called civitates, castella or vici) remained centres of political, military and ecclesiastical power and of administration, as the residences of kings, bishops, counts and aristocratic families. Their commercial and manufacturing functions were only secondary. From the fourth century onwards the towns were less densely occupied than before, though by no means deserted. Kings, bishops, counts and aristocratic families took residence in more or less well preserved Roman buildings (praetoria, aulae, basilicae, horrea) or in urban or semi-rural fortifications, and churches were built in them or upon their ruins.1____________________