In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cities and Urban Patriciates

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • England
  • France
  • German Lands
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • Trade
  • Markets and Shops
  • Urban Space
  • Planning and the Urban Fabric
  • Gender
  • Foreigners
  • Relations with Outside Authority
  • Governing Bodies
  • Plague
  • Social Unrest
  • Pre-Reformation Religion
  • Protestantism
  • Counter-Reformation
  • Urban Culture

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Renaissance and Reformation Cities and Urban Patriciates
Alexander Cowan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0018


Urban centers had an influence on the development of Renaissance Europe disproportionate to their overall demographic importance. Most of the population continued to live and work in the countryside, but towns and cities functioned as key centers of production, consumption and exchange, political control, ecclesiastical organization, and cultural influence. Historians still debate the relative roles of urban and rural areas in facilitating the development of capitalism in the long term. Writing on urban history has a very long pedigree dating back to the 16th century, but as an academic discipline it began to flourish in the late 19th century. Since the 1960s, the range of approaches to the field has widened considerably from concerns with political and economic organization to take in issues of governance, social structure, and, most recently, overlapping urban cultures. The role of religious belief, particularly in the context of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, runs as a thread throughout the history of the urban experience.

General Overviews

There have been several attempts to bring together detailed research on individual cities or regions of Europe, all of which offer a very useful introduction to the field of Renaissance urban history. In chronological terms they range from Hohenberg and Lees 1995, which explores the medieval and preindustrial roots of post-World War II urban Europe, and Nicholas 2002, which attempts to present important continuities between 1100 and 1700, to the narrower focus on early modern Europe offered by Friedrichs 1995 and Cowan 1998, which is limited to the 16th and 17th centuries. De Vries 1984 does not purport to be a general survey, but draws broad conclusions about the process of European urbanization between the 16th and 18th centuries grounded in a detailed database of changing urban population sizes.

  • Cowan, Alexander. Urban Europe, 1500–1700. London: Arnold, 1998.

    Wide-ranging survey of developments in the urban centers of western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. A good introduction to the field.

  • De Vries, Jan. European Urbanization, 1500–1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

    An alternative urban history of early modern Europe, based on detailed databases of demographic statistics collected from existing publications. Focuses on the processes of urbanization.

  • Friedrichs, Christopher. The Early Modern City, 1450–1750. London: Longman, 1995.

    Wide-ranging survey of developments in the urban centers of western Europe between the mid-15th and mid-18th centuries. A good introduction to the field.

  • Hohenberg, Paul, and Lynn Lees. The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1994. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    An attempt at a long-term chronological review of towns and urbanization in Europe between the 11th and mid-20th centuries that provides a valuable context for the Renaissance urban historian. Originally published in 1985 as The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950.

  • Nicholas, David. Urban Europe, 1100–1800. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    An attempt by a leading medieval urban historian to emphasize the continuities between medieval and early modern towns. The most recent synthesis of this kind.

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