The historical roots of urban migration

All cities have arisen and grown as a result of inward migration. Without some form of human movement towards a particular spot – be it a river crossing, the head of a valley, a fertile plain or a natural sea harbour – cities simply would not exist.

There are many legends about historic cities being founded by individual people. However, it is important to remember that, regardless of whether we are able to identify a precise starting point, no urban settlement has organically evolved thanks to its original inhabitants alone. No city has survived or thrived on high fertility rates alone!

Certainly, not all migration has been urban-bound. Over history, the forced movement of people tended to head towards rural areas. For example, transatlantic slavery was directed at plantations and mines in the Americas. But autonomous migration largely went to cities, not only for work, but also for the opportunities and freedoms that cities were able to offer.

This was very much the case during the Middle Ages. The revival of cities across Europe during the twelfth century, following a long period of decline, was fuelled by the reopening of the Mediterranean Sea to trade, but also by legions of peasants and artisans escaping the constraints of feudalism in the countryside. Medieval cities with their walls and towers literally represented beacons of freedom for thousands of bonded rural workers. As the ancient saying went “City air makes you free”: in fact, after a period of time of residing within its walls – usually one year and one day – urbanised migrants were able to break the feudal bonds that tied them to the land and to become subjects of law.

Mass migration, urbanisation and the rise of commercial networks across Europe would together set the stage for the beginning of capitalism. Over the following few centuries the Mediterranean Sea would represent a key space for the development of this new economic system. It is here where we will now trace the historical relationship between migration and cities. In the next video interview, historian Rosa Salzberg discusses the impact of migration in fifteenth century Venice at a time when the ‘Lagoon City’ was the capital of an empire that stretched across the central and eastern Mediterranean.

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This article is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)