List of literary descriptions of cities (before 1550)

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Initial folio of De laude Cestrie, a c.1195 eulogy to the English town of Chester

Literary descriptions of cities (also known as urban descriptiones) form a literary genre that originated in Ancient Greek epideictic rhetoric.[1][2][3][4] They can be prose or poetry. Many take the form of an urban eulogy (variously referred to as an encomium urbis, laudes urbium, encomium civis, laus civis, laudes civitatum; or in English: urban or city encomium, panegyric, laudation or praise poem) which praise their subject.[2][3][4][5] Laments to a city's past glories are sometimes also included in the genre.[3][4] Descriptiones often mix topographical information with abstract material on the spiritual and legal aspects of the town or city, and with social observations on its inhabitants.[1][4] They generally give a more extended treatment of their urban subject than is found in an encyclopedia or general geographical work. Influential examples include Benedict's Mirabilia Urbis Romae of around 1143.[1]

The Greek rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in the first century AD, was the first to prescribe the form of a eulogy to a city in detail. Features he touches on include the city's location, size and beauty; the qualities of its river; its temples and secular buildings; its origin and founder, and the acts of its citizens.[3] The Roman rhetorician Quintilian expounds on the form later in the first century, stressing praise of the city's founder and prominent citizens, as well as the city's site and location, fortifications and public works such as temples.[2][5] The third-century rhetorician Menander expands on the guidelines further, including advice on how to turn a city's bad points into advantages.[3] These works were probably not directly available to medieval writers,[1] but the form is outlined in many later grammar primers, including those by Donatus and Priscian.[2][3][5] Priscian's Praeexercitamina, a translation into Latin of a Greek work by Hermogenes, was a particular influence on medieval authors.[3]

Surviving late Roman examples of descriptiones include Ausonius's Ordo Nobilium Urbium, a fourth-century Latin poem that briefly describes thirteen cities including Milan and Bordeaux.[1][3] Rutilius Namatianus's De reditu suo is a longer poem dating from the early fifth century that includes a section praising Rome.[3]

Numerous medieval examples have survived, mainly but not exclusively in Latin, the earliest dating from the eighth century.[1][3] They adapt the classical form to Christian theology.[1][2][3][5] The form was popularised by widely circulated guidebooks intended for pilgrims.[1] Common topics include the city walls and gates, markets, churches and local saints; descriptiones were sometimes written as a preface to the biography of a saint.[1] The earliest examples are in verse. The first known prose example was written in around the tenth century, and later medieval examples were more often written in prose.[1] Milan and Rome are the most frequent subjects, and there are also examples describing many other Italian cities.[1] Outside Italy, pre-1400 examples are known for Chester, Durham, London, York and perhaps Bath in England,[1][2][3][6] Newborough in Wales,[2] and Angers, Paris and Senlis in France.[1][7] The form spread to Germany in the first half of the 15th century, with Nuremberg being the most commonly described city.[8]

J. K. Hyde, who surveyed the genre in 1966, considers the evolution of descriptiones written before 1400 to reflect "the growth of cities and the rising culture and self-confidence of the citizens", rather than any literary progression.[1] Later medieval examples tend to be more detailed and less generic than early ones, and to place an increasing emphasis on secular over religious aspects. For example, Bonvesin della Riva's 1288 description of Milan, De Magnalibus Urbis Mediolani, contains a wealth of detailed facts and statistics about such matters as local crops. These trends were continued in Renaissance descriptiones, which flourished from the early years of the 15th century,[1] especially after the popularisation of the printing press from the middle of that century.[8]

Selected examples[edit]

The following chronological list presents urban descriptions and eulogies written before the end of the 14th century, based mainly on the reviews of Hyde[1] and Margaret Schlauch,[3] with a selection from the many examples written from 1400 to 1550.

Title Date Author City Country Format Language Notes
Ordo Nobilium Urbium
4th century
Ausonius Various Poetry Latin [1][3]
De reditu suo
Early 5th century
Rutilius Namatianus Rome Italy Poetry Latin [3]
Laudes Mediolanensis civitatis
Milan Italy Poetry Latin Or Versum de Mediolano civitate[1][3][9]
De laude Pampilone epistola
7th century
Pamplona Spain Prose Latin The laudatio is known from a composite with an unrelated text dating from c. 410[10]
Poema de Pontificibus et Sanctis Eboracensis Ecclesiae
Early or mid-780s
Alcuin York England Poetry Latin [3][11]
Versus de Destructione Aquileiae
Late 8th century
Paulinus of Aquileia or Paul the Deacon Aquileia Italy Poetry Latin Attribution disputed[3][9]
Laudes Veronensis Civitatis
Verona Italy Poetry Latin Or Veronae rhythmica, Versus de Verona[1][3][9]
The Ruin
8th – late 9th century
An unnamed Roman spa, probably Bath England Poetry Old English Date uncertain; subject has also been suggested to be Chester or a town near Hadrian's Wall[6][12]
Versus de Aquilegia
Aquileia Italy Poetry Latin [3]
De Situ Civitatis Mediolani
Milan Italy Prose Latin Or De situ urbis Mediolanensis[1]
Mid-11th century to ~1107
Durham England Poetry Old English Or De situ Dunelmi; date disputed[3][6][13]
Liber Pergaminus
Moses de Brolo Bergamo Italy Poetry Latin [1]
Mirabilia Urbis Romae
Benedict Rome Italy Prose Latin [1][4]
Descriptio Nobilissimae Civitatis Londoniae
William Fitzstephen London England Prose Latin Or Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae[1][2][4][7]
De mirabilibus urbis Romae
Master Gregory Rome Italy Latin [1][4]
De laude Cestrie
Lucian of Chester Chester England Prose Latin Or Liber Luciani de laude Cestrie[1][5][7]
In Ymagines historiarum
Ralph de Diceto Angers Angevin Empire Prose Latin [7]
Graphia Aureae Urbis Romae
Rome Italy Latin [1]
De Laude Civitatis Laude
An unnamed Franciscan Lodi Italy Poetry Latin [1]
De Magnalibus Urbis Mediolani
Bonvesin della Riva Milan Italy Prose Latin [1]
De Mediolano Florentissima Civitate
Benzo d'Alessandria Milan Italy Prose Latin [1]
Visio Egidii Regis Patavii
Giovanni da Nono Padua Italy Prose Latin [1]
Byzantios post 1312 Theodore Metochites Constantinople Byzantium Prose Greek
Recommentatio Civitatis Parisiensis
Paris France Prose Latin [1]
Tractatus de Laudibus Parisius
Jean de Jandun Paris, Senlis France Prose Latin Written in response to Recommentatio Civitatis Parisiensis[1]
Libellus de Descriptione Papie
Opicino de Canistris Pavia Italy Prose Latin Or Liber de laudibus civitatis Ticinensis[1]
Polistoria de virtutibus et dotibus Romanorum
Giovanni Caballini Rome Italy Prose Latin [14][15]
Cronaca Extravagans
Galvano Fiamma Milan Italy Prose Latin Contains material from Bonvesin della Riva's text[1]
Cronica Book XI
Giovanni Villani Florence Italy Prose Italian [1]
Florentie Urbis et Reipublice Descriptio
Florence Italy Prose Latin Manuscript is untitled[1]
Cywydd Rhosyr
Mid 14th century
Dafydd ap Gwilym Newborough Wales Poetry Welsh Date and attribution uncertain[2][16]
Laudatio florentinae urbis
Leonardo Bruni Florence Italy Prose Latin [1]
Laudatio Urbis Romae et Constantinopolis
Manuel Chrysoloras Rome Italy Prose Greek [17]
"O wunnikliches Paradis"
1414–18 or after 1430
Oswald von Wolkenstein Konstanz Holy Roman Empire Poetry German Von Wolkenstein also wrote poems on other cities, including Nuremberg and Augsberg[18]
Descriptio urbis Romae eiusque excellentiae
Niccolò Signorili Rome Italy Prose Latin [17][19]
Roma instaurata
Flavio Biondo Rome Italy Prose Latin [19][20][21]
Lobspruch auf Nürnberg
Hans Rosenplüt (de) Nuremberg Germany Poetry German [8][14][22]
Ye Solace of Pilgrimes
John Capgrave Rome Italy Prose Middle English [4]
Canmol Croesoswallt
Mid 15th century
Guto'r Glyn Oswestry England Poetry Welsh [2][16][23]
I Varedydd ab Hywel ab Morus, ac i Drev Croes Oswallt
Mid 15th century
Lewys Glyn Cothi Oswestry England Poetry Welsh [2][16]
"Y ddewistref ddiestron"
Mid 15th century
Ieuan ap Gruffudd Leiaf Conwy Wales Poetry Welsh [2][16]
Die Bamberger Traktate
Albrecht von Eyb Bamberg Germany Latin [8]
"[What a splendid appearance this city presents!]"
Late 1450s
Enea Silvio Piccolomini Nuremberg Germany Prose Latin [14][22]
Lobspruch auf Bamberg
Hans Rosenplüt (de) Bamberg Germany Poetry German [8]
Brodyr aeth i Baradwys
Late 15th century
Ieuan ap Huw Cae Llwyd (cy) Brecon Wales Poetry Welsh [2][16]
"Cistiau da, 'n costio dierth"
End of the 15th century
Tudur Aled Oswestry England Poetry Welsh [2][16]
Lobspruch auf Nürnberg
Kunz Has Nuremberg Germany Poetry German [8][14][22]
De origine, situ, moribus et institutis Norimbergae
Conrad Celtis Nuremberg Germany Prose Latin [8][14][22]
To the City of London
Sometimes attributed to William Dunbar London England Poetry English Or In Honour of the City of London[2]
Tractatus de civitate Ulmensi
By 1502
Felix Fabri Ulm Germany Latin [8]
Blyth Aberdeane
William Dunbar Aberdeen Scotland Poetry Middle Scots [2]
Ein Lobspruch der statt Nürnberg
Hans Sachs Nuremberg Germany Poetry German Sachs also wrote praise poems to Salzburg (1549), Munich (1565), Frankfurt (1568) and Hamburg (1569)[8][14][18][22]
Ein Lobspruch der Hochloeblichen weitberuembten Khuenigklichen Stat Wienn in Osterreich
Wolfgang Schmeltzl (de) Vienna Austria Poetry German [8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak JK Hyde (1966), "Medieval descriptions of cities" (PDF), Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 48 (2): 308–40, doi:10.7227/BJRL.48.2.5
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Helen Fulton (2006–2007), "The Encomium Urbis in Medieval Welsh Poetry", Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 26/27: 54–72, JSTOR 40732051
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Margaret Schlauch (1941), "An Old English "Encomium Urbis"", Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 40 (1): 14–28, JSTOR 27704714
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h C. David Benson (2009), "The Dead and the Living: Some Medieval Descriptions of the Ruins and Relics of Rome Known to the English", in Albrecht Classen (ed.), Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 147–182, ISBN 978-3110223897
  5. ^ a b c d e Mark Faulkner (2011), "The Spatial Hermeneutics of Lucian's De Laude Cestrie", in Catherine AM Clarke (ed.), Mapping the Medieval City: Space, Place and Identity in Chester, c. 1200–1600, University of Wales Press, ISBN 978-1783164615
  6. ^ a b c Christopher Abram (2000), "In Search of Lost Time: Aldhelm and The Ruin" (PDF), Quaestio (Selected Proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic), 1: 23–44
  7. ^ a b c d Antonia Gransden (1972), "Realistic Observation in Twelfth-Century England", Speculum, 47 (1): 29–51, doi:10.2307/2851214, JSTOR 2851214, S2CID 163505360
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j David Blamires (1990), "The portrayal of towns in sixteenth-century German Volksbŭcher" (PDF), Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 72 (3): 49–61, doi:10.7227/BJRL.72.3.4
  9. ^ a b c Neil Christie (2006), From Constantine to Charlemagne: An Archaeology of Italy, AD 300–800, Ashgate Publishing, pp. 183–85, ISBN 1859284213
  10. ^ Roger Collins (1986), The Basques, Blackwell, pp. 67–69
  11. ^ D. A. Bullough (2010). "Alcuin (c.740–804)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/298. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ Anne L. Klinck (2001), The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study, McGill-Queen's Press, pp. 15–16, 61–63, ISBN 0773522417
  13. ^ H. S. Offler (1962), "The Date of Durham (Carmen de Situ Dunelmi)", Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 61 (3): 591–94, JSTOR 27714086
  14. ^ a b c d e f Albrecht Classen (2009), "Hans Sachs and his Encomia Songs on German Cities: Zooming Into and Out of Urban Space from a Poetic Perspective. With a Consideration of Hartmann Schedel's Liber Chronicarum (1493)", in Albrecht Classen (ed.), Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 567–94, ISBN 978-3110223897
  15. ^ Daniel Williman (1999), "Reviewed Work: Polistoria de virtutibus et dotibus Romanorum by Ioannis Caballini de Cerronibus", International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 5: 489–91, JSTOR 30222468
  16. ^ a b c d e f Dafydd Johnston (2012), "Towns in Medieval Welsh Poetry", in Helen Fulton (ed.), Urban Culture in Medieval Wales, University of Wales Press, pp. 95–116, ISBN 978-0708323526
  17. ^ a b Charles L. Stinger (1998), The Renaissance in Rome, Indiana University Press, pp. 72–75, ISBN 0253334918
  18. ^ a b Albrecht Classen (2009), "Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age: Historical, Mental, Cultural, and Social-Economic Investigations", in Albrecht Classen (ed.), Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 75–81, 136–37, ISBN 978-3110223897
  19. ^ a b Elizabeth McCahill (2013), Reviving the Eternal City, Harvard University Press, pp. 21, 26–33, 169–181, ISBN 978-0674726154
  20. ^ Ruth Elisabeth Kritzer (2010), "Renaissance Rome Descriptions in Comparison", Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 72 (1): 113–25, JSTOR 20680045
  21. ^ Jeffrey A. White (2012), "Reviewed Work: Rome Restaurée: Roma Instaurata, Tome II Livres II et III by Flavio Biondo", Renaissance Quarterly, 65: 1169–70, doi:10.1086/669350, JSTOR 10.1086/669350
  22. ^ a b c d e Stephen Brockmann (2006), Nuremberg: The Imaginary Capital, Camden House, pp. 16–19, ISBN 1571133453
  23. ^ E. A. Rees (2008), A Life of Guto'r Glyn, Y Lolfa, pp. 100–3, ISBN 978-0862439712