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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Role of the Cities in the Expansion Towards the Margins of Europe

In the first European expansion, the cities played a unique role, one that had far reaching and long lasting consequences.

Both the expansive wave and the urban explosion took place at the same time; they were, in fact, two aspects of a single and rather complex course of events. Together with the growth of urban populations and their return to economic life, there was a tendency to move beyond the limits of the urban market. The lords were needed to head the military enterprise, but everyone understood that, without the cities that the middle class had brought to life, the enterprise itself would have been impossible and, worse still, pointless. Only the new economy made it possible to set up the mechanisms required by an expansion with such distant and difficult objectives; and only the new economy could sustain such undertakings and make them—as it did—extremely profitable. The expansion towards the margins Europe was the task that the urban middle classes had tacitly suggested to the feudal lords. For their shared task these two groups, that functioned so differently, had to find some common ground. As they actually tried to find it, a feudal-bourgeois society came into being.

But the city was not simply the instrument that made the expansion possible; it was also the instrument used to secure that expansion and to protect its gains. The lord and his warriors were the vanguard of a mixed column of combatants, merchants and clergy. That vanguard would reach its destination and complete the first part of the operation, as did Baldwin or Bohemund, Adolph of Holstein or Richard the Lionhearted, Alphonse VI or James I. Once the lands had been conquered, a vast mercantile operation would begin. In each acquired region that was depopulated, a city would arise. It would be a newly founded city, as in the case of Lübeck or Riga, or one repopulated on the remains of a previously abandoned town, as in the case of Zamora or Astorga, in order to build a military garrison and a trading post. The wall and the marketplace symbolized precisely the two functions that the city began to perform. The warrior ensured the city’s military and political control of the region; the merchant structured the economy of the region around the urban market; and the city, prosperous and well supplied, guaranteed the cohesiveness and security of the conquering group. If, on the other hand, the acquired region was already populated, as in the case of Palestine, Asia Minor or Andalusia, then warriors, clergy and merchants would enter the conquered cities: the warriors would seize the bulwarks and the defenses, the clergy the temples; the merchants, in turn, would simply begin to pick up the threads of buying and selling. They would all exploit the existing infrastructure to reverse its effects, that is, to neutralize the influence of the previous lords and increase their own, so as to secure the unity, safety and gains of the group. The Crusaders did precisely this in Palestine, where they left to the Pisans, Genoese, and Venetians the business transactions of each city and whatever trade they could established with the cities to the west. And so did the Hispanic conquerors who reclaimed Toledo, Lisbon, Seville, and Cordoba.

Those who had forgotten ancient military strategy and knew only the kind of warfare waged by feudal lords, rediscovered one of its well-known principles: that cities were vanguards in conquered lands. With its castle-like walls and towers, moat and gates, the city actually became a bastion for the conquering knights. For them and for the merchants who came with them, the city was also an enclosed space that had an active market and usually a number of streets line with stalls and shops and perhaps the homes of the moneylenders who would finance risky but promising undertakings. For the men of the Church, the city was not simply a fortress or a marketplace; it was also—essentially—a center where they catechized the infidels and kept a watchful eye on the newly arrived Christians who, far away from their homeland and the social control it exerted over them, were always liable to falter in their faith. The city was, then, for those who controlled it, a perfect instrument of domination. And the lords, the clergy and the bourgeoisie who, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, controlled the cities they had established, repopulated or occupied on the margins of Europe were remarkably efficient because they made up a very compact group, which allowed them to concentrate their forces. Thanks to this, the first European held firm; and with only slight alterations, the area that had been conquered and annexed remained as a permanent part of Europe. This lesson was never to be forgotten.