Monday, February 16, 2009

Cleaner Than You Think

A few weeks ago, following the discussions on this blog regarding cities and the design of cities, I took an afternoon to do a little research on the web--which of course turned up very little, as history is the hardest thing to find. However, I read some excerpts from a book by Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, which impressed me enough to order the book, which arrived about five days ago. It represented a substantial investment…the hardcover cost me $102.

It is an almost featureless tome, the 1970 edition of the original 1940s text, and having gotten only a bit into the book it is clear it suffers somewhat from the scholarship of that decade--in that the author has a tendency to occasionally build a castle in the clouds out of a few scant shreds of evidence.

However, not being ignorant of the medieval period myself, I find myself stunned. There is scarcely a sentence in the book that does not send my mind spinning on various applications or themes regarding the nature of cities in my campaign--and much of what’s written here does set out to thoroughly dispel certain notions about the medieval period, notions which are still around today and which are harped on pedantically by most briefly acquainted with the period.

Mumford’s principal theme so far (I am 50 pages into a 530 page book) has been that the perception of the medieval town as a “sewer” is largely the fabrication of writers contemporary with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who have chosen to blame their urban problems upon the lack of planning during the medieval era. Mumford cries foul on this, putting the blame purely where it belongs--upon the industrialization of cities which began in earnest in the mid-seventeenth century and which exacerbated the problems which had arisen in the previous century with the rise of trade and food production.

If you can suspend some of your perceptions of city life, based upon depictions such as those which occur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and other medieval films, where the peasants perpetually “have shit all over them,” let me quote some of Mumford from the book:

“At harvest time, the population of the town would swarm out into the country, as the slum dwellers of the East End still migrate to Kent for the hop-picking. One has only the read the household recipes of the Goodman of Paris, who was of the well-to-do merchant order, to see how the more prosperous burghers kept a leg firmly planted in each world. Near the city, the fowler and the rabbit hunter could go after game. Fitz-Stephens noted that the citizens of London had the right of hunting in Middlesex, Herefordshire, the Chiltern Hundreds and part of Kent. And in the streams by the city, fishing was diligently pursued: not merely on the coast but inland. Augsburg, for example, was noted for its trout; until 1643 many of the city officials took their pay in trout.

This strong rural influence can be marked on the early city plans; all but a handful of medieval towns were closer to what we should now call a village or a small country town that a city; “greatness” did not mean a big population or a spreading territory. In the original towns, with the exception of a few that kept to original Roman foundations or were constricted by topographical obstacles, ample gardens spread in the rear of houses.

Gardens and orchards, sometimes fields and pastures, existed within the city, as well as in the “suburb” outside; endless illustrations and plans as late as the seventeenth century prove how universal these open spaces were. Goerthe describes such a fine rear-garden, so favourable to a genial family life, in his Dichtung and Wahrheit. Medieval people were used to outdoor living; they had shooting grounds and bowling grounds and tossed the ball and kicked the football and ran races and practiced archery.

As cities increased in size and density of population, their rural base was undermined and new sanitary difficulties arose out of the very fact of density. Not alone the density of the living but the congestion of the dead, who were buried for convenience and piety, not outside the city’s walls, but in the vaults or graveyards of the parish churches. By the seventeenth century the overcrowded conditions here constituted a serious sanitary menace, through seepage into the water supply.

The above is expedited; Mumford goes on further about the subject, but I can’t type out the whole book. What I find fascinating is the potential this creates for redesigning the D&D city. The inset city plan of Zutphen, Holland, from 1649, is an excellent example (I found one that was sizable, so it could be viewed closely by my gentle readers).

How much better for the game if we consider a city where most of the garbage is organic and eaten by various animals which are native to urban life? Gong can be collected and deposited outside the city, or even managed by various magical means (dry, which desiccates a square yard, is after all only a cantrip, and might be possessed by a hundred city dwellers who have an aptitude for marginal magical ability), so that vermin (the bee, bug and spider cantrips will eradicate ordinary rats, mice and other small creatures) and disease can be fought back as successfully as we do in the present. Must we always see cities as festering, sweltering, stinking holes? Are the odors of a farm so pleasant that we cannot imagine a city being no worse?

We might consider that cities could be potential gardens…with healthy, robust citizens, encouraged in their livelihood by magic and the knowledge acquired by magic. Throw off your nineteenth century goggles and consider the possibilities.


Chgowiz said...

As a mapping neophyte, I really appreciate this kind of post. It's hard enough to learn about just how various cities are organized, but thinking about how they might differ from the stereotypes can free me to go in new directions. Thanks!

sirlarkins said...

Funny you should bring up Holy Grail. Not too long ago I was watching the DVD commentary for the movie and someone (Terry Jones maybe?) mentioned how clean the Middle Ages were in comparison to our popular view of things. The filthiness of the movie was meant both as a parody of our modern view of the Middle Ages and, by the commenter's own admission, that if a movie were made showing the Middle Ages as clean and pleasant, everyone would howl and protest about historical inaccuracy!

Randolph said...

Ummmm...$8.93 with shipping in paperback from Amazon.......Youmust have bought the "collectors version?" Thanks for the recommendation (but not the propaganda...)

Christian said...

Quality post, mate. Fantasy cities wouldn't be half bad places to live in.