The tangle of crooked, narrow streets and romantic nooks in the historic center of most German cities has always both enchanted and perplexed American travelers, most of who live in towns where streets follow rectangular grids.
It has long been accepted that medieval cities grew piecemeal by people building house next to house at whim and without anybody ever as much as dreaming of consulting a surveyor, if there were any. Two German city planners have recently challenged this view. In a newly published book with the lengthy title: Discovery of Medieval City Planning. The End of the Myth of the City that grew [see note] Klaus Humpert and Martin Schenk argue that many medieval cities, especially in southern Germany were surveyed prior to any construction taking place.
After more than ten years of investigation using old city maps and modern aerial photos the authors came to the conclusion that the crooked streets did not just happen over long periods of time but are the result of careful planning and surveying. In that case, why not survey straight lines? one might ask. Their answer: Medieval people probably had a different sense of aesthetic than we have today, they thought of the winding roads and hidden plazas as beautiful, besides it kept the wind from whistling down the street.
Humpert and Schenk believe that they have discovered precise circular arcs with radii of hundred of feet, even though the length of the foot differed somewhat from city to city. They show that planner-surveyors started with a rectangle (campus initialis) and expanded with parallel lines and arcs of even 600, 800, 1,000 etc. up to 2,000 feet. Intersecting arcs and grid lines became the basis for the location of plazas, walls and city gates, even fountains. Streets were laid out along sweeping arc lines. Surveying was apparently done with extremely long ropes having knots at 100-foot intervals that were swung around central points. As evidence for such surveying Humpert points to widely separate parallel streets and alleys that curve around a common point.
The jury is still out. Critics maintain that there exists no documentary evidence describing or depicting any such survey activity. They also underscore the problem of keeping such extremely long ropes at a constant length and surveyors stakes undisturbed over long periods of time. After building has begun, arcs can no longer be swung from central points to re-establish lost lines or corners but would have to be surveyed by methods probably not available at the time.
Humpert and Schenk counter by stating that in the Middle Ages craftsmen (they apparently include surveyors into that category) passed on their art verbally and by example, while monks and scribes may not have considered the fumbling with ropes and stakes interesting enough to waste precious parchment in its description. They retort that there has always been a tendency to underrate the resourcefulness of medieval craftsmen.
Even though the evidence cited by Humpert and Schenk appears persuasive, this writer tends to be suspicious of theories about measurements contained in ancient monuments (e.g. the Pyramids and Stonehenge). Precise points to measure from and to are usually lacking, and if there are a sufficient number of random points some of them will always lend themselves to corroborate just about any theory.
Be that as it may, Humpert and Schenk have raised an interesting question for survey historians to ponder and no doubt further examine in time to come. I would like to believe that the surveying profession did not become extinct with the fall of the Roman Empire, even though there is precious little evidence of its continuation through the centuries of the Middle Ages. I hope that the Humpert and Schenk book will see an English translation, which would make investigation of their thesis more widely accessible.
Note: Klaus Humpert & Martin Schenk: Entdeckung der mittelalterlichen Stadtplanung. Das Ende vom Mythos der gewachsenen Stadt. Theiss Publishing, Stuttgart, Germany. 392 pp. Priced at 69 marks (about $31)