John S. Ott
Department of History
Portland State University
Fall 2022
HST 453/553 :
The Medieval City
(T, TH 10:00-11:50, P[eter] S[tott] C[enter] 132)

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, 1.595

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

Cities were where history was made....

- Miri Rubin, Cities of Strangers (2020), p. 24

Course description and objectives

As the quote above from Virgil's Aeneid suggests, since Antiquity the Mediterranean world and its medieval, northern European successors believed the presence of cities to be a sure indicator of a civilization's vitality and sophisitication, synonymous with civilization itself. This class examines the social, political, economic, topographical, and cultural milieux of medieval European cities (ca. 400-1450 C.E.), using them as a means to approach and understand medieval notions of community; governance and social order; space and cohabitation; commercialization and economic growth; socio-cultural diversity; the marginal and dispossessed; law and criminality; and social consensus. In this discussion-based course, we will immerse ourselves in primary and secondary readings, and develop skills in source analysis, writing and public presentation, critical thinking, and assessing scholarly and historiographical debates, with the medieval city as our lens and framework.

Please also note that this class has a fairly heavy reading load, suitable for a 400- or 500-level course, and that the expectation is that students will prepare and engage in discussion around the assigned readings.

Medieval and Early Modern Studies Minor

This class satisfies a field distribution requirement and 400-level class requirement for the Minor in Medieval and Early Modern Studies. For information about this Minor, please contact Prof. Ott.


Undergraduates will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Active oral participation, regular attendance, and preparation of readings -- 200 points (20%), divided between daily attendance (5.5 points/class X 18 classes = 99) and participation (101 points). Class attendance is a key to university success, and I encourage students to attend every possible class. Attendance is taken daily and weighted at 5.5 points/class (thus assuming 18 days X 5.5 points ea. = 99/200 for attendance). I consider active participation a critical part of this course, and to consist, first, of a close reading of the assigned sources in advance of the class, and second, regular, active participation in class and small group discussions. If you have questions or concerns about your participation grade, do not hesitate to see me. Post(?)-COVID addendum: Students may miss one class without penalty to your overall grade. For absences to be considered excused, instructor must be notified in advance of class.
  • Interpretive essay (~5 pp.) 250 points (25%). Due between October 25 and November 1 (inclusive), in class.
  • Two response papers (~3-4 pp. each) 100 X 2 = 200 points (20%). To be submitted as follows: Response #1 due on or before 11/1; response #2 due between 11/2 and 11/29 (inclusive). Responses must be submitted on the day the readings are discussed in class.
  • Medieval town report and presentation -- 250 points (25%) (175 essay/75 presentation). Sign up sheet to be circulated in advance; presentations will take place between 10/27 and 11/22.
  • Final reflection paper (3-4 pp.) -- 100 points (10%). Due Wednesday, December 7, in my office by 5:00 PM.

Graduate students will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • Active class participation (as outlined above) -- 200 points.
  • Reading responses (2, as above), OR (1) the comparative essay (as above) + (1) reading response -- 250 points (125 points X 2).
  • Medieval town essay and presentation (as above) -- 250 points (175 essay/75 presentation)
  • Historiographical review essay (~15 pp.) -- 300 points.

Course materials

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

  • Maryanne Kowaleski, ed., Medieval Towns. A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2006)
  • Galbert of Bruges, The Murder, Betrayal, and Slaughter of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders, ed. and trans. Jeff Rider (Yale University Press, 2013). IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT THIS TEXT: An earlier, very good translation of the same document was done by James Bruce Ross as The Murder of Charles the Good. The Ross translation passed through several different copyright holders since its initial publication in 1959, including the University of Toronto, and has gone through multiple reprintings. The text itself has remain unchanged, however, so students are welcome to look for older copies of the Ross translation. There is also a full e-text version of this book available through PSU's subscription to the ACLS Humanities E-Book database. Connect through the Library's 'Databases and Articles" page.
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 a '0' 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 of what constitutes plagiarism is no excuse for doing it. 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

If you have, or think you may have, a disability that may affect your work in this class, and feel you need accommodation, contact the PSU Disability Resource Center to schedule and appointment and initiate a conversation about reasonable accommodations. 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.

Title IX Statement

See hard copy of syllabus.

Submission of late work/extensions

See hard copy of syllabus.

E-mail policy

Please note the following guidelines:

  • I consider 48-72 hours to be a reasonable period in which to respond to inquiries. I am usually much faster than this, but not always.
  • I will not, in general, respond to student e-mails received after 5:00 p.m. until the following day(s), nor will I generally respond to student e-mail sent after 5:00 on Friday until Monday morning.  Please plan accordingly.
  • Please remember to identify yourself and state your query as clearly as possible.
  • I will not fill in students who miss class on the details of a particular lecture or discussion. Please seek that information from your fellow students.

Please note that a significant number of our readings this term will be placed on Course reserves at Millar Library and are available as downloadable .pdfs. Course reserves may be accessed through the Library home page, here.

I. Image and reality: cities in ancient and early medieval contexts
9/27 (T) Welcome! Introduction, course themes, organization

9/29 (TH) The City Imagined: Descriptions of cities, ancient and medieval
  • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War ("The Periclean Funeral Oration") (NOTE: Scroll down the page until you reach the paragraph begining with "In the same winter the Athenians gave a funeral..." and read until you reach Chap. VII);
  • Augustine of Hippo (410 CE), Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, Book/chapter(s) 14.28, 15.1-2, 4-5, 8-9;
  • Descriptions of medieval cities: London and Milan, in Medieval Towns, #151-153 (pp. 376-383);
  • Virtual Plasencia Project (2017) -- A digital humanities project that has attempted recreate at 15th-century Spanish town. (The link takes you to a YouTube video that retells a historical story that is a basis for the project. There is also a project homepage, here.
  • Peruse Maps 1-3 in Medieval Towns, pp. 385-387
10/4 (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. Alexander 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), 2-31 (Course reserves)
  • 10/6 (TH) Ancient to medieval: Debates on post-Roman urban continuity

    • Medieval Towns, #4-5 (pp. 12-14);
    • Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, trans. Frank Halsey (Princeton, NJ, 1925[1952]), ch. 1, "The Mediterranean" (Course reserves)
    • Wolfgang Liebeschuetz, "The End of the Ancient City," in The City in Late Antiquity, ed. John Rich (New York, 1992), pp. 1-36 (Course reserves)
    II. Towns in the "feudal" landscape
    10/11 (T) The early medieval town ca. 750-950

    • Medieval Towns, #6-12, 15 (pp. 15-24, 29-33);
    Choose one (grad students choose two):
    • G. P. Brogiolo, "Ideas of the Town in Italy during the Transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages," in The Idea and the Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. G. P. Brogiolo and B. Ward-Perkins (Leiden, 1999), pp. 99-126 (Course reserves);
    • Michael McCormick, "Where Do Trading Towns Come From? Early Medieval Venice and the Northern Emporia," in Post-Roman Towns, Trade and Settlement in Europe and Byzantium, ed. Joachim Henning, vol. 1 (Berlin and New York, 2009), pp. 41-68 (Course reserves);
    • S. T. Loseby, "Gregory's Cities: Urban Functions in Sixth-Century Gaul," in Franks and Alamanni in the Merovingian Period: An Ethnographic Perspective, ed. Ian Wood (Woodbridge, 1998), 239-265 (Course reserves)

    10/13 (TH) Towns in the seigneurial landscape around 1100: Customs, privileges, power | Reading guide for Galbert of Bruges, The Murder ... of the Glorious Charles |

    • Medieval Towns, #16-19, 51, 93 (pp. 36-44, 121-124, 236-237);
    • Rodney Hilton, English and French Towns in Feudal Society. A Comparative Study (Cambridge University Press, 1992), ch. 2, "The Feudal Presence in Towns" (pp. 25-52) (Course reserves);
    • David Nicholas, Urban Europe, 1100-1700 (Basingstoke, 2003), pp. 1-17 (Course reserves)
    10/18 (T) In Bruges -- Murder and the city in the twelfth century

    • Galbert of Bruges, The Murder ... of the Glorious Charles, count of Flanders, trans. Rider (the 'Introduction' of the book is very helpful, but you are only required to read pp. 1-93 [=chaps. 1-54]; Ross translation, pp. 79-201)
    10/20 (TH) The formation of an urban consciousness?


    • Galbert of Bruges, The Murder ... of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders, trans. Rider, pp. 93-116, 125-190 (= chaps. 55-67, 72-122);
    • "The Privilege of Saint-Omer of 1127," trans. J. Ott (Course reserves);
    • Nicholas, Urban Europe, 1100-1700, pp. 92-99

    III. The "commercial revolution" and its transformations

    10/25 (T) Guilds and guild structures

    • "The Customs of the Merchant Guild of Saint-Omer," trans. J. S. Ott (Course reserves);
    • Medieval Towns, #57-61 (pp. 137-150);
    • David Nicholas, Urban Europe, 1100-1700, pp. 120-133 (Course reserves);
    Choose either (grad students read both):
    • Peter Stabel, "Guilds in Late Medieval Flanders: Myths and Realities of Guild life in an Export-Oriented Environment," Journal of Medieval History 30:2 (2004): 187-212 (available via JStor or Course reserves)
    • Susan Broomhall, "Women, Work and Power in the Female Guilds of Rouen," in Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Megan Cassidy-Welch and Peter Sherlock (Turnhout, 2008), 199-213 (Course reserves)

    10/27 (TH) Migration and industry
    • Sharon Farmer, The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris (Philadelphia, 2017), pp. 11-37 (Course reserves);
    • Medieval Towns, #89-90 (pp. 223-229);
    • Miri Rubin, Cities of Strangers: Making Lives in Medieval Europe, chap. 2, "Strangers into Neighbours" (Cambridge, Eng., 2020), pp. 25-49 (Course reserves)
    11/1 (T) Markets and luxuries

    • Medieval Towns, #41, 45, 87, 147-148 (pp. 98-99, 104-106, 219-221, 367-370)
    Choose either (grad students read both):
    • Sharon Farmer, The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris (Philadelphia, 2017), pp. 38-51, 74-105 (Course reserves);
    • Richard A. Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) (excerpts) (Course reserves) [NOTE: .pdf has more pages than those assigned; you may skip/skim those not listed here]
    IV. Exclusion/inclusion

    11/3 (TH) Poverty and life on the margins
    • Medieval Towns, #46, 92, 97, 105-107 (pp. 106-108, 231-233, 242-245, 261-268);
    • David Nicholas, Urban Europe, 148-153 (Course reserves);
    Choose either (grad students read both):
    • Bronislaw Geremek, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 1-5, 167-182, 188-210 (Course reserves)
    • Keiko Nowacka, "Persecution, Marginalization, or Tolerance: Prostitutes in Thirteenth-Century Parisian Society," in Difference and Identity in Francia and Medieval France, ed. Meredith Cohen and Justine Firnhaber-Baker (Ashgate, 2010), 175-97 (Course reserves)
    11/8 (T) Exclusion/inclusion
    • David Nicholas, The Domestic Life of a Medieval City, pp. 133-136 (Course reserves);
    Choose either (grad students read both):
    • Miri Rubin, Cities of Strangers: Making Lives in Medieval Europe, chap. 3, "Jews: Familiar Strangers" (Cambridge, Eng., 2020), pp. 50-70 (Course reserves)
    • Sally McKee, "Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy," Slavery and Abolition 29:3 (2008); 305-326 (Available in JStor or Course reserves)
    11/10 (TH) Youth and childhood


    • Medieval Towns, #80 (pp. 200-1);
    • Barbara A. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London. The Experience of Childhood in History (Oxford University Press, 1993), chap. 4, "The Fragile Years of Childhood" (pp. 55-67) (Course reserves);
    • David Nicholas, "Child and Adolescent Labour in the Late Medieval City: A Flemish Model in Regional Perspective," The English Historical Review 110:439 (November 1995): 1103-1131 (Available on J-Stor)
    11/15 (T) Regulating and signifying urban space
    • Medieval Towns, #137-142, 144 (pp. 349-359, 361-362);
    • David Nicholas, Urban Europe, 1100-1700, pp. 62-84
    and pick 1 of the following (graduate students pick 2):
    • Francesca Bocchi, "Regulation of the Urban Environment by the Italian Communes," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester 72:3 (1990): 63-78 (Course reserves);
    • Kathryn L. Reyerson, "Medieval Walled Space: Urban Development vs. Defense," in City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective, ed. James D. Tracy (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 88-116 (Course reserves);
    • Michael Camille, "Signs of the City: Place, Power, and Public Fantasy in Medieval Paris," in Medieval Practices of Space, ed. Barbara Hanawalt and Michal Kobialka (Minnesota, 2000), 1-36 (Course reserves)
    Further reading or substitute for 1 of the above
    • Lynn Thorndike, "Sanitation, Baths, and Street Cleaning in the Middle Ages and Renaissance," Speculum 3:2 (1928): 192-203; Ernest L. Sabine, "Butchering in Mediaeval London," Speculum 8:3 (July 1933): 335-353; "Latrines and Cesspools of Mediaeval London," Speculum 9:3 (July 1934): 303-21; "City Cleaning in Mediaeval London," Speculum 12:1 (January 1937): 19-43 (All available on J-Stor).
    V. The Multi-faceted Dimensions of Urban Space
    11/17 (TH) The political and social dimensions of urban space


    • Medieval Towns, #37, 71, 145 (pp. 86-87, 176-178, 363-364);
    • Martha C. Howell, "The Spaces of Late Medieval Urbanity," in Shaping Urban Identity in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Marc Boone and Peter Stabel, pp. 3-23 (Course reserves)
    • Medieval urban planning exercise: "Der Fun-Maker!"
    11/22 (T) Daily life, ritual, and spectacle
    • Anonymous, A Parisian Journal, 1405-1449 (Course reserves);
    • Esther Cohen, "'To Die a Criminal for the Public Good': The Execution Ritual in Late Medieval Paris," in Law, Custom and the Social Fabric in Medieval Europe, ed. B. Bachrach and D. Nicholas (Kalamazoo, 1990), 285-304 (Course reserves)


    11/29 (T) Elusive Consensus: Ceremony and Ritual

    • Medieval Towns, #119-122 (pp. 296-308)
    Choose either (grad students read both):
    • Mervyn James, "Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval English Town," Past and Present 98 (Feb. 1983): 3-29 (Available on J-Stor)
    • Benjamin R. McCree, "Unity or Division? The Social Meaning of Guild Ceremony in Urban Communities," in City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe, ed. B. Hanawalt and K. Reyerson (Minneapolis, 1994), 189-207 (Course reserves)

    VI. Are cities different? are cities special?

    12/1 (TH) The great divide? City and countryside
    • Miri Rubin, "Religious Culture in Town and Country: Reflections on a Great Divide," in Church and City, 1000-1500, ed. David Abulafia, et al. (Cambridge, Eng., 1992), 3-22 (Course reserves);
    • Chiara Frugoni, A Distant City: Images of Urban Experience in the Medieval World, tans. W. McCuig (Princeton, NJ, 1991), 82-105 (Course reserves)