Why are European cities relatively small

Important cities in the Middle Ages

Until the beginning of the 12th century, the number of cities in Central Europe remained relatively low at a few hundred. The height of medieval urban development was between the 12th and 14th centuries, when the existing cities grew to a considerable size and numerous new foundations were planned and carried out. This development ended in the late Middle Ages. New cities were now rarely founded and the growth of the existing cities came to a standstill. In general, it can be stated that the demographic development of a city is to be seen in direct connection with its economic, social and political influence. However, the absolute number of inhabitants is not the only criterion that assigned importance to a city. Of decisive importance for the success of a city was its national and international economic integration.

German Empire

Towards the end of the late Middle Ages there were around 3500 cities in Germany, which were relatively small compared to ancient cities. 90 to 95 percent of the cities belonged to the dwarf (up to 500 inhabitants) and small towns (up to 2000 inhabitants). The rest is distributed among small medium-sized towns with 2,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, large medium-sized towns with up to 20,000 inhabitants and the few towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants that make up the big cities. The cities that reached a population of over 50,000 and can be counted among the world cities of the Middle Ages were all in other European countries.

For the area of ​​the German Empire, the number of large and medium-sized cities, which around 1500 had a population of more than 2000, is estimated at around 200. The largest city was Cologne. In the 15th century, the city housed a little more than 40,000 inhabitants with an area of ​​around 400 hectares. The important southern German city of Nuremberg, which had just under 23,000 inhabitants around 1430, outstripped Cologne at the beginning of the 16th century. Important cities such as Lübeck (around 1400 about 25,000 inhabitants), Danzig (30,000 inhabitants), Bremen (20,000 inhabitants), Hamburg (16,000 to 18,000 inhabitants in the middle of the 15th century) and Rostock (over 10,000 inhabitants) were in the area of ​​the narrower Hanseatic region. . Other large cities or important medium-sized cities on the threshold of the big city were Breslau (20,000 inhabitants) as well as Augsburg, Erfurt, Braunschweig, Lüneburg, Ulm, Würzburg and Strasbourg, all of which had around 18,000 inhabitants.

Constantinople and Spain

The largest European city in the early Middle Ages and an absolute exception among the cities was Constantinople, formerly Byzantium, with a population of around half a million towards the end of the 15th century. Some cities in Spain under the rule of the Arabs also held a special position. Córdoba is said to have had more than 500,000 inhabitants in the 10th century. Other Spanish cities with a big city character were Seville with around 24,000 inhabitants in the 13th century and Barcelona, ​​which had 35,000 inhabitants towards the end of the 14th century.


Most of the major medieval cities originated in Italy. In 1288 there were about 100,000 inhabitants in Milan. Florence had about 95,000 inhabitants around 1300 and Venice 90,000 inhabitants. After city expansion, Naples grew to 50,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 14th century, while Rome only had a population of 35,000 around the middle of the 13th century.


After Italy, the Netherlands had the highest degree of urbanization and the highest number of large cities. In the 13th century, Ghent had around 60,000 inhabitants within its city walls, while Bruges had 50,000 on an area of ​​430 hectares. Tournai with 40,000 to 50,000 as well as Löwen with 45,000 and Ypres with 40,000 inhabitants reached a similar size to Bruges. Antwerp experienced a rapid rise. The city grew from 5,000 inhabitants in 1347 to over 80,000 inhabitants in 1580. In the late Middle Ages, Brussels (30,000 inhabitants), Liège (around 40,000 inhabitants) and Utrecht (around 20,000 inhabitants) also achieved city status. In addition, there were a number of large medium-sized cities that were on the edge of the threshold to the big city. These included above all the cities on the IJssel such as Kampen, Deventer and Zwolle as well as Maastricht on the Maas.


The number of large cities in France, on the other hand, was rather small. However, the most important city of the Middle Ages was in France. Paris was the most respected metropolis of the Middle Ages and was considered a center of science, economy and culture. Political power was also concentrated here, as the city was also the seat of the kings of France. The successful commercial activity and its national and international economic activities made the city grow to a considerable size as early as the 13th century. At that time Paris already had 100,000 inhabitants. However, this figure is based on estimates due to the lack of registers. History suggests that the total number of residents could also have been significantly higher.

Far behind Paris followed Toulouse and Amiens, which had 25,000 and 20,000 inhabitants respectively in the 13th century. In the south, Avignon, especially during the time as the pope's residence, and Marseille (each with 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants) were the most important cities. The population of the major regional capitals Bordeaux, Lyon, Montpellier and Poitiers was between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants.