Lewis Mumford on the Medieval City

One of my favorite passages from The Culture of Cities (pp. 49-51):

In the main, then, the medieval town was not merely a vital social environment: it was likewise adequate, at least to a greater degree than one would gather from its decayed remains, on the biological side. There were smoky rooms to endure; but there was also perfume in the garden behind the burgher’s house: the fragrant flowers and the savory herbs were widely cultivated. There was the smell of the barnyard in the street, diminishing in the sixteenth century, except for the growing presence of horses: but there would also be the odor of flowering orchards in the spring, or the scent of the new mown hay, floating across the fields in the early summer.

Though cockneys my wrinkle their noses at this combination of odors, no lover of the country will be put off by the smell of horse-dung or cow-dung, even though mingled occasionally with that of human excrement: is the reek of gasoline exhaust, the sour smell of a subway crowd, the pervasive odor of a garbage dump, or the chlorinated rankness of a public lavatory more gratifying? Even in the matter of smells, sweetness is not entirely on the side of the modern city.

As for the eye and ear, there is no doubt where the balance of advantage goes: the majority of medieval towns were infinitely superior to those erected during the last century. One awoke in the medieval town to the crowing of the cock, the chirping of the birds nesting under the eaves, or to the tolling of the hours in the monastery on the outskirts, perhaps to the chime of bells in the new bell-tower. Song rose easily on the lips, from the plain chant of the monks to the refrains of the ballad singer in the market place, or that of the apprentice and the house-maid at work. As late as the seventeenth century, the ability to hold a part in a domestic choral song was rated by Pepys as an indispensable quality in a new maid.

There were work songs distinct for each craft, often composed to the rhythmic tapping or hammering of the craftsman himself. Fitz-Stephens reported in the twelfth century that the sound of the water mill was a pleasant one among the green fields of London. At night there would be complete silence, but for the stirring of animals and the calling of hours by the town watch. Deep sleep was possible in the medieval town, untainted by either human or mechanical noises.

If the ear was stirred, the eye was even more deeply delighted. The craftsman who had walked through the fields and woods on holiday, came back to his stone-carving or his wood-working with a rich harvest of impressions to be transferred to his work. The buildings, so far from being “quaint,” were as bright and clean as a medieval illumination, often covered with whitewash, so that all the colors of the image makers in paint or glass or polychromed wood would dance on the walls, even as the shadows quivered like sprays of lilac on the facades of the more richly carved buildings. (Patina and picturesqueness were the results of time’s oxidation: not original attributes of the architecture.)

Common men thought and felt in images, far more than in the verbal abstractions used by scholars: esthetic discipline might lack a name, but its fruit were everywhere visible. Did the citizens of Florence vote as to the type of column that was to be used on the Cathedral? Image makers carved statues, painted triptychs, decorated the walls of the cathedral, the guild hall, the town hall, the burgher’s house: color and design were everywhere the normal accomplishment of the practical daily tasks.

There was visual excitement in the array of goods in the open market: velvets and brocades, copper and shining steel, tooled leather and brilliant glass, to say nothing of foods arranged in their panniers under the open sky. Wander around the survivals of these medieval markets today. Whether they be as drab as the Jews’ Market in Whitechapel, or as spacious as that on the Plain Palais at Geneva, they will still have some of the excitement of their medieval prototypes.


4 thoughts on “Lewis Mumford on the Medieval City

  1. This is a beautiful passage, and it’s a shame how much we’ve lost (and another shame, on top of that, how few people realize how much we’ve lost, and take for granted that the way we live now is natural and good).

    I’ll say this about coronavirus: I’ve spent the last two months mostly at home, and a lot of that time in my tiny city backyard. I have flowering vines and a bird feeder and I’ve started a tiny vegetable garden. I’ve noticed more birds and bees this spring; I’m not sure if that’s because I’m spending more time observing, or if the lockdowns are encouraging nature to return to places it has been absent from, but whatever the cause it’s lovely.

    It’s not much, but it’s full of life and scents and colors and the sounds of birdsong. I often detect a sense of deep melancholy from your writings, but I want you to know that you have encouraged me to see the world very differently from the way I did before I discovered this site, and I genuinely believe–though it will be difficult–that we can get back some of the things we’ve lost, and that this Great Pause is a tiny taste of that.

  2. Deep sense of melancholy indeed. We lived like this once, though, and we could again. Remember, that which is unsustainable (like this modern way of life) is, by definition, not going to be sustained forever, and that means something different will happen. If we’re lucky, it will happen this way, but new/old ways of living need guides to help bring them forth. It’s important work. Hipcrime could be a cultural midwife, I hope.

  3. Also, I’m reading a great book called ‘How to be a Tudor’ by Ruth Goodman, an experimental historian who has actually attempted to recreate a 16th century lifestyle. Fascinating stuff. Seems they left quite a lot of instruction manuals. (And we have the Mary Rose time-capsule to help fill the gaps.)

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