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Planned City of the Silesian Dukes

The Silesian capital Wrocław is located on the Odra River, which had a significant influence on the structures of the medieval settlement. The natural, particularly richly developed water network was formed by several branches of the Odra River in its wide valley and three rivers flowing into it, as well as the numerous abandoned river courses. The waters changed their course in a natural way, creating several individual river islands. The most decisive factors for the early settlement development of the city of Wrocław were both the Cathedral Island and the Sand Island and the areas on the banks on both sides of the Odra River.

The transformation of Wrocław from an early, polycentric settlement complex into a legal city of the 13th century occurred within the framework of general developments in Central and Western Europe. The flourishing economic advancement of the West intensified long-distance trade and the exchange of information. A considerable increase in population led to a wave of emigration and consequently to population growth in the East. In Silesia, unlike other areas in Europe, this transformation process was peaceful. The new settlers from the West were experienced in trade, handicrafts and agriculture, which made them very welcome to the landlords. Due to this settlement process, new cities and villages were founded, which the landlords considered their own investments to promote the development of their domain (melioratio terrae nostrae). In Wrocław, such investors and promoters were the local princes of the Silesian Piast dynasty.

The influx of merchants and craftsmen from the West into many an East-Central European city had taken place even before the formation of municipalities in the legal sense. Some sources indicate that this was also the case in Wrocław. Until the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, the inhabitants of the craftsmen’s and market settlement on the left bank of the Odra River used St. Adalbert’s Church as their center. The construction of the church of St. Mary Magdalene in the newly settled part of the city seems to reflect the emergence of the new community in Wrocław at the beginning of the 13th century. In this regard, it can be likewise dared to claim that the first German-speaking settlers in Wrocław settled there. Individual written sources from this period mention residents with German-sounding names, such as Gerung(us). In 1214, the legal representative of the new city residents, the Schultheiss (sheriff or village mayor) Godinus (scultetus Godinus) was finally attested.

Jewish merchants settled on the western edge of the city and Walloon weavers in the east. The presence of ethnically foreign settlers in the first decades of the 13th century, however, did not mean any significant changes in the spatial and settlement structure. This did not occur until the 1330/40s, when a new, differently organized settlement area was established in a previously uninhabited area of the city – to the west of the older polycentric artisan and market settlements.

The center of the new part of the city was shaped by a quadrangular market square, about 180 by 200 meters in size, which in Wrocław is still called “The Ring” (Rynek). Around it, streets and plots for the bourgeois houses were marked out at regular intervals. Whether the evenly spaced city plan was directly related to a founding act is uncertain so far. Several legal grants for Wrocław have been handed down. In 1261, the last such legal act took place, when Duke Henry III of Silesia (ruled 1248–1266) and his brother Wladislaw, later Bishop of Salzburg (held office 1265–1270), bestowed Magdeburg law on Wrocław. The perimeter block development around the market was divided into lots 60 feet wide and 120 feet long. The citizens’ houses in the northern part of the city had a width of 40 feet. In some cases, the original lot size was adjusted due to brick houses built in the 13th century, but most lots were quickly altered on the occasion of inheritance divisions or sales. In the center of the square, the City Hall, the Cloth Hall and brick sales stalls were built over the decades.

The first Wrocław city wall encompassed an area of about 40 hectares. Inside the walls was the area originally allocated to the civic community, as well as the core of the old craftsmen’s and merchants’ settlement around the Church of St. Adalbert, where the princely land law was still in force. Outside the city walls remained a part of the area already settled before the foundation of the city, to which, therefore, the city law did not apply. The old settlement ad sanctum Adalbertum was dissolved after 1261. In its place, the evenly planned novum forum, the New Market, was erected. At that time, extensions of the town also took place, which led to its expansion to the south and west. Finally, in the first half of the 14th century, a second belt was built to fortify the whole of Wrocław.

Within the geometrically structured city, there were three rectangular marketplaces: the centrally located Ring, the Salt Market bordering the Ring from the southwest, and the more recent New Market. Archaeological research of the street network confirms their continuity from the late Middle Ages until today. The streets were initially paved with a solid wooden surface and gradually equipped with a stone pavement for stabilization. To expand Wrocław, the New Town was also laid out in 1263 to the east of the Old Town in a uniform structure. However, it did not have its own fortifications. The total area inhabited by Wrocław citizens at that time amounted to about 140 hectares. Outside the inhabited city were the Prince’s Castle on the Odra River and the ecclesiastical enclaves: Cathedral Island, Sand Island with Augustinian Abbey and north of it Elbing/Ołbin with the Premonstratensian Abbey.

Two parish churches existed in the early civic town: St. Mary Magdalene to the east of the market square and St. Elizabeth at its northwest corner. The situation of the mendicant orders in Wrocław was unique. Similar to Prague and Kraków, they came to the city even before the location or during the new layout. The Dominicans had taken over the already existing St. Adalbert’s Church in 1226. The Franciscans were granted a site for their monastery building near the Sand Bridge, which was probably located at the market of the older settlement.

The inflow of new inhabitants from Western and Central Europe and the resulting restructuring and reorganization of the urban community caused a general change in economic organization, civic building, material culture and lifestyle. The transformation of the city and the urban way of life took place over several decades, as evidenced in particular by archaeological sources. From the beginning of the 13th to the middle of the 14th century, the traditional building constructions – log construction as well as wattle and daub – were replaced by the western way of building, among others by the construction known as post-and-beam construction, which later developed as the Silesian variant of half-timbering. The first civic houses made of bricks are documented for the middle of the 13th century. About 100 years later, they had already become the dominant construction method. The living conditions had also changed: The introduction of tiled stoves at the end of the 13th century improved the heating situation. Later, artificial lighting found its way into the houses through the use of candlesticks and oil lamps.

The city’s water supply was initially provided by wells located on individual civic properties. Already at the beginning of the 14th century, the construction of waterworks was initiated. Until the 16th century, three “water arts” (waterworks) were built, which pumped water from the rivers Odra and Ohlau. They were connected with pipe systems made of wood or ceramics so that the water reached public and private wells through the streets. Sewage disposal and a proper sanitary condition of the town were secured by private cesspools on individual properties and by public gutters (sewage channels) in the streets.

The visual appearance of the city of Wrocław, its well-developed civic culture and the relatively high standard of living of its inhabitants were the results of the founding process under Magdeburg law. Even today, the cityscape created in the 13th century is still easily recognizable. The shape of the then marketplace has remained unchanged, although the buildings around it have undergone modifications. The City Hall still stands on the original site, but it was rebuilt several times in the late Gothic style in the late Middle Ages. Today it is the seat of the Historical Museum of the City of Wrocław. Next to it stand the cloth halls and general stores made of brick in their original form; they are still divided by three alleys. The market still fulfills the most important of its former functions. The seat of the city president and the city council is situated there. The square, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants, is a popular meeting place for residents and tourists in Wrocław. The chessboard-like plan of the streets of the Old Town has remained unchanged, as have the intervening blocks of houses. Brick walls from the 13th and 14th centuries have been preserved in many former citizens’ houses, especially in cellars and on the first floor, and serve as the interior decoration of restaurants and stores. Wrocław University is now located on the site of the former castle at the northern end of the Old Town.

Author: Jerzy Piekalski
(English translation: Uli Nickel)


Further reading:

Atlas historyczny miast polskich. The Historical Atlas of Polish Towns, folder 4: Śląsk [Silesia], number 13: Wrocław, edited by Rafał Eysymontt and Mateusz Goliński, Wrocław 2017.

Paweł Konczewski and Jerzy Piekalski, The Streets of Medieval Wrocław – Methods of Construction and Functions, in: Ulica, plac i cmentarz w publicznej przestrzeni średniowiecznego i nowożytnego miasta Europy Środkowej [Street, square and cemetery in the public space of the medieval and early modern city of Central Europe] (= Wratislavia Antiqua 13), edited by Stefan Krabath, Jerzy Piekalski and Krzysztof Wachowski, Wrocław 2011, pp. 155–162.

Marta Młynarska-Kaletynowa, Wrocław w XII–XIII wieku. Przemiany społeczne i osadnicze [Wrocław in the 12th and 13th centuries. Settlement change and social change], Wrocław et al. 1986.

Eduard Mühle, Breslau. Geschichte einer europäischen Metropole [Wrocław. The history of a European metropolis], Köln/Weimar/Wien 2015.

Jerzy Piekalski, Die Lokation Breslaus als archäologisches Forschungsproblem, in: Mühle 2015, pp. 139–155.


Cite as:

Jerzy Piekalski, Wrocław. Planned City of the Silesian Dukes, in: Magdeburg Law. A building block of modern Europe, 01/12/2023, https://magdeburg-law.com/historic-city/wroclaw/