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Lewis Mumford, A Thinker for the Ages Tells a Tale Of Cities Since the Middle Ages

 In the beginning, the religiously centered city

Photo by ali-nuredini-unsplash

My Dad often spoke about his admiration for Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 — January 26, 1990) but I had never read Mumford and so when I saw a paper in my email on Lewis Mumford, I downloaded it, which only made me want to read Mumford in his own words.

Although Mumford was an influential inspiration in Europe after World War II, it was not easy to find works by Mumford online.

Finally, I found The Culture of the Cities by Lewis Mumford available in full on, billed as a wiki for arts, media, and humanities.

Mumford describes The Culture of the Cities as a companion volume to Technics and Civilization saying in the introduction that “ each seeks to explore what the modern world may hold for mankind once men of goodwill have learned to subdue the barbarous mechanisms and the mechanized barbarisms that now threaten the very existence of civilization.

Writing in a poetic voice and analytical mind, Mumford tells a tale of cities that spans centuries, condensing history into a time kaleidoscope that turns and the world transforms. Functionality and purpose are the rudiments cyclicly reinvented by and through one cultural modality, and then another, brought to life by Mumford’s insightful attention to detail as though it all exists simultaneously in a universally present moment.

Munford’s story takes off in the Middle Ages, covering the tenth to the sixteenth centuries when the medieval city flourished, enclosed within walls that provided the security needed to foster a peacetime existence. Mumford tells of Middle Age cities that were organically organized in a decentralized architectural design and political structure, spaces facing enclosed outdoor courts where gardens grew and nature intermingled in the crevices of urban life

In Mumford’s tale, the city is a stage for human drama, which in medieval times was organized around religious life. The church was the learning and spiritual center of the community, wherein or about, essential social functions took form. The church at the center of community organization was neither a political or economic player. It was a spiritual institution, gathering other functions around it through its capacity to gather a congregation. In the eleventh century, markets formed around the church as privileges to provide a market, mint coins, and collect taxes were usually granted to religious proprietors rather than to the feudal lords.

Munford claims that it was not the roaming traders that spurred urban growth but the producers. Even at a period later than the eleventh century, the producers in the early medieval town composed about four-fifths of the inhabitants.

As Mumford breaks down the transitional process of civilization, in which one cultural form transforms into another, to three components, the dominant culture, the mutant culture (in today’s terminology, disruptive), and the survivor culture. In the eleventh century, the mutant culture is capitalism:

It (capitalism) supplanted the old protective economy, based on status, mollified by religious precept, by a trading economy based on individual enterprise and the lust for gain : the economic history of the town is largely a story of the transformation of a group of protected producers living in a state of relative equality, into a small group of privileged merchants for whom the rest of the population ultimately toils Lewis Mumford The Culture of the Cities

In the early Middle Ages, town-building became a major industry, but it contained a conflict of interest within it that would eventually bring down the institutions of feudalism. In order to attract the labor needed to secure and build the town, the serfs were enticed with an opportunity to be released from bondage.

From the tenth century onward, towns developed as sovereign authorities, governing themselves and holding the privileges formerly exclusive to the church, privileges to provide a market, mint coins and collect taxes. The city charter, formed under the patronage of feudal lords, served as a social contract granting the corporate towns legal authority and military security. Military needs preceded economic needs as inhabitants were recruited to defend the new territory when the lords expanded their land ownership and constructed new walled towns or fortresses. The serfs lived in bondage but had a permanent claim to the land. In order to lure the serf into settling the fortress, the serf who took up residence in a corporate town for a year and a day earned his status as a freeman.

According to Mumford, this negotiation attracted the best of the rural craftsmen and trade classes into the cities. However, it seems more objective to say that it attracted those personality types who prefer the adventure of risk-taking over the stability of security and constancy in their lives. The talented serf, working on the land, might have been content in his connection to land and lord, while to another, the urban environment offered an environment of diverse possibilities and opportunities to carve new pathways, and most importantly to become a freeman, under the law. This created cultural mobility and the rise of a trading class.

Between the eleventh and the thirteenth-century, technology in the arts and science of agriculture developed dramatically. New sources of power came about through watermills and windmills which in turn transformed mining and metallurgy, changing the need for labor. Barter was replaced by money and servitude became contractual work. All of this released human energy for other purposes and brought about increases in population growth. Mumford compares this era of rapid European settlement to the settling of the American continent between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries.

Over time the technology of war wrought changes that shifted the center of power from defense to assault, requiring changes in the construction of the walls around the city that made them less adaptable to outward expansion. If the feudal landlords needed money to fight a war or for other purposes, he could divide the land within the walled city into more parts and so collect more rent, and thus life within the walls become overcrowded. The more complex walls needed for defense prevented outward expansion, causing the city to grow vertically. The open natural spaces of the Medieval city were built over.

A secondary means that lords had for increasing their income was through fees, tolls, and taxes, which also multiplied as the town became more populated. The need for urban labor drained the supply of rural labor and antagonisms developed between the urban and rural dwellers with urbanites developing attitudes of snobbery that Mumford describes as that which “ only the upstart and the nouveau riche can achieve.”

The end of the Middle Ages came about when the mutant culture (capitalism) became the dominant culture pushing the religious culture into survivor status. At the beginning of the Middle Ages security was rooted in faith but as the Middle Ages transformed into the Baroque period, faith as the basis of security was replaced with credit. As Mumford points out, the greatest loss in this exchange was that the culture held together by religion universalized the cloister, an inner sanctum where the inner life could flourish.

At the same time, to exist, in the Middle Ages, one had to belong to an association. Outside of the church, and the home, the most common form of association was the guild, which began as a religious brotherhood under the patronage of a saint, and then an association of craftsmen or merchants. As Munford describes the guilds “ they formulated regulations for the conduct of their craft: they planned and paid for and enacted their parts in their mystery plays, for the edification of their fellow-townsmen: and they built chapels, endowed chantries, and founded schools

Over time, the cost of these buildings led to higher entrance fees for the guild restricting membership to the more wealthy members of the community, giving rise to a wealthy patricide of crafters who handed the privileges down through heredity and excluded the poorer craftsmen and the expanding proletariate. By the end of the Middle Ages, the wealthy had taken over the functions of the guilds, endowing schools and providing housing for the unfortunate, while despots took over the political functions of society.

As the capitalist functions expanded, other social functions shrank, the guilds all but disappeared into one main survivor. The name of the surviving guild was originally a common term used for any guild in the twelfth century. It was a university, whose purpose was to prepare for a vocation and to regulate vocational practices. The guilds survived as a culture that was no longer rooted in spirituality, the dominant culture at the time the first guilds were formed. Today. more often than not, universities serve the agenda of the capitalist culture of today’s corporate state.

The Middle Ages begins as a society of shared opportunities and responsibilities and ends as a culture with a great wealth divide and transitions into the baroque city wherein the masses served the benefit of a few who led an opulent and leisurely lifestyle. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, a neighborly spirit of working together provided the security needed for a peaceful existence. By the end of the Middle Ages, protecting the walls between the classes held more priority than protecting the city within the walls.

However taken as a whole, Mumford quotes historian Charles Gross (1857–1909), who described the Middle Ages as a time when “ Exclusive of the inhabitants of the privileged sakes, the . . . population was more homogeneous than that of towns existing at present; there were in the former fewer class distinctions, more equality of wealth, and more harmony of interests than in the latter.

Mumford tells the story through the buildings, the arts, and the sciences, and of course capital, both in the sense of capital cities and capitalization. The only way to give his illustrious writing style justice is to end this review with a quote from The Culture of the Cities by Lewis Mumford:

The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind. For space, no less than time, is artfully reorganized in cities: in boundary lines and silhouettes, in the fixing of horizontal planes and vertical peaks, in utilizing or denying the natural site, the city records the attitude of a culture and an epoch to the fundamental facts of its existence. The dome and the spire, the open avenue and the closed court, tell the story, not merely of different physical accommodations, but of essentially different conceptions of man’s destiny. The city is both a physical utility for collective living and a symbol of those collective purposes and unanimities that arise under such favoring circumstance. With language itself, it remains man’s greatest work of art

Originally published at on March 11, 2021.


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