1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/City

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CITY (through Fr. cité, from Lat. civitas). In the United Kingdom, strictly speaking, “city” is an honorary title, officially applied to those towns which, in virtue of some pre-eminence (e.g. as episcopal sees, or great industrial centres), have by traditional usage or royal charter acquired the right to the designation. In the United Kingdom the official style of “city” does not necessarily involve the possession of municipal power greater than those of the ordinary boroughs, nor indeed the possession of a corporation at all (e.g. Ely). In the United States and the British colonies, on the other hand, the official application of the term “city” depends on the kind and extent of the municipal privileges possessed by the corporations, and charters are given raising towns to the rank of cities. Both in France and England the word is used to distinguish the older and central nucleus of some of the large towns, e.g. the Cité in Paris, and the “square mile” under the jurisdiction of the lord mayor which is the “City of London.”

In common usage, however, the word implies no more than a somewhat vague idea of size and dignity, and is loosely applied to any large centre of population. Thus while, technically, the City of London is quite small, London is yet properly described as the largest city in the world. In the United States this use of the word is still more loose, and any town, whether technically a city or not, is usually so designated, with little regard to its actual size or importance.

It is clear from the above that the word “city” is incapable of any very clear and inclusive definition, and the attempt to show that historically it possesses a meaning that clearly differentiates it from “town” or “borough” has led to some controversy. As the translation of the Greek πόλις or Latin civitas it involves the ancient conception of the state or “city-state,” i.e. of the state as not too large to prevent its government through the body of the citizens assembled in the agora, and is applied not to the place but to the whole body politic. From this conception both the word and its dignified connotation are without doubt historically derived. On the occupation of Gaul the Gallic states and tribes were called civitates by the Romans, and subsequently the name was confined to the chief towns of the various administrative districts. These were also the seats of the bishops. It is thus affirmed that in France from the 5th to the 15th century the name civitas or cité was confined to such towns as were episcopal sees, and Du Cange (Gloss. s.v. civitas) defines that word as urbs episcopalis, and states that other towns were termed castra or oppida. How far any such distinction can be sharply drawn may be doubted. With regard to England no definite line can be drawn between those towns to which the name civitas or cité is given in medieval documents and those called burgi or boroughs (see J. H. Round, Feudal England, p. 338; F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and After, p. 183). It was, however, maintained by Coke and Blackstone that a city is a town incorporate which is or has been the see of a bishop. It is true, indeed, that the actual sees in England all have a formal right to the title; the boroughs erected into episcopal sees by Henry VIII. thereby became “cities”; but towns such as Thetford, Sherborne and Dorchester are never so designated, though they are regularly incorporated and were once episcopal sees. On the other hand, it has only been since the latter part of the 19th century that the official style of “city” has, in the United Kingdom, been conferred by royal authority on certain important towns which were not episcopal sees, Birmingham in 1889 being the first to be so distinguished. It is interesting to note that London, besides 27 boroughs, now contains two cities, one (the City of London) outside, the other (the City of Westminster) included in the administrative county.

For the history of the origin and development of modern city government see Borough and Commune: Medieval.