[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.