John S. Ott
Department of History
Portland State University
Fall 2017
HST 453/553 :
The Medieval City
  (T, TH 2:00-3:50, CH 494)

There the Tyrians were hard at work: laying courses for walls, rolling up stones
to build the citadel, while others picked out building sites and plowed a boundary
furrow.  Laws were being enacted, magistrates and a sacred senate chosen. . . . Aeneas
said: 'How fortunate these [people] are whose city walls are rising here and now!'

                                                                                                - Virgil, The Aeneid, I, l. 595

The civitas is a multitude of men united by a bond of association, so called from the citizens,
that is from actual inhabitants of the city. For although the city (urbs) is itself made by its walls,
the city-community (civitas) gets its name not from stones but from the inhabitants.

                                                                                                                - Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 15.2.1

Course description and objectives

As the above quote from The Aeneid suggests, since Antiquity the Mediterranean world believed the presence of cities was the surest indicator of a civilization’s vitality.  Through the ages and down to our own time, cities have been considered to embody both the highest form of human social interaction, and, frequently, the sites of our greatest social failures.  From the relatively modest urban centers in the waning days of the Roman Empire arose the cities that propelled the economic and cultural development of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

This class aims to examine the social and cultural milieu of the medieval European city (ca. 300-1500 C.E.) as a barometer of medieval attitudes toward community, space, and cohabitation; governance and social order; commercialization and economic growth; the marginal and dispossessed; law and criminality; social concord and consensus.  Our objectives will be to learn about the development and evolution of the medieval town, to develop the tools of critical historical analysis and interpretation through assessment of  primary and secondary source materials; and to apply those skills through written assignments.

Please also note that this class has a very heavy reading load, and that class participation, including preparation of texts and discussion, form a significant portion of the overall grade.


Undergraduates will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

Graduate and Honors (H) students will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

Course materials

The following books are required, but please read carefully below.  All are also on reserve at Millar Library.

Plagiarism policy

Plagiarism, intentional or unintentional, is an intolerable infraction in any setting where ideas are exchanged and discussed.  I routinely uncover plagiarized papers each year.  Detecting plagiarism is extremely easy.  Papers that can be shown to have been plagiarized will automatically receive an “F” grade.  Students will be required to resubmit their papers, and will be deducted in their grade an amount appropriate to the late paper policy given in the assignment guidelines.  Repeated or particularly egregious offenses may give cause for additional action.  Remember, ignorance is no excuse.  If you are unsure what constitutes plagiarism, you may test yourself at this web site maintained by Indiana University: The PSU Code of Student Conduct considers as plagiarism work submitted for other courses and turned into me as original, and I will ask students to submit new, original work in addition to taking the penalties above.

Accessibility notice

Students who require additional consideration for the timely completion of any of the course requirements due to accessibility needs should speak to the instructor at the beginning of the term, and must be registered with PSU’s Disability Resource Center.

E-mail policy

Please note the following guidelines:

I.  Image and reality: cities in ancient and early medieval contexts
9/26 (T)  Introduction

9/28 (TH)  The city imagined: Antiquity and the Middle Ages
  1. Temple of Apollo (Corinth, ca. 540 BCE)
  2. Hephaestion, view from Agora (Athens, ca. 449-430 BCE)
  3. Acropolis, vue from western approach (Athens, ca.  400 BCE)
  4. Agora, plan (Athens, late 5thc BCE)
  5. Agora, reconstruction model (Athens, late 5thc BCE): 
  6. Priene, view of town layout (4thc BCE)
10/3 (T)  Rome, Caput mundi ("Head of the world")

  • Medieval Towns, #1-3 (pp. 6-12);
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History, on "The Grandeur of Rome";
  • Ausonius of Bordeaux, Notitia Dignitarum (“A Ranking of Famous Cities”), in From Roman to Merovingian Gaul, ed. A.lexander C. Murray (Toronto UP, 2000) (Course reserves)
  • Richard Krautheimer, Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308, chap. 1, "Rome and Constantine" (Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 2-31 (Course reserves)
  • Slides
      1. Check out the Forma Urbis Romae project, housed at Stanford University
      2. City plan, Rome (4thc BCE - 1stc CE)
      3. Insula, Ostia (late 1stc - early 2dc CE)
      4. City plan and street view, Pompeii (79 CE)
      5. Forum of Trajan (street level view, ca. 106-113 CE)
      6. Markets of Trajan (100-112 CE)
      7. Basilica of Maxentius (ca. 307-312 CE)
      8. North face, Arch of Constantine (313-315 CE)
      9. Pont du Gard (Nimes, France) aqueduct (1stc BCE)
      10. Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain (1st-2dc CE)

    10/5 (TH) Ancient to medieval: Debates on post-Roman urban continuity


    II.  Towns in the "feudal" landscape
    10/10 (T)  The early medieval town ca. 750-950


    10/12 (TH) Towns in the seigneurial landscape around 1100 | Reading guide for Galbert of Bruges, The Murder ... of the Glorious Charles |


    10/17 (T) In Bruges -- Murder and the city in the twelfth century


    III.  The "commercial revolution" and its consequences

    10/19 (TH)  The formation of an urban consciousness?

    10/24 (T)  Rise of the profit economy: Guilds and guild structures



    10/26 (TH)  Movement of goods and people: immigration and urban industry
    10/31 (T) Conspicuous consumption

    11/2 (TH)  Poverty and marginality in medieval urban society


    IV.  Labor and domesticity

    11/7 (T) Family life and networks

    11/9 (TH)  Women and work
    11/14 (T)  Youth and childhood
    V. Urban space and its functions

    11/16 (TH) Regulating and signifying urban space
    and pick 1 of the following (Grads/Honors students pick 2):
    Further reading or substitute for 1 of the above

    11/21 (T) The political and social dimensions of urban space



    VI. Ritual and community

    11/28 (T) Daily life, ritual, and spectacle


    11/30 (TH)  Elusive Consensus: Ceremony and Ritual


    VII.  Defining the “urban”

    12/4 (Monday, 10:15-12:05) The great divide? City and countryside