Post nº9 | How were European cities organized morphologically during barbarian invasions?

Updated: Nov 28

#semiotics, #signification, #architecture, #urbanism















The cult of the martyrs came with new types of organisation of space, which influenced the new urban organization of the Roman cities, especially in what regards to the place of the dead and the living. In his work on death, Philippe Ariès shows how “the dead will enter the cities from which they have been removed for millennia. It started, not so much with [Western] Christianity, but with the cult of martyrs of African descent. The martyrs were buried in extra-urban necropolises, common to Christians and pagans. The venerated sites of the martyrs attracted burial sites”.


There are two major reasons at the origin of the cult of the martyrs.


The Christian martyr is a mythological “hero”. What essentially characterizes the sacred mythological is its evil nature as much as its beneficial nature. According to Philippe Ariès, the process of the Christian martyr acts in the opposite direction to sacrifice, that is to say in the direction of revelation.


In an example from Olisipo: A legend tells of the torture of three brothers in Roman times in Diocletian. The death of these three martyred brothers revealed the innocence of his victims and lifted the ban and the fear of the dead. The bruised flesh of the three brothers was the very source of truth. What is unique to all holy martyrs is that their body is the very support of his holiness, his salvation and his eternal life. According to this legend, the bodies of the three brothers were buried on the hill of Santos, a place that would later become an important religious centre.


The second reason must be sought in the instability caused by the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It explains the recourse of the populations to the protection of the holy martyrs.


The successive invasions triggered four major population movements that can be described by the morphological reorganization of the cities.


(A) There was a concentration of populations, in the direction of the cities, to seek protection or to try to negotiate a coexistence with the barbarians.


(B) This instability has led to a dispersal of populations in the vicinity of European cities, causing feudalisation of the territory. The Visigoth code in the city of KUTYA (409-714 AD), Olisipo from 60 BC to 409 AD, illustrates this event, when the laws of the Visigoths permitted them to overpower free people and led them into slavery. The hunt for slaves forced the inhabitants of the city to flee to the countryside, causing the feudalisation of the territory. The Visigoth chiefs stood up to the bishops of the most powerful Roman cities by using the force of their swords, and they dominated the different dimensions of life in the community (either political, religious, or administrative laws). Despite the desertification of cities, the Visigoths continued to protect the traders that inhabited the cities, who maintained commercial liaisons with the merchants of the Mediterranean, such as Syrians, Byzantines, Italians and North Africans.


In return, this movement of dispersion is at the origin of two types of movement.


(C) The barbarian invasions, according to Régine Pernoud, would be one of the major causes of the emergence of feudal society. The disperse and isolated population find support under the protection of the feudal lords, who in turn were able to preserve the only valuable wealth in times of insecurity, the land. This created a new movement of concentration of populations.


(D) A more conscious movement is the gathering around a sanctified martyr. In a period of confusion and insecurity, the search for protection among those who have known how to preserve spiritual wealth and who could offer some security in relation to the 'beyond’.


For millennia, death and life could not coexist in the same space.

The cult of martyrs led to these four population movements, which are at the origin of a spatial conversion of symbolic values. This conversion created a space for the coexistence of death and life.

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