Borough and Town: A Study of Urban Origins in England

By Carl Stephenson | Go to book overview

I
THE MEDIAEVAL TOWN IN HISTORICAL LITERATURE

1. GEORG VON BELOW AND EARLIER WRITERS

THE mediaeval town has long been a controversial subject. Since scholars of the romantic revival turned back to the Middle Ages, it has been realized that modern European culture is essentially an urban culture, that it did not exist a thousand years ago, and that its beginnings deserve intensive study. During the nineteenth century many historians, thus coming to appreciate the problem of municipal origins, offered many solutions; and in the absence of really valid evidence, each speculative effort was plausible enough to gain numerous adherents. Rival theories multiplied; polemic flourished; ultimate agreement of authorities seemed impossible. Nevertheless, as knowledge of the sources has improved, certain facts have won general acceptance. To that extent we may hope to grasp the truth; for although we rightly hesitate to regard our own ideas with utter complacence, we are sure that the second quarter of the twentieth century finds the scholarly world nearer accord than ever before on the early history of mediaeval towns. To sketch this rapprochement will be the object of the ensuing chapter.

With the gradual abandonment of the Romanist theory,1 by which the persistence of urban institutions throughout the Dark Age was unthinkingly asserted, no less than seven substitute explanations came to be offered before 1900. These, to adopt a convenient order, were (1) the immunity theory of Arnold; (2) the Hofrecht theory of Nitzsch; (3) the gild theory of Wilda and others; (4) the Marktrecht theory of Sohm; (5) the Landgemeinde theory of Maurer and Below; (6) the Burgrecht theory of Keutgen; and (7) the mercantile settlement theory of Pirenne and Rietschel. To review them all in detail will not be necessary, for the

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1
Among recent works the strongest argument for the continuity of urban life in western Europe since Roman times will be found in A. Dopsch, Grundlagen der Europäischen Kulturentwicklung ( 2nd ed., Vienna, 1923-24), I, 100 ff..; II, 344 ff. Dopsch's principal contention, that the Germanic invasions resulted in no systematic destruction of the Roman cities, will hardly be objected to by any modern critic. But Dopsch goes much farther than this and, by indiscriminately throwing together evidence concerning civitates, castella, burgi, etc., minimizes the break between ancient and mediaeval culture. Such procedure, to my mind, is unwarranted and tends to obscure the true significance of the author's thesis. Especially in connection with Britain ( II, 379 ff.), his discussion reveals inadequate knowledge of the sources.

-3-

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Borough and Town: A Study of Urban Origins in England
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