Carol Symes

title.none: Tracy, ed., City Walls (Carol Symes)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.026 02.09.26

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carol Symes, Bennington College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Tracy, James, ed. City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 688. 80.00. ISBN: 0-512-65221-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.26

Tracy, James, ed. City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. v, 688. 80.00. ISBN: 0-512-65221-9.

Reviewed by:

Carol Symes
Bennington College

This is an important collection of articles. As James D. Tracy observes in his Introduction, the oldest known cities are also the earliest cities to have been enclosed by walls; and in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, these walls have served to delineate, separate, define, confine, protect, and promote the communities within them. The monumental character of the walled city is so concrete and so obvious, in fact, that it has often been taken for granted. Yet consider the myriad ways in which the walling of a city, its defense, and its vulnerability, have shaped not only the development of civilizations but their chief cultural artifacts: how Gilgamesh is remembered, first and foremost, as the builder of the walls of Uruk; how the destruction of the ancient walled city of Jericho is the turning point in an historical construction of Israel; how the topography of Indraprashta is fundamental to the narrative of the Mahabharata; how the walls of Troy are the necessary backdrop to shows of strength in the Iliad. Reading City Walls, I learned to appreciate their significance as framing devices in the visual arts of China, marveled at the absence of enceintes in Hellas prior to the Theban hegemony, noted the care with which cities were planned and constructed in the New World, and recognized the reason for the ubiquity of siege representations in the verbal and visual arts of late medieval and early modern Europe, when the fortification and capture of towns constituted the main stages in the theatre of war.

Tracy has edited two other books in this series published by Cambridge University Press, and he is adept at his job; if all volumes of conference proceedings were so meticulously prepared, the world would be a better place. For almost without exception, the contributions to City Walls are works of original, often ground-breaking, scholarship. Not all relate directly to the times or places familiar to medievalists, but even those dealing with pre-colonial North America, sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, and post-colonial Latin America have a great deal to offer as comparative studies of similar phenomena. This is the special value of the "Global Perspective" promised -- and delivered -- by the title. In fact, the complementarity of the articles printed here is so pronounced that they do not readily lend themselves to the tripartite structure Tracy has attempted to impose upon them, dividing the volume into sections emphasizing (1) the circumstances in which towns were enclosed, (2) the "Walls of War," and (3) the symbolic significance attached to walls. (Within each section, essays are arranged in a rough chronological order; here, too, there is a great deal of overlap.) Although each of the contributors takes a primary interest in one or another of these aspects, the degree to which the building of the urban enceinte, its military purposes, and its many meanings are inextricably intertwined is everywhere apparent. This merely underscores the success of the conference sponsored by the Center for Early Modern History at the University of Minnesota in 1995, and the achievement wrought by James Tracy in eliciting such a diverse but largely coherent set of responses to key questions. His expertise is evident throughout: in the short but masterful introduction; in the care with which maps, photographs, and tables have been deployed and reproduced; and in the provision of a full index and an annotated bibliography (an excellent feature).

Bearing in mind the interests of subscribers to The Medieval Review, I will comment briefly on the articles tangential to our studies before turning more fully to those written by scholars working directly with material from the Middle Ages. As I assert above, however, even those essays that survey ground much farther afield are full of relevance. Graham Connah's discussion of "Contained Communities in Tropical Africa" focuses on many different kinds of enclosures, some of which are unconventional (or sophisticated) enough that they have only recently been recognized as such: ditches, embankments, cliffs, swamps, and belts of uncleared forest were often designed to supplement or replace palisades or fences, serving in some cases as defensive structures, in others as the mechanisms whereby a people established its claim to a territory settled and cultivated over an extended period of time. Striking other resonant chords, George R. Milner's overview of "Palisaded Settlements in Prehistoric Eastern and North America" argues against the prevailing, romantic notion that the indigenous peoples of those regions enjoyed a peaceful coexistence before the arrival of Europeans, but demonstrates that the conduct of warfare differed depending on the nature of the conflict and the resources available -- in general, violence was sporadic and impromptu among the scattered tribes of the Northeast, more sustained and of a larger scale in the territory along the Mississippi, where powerful chieftains sought to enlarge and secure the extent of their influence.

The legacy of medieval municipal doctrine and Renaissance political thought is directly discernible in Richard L. Kagan's marvelous essay on "A World without Walls: City and Town in Colonial America," where cities were instruments of conversion and expressions of a colonial ideal. Hence, material walls were often supplemented or replaced by "spiritual" walls consisting of natural defenses, impressive and aesthetically pleasing urban architecture, the promotion of policia or good government, the building of churches and coordination of public spaces, the promotion of religious rites embracing local customs and landscapes. There is also much to interest students of the Middle Ages in the pair of essays devoted to China. Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt's "Representation of Chinese Walled Cities in the Pictorial and Graphic Arts" emphasizes the relatively stable but rich iconography that provided the idealized vocabulary used to visualize the city over the course of millennia, while Edward L. Farmer looks at the ways in which urban enclosures contributed to "the ritual production of social order" (p. 486) under the Ming dynasty (C.E. 1386-1644) in "The Hierarchy of Ming City Walls." Moving forward through time in India's oldest city, Catherine B. Asher describes the metamorphosis of "Delhi Walled," considering the political, economic, religious, and social changes that transformed this vast urban area and its various boundaries.

Looking back at a famously urbane era, Frederick A. Cooper's "The Fortifications of Epaminondas and the Rise of the Monumental Greek City" expands on a theory put forward by the author in 1986, that the urban wall as a systematic or even practical defensive structure was unknown in Hellas before the rise of Thebes, and that the earliest enceintes of squared stone on the Peloponnese were constructed by Boiotian masons employed under the generalship of Epaminondas, for the most part during the period 370-328 B.C.E. To be sure, this argument involves consideration of fortifications that have nothing to do with cities (frontier forts and the like), but the implications are far-reaching, since the Attic bias in classical scholarship has tended to privilege the achievements of Athens over those of other city-states and thus to re-date and misinterpret the surviving archeological evidence. Simon Pepper's essay on "Ottoman Military Architecture in the Early Gunpowder Era" also overturns received wisdom, in this case on the walling of settl ements in the Ottoman Empire, where the swift movement of armies has received far more attention than the building of fortresses; those fortifications that survive have been touted -- notably by Fernand Braudel -- as owing their integrity to the work of Europeans. Pepper emphasizes the defense of harbors and other strategic sites, although his argument (while sound) has almost nothing to do with cities. Despite its title, this is also a feature of Martin M. Elbl's treatment of "Portuguese Urban Fortifications in Morocco: Borrowing, Adaptation, and Innovation along a Military Frontier." Geoffrey Parker's "The Artillery Fortress as an Engine of European Overseas Expansion, 1480-1750" is yet another chapter that has little to say about cities, even if it does make a good case for the defensive and offensive role of small military outposts in the "rise of the West." As he reveals in his final paragraph, this is a phenomenon less akin to urbanization than to the campaigns of castle-building undertaken by Fulk Nerra in tenth-century Anjou, or by Edward I of England in late thirteenth-century Wales.

The military importance and defense of cities in the early modern period is squarely addressed in three chapters devoted to Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Michael Wolfe's admirable "Walled Towns during the French Wars of Religion (1560-1630)," a second contribution by Simon Pepper entitled "Siege Law, Siege Ritual, and the Symbolism of City Walls in Renaissance Europe," and Martha Pollack's generously illustrated "Representations of the City in Siege Views of the Seventeenth Century: The War of Military Images and Their Production." Taken together, these studies not only help to account for the eternal allure of Troy, but they make sense of the thousands of sieges depicted in every artistic medium of the era, including plays and pageants, illumination, epic, etching, and tapestry. For the medievalist, everything from the Aeneid to the Roman de la Rose and The Castle of Perseverance takes on a new and exciting dimension in consequence. One comes to realize, after assessing such evidence, how Shakespeare's many sieges ring changes on long-standing theatrical and military practices. The citizen of Angers, for instance, becomes even more delightfully wily than a careful reading of King John would suggest, since he not only saves his town from the rival armies of England and France, but nearly manages to convince the two kings to test their sovereignty in a pitched battle -- a much more uncertain mode of warfare, and one that (by the late sixteenth century) was increasingly avoided. By the same token, Henry V's injunction, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more/ Or close the wall up with our English dead" takes on a new urgency, with undertones of frustration and rebuke, when one finds that the law of the siege allowed a town to defend itself only until its walls were sufficiently breached by the opposing forces: failure on the part of Henry's troops to open the breach wide enough could therefore mean the failure of their offensive effort, with the wall itself as the defeated attackers' tomb. In this light, the capitulation of Harfleur's governor can be more clearly apprehended as dependent on his being able to furnish proof to his lord (the Dauphin) that the men of the town had made a reasonable defense, while Henry's shocking speech outside the walls is revealed as a rather conventional catalogue of the punishments justly due to those who took a stand of unusual defiance.

The six articles devoted to urban enclosures in the Middle Ages are divided among the three sections of the book, and are led by Tracy's own contribution, "To Wall or Not to Wall: Evidence from Medieval Germany." It begins with a summary of the evidence for the walling of cities, with a list of the reasons why some of the most powerful centers of antiquity were not walled, among them those of Egypt, archaic Greece, and the early Roman Empire. As Tracy demonstrates, the building of walls capable of withstanding a siege was such an expensive and time-consuming business that it was best avoided, if other measures could be adopted (effective frontier defense, subjugation of enemies unable or unequipped to mount a siege, and so forth). When walls were raised, this can be taken as an indication that a given town was facing a new kind of threat, becoming separable from its surrounding countryside, and/or able to commit enormous resources to the project. In medieval Germany, as Tracy goes on to show, the building of city walls in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had less to do with a response to developing military technology than with the new wealth and corporate pride of towns; thanks to the emphasis placed on urban history in German scholarship, sources and research tools provide data on which towns were likely to build walls and under what circumstances, who paid for their construction, and why. Paired with Tracy's essay, and complementing it, is Kathryn L. Reyerson's "Medieval Walled Space: Urban Development vs. Defense." Focusing on the city of Montpellier, Reyerson discusses the ways in which the Hundred Years' War forced the towns of southern France to negotiate between the obvious need for stronger fortifications and the inconvenience of increased financial burdens, restrictions on trade, and the compromise of urban autonomy in a region notorious for its political indeterminacy. In Montpellier, the situation was further exacerbated by domestic conflicts between two concentric bourgs, each with its own allegiances and each determined to use or abuse external or internal boundaries to its own advantage. The very complexity of this case makes it an excellent exemplum illustrating the forces at work on cities during the prosperous thirteenth and treacherous fourteenth century.

The two articles devoted to medieval warfare and the urban enceinte are Bernard S. Bachrach's "Imperial Walled Cities in the West: An Examination of Their Early Medieval Nachleben" and Jonathan M. Bloom's "Walled Cities in Islamic North Africa and Egypt with Particular Reference to the Fatimids (909-1171)." Both titles are quietly indicative of the authors' fresh responses to two long-standing assumptions: that the "fall of Rome" led to the destruction of the Empire's cities, and that the fortification of Islamic capitals was a relatively late response to foreign (e.g. European) pressures. Bachrach's article is particularly incisive. In brief, he views the changes of the third century as bringing about the transformation, not the destruction, of the Roman city, which came to be defined -- as the later medieval city was -- by its walls, whereas the cities of Imperial Rome in its heyday were defined by their public spaces and amenities. Defensive structures built to protect cities from the movement of peoples and other new threats therefore changed the profile of the Roman city, but by doing so gave it a chance of survival, hence the "afterlives" to which Bachrach refers. The immediate result of this building program, which was conceived and carried out by imperial agents, was an Empire that could be defended "in depth," with the newly-strengthened urbs in an augmented role: not just the fundamental administrative and economic unit, but the cornerstone of military strategy. The long-term benefits were still being felt in the ninth and tenth centuries, when the civil wars of Charlemagne's successors and the subsequent waves of invasion tested and rewarded the majority of cities whose walls had been kept in good repair. This is another of Bachrach's powerful arguments for continuity over discontinuity.

In many respects, Bloom's perspective on early Islam also highlights continuities, in this case a longer history of internal conflict. Bolstered by a survey of urban fortifications and a careful consideration of Cairo's many wall-building campaigns, Bloom argues that the "the notion of unwalled early Islamic cities is a myth" (p. 225) and, moreover, that the building of walls before and after the reign of the Fatimids indicates a series of attempts to separate the ruler from the unruly populace (as at Baghdad) or to deal with the proliferation of "internal frontiers" and "the growing divisions within society" (p. 221). These conclusions are borne out in Sheila S. Blair's otherwise bland article on the "Decoration of City Walls in the Medieval Islamic World: The Epigraphic Message," printed in the book's final section. Here, changes in leadership and allegiance were reflected in a series of elaborate inscriptions, each of which tends to emphasize the victory of the new ruler over enemies foreign and domestic, and his subsequent "restoration" or "rebuilding" of the city and its walls: a form of political propaganda that underscores the symbiotic relationship between the renewed protection of the city and the power of its lord.

The last essay devoted to the Middle Ages is that of Wolfgang G. van Emden, whose "Medieval French Representations of City and Other Walls" is the only chapter in the book based on literary rather than historical analysis, and the only one which I found disappointing. Van Emden is interested in the descriptions of walls in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Old French verse, but the difficulty of locating enough material for this paper (p. 531) has prompted him to ignore some important historical differences between cities and other walled settlements, to the confusion of his reader and his argument. As the editor discreetly puts it in the Introduction, "[t]he distinction between a castle and a fortified city is not always clear" (p. 6). Yet that is less the fault of the evidence than of Van Emden's methodology. The confusion is even reflected in the disparity between the title at the head of the article ("representations of city and other walls") and the wording of the running title on each right-hand page ("representations of citadels"), as though one could perform an Isidorean sleight-of-hand on the Old French term for "civitas," the capital of the Roman administrative unit which became the medieval diocese and the seat of its bishop, and by a trick of propinquity create an etymological association with one of the terms for "castellum." Literature is composed of words, after all, and those words can take on specific meanings -- especially when we look at a discrete body of texts as a cohesive unit and exclude what lies beyond that discursive realm (this is the great utility of Derrida's grammatology for the historian). But Van Emden disregards any contemporary differentiation among "cité," "ville, "bourg," "chastel," and the other fortified dwelling-places mentioned in his sources. While there is nothing wrong with casting the net wide, in order to include descriptions of walls that are not necessarily urban and thus to increase the amount of available data, it is wrong to assert "that cité and ville are in practice largely synonymous during the Middle Ages." They may be used intercha ngeably now, but this elision is a product of the late fifteenth century, as is the use of "cité" as an abbreviation for "citadel," an Italian diminutive that came to denote the oldest quarter of a town, which may or may not have been fortified at one time. (See Alain Rey et al., edd., Dictionnaire historique de la langue Française, 2 vols. [Paris, 1992], 1: 426a, and Paul Imbs et al., edd., Trésor de la langue française: Dictionnaire de la langue du XIXe et du XXe siècle (1789-1960), 16 vols. (Paris, 1977-1994), 5: 850a-852a.) A glance at the twelfth- and thirteenth-century examples in Godefroy's Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française reveals that the only places named in conjunction with the word "city" were really cities, i.e. episcopal seats: Bordeaux, London, Cambrai. Among Van Emden's own examples, the walled cities so-called follow suit (Carlisle, Rouen). In fact, it is interesting to see how the texts cited in this essay avoid the use of the word "city" when it would be inappropriate: thus Narbonne is not called a city (pace Van Emden's translation) but a town ("vile") because it is described as having been recently walled and manned by the infidel Saracens (p. 534). By extension, mention of an unspecified city can add another layer of meaning, as when a journey through the mysterious Breton spirit-world ends at the walls of an equally mysterious city in the Yonec of Marie de France (p. 532). Ironically, the only time when Van Emden does try to draw a distinction between city and town, he turns the evidence on its head. The Arras of Jehan Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas was indeed divided into city and town, but it was the town that would be considered a "citadel" in the modern sense, older and enclosed, while the bishop's city was new, and open to attack. Misunderstanding the historical context nullifies the value of this salient example, and the translation of "cité" as "citadel" only makes nonsense of Pierre Commynes' testimony of 1477, when effective occupation of the bishop's city required the construction of fortifications for the first time (pp. 542-543). Van Emden's article does "draw attention to the methodological and practical issues involved in researching the treatment of the city and other defensive walls in medieval literature and comparing it with historical reality" (p. 571), but in a negative sense.