The Medieval Review 10.04.10

Lilley, Keith D. . City and Cosmos: The Medieval World in Urban Form. London: Reaktion Books, 2009. Pp. 256. $49 ISBN 978-1-86189-441-0. .

Reviewed by:

Melanie Maddox
The St Andrews Institute of Medieval Studies

In this book, Keith D. Lilley takes an important look at how the "urban city" of the Middle Ages is connected to God's hierarchical arrangement of the universe and the city's place within this ordering. Lilley aptly begins the book with a quote from Augustine of Hippo, asking, "What shall we say of the city?" Indeed, a lot can be said about the city of the Middle Ages in all its forms, as well as approached from many disciplines and perspectives. Lilley chose to approach the medieval "urban city" as both microcosm and macrocosm; that is "as a microcosm of the universe and a macrocosm of 'man', an urban 'body' (7)." He sites Aron Gurovich's observation that "the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm lies at the very root of medieval symbolism." It is this key focus on symbolism and its mode of expression and creation, which this book addresses.

The book is divided into three sections highlighting (1) the City-Cosmos Imagined, (2) the City-Cosmos Built, and (3) the City-Cosmos Lived. This threefold focus on image, build and life, grounds the discussion nicely in three approaches to addressing the medieval city's role and function as a symbol for God's archetype of the cosmos.

In the introduction, Lilley points out that historians of medieval urbanism have overlooked the role that twelfth-century Neoplatonists, and their consideration of Calcidius' Timaeus, had on medieval thoughts on the city and its symbolization of the cosmos. He notes that the purpose of the book is to survey how the city as both macrocosm and microcosm was "reflected and reinforced through imagining, building and inhabiting towns and cities in medieval Europe" (12). The goal of this book being a better understanding of the medieval city as both a cultural and material construct, Lilley stresses that the medieval city's "spatial forms" and its "function" help it to attain its place in God's divine ordering. As an opening to the discussion of Neoplatonists and their influence on the ideas of Latin Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, Lilley compares the writings of Calcidius, with those of Alan of Lille and William of Conches to show not only the tripartite ordering of the city-cosmos ruled from the center, but also the clear role of the city as a body made up of the ruling head and its constituent parts.

The connections between the earthy and the heavenly city have been a popular theme throughout history. Augustine of Hippo, in his City of God, written 413-427, wrote of the two cities: one earthbound and the other in heaven. Augustine wrote "one part of the earthly city has been made in to an image of the Heavenly City, by symbolizing something other than itself, namely that other city and for that reason it is a servant. For it was established not for its own sake but in order to symbolize another city." At an early date, Jerusalem was considered the center of the world and a reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem above, with both halves to be united at the end of time. John Cassian (c. 360-435) wrote that "Jerusalem can be taken in four senses: historically as the city of the Jews; allegorically as Church of Christ, anagogically as the heavenly city of God 'which is the mother of us all,' [and] tropologically, as the soul of man." Chapter one starts the conversation by discussing urban mapping and Jerusalem's role as the center of the world and the shape of images depicting it. Like others before him, Lilley notes the variety of shapes in the early images of Jerusalem and contrasts them to the description of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelations. What is made clear is that images and written descriptions of medieval "cities" often corresponded to have a strong semblance to those of Jerusalem. In the discussion, Lucian's De Laude Cestrie is introduced as an example. Written c. 1195, Lucian draws parallels between the cities of Chester and Jerusalem, as well as orientates Chester's landscape into a "quadrilateral form" (24-25). This chapter does a good job at showing the concern of medieval writers to align their description and images of cities into a "fourfold manner," while giving an account of the role of mappamundi, "sacred geometry" and the influence of "Platonic and Aristotelian images of the cosmos" (29).

Chapter two takes an important look at cities and their landscapes by considering the topography of different cities and the use of geometry to plan their layout, as well as their topography's possible symbolism. As part of his argument, Lilley starts by using the layout of the burhs re-fortified or built during the reign of King Alfred, to reflect on how contemporary builders might have viewed the burhs rectilinear forms and the reason behind them. He postulates that the "quadrate layout [of the burhs] might also have been inspired by the imagined quartered form of the heavenly Jerusalem" (44). In support of the idea that contemporaries may have been thinking of Jerusalem in the formation of these burhs is the fact that Alfred had instigated the translation of texts by both Boethius and Augustine (45). Lilley fittingly points out that in these translated texts burh was used to describe Jerusalem. Contemporary evidence can also be found in these and other vernacular works of the Celestial Jerusalem also being described as a burh. Continuing on with his discussion, Lilley reflects on the topography of bastides and their rectilinearity formed in a geometrical order.

Part II of the book titled the "City-Cosmos Built," considers the founding of cities and the use of geometry in the fashioning of their topography. In the Bible God gave the heavenly building plan to his people several times, through individuals like Moses and David. Chapter three begins with a consideration of God as the "trained architect" giving both written accounts and visual evidence for this idea. It considers the role of geometrical patterns in the actual layouts of "towns and cities," questioning whether or not the choices made by their founders and builders were purely utilitarian in nature. Lilley makes a good argument that the symbolism in these acts of founding is instead a connection of power between heaven and earth. Like God in heaven, founders of these cities were participating in the act of creation. Both chapters three and four provide a nice discussion of the types of individuals that could be employed to design the layout of cities, the tools they might have used in their measuring of the city's layout and the surveying texts they could have learned their trade from.

Part III of the book titled the "City-Cosmos Lived," considers the moral topographies of cities and their performing bodies. Chapter five reflects on how the city, as a macrocosm of a human body, maintained its moral topography through the understanding of its urban layout and how this ordering of the body was viewed by those individuals that wrote about cities in the Middle Ages. Some of the sources Lilley draws from are writings concerning the cities of Bristol, Chester and London.

Lilley's last chapter takes an intriguing look at how the inhabitants of a city could use ritual to reiterate the hierarchy not just of the "urban city" itself, but also that of the cosmos and body politic. He considers how ritual processions, like that of Corpus Christi, were used by the city's social hierarchy to portray the community as one body; doing so in order to show not only the social unity of the community, but also its division by status. This allows the reader to gain an understanding of the urban body as both a spatial and social expression of the world. With the procession of rituals like Corpus Christi, the body politic was reinforcing the world as a personification of Christ through the charting of his body onto the topography of the city. This process in turn reinforced the social ordering of the city as a community and in a sense can be seen as unifying the "body politic" under a common cause.

In the epilogue, Lilley reiterates that Christianity was dominantly an "urban religion," placing the city within the beliefs, doctrine and history of Christianity and giving the city a strong standing in the "organization, practice and worship" of the religion. This book provides its readers with a glimpse of how Latin Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages may have understood the city by exploring how cities were built, formed, depicted and described in the Middle Ages. Lilley has shown that in some cases the "urban city" could be understood as a model of the Celestial city of God, which was to be reached at the end of time. Lilley illustrates how during the Middle Ages, science and religion were not exclusive of each other, but instead were used to complement and create an understanding of the earthly city as a reflection of both cosmos and body politic.

I believe that with this book Lilley has achieved his goal of providing a new perspective on understanding the city's cultural and material construct. Lilley has not specifically stated an intended audience, but I believe that this book is open to use by both academics and students of the humanities. This book would make an excellent foundation on which to form a course on the cities of the Middle Ages, due to the fact that it contains so many diverse aspects that can be studied in an interdisciplinary fashion and its relatively inexpensive price. The book is well illustrated throughout, giving Lilley the ability to enhance his readers' understanding by providing visual references and he does a good job of using illustrations as evidence for his points.

This being said, the book could benefit from more of a chronological perspective at points, as well as a clarification as to what the author views an "urban city" to be. One of the most rudimentary problems in the debate over urbanization has been the plethora of vocabulary used by different scholars. Modern terms such as "city," "frühform," "town," "monastic town," "pre-urban nuclei," "proto-town," and "proto-urban" have been just a few of the different options in vocabulary used in the discussion of urbanization. Indeed, Chris Wickham has correctly noted in the past that even in using the terms "city" or "town" one is open to involving "a set of cultural assumptions that need to be made explicit in order to be controlled." Since urbanization is not the core topic of the book, but the evidence is meant to be used as part of an argument concerning "urban cities," a small note on the author's definition could have been useful.