by Viera Dvořáková, PhD.
Located at crossroads and fords, inhabited since ancient times and fortified on several occasions, towns became the natural crystallising points of market settlements. In addition to trade, crafts developed there as well. Towns often fulfilled the role of administrative centres. The growth of settlements was also motivated by rich ore deposits and discovery sites attracting the interest of the whole contemporaneous world.
The transformation of long-inhabited settlements into towns began in the 13th century when monarchs began systematically inviting foreign colonists, very often of German origin, to settle in specific locations, granting privileges to them. In the early days the monarch would confer on them the town rights of Magdeburg or Nuremberg. The oldest town privileges were granted to Trnava in 1238 by King Bela IV, and during the remainder of the 13th century almost 50 settlements acquired town privileges in Slovakia. The rights bestowed on them exempted burghers from many fees and taxes and allowed them to organise markets and perform economic activities.
The process of establishing towns gathered pace during the 14th century, by the end of which there were already 100 privileged towns and small towns in Slovakia. However, these towns did not always meet with contemporary expectations of what a medieval town should look like.
‘Founded’ towns made up of foreign settlers with foundation charters were generally characterised by a more or less regular chessboard plan with identical building plots around a central market place. However, towns founded in the neighbourhood of older settlements often departed from this layout.
Original Gothic town defences have been preserved in some Slovak towns as a result of the right to construct fortifications granted by King Sisigmund of Luxembourg. Such fortifications were modified on several occasions, mainly in connection with improvements in quarrying techniques. The transition from cold weapons such as swords, lances, longbows and arrows to firearms brought about a radical change in the construction of fortifications. High walls were now complemented by lower bastions, in order to provide solid positions for cannon emplacements. The fortifications were constructed and maintained by burghers, particularly guilds and associations, as indicated by the preserved names of bastions, such as Cobbler´s Bastion or Butcher´s Bastion.
Surviving right up to the present day at the centre of many Slovak towns, the town square originally served as a market place. A network of streets passing through the walls via city gates led to the centre. The basic unit of the built-up area was the patrician, burgher or craftsman’s house. Along with patrician palaces, two types of burgher houses may be seen in Slovak towns – the passageway type with a wide passageway leading from the street deep into the parcel with a courtyard for carts, and the parlour type that has a large, often vaulted hall, accessible from the street on the ground floor.
A religious centre was represented by a parish church, usually located in the middle of a square or other regular built-up area. The church was generally accompanied by a walled cemetery which has often disappeared in more recent times. The church was sometimes fortified as an independent complex and incorporated into the defensive system as a place of refuge, representing a town castle. Near the church there was a belfry, an ossuary, a mortuary and a parish and church school. The church was sometimes located on a smaller hill which accentuated its dominant position. Churches with monasteries of the mendicant orders were placed on the edges of the town. Their current positions indicate the boundaries of the medieval towns.
A town hall was either built free-standing in the middle of the square or created by merging several houses on its outer edge. It served as a place where burghers met and kept important documents. Those towns which were the seat of a feudal lord had either a castle or later, in the Renaissance period, a mansion, protected by its own fortification.
Along with patricians, burghers and merchants there was also another important class of free citizens – craftsmen. Craftsmen associated in guilds and a large number of guilds in a given town may be taken as an indication of its prosperity.
Alongside its artificially-planned towns, Slovakia also features towns which developed more organically in accordance with older forms. These towns are characterised by irregular street patterns and a square. Continuous fortifications were the exception in these towns since they more often utilised existing buildings and terrain for defensive purposes. A specific type of organic town is that found in Eastern Slovakia, where the the typically lens-shaped and greatly-elongated central square gives the impression of a slightly widened main street in the centre.
The most developed towns began to form specific groups of free royal and mining towns during the economically prosperous 14th century. Other landlord towns had a smaller scope of privileges.
The importance of Slovak towns increased during the Ottoman invasion, when important state functions were moved to unconquered territory. During this period the whole country also suffered and stagnated as a result of several class uprisings. The advent of the Baroque is connected with the victory of the Counter Reformation and the appeasement of two centuries of turmoil. Useless walls gradually fell into decay and town gates were removed. Towns became more connected with their surrounding areas, and new features such as calvaries (complexes of churches and chapels arranged symmetrically from the foot to the top of a hill outside a town, representing Christ’s Stations of the Cross) began to appear.
Industrialisation and the construction of manufacturers on the outskirts of the towns resulted in a flood of workers coming from the countryside after the abolition of serfdom and led to uncontrolled building of dwellings for workers and the town poor close to town walls. Wall ditches were destroyed in the 19th century and towns became connected with suburban settlements along the roads or towards new railway lines. New industrial areas were set up on the edges of the towns. Some towns that refused the rail connection stagnated because they fell off the main trade routes. Others, because of administrative re-division or the performance of administrative functions, suddenly acquired new importance or lost their status as towns. At the end of the 19th century new legislation distinguished large towns of above 30,000 inhabitants, medium ones ranging from 12,000 to 30,000 inhabitants and small ones with less than 12,000 inhabitants.
Since 1950 the best-preserved cores of 18 historic towns have been declared as town conservation reservations. These sites, including eight regional towns, represent the cream of the Slovak built heritage and, at the same time, an important component of the world cultural heritage.
Banská Bystrica City Conservation Reservation (1955)
Banská Štiavnica Town Conservation Reservation (1950)
Bardejov Town Conservation Reservation (1950)
Bratislava City Conservation Reservation (1954)
Kežmarok Town Conservation Reservation (1950)
Košice City Conservation Reservation (1983)
Kremnica Town Conservation Reservation (1950)
Levoča Town Conservation Reservation (1950)
Nitra City Conservation Reservation (1981)
Podolínec Town Conservation Reservation (1991)
Prešov City Conservation Reservation (1950)
Spišské Podhradie Town Conservation Reservation – Spišská Kapitula (1950)
Spišská Sobota Town Conservation Reservation (1950)
Štiavnické Bane Town Conservation Reservation (1995)
Svätý Jur Town Conservation Reservation (1990)
Trenčín City Conservation Reservation (1987)
Trnava City Conservation Reservation (1987)
Žilina City Conservation Reservation (1987)