Theory and Society

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 585–609

State and towns in the Middle Ages

The Scandinavian experience


  • Anders Andrén
    • University of Lund

DOI: 10.1007/BF00149493

Cite this article as:
Andrén, A. Theor Soc (1989) 18: 585. doi:10.1007/BF00149493


The relationship between state and towns in medieval Scandinavia was a close and a complicated one. Towns were part of the political power, but they were also something else “outside” the state. p ]From an “internal” perspective the towns can be regarded as forming part of the power-cum-control system of the state. In medieval Scandinavia this meant that towns should, above all, be considered against the background of the extent and possession of the supremacy right. During the 1000–1150 stage, towns formed political and religious points d'appui for the new feudal sovereignty. In the course of the 1150–1350 stage, they also became vital centers for that exchange of goods that was instigated by the people who were in possession of feudal supremacy. Finally, from 1350 to 1550, the towns became the original bases for the new, mercantile supremacy, in a mutual relation with the emerging territorial state. In feudal society, it was of decisive importance from the beginning to be in control of production; as time went by, however, it turned out to be just as essential to control distribution as well.

From an “external” perspective the medieval towns of Europe had specific features, which set them apart from towns in other epochs and in other places. This “externality” is best regarded as a part of the structure of feudal society, which was founded on the exercise of power by means of enfeoffments. The towns were subservient to feudal supremacies, but groups in the towns gradually came to exercise lordship within as well as outside the towns. In medieval Scandinavia this “externality” can be conceived as a gradual process of liberation from the state. First a period in 1000–1150, when towns were totally subordinate to the political power. Then a stage in 1150–1350, when the external delimitation and the internal partial autonomy were developed. And lastly a period from 1350 to 1550, when towns obtained internal independence and external influence as well. This external influence was, in a few instances, directed against the state, too.

Though the main lines of the internal and external development of the towns can be traced in Scandinavia as a whole, there were important regional differences between the countries. The formation of a state and the urbanization were most evident in Norway, and above all in Denmark, at an early stage. The Danish urban profile kept its structure for a long time, and was radically changed only in the late Middle Ages. In Norway minor adjustments were made in the urban profile at an earlier stage, but during the late-medieval agrarian crisis both the state and the towns stagnated. In Sweden the formation of a state and the urbanization were of a later date, which meant that the urban profile became more adjusted to international trade, at an earlier stage. The importance of mining also meant that several towns were connected with a partly different kind of economy than Danish and Norwegian towns. Besides, the most far-reaching autonomy can be traced in Swedish cities, such as Visby, Stockholm, and Kalmar.

In connection with the formal dissolution of the Union in 1523, and with the Reformation in Sweden (in 1527) and in Denmark-Norway (in 1536), the bases of new “bureaucratic” states were laid in Scandinavia. As before, it is possible to trace evident differences in the character of the two states. In Denmark an aristocratic state was organized, where the burghers had less influence than before. In Sweden the position of the aristocracy was dominant, too, but the state was more consistently organized in a bureaucratic way and the burghers maintained some of their influence. An expression for the new Swedish administration was the national land registers that were set up in the 1540s. Similar surveys did not occur in Denmark until the end of the seventeenth century.

The development of the “bureaucratic” state, above all in Sweden, meant that a new form of politically controlled exploitation was created. This new political order opened up economic and social possibilities for urban settlements in new areas. At the end of the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth century the previous ecological limit of urbanization was exceeded, and many new towns were founded in the boreal zone, along the shores of the Bothnian Gulf (see figure 5).1 This urban burst of the ecological setting of previous periods can be regarded as one of the conditions for the Swedish empire in the Baltic, in the seventeenth century.


Information on the new towns from the 1550–1700 period can be found in Authén Blom, Urbaniseringsprosessen: Norden, part 2, 1977.


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989