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An urban–rural continuum? A spatial comparison in mid-eighteenth-century northern Germany

  • Olaf März (a1)


The spatial growth of German cities in the years of upheaval in the nineteenth century has been, and remains, the subject of intense historical research. However, the origins of the socio-economic processes underlying these transformations actually predate the epochal transition into the modern era. This article deals critically with the popular conception of a ‘town–country dichotomy’ by comparing, on an empirical basis, urban, semi-urban and rural settlements in a sub-region of the north-west of Germany in the mid-eighteenth century. With the aid of a Geographical Information System (GIS), the cartographic and serial material of the ‘Brunswick Land Survey’ is evaluated in terms of its relevance to a socio-topographic comparison of the spatial micro-structures of the three respective settlement segments. The comparison focuses on the general morphology of the settlement segments, the conditions accompanying the growth of the settlements and the spatial structures of the agricultural activities pursued. In addition, it identifies the factors which led to the erosion of differences between town and country.

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Higher resolution, colour versions of the figures in this article can be viewed online as supplementary material. Follow the URL at the end of this article.

I would like to thank Textworks Translation (Manchester), David Hugh McComb (Bremen) and Michael Thomas Taylor (Berlin) for their translation and correction work.



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1 Gestring, N., ‘Stadt und Land: Siedlungsstruktur’, in Mau, S. and Schöneck, N.M. (eds.), Handwörterbuch zur Gesellschaft Deutschlands (Schriftenreihe der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 1441) (Bonn, 2014), 857–69, at 857–8.

2 A good, short outline of the problem, including the many different conceptions of these spatial phenomena current in the USA in particular, can be found in Borsdorf, A. and Bender, O., Allgemeine Siedlungsgeographie (UTB Geographie) (Vienna, Cologne and Weimar, 2010), 23–8. See also Lenger, F., Metropolen der Moderne: Eine europäische Stadtgeschichte seit 1850 (Munich, 2013), 454–62, as well as Sieverts, T., Zwischenstadt: Zwischen Ort und Welt, Raum und Zeit, Stadt und Land (Bauwelt-Fundamente 118), 3rd edn (Brunswick and Wiesbaden, 1999).

3 This discussion was provoked by the American sociologist Wirth, L., ‘Urbanism as a way of life’, American Journal of Sociology, 44 (1938), 124. See also the reprint in Specht, K.G. (ed.), Soziologische Forschung in unserer Zeit (Cologne and Opladen, 1951), 320–35. See also S. Rau, ‘Urbanität’, in F. Jaeger (ed.), Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit Online (first published online, 2014),, accessed 26 Sep. 2017.

4 Ibid., as well as Dewey, R., ‘Das Stadt-Land-Kontinuum’, in Atteslander, P. and Hamm, B. (eds.), Materialien zur Siedlungssoziologie (Cologne, 1974), 4554. After World War II, there was much debate in agricultural sociological research in the Federal Republic of Germany regarding the structural change in agriculture induced by industrialization. The concept of the ‘continuum’ was probably used for the first time in Germany in the context of these debates. See Abel, W., ‘Stadt-Land-Beziehungen’, in Dorfuntersuchungen: Vorträge und Verhandlungen der Arbeitstagung der Forschungsgesellschaft für Agrarpolitik und Agrarsoziologie e.V. Bonn, vom 21. – 22. Januar 1955 (Berichte über Landwirtschaft, Zeitschrift für Agrarpolitik und Landwirtschaft, Sonderheft 162) (Hamburg and Berlin, 1955), 922, here 10–11. See also Stiens, G., ‘Vom Stadt-Land-Gegensatz zum Stadt-Land-Kontinuum’, in Nationalatlas Bundesrepublik Deutschland, vol. V: Dörfer und Städte (Heidelberg, 2002), 36–9.

5 See the models of town–country relationships in Henkel, G., Der ländliche Raum: Gegenwart und Wandlungsprozesse seit dem 19. Jahrhundert in Deutschland (Studienbücher Geographie), 4th edn (Stuttgart, 2004), 41–3. Most of these models (i.e. the residual, dichotomy, hinterland, environs, agglomeration and dependency models) imply a connotation of hierarchy from town to country. Apart from the town–country continuum, only the mixture and integration models attempt to reproduce an equivalent town–country relationship. Ibid. See also the recent approaches to exploring the town–country relationship in the twentieth century from a perspective of cultural history in Kersting, F.-W. and Zimmermann, C. (eds.), Stadt-Land-Beziehungen im 20. Jahrhundert: Geschichts- und kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven (Forschungen zur Regionalgeschichte 77) (Paderborn, 2015).

6 However, when considering town–country relationships, we cannot ignore the asymmetry that has developed between the concepts of urbanity and rurality. This asymmetry has been caused by the media dominance of ‘urbanity discourses’, the centuries-old linking of liberal and emancipatory impulses with urban lifestyles and the present perception that we live in a world pervaded by urbanity. Helbrecht, I., ‘Urbanität und Ruralität’, in Lossau, J., Freytag, T. and Lippuner, R. (eds.), Schlüsselbegriffe der Kultur- und Sozialgeographie (Stuttgart, 2014), 167–81, at 178.

7 The concept of ‘demographic, behavioural and structural urbanization’, developed in a European perspective by Hohenberg, P.M. and Lees, L.H., The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1994, 2nd edn (Cambridge, MA, 1996), and Vries, J. de, European Urbanization, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, MA, 1984), is different from the German definition of urbanization, which is limited to the nineteenth century and to the urban process of industrialization, in that it places greater emphasis on the spatial integration of town and country, and locates the beginning of the process of urbanization well before the nineteenth century. This approach accommodates the notion of dense settlement structures observable in the diverse forms of urban and rural settlement that existed in early modern German-speaking territories. Schilling, H. and Ehrenpreis, S., Die Stadt in der Frühen Neuzeit (Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte 24), 3rd edn (Munich, 2015), 56–9. See also K. Keller, ‘Urbanisierung’, in Jaeger (ed.), Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit Online,, accessed 26 Sep. 2017.

8 Gräf, T.H., ‘Kleine Städte in der vorindustriellen Urbanisierung der Frühen Neuzeit – ein Forschungsüberblick’, in Braun, F., Kroll, S. and Krüger, K. (eds.), Stadt und Meer im Ostseeraum im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert: Seehandel, Sozialstruktur und Hausbau – dargestellt in historischen Informationssystemen. Beiträge des wissenschaftlichen Kolloquiums in Stralsund vom 8. und 9. September 2005 (Geschichte. Forschung und Wissenschaft 17) (Münster, 2013), 929.

9 Wilkin, A., Naylor, J., Keene, D. and Bijsterveld, A.-J. (eds.), Town and Country in Medieval North Western Europe. Dynamic Interactions (Turnhout, 2015); Wood, A., ‘Small places, big questions: reintegrating social and economic history’, in Bowen, J.P. and Brown, A.T. (eds.), Custom and Commercialisation in English Rural Society: Revisiting Tawney and Postan (Hertford, 2016), 250–65, at 263–5.

10 For small towns, see Keller, K., Kleinstädte in Kursachsen. Wandlungen einer Städtelandschaft zwischen Dreißigjährigem Krieg und Industrialisierung (Städteforschung, Series A, 55) (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2001). For transitional forms between town and village, see, for example, Kießling, R., ‘Zwischen Stadt und Dorf? Zum Marktbegriff in Oberdeutschland’, in Johanek, P. and Post, F.-J. (eds.), Vielerlei Städte: Der Stadtbegriff (Städteforschung A 61) (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2004), 121–43.

11 For example, Kießling, ‘Zwischen Stadt und Dorf?’, 124.

12 Ibid. See also Zimmermann, C. (ed.), Dorf und Stadt: Ihre Beziehungen vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart (Frankfurt a. M., 2001). For British historiography, see Dyer, C. and Lilley, K., ‘Town and countryside: relationships and resemblances’, in Christie, N. and Stamper, P. (eds.), Medieval Rural Settlement: Britain and Ireland, AD 800–1600 (Oxford, 2012), 8198.

13 There is likewise a long tradition of studies on town environs or the relation between town and hinterland within German historiography; see Pauly, M. and Scheutz, M., ‘Space and history as exemplified by urban history research’, in Pauly, M. and Scheutz, M. (eds.), Cities and their Spaces: Concepts and their Use in Europe (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2014), 1528, here 26–7. See also the more recent case-study: Petersen, N., Die Stadt vor den Toren: Lüneburg und sein Umland im Spätmittelalter (Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Niedersachsen und Bremen 280) (Göttingen, 2015).

14 See the survey map of the most important transport links in north Germany in Kaufhold, K.H., ‘Die Wirtschaft in der frühen Neuzeit: Gewerbe, Handel und Verkehr’, in Heuvel, C. van den and von, M. (eds.), Boetticher Geschichte Niedersachsens, vol. III, Part 1: Politik, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft von der Reformation bis zum Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts (Hanover, 1998), 351574, at 481.

15 Fieseler, C., Der vermessene Staat. Kartographie und die Kartierung nordwestdeutscher Territorien im 18. Jahrhundert (Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Niedersachsen und Bremen 264) (Hanover, 2013), 135–6.

16 Ibid. Additionally, see the early attempts in France to survey the territory on a precise geodesic base: Pelletier, M., Les cartes des Cassini. La science au service de l’état et des provinces (Format 72) (Paris, 2013).

17 Fieseler, Der vermessene Staat, 136–7. Cf. Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv Wolfenbüttel (Lower Saxony State Archive, Wolfenbüttel) (NLA-WO) 58 Alt, no. 1699: Die Vermessung und Verteilung der Feldmark, deren Revision und die Deservitgelder, within this: Auskünfte aus der Beschreibung 1766–1783 (unpag.). Here: Directive of 31 Oct. 1755 (printed).

18 Fieseler, Der vermessene Staat, 139–40.

19 This register source can be found in holding 20 Alt at the NLA-WO.

20 Fieseler, Der vermessene Staat. See also Behrisch, L., Die Berechnung der Glückseligkeit: Statistik und Politik in Deutschland und Frankreich im späten Ancien Régime (Beihefte der Francia 78) (Ostfildern, 2016).

21 See the complete recording of all possible map elements in Kraatz, H., Die Generallandesvermessung des Landes Braunschweig von 1746–84 (Forschungen zur niedersächsischen Landeskunde 104) (Göttingen, 1975), 1415.

22 The parcels of agricultural land are also, in part, marked with the names of the owners.

23 These include older inheritance registers (NLA-WO 19 Alt), descriptions of contributions (NLA-WO 23 Alt), official invoices (NLA-WO 21/22 Alt), the poll tax description of 1678 as well as the land registry of fire insurance (NLA-WO 4 Ldsch).

24 Karte des Landes Braunschweig im 18. Jahrhundert, ed. by the Historische Kommission für Niedersachsen, 23, editorial assistance by Hermann Kleinau (Wolfenbüttel, 1962–78).

25 ESRI ArcView 8.3/9.3.

26 See the simulation of the magnetic declination of the earth between 1550 and 1950 with an animated isogonic map at, accessed 2 May 2016. In the eighteenth century, central Europe was in a corridor of between 10 and 20 degrees of deviation.

27 März, O., Fließende Übergänge zwischen Stadt und Land: Ein wirtschafts- und sozialräumlicher Vergleich in Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel im 18. Jahrhundert (Historische Geographie/Historical Geography 4) (Berlin and Münster, 2017), 87, Table 2.

28 For example, Stoob, H., Forschungen zum Städtewesen in Europa, vol. I: Räume, Formen und Schichten der mitteleuropäischen Städte (Cologne, 1970), 33.

29 Flecken is the term used in northern Germany to denote locations that enjoy certain rights with regard to the holding of markets, or which have been endowed with specific administrative functions. They set themselves apart from the village settlements surrounding them in that they support a more differentiated range of trade and craft activities, have larger populations and are characterized by more complex settlement and social structures. However, Flecken were not endowed with a town charter. Mittelhäußer, K., ‘Der Flecken in Niedersachsen zwischen Dorf und Stadt’, Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte, 63 (1991), 203–49.

30 The following figures are set out in the population statistics for the Weser district compiled in 1774 (NLA-WO 2 Alt, no. 18617, Pag. 75): Holzminden 346 (house addresses)/2,200 (inhabitants); Stadtoldendorf 208/1,138; Bevern 119/795; Eschershausen 113/619. Figures obtained from village, field and meadow descriptions dated 1760 are available for Ottenstein (NLA-WO 20 Alt, no. 300): 150 houses are recorded, which corresponds to a population of 690, assuming an average of 4.6 persons per household.

31 Ammann, H., ‘Wie groß war die mittelalterliche Stadt?’, in Haase, C. (ed.), Die Stadt des Mittelalters, vol. I (Wege der Forschung 245) (Darmstadt, 1973), 408–15. See also the ‘small-town’ classification model defined by Isenmann, who classifies a settlement of 200 to 500 inhabitants as ‘small’, a settlement of 500 to 1,000 inhabitants as ‘medium-sized’ and a settlement of 1,000 to 2,000 inhabitants as ‘fairly populous’. Isenmann, E., Die deutsche Stadt im Mittelalter 1150–1550. Stadtgestalt, Recht, Verfassung, Stadtregiment, Kirche, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft, 2nd edn (Cologne, Vienna and Weimar, 2014), 62. Schilling and Ehrenpreis, Die Stadt, 7. The present article does not deal with the other defining characteristics that might allow deductions about a town's status to be made (e.g. the existence of a town charter or town walls, or various central functions).

32 Clark, P., ‘Introduction’, in Clark, P. (ed.), Small Towns in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1995), 121, at 9.

33 März, Fließende Übergänge, 120 and 122 (Tables 4 and 5).

34 Ibid., see map appendix.

35 Ibid., 415–43. Since the available source material has thus far not been analysed comprehensively, further research is needed.

36 Ibid., 280–8.

37 Ibid., ch. 4.5.

38 See, for example, Jäschke, K.-U. and Schrenk, C. (eds.), Ackerbürgertum und Stadtwirtschaft: Zu Regionen und Perioden landwirtschaftlich bestimmten Städtewesens im Mittelalter. Vorträge des gleichnamigen Symposiums vom 29. März bis 1. April 2001 in Heilbronn (Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte der Stadt Heilbronn 13) (Heilbronn, 2002).

39 For more detail on this, see März, Fließende Übergänge.

40 Ibid., 385 (Table 29).

41 Ibid., 227 (Figure 20).

42 Ibid.

43 In the third quarter of the eighteenth century, there was a particularly sharp increase in the price of agricultural produce. Achilles, W., ‘Die Urproduktion im Fürstentum Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel in der Frühen Neuzeit’, in Kaufhold, K.H., Leuschner, J. and Märtl, C. (eds.), Die Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte des braunschweigischen Landes vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart, vol. II: Frühneuzeit (Hildesheim, Zurich and New York, 2008), 139314, at 283–4. It was primarily farms with large holdings of agricultural land that benefited from this development; small and medium-sized farms were pressured into attempting to widen the basis of their agricultural actives in order to increase their share of the market.

44 Dyer, C., Thoen, E. and Williamson, T., ‘Conclusion: the rationale of open fields’, in Dyer, C., Thoen, E. and Williamson, T. (eds.), Peasants and their Fields: The Rationale of Open-Field Agriculture, c. 700–1800 (Turnhout, 2018), 257–75, at 266–72. Since a detailed investigation of business economics (revenue and expense calculations) of the open-field system is beyond the scope of this study, no assessment of the profitability of this system is offered.

45 Niemann, H.-W., ‘Wirtschaftliche Entwicklung im Zeitalter der Industrialisierung’, in Geschichte Niedersachsens, vol. IV: Vom Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts bis zum Ende des Ersten Weltkrieges. Herausgegeben von Stefan Brüdermann. Teil 1: Politik und Wirtschaft (Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Niedersachsen und Bremen 283) (Göttingen, 2016), 387646, at 434–505; and Kulhawy, A., Das Braunschweigische Leihhaus als Instrument der Modernisierung (1830–1918) (Quellen und Forschungen zur Braunschweigischen Landesgeschichte 48) (Braunschweig, 2012).

46 Gregory, I. and Geddes, A. (eds.), Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2014), 172–83, in particular 180–1; Bodenhamer, D.J., Corrigan, J. and Harris, T.M. (eds.), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2010), 167–76.

47 Bodenhamer, Corrigan and Harris (eds.), Spatial Humanities, 174–6; Bodenhamer, D.J., Corrigan, J. and Harris, T.M. (eds.), Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2015), 223–33. For a comprehensive ‘deep mapping’ project at Lancaster University, see: ‘A deep map of the English Lake District’,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

48 A deep map is ‘framed as a conversation and not a statement, deep maps are inherently unstable, continually unfolding and changing in response to new data, new perspectives, and new insights’: Bodenhamer, D.J., ‘Chasing Bakhtin's ghost’, in Gregory, I., DeBates, D. and Lafreniere, D. (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Spatial History (London and New York 2018), 530–43, at 536–7.

49 A deep map is ‘a platform, a process and a product’; for a detailed definition, see Ibid., 537: ‘A deep map, in short, is a new curated and creative space that is visual, structurally open, genuinely multi-media, and multi-layered. It seeks to provoke negotiation between insiders and outsiders, experts and contributors, over what is presented and how.’

50 See, for example, A vision of Britain through time,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017; MESH Edinburgh,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017 (under construction at the moment); GIStorical Antwerp,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017; HISGIS Netherlands,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017; Streamproject Belgium,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017; FNZGIS Staatenwelten Mitteleuropas,, accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

Higher resolution, colour versions of the figures in this article can be viewed online as supplementary material. Follow the URL at the end of this article.

I would like to thank Textworks Translation (Manchester), David Hugh McComb (Bremen) and Michael Thomas Taylor (Berlin) for their translation and correction work.

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An urban–rural continuum? A spatial comparison in mid-eighteenth-century northern Germany

  • Olaf März (a1)


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