SFHU. Journée jeunes chercheurs et chercheuses 2023. Antonio Belenguer, “Medieval Urbanistic Laws in Valencia and their Impact on Dwellings”

SFHU. Journée jeunes chercheurs et chercheuses 2023


Antonio Belenguer González*

Medieval Urbanistic Laws in Valencia and their Impact on Dwellings


* Universitat de València, prépare une thèse intitulée La vivienda del artesanado. Arquitectura, mercado inmobiliario y cultura material en la Valencia bajomedieval. Il résume ici sa communication1 lors de la quatrième Journée des jeunes chercheurs et chercheuses en histoire urbaine organisée le 9 juin 2023 par la SFHU

Édition du texte pour la mise en ligne : Virginie Mathé et Élodie Vigouroux.


1. Origin of the regulations

James I, King of Aragon, made his triumphal entry into the city of Balansiya on October 9, 1238 after Zayyan I capitulated and surrendered the city to the Christian king. A new feudal kingdom was thereby formed, the Kingdom of Valencia, with its capital in the city of the same name. Practically from the moment of the conquest, the new kingdom and especially its capital began to undergo a series of changes in its political, social, religious and morphological structures.2 These changes were directed towards the elimination of the Muslim layout and the political, social and hence physical “Christianization” of a territory that did not suit in principle the needs and preferences of the new feudal society. Another cause for these changes was an ideological issue, indeed it was then essential to reinforce the new authority over Muslims who were still numerous in the area. It is precisely in this context of the creation of a new kingdom and the desire for change that we must place the urban planning laws drafted by the king and the initiatives carried out by the Consell, the municipal government. They tried to erase the Muslim past in order to create a city adapted to the interests and needs of the colonisers, and therefore to turn Valencia into a modern city that followed the paradigm of the Renaissance urban layout. However, especially in the capital of the kingdom, the apparent speed to achieve the transformation seems not to have been such, and at the end of the 14th century the city still had a Moorish “appearance”, as contemporary sources specify.3

What did it mean to erase the Muslim past and have a modern city? Francesc Eiximenis’ recommendations were undoubtedly very influential, at least ideologically.4 According to him, the ideal city should bear resemblance to those of Antiquity, presenting a rational plan based on a hippodamian design. This was difficult to apply in a city with such a marked Muslim past as Valencia. But especially from 1412 onwards, we find a series of isolated initiatives by the Consell aimed at offering a new image of the city, more beautiful and practical, and above all, one that would respond to its demographic and economic growth.5 They sought to have clean, unobstructed, well-lit, airy, straight and wide streets and squares to facilitate circulation, so that people could congregate in the public space to trade or hold public events, so that sumptuous buildings representative of civil and ecclesiastical power could be accommodated, etc.

The houses did not escape all these initiatives and urban modifications. After all, in terms of proportion, they constituted the most important part of the urban configuration of the city. The regulations took into account issues that as the spatial limits that the houses had to respect, the security, the rights of people over their properties, which alleyways of Andalusian origin could be closed, the height that buildings could reach, where a window could be placed and its shape, how and where drains had to be built, etc. In short, urban planning regulations that affected structural elements of the houses and influenced the appearance and order of the city.


2. The Mostassaf

Since the conquest, the institution in charge of overseeing the urban planning of València was the Mostassaf, who had his origin in the Muslim Muhtasib, who was responsible for overseeing the correct functioning of the market and its activities, controlling weights and measures, the quality of manufacturing, or the monitoring of possible commercial fraud.6 As for its urban planning functions, it is likely that its main function was mainly to deal with conflicts arising from private works.7 The first reference to this official is documented in 1238. Although the creation of the position was planned by the monarch, it could be considered part of the municipal administration, since its election and a large part of its regulation came from the decisions of the local councils. The unequivocal proof of this dual nature can be found in the compilation of the ordinances of the Mostassaf made in 1549.8 In this book, which includes all the medieval provisions of the office, we can find statutes of royal, municipal and even artisan origin. The importance of this valencian official is clearly evident on the fact that this institution and the “Book of the Mostassaf inspired the creation of similar figures and rules across the Crown of Aragon.9


3. How laws affected dwellings

The conflicts that arose as a result of private works could have different motives: the danger of collapse, the existence of a window in an inappropriate place, the construction of a wall that was too high, the spillage of water on the neighbour’s property and the occupation of public space. A wide range of cases regulated through legislation.

One of the most recurrent confrontations had to do with the danger of collapse, either because of the poor condition of a house or part of it, or because of some alteration that could affect the structure of the adjoining buildings (for instance, the installations of a new cellar). The problem in this case would only arise if the affected buildings shared a dividing wall. Something that affected people’s safety, such as the collapse of a house, was not to be taken lightly. In fact, the law by James I established that anyone who had houses in danger of collapsing was obliged to repair them, or at least to ensure that the neighbour would not suffer any damage if a collapse was to occur.10

The problems related to dividing walls also had to do with who had the right to lean on them. The laws established by James I established that, if more than one person was to lean on a wall, its construction had to be paid equally by all of them. When the houses were of the same height, the rights to the dividing wall were shared. But when there was a difference in height, whoever had more floors in his house had all the rights to the part of the wall that exceeded the height of the other building.11 Dividing walls were a constant source of confrontation. And it was not a minor issue if the neighbour decided to extend his house in height depriving the adjoining houses of light and air or to carry out any reform that could affect other buildings.

A very important part of the Mostassaf’s interventions had to do with windows. The kingdom laws defended the right to have windows as a way of ensuring the illumination of the interiors of the houses and their ventilation. However, other more important rights, such as privacy or security, were imposed over these.12 Through these openings, the neighbour’s house could not be seen, nor could a person fit through them. Therefore, privacy, illumination and security were the aspects that the Mostassaf considered when deciding how to resolve a conflict related to an inappropriate window. Most of the cases were, in fact, settled by the examination of the spatial and architectural circumstances affecting the neighbours in conflict. In this sense, it is interesting to wonder how the Mostassaf settled who was in the right. There was the legal framework, but this was always open to interpretation on a case-by-case basis. Here is where it is striking how this officer assessed the situation in a way that could be considered subjective: if two windows were too close, if through one you could see too much of the other, if through one you could jump over to another house, if the light coming in was too little, etc. They were assessing to what extent a person’s rights were violated and how to solve it taking into account the architectural reality of these houses, that is, what was the best solution within the law.

Another problem in which Mostassaf had to intervene was related to the occupation of public space. When a work incurred in this illegality, the rules were clear: redoing it to correct the mistake, but mainly demolishing it.13 The occupation of the street by an illegal work was not overlooked by the city. It was quite protective on its space, especially when it had been invaded without its consent and therefore against the common good. Precisely as a justification for the general good, the municipality, as the owner of the public space, had total freedom to modify it by opening new streets and squares or blocking others to change the urban layout. These changes, however, could affect private individuals. For example, the obligation to set back the façade line of Moorish houses if any alterations were made to them.14 This law is clearly related with the modernisation of the street map.


4. Conclusions

As we could see, since the creation of the Kingdom of Valencia there existed a wide legal corpus that tried to regulate all aspects related to town planning. These regulations, which in principle were aimed at updating the city to adapt it to the needs of the new Christian population, ended up defining the structure of most buildings: family dwellings. Laws stablished how and where windows could be located, the height that a building should have had, whether a house could be built leaning against the neighbour’s house, what the minimum width that the streets should have was, where the facades had to be located, how far the public space could be occupied, and so on.

As we have tried to show with this paper, towns are living entities, in constant evolution and transformation. And consequently, houses too. The confrontations and pacts related to works are a good example of the transformation of urban spaces and, therefore, of the dynamism of towns during the late Middle Ages. A dynamism, a constant change, that could only be regulated through complex legal corpora such as the Furs, the medieval valencian law.


1 This research has been done thanks to the « Grant PRE2019-089318 founded by MCIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and by ESF Investing in your future ».

2 A. Furió, J.V. García Marsilla, « La ville entre deux cultures.Valence et son urbanisme entre Islam et féodalité », dans S. Bourdin, M. Paoli, A. Reltgen-Tallon, A. (éd.), La forme de la ville: de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015, p. 37-55.

3 M. Carcel Ortí, Vida y urbanismo en la Valencia del siglo XV. Regesta documental, Barcelona, CSIC-Institució Milà i Fontanals, 1992.

4 S. Vila, La ciudad de Eiximenis: Un proyeto teórico de urbanismo en el siglo XIV, Valencia, Diputación Provincial de Valencia, 1984.

5 A. Serra Desfilis, « Nuevamente cristiana, bella y atractiva. La ciudad de Valencia entre los siglos XIII al XV », Historia de la ciudad. Recorrido histórico por la arquitectura y el urbanismo de la ciudad de Valencia 1, 2000, p. 64-75.

6 F. Sevillano Colom, Valencia urbana medieval a través del oficio de Mustaçaf, Valencia, Institución Alfonso el Magnánimo, 1957, p. 26-29.

7 A. Belenguer González, M. Faus Faus, L. Almenar Fernández, « Obras privadas, conflictos, arbitrajes y pactos: La transformación del espacio en Valencia en el siglo XV », dans J. Solórzano Telechea (éd.) XVIII Encuentros Internacionales del Medievo: El uso social del espacio en las ciudades europeas de la Baja Edad Media, sous presse.

8 J.J. Chiner Gimeno, J.P. Galiana Chacón, Llibre del Mustaçaf de la ciutat de València, València, Ajuntament de València, 2018.

9 P. Chalmeta, « El almotacén a través de los llibres del Mustaçaf », Aragón en la Edad Media 20, 2008, p. 203-223. The similarity of this figure with other officials in the Iberian peninsula has been also studied, but only analyzing its market functions. Unfortunately comparisons on urbanistic issues between different almotacen’s or mustassaf Iberian laws are incomplete.

10 J.J. Chiner Gimeno, J.P. Galiana Chacón, Llibre del Mustaçaf de la ciutat de València, València, Ajuntament de València, 2018, p. 98.

11 Ibid., p. 97-98.

12 Ibid., p. 96 and 98.

13 Ibid., p. 95 and 102.

14 Ibid., p. 94.

Cédric Feriel

Maître de Conférences en histoire contemporaine Université Rennes 2 / EA 7468 Tempora Groupe de recherche Inventer le Grand Paris

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