Does “the city air make you free”?

What is the meaning of the well-known saying “the city air makes you free”? What is its origin? Freedom in the city? In this thicket of streets, in the ever-bustling crowd and within the space limited by the infinity of the buildings? Is freedom not associated with a rural landscape?
This saying was coined in the Middle Ages, in connection with the flourishing of cities as centres of trade exchange. Initially, people dealing with trade and handicraft did not differ from peasants in any way. They were equally subject to the feudal lord whose land they used. Gradually, their occupation began to bring them income that often exceeded the income of the Lord to whom they were subjected. This dependency, in turn, limited their opportunities for development. Over time, the class of feudal lords began to realize the extent of benefits which the development of cities brought to them, including the collection of customs duties from the land on which towns and cities had been built. Those lands still belonged to them! However, they had to make some concessions in favour of the emerging townsfolk class. First, merchants achieved exemption from serfdom and subsequently the right to personal freedom for those who had spent at least a year in the city, which is the basis of the saying mentioned above.
Over time, this right gave leeway to all sort of criminals, who, in order to avoid punishment, hid in the city and obtained their personal freedom after one year.

Elaborated by Kinga Kołodziejska (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

See also manuscript of the “Letter granting freedom to the town of Tarnów by Emperor Francis”.