Property Structures and Spatial Arrangements of Urban Land in Early Modern Times

Bergen’s and Lübeck’ Elite in a Comparative Perspective

Term Paper 2007 21 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Middle Ages, Early Modern Age


Index of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical and Methodological Considerations
2.1 Theories on preindustrial Towns: Sjoberg and Carter
2.2 Definition of “Stand”, Estate and Class according to Max Weber and the systems in Germany and Norway

3. Social and economic changes in towns from the 16th to the 18th century
3.1 Social and economic change in Lübeck
3.2 Social and economic change in Bergen/ Norway

4. The elite in the urban area: The cases of Lübeck and Bergen
4.1 Lübeck
4.1.1 Social structure and legal status of plots in town
4.1.2 The social places in town
4.2 Bergen
4.2.1 Social structure, legal rights
4.2.2 The social places in town
4.3 Comparison of the two towns

5. Conclusion

Figures and tables

Figure 1: Map of Lübeck with marks of the model according to Sjoberg.

Figure 2: Map of Bergen with marks of the model according to Sjoberg

1. Introduction

Property is one of the key elements of the structure in a town. Not only does it tell us about the owner of urban space who might have had influence through this property, but also who lived on this property. It is interesting if the owner of the property is identical with the one who lived on the land and the one who owned the house. By studying these topics, conclusions of the social structure of a town can be drawn. It is the idea of space, certainly not without the consideration of time that leads to historical knowledge in a way of multidimensional understanding.

Here this is examined by comparing the two Hansa towns Bergen and Lübeck, two towns that supposedly show similar economic and demographic structures. Thus differences can be made more obvious. To get a narrow and exact view on the topic only the elite of the town, the social group we know most about through the sources, is regarded.

It is worth knowing how external effects like economical changes as well as social developments and demographical evolutions may had impact on urban structures like for example such of property of land or buildings. The focus should be on the question how the political and economic elites did compete these challenges in the regarded time period from the 16th to the 18th century and what the impact on property structures was. It was important for the leading groups to be present in the town centre for different reasons (e.g. the need for control), but what exactly was the place of the elite? How important was property of urban land for the leading groups in the Early Modern times? Did they keep their urban property or are there changes of property to be regarded during this period? Finally are there huge differences between Bergen and Lübeck, two towns that on a first view seem to be so likewise?

On the way to answer these questions some general considerations about urban theories and especially spatial arrangements are made. Further the question of what defines the elite and what are the settings in Norwegian and German society is elaborated including theoretical considerations on the topic. The economic and social changes in both countries are as well outlined before the towns are separately discussed. The society and its determination is regarded as well as urban space in connection with property and living space.

2. Theoretical and Methodological Considerations

2.1 Theories on preindustrial Towns: Sjoberg and Carter

Bringing urban property and domicile into a greater theoretic understanding, which for example allows us to compare two or more similar systems, we can refer to city model theories of which one is Sjoberg’s model of concentric circles. He focuses on specific land use patterns in the preindustrial city according to that there are specific zones in the city that have specific functions and which is the preferred living place of a social class1. Therefore the model implies a strong connection between social and spatial arrangements. As we do not want to enter deeper into the theory, we can state that according to Sjoberg there is a dominance of the city’s centre over the periphery, whereas the centre is defined as the political, religious and commercial core of the city, not necessarily the physical centre. Furthermore, the elite gathers around these centres, while the poor retreat to the outcast areas in the periphery.2

Carter also stresses the pre-eminence of central areas over the peripheries in the preindustrial town. The centre had certain advantages and so was a more interesting place of residence for the elite. First, the need for control was an important issue for the upper classes, as elite is not only defined by wealth but also by political influence. This need for control could only be satisfied in the centre were the important political, administrative and also religious institutions were located. Steady access to communication in a society without mass communication media was only guaranteed near the “social places” where people met. The technology of convenient and fast transport was not developed before the industrial revolution. This lack made the elite stay in the centre.3

Although these considerations lead to the conclusion that there was a spatial segregation by social status in the preindustrial town, i.e. the dominance of the elite in the nucleus and the poor in the periphery, a simple adoption of this image is not true. Places in town never were socially homogeneous. The attribution of social status to a certain urban space is always a matter of degree and there were poor living in the same plots with the very richest. Even segregation within buildings - then in a partition to the different floors - could be found. This is explained by the elite’s need for servants and workers.4

2.2 Definition of “Stand”, Estate and Class according to Max Weber and the systems in Germany and Norway

When trying to regard a social group, as it is done here, it has to be defined in order to locate it in a hierarchic system. Since many researchers, mainly social scientists, have been dealing with the subject of estate, social group, class or stand. Some of the terms have an ideological connotation, e.g. the Marxist meaning of class, so a few general remarks on the topic should be made.

“For us, a social class is a large body of persons who occupy a position in a social hierarchy by reason of their manifesting similarly valued objective criteria. These latter include kinship affiliation, power and authority, achievements, possessions, and moral and personal attributes.”5

This definition of social class by Sjoberg comes close to the object examined here because it underlines the versatile character of its meaning; especially regarding an inflexible society as the one in preindustrial cities (Sjoberg even calls it a feudal society, though this term can be doubted in strictly historical means).6

However, to get it closer, we may have a short look on Max Weber’s considerations of the term Stand. The German and Norwegian word stand is best translated with “estate” and is used as equivalent for Stand or stand in this text. There has been much confusion about the mistranslation of Stand into “Status” and “Status Group”7, but here it has been corrected and “status” is used in the meaning of attributes or occupational settings belonging to an estate. Weber emphasizes the various occupations and thus meanings of “estate”, that are not solely defined on commercial and economic conditions but also on cultural, religious, educational conditions and style of life, just to pick a few. He recommends to speak of “estate society” (Ständegesellschaft) for the preindustrial period, where estates often are created by property classes (but as shown above not as their literate distinction).8 What Weber shows, is that property (and property structures) is one of the occupations of a social class and an estate respectively and thus one way of studying social structure. But what was this structure like in German and Norwegian towns?

The German Early Modern town was in economic and social change. A newly formed middle class began to break into the system of citizens and non-citizens, or in other words: the division into bourgeoisie and lower classes. Thus the upper classes themselves tried to delineate from the classes below and maintain their status as the leading group controlling the means of production. There were also differences of wealth and mobility within the occupation. But the estate society endured through economic changes and the formation of a new middle class, which mainly occupied professions as craftsmen. The merchants furthermore emerged from the upper classes, while a patriciate anyway only existed in larger towns.9 In these towns we can speak of a threefold system with the lack of nobility.

The nobility as the summit of the feudal society in Norway, however, lost its influence as a socially and politically decisive group during the Early Modern times based on demographic and political developments, which were the plague and the formation of absolutism in 1660. Despite that, we find a static estate society divided into three estates: Embetsstanden, Borgerskapet and peasants with odelsrett. The first one consisted mainly of secular, cleric and military officials, while we find merchants and craftsmen in the second one. Below these three estates there was a large non-privileged group, both in town and countryside, containing servants, unskilled workers, small farmers etc. The top of the society formed merchants, gentlemen farmers and civil officials.

This arrangement, however, was faintly developed in Norway and experienced a process of further dissolution and social levelling throughout the next centuries. This is a topic that had widely been discussed. But certain rights were characteristic for social affiliation. So, for example, the status of Burgher guaranteed the right to trade.10 So the nobility in both countries had almost no influence on economic activities in towns. In Norway it was diminished almost entirely, in Germany their place was mainly the countryside which built the base of their incomes, not trade. They especially did not interfere in affairs of self-governed towns like Lübeck, where a strong class of Burghers was the dominate group. The wealthy merchants in both towns are crucial for the understanding of elite.

3. Social and economic changes in towns from the 16th to the 18th century

3.1 Social and economic change in Lübeck

Lübeck in mediaeval times was one of the largest and wealthiest towns in Europe thanks to trade incomes from the Hansa. It had various connections throughout Europe and played a key role in the Hansa trade. Reasons for its economic success may be found in exclusive commercial privileges, monopoly trading and an advantageous geographical position. Thus many merchants in Lübeck became wealthy and they, more than aristocrats, formed an economic and political elite in the town.11

But by the end of mediaeval times, namely beginning at the end of the 15th century and throughout the following ones, Lübeck lost its prestigious position while outsiders from England and the Netherlands broke into their trading monopoly. New economic developments arose and the former trading centre had to find a new role to maintain its economic importance. In the 16th and 17th century, merchants were able to engage in new trading opportunities such as the Mediterranean and the Hispanic peninsula, while on the other hand they lost the Lübeck-Bergen trade almost entirely. New developments could also be seen in a closer link to the hinterland, trade with Russia and the Eastern Baltic and the search for whales in the arctic. This formed the basis of further healthy trade within set limits. So the town and its merchant elite managed to survive these times of general economic change in a good economic constitution by concentrating on new fields of economic activity, although much of its former international importance declined. The main new tendencies were low-distant trade, closer links with the hinterland and still Lübeck offered well organized commercial and financial services as excellent premises for merchants.12

3.2 Social and economic change in Bergen/ Norway

Bergen had a similar strategic and economic position in Norway as Lübeck might have had in Northern Germany in the Middle Ages. It was a large northern trading centre and the Kontor in Bryggen was founded in 1360, admittedly dominated by German merchants who settled in Bergen. Though negative effects of this foreign influence, like


1 Here to be understood in the meaning of the German and Norwegian word stand (see discussion below).

2 Sjoberg, G. 1965, The Preindustrial City, p. 95-98.

3 Carter, H.1983, An Introduction to Urban Historical Geography, p.171-172.

4 Carter, H.1983, An Introduction to Urban Historical Geography, p.173-176.

5 Sjoberg, G. 1965, The Preindustrial City, p. 108.

6 Sjoberg, G. 1965, The Preindustrial City, p. 109.

7 Böröcz, J. 1997, Stand Reconstructed, Contingent Closure and Institutional Change, p. 217, 218.

8 Weber, M. 1978, Economy and Society, p.305 - 307.

9 Friedrichs, C.R. 1978, Capitalism, Mobility and Class Formation in the Early Modern German City, p.192 - 197, 209.

10 Solli, A. 2007, Urban Space and Household Forms, p.4, 5; Semmingsen, I. 1954, The Dissolution of Estate Society in Norway, p.168 - 170.

11 Cowan, A. F. 1986, The Urban Patriciate. Lübeck and Venice 1580 - 1700, p. 19.

12 Cowan, A. F. 1986, The Urban Patriciate. Lübeck and Venice 1580 - 1700, p. 22-25, 27, 35.


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Property Structures Spatial Arrangements Urban Land Early Modern Times Urbanisering Nordeuropa



Title: Property Structures and Spatial Arrangements of Urban Land in Early Modern Times