City Walls and Freedom by Alma Boykin


[Sarah note – I know a couple of you have sent me other posts. May I ask for repeat-send? My email is being unusually refractory.- SAH]

City Walls and Freedom  by Alma Boykin

[Alma note: this is a very broad generalization, and I’m leaving out a great deal of detail for the sake of space.]


From the Bronze Age until the 1800s, city walls meant freedom. Without walls, the city wasn’t a real city. Walls defined where city law began and ended, and the right to stay within those walls in times of danger or scarcity (or both) came with limits and duties. By the Middle Ages in Europe, citizenship in a city meant shelter, duty, and enhanced civil rights.

The first fight over “city right” in Europe comes from the tale of Romulus and Remus. Depending on which version one reads, Romulus and Remus disagreed over where to build the walls of what would become the city of Rome. Romulus designated a border, and in some versions, built a knee-high wall of turfs (chunks of sod). In other versions, he just plowed a furrow. In either case, he designated where the walls would be. Remus jumped over the wall/furrow to show his disdain for the “wall.” Either Romulus killed him or one of Romulus’ followers did the deed in a bit of a mob fight after the event. The point of the story (aside from “Don’t tick off the founder of Rome or his successors”) was often interpreted as “Don’t disrespect the walls.”

Walls meant control and safety. Only Sparta, of all the free cities in Classical Greece, lacked walls. Instead she had an army of citizens. Athens boasted of her walls, and at one point extended them all the way to the Piraeus, the main port (the famous Long Walls.) Tearing down someone’s walls meant that you had conquered them, removing their freedom and leaving them defenseless. No wonder then that Rome, Constantinople, Regensburg, Cologne, Trier, and the great Roman cities in Gaul all sported serious walls and gates. Rome even built walls across country (Hadrian’s Wall being the most famous.) On the outside roamed barbarians. Civilization stayed inside, as did the rights of Roman Citizens.

After the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, some cities developed into city states that blended Germanic traditions and Roman law. These became the Imperial Free Cities of Central and northern Europe. They included Lübeck, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Rostock, Danzig, Bruges, Münster (for a while), Krakow, Freiberg im Breisgau (eventually), and others. One of the major requirements for keeping the status of a free city was having walls and being able to defend yourself. All citizens had the duty of defense, male and female.

Yes, women could be full citizens of the Imperial Free Cities. Often the widows of merchants or guild masters, they took on the rights and duties of their late husbands in order to maintain the business for the family until an heir came of age. These women could sit on juries, trade in their own names, sign contracts in their own rights, had the freedom of the cities, and served in the militia. They did not, according to most records, handle firearms or things like crossbows and swords, but they boiled oil and water and could use pole arms. They trained with the militia. That was part of being a citizen.

The child of citizens was a citizen, unless he lost that privilege. Gaining the privilege took a lot of work. First, you had to find a way to support yourself within the city. You had to do this for a defined period, and not break the laws of the city and (if applicable) follow the laws of the guilds in the city. It might take five to seven years, or longer, before someone was granted citizenship by the city council. Or he might never get it, but be permitted to live as a resident alien. So long as he paid taxes, stayed out of debt, and attended worship on a regular basis, he could stay. However, if he did not have citizenship, when hard times came, such as war, out he went no matter how long he’d lived inside the walls.

City air also brought freedom, if you were a bound serf or peasant. First, you had to get into the city and stay there. While you stayed, you had to support yourself and not get kicked out. Easier said than done, when everyone knows everyone else, and you don’t have an unusual skill or talent that you brought with you. After one year, your owner/lord’s possession ended, and you were a free man. But not a citizen. And if you’d broken the law or been forced out of the city, well, tough. You’d need to start all over.

The laws of the city of Magdeburg formed the charters and codes for a number of those cities established after 1200, or that gained free-city status after 1200. In other places, Lübeck formed the model. A municipality could gain Free City status by buying itself from its lord (Swäbisch Hall), starting from scratch as a new city (Lübeck), running out the local lord and applying for free city status (Freiburg im Breisgau, which started free, lost its rights, then ran the bishop out and bought freedom), or be granted a new charter by the local lord (Krakow) or the Holy Roman Emperor.

Cities also lost the right of self-government and independence. When that happened, the conqueror tore down at least the gates, sometimes the entire wall. The armies of Louis XIV were known for this, and Napoleon terminated a lot of free cities and their walls. Without a way to keep riff-raff, non-citizens, and armies out, the city’s residents had to depend on someone else for their protection. Dependence meant the people had to abide by the lord’s rules, pay his taxes, and put up with his additional requests and rights. Medieval and Early Modern people would hear or read the stories of Joshua and Jericho, or Jesus entry into Jerusalem and nod. And of course the city in the Revelation of John had walls and gates—that’s what made a city a city!

Once artillery and air-power rendered walls pointless, most places tore them down. The rise of the powerful centralized state also terminated most free cities. But not all. When you see HH on a German license plate, you know it belongs to a resident of the Frei- und Hansestadt Hamburg, which is still a city-state. Hamburg kept its independence until the late 1800s and still harbors uncharitable thoughts toward Germany’s central government on occasion.

In conclusion, walls brought freedom in Central and Western Europe. Free, self-governing, independent cities guarded their rights as closely as they guarded their gates and walls. No place could claim that right for itself until and unless it could close out others and depend itself. Citizenship meant the right to stay within the walls in times of danger, and brought the duty of defense, support of the city through taxes and fees, and serving on government boards and committees, as well as donating to municipal charities.

But city air brought freedom to those inside the walls.

78 thoughts on “City Walls and Freedom by Alma Boykin

        1. Which just shows how much effort the major European militaries put into not learning from the US Civil War, Boer War, and Russo-Turkish wars. Because they were not “proper wars,” you know.

          1. I’m not sure how the lessons learned from earlier conflicts would have changed much in the Great War. The increased range and rapidity of fire of small arms and field artillery added to the effectiveness of fixed fortifications. Frontal assaults became devastating for the attacking force, but when the line of entrenchments runs from Switzerland to the North Sea, flanking movements are all but impossible. It took the development of tanks, planes, motorized transport and combined arms tactics to break through and then break out from the trenches.

            1. My late Mother, a history teacher, maintained that if the European Powers had studied the American Civil War they would have been able to avoid much of the idiocy of WWI. I’m not convinced. A great deal of the stupidity of that conflict;ict had to do with politics dictating tactics and strategy. And that’s ALWAYS a mess.

              1. One example of politics dictating battlefield ops stupidly (if true, I’ve only seen it discussed in one documentary, but it’s stupid enough to ring true and meshes with my understanding of the British General Staff at the time):

                Supposedly, one of the reasons the trenches were so miserable for the British is that they had orders never to give up territory and took positions as far forward as possible even if they were at or below the water table. The Germans, recognizing the impending stagnation of the lines gave up territory to fall pack to higher terrain where their trenches and underground facilities were above the water table and were more easily drained.

                1. My (limited) reading on the trench war supports the idea that the High Command of both sides was violently against giving up land, even though allowing a salient deliberately would have enabled the quicker destruction of enemy forces. If the Germans allowed the shifting of lines to alleviate some of the misery of the men in the trenches, it probably had something to do with the disparity in available forces.

                  If every high ranking or politically important person involved in the bungling on all sides had been taken out an shot, the mean IQ of the species might have jumped a point.

              2. If Jefferson Davis had not replaced Joe Johnson because he was endlessly skirmishing and never coming to battle with Sherman, thus giving Sherman a definitive victory and so Lincoln re-election, the South might have stalled to a Democratic victory in the election, and thus won.

                They just would have to pay attention to it all.

    1. Frost’s own take on that was to observe that good fences really do make good neighbors. (But you do want to think about them.)

    1. Un huh. And the Imperial Chinese were Aryan Supremacists.
      [I can’t believe I typed that with a straight face.]

      1. I’m torn between arguing that this is so because the Han are an example of white toxicity and arguing that this could be so, if the Aryan split and movements south and west had occurred with a movement east that became the Xia dynasty. In all seriousness, the latter strikes me as wildly improbable, but valid scholarship can follow from investigating an absurd question.

        And fun fiction can come from theories that would not survive serious academic scrutiny. West, south, and east leaves north. Siberia could have previously been inhabitable, could be again with global warming, and the Soviets could have been more than incompetent enough to miss all sorts of archeological evidence.

    2. The Berlin Wall wasn’t built by Nazis. It was built by those good socialist communists.
      Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t built by Nazis. It was built by Romans. Well, at least overseen by Romans. The real grunt work was probably done by natives and the bottom rankers of the Roman army.
      The Great Wall(s) of China weren’t built by Nazi’s either.
      Nor were the tens of thousands of stone walls in New England.
      Pink Floyd’s Wall wasn’t built by Nazi’s either. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch there.

      1. The Galena, IL wall was built by the US Corps of Engineers. Gotta keep the Mississippi catfish from taking over the town.

        1. The only good catfish is a pan saute’d in butter, salt, and a little parsley catfish.

          1. That’s heresy… Deep fried in corn meal, with hush puppies and tartar sauce… sigh

          2. It’s been a really long time since I had catfish, but OldNFO’s version sounds good. The recipe for hush puppies says Stay Away; I hate ingredients that try to kill me. (flour, here). And yeah, I’d want to do the catfish breading at home.

  1. For most of human history walls were the defining element of a city. A city without a wall was generally known by the local term for “Drive-thru diner.”

  2. This brings up a fascinating peculiarity of the Commonwealth of Virginia, often bewildering to visitors and come-heres. Virginia has 95 counties and 40 Independent Cities. Unlike most places [Indianapolis being a singular exception], there is no county sitting underneath a city. Now, there is a minimal population required for independence, and some acrimonious annexation of county lands are why you have 3 huge land area cities at the South East corner. Their “incorporation” as a city placed a legal wall to stop Norfolk and Portsmouth from consuming them piecemeal.
    While Americans don’t usually think that way, apparently Virginia still had a little “european” mentality back then.

    1. The independent city in Virginia was a creation of the 1870 constitution, which had a strong Reconstruction influence. I don’t know the rationale.

      1. Funny, they didn’t teach that in 5th Grade Virginia history. I wonder why not? Think they were hiding something?

    2. And Richmond hasn’t been able to annex anything from the surrounding counties in ages, which has kept the city from expanding their tax base…. but anyway…

      1. I think the fine buffoonery of having the Great Dismal Swamp incorporated into two cities in the SE is what stopped that. That insanity never spread to Northern Virginia either. The counties around Richmond had enough population to do the same trick if annexation was mentioned.

    3. Baltimore, Maryland is also not in a county (although it is considered its own county for some purposes).

    4. As Geoff notes, American independent cities are not all in Virginia. Baltimore MD, St. Louis MO, and Carson City NV are also independent cities.

      This was lots of fun while working for an appraisal management company. Bank: “Tell the stupid appraiser that he mixed up the city and the county!” Me: “Let me send you this link from Wikipedia about independent cities…” It was almost as bad as trying to get loan officers to understand that the city of Houston has no zoning.

  3. Walls work both ways. The Berlin Wall, notably, was built to keep citizens in, (as prisoners). Siege warfare had the same idea..keep the citizens in, food and water out.

    1. As to siege warfare, if the wall wasn’t there, the residents of the city would probably be killed and/or conquered, instead of being besieged.

      1. Nod.

        I’ve remember reading that generally speaking the attacking force had to be at least three times larger than the defending force when the defending force was fighting from city/fortress walls in order to conquer the city/fortress.

        Sieges happened when the invader/attacker couldn’t afford to forcibly take the stronghold but also couldn’t afford to leave it in their rear.

        Of course, if the attacker could quickly remove the walls or some fools didn’t keep the walls in repair, then there wouldn’t be a siege.

        The attacker could easily conquer the city. 😈

        1. My reading during various .mil courses was 3:1 when attacking any defensive position, but that could easily go up to 5:1 when engaging well prepared and engineered positions.

      2. True. I suppose if you’re facing an enemy strong enough to besiege your city, the only choices you have are usually bad and worse.

        1. Of course, sieges weren’t “good” for the besiegers.

          Disease was a major problem for the encamped armies.

          Depending on the times, the longer you besieged a city/fortress the sooner that you’d “use up” the available food in the surrounding area and shipping food from your “base country” was very difficult.

          It wasn’t always good in the besieged city but it might not be much better for the besieging armies.

          As I implied, the armies (and their leaders) hated to have to besiege a strong location but the cost of bypassing the strong location often made it necessary.

        2. Vienna in 1683 vs. Magdeburg 1631. First one, the besiegers ended up between the Polish Hussars and the Imperial army, and a hard place with a flooded river. They suffer a really serious defeat that marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman domination of Europe. Second one, the besieged put too much faith in Gustavus Adolphus to save them (he never came) and when they could no longer hold out, the results were… memorable. As in it still serves as a horrible warning to this day.

    2. Or remember the Scarlet Pimpernel smuggling the aristos out of walled Paris.

  4. Off topic, but a comment at Don Surber’s blog today:
    “Rich in NCJuly 18, 2019 at 11:54 AM

    item 5:
    “David Harsanyi tweeted, “Boy, white nationalism is really spreading.”

    I have nothing to add.”

    Did I just hear a mike drop?

    item 8:
    “He was shocked to learn that all those deplorable Trump supporters were right: Democrats are anti-American communists now.

    Wait until he learns Antifa is actually a bunch of violent fascists”

    Ms Hoyt would become very rich if only she were to rent out her ‘shocked face’ to people.

    1. Sarah would probably need to resort to cheap Chinese knock-off “surprised faces”, and have a fleet of thousands of such in order to meet demand.

      Then, too, she’d have to hire staff in order to sanitize, refurbish, and re-package for shipment.

      All in all, while I see a vast potential market, I also see a considerable need for an equally vast infrastructure. I’m thinking that she might need to engage with either Amazon, or perhaps see what’s still available with Netflix’s old physical DVD infrastructure…

      1. Oh gawd, NO! You do not want Sarah going to China for her surprised faces, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.

        Here’s why:

        A black guy, a white guy, and a chinese guy, each Get a job on a construction site. One day the foreman has to keep an early appointment, so he leaves the black guy and the white guy in charge of building, and leaves the Chinese guy in charge of supplies.

        Hours later, the foreman returns to find the black and white guys standing around, and no sign at all of the Chinese guy. “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!!” “We’ve got a schedule to keep, there’s no time for dicking around!”

        The black guy tells him that they laid out the foundation, and couldn’t do any more because the Chinese guy never showed up with any supplies. The foreman isn’t interested in excuses, and continues screaming “I DON’T CARE! YOU LET ME WORRY ABOUT HIM,YOU SHOULD HAVE GONE OUT TO GET…”

        Just then, the Chinese guy jumps out from behind a big pile of dirt, throws some confetti at the foreman, and yells “SUPPLIES!!”

        1. Okay RES, I have a carp for you. But I’m going to let it wait three days in the hot sun before I give it to you. 😉

  5. Alma note: this is a very broad generalization, and I’m leaving out a great deal of detail for the sake of space.

    Ah, the words of a true geek– AKA, lover of thought.

  6. The point of the story (aside from “Don’t tick off the founder of Rome or his successors”) was often interpreted as “Don’t disrespect the walls.”

    Which my brain promptly re-interprets as “boundaries,” which makes me go all Chesterton’s parable of the walls….

    Violation is not the same as disrespect.

  7. As I love to aggravate my Aunt who lives in a gated community; Heaven is a gated community.
    Seems cities and walls just somehow go together.

  8. Wished for even more detail. Question: what about Arab walled-in houses? Crummy on outside, nice inside? Don’t know if their cities are walled or not.

    Very thought-provoking article. Thanks.

    1. I could do an entire post on Krakow, or Lubeck, or a few others, but I suspect most people are more interested in the general pattern.

      You’re very welcome. 🙂

        1. One problem with notes is that I got a lot of information from walking the cities and going through the city museums. Documenting that is tricky.

          1. As this is not a professional publication, simply append a message about “Notes and Documentation Available on request.” Then, any emails requesting such can be pretty easily caught in the spam filter, inadvertently dumped without realizing it, misfiled while organizing your office … by the time you have to fess up that there never were any actual “notes” (“not in the sense you’re thinking, dear”) any questions of authority should have long since evaporated.

            That is for the few things that cannot be handled by the “it is widely recognized” dodge so beloved by AGW Alarmists.

  9. “Gated communities” are personal no-go zones.

    No, I’m not going to play keycode or security guard games to get to your house. I’m probably one of the scumbags you want to keep out anyway.

  10. Is a country that can’t or won’t control its borders functionally equivalent to a city that can’t or won’t defend its walls?

  11. In one of my books the characters have to visit another world, and bring back two people with them from that (roughly) medieval place. This is what they say about the city with no walls around it.

    Erwin was nibbling on an almond croissant, as if hesitant to eat it all at once in case he might not get any more. He was looking around with a lost, wide-eyed gaze, completely confused by everything he saw. Even his clothes were confusing. The pants were all right, basic blue jeans, but the t-shirt donated by Jimmy said “Sunnydale Slayers Club, Class of 1999” on it, and had a picture of crossed wooden stakes.

    Alice kicked his foot under the table. “So. Erwin.” Her smile widened when his eyes fixed on her with a slightly panicked air, and he reached for his belt knife. “How do you like my planet, so far?”

    “Oh!” he exclaimed, relaxing a little. “Uh, it is very, ah, nice?”

    “You poor kid, take it easy,” said Nike lazily. “Alice is being a twerp and winding you up. Relax, there’s nothing to do, and nobody is going to get you.” She flicked Alice’s white forelock over onto the black side of her head. “Maniac. Don’t bug the kid.”

    “I’m just giving you a hard time, Erwin,” laughed Alice. “You looked all worried.”

    Guruh the Vengeful Wolf glanced at Alice. “This place is ridiculous, Alice. A troupe of small children could over-run this city in an afternoon. No walls, no moat, not even a decent gate! And all the houses have windows you can reach.”

    “Yeah, they do,” agreed Alice, smile widening into a fairly evil grin. “Did you think about that yet?”

    “For a moment,” said Guruh dismissively flicking an ear. “I concluded everyone here is like you. Completely mad.”

    “Why are the windows like that?” asked Erwin, interest piqued.

    “Because the last invaders came here two hundred some-odd years ago,” said Alice triumphantly, “and the locals beat their asses so badly that nobody else ever tried. That’s why.”

    “You forgot the Irish,” said Nike.

    “The Fenians? Who remembers those losers?” laughed Alice. “Turned away by untrained farmers and kids in three days.”

    “The people here are so fierce?” asked Erwin, looking around the coffee shop at the hipsters and soccer moms with baby strollers.

    “They are George’s people, Mouse,” said Guruh decisively. “All mad. Every one of them. That is why the indefensible buildings and open city. I told you. Only a moron would attack them.”

    “That is true,” said Erwin. “But George is such a good man, and Ginny is good too.” Then he kicked Alice under the table. “Even you Alice, have some vestige of goodness in you somewhere. Otherwise, Nike would not associate with you.”

    “Get wrecked, Haddison!” laughed Nike, and grabbed Alice to rub her head with her knuckles.

    “A brave response, my beauty!” Guruh glanced at Erwin, then sniffed at his croissant. “Mmm. Are you going to eat that?”

    He surrendered it to her reluctantly and watched a bit mournfully as she wolfed it down in two bites.

      1. On that front, there is good news. I have -FINALLY- gotten the piece of software that was holding up the book covers. Work proceeds, as The Phantom attacks the rather steep learning curve.

        This quote is from “The Demon Slayers” which is #4 in the series, and covers what happens when an evil necromancer pisses off a Valkyrie. Cthulhu (sort of) vs. megatons per second, and lippy robot spiders.

  12. There are two cities in Spain which still maintain all or most of their city walls – Avila and a tiny little place called Lugo – where you can still walk around the town in a complete circuit of the walls.

  13. In the day, walls were ‘safety’… It kept the riff raff out and allowed the occupants to stockpile things like food that were necessary to survive. And yes, there were lots of ‘rules’ that helped the city keep control of those inside the walls.

  14. It strikes me that these days we might want to reverse the practice, and build walls around Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and so on, to keep their tact of law and so on contained.

  15. In his novel The Bronze God of Rhodes, L Sprague de Camp told about how, when Rhodes was threatened by the forces of Antigonus and his son, Dionysius, the Rhodians said that foreigners in the city could either join the army, make weapons, or get out…and that slaves in the city who joined the army would receive freedom and Rhodian citizenship (or at least Rhodian-tribesman status, which was not as good as full citizenship but better than a slap in the face with a wet fish.)

  16. The laws of the city of Magdeburg formed the charters and codes for a number of those cities established after 1200
    Well, see, right there. What about the 1200 years before all those good things you mention? Hmmmm? Where was citizenry for women and slaves before that, hmmm? Obviously a bunch of racist misogynistic homophobes. And Germany?!? NAZIs, amiright?

    Your walls are RACISSSS!!!!1!!!1!1!


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