Brave New Urban World: The Emergence of Urban Identity in Medieval Europe, c. 1000-1300

    • Cover Photo
    • Presentation speakers
      • Peter Carelli, National Historical Museums, Sweden


    During the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300), Western Europe experienced a radical changeover. The prime mover was an intellectual reorganization with an emphasis of critical and reflexive thinking. Its impact on society was so great that it has been described as a paradigmatic shift, ‘a cognitive revolution’. New ideas of agentic responsibility and free will came to affect all spheres of society, which affected and generated the perception that agents can influence and change the earthly existence. The High Middle Ages is also characterized by a very strong urbanization. Within these cities, a new lifestyle soon developed, which in many respects differed from rural way of life. In effect, this resulted in a collective awareness of the existence and particularity of city life. Urban self-consciousness gradually developed into a specific urban identity. Its purpose was to create an exclusive sense of participation and belonging in cities and towns. The study takes its theoretical starting point in a model of regional identity, developed by the Finnish geographer Anssi Paasi. The model uses the theory of institutionalization as an analytical tool to describe the growth, development and reproduction of regions. The emergence of a new urban identity in the High Middle Ages was, according to Paasis model, shaped by the successive establishment of defined boundaries, the use of common symbols and the makeup of corporate institutions. The urban identity process was also materialized in contemporary urban life. Town walls set up the boundaries for the city communities, town seals and coins with urban iconography were symbols that signaled the city communities’ legal and economic sovereignty, and town halls were physical manifestations of the city communities’ municipal self-government. These elements thus represent different steps in the institutionalization process, and seen together they illustrate the emergence of a specific urban identity in High Medieval Europe.