The Academy: session abstract and readings

History, Lecture 1: The birth of the modern city

Dr Alan Hudson


‘...it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it…’
 Aristotle, The Politics.
 
‘Stadtluft macht frei’ ( City air makes you free)
Old German proverb
 
Aristotle’s association of the city  with the political, and social nature of humanity is a vital one; and as the German proverb reminds us it is the citizen who makes the city. Although the city did not quite vanish, in a physical sense, in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, the urban spirit was much diminished by the hegemony of the feudal aristocracy whose power was essentially rural, military and hierarchic. Significant economic changes by way of trade and commerce were in evidence, at least from the twelfth century, but in the commercial centres of Germany, the Low Countries, and especially the north of Italy, a critical point of change was reached in what the Italians call the ‘quattrocento’.
 
“The medieval bourgeois is a man at a crossroads, the crossroads at which different urban centres overlap… he is a man open to the outside, receptive to influences which end in his city and which come from other cities.” (Maurice Lombard)
 
In this period of intense economic, political, and cultural upheaval and growth, the reality, and the ideal, of urban life were both rediscovered and redefined. The city is a place of strangers in a world of difference. In a city, the opportunities are defined, not by a fixed relationship to nature and tradition or by regulation and behavioural codes but by social possibilities. So, for example, in the fourteenth century peasants moving through the porous walls of the city ceased to be part of a homogeneous cultural community and became players in a fluid, and assuredly sometimes disconcerting, society. The new city dweller is both free from tradition and untied from the certainties of social order. Their anonymity and isolation can only be overcome through public life. This is the experience of Elizabethan London, Progressive-era Chicago and New York, and now the emerging metropolitan centres, such as Shanghai.
 
The main purpose of this lecture is to explain both historically, and comparatively, how it is that citizens can make cities.
 
Questions to think about:

1. Idiots are born; citizens are made. Discuss
2. What is the relationship between economic surplus, explosions of creativity, and the concentration of talent in cities?
3. Why, if the internet is ubiquitous do cities still matter?

Readings

See the Academy 2015 readings page for attendees.

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